It begins with a quote from the Tempest’s Prospero: “A devil, a born devil, on who’s nature nurture can never stick, on whom my pains humanly taken all, all lost, quite lost.” From there to the very last paragraph, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees is a deeply unsettling, beautifully crafted narrative on the capricious nature of morality in science.
The novel opens with a news article detailing the trial of Nobel laureate, Dr. A. Norton Perina. Accused of sexual harassment and assault by one of his many adopted children, he languishes in jail, a convicted child molester in his early 70s after a celebrated career as an immunologist.
Perina’s protégé, Robert Kubodera, challenges the validity of this report claiming that the conviction was nothing short of familial betrayal. Kubodera has compiled (and edited) letters his mentor wrote during his imprisonment, and plans to publish a memoir which, he hopes, will exonerate the brilliant scientist in the eyes of the public.
What follows is the life story of Norton Perina – a man fascinating and repellant in equal measure. From a claustrophobic first person perspective, he coolly recounts his early life, education at Harvard, and eventual travel to a Micronesian island where he discovered the Opa’ivu’eke, a rare turtle capable of granting a flawed pseudo-immortality. The fallout of Perina’s discovery - the destruction of the indigenous way of life by an insatiable, myopic Western culture - is as predictable as it is tragic.
Yanagihara’s portrayal of monstrous genius should, by all logic, be off-putting but her prose and the East/West dichotomy evocative of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Orwell’s essays on India carry the reader into the thick Micronesian jungle and out again.
Perina makes a surprisingly compelling character, and the narrator – slightly effete, slightly disdainful – perfectly balances the amoral protagonist with the meticulous descriptions of a remote tribe. Kubodera regularly interrupts the novel (occasionally in mid-sentence) with footnotes, adding a unique, albeit biased, dimension to the storyline.
The People in the Trees is a magnificent debut from Yanagihara that I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for a poignant, unnerving, elegantly written work of literature.
In this second novel, Ms. Rowling sets her admirable and dogged detective loose into the cutthroat world of publishing. Cormoran Strike, aptly named after the Cornish giant of “beanstalk fame”, embodies the best traits of the archetypical detective: relentless, curious, and practical - without ever slipping into the dangerous territory of the stereotype. As a retired solider, amputee and keen observer of human nature, Cormoran Strike is a refreshing addition to an old and familiar genre.
The story begins a few months after the conclusion of the infamous Lula Landry murder, when a taciturn Leonora Quine arrives at Strike’s office demanding he find her vanished husband. Despite no reasonable assurance of payment, Strike takes her case (it is after all, an aberration among a workload of philandering spouses). Along with his assistant/protégée Robin Ellacott, Strike cuts a wide, weary swath through frigid London streets in pursuit of the missing author Owen Quine and answers to a bizarre and brutal mystery.
Rowling is a master of observation. Among references to Jacobean horror stories and nested narratives, she builds characters that are at once fantastical and unflinchingly revealed. From the raspy voiced, domineering book agent to the closeted and alcoholic publishers, from the self-pitying self-published to gratingly solipsistic established authors - she paints her cast in vivid colors and none is spared from Rowling’s incisive prose.
The mystery unfolds in a manner reminiscent of old fashion detective stories - Strike never actually whips out a hand lens, but it’s a close call. He and Ellacott take to the streets to interview suspects, dig for clues, turn up red herrings and into dead ends, until finally bringing the audience in for an eminently satisfying conclusion.
It seems that Ms. Rowling has seven books planned for the series (her lucky number perhaps?) and I for one am stoked. Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are unlikely partners and deeply sympathetic characters. I have no doubt that they will continue to delight audiences for years to come.
On the wild fringes of New Zealand, a hermit dies, a prostitute overdoses, and a wealthy young man vanishes in the course of a single, stormy evening. Set in a rugged prospecting town during the gold rush of the mid-19th century, The Luminaries weaves 12 lifelines around these events, forming a vivid tableau of love, betrayal, and suffering.
Eleanor Catton’s novel, highly structured and marked by idiosyncrasies, is an undeniable tour de force – a whopping 834 pages or almost 30 hours aurally – it mixes a highly modern framework with a Dickensian tenor to form an eccentric and fresh piece of literature. I won’t comment on the peculiarities of the novel’s organization as that point has been belabored extensively, but I will reiterate the comment about the difficulty of its translation into an audio format.
