A Rogue Librarian's Reading List

{July 22, 2014}   Monster by Walter Dean Myers

monsterPlot: 16-year-old Steve Harmon is on trial for murder. If he is convicted, he will spend the rest of his life in jail. To deal with the stress, the aspiring filmmaker writes out the trial and the events leading up to in the form of a screen play.

This book has been on my to read pile for the longest time. I admit, I had my doubts about the format: in my mind screen plays are made to be performed, filmed, not read (even voracious readers have ridiculous format prejudices). But when Walter Dean Myers sadly passed away a few weeks ago, I knew that I had to read this book as soon as possible.

It turns out that the format that initially intimidated me is perfect for the story Myers had to tell. It is a quick read, mostly dialogue, with bits of description and the occasional diary page. It’s great for reluctant readers and people used to the flow of film narrative. Because there is so little description, the characters really need to come through in the dialogue and here Myers succeeds perfectly. We get a real sense of Steve, his parents, the lawyers and the other young men in the tale.

But all that aside, this is an important tale to tell. Myers gives us a very frank look at young black men caught in the legal system, rightly or wrongly. It deals with masculinity, loss of innocence and the horrors of prison and it doesn’t pull any punches. Myers gives a voice, literally in letting Steve write his own story, to youths in very difficult situations, youths who are often judged before they even say a word.

In the end Myers gives no definitive answer about Steve’s guilt or innocence. In doing so, he makes the readers part of the jury and lets them decide if justice has been done. I found this so incredibly powerful and it gave me the urge to go back and sift through the evidence again.

Reading this novel I couldn’t help but think of all the different ways that it could be used in a class or book club setting: amateur films, mock trials, autobiographical screenplays… the possibilities are endless. But that’s “dĂ©formation professionelle” (is there a good English expression for that?). Read this book because it is thoughtful, troubling and enjoyable. Worry about projects later. ;)

2014 (#38)

{July 22, 2014}   Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

Proven_GuiltyPlot: Fear demons are terrorizing a horror fest, leaving corpses in their wake, and the family of Harry’s friend Michael are somehow caught in the cross hairs. But his investigation leads him into the very depths of warring fairy and brings back memories of his troubled history with the White Council.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by James Marsters.

This is the 8th novel in the Dresden Files and it revolves around dark magic and fear.

In the previous novel, Harry was made a member of the White Council (the governing board of wizards) and he must now take on the first responsibilities of this role. The novel opens powerfully with the punishment of a warlock: a young man who, in the absence of any guidance, has misused his magical gifts to control others. This event colours the rest of the narrative, though we do not immediately know how exactly it ties into the rest of the story. Butcher takes his time revealing the importance of this moment and of warlocks, and the payoff is well worth it.

Meanwhile there are a lot of other things going on. Harry is still struggling with the presence of the demon Lashiel in his mind, fear demons are killing convention-goers and Molly – Michael’s eldest daughter – is implicated, the White Council is at war with vampires (and doing poorly), and there are dangerous power struggles in the realm of fairy. That’s a lot for one book and I honestly had my doubts about whether it would all hold together. But somehow it is not only coherent but Butcher manages to tie each of these threads together for a truly satisfying end. Colour me impressed.

My favorite part of this novel? Charity Carpenter. Without question. In previous appearances, Charity was simply Michael’s wife: a woman of faith and conviction, loving wife and mother. She was most often characterized by her seemingly irrational hatred for Harry. In this volume, Butcher fleshes out her personality and her past. He shows why she feels the way she does and shows her kicking some major ass in defense of her children. I think I love her.

Harry’s growing romantic feelings for Karen Murphy are finally resolved in this volume and, though many might disagree, I’m very happy with the results. I thought that Butcher was very true to their characters. All though speaking of relationships with the other sex: if there is something that I didn’t appreciate about this novel it was the way Harry sexualizes Molly (who is still a teenager!). I get that Harry is not exactly a modern man when it comes to women but his barely contained lust at the sight of his friend’s daughter was taking it too far imho.

Next is White Night.

