The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) (Tiffany Aching, #1)The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness. That was amazing. I can’t believe just how impressed I am. Perhaps I am just in the right frame of mind for it, but it really “hit the spot”.

I really like Pratchett, but I often find I can’t read too many of his books in a row (which is a problem because there are so many of them!). They kind of blur together and feel very samey. This book definitely had that Pratchett feel to it, but I haven’t read one in awhile so I enjoyed it immensely. He’s just so clever. How can the writing be so clever, and yet still be poignant?

I’m not even sure how to describe this book. It’s set in a sort of old English farmland setting with sheep and sheepdogs and whatnot (except set in Discworld, of course, but the overall Discworld setting has very little to do with the actual book aside from the inclusion of magic so it’s a good place to jump into things too, if you’re looking for one). The story follows little Tiffany Aching, who has decided she would like to be a witch. What’s interesting about this is that Tiffany is essentially a scientist, and what follows is a clash between the world of empirical observation and the land of fairytales, as Tiffany sets out on an adventure to rescue her little brother and learn a bit about herself in the process.

It was absolutely masterfully done.

I wish I could write like this…

I suppose if there were a complaint to be made, it would be that a vast majority of the book involves the antics of the Wee Free Men (shocking, considering the title!), who all speak with a thick accent. It could very easily be tedious to read through, but I had little trouble (perhaps because I just recently watched Brave, too) and actually found it to be quite animated and vivid, to the point where I could hear them quite clearly as I read. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Last Policeman

The Last PolicemanThe Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well that was a surprise. I’ve never considered myself a fan of the noir detective stuff, so I really only picked this up because of the “asteroid is hitting the Earth” angle.

The basis of the plot is that an asteroid is about to hit the Earth, killing all life where it lands and most likely resulting in the death of any life that survives since the various dust clouds and ejecta will probably destroy the ability of the sun to breach the atmosphere. The dates of the imminent collision are just being calculated, and society is starting to fall apart as people decide “fuck this” and go off to do whatever it is they decide they want to do in their final 6 months or so. For many people, this includes simply ending it now.
The book starts off with a detective attending yet another suicide scene, but something about it doesn’t sit right with him, and he starts to investigate it as a possible murder. Naturally, everyone else around him is like “…who the fuck cares? The world is ending.” but he keeps at it.

The book spent hardly any time talking about the asteroid (although it did a good job painting it as a background setting) and instead spent all its time doing the noir detective thing. Surprisingly, I enjoyed all of it. All the things that normally annoy me about noir detective stuff – choppy terse sentences, random swaps to dour and unnecessary descriptions, manly fist fights – I actually enjoyed all of it. Not enough to actually look into further noir stuff, but enough to give this book a decent rating. I rolled my eyes through the obligatory “I am investigating you but you are a dame so I am going to sleep with you now” stuff, but I suppose it was required for this style of story.

Worth a look, especially if you already like the noir style detective story.

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The Dog Stars

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was in a post apocalyptic mood so I grabbed this one. The book is set in a world where the vast majority of the world’s population has died of a flu virus, and a good chunk of the remainder are suffering from a blood borne wasting disease, so even the survivors refuse to trust each other or work together if they should happen to meet. The story follows “Hig”, who is a private pilot who lovingly maintains his 80 year old cessna (“the beast”) and flies to the bush to go hunting with his dog to help replenish food stores. He managed to strike an uneasy alliance with a gun-nut and their lives consist of defending their territory (an airport…) and supplies from interlopers.

The world is great. The book doesn’t spend a whole lot of time lingering on describing the wastelands of post-disaster, and instead spends time developing the story and letting the world unfold around it. It was well done and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, one of the first casualties of the flu was apparently the quotation mark. Despite a decent amount of dialog, there is not one single quotation mark in this book. It was an odd choice, and I think the author tried to use it in a few places to add effect (you weren’t sure if they were thinking, speaking to themselves, which character it was meant to be… the confusion was deliberate) but I didn’t like it. It added a layer of confusion and difficulty throughout, and added very little benefit even in the places it was intended to enhance. I’m sure someone will come up with artsy-fartsy explanations of how it adds meaning, but I felt it was a poor choice.

