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A. Ross RSS Feed (Washington, DC)

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The Buried Giant: A novel
The Buried Giant: A novel
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.71
243 used & new from $0.21

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Tedious Disappointment, January 7, 2016
I'd always been under the impression that Ishigiro wrote highly mannered period pieces that were all tone and mood, rather than character and plot. So I avoided him until forced to read Never Let Me Go for a bookclub. That book was a revelation and remains one of my most memorable reading experiences as an adult. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up this long awaited book that was reputed to have fantastical overtones (I like some subgenres of fantasy every now and then). I was somewhat devastated, therefore, to find myself aching to put this down and never return after the first fifty pages (I didn't, I plowed on to the end, hoping for better to come). Perhaps I am too thick, or perhaps too unaware of early British history and myth, but I found this meandering take on memory to be less the "mediation" of the book cover copy, and more just plain tedious. Indeed, it's almost exactly the kind of highly stylized and fussy period piece I'd originally feared Ishigiro trafficked in.

The book appears to take place in England soon after the time of King Arthur. We meet an elderly rural couple, who live in a tiny village of burrows (presumably based on some kind of real structures -- probably the same ones that inspired Tolkein's cozy hobbit houses). They've decided to go visit their son after years of not seeing him, but it becomes evident that there's some kind of something that's affecting people's memories, because they can't really remember him, or indeed, why he left.

Off they go on a kind of picaresque countryside-roaming quest that marries Knights of the Round Table quests with Don Quixote. Speaking of the former, they actually encounter Sir Gwain, who in the specifics of what he's up to, seems to be modeled on Quixote. There are others, such as a sinister ferryman, pixies, some odd monks and an odder monastery, a Grendel-like dragon, soldiers guarding a bridge, and more. These all sound like interesting elements, but seem to exist as pawns in the larger allegory Ishigiro is intent on weaving -- the ultimate meaning of which was lost on me. I think the book is seeking to say something about historical amnesia and the dangers that lurk when we do end up recalling the past. However, the pace is slow, the dialogue is very stilted, and the overall theme so muddy and obscure that I can't recommend that anyone pick it up and work out the allegorical details for themselves.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 13, 2016 1:47 PM PDT

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel
Beautiful Ruins: A Novel
by Jess Walter
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.55
747 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining Melodrama, January 7, 2016
Even though I loved Citizen Vince, and greatly enjoyed Walter's books The Zero, and The Financial Lives of Poets, for some reason I resisted picking this up. Something about the cover and the blurb about a romance in the 1960s just didn't seem appealing to me -- too commercial I think. But I'm glad I finally did read it, because it's a pretty funny and warm story that manages to handle two very disparate locations and sets of characters in a way that's engaging without quite becoming too cute for its own good.

One storyline takes place in 1962, as an American actress working on a Hollywood epic (Cleopatra) filming in Rome shows up at a tiny seaside village and is deposited at its optimistic hotel by a studio production assistant. Various farcical misunderstands occur due to language barriers, and the tragicomic antics are raised when Richard Burton enters for a booze-fueled cameo. The other storyline takes place in the present, when the now elderly Italian hotel's proprietor travels to Hollywood on a mission to track down the production assistant and actress. The former has risen to become a plastic-surgery addicted weirdo Hollywood director, and further wacky antics ensue as they track down the actress.

Yes, the theme of not letting life's chances slip by is all a bit melodramatic in a romancey/soapy way. I guess it really is the kind of pleasantly heart-warming commercial fiction I feared, but Walter is able to create interesting enough characters engaging in just enough oddball action with enough compelling dialogue to keep me entertained. It makes for a good read, and I'm sure at some point there will be a movie made.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel
The Laughing Monsters: A Novel
by Denis Johnson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.93
152 used & new from $0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Genre Parody?, January 7, 2016
Although this book bears the trappings of a conventional thriller -- a NATO-connected operative travels to Sierra Leone to find an old buddy who may or may not be involved in uranium smuggling -- don't be fooled into thinking there's anything conventional about it. It feels more like Johnson is playing genre games, laying out all kinds of international thriller tropes (secret communications lairs, sexy dame, mysterious Westerners lurking at hotel bars, etc.), only to poke fun at the whole idea of the thriller.

Ostensibly taking place somewhere amongst the Congos, the book is jam-packed with the kind of phantasmagorical imagery of sub-Saharan Africa that titallates both racist fears and fantasies of the exotic. That double-edged nature extends to the two main protagonists, who can be read as amusing anti-heroes bumbling through harebrained schemes to get rich, or as conscienceless killers and pedophiles. It's a book of misdirection, and I suspect the real aim is to see how long the reader can be strung along thinking that the "mission" that's constantly referenced is actually anything of substance. The "mission" is a MacGuffin that exists solely to compel the book's protagonists deeper and deeper into their own hearts of darkness, exposing the all their games as just that, games with no meaning. Is it an allegory for post 9/11 American? Maybe -- but if so, a poor attempt.

by Charles Portis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.24
97 used & new from $0.05

2.0 out of 5 stars Hasn't Aged Well?, January 7, 2016
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Gringos (Paperback)
I picked this up largely because Portis's earlier book True Grit: A Novel is one of the best books I've read in the last twenty years, but also because the plot description sounded so crazy. The story follows Jimmy, a former looter of Mayan archaeological sites, now living the expatriate life in the Yucatan Peninsula, making ends meet hauling goods around, doing small deals, and sometimes running down missing Americans.

