Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kingkiller Chronicle Redux

A year ago I blogged about The Name of the Wind, the first book of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle. It took me thirteen months, but I finally read book two, The Wise Man’s Fear. And I feel even more ambivalent. There are so many things I don’t like about this trilogy—even things I hate!—and yet if book three were going to be released tomorrow, I’d be camped out in line at the bookstore by midnight tonight.

 A quick summary: Kvothe was born into a traveling players’ troupe. When he was eleven, the entire troupe, including his parents, was murdered by a group of immortal evildoers who most people consider to be a fairytale. From that point onward, Kvothe bent his life toward mastering the sophisticated magics taught at the University as the only road to knowledge and revenge.

In the present, Kvothe is an innkeeper, a hero in hiding, relating the story of his life to a scribe over a period of three days (one day per volume of the trilogy.) We know that there are currently problems in the lands: impossibly high taxes, unsafe roads, distant war, and unnatural creatures that fear iron, but we don’t yet know how Kvothe ties into any of that, or how he might solve it.

The majority of the story is the past, as told by the innkeeper. In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe relays how he made his way from the site of his parents’ murder to being a street-beggar to being a student at the University. In The Wise Man's Fear, he tells of his seeming success at the University, until an ongoing and dangerous feud with another student forced him to take a leave of absence to let things cool down. He went to distant Vintas, where he vied for the patronage of a nobleman, and found himself drawn into tangent after tangent.

 I don’t want to spoil the book by giving too much detail. Let’s just say—there are wonderful things about Rothfuss’s storytelling and world-building. He’s an idea man—he enjoys exploring philosophical concepts through character interaction. The downside is, it makes the story feel very picaresque or episodic—one nearly random event after another, to force the character to learn and grow in whatever way serves his impending hero-hood. And each episode goes on for hundreds of pages (this is a 994 page book.) I spent a good deal of the book thinking, can we go back to the University now?

Ultimately I thought the books could have been edited a lot more tightly, both plot-wise and sentence-wise, and perhaps been broken up into more volumes—maybe even a triple trilogy, á la Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Nevertheless, Kvothe is a strong and charismatic character, whose clever voice, human flaws, and audacious risk-taking overcome the occasional weakness in the writing and plot.

In my previous post on The Kingkiller Chronicle, I said book three was coming out in March of last year, and I apologize. I don’t know where I saw that, but it appears publication dates on the third book were tentatively set for May 2013 but have been pushed up to an unannounced date, possibly next year.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Among wolves


Sometime around 1526, King Henry VIII of England fell in love with a young woman named Anne Boleyn. What followed is one of the world’s most-told stories: Henry’s attempt to get his marriage annulled, which resulted in the English church’s break with the Vatican; Henry’s marriage to Anne and the birth of their daughter; the disastrous failure of the marriage; Anne’s execution; and the long and ugly spectacle of the King’s subsequent marriages - six in all.

Hundreds of novels, movies, television shows and mini-series have been inspired by this fast-changing, tumultuous period of English history, to say nothing of the mountains of historical scholarship.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is different from the rest.  The 2009 novel tells the story of Henry and Anne from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the most powerful figures at Henry’s court. Cromwell was a common-born but uncommonly gifted political fixer, a man who got things done. In Mantel’s words,

He is at home in a courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.

Cromwell is often thought of as a ruthless and merciless political climber, but Mantel breaks with tradition to portray him as a man who is warm and generous to his family and friends. Next to him, the brilliant Sir Thomas More (usually portrayed very positively, as in the movie A Man For All Seasons) seems chilly and manipulative.

More and Cromwell vie for Henry’s favor: More wants to steer the king towards righteous behavior, while Cromwell attempts to gain influence by granting the king’s wishes. Those of us who are familiar with this period of history know that events won’t go exactly as either More or Cromwell plan. Knowing just how badly things turn out for both of them (not to mention Anne Boleyn) adds a strong element of suspense to this rich, immersive experience.

Wolf Hall won a fistful of awards. In fact, Mantel is the first woman ever to have won the Man Booker Prize twice: once for Wolf Hall, and once for its sequel, Bring up the Bodies.