The text itself is abrupt and kind of strange. It took a bit to get used to the style, but I felt like it fit well once I got into it. Normally it would piss me off to no end, so that it is some sort of accomplishment to admit that.

If you really dig down, nothing much actually happens in this book. The plot is aimless and wandering, just like the lives of what remains of humanity. There is no point and no purpose to their lives anymore, and the book conveys that well. Hig becomes lost, and then physically loses himself in the world, looking for something to latch on to.

Well written, well described, well done.

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Unwind (Unwind, #1)Unwind by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a dystopian world set in the future (where iPods and plasma screens are in antique stores, just in case you didn’t realize it was the future) where abortion is no longer allowed, so people can choose to “unwind” their unwanted children, thereby donating their organs and various body parts. It is believed that the child will continue to live on (albeit in pieces) through this process, while still doing some good through things like curing medical problems for others. You might imagine that if you are about to be “unwound”, you might feel a bit differently about that… and the story follows a group of children who attempt to escape and attain freedom.

I’m not sure what to say about this book. It popped up on my Goodreads recommendations and I thought “oh sweet, a dystopia that sounds interesting.” I love dystopian survival stories, so I nabbed it.

I will add a disclaimer that a number of things are happening in my life that are probably making me far less patient than I usually am, and that’s probably not entirely fair to this book… but I was almost immediately disappointed.

The writing failed me on a number of points.

1) Present tense. Ugghh. I mean, I’ve seen present tense used effectively, and I suspect it was chosen in this case to try to make the situations the characters were in a bit more urgent (“This is happening NOW and the outcome is uncertain”, as opposed to “This once happened and I am telling you about it, thereby indicating that someone did survive to be able to tell you about it.”), but it was awkwardly handled with some jarring tense transitions, and general discombobulation that I found distracting. I think present tense was the correct choice for the setting, but the actual execution of it was lacking.

2) Character development. I see a number of people lauding the characters in their reviews but I found them stereotypical and flat. The book strayed a bit into the “tell instead of show” territory when discussing their inner thoughts, and I got a bit impatient. It started to feel a lot like the things I used to write when I was a kid, where I was concerned that the reader might miss what I wanted the characters to feel so I had to describe it all in painstaking detail… but after all that work I’d look back and realize I spent a ton of time fleshing out completely arbitrary details.

– In addition, many of the characters simply don’t act in a believable manner. Some of the decisions they make leave you thinking “…what.”

Which leads me to…

3) Unresearched plot points. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to just take the worldbuilding as pure fiction, but I had a hard time swallowing the background behind the organ donations… which was an issue because that is the entire book. I don’t mean “unwinding” as a thing – that was an interesting idea that made me want to give the book a shot. I mean all the stuff about “muscle memory” and personalities living on within the cells of the donated parts, and the bits where brain transplants lead to split personalities. I have studied real world muscle memory and personality disorders and cellular functions, and I had to grit my teeth each and every time it came up in this book. I’m used to fiction getting split personalities wrong because it’s such a popular (and convenient) trope in the media, but so much of this book is inaccurate that I couldn’t just ignore it. So if you’re reading this book and wondering… no, cellular memory does not work that way. If you get a transplanted organ it will not have someone’s ghostly personality wandering around inside of it wondering what has happened and trying to take over your body.

But now that I’m done bitching, it wasn’t all bad! I actually enjoyed a fair amount of it and I think it was an interesting idea that has a lot of merit. I saw a movie recently where clone children were grown for the sole purpose of being harvested for organs for medical purposes, which I thought of many times during the course of this book. I quite enjoyed the movie despite the fact that it was a romance wrapped in a dystopia (why do they always do that), so I thought a similar story wrapped in a survival story would be right up my alley. Unfortunately the premise was executed far more believably in the movie, and the unrealistic bits of the book were too conspicuous for me.

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The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book solely because I was curious what Rowling would do. I also promised when I started that I would not compare it to Harry Potter. I generally leave authors out of mind while reading and try to judge books on their own merit, but since literally the only reason I read this book was because of the author, it was a bit difficult to separate them.

