Friday, April 29, 2016

The girl with ghost eyes

The girl with ghost eyes / M.H. Boroson, 280 p.

Set in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1898, the "girl" of the title is Li-Lin, a young widow whose father is a great exorcist who provides protection for one of the major Tongs. Li-Lin herself has both sorcerous and martial arts training, but her father is a master. One day a man comes to her father's temple and asks her to perform a task in her father's absence, but then he betrays her to set a trap for her father. Once she figures out how to escape from the spirit world, she must protect Chinatown against the planned attack by a sorcerer with a grudge against her father.

I enjoy reading about magic from other traditions, so that appealed to me about this story. Of course, the built-in social assumptions of 1890s immigrant Chinese society greatly differ from what I'm used to, and I appreciate that the author tried to balance explaining taboos, insults, and other assumptions without lecturing, but sometimes it wasn't terribly smooth--I kept thinking about the book's narrative rather than being caught up in it. The author provides some notes at the back about he condensed various histories and traditions so that he could tell his story.

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Neither Here nor There

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson 254 pp.

Bill Bryson backpacked around Europe in the 1970s. In the 90s he decided to recreate his journey. With his characteristic honesty he describes his travels making clear his likes and dislikes. Often his descriptions are laugh-out-loud funny but I didn't find this book as engaging as Notes from a Small Island. This book seems more dated, probably from it being pre-9/11, and does not depict the changes in travel since then. But it is an enjoyable, light read.

The Relic Master

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley  380 pp.

In 16th century Europe, Dismas is a relic hunter, one who hunts for "authentic" religious relics to sell to wealthy patrons. His best customers are Frederick the Wise of Saxony and the soon to be Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz. When Dismas' savings are lost by a crooked banker, Dismas and is friend, the artist Dürer create a forgery of the shroud that is sold to Albrecht. The forgery is discovered and Dismas is sent to Albrecht's dungeon to be tortured and killed but Frederick comes to his rescue. An agreement is made that Dismas will fulfill a penance for his crime by acquiring the "real" shroud from the Court of Chambery. The guards that accompany Dismas on the journey soon become involved in the misadventure involving battles, impersonations, and alchemy. This story has history, action, and humor. The "Last Supper" tableau complete with opium and hallucinogenic mushrooms is a high point. Fun once you get past the descriptions of torture.

Sweet Tooth / Ian McEwan, 304 pp.

I saw Atonement along with the rest of the world and always meant to read McEwan but never got around to it.  I thought the Atonement narrative was a little purple and throbbing, but was pleasantly surprised here.  Serena Frome is a beautiful young Cambridge grad at loose ends in 1972, when she's steered towards a job at MI5 and given an assignment to surreptitiously recruit an up-and-coming novelist whose work will champion the anti-Soviet cause.  She falls in love with her target, though, and things get complicated.  One of the best surprise twists of an ending I've read in a while, this is ultimately about narrative: how does it work, who gets to tell it, and what does it mean?

Cruising through the Louvre / David Prudhomme, trans. Joe Johnson 74pp.

An artist wanders through the Louvre, looking at paintings and living people, contemplating their faces.  Meanwhile, he's gotten separated from his girlfriend and becomes increasingly frantic looking for her in the museum.  A perfectly fine premise, and could have been lovely, but the drawings simply didn't speak to me at all; there was a sort of mis-match between the text and the images.  Perhaps a translation problem?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Martian

The Martian / Andy Weir ; 369 p.

I enjoyed this a lot. I assume most people know the basic plot by now: astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars and has to figure out how to stay alive until help can arrive. I've seen the book criticized because the plot is basically external (man vs environment) rather than focusing on any character growth Mark might undergo. Which is totally fine--not every book has to be about Deep Important Thoughts. Sometimes I want to watch people be competent and solve problems, and this totally scratched that itch for me. I couldn't follow all of the science, but I thought the focus on explaining Mark's planning in detail was fine, although I have friends who find it boring and/or intimidating. Plus I enjoyed Mark's snarky personality.

I look forward to Andy Weir's next book, which he says involves a thief in a city on the Moon.

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Holes / Louis Sachar 265 pgs.

Holes is the classic YA book that tells the story of Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center that has no not well described by its name.  The lake has long dried up and it is a hot, dusty hell hole for boys sent there.  Stanley Yelnats is one of the unlucky ones sent there.  Sentenced for a crime he did not commit, Stanley's family has had a run of bad luck for the last few generations due to a curse leveled on his great-grandfather.  He is not a popular kid and not surprised by his sentence.  When he gets to Camp Green Lake, he befriends Zero, a ward of the state who can't read so everyone things is stupid but Zero has a knack for numbers and goals.

I love the way this story like a factual account.  It isn't overly sentimental but effective.  Endearing and enduring.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Medusa's web

Medusa's web / Tim Powers, 358 p.

I love the way Tim Powers weaves the supernatural together with actual history in his books--I often end up wishing I could read his research notes when I finish one of his novels. Old Hollywood doesn't do much for me, though, so I just read this one for the twisty story. After their Aunt Amity's suicide, Scott and his sister Madeline return to Amity's old mansion, where they were raised along with their cousins Ariel and Claimayne. The cousins are both addicted to using spiders, symbols that allow the viewer to possess another's body in another time and possibly extend life, if the viewer can stay in the new body. Ariel is fighting to abstain from using spiders, but Claimayne's health is clearly failing (spider use exerts a price) and he's obviously plotting something. Scott has his own (more mundane) addiction to alcohol to fight, while trying to save Madeline from possession beyond the grave by Amity and dealing with his cousins' antagonism. Towards the end there are some amazing action sequences. I don't think this will bump Last Call from its spot as my favorite Tim Powers book, but I liked it a lot.

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The Murder of Mary Russell

The murder of Mary Russell / Laurie King, 359 p.

When I first heard that someone was writing a series of books about Sherlock Holmes getting married after his retirement, I rolled my eyes *really* hard. I ended up enjoying the series quite a lot, though, and appreciate Mary's character--these are Mary Russell books featuring Sherlock Holmes, not the other way around. So I was disappointed by this particular series entry. We get a new view of Holmes, which was enjoyable, but far too much of the book was taken up with the history of a supporting character. It's not that I don't think the character deserves backstory, but it juuuuust draaaaagged onnnnnnn. (We spent at least a chapter on this character's parents meeting and getting married!) Once we returned to the "present" day of the narrative things pick up, but by then I was exhausted. Not one that I'll reread, I don't think.

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Nimona / Noelle Stevenson, 266 p.

I'm mostly aware of Noelle Stevenson because of Lumberjanes, so I was interested in trying out this comic where she is both author and artist. I enjoyed this quite a lot; the art style isn't my usual speed, but I found it very evocative.

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