Review of American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
There are no spoilers in this review.
I'd heard of Neil Gaiman before but had never read anything by him before. What I'd heard was fairly limited; he did something along the lines of dark fantasy, and the people I had talked to about him seemed to either love him or not really care for him. I also knew that he'd recently been on the TV show Big Bang Theory, which elevated my expectations for this book a bit since that show generally gets pretty big-name nerds, er, guest stars. But for the most part I went into listening to the Audible version of this book largely not knowing what to expect.
What I got was one of the best books I've ever read.
The writing in this book was simply fantastic. The bar for the kind of writing I admire had previously come from people like Hugh Howey (Wool) and Justin Cronin (The Passage). Now, however, another tier has been revealed, courtesy of Mr. Gaiman.
The plot, while not the page-turner that another recent favorite of mine (Mistborn) was, was still very engaging. A mysterious character named Shadow gets out of prison after three years, only to find the life he expected to resume with his wife on the outside completely turned upside down. He falls in with a strange man named Wednesday, who seems to know as much or more about Shadow as Shadow knows about himself. Shadow goes on a series of adventures with Wednesday, and encounters a number of strange and interesting characters.
Gaiman excels at character development. Several of the ones in this book appeared in vignettes that were only tangentially related to the main story, but which did a wonderful job of establishing the overall tone of the book. In fact, a few of the vignettes had some of the most compelling, memorable writing in the book. I'll definitely be referring back to American Gods when I tackle writing my first short story (which I plan on doing soon). Within two or three pages I found myself caring deeply about the characters and what was going to happen to them next. The pacing was just right, unhurried but never too slow.
What I found most amazing about this book was how deftly Mr. Gaiman captured the essence of the things that go into making up the miasmic concoction that is America. The breadth and depth of the knowledge he demonstrated regarding all things "Americana," from its roadside attractions in the middle of nowhere to its idyllic small towns with a much darker history than its inhabitants care to acknowledge, were profound and moving. It's all the more impressive given he's a British national who'd been living in the U.S. only a few years before American Gods was published in 2001. Apparently, Mr. Gaiman took a rather circuitous route to finding success as a novelist. He started out first as a reporter and then, after discovering Alan Moore's work, dove head-first into graphic novels. He authored the very successful Sandman series, which won him the World Fantasy award, so apparently there are not too genre fiction awards left for him to win at this point.
I do have one caveat, namely that people who don't care for what I'll call "kinky sex" should probably pass on this book. Calling it kinky isn't quite right, however. A word like "phantasmagorical" would probably be more apt. In fact, there was a scene near the beginning that was so weird and off-putting for me that I almost gave up on the book. Fortunately, I persevered, and that particular scene turned out to be by far the weirdest one. It also came to make more sense later on once some additional context had been added.
The only negative I have to mention, and it is a mild one, was with the ending, which for me was a bit of a letdown. For some reason, I expected a slam-bam big action finale, but that turned out not to be the case. But it was still a satisfying conclusion, and far better than most books I've read with writing this good.
I learned after the fact that American Gods, which came out in 2001, won not only the Hugo and Nebula science fiction awards, but also the Locus award for fantasy and the Bram Stoker award for horror. This cross-genre acclaim reflects what I felt while listening to it, namely that it was a textbook example of why the term "speculative fiction" was developed. It's a book that goes outside the bounds of reality but doesn't fit cleanly into any of the standard genres for books of that type. So it makes perfect sense that it won a whole mess of different awards. It should have been considered for whatever the big award for historical fiction is, if it wasn't, because several of the vignettes had fascinating and what seemed to me to be accurate portrayals of life at various points in history, from the dawn of agriculture to modern-day America.
Another big part of what made this book so enjoyable was the spectacular narration by George Guidall. I have only two other audiobooks to compare it against, but even from this tiny sample size I'd have no trouble believing it—his work blew the other two away. It was like being thrown without warning into a show on Broadway when all you'd heard up until that moment were high school musicals. After I finished it, I felt sad and empty for the next week on my morning commute, and I realized how much I'd looked forward to hearing the next quarter-chapter each time I got in the car.
When I read up about him afterward, I learned Mr. Guidall is considered by some to be the king of audiobooks, having narrated over 1,300 of them! I went ahead and ordered Mr. Guidall's version of Don Quixote for my dad's birthday; we'll see if he thinks as much of Mr. Guidall's work as I did.
I'll definitely be reading some more of Mr. Gaiman's novels in the future, with Neverwhere sounding the most interesting at the moment. In the meantime, I highly recommend this story.
Book review of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
There are no spoilers in this review.
I had heard a great deal about Annihilation and was very curious to read it. In some ways, the book really delivered. But in others, it fell disappointingly short, particularly the audiobook version. In the end, it wound up being a 4 because of the writing quality. However, when it was over I felt a bit disappointed, that it had the bones to be a 5-star story but somehow missed the mark.
To start with the positive, I thought that overall the writing in this book was very high. I really enjoyed Mr. VanderMeer's description of settings, and the use of introspection on the part of the main character, the biologist. I found the overall concept was really interesting as well. This is a first-contact story, in which the four main characters, all women, were known only as "the biologist," "the psychologist," "the archeologist," and "the surveyor," are sent to investigate a place called "Area X," which only the U.S. government knows about and that has been exhibiting paranormal phenomena for many years.
