Capsule Book Reviews: October 2013

I’m alive! (Barely.) Who knew that being a first-year teacher was as hard as they said?

I apologize for my long hiatus. While I’ve still been reading, I have not been great about reviewing. I haven’t been great at anything recently, and I am going to try to make more of an effort to keep my work/life balance a little more…balanced.

In the meantime, enjoy some capsule reviews of the books I’ve been reading these past months! (Reviews after the jump!)

A Winter Haunting, by Dan Simmons
I have been on a huge Simmons binge lately, and he’s quickly become one of my favorite authors. Sadly, A Winter Haunting doesn’t really rise to the level of his other works. The gist: an academic returns to his hometown, where a boyhood tragedy still haunts him, in order to recover from the ruins he’s made of his life; mysterious occurrences begin to convince him that he is either insane or being haunted. Parts of the book were subtly creepy, such as the mysterious black dogs, but I felt as though I was always waiting for the really scary stuff. Sadly, I didn’t have even one nightmare as a result of this book! Still, a mediocre Simmons novel is pretty enjoyable. If you’re new to Simmons, I would just recommend The Terror or Hyperion first. Three out of five stars.

Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
While the premise was interesting–a futuristic United States where nearly everything has been privatized, capitalism exists in its pure form, and the government is hobbled and toothless–it was let down by flat characterization, logistical concerns, and telegraphed plot twists. I think the impacts of unfettered capitalism are well worth exploring! But the idea, for example, of people taking on their employer’s last names, leading to names like “Jennifer Government” and “Hack Nike,” was a little too silly for me, and should have been an early warning sign that the book’s treatment of serious topics would be pretty shallow. Two out of five stars.

Zodiac, by Robert Graysmith
The Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the Bay area in California in the ’60s and ’70s, has never been caught. The lack of closure made this an interesting, but ultimately frustrating, read. Learning about the investigation, the suspects, the detectives, and the victims was interesting, and seeing the Zodiac’s actual letters was suitably creepy. If reading about serial killers is your cup of tea–as it is mine!–you could do worse than to read Zodiac, since Graysmith worked at the SF Chronicle during the time of the killings, and does an admirable job setting up the scene. The cynical part of me can’t help but wonder, though, if the police force was truly as grateful for and impressed by Graysmith’s private sleuthing as he made it sound. Three out of five stars.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
A book that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be: a coming-of-age novel, a meandering look into white middle-class racism, a treatise on adoption, a discussion of terrorism in a post-9/11 world, or a supernatural novel. Despite the book’s own confusion, I enjoyed it more than I had expected. I think I have a soft spot for sensitive, slightly-lost, college-aged heroines, having so recently been one myself. In tone and in plot-wandering, it reminded me a bit of The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud; if you enjoyed that, you will probably enjoy this. Three out of five stars.

Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals, by Gordon Grice
I love books about the perils of the natural world, and so I felt a bit let down by Grice’s Deadly Kingdom. I did appreciate that he covered many creatures that are often left out of “dangerous animal” discussions, like spiders, primates, and jellyfish. The presentation and analysis just felt a bit like skimming the surface, however, since so many parts of the animal kingdom were covered. Certain chapters felt piecemeal, linked together by study about study and not about any seeming passion or interest for the subject. My favorite parts were Grice’s reminisces about growing up on a farm and encountering many of these dangerous creatures firsthand, which makes me think that I would enjoy his other book a bit more.  Two out of five stars.

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