Friday, January 27, 2012

REVIEW: Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

by Scott Westerfeld

"Reality had no gears, and you never knew what surprises would come spinning out its chaos." 

Surprised to see me again so soon? Me too! I read this book in 3 days!

Goliath is the thrilling conclusion of the Leviathan/Bohemoth/Goliath steampunk WWI series. Goliath finds our intrepid team of Prince Alek and Deryn/Dylan still on the Leviathan, off on a secret mission to Russia to rescue an eccentric scientist, Nicola Tesla, who claims to have a weapon that will end the war.

This book basically covers the rest of the world: Book 1: Europe, Book 2: Ottoman Empire: Book 3: Russia, Japan, Mexico and the USA. While each country adds their odd quirks and flavor to the Clanker and Darwinist technology, they didn't have the depth and texture of Book 2's Ottoman culture. Granted, they only leapfrogged to each country, and couldn't stay too long. We get a nice historical figure cameo parade, though; we meet Tesla, William Randolph Hearst, Pancho Villa, and a few minor figures here and there.

This book was a lot less epic in scope than I expected. Spoiler alert: the war does not end. In fact, America is only just joining the war as the curtains come down on the trilogy. But I realized it is not the story of the war, it is the story of Alec and Deryn and their relationship, and that story ended very satisfactorily.

Alek finally discovers that Deryn is a girl, and the shock and betrayal and sulking, and eventual awkward reconciliation, tension, and intimacy are incredibly emotionally rewarding. Deryn's struggle with her growing feelings for Alek is much more compelling than other books I have read recently (see my review of Hunger Games if I ever get around to finishing them), because she doesn't spend hours moping and then never resolve anything. She thinks about it, basically says "Well, that sucks" and moves on. Or she does something about it. Or she ignores it and does her job. She's one tough chick. Yet, Westerfeld allows her moments of incredible vulnerability in this book, and it makes her and Alek's relationship that much more special that she allows her veneer to slip a little when they are alone together.

Alek also has to come to terms with his "destiny." He feels he is meant to end the war, since his family started it.  He backs Tesla, even though the inventor is bat-shit crazy, because Tesla claims he can end the war with Goliath. When Alek discovers the purpose of Goliath, however, he is caught between ending the war quickly at the cost of innocent lives, or letting the war drag on, perhaps at the cost of more.

The story weaves together their struggle between their duty to the war/ stations in life, and to each other. While the plot itself is a bit thin, the emotional payoff is fantastic. The two have grown so much since we first met them in Leviathan, and it kinda makes you proud. Well done them.

Oh, and read this book just for the perspicacious lorises, the mystery beasties we were introduced to in the 2nd book. They have some of the best lines in the series. Trust me.

All in all, a solid, clever, quick YA read.

My reviews of the rest of the series:
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

REVIEW: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job
by Christopher Moore

"It was watching Madeline Alby eat cheese with every ounce of her being, like it was the first and best time, that made him realize he had never really tasted cheese, or crackers, or life. And he didn't want his daughter to live that way ... He wanted her to experience all the glorious cheese of life."

Charlie Asher is a Beta Male, with all the wonderful neuroses that implies. He is happily married to the clever, funny, steadying Rachel who balances out his panicked fidgeting with a calm, wry presence. That is... until she dies, and Charlie is shanghaied into becoming a Death Merchant, effectively a reaper, who collects the souls of the dead which are stored in objects, and helping them move to their next life. Oh, and he is now a single dad.

This is my favorite of all the Christopher Moore books I have read (Lamb and Fool). While along with Lamb, it has spiritual truth mixed in with its sharp, naughty humor, A Dirty Job also has heart, deep compassion, and a rich, full-bodied flavor... if that makes any sense. Lamb and Fool were based on established characters, whereas A Dirty Job is all Moore. He lets his devilish creativity out to play, and the love he puts in to every one of the people (and animals) of this book is palpable.

The first chapter is one of the most perfect pieces of writing I have ever read. If is heart-warming, witty, irreverent, shocking, and primal-screamingly tragic at the same time, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Moore makes you fall in love with Charlie and Rachel, and then smashes that relationship away from you in the blink of an eye.

The rest of the book is devoted to Charlie mourning his wife, discovering he is "a Death," and coming into his own as a snazzy-suit-wearing, sword-cane-wielding purveyor of ensouled objects, all while trying to raise a daughter (Sophie), fight rising evil, and placate the whirlwind of zany characters that inundate his life. While some of the characters are comically, and occasionally uncomfortably stereotypical (Ms. Ling and Ms. Korjev, Charlie's neighbors who look after Sophie and are referred to as the "great powers of Asia"), there are also characters like Inspector Rivera, a cop who has seen a lot of weird stuff, so takes things like Charlie throwing firecrackers in the sewer drains or trying to kill old ladies with cement blocks in stride, or the Emperor of San Fransisco, the homeless wanderer with the weight of the city on his shoulders, or Minty Fresh, the mint green suit wearing African American giant, or Lily, the goth chick who works in Charlie's second hand store. Or Sophie's hellhound babysitters. Or the triumvirate of spirit women called the Morrigan who live in the sewers and are trying to royally fuck with, and possibly eviscerate Charlie and all his friends.

