Elf Reads Books: Fall, 2009

Quick reviews of books I’ve enjoyed (or, sometimes, not) over the past few months:

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
In The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater arrives at magic college a gifted cipher and emerges as a witless, drunken dick.

Author Lev Grossman’s writing style is engaging, and I was impressed by The Magicians’ locations, its well-constructed system of magic, and (especially) its intricate plotting.

Unfortunately, the book is undone by its characters. We learn just enough about them to know that they are nearly all horrible people — especially the protagonist. The dialogue is sarcastic and ironic, yet almost totally humorless. And the main romantic relationship makes no sense, start to finish.

I get the feeling that Grossman was trying to write a fantasized version of The Great Gatsby, but The Magicians is more like a Bret Easton Ellis edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

I’m glad I read The Magicians, but I can’t say it was good.


Life As We Knew It
, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
I’m lumping these two books together because I read them in succession, they’re both young adult novels with dystopian themes, and they were my two favorite books of this past summer.

In Life As We Knew It, an astronomical event causes a cascade of disasters on earth. Faced with rapidly diminishing resources, the characters must struggle not only to stay alive, but also to maintain their humanity. This book scared the hell out of me, because Pfeffer made it so easy to imagine being in such a situation. As with some dreams, when I was done with the book, I almost believed it did happen.

The Hunger Games takes place in an alternate North America, several decades into the future. Pairs of teenage residents from each of the continent’s twelve districts are pitted against kids from the other districts (and each other) in a televised competition that both entertains the ruling class and quells dissent from the underclass. It’s a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” mixed with a whole lot of Battle Royale, which makes it just my kind of story.

Both these books are fantastic. I don’t want to say too much about them, because I’d hate to spoil them. They’re quick reads and well worth seeking out.


Selkirk’s Island
, by Diana Souhami

From 1704 until 1709, stranded Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk reigned as the only human resident of a small island, 300 miles off the Chilean coast. Armed with little more than a knife and a Bible, he adapted and survived until he was rescued by a British privateer. Years later, Daniel Defoe wrote the Robinson Crusoe books, basing his main character at least partially on Selkirk.

Souhami’s book on Selkirk isn’t that well written, but it is well-researched. Considering how fascinating Selkirk’s story is, that’s enough to recommend it. Plus, it’s short and contains references to sex with goats, in case you’re into that kind of thing, which you are.


Swordspoint
, by Ellen Kushner

Like Grossman’s The Magicians, Swordspoint is another book in which a few unrelatable assholes — who are neither as clever nor charming as they (or the author) may think they are — threaten to ruin the whole book. Fortunately, Swordspoint is able to overcome this flaw through witty writing, brisk action, and several characters who are likable, including (unlike in The Magicians) the protagonist. Swordspoint has a Dangerous Liaisons feel to it, which I liked a lot. It’s also that rare fantasy book that incorporates no magic.


Here are some other books I’ve read lately, a few with mini-reviews:

Great:

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
    This book is essential — and entertaining. Read it, and you may learn more about science (and the history of science) than you ever picked up in all your previous schooling, combined. I know I did. If you don’t read it, at least listen to the audiobook abridgement. It’s only five discs long.
     
  • Deadline, by Chris Crutcher
    Crutcher’s previous book, The Sledding Hill, wasn’t so good. Happily, Deadline is Crutcher at his best: hilarious and sad, with broken characters trying desperately to prove that they matter. (He should probably stop trying to infuse his characters with his own musical tastes, however. In Whale Talk, athletes psyched themselves up to Bob Seger. In Deadline, the protagonist quotes Linda Ronstadt.)
     
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
    A bestseller that deserves to be one. I read the first 150 pages before buying an extra copy for my 94-year-old grandma, who still likes a good mystery, so long as there’s no objectionable material. After dropping the book off for her, I went home and continued reading my own copy. The very next chapter was little more than a brutal, extended rape scene, described in a dozen pages of detail. Sorry, Grandma!
     
  • Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, by Charles Willeford
  • This Perfect Day, by Ira Levin
  • Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
  • The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan


Entertaining and/or Informative:

  • Daemon, by Daniel Suarez
    Suarez does a decent job of making the technologicially impossible seem semi-plausible in this thriller about an overly ambitious computer program. It’s a cookie-cutter thriller filled with stock characters, but sometimes that’s exactly what I feel like reading.
     
  • Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
    Ariely’s book explores the shortcuts our brain takes when making decisions. It’s a good book, though you could just watch Ariely’s TED presentations and feel like you’ve gotten the gist of it.
     
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
    I wanted to love this, but I can only give it a lukewarm recommendation. It’s a great idea for a book, with solid commentary on our surveillance society and the War on Terror. But, as with Grossman’s The Magicians, the lead character is an arrogant, unlikable twit: a self-righteous, superhacking stand-in for the author.
     
  • Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
    Lehane wrote this as an homage to the mid-century pulp novels, and I’d say he was successful. The whole thing is as formulaic as a Twilight Zone episode. Predictable, but fun.
     
  • The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
    The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
    I used to read King all the time between junior high and college. When I read him now, I still like him a lot. He’s the world’s most comforting horror author. I’d never read The Dark Tower books before, so I’m starting now. The first two books are only okay, but momentum seems to be picking up.
     
  • The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer
  • The Dosadi Experiment, by Frank Herbert
  • Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny
  • The Red Wolf Conspiracy, by Robert V.S. Redick


Bad:

  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
    I don’t know when I was last this disappointed by a book. Ishiguro ruins a decent story with an annoying narrative gimmick. This Amazon review describes the problem well. (Also, as a nitpick, the font is horrible: very pretty, yet hard to read.)
     
  • Liar, by Justine Larbalestier
    There’s one major caveat regarding my placement of this under the “Bad” heading. The book itself may actually be quite good. But the audiobook is awful, and it made me hate the book. It’s one of the worst readings I’ve ever attempted to endure; I gave up about halfway through.
     
  • The Gate House, by Nelson DeMille
    This sequel to The Gold Coast is easily DeMille’s worst book. The protagonist is funny, as Demille protagonists usually are. But he’s unbelievably stupid. The other characters keep calling him smart and tough, despite him evidencing neither trait. He kind of reminded me of Lana Lang’s character on Smallville in this regard.
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2 thoughts on “Elf Reads Books: Fall, 2009

  1. I read a few of the books on this list over the summer as well, so here’s my two cents:

    Life As We Knew It
    Super! I can only imagine how much I would’ve enjoyed reading it as a teen. The sequel, The Dead and The Gone, which takes place in New York City during the same time period, is equally enthralling.

    The Magicians
    The first hundred-or-so pages were great. After that, I started to get a bad feeling that the main character wasn’t developing as much as I liked. That trend continued until the end, and as a result the book was very disappointing.

    Swordspoint
    Good, but not great. Very socially progressive for a fantasy book written in the late 1980s. Plus, it was nice to read a fantasy book with no magic and that could also stand alone. Not every book needs to be a trilogy!

    Nice reviews, Gregor!

  2. I read Shutter Island on a five-hour layover in Memphis. Decent airport reading, for sure. Also re-reading the Willeford Hoke Moseley books. Chapter 2 of Sideswipe is an amazing short story unto itself; if you recall, it’s the story of the dog-poisoning retiree who gets in trouble with a very, um, “precocious” nine-year-old girl.

    NOT recommended: Pete Sampras’s memoir. It’s every bit as boring as you think it would be. You can tell his writing partner took great pains to make things interesting, but it was impossible because the man is too simple and arrogant (bad combo!). Looking forward to reading Agassi’s memoir; should be quite a contrast.

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