redheadedfemme: (hipster)
library mount char

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On occasion, I've heard people say something about a book I never quite understood: "I'm glad I read this book, but I'll never read it again."

I didn't know what they meant, until now.

I don't even know if I'm glad I read this book. I liked it--sort of--and it held my interest, but I'm never going to reread it, and I won't pick up the sequel if there is one. That's not to knock the writer; his prose is good, his book is well paced, and the characters are well drawn. I guess I just don't care to read about the struggles of a family of sociopathic gods, and a plot that is laden with guts and gore and roasting people alive.

The main character, Carolyn, is indeed a sociopath; the author knows it, the reader knows it, and the character certainly knows it. Carolyn, along with eleven other children, are taken in by a sixty-thousand-year-old deity made flesh from the "Third Age," who is searching for his successor. "Father" needs someone to watch over his Library, which is the supernatural, extradimensional font of all knowledge. To choose his successor, Father subjects all the children to terrible things. This backstory makes clear why Carolyn is the way she is, and I suppose I can't blame her; but again, this is another reason why I don't want to read any more about her.

This is the story of the struggle between the children, and other deities from Father's past, and how Carolyn ascends to the position of Librarian, in charge of Father's Library and apparently our universe. The book's ending leaves the plot open for a sequel.

"So...you said 'they're coming.' Who's 'they'?"

"I'm not completely sure yet. My Father had enemies. Some of them are my enemies now, too. They've begun to move against me."

"Dangerous folks? Dangerous like you, I mean."

"Some of them, yeah."

"Hmmm."

"Don't worry," Carolyn said. "I have a plan."


I'm sure she does, but I won't be reading it.

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redheadedfemme: (I'm not going)

the book of phoenix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is weird, messy and complicated. It's billed as a science fiction story, and it certainly is that; the titular main character, Phoenix Okore, is a genetically engineered being, after all. In this future, climate change has advanced to the point that Manhattan Island is partially under water. There's a two-mile-high tree growing out of what's left of Manhattan that was generated by an alien seed. Phoenix is essentially a superhero, a living bomb (with wings!) who can blow herself up, burn herself and everything around her to ash, and regenerate from those same ashes. She does this several times through the course of the story, and the final occasion supposedly brings about the downfall of civilization.

It should be just the kind of book I like, and I did finish it...but I just didn't warm to it. As a protagonist, Phoenix is nicely drawn, as are the supporting characters, and Nnedi Okorafor's prose style is smooth and unobtrusive. I think the basic setup is what spoils the story for me; the suspension of disbelief is stretched just a little too far to accept everything thrown at me, especially when there's another character who sounds like some kind of mystical Obi-Wan sage who can literally walk through solid matter.

Having said that, the framing story, set two hundred years later after Phoenix's apocalypse when an old storyteller in Africa discovers a cache of computers and a chip with Phoenix's story recorded as an oral history, is pretty impressive. In many ways it's the best part of the novel. The exploration of African customs and the power of myth almost carry the day, and certainly elevate the story higher than I might have rated it otherwise.

I'm glad I read it, but unfortunately, I can't mark it down as one of the best books of the year.

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redheadedfemme: (reader thousand lives)
baru

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not for the fainthearted. I'll say that right up front, because it's important, and I don't want to be lashed for not mentioning it. The story is the epitome of the phrase, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," or as the book puts it before the story even starts, "A Promise: This is the truth. You will know because it hurts."

I've never seen an author do that before, but if ever a book lives up to its promise, this one does.

This is the story of Baru Cormorant, and her struggle to take down the evil Empire of Masks from the inside out. The Empire conquered her island of Taranoke, not through the usual way--war--but through trade, a treaty, economics, and the promise of better living. Things like antibiotics, dentistry, and roads. Unfortunately the price paid is high: the island's culture is swallowed up and subjugated, its natural resources exploited and stripped, its children indoctrinated into the Imperial way of thinking. (The Empire of Masks is a particularly nasty piece of work; their society is highly homophobic and subscribes to this world's version of eugenics, i.e., forced marriages and people bred like cattle. Undesirables, like Baru, who is a lesbian [or "tribadist"], are put to the knife--castrated and/or circumcised--reeducated through use of drugs or a more brutal version of our "reparations therapy," or killed altogether.) Baru, a mathematics savant, is trained to be an Imperial Accountant, and is assigned to the country of Aurdwynn. She is determined to free her home, and is convinced that playing the Imperial game and destroying the Empire from within is the only way to achieve her goal.

That description, however, in no way does justice to the brutality and ruthlessness of both this book and its main character. Step by step, we are witness to the creation of a monster, whose obsession leads her to do terrible things. Yet Baru is not a sociopath, not really; she loves, she cries, and she grieves, and she feels every bit of what she is doing, but she will let nothing stand in her way. And so the book's central theme is this: How far will Baru go to get what she wants, and will the time ever come when the ends do not justify the means? What, and who, will she sacrifice to defeat the Empire...and can the Empire ever really be defeated?

It's one of the most complex characterizations I've seen in a long time. I was horrified by Baru, and hated her, but I always understood her, and I couldn't take my eyes off her.

Baru becomes the Fairer Hand, the leader of Aurdwynn's rebellion. (Not by force of arms, mind you, but by force of numbers. She is still the Imperial Accountant, manipulating currencies and people with equal aplomb.) After one decisive battle, where the rebels of Aurdwynn defeat the Imperial troops, I looked at the number of pages remaining and realized the book couldn't wrap up here. This story could not possibly have a happy ending.

