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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way ComesSomething Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I reread this book for my book club, as it was this month's very apt pick. I first read it when I was a freshman in high school, so I remembered only the most distinct images and themes. It was a pleasure to reread as an adult.

On a dark night in October, at precisely 3 AM, the carnival comes to Green Town, Illinois. Two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, watch its magical arrival, but find the next day that it looks as ordinary as any traveling show, but for the mirror maze. The boys return at night to find it's as sinister as they remember, to Will's horror and Jim's delight. They enlist Will's father, Charles Halloway, to help them escape its clutches. Halloway has to confront his own mortality, which, at 54, he feels nipping at his heels.

It's a quick read. The mystery draws you in swiftly, and the chapters are short. It's easy to keep turning pages, thinking, one more chapter, until there's nothing left. The language can get bogged down in places, but it still rolls along at a nice clip. Bradbury needn't have waxed so poetic about libraries and their contents, for instance, but that might be my favorite passage in the whole book.

Though the story is told mostly from the boys' perspective, Halloway is the true hero of the story. He's the one who finds the antidote to the fear the carnival sows, who gives Will the answer for saving his friend. The fears the carnival inspires are most horrific to Halloway, who has to overcome the most to confront them.

The book will resonate most with older readers, but can still be enjoyed by younger ones as a chilling tale. There's a lot of depth and subtlety that would be lost on too young a reader, and it may be too scary for some.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was adapted into a movie by Disney, back in their creepy as heck phase in the 80's, between The Watcher in the Woods and Return to Oz. I'll have to rewatch it, to see if it holds up half as well as the book to my childhood experience.

I'll just make sure I watch it during the day, in case it does.

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Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I was convinced I'd read years ago. The way people spoke of it, it sounded like my school couldn't possibly have overlooked assigning it. But the plot points people spoke of sparked no memory whatever, so I had to read it for myself.

There are two versions of this story: a shorter version written for magazine publication, and this longer edition. I may have read the short story, which would explain my certainty I'd read this. I still didn't remember the plot.

Flowers for Algernon follows Charlie Gordon, a young man with intellectual disabilities. He has an IQ of 68, and, while he can write and holds down a job, wishes he could be smarter. He is given an opportunity to receive a treatment that will increase his intelligence; they've already had a successful trial on a mouse named Algernon.

The trial works, and Charlie's life begins to change. He earns greater respect from Alice Kinnian, the attractive teacher who recommended him for the trial, but he also starts to scare his co-workers with his newfound intelligence, and he learns they were making fun of him before. Then, the mouse's intelligence begins to decay, and he dies. Charlie experiments to find the cause before the same happens to him.

The book was published in 1966, so, fortunately, many aspects of Charlie's story would've changed in a more modern setting. He wouldn't have risked being locked up in a state institution if not for his job, though homelessness would certainly have been a concern, if he didn't have access to the resources he'd need just to know what's available to help him. One would hope his enrollment at Ms. Kinnian's school might connect him with those resources, but many still fall through the cracks.

I wish I could say that Charlie's co-workers are a relic of an earlier time, but such people are still around. People with disabilities are better integrated into their communities these days, but that doesn't mean that all of the community members are supportive and accepting.

This story is hard to read. Not necessarily because of Charlie's struggles with spelling and grammar, and his later overly intellectual writings, though that doesn't help. Charlie's struggles inspire a lot of empathy, and it's hard not to want things to work out in his favor. The ending leaves some questions as to his eventual fate, but it's clear that he's worse off for having undergone this treatment. As his intelligence declines, he can't simply be proud of all he's accomplished, because now he knows what he's missing. He can never return to his days of blissful innocence.

While the approach taken in this book somewhat romanticizes the notion of simple, innocent people like Charlie, it also highlights how people without disabilities can make the lives of those with different needs easier, or harder. The book isn't perfect, by any means, but I strongly recommend giving it a read.

