Sunday, October 02, 2005

[Book Reviews] October Book Reviews

The Rating System:

1 – There are better ways to spend your time. Examples: Damphir
2 – Ho hum novels, typical of its genre. Examples: most Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.
3 – A cut above the rest, these are usually standard fare stories with either an interesting twist, gorgeous visualizations, or simply make a very interesting read. Examples: Anita Blake series, Dragonlance Chronicles.
4 – Highly recommended books! An interesting read, and pioneers the genre it’s in. Examples: Kushiel’s Dart, Perdido Street Station, Good Omens.
5 – A classic. Must get at all cost. Examples: A Game of Thrones, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, Dune.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Murakami takes readers for a lovely ride into the consciousness of two protagonists, a girl who has never fallen in love, and her best friend who is secretly in love with her. The words are short and simple, no long descriptions for example, but the narrative is entertaining and ever-changing in only a way Murakami can narrate. The novel might just be a translation, but much like haikus, it’s nonetheless gorgeously written, and it would seem as if it was never written in Japanese to begin with. Much like most literary fiction, reality and fantasy collide, yet it’s all just a metaphor for the human condition.

Rating: 4.5/5.

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

The master of psychological horror, Palahniuk takes us on a roller-coaster ride of the life of a cult survivor. It’s chock full of details, ranging from how to remove blood stains from the carpet to all the chemicals one needs to consume to preserve one’s beauty. It’s also a great concept book as the pages and chapters are numbered in reverse order, a countdown to the story’s predictable but enjoyable ending.

Rating: 4/5.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

A perfect example of today’s modern novel, Pattern Recognition is full of neologisms and tech-savvy terms, although it’s an easier read compared to Neuromancer. Post-apocalyptic cyberspace cities give way to a consumer-heavy present, and the reader is bombarded by all these brand labels, which as it should be as the main character has a certain allergy to such logos. The book starts out as a mystery-type novel with the main character’s history as a recurring subplot. While far from an easy read, it’s more accessible compared to his earlier work, and is geared towards a less ambiguous ending.

Rating: 4/5.

Slayers Vol 3: The Ghost of Sairaag by Hajime Kanzaki

The first few pages are already funny, if you know what to look for. Kanzaki transforms standard-fare fantasy into one with a comedic slant thanks to his writing style, while still being epic and serious at the appropriate moments. A couple of slapstick humor here though, and that doesn’t translate so well in text as it does in animation. Still, Slayers is a great diversion, and quickly cuts to the chase. Facing the aftermath of the previous books, heroine Lina Inverse encounters an old enemy she thought was dead. Despite that fact, the story supports itself well enough without needing prior knowledge of the books that preceded it.

Rating: 3/5.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

When you thought that Murakami’s stories couldn’t get any shorter, this collection compiles several brief narratives loosely based on an earthquake that shook Japan. Murakami’s sense of pacing here is impeccable, as the stories when it is most appropriate, giving the reader something to think about rather than closure. Much of it is an easy read, and it’s amazing where Murakami’s imagination can take you. There’s little commitment here at barely a hundred pages, but the emotional and intellectual returns are great.

Rating: 5/5.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Romance in a not-so-linear narrative, The Time Traveler’s Wife is an excellent example of good slipstream fiction. Formal fiction prose blends with science-fiction and fantasy ideas, and one gets caught up with the two main protagonists, lovers who meet each other in different stages of their life. Several quotations from poetry and philosophy sprinkle this novel, as well as various foreign words, but they don’t detract from the story, and adds to the glamour. Niffenegger’s execution of time travel and keeping track of all of it must be applauded, as well as the twists and turns one encounters in the plot.

Rating: 5/5.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

Perhaps McKillip’s best-written novel ever, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld contains all the essential elements a classic. The prose is enrapturing, brief but colorful, simple yet deep. You also have a three-dimensional protagonist, who appears strong at the beginning, but eventually undergoes a transformation of her own. And while the book is short, it encapsulates a lot of things, and no line is wasted. There’s also the menagerie of creatures and riddles, presented in a way only McKillip can deliver. As if that wasn’t enough, readers are rewarded by an ending that is fulfilling but does not seem forced.

Rating: 5/5.

The Knight by Gene Wolfe

While a novel of epic proportions, more modern readers of fantasy or fiction might be detracted by Wolfe’s more traditional writing style. If one can get over that, then The Knight is a story rich in character and setting, as Wolfe draws from various Western lore. The language is archaic but appropriate, while the narrative takes the form of the protagonist writing a letter to his brother. The hero of the story is a child who suddenly finds himself in another world that has seven layers, and is soon transformed into an adult as he encounters knights and various kinds of aelfs. I couldn’t help but feel though that this book was a male fantasy, as several women try to bed the protagonist. Finally, this is truly a novel in two parts, as the second part, The Wizard, must be read in order to complete the tale. The Knight ends at a crucial juncture, not necessary leaving you hanging, although there has been a lot of build up that has not yet been resolved.

Rating: 3.5/5.

The Two Swords by R.A. Salvatore

Concluding the Hunter’s Blades trilogy, Salvatore takes his most famous character, Drizz’t Do’Urden, to new heights as his character evolves once more and realizes new epiphanies. As usual, the novel is full of what Salvatore is good at: fight scenes, both of epic scale and dramatic one-on-one battles. Any one who’s read the other books in the series will find themselves at home with this one, but those who haven’t might get lost at the opening, as Salvatore has managed to turn the exploits of Drizz’t into a massive, world-changing event that will change a part of Faerun forever. And perhaps that’s the weakness of the book, as new readers will be confounded at the various characters and perspectives, while existing fans will notice the sudden disappearance of a sub-plot being built up in the previous two novels. Everything simply gets swept away in the revolution. New sub-plots are also seeded in The Two Swords, paving the way for more sequels, and ensuring fans that this is far from Drizz’t’s last adventure.

Rating: 3/5.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Another Japanese writer who practices the art of telling short narratives, Yoshimoto’s writing style is quite straightforward and entertaining. Kitchen is actually composed of two stories, but both tales have many similarities. There always seems to be an element of fantasy or disbelief when it comes to Yoshimoto, but she executes it perfectly, even amidst her gender-bending protagonists. Her characters are emotionally scarred in this book, and indeed, her subject matter is dark and depressing. Yet the message Yoshimoto gives is one of catharsis, one of hope. While Kitchen may be a quick and easy read, it harkens to the soul and leaves one much to ponder upon.

Rating: 4/5.

Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson

While undeniably a classic, its writing style and narrative betrays its age. Archaic language and ancient fantasy tropes pepper this book, but it is far from a difficult read. Hoger Carlsen, hero of the story, is transported from Earth to a land of faerie, and there combats the forces of chaos. While this book is inspired by Arthurian and European myth, many modern fantasy novels borrow elements from Three Hearts & Three Lions. Of course having said that, today’s reader might not necessarily find this book as appealing as it was half a century ago.

Rating: 3/5.