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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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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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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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Read: 23 October, 2016

The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Read: 16 October, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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I Was The Cat by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey)

Read: 15 October, 2016

I picked this up off the library shelf because I had some time to spare and it was a graphic novel (and therefore a fast read), and it had cats. SOLD!

Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. The story is about a blogger named Allison Breaking (so named so that she could pun her name – if it even counts as a pun – by calling her website ‘Breaking News’, uuuuugh), who is hired by a wealthy and mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs.Except that her new employer turns out to be a cat! Dun dun DUUUUN!

There are mostly two stories being told. In the first, we have Burma’s story of his previous lives. In the second, we have the present day story of Allison coming to terms with meeting a talking cat, and her discovery of his current plot for world domination.

First, the positives: The artwork is very good. It isn’t particularly stylized, but it’s solid and clear. I also enjoyed all the little easter eggs hidden throughout the images, like the Pulp Fiction assassins, or the random Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem is that the narrative felt very disjointed. The conceit of the nine lives could have been interesting, but ended up just being Burma listing off famous people he’s met. It doesn’t make much sense, either, except in a ‘how history tends to get taught in primary school’ sort of way. There’s no reason for Burma’s first life to be in ancient Egypt, but then not again until the Elizabethan era. After that, as we get into history that the readership knows more about, his lives seem to come fairly regularly. Why the gap, except to make some joke about the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats?

The world domination plot was rather disappointing, largely because it wasn’t adequately set up. The insider trying to warn off Allison doesn’t seem to care much whether she’s warned or not, and doesn’t really seem to be trying to accomplish anything in particular by revealing the plot to her in any case. And once he does manage to warn her, what does he say? He tells her not to worry about it. So that was plot time well spent…

And that really sums up the whole book for me: There are lots of ideas, mostly a mish-mash of pop culture references, all thrown in together, but none of them serve of purpose or lead to anything.

And did Burma’s evil plan remind anyone of the Leviathan plot from Supernatural?

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The Saxon Stories #6: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Read: 2 October, 2016

My stash of audiobooks was running dangerously low, forcing me to grab something straight from my library branch’s shelf. Since my local branch is fairly small, their collection – a mere handful of shelves – is similarly sized, so finding something that looked both interesting and that I hadn’t already read can be a little challenging.

But they did have Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell. I’ve heard good things about Cornwell – that he writes solid historical military fiction – but never quite good enough for me to actually dive into the rather lengthy time investment of one of his books. But there he was, in a pinch, so I gave him a go.

I was rewarded with a very solid novel. Uhtred’s desperate fight to save a kingdom from its inexperienced king is both compelling and entertaining. The characters all feel real, and a number of episodes are quite funny (particularly those involving the priest who had secretly married Edward).

It would have been easy for the character names to become a problem – there are so many important characters, many of whom barely appear in person, and every second character’s name seems to start with Aethel-. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this to be much of a problem. I was reading the book casually, listening to it as I fall asleep in the evenings, but still the narrative managed to differentiate between all the important characters enough for me to follow along without too much trouble. It was certainly quite a bit easier than reading Game of Thrones, which I had to do with the relevant Wiki pages open and before me.

One of the reasons I had hesitated so long before trying to read Cornwell is that I hate battle/fight scenes in books. I find them utterly boring, and usually skim them to get back to the interesting stuff. Here, however, the action scenes actually work! They don’t feel rushed, and there’s enough character in how each player acts that the scenes feel like they actually add something to the broader narrative (beyond simply their resolution).

This is the sixth book in a series, but I had no trouble picking up what was going on. Uhtred does mention past events, but without the context of the previous books, it just read as character history. The story works perfectly on its own.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very solid book. It’s an interesting story told with good writing. I look forward to picking up more books by the author.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #6: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

Read: 3 June, 2016

Ruso and Tilla are back up in northern Britannia where a rumour has it that there’s a body buried in Hadrian’s wall-in-progress.

Downie’s writing is consistently solid, and I really enjoyed this latest addition to the series. It follows the familiar format of Ruso stumbling into the middle of a mystery – helped along by Tilla’s meddling. He then proceeds to bumble around for 200 pages until, in the final few pages of the book, the mystery largely solves itself. It makes the series a little less than satisfying as a procedural because there’s little to follow on – when I can’t guess the answer, it’s because all the salient information is being withheld.

There’s humour in this format, though. Ruso is building a reputation as a crime solver, and yet he actually does very little. Tilla is the more active agent, and much of the most important comes through her investigations. Beyond that, it is Ruso’s reputation that positions him to receive the information he needs for the mystery to be resolved.

The real appeal of the series is the setting, and how beautifully Downie is able to bring it to life. The world of these novels feels populated, and even background characters have tangibility. The world also plays out in our two main characters and how they interact and negotiate each other’s cultural differences (and the differences really are cultural, because both are as stubborn and curmudgeonly as each other, much as they might protest otherwise).

SPOILERS: I was concerned about how the couple’s infertility would play out, and had some concerns that Tilla would suddenly find herself pregnant after receiving the marriage blessing. I shouldn’t have worried, not after how deftly Downie handled the issue of religion in Persona Non Grata. She is very deft at navigating fraught themes. Getting a replacement baby from Virana skirted the groaning border, though. The choice to give up her baby isn’t contrary to Virana’s established character, but it still would have been nice to see a little more build up. As it was, there was really only the mirroring with Conn’s fiancée’s refusal to do the same. Still, it’s easy enough to see how the decision would have made sense to Virana, so I’ll accept it. And it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of a baby to the family changes the dynamic between Ruso and Tilla.

Overall, I found this to be a fine addition to the series. I actually bought Tabula Rasa when it first came out, but was afraid to read it and no longer have it to look forward to! But with Vita Brevis coming out soon, I took a chance and was not disappointed.

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Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Read: 8 April, 2016

On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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