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Friday, March 4, 2016

Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of course we're all familiar with Breakfast at Tiffany's: the sprightly, adorable protagonist, her impish ways, and the cast of characters she draws to her like moths to a guttering flame. The movie is adored, revered, had songs written about how it's one thing a fighting couple can agree on. But if you've only seen the movie without reading the book, you have a very different view of the story.

The Holly Golightly our unnamed narrator follows about is a darker creature than the one portrayed by Audrey Hepburn. She's not mean, precisely, but she has a carefully constructed detachment that amounts to the same thing. The narrator watches her push away those who care about her, and embrace those who see only the persona she projects. The movie Holly seems to charm the money right out of mens' wallets; the one in the book has to work for it. The Holly in the movie projects an aura of cool sophistication, while the narrator of the book sees through his Holly as the young woman playing dress-up, putting on a personality as readily as she wears her expensive dresses.

There are also plenty of parallels; the book and movie aren't totally indistinguishable. Still, with the context "Fred," the unnamed narrator, provides, we're given a very different picture in the character study that is this novella. He sees through a lot of her pretenses, and shows how much he cares by never challenging her illusions.

Unlike in the movie, Fred's love remains platonic. Others have noted that there are clues in the text that he's gay, bolstered by the notion he's an author insert, and that Capote, himself, was openly homosexual. I missed all of the hints within the text, though, and would have to reread to provide any evidence. It's not outside the realm of possibility. But, as the story spends very little effort on fleshing out the narrator, it's easy to overlook.

If you've seen the movie based on this book and think you know the story, I recommend you read the novella. They're two very different creatures. As much as I enjoy every role Audrey Hepburn inhabits, I'd been missing out on this fine prose all along. It's not even very long, so, even if you don't agree that it's a lovely, bittersweet story, you haven't wasted a lot of time on it.

I listened to an audio version of this book, narrated by Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame. Though he's played several gay characters, I felt his narration masked the question of the narrator's sexuality. But he was a treat to listen to for a few hours. He was an excellent choice for this one.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Review: Why I Jump by Naoki Higashida

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with AutismThe Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many of the books about children with disabilities are written by the parents or caretakers. It's difficult to find a variation of the theme of "people with disabilities are so inspiring," which is patronizing and unhelpful if you actually want to learn their perspectives. Thus far, my only source of the autistic perspective was Temple Grandin, who grew up in a different time and can tell us all about looking back on her experiences, but not the current experience of growing up in a world that considers autism worse than polio.

Why I Jump is written by a boy who has autism, and who's able to verbalize many of the frustrations he experiences. Some of the issues are cultural; his Japanese upbringing has less pride of individualism. But many of his experiences are universal. The social subtleties and seeming contradictions would confuse him no matter where he'd grown up.

Because the book was originally written in Japanese, it's difficult to tell if the stilted style is due to translation, or because that's how the author comes across. While many people with autism do avoid contractions, others speak far more smoothly. I've often heard the halting, near-stuttered language in other works translated from Japanese. It's too bad I couldn't read this perspective in its native language.

Much of the book is taken up by a question-and-answer format, which makes it difficult as a narrative. Nonetheless, as an audio book, the listening time passes quickly, with the author never belaboring a point or lecturing the reader. The book wraps up with a story written by the author that gives some insight into how his mind works and what he fantasizes about.

In the end, this book is only one perspective from one boy with autism. He falls short of several stereotypes, and comes across as a whole person the reader can empathize with (and who, the reader will realize, has empathy of his own). It's a start, certainly. I would like to read more like this book, Most especially, I would like to know books like this are being more widely read. An awful lot of the problems described in this book wouldn't be problems with a more understanding populace.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic EuropeMysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe by Thomas Cahill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It has been SO long since I've reviewed any books. I stalled on this one, so I thought I could start back up here, and chip away at them. And suddenly, I understand why I went on hiatus for so long.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages tells of an era of history shaped by the Catholic Church and its influences. Its premise is how the modern world owes so much of its culture to the Church. While it does put down some compelling evidence, I'm unconvinced that it's as positive as the author seems to think.

