I almost did not read this book because of baseball.
Seriously, I fail to understand this sport (my European-born brain must be lacking a baseball neuron, I suppose)¹. 'Twilight' pseudo-vampires engaging in this American pastime did not help this sport win credibility with me, so you can at least partially blame Stephenie Meyer, I guess.
¹ Seriously, my facial expression when people start discussing baseball around me is akin to the facial expressions of my American colleagues when I started singing praises to biathlon during the Winter Olympics.
My feeble attempts at garnering enthusiasm (Hey, it's skiing and shooting! It's USEFUL!) were met with carefully blank stares. See below.
The best approximation of abovementioned facial expression that internet could provide.
Whatevs. The greatness of Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is clearly not for everyone.
But then I thought - hey, it's Stephen King writing about baseball, and that combo somehow worked amazingly for me in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and I should be open-minded, and why the hell not?
I needn't have worried. Baseball is just a backdrop in this very short story and could have been replaced by any sport that has major televised coverage. Even though ice dancing as a backdrop may have not been quite appropriate for the tone King is trying to set.
This story for Stephen King's Constant Readers is nothing new - but there's nothing bad about that. It's more psychological than horror, as we came to expect from Uncle Stevie. It has trademark brilliant narrative voice slowly creating an uneasy atmosphere - because King is excellent at believable and relatable narration that makes you feel that you're siting around a campfire listening to a bit of carefully crafted spookiness. The ending is actually a bit subdued as far as King goes, but manages to hold its own.
Where this story does shine is characterization - something we may not necessarily expect from a short story *this* short (the page count is a bit inflated by including excerpts from King's Talisman and Black House). By the end of it you *know* Dean Evers - in a way he wouldn't want you to know him, surely. His loneliness and sense of loss and - of course - inner ugly monsters lurking under the seemingly ordinary shell. As he watches a parade of people from his life on the TV screen - those people all dead, by the way - and is reminded of the ugliness that was always present in his life, you get a nagging feeling that despite superficial similarities, there will be no saccharine-sweet ending of A Christmas Carol, nossir.
All in all, it was an enjoyable short read. Bring on more baseball stories! (Ok, I may be kidding here, I'm not yet ready for that).
3.5 stars. Good. Not amazing, but good.
Nobody in this book listens to anyone else, especially Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist, a selfish privileged young college graduate who, after a life handed to him on the silver platter, has a case of ennui and is lucky enough to have parents rich enough to allow him to parasitically waste his life in the pathetic self-pity while openly despising everyone around him because, of course, everyone is inferior to his special snowflakeness. He refuses to understand anyone, refuses to have meaningful communication with anyone, places himself into the center of the Benjamin-centric universe, judges everyone except himself, sees no consequences for his actions, and, after deciding - arbitrarily, it seems - to fall in love, basically badgers the most vapid love interest ever to pay attention to him.
“Ben?” he said, opening his son’s door.
“I’ll be down later,” Benjamin said.
“Ben, the guests are all here,” his father said. “They’re all waiting.”
“I said I’ll be down later.”
Mr. Braddock closed the door behind him. “What is it,” he said.
Benjamin shook his head and walked to the window.
“What is it, Ben.”
“Then why don’t you come on down and see your guests.”
Benjamin didn’t answer.
“Dad,” he said, turning around, “I have some things on my mind right now.”
“Just some things.”
“Well can’t you tell me what they are?”
Benjamin stood. “Now look!” he said, waving his arm through the air. “I have been a goddamn—a goddamn ivy-covered status symbol around here for four years. And I think I’m entitled to—”Entitled is precisely the word to describe Benjamin. Exactly right.
"Elaine was still trying to catch her breath. She turned her face to look at him. For several moments she sat looking at him, then she reached over and took his hand.
“Benjamin?” she said.
The bus began to move."
"This book is dedicated to all the people who get up and do something about it, whatever “it” is and however small the thing it is they do."
With this perfect dedication, Broken Homes - the fourth entry in Ben Aaronovitch's series about a snarky, geeky and ultimately good London Police Constable Peter Grant, employed in the subdivision of the Metropolitan police focused on magical side of the society - hit the high note from the very beginning and remained very good until the last page.