I couldn't quite work out when the book is supposed to be set, but it felt roughly like the mid-1970s to early '80s or thereabouts. The entire vibe reminded me of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice: A Novel, as Jimmy stumbles into an array of strange situations, with a cast of wildly colorful characters. There's a half-arsed trek into the jungle, a group of dangerous drifters, a missing teenager, and some crackpots who swear by tall tales of aliens and UFOs visiting the Mayans.

There are lot of threads, a lot of characters, and a lot of fun language -- but it never really holds together. The stakes just aren't very clear, and while Jimmy is to uneven a character to really carry the wacky plotting. I kind of wonder if this is a book that just hasn't aged very well over the 25 years since it was published.

The Burning Room (Harry Bosch)
The Burning Room (Harry Bosch)
by Michael Connelly
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.15
309 used & new from $0.01

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Typical Bosch Book, January 6, 2016
This is the 19th Harry Bosch book, and having read about 3/4 of them, I can't say I've ever found any to be exceptionally good or bad. They're pretty much all serviceable police procedurals featuring a perpetually weary and tortured hero who's always right on the edge of being able to work within the system. In this installment, Bosch is almost at mandatory retirement age and is feeling the weight of that ticking clock. Working in the Open Unsolved Unit (aka Cold Cases), Bosch juggles a brand new partner and two cases. One involves the death of a mariachi player from injuries sustained in a shooting ten years previously, the other is a notorious arson case from twenty years ago, in which a number of children died.

One problem I have with a lot of the Bosch books is that it's rarely enough to have a straightforward crime to investigate -- all too often there's a wrinkle that's meant to amplify the stakes. These kinds of things always feel clumsy to me in Connelly's hands -- he's far stronger when he sticks to investigative procedure, bureaucratic infighting, and more realistic elements. In this book, one of the cases has political implications, and the other has very personal implications, and while these extras don't spoil they book, they do detract from the tightness of it all. On the whole, a fairly enjoyable read that's right in line with the rest of the series.

Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
Annihilation: A Novel (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
by Jeff VanderMeer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.35
156 used & new from $3.46

1.0 out of 5 stars All Mood and Tone, No Character or Plot, January 6, 2016
I'm not a huge science-fiction reader, but I do try a handful of works a year just to see what's out there. I picked this up based on some buzz I'd heard, and also figured that it's so slim, that reading it would not be a huge investment. Regrettably, even the brief time it took to read this was time poorly spent and never to be recovered. The premise is intriguing enough -- some part of the country has been contaminated in some unspecified way and is quarantined. A mysterious government agency recruits and trains people to explore this zone and figure out what's go on (kind of like astronauts). No one has returned from the first eleven expeditions with their sanity intact -- this is the story of the twelfth group. The all-female team consists of a surveyor, archaeologist, psychologist, and biologist, this last of whom is the narrator. So far, so good.

However, their explorations and discoveries unfurl at a infuriatingly limpid pace. More problematically, their efforts remain shrouded in mystery and are ultimately too vague to make sense of. Now, that's probably completely intentional, as the book seems primarily concerned with creating a kind of aura of dread and horror that feels awfully like a re-imagining of Lovecraft. And to be sure, there are many acclaimed books out there that are short of plot or character, but dense in mood and tone. These books invariably disappoint me -- I need a story and I need at least one interesting character, and this book has neither.

So I guess if you're up for a book that's largely built around a distant character's interior thoughts and her psychic battle to maintain her sanity -- give this a whirl. I found it to be an dreadfully boring mood piece that largely teases the reader with hints of what's to come in the next two books in the trilogy, but fails to provide anything tangible.

Expo 58: A Novel
Expo 58: A Novel
by Jonathan Coe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $3.72
54 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars This is the Modern World, December 30, 2015
This review is from: Expo 58: A Novel (Hardcover)
Coe has written several books I entirely love (The Winshaw Legacy and The Rotter's Club), so I picked up his latest the moment I saw it. What I didn't realize until I read the afterward is that the protagonist is a character briefly mentioned in one of his novels I haven't read (The Rain Before It Falls). I enjoyed this one on its own merits, but it's possible those who've read that other book would get even another layer from this.

