Category Archives: Short Review

Shorter reviews.

Karen Russell — Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is the tale of the swamp-dwelling Bigtrees, owners of a small island where they wrestle alligators for plump tourists, all still grieving the loss of their matriarch in their own ways: Ava by attempting to fill her shoes, Osceola by dating ghosts, Kiwi by plotting his escape, the Chief, their father, steadfastly pretending that nothing is missing or wrong. Each of them will embark on their own epic journeys.

Very impressed with this debut novel. Her writing is lovely, and plays with language in such fabulous ways. The child protagonist avoids the trap that many authors fall into–making them either too precocious, or too annoyingly childish. Ava’s voice straddles the line nicely but remains convincingly her age. The magical realist journey that she embarks upon in Florida’s nightmare swamps is drawn in language that causes you to feel, to taste and smell the landscape vividly.

Scattered throughout were gorgeous lines that stuck in the memory. For example:

Loving a ghost was different, she explained—that kind of love was a bare branch.

I found myself constantly highlighting passages that I wanted to return to later. I found myself most interested in Ava’s story, less in Kiwi’s, narrated in sarcastic third person and populated by ridiculous cartoon character mainlanders. But Ava’s incredible journey is impossible to put down. My one qualm with it was that a traumatic event is brushed over rather quickly and I didn’t feel adequately addressed, but other than that I really loved Swamplandia! unabashedly. I’ve seen the words “quirky” banded about in other reviews, and “quirky” always seems to have some negative connotations. Not so here. The characters are odd, to be sure, but in their own strangely logical ways.

Recommended.

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What I’ve Been Reading

Lately school has tipped into the “overwhelming” stage of the year, especially with the bar exam coming up (not really coming up–I have until the beginning of June to start worrying about the real studying) but I’m in the process of finishing up my application and one class I have is a constant, nagging reminder about how much I’m going to have to re-learn and how hard it’s going to be.

As a consequence, I haven’t really wanted to read much by way of “serious” literature.

I read Heat Wave, the first Castle tie-in, ostensibly written by Richard Castle himself–it’s a “cute” conceit, that the novelist main character of the TV series has actually published his Jameson Rook/Nikki Heat books in the real world. The writing was about what I expected, it seems kind of run of the mill “popular mystery/thriller” style, with a number of ridiculous cliches sprinkled liberally throughout. It was kind of fun as a fan of the show to try and pick out moments inspired by tidbits from the episode, but that couldn’t really make up for the predictable plot (twist, another twist, big twist at the end) and the fact that if you are at all a fan of mystery or crime novels (I am) you will be able to pick out the murderer as soon as that character appears for the first time. I started the second book, Naked Heat, but lost interest a few pages in and just put it down, never to pick up again.

Also read recently, the Medicus series (murder mysteries where the main character is an army doctor set in Roman Britain? yes please) and enjoyed them. They are by R. S. Downie but I don’t have much to say about those, other than that they are entertaining murder mysteries, and not bad as historical novels, from what I can tell (and I’m very picky about historical novels–these strike a good balance between modern affectations and humor, and period atmosphere).

ALSO reading, an annotated addition of Pride & Prejudice. P&P is my “chicken soup” reading, what I tend to pick up when I’m feeling down, and this has been fun. Some of the annotations are a little condescending (yes, I KNOW the dialogue is ironic, you don’t need to explain to me WHY) but some of the historical information and extra detail they provide is the kind of thing I like to know. So I alternate between interest and frustration.

At some point, I will go back to reading serious literature and things I haven’t read 50,000 times already.

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Mean girls

So I watched Sky TV’s adaptation of Mark Billingham’s book Sleepyhead but I didn’t like it enough to keep watching, I just wanted to know who the killer was and if I was right in my suspicions (I was). But oh my gosh the book was even worse than the movie, I don’t want to go into too much detail because that’s just mean… I couldn’t even get through the first few pages, it was just so ridiculous, and disappointing! I guess the market saturation of serial killer thrillers means that some crap gets through.

I’m getting back on the reviewing Serious Literature horse once I get around to finishing Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin which is seriously awesome so far (I’m very envious of her ability to switch styles and voices seemingly at will–the fact that she had books like both Room and Slammerkin in her makes me so jealous!) It’s just hard to find the time as the semester goes on. This is my second-to-last semester of law school, so I’ve been trying to get my head around all the deadlines I have for bar exam application and juggle my coursework (I’m writing a short paper for Evidence, and one for my Crime & Community class that only has to be 15 pages, but I already have 46 pages in 10 pt Times New Roman of notes…) and my social life.

