ADMIN (Sort of): Book Reviews on Goodreads

A few years ago, I posted a pretty good number of book reviews at a collaborative blog called The Book Book, curated by the blogger formerly (and probably forever) known as Moonrat. It was a pretty successful site in many ways — over 600 posts, spread over the five or six years of peak activity — and the quality of the reviews was about what you’d expect, given Moonrat’s professional standards. (She was/is an editor at a NYC publishing firm.)

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be putting those reviews on Goodreads as well. I won’t be removing them from The Book Book — in fact, I’ll include a link to the original review in the version posted on Goodreads. But otherwise, the reviews (with possibly some minor changes) will be identical. My hope is that they’ll prove useful to a wider audience at Goodreads.

(And btw, yes: I’ve checked with Moonrat and with Goodreads to be sure this will be all right.)

Whenever I posted a Book Book review, I announced it with a post here. In some cases, the RAMH posts themselves might have included some useful extras (including comments from blog followers). In those cases, I’ll probably link from Goodreads to RAMH. But I’m not meaning at all for this as a “boost my stats” venture. (I don’t even look at stats anymore, although I guess they’re still out there somewhere.)

If you’ve been following RAMH, or The Book Book for that matter, you won’t find anything new in my Goodreads reviews unless and until I start posting honest-to-gods new reviews there more often. (Heh.)

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Book Review: Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell

A few weeks ago I reviewed Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow at the Book Book review blog. I just posted a follow-up there, a review of The Sparrow‘s sequel, called Children of God. However, if you have not read The Sparrow, please don’t read my Children of God review: it assumes that you know what happened on the planet Rakhat.

Briefly, I found the later book much harder to like than the earlier (although I continued to appreciate Russell’s skill):

  • We’re forced to spend much time in the company (and minds) of The Sparrow‘s less pleasant characters.
  • Much of the fun of The Sparrow came from the kidding, affectionate, and sometimes flirtatious interaction among the humans who made the trip to Rakhat. That original cast of characters is almost completely absent from this book; in their place we have a much more serious bunch. (There are reasons why they’re so serious. That doesn’t magically transform them into a larky gang of back-slappers, however.)

As I mention at the end of the Book Book review, I’d probably rate Children of God something like 85 out of 100, vs. The Sparrow‘s 95. Still worth a read, though — if for no other reason, than that it completes the circle of Emilio Sandoz’s story, while redeeming some of its predecessor’s horror.

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Book Review: The City & The City, by China Miéville

My full review of this book is up, over at The Book Book.

Part conventional murder mystery, part dark urban fantasy, The City & The City is constructed on a bizarre high concept which the author makes somehow believable: two Eastern European cities are not just neighbors, adjacent to each other; they’re even closer than that. They […wait a beat…] overlap.

Note that this departs from the parallel-universes or -dimensions premise employed in many science fiction and fantasy novels since the mid-20th century. Those other narratives generally suppose that the two places have completely different timelines, perhaps branching off from each other, so that events in one place have no direct impact on the other; people can move between dimensions only with difficulty, by way of some exotic technology or talent.

The people in The City & The City have no such weird abilities or devices. They’re just normal human beings. Physically, they can move from one city to the other just by stepping from one to the other.

The key word there: “physically.” For the two cities have developed legal and cultural barriers preventing crossover. They have different languages. They have different architectural and clothing styles, favor different color schemes. Their cuisines smell and taste different. (They even differ in their diplomatic relationships. One city is recognized by the US and Canada; the other, by Canada only. If you want to fly from the US to the latter, you must do so from some other country — like Canada.) From childhood, people learn to unsee the people and objects in the other city. They are forbidden to cross back and forth except at one location, a single otherwise conventional border crossing with gates and guards.

All of which has no bearing on the investigations and solutions of most crimes. But now, an American woman has been killed in City A, and the body found in City B…

When I started reading this book, I knew pretty much nothing about it. I’d seen comments on it on various blogs I read and respect; these comments praised it highly but never for specific reasons (other than with expressions like “blew my mind”). Even after I began reading, it took me a while to catch on — by Miéville’s design, I think. The body is discovered; the detective talks with eyewitnesses and colleagues, and collectively they start developing some theories. But then at the end of Chapter 1, a dozen or so pages in, I came to the following passage. The detective-narrator, in an idle moment, finds himself watching an elderly woman on a nearby street.

