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Book Review: Fated by S.G. Browne

July 17, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Fated by S.G. BrowneSummary:
Fabio is not a fan of his job as Fate.  He never gets to actually influence the idiotic humans in his charge (everyone off the path of Destiny).  He just gets to show up at the moment of their fateful decisions.  Falling in love with a human (who just so happens to be on the path of Destiny) breaks rule #1, and once you break one rule, you may as well break others…. Soon, Fabio is interfering in his charges’ fateful decisions, but just how long can he do this without causing havoc and escaping Jerry’s (God’s) notice?

Review:
I remember I first acquired this because I really enjoyed Browne’s other novel, Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (review).  Although this book uses a similar irreverent tune, it just doesn’t work out as well given the content.  Add in a few writing quirks and an ending that made me simultaneously scratch my head and go ewww, this just didn’t work for me.

The first thing that bothered me about the book is a quirk Fabio (our narrator) has to describe each and every character we encounter in the following way: “The thing about [name] is, s/he is [character flaw].”  It’s cutesie the first few times.  By the twentieth time it’s irritating and by the thirtieth you’re kind of wondering what the heck is wrong with Fabio that he’s been alive for this many thousands of years and still can’t seem to come up with a more creative way to talk.

The book’s mythology firmly asserts that Christianity is right.  Although there’s a mysterious aside about how the Greek/Roman mythological gods and goddesses did exist but stopped being important once people stopped believing in them.  So, in spite of Jerry and all of his servants all asserting that Jesus is the Son of God and Christianity is right, there’s also this idea that something else once existed when people believed in it.  There is also an immortal character of Karma, who we are told exists mostly because of the many people in India who believe in him.  You can probably spot the problem with these co-existing ideas.  If immortal ideas/people exist because of belief, why would the only ones in existence be the Christian God and Karma, currently?  There are clearly other religions in the world that people currently believe in, so…….My issue isn’t with the author choosing to assert that the Christian God is the one that is true in this world (although some readers might be bothered by it).  My issue is that the book simultaneously does this and says that other gods/ideas can exist with belief, but then limits these to only ancient Greek/Roman gods and goddesses and modern-day Karma. This doesn’t work within the logic of the world that the author set up.  It really bugged me.

There is also the problem that the immortal characters (well, and the human ones, but let’s focus on the immortal ones) are divided up in a very gender normative way.  Destiny, Lust, and Lady Luck, Secrecy, and Honesty are all women.  Sloth, Gluttony, Death, Fate, Karma, oh yeah and GOD are all men.  Lust is an overwrought caricature of the evil temptress woman.  Honesty is basically the most feminine innocent woman you could meet.  It’s the classic virgin/whore dichotomy (oh and don’t forget the Virgin Mary, who’s also obviously mentioned quite a bit).  It’s not exactly better for the men, being stuck with either being a lazy slob, someone who violently kills everyone, or Fate himself.  Even if the reader is personally ok with gender normativity, this collection of characters is just expected and dull.  There’s nothing that really throws the reader a curveball or strikes as creative.  Right down to God going by the name Jerry and having a bureaucratic office in the sky.

Then we have the human who Fabio falls in love with, who is basically the manic pixie dream girl (a female character who exists only to show up and show a depressed male character the meaning of life.  Full exploration of this trope), which I’ve talked about before in other reviews (not surprisingly in books by men set in fantastical settings and that are supposed to be funny, but I digress).  Just like with gender normativity, this trope is just lazy.  The only motivator to the male character (who is first person and depressed and dull) is for a magical woman to show up and fix his life (often while her own gets ruined).  There’s no real characterization of the female character, and frankly it undersells the male character too.  This book takes it a whole step further.  The spoiler paragraph below goes into more depth about the problematic treatment of women in the book.

