Book Review: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

I’m deep into – yet not half-way through! – the fantasy series The Wheel of Time. This is a famous, much-loved series of 14 books (plus 4 or more offshoots) that started publishing in the early ’90s and is now moving to TV.  In it, a group of teens discover that they and their world have a repeating destiny. They must leave their isolated, Shire-like home to become key players in the current round of an ages-long battle between good and evil.

My reaction at this point is an overwhelming Meh.

Some people complain about Jordan copying Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the first book shows heavy Tolkien influence, and also borrows important stuff from Dune. But Jordan soon takes us into his own rich, complex universe. (Ironically, Jordan may have also been borrowed from. He has a plot thread of scheming royals who play a “Game of Houses”. In name and details it’s quite like the “Game of Thrones”. Did Martin borrow from Jordan? Did they both borrow from some other source?)

I don’t know when or if I’ll keep going* with this series. Jordan has fashioned a great world and I love that the women are as strong and important as the men. But my favorite characters are not getting enough page time, some key relationships bore me, and the plot intricacies are leaving me, well. Meh.

I’m feeling the weight of all the books I have not yet read that I know to be truly great. This series is fine, no negatives, just not strong enough positives. It is taking time I’d rather put elsewhere. Also – I dunno why – it bothers me to pay full price for books when the author is dead and I don’t know who gets my money.

I’ve read the first five books in The Wheel of Time:

  • The Eye of the World
  • The Great Hunt
  • The Dragon Reborn
  • The Shadow Rising
  • The Fires of Heaven.

FYI, toward the end of the series, Jordan grew ill, brought in a co-author, then died.

*If you had a similar reaction by the end of book 5, but kept reading and are glad you did – let me know!

3-ish stars.



Book Review: “Cathedral of the Wild” by Boyd Varty

97814000698595 STARS. RECOMMENDED!!

I guess I’m an ageist. As my age advances, my interest in young writers declines. They may have dazzling pyrotechnic writing styles – but I don’t care about style, I care about content, and I want to spend my time with writers who understand things that I don’t.  Generally, that means writers with a range of experiences and insights that can only come from living. Believe me, I’m not saying I know it all. Most of the time I can’t even say what it is. But there is something about a young person’s writing that usually feels thin and unseasoned to me.

Given my prejudice against tyro writers like Boyd Varty, I opened Cathedral of the Wild with skepticism that lasted about a page and a half. I love this book and found Varty’s writing to be funny, profound, moving, witty, informative, fascinating, and inspiring, often all at once.

This is a memoir of a remarkable childhood in a singular family. Varty comes of age on a game preserve in South Africa’s wildlands, the bushveld. The family land was purchased by ancestors who liked to hunt big game, but over time the family’s love of nature evolves and they become staunch, influential conservationists whose business is to bring tourists on photographic safaris and to make death-defying wildlife videos. The family is ambitious, passionate, risk-loving; heavy on vision and low on conformity. Varty’s early years are punctuated by brushes with death and exposure to the wonder of encounters with wild animals on their home turf.

For those who feel connection to nature, this book will resonate in every chapter. Throughout, Varty provides wonderful anecdotes about the animals he encounters, and he also powerfully conveys the spirituality he experiences in the natural world. When things go long and seriously wrong for his family, his quest  for recovery takes him on a memorable pilgrimage into the wild.

Few books are perfect and this one is excessively anecdotal, and succumbs to some New Age claptrap.  Ultimately, none of that matters. This is a wonderful book.

I got this book for free in exchange for an honest review. I savored reading it overmuch and read it slowly – so I missed my Librarything review deadline, which means I won’t qualify for more free books for a while. That’s okay, this was worth it!

To Read or To Re-Read? (Musings and mini-reviews)

My To Read list is decades long, so I rarely stop to re-read a book, no matter how much I love it. Lately I’ve made exceptions, though, for books that mattered to me long ago. With some, I’ve been curious about whether they would hold up. With others, I’ve simply wanted to reunite with old friends.

