Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending  Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is simple and sensational. It is full of beautiful writing. I have a page full of quotes in my book journal to prove it.

First there is Tony and his two school friends. Then the enigmatic and philosophical Adrian enters the picture, turning the trio of friends into a quad. Tony's life follows the usual course, hitting the typical highlights: high school (or the British equivalent), college, marriage, mortgage, kid, divorce, retirement. During college he meets a girl. It doesn't end well. There's bitterness and anger, and then life continues.

It wasn't the story itself that got me; it was the language. This book is the reason I  prefer to buy books instead of borrowing them. I can write and underline in a book I own, marking favorite passages I want to revisit and re-experience. The Sense of an Ending was full of underline worthy quotes. Here are some of my favorites.

"This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature." (pg. 16)

"What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn't behave as he would have done in a book." (pg. 17)

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." (pg. 18)

"History...[I]t's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated." (pg. 61)

" remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life." (pg. 104)

"...that when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful." (pg. 108)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1)  Cocaine Blues is a mystery set in in late 1920s/ early 1930s Australia (so maybe it is a historical mystery). Phryne (pronounced fry-knee) was born poor in Australia. Thanks to the Great War several people in Phryne's extended family die, resulting in Phryne's father elevation to a title and wealth. And just like that, Phryne and her family are removed to London. Now an adult, Phryne has grown bored with flower arranging and whatever else wealthy women do with their time. When family friends ask her to check on their daughter back in Australia, Phryne welcomes the change of scenery.

Within hours of setting foot in Melbourne, Phryne stops a woman from stabbing the man who wronged her. From there Phryne finds herself involved in one mystery after another. She uncovers the identity of an illegal abortionist who has been butchering women, breaks up a cocaine ring, and enjoys the company of handsome Russian dancer. She is intelligent, fearless, and always fabulously dressed. Cocaine Blues is the first in a series with dozens of volumes, which means plenty more adventures for Phryne Fisher, lady detective.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shiny Broken Pieces by Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton

Shiny Broken Pieces (Tiny Pretty Things, #2)  Shiny Broken Pieces picks up the fall semester after Tiny Pretty Things ended. Gigi is recovering mentally and physically after being pushed in front of a car. Bette has been suspended from school and struggling to clear her name and get back in everybody's good graces. June's difficulties with food have taken full of control of her life. And Cassie is back. It is their final year at ballet boarding school. What amounts to their final exam is also their final chance to prove they deserve a spot in the ballet company. There are only two spots open in the company. Who will it be?

In Tiny Pretty Things readers got the story from the perspectives of three fiercely ambitious girls vying for the best roles while dealing with the ups and downs of life. Sometimes those who didn't get what they wanted when they wanted took out their anger and frustrations on others. There was bullying and nasty pranks, culminating with one ballerina ending the night in a hospital. In Shiny Broken Pieces the ballerinas are dealing with the repercussions of their (and other's) actions. The bullied want revenge. The bullies begin to see how much they hurt others. All of them contemplate how everything that has happened could affect the potential careers they want so desperately and have worked so hard for. Not each realizes it right away, but each is in danger of losing everything. Gigi an Cassie in particular have to figure out which is more important to them - getting revenge or ballet.

I loved this! There's ballet, boarding school, a diverse set of characters, and extremely ambitious young women - this series is basically catnip for me. The authors wrapped up the story well and I get why it is a duology, but oh how I wish there were more books to read!

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad   Cora is a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. It is as horrible as it sounds, violent and vile in every imaginable way. In addition to the cruelties of slavery, Cora is also an outcast among her fellow slaves. In short, her life is horrible. One day Caesar, one of the newer slaves to the plantation, asks Cora to run away with him. As first she says no. The punishment for a runaway attempt is not only death, but the most painful death the sadistic slave masters can think of. Caesar urges her to reconsider and eventually Cora decides to run.

