Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Man Called Ove

by Fredrik Backman
337 pgs

On the surface, Ove is a cantankerous 59-year-old curmudgeon. Ever since his wife passed away a few months ago, he has lived alone. He has no family and he has no friends. He spends his days policing his neighborhood, making sure people are complying with the signs and notices posted, following all the rules, and generally ensuring everything is in order. He has no patience for people in general, nor does he believe the world as a whole is headed in the right direction. He has come to the conclusion that it’s time for him to die.

Unfortunately for Ove, every time he tries to end his life, he gets interrupted. Either the pregnant woman, who recently moved in to the neighborhood needs to borrow something, or someone needs him to help with something. All Ove wants is to reunite with his wife, but the world seems to be conspiring against him.

As A Man Called Ove progresses, and Backman slowly reveals Ove's backstory, you begin to see what type of man he truly is. It's not a big shock to learn that deep down Ove has a huge heart--you see that coming a mile away. But the reason this book is so fantastic is the way Backman successfully shows the profound effect that one person can have on the life of another. You learn the story of how Ove's life changed forever they day he met a young woman on a train named Sonja, and how it changed forever again many years later when he had to say goodbye to her for the last time. Backman also shows how Ove's life, seemingly without his knowledge or permission, has just as profound an effect on the life of so many of the people surrounding him late in his life.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

This Census-Taker

by China Miéville
184 pgs

This Census-Taker is a new novella by China Miéville. It’s a fairy tale, of sorts, more the Brothers Grimm, than Walt Disney. True to Miéville’s style, it’s not clear when or where the story is taking place. It’s a story told by an older man, about when he was a young boy. The boy lived near the top of a hillside, overlooking a poor, war-torn village below. The boy’s home and the village are separated by a deep gorge with a bridge spanning it.

The boy’s father is a magic-key maker. The keys the villagers pay him to make for them can bring love, fix broken machines, change the weather, or any one of a number of things his father agrees to. It’s not made clear how his father does it, nor why. According to the man’s memory, it’s just what his father did. It’s not important to the story.

The story begins with the boy running down the hill into the town. He’s hysterical because he just witnessed his mother killing his father, or his father killing his mother; someone killed someone back in his isolated home. The authorities in town don’t believe him, and when his father comes looking for him, they return his son to him, because the boy belongs to him.

Although his father speaks kindly to the boy, and assures him he’s loved and safe, the boy lives in fear. A few time he witnesses his father brutally kill animals by beating them, and he suspects he’s killed more people than just his mother. He tries to escape, but is caught each time.

Eventually a peculiar man shows up at the boy’s house while his father’s away. He wears glasses and a tie, and carries a gun. He explains to the boy that he’s the census-taker and has come to speak to the boy’s father. He may be the only person capable of freeing the boy from his father’s care.

This Census-Taker is the Miéville equivalent of Coke Zero; it gives you a taste of the weirdness in Miéville’s mind, but it’s not the full experience. Still, it’s satisfying and well worth the day or so it takes to read it.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Scorch Trials

by James Dashner
384 pgs  (The Maze Runner series #2)

The Scorch Trials picks up right where The Maze Runner ends. Thomas, and the remaining “Gladers” have escaped The Maze and have been taken to a facility by their rescuers. There they meet members from other groups and learn that theirs wasn’t the only maze, and that other groups were being put through the same tests as they’ve been. While there they learn about “the Flare,” a plague that eventually turns the infected into aggressive zombie-like creatures known as Cranks. The Flare has spread throughout the world and lead to the formation of WICKED, a group of scientists tasked with finding a cure. Thomas and the others are told that they, and the experiments they’ve been subjected to, are an integral part of WICKED’s search for a cure.

Shortly after arriving at the facility, a group of Cranks attacks the facility and Thomas and others are forced to flee. They meet up with a scientist from WICKED who informs them that they’ve all been infected by the Flare and now have to pass a second test. They have to successfully cross the Scorch within the next two weeks, where they will be given an experimental cure.