… In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of walking, of holding herself, and looking.

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her.

Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone.

That screeching sound, that crash you just heard? That was the echo of my collision with the word unnoticing. Even when I read back a few sentences, and then ahead — “should not have seen her”? “her foreign street” vs. “local GunterStrász”? — I was still confused as hell. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

And that, above all else, is what I want from a mystery.

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Book Review: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve (finally!) posted my review of Nabokov’s Lolita, over at The Book Book.

It certainly made for a discomfiting read, on some levels. Anyone with a niece or daughter, as young as the title character or simply once that young — and, I’d bet, any one who herself was once that young — will find in its pages plenty to squirm over.

And yet, there are all those other levels: the annoyingly hard-to-resist charms of the voice of the narrator, the protagonist, Lolita’s stepfather (and abuser) Humbert; the lavish stylistic flourishes; the mounting tensions — leading first to the central “Will he or won’t he?” answer and, later, finally “…will he really kill? kill whom?”

Of course I’m writing here as a guy — a middle-aged guy, at that — and maybe this alone invalidates all my disclaimers to the contrary. But I have to admit that even while being most horrified, I could also feel a little frisson of titillation from time to time. This was especially true early in the book, before the “Will he or won’t be?” question got its (maybe inevitable) answer. It was like inspecting close-up the carapace of what looks from a distance like a beautiful beetle: the ugly hairs and horrible eyes jump out at you, and you almost can’t wait to back off again. It’s a grotesque parody, in a way — a Bruegel‘s-eye-view of infatuation.

(Of course the publisher knows and is quite willing to trade on, to toy with this. Just look at that cover from the book’s 50th-anniversary edition. Do you see the horrors of pedophilia there? I don’t, either.)

Anyway, obviously there’s a lot to feel ambivalent about. If you don’t mind ambivalence and messy morality, love language, and of course haven’t read Lolita, you might want to give it a try. Just don’t be surprised if, like me, you can’t imagine yourself ever reading the book again — and being grateful to have read it once.

[Read more…]

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Book Review: Who Hates Whom, by Bob Harris

My latest review is up at The Book Book. This time around, it’s a non-fiction title, Who Hates Whom. (Subtitle: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide.)

In brief, it’s a good overview of world “trouble spots” — where they are, how they became troublesome in the first place, who the major players are — as of the time the book came out, in 2007. One man’s “good,” though, is another man’s “Huh?” So let me rattle off what I liked about Who Hates Whom:

  • It’s brief — 218 pages.
  • It’s not tedious. Harris’s past includes a stint as a stand-up comic; his previous book was a memoir of his time as a (successful) game-show contestant. He’s smart enough, in this case, to know that the reader will need relief from time to time, from the page after page of more or less exclusively bad news: he includes jokes, many of them at his own expense.
  • It’s informative. I left the book with a much better understanding of why Country X and Country Y have been at loggerheads for centuries — including the story, often, of what Country Z keeps doing to stir things up just as X and Y seem about to kiss and make up.
  • It’s fair. Harris is not out to grind any axes; as he points out, you can’t honestly consider all these situations in hopes of identifying the “good guys.” (Who the good guys are changes from one day to the next: yesterday’s officially designated terrorist is today’s freedom fighter.)
  • And ultimately — perhaps surprisingly — it’s hopeful. Harris points out, truthfully, that this is not the most dangerous time to be alive on Earth… not even close. Things keep getting better, on average. I like that.

Note for e-book readers: Who Hates Whom includes dozens of maps and photographs. You might want to consider that fact when deciding to go the e- vs. traditional book route. I read it on a Kindle, and didn’t mind it — but I know such things drive some people crazy!

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Book Review: Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan

Here’s how I imagine it must have gone:

The woman went about her work calmly but with determination. Cupped in her hands before her, on the table, was a mysterious jewel; depending on the light in which and the angle from which viewed, sometimes the jewel glittered with color and sometimes seemed black enough to suck the air as well as the light from the room. The woman bent, and put her face over the jewel, and she breathed on it. As we watched, the jewel changed form, became a living, a visibly breathing creature.

It both made us clap, and scared the hell out of us…

The woman was Margo Lanagan; the jewel, the fairy tale of “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” And the creature? Oh my, the creature: Lanagan’s 2008 young-adult novel, Tender Morsels.

