Saturday, September 19, 2009

[Lisa's Take] Basket Case (Carl Hiaasen)

I’m not entirely sure how this book made it onto my shelf, but I know that it has been lurking in my “stack” bookcase for at least 6 or 7 years now. After an epic undertaking such as Otherland I needed a reset book, and I figured a random unknown outside of my usual genre would work well for that task, so I picked it up.

Basket Case is straight-up mystery, set in (more or less) present day. The main character, Jack, is a mid-forty-something writer who was once a hot-shot at his paper, but got consigned to the career-ending hole of Obituaries after dressing down the new, pompous owner of the paper. One day a death notice for a famous singer from his youth comes across his desk, and when he goes to interview the remaining family he finds out there might be more to the death than just an accident.

Pretty ho-hum, as far as stories go but damn if Carl Hiaasen isn’t one funny bastard. He had me laughing about something every couple of pages, be it the blithe and death-obsessed tone of his main character, or the bizarre situations the character managed to get into (ex: mauling a burglar with a 30foot frozen lizard).

Unfortunately, great humor is not enough to make up for my apathy towards non-scifi/fantasy genres. There just isn’t enough escapism for me in a modern day mystery, I suppose. I kind of… forgot that I was reading Basket Case. I just slipped my mind. I started in on Red Wolf Conspiracy and a day or two later found Basket Case in my purse and went “Oh, oops!” I got about half way through before it was lost to the recesses of my forgetful brain – it’s not like it was boring, it just didn’t have that escapist hook that I need to enjoy a book.

Ah well. So goes my yearly foray outside of my usual genres.

[Lisa's Take] Otherland - Tad Williams

There’s been a bit of review silence from me lately, by and large because I was reading the last two books of Tad Williams’ Otherland quartet: two books that totaled 1850 dense pages. Needless to say, these novels slowed down my usual rate of bookish consumption for a few weeks, thus why I’ve been so quiet.

When it comes down to it, I wasn’t actually planning to do any sort of review of the Otherland books (in order: City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, Sea of Silver Light). I read the first book 2 years ago, took off a year before reading book two, then took off another year before picking up book 3. Each book is so very thick and robust that I needed the reset time between stories. I fully intended to take another year long break between books 3 and 4, but found that I couldn’t focus on any of the books I tried to pick up after Mountain of Black Glass, so I gave in to the inevitable and finished it off.

Anyway, the scope and content of these books is so epic and ranging that I was going to wimp out on a review simply because there was SO MUCH content that I was daunted by trying to summarize anything. However, chatting about the story with JD the other night I realized that I had quite a lot to think about, so I figured I may as well put down a few thoughts. No plot summary or character recap, but allow me to ramble on some themes.

Thought the first: Otherland should be Required Reading for anyone who considers themselves and fantasy or sci-fi fan. The books are definitely a blending of the two genres, and they epitomize epic scifi/fantasy much in the way George R. R. Martin’s work epitomizes “hard” epic fantasy. The story in Otherland is enormous in scope and unbelievably imaginative. I often talk about books being multi-genre, but Otherland covers all of the ground between fantasy and science fiction and goes down several rabbit holes even further into their sub-genres. Tad Williams pretty much hits all of the bases.

Thought the second: pacing. How impressive is it to maintain acceptable pacing through 4 books that range from 600-1100 pages? It’s a feat in and of itself to tell that huge of a story and only very rarely have it drag. I will gripe a bit that each book was not a stand-alone package – the books had nice swells and lulls in action, but each one definitely ended on a cliff-hanger and the next book picked up right where it left off. A small gripe, but still something that irks me. That said, the last book still managed one of the more impressive resolutions that I’ve seen in a series. All of the loose ends were neatly tied off and resolved, but each in a believable fashion. It was not a stretch to see how each storyline was resolved, and none of the many, many resolutions seemed contrived.