2014 (#37)

{July 21, 2014}   Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)Plot: Nick and Amy seemed to have an idyllic marriage until she mysteriously disappears on their 5th anniversary. Now Nick is desperate to prove that he didn’t kill her.

I want to write a better plot description than that but that’s what we know as we start and the fun of the novel is really unweaving the various threads and getting to the truth of the dark, Machiavellian plot. Suffice it to say that Flynn is a masterful writer with a perfect grasp of pacing; I flew through the 400 hundred pages in no time.

The first part of the novel alternates between Amy’s diary – describing their love affair and their disintegrating marriage – and present day Nick. I was impressed with the way in which Flynn kept us believably in Nick’s head while leaving us in doubt as to whether or not he killed his wife. He is constantly telling us that he is lying, even how many times he has lied, but never about what or what the truth is. He is cagey even in his own head. In a less skilled author’s hands, this could have seemed like a sloppy way to manipulate suspense but Flynn manages it perfectly. Then in the second and third parts, the shit completely hits the fan but I’ll let you discover that on your own.

I can’t say that I genuinely like any of the characters – except perhaps some very minor ones that are (intentionally) not done proper justice by the narrators. Nick in particular is a self-absorbed man with more than a little misogyny hidden behind his respectable mask. But Flynn crafts them so carefully and reveals them in such tantalizing bits that I can’t help but be fascinated by how terrible they are.

Though I have a lot of great things to say about the book and I genuinely enjoyed the experience of reading it, it left me troubled. I have some real discomfort, as a feminist, with some turns that the plot takes but I can’t properly get into it without spoiling a few key twists. So I’ll leave it at that.

There will be a movie based on the novel coming out in the fall. If you’ve read the book and worry that it will be boring without the surprise ending, fear not! I hear Flynn changed the ending for the movie. I find some of the casting choices questionable but I’ve been proven wrong about that before.

2014 (#36)

The_Human_Division_CoverThe Human Division is a science-fiction series in 13 episodes. Below you’ll find the reviews for the first 9 episodes.

These reviews are based on the audiobooks narrated by William Dufris.

Episode 1: The B-Team

Episode 2: Walk the Plank

The second episode is the transcript of a recording. In it the members of a colony interrogate the last survivor of a terrible crash. The young man, in terrible pain throughout, tells a tale of pirates, terror and death.

None of the characters we met in the first episode are present here and it is not entirely clear yet how this story fits into the main narrative. But it is a great short story on its own. The story the boy tells is horrific and well told. And more than that, in 40 short minutes, using only dialogue, Scalzi helps us get to know the colony leaders, their struggles and the terrible decision that they must make in the wake of the crash.

2014 (#28)

Episode 3: We Only Need the Heads

In the third episode we return to the crew of the Clarke. Ode Abumwe is sent to negotiate with the Bula but her work is complicated by a recently destroyed Wildcat (or unsanctioned) colony in Bula territory. Harry Wilson is sent to investigate the remains of the colony and what he discovers could shut down negotiations entirely.

Episode 3 ties Episode 2 back into the main story. We begin to get the sense of a deeper, darker plot at work. Much as in episode 1, Scalzi combines diplomacy and technological investigations. Only it doesn’t go as well for our heroes this time. We meet another interesting alien species as well; there isn’t much time to develop it but as I’ve said in the past, Scalzi has a rare gift for describing truly alien creatures.

2014 (#29)

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{July 1, 2014}   Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Dead_BeatPlot: A deadly vampire threatens to ruin Karen Murphy’s career unless Harry Dresden brings her the Word of Kemmler. But Harry isn’t the only one looking for the book. Several groups of necromancers have gathered in Chicago to claim the book and the godly power of the Great Hunt on Halloween.

This review is based on the audiobook read by James Marsters.

Dead Beat is the seventh book in the Dresden Files and it includes a zombie T-rex! That’s all I need to say.

