Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

  1. I’m starting to think any book under the genre of “literary fiction” has to meet one of three definitions:
    1) Has a plot that is mostly some kind of allegory but when you get down to it really just means nothing much happens.
    2) Include detailed but detached and unexciting descriptions of sex. This shows you, the writer, and you, the reader, are adult, and have had sex, but that you totally don’t care about it.
    3) Steals ideas from science fiction without any of the important science and plausible future parts of science fiction, thus keeping the genre “prestigious,” unlike the genre or pulp fiction the ideas originated in.

Never Let Me Go manages to hit all three definitions. Bravo. Much like an Oscar-winning film can never be a comedy, it seems an award-winning literary fiction can’t have anything happy in it.

Never Let Me Go has an entrancing and incredibly detailed narrative form; the main character, Kathy, is conversational and rambling, like she’s telling you her story as she takes you on a long winding drive through the English countryside. She gets introspective, and the story ebbs and flows with her memory, darting off on little tangents as she tastes the memory on her tongue.

Other reviewers praise this novel as a meditation on the human condition. I see it more as a story about a mean girl at boarding school who no one bothered to intervene against and a bunch of people who have absolutely no agency. What happens in the book? Absolutely nothing. Much of the story is told in the past tense, but even then, the characters had very little action. It’s like watching a high school class on an over-hot day; sure, little dramas flare up, but nothing really happens and it won’t matter at all by the next day.

Some people–I imagine folks who aren’t familiar with good sci-fi or movies like The Island or Gattaca or Star Wars or Jurassic Park or shows like Dark Angel or Star Trek–praise this book for its content about clones. But–*yawn*–that “twist” was screaming from very early on and utterly unsurprising, and moreover, utterly undeveloped. As I said, it is as if Ishiguro wanted to take the ideas of sci-fi without dirtying his hands with actual science fiction. He hand-waves away all the pertinent questions about how this works or why the clone people are totally fine it with all and do nothing to resist. Even perfectly mundane questions like ‘what does a carer actually do?’ and ‘are clones different from regular humans at all? 4 kidneys, perhaps? Spider-silk milk? Need special injections to avoid the Anything at all?’ are never even broached. (Personally I choose to believe clones had multiples of desirable organs, accounting for the ability to donate multiple times without dying.) So for fans of sci-fi, the book doesn’t really contribute to the conversation about the ethics of cloning at all. The only “new” thing is that the clones are uncaring about the whole thing, and even that is just sort of a shrug and a “just because.”

The book was very well-written but disappointing. It never did anything with the story. Also, the author uses the phrase “completely daft” a few too many times. Daft indeed.

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Review: Hag-Seed

Hag-SeedHag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Hag-Seed” is an understated feat–it is a retelling, in prose, of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” that also incorporates “The Tempest” play. It is like a hidden picture cartoon where you can always get a sense of the larger picture, but sometimes, if you squint or remember to think of it, you can see the hidden design. It’s incredible.

As a big fan of Atwood’s “The Penelopiad,” I expected this retelling to be like that–a new take on the old story, a new perspective. It is not. It is really just an updated, realistic, direct revision of “The Tempest.” That is in no way a downside; the layers of this story are intricate and stunning. Just know what to expect.

You may want to brush up on your Shakespeare before you start, or at least jump to the summary of “The Tempest” that Atwood has included after the epilogue. “The Tempest” is one of my very favorite Shakespeare plays and I was still surprised as some parts of the story unfurled.

The prose follows artsy/unhinged Felix Phillips, our Prospero and an artistic director for a popular theater festival who is unjustly removed from his position and set adrift in life, without purpose. He mourns the sudden death of his young daughter, Miranda (who takes alternately the role of Miranda and Ariel). He is so deep in grief, in fact, that he talks to and imagines his daughter is there. He nursed his hate for 12 years before being gifted an opportunity for revenge so perfect he must take it.

It’s wonderfully rendered and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Review: The Book of Lies

The Book of LiesThe Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brad Meltzer makes a strong case that he be nominated the next King of the Nerds, rising at least to Nerd Historian with this blend of comic book lore, history, and thriller. You can palpably feel Meltzer’s adoration in every page and every reference (of which there are many). It’s adorable, if not quite as strong or believable a story as most in his collection.