A few things always stand out for me in Aaronovitch's series and make his books quite special.
First is the very distinct narrative voice of Peter Grant - a bit snarky, a bit smartass, full of endless geeky references and quite a bit of self-deprecating humor, and so captivating that, I swear, I'd read about grocery shopping and plumbing if Peter Grant was narrating it.
"I’d love to stick some high vestigia material into a mass spectrometer, but first I’d have to get myself a mass spectrometer and then I’d have to learn enough physics to interpret the bloody results."
Second is the unbelievably vivid atmosphere of the streets and buildings of architecturally beautiful multicultural London, described so lovingly and fully that even this non-Londoner reader feels that she just took a stroll along the Thames. Speaking of the Thames - I finally decided to search for a map with all the 'lost' rivers of London, mostly tributaries of the Thames that had long ago been converted to underground rivers. And read quite a bit about Heygate Estatewhich provided inspiration for Skygarden Estate in this book.
Third is the continuing emphasis on keeping these stories as much of police procedural as possible, with constant reminders that keeping the peace comes with the burden of regulations and paperwork and long hours spent gathering evidence and staring at miles of CCTV footage and juggling many different investigative threads that do not always conveniently come together to reveal a bigger picture. Mundane routine is the reality of police life, Aaronovitch emphasizes it, and his characters navigate the system in a way that makes you believe they are actually part of real-life police force.
"It’s a police mantra that all members of the public are guilty of something, but some members of the public are more guilty than others."
Peter Grant books avoid the common pitfall of so many stories that feature anyone with supernatural abilities: the immediate disregard of anyone not magical and resulting complete despising of police force as little but clueless buffoons good for nothing except for throwing obstacles in the way of the heroes. It's not so in Peter Grant series. Police force are the competent people who are perfectly capable of working side by side with their slightly more supernaturally inclined colleagues, even if it means creating just a tad more paperwork than planned.
"So I waited in the porch and wrote up my notes. I have two sets, the ones that go in my Moleskine and the slightly edited ones that go into my official Met issue book. This is very bad procedure, but sanctioned because there are some things the Met doesn’t want to know about officially. In case it might upset them."
These stories also not only feature a wide array of non-white characters (as would be appropriate in a city as multicultural as London), but have quite unique in our literature approach of actually integrating race in the story, casually mentioning race in the description of many white characters, thus subverting the unspoken rule that only non-white characters' race needs to be specified since white is the assumed default. No, here race is just one of the descriptors, applied to white people as well, and that reads very refreshing and common-sense.
The humor of this book deserves a separate shout-out. It's very British (I assume, not being British myself), quite dry, quite intelligent. Combined with the uber-Britishness of this book (again, assumed by me, a non-British reader) it creates a very memorable and very British setting, requiring me - happily - to resort to Google a few times to make sure I understand what's being said and why it's funny.
Broken Homes is very much a middle-of-the story book. The threads started in the previous three - including the greater and greater focus on the villainous Faceless Man - continue here without much hand-holding from the author to remind you where we left off. This book counts on you being quite familiar with the characters and events from the preceding three as it throws you right in the middle of continuing storyline. The flipside of this is that you should not expect all - or even some - of the storylines pursued here to wrap up by the end of this book; no, they will continue into the sequel as by now they all are just little threads of one larger story, leaving you in the meantime with hanging burning questions and no satisfaction of having them answered yet.
"See, I thought as I waited for the lift, someone tries to kill you and suddenly you’re all cautious."
Peter Grant ("I could have used my magical abilities to get a closer look, but instead I used the zoom function on my phone"),Lesley May ("[... ] whose attitude toward taser deployment was that people with heart conditions, epilepsy and an aversion to electrocution should not embark upon breaches of the peace in the first place") and Thomas Nightingale("Nightingale gave me the same long-suffering look he gives me when I accidentally blow up fire extinguishers, fall asleep while he’s talking, or fail to conjugate my Latin verbs") are pursuing their leads to uncover the identity and the associates of the mysterious and dangerous Faceless Man while solving a few murders, a theft, establishing a connection of a sink estate to all of this and policing a supernatural deity fair - all while trying their best to stay alive and caught up with paperwork.