It didn't. I won't spoil it, except to remind you that the book's title is The Traitor Baru Cormorant. And yet this book could have ended no other way.

It's dark and disturbing, and if you must have optimism in your fiction, you need to stay far away from this one. But if you read this story, it will haunt you for weeks to come. I gave it four stars because of the awkwardness of the first few chapters, dealing with Baru's childhood; once she reaches Aurdwynn, the book blasts on all cylinders.

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redheadedfemme: (Books. Cats. Life is sweet.)
Jemisin_FifthSeason-TP

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've never read any of N.K. Jemisin's work before, but now I'll start collecting her books.

This book is fantastic. I'll get that out of the way right now; it's one of the best I've read this year. It's a very dense book, in plot and character, worldbuilding and writing, and it would definitely reward multiple reads. (In fact, as I was going through it, and peeling back one more layer of the onion Jemisin has so expertly constructed, I found myself returning to the prologue and rereading it, and picking up on the nuances I couldn't understand before. Which I did again just now, after finishing the book. Unfortunately, I have to return this copy to the library, but I'll get my own soon enough.) What I find interesting is that it's being marketed as fantasy, and to me, it's really not. This is not to say I disdain fantasy; I loved Naomi Novik's Uprooted, after all. But this book, while it might have some nominal fantasy trappings, has a very strong science-fiction undertone. Just as an example, the inhabitants of Jemisin's world understand the theory of plate tectonics, the cities have electricity generated by geothermal and/or hydroelectric means, and they also possess the ability to build massive floating (possibly using anti-grav?) crystal obelisks--the purpose of which isn't hinted at until the very last line of the book! (Talk about a cliff-hanger. I immediately went to Amazon to see if I could pre-order the next book, which isn't even finished yet.)

The structure of this book is complex. There are three distinct storylines, and alternating chapters following what you at first believe are three characters--but you gradually realize this is the story of one woman, told at three different times in her life. The oldest version of the protagonist is named Essun, and her chapters are written in second person, present tense. (I've written a story in second person. It's not easy; that sort of narrative is distancing and suffocatingly close all at the same time, and the writer has to make the "you" into a distinct character. Jemisin does this very well.) The earlier versions of Essun, under different names, are written in third person, present tense. Fortunately, the chapter headings make clear which character we'll be focusing on. All this juggling of storylines may sound a bit precious, but it's absolutely necessary to the plot; we have to see why and how Essun has become the person she is, to understand the choices she makes.

The worldbuilding is equally impressive. I've come to the conclusion that, for me, world-building is one of the most important parts of an SFF book; if I can't believe in the world presented, if it doesn't make sense, I get thrown right out of the narrative (and the book tends to hit the wall). Jemisin's world has the weight of thousands of years of history and geology, and carries that weight very well. There are no infodumps. The history/geology is woven in with rare skill, and the story never drags. There are two appendices at the back of the book--a timeline and glossary of terms--that help explain things, which I appreciated, but most readers will be able to follow along anyway. The prose is crisp and clean and deceptively simple, and when Jemisin hits an action sequence, it's like a knockout punch.

This is a very dark story, however, so be warned. The characters never seem to catch a break. There are themes of prejudice and hatred, and a society that oppresses the very people it needs for its survival. There are important questions asked as to how far a person will go to accept something that they know is not right, if they believe accepting the wrong is necessary for their survival, and how and when they will finally break free. Essun is asking those questions, and is on the verge of breaking free, and I can't wait to see what she does next.

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redheadedfemme: (I'm not going)
The Water Knife

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was originally going to give this book four stars. I enjoyed it immensely, but I didn't think it was quite up to the lofty standards of Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Still, I kept thinking about the story, and the characters, and Paolo Bacigalupi's chillingly possible near-future world, and I realized if the book has stayed with me that much, it deserves the final star.

So, five stars it is.

This book hits home for me because I live in Arizona, and it is set (mostly) in Phoenix. But it's the Phoenix, and the America, of twenty or thirty years from now, when climate change is really kicking in. Among other things, there are seawalls around Manhattan and Miami; EF6 tornadoes ravaging Chicago (currently the range tops out at EF5, with windspeeds measured between 261-318 mph; EF6, currently rated "inconceivable,"would go beyond that); and hurricanes slamming the Gulf Coast to the point where thousands of people are fleeing Texas, only with the recently passed State Sovereignty Act, states such as California, New Mexico and Nevada are not allowing them in. Water is more valuable than oil or gold, and the so-called Queen of the Colorado, Catherine Case, is employing "water knives" (actually shadowy beyond-the-law assassins) to defend Nevada's water rights. In Phoenix, massive dust storms, far worse than anything we experience today, are slowly burying the city, which is now stuffed with Texas refugees (called "Merry Perrys"--methinks the author doesn't much care for the former Texas governor) and various other factions fighting each other over water. The world is complicated and fascinating, and scary as hell to me, because I can see all of it coming true. (As an example, the day after I finished this book, there was a front-page article in the Arizona Republic detailing the fight over the Colorado River water and the future of the Southwest amidst the ongoing drought.)

You could call this book "climatepunk," I suppose, but at its heart it's a near-future SF thriller. What sets it apart from most potboiler thrillers, however, is its characters. There are three viewpoint characters--Angel Velasquez the water knife, Lucy Monroe the Phoenix journalist, and Maria Villarosa, the Texas refugee who unwittingly gets dragged into the whole mess and plays a surprising role in the end--and these characters are very well done. Each has believable backgrounds, well-thought-out motivations, and a distinct arc, stretched over alternating chapters that fit together like a series of interlocking puzzles. The pacing is excellent and the stakes are high. The ending is a bit abrupt, at least to me, and while it does leave things open for a sequel (something along the lines of "Do they make it to Las Vegas with those senior-to-God water rights, or does California capture them instead?"), the current storyline is for the most part wrapped up.