The novel revolves around Calvin, an ex-ICE agent trying to get right with himself when he stumbles into a messy plot involving his long-lost felon dad, the missing murder weapon of Biblical Cain, and a mystery involving the creator of Superman. Like most of his books, it is dripping with history and deep knowledge and yet each chapter is rather short.

I can’t say too much without giving things away, but I will say I found the one main female character completely insufferable. She did turn out to be an excellent red herring, though, so at least she had some purpose.

Not a bad read, especially if you too are an ubernerd.

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Review: Too Many Curses

Too Many CursesToo Many Curses by A. Lee Martinez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Too Many Curses” is a buoyant, fun read about the humble keeper of an evil wizard’s castle, the hundreds of hilariously cursed denizens of said castle, and how they all cope with the wizard’s unexpected death. When Magic was the only thing holding the weird castle more or less together, there are consequences when the wielder is gone.
The jokes are Pratchett-worthy. My personal favorite was the Sword in the Cabbage, which is exactly the story of the Sword in the Stone of the legacy of swords stuck in places had continued. I also found the Scotsman-turned-bat and owl who can only speak in alliteration quite wonderful.
But while the jokes were silly and jaunty, the book lacks the deeper insight of a Pratchett book, so it’s not really a fair comparison. I was also a bit disappointed in the ending, which seemed to rely heavily on deus ex machina to unkink the tangle of problems.
That said, it is highly enjoyable if you’re looking for some frivolity!

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Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real MagicThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried. I got 97 pages in and she insulted Tolkien’s language-writing ability and I’m supposed to believe a graduate student who focused on obscure freakin poetry still has the gall to look down on Tolkien and “D&D nerds”? Oh hell no.
The back cover of this book compared it to adult Harry Potter. I contend that reviewer must not have ever read Harry Potter. I also contend the title is completely a lie. 100 pages in, there has been no thinking–she’s been magically mind-controlled from “totally not fairies” literally the whole time; the “woman” thus far has had no motivation and is in fact mostly controlled by men to move the plot; there has been no guiding of any kind; and the Magic has all been assumed and implied.
In short, oh hell no.

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Review: Thud!

Thud! (Discworld, #34; City Watch #7)Thud! by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thud! is exactly what I needed. A battle between two metaphorical magical creatures with only a stalwart human police chief in the middle? Yes! Thud! moved immediately at the top of my list of best Pratchett books. It’s smartly written, of course, but it’s also a voice for understanding and calm in a world that seems constantly on the verge of spinning out of control–with or without an ancient evil to nudge the spin into motion.
Thud! is a Discworld story focused on the hard-working, faithful and true Commander Vimes of the City Watch. I haven’t read all of his arc, but the book finds him wealthy, married, and with a young son he dotes on. And yet he has to deal, personally, with the increasing demands of Ankh-Morpork and his beliefs of what a copper should be. Meanwhile the city is tense with the upcoming reenactment of the ancient fight between dwarves and trolls–and the city, and Vimes–is right in the middle.
One lovely side-plot involves a vampire who aspires to join the squad, and the werewolf who must tolerate her, another ancient blood feud that they both just have to overcome because this is the City Watch, not a circus, damnit! I particularly fell in love with werewolf Angua, and think she really deserves a scratch behind the ears.
Pratchett has a knack for social commentary disguised as silliness, and this shines through in Thud! the same way it worked so well in Going Postal. It is an endearing read, a joy for the reader and, apparently, the writer. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Review: The Stars, Like Dust

The Stars, Like Dust (Galactic Empire #1)The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and that may contribute some confusion as to what happened. But that also explains why I stopped “reading”–the CD was rather scratched–and yet I don’t care much because getting to the ending isn’t worth it.
“The Stars, Like Dust” is rather pulpy and action-oriented for Asimov, reading a lot more like “Dune” with maybe a dash of “The Hunger Games.” I honestly think, with a little dusting up, it might make a popular modern young adult novel. The gender norms are stiff and restrictive and stick out painfully, there’s a large splash of deus ex machina, and you’ve got to be willing to wait two chapters to answer the basic question, “where should we take this spaceship?” but it’s not totally without joy. I liked the details the most–holding a dress seam together with a miniature force field, or a spray abrasive to gently shave off a nascent beard. It’s charming, and a lovely dream of what space travel could be, but still rather clunky.

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