I had high hopes for this, what with all the awards and nominations for awards this book has received. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to the hype. For starters there is the idea of the railroad itself. Here the underground railroad isn't just a metaphor, it is an actual train or at least a single train car. Anytime someone mentions this book they mention this so I was really looking forward to seeing how Whitehead was going to flesh this out. Unfortunately there wasn't very much meat on this bone. How the railroad was built, by whom, or how people got involved with it was never explained. So making the underground railroad an actual train instead of it simply being a metaphor didn't really add much to the story.

Cora's journey is epic. In epics I think you either need a really strong main character to connect to, a character whose joy and pain you feel bodily with each word of the story. Or alternatively, the main character can be less important than the journey itself. In this case the character is more of a device used to flesh out the events surrounding the main character. In The Underground Railroad I didn't exactly get one or the other. Cora isn't the strongest of characters. I felt the story in one respect because it is about slavery and that alone elicits strong feelings but Cora herself felt too removed and too distant from the story even though she was its main character. As for her journey, Cora visits different states, each of which is dealing the population of slaves and free Black people differently. Whitehead uses these different states to touch on various actual historical events (Nat Turner rebellion and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and more) but it didn't quite explore them enough.

I'm not sure if I liked this book or not. There were aspects of it I definitely liked. There were many great ideas but in the end it fell a little flat for me. I am glad I read it, so that's something.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1) Leviathan Wakes is book one in The Expanse series written by James S.A. Corey, which is the pen name of the writing duo consisting of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. (Query: Why do authors use pen names when everyone already knows their real names? This is a legitimate question. I really want to understand the reasoning behind this choice) The story is a mash up the science fiction and mystery genres set against the back drop of space. I loved it! 

Humans have colonized Mars and an asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Sufficient enough amount of time has passed that generations have been born and grown up on the asteroids and on Mars. Martians and belters think of themselves as separate and distinct from Earth. Not in the sense of being a different species, but in the sense of being citizens of different nations. This is especially true of the belters who because of growing up in the lower gravity of asteroids tend to be taller and thinner and have larger heads than humans from the inner planets of Earth and Mars. 

In one sense Leviathan is a story about global politics and scarce resources. Instead of Earth bound nation-states the superpowers are planet Earth and planet Mars. Earth has the things humans need to live - namely air, water, and soil where things can grow. Mars has the superior military force but its people live in domes because Mars's atmosphere is not yet suitable for human life outside of a dome. Belters are the poor colonials caught in the middle and at mercy of the inner planets. They depend entirely on Earth for oxygen, water, food – basically everything humans need to live. With a press of a button or maybe it is the turn of a knob, Earth can ration the amount of oxygen Belters breathe.

The story is told primarily from the points of view of two men: Jim Holden and Detective Miller. Miller has been assigned a missing persons case. He is tasked with finding a missing woman named Julie Mao. Julie left her wealthy family on Earth to live and work among the Belters. Her parents want her back home on Earth. Meanwhile Holden, a former soldier, works on a commercial vessel hauling water around in space. That he works on a water hauler is apt in part because the law of space is not unlike the law of the sea – if there is a distress signal and your ship is the closest then you are duty bound to come to the aid of the distressed ship if you are able. So when the Scopuli sends out a distress call, Holden and his shipmates go to help only to witness a disaster. In alternating chapters Miller searches for a missing girl while Holden and his crew try to figure out what secret is worth killing over and who was willing to do the killing. Eventually Miller's and Holden's stories intersect in an interesting way.

Effortlessly Diverse as It Is Entertaining  

In December 2015 The Expanse, a science fiction series, began airing on the SyFy channel. I originally bought this book with the intention of reading it before the show started but that never happened. One of things I noticed immediately on the show was its racially and ethnically diverse cast.  I wondered if that was due to a conscientious casting director. It is not, or at least that is not the only reason for the diverse cast. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck imagined a future that includes not only White people but also Asian people and Black people and all kinds of other people. Even better, the characters of color read like fully realized people. Personally in my experience, and I realize other people's experiences may differ, science fiction seems to assume a world where diversity means a mixture of blonds and brunettes or if there is a person of color in the story, there is only the one. It was incredibly refreshing to find something different in Leviathan Wakes. Yes and thank you people writing as James S. A. Corey.