My review of this book is now online at The Book Book blog.

[Read more…]

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Book Review: Spook, by Mary Roach

I’ve just posted my latest review for The Book Book; it covers non-fiction author Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

This was Roach’s second book. The first, Stiff, was about what happens to the human body after death. You can see that she’s attracted to odd, even icky topics; and you may guess from the title, too, that she uses humor to distance the reader from the ick. She’s one of my favorite non-fiction writers, certainly among the most enjoyable.

As I say in the review, my only real reservation about her work has to do with that sense of humor. Sometimes she drops a punchline into the text just a little too insistently, and it falls flat.

Compare this approach to, say, Bill Bryson’s. He too loves to make people laugh, and he too never shies away from the humor in a situation. But the jokes are good ones, not limp asides inserted for the sake of comic timing.

But I don’t want to hammer at that point too hard; I don’t want you to think I don’t enjoy Roach’s writing. Whatever she comes up with, I expect to be among those happily reading it.

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Review: Stuart Neville’s The Twelve

My review of this new thriller is up, over at The Book Book.

(Technically, it’s only newish; it came out in the UK several months ago. However, it’s slated for publication here in the US on October 1, under the title The Ghosts of Belfast.)

Capsule review: an excellent story, told in what is — for another aspiring new author — an embarrassingly expert manner. I have no idea how much this book resembles the form in which he submitted it, but on its evidence Stuart Neville has a long successful career ahead of him.

The book’s setting: contemporary Northern Ireland. On the surface, the IRA is going through all the motions of becoming a respectable, merely political force. But this innocent exterior is threatened by certain old-line forces which long for the days when an opponent could simply be threatened or dispatched outright.

Into this mix comes one Gerry Fegan, a long-time IRA “hard man” — what we might think of here as a goodfella, of the particularly brutal sort — recently released from prison. He’s not really interested in returning to his old ways, and in fact has twelve very good reasons to put them behind: the ghosts of those he has killed, now demanding payment from Fegan. Blood payment — the blood of those who condemned the twelve to death…

I really liked The Twelve. The supernatural angle isn’t heavy-handed; these ghosts appear to no one but Fegan, and intervene in no way directly. No floating candlesticks, no banging doors. But Neville has made them real to Fegan — oh boy are they real to him.

And as a thriller it’s got everything I’d look for: not mere action (though there’s plenty of that) and not mere suspense (ditto), but plenty of heart as well.


P.S. Stuart Neville is a blogger and sometime commenter on other popular writerly blogs, like Moonrat’s and Nathan Branford‘s places. Other long-time denizens of those places have known him for years, some even having read and/or critiqued early drafts of his book. I myself don’t “know” him in any way, although I have posted maybe two or three comments to his blog in the year since I encountered him as his online persona named “Conduit.”

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Review: How Sex Works, by Dr. Sharon Moalem

My review of this book is now online, over at The Book Book.

Short version:

  • Non-fiction, written by a neurogeneticist and evolutionary biologist.
  • Based on fairly current research. Informative. (Especially on the question of what makes you turn your head at someone, or not — at least if they’re within sniffing range.)
  • Not as provocative as you might imagine, not as clever as the chapter titles might suggest…
  • …but not bad. Okay.

One issue has already come up, related to my review rather than to the book itself. I wouldn’t mind hearing from others about it. Which is: Did I go too far in using asterisks to hide certain keywords (including the title’s most important word) from the hungry, Google-fed appetites of spammers, link farmers, and so on?

I really don’t know. Thought about it for weeks, in fact — and finally decided to err on the side of caution, mostly since I’m not the unlucky soul who’d be responsible for scrubbing away all the comment spam, and/or turning comment moderation on.


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Man of Mystery

Recognize the handsome guy at left? Neither did I.

Then I read Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories, by Harry Lee Poe (a distant cousin of its subject). Turns out that this painting, by Samuel Stillman Osgood, was rendered in about 1845 — four years before EAP’s death.

Right: he had no mustache at all until the last year or so of his life.

More importantly for understanding him, he didn’t always look so troubled, so twisted up inside, so “Don’t talk to me — I’m ready to implode” as he did in the familiar pictures and daguerreotypes of his last years.

My review of the Illustrated Companion is (finally!) done, and posted at The Book Book blog.

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