Thus, over the last year, I have discovered that these books hold up well:

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, a 1960s skew on a dystopian future, many details of which are now Life As We Know It. Brunner writes this in a style that was unusual in the ’60s and remains distinctive today. Some people lose patience with it. Give it 50 pages to settle in.

In Deep by Patricia Cooper, a brooding character study of a smart, troubled woman with tangled, suspect relationships. Cooper’s writing is edgy yet smooth and insightful. I wish she had continued to write novels.

After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie and Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys, portraits of independent, sensual women, damaged by life in a society where women were supposed to be neither.

If chick lit had books like the above, I would seek it out.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, a perfect slice of noir. Here, every word counts, making it an excellent training for any aspiring writer. Reading it reminded me I need to watch the movie again, with a brilliant script by Raymond Chandler.

Which brings me to Chandler.  I have been happy to (again) reconnect with all seven of Raymond Chandler’s novels.  He remains my favorite author. If you have never read him, start with Farewell My Lovely.

As you may have guessed, I recommend all of these books.

Book Review: Who I Am by Pete Townshend


Today’s Daily Post wants to hear about the blog post I was most nervous to publish. I don’t have a particular post in that category, but always feel discomfort when I let a post reveal something deeply true about me.  I’ll post it anyway – in between the cat pictures –  because I so respect blogs and conversations that go beyond the superficial.  And because, when I make a list of important attributes, honesty is always at the top.

Which brings me to Pete Townshend’s memoir, Who I Am. This book mesmerized me and a big part of that was Townshend’s honesty. What separates this from the tawdry “tell alls” of so many celebrities? (Hmm I notice I have strong opinions of such celebrity books without ever having read one. Okay. Disclosure made. Reader beware.) Well. Everything, really. Townshend doesn’t gossip or confide. He shares secrets and bares soul.  I have so much respect for his willingness to make himself look bad in the interest of telling it like it was. Reading this book, I learned not just about Townshend. I also gained insights into topics as varied as myself, addiction, and the collective unconscious.

A few scattershot reactions:

  • Ironic that he had to end his marriage to get into a monogamous relationship.
  • Amazing how similar addictive mindsets can be from person to person, substance to substance.
  • The most fun part of the book are the chapters about the early days of the British rock scene, centered around an art school an Ealing.  One of those times when so much talent and energy magically converged. (I was lucky enough to live through such a time in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.)  Ealing in the early 60s had the Stones and Kinks in clubs, John Marshall developing his amplifiers, John McLaughlin as a local salesman! And of course school chums Daltrey, Townshend, and Entwistle happening to form a band.

You don’t have to be a Townshend or Who fanatic to enjoy this book. I loved classic rock back in its day but don’t listen to it now.  I always liked the Who’s attitude and enjoy their music but they were never one of my bands and I only saw them once (and that time, mainly because the Clash were on the same bill). I never got into Townshend’s solo work.

Book jacket publicity writing usually makes me twitch, but this time I agree with the cover blurb, which reads in part: “With eloquence, fierce intelligence, and brutal honesty, Pete Townshend has written a deeply personal book that also stands as a primary source for popular music’s greatest epoch. Readers will be confronted by a man laying bare who he is, an artist who has asked for nearly sixty years: Who are you?”

Okay, I might need to debate the greatest epoch part, but otherwise that description is spot on.

P.S. Also, he’s funny and there are laugh-out-loud lines throughout.


Book Review: “Dirty Work” by Reid Farrel Coleman


Nothing overtly wrong with this book – potentially interesting characters including a detective who is a midget with a chip on his shoulder, okay story. But the writing is far too spare and simple for my tastes. I prefer mysteries with atmosphere and complexity.

This is a very thin book part of a series called Rapid Reads. Apparently the idea is that you can knock it off in one sitting.

I got this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: “Andrew’s Brain” by E. L. Doctorow

4 Stars

Andrew is a cognitive scientist and academic with a lifelong history of unintentional destruction. The narrative is a conversation between Andrew and — someone. He is — somewhere. At a time that is at —- some point in the future, after the events he relates. He talks about the death of his first child, the courtship then death of his second wife, and other milestones of his life.