It’s a solid 3.5. Since Goodreads doesn’t let you vote for .5s, I debated endlessly over whether to round up or round down. I finally decided to round up, partially because I simply love the way Rowling writes (I could nitpick some passive and convoluted sentence construction, but everything is so vibrantly described that I let it pass), and partly because I think she tried to do something clever, and even if it didn’t work out, I still kind of appreciated it because I like it when authors try to do interesting things.

The book is set in a fictional town which is probably fairly typical… it has good upscale areas and seedy poor areas, and a local political body that squabbles over what to do about everything. One of the councillors drops dead, and while half the town mourns in shock, the other half scrambles to nominate themselves to fill the seat and further their own agendas.

That’s it. That’s the book. The story follows the reactions and day to day doings of several key players in the town (and their teenage children…). It wasn’t un-interesting… and it’s beautifully described with brutal honesty, going through topics like drug abuse and child protective services, high school drama, prejudice, attempted murder, theft, self mutilation, abusive husbands, mental illness, hateful gossip, pedophilia, sex of both the consensual and nonconsensual varieties… if you can think of a horrible thing, it’s probably described in vivid detail in this book. (Hmm, there was no cannibalism though! So that’s something.)
There’s pretty much no other plot devices than “this is what this character is doing now”, which was my main complaint… there was nothing driving the story. but there was nothing “hooking” me to come back and find out what happens next.

It is 100% character driven, and one of my other complaints was that the first 25% of the book is spent introducing you to all of the characters. One after the other after the other until everyone blurred together in a giant amalgamated mass. I’m already breaking my rule and comparing it to Harry Potter – in HP, we had a ton of characters who were all fleshed out, but the reader was introduced to them gradually as Harry met them. That’s a decent means of exposition. The protagonist is just as clueless as the reader, so we learn together. In Casual Vacancy, everyone in the town knows everyone else and we’re dumped into the middle of it. I’m a fan of showing not telling, but a bit more orientation would have helped the book get rolling I think.

The second problem with the characters was that I hated all of them. Well… not hated I guess. I hated some of them (probably because I was supposed to), and didn’t give a shit about the rest (and I’m not sure if I was supposed to…). It wasn’t until the very end of the book that I realized this was probably on purpose, because the beginning of the book shows you the shallow petty sides of everyone, and it’s not until later that their more intimate secrets are revealed and you understand their history and motivations. I suspect you’re supposed to do an about-face on many of the characters later on and gain some sympathy for them THEN, which honestly I think is kind of a neat thing to attempt in this book. Taking abhorrent characters and turning them into everyone’s favourite is something George RR Martin manages to do in A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s one of the things I was most impressed with. Unfortunately, with no sympathetic characters to latch on to early in the story, it falls a bit flat. The reader needs a reason to keep reading, and I really only kept reading because I wanted to give it a fair review…

Another thing that might be kind of clever, is that by introducing the characters with only their shallow petty sides visible, the reader is tempted to make shallow judgements of the characters. Which is exactly what the characters are doing to each other throughout the book. At the end, when the reader gets to see “behind the curtain” and see their motivations, it’s a revelation into how those types of judgements are flawed, and simultaneously a revelation into the flawed motivations of the town as a whole.
I’m probably reading too much into it, but the point still stands – the reader has to actually make it to the end before the story becomes anything other than shallow and unfocused.

And one final, sort of minor complaint. I mentioned how every sort of horrible thing is vividly described – The book is very sexually explicit. You can hardly turn 10 pages before tripping over a penis in this book. In MOST of the cases it makes sense, but in a number of them I felt like it was being sexually explicit simply to throw some shock factor in there. Here we go with the HP comparison again – I felt like it was artificially explicit simply because Rowling wanted to distance herself from the “children’s author” typecasting. It felt like she wrote a brutally explicit book simply to say “See? Look, this isn’t a children’s book, is it?” and she tried just a teeny bit too hard in places.

Once you make it to the end, the last 25% or so is a page turner and I enjoyed it very much. The whole “denouement” is full of action and you *finally* want to keep going to see what happens next. It’s just getting there that’s the issue.
And once you’re done… the ending might leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, too. I would suggest avoiding this book if you are prone to clinical depression.

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