In Grandma’s Attic by Arleta Richardson

In Grandma's Attic by Arleta RichardsonWhen I was little I discovered these books somewhere. I have no idea where I encountered them but I tended to read everything in sight back then so my guess is that somebody gave us the books. I remember thinking that they had amusing stories but I could not remember any of them clearly.

When my son told me he was tired of reading such long stories like The Hobbit I thought these would be perfect for him. It turns out they pretty much were. Each story is short enough that it finished just when he was starting to lose interest.

The stories are amusing in the way that many stories told by people who are reminiscing are. People rarely reminisce about the bad times or the scary things that happened. Because of that the stories are all succinct and leave off with a happy ending.

There is a bit of a frame story, but it’s only cursory. There is a little girl — presumably the author — who either lives with her grandma or spends a great deal of time there. She constantly digs for stories and her grandma constantly obliges. Most of these stories would be just as good without the frame and many of them would be better since the frame parts are frequently the clunkiest.

The beginning of the book seems to feel like each story needs a moral, explicitly stated. Something along the lines of “that is why you should never…” Once the stories get beyond that they are better.

If you are easily offended by early American Christian beliefs then this probably isn’t a book for you. The author wrote about her grandma who grew up in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s and her belief system was pretty typical of that time.

That said, the writing is kind of weak. The voice of grandma and the voice of the author are almost indistinguishable. I had a hard time throughout telling when it was the frame story and when it was another of grandma’s tales. There is no physical delimiter in the text and there is always a short moment of confusion who is speaking at the beginning of each chapter.

It seems to be aiming at the fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder but will probably leave most of them disappointed as it carries little of the power that those books have.

City of Bones by Michael Connelly

City of Bones by Michael Connelly

I don’t read a lot of mystery novels — at least I don’t think I do. Part of that reason is that it seems easy for the story to take on a formula. This is most obvious in the serial police shows on television. You see one episode of Castle or Psych or CSI or Bones and you’ve seen them all. They hit all the notes right on cue for commercial breaks so that you can call the next event by what time it is. I’ve seen that a lot in books as well. Once an interesting new character and voice come out they are exciting and then a few books later it becomes apparent that these authors and their heroes have a modus operandi that is just as easy to spot as the serial killers they are talking about.

The reason I keep returning to Michael Connelly and his books is that I haven’t seen that happen yet. As long as he can keep me guessing and wondering what’s going on then I’ll keep coming back.

I’m not the most astute reader so it’s pretty easy to keep me guessing. If you keep presenting reasonably plausible actions and exciting scenarios I’ll completely miss the clues and be surprised by the ending. That’s why it’s so disappointing when a mystery writer fails to produce any mystery. If there is nothing driving me to learn who committed the crime that opened the story then I’m not interested and the fastest way to lose the mystery is to make it too obvious.

What makes Connelly’s mysteries so great is that his characters make reasonable mistakes. Sometimes they chase the rabbit down the wrong hole.

In City of Bones Harry Bosch gets called in when a man’s dog finds the leg bone of a human child buried in the hills behind his house. That sets off an investigation into the murder of a 12-year-old boy twenty years before and the secrets of his past that have remained hidden all that time.

This is probably the most emotional we’ve seen Harry Bosch and there are a lot of politics at play in a public case like this one. Mistakes are made and a dark history is uncovered that will send chills down anyone’s spine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Michael Connelly’s books so good and I think I’ve narrowed it down. His characters are compelling — not just the main guy. Harry Bosch is a collection of flaws and fanatical drive bundled in a jazz-loving, intolerant workaholic and he’s a fascinating character to be inside the head of. But that’s not all, every character that Bosch interacts with is just as fully realized with their own agenda, personality, desires, needs and thoughts. They’re not always friends but they’re real people. The characters make the stories come alive in ways that feel inevitable when another person jumps out and starts talking.

The other thing I think that Connelly uses so well is his pacing. At every turn there is action but not the kind that you might think of. There are police chiefs throwing political caltrops in his way, there are ambitious detectives making foolish choices and suspicious victims unwilling to testify until pressed. The action is usually just talking but its always action and always moving, pushing back and forth.

And finally, Connelly just really knows mysteries. He knows the police and the pressure they go through and the politics they deal with. He knows the stress and pain and heartache. And he respects it. That shows through in everything he writes. Harry Bosch is one of the good guys.