“That which does not kill us,” I said, “has to get up extra early in the morning if it wants to get us next time.”
It starts with the usual lighthearted humor full of witty banter, but somewhere around the halfway mark the tone becomes more and more serious as Skygarden becomes the primary investigative location, and not only social issues are raised to the surface with apt social commentary (for instance, the struggle of the mostly poor inhabitants of the estate taking up space that could have been used for something infinitely more lucrative) but also the long-standing character tensions come to light, including Lesley's painful struggle to live with her 'ruined' face and the toll it takes on her - sometimes too subtle for Peter to actually see.
And then, like a punch in the gut, the ending comes - unexpectedly and yet not that much, as throughout the book little clues were dropped alerting you that something was amiss, something was different, something was about to crack. And yet, whether you saw it coming or not, the impact remains - both on Peter and the reader, making me immediately go and look up when the next book in the series is due (and resolving to buy it as soon as it comes out, even if I have to pay for the extra shipping from Britain). It's painful and sad and leads to so many questions, and having your heart break for Peter just a bit. 4.5 stars and the countdown to the next book release begins.
"Sometimes, when you turn up on their doorstep, people are already expecting bad news. Parents of missing kids, partners that have heard about the air crash on the news— you can see it in their faces— they’ve braced themselves. And there’s a strange kind of relief, too. The waiting is over, the worst has happened and they know that they will ride it out. Some don’t, of course. Some go mad or fall into depression or just fall apart. But most soldier through.
But sometimes they haven’t got a clue and you arrive on their doorstep like god’s own sledgehammer and smash their life to pieces. You try not to think about it, but you can’t help wondering what it must be like.
Now I knew."
Cute. That a the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. Cute and mostly harmless. Adorable and sweet, but unfortunately just not too memorable. Like a decent fast food meal, it's satisfying but not too nutritious.
This is a story of a teenage boy dying from cancer in contemporary England, who accidentally discovers a way to travel to an alternate reality that closely resembles medieval Venice. He makes friends with a powerful scientist-magician and a perky tomboy-girl, foils a few political intrigues and, as his life ebbs away in the real world, realizes that this alternate reality quickly is becoming more real than 'real' world.
It's a book that seems to be aimed at quite young readers, perhaps age 9 or 10. It's gentle and sweet, with simple plot and easy-to-follow hints of the predictable plot twists, with never-too-real dangers, relatively harmless villains and generally happy resolutions to conflicts. The depths that could have been explored - in characters as well as the plot - were left uncharted.
There were a few points where it could all have been taken to the next level, to the place that can arouse strong conflicting emotions and create necessary tension- but they were sweetly glossed over (for instance, Lucien's experience of loss and dying, addressing the pain of grief, the difficult choices Silvia makes, the introduction of some ambiguity into the events - there were such opportunities for making the shades of moral grayness more prominent and more memorable!). Alas, any possibility of moral upheaval and emotional effect were softened and made sweet and cute and very easily palatable, which I thought was a real missed opportunity.
It's overall a feel-good book, probably unlikely to cause deep discussions between children and their parents, probably unlikely to change any kid's perception of the world, probably a lovely read on the cold rainy day when kids have to stay inside (however, I'm probably thinking of those long-away days of my own childhood when there were no video games and TV programs were quite limited, and library books were the perfect go-to entertainment).
It's a lovely book to help pass some time before moving on to better, more challenging literature. It has no teeth, it doesn't bite, and that may be a good or a band thing, depending where you stand on the idea of literature in lives of young readers. At least it does pass for a decent bedtime story.
Not a bad read, but you may find it hard to remember much of it a few days later. Interesting enough to finish reading it, but not captivating enough to pick up the sequels. 3 stars.
When people talk about the "special" feel of Russian literature, I tend to shrug it away as yet another point of confusion "Westerners" have with anything Slavic.
