Posts Tagged: 2 stars

Foundation
by Isaac Asimov

January 29, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Foundation by Asimov Book Cover

★ ★

Foundation by Isaac Asimov | October 1966, originally published 1951 | Avon Books | Paperback $1.99 (Used)
This book is one of 50 titles on my Classics Club list.

For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future — to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire — both scientists and scholars — and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation. But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun — or fight them and be destroyed.

Kiiiinda disappointed in this one.

I had high expectations… maybe too high. Really, this is one of the (if not the) sci-fi classics that defined and elevated the genre beyond pulp in the mid-20th century. But now I’m left feeling confused as to why exactly so many modern SF readers still rate this book among their favorites.

It’s supposed to be an epic space opera (well, the first book of it anyway) with a focus on compelling, universal themes/ideas. And I guess it is? There is very little in the way of character development, so the entire plot revolves around the long-term revelation of the nature of humanity, especially in terms of scientific curiosity and governance/social control. The pace of the story is quick, covering decades in mere chapters, so the story necessarily can’t be about the individual characters (but rather the fate of Man as a whole).

– – –

Which brings me to my primary problem with this book: it’s all about Man. There is literally not one single woman with any impactful dialogue whatsoever. There is one woman with a speaking part, who exists only as an incidental appendage of her spouse and who spends all her brief page time complaining about her husband like some kind of midcentury housewife cliché. Of all the anachronistic little things that served as constant subtle reminders that this book was a product of the 1950’s, this was the thing that I found most jarring.

Is it fair to judge a 65-year-old novel by the standards of modern culture? Not wholly, no. I can respect that Foundation had a huge impact on the SF genre as we know it. I can certainly enjoy Asimov’s imagination and engaging storytelling skills. And, as I haven’t read any further in this series nor read anything else by Asimov yet (for shame! I know), I have to be fair about withholding judgement on the author’s intentions/beliefs in general (which some brief web surfing indicates were comparatively feminist for his time, anyway).

It’s just that the near-absolute lack of any women at all in this particular book is just so surprising that it pulled me right out of the story. That “suspension of disbelief” threshold, so important to the enjoyment of well-written SF, was crossed and my suspension was suspended, so to speak.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised by a novel of this era that featured some two-dimensional damsel in distress, doting mother, femme fatale, or some other trope version of a lady companion/sidekick/love interest or whatever. Women had been featured as such in stories for hundreds of years before Foundation, and I knew better than to expect a Princess/General Leia or Lieutenant Uhura here. It’s the focus on a 99% male cast of characters — for no apparent reason — that baffles me.

– – –

My other problem with the book is that… well, I just had trouble caring at all about the plot. It’s as though the author wanted to show us this massive, complicated world, but zoomed too far back with the telescope so that all we can see is the general shape of things, with a few intriguing details here and there if we squint a bit.

All that said, the dialogue and the setting/event descriptions are great, though the latter are far too sparse. It might seem like an odd complaint, but I really think this book should have been longer and a bit slower paced, with more time spent on that fascinating world-building! Of course, Asimov was writing in a time when genre novels were far less frequently allowed to be the door-stoppers that they often are today.

– – –

This brings me to my decision to not read the remaining books in the series, at least not anytime soon. My understanding is that there are a few more lady characters and the plot twists get to be considerably weirder in the following books, but I’m just not interested in trying them out right now.

Have you read Foundation, and did you care for it? If so, what do you think I’m missing about the appeal of this book???


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Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. (Bought before the new year.)


Publication information: Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Avon Books, 1966. Print.
Source: Local used bookshop, Galveston Books.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


We Are Pirates
by Daniel Handler

January 18, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

Handler_WeArePirates

★★

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler | February 2015 | Bloomsbury | $26.00

A boat has gone missing. Goods have been stolen. There is blood in the water. It is the twenty-first century and a crew of pirates is terrorizing the San Francisco Bay.

Phil is a husband, a father, a struggling radio producer, and the owner of a large condo with a view of the water. But he’d like to be a rebel and a fortune hunter.

Gwen is his daughter. She’s fourteen. She’s a student, a swimmer, and a best friend. But she’d like to be an adventurer and an outlaw.

Phil teams up with his young, attractive assistant. They head for the open road, attending a conference to seal a deal.

Gwen teams up with a new, fierce friend and some restless souls. They head for the open sea, stealing a boat to hunt for treasure.

I really struggled to get through this one — and, in fact, didn’t. Finish it, I mean. The only reason I even tried to finish it is because it is only 280-something pages. But… nope.