Without reference pages, the novel is unwieldy - it’s a bit like trying to understand the shape of an elephant only by groping along blindly. The protagonists (12 primary characters and a phalanx of secondaries) take turns telling their narrative, and for the audience, orienting their myriad relations proves challenging. It’s not impossible, however. The Luminaries requires more attention than most audiobooks but given the size of her cast, it’s hardly surprising. For me, the narrator in particular was magnificent and more than made up for any delayed comprehension.
One of the most prominent themes is the weight astrology bears on plot progression. Each successive chapter and its action take place under an advancing star sign. As a reader unaware of all but the most basic horoscopy, I had the putout sensation that some significant portion of the plot was being acted out behind a curtain of my ignorance.
But even unaware of the zodiac subtext, I'm still in awe of Catton’s 12 luminaries. They encompass a portion of New Zealand’s historical diversity and she aptly lays out their personalities in a fashion reminiscent of a diviner skilled with a deck of tarot cards. She painstakingly draws each man’s strength only to flip the trait on its head to reveal the intrinsic weakness. It’s marvelously done – the construction is obvious in retrospect but natural in context. Catton doesn’t merely paste these men onto their astrological signs, but allows them to evolve organically, maintaining a coherent and believable sense of their character and personal history.
The ending was the only aspect that elicited genuine complaint from my corner. After such a long climb to the top, the weightless conclusion galled - at first because I wanted something more substantial, then because I knew it aligned with the rest of the book. The finale: ephemeral and circular, indistinct and directed by ineffable forces, works seamlessly with the spirit of everything that falls before it. I’ve since realized (reluctantly so) that demanding greater closure from her phenomenal work is as futile as demanding concrete answers from celestial bodies.
Have you ever watched a film and clung to a pillow like it’s the last life preserver on the Titanic? Eyes blown wide open, skin prickling in terror, instincts screaming ‘run’ but you’re held captive by the depravity playing out before you? Have you ever wondered – as the credits crawl up the screen and you find yourself nauseated at the thought of being alone in a dark room– what kind of person has those horrors locked in his head?
In Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, it is Stanislas Cordova: writer, director and producer of films so violently macabre that audiences must meet in abandoned tunnels to view his banned material. Cordova’s name is synonymous with the blackest corners of humanity but despite the infamy of his work and rabidly devoted fan base, very little is known about the man. His personal life is a black hole. All who collaborate on his films: actors, crew, even family, refuse to speak about their experiences.
Despite ruining his reputation by inquiring into the director's life year's earlier, investigative journalist Scott McGrath cannot uproot an instinct that Cordova’s work reflects a profound and tangible evil. After Cordova’s daughter commits suicide in a crumbling warehouse, McGrath takes up his line of questioning once again determined to bring the truth about the director to the surface.
Pessl’s story, augmented by mock-up articles, websites, and eerie photographs (all accessible on a PDF that comes with the audio version) pulls the reader through a kaleidoscopic nightmare. It’s 23 hours long and even though some twists feel contrived, the writing is excellent and the atmosphere, chilling.
This book is like walking down a rural road at midnight with the unnerving certainty that someone is following you. Just because you can’t see anyone as you glance anxiously over your shoulder doesn’t mean you’re alone.
Much like the author, I am a card-carrying member of the Harry Potter generation.
I grew up between the pages of JK Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry and eagerly awaited each consecutive installment with the kind of fervor usually reserved for drug addicts and starving men. Given this, it’s not surprising that the media campaign, which toted Ms. Shannon’s series as the new Harry Potter, caught my attention in a powerful way.
After listening to the Bone Season however, I’d have to say that the comparison is unfair to the reader and to the author (and honestly, to JK Rowling too – it seems like there should be a rule against bestowing her name on another writer while she’s still around to claim it).
While Shannon has a dazzling creativity, she hasn't developed the balanced hand that built Hogwarts – so after that initial letdown, I abandoned any preconceptions and considered the book's merits in the context of its own genre.
The novel centers on Paige Mahoney, a reserved young woman who is born into a persecuted class known as the voyants. Outwardly, it seems that the British government has been systematically executing these supernaturally gifted individuals – but as it often goes, not everything is as it appears. When Paige (exceptional even among a population known for its supernal talents) is finally captured, she is not tortured and hung as expected but sent to Oxford. There, a cruel, humanoid race known as the Raheim have enslaved her and her kind for their own purposes.