But when I tried to explain the feeling this book evoked in me to a few "Westerners" I startlingly realized that "it just *feels* so essentially Russian" may indeed be a valid description that encompasses the soul-searching ambiguity, the pursuit of deeper truths shrouded in light sadness, the frustrating but yet revealing lack of answers to the clear divide between right and wrong, and the heart shattering "scream of soul".
This is a story of the aftermath of the aliens' visit to our planet. Well, a visit may be too grand of a word. It seems dishearteningly likely that the space visitors made little notice of us; that their visit here was little but a "roadside picnic" - a quick stop in the middle of nowhere, a break after which they left to never be seen again, leaving only a bit of waste behind them - the relics worth quite a bit of money, and a toxic area - the Zone¹ - where humans cannot survive, where the invisible effects of something inside it inflict permanent scars (mental and physical) on those brave (or foolish) enough to venture inside it.
¹It was hard for me to believe that this book was written years before the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station - an explosion that left a "Zone" full of deadly invisible poison affecting those in it or near it, with ghost city that once was full of people and now is just a shell of a disaster.
No wonder that in popular culture Chernobyl and Strugatsky's "stalker" became intertwined.
The disheartening insignificance of the contact goes well against the well-established rules of science fiction. There was no communication, no contact, nothing. It appears that despite the hopes of all the sci-fi writers over decades, we were not that interesting to the other intelligence - actually, we probably weren't even worth noticing. Just a matter-of-fact quick purposeless roadstop and a bunch of refuse - which still proceeds to affect the lives of people around the mysterious Zones.
“A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.”
"In the course of this life I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence. I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn't much improved my opinion of them."Now, reading this intensely lyrical and mesmerizing book written by an ailing middle-aged adult far away from the country he loved in the middle of war-torn years, I am confronted with emotions that ruthlessly hurt, hidden in the deceiving simplicity of a (supposedly) children's story just like an elephant was hidden inside a boa constrictor - or was it simply a hat all along? - in the opening paragraphs of this book. I sigh and tear up, and try to resist the urge to pick up the golden-haired child that never stopped until he got answers to his questions and carry him away into safety. But I can't. Because if I do so, there will never be 500 billion bells in the stars, and we will never wonder whether the rose is still alive - and it needs to be, because we are responsible for those we have tamed.
"But I was not reassured. I remembered the fox. One runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed."This is not a book for children. It's for adults who remember being children and feel nostalgia for the simple comfort of childhood innocence but know they can never go back to it. Because they have met their Roses, and Foxes, and drank from a well with a rusty handle in the desert, and learned that a few thorns may not stand against the claws of a tiger. Unlike the Little Prince, they can no longer go back - but they can look at the night starry sky and laugh, and imagine that they hear an answering clear laughter.
"In certain more important details I shall make mistakes, also. But that is something that will not be my fault. My friend never explained anything to me. He thought, perhaps, that I was like himself. But I, alas, do not know how to see sheep through t he walls of boxes. Perhaps I am a little like the grown-ups. I have had to grow old."
'What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well.'
Some books can be quite ill-served by their title. 'Not enough triffids!' would complain those lured to this book by the promise of a fun sci-fi romp centered around carnivorous sentient plants - just to find something entirely different.
Watership Down began as an impromptu entertainment for Adams' two young daughters on long car trips - an adventure of a migrating bunch of somewhat anthropomorphic but yet very rabbit-like rabbits. It is a story full of palpable love for English countryside, full of 'rabbity' allegories of the variations of human societies and ideologies that nevertheless do not overshadow the simple but fascinating impact of the story of survival against all odds, rooted in friendship, bravery, loyalty, courage, quick thinking and learning, ability to see and embrace the new while relying on the ages-tested old, and perseverance despite the unfavorable odds.“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
I first read the story of Hazel, Bigwig & co. when I was twelve, and read it again and again many times since, loving it more and more with each re-read, appreciating more and more each time how its seeming simplicity is actually made of layers of complexity.“Rabbits live close to death and when death comes closer than usual, thinking about survival leaves little room for anything else.”
