Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

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Title: The Big Over Easy
Author: Jasper Fforde
Publisher: Penguin
Series: Nursery Crime, Book 1
Paperback: 383 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
In The Big Over Easy, Fforde takes a break from classic literature and tumbles into the seedy underbelly of nursery crime. Meet Inspector Jack Spratt, family man and head of the Nursery Crime Division. He's investigating the murder of ovoid D-class nursery celebrity Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to death beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Yes, the big egg is down, and all those brittle pieces sitting in the morgue point to foul play.

Overall Rating: 4/5

I'm a huge fan of Fforde -- no matter what he tackles, he is always able to write unique, interesting stories that make me laugh. I get the impression that The Big Over Easy is a spin-off from the Thursday Next series, except a little ways into the future. She isn't mentioned, but another character is. In any case, Fforde has yet again written a brilliant novel. In The Big Over Easy, Humpty Dumpty has fallen off a wall, and it is up to Jack Spratt and his partner, Mary Mary to figure out what happened. But in a world where the importance of detective investigations are rated by their publication value, there are some strange obstacles and pitfalls the investigators need to be aware of.

I really like how Fforde isn't afraid to get a bit silly with the things he adds in -- when you're putting a nursery tale twist on crime, this is a definite plus. He has created an odd world where aliens, Greek gods, and nursery characters all exist (and even live together in the same town). I enjoyed the humor, and the crime story is actually decently good. Lots of twists and turns, false leads, and random evidence that actually ends up being pertinent. Add to that some irony and comedy, and that's pretty much what this novel offers. I loved it. This isn't as unputdownable as his other works, but I enjoyed it and had fun getting to know the characters.

This isn't as great as the Thursday Next series, but for those who are looking for a different twist on the crime genre, this is definitely for you.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Great Storytelling -- Characters

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In my opinion, what makes or breaks a novel are the characters. Characterization is the tool that allows readers to connect with your story. Give us a character we love, and we'll follow them anywhere, no matter how strange or boring. So it's important to carefully think about how you're going to craft your characters. For me, there are three kinds of characters that are guaranteed to make me fall in love.

1) Strong characters
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Don't give me a whiny main character. If all they're going to do is sit around and whine about how horrible their life is without taking any sort of action, I'm going to throw the book in the corner and never look at it again. I want action. I want a character I can root for. I don't want to be yelling at my book and encouraging the character to do something. People give me funny looks when I do that.

2) Imperfect characters
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I do not by any means want a perfect character. Maybe Kimberly whines before doing what needs to be done (but she still does something, mind you). Maybe Justin keeps falling for manipulative girls. Whatever you want to do, just make the character realistic. This helps the reader connect, because let's face it: we all hate someone who's perfect. Also, it makes for better storytelling. An imperfect character is far more likely to get into difficult situations than a perfect character is.

3) Interesting characters

This one is harder to give actual advice for, because there are so many things you can do to make a character interesting -- a weird hobby, an unusual pet, a phrase they like to use. For example, Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice is so boring that it makes him interesting. Of course, you have to go more in depth for a main character than a side character -- a strange pet just isn't going to cut it. But you have pretty much every tool at your disposal to make a character interesting: family background, beliefs, personal experiences, friends, possessions, hobbies, etc. An interesting character makes for a unique character, and as readers, we love a character that is able to stand out.

So what do you think, readers and writers? Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to characters? Is there any character trait you love to see? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Audiobook Review: One More for the Road by Ray Bradbury

Title: One More for the Road
Author: Ray Bradbury
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Publisher: HarperAudio
Edition: Unabridged
Duration: 6 hours, 49 minutes
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
This collection from America's greatest storyteller contains 18 never-before-published stories and seven previously, but never collected, stories of the fantastic, the melancholy, and the macabre.

Overall Rating: 2.5/5
As with most short story collections, some are better than others. However, I thought that there were few good ones in this particular collection. I thought a few were quite good, but most just left me going, "eh."

The mood of these stories definitely falls on the depressing side, so if you're looking for something uplifting, don't pick this book up. I did like that it was more character-driven than anything else. Most of these stories are about people trying to find something worthwhile and fantastic in their life, but finding themselves stuck in mediocrity. There are some science fiction stories in here, but most are set in the real world.