I like this book. I’ve vacillated between 3 stars or 4 stars, and am opting higher because I can feel that this book will settle well over time. It took me a long time to care about Andrew, the main character. Caring about the characters is essential for me, and the whole first half of the book I didn’t. Yet I kept going along for the ride because Doctorow’s writing is such a pleasure. Every page has subtly wonderful insights, perspective, turns of phrase, without ever getting flashy for its own sake.

About the time I developed sympathy for Andrew (and not coincidentally) the story takes a sharp left turn. WTF!?! What the hell is this book really about? Hmmm… Okay. You’ve still got my attention…

This book managed to get me to care about events and people I had sworn to think about, nevermore. It’s not perfect and it’s probably not Doctorow’s best work (this is my first time reading him so I can’t say for sure). But it is worth a read.

Note: I read an advance copy from Librarything in exchange for an honest review. Random House will publish this in Jan 2014.

Book Review: “Dark Tide” by Elizabeth Haynes


The staid and wild sides of a woman’s life collide when a body washes up on her newly purchased houseboat.

I loved the first half of this book – for a while it was so hard to put down, I feared that I had derailed my life by picking it up – but gradually interest waned. It remained fun to read but the story got more predictable, I never really liked the main character, and I got frustrated with the number of times that she made boneheaded decisions that put her in danger for the service of the plot. Curiously, for all the sex, the book was not very sensual. All in all, a fun read but nothing special. The locations are cool though: the main character lives on a houseboat she is in the process of fixing up.

This book was written during NaNoWriMo, a one month writing challenge. Frankly I wish the author had given it another few months.

I got this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

P.S. Here is a synopsis of the book with embellishments by the publisher.

Book Review: “Ghost Moth” by Michele Forbes


Written with insight, grace, and truth, this evocative novel does a wonderful job capturing the workings of this family, its time and place (Northern Ireland, deep in the midst of “The Troubles”, 1960s-later), and the past that haunts them. The change of pace at the end was unnecessarily dragging, in my opinion, and some of the secrets did not entirely convince me. But this is a fine and well-crafted book; well worth a read. I am happy I received this book free in exchange for review.


I got this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

P.S. Here is a synopsis of the book with adjectives by the publisher.

Book Review: “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner


If I had not received a free copy in exchange for a LibraryThing review, I would not have finished this book, which frustrated and ultimately bored me. Kushner has the chops to be a spectacular writer and does much stylistic muscle-flexing but all the disparate components of this book remained just that. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. I wanted a fusion of pieces that would make the whole hang together. Instead, every time that story momentum started to build, or I started to get into a character or relationship, I got thrown out and had to slog through exposition for its own sake, and too many pontificating characters.

So much of the treatment is superficial. Kushner conveys the pompous narcissism of the Manhattan art scene, but not the charisma that draws us to the artists despite that. Her descriptions are very detailed – from motorcycle racing to student rebellions – but she never got me to care about any of it. I kept falling out of the narrative to wonder Why is she telling me all this now? Or at all?

Perhaps my negative reaction would have been less pronounced if the cover quote had not proclaimed her “one of the most brilliant writers of the new century.” That quote raised expectations that this book never remotely came close to meeting.

P.S. Here is a synopsis of the book, heavily embellished by the publisher.

Book Review: “The Healer” by Antti Tuomainen


A man searches for his missing wife as the world falls apart.

This is one time when an Early Reviewer program brought me a book I enjoyed without reservation.

I completely believed this dysfunctional, damaged world (here focussed on Finland), spiraling toward ecological apocalypse, and I got sucked into the story. The characters kept me at arm’s distance but it actually would have been out of sync with the tone if they had been more engaging. Overall there were too many coincidental connections among characters; that is my only complaint.

What most impressed me about this novel was how vivid and atmospheric it was, given the extremely spare writing style. Every word counted, every word needed to be there! I can’t think of many books that I can say that about – and reading Tuomainen has inspired me to go in and whack quite a few words from the novel that I am currently writing.


I got this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

P.S. Here is a synopsis of the book, with some embellishments from the publisher.