The Stone War

By Madeleine Robins

In something of an odd coincidence, this is the third book out of the last four I've read that was about New York.  This one came to me via a co-worker, with whom I've been trading books and DVDs lately. I lent him my copies of Forever, Good Omens, and Neverwhere, and he lent me The Stone War.

The book is set in a dystopian near-future New York City where crime and homelessness have run rampant.  Most of the city's residents have retreated into locked-down apartment buildings staffed with armed guards, while the homeless have been granted the legal right to squat in doorways and street-side gardens. The main character, John Tietjen, is one of the few who loves the city the way it used to be and still walks the streets unafraid.

This is the scene as we are introduced into Tietjen's life, and we watch as he interacts with his neighbors, argues with his ex-wife, and tries, unsuccessfully, to get his children interested in the city. Suddenly, while he's away on a business trip, an unknown catastrophe falls upon the city, with thousands killed and most of the rest fleeing as refugees. Tietjen makes his way back to New York, discovering an eerie ruin, covered with damage that no natural causes can explain. He brings together a small community of survivors, who must fend for themselves against the challenges of rebuilding, not to mention darker forces loose in the city.

Overall, The Stone Rose was an enjoyable read, but I kept feeling like it could have been more. It was author Madeleine Robins' first novel, and had many of the strengths and weaknesses first novels so often have. On the one hand, Robins' ideas were strong and she clearly has a passion for writing--older writers often seem to burn out long before they actually stop writing, to their readers' detriment. Unfortunately, her vision just wasn't executed that well. Much of what's set up in the initial parts of the book is dropped completely after the disaster, which left me feeling very unsatisfied with the overall direction of the story. Too, it's never really explained or resolved just what's so special about Tietjen, though numerous references are made to him being so. And the picture of an empty New York City, twisted and ravaged by supernatural forces, is wonderfully evocative and provides an opportunity for some truly dark or eerie scenes, I couldn't help but feel that Robins wasn't able to fully deliver on that promise in the way a more experienced writer might, though she did reach in that direction.

It may sound as though I'm bashing the book, which isn't really my intention--as I mentioned before, it was pretty enjoyable overall. I think the reason for my disappointment is just that there was so much potential for this to be a truly great story, but unfortunately that story never fully materialized.

Started: 4/12/2010 | Finished: 4/14/2010

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The Shadow of the Wind

By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

"I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time."

That's the first sentence of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel The Shadow of the Wind. It calls to mind the opening line of Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in the way it manages to be simultaneously simple and yet powerfully evocative of a huge story yet to come. The name "Cemetary of Forgotten Books," of course, immediately brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges. And the spooky undercurrent, the hint of intrigue, can't help but make you think of Umberto Eco. If that one sentence isn't enough to hook you, well, I'm not sure that reading my reviews will be particularly useful to you. It was all it took for me to become totally enraptured by this book.

Following that first sentence, the narrator--young Daniel Sempere, the son of a Barcelona bookseller--finds and is enthralled by a book that few others have heard of, the eponym of the Ruiz Zafón's novel. In fact, Daniel finds that he may have the last copy of any of the author's works, as someone has been determinedly finding and destroying every copy of everything the author--Julian Carax--ever wrote. The story of the book and its author is steadily revealed, layer by layer, and the more Daniel discovers, the more drawn into the events leading up to the disappearance of the other books and Carax, himself.

There's so much to love about this book. To begin with, the writing is just a joy. I'm not kidding when I compare Ruiz Zafón to Borges and Eco and García Márquez--some of my favorite authors. In style, in plot, in the wonderful depiction of the setting--Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War--Ruiz Zafón belongs in the same pantheon as those men. The story becomes, at times, so grandly convoluted and so full of passions and revenge and tragedy that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been completely over the top. Yet Ruiz Zafón manages, through a combination of exquisite language and precise control over the layers of plot and how they're revealed, to craft a simply marvelous story.

Of course, what I loved most about The Shadow of the Wind were the parts between all the rushing around and tragically doomed love and madness. The parts about Daniel. I've mentioned before what a sucker I am for bildungsroman, and certainly I related to Daniel's journey into manhood. But it's in the quieter moments of the novel that I found something really great. The tenderness of Daniel's father and all he does for his son--and, of course, how little the teenaged narrator appreciates it at the time, and the regret Daniel later feels about that. The friendship between Daniel and the vagrant he takes in, Fermín Romero de Torres. The strain that develops between he and his childhood friend, Tomás. There's a delicacy and a deep understanding of youth and growth and relationships underpinning everything that resonated with me in a way I haven't felt from a book in some time. Between that and the excitement of the main plot, it's no wonder that I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning to finish the last half of the book in one sitting.