Cahill does go into a lot of history that textbooks leave out. He gives the past texture, gives historical figures motives and contributing factors that turns history into an actual story. The narrative is generally entertaining. This is one of those narrative non-fiction books that generally works. It feels factual and real, at the same time as it carries the reader along.

Well. Mostly factual. I'm no religious or historical scholar, but I'm fairly sure he misrepresents the Islam faith and its proponents. Badly. He gives a stereotyped, one-dimensional characterization that falls flat after he fleshes out so many other historical details. I also disagree with his assertion that the Catholic Church led to women's rights, because Virgin Mary. But then, he views female power as only happening within male power structures, rather than being its own entity.

There are also places where the book drags a bit, as Cahill goes into great detail about a person whose significance isn't apparent until the very end of the chapter. I would've had to be an art major, I suspect, to care about the level of detail put into the chapter about Giotto di Bondone, for instance. I would've liked to learn about his influence, rather than the nitpicky details about his life. The same holds true for Peter Abelard, whose love life is discussed in the same level of detail I'd expect from a soap opera.

Overall, this book is a good starting point for people looking for ways to approach the Middle Ages. Like many entertaining non-fiction books, it lacks depth and authority, but gives a reader some good places to start looking for more information. The book's strength is in its readability and in the texture the author gives the distant past. I would recommend this book to anyone studying the period, provided it wasn't their sole reference.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

The MasqueradersThe Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd never read any Georgette Heyer, but I kept running across her name in various contexts. I finally combed through her books at my local library to find one that was unlikely to make me throw it across the room. Turns out I needn't have worried. Heyer wrote her books before modern romance tropes were established. No alpha males here; just fun characters getting up to mischief without ever thinking of anything below the waist.

The Masqueraders tells of a pair of siblings, Prudence and Robin, who are posing as the opposite sex. They're hiding Robin, who backed the wrong cause in a recent conflict. Meanwhile, their father claims to be the rightful heir to a title, while they have to pretend they've never met him before in their lives. Neither believes for a second his claim is true; he's played previous roles too well. But then Robin falls for the petite Letitia, and Prudence for the formidable Lord Anthony Fanshawe. While their roles do let them get closer to the objects of their affections, it makes confessing their feelings a bit more complicated.

I might have appreciated this story more if I'd known more about the political rumblings filling out the background of this story. Heyer seems to assume we all know what the Jacobite Rising is, and why it would be terrible to be found out as a Jacobite after the dust settles. It never takes the time to explain, which is just as well. There's plenty of plot to fill these pages.

Unfortunately, some of the pages are filled with characters explaining things to one another the reader already knows. More than once, a scene we just witnessed is related to a character who wasn't there. While it may be revealing in what the speaker leaves out or how it's presented, it makes the story tedious in places.

The strength of the story lies in its characters. Prudence and Robin and their father are all rogues to their core, and it's impossible not to root for them. Prudence lives up to her name, though her loyalty to her brother holds her to her role. As little respect as the siblings have for their father, it's impossible not to like him. There's something utterly charming in his boldness.

The love interests, too, make for interesting reading. Letitia has a thirst for adventure one can see Robin is more than qualified to fulfill, and Fanshawe shows hidden depths in every page he inhabits. They're both well-matched to our heroes.

The dialogue took me some time to adjust to, but, once I did, I found it light and bantering and witty. Heyer preserves many of the Regency speech patterns and expressions, but it turns out they're not that much different from modern speech. It gives her more room to let her characters show off some wordplay.

This was a refreshing change of pace in my search for a romance novel I wouldn't hate. It turns out that all I had to do was go to a time pre-dating modern romance. All the tropes I hate can't be there if the author didn't know she was supposed to be writing them. This also works as a suggestion for romance readers who skip over the sex scenes; the romance is all above the belt.

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Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd read this book years ago. Then it was picked as the October read for my book club, and I leapt at the chance for a reread. This is a delightfully creepy read.