 I’ve now experienced Wolf Hall two ways: I’ve read it, and I’ve listened to the extraordinarily good audio version narrated by the Simon Slater. If you like historical novels, give Wolf Hall a try; and if you like audiobooks, please do not miss this one.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Pure by Julianna Baggott

At the moment of the Detonations, a searing light flashed across the sky, and Pressia’s hand became fused with the head of the baby doll she was clutching. Everyone became fused with whatever was nearby: shattered glass, dying dogs, children. Strangers. Trees. Pressia and the other survivors subsist in grinding pain amidst the wreckage of the modern world, tyrannized by the OSR, a shadowy government which conducts violent purges and takes children away for an unknown purpose when they turn sixteen.

Inside the Dome, an elite or lucky minority were protected from the Detonations. Called Pure by the fused wretches on the outside, the Dome’s residents watch and wait for a time when the Earth will heal, edible food will grow again, and they will be able to take their place in the world. Partridge is a student in the Dome Academy, and he learns that his mother, who he’d always thought died in the Detonations, may be alive. He plans to find her, no matter what, no matter that only genetically altered Special Forces soldiers ever go Outside.

Pressia is about to turn sixteen. She and her grandfather, who breathes through the blades of a small fan fused in his throat, have a plan to keep her from the OSR. They both secretly know it will never work. She will have to run away, but there’s nowhere to go.

Unbeknownst to Partridge and Pressia, they have something in common. They are part of a larger plan, the plan of a man being eaten alive by his own hubris. Is there anyone he will not crush in his quest to live forever?

In Pure, Baggott paints a truly grotesque apocalypse and shows that all the elements that make up hope, beauty, and love can survive the end of the world. The plotline and the characters are compelling and well-written, making this dystopian novel stand out from the slew published after Hunger Games became so popular. I found that the bizarre and unlikely visuals were best imagined in a noir graphic novel style; otherwise, the fused world is too painful-looking to visit, even in imagination.

The second book in the planned trilogy, Fuse, has just been released and added to our collection.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How do you think you'd react?

I’ve never been tested by a life-or-death emergency, and I’ve often imagined how I would respond. What would I do, for instance, if a big earthquake struck right now? Would I panic? Would I die due to some careless mistake? Would I be clear-headed enough to find my way to safety? Would I help others?

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why is a fascinating book by journalist Amanda Ripley, who interviewed survivors of a wide range of disasters, hoping to find what they did right (or wrong) when the crucial moment came.

The book is filled with the captivating stories of these survivors. Elia Zedeño walked down 73 flights of stairs in World Trade Center Tower 1 on September 11, 2001. Walter Bailey, teenage busboy, led the evacuation when the crowded Beverly Hills Supper Club in Cincinnati burned to the ground in 1977. Clay Violand played dead in his Intermediate French classroom during the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007.

Ripley discusses the complex ways the human body reacts in moments of terror. She discusses such commonly-reported experiences as dissociation, paralysis, and time distortion - as when a police officer, in the midst of a firefight, saw what he thought were beer cans floating slowly past his face. He later realized they were the shell casings ejected by the officer firing his weapon beside him.

The book argues that everyone can be better prepared, especially if they take the time to become more aware.  Find out where the exits are before you settle into your seat at a restaurant or movie theater.  Actually read the emergency card in the airplane’s seat pocket.

The Unthinkable is an interesting and thought-provoking book for anyone who, like me, wonders how they’ll perform if a disaster strikes.

And if you’re interested in learning more about how you can be effective in an emergency, Lincoln County offers regular Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) trainings, free. For more information about CERT training, see www.lincolncountycert.org or call 541-265-4199.


Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple


In a tiny upper-crust community in Seattle known as Galer Street, the Fox/Branch family resides in a not-so-renovated old school on a blackberry-covered hill. Bernadette Fox, (wife, mother, genius architect), spends her days being ever-so-eccentric, rearranging her pots and pans to catch all the leaks dripping from her ceilings. At Galer Street School, she’s the one and only non-volunteering Mommy, and the other Galer Street Moms adore gossiping about her peculiar reclusive ways. Elgin Branch, (father, husband, creator of the fourth most popular TEDtalk of all time), loves his work so much he might as well live at Microsoft rather than simply running one of its most promising divisions. And then there’s Bee, little Bee, their extraordinary fourteen year old girl, who has been promised a trip to Antarctica in return for perfect grades throughout middle school.

