Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not an easy book to read. A lot of terrible things happen within the pages. It's not terribly written, though. That's the problem: it's easy to sympathize with the characters these awful things happen to.

Who Fears Death reads like an African woman's hero's journey. It takes place in a near-future post-apocalyptic landscape, which isn't apparent until technology starts to show up. The story is framed as Onyesonwu, whose name means Who Fears Death, telling of her life to an unseen person who's writing it all down. We get a better picture as the story goes on of who that person is, and why Onyesonwu feels the need to tell her tale.

Onyesonwu is Ewu, the result of a Nuru man's rape of an Okeke woman. She is marked by lighter skin than the Okeke she lives among, and the freckles on her face. She is also set apart by powerful abilities that allow her to change her shape and learn other aspects of magic. The villagers in Jwahir fear the magic she can wield, and they're convinced that a child born of violence can only grow up to be violent. She's determined to learn magic, to defend herself against the mysterious force she sees in visions and dreams. Then she learns of a prophecy telling of her "rewriting the Great Book," a document that supports the slavery and subjugation of the Okeke, and she sets off to the west at the age of 19 to fulfill her destiny.

The weakest part of the book is the middle, when Onye is traveling with her friends. Binta, Luyu, and Diti all underwent the Eleventh Year Rite, a ritual of female circumcision, with her, so they're bonded for life, in a way. Mwita is her lover, another Ewu whose parents were in love, and also a magic practitioner. His skill mostly lies in healing, and he remarks with some bitterness how ironic it is that she gets to be the hero while he's assigned the traditional woman's role. Fanasi is Diti's husband, though their arrangement hasn't been formalized, and the pain associated with the Eleventh Year Rite prevents them from consummating their marriage.

The six of them traveling together bring quite the mix of emotions and drama with them, which made for some frustrating reading. I really can't say what Diti and Fanasi's role was, except to frustrate Onye and show her women can be just as irritating as men. Maybe it was to contrast the relationship between Onye and Mwita, which, while it has its tensions, is far more secure, and downright romantic compared to Diti and Fanasi sulking at each other. Onye and Mwita are equal partners, and the conclusion requires them to work together as such.

The use of mythology, the landscape, and the history of the area fascinated me. I've read a lot of America- and European-based post-apocalypse stories, but never one based in Africa. A lot of the troubles in the story reflect recent news coming out of Darfur and Sudan.

The structure of the story follows Campbell's hero's journey formula closely enough it could've been using it as a checklist. That's not a complaint; there are precious few such stories about women, and even fewer about nonwhite women. It gives the western reader something familiar to hold onto among the unfamiliar setting and mythology.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Anne Flosnik. Her volume and tone are fine, but the accent frequently felt overdone. It sounded more like she was making fun of someone like Onyesonwu than that she was faithfully recreating her words. It also made it difficult to wrap my mind around spellings, as she frequently pronounced the same words and names differently. I would have preferred she did away with the accent.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Advance Review: The Here and Now by Ann Brashares

The Here and NowThe Here and Now by Ann Brashares
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received an eARC of this book for review from Net Galley, with the understanding I would provide a fair review. I was not compensated for this review.

Prenna James could be any overly sheltered teenager, except that her community's reason for keeping her apart from the rest of the world is because she's from a future world ravaged by disease and shortages. Anything she does could disrupt the timeline, or she could pass a disease on to a "time native," which is what her community calls those who belong in that timeline. But Prenna is in love with native Ethan Jarves, who may be too observant for his own good. Then a crazy homeless guy tells her she has to stop an event that'll happen on May 17, and he seems to know where she's from.

It's a compelling premise, which is why the execution is so frustrating. If you'd told me this was a debut novel, I'd've believed you. The writing is stilted and uneven, and the dialogue made me cringe in places. Prenna offers an excuse as to why she communicates so badly, but that doesn't explain why everyone else speaks that way. People avoid contractions, and whip out multisyllabic scientific terms in casual conversation.