I'm not sure what more I can say about The Shadow of the Wind without sounding hyperbolic--in fact, I may have already crossed that line. But if I must sum it up somehow, let me put it this way: this is the best novel I've read in years.

Started: 3/8/2010 | Finished: 3/12/2010

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By Pete Hamill

Reading Forever immediately after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay made for an interesting comparison, since both books are about New York, both written by men who obviously have deep and abiding love for the city. But where Kavalier & Klay is more a portrait, a snapshot of the city at a particular moment, Forever is more like a time-lapse film. And while Michael Chabon's novel exudes the vigor and excitement of the post-war era, Pete Hamill's book has that sense of solemnity that I associate with Old-World legends and, perhaps, magic realism. Actually, Forever probably fits that latter camp pretty well, given both its premise and its execution.

Forever is the story of Cormac O'Connor, born in 1723 outside of Belfast. At the age of 17, Cormac makes his way across the Atlantic to New York to avenge his father's murder, in the process of which he's mortally wounded. He's brought back from the brink of death by an African shaman, who gives him the "gift" of eternal life, though with the condition that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. Thereafter, we follow Cormac through the history of the city, straight through until the present day. Cormac sees the Revolutionary War, the Great Fire of New York in 1835, the corruption of Tammany Hall, and the destruction of 9/11, and Hamill presents it all with a sharp eye for history.

I found this book interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the main character. In some ways it's tempting to see Cormac as heroic for his moral stance against slavery and injustice and his actions in helping the little guy. He appreciates art and music, accumulates a wealth of knowledge, and loves the city that he's watched grow from its infancy. Too, the tragic nature of his solitude plays on our sympathies. And yet, the genius of Hamill's characterization is that as alluring a character as Cormac is, he's more complex than that. He reveals himself to be selfish, even mean at times. And his adherence to the code of his Gaelic ancestors--requiring him to seek revenge not only on his father's murderer, but also all of the man's descendants--leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Or mine, anyway.

All in all, Forever is a great read, the prose constantly evolving and changing along with the history it recounts--the opening chapters, recounting Cormac's youth, read like a fable, but before the end of the book the style catches up to the modern day. The whole thing is just beautiful.

Pete Hamill seems to get called "a New York legend" with some frequency--which you'd expect of a man who was editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I'd say, though, that even if he'd done nothing else, the strength of this book alone might just be enough to earn him that title.

Started: 2/23/2010 | Finished: 3/5/2010

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

By Michael Chabon

This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. And recently Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best novels of the decade. Well, I thought it was pretty great, too.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about a lot of things. It's about the title characters, of course. When the story opens in 1939, Joe Kavalier arrives at the home of his aunt and her son, Sam Klayman, having escaped Nazi-occupied Prague. When I say "escaped" in that context you might think of something like Casablanca--forged travel papers, traveling under the cover of night, and so on. And all that is the case here as well, but Joe's escape is made all the more spectacular because he's a trained magician and escape artist. He's also a talented artist of the more normal type, and he and Sam end up becoming influential figures in the development of the modern comic book. The novel documents their rise to fame during the pre-war years and the events that lead up to and then follow the break-up of their partnership.

But it's about more than that. Reading this book, the main story was almost incidental to my enjoyment. Because it's also a history of the golden age of comics, a portrait of war-era New York, a meditation on sexuality, family, friendship, and fathers and sons. It's about escape, both literal and figurative, and about magic, both the sleight-of-hand of the stage magician and the everyday magic of life. And it's all done masterfully. Scenes from this story broke my heart, while others had me laughing out loud--no mean feat for a book. The prose at times borders on purple, but instead of feeling over the top it gives the whole thing a lyrical quality, at once realistic but reminiscent of a fairy tale. Other authors have managed that feeling--Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind--but I'm not sure any have done it better.

If there's anything I didn't like about Kavalier & Clay, it would be the ending. There's little in the way of denouement and, in my opinion, even less of resolution. I'm not sure what I was supposed to feel, because I suppose there is resonance with the themes of escape and freedom, but what I ended up feeling was disappointment and sadness.

Despite that, I wasn't disappointed in the book as a whole. Maybe it's because there was so much more to love about the book than just the plot and the characters. Maybe I just didn't need the ending to live up to the rest of the book, and maybe there wasn't really any way it could. In any case, I'm glad I read it, and I'm happy to give it my whole-hearted recommendation.