This book will make you think, and it should. I don't think the author really wants to be known as a prophet, but if the US doesn't get its collective head out of its ass regarding climate change, I think he's going to be more on target than anyone wishes.

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redheadedfemme: (Books. Cats. Life is sweet.)
uprooted

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second five-star read of the year. I think I like this better than Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory, and I've been raving about that to whoever would listen. Bear's book is an exhilarating, fun romp with a memorable cast of characters. This book, while it does have its comedic moments (especially in the beginning, with the clash of personalities between our protagonist Agnieszka and the wizard), is much darker. So much so, in fact, that while the protagonist is seventeen, and on the surface you might think the book is for young adults, I wouldn't give it to a younger teenager to read. Especially in the final third of the story, all the carefully woven plot threads explode into a heart-attack-inducing burst of action. There are fights, often gruesome deaths, fleeing, on-the-edge-of-your-seat rescues, a magical siege of a tower that rivals anything Tolkien produced, and a final desperate trek into an antagonist as unique as anything I've read in ages--the poisonous, sentient, killer Wood.

Let's put it this way: This is not a Disneyfied fairy tale, and it's definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Our heroine is Agnieszka (pronounced Ag-NYESH-kah according to the Author's Note). She is an endearingly klutzy young girl who, by virtue of the year of her birth, has to participate in the ten-year ritual of the Dragon-born. The Dragon is the wizard who protects the valley where Agnieszka lives from the Wood, the magical forest on the border between Agnieska's country and the next. There is a great deal of backstory to this Wood, woven in so expertly that it never slows the story down, and indeed this backstory emerges as the prime driver of the plot. (Naomi Novik's worldbuilding for this book is just fantastic. I am in awe.) Agnieszka is not particularly worried about the Dragon's choosing, because everyone knows that the wizard will take her best friend, Kasia, an accomplished blond beauty who stands in stark contrast to Agnieszka's clumsy untidiness. Of course, as soon as I say that, y'all know what happens, don't you? The Dragon comes, tests all the girls...and chooses Agnieszka instead.

Thus begins the epic journey of Agnieszka learning she is a witch, albeit an intuitive, unconventional one who thoroughly offends the Dragon's notion of what a magic worker should be. The Dragon, whose name we later learn is Sarkan, is the epitome of a scowling, grumpy wizard shouting at everyone, "Get off my lawn!" He comes across a bit nasty at first, yelling at poor lost Agnieszka, whose world has just been turned upside down. But the deeper we get into the story, and the more we learn about the Dragon's task--guarding the valley, and the entire country, from the gradual encroachment of the Wood--the more sympathy we feel for him. His job is one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and he is the only one who can do it. This naturally does not inspire a personality of sweetness and light.

The antagonist here, the Wood, is a stroke of genius. Not a person per se, but a magical forest on the far edge of the valley. This forest spits out monstrous mutated animals, and drags people inside either to their deaths, or to be swallowed up by evil heart-trees, or releases them filled with a corruption that leads the victims to murder. The Wood's brooding, malevolent presence is one of the scariest things I have read in a long time, and it rings true on every page. (And for the contrarian who asks, "Why in the hell don't all the people in the valley just leave?"--that is dealt with. Turns out, there is a good reason.)

Because Agnieszka is a witch, she has to team with the Dragon to fight the Wood. There is a great deal more to this layered, complex plot, which is why the book is 435 pages long. None of it is boring, and all of it is stupendously well-written. We have the power of female friendship (Agnieszka and Kasia), Agnieszka's love for her family and her love for the valley (it's her home and she's not leaving); court politics; war; a back-burner romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon; and finally, after the Wood's final defeat, Agnieszka's finding her purpose and her place. She will stay in the valley and she will heal the Wood, even if it takes all of her very long witch-life.

This is one reason why, for me, the ending was so satisfying. The Dragon leaves for the Capital to mop up the mess (to put it mildly; mass slaughter was involved, which is why this book is so dark) the Wood made of the king's court, and Agnieszka doesn't know when, or if, he is coming back. No matter: she has her job, the gradual cleansing of the Wood, and she is not at all dependent on the Dragon. Then the Dragon, all grumpy prickly mortification, returns.

Happiness was bubbling up through me, a bright stream laughing. He'd come back. "When did you arrive?"

"This afternoon," he said stiffly. "I came to receive the taxes, of course."

"Of course," I said. I was sure he'd even gone to Olshanka for the tribute first, just so he could pretend that was the truth for a little bit longer. But I couldn't really bring myself to pretend with him, not even long enough for him to get used to the idea; my mouth was already turning up at the corners without my willing it to. He flushed and looked away; but that wasn't any better for him, since everyone else was watching us with enormous interest, too drunk on beer and dancing to be polite. He looked back at me instead, and scowled at my smile.

"Come and meet my mother," I said. I reached out and took his hand.


This ending was just perfect. The enemy has been defeated, and if there is still rebuilding to be done, you know these people's lives will go on, and there is every reason to hope those lives will be happy ones.

This book is simply marvelous. It's beautifully written, the magic system is unique, the worldbuilding is wonderful, and the characters are pitch perfect. It's my best read so far this year.