Laugh-out-loud funny in a witty and satirical way, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is the story of how this family crumbles under attacks from within and without: and perhaps how it puts itself back together. Documented with emails, letters, and FBI files, it is daughter Bee’s attempt to show the truth of what happened and who is in the wrong, and also her attempt to get extra credit to make up for all that time missed from school while in Antarctica. (The format and tone remind me of the best of the Spellman Files books, by Lisa Lutz—if you like those, definitely check out Bernadette.)

I found the first third of the book a bit dull, but judging by the number of raving reviews out there, I may just be too critical. Bernadette’s character eventually gets fleshed out, but for a while at the beginning she seems “eccentric” only in that she can afford to act on her slightest whim. Her arch-enemy, the uberMom of Galer Street, is the mean popular girl from everyone’s high school, all grown up. Backstabbing clique novels aren’t my thing—I didn’t get drawn in until the series of circumstances snowballed into something a little more interesting.

Semple has been a screenwriter as well as an author, and her credits include writing for such TV shows as Arrested Development, Mad about You, and Ellen.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lemony mystery


Lemony Snicket is best known as the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a sequence of funny, strange books, aimed at children but quite popular with adults too. They draw not only upon Snicket’s rich imagination but also the images and iconography of the gothic horror genre. 

His new book, Who Could That Be At This Hour, stars a young protagonist named Lemony Snicket, and fits into the tradition of jazz-age noir mysteries.

Who Could It Be At This Hour is the first of a proposed series of four, called All The Wrong Questions. Snicket escapes from his parents (are they really his parents?) and begins an apprenticeship in a shadowy, nameless organization. He and his mentor, S. Theodora Markson (what does the S stand for?), come to the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea to investigate a burglary.

Was there really a burglary? Why is the town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea when it isn’t by the sea? Why do they have to wear masks when they approach the town? If those people Snicket escaped from weren’t his parents, then who were they? And where are his parents? Are these the right questions?

I will confess I didn’t quite manage to get through all the volumes of the mega-popular Series of Unfortunate Events books; I thought they were hilarious in small doses but tough to take en masse. And I’m a little concerned that this series is going to present the reader with more questions than it answers.

However, Who Could It Be At This Hour is extremely entertaining, with a fun, twisty plot, and all of Snicket’s trademark descriptive playfulness:

 The Hemlock Tearoom and Stationery Shop is the sort of place where the floors always feel dirty, even when they are clean. They were not clean on the day in question. The food at the Hemlock is too awful to eat, particularly the eggs, which are probably the worst eggs in the entire city, including those on exhibit at the Museum of Bad Breakfast, where visitors can learn just how badly eggs can be prepared. 

If you are one of the millions who loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, this is a no-brainer. Who Could That Be At This Hour seems to be full of allusions and hints about the events that took place in those books, so it is a must-read for you.

And if, like me, you admired but did not necessarily make it through those books, you might want to give Who Could That Be At This Hour a try anyway. I liked it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Undertow




Undertow is the story of Miguel, a fisherman who lives with his pregnant wife Mariela in a village on the Peruvian coast. Active in the community and their church, Miguel and Mariela would seem to have the perfect life. But Miguel is hiding a secret.

Santiago is an artist who has been coming to the seaside since he was a child. But he keeps to himself and shows no one his work. No one except Miguel. Egged on by the town gossip, the local populace has come to the conclusion that the artist is a bit queer.

And when that same gossip puts two and two together, both mens’ lives are changed forever. After Santiago drowns, dragged down by the dangerous currents offshore, it is up to Miguel to take responsibility for his actions and set things right again. It is up to Miguel to let Santiago finally find peace.

Beautifully filmed and accompanied by a gorgeous Latin soundtrack, Undertow won the Audience Favorite Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as well as numerous awards at film festivals around the world.

And you can reserve it here.