For mere two bucks I rescued this book from a dusty shelf of a local Goodwill store, adopting it with high hopes. For free, I returned it to the same shelf a few weeks later with dejected feeling, sandwiching it between a rejected copy of 'Twilight' and a tattered paperback with a shirtless guy on the cover.
At least it found its rightful spot. And I'm out only two dollars.
And I would have gladly paid more to free my own bookshelf of this book.
So it goes.
My books mercilessly rejected the intruder.
The appeal of it (besides the beautiful cover deceptive in its alluring elegance of royal blue) was the introduction of a (supposedly) adult professional accomplished heroine, a history professor to boot, who allows us to take a fresh new look at supernatural occurrences rooted in history (and in a book written by a historian, too!). No sappy teen romance, no supernatural entities masking as high school bad boys, no helpless heroines in need of rescue as Diana, the protagonist, is supposedly from a strong magical line herself.
The reality of it was a book that many characterized as 'Twilight' for adults, which is an uncannily accurate description. We have a whiny insecure heroine (her personality is roughly that of a wet dishrag) who nevertheless is treated like a special snowflake for no reason whatsoever, who falls head over heels over the first remotely hot and mind-bogglingly rich vampire who (a) doesn't really need to drink blood, (b) has an insane amount of 'protectiveness' which really boils down to stalking and over-macho patriarchalism, (c) is hauntingly tortured by his dark past, and (d) is an intolerable self-centered rage-prone jerkass.
¹Remember 'Friends' episode where Rachel tries to make English trifle for Thanksgiving desert, but because of a couple pages unfortunately sticking together ends up making half English trifle and half the shepherd's pie? Joey was baffled that the rest of the gang found the dish unpalatable:
'I mean, what's not to like? Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!'
“We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.”
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
“I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
In this slim, delicate, lyrical novel Julie Otsuka unflinchingly and confidently does something that really is not supposed to work for Western readers, those bred in the culture of stark individualism and raised in a society where it's traditional to expect a bright spark of individuality shining through the grey masses. After all, it's the plight of one, the quest of one, the triumph of one that appeals to us - naturally, as individual and personal portrayals appeal to our innate sense of self, make us connect in a way most of us do not when faced with a collective - reflected quite well in every story, every film, every charity poster that brings out the individual behind the masses, appeals to the personal spark inside of us.
But, to quote Terry Pratchett (of course I would!), "Personal's not the same as important. People just think it is."
In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka breaks the convention of bringing a personal, individual story to the forefront. Instead, she chooses to focus on the collective set of experiences, the collective story of a mass, the voices of many.
"Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you."
Well, I wonder then what part of me I saw inside this book - a book I adored despite its imperfections, despite its frequent veering into melodrama, despite (or maybe because of?) its densely Gothic atmosphere.
Whatever it was, it was enough to make me lose myself completely in the rich setting of mid-20th century Barcelona, in the world of seductive dangerous power of literature and perils and passions of young love, and the contrasts of idealistic innocence with the weariness of experience, all against the rich tapestry of the city full of beauty and secrets and vividness, all told in a lavish idiomatic language that makes you forget you're reading a translation.
And over all of this gothic surreal passion turned into words hangs a real grim presence of those in power who can come after you whenever they please, and who will try to silence you whenever they feel like it.
"I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger."
"Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don’t know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
Yes, this review eventually will be about the book. My reviews always are. I'm boring this way. I envy the ability of my friends to digress in their review space and tell me a story which in some way was inspired by something in the book they just read, or its blurb, or - god forbid now, in the land of GR censorship of anything that does not look like a book report - author behavior, the new scary censorship-causing phrase out there, together with the now-used 'OFF TOPIC' excuse.
Because - oh the horror! - they dare to focus on the readers' opinion rather than the coveted by conglomerates endorsements of THE PRODUCT.
Because for some of us literature does not equal product. Because for some of us, literature is what is designed to make us think and speak up, and not mindlessly consume (consumer instead of reader - that's making me shudder).