Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Martian by Andrew Weir

I “borromartianwed” the Kindle edition of this techy sci-fi novel from my dad — who reads a lot of cheap books on his Kindle. While I think he makes up for quality with quantity, he raved enough about this book that I thought I’d give it a try.

Andrew Weir’s novel about an astronaut left for dead on Mars attempting to survive everything thrown at him is a fun, though sometimes tedious, read. It’s hard sci-fi with lots of technical explanations that I generally just let roll over me as I waited for the protagonist, with the help of mission control back on Earth, to overcome the immense alien world around him. This book is the ultimate Man vs. Nature and while the prose is nothing to write home about, the book moves along at a decently-paced clip.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes sci-fi and wants some light reading for the beach or pool.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #6: The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner, as the title would suggest, takes place over the course of a meal between two brothers and their wives at a chic Dutch restaurant. The narrator Paul is as unreliable as narrators come — a fact that comeImages out slowly over the course of the book. Paul has a wife, a teenage son…and some disturbing rage issues. Serge, his brother, is set to become the next Prime Minister, though he’s shown to be (from his brother’s pov) t a boorish oaf. Serge and his wife also have two teenage sons (one adopted). It is these sons, who have gotten themselves into some serious trouble, that the two couples are dining together to discuss.

First, the novel’s strengths. The pacing is tight and the novel is suspenseful, at least through the first 2/3′s of the story as we get deeper into Paul’s mind regarding the current events as well as his past breakdowns that shed light on the present. It’s a quick read and I did feel compelled to keep going, to find out just what happens to this family.

But the weaknesses. I love a good unreliable narrator and Paul is just that. This novel is being compared to the recent Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and the comparison is valid. But like that book, there is not one character in The Dinner that is likable. In fact, as more is revealed, I found all of the characters despicable. As the horrific nature of just what those teenage boys have been doing (think Clockwork Orange) is revealed, my ability to empathize with any of the characters became obsolete. You have to suspend some serious disbelief to buy in to the actions and reactions of their parents as they discover what atrocities their sons are committing.

Every person in the novel comes off as a sociopath and it is clear that the apples don’t fall far from the trees.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I’ve alwaydog starss enjoyed a good post-apocalyptic novel, be it zombie, alien, or, as in The Dog Stars, a super flu that has wiped out 99% of the population. What stands out in the debut novel by Peter Heller, is a world filled with both the ugliness of human behavior almost in contrast with immense beauty of the landscape, as seen from the main character’s old Cessna.  And in the end, this is a novel filled with a cautious hope and optimism, that just maybe love and compassion can survive.

Hig lost his wife to the flu, some 9 years prior to the events that start the novel. He lives in a small airport hangar, defending his little slice of life along with a cantankerous, often scary partner named Bagley, as well as his best friend and dog. A deep sadness permeates Hig’s inner thoughts, but he also finds some contentment while scouting the countryside from the sky, as well as fishing and hunting the land, with his faithful canine companion.

A chance transmission received from a city past the point of no-return (the point at which there would not be enough fuel to fly home) sticks with Hig. And after thinking and waiting (and killing, in defense) for 3 years, events bring Hig to set out and explore. What results is…well, read it for yourself. The prose has a unique beat of its own, poetic even, with a hint of Hemingway thrown in. There are so many post-apocalyptic stories and novels out there, it’s hard to find an original way to tell the story of humanity’s continued survival anymore. But Heller brings an optimism to a theme that is often quite the opposite.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #4: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

ImageThis book has been on my Amazon wishlist for a while; each time I thought about ordering it, something else seemed more compelling. I wish I hadn’t waited so long (thank you, public library, for making reading on a whim so easy!) to read what turned out to be a quite engaging, modern urban fantasy.

At the beginning of the story, set in an unnamed Middle Eastern military state, we meet The protagonist, Alif,who takes his online handle from the first letter of the alphabet. Out of high school, but barely, Alif is a hacker genius who, from the apartment he shares with his mother, runs a cloud where all types of dissidents are able to digitally converse, and stay hidden from The Hand, the head of the State’s electronic security force. When Alif is jilted by his aristocratic lover for a prince that can provide her the lifestyle to which she is accustomed, a chain of events is set in motion that has widespread implications for the future of this country and the revolutionaries fed up with the status quo.