The plot is awfully straightforward for a story about time travel. Prenna gets her motivation, then an obstacle. She handles the obstacle. Another obstacle appears. She overcomes it. And so on. The society she lives in is painted as omniscient, omnipotent, and corrupt, but the solution comes about far too neatly. It severely detracts from the earlier depiction, and it paints everyone, Prenna included, as useless. And two whole days of story are spent just waiting for the event she's supposed to stop. The only conflict comes from the thin excuses the book has for making Prenna and Ethan lie down together in close quarters. The book could've benefited from a significant tightening of the timeline.

The whole story revolves around the premise of forbidden love between Prenna and Ethan. Which is unfortunate, because I didn't feel the romance. I believed they were close friends, and that he was a teenage boy. Aside from a brief fantasy she regrets, I never got the impression Prenna feels anything but tolerance for the physical aspect of their relationship. That makes his pressure despite her apathy rather creepy.

The least forgivable aspect of this book is its endorsement of the notion of purity. It's entirely up to Prenna to be a good girl, and the ending justifies her prudishness. I'm not expecting a sexually liberated YA heroine, but the book's reinforcement of purity culture left a bad taste in my mouth.

There's so much that could've been done better in this book. Had Prenna wanted Ethan as much as he wanted her, had the conclusion been used, instead, as a jumping-off point for Prenna to show how much she cares, had those two days of inactivity been cut, I would've forgiven a lot of stilted writing.

I do understand this is YA. That's why I'm so disappointed in how poorly this was written. I don't expect inferior quality from something, just because it's written for teenagers. In fact, most of the YA I've read thus far has been on par with adult fiction. Let's not give ammo to the crowd who argues the YA label means something isn't as good.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid #6) by Richelle Mead

Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)Succubus Revealed by Richelle Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Georgina Kincaid series, a paranormal romance about a 1500-year-old succubus living in Seattle. Since book three, Succubus Dreams, I couldn't rest until I'd made sure all would be well with Georgina. Then, when I was finished, I was already planning a reread.

In this installment, Georgina may actually be happy with her life, when she's suddenly reassigned to Las Vegas. It's a dream assignment, except that Seth Mortensen, the love of her life, can't come with her. She looks into why Hell is going to such efforts to make her new assignment so tempting. Unlike in previous books, there is no other mystery to solve. It's all Georgina's book.

The last book, Succubus Shadows focused just on Georgina's troubles, as well, but the danger was more apparent. In that, there was a force to fight, attempts to be made to save her. In this, the enemy is Hell, itself, and it's not so easily pinned down. I had a good idea, going into this book, what the solution was, but I hadn't the slightest notion how Georgina might stumble across it. When she does find it, it's a matter of paperwork and the nightmarish legal system, which isn't the most exciting to read about. Even if it is Hell.

Still, because I wanted to see the characters happy, I found the ending satisfying. Back in book three, I would've said that ending came out of nowhere. But, by the time this book rolled around, it had been set up rather well.

The writing in this series isn't flowery or insightful. It's also not terrible. It gets Georgina's character across, and her relationships with the other characters, and events are easy to follow. Characterizations are consistent, even if Georgina wants to ignore the signs when people show her their true natures. The narrative always manages to show things Georgina missed, despite the first-person perspective. Which is a neat trick.

I'm glad I didn't discover these books until all six were published. There is no way I could've coped, having to wait years to read the ending. As it was, I was rather annoyed with work and sleep and life in general for getting in my way of finishing this series. I read it as fast as I could, which was pretty fast. Not fast enough to satisfy my addiction, though.

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Review: Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid #5) by Richelle Mead

Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)Succubus Shadows by Richelle Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I joked to a friend, while I was reading Succubus Heat, that she'd know what I thought of the whole series by that weekend. Then I started reading this one before bed. The next thing I knew, I'd finished it, and was itching to start book 6. It's been a long time since I've read a book in one sitting.

In Succubus Shadows, the fifth of the Georgina Kincaid books, our favorite succubus is having visions of peace and happiness, beckoning her toward a doorway. When she succumbs, she finds herself trapped in a dream world where she's forced to live out her many mistakes over her 1500 years.

I was glad for the interludes where Georgina watches her friends search for her. She's entirely passive and unable to do anything about her situation for a good portion of the book. As fascinating as the flashbacks are, it was incredibly frustrating to read about events Georgina has no control over. Being able to root for her friends took away some of that frustration. Just enough that I couldn't stop reading, evidently.