Ms. Shannon’s expansive world spills out across the pages of The Bone Season in straightforward, confident prose. She constructs an elaborate, dark fantasy through the eyes of a sympathetic and fierce protagonist.
When set against other young adult, dystopian fantasies, this book is a cut or two above the rest.
But, in the end, it lacked universal appeal.
Her characterization and style is occasionally formulaic and often romantic. She relies heavily on familiar archetypes: there’s tall-dark-and-handsome, beautiful-but-evil, rat-faced-schemer - just to name a few. Even her plucky protagonist falls prey to jumbled motives, arbitrary stubbornness, and (repeatedly) the clichéd scene of gravely injured but rescued by a conveniently placed, attractive man.
Fortunately, Shannon is a good story teller - even when relying on worn out tropes, and there are bright patches of a fresh and darkly captivating narrative which make it worthwhile.
Ultimately, would I recommend this book? Yes, whole-heartedly to fans of the genre. Shannon is articulate and intelligent. She possesses a rare and coherent creativity that will no doubt engender a legion of loyal fans.
Will I continue to read the series? I’m undecided.
All told, the Bone Season is a promising start to a career. Shannon is a gifted writer and I have no doubt that the rough edges of her work will smooth out as she grows into her own.
At first, I passed on this novel because of the few negative reviews - and that was a mistake.
The story opens with Anais, a 15 year-old veteran of the Scottish welfare system, sitting in a police car.
Having spent her life shuffled between foster homes, she is finally being transferred to a prison-cum-juvenile-center for the duration of a police investigation wherein she is the prime suspect. Despite unrelenting outrageous fortune, Anais has not become a blank-eyed waif or mindlessly vicious bully like so many of those around her. While occasionally and astonishingly misguided, she has not sacrificed her sense of self.
It starts: "sometimes I feel like a motherless child" and with a lilting, dreamy tone, Fagan deftly constructs a deeply caring, fierce young girl carving her way through a mean world. This debut author - a poet by trade - imbues her protagonist with an exquisite vulnerability and steely resilience. Anais is a philosopher on psychedelics; she dances lightly between reality and unreality as she tries to survive a prejudiced and casually cruel welfare system.
This novel is not flawless; it's sometimes slow or aimlessly provocative - but Fagan's language, which jumps from supernal to vulgar and back again, makes up for the plot's rough edges.
The narrator too, deserves applause. Her accent (comprehensible, perfect) and pace are absolutely, unreservedly wonderful. She is a seamless fit for Anais.
All told, I'd highly recommend it.
I can't say anything about Colin Firth's delivery that hasn't been said already. He won an an award for this performance and rightfully so - he handles heartbreak, bitterness, and too-bright all-consuming love with a reserved grace that captures the tone of the novel.
I would recommend this title on the strength of his narration alone.
The work itself is more difficult to fully embrace. The writing is clean, whittled to an unflinching truth but no less rich for that. Written in first person, the narrator, Maurice Bendrix, is consumed by jealousy and hatred (which is to say, love) for his former married mistress. Set in London, when Europe is in the last throws of war, Bendrix swings back and forth on an agonizing pendulum as he struggles with the wreckage of life after the affair. In him, Greene sets both the best and worst of human nature in direct juxtaposition; he shows that love and hate are as connected as an inhale and an exhale.
He takes the feeling in all its forms: physical, platonic, spiritual, obsessive, familial, divine; and places the enormous burden of that on one man's shoulders. Then he steps back and points at his narrator as if to say: "Look at how it twists him, look at how that much love and devotion and depth burns a man."
In lean prose, Greene's man Bendrix staggers under an emotion that is only capable of being fully born by a higher power. He blurs the line between humanity and divinity until loving and hating someone becomes an act of loving and hating God.
Religious or not, this book is insightful, complex, difficult; a classic worth the read.
My feelings about Dan Brown could be optimistically described as "mixed".
I'll admit, with a slightly chagrinned tone, that I've read all of the Robert Langdon books -- and every single time I've finished them, I am annoyed that I just wasted X number of hours putting it into my brain.
They are (and here I'm being restrained in my word choice) formulaic.