Not enough? Ok. The theme of this volume of necromancy. As with most of the volumes, there is more than one flavor of necromancer. There are of course zombie lords and body snatchers but of more interest to me are the necromancers who wish to use this dark art for good, to defeat death. I think that’s part of the magic (if you’ll forgive the pun) of Butcher’s series. There is no simple black and white. Even his dark creatures have some depth to them.And speaking of dark creatures, Harry begins to feel the consequences of picking up the coin belonging to the fallen angel Lashiel. It all adds up to a lot of danger and action, almost more than Harry can handle on his own.

Murphy, one of my favorite characters, is mostly absent but Butcher develops some new characters. The most interesting of these is the polka loving medical examiner, Butters. Something of a coward, especially in the face of forces he cannot understand, Butters is more of a hindrance than anything else at first. But he has a sharp mind and by the end he has become a true ally and friend to Harry. “Polka will never die.”

I liked this volume almost as much as Blood Rites.

The next novel is Proven Guilty. I am listening to it as we speak.

2014 (#27)


{July 1, 2014}   Comics and manga of June

velvet-1-before-living-end-cover-brubaker-epting-imageGhost World by Daniel Clowes

  • This is one of those comics that I keep hearing about and that is on so many “best of” lists that I had to eventually read it. And I was really disappointed. It is a story about the end of adolescence, of finding oneself, with a very light plot. There are many such stories. The only thing that stands out is how unlikable the characters are: they are cruel, cynical and snobby. I don’t know what the big deal is about.

Gisele Alain, volume 4 by Sui Kasai

  • Gisele takes on a job in a circus and follows it in order to see her friend Eric again. But Eric’s job as a writer has not lived up to his expectations and he is ashamed to see her. A sweet and fun episodic manga with amazing art. Great for all ages.

Ippo, volume 48 to 52 (French) by George Morikawa

  • There is a lot of excitement in the third season. Ippo defends his championship title against a tough fisherman from Okinawa and prepares for a fight against an  even more brutal man, who fights for the pleasure of hurting people. Meanwhile Aoki, who no one takes seriously, also tries for a belt with a new, ridiculous, technique. This is a very long series but if you like the excitement and adrenaline of sports manga, it is a must read.

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{July 1, 2014}   Ratburger by David Walliams

ratburgerPlot: Zoe has a hard life. Her father is unemployed, her step-mother is lazy and cruel and Tina, the local bully, targets her every day. Her one friend is her trained hamster… until she wakes to find him dead. When she finds an adorable baby rat in her room she immediately adopts him. But her step-mother and the creepy burger vendor have designs on her new pet.

I’m a huge Walliams fan. He is a true heir to Roald Dahl, with humour just as cruel and ludicrous and stories as fantastic and engaging. And Ratburger is his most Dahl-esque.

One can’t help but feel sympathy for Zoe and her many troubles. And her young rat, Armitage, is quite the charming rodent. They get in to hilarious situations with hilariously mean adults (who get their just deserts, of course). The climax with it’s chase scenes and deadly struggles are the perfect conclusion to the story. The whole is enhanced by Tony Ross’ equally funny illustrations.

As the title suggests, this novel is not for the squeamish or rat-phobic. But for those willing to brave rodents and culinary horrors, this is a hilarious tale that is sure to become a classic of children’s literature.

2014 (#26)

we were liarsPlot: The Liars, three cousins and a best friend, spend every idyllic summer on a private island off Martha’s Vignard. In summer 15 Cady and Gat begin to fall in love and it looks to be the best summer yet. But something terrible happens at the end of that summer, something that Cady cannot remember. Plagued by debilitating headaches, Cady returns in her 17th year to fill in the gaps of her memory.

I don’t know that I would truly call this novel a mystery. There are dark secrets to be revealed but these were not uncovered through craft or investigation. Cady simply remembers forgotten memories in the fullness of time. This is not a criticism of the book: it is very well crafted and there are revelations at the end that made me want to go back and reread the whole thing in light of my new knowledge. It would be easy to do too: We Were Liars was a real page turner, engaging from beginning to end.