Sons of the Oak by David Farland

Sons of the Oak by David FarlandI read the first four books of David Farland’s Runelords series years ago and enjoyed them a lot. I remember finding them exciting and full of fun action scenes and memorable characters, if not the smoothest of prose.

Here’s the problem. David Farland writes like a first-time novelist in some ways and like a veteran writing ninja in others. His word choices and awkward sentences feel so contrived and amateur that they are occasionally worthy of a cringe and usually elicit a wince or two.

It’s the parts that he does well that save the whole thing. His world-building, for one, is top-notch. His magic system is fascinating with some very real and painful consequences. The Runelords are people who, with the help of certain runes, can take endowments from others giving them extra strength, speed and endurance as well as sight, smell and hearing or beauty. The downside is that that same quality is removed from the person who gave the endowment so Runelords are forced to maintain secret keeps of invalids who have given up their stamina or strength or health to their lord. The other consequence is that the only way to beat a Runelord is to kill his or her dedicates — murder rooms full of helpless victims. As you can imagine endowments give a person great power but come at a high moral cost. There are also other forms of magic that require the constant vigilance and control of an elemental of either Earth, Fire, Water or Air. A wizard that has control of his element is truly powerful, but when he loses control the destruction is intense.

The characters are all believable and likable — though they felt somewhat mature for their ages most of the time, I suppose you could argue that they were maturing fast because of their traumatic circumstances. The problem with the characters is that Farland is so uneven in his use of them. This might be just me but characters that I really liked were the ones that got killed, usually without a second glance. I understand that death in real life rarely contains allegorical meaning and feels satisfying to those left behind but in fiction I believe it should (unless, of course, you’re going for utter realism, which is fine but it feels out of place in the light-hearted voice of David Farland).

My other complaint about this book, and probably my biggest one, is that it feels like a fantasy retelling of Ender’s Game. There’s no battle school but Fallion is only eleven years old at the beginning and he fights demons, battles evil Runelords and learns the ways of a fire wizard all with a cold and calculating demeanor that felt very reminiscent of a certain world saving science fiction hero.

The writing quality bothered me more than I expected it to. I found myself rereading sentences on nearly every page in order to parse what the author was trying to say. It felt like it badly needed the hand of a good editor. On the other hand, I still finished it and am almost convinced to read the next book in the series.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren BeukesThis book is much more brutal and violent than I was expecting.

Lauren Beukes is a good writer and she tells very powerful stories that are meticulously researched (as far as I can tell) and she doesn’t cut corners. Her real ability, at least in this book, is her characters. Many of the people we meet in this book are people who we are only going to know for a short time because they are victims of a serial killer. Lauren Beukes brings them to life in a few simple phrases, gives us history and backstory, in a couple paragraphs and makes them wonderful in just a page. That makes it all the more painful when they are murdered viciously and cruelly.

This story is about a serial killer in 1930s Chicago who discovers a house that lets him travel in time. The door will open onto any day over the next sixty years. He uses it to hunt down and kill women whose names he finds written on the walls — names he wrote there himself in his future.

The time travel is not explained, nor does it need to be. It is handled brilliantly and bits and pieces start to untangle as the story goes on until the whole mess becomes a long strand of twisted and convoluted story.

The Shining Girls is also about Kirby, the one who didn’t die. She recovered and devotes her life to finding her killer, the man who can disappear into the past. She follows a trail of frustrating breadcrumbs and misleads — overlooking clues because of their apparent time-disconnect, trying to track a killer that cannot be tracked.

The people are painfully real and the house is creepy beyond words.

I can only recommend this book if you have a high tolerance for cruelty and emotional trauma in fiction. It’s a powerful story and riveting but also painful.

Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne

Now We Are Six by A. A. MilneI don’t have a high tolerance for poetry. Most of it is boring and pretentious — which is just my way of saying that I don’t understand. There are a few poems out there (I wouldn’t even say poets) that I really enjoy. Most of them because they resonate with me on some level.

A. A. Milne’s “The Knight Whose Armor Didn’t Squeak” is one of the great ones. I memorized that poem when I was little because it amused me so much and I read it over and over until I no longer had to read it.

The rest of this book is quite marvelous in one specific way and that is that A. A. Milne does what he does best and that is capture the life of a small child. The poems and words and logic all pull the reader back to childhood and are even amusing on occasion because of the illogical views of a small child… that are absolutely correct.

Sometimes children are prescient beyond what adults like to give them credit for. Sometimes they make assumptions about the world that just don’t make sense unless you examine things from their literal and limited knowledge.