Coraline has just moved to an old house, divided up into apartments, where she feels ignored by her parents and generally bored out of her skull. While exploring, she discovers a door that only opens onto a brick wall. But that night, when she visits it after everyone's asleep, she discovers that it's a portal to a world with a doting mother, a fun father, and a brightly-colored bedroom with toys that can move by themselves. She soon learns the important lesson about things that seem too good to be true. She has to call on all her wits, bravery, and resources to rescue her parents from the malevolent spirit who's created Coraline's ideal world.

Even before Coraline learns of the price of staying in the other mother's realm, there are plenty of hints that not all is as it seems. The trained mice her upstairs neighbor is building a circus for send along a message to beware, and the dotty old ladies downstairs read her tea leaves and find a dire warning. Nonetheless, it's easy to see why Coraline is able to ignore these signs. The other mother really does her homework in researching how to make Coraline's new life perfect.

One of the ghost children the other mother has captured before calls the other mother "the Beldam," which brings to mind Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The story isn't exactly a parallel of the poem, but it certainly seems to be the same creature. One doesn't need a familiarity with the poem, though, to follow Coraline's story, or why she needs to stop the Beldam, or why the story's so sinister and creepy. There are plenty of frightening elements, and the creature shows her colors before long.

My favorite aspect of this story is Coraline's continued resourcefulness. She outsmarts the Beldam not with an easy solution, but by thinking on her feet. She does luck into some of the elements she needs to solve the puzzle, but the resolution is all her. And the final nail in the coffin, which the movie version was quick to do away with, requires a great force of will and bravery to go through with. Coraline is an admirable heroine.

While Coraline seems to be about 8 years old in the book (and perhaps 12 or 13 in the movie), I would recommend any parents of children that young screen this before sharing it with your children. It has some frightening imagery that may stay with a small child. I would've been all right, reading this at 7 or 8, but I don't represent all children, ever. The book is aimed for a younger audience, but it can easily be enjoyed by their parents. Or, in my case, aunt.

I was happy to have the excuse to reread this book. It's delightfully written, and deliciously creepy. Coraline is a fun companion, and her adventure ends all too soon. Probably not in her opinion, but one can't help but miss her once the book is closed.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and HemlockFire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the tenth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I always enjoy Diana Wynne Jones' writing, but, for some reason, I've been putting off reading more of her books. Can't imagine why.

Fire and Hemlock is a modern retelling of the Tam Lin tale, with some Thomas the Rhymer tossed in. Polly takes the role of Janet, who rescues Tam Lin with her love. Which, considering Polly is at least 15 years younger than Tom Lynn, and starts off a child, has some discomfiting implications. Polly starts off the story with no memory of Tom, but suddenly recovers them just in time to confront the powerful family who has Tom under its thrall.

The story is confusing in places. Part of it is because Polly doesn't understand, so, as the perspective character, she can't fill us in. But there are several aspects still left unexplained at the end of the story. The main points are covered, but why Laurel needs Tom, and later Tom's nephew, the charming Leslie, is never fully explained. Only those with a familiarity with the original tale will understand Laurel and Morton Leroy's ties to Faerie.

That does lead to far fewer info dumps, but it also makes things confusing in places. And some of the plot points seemed unnecessary. Like, if Tom's ability created the hardware store and the people populating it, why are they related to him? That whole plot point seemed needlessly complex.

I did think Nina's role was an interesting one, but that she was underused. There aren't a lot of overweight girls depicted as strong and desirable. That Polly wishes she could be more like her in the beginning is refreshing, though their later falling-outs were disappointing. I would've liked for Polly to have someone she could rely on, so she didn't have to bellybutton-gaze to reach all of her conclusions. I'm not sure why the story required that she was all alone in the world, except for Tom.

Despite my nitpicks, I did enjoy this story. Unlike many updates to classic tales, this didn't feel like it was shoehorning characters' actions to fit the plot. I understood Polly's motivations, and Tom's choices are understandable in retrospect. I liked it better than Pamela Dean's version. Though, that may have as much to do with the lack of enthusiastic recommendation as it does to the quality of Diana Wynne Jones's writing.