This book breaks the formula of previous books. The mystery isn't in the who; Georgina knows that as soon as she lays eyes on her captor. It's in the how, as in, how will she get out of this?

This book answers a major question from Succubus Dreams, the third book in the series. Georgina finds out who the man was in her dream. The answer shouldn't be a surprise, but it was still gratifying to read.

I was sorely tempted to keep reading so I could finish up the series, after this book. As much as this book does wrap up its conflict, it leaves a major question up in the air. It's the big question holding the whole series together, so it makes sense that it would wait for book 6. By the time I read this book, I really cared about the characters. I wanted to see them get the happy ending they deserved.

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Review: Succubus Heat (Georgina Kincaid #4) by Richelle Mead

Succubus Heat (Georgina Kincaid, #4)Succubus Heat by Richelle Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After the events of Succubus Dreams, I found myself unable to concentrate on reading anything else before I got my hands on the rest of the series. This book did nothing to slow my momentum. If you've made it this far into the series, there's a good chance you're just as addicted as I am.

The Georgina Kincaid series follows the trials of a 1500-year-old succubus in Seattle, Washington. This book has her so angsty, her boss, a demon named Jerome, has sent her to therapy. When that doesn't work, he sends her on assignment to Vancouver to investigate a satanic cult that's hurting the cause of evil more than helping it. Before Georgina can get to the bottom of it, Jerome is summoned and locked away, which also locks away the powers of all of his underlings. Including Georgina. Suddenly, she can have sex with Seth Mortensen, the love of her life, without draining his life away. Just a few problems with that, for reasons obvious to anyone who's read book 3 already.

I wasn't exactly counting the sex-scene-to-pages ratio, but this book certainly earns "heat" in the title. It leaves more of her anonymous encounters to the imagination, in contrast with previous books, which highlights the emotionally invested ones all the more.

I'm being very careful writing up the events of this book, because the description for book 5 spoiled a major plot point for me. Not that I think many are reading primarily for the plot, but I like to be surprised.

The quality of this book is consistent with the previous three. If you like the interplay of characters, it's just as snarky and entertaining as ever. There are hints to a greater plot in this book, but it's a slow build. There's very little depth, beyond the complexity of a succubus who likes helping people and her good-hearted demonic friends. I was annoyed with how easily Georgina shrugs off a choice Seth made in book 3, but I suppose she's more forgiving than I am.

This book hooked me so thoroughly, I ran out to buy a copy of book 5 before I'd finished this one. It's been a long time since I was so addicted to a series. I like it.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: The Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle

The Folk of the AirThe Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When people talk about the books Peter S. Beagle has written, this one usually winds up as a footnote. I ran across a copy at a used bookstore, though, and thought it sounded like something I'd like. Then it languished on my shelves, unread. Hence its inclusion in my 2014 TBR Challenge.

The book starts with Joe Farrell returning to his hometown of Avicenna, California. His best friend, Ben, is dating an older woman, and they have a spare bedroom he can borrow until he figures out what his next step is. Then he runs into Julie Tanakawa, an old flame. She introduces him to the League of Archaic Pleasures, a medieval reenactment society. He fits right in, but not before getting on the bad side of their resident sorceress, Aiffe, who can do real magic. Farrell feels sympathy for her when she summons a powerful being, Nicholas Bonner, who she can't control. She has no use for his sympathy, though, being convinced she's the one with the power. Her hubris leads her to confront Ben's lover, who is no mere human, herself.

This was written when urban fantasy was still very new, so it has the feel of trying on a few tropes and tones for size. I don't think Farrell was the right perspective character for the book; his flippancy lends itself to a sense of distance from the story, and he has nothing to do in the crisis point but observe. He's a fun character, and very typical of Peter Beagle's heroes, but I don't think this is his story.

There are several remarkable features to this book, though, which might make it worth the read. First, the language and imagery are lovely. Very evocative. As ever, Beagle conjures images with such turns of phrases that he makes it look easy.