Wilson deflty weaves a story that combines the seen and unseen, religion and philosophy, and a struggle for life and death — not just for the characters involved, but for the world itself. Driven underground in an effort to evade The Hand’s henchmen, Alif and his closest friend, Dina, are forced to seek aid from the underworld…and the unseen world. Ancient Arabic/Muslim themes, djinn and other magical beasts, and current political ideas are brought together in unique and surprising ways. From the first page the book has an energy that speaks to modern times but draws upon ideas from the fantastical ancient world. With the energy of the Arab Spring, the book offers a modern view of the Arab world that is hard to put down.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #3: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I founImaged this book for a $1 at last year’s library book sale and it has sat in on my “to-be-read” list ever since. In the meantime, I read last year’s captivating State of Wonder, by the author and finally last month it was time to taste another of Patchett’s unique flavor of magical realism.

Bel Canto is set in an unnamed South American country and begins the night of a Japanese businessman’s birthday bash at the Vice-Presidential mansion. The star of the night is Roxanne Coss, a famous American opera singer with whom Mr. Hosokawa, the businessman being wooed by the government of said country, is well, a bit obsessed. When revolutionaries storm the mansion and take the crowd hostage, the story turns into a tragicomic story of love found in the oddest of places.

Like State of Wonder, the novel requires a certain suspension of disbelief. The characters, from the youngest, lowliest guerrilla fighter to the vice-president, to an international array of businessmen, to the generals who have gotten themselves and their people into this mess, without an exception they are captivated by the American singer. But what captivated me, more, was the way the novel unexpectedly turned into a love story between the Japanese polyglot interpreter and a smart but quiet female guerrilla.

Patchett has a way of humanizing every character, giving them a detailed and fleshed-out history in just a page or two. We sympathize and empathize with all of the characters caught in an obvious no-win situation. Like the novels players, I wished that the book continued on and on as they loved and learned from each other. And though little attention is actually given in the novel to flesh out the desperation of the terrorists, that they would commit such acts as kidnapping, we know that in the end the government will always win.

Now to that ending. Without spoiling, I will say that there is an epilogue that feels tacked on and completely out of place with the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, once read you know it is there. I would like, however, to think of the novel ending before this. Even before the last few pages in the final chapter. That these characters still live in that limbo, dream-state where music, sport, learning and love reign free.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #2: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Let me start by saying that I am a 40 year old wife and mother who does not generally read young adult fiction (ok, I did read Hunger Games…). I have nothing against the genre and read a ton of it back in my own YA reading days decades ago, but I don’t hunt that section out in the bookstore. I did, however, download The Fault in our Stars to my Kindle and read it all at once during a rainy Sunday last week.

The main characters are high-school aged kids with cancer. Hazel, the protagonist, has terminal thyroid cancer that has also ravaged her lungs. Augustus, her love interest, has lost a leg to cancer as well. I had a hard time, at first, warming up to these kids who come off at first as rather pretentious and sThe_Fault_in_Our_Starstiff, trying to hard to be cool and all METAPHORICAL. The book has all the trappings of YA fiction, as I remember it from the 80′s — friends, fumbling love, awkward first-time sex, and talks about the meaning of life.

The book went off the rails a bit when the kids go in search of their beloved author, Peter Van Houten,  who also wrote a book full of pretentious characters with cancer with an incomplete ending. This secondary character is completely ludicrous and I found many of the other characters poorly fleshed out.

Another admission — I did get choked up a few times. Though it took time to warm up to them, the characters did grow on me. Their medical ups and downs were real and familiar to me as a nurse. I felt for them like I feel for my patients. I hurt for them and their families. In fact, I probably identified most with the parents in the book. I found myself thinking about my own son, and how I would deal (or not) if he also had cancer himself at such a young age.

I know this book and author have a lot of fans. I can’t say I’m quite one of them or that I’m going to keep on reading more YA. But in the end Green captured what it must be like to have cancer and live with grace and strength, not because you have some source of inner power, but because you have no choice.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #1: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone is a sweeping epic of a novel centered on two twins, born of the union between an Indian nun and an English doctor in a mission hospital on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. The novel takes on love, loss, betrayal, revolution and ultimately forgiveness as it spans many decades in the lives of the twins, Marion and Shiva, and those closest to them.

I went in to this book with no knowledge of the subject matter, though I had heard many praise the novel. Immediately, I was caught up in theses character’s lives, first in India for several, then Ethiopia for the bulk of the novel. Even the smallest characters are fleshed out and fully realized, in a way that is both accessible and educational. In addition, the medcutting for stoneical and historical stories that set the stage for much of the action are well-written and fascinating.

The biggest flaw of this book is the pacing. At about 650 pages, this book is a long read. While not a complaint, per se, but the culmination of interwoven stories comes to a head only in the last 75 pages, making it feel rushed after the leisurely pace of much of the novel. However, the wonderful prose that Verghese uses to bring this story to life more than makes up for the hasty ending.