For the audiobook, the sound quality wasn't as crisp as I like it to be. I'm not sure if it was the narrator or the  sound itself, but it was sometimes hard to understand because it seemed like the narrator was mumbling at times. There are also inconvenient cut-offs. Some stories cut off at the end of a disc and continue at the beginning. Since these are short stories, I thought the cut-off could have been a little sooner so that each disc started with a new story.

Overall, I don't think that this is one of Bradbury's best. If you're going to read it, either pick up the book or listen to a different version. I do think that print would be better, though.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Audiobook Review: My French Whore by Gene Wilder

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Title: My French Whore
Author: Gene Wilder
Narrator: Scott Brick
Publisher: Books on Tape
Edition: Unabridged
Duration: 3 hours, 48 minutes
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
The beloved actor and screenwriter's first novel, set during World War I, delicately and elegantly explores a most unusual romance. It's almost the end of the war and Paul Peachy, a young railway employee and amateur actor in Milwaukee, realizes his marriage is one-sided. He enlists, and ships off to France. Peachy instantly realizes how out of his depth he is--and never more so than when he is captured. Risking everything, Peachy--who as a child of immigrants speaks German--makes the reckless decision to impersonate one of the enemy's most famous spies. As the urbane and accomplished spy Harry Stroller, Peachy has access to a world he could never have known existed--a world of sumptuous living, world-weary men, and available women. But when one of those women--Annie, a young, beautiful and wary courtesan--turns out to be more than she seems, Peachy's life is transformed forever. 
Overall Rating: 3/5

This book is set in World War I and it is told through the eyes of Paul Peachy, an American who left his wife and enlisted in the army. When captured by the Germans, he pretends to be Harry Stroller -- a German spy who let himself be captured by Peachy's regiment. Now, Peachy has to pretend to fit in with the German army, all the while handling his feelings for Annie.

My French Whore is interesting and enjoyable, but there's nothing in it that could make it amazing. It's a slow story and goes by rather quickly, so there isn't much time to get in depth with anything. Wilder does a great job in crafting the characters so quickly. They were all intriguing and had enough background and quirks to make them seem real. War time always makes for good stories, and this is a good story. It's entertaining to see Peachy pretend to be Stroller and to read how he gets out of tricky situations.

My main problem is that I didn't like Peachy very much. While he does an amazing job in pulling off his Harry Stroller act, he is a little stupid and naive. I have no idea why he loves Annie as much as he does; she doesn't seem all that great. A little more relationship development between the two of them would have fixed this, I think.

I really like that the ending is realistic. Peachy doesn't magically become a super spy, and he and Annie don't live happily ever after. I think war novels have to be a little bit more serious and tragic than other novels, and I'm glad this one didn't go the "everything is suddenly fixed" route. Peachy has some real problems and gets himself into a dangerous situation, and there is no easy way out of that.

As always, Brick is a great narrator. He does a good job for awkward, whiny guys, for some reason. He was able to make the story come alive, and he just fit for Peachy's character. There were also quite a few accents for this one, and he did them all perfectly. I usually get annoyed with people's French accents, but Brick's is excellent. If you're going to read this, definitely consider going for the audiobook.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: The Atlantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

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Title: The Atlantis Complex
Author: Eoin Colfer
Publisher: Hyperion
Series: Artemis Fowl, book 7
Hardcover: 357 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Artemis Fowl has lost his mind...just when the world needs him most.
Artemis has committed his entire fortune to a project he believes will save the planet and its inhabitants, both human and fairy. Can it be true? Has goodness taken hold of the world’s greatest teenage criminal mastermind?
Captain Holly Short is unconvinced, and discovers that Artemis is suffering from Atlantis Complex, a psychosis common among guilt-ridden fairies -- not humans -- and most likely triggered by Artemis’s dabbling with fairy magic. Symptoms include obsessive-compulsive behavior, paranoia, multiple personality disorder and, in extreme cases, embarrassing professions of love to a certain feisty LEPrecon fairy.
Unfortunately, Atlantis Complex has struck at the worst possible time. A deadly foe from Holly’s past is intent on destroying the actual city of Atlantis. Can Artemis escape the confines of his mind -- and the grips of a giant squid -- in time to save the underwater metropolis and its fairy inhabitants?