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redheadedfemme: (burning stupid)



Storm Siren by Mary Weber

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried with this book. Honest to Dogg, I really did. But the clunky writing and terrible metaphors finally caught up with me about three-quarters of the way through, and I threw it down and said, "That's it." I'd nearly hurled it against the wall at the halfway mark; I'd taken it to work to read on my breaks, and threw it on the table and said, "This book is stupid!" But I picked it up again (mainly because I didn't have anything else to read) and gave it one more try.

No more. I'm home now, and I have two more library books to get through, plus my own ever-expanding To Be Read pile. Life is just too short.

The sad thing is that there is a good book here struggling to get out, if only the editor had been a little more diligent. The main character is well drawn. The setting is rather generic Fantasyland (though the story reminded me, more than a little, of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Stormqueen). What completely fractured my suspension of disbelief is the uneven writing--for the most part, the action scenes are good, but the author's descriptions, metaphors and similes are terrible; I don't know why her editor didn't clamp down on this--and the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is lacking to say the least; cliched and not thought out. Especially regarding the ecosystem of her world: there are "ferret-cats" and "panther-monkeys" (groan) and the final deal-breaker for me--flesh-eating horses.

For crying out loud. That simply does not work. And it's not as though said deer-chomping mounts even play a main role in the plot (at least, as far as I read) which makes the whole thing even more irritating. If you want your readers (or at least this reader) to accept your story and your world, you've got to get these background details right, or the reader is hurled out of your book. If you want a savage carnivorous riderbeast, fine. Just don't make it a horse.

Bah. There's got to be better books than this.

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redheadedfemme: (Default)
I actually subscribed to Roxane Gay's blog before I realized she had a book out. I enjoyed what I read on her blog so much I searched for her book, and I'm glad I did.
 
This is one of the strongest essay collections I have read in some time. Gay is a sharp, incisive writer, full of insightful nuggets and entertaining tidbits. The best essays here (and there are many) will make you look at the world in different ways, which is all any writer can hope for.
 
My favorite pieces include the hilarious "To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically," which is a detailed look at competitive Scrabble tournaments (!). Make sure you read the footnotes, as they made me laugh out loud. Just one example: "Qoph is a Hebrew letter. My opponent not only shared the word's meaning, he also explained the origins (something about a sewing needle; frankly, I had tuned him out at that point) and pronunciation. After the exciting word lesson, he started telling me all the possible Q words one can spell without a U. I wondered, Is there a Q in 'motherfucker'?"
 
There are many different and surprising topics here, ranging from the Sweet Valley High books, which the author professes an unapologetic love for, to writing about rape to movie reviews (including a thorough deconstructing of the problematic The Help) to reproductive freedom. All of them are worth your time. This is not a book to be rushed through; it needs to be read slowly, thought about, and savored.

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redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)

 

When I finished this book, I breathed a sigh of relief. It's a much better book than Enclave, and for the most part it deals with the problems I had with the first book in the trilogy. (Review here.)
 
This is a slower, more thoughtful, contemplative book, which is exactly what it needs to be. Deuce's world has been left behind, she's been thrown into an utterly alien environment, and she must figure out how to cope. The town of Salvation has rigid gender roles and views, and considers anyone under sixteen to be a child rather than an adult. Needles to say, Deuce, the fifteen-year-old Huntress who has been trained to think for/take care of herself, fits in about as well as you might expect. One of the themes of this story is being true to yourself and not apologizing for who you are, and I greatly admire Deuce's sense of loyalty and responsibility. She has been brought up to protect others, and that is what she is going to do, no matter who disapproves.
 
That's not to say there isn't a lot of action in this book. There is. It just occurs in short, measured bursts, instead of the slam-bang rocket ride that was Enclave's entire narrative. Deuce does a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, and is not afraid to go up against any man; she knows that even if she is not quite as strong, her mind and skills are greater. But in this book she learns the value of her emotions, as she comes to care for the family she never had. She also settles things with her estranged love interest, Fade, by the simple expedient of having an adult conversation (and reminding him that he must talk to her, as well). (Although that character revelation falls a bit by the wayside in the latter third of the book, after Deuce rescues Fade from the huge Freak encampment. Freaks are the villains of this post-apocalyptic world, where nearly all of humanity has been killed by a virus, and the majority of the survivors turned into mutants. Deuce brings Fade out of the camp, but he is obviously traumatized. She tries to give him space to heal, but unfortunately he falls prey to the I'm-no-good-for-you-now cliche and pushes her away. Hopefully the third book will resolve this.) Deuce also builds relationships with many people in Salvation, and learns how to live in a slightly more civilized society than the one she was born in. Although Salvation has its flaws, as we come to find out.
 
Now. The character of Stalker was my big Red Flag in the first book, as I felt the author was turning him into the Rehabilitated Rapist. In this book, to my surprise, Ann Aguirre addresses those concerns, for the most part. Stalker is still too pushy for my taste, and seems not to understand the meaning of the word "no" (although he does say that he wants Deuce to choose him for himself, not because Fade isn't there anymore). However, he does come to realize that the way he acted, as much as he may have thought it a necessity at the time, was not the right thing to do, and he goes to Tegan (Deuce's friend and the former sex slave of Stalker's gang, the Wolves) and apologizes to her.
 
Whether or not the reader can believe in, and accept, this apology is an entirely personal thing. I think, given the storyline, it worked. (As Deuce says, she has also done things she's not proud of, including killing a man at the age of twelve as he begged for his life.) Of course, this is in the context of a brutal post-apocalyptic world, where civilization has entirely broken down. The characters are trying to navigate this world and find their place in it (and not incidentally trying to survive) and they're going to screw up.
 