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Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who could resist an audio of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, read by the actor who plays Ichabod Crane on the TV series? I certainly couldn't, especially because Audible was giving it away for free.

I thought I'd already read this story, but it turns out I've seen so many adaptations, I thought I had. There's no substitute for the real thing, it turns out.

Ichabod Crane is a poor schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, obsessed with ghost stories. He relies on the good people of the village to satisfy his enormous appetite for good food, and thinks he's hit the jackpot when he catches the eye of Katrina van Tassel, eligible daughter of the wealthiest family in the area. Then one night, he goes to a party at her house, and Brom Bones, his romantic rival, is there. Katrina rebuffs Ichabod, and then that night, he encounters the Headless Horseman who's rumored to haunt the woods near where he's buried. Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

Interestingly, it's not a ghost story. There's a strong implication it was Brom Bones who took the guise of the Horseman to scare Ichabod off. There's also an implication that Katrina only pretended to be interested in him to provoke his rival to compete for her. And Ichabod's interest in Katrina, pretty as she is, is fueled by greed. All of which certainly turns all of the pop culture tropes about the story on its head.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a spooky story, but, more, it's a commentary on a time and place that don't exist anymore, and a study in human nature. Had Ichabod any reason to think he stood a chance with Katrina, had his belief in ghosts been any less, had his rival been less determined to scare Ichabod off, this story might have ended differently. Interestingly, the most straightforward interpretation of the story puts the blame on Katrina's shoulders for the cruelty of Brom Bones's prank, and scaring Ichabod half to death.

If you've never read this story, you could do a lot worse than to pick it up for yourself. Especially if you have an Audible account, and can listen to a fictional Ichabod telling it for free.

As I said, I listened to the audio, narrated by Tom Mison. He does a lovely job with the reading. I detected no problems with pronunciation, and there are none of the volume issues I run into with a lot of audio books. If you like the Sleepy Hollow TV series, there's a really good chance you'll enjoy this production.

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Review: Blow Me Down by Katie MacAlister

Blow Me DownBlow Me Down by Katie MacAlister
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By the description, this had all the potential to be like Vicki Lewis Thompson's Nerds series. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the need to shove an alpha hero mold onto its potential beta, thereby watering down a lot of character development that could've been so much more interesting.

Amy Stewart is a buttoned-up financial analyst when her daughter talks her into trying out a virtual reality pirate game. There, Amy meets Black Corbin, who's really PC Monroe, the game's creator. Not that she realizes it, at first. She takes him for just another computer character, and she's unimpressed. She beats him at a swordfighting, and he's smitten. Then they both realize they're locked in to their virtual reality headsets, thanks to a virus written in by an irate ex-employee. They need to work together to figure out which character the saboteur is hiding in, and stop his plans, if only they can quit boinking long enough to get to it.

The plot is fairly simple, though it has Amy running all over Corbin's creation to stall her progress. It takes no time for Amy and Corbin to wind up in bed together, and an embarrassingly short time for him to start spouting the L word. Even if their perception of time wasn't warped by the game, it would still be premature.

And Corbin's characterization has such potential. Instead, the game gives him the confidence to act the part of the alpha male jerk, who decides he wants Amy and can do whatever he wants to get her. And of course it feels so good she's swooning in no time. Interesting leaps in VR technology, there.

The concept of this book is interesting, but it is, at its core, romance. And, because I don't buy the romance between these two characters, especially not the way it unfolds, I wasn't on board with the rest of it. There are only two characters populating the world Corbin and Amy inhabit; the rest are constructs of the program. And yet, even the "real" people feel just as flat as the NPCs Amy interacts with. Corbin's best friend is only there to push Corbin and Amy together that much faster, and the bad guy is pure cardboard.

This story had potential, and maybe a more thoughtful author not determined to shoehorn her male love interest into an alpha male role and to hurry along the romance might've been up to the task. Overall, though, this was a disappointing read.

