Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Surf, Swords, and Shootin'

Man!  I read a lot! For me, anyway.  What happens when I'm left alone without Internet for a weekend?  Books happen.

The Way of Kings
Brandon Sanderson
TOR Hardcover (Tom Daugherty Associates, LLC), New York
1,007 pages

The last Sanderson book I read left me frustrated and annoyed initially, bored about 1/3 of the way through, and riveted for the last 1/2 of the book.  Oddly enough, this book followed almost exactly the same path, though it was 600 pages longer so it took me longer to get to the payoff.  It still felt like the book went out of its way to belabor some points that I think were already pretty clear, at least from the emotional angle. The novel could probably have stood a little less brooding from the hero, a little less indecision from the heroine, and fewer interludes involving characters who supposedly will make their way into the series at some point, but for now just served to break up the central narrative of the story(s).  Also, as in Elantris, I got sick of everyone--especially the impartial narrator--telling me how clever the young heroine was.  If she's actually witty and clever, I'll figure it out.  I'm a guy who enjoys bad puns, but I'll generally use them with the realization that no, they're not actually that clever.
Character A: "...if I may be so forward."
Heroine: "Actually, you're walking backwards."
Novel: No one could get used to the fact that she was astoundingly clever!
(Exaggeration mine) 

As in the other book, however, once they stopped trying to prove how witty Shallan was, or how honorable Kaladin was, or how loyal Delinar was, everything worked together very well.  I will admit that, at about page 500, I'd decided I would finish the book and probably not bother with the rest of the (yet unwritten) series.  After all, there's a lot of good fantasy out there, and while this was a good book I thought I'd be fine without the rest. 

Here's the problem with that, though: ultimately, Sanderson's stories and mythologies are really stinking fantastic.  So they take a little time to pick up steam.  Doesn't matter. When things were rolling, they were really rolling.  The last hundred-and-fifty or so pages were "Do Not Put Me Down" exciting. This is one of the few books that I've read that drew multiple audible reactions from me toward the end.  The major reveals in the final arc of the story are masterful. And I don't really think there's any way I'm going to be able to skip book two of The Stormlight Archive.  Hopefully, now that we've established the kingdom and the government and the characters and some of the magical rules, we can jump into the story a bit quicker next time.  Because ultimately, this was a really good book.

Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board
by Bethany Hamilton with Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh
Pocket Books and MTV Books
213 page

I was pretty juiced by the time I finished Book of Kings because it had been a pretty long process, and my family was out of town so I had nothing better to do, so I picked up and read this book as soon as I finished that one.  There's a movie out about this book now, and the only reason I read it was because my wife had it from the library and said I ought to read it.  So now I've read two autobiographical books about people losing their arms in the last three months. 

This book was written by a thirteen-year-old girl in Hawaii who had her arm bitten completely off by a shark while surfing and has since worked her way back into competitive surfing.  She and her family are committed Christians, so while she dislikes the spotlight she's excited about using her story to inspire others to find faith in God.  So that's cool.  The book itself isn't all that interesting, because the girl isn't really a writer.  But it is pretty short.  I finished it in about three hours.  And I'm sure for its target audience (fellow pre-teens and early teenagers) it probably hits the spot profoundly. 

True Grit
by Charles Portis
The Overlook Press, New York
2004 (originally published 1968)
235 pages

This was the last of this year's Best Picture Nominee books.  It was quite different from the other two westerns I've ever read as it did not take place on a trail.  It was kind of a tamer, western-er version of Winter's Bone.  A fourteen-year-old girl (Mattie) sets off for vengeance after her father is shot and killed by a drunken horse thief.  She gets help from a couple of federal marshals who don't want Mattie to come along on their manhunt, but she shows her moxy and comes along anyway, so eventually they let her.  The first half of the book has an awful lot of setting up the trip and the last half is the adventure itself.  There are moments of action-packed tension and moments of sitting around wrangling for dollars and cents.  It's a strange book.  Enjoyable, though.  After plowing through Sanderson's rich histories, mythologies, backgrounds, and character developments, it's a bit of a switch to take Charles Portis' "Here it is" approach to storytelling.  Nice to remember that you can tell a story without spending more than a couple of pages on biography per character.  A good study in the distinctness of different authors' styles.  Also: the narrative voice (an older Mattie looking back on this episode of her life) is quirky, engaging, and enjoyable.  It does sound like an old lady sitting on her rocker on the porch telling you the way it used to be.  Only the story happens to be about hunting down a murder in the Indian territory.  And there are snakes involved.  And it's all quite matter-of-fact to this dear old Christian woman.  She's funny without trying to crack jokes, and that's often the best kind of funny.

