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Monday, November 14, 2016

The Books I Read: September - October 2016


A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Could we just call this what it is? Twilight for women with Ph.D.'s. I hate to give this a bad review because it's my wife's favorite book, but I have to tell it like it is. A coat of sophistication and aristocracy doesn't change when the female lead acts like a weak little moron. Granted, there's no stupid stuff like ochre eyes or tween wool-gathering or sparkles. But the characters do the same things as their red-eyed counterparts. Despite the fact that the female is a witch, she does nothing to save herself. She has no control over her powers and no desire to get any. She does a little research, then gets kidnapped or pushed around. My wife says "she's still learning her powers, the whole series is about her growth and becoming confident", but I don't buy it. She is way too okay with the "You are mine now" mentality her vampire beau has. He'll say something like "You need to stay here and don't do anything while I go fight for you." She'll respond "Oh, I'm just supposed to do what you say, hm?" And then she does anyway. It's a good book -- it'll appeal to historians and mature women -- but it's not for me.


The Isle of the Lost (A Disney Descendants Novel) by Melissa de la Cruz

It delivers what I asked for -- some cheesy campy Disney stuff. Just like the movie. The best part is it expands on the Descendants universe (such as it is). We didn't see much of life on Villain Island, but that's remedied here. They go to school, they have parties, they interact with their parents, and plan pranks/tricks on each other. The books gives what a low budget made-for-TV movie couldn't.

Plotwise, it's by-the-numbers YA, showing how the fab four became friends (it was a quest). No one likes school, parents are mostly non-factors, and the kids get archetypes that didn't exist in the movie (for example, Cruella's son is the "smart one", creating devices like Donatello.) Nothing really new, except occasional interjections by the author that evoke memories of bad fan fiction (as you can tell, I did not like that part). But it's not too slow, and the novel really thrives in the second half, when they all get together. The author uses the chemistry between the characters to its full advantage. Given the absolute crap from non-children's Disney books I've been reading lately (The Beast Within, A Frozen Heart), this is a life-affirming change of pace. I'm glad they're sticking with this author because she seems right for the series.


Rewinder by Brett Battles

It's a little bit The Giver, a little bit Ender's Game, and follows a Hunger Games formula. A kid from the lower-caste gets "chosen" to be a time-traveling researcher. When he accidentally hucks up the timeline, he's faced with the choice of whether to keep the new timeline (which seems better for humanity but erases everything and everyone he ever knew) or stay with the status quo. As you can tell by the transparent influences, the idea and characters are nothing new.

Yet, the novel kept my interest. At least up until the time travel got too confusing. And it does get confusion. If you thought the third act of Back to the Future Part II was bad, you will not like this novel. Even I lost track, and I love time travel. At one point there are, like, five of the main character in a given location in time, half of them are there to revoke mistakes the other made. Couldn't keep it straight. And rather than try to figure it out, I just stopped caring. The main character's personality is just a little too dry for me to stay invested in (he conveniently falls in love within two days time).


Once Upon a Dream: The Rose A novel based on Beauty and the Beast by Jennifer Baker

So, story time. When I was in school, I had a purple folder I reused for classes. As all my folders, it was covered in doodles, reminders, and scribbles. And one day I noticed in a small section was written "The Rose - Jennifer Baker". I have no idea when I wrote this or why I wrote this. My guess is it was middle school and it was a book one of my crushes was reading. One year passes into another and another and another and I rediscover it. And I forget about it. Then I rediscover it. And then forget about it again. This continues until I finally put it on my to-read list.

It's... it's not good. It says it's a "modern take" on Beauty and the Beast, but it sure as hell feels like it was made by and for the Disney movie. The father is an inventor (though this time he's a fisherman). There's a scene just like the "Bonjour" sequence where Belle goes around her high school and talks to all the characters. Gaston is there (and this time he's a bro, like the preppy guy in all the eighties movies). There's an enchantress, a ticking clock rose, a Mrs. Potts (the maid), and a fuzzy beast.

However, there is a fix to one aspect -- Belle is supposed to be the protagonist, but she never really learns anything. She was right all along. It's Beast who has to change, and this book focuses more on that. We get more of his perspective, his back story, and loads of his angst.

But the plot never deviates from the path laid out by the cartoon. I was hoping this would be closer to the Charles Perrault tale, where Belle has two spoiled sisters and her father is a merchant. But nope, it's like someone wrote fan fiction and said "It's Beauty and the Beast... but in modern day!" except you've got to do more than just fast-forward one hundred years to have an original story.


Wool by Hugh Howey

Reminded of Leviathan Awakes. Both are science-fiction, both are long novels that evoke the styles of serials, both have multiple POV characters, both deal with dystopias and social stratification, both take place in far future worlds where business is happening, and you've got to figure out what the characters already know (and it's kinda fun). It held my interest moderately, in that I didn't really care what happened to the characters, but wanted to learn more about the mysteries of the silo (where they all live). While the characters don't have much personality, the author is masterful at keeping the tension between chapters high (also something it has in common with The Expanse).

This is an idea story, not a character story. Which means it feels more like an engineering module (this event leads to this; the characters expected this, but this happened) watching characters get around obstacles. It lacks a personal touch, either through humor or passion or empathy or human emotions like disgust and despair. I guess it's difficult to do that when following "show, don't tell" (which this novel does quite well), but it means I don't think I'll be reading the sequels. I just didn't invest in the characters enough to want to spend more time with them.


Friend by Diana Henstell

I should not have finished this book. I resolved to myself not to read bad books, so what do I do? Keep plodding through this doorstop to the end.

I rented Deadly Friend on Netflix and was surprised to find that it was based on a novel. I thought "a thorough story about a robot and a Frankenstein girl? Yes, please." But no, I should have stopped there. It's an idea that better rests in the mind than in tangible form. It is so overwritten it's obviously trying to stand on the same pedestal as the Stephen King mass market paperback thrillers of 1985 (it's even got alcoholism and a small New England town). And it's just as overwritten. SO overwritten. Every thought a character has, every nuance of movement, every past detail is rehashed, sometimes six or seven times. As if the reader is too stupid and needs a review every POV switch.

In the book, the robot is a lot less "Johnny Five" and more "1980's robot" from the muppets. It doesn't even talk. And its creator is a twelve-year-old kid who brings it everywhere he goes -- to school, the grocery store -- like it's his security blanket. It's no retelling of Frankenstein and it's no thriller. It's slow, it's stupid, and it ain't got no style. Not a single character is likable, least of all the main one. His mother should be taking him to therapy, not to a genius academy. His mother calls him "Piggy" for chrissakes. The science is appalling, the dialogue is cheesy. It makes one wonder how this idea passed muster in the agent's room.
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