Started: 1/27/2010 | Finished: 2/22/2010

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Sharpe's Rifles

By Bernard Cornwell

I think that my introduction to the Sharpe novels came from Wikipedia, of all places. I was reading the Horatio Hornblower article, which noted near the bottom that it had inspired Bernard Cornwell's series. Being a pretty big fan of the Hornblower series, I put the Sharpe series on my list as something to check out. The series comprises 24 books, and it was a little difficult to figure out which one to start with. The first written was Sharpe's Eagle, and the first in the main character's chronology is Sharpe's Tiger. This one, Sharpe's Rifles, is the first in what I gather is considered the "main" series--at least, the copy I picked up has a big "1" on the spine. In any event, supposedly each novel stands more or less on its own, so the particular starting point may not matter much.

Having finished this first volume, I can see the comparison to the Hornblower novels. Both Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower are British military officers during the Napoleonic Wars. Both suffer from a lack of the wealth and influence common to officers of their day--consequently, both are relatively socially awkward. Both turn out to be brilliant commanders. They're even relatively close in age. Both series feature historical scenery and a lot of action, and the novels in each are fun and easy to read.

On the other hand, there's also a fair amount to distinguish Sharpe from Hornblower, the most obvious point being that Sharpe is in the Army rather than the Navy. Clearly, that means a difference in milieu--battles on land instead of at sea--but there's a difference in culture as well. One thing that Forester commented on often in his series was the relative indiscipline of sailors in the Royal Navy as opposed to the strict rank and file of the Army. Despite an attempted mutiny at the outset of Sharpe's Rifles, that discipline is quite apparent. And it makes sense--when your life and the success of your mission depends on your entire group being able to maneuver in exact formation, to line up across from your enemy and keep standing there, shoulder to shoulder, while being shot at, well-trained and tightly disciplined soldiers are necessary. It gives the characters in Sharpe's Rifles a harder edge than the ones in the Hornblower novels. Too, a battle at sea doesn't leave much visible evidence--ships sink and debris soon scatters. When the smoke clears after an infantry battle, the bodies of fallen soldiers and scars on the land and buildings stay around, and it's exactly that sort of scene that this novel opens with. All of this combines to give Sharpe's Rifles a gritter, more hard-scrabble feel than anything in the Hornblower series.

As I mentioned, I found this book to be quite enjoyable, and a pretty quick read. I'll definitely be continuing the series, and I look forward to discovering more about the life and adventures of Richard Sharpe.

Started: 1/16/2010 | Finished: 1/22/2010

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Cordelia's Honor

By Lois McMaster Bujold

A while back I solicited recommendations for some new reading material. I'd just finished reading Thomas Pynchon's V, which was difficult and, I thought, pretentious, and ultimately unsatisfying, so I asked for something fun and easy to read, preferably science fiction, since I hadn't read anything in that genre in a while. Several people recommended Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, with this book as a good starting point. I looked into it a bit, finding that the series is well-regarded--indeed, various stories in its collection have won four Hugos and two Nebulas--as well as quite extended. I then more or less forgot about it for the next year and a half.

Earlier this month, as so often happens around this time of year, I found myself with some Borders gift cards that I'd received for Christmas and a reading list that had inexplicably grown over the past year. (I read 14 books in 2009, and probably heard about 20 or so that caught my interest.) Consequently, my nightstand got more cluttered and my lunchbreaks got more interesting. Also a little longer. Anyway, one of the books I picked up this year was, as you might guess, this one. Cordelia's Honor comprises the first book in the Vorkosigan series, Shards of Honor, and its sequel, Barrayar, which were, somewhat interestingly, not written consecutively--Barrayar was, from what I can tell, actually the eighth book written in the series. It's actually a little surprising to me that the two novels were written so far apart, because there's such a strong continuity between the two, and the style seems identical. Reading them together it feels almost more like one continuous novel than two separate works.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, though. What did I actually think of these books? Well, they were easy to read and fun, so on that level they were successful. But I can't quite decide whether or not I thought they were good. I found myself a little... annoyed isn't quite the right word, but perhaps a little disbelieving at some of the characters' motivations and behaviors--people kept having personal interludes at what seemed like really inappropriate times, and often the characters just didn't feel very natural to me. And there was a lot of what felt like social commentary from the author, but presented in a way that felt kind of clumsy to me. On the other hand, I found the story compelling enough that I finished it in just over a week and a half, and am finding myself very much interested in continuing the series. And although it struck me as a bit silly at times, the setting and characters seem to resonate with me in ways similar to the way that David Eddings' Belgariad did when I was a kid or the way the Horatio Hornblower books did more recently.