Trying New Things: Hard Science Fiction 

I have a confession. I like the idea of science but am not particularly good at it. While I don’t purposely avoid it, it is not something I seek out either. When I read a book that for one reason or another has a lot of science (or complex math) my brain might initially try to decipher the science but eventually my eyes glaze over and my brain treats the science as magic and therefore as something that will never truly makes sense to me. What can I say other than I studied social sciences and humanities in college and graduate school, not the physical sciences. Admittedly part of this laziness on my part. Part of is not having the necessary background knowledge and taking time to acquire the background knowledge would take me completely out of the story. So I accept the science as magic and quickly move on. 

Leviathan Wakes is what people refer to as hard science, meaning a lot of the science in the book is real. I knew that going to it but read it anyway. Surprisingly I didn't mind the science. I was constantly looking stuff up to get a better understanding of things like gravity and its effect on the human body and what the deal is with asteroids. Overall the science was manageable. It was even interesting. Before reading Leviathan Wakes I thought of space the way I think of Antarctica – an exotic locale that looks pretty in pictures but that I will probably never visit and will spend little time thinking about. This book made me actually interested in space and the planets in a way that I have never been particularly interested. Not that I will ever go to space but I’m interested in learning more about it.

Yes It Is Really that Good 

My copy of Leviathan Wakes is an oversized paperback, really the size of a hardback only with a soft cover, and is 561 pages long. Between the length of the book and the hard science, I expected to spend at least two weeks reading it.  Instead I tore through it in about a week and the only reason it took that long was because there were two or three days when I wasn’t able to get any (or almost no) reading done at all due to other obligations. Getting through a 500+ page book in a week is a sign of good book in my opinion. Luckily it is part of a series. So I have more books to read. Also, The Expanse the television series based on the books is fantastic too. I am eagerly looking forward to season three.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Barry Lyga's Jasper Dent Trilogy

I Hunt Killers (Jasper Dent... Game (Jasper Dent, #2) Blood of My Blood (Jasper D...
I Hunt Killers, Game, and Blood of My Blood make up Barry Lyga's trilogy centered around Jasper Dent, the son a serial killer. Let me start of with a warning and that is there are mild spoilers ahead so stop now if spoilers are something that bother you.

Jasper Dent is the son of the country's most notorious serial killer, William "Billy" Dent. At the beginning of I Hunt Killers, the first in Barry Lyga's trilogy, Jasper is seventeen and Billy has been in prison for the past four or five years. Billy got away with murder for literally years, with 123 confirmed kills until he got sloppy and killed two local girls. Jasper believes Billy's number is 124, certain that his mother was one of Billy's victims.

You would think Jasper would be an outcast given his lineage and the fact that Billy's last two victims were locals in the small town in which Jasper lives. Surprisingly, he leads a fairly normal life. Howie, Jasper's childhood best friend, remained his best friend even after Billy's crimes were revealed. Jasper is dating a girl named Connie. He's even in the school play. Jasper's biggest problem is figuring out who he is and what to do about it. Does nature or nurture turn in a person into a sociopath? Doesn't matter because Jasper got a lot of both. Jasper is the biological son of a serial killer who trained him in the ways of killing. Jasper was thirteen when his father was arrested. Growing up he knew about his father's extracurricular activities and knew they were wrong, but did nothing to stop him, not even calling the police. Billy wants his son to follow in his footsteps. So far Jasper hasn't killed anyone and doesn't want to but he is aware of how to do it. He constantly reminds himself that people matter, contrary to what Billy taught and told him repeatedly.