Second is the diversity of the cast. Julie is of Japanese descent, and there are several other nonwhite people in Farrell's social group, many of whom get speaking roles. There's also a diversity of body types. Farrell notes there are a number of larger bodies at the League, and feels no need to share his opinion about their shapes. None of them are described as stuffing their faces, desperate for attention, or ungainly and unable to walk five steps without being out of breath, as fat people are often portrayed in modern media. The most desirable woman in the book is described as being in her 60s with a big belly. It astounded me, that anyone could even get into the mind set to write that with sincerity.

I need the people writing to the trend of fat heroines to look over this book, please. This is how it's done.

As much as I loved the writing and the characters, this book never spoke to me. It felt like a meandering, slice-of-life story with magic and people playing dress-up. The narrative thread was too thin, and, as I noted above, the conclusion described what Joe Farrell saw. He had nothing to contribute at the climax, no reason to be there except as an observer. I'm a lot more interested in the story this book seemed to be setting up at the end.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6) by Alan Bradley

The Dead in Their Vaulted ArchesThe Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sixth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series. If you've made it this far into the series, you have a pretty good idea what to expect.

This book picks up a week after Speaking from Among the Bones, where Flavia learns her mother has been found. It starts with Harriet's return to Buckshaw, the crumbling estate that's housed the de Luce family for generations. Flavia meets Winston Churchill, then speaks with a tall stranger who passes on a cryptic message before getting run over by a train. Someone on the platform shouts that he was pushed, leading Flavia to investigate, despite the activities sparked by Harriet's return.

This is very much in the same vein as previous books. Flavia remains precocious and charming, her sisters still bully her, the family remains distant from one another, and we learn more of Buckshaw's secrets. At this point, the estate is basically another character in the books.

There are some major revelations in this book. Obviously, we find out what happened to Harriet. We find out why she was in the Himalayas. We learn of a whole secret society, with the de Luce family at its center. (Or, at least, the youngest daughter of each generation.) We learn more about Dogger, the faithful manservant.

We also meet another branch of the family, the Cornwall de Luces. Lena de Luce and her daughter, Undine, show up to see Harriet. Undine gives Flavia a taste of her own medicine, in that she's younger, annoying, and knows more than someone her age has any right to. She's bilingual, has traveled extensively, and is clever and well-versed.

As in the previous book, I found the tension uneven in this book. There's a mystery to solve, there's family drama, there's all the stuff that's going on. But I never felt a need for Flavia to take any part of it. I felt like the mystery would've been solved with or without her intervention, in the end.

I had to check there would be more books after this. In theory, the series could have wrapped up after this book. I just didn't want it to. The revelations in this book spark a lot more questions, and bring a lot of potential new conflicts. The next book looks to be changing its setting, though whether it goes that way and forces us to meet a whole new cast, or continues to stick around Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey, we'll have to see.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the ever-delightful Jayne Entwistle. She brings the same charming jocularity to this installment. If you like her performance in the last five, you'll like this one just as well.

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Review: Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

AlcestisAlcestis by Katharine Beutner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like fairy tale and mythology retellings, in general. I've read a lot of really creative and interesting ones. I've also read a lot that detracted from the original story in its reimagining. I was hoping Alcestis was one of the former, but, unfortunately, it fell into the latter category.

The story of Alcestis in myth is one of wifely devotion. She so loved her husband that, when his death came, she volunteered to take his place. Heracles (aka Hercules, Herakles, and various combinations thereof) brought her back after three days. She spent her first three days back among the living not speaking a word. She went on to have a son and a daughter. We know nothing about the daughter, but the son fought in the Trojan War.

This book gives a new spin on the story, giving Alcestis a sister who died young, and a supreme loneliness. The elements of the story are there: Apollo's intervention in Admetus's successful wooing of Alcestis, his forgetting to sacrifice to Artemis and finding his bed full of snakes, Alcestis's giving up her life for him. Her motives in this, though, are to save herself the loss of honor thanks to his cowardice when faced with death. Love plays no part in her decision, and her gratitude for his kindness turns to disgust that he put her in this position.

The most interesting part of the story is where the author can make up events out of whole cloth. No one speaks of what happened to Alcestis in the underworld, so there's a lot of freedom in the narrative there. She falls in love with a goddess and looks for people she knows, most notably her sister, Hippothoe.