The action picks up in the last third of the book, ending with Salvation surrounded by mutants. The tension generated by Deuce's refusal to conform to Salvation's expected gender roles boils over, resulting in some of the people in the town coming after her, in an eerie future reenactment of the Salem witch hunts. The town's leader breaks the stalemate by sending Deuce (and Stalker, Fade and Tegan, who join her) on a desperate mission to nearby towns for reinforcements. ("Nearby" meaning, in this future, several days' journey on foot--at least the author didn't resort to the horrid cliche of motorized vehicles still working in a post-apocalyptic society.) The book ends on a far more effective cliffhanger than Enclave, as Deuce and her companions leave Salvation by way of a secret tunnel, evade the horde of Freaks, and set out to find help.
 
This book definitely benefited from its slower pace and concentrating on the characters. Now, from what it sounds like, the action is going to pick up again. The third book in the series, Horde, awaits me.
 
 
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redheadedfemme: (incubator)
“Why must the woman apologize for not having a baby just because she happened to get pregnant? It's as if we think motherhood is the default setting for a woman's life from first period to menopause, and she needs a note from God not to say yes to every zygote that knocks on her door.”

Not "safe, legal and rare," but right and good if a woman wants it. )

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redheadedfemme: (woman incubator)
“Why must the woman apologize for not having a baby just because she happened to get pregnant? It's as if we think motherhood is the default setting for a woman's life from first period to menopause, and she needs a note from God not to say yes to every zygote that knocks on her door.” 

I'll start out by saying that I am unabashedly in favor of reproductive rights and against forced-birtherism, so naturally this book is right up my alley. Women's bodily autonomy and human rights should not even be up for discussion. Unfortunately, due to the 2010/2014 elections, and the spate of laws passed in the states chipping away at the basic constitutional rights established in 
Roe v. Wade, (usually offered under the disingenuous guise of "protecting women") they are, forty years after this should have been settled. 

Most of what Katha Pollitt says here is familiar to me; I use it all the time to argue with people (on the Internet and in real life) who think I should be demoted to a second-class citizen because of a stray sperm. What I think is interesting is how she follows the line of anti-abortion thought to its end, and exposes the mental pretzel-twisting that plagues most people who oppose abortion. To name just a few (the chapters go into far greater detail than this, nailing down every twist of forced-birther illogic): Why should you have rape and incest exceptions at all? No matter how the baby got there, it's still a life, isn't it? Why do you support only prosecuting the people who perform abortions, and not the women who asked for them? For those who believe an abortion is murder, if an elective abortion isn't pre-meditated murder, then what is? How many years in prison should a woman get for an abortion? Also, if you really want to reduce the abortion rate, why don't you support contraception and comprehensive sex education, instead of bleating the usual refrain (and I have seen this so many times I've lost count) of "The slut should have kept her legs closed"? You do realize that makes you sound like an embittered puritan who wants to punish women for participating in a natural everyday human activity instead of protecting "life," don't you? 

Throughout the chapters, the author pursues this "logic" to its inevitable end, which would mean reducing women to the status of reproductive chattel. If forced birthers would just show some intellectual honesty and admit it, they would say that they want a law just like Ireland's or El Salvador's. No abortion allowed from conception on, not even in the case of a fatally deformed fetus, and most reluctantly (see: Savita Halappanavar...except that, ooops, she died) to save the woman's life. Along with investigations into every miscarriage, and prison terms for women who have abortions, and lifestyle restrictions on every woman of reproductive age, since after all they might become pregnant at any moment. And also, very likely, restrictions on birth control (no "abortifacients," no matter that there isn't any such thing) and in-vitro fertilization (as every one of those embryos has to find a home somewhere), which would have the desired effect of driving women out of the workforce and back into the kitchen, since you can hardly be a doctor or a lawyer or a Senator or maybe even President if you're having a baby every one or two years. 

Hmm. What happened to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? That's for men only, I guess.

Sorry, I'm being facetious. A little. I know many of these people are sincere in their belief that abortion is murder, even if they're quite sincerely wrong. But since it is my Constitutional right, it really doesn't matter what opponents think. (This is why we'll have to keep relying on the courts to strike down these ridiculous laws, TRAP and ultrasound laws and heartbeat bills and so forth.) I appreciate the author's suggestion to reframe abortion as part of women's health care, no more and no less, and not "safe, legal and rare" but right and good if the woman wants it. There isn't, and shouldn't be, anything shameful about having an abortion. It's my right and my life, and we need more books like these to remind people of that fact. 

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redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)

I read 39 books last year. (I actually read more than that, but I didn't get the reviews written in time.) Here are the highlights.

Best Nonfiction: Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed By Their Trace Fossils, by Anthony J. Martin. Whodathunkit? A science book with a sense of humor? Martin takes this obscure and complex subject (I'd never heard of "trace fossils"--footprints, claw marks, eggs, nests, and burrows, to name a few--before I picked this book up) and makes it clear, understandable, and fun. This book had me laughing out loud throughout.

Worst Nonfiction: Out of the Vinyl Deeps, by Ellen Willis. This book is the polar opposite of Martin's, as its droning seriousness absolutely weighs it down. Sorry, Bob Dylan is already pretentious enough without Willis' painstaking (and painful) analysis adding to it.

Best Fantasy: Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines. I'm not particularly into high or epic fantasy, not when gems like this are available. This is a booknerd's dream come true--the magicial ability to reach into your favorite books and pull stuff out (mostly weapons, but occasionally people). Also a nice contrast to the usual heteronormality, with the polyamorous relationship the hero embarks on at the end.

