Books completed in January

1. Redshirts, by John Scalzi
2. Among Others, Jo Walton
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (audio book), by Junot Diaz
4. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
5. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

Interesting Reading Fact: All three of my first three reads heavily referenced science fiction and fantasy literature, which was expected with Redshirts, but was more of a surprise with Among Others and Oscar Wao. I always find it interesting when the books I read are thematically connected in some unexpected way.

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King (riveting!) and The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 1 (wonderful, readable stories).


REVIEWS (behind the cut):

1. Redshirts, by John Scalzi (****)
So much fun! This obvious spin on science fiction TV shows, especially Star Trek, had me smiling the entire time. The story focuses on Dahl and his friends, all lower level crewman, who have been assigned to work on the Intrepid. When they start to notice a pattern of lower level crewmen dying at regular intervals, Dahl and his friends try to discover what’s really happening and how to stop it.

Normally I would be thrown off by a novel told almost entirely in dialog with little or no descriptions in between, but it works here. I knew enough about Star Trek to be able to picture the deck, bridge, uniforms, people without having Scalzi describe a word of it. The dialog was spot on, often funny, especially when you get to see the crew cussing and making crude jokes behind the scenes (so to speak).

The many levels of meta is mindbogglingly awesome and I just about died laughing at the end. The three codas following the conclusion are more than an epilog and create a perfect wrap up to the story.

A fantastic way to start my 2014 reading.

2. Among Others, Jo Walton (*****)
Oh, what a lovely, lovely book. I grew to love it in the way you meet and fall in love with people — a little bit at a time. Since the story is told through the main character’s journal, it’s like hearing an intimate monolog and the comparison to falling in love is especially apt.

Mori is straightforward and a bit lost and feels out of place, like an alien in the world. I remember how that felt as a teenager, how even my own body felt strange, and I remember wanting to escape into books the way she does. She talks about books, SF and Fantasy, with great passion throughout and it makes me want to create a list if ever book she mentions so I can read them all.

This novel also has fairies and magic and a mother who is a wicked witch, all presented as mundane and ordinary (well, except maybe for the mom). Both the fairies and the magic are wonderful. The fairies are slight and strange, ugly and beautiful, neither good nor beautiful. They just are and are nearly incomprehensible to talk to. The magic is a magic if “plausible deniability” with consequences far flung and hard to know. The mother is subtle and frightening threat. This would be a book about growing up and accepting life and yourself without these thing, and yet presented here, the fairies and magic are just as plausible as horrible food at boarding school and discovering wonders among the bookshelves at the local library.

The writing is wonderful, falling into the wandering tone of journal writing while also having smooth and easy flow. The ending line was just about perfect, which made made at once laugh aloud and almost cry. If this is any indication, I’m going to have to track down the rest of Walton’s books.

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (audio book), by Junot Diaz (***1/2)
This is simultaneously a story of a family and a country. The Dominican Republic contributes an essential background and influence, from its culture to the ongoing influence of the late dictator, El Jefe, Trujillo, which carries through even to the diaspora in New York.

The story of the family spans several generations. There is the Oscar Of the title, a hopeless need desperate for love but with zero game; Lola, the sister who desperately wishes to escape the confinement of the Dominican mother; Belli, the mother who in her you desperately wanted love; as well as the grandparent, who fell during Trujillo’s reign and set a fukú (a curse) on the family, and La Inca, who is a source of home and love for Belli, Oscar, and Lola.

Slight Spoiler — The tale is primarily told by Yunior, more or less a friend of the family and thus, slanted by his point of view. Yunior is kind of an ass, a macho jerk womanizer, who is probably more judgmental on Oscar’s looks and behavior than a more sympathetic narrator might have been. The contrast is fascinating by the end, but it took me while to accept this at first, because his macho assholery was a bit too much for me until I finally figured out it WAS a separate character. — End Spoiler

I started out not digging this much, and then slowly coming to really enjoy it. The tale is complex and laced with science fiction and fantasy references, used as metaphors throughout. It’s done well and works, because of how much Oscar relates to and lives in these fantasy realms. Ultimately a great book that balances tragedy, humor, horror, and hope quite well.

4. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (***)
This was a loooooong book, especially since the first third was a real struggle to get through. However, as the plot continued to thicken and then thicken some more, as new interesting characters continued to join the scene, and as I grew more used to the writing style this became more enjoyable.

Though overly verbose, Dickens does a wonderful job creating a litany of quirky characters, some of whom are quite funny, some quite useless (Skimpole, Turveydrop), some cruel, and some so overly kind you get a toothache from reading them. I think Joe and Caddy are my favorites. Joe is just so much himself, a little orphan just trying to make his way, getting caught up in things so much bigger than him. Caddy has a wonderful transformation, all through her own efforts in a desperate attempt to live her life well.

Jarndyce, Esther, Richard, and Ada are my least favorites, partly because they are the least interesting. Both Jarndyce and Esther are so kind and good as to have no flaws (meh). Richard is completely illogical about money and law that he’s hard to respect. Ada has almost no personality beyond loving Richard and it’s hard to get a sense of her at all.

Overall reading Bleak House was a good experience. Not my favorite reading experience and I’m not jumping to read it again, but there were aspects I enjoy and Dickens surprised several times over toward the end (both in plot and characters being more complex than I thought). It’s just so wordy!

5. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate (*****)
Written from the point of view of Ivan, a silverback gorilla living in an animal park-themed mall, this novel has an amazing amount of heart. Ivan, captured when he was a baby, has lived most of his life alone in a cage, his friends being an elephant tied in cage next to him, a small stray dog that likes to sleep on his chest, and a young girl who shares Ivan’s enjoyment of art and bring crayons and paper for him to draw on.

Telling the story from Ivan’s point of view is brilliantly done and the story is sad and sweet and funny all at once. It’s a great middle grade book, one that can be appealing to not only any grade schoolers, but also adults.