Here’s the thing: I’ve seen a few negative reviews that compare the author’s Lemony Snicket works to this one. But how can that be fair? Those are fantastical books for kids. This is realistic fiction for adults. Apples and oranges. I’m starting to understand why J.K. Rowling chose to publish her grown-up books under pen names. People can’t help but judge what someone has written in comparison to their previous works, no matter how silly the comparison is.

I bring this up because I haven’t read the Lemony Snicket books. I have nothing to compare the author’s latest offering to. And I still didn’t like it.

A big, big part of what made me put We Are Pirates down, never to be picked up again, is the writing style. We’re talking lots of short, chopped up sentences within rambling stream-of-consciousness-y paragraphs. I have never particularly loved this style of writing.

Here’s a sample (and yes, it really is all in one big paragraph like this):

Phil Needle looked out to sea but was distracted by his own face in a photograph sitting on top of the piano, among the ones of his ravenous wife and the little thief they’d conceived. He could not hear if Gwen was still crying down the hall. “She seems isolated,” he said finally, and got up without his cupcake or his wife. He walked through the kitchen and passed the office and the room where Marina did her painting and paused for a moment at the door to the bathroom. He walked very quietly on the carpet, but he could not hear anything when he got there. He could open the door, or knock on it, and in the small room try to hug her and make her feel better. She would be crying into those dumb towels. He could tuck her hair, again, behind her ears. But he had to decide on a punishment. She would be punished, and, or, also, maybe she hated him. So Phil Needle walked away and stood for a minute in the office doorway looking at the projection of the fake tree rattling against the fake window and the desk with the last of the invitations. On the other side of the wall, Gwen was still furious, with furious words on her hands, although of course Phil Needle did not know, and could not have known, the terrors on the horizon, the bloodshed and the ravaged citizens. And yet at that moment he might not have been surprised. He felt unready. He had raced home to face the alarums of trouble, stopping only for cupcakes, and then had not been able to make himself useful. He’d said nothing. He’d ruined his wife’s diet. He […]

I don’t know… if that quote looks appealing to you, maybe you’ll enjoy this book?

I was also pretty regularly confused. Wait, who is our POV character right now? What is going on? What is the meaning of all this?!?! This is probably a failure of attention on my own part, but there you have it. The book was just not holding my attention.

Add to this the extremely self-centered, boring, petty characters and you have a recipe for a bad book. I’m not whining about how the characters are “unlikable” — I mean, yeah, they are, but that’s not the point. The point is that they aren’t actually interesting.

Going with 2 stars instead of 1 because (a) despite my being bored by the characters, Handler really works hard to make the reader feel immersed in realistic, believable people’s brains and (b) that 1 star thing is usually reserved for books I outright dislike, and I’m merely disappointed in this one.

It’s really too bad, because I had very much been looking forward to reading this! The book was favorably reviewed in trade pubs (Kirkus calls it “affecting, lively, and expertly told” and the PW review actually uses the word “jaunty”). I loved the concept and the cover art and Daniel Handler has a pretty good reputation.

Maybe the exception to that good reputation is his distasteful joke at the expense of National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson this past December. I mean, Handler is obviously well-liked enough to have been invited to help host the event, but he definitely put his foot in his mouth and soured the occasion. I do think he apologized magnificently, though, with his massive donation to We Need Diverse Books, a group that supports writers of color and books featuring characters of color (and similarly underrepresented groups).

So in an effort to end this negative review on a positive note, I want to point y’all in the direction of We Need Diverse Books!

weneeddiversebooks

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Publication information: Handler, Daniel. We Are Pirates. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. EPUB file.
Source: Provided by publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell

June 1, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Gaskell_NaS

★ ★

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell | 1854 – 1855 (Penguin Classics edition 1995) | Penguin Books | Paperback $12.00

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction.

Well, I finally finished the 1st pick from my list of 50 classic books to read in 5 years or less. It’s only been… what… like 3 months?

In my defense, I tend to read more than 1 book at a time. And also, right now, I’m dealing with some assigned reading for a committee. And also, y’know, life happens. Anyway: time for a review!

First, I have to confess that I’ve had this book for a couple of years. And I even started reading it at one point but then just didn’t finish it for whatever reason. Well, no, maybe not for just “whatever” reason. But more on that in a sec.

This book was a gift from my best friend (who graduated from med school this weekend, w00t!!!) and it is apparently one of her favs. And I already knew the basic outline of the story (spoiler alerts don’t apply to 160-year-old books after all) and it seemed like the sort of thing I’d like.