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah, if only someone told me what to expect from this book. The way people described it, it sounded like any other space opera about human settlers on a fictional Mars. Had someone told me it was more Twilight Zone than Star Wars, I would've snapped it up a lot sooner.

The Martian Chronicles follows a series of short stories about the human colonization of Mars. But this book has none of the innocent optimism of most stories about space written in the 1950's. It's creepy and menacing, and ends on anything but a hopeful note. This posits a world where Martians kill the first human arrivals, first out of jealousy, then because they think we're crazy. As in War of the Worlds, though, our germs do them in, leaving us free to colonize Mars and destroy everything from those who came before. But then nuclear war happens on Earth, and almost everyone vacates to return to their families or help with the war effort. They would've been better off staying on Mars.

A lot of the book is a commentary on colonialism, erasure, and appropriation, while parts get into religion and the nature of God, and other stories illustrate the inherent destructive nature of humanity. Most of the stories end badly for the characters, but it's rarely because of outside forces. More often than not, people bring their misfortunes down on themselves.

My favorite story of the collection is "Usher II," about a man who re-creates Edgar Allen Poe's works in a ghoulish replica of The House of Usher, then uses it to punish those responsible for taking fantasy works out of circulation. It has shades of Fahrenheit 451, with a dash of schadenfreude. That one left me grinning wickedly.

It turns out that my mental comparison of these stories to The Twilight Zone is no accident. Ray Bradbury wrote several episodes, which I'd never realized. It makes sense, in light of how well he writes creepy, stay-in-your-head horror, but I'd never put it together before. This book definitely leans on his creepier side. If you liked "The Veldt" or Something Wicked This Way Comes, those will give you a much better idea of what to expect than most other SF of the era.

I wish I knew what I was missing out on, when I kept skipping over this book. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Hopefully my review will save you from making the same mistake I did.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Scott Brick. He has a very manly-man sort of delivery, making the stories sound sort of pulpish. Still, his delivery is strong, and he narrates clearly. There are some places where I had to adjust the volume, either because he had shouting characters shout or whispering characters talk in a very low voice, but, for the most part, it was good narration, and didn't detract any from the story.

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Review: Shattered Pillars (Eternal Sky #2) by Elizabeth Bear

Shattered Pillars (Eternal Sky, #2)Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in a trilogy that's turned out to be a real treat for me. I didn't know what the expect from the start, and it continues to be full of fun surprises. I have no idea what might happen next, but I'm going to enjoy finding out.

The Eternal Sky trilogy's mythology takes a departure from traditionally European fantasy worlds, and borrows from Russian, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern stories. The reason seemingly contradictory mythologies can exist is because each land's supremacy is shown by whose sky shines overhead. This isn't a matter of time zones; it's a matter of the number of moons in a sky changing by stepping over a border.

In this, Temur, whose people are nomadic horse breeders and excellent warriors, accepts his role as the future Khagan of his people. The wizard (and once-Princess) Samarkar is there to help, as is Hrahima, a sentient tiger, and the silent monk Hsiung. But there are political forces massed against Temur. His cousin also wants to claim the throne, and is being both manipulated and helped by al-Sephehr, a powerful sorcerer with ancient magic under his control. Meanwhile, Edene, the woman he set out to rescue, amasses a kind of undead army to support him.

The characters have grown from their initial beginnings. Samarkar's magic has grown in strength, while Temur's acceptance of the responsibility he must bear is central to the story. We learn a lot more about their companions, and why they're accompanying them, and we even get some back story on the terrible assassin on Temur's trail.

Every page of this story fills out this lush, multifaceted world all the more. There's a lot going on here. The politics are just as complicated as in any historical period, the magic is well-thought-out and nicely balanced, and the people are as fleshed out and thoughtful as anyone you might meet in your hometown. There are no flat, "because I'm the bad guy" villains here, nor any easy answers that would solve everything.

I'm looking forward to what the next book holds. I have no idea what to expect. I think I know where it's headed, but, knowing this series, I'll be surprised. And I'll like it that way.