Jasper feels the need to prove that he is not like his father, though no one else seems to be asking for such proof. When a dead body is found in a field, Jasper is sure it is the work of a serial killer. He attempts to nose his way into the police investigation, arguing that with his upbringing he has insight into how serial killers think. The police initially scoff at Jasper's offer to help. Aside from the fact that he is a minor, they are skeptical that there could be a second serial killer in such a small town. Of course Jasper turns out to be right. In fact, he is more right than he imagined for not only is the body the handiwork of a serial killer, but the new series of murders ties back to Jasper's father Billy. I Hunt Killers ends on both a positive and negative note. On the upside, Jasper and the police have caught the killer. On the downside, Billy has escaped from prison.

Game begins a few months after the events of I Hunt Killers. A New York police detective show up on Jasper's doorstep asking for his help with a serial killer case in New York. Game was the longest book in the trilogy and frankly, the most exasperating. Jasper, Howie, and Connie are teenagers who make stupid teenage decisions repeatedly. They all believe, Jasper and Connie in particular, that they are smarter than the police and FBI. While the teens do figure out many clues, the police and FBI agents were not stupid people. I couldn't help but think of the show Criminal Minds and kept hoping a profiling team would show up and show the kids how it's done. But that doesn't happen. By the end of Game Connie has purposely and stupidly walked into a trap and finds herself at the mercy of her boyfriend's murderous father. Jasper has been shot and left for dead. And Howie, oh Howie - Howie decides to confront a suspected serial killer with a shotgun he knows doesn't work. Incidentally Howie is a hemophiliac so physical confrontations, even mild ones, never end well for him.

In Blood of My Blood everything comes to a head. I couldn't help but think if only the teens went to the police there would have been less carnage but of course the teens don't go to the cops right away. They think they can handle everything on their own. Jasper believes that he is the only one who can stop his father and takes off after him, assaulting innocent people along the way. Connie and Howie always follow of Jasper's lead. Howie at least has doubts.

I can't remember why I picked up the trilogy - serial killers aren't usually my thing. I have read one of Barry Lyga's other books, so maybe that's why I decided to pick up this series. One thing I appreciated is that although Jasper aims to do good by stopping his father, all the criminal crap he does along the way is acknowledged. Overall I, don't know if "enjoy" is the right word, "like" will have to suffice, so I'll say I liked the series. The series did give me nightmares and for that reason this set of books will not be staying in my home.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle

Easy Motion Tourist  The publisher's description of Easy Motion Tourist grabbed me straight away. British journalist Guy Collins is at a nightclub, enjoying his first drink in Lagos, Nigeria when suddenly people come rushing into the club. They are clearly running from something. Collins goes outside to see what all the commotion is about and stumbles upon the mutilated body of a woman. Collins quickly learns that the reason people were running into the bar is because standard police protocol in Lagos is apparently to arrest everyone at the scene of the crime, regardless of whether they have done anything wrong or not. That is how Collins finds himself inside a Lagos jail cell. He isn't there for long. A mysterious women he has never met arrives and convinces the police to let the journalist go.

Amaka is that mysterious woman. The publisher described her as a Pam Grier-esque heroine. I'm not sure if I would agree with that but I will say she is pretty impressive. Author Leye Adenle depicts Lagos as a city of prostitutes, corrupt police officers, and a select group of wealthy residents who take advantage of both. Amaka is one of the few people who is trying to do something about it, running a charity for prostitutes, and punishing the men who like to take things too far. In Collins Amaka believes she has found a journalist who can broadcast the plight of women forced into prostitution. Whoa, things just got serious. Easy Motion Tourist isn't serious. It does tackle a serious a topic but mostly it is a fast paced thriller.

It wasn't a perfect book. The multiple perspectives got confusing at times. There is a completely unnecessary and unbelievable romance that makes no sense on either side. The casual way women are treated and talked about bothered me. Most of the female characters in this story are described as prostitutes. I don't think prostitute is the right word to describe these women since many of the women were forced into selling their bodies one way or another. Further, many of the women aren't women at all, but young girls. So that bugged me, but at least there is Amaka, fighting the good fight against the odds.

I couldn't find much information about the author Leye Adenle. I think this might be his debut novel, but am not a 100% sure. If it is then Easy Motion Tourist was a pretty good first book. The last line left me wanting more. If there is a sequel, I will read it.