Thought the third: characters. There are a LOT of characters in Otherland. If I were they type of person to re-read books, I’d re-read Otherland and keep a huge diagram of characters and how/when they meet other characters. Tad Williams does a very impressive job of making each character very memorable, in spite of such a large cast – even with year-long gaps between the books, I was always quickly reminded who was who. Even more impressively, all of the characters are realistic, flawed and individual. I can think of maybe 2 characters that seemed at all flat to me, which is quite good in a cast of 30ish. Williams also managed to create some characters that I truly despised, as well as using them on-screen without burning me out on having to deal with them. Additionally, he wrote one of the scariest mother-loving bad guys of all time.

Thought the fourth: relationships. Much as all of Williams’ characters were interesting and distinct, so were his character interactions and relationships. Everyone had very different chemistry, and he illustrated many of the different aspects and levels of love and hate. More than anything, I was impressed by how varied and nuanced the relationships in the core characters were, especially when everyone’s threads started crossing during the third book. My emotional string were definitely played like a harp. Rarely have I seen an epic work that developed its characters and relationships as carefully as its world.

Well. I guess I did have a lot to say – this ramble has gotten quite long! More of a discussion than a review, but whatever you call it I’m going to bring it to a close. Otherland is a spectacular set of books and you owe it to yourself to read all four if you are a fan of the fantasy/sci-gi genre!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

JD's Take: As You Wish (Jackson Pearce)

Let me begin by saying that I'm pretty sure this book wasn't written for me. That is to say, it's target demographic does not extend so far as straight white men in their mid-to-late-twenties who still think that digital watches are a pretty neat idea. My confidence in this fact relies largely on the following:
  1. It is "hidden" over in YA, and my usual excuses for venturing over there do not apply (ie, neither Gaimen nor Pratchett wrote it)
  2. The cover is... not compelling. (Yes, I judge books by their covers. It usually works out.)
  3. My almost unhealthy lack of fixation on unicorns
  4. The alarmingly pink cover (sans dust jacket)
  5. My friend's gleeful exclamation when I told her I finished: "I knew there was a 15 year old girl in you!"
I picked it up anyway! Ha ha! See how I defy expectations! True, I know the author but still! Expectations!

The story follows a young woman named Viola as she struggles to deal with her status as a liked-but-ignored outsider in high school, and her devastating breakup with her it-turns-out-quite-gay best friend. Also she manages to summon a genie on the third page or so, so there's that. It's a story about love and self-reliance and loyalty and wishes.

Jinn (that's the jinn Viola summons. Try to keep up.) comes from a world called Caliban where all of the jinn were exiled to in time immemorial. Pearce had fun with Caliban, and some of my favorite parts of the book were explorations of that world. It is very possible that this says more about me than the book. Caliban is basically timeless; jinn only age when they are on earth granting wishes. It is ruled by an elite of ancient jinn who parcel out assignments to Earth, punish jinn who break the rules, and try to convince everyone to please have sex before we all die out please thanks. Once summoned, Jinn just wants to grant the requisite three wishes and get back to being immortal with the scantily clad jinn chicks in the perfectly beautiful world and delivering flowers and not knowing anybody's damn name.

Viola, on the other hand, rather sensibly wants to make sure she doesn't squander her opportunity by screwing up her wishes. Which I thought was smart, but apparently Caliban looks ill on that sort of behavior and sends jinn MPs to stress her out and make her wish faster. They are dicks. Meanwhile, Jinn starts actually liking her and her insistence on treating him as a friend so he makes rather a mess of the whole following-the-rules shtick. Hi-jinx ensue!

No lie: this book reads fast. I chewed through it in a single Saturday, and still had time for kayaking. More importantly: I was compelled to finish it in a single Saturday. I wasn't immediately drawn in, but I found it extremely difficult to put down once I hit the halfway point or so. The characters are fun and believable. The world is very-authentic feeling high school with interesting and non-standard fantasy elements. The ending satisfies, and everyone learns at least one valuable lesson. Even the mean ones. Bottom line: while not something I would pick up unprompted, this was a very enjoyable read.

Holy crap is that cover ever pink though. Seriously.