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Review: Kitty Takes a Vacation (Kitty Norville #3) by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Takes a Holiday (Kitty Norville, #3)Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Kitty Norville series. As much as I appreciate that the books don't fall into a convenient formula, it makes for some uneven quality of the books.

In this installation, Kitty is taking a break while she works on a memoir about her life and how she became a werewolf. Only, she's stuck, and doesn't know where to start. Then barbed-wire crosses start showing up on her property, as well as animal sacrifices on her front porch. And, to top it all off, her lawyer, Ben, is brought to her by her werewolf hunter buddy, Cormac, because he's been bitten.

So far, every book surprises us by where Kitty starts out, and where she ends up. For a series, there are a lot of changes from one book to the next. Kitty remains unsure of herself, but a reader can track her progress. Her reason for rising to the occasion makes perfect sense: with Ben to look out for, she has something more important to worry about.

Unfortunately, Ben drags the story down a lot. He spends a good chunk of the plot moping, and planning to have Cormac kill him so he won't have to live as a werewolf. While it does give Kitty a chance to reflect on the drawbacks of lycanthropy, the back-and-forth, stomping about, and pouting don't make for interesting reading.

There's a mystery within this book, but it's fairly obvious who's behind it. The town where Kitty's hiding out has so few people, and she interacts with even fewer than that. The mystery definitely didn't do anything to heighten the tension.

The pacing is off in this book. The main conflicts are presented to Kitty one at a time, which is awfully polite of them. The biggest of the problems takes until the last third of the book to show up, and it's so geographically removed that I wondered why the author bothered including it in this book. It made the plot take on a stuttering, start-and-stop momentum that made it hard to want to keep reading.

I do plan to pick up the fourth book in this series, but I'm not in any hurry to get to it. Hopefully the pacing is better. I don't think I could make it through another book about Kitty killing time until she's ready to join the world of the living.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Marguerite Gavin. She has a lovely, smoky sort of voice, the kind of voice I can imagine Kitty, herself, might have. Though, her pronunciation of "lycanthropy" gets more annoying every time I hear it.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the John Scalzi's latest book. It's a bit of a departure from the other books I've read of his, but he was visiting Saratoga Springs on his tour to promote it, so I thought I'd give it a listen. Audible gave me copies narrated by Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson with my pre-order, and I decided arbitrarily to listen to Ms. Benson's version.

Lock In takes place in a near future that could've been post-apocalyptic. A virus that first manifests with flu-like symptoms has forever changed the world. Not in its decreasing the population, though that is a thing. Some percentage of survivors of Haden's syndrome are locked in, bodily paralyzed but fully aware of everything going on around them. The story opens 25 years later, after the technology to adapt Hadens (the shorthand for those locked in) to normal society is so well established, the government is cutting funding for further research.

Our perspective character is Chris Shane, the child of a former basketball star, and brand new FBI agent. Shane was afflicted with Haden's very young, and can't remember ever moving around in a human body. Instead, Shane became the public face of Haden's, and those struggling to integrate into normal society with the adaptations created for them. Shane is assigned to a special Haden unit within the FBI, and immediately has a case, on top of security for planned rallies protesting the aforementioned legislation.

Shane's gender is never given within the story, and, believe me, I listened. Shane is always called "Agent Shane," never Mr. or Ms., and Chris is Marcus Shane's child, not son or daughter. Even the scene where Shane looks down on the lifeless body technology frees Shane from, there's no physical marker, no remark on the body's attractiveness, no descriptor of hair length or necessary personal grooming. Part of it is that Shane doesn't appear to identify with the body lying in the cradle. Shane has lived through the movements of a threep (a sort of personal robot Hadens can use to move around and experience life) for so long, the shape of the flesh Shane was born into doesn't seem to matter.

This adds a layer of meta to the story. Because, while Shane is integrated with the threep to experience the world, the reader is integrated with Shane, who's a blank slate. Reading as an analogue for integration is an easier explanation to wrap one's mind around than any amount the narrative might've offered. It's a much easier leap.