Overall Rating: 4/5

I have to preface this by saying that I am extremely partial to child/teenage genius stories. Add in some fairies and magic, and this is pretty much the coolest series EVER. The last book, The Time Paradox, was by far my favorite in the series, so as always with a series that goes past 4 books, let alone 6, I was worried by adding yet another one. I know it won't be for everyone -- my sister, who is also a Fowl fan, didn't like this book at all, but I really enjoyed it.

With all the guilt of his past crimes and the exposure to fairy magic, Artemis is finally beginning to lose his mind. He has what is called the Atlantis Complex, which gives him OCD, excessive paranoia, and a multiple personality disorder, among other things. So when he and a committee of important fairy members are attacked during a demonstration of an invention that Artemis believes will save the world, Holly and Foaly must step up and figure out what is going on.

The first few chapters are a bit slow, but I ended up really liking it. Lots of action and drama. Butler and Juliet almost get beaten to death by a crowd of wrestling fans, Artemis goes crazy and reveals another personality -- Orion, and Foaly's space explorer bots start attacking a fairy committee. And that's before the halfway point! We get to see old friends (Mulch!), meet a couple of awesome new villains, and are introduced to some awesome new fairy gadgets. And I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am that this follows a new villain, and not Opal. The new villain is Julius's Root's evil brother, so it gives us a bit more background on Holly and Julius, which I enjoyed.

The crafting is also genius. This must have been a hard book to write, due to Artemis's failing mental faculties, but Colfer does a great job. Artemis hates the number four, and tries to group everything in fives. If you do a word count on his dialogue, you'll see he he speaks in multiples of five (kudos to Colfer for keeping such an attention to detail!).

Colfer really upped the stakes in this one. Sure, things have been really bad before, but Artemis has always been able to rely on his  mind. Now, they're facing a master criminal and Artemis doesn't even have that to rely on anymore. It makes the other characters have to become a bit tougher, and Artemis become a bit more humanized. I don't want to hint at what the ending is, but I thought it was perfect. Even half-insane, Artemis is a smarty-pants.

*I was provided a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Audiobook Review: Macbeth, Performed by Alan Cumming

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Title: Macbeth
Author: William Shakespeare
Narrator: Alan Cumming
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Duration: ~2 hours
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
Star of stage, film and television Alan Cumming delivers a virtuoso performance playing every role in the National Theatre of Scotland's bold presentation of Shakespeare's chilling tale of desire, ambition, and the supernatural. 
This radical reimagining of one of Shakespeare's most deeply psychological plays is set in a psychiatric unit in which Cumming is the lone patient. Channeling the story of Macbeth, he is inhabited in turn by each of the characters of the drama, including some of Shakespeare's most complex and troubled creations. 
Cumming's one-man interpretation of Shakespeare's Scottish play comes to audio directly from acclaimed limited stage engagements with the National Theatre of Scotland in Glasgow and at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. Directed for audio by the stage production's renowned directors, this exclusive studio recording of Cumming's dazzling solo performance captures the excitement, passion and poetry of a wildly original tour-de-force that is destined to become theatrical legend.

Overall Rating: 4/5

Macbeth is one of the greatest plays ever written, and it is my personal favorite of Shakespeare's works. This rendition is different in that it's the story of a man in a psychiatric unit who channels the story of Macbeth. This play is uniquely suited to this type of portrayal due to Macbeth's transformation and corruption. He only gets worse, which can be mirrored by a mentally insane person having an episode.

Alan Cumming does a brilliant job in narrating. While I don't think it comes close to what this portrayal must have been like on stage, he is still a great narrator. Unfortunately, there is nothing that suggests the context of a man in an insane asylum channeling Shakespeare's characters; either the listener has to imagine it for herself or simply take it as a reading of the play. Cumming does a good job in giving each character individuality, and the parts with the witches gave me the chills -- the editing is perfectly done so that his voice echoes three times to match the characters.

I do think that only those familiar with Macbeth can get much out of this. Any work of Shakespeare is hard to understand as an audiobook, especially with only one person narrating. Those unfamiliar with the story of Macbeth are likely to get confused. Likewise, any people out there who can't understand a Scottish accent may have trouble following along. But for those who are familiar with Macbeth and don't have a problem with understanding accents, you will love this.

*I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher through Audiobook Jukebox.*