It’s so sad, but in weeks like this, I really do miss just being able to relax and curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that isn’t law related without feeling guilty about it.

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Mark Charan Newton — Nights of Villjamur

I’m late to the party on this one, as I often am with fantasy… So I’m just adding another redundant voice talking about this book (hence the shorter review). Villjamur is the largest city at the heart of the Jamur Empire in a world that is settling in for another 50 year ice age. Jamur Rika is on her way back to the city after the death of her father, the Emperor. Her younger sister, Jamur Eir, is causing trouble on her own. Inspector Jeryd is investigating a mysterious murder… and at the heart of all of this are the undead, cultists, secret religions and conspiracies, and refugees crowding outside of the city, terrified of the impending Freeze.

It’s certainly a lot to absorb, but Newton has a lot of interesting ideas, and I liked that the world was so different–although Dying Earth isn’t a new concept, the impending icy freeze still felt fresh, and Villjamur had real character. The prose was a little awkward at times, but really readable at others–there was never anything so bad that I stopped reading (like that ‘best wetboy ever’ line in the Brent Weeks trilogy), but it does feel like there is some room for editing or improvement (dialogue, especially, was often redundant or stilted). Still, there were more than enough flashes of innovation, originality, and characters to keep it interesting, and piquing my interest in the rest of this series.

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Stefanie Pintoff — A Curtain Falls

I enjoyed Pintoff’s debut but I think this book might have been better. After the shocking events of the previous mystery, Detective Simon Ziele is splitting his time between Dobson and New York City, where he assists his former partner, now-Captain Mulvaney, with difficult cases. And he has cause to call in Alistair Sinclair when Broadway actresses are found made up and strangled on stage, with cryptic notes besides their bodies. I enjoyed this book more than the first; Sinclair’s involvement isn’t quite as prominent, and although there was a similar pattern to the murderer as in the previous volume (let’s just say it wasn’t some random out of left field), it was at least a little less telegraphed than the first. The mystery is twisty, creepy, and exciting, and Ziele is a policeman with a heart and a poetic turn of phrase. Turn-of-the-century New York, especially the glittering world of the theatre, is evocatively portrayed. Highly recommended.

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Jules Verne — Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Jules Verne is always a bit of a treat. His fantastically imagined books are a combination of awful science and curiously accurate predictions about the future. Journey to the Centre of the Earth is Verne at both his best and worst; the writing is entertaining, the manic energy of Professor Lidenbrock and his sadsack nephew Axel are hilarious, especially when contrasted with the ridiculous scientific hypothesis that men can journey, well, through the center of the earth. Following an ancient Icelandic code left by a previous explorer, the two men and their guide enter the earth through the extinct volcano Snæfells… and discover a world beyond time. Purely as an adventure novel, this is unparalleled; again, the science is ridiculous but if you can manage to suspend your disbelief, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching Axel whine his way through a gigantic underground sea as lightning strikes all around them. Oh, Jules Verne. What a wonderful place your mind must have been.

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Suzanne Collins — The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction but The Hunger Games came highly recommended, and when I picked it up to try it out, I couldn’t put it down (seriously, I ended up reading until 3am). The story of Katniss Everdeen, a girl raised in District 12, under the rule of a capriciously cruel Capitol, is tapped to participate in the Hunger Games, in which 24 children from the 12 districts are forced to fight to the death every year as punishment for a rebellion that occurred 74 years ago. She and her District 12 male counterpart, Peeta, are thrown together in the arena as unlikely allies. In the grand tradition of dystopian fiction featuring young children trying to kill each other (definite influences of Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale), Collins nevertheless manages to create a believable and original world, which is gradually fleshed out throughout the trilogy as more awful sides of Katniss’ world are revealed. A strong antiwar novel, the violence throughout is graphic but deployed purposefully. It is a little hard to read in the third book especially because by that time, you are really emotionally invested in the characters (despite their ridiculousness–while you may want to shake them at times, you are reminded that these are drastic extenuating circumstances). While Katniss’ voice (and character) is extremely annoying at times, and the second book was a rather awkward retread of the first, I still kept reading solely because I wanted to see what was going to happen. Mockingjay gives this trilogy a satisfying ending, not a happy ending, but one that seems appropriate for all of the emotional cliffhangers and twists and turns that the reader is subjected to. This may be “young adult” fiction but there’s something for everyone to appreciate in these books as well.

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