Scalzi peppers in a lot of other descriptors that make it easier to grasp Shane's experience. The first time Shane compares the threep to a car, it clicked into place for me: necessary to get around, an extension of yourself if you're comfortable enough with the technology, expensive and far from disposable, but not the end of the world if it's damaged. With such easy imagery, Scalzi makes this world seem very real.

That it's grounded very much in modern politics and attitudes also makes suspension of disbelief that much easier. I work with people with disabilities. I've seen very similar attitudes to the ones Shane encounters, and some of the conversations are, word-for-word, ones I've had with employers about the people I advocate for. The attitude that allows the gutting of funding for Haden's research is the same attitude that has our funding sources dwindling while people shout about wasteful Medicaid spending. The dehumanization experienced by Hadens is a sad reflection of how I see the population I represent perceived.

As much as the story wouldn't exist without Haden's, it's not about Haden's. It's an exciting mystery in its own right, populated with multifaceted and compelling characters. Shane might be genderfluid, but that doesn't mean every aspect of Shane's character is so hard to pin down. This is a smart, snarky character who views disability as just a facet of self, and one open to self-deprecating jabs. The story rests on Shane's very capable shoulders, even if they are made of machine parts.

This story works on so many levels. I was deeply impressed. It's a neat concept, taken to some intriguing places, with some well-thought-out worldbuilding. It's a futuristic police procedural filled with surprises. It's a character study about disability and what a mind can handle and what some people are capable of. Mostly, it's an entertaining story, with a low cost of admission. You don't need a degree in epidemiology to understand Haden's, nor do you need engineering or programming background to get the concept of threeps and integration. You can just pick up this story and enjoy the many levels it works on. Or, you can just enjoy the story for what it is.

And I'm not just saying that because of how appreciative Mr. Scalzi was of the apple cider doughnuts I brought him from Bella Napoli when I saw him on tour.

As I noted above, I listened to this with Amber Benson's narration. I don't know if it would've been that different with Wheaton's, but she did a wonderful reading. She captured Shane's voice superbly. If I hadn't been listening so closely for gender markers, I would've been convinced that she'd been hired because she was the closest human analogue to Chris Shane. It was an excellent reading experience. I recommend it.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: The Hot Zone (Rainshadow, #3; Harmony, #11) by Jayne Castle

The Hot Zone (Rainshadow, #3; Harmony, #11)The Hot Zone by Jayne Castle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is another book read for a book club, and quite possibly the straw that broke the camel's back. I can't keep clogging up my reading time with this tripe. My to-read is 773 items long, for crying out loud.

This is the third book in a series, the eleventh in a larger series. It follows Sedona Snow, recent kidnapping escapee, and Cyrus Jones, guy in charge of an organization Sedona has every reason to mistrust.

Maybe I'd've liked this better if I'd read the earlier books. This gave very little context. I managed to glean that they were on an alien world, that the world brings out psychic abilities in everyone, and that Lyle is some otherworldly critter whose abilities are whatever the plot needs him for, called a dust bunny by all the characters. Beyond that, I just had to trust that all the world-building elements had been established in earlier books. So, if nothing else, this book showed me the importance of catching a reader up in a series as if they haven't been following from the start.

The book might've worked on the strength of the relationship between Cyrus and Sedona, but, no. It's pretty formula romance: circumstances throw them into close proximity, there's tension, there are reasons to resist, they're all over each other, then they're in love. A lot of their reasons for being drawn to one another hinge on their psychic abilities, so it was beyond me.

The writing stood out as clumsy and artless, too. For all their "as you know, Bob," dialogue, the characters might've bothered to catch me up on what I needed to know about the world. Instead, they clunked around about a mystery I didn't particularly care about, and that doesn't come into play until the last 50 pages. The pacing needed work.

Normally, I might've gone back to read earlier books, to pick up on the context I missed. I won't punish myself with more of this author. This is one, in all her various pseudonyms, to stay far, far away from.

At least now I can say for sure I've tried out paranormal romance, and it's definitely not my thing.

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