Thursday, January 28, 2016

January reads

The Death House Sarah Pinborough

Synopsis: Toby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House; an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium. No one returns from the sanatorium.

My take: In tone and atmosphere this book reminded me a lot of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which remains one of the most haunting books I've ever read. Pinborough doesn't yet have Ishiguro's writing chops, but she creates a dystopian-like world in which children and teenagers deal with issues (life, death, love, friendship) in ways that force them to both cling to their childhood and grow up far too quickly. The character of young and teen-aged boys is well done and believable. The air of suspense is not too heavy handed. The romance at the center of this novel is tenderly sweet, although its outcome is foreshadowed a little too much. However, the end of the novel was not, which was a feat in and of itself. It's apparently been compared to the Fault in Our Stars, and I suppose by subject matter that makes sense, but other than that it is quite different. And finally, but most importantly, Stephen King liked it.

Archivist Wasp: a novel by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Synopsis: Wasp's job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-long ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They're chosen. They're special. Or so they've been told for four hundred years.

My take: First of all, it's impossible not to be intrigued by the title of this book. As soon as I read it, I was looking it up on Amazon. Then, there was the very intriguing opening line: The knife. She'd lost the knife. Now she was as good as dead. How could I not give this book a chance?

First, the good news. It was definitely an original when it comes to dystopian societies. Young girls trained to serve a goddess by capturing and killing ghosts from "the before" and recording (archiving) what happened. The book intrigued me enough to finish it. Several reviewers compared it to the Hunger Games, but really the similarities end once you say "Yeah, some young girls killed each other, and the winner becomes the Archivist until she in turn is killed." But the how and why of this ritual becomes a toss-off explanation at the end.

The setting and world-building wasn't particularly strong. A pseudo-religion in a post-apocalyptic world requires more than a landscape that hearkens to The Road. Neither Wasp nor her ally/sometimes antagonist Ghost are particularly fleshed out, which makes them hard to care about. The ending itself is unsatisfying and felt rushed. When all is said and done, I wanted more than I received.

The Darkest Part of the Forest Holly Black

Synopsis: A rollocking story of evil faeries and teenage angst in modern day USA. Hazel and her brother, Ben, live in Fairfold, where humans and the Folk exist side by side. Tourists drive in to see the lush wonders of Faerie and, most wonderful of all, the horned boy. But visitors fail to see the danger.

My take: So, I'm not exactly sure why I chose to read this book. I'm not inclined to read books about the Fair Folk, because they're always a little twee for my taste. That being said, I'm glad I read this one. Is it twee? Just a little. Part fairy tale, part fantasy adventure, with a couple of romances and bromances thrown in for extra flavor. Still there is a sharp, dark edge to it like the really old fairy tales that whet your appetite for the creepy stuff that follows. The world-building is excellent and not at all stereotypical. Hazel makes for a glorious knight, and her brother Ben's artistic bent and sexual orientation makes a nice twist. The author manages to work in the back story with a skill that we should all admire. It's not a particularly deep book, but it tells a damn good story.

I will undoubtedly be reading more of Ms. Black's work.

Forbidden Kimberley Griffiths Little

Synopsis: A sweeping, epic saga of romance and hardship, set against the dramatic backdrop of ancient Mesopotamia—perfect for fans of Cleopatra's Moon or the adult bestseller The Red Tent.

My take: I liked those two books, and I bought this one about a year ago. I didn't get around to reading it until this year. It was an amusing and easy to read, although I'm not tempted to buy book 2. I admit, I was a little annoyed that it so obviously ended on a cliff-hanger. The research/history is a bit sketchy. For example, it says the setting is Mesopotamia, but I couldn't actually place in time or location.

This is Where It Ends Marieke Nijkamp

Synopsis: 10:00 a.m.
The principal of Opportunity, Alabama's high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.
10:02 a.m.
The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.
The auditorium doors won't open.
                                     Someone starts shooting.

My take: Maybe because the author was born and raised in the Netherlands and school shooting seem to be a fairly American phenomenon, but this book didn't "feel" right. Many reviewers attributed this to multiple Points of View, but that's never bothered me. I think my main issue was that none of the voices were distinct; none made me care very much about whether they lived or died. Some narrators I couldn't remember from one scene shift to another. Then, there were the blog posts and tweets that were just there without adding much; I started skimming them half way through. The shooting scenes seemed rote: blood splatter and noise. Then, there was a sort of Kumbaya, we're all humans with feelings ending that did not seem at all realistic. I expected more and didn't get it.

When Breath Becomes Air Paul Kalanithi

Synopsis: A young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? in his posthumously published novel

My take:  This book merited its own review. See Why writers must read When Breath Becomes Air.