Capsule Book Review Catchup

Now that I am listening to audiobooks on my commute to and from work, I’m catching up on so many books that I’ve got a backlog of books to write about on my blog. Of course, this is all thanks to Audible.com (Free credits for the plug, please!) which has been a great way for me to build up my library and enjoy reading again (I have always enjoyed reading, but it became difficult to find the time and focus once life got busy with other stuff.) So, now I think I’m going to do a bunch of rapid-fire capsule reviews to catch up on some of the books that I have read recently. Even though it’s all in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, it’s still quite a range, and it includes some older books alongside some recent ones.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

golemA very well-reviewed book from last year (it was nominated for a Nebula award), this book was actually a pleasant surprise. Having always been fascinated by the two magical creatures named in the title, I was easily attracted to this book. The golem (a creature from Jewish mythology, a being constructed from clay and brought magically to life to serve its master) was made to be someone’s wife, but when her husband died en route to America, she was left to find her own way in human society. In contrast, the jinni (a fiery creature of immense magical power — I’m sure most of us have seen the blue guy from Disney’s Aladdin) was released from his centuries-long imprisonment in an old flask by a humble tinsmith. Being still shackled and prevented from using his full abilities, the jinni also had to make a life for himself as a regular man. At first, as I started reading this story, set mostly in 19th century New York City, I was a bit disappointed by how mundane it felt. However, the book is as much a piece of historical fiction as it is fantasy. Wecker did a really great job of capturing both the cultural and social backdrop of her story as well as fitting all her characters into that time period and context by filling them with wonderful detail. Nevertheless, as the story unfolded, the title characters didn’t just stay average and uninteresting, Wecker let the specialness of both these magical beings slowly seep out and affect the others around them. I was impressed by the subtle way that Wecker made that work. On top of that, this is also one of the best constructed plots I’ve read in a while. Throughout the majority of the story I kept wondering why we spent time with other characters besides the main two, especially an old mystic who appears a number of times. There are also many flashbacks to the jinni’s past and the long story that led to his imprisonment. In the end, Wecker brings every detail and character together so that the entire story of the golem and the jinni is connected — it’s quite amazing. (4 out of 5)

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red RisingI was surprised by this book, but not because of some plot twists (which were actually pretty unexpected). I expected to love it (even though I knew almost nothing about it going in), since it got rave reviews. Instead, I found it difficult to make it through. In a future where Mars and other planets have been colonized by humans, there is a very strict class/caste system. Darrow, the hero of this story, is a young Red, which means that he is part of a very poor class and he works in virtual slavery on Mars as a hell diver (a kind of miner). Because of society’s oppression of the Reds (especially by the ruling Golds), the idea of rebellion is not far from Darrow’s mind. When the Golds execute his young wife, that sparks a chain of events that leads him to try to bring down the Golds and their corrupt system. I can’t say about much more without revealing a big twist, but one of the problems I had with the book was the savagery and violence in the story (though it is pretty interesting from the point-of-view of military strategy). I also hated the incredible cynicism around how people (especially young people) would behave if left to their own ambitions and appetites. Every character seems extremely selfish, conniving, brutal and cruel. I think many readers find this kind of story refreshing, insightful and honest about the nature of people and of the world. I found it a bit grotesque. After The Hunger Games, Divergent, Ender’s Game and even William Golding’s classic The Lord of the Flies all had similar messages with varying degrees of sophistication, I don’t find that I can enjoy this kind of thing very much. (3 out of 5)

The Child Thief by Brom

ChildThief Cover Web large2This retelling of the Peter Pan story was based on some of the story’s darker original background (before it got Disney-fied). I appreciate the effort of excavating the source material from under layers of pop-cultural sediment, but I think this retelling left a lot to be desired. It’s set in the modern day, where a young kid named Nick tries to run away from his home and the horrible slums where he lives surrounded by gangs and drugs and all kinds of nastiness. He is rescued from an attack by another young boy named Peter and then taken through magical mists to an island called Avalon, where he is initiated into Peter’s tribe of kids who answer to no adults (in fact, they are at war with a horrific group of “adults” known as the Flesh Eaters). While the idea of Avalon is already far-fetched enough, to top it off, Peter and his tribe consider themselves protectors of the Lady Modrin, a nature goddess who embodies the spirit of Avalon. Though it has a lot of the elements of a fairy tale or legend, this story also feels modern in the way it thinks of people (again focusing on young people) and how they would act if allowed to govern themselves in isolation. As in Red Rising, there’s a clear message that it’s part of human nature to be brutal to one another. This story has a modern, un-fairy-tale-like take on good and evil as well. There are no pure villains. The people who do bad things are either misunderstood, only self-serving rather than malicious, or simply misguided. Similarly, the heroes, including Nick and Peter, are not purely heroic and they make a lot of poor choices and selfish decisions a well. While this leads to disaster for the characters, it also led to my not enjoying this story at all — I literally barely made it to the end. (2 out of 5)

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

relicOf the books discussed in this post, this one is probably less literary than the others. It’s essentially a procedural crossed with a creature-feature. This book is a little older (and it was made into a movie in the 90s). A few unexplained murders bring the FBI special investigator Aloysius Pendergast to a fictional museum to investigate. All the clues seem to point to some kind of vicious creature who is connected to a primitive tribe and an expedition that took place years earlier. I really like the idea of a procedural, crime-solving story mixed with something supernatural, however it turns out that I am also pretty interested in the sciencey, genetic stuff that they layer one to the story. What kind of creature is it? How did it evolve? What is it feeding on? There are also museum characters introduced and part of the story is about their internal politics (though I would really wonder if people still feel the need to play politics when their lives are in danger from a killer beast). Majority of the actual story is about handling the situation — it’s crisis management rather than science-based procedural. There was an interesting variety of characters, given the context, but I didn’t feel much for them and didn’t care if they died. I think I would have preferred more of the book about solving the mysteries than about how to survive in a museum when you’re locked in with a monster. (3 out of 5)

Pines by Blake Crouch

pinesI’m not quite sure why I end up reading so many books where people end up being very savage or cruel (especially to the protagonist). Maybe that is just a very commonplace scenario. Anyway, in this book, secret service agent Ethan Burke ends up stranded in the town of Wayward Pines after a car accident occurs while he’s investigating the disappearance of two other agents. Everyone in the town behaves nicely but suspiciously until Burke discovers that things are definitely not what they seem. Unfortunately, his curiosity and his search for answers gets him into serious trouble. He tries to stay ahead of the conspiracy but he can’t and he finds that the mysteries of Wayward Pines only deepen and questions become even more difficult to answer. This book is very frustrating. Not only is it tough to endure Burke’s mistreatment and how the townsfolk seem intent on keeping him captive, but when you think you know what’s going on and you may have a bit of explanation, you don’t. There are a couple of seriously game-changing twists that turn the story more than 180 degrees around each time. There is a Twilight Zone kind of quality to this story. It’s almost impossible to predict the twist ending (I’m interested to see how much they will keep when this book is adapted for TV later this year) and is very angsty and frustrating up to that point. (3 out of 5)

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