5 Points Book Review: Shutter Island

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

1. One-Sentence Sentence: In 1954, US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule head to an isolated, creepy-as-hell mental institution secreted among Boston’s Harbor Islands to recapture an escaped patient (who also happens to be a murderer), but are unprepared for recalcitrant staff, mysterious happenings, unexplained disappearances and one hell of a hurricane.

2. Op-Ed: After seeing the preview for the new movie embedded in the Martin Scorsese retrospective at the Golden Globes (I was watching them ironically, honest), I noticed a wayward copy of Shutter Island cluttering up the shelf of the waiting area at my office. Knowing that I had a two-day business trip in my future, I happily “borrowed” it. There’s just something about mystery/thriller/crime novels that seems perfect for “stuck-on-the-tarmac-while-de-icing-the-plane”.

Needless to say, Island fit the bill for business travel. It’s a fast read, tightly paced, cleverly plotted and devilishly intricate without sacrificing characters, atmosphere or dialogue in the process. Color me impressed. It also served as my first taste of Lehane. Rest assured, dear reader, it won’t be my last.

3. Thumbs Up: Atmosphere! Rule #1 for suspense fiction is that it has to be suspenseful! Lehane hits it out of the park. The titular island is creepy, isolated, intimately tied to Marshal Teddy Daniels’ past and present and “more than it seems”.

Also, character! Teddy is damaged goods, that’s clear, but he is never beyond sympathy. He’s just a cop who’s there to do a job.

Dialogue! Right from the beginning, the banter between Teddy and Chuck is pitch-perfect and their two-normal-guys-confronting-really-abnormal-circumstances relationship plays out to the very end. The setting is bleak and claustrophobic without feeling overly manufactured.

On an even broader note, I very much enjoyed both the Boston setting (which is near and dear to my heart) and the amount of research into mid-century psychiatry (which isn’t, but is fascinating nonetheless).

4. Thumbs Down: Not too much, though slight bits  of the plot lose their believability when seen through the post-twist lens at the end (the prologue in particular). At the same time, certain elements that seem contrived and a-little-too-convenient are actually brilliantly explained, so there’s that.

*Spoiler Alert, maybe*

Maybe it’s more of a personal flaw than a critique of the book, but I really liked where things were going pre-twist. And even though the twist is more than satisfactory, the hinted-at world pre-twist was intriguingly dark and sinister.

5. Recommendation:By all means, read it before you see the movie!

-4 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”

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5 Points Book Review: Zoe’s Tale

Ender Wiggin meets Veronica Mars

Ender Wiggin meets Veronica Mars

1. One-Sentence Sentence: Zoe’s Tale is as engaging a sci-fi story as you’re likely to find, rife with interstellar intrigue, teen angst, and xeno-sociology, and related by one of the most thoroughly engaging narrators I’ve read in quite some time.

2. Op-Ed: Yes, in my initial impressions, I hinted that Zoe herself came across as a little…um, well, let’s just say if she’d gone to college with my group of friends, she would’ve earned the nickname “Small Doses Zoe”. But hey, the girl grows on you, big time. She’s a complete character, fully realized and alive in a genre and setting where this sort of thing is rare enough to be surprising. My hat’s off to Mr. Scalzi, as he’s set the bar extremely high when it comes to mouthy 15-year-old girls. (Just like the protagonist in my WIP/debut novel. Sigh.)

3. Thumbs Up: Where to begin? I think a big part of what I loved about this book is that I was new to the universe. The inter-stellar and inter-racial politics all felt fresh and involving–both to Zoe herself and to me as a reader–and the situations came off as believable and multi-faceted. This is important, as the non-humans weren’t simply presented as faceless bogey-men, and in the case of the Obin, were actually characterized better than most of the human characters. As I mentioned, I adored Zoe, Hickory, and Dickory, and I thought her parents came off well, though I imagine Scalzi did most of their character building in the previous three books. To a lesser degree, I liked Enzo and his role in the story, but Zoe actually being in love didn’t quite come across.

The plot was good and science-fiction-y without feeling forced. The pacing was great and it was actually a joy to find such a realized world in such a short book. But again, that probably has something to do with the fact that it was established and fleshed out previously. This feels very convincing from Zoe’s point of view, as she’s being pushed into a world without having the opportunity to read the wikipedia page, so to speak. Lastly, the dialogue (and Zoe’s internal monologue) practically crackles off the page. It’s sharp, funny, smart, wise, touching, and insightful–often at the same time.

4. Thumbs Down: A lot of the other characters were on the weak side. In particular, Zoe’s BFF Gretchen seemed to have little to offer as she was virtually a carbon copy of Zoe herself. I won’t lie, I enjoyed their bantering relationship, but there wasn’t much else to her. Similarly, General Gau, the nominal antagonist was underutilized and underexplored (Why did he wipe out that colony on the video? What was the goal of the Conclave anyway?) Perhaps these are questions for the next few books in the OMW universe.

5. Recommendation: If, like me, you haven’t read any of Scalzi’s other books (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony) I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre (military sci-fi) that’s been stifling for too long. Similarly, if you know any YA readers, hook them up with a copy. I can pretty much guarantee that they’ll enjoy it, even if they roll their eyes at the very mention of “science fiction”. Actually, it could work just as well for anti-sci-fi eye-rollers of any age, Zoe’s Tale is that captivating.

However, if you’ve read the others, and in particular if you’ve read The Last Colony, I really don’t know what to tell you. You already know the characters and the setting. Odds are, if you enjoyed them, you’ll enjoy this. If not, the change of focus may still float your boat. It couldn’t hurt to try, right? -4 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”