Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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    A Series of Unfortunate Events #2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

    Read: 24 February, 2017

    A solid follow up to Bad BeginningThe Reptile Room follows the Beaudelaire children to a new home, and to new horrors.

    The jokes and tone are very consistent with the first, so people who didn’t enjoy Bad Beginning really shouldn’t bother. As it was, we liked it quite a bit. My kid loves the titillation of the horror (which is only just barely stylistic enough to qualify as “for kids”), while I’m enjoying the dark humour in the narrative style.

    I love that the series explicitly uses – and even explains – literary techniques. Just as an example, there’s some dramatic irony in Reptile Room that the narrator actually names and explains. It’s such a wonderful way to introduce my youngling to concepts, not to mention to some bigger vocabulary. Plus, “herpetology” is terribly fun to say.

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      The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

      Read: 13 February, 2017

      How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

      This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

      As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

      Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

      In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

      That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

      Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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        Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor

        Read: 12 February, 2017

        There’s a man no one remembers, a young woman who holds a piece of paper that she can’t put down, a boy whose absent father suddenly reappears and reappears and reappears… It’s really just your average Night Vale day.

        I’ve somehow managed to have never listened to the podcast. I know, I know, I’m just not really a podcast sorta person right now. But many of my friends listen to Night Vale and post quotes and tweets and such, and I’ve always found them the perfect combination of funny, insightful, and weird.

        So when I found a Welcome to Night Vale audiobook at my local library, I figured I’d give it a shot – helpfully in a more familiar format.

        And I really enjoyed it! Night Vale does a fantastic job of ‘hyper-reality’. Details of the story are absurd, but they’re also true, they are subjective impressions rendered literal. The character of Josh is the perfect example of this: a teenage boy, his body assumes a different shape every day – some days he has skin, some days he has a carapace – but no matter what form he takes, his mother always knows him.

        I loved how inclusive and refreshing the book is, too. Josh has a crush on a girl and he has a crush on a boy, the only explicit couple in the book are gay men, and the plot revolves around an absent father who is a perfectly nice guy but just not a good father. The central relationship that emerges from the plot is a friendship between two women. It’s just wonderful.

        I see quite a few negative (and negative-ish) reviews complaining about how the narrator’s voice carries over into a print, and I can see that. The narrator’s intonations and pauses added a great deal to the story. And that’s not particularly surprising – these characters were made for a podcast format.

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          The Naturalist by Alissa York

          Read: 11 February, 2017

          After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

          Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

          And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

          Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

          Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

          Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

          This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

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            A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

            Read: 10 February, 2017

            With the kid wanting to watch the new Netflix series, it seemed about time to read A Series of Unfortunate Events. I hadn’t read it before (I was a little too old when it came out), so this was new for both of us.

            It markets itself as a dark and depressing story, which it is. Mostly by telling us so. The writing style itself is a little too melodramatic to really be taken seriously, but it works well as a “baby’s first gothic” (in the Mysteries of Udolpho sense).

            The book has a fairly strong narrator, who will break the fourth wall fairly frequently to comment on the story, or to explain what a word means. Sometimes these explanations are great, as when the definition is tailored to the specifics of the situation in which the word was used. Sometimes, though, it’s more of a straight definition, which is helpful for my five year old, I guess, but sucks the humour right out of it. On the whole, though, I do enjoy visible narrators, and I found that the interjections were usually quite funny.

            I like that the children each have a thing to differentiate them – Violet is the inventor, Klaus is the reader, and Sunny likes to bite. But unless the children are actively doing something that fits within their area of interest, they seemed somewhat interchangeable (well, Violet and Klaus, anyway). It’ll be interesting to see if they become stronger as the series wears on.

            As for the plot itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Readers are amply (and strongly!) warned that this series is all about terrible things happening to children, but I didn’t think it’d jump right into child brides. Still, it was a legal thing to access their fortunes, fine, but I was reading through a cringe for much of the book, silently chanting to myself “please no wedding night jokes, please no wedding night jokes…” Until, of course, one is made. It’s quick, it’s in passing, I’m 100% sure that my kid didn’t pick up on it, but this kiddie book straight up mentioned child rape, and I’m pretty not comfortable with that.

            All in all, I didn’t find this book to be spectacular. It was entertaining, funny at times, and I can see the gothic imagery being very memorable for younglings.

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              Time Quintet #1: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

              Read: 30 January, 2017

              “It was a dark and stormy night.” 

              I read this book with my five year old. Our copy is ancient, with yellowed pages and a taped up spine, and my sister’s name printed in pencil in the front cover. It all seems so fitting for a book about love and family.

              The story is a little disjointed, with ideas and events thrown in almost haphazardly, and the ending is rather abrupt. But on the way, it trusts in children’s intelligence. It doesn’t weaken its vocabulary, it doesn’t hide from tough concepts. At five, my son was unfamiliar with many of the references, but thanks to this book we’ve now spent hours listening to Bach and Beethoven and looking up paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. I even got the opportunity to explain the basics of relativity! The best children’s books challenge their audience, and without talking down to them.