There's the beautiful sidekick, the harrowing adventure through cities of historical value, the major work of art, the good Professor's pivotal role in a case of international and apocalyptical significance (okay, really, how many times does a semiologist find himself looking down the barrel of gun during his line of work? I'd buy once, *maybe* twice. But four times? No way.) we are all taught a lesson and the world is better off for having Robert Langdon to watch over it.
So, if it's not for the vaguely pedantic tone, prosaic repetitive writing or even the irritating sensation that Robert Langdon is a thinly veiled author surrogate, why read these books? What's the appeal?
My guess is the escapism. Suspend disbelief (Langdon is dashing about Florence sporting a serious head wound and conveniently amnestic) and chow down on the brain candy. The city is well researched and there's enough of a mystery that the reader is left wondering how it's going to be tied together, even if it's lite in terms of prose.
As a positive note, I will add that Langdon's character seems to be evolving. He is more somber this time around and prone to moments of existentialism. I'll also have to give kudos to Mr. Brown for choosing to address the issue of overpopulation. It is a difficult question that often meanders into a moral grey zone -- and the ending of Inferno is darkly surprising.
Overall, it's more than I expected, but not that much more.
It might be odd to label a book that's just shy of 1,000 pages as "restrained", but that's what I would say about Great North Road.
You have to take that description in context - normally, Hamilton writes series that are thousands and thousands of pages long, with volumes that could double as body weights. But his fans (I count myself among them) are willing to forgive the length because he makes it worth the readers attention and time. His plots span a multitude of alien environs, include a jaw dropping number of characters, and most importantly, manage to juggle description and pace if not perfectly, then very well.
It's always an impressive show.
But, with only a grand to spend on pages in this newest work, I was curious to see how successfully he trimmed down his loquacious style.
Let me say: he manages it.
Once I finished the book, I had to sit back for a moment to appreciate the kind of intellect it takes to weave together the threads of so many plot lines into a climax and denouement worthy of the build up.
It leaves no doubt that Hamilton's greatest strength is his ability to balance intricacy and plot progression.
About the actual content of the novel (quick aside: how the hell do you write a summary for something this size?), it'll suffice to say: the story takes place in a somber, technology-driven future, where humanity has not yet learned to shed its more devious peccadillos.
To anyone considering the book: It's great. I highly recommend it.
So, you might be curious, why only 4 stars? That's a glowing review of him as an author - why not 5? There must be a "but" somewhere in there.
You're right. It's small, but...
Hamilton can't write women very well.
Anyone who's followed his progression as an author knows that some of his characters come up flat (which is understandable given the size of the cast) and even when most of his male leads are respectably nuanced, Hamilton hasn't managed to create a female voice that rings consistently true.
The internal monologues of his women sometimes sound like convincing cross-dressers.
This problem has dogged him his entire career (and any reader of the genre knows that it's a frequent issue in sci-fi) but he's made progress - particularly when you consider some of the cringe-worthy female characters in the Commonwealth Saga.
That being said, I'll continue reading his works because the strengths dwarf the weaknesses.
First and formost, if you haven't read the Old Man's War series and are considering picking up this book - what are you doing?
Even if you've stumbled onto this page by accident and your curiosity is naught but a faint glimmer in the distance, that's good enough. Go to the search bar and find his earlier works before coming to this one.
It's not that the Human Division (located in the same universe as OMW) won't make any sense (it won't) or even that there are spoilers in the Human Division for the previous series (there are) - the truth is that Scalzi's first foray into this world was better. As a matter of fact, it was fantastic.
His characters had more shades, the aliens were more interesting, the science was explored more deeply, and the plot line was more intricate.
Scalzi is true to his style in this newest novel - easy and interesting, funny without pandering to the audience, and the story zips along - but it's clear that the Human Division is propped up by the strength of the last series.
Don't get me wrong - Scalzi stands heads above the rest of herd, and is still one of the most engaging sci-fi writers around. I'll continue reading the series with the same relish as I read most of Scalzi's work, but given how high he set the bar with the first series, it's hard not to feel a little let down.
Also, as an aside: the dialogue tags. My god, the dialogue tags. In the written form it's easy enough to gloss over the word "said", but listening to it repeated over and over and over was occasionally, frustratingly, hugely distracting.
Every so often, I found myself thinking of synonyms that Scalzi could have used in place of the word "said" and noting the rare occasions he chose to use them.
If that's liable to bother you, you might want to consider getting the book.
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