I would probably feel differently about this book if I'd bought the love story. But the courtship between Alcestis and Persephone consists of inscrutable conversations where nobody is capable of answering a direct question, and Alcestis watching her have sex with Hermes once. Persephone's seduction takes place over the course of several "you don't know the whole story about my marriage to Hermes" hooks, which pay off in the flattest and least surprising way I've ever heard that story retold. I read a sanitized children's version of the Persephone/Hades story that was more interesting than the scandalous truth Persephone teases Alcestis with. I could believe that Alcestis was infatuated and in lust with Persephone. A great love, worthy of longing and sighing after the goddess for the rest of her days? Not so much.

But then, Alcestis is sixteen years old. She calls herself a woman, and many regard her as an adult, but she has a teenager's sense of proportion.

Many aspects of the book fell flat for me, or seemed contradictory. One example of many is that Alcestis remarks she's heard about Zeus appearing as a swan to a woman. But Leda's encounter with Zeus has to come years and years after the events in this book, for Helen to be still young and beautiful when Alcestis's son is called off to besiege Troy as an old man. I suppose it could be implying that Zeus pulls this trick a lot, but it seemed like an odd detail to include, if it's not meant to evoke Leda.

And I never could wrap my mind around any of the male characters. Admetus goes to such lengths to win Alcestis's hand, but he has no room in his heart for her, because he's in love with a god. I can't tell if Hades really cares for Persephone, or if he doesn't care enough to bother arguing with her. Heracles seems terrified of Alcestis, except when he's ignoring her or acting the part of the perfect gentleman. Granted, Alcestis is the perspective character and she finds these men hard to understand, but their characterizations are inconsistent and contradictory.

I think I was supposed to feel that sense of epic sadness that comes from reading a Greek tragedy. Instead, I just felt tired at the end of this book. Another retelling that forces people through the steps because it's what they're supposed to do, with no sense these are real people living these stories. The writing isn't terrible, but I had absolutely no sense of the characters.

I listened to this book on audio, which may have colored my judgment. The narrator read in this breathless voice that sounded like she was trying to force the words out through tears. It was exhausting to listen to, and it made Alcestis sound a lot more uncertain and weaker than she's probably written. I wish I'd read a paper version, so I knew if that made any difference.

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Review: Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid #3) by Richelle Mead

Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)Succubus Dreams by Richelle Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in Richelle Mead's Georgina Kincaid series, about a succubus in modern-day Seattle. The first thing I did when I finished was request the next book from the library. Not only do the books each pull the reader through, flipping pages to see what's next, but the series is addictive.

Georgina is still dating Seth Mortensen, the handsome, shy writer she first loved for writing some of her favorite books. This book throws several complications in the way, as she balances her life as a succubus against dating a man she doesn't want to suck the life out of. He doesn't make it easier when he blows her off in favor of writing. And, of course, there's the matter of the fact she'll lose him someday, when she's still young and vibrant as he withers away of old age.

Meanwhile, she's having vivid dreams about an ordinary human life that leave her drained of the energy she just stole from an unsuspecting mortal. There's a new succubus in town who needs to be shown the ropes, and she seems totally helpless. There are angels, plural, working on a secret mission, and Georgina puts their human helper up in her apartment. The slimy imp who bought her soul is visiting. And Christmas is on its way.

There's a reason I listed the relationship troubles first, even though it's not the main plot. That was what had me a lot more worried. The obstacles in Georgina and Seth's way are very real, and not solved through a romantic gesture or an airing-out talk. She's a succubus, and there's nothing she can do about that. He's a human, and a pure soul, at that. He could sell his soul to be with Georgina, an avenue he does consider, but that would create a lot more problems than it solves. The sexual tension between Georgina and Seth is just as hot as the sex scenes. Their torment is palpable.

That's not to say the other conflict is boring or low stakes. If Georgina runs out of energy, she loses the ability to shapeshift, which would leave her unrecognizable to any humans in her current life, and make it that much harder to seduce people. She keeps us apprised of about where she is in the energy department, though she seems to lowball it sometimes. She'll say she's very low, then she'll shapeshift her way into a slinky outfit.