              The central message of love is an important one. I barely got through the last ten pages with tears streaming down my face, and that was a teachable moment too.

              The book isn’t perfect, but it’s easy to see why it’s a classic.

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                Gentlemen Bastards #1: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

                Read: 29 January, 2017

                Venice is such an obvious and wonderful setting for fantasy, it’s hard to imagine why it doesn’t get more use. Everyone always jumps on medieval England or France, maybe with a bit of Scandinavian, but Renaissance Venice? With its glass works, its intrigue, its cloaks, its daggers, its Carnival… That is a rich and fertile ground for fantasy!

                I had a little trouble getting into this one at first because it does an awful lot of time hopping. I can understand why this was done – giving us the exhilaration of the adult Locke Lamora on a heist, while also feeding us some of his backstory in the form of child Locke. On the one hand, I’m not sure it was necessary to do it this way since child Locke gets up to quite a few exciting adventures of his own. On the other hand, it gives us a tighter narrative in which the beginning connects directly with the ending. Having gotten through the difficult beginning, I can appreciate it. But having to keep track of time skipping on top of all the new characters, the new setting, the new terms… it makes the book just that little bit less accessible.

                Once I got into it, though, I loved this book! It was exciting! It was fun! There were times when the main characters got themselves into a scrape I couldn’t see a way out of and my stomach tightened and I read as fast as I could to find out what would happen.

                I wish that there were more central female characters. There are women around – really cool and interesting women, women with power, active women – but none in the core group. Well, that’s not quite true. There is one woman in the Gentlemen Bastards, but we don’t see her in this book. She’s talked about, but always out of the picture for one reason or another. It’s obvious from the first mention of her that she’s Locke’s One True Love, and this gets brought up a lot, so having her be completely absent from the first book is a very interesting choice. It’s a good choice, too, since it lets us see more of Locke’s friendships. We need more books that centre platonic friendship! But now I’m worried that we’ll meet Sabetha and she’ll just be your standard “pretty but tough as nails” love interest. I like that she’s held back from the story for now, but my fingers are crossed that she’ll be given some proper development.

                In conclusion, I loved this book. I devoured it. It was fun, it was exciting, it had some great character development, it had a fantastic setting, and it had one of those excellent plots that feels meandery but then ties up neatly at the end and I loved it so very very much.

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                  The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

                  Read: 22 January, 2017

                  I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

                  It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

                  It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

                  The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

                  I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

                  I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

                  I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

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                    The Magicians #3: The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

                    Read: 15 January, 2017

                    With this third and final book in the series, we find a Quentin in exile, and a dying Fillory.

                    Despite getting a good portion of The Magician King to herself, Julia is almost entirely absent. I guess Grossman felt that her story was done, but it was disappointing. In many ways, her journey seems at least as important to the series as Quentin’s – giving us the two paths of magic, the academic and the wild. I wanted more of her, I wanted to see her adventures on the other side (we’re told that she’s made queen of the dryads or some such, but I wanted to see that happening!). Instead, she’s replaced with Plum, who was an interesting character, but who seems to just fall off Grossman’s radar toward the end, and doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention she deserved either.

                    Janet, on the other hand, gets quite a bit more weight. In the first and second books, she seemed rather hollow – a plot device with bitchy one-liners. While she doesn’t get too much more in the third, she does get her own arc (narrated by herself after-the-fact, as with Julia), and she gets to have her own adventure. It’s not much, but I enjoyed it, and it made her feel a little more real.

                    After turning into a niffin in the first book, Alice makes a comeback. I struggled with this. At first, I was worried that Grossman would just gloss over her experiences and she wouldn’t get an arc of her own. But then she had such complicated and unexpected feelings about being saved, and that was great! And Quentin was caring for her and accepting responsibility for his part in what happened to her, and that was also great! And then they bone and that whole plot line just disappears. Nothing like the healing powers of sex magic, I guess? It was disappointing, and it didn’t feel respectful to Alice as a character, and it didn’t feel respectful to Alice as a person. And, suddenly, I had to wonder just how much Quentin really had learned.

                    Quentin’s main foible has been his ennui – his inability to feel satisfied, no matter how amazing things are in his life. He’s always messing a good situation up because he’s too busy chasing a better situation. For the most part, he seems to have change – he’s still clearly depressed, but he seems willing to make the best of things when he returns to Brakebills. He’s not happy, but he does seem content to treat water for a while, which seems to be exactly what he needs.

                    Then he gets this opportunity to create his own land, and that seems to be a very direct test – did his growth take? Will it withstand a little temptation? And… I’d say mostly yes. He does still go ahead with his attempt to create a land, but it lacks the desperation of his previous choices. He seems to be doing it because it interests him, rather than because he needs to escape. That worked well, I felt.

                    All in all, the ending felt earned. There are things about the series that I don’t like, and I didn’t like them in Magician’s Land either, but that’s no surprise. But, overall, it worked.

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