James Dashner successfully maintains the same level of excitement and mystery in The Scorch Trials that he established in The Maze Runner. It’s clear he’s not planning to reveal too much too soon. But rather, he seems intent to slowly reveal what is really going on with WICKED throughout the series. Overall I enjoyed the book, and plan to pick up The Death Cure soon. 


Friday, August 12, 2016

We Five

by Mark Dunn
365 pgs

Mark Dunn seems to intentionally try to make writing a book harder for himself than it needs to be. Each time he writes one, he forces himself to not only come up with a new and intriguing story, but also, a way to tell the story in a unique and inventive manner.

In Ella Minnow Pea he progressively eliminated letters from the alphabet he was allowed to use. In Ibid: A Life, he uses footnotes to tell his story, and in American Decameron, he wrote 100 short stories, each written in a different year of the 1900s and taking place in every state in the country, to tell one grand story.

In We Five, Dunn quilts together five different versions of the same story into one continuous tale. He describes in the foreword how this story has been written five different times by five different authors. The first version was written in 1859 and is set in Manchester England, the second: 1906, in San Francisco, the third: 1923, in Sinclair Lewis’ fictional Zenith, Winnemac, fourth: 1940, in London, and last: 1997, in rural Mississippi.

The story is of five sheltered young women. They’ve all been very close friends for years, and all of them are single. Some of them would very much like to get married, the others have no desire to be. And for one of them at least, not to a man. The group catches the attention of five young suitors, who decide to have a contest to see which of them can go the furthest with one of the girls. When the girls eventually become aware of the would-be suitors’ deceptions, the consequences become increasingly more severe.

The structure of Dunn’s story is the book’s strongest attribute. He seamlessly alternates between the five different narratives numerous times throughout the book, and each time, the language changes to fit the period. He uses five distinct voices as he writes, but he keeps the continuity of his themes intact.

Where We Five didn’t work for me was in the story itself. I don’t know if it was because the story was too much like a Jane Austen novel for my taste or what, but it never captivated me. I never got lost in the story, and as it progressed, I became more and more focused on the structure, and less and less focused on the story and the characters in it.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Massacre at Mountain Meadows

by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., Glen M. Leonard
430 pgs

On September 11, 1857, nearly 120 emigrants, consisting of men, women, and children, were killed by a group of men, consisting of a band of Mormon militia and Paiute warriors. The emigrants were lured away from their encampment under a white flag of truce and then killed. Only 17 small children from the group—deemed too young to be considered reliable witnesses—were spared. The attack became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

As a member of the LDS church, I remember the Mountain Meadows Massacre being mentioned occasionally in church, but until now, I didn’t know much about it. I remember hearing that some believed Brigham Young, the president of the church at the time, gave the order for the attack to take place. That would be inconsistent with the image I had of the man, so I decided to learn more about what happened for myself.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows is a thorough and comprehensively-documented account of the events surrounding the attack. It was written by three LDS scholars and historians, but it gives a fair and balanced account of what took place. In the preface to the book, they explain that they agreed to write the book with the condition they be given full access to the Church’s records, and they be given the freedom to write the book as they saw fit. The book describes the persecution and violence against the Mormons, which ultimately led them to leave their homes and property in Illinois and look for a place to settle west of the Rocky Mountains. It describes the relationship the Mormon settlers had with the U.S. government and the fear they had that the U.S. Army was on its way to wage a war against them.

The authors' greatest accomplishment is their explanation of how a group of men, who prior to the attack were peaceful and law-abiding, became capable of committing a mass killing of a group of unarmed families. In explaining how it could happen, they in no way try to justify what they did. They make it very clear that there was no justification for the attack.

I found the book to be a fair and balanced account of the massacre and the events which led to it. It presents the facts without trying to justify them, nor protect the reputation of the church, its leaders, and its members.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