I enjoyed this installment. It pulled me right on through. I really care what happens to these characters, even if they frustrate the hell out of me. This puts the other three books at the top of my to-read queue. I have to know they'll be okay.

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Review: Range of Ghosts (Eternal Sky #1) by Elizabeth Bear

Range of Ghosts (Eternal Sky, #1)Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been following Elizabeth Bear on twitter since I started listening to the Hugo-Award-winning SF Squeecast. It occurred to me how odd it was to follow an author whose books I'd never read, so I set about fixing that. I picked up Range of Ghosts at the library because it's the start of a series, and a recent one. It seemed as good a place to start as any.

Range of Ghosts takes place in a fantasy world setting that seems roughly analogous to Tibet and the surrounding region. I know little of the geography and history of the area, so I'm sure there were geographical references I missed.

The story follows Temur, who wakes up on a battlefield with a wound that should have killed him. He's alone, but for a horse he finds miraculously alive. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Samarkar recovers from a hysterectomy, a necessary step for all those who want to devote their lives to magic. She knows it's a risk, that she may not have any magic, but she's had plenty of time to think through the consequences.

Temur, who's the rightful inheritor of rule of his land, is taken in by a clan of nomads who don't know who he is. All seems peaceful and right until the ghosts of those who died on the battlefield come after him, and kidnap Edene, his lover. He has to cross the mountains to go after her. Samarkar finds him outside a city completely empty of people. He's deathly ill. She tends to him and gets him somewhere safe. On the way, they pick up Hrahima, a Cho-tse warrior who looks like a tiger on two legs. Soon, they're wrapped up the politics of Samarkar's country, and fleeing Samarkar's brother, the king.

The story is told through Temur's and Samarkar's perspectives, with a side plot told through Edene's eyes or that of Mukhtar ai-Idoj, a religious leader who's trying to manipulate matters for his own purposes. It's always clear whose head we're in; the language and attention to details changes with each character. Temur is used to open spaces, and feels claustrophobic in cities or buildings, while Samarkar is accustomed to life in Court and its social niceties, so she pays attention to how people interact.

The worldbuilding in this book is unbelievably intricate. The world is populated with a diverse range of people. Nations are marked not only by borders on a map, but by their different skies. Temur's land is marked by moons representing those with royal blood. The disappearance of a moon indicates that person's death, and he watches the sky to learn about whether his relatives are still alive. The magic is limited by the supreme sacrifices needed of its practitioners, and its strength never approaches the level where its use could solve their problems. Temur sees Samarkar's power as miraculous, but she uses it mostly to conjure water from the air. The intricacy did lose me a few times, but I was often able to catch up from the context.

The book's greatest strength lies in the characters. There are no cardboard cutouts here, no one there just to prop up someone else's story. Everyone in these pages has a history and motivations, though we may not always know what those are. I really cared about Temur and Samarkar by the end of the book, and the way their relationship grew never rang false to me.

Even aside from the worldbuilding, this book is written beautifully. The language has a poetic lilt. Images are evocative. I spent some of my reading time with my stomach churning at the descriptions of injuries and pain, which I was able to picture all too well. But there are also scenes of beauty. Landscapes are painted with a few well-chosen words, and opulent surroundings are captured just as easily. I was in awe of the beauty of the language.

My complaints about this book all stem from it being the first of a trilogy. I wasn't satisfied with the resolutions. Too many conflicts are left hanging. I understand why the book wrapped up where it did, but I would've liked a greater sense of relief at the end.

I'll just have to keep reading, I guess.

This book may take some time to get into, as you adjust to the language and politics. It's well worth the investment, even if the reasons you keep reading aren't resolved by the end. The writing is lovely, and the characters are compelling.

Depending on how the third book ends, I may have to raise my star rating of this book. If the payoff is worth the tension, the buildup is worth five stars.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Review: Peter and the Secret of Rundoon (Peter and the Starcatchers #3) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Peter and the Secret of Rundoon (Peter and the Starcatchers, #3)Peter and the Secret of Rundoon by Dave Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd been taking these books out on audio from the library. But I enjoyed them so much, I went ahead and purchased this one. They're fun, entertaining, and the narration is excellent.