In a lot of ways, reading this series was like slipping into a well-worn pair of jeans or some nicely broken-in sneakers. It was comfortable and maybe kind of comforting. So I guess I'll be picking up the next omnibus, Young Miles, at some point. I have to chip away a bit at that stack on my nightstand first, though.

Started: 1/4/2010 | Finished: 1/15/2010

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The Long Price Quartet

By Daniel Abraham

The word of mouth I'd gotten about this series had been so overwhelmingly positive that I was really excited to experience it for myself. It took me two weeks to get through all four volumes--over 1500 pages--and the only reason it took that long is because of all of those pesky "responsibility" things that keep getting in the way of my reading time. Now, I can't honestly say that it lived up to all of the most hyperbolically superlative instances of hype that I heard, but it was one of the best thought-out and most enjoyable fantasy series I've read in a long time.

What really grabbed me about this series was how well the author managed to come up with a fresh, unique setting. It's not often that you find a fantasy novel where the setting doesn't feel familiar--the genre tropes are pretty firmly entrenched at this point. Abraham's Khaiem, though, felt new and exotic to me to a degree I can't remember last encountering. That might sound a little inaccessible, but it wasn't at all, because even though the customs and structures of the culture of the Khaiem were new, the characters are still recognizably human and very relatable.

But even more than just being fresh, I loved that Abraham took the time to really think through the implications of the world he'd created. He invented a new and interesting system of magic and then created a setting in which only a small number of people in one country in the whole world have access to that magic. What would such a world look like? How would life be affected for both the people inside and outside that country? Abraham addresses these questions in ways that I found interesting and the conclusions were immensely satisfying.

The series has four volumes: A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring. Each one is self-contained, with a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion--no cliffhangers here. I'm so used to fantasy series that are really one long novel split into parts that I often refuse to even start a series until it's been completed. (It's for that exact reason that Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind is still sitting on my nightstand, despite the excellent reviews my friends have given it.) So being presented with a series in which each volume feels complete (or nearly complete) in itself while still contributing to a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts--well, I appreciated it.

If you're at all interested in epic fantasy, you should definitely check this one out. It's well worth your time.

Started: 9/15/2009 | Finished: 9/29/2009

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John Adams

By David McCullough

Like most Americans, I've known that John Adams was our second President since I was in grade school. And, as I'd imagine is also true of most Americans, that was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man. The first glimpse I got into Adams as more than just that one fact came in 2003, when I read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Ambrose, who clearly idolized Thomas Jefferson, didn't hold Adams in the same high regard. Indeed, I came away from that book thinking of Adams as an ambitious man, bent on consolidating power to himself, possibly even wishing to become an American emperor. A man who, fortunately, was defeated in his second election by Jefferson, before he could do any more damage.

The second impression I got of Adams--and of Jefferson, for that matter--came three years later when I read Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington. Quite unlike the tyrant that Ambrose portrayed, Ellis described Adams as a man of integrity, while Jefferson, no longer quite the noble farmer-scholar, came off as a schemer, practically a villain. To Ellis, Adams was a patriot and a loyal Vice President, though not as effective a President as he might have hoped.

I started seeing copies of this book around the same time, but despite being interested to learn more about Adams as well as being attracted to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, my reading list had gotten quite long by then and I put it off. It wasn't until HBO started airing its miniseries adaptation that I finally resolved to read it. It took me over two months to finish, but I now wish that I hadn't waited--this was an excellent read.

McCullough has a real gift for taking facts and sources and weaving them into a compelling narrative. It helps, of course, that Adams' life was so amazing. Here was a man who was involved in nearly every part of the American Revolution, indeed, nearly all of the important events of his era. But it's not merely the great events that make this book so wonderful to read. Because just as important are Adams' friendships, his relationship with his family, and, most of all, his marriage--indeed, the latter is one of the great love stories in American history.

This is the brilliance of McCullough's book, that it presents such a colossal figure in our nation's history in such human terms. By the time I was halfway through this book, I felt I knew Adams, certainly in a more personal way than any other man I've read about. In fact, by the end of the book I felt an attachment to him that rivaled anything I've felt from reading a novel--I lingered over his death scene for a long time, having a very real feeling of loss.

Simply put, John Adams, is the best biography I've ever read. It's balanced, nuanced, and just a pleasure to consume. Adams, himself, had his flaws, to be sure, but reading about a man of such integrity and passion and intellect, such warmth, wit, and good humor, I can't help but wish I'd been able to meet him, myself.

