Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Review: Fool Moon

Fool Moon
by Jim Butcher
Roc, 2001
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Mike Thompson and Mike Grace

Fool Moon is the worst kind of book to review. As much as I want to tear it to pieces on a few technical levels, I just can't because I had so much fun reading it. Then again, if you've ever read a Jim Butcher novel before, you pretty much know what you're in for.

If not, here's how Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series works: Harry Dresden is a wizard in modern day Chicago. In fact, he's the only wizard-for-hire in town. While Harry has great magical talent, his business sense is lackluster, so he's always taking odd jobs either for the local police force or the occasional wealthy private citizen. His adventures put him at loggerheads with dark wizards, demons, and the criminal underworld, while exposing him to an ongoing love triangle between a beautiful journalist and a scrappy police lieutenant.

As you can imagine, Harry's adventures are pulpy at best, trashy at worst, and  the kind of book you could very easily read in one sitting if you have a few hours to kill. 

For what it's worth, Jim Butcher is a fairly talented writer, and has a real knack for action scenes, strong characters, and natural dialogue. He's also highly educated and shows it off at regular intervals with references to Shakespeare, Germanic opera, and pop culture from Dracula to Star Trek. Both Butcher as unseen director and Harry as narrator have appealing voices and amiable personalities.

The plot, this time around, involves a series of grisly murders that Harry must investigate, aided by the Chicago police force and an adversarial FBI team. Due to the murders' proximity to the full moon and a number of canine imprints on the bodies, Harry suspects a werewolf as the culprit, and the investigation begins. As expected, there are good guys, bad guys, betrayals, plot twists, and plenty of sex and violence along the way, but it's nothing you couldn't figure out once all the major players have been introduced.

The biggest problem with Fool Moon - and let's not beat around the bush, it's a fairly sizable problem - is with Harry himself. Harry is a bit of a Mary-Sue. He's not an egregious offender, of course - he's not all-powerful, he loses plenty of fights, and he gets banged up pretty badly during his investigation. However, he often keeps the truth to himself, withholding vital information from friends - especially female ones - that, by all rights, might save their lives, or the lives of others. However, Harry feels justified in every deception and rule-bend. If this comes back to bite him in later books, feel free to disregard this whole paragraph, but Harry's dishonesty in the name of chivalry is not a great character trait when played as a positive quality.

Still, Fool Moon is an enjoyable read from start to finish, and keeps the momentum going for The Dresden Files series at large. Since urban fantasy is not my forte, all I can say here is that if you're interested in the genre, you could do much worse than Jim Butcher. Start with Storm Front, as it's the first entry in the series, and should give you a good idea what to expect. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Hyperion

by Dan Simmons
Doubleday, 1989
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by David Martinez

So, it's shameful confession time: I was supposed to read Hyperion back when I was a sophomore in high school. My uncle bought me a paperback copy (you know, way back in the caveman days when we used to read books printed on dead trees. Odd, I know) and insisted that it would be one of the best sci-fi books I ever read. I read the first two chapters, thought they were great, and then promptly put it down to read whatever the latest Star Wars book was.

Please forgive me. I was young and foolish and in love with a movie series that George Lucas had not yet finished ruining.

Anyway, nine years later, I've made it all the way through Hyperion without wanting to put it down once. The book can best be described as a mash-up between Dune and The Canterbury Tales, although it doesn't read very much like either one of them. Yes, the book focuses on a bunch of offworlders who find themselves on a planet caught in-between a population of zealous natives and a hostile invasion force. True, the seven travelers in question each tell very different stories in order to pass the time. However, in spite of its inspirations - which range from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Keats to Asimov - Hyperion is very much an original story, and the world of sci-fi literature is all the better for it.

While there is way too much going on in the story to sum it up neatly, I'll give it a go anyway: seven very different travelers find themselves on a pilgrimage to the world of Hyperion in order to make contact with the Shrike, an incredibly destructive alien presence that they have all come in contact with before in one way or another. They might be able to save the galaxy from a barbarian invasion - or they might just get eviscerated. Either way, they decide to share their stories as they make their way to the mysterious Time Tombs where the Shrike resides.

That's pretty much it. The stories themselves are the main focus, but by piecing together background details, you'll learn exactly what's been going on in the galaxy at large and what role the Shrike might play in the fate of galactic civilization. Each story has a different writing style, ranging from epistolary journal entries to military sci-fi to a film noir detective story. Each character, from the bitter scholar Sol Weintraub to the stoic soldier Fedmahn Kassad, is extremely flawed, but still likable.

The book, however, does have one serious problem, but it's hard to address without going into major spoilers. To keep things as vague as possible, I'll just say that the book has a very unsatisfying ending. There are some important plot points that happen towards the end, but the actual resolution of the book basically amounts to "buy the sequel." There's no real climax, and it ends right before it gets to what promises to be the best part of the story. Read at your own risk, and be sure to set aside another $8 or so for the next installment.

Recommending a "better" book here is tough, as Hyperion is actually one of the better-written, smarter sci-fi tales out there. If you want to know where about half the plot comes from, though, be sure to read Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Actually, read Foundation no matter what. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
Vintage, 2010
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Erin Donohue

My first exposure to magical realist Haruki Murakami was a short story called "The Dancing Dwarf." In a nutshell, a man who spends his day making elephants (not statues or replicas - actual, real elephants) enlists the help of a malevolent, dancing spirit to help him win a woman's heart. This all happens within the span of about twenty pages, and it's a wild ride from beginning to end. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of Murakami's most recent and best-known novels, is kind of the opposite.

Rest assured, there is some very strange stuff in this book, but you'd never know it from most of the plot developments. Toru Okada, an ordinary man living on the outskirts of Tokyo, sets out to find his missing cat and, in so doing, starts a chain reaction involving Toru's emotionally distant wife, his malicious brother-in-law, a traumatized WWII veteran, a pair of psychic sisters, a death-obsessed high school girl, and a mysterious woman who communicates exclusively through lewd telephone calls. There isn't much of a plot to speak of. It takes almost 300 pages for a real event to set the plot in motion, and another 250 before Toru takes some proactive steps to bring about the climax.

The novel's biggest issues all stem from its main character. While Toru Okada is a charming everyman, he is also one of the most lazy, unambitious, passive leading men this side of the Dude. He doesn't work, he accepts criticism without comment, and nothing seems to anger or excite him. This drags what could have been a concise story into one that's over 600 pages long, with very little actual action happening during that time. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's pacing is glacial and branches off into nearly irrelevant digressions about side characters frequently.

However, taken as a whole, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle works, despite the fact that without a plot or a compelling main character, it really shouldn't. Murakami's writing (and Jay Rubin's excellent translation) makes Toru's constant stream of thoughts and inaction a joy rather than a slog, and the book's climax and ending make the interminable buildup very nearly worthwhile. The characters (even Toru, to a certain extent) are offbeat and memorable, and when the supernatural elements come into play towards the end, they elevate what could have been a trite suburban drama into a life-or-death adventure.

I don't have a solid recommendation for this one. If you can endure 600 pages of nothing much happening for the promise of good writing and an excellent conclusion, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is definitely a good read. Otherwise, you can find more concise magical realist tales in Murakami's own short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes. Be sure to check out some of Franz Kafka's work as well if you'd like to learn about one of Murakami's biggest influences.