This is the third book about the origin of Peter Pan, which posits that he got his ability to fly from a long exposure to "star stuff," a glittery powder that can bring about all kinds of miracles. In this, he's kidnapped to Rundoon, where the bad guys (the Others; why they call themselves that is beyond me) have a base. There, he learns more about the mysterious forces opposing the Starcatchers, finds out who his parents were and why he wound up in an orphanage, and sails a flying ship. By the end of the story, it feels like a logical progression into the events of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

The book doesn't tie everything up neatly. There are still questions remaining. What happened to Peter's parents is implied, but there's a lot of room to further explore. We learn what star stuff is and why it keeps falling from the sky. We learn where the creepy shadow creatures like Lord Ombre come from, and what their purpose is. Peter deals with the ones in Rundoon, but there are lots more of them to contend with, all over the world. There are aspects of the Starcatchers that deserve further exploration, too.

As in previous installments, the pacing is quick. It takes place over a period of weeks, but it never feels like that much time has passed. The narrative follows several threads, and switches over to the most exciting ones when the others sag. There is no good time to put the book down. The urge to know what happens next is strong with this book.

There's also a healthy dose of humor. Some of it is the physical or repetitive humor that would entertain the book's intended audience, but there are also plenty of wry comments that might make a grownup reader laugh. The series is clearly written to be read aloud by parents, who'll enjoy it just as much as their children.

Despite the lingering questions, I'm not sure if I want to read the next book. The description implies it's a rewriting of Barrie's story, and I feel like the series' strength has been in how easily it's fit with the original work.

We shall see.

As I mentioned, I read this on audio, narrated by Jim Dale. He has a delightful voice, well-suited to reading bedtime stories to kids. I don't know how much he plans in advance, but he keeps the voices unique enough that one can always tell who's speaking. Two characters who sound similar are never in the same scene together, which helped a lot with keeping them straight.

I highly recommend the audio edition of this book, as well as anything else Jim Dale narrates.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Divine Misfortune by A. Lee Martinez

Divine MisfortuneDivine Misfortune by A. Lee Martinez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is probably the lightest thing I'll read for a book club, ever. I'd wanted to read it for some time, so I was happy to do so as part of a group, where we could pull out some deeper concepts within it. Mostly, though, it's fluffy and funny, and a very fast read.

Divine Misfortune takes place in a world where faith has nothing to do with religion. Gods exist, people can interact with them, and almost everyone has a shrine to their god, where they make regular sacrifices. Teri and Phil have resisted inviting a deity's influence into their home, until a spectacularly bad day has Phil searching online for one that will bless them without asking too much. They settle on Luka, god of prosperity, who shows up and announces he'll be staying with them a while.

Then things get weird.

Several aspects of the world are explored. Quetzalcoatl (Quick for short) moons around Teri and Phil's house, lamenting his lost followers. A former goddess of love latches onto a hapless woman named Bonnie, whose luck soon changes for the worse. Much, much worse. There's a visit to the realm of dreams, and a rivalry, and the ultimate deus ex machina smackdown.

As entertaining as the story is, there isn't a lot to it. Depicting the gods as just as petty and flawed as humans has been done since the Greeks started telling stories (that we know of), and the choosing of a god seems far more analogous to dating than religion. Teri and Phil's main conflict is in getting Luka (aka Lucky) to behave as a god should, which limits their actions within the narrative. The book is mostly Lucky's story, so framing it around Teri and Phil leads to some disappointment.

It was still an entertaining and fun read, though, and I will be reading more of Martinez's particular brand of absurdist humor. I'll just know not to expect a deep reading, in the future.

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Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this with my book club. It's one of those books I wouldn't have picked up on my own, and I'm glad to have had it shoved in my face. It's far from perfect, and not what I'd call a pleasant read, but I did learn a lot.

The book follows the narrative of several people who escaped from North Korea, and their various reasons why they risked imprisonment to leave the only homes they'd ever known. The author calls them "defectors," which I suppose is accurate, but I saw them as refugees, escaping for better lives elsewhere.

I knew precious little about Korea, approaching this book. All I knew was that my sister is currently posted in Seoul, and her family lives there with her. I knew about the US military presence, and I had a vague idea it had something to do with communism.