Worst Fantasy: Splintered, A.G. Howard. This is one of three books I could not finish last year; at least I got all of them from the library, so I didn't lose any money. A lot of people on Goodreads seemed to like this, but I couldn't get into it at all. When you hit the halfway point of a book and realize you don't give a crap how these characters will solve their problems, it's best to move on to something else.

Best Urban Fantasy: Skin Game, Jim Butcher. Fifteen books in and Harry Dresden is rolling right along, better than ever. This entire series is a master class in plotting.

Best Young Adult: These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. The tightest category by far, as I read a number of good (and not so good) YA novels last year. While trying to decide on a winner, I finally asked myself: "Which young-adult book have you thought about the most since you read it?" This one. This book is just wonderful: it's a science-fiction thriller, planetary mystery, sweet and realistic romance, young-adult coming of age, and an alien contact story all rolled into one.

Worst Young Adult (tie): Restoring Harmony, by Joelle Anthony; and Stung, by Bethany Wiggins. These are both absolute stinkers; the first I didn't finish, and the second, unfortunately, I did. The first suffers from cutesy, too-wholesome-to-be-real characters (seriously, we're deep in "Little House" territory, which did not mesh with the rest of the book at all) and a completely unrealistic plot; and the second suffers from an even stupider plot and a dumb, unlikable heroine. Avoid these two books at all costs.

Best Science Fiction: Blindsight, Peter Watts. This is the best SF book I have read in years. It's a stunning gut-punch of ideas, extrapolation, and characterization, all wrapped in a unique first-contact story that reads like a combination of the Alien Queen/Cthulhu Mythos, with a chewy side meditation on the nature of consciousness and self-awareness. Also: Non-sparkly, hard-science vampires! Needless to say, this is not light reading, but it's absolutely worth it.

Best Horror: Maplecroft, Cherie Priest. This is the only book I read last year which would qualify as "horror," but it's a doozy. Another take on Lovecraftian monsters, blended with the legend of Lizzie Borden. This sounds like an unlikely combination, to say the least, but it's creepy and spooky and wonderfully done.

Most Disappointing Book: The Trap, Andrew Fukuka. The first two books in this trilogy are highly recommended, and the good points of those books are still here: the breathless pacing, the slam-bang action scenes, and some interesting character work. Unfortunately, it's all undone by one SHOCKING PLOT TWIST too many, unraveling what I felt was a perfectly satisfying explanation in the second book. And the ending is just...awful.

Book of the Year: Blindsight. Seriously, do not miss it.

Worst Book(s) of the Year: See Worst Young Adult. Bah.

I've challenged myself to read 40 books again this year. If I'm a little more prompt with my reviews, I should make it.
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redheadedfemme: (Books. Cats. Life is sweet.)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yes, it's Peter Watts time again. I said I intended to read all of his books; this is the second, and I've begun
Starfish. But this review is difficult to write, as hard as Echopraxia was to read. I still don't know what to make of it, I think. At the very least, it will need another slow, close reading to sort it all out. Hopefully, after a while, Watts will make it available as a free download, as he did Blindsight.

(This is rather a novel way to build one's audience, however--write dense, twisty books that practically mandate a purchase, because the reader has to make more than one pass to truly understand them. If s/he ever does. Right now, I have my doubts...)

First impression: This is not so much a direct sequel to Blindsight as it is a parallel one, and a rather meta sequel at that. Siri Keeton, the protagonist/narrator of Blindsight, figures in this book as a distant minor character, as his "story" (actually the previous novel) is gradually retrieved from the communicative transmatter stream by his father. (This leads to a quirky, amusing brain-fart in a couple of places--Watts quoting from his own book, and from a plot perspective, legitimately doing so!) Siri's father, Jim Moore, is in this book, but he's not the protagonist. Daniel Bruks, a "baseline" (non-brain-augmented) field biologist, is.

Echopraxia is as stuffed with hard sf ideas as Blindsight: transhumans, hive minds, free will, determinism, religion, digital physics, God-as-virus, zombies (and the previous iteration of genetically resurrected vampires also plays a prominent role in this book), a "time-sharing cognitive slime mold" named Portia, an artificial tornado/power source called a "vortex engine", pattern recognition, and last but definitely not least, a jaw-dropping ending that left me pounding the wall--but, paradoxically, looking forward to the final book in the series, whenever Watts decides to write it.

(Also: the "notes and references" section at the back of the book is indispensable. I enjoyed it almost as much as the book itself.)

This isn't the stunning gut-punch Blindsight was. It's also not a bad book, even though I only gave it three stars. I liked it, but I liked it a shade less only because it doesn't seem so tightly focused as its predecessor. The plot is more meandering, and lacked a clear destination, at least to me. I couldn't root for Daniel Bruks like I did Siri Keeton; Bruks is just along for the ride and is very much not in charge of his own destiny. (Except right at the end, which upped my sympathy for the poor bugger quite a bit.) Of course, this could also be due to my own deficiencies as a reader, especially when it comes to the depths of physics and neurobiology Watts is plumbing here. For instance, I thought "echopraxia" was such a cool-sounding word, but I had no idea what it meant, so I looked it up. It's the "imitation or repetition of the body movements of another person, sometimes practiced by schizophrenic patients." Never say you're not edumacating me, Peter! ;)

Don't get me wrong--I think Peter Watts is one of the best science-fiction writers I've ever read, and his work is definitely worth your time. You also can't really read this book without having first read Blindsight, and Echopraxia may feel like a letdown as a result. But these books are NOT light, easy reads, and a reader has to approach them with that mindset. Peter Watts is worth the effort, however. How many authors can you say that about?

