Looking back through the archives of Brews and Books, I noticed that it’s been far too long since I’ve put up a proper book review – especially one that wasn’t about a beer guide.
Well, I’m not going to break my streak now.
Don’t worry. I will have some full length (read: more that a couple paragraphs) reviews this summer. Today, though, I’m just going to fire off my thoughts on a few of my recent book conquests.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
“Before she became The Girl from Nowhere — the One Who Walked In, The First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years — she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.”
How in the world have I not written about this book yet? To put it bluntly, The Passage is my favorite book of 2010, and one of the best books I’ve read in years. The story, which jumps between over a dozen characters and spans hundreds of years, concerns a viral outbreak that changes those infected into monsters that are drawn heavily from vampires. While Cronin wears his influences pretty plainly on his sleeve – Lonesome Dove, Lord of the Rings, The Stand, Dracula, and a hundred others – the book is never derivative. Seriously, if you like good writing go and buy this book, as the adventure is more than worth the cover price.
Horns by Joe Hill
“But when he was swaying above the toilet, [Ig] glanced at himself in the mirror over the sink and saw he had grown horns while he slept. He lurched in surprise, and for the second time in twelve hours he pissed on his feet.”
Horns, Joe Hill’s second novel, is a strange book. The gist of the story is this; a guy by the name of Ignatius Parrish didn’t rape and murder his girlfriend Merrin, but everyone in his home town thinks he did. After a night of heavy drinking, Ig wakes up to find horns have grown from his forehead – horns that cause everyone he talks with to tell him their secrets and desires. With this new power, Ig decides to find out who did kill Merrin. So the book is part revenge fantasy, part murder mystery, and part sci-fi/fantasy fare. I didn’t much care for it (you can hear me discuss it on the Murmur.com podcast), but that doesn’t mean Horns wasn’t a gripping and thought-provoking read.
Mr Peanut by Adam Ross
“When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.”
Dark. Dark, dark, dark. At many points, Mr. Peanut is an uncomfortable read. The book swirls around three main characters; David Pepin, a man who is the prime suspect in his wife’s murder, and Hastroll and Sheppard, the two detectives investigating the mysterious circumstances of her death. With this narrative framework in place, Mr. Peanut is much more concerned with the minds of these three men, and an examination of the deepest, darkest thoughts men have when in marriages in relationships. On the back of the book, Stephen King calls the book the “most riveting look at the dark side of marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf“, and Kirkus compares the novel to American Psycho. Both comparisons are apt, though I’d toss in a touch of the escape fantasies and viciousness of Updike’s Rabbit books into the mix. The book made me fell bad to be a man, but the mesmerizing story and fascinatingstudy of love made Mr. Peanut impossible to put down.
Extra Lives by Tom Bissell
“Today, the most consistently pleasurable pursuit in my life is playing video games. Unfortunately, the least useful and financially solvent pursuit in my life is also playing video games. For instance, I woke up this morning at 8 A.M. fully intending to write this chapter. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5 P.M.”
For someone who grew up in a world saturated with video games (I was born the same year that the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the US), Extra Lives was crucial reading, and in a lot of ways is the first book of it’s kind. Sure, books like Smartbomb, Rules of Play and Replay have covered the game industry and gaming history, but this book is the first I’ve read to offer a real critical look at the entertainment form known as video games. Bissell explores just what games can and can’t accomplish as entertainment, and holds the successes and failures of the form up to other narrative media like film and literature. Bissell writes intelligently, self-deprecating when he needs to be and honest about the high and low art in his favorite hobby. I’m not sure if I’d rank Extra Lives up with Bazin’s film criticism in terms of impact (or with Anatomy of Criticism in terms of creating a critical framework), but it’s certainly the best book on games – and why they matter – that I’ve read.
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari
“He took us in unsurprised and said in fair enough English, ‘Excuse me. Have you seen three girls?’ Pickett and I exchanged a look. We had to admit we had. And then the whole business started.”
How do we deal with death and loss? This is the question that Jacob Ritari explores in Taroko Gorge. Through the eyes of a veteran American reporter, an elderly Taiwanese detective and two Japanese teens, we experience the disappearance of and subsequent search for three students in Taroko National Park. The mystery part of the story – what happened to these girls? – is done competently enough, but the real accomplishment of the novel is the four characters’ distinct and realistic responses to loss, from the optimistic adolescents to the detective who has dealt with dozens of missing persons. Ritari is also skilled enough to write everything straight, and doesn’t slip into the dramatic twists or melodrama of many mysteries. Truly a book that sticks with you.
The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
“Every single human being is part of a grand universal plan. That’s what my Nana always says. We’re not alive just to lounge around and contemplate our umbilicus. We’re metaphysical beings!”
I LOVED this book, a coming-of-age story about girls, teen angst and punk rock music. Our narrator is Sebastian, a boy who, until just after the start of the novel, rarely leaves the geodesic dome he lives in with his grandmother. After Nana has a stroke Sebastian travels out into the world and befriends Jared, a moper with a transplanted heart and a love of The Misfits. In Sebastian we have one of the quirkiest, most unique narrators I’ve read in quite a while, and the book is both funny and touching. Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog reviews the book far more eloquently than I can, so I’ll defer to her to finish this bout of handselling.
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
“To a rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with.”
If you like good science writing, funny nonfiction, or Roach’s previous books Spook, Stiff and Bonk, you can stop reading this blurb and go buy the book. Roach is very good at what she does, and she’s in top form writing about the ins and outs of space travel and exploration. Mary talks about all kinds of interesting aspects of space travel I’d never thought of (Does leaving the Earth make people more likely to go crazy? How do you test everything to make sure it’ll work in zero gravity?), along with the dirtier topics like sex and bodily functions that she seems to relish. Funny, funny, laugh out loud stuff all the way through – and plenty educational to boot.