Milne captures all of that explicitly and wonderfully. The problem is that it is poetry. If this was another of his Winnie-the-Pooh adventures I would devour it wholeheartedly. As it is I raced through to get to the story about Sir Tomas Tom of Appledore (the titular knight of my favorite poem), read it a few times just for memories sake, then crawled through the rest of the poems just to finish it.

This is probably not a failing of Milne or his poetry — it most likely is my own problem. Poetry rarely speaks to me and most of this book did not.

Ruins by Dan Wells

Ruins by Dan WellsThe covers for these books are probably the most unimaginative covers possible. If I wasn’t a fan of Dan Wells I never would have read these books.

Ruins is a good end to this trilogy. It’s more gruesome and violent and filled with more drastic decisions. Kira and her friends are faced with the world ending again as the Partials invade the human settlement on Long Island in a hope of finding the expiration that they are all rapidly approaching and the humans retaliate with unmitigated force as they face another kind of extinction themselves.

Kira has discovered the cure for both their problems but she just has to make somebody listen to her before they kill each other.

This is an exciting novel and a good end for the trilogy with a satisfying conclusion. Dan Wells throws some horror elements into this book, some of them gruesome and others terrifying and that is where Dan Wells shines. He is always at his best when he’s scaring the reader into having nightmares.

The relationships are not quite as believable. There’s not enough emotion and too much talking about it to feel real.

There isn’t much more to say. This is the conclusion of a trilogy and Wells mostly sticks the landing. There are some frustrating characters that make some unfortunate choices and there are some wonderful characters that keep the book interesting and entertaining to the end.

I liked this series. It had a good premise that builds some tension right form the start. Dan Wells taught me in the first book that medical lab work could be tense and in this book he taught me about character choices.

My biggest peeve with this book, though, is the magic of genetics. In the second book the use of computers was so outside the realm of how computers work that it was completely unbelievable. This book has characters doing genetics to change the weather and create diseases and heal themselves and live in toxic wastelands and breathe underwater and kill the human race and make people live only eighteen years and eventually it felt like magic rather than science. There was a team of geneticists that can do pretty much anything they want, and in a very short period of time (a few months) and it continually popped the balloon from which I had suspended my disbelief. After falling enough times I gave up and stayed on the ground.

The tension is real, though, and this wraps up a series that I have enjoyed reading.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma DonoghueRoom is a powerful story of overcoming some truly terrible things that has one flaw that almost undermines the entire premise of the book. Almost.

Room is a story, told from the point of view of a five year old boy, Jack. Jack has spent his entire life in an eleven by eleven foot room where he thinks that the only things that are real are the things in the room and everything else is make believe like on TV.

Jack was born in Room because his mother was kidnapped and locked up there seven years before the start of the story. Jack doesn’t know any other way of life. He personalizes objects and thinks that they are his friends. He sleeps in the wardrobe so his mother’s kidnapper won’t see him when he comes to visit and he spends his days thinking that Room floats in space, surrounded by nothing.

When they escape the story of their troubles just begins. Jack misses his old Room and all the ‘friends’ he had there. The world is bright and wide and scary and full of people that he doesn’t know and has never seen. His mother is emotionally damaged in other ways and has to deal with bouts of depression and self-worth.

Using Jack as the narrator is a useful conceit because it allows Miss Donoghue to tell the story in an oblique way. If the events of this story were told form the mother’s point of view the details would be too gruesome and repulsive, at least for me, to keep reading. Jack, however doesn’t understand a lot of things and doesn’t witness other things that the reader can easily discern, giving a filter layer that makes the story easier.

That brings up the question, though. Should this story be easier? Using Jack as a filter for events does not take away from the horror of their situation. Room still draws attention to the terrible things that exist in the world today and even points out that even though Jack and his mother escaped slavery, kidnapping and other bad things still happen in the world.

The strongest part of the story turns out to be the worst part of it as well. Jack is a wonderful character and a good narrator to filter events for the reader. He doesn’t sound like a five-year-old though.

I am rather intimately acquainted with a five-year-old and, granted he hasn’t been locked in a room for his entire life, he knows how to conjugate verbs. Jack sounds more like a child two years younger and many of those differences can’t be explained by his being raised in captivity. If I had read this book five years ago, before I knew what little kids are like, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences. Now I can’t help but be annoyed that Emma Dononghue so drastically misunderstands how smart a five-year-old can be.

However, the story is powerful and fascinating and the voice quickly becomes a background annoyance. This is a good book.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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