Started: 6/23/2009 | Finished: 9/2/2009

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Kitchen Confidential

By Anthony Bourdain

My introduction to Anthony Bourdain came on a trip to visit my mom and stepdad, who are fans of his show, No Reservations. We watched several episodes on that trip, and something about the combination of exotic locales, sardonic humor, and a deep love of food caught me, and Juliette and I were hooked for several months afterward. It was just a matter of time before I picked up the book that first brought him to fame: his memoir, Kitchen Confidential.

Like a lot of people, I spent a part of my youth working in restaurants, first as a busboy, then a waiter, then a bartender. The experience left me with the solid understanding that I'm not cut out for that sort of work. Still, despite the fact that it was a difficult and mostly thankless (from the customers, at least) job, and despite the fact that I hope never to have to do it again, there's something alluring, almost romantic about that time in my memory. And talking to other ex-waiters, it seems this is a pretty common thing.

What I loved most about Kitchen Confidential was the authenticity. Granted, I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen--indeed, in most restaurants, the floor staff and kitchen staff are not only separate, they're at least a little antagonistic toward each other--and the two kitchens I came to know were nowhere near as profane as what Bourdain describes. Nonetheless, there was so much in the book that I recognized. It really took me back.

Everything I love about the show, too, is present in the book. Bourdain has a really distinctive voice, and by that I don't just mean his writing style, but also his actual speaking voice. And more than any other book I can think of, I found it really easy to imagine it being spoken by the author. I can't think of anybody else who manages to come off as both sarcastically arrogant and genuinely self-effacing, not the way he does.

Anyway, if you've ever worked in a restaurant--or are thinking about working in one--I highly recommend this book.

Started: 6/1/2009 | Finished: 6/19/2009

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Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

If I had to come up with one word to describe my experience of reading this book it would be "dirty." And I don't mean that in the sense of "erotic" or "immoral" or "forbidden"--though perhaps I should mention that there are several scenes that could easily be described as perverse. But, no, I literally mean it as "covered in filth." China Miéville has created a setting--the city of New Crobuzon--that is squalid and grimy. His vision of urban life in this fantastic world is bleak and alienating. New Crobuzon is full of downtrodden poor, corrupt politicians, self-serving criminals, all grubbing in the muck of their environment. Reading Perdido Street Station I felt like I was crawling through sewage much of the time.

Nonetheless, it was compelling. Despite the setting and the prose that was, at times, overblown and almost cheesy, I had trouble putting this book down.

But perhaps I should back up a bit and explain the book some. I had a hard time getting my arms around Perdido Street Station at first--the entry is a little jarring and there weren't the usual genre pointers to help me get my bearings. To give you a little start there, Perdido Street Station is part horror and part fantasy, set in a world where magic mixes with steampunk technology. It's weird. Of course I mean "weird" in the way we normally use the word these days, but also in the older sense, the kind that invokes that eerie feeling you get where you know something is wrong, but can't quite figure out what. The story centers around a brilliant but sloppy scientist named Isaac, who, at the beginning of the book, is approached by a half-man, half-bird creature that has lost its wings and wants to fly again. About the first third to half of the book is spent showing you the city and its denizens, and setting up the action that explodes in the rest of the book. You meet Isaac's part-insect artist girlfriend, Lin, and several of his friends and associates--things move a little slowly, but everything steadily and kind of creepily builds before terror explodes into the plot about halfway through. The climax and the action leading to it is harrowing, and the eventual resolution is well done, even if it also leaves a taste like ashes in your mouth.

I think my problem with this book is its negativity, its darkness. Mind you, I'm not looking for sunshine and rainbows in my fiction--I loved Glen Cook's Black Company novels, for example--but Miéville's story is willfully, even oppressively dark, like he's throwing it in your face. Reading a bit about him, I learned that he's in Michael Moorcock's philosophical camp of fantasy writers, disdaining the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien for comforting his readers instead of challenging them. Yet, for all that reading this book made me want to take a shower, I didn't find it challenging, exactly. It didn't present any new ideas or push me to see familiar things in new ways. Rather, it reminded me of a high school kid from the suburbs with piercings, painted nails, and all-black clothes, rebellious for rebellion's sake.

Still, don't get me wrong, it's a well-crafted story. It took a little while, but I did connect with the characters, and the bittersweet ending definitely affected me. I think I'd even say I liked it. This sounds like pretty thin praise, I suppose, but given how unpleasant the setting was, I think the fact that I'd say I liked it at all speaks to how good it was. If you like your fantasy dark, I'd say this book very well may be for you.

Started: 5/12/2009 | Finished: 5/22/2009

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