Thomas Foley is a new father working an undistinguished job writing and copyediting pamphlets for the British government. To his surprise, he is recruited to participate in the British pavilion at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels, but not as a writer. Instead, he is tasked with overseeing the faux pub that will serve as the central social gathering spot for the British section. Foley is a keen observer of world events and harbors the sense that Britain is a little isolated and behind the times, and thus grabs the chance to get out and see the modern world. The fact that he can ditch his wife and wailing kid for a few months doesn't hurt either...

What follows is deft blend of comic spy caper, as Foley gets tasked by two mysterious MI6 types with some special duties while at the Expo, and domestic drama, as he gets attracted to a Belgian hostess and drifts from his wife back home. It's a perfectly contained book, not long or self-important, but highly enjoyable. Through Foley, the reader gets a real sense of Europe starting to blossom in the wake of World War II, and the emergence of modern world.

Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense
Archive 17: A Novel of Suspense
by Sam Eastland
Edition: Hardcover
53 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Undercover in a Siberian Gulag, December 30, 2015
This third book in the Inspector Pekkala series takes place in 1939, just before the Soviet Union goes to war. Stalin calls for the intrepid Finnish former agent of the Tsar and orders him to investigate a murder that took place in a Siberian gulag. In fact, the very same Siberian gulag Pekkala was imprisoned in by Stalin years earlier. Obviously if Stalin cares about a murder in a far off gulag, it must be connected to something very important. And in this case, the murder is connected to the last few members of a brotherhood of Tsarist loyalists and a trainload of Tsarist gold that went missing during the Russian civil war. The mystery of the Tsar's gold is a real one, as it went missing en route to Admiral Kolchak, who was the leader of the White Russian government until it collapsed (not sure why Admiral is changed to Colonel in the story). That makes for an interesting backstory to Pekkala's adventures in survival in the gulag, and later, in the even more dangerous woods (where the indigenous Siberians rule). There's plenty of action and intrigue to enjoy here -- sure to please fans of the series.

Note: This book was titled "Siberian Red" for the UK edition.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel
The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: A Novel
by Tom Rachman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.87
108 used & new from $1.17

3.0 out of 5 stars Empty Shell of a Protagonist Leaves a Gaping Hole at the Center of this Book, December 29, 2015
When a novel's protagonist is named Tooly Zulberberg, the seasoned reader should not be surprised when the story hops, skips, and jumps all over the place. That's indeed what happens here, as the narrative flits back and forth over three decades. Over the course of these, we learn Tooly's life story and follow her as she seeks to unravel her origin story. We first meet her in her mid-30s, as the owner of a failing used bookstore in the Welsh countryside who goes in search of her past. As a child, a man who is allegedly her father moved her around the world as he worked at different US embassies. As a tween in Bangkok, she disappears from his life and is taken in by a charismatic guy and a flighty woman claiming to be her mother, with an gruff elderly Russian as babysitter. These folks take her to New York, where in her 20s, she insinuates herself into an apartment of Columbia students and starts to bond with them. Got it?

The book's theme -- which is a little too on-the-nose -- is that we create our family from the people around us, wherever we are. The other theme is identity, and how we create and project personas. Over the course of the story, few of the colorful characters Tooly connects with, will turn out to be who they originally appeared to be. The globe-hopping and cast of characters is engaging enough, but there's a large flaw at the heart of the book. That problem is Tooly, and the fact that she's not nearly as interesting as people keep saying she is over the course of the book. She's kind of an empty shell with little interesting to say, so it's not clear why people seem to like her, not why the reader should actually care about her quest for her true history. I kept thinking there was going to be some kind of revelation in the final third that would illuminate more of her, and while there are certainly revelations, none make her any more compelling.

It's a little bit of an oddball book in that I more less enjoyed it in the moment, but it left me with a bit of a "is that all there is?" feel at the end, and I can't really imagine recommending it to anyone.

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge
The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge
by Michael Punke
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.95
83 used & new from $6.66

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Old-Fashioned Adventure, December 29, 2015
The fictional account of real-life American frontiersman Hugh Glass is an excellent example of history fiction that is simple, but effective. Glass's story has been told many times before, including in books such as The Saga of Hugh Glass, and the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness, and will be again later this year in a feature based on this book starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Anyone who picks this up will understand why.

The story is an old-fashioned adventure taking place across six months in 1823-24, in and around present-day Nebraska and the Dakotas. While scouting for an expedition of fur trappers, Glass gets mauled by a bear and left for dead. The entire plot is his journey to crawl and limp to safety and then set out into the wilderness to mete out revenge on those who abandoned him and stole his prized rifle. It's a very primal tale, and Punke does a great job of telling it through the details and context of the era.

It's basically a long wilderness chase story, and if that sounds appealing to you, you're going to like it. It also kind of works as a meditation on moral philosophy, but that's just a byproduct of the general theme of revenge and justice. Where the book really excels is in conveying just how dangerous frontier life was in the 1820s. A great old-fashioned adventure.

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