The afterward for this book was kind of weird, as it was basically a graduate-level book review written by a True Grit fangirl.  The bulk of it is a recap of the book you've just read with a few comparisons to Huck Finn and The Wizard of Oz thrown in for academic purposes.  That said, apparently this book had been out of print for a while, and the recent movie revived interest and so it's making a comeback.  That's good, I think, because Portis provides a different view of the West than, say, Louis L'Amour leaves us with. 

I also read a Pearls Before Swine collection that I bought with a Borders' 20% off coupon for my birthday.  I ought to start keeping track of comic collections and graphic novels I read, even if I don't count them as part of my annual "List of Books."  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One at a time, I guess

So I've read half of another book, but not in order, and I'm about to lend it to someone else, so I don't know when I'll finish it.  Also, my reading schedule has been very wonky lately.  Hopefully I'll catch up in the summer. 

Anyway, I recently finished another Stephen King book that I picked up more or less on a whim, so I'll go ahead and talk about it now.

The Dead Zone
by Stephen King
426 pages
Penguin Books USA Inc., NY

Here was a book that I just felt really let down by.  I never thought it was bad, but I always felt like it was misfiring somewhere.  It would captivate me for a few chapters at a time and then just sort of amble into fairly uninteresting character development or political back story for long stretches. It was still fun to read because I enjoy King's style, but I just wasn't able to get into this world as easily as I've been able to access the Tower, Tom Gordon, The Stand, or even Cell.

Well, it took me a little while, but I did finally figure out why that is, and I don't think either the book nor I were really at fault.

The premise of the story is pretty good.  A guy has an auto accident and experiences some massive head trauma, spends four years in a coma, suddenly wakes.  When he wakes, he can tell things about people through touching them.  Secret things.  Sometimes good, sometimes really dark and scary.  Sometimes it's seeing into the future.  Specific details are often a bit hazy, and it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen, he can't control when it's going to happen, and it almost always leads him to take action whenever he can.  So not the most original concept in the world, but in the hands of a guy who made a book about people turned into psychic zombies by cell phones work, it could go to some really cool places. 

Only it didn't seem to.  It was more a series of episodes with interludes where the protagonist (Johnny Smith) would try to run away from everything to live a "normal" life while his mother's dying words (about accepting God's gift) haunted him.  Eventually, Johnny brushes up against a U.S. House of Representatives hopeful and discovers that the man is actually very evil and will soon become President and will start a nuclear war.  (And I guess that's sort of a spoiler, but it's set up very early in the book.  This ominous evil man who doesn't really play into Johnny's story for 3/4 of the book but clearly has political ambitions pops up from time to time, and if you've read King you know they're going to end up as enemies)  To be honest, I was pretty let down by this development.  Really? I thought. You have a guy who can see the future, and you're using him to expose...get this...a crooked politician???  Riveting.  Don't let the Bad Man run for office, Johnny!

However, as I reflected back on the book about a day after I finished it, I thought about what a different world 2011 is from the 1979 of Stephen King.  The Cold War is harsh reality.  Nixon just happened.  Carter just happened.  The feel-good Regan era has not happened.  Not only were Americans unhappy, they're scared.  They wondered if everybody was keeping secrets from them.  They wondered if anybody, especially those in power, could really ever be trusted.  And so, bang.  King creates a protagonist who discerns secrets with a touch and unleashes him on the heart of America's fears: crooked politics and nuclear war.  Actually pretty chilling stuff in context. 

So, no, I'm probably not going to read The Dead Zone again.  It's not one of King's long-standing classics.  I am not, however, sorry I read it, and I imagine if I'd been around to read it in the late 1970s it would have either been terrifying or cathartic.