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redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This isn't an easy review to write, because this book has so much potential. The writing is lovely, the premise is intriguing, the protagonist is likable and exhibits admirable character growth...and the whole thing just falls flat.
 
The good, the bad and the unbelievable )
 
Our protagonist is Rio Conwy, a teenage girl with a secret: she is a siren. Yes, an honest-to-God Greek-myth siren who can control people (and objects, we later discover) with her voice. Rio and her twin sister, Bay, are sixteen and facing the choice given to every person in Atlantia: whether to stay Below or go Above. Rio has always dreamed of going Above and has intended to do so all her life, but six months before the story opens, the girls' mother, Oceana, the Minister of Atlantia, was killed. After this, Bay made Rio promise to stay Below. So Rio, denying what she has always wanted for the sake of her sister, does so...and Bay pulls an about-faced betrayal by announcing her irrevocable choice to go Above. 
 
The rest of the story revolves around Rio's quest to discover why Bay did that, and how it ties in to the death of their mother and eventually the future of Atlantia and their entire society. 
 
The relationship between Rio and Bay, and their aunt Maire (also a siren) and mother Oceana is the best thing about the book. The theme of the book is the love between sisters, and Ally Condie explores this in deceptively simple, lovely prose. All four women are real, believable characters, and the book comes full circle to end with Rio and Bay, as it should. (There is a romance, but it's appropriately kept on the back burner.) I'd give this aspect of the book four stars.
 
Unfortunately, there's the rest of it, in particular the worldbuilding. Which is to say, very little, and what there is doesn't make much sense. We don't even know if this planet is Earth (although their gods are familiar-sounding animals, and blue-winged bats live in Atlantia), or if this takes place in the future or past. One could make a case for this taking place several hundred years in the future, when the full catastrophic scenario of climate change has come to pass: the sea level has risen, the land masses are devastated, and humanity has retreated either to the deep ocean or to the moon and/or Mars (Rio's boyfriend True makes a reference to another civilization that Divided about the same time theirs did, only part of this civilization went into the sky). But you'd think, with the technological sophistication shown by humanity's ability to build freaking undersea cities, they would also have records of this. They don't seem to, and nobody seems to care, which was very frustrating for me as a reader. 
 
The bigger problem, for me, is the entire concept of the sirens. This gives the story a very mythic quality, which was obviously the author's intention. However, this entire thing is an ill-fitting square peg in a round hole, because there is almost no explanation as to how the hell sirens can even work. Sure, I'll grant that after a few generations of underwater living, genetic mutations will begin cropping up. I'll even stretch my suspension of disbelief really far and give the idea of someone's voice somehow influencing brain chemistry and/or waves and making people do as you say a pass. But when a siren starts "storing" voices in walls and seashells like invisible disembodied tape recorders, or a siren's voice can cause coins to float when they should by all the laws of physics sink, or that same voice can cause little mechanical fish to move in ways they otherwise wouldn't...sorry. Nope nope nope. 
 
And since the main character is a siren, you see the insurmountable problem.

It's frustrating, because as I read on through, I kept feeling that this book should have been torn apart and rebuilt from the ground up. Only the characters and the relationships, and the beautiful prose, kept me going to the end. This book is supposedly a stand-alone, fortunately. If it had a sequel, I would avoid it like the plague. 
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redheadedfemme: (one more chapter)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best, and also one of the most difficult, science fiction books I have ever read.

Enough ideas to fill a library )

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redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If Jim Butcher were ever to offer a writing class or release a how-to book, I would sign up and/or buy in a heartbeat. This is the fifteenth book in the Dresden Files series (out of a rumored twenty-seven), and not only is the series not sputtering out, it's stronger than ever. This entire series is absolutely a master class in plotting, as often seemingly throwaway aspects and/or characters of the earlier books are brought back into play, and there are real consequences for everything Harry does, consequences that have to be dealt with.
 
The pivotal book in the series, so far, is no. 12, Changes. In this book, Harry's entire world is turned upside down, and the series takes off in a drastic new direction (although the full ramifications of this don't begin to show until the book before this one, Cold Days). This book is, to me, meatier than its predecessor; for one thing, some of the more...icky...aspects of Harry's turn as the Winter Knight are now under control, and for another, he finally begins to wise up re: Karrin Murphy! In fact, this book's plot, dealing as it does with a very long con game Harry sets up and executes to perfection, shows how much the character has changed--he is now far more prone to thinking before he acts. This is a Good Thing.
 
But the biggest delight of this book, for me, is a scene that rivals what was up till now my favorite sequence in the entire series: the scene in Dresden Files #9, Dead Beat, when Harry rides Sue the zombie T-Rex into battle. I never thought there would be scene to match that one. Now, there is, and it involves milquetoast mortician Waldo Butters, the broken Sword of Faith, and an absolutely perfect capper: "Mister, where I come from, there is no try."
 
It's just wonderful, and so is this book. I can't wait to see what Harry does next.
 
redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)
 My rating: 1 of 5 stars
 
I read some other Goodreads reviews of this book before I started on mine, and it seems there are only two camps regarding this story: you either really like it or you absolutely hate it.
 
I don't quite fall into the "absolutely hate it" faction; my feeling about this book is that it's mediocre at best, and that's only if you don't think about it too much. Once you do, the severe flaws in worldbuilding, plot and characterization become blindingly apparent.
 