But….

TBH, getting through this novel was such a chore.

And you know what? That’s all on me. I’ve been reading mostly quick’n’easy YA and plot-driven SF/F for the past couple of years, with a smattering of nonfiction on various topics thrown in for spice. A mid-19th century social novel wasn’t just a change of pace — it was like telling someone who’s normally into slow, indoor yoga that she has to now run a marathon in a thunderstorm. My brain just could not handle it at first, and the whole thing felt way too forced and unpleasant.

And that sucks because I watched the BBC miniseries on Netflix and I seriously LOVED it. I watched it twice in a row (in the meantime ignoring my reading “homework” like the terrible, terrible person I am). The actual storyline: awesome. Period drama with a serious sense of self-awareness: awesome. Characters: awesome. So… why did I have so much trouble liking the actual book?

I carried it around in my bag for months. I tackled it during my lunch hours. I underlined meaningful passages. I dutifully read all the editor’s notes (the Penguin Classics edition incl. an intro and notes by Patricia Ingham) for historical context. I even (gasp!) read a bunch of reviews and discussions and articles and stuff about it. I Tried with a capital T, I really did.

But: nope.

I think the main reason I didn’t like it (besides the difficult gear-shifting at the start) was that I don’t like feeling preached at. It’s probably the same reason that I love the movie versions of Little Women and Heidi and A Christmas Carol and so on, but I’ve never been particularly fond of the books: watching the plot play out with a focus on the characters and their interactions with each other (and the scenery, and the costumes, and the language) is so much more appealing than being bludgeoned over the head with a moral every other page.

That’s not to say that I don’t want my stories to have a moral, or to deal with ethical issues or complicated social structures or anything like that. I guess I just prefer to feel that I’ve figured out the author’s intention on my own, as opposed to the aforementioned morality bludgeoning.

You have to come at me sideways with your opinions on morality, is what I’m saying. What that says about me, I don’t know.

Well, anyway, so much for my 1st foray into this whole Classics Club thing. I’m glad I made an effort to find plenty of SF/F and YA and nonfiction classics for my list. I’m going to need them if most of the normal “canon” titles are all this awful for me.


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Publication information: Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.
Source: Gift
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Splintered
by A.G. Howard

April 6, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Howard_Splintered

★ ★

Splintered by A.G. Howard | January 2013 | Amulet Books, an imprint of Abe Books | Hardcover $17.95

Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers — precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.

When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, she must decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.

Ehhhhh. Background info, so’s to explain my state of mind while reading/ranting about this a little bit: I was sort of assigned to read this & its sequel, except that halfway through Splintered I found out that I was NOT, in fact, required to read it.

First, let me be negative for a minute: This book read like more of an attempt at riding along on the trying-too-hard-to-be-“weird” coattails of the Tim Burtonated version of Alice, rather than a 100% original take on the world of Wonderland.

So many of the little “weird” details just felt affected or cliché…. I’ve seen other reviews reference Hot Topic, and that’s exactly what this book makes me think of — if this book were a store, it’d be a Hot Topic masquerading as some kind of quirky/gothy/indie haberdashery. Or perhaps the opposite?

(Not that there’s necessarily something terribly wrong with Hot Topic; they’ve got some real fun merch and I’m not 100% ashamed to have shopped there as a kid still shop there. But if you’re looking for 1-of-a-kind whimsy, that ain’t it.)

And then there’s the “love” triangle, complete with 2 douchey dudes and a *~*~virgin~*~* who can’t make up her damn mind. The characters read like real teens, which is great! But what little character development we get comes in the form of physical metamorphosis and expository memory retrieval, which is just barely cutting it for me.

TBH, if I hadn’t been assigned to read it in the first place, I’d have put it down after the 1st couple of chapters. THAT SAID, I did finish it and speed-read the sequel (Unhinged, the 2nd of a planned trilogy). Because despite all of the eye-rolling (and let me tell you, my extraocular muscles got a freakin’ workout), I was totally into the plot. I kept trying to guess what was going to happen next, the answers to all the little mysteries, and I was totally wrong every time. And I really, really like it when a book keeps me guessing.

I dunno… I think I might keep an eye out for future works from this author. Even though this series is not exactly for me (and heck, it wasn’t written for my demographic anyway) I can tell that the author knows how to weave a crazy plot.


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Publication information: Howard, A. G. Splintered. New York: Aumlet Books, 2013. Print.
Source: Public library
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.