Nothing to Envy certainly clarified why we're still there. North Korean forces staying on their side of the 38th Parallel is important. We do not want to risk the spread of conditions in North Korea.

The conditions described in the book are rather like

, down to the attitude that Russia has always been their enemy, after they'd been allies for decades. ("We have always been at war with Eurasia.") People are watched, their diaries read, and children are taught from a young age that they should turn in their neighbors and friends. The three-generation rule ensures that those who want to rebel keep it quiet, to keep their parents and children from suffering their punishment.

North Korea is so much worse, though. During the famine of the 1990s, various aid groups sent food to help the populace. Most of it went to those in power, or was sold at exorbitant cost on the black market. Conditions in the prisons are worse than bleak, hunger being the only force keeping prisoners from acting out even worse than here in the US. The book describes people stepping over those who've died of starvation in the streets. One woman, a doctor, escapes to China and finds a feast just lying in someone's front yard. It's only when she hears barking that she realizes dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.

The book has a clear political slant, though. It's puzzling, how many pages are spent slamming communism. We already know how easy it is to exploit, and that it doesn't work in practice. The book really loses me, though, when it posits that capitalism has none of the problems of greed, corruption, and starvation, because we fixed it through regulation. I urge the author to take a look at our current political and financial climate, and talk to some recipients of school lunch programs.

The book also reads like a series of articles, loosely stitched together with very little editing. Passages are repeated, often word for word, while context is sometimes lacking. The narratives can be hard to keep track of. While they do all highlight different aspects of life in North Korea, it can be hard to tell within the context which person is being described at any given moment. There are sometimes hints, but not enough.

Overall, reading this book was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot about North Korea, and about how powerful propaganda and cultural pressure can be in bringing people in line. I finished up this book a lot prouder of my sister for her role in South Korea, helping to maintain the military presence that keeps North Korean forces on their side of the border.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those classics that has inspired numerous movies and other stories, none of which capture the spirit of the original story. This is a post-apocalyptic tale that really digs into life after civilization collapses. It asks a lot of interesting questions, along the way.

The story begins on the day after a spectacular meteor shower seen around the world. The narrator, saved by nearly having lost his sight a week before, wakes to an unsettling stillness. Further exploration shows that everyone who watched the meteor shower was struck blind. By itself, the helplessness this engenders in the populace might have led to mass deaths. But on top of that, there's a viral epidemic, and, of course, triffids. Triffids are genetically engineered plants that have some mobility, and venemous whip-like appendages. But they produce oil that can be used for fuel, so they're farmed in great quantities. But when humanity is rendered helpless against them, they close in to take their rightful place at the top of the food chain.

Different factions spring up immediately. Some want to loot as much as they can as quickly as they can. Others want to preserve as many people as they can, even if it means enslaving those who can still see. Still others want to repopulate the world and make their own society, far away from the chaos. Each perspective is considered by our hero, Bill Masen. What drives him is a need to find Josella, who he saved from a man who tried to enslave her for her sight. To that end, he encounters many approaches to the end of the world.

The story takes place over a period of years. With most books, that would be a negative, but this manages to maintain tension. It takes that long to answer the question of whether they'll survive, because there's always a new barrier. The timeline might have been truncated, but it would've taken away from the feeling of the world changing forever because of paranoia and one-upmanship.

The most poignant part of this book, for me, is the fact that all of the problems in the book are human-made. The meteor shower, the triffids, even the plague, were all planted by people. The scarcity that follows these crises is also due to people's shortsightedness.

Though humanity is rendered helpless through mass blindness, the book does take pains to show blindness, itself, is not the problem. It's the switch from a reliance on sight to not being able to see. People who started out blind are in far better shape than those who were fully sighted the day before the meteor shower. Those who adapt ways to live this new way are in the best position for survival.

This book was a lot better than I expected. While it's not as fast-paced as today's SF thrillers, it addresses a lot of philosophical quandaries, and has some things to say about human nature. Despite its dated technology, I think it's aged well.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the very British Graeme Malcolm. His voice was pleasant to listen to, and he had a good range of accents at his disposal. It was a pleasant listening experience.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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