The most glaring flaw, for me, is the worldbuilding and backstory. There is a lot of handwaving regarding the science (such as it is); I'm sure even a halfway competent beekeeper could take this story apart without much effort. To wit, as much as I understand it--which probably isn't very well at all, as the backstory of this book does not make sense--bees were in danger of going extinct, so there was genetic manipulation, which resulted in the genetically enhanced bees killing the old bees off, and the gengineered bees' sting spread the bee flu (and with that, the severe suspension of disbelief already required to this point absolutely snaps), and the vaccine created for the flu sent some people into comas and turned others into drooling, Incredible-Hulk style monsters. (Really. I kept waiting for the author to describe the lovely green shade of said monsters' skin.) Oh, yeah, this scenario causes mass starvation and the breakdown of society (which is actually the most believable part of the entire book), and the bee flu apparently kills SEVEN TIMES more females than males, as the ratio of f/m is now 1 to 7.
 
Seriously, Ms. Wiggins? I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous. It also serves as a gateway to some of the more nasty parts of the book, namely that the surviving women are reduced to sexual objects and breeders, and the men are all turned into sex-starved rapists. (And apparently there are also no gay men and women left in the world.)
 
There are considerably more problems with the plot and characters (mainly because Fiona Tarsis, the protagonist, veers perilously close to Too Stupid To Live territory), but I don't feel like going on, to tell you the truth. This book is a mess, and it's not even an interesting mess. Some people might like it; there are a number of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, which I don't understand at all. To me, it reads more like a trunk novel, and the author should have left it there.
 
(Yes, I did change my rating from 2 stars to 1. I thought about the book too much, I guess.)
 
redheadedfemme: (headbanging writer)
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I hate to give up on a book, but man, at page 130 I had all of this one I could take.

It's sad, because the last two science books I read were so good. When I saw this at the library, I thought the title was rather clever, and its premise--"The Bible Interpreted Through Modern Science"--sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, it wasn't. It committed the Three Cardinal Sins of a Bad Science Book in my opinion--Dull, Bloated and Boring. The chapters I did finish meandered from here to there, making little sense, and the author seemed to forget his audience would most likely consist of laypeople (or should, if he wants his book to sell). His prose was turgid and unclear, and suffered mightily from Toxic Seriousness Syndrome. (Steve Jones and Ellen Willis are two peas in a pod.)

If anyone says, "Well, you didn't give this book a chance," well, yes, I did. If you can't make your book interesting in the first 130 pages, you're never going to.

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redheadedfemme: (Default)
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I hate to give up on a book, but man, at page 130 I had all of this one I could take.

It's sad, because the last two science books I read were so good. When I saw this at the library, I thought the title was rather clever, and its premise--"The Bible Interpreted Through Modern Science"--sounded interesting.

Unfortunately, it wasn't. It committed the Three Cardinal Sins of a Bad Science Book in my opinion--Dull, Bloated and Boring. The chapters I did finish meandered from here to there, making little sense, and the author seemed to forget his audience would most likely consist of laypeople (or should, if he wants his book to sell). His prose was turgid and unclear, and suffered mightily from Toxic Seriousness Syndrome. (Steve Jones and Ellen Willis are two peas in a pod.)

If anyone says, "Well, you didn't give this book a chance," well, yes, I did. If you can't make your book interesting in the first 130 pages, you're never going to.

View all my reviews
_____
redheadedfemme: (books. cats. life is sweet.)
 My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By far, my favorite POV is first person. I like being able to go into a character's head and see the story from the inside out. Not that a tight third-person can't do the same thing, but my preference is first. I like watching a character grow, and hear his/her voice voice distinct in my head, until, if it's done right, I can recognize that character from a few paragraphs, whether or not I know said paragraphs are from a specific book. 
 
Where first-person becomes a challenge is when there is more than one viewpoint character. The author must create a distinctive voice, rhythm and cadence for each character. I've read first-person POVs where the characters are so similar that if you as a reader weren't paying attention to the chapter headings, you wouldn't know which character is speaking. (One such book I read had the male protagonist's chapters in a cutesy gold font. Since the male lead sounded identical to the female, this soon became an irritating distraction.) The solution to this as a writer is to really break down and get to know your characters, so when your brain slips into that writing flow, each one springs forth from your fingers with a distinct voice that cannot be mistaken for the other person.
 
These Broken Stars accomplishes this feat in spades. The two main characters, Lilac and Tarver, are fully-fleshed and immediately recognizable from the get-go. Besides making for two wonderful protagonists, this is necessary due to the fact that these characters are front and center throughout four-fifths of the book, with no supporting cast. Just these two stubborn, flawed kids, starting out as poor-little-rich-girl/unexpected-war-hero antagonists, thrown into a terrible situation, overcoming impossible obstacles, bickering, struggling, learning about each other, falling in love, and, in Lilac's case, dying and being brought back to life. 
 
This probably sounds like a teetotal mess. It isn't. It's one of the best books I've read this year. It's a science-fiction thriller, planetary mystery, sweet and realistic romance, young-adult coming of age, alien contact story that's unique and wonderful. I had a couple of minor plot quibbles, but nothing big enough to distract me from a great story and characters. I checked this out from the library, but rest assured I will buy it as well. That's the highest compliment I can give a book, that even after I've read it I still want a copy to keep around.

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July 2017

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Words To Live By

There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. ~Emily Dickinson

Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins. ~Neil Gaiman

Of course I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in. ~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. ~Stephen King

The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read. ~Mark Twain

I feel free and strong. If I were not a reader of books I could not feel this way. ~Walter Tevis

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. ~George R.R. Martin

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