This book is not perfect. It starts out with one kind of pacing, and then suddenly newborn Sophie has dialogue and she is five. The book spans a lot more time than expected. The story seems to be structured like a beaded necklace, with awesome bits strung together with "and then some stuff happened for a few years." Its not really a huge problem, just jarring at times.

The author also seems to lose his way towards the end, uncertain as to how to get to his resolution. There is a lot of driving around to different locations, as if the author didn't know where the final stand against evil would be, and some exposition monologing just when you expected the epic throw down. However, when it comes, it is plot-twisty (though a bit obvious) and satisfying.

If you like Clive Barker's Weaveworld, any Neil Gaiman, Terry Prachett (my review of Hogfather) or of course Christopher Moore (my review of Lamb), you will love this book.

Friday, January 13, 2012

REVIEW: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit
by J.R.R. Tolkien

"He was trembling with fear, but his little face was set and grim. Already he was a very different hobbit front he one that had run out without a pocket-handkerchief from Bag-End long ago. He had not had a pocket-handkerchief for ages. He loosened his dagger in its sheath, tightened his belt, and went on."

I was getting frustrated with Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes (which I am sure will appear on this blog in due course), so I put it down to read this old favorite. 

Bilbo Baggins is a comfortable, respectable hobbit, happy to wile away his days in his cozy hobbit hole and live an unremarkable life. Gandalf, however, has other plans and whisks Bilbo away on an adventure through the Misty Mountains and the dark Mirkwood, over the River Running to the Lonely Mountain with a group of surly dwarves, and the little hobbit is changed forever.

I have loved this book ever since my dad read it to me as a child. He would do all the voices and sing all the songs. I don't think I have read it since middle school, though, so it was a bit of a jarring experience to read it again at age 27, after having read and seen the Lord of the Rings and while waiting impatiently for the Hobbit movie to come out. It colored my experience a bit.

It took me a while to get back into the style of it. It is a child's story and thus views Middle Earth through an incredibly innocent lens. Gandalf is the uber-adult, who takes care of the hobbit and the dwarfs, and makes such statements like "I am such a great wizard, and even I was concerned for a moment." You know that if Gandalf is there things will turn out ok. It was hard to reconcile this Gandalf with the Gandalf in LOTR at times. The imminent danger of death is not there, as it was in LOTR. It is very much a "hobbit's holiday," where things get dangerous (or "uncomfortable" as Bilbo says), and there is a potential for death, but not like it was for Boromir, or Haldir, or Theodin or any of the thousands who were slaughtered in LOTR. This is the world Pre-Sauron, where when you went on adventures, it is a great surprise to encounter severe problems (as it was for the dwarves at the start of the journey). Characters do die, but it is not portrayed as a brutal waste, but as a noble and kingly end. 

It was also difficult to reconcile the Hobbit elves (merrymaking, singing and making jokes) with the elves of LOTR (serious, ethereal and rather dull). 

However, the meat of the story still gladdened my heart: the story of a silly gentleman hobbit who is thrust into a quest against his will and transforms into a brave, wise, and resourceful adventurer (though he still occasionally longs for his cozy hobbit hole). The encounter with Gollum was as creepy and clever as ever, though I still don't understand some of the riddles). I started to really get invested once the spiders hit (one of my favorite moments) and Bilbo comes into his own. The moments come fast and furious after that: the Elven King, Barrel-Rider, banter with Smaug, the Arkenstone, the dwarves bursting out of the mountain into battle,  the deaths of friends, the journey home and the auction and the epilogue. 

The language was a delicious blend of the poetry of the Viking Eddas and simple English country talk. Some of the phrases role rhythmically off your tongue, like "The Arkenstone of Thrain," or "Thorin Oakenshield." Sometimes they use high romantic language, and Tolkien translates it into plain English for the reader, which amused me greatly: "'We are sent from Dain son of Nain,' they said when questioned. 'We are hastening to our kinsmen in the Mountain, since we learned that the kingdom of old is renewed. But who are you that sit in the plain as foes before defended walls?' This, of course, in the polite and rather old-fashioned language of such occasions, meant simply: 'You have no business here. We are going on, so make way or we shall fight you.'"

I also enjoyed how he let the dwarves be grumpy. Often in modern culture there is a huge push to hide that you are out of sorts, or to get out of it as soon as possible; that it is a deficiency in yourself if you allow any negativity. Tolkien lets them sit in their grouchiness for a while, and not only is it allowed, it is natural and justified! They would scold the hobbit and sulk for a while if they had been scared for no reason, or if they had no food, or if they had spent a few days bobbing in barrels. And it was understood, allowed, and passed naturally when they had a good meal, or were left alone for a while. 

The Hobbit is always worth a re-read, and makes me very happy in this cold weather to go home to my cozy hobbit hole, eat a good meal, and drink tea in front of a hypothetical roaring fire.