It is a very smart novel. It deal with racism, privilege and guilt in thoughtful ways and refuses simple answers (I especially love one moment halfway through the book when she realizes the privilege behind her grandfather’s motos “Don’t take no for an answer seemed like the attitude of a privileged guy who didn’t care who got hurt” p. 111). And it plays with language in ways that remind me of Lockhart’s equally good Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. It is also full of literary references to thrill any reader’s heart. For example, Gat and Cady’s romance is compared to Wuthering Heights… which does not exactly bode well for it.

I wouldn’t exactly call the characters likable. Cady’s mother and her two aunts have a relationship with their father best compared to King Lear… but none of them are Cordelia. They are rich, jealous of their comforts and constantly fighting over their inheritances. And Lear-like, the patriarch pits them against each other and makes them prove their love for him. The Liars are more carefree and less material, though they are not aware of the privilege as Gat is fond of pointing out. But even they have done some terrible things, as we slowly find out. Even Cady the narrator can be hard to like but she is fascinating, engaging. You want to read her story, even if you might not want to befriend her.

This novel is on all the summer reads lists, with good reason. This a great book for when you have a lot of free reading time ahead of you because I promise, you won’t want to put it down.

2014 (#25)

{June 12, 2014}   The B-Team by John Scalzi

b-teamPlot: Humanity is in danger of going extinct and diplomacy with the various alien races that share the universe with us is becoming increasingly important. When a ship on one such diplomatic missions is mysteriously destroyed, a team of lower ranked diplomats, advised by Lieutenant Harry Wilson, is sent in their place. But it will take more than talk to survive the negotiations.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by William Dufris.

This is a very short audiobook, only a little over 2 hours long, and paced just like an episode of a science fiction TV show. This makes it great fun to listen to, especially for fans of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and the like. Dufris is not quite the narrator that Wil Wheaton is but he still captures the tension of the atmosphere and the personality of the characters.

The story takes place in the Old Man’s War universe but you can understand and enjoy it without having read the previous books. Scalzi does a great – and quick – job of setting up the dire straights that humanity finds itself and of introducing Harry and the abrasive diplomat he works with. Then he jumps right into the action: the mystery of the missing ship, the challenge of finding and retrieving the black box and the danger of ending as the first ship did. The tension never lets up and yet Scalzi somehow finds the time to flesh out the important characters too.

I must also pause to mention and be impressed by how many of the high ranking characters – two diplomats, a captain and a soldier (no romantic interests as yet, you might note) – are women. Not only women but women with different personalities, goals and world views: characters in a word. And it is never an issue.

There are 13 episodes in The Human Division, most about an hour long. You can by the whole series as a single book, but where’s the fun in that? Look for my review of the second book, Walk the Plank, very soon.

2014 (#24)

maltesePlot: When Sam Spade is hired to track down a woman’s runaway sister, he knows she isn’t telling him the full truth. Soon his partner is dead and several parties are threatening him for information of a black stone falcon that he doesn’t possess, yet. He must use all his resources in order to find it and remain alive and out of jail.

I read this book for my book club and I’m so glad that I it was chosen. It’s one of those classics that I’ve meant to read for a long time but never got around to. It is an intriguing mystery and Hammett is an effective writer. He is very descriptive: we know what every character and place looks like in great detail. But the magic of Hammett’s writing is that this never slows the pace of the narrative. He also has a nice turn of phrase. He says of Sam Space that “he looked rather pleasantly like a blond devil.”

He also has a way with snappy dialogue.

Some elements of the story seem cliched. When a beautiful woman strolls into the narrative, I knew at once that she was trouble. This is the femme fatale we have seen a million times. They are cliches but Hammett did them first. If they have become cliches it’s because Hammett made them so memorable and effective.

Given the time period that this was written in, I feared some cringe worthy sexual characters. Spade is a cad who sleeps women and betrays them but he isn’t painted as a good man. Iva, his partner’s wife, is painted as annoying, disloyal and selfish. But Brigid and Effie surprised me. Brigid is a liar and self-interested but she is fascinating and complicated. Effie too has promise: sweet and naive but she is good at her job too.

If you like mysteries, this is a classic you should not miss. I’m planning to check out some of his other novels in the near future.

2014 (#23)

et cetera

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