The current four-woman team is the twelfth expedition into Area X (which I thought was a rather lame play off of Area 51) to explore the goings-on there. The previous expeditions, by and large, have all met a variety of untimely demises, whether group suicide, killing each other, or mysteriously returning to the outside world as shells of their former selves before dying of cancer a few months later. To be honest I found the basic premise of the book ridiculous, namely that the government would choose to send in only tiny teams of people into an area they knew might be harboring some form of extraterrestrial life. But overall, I thought the book did an excellent job setting the scene and getting the reader curious about what was happening inside Area X, and what would happen to this particular expedition.
However, I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and unfortunately, this turned out to be a big part of what didn't work for me. I'm still new to audiobooks, having only listened to Wil Wheaton's narration of Ready Player One before this one. I really enjoyed the audio version of RPO, and so was eagerly anticipating Carolyn McCormick's reading of Annihilation. She had narrated the Hunger Games series, and so had great credentials. But whether it was the sound of her voice or the way she read the story, by the time I was halfway through the book I found the narration really getting on my nerves.
I was also bothered by the frequent interruption of the plot, particularly in the second half, with flashbacks or long introspective asides. Initially, I found the flashbacks non-intrusive and providing helpful context for how the main character got herself involved in the expedition. But over time they provided less and less useful information and just got in the way of the story. I would have skimmed over them had I been reading. Similarly, the main character engaged in near-continuous introspection. At first it was interesting, but later on, when things started happening it seemed an unrealistic way to react and also slowed things down.
Finally, I found the climax to be a bit, well, anticlimactic. It was still cool and brought to mind a couple of my favorite books, Contact and Roadside Picnic. But the subtle ending of Contact didn't deliver the goods for a lot of people (although it did for me) but I had a similar reaction to the ending of this book.
I'm probably being a bit harsh, but it's because my gut tells me this book had the potential to be awesome, but somehow didn't hit the home run I was looking for. But it was very interesting and engaging story overall, and for much of the book, the writing was excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie because I have a feeling it may be one of those relatively rare cases where the movie turns out better than the book.
So I saw the movie, and suffice it to say that my hopes that it would be better than the book were not unmet. While the book lost its way in the second half, the movie lost its way even earlier. For one, it added a bunch of action scenes that were out-of-place with the story's essence as a cerebral thriller. It took out some of the stuff I found intriguing about the psychologist's character, and most critically, it altered the ending in a way that actually made it even more anticlimactic than in the book. So while I recommend the book, I'd pass on the movie, which I'd only give 2 out of 5 stars.
Book review of Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
This review does not contain any spoilers.
One of the podcasts I listen to is called "Writing Excuses." It's a weekly podcast hosted by Brandon Sanderson and a rotating group of other authors who give writing advice on a variety of different topics. The podcasts are only 15-20 minutes long, and they are excellent: short, entertaining, and packed full of super-useful information about writing fiction.
Sanderson writes epic fantasy, which isn't a genre I'm normally that interested in, but over this past Christmas, I saw he had written a book called Oathbringer, which Amazon dubbed the most "unputdownable" book of 2017. Well, this piqued my interest, because what author doesn't want readers to be unable to put their book down, right?
So I went to Amazon and discovered Oathbringer is priced at $16.99. For the e-book. Riiiiight.
So, rather than fork over $17 to Macmillan (sorry, Brandon), I went to my local library and was pleased to find they still have books you can borrow and read for free! Not surprisingly, Oathbringer was not available, nor were either of the previous two books in the series. However, I did find one book, called Mistborn, which he wrote in 2010. So I checked it out and read it while I was on vacation.
Damn, it was good.
If Oathbringer is more unputdownable than this book, I may avoid it, because I don't think I can handle another string of sleepless nights like I went through with Mistborn. This book kept me reading until the wee hours of the morning for about five straight nights. I don't know yet what it was that turned me into the literary equivalent of a heroin addict, but I'm going to spend some time analyzing this book to figure it out. I'm going to re-read the first fifty or so pages, break down the plot and character development in each chapter, and study the transitions between chapters because I have got to put some of what made this book so good into my next book!
I will say I was a little bit disappointed in the ending. I won't give any spoilers, but when I finished it at 12:30 a.m. last night, my initial reaction was "Yeeessss!!!!!" But after I woke the next morning and reflected on the ending, I realized there were a few elements added at the end that didn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Partly this is because Sanderson did such a good job establishing the rules for how allomancy and feruchemy work (these are superpowers granted through ingestion or possession of metals) as well as the physical characteristics of two types of people (terrismen and steel inquisitors). Because of this, it was pretty clear those rules got violated in a couple of big ways at the end.
Nonetheless, the ending was still very satisfying, and the ride up to that point was fantastic. What I found notable about this book for me was that Sanderson's writing to me has no weaknesses. He does an outstanding job at world-building, character development, action, dialog, and setting. There were no dead spots where I got bored even though it was 650 pages long. It was all combined in a way that the book stood by itself even though it's the first book in a trilogy. In addition to rarely reading epic fantasy anymore, I also very rarely read books over 500 pages. Mistborn blew past both of these hangups like they didn't exist. It will almost certainly do the same with another hangup of mine, namely, reading beyond the first book in a series.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Science fiction writer