*spoilers*
Sara, the manic pixie dream girl, shows up and Fabio falls in love with her.  She falls in love with him too.  Fabio reveals to her who he is.  She loves him anyway.  They’re very happy together.  Fabio finds out that Sara is on the path of Destiny because she’s supposed to be the mother of the second Son of God. So God is going to show up and bang his girlfriend at some point.  He is very upset about this.  God finds out about Fabio both telling a human who he is and interfering with human fates and punishes him by both turning him mortal and wiping him from Sara’s memory.  Sara believes that Fabio was a one-night stand.  Fabio proceeds to stalk her, forcing her to get a restraining order, which he then violates.  It’s unclear if this is supposed to be seen as romantic, exactly, but it is clear that the reader is supposed to empathize with Fabio.  Sara wouldn’t really want him to stay away from her if she just understood, which is problematic because of how it mirrors the logic of many stalkers.  It gets worse though.  Fabio in despair throws himself off a bridge, committing suicide.  He then comes to realizing that he has been reformed as the fetus inside Sara’s uterus–the result of the one-night stand between her and God. He is the second Son of God.  And he’s ok with this because he at least gets to be close to Sara.  So Sara doesn’t just exist purely as a prop for Fabio’s character development, she’s also the woman who is banged once and thrown away by God to be forced to bring his second Son into the world who also just so happens to be the same dude as her ex-lover she has the restraining order against.  It’s just so many levels of denying women any agency or rights or treating women as anything but passive vessels to be used by men and male gods however they want that it just made my head explode with rage when I read it.  Most of this what the fuckery occurs in the last couple of chapters.
*end spoilers*

This is a book whose idea I felt had promise but the directions the author chose to take it just ruined it for me.  Readers who won’t be bothered by a book with logical inconsistencies, gender normative representations of immortals, and the problematic characterizations and plots for women may enjoy the book for its irreverent humor about fate and destiny.  Any readers who would be bothered by those things, though, should steer clear.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)

July 14, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Julia Whelan)Summary:
Pen’s life was destroyed when an Earthshaker took away her family (even their dog) and destroyed the Los Angeles she once knew.  She’s now on a quest to save them from the monstrous giants that rose up after (or with?) the Earthshaker.  Along the way she finds other teens who’ve miraculously survived, each with secrets and talents of their own.

Review:
This book left me completely torn.  I loved, oh how I loved, the representation of both bisexual (Pen) and trans (Hex, her boyfriend) teens. But the story to go with these teens failed to live up to both these wonderful characters and the beautiful title.

Let’s talk about the good first, because I don’t want it to be overshadowed by what didn’t work.  Pen is a bookish teenager who generally prefers to stay in reading the Encyclopedia or The Odyssey to going out to parties. But she still has two close friends. She’s not a loner.  She’s brave, open, loving, and sometimes makes rather short-sighted decisions.  And it is gradually revealed throughout the book that she is also bisexual.  The scenes exploring Pen’s bisexuality, and how it’s hard for her to be out about it, in spite of being completely comfortable with herself, are wonderfully done.  Pen acknowledges that even though her parents have always told her that it doesn’t matter a whit if she is straight, lesbian, bisexual, or trans, that the world at large doesn’t always think that, and that’s part of what makes being out hard for her.  The world is not always the welcoming place her family is.

The book early on establishes that Pen currently has a crush on a boy, so the reader may perhaps be surprised when she reminisces about an earlier crush on a girl, and how she first realized she liked girls too.

Thinking of how I once kissed Moira on the lips. We were drunk and dancing, and our lips just brushed for that electroshock nanosecond, and then she smiled at some boys who were watching us, laughed, and danced away from me like it was a joke.  But I’d had an epiphany, even though I hadn’t fully accepted it at the time. I wanted to kiss girls. And it was no joke. (loc 2:14:53)

Similarly, Pen struggles with self-editing her past when telling Hex about her life before the Earthshaker.  She is not sure if he’ll understand or accept the fact that she’s perfectly capable of having crushes on girls as well as boys like himself, so she edits herself when speaking to him.  She’s telling him a story about a party she didn’t go to, and the picture that her friends sent her of a boy with her friend, Moira:

I went to sleep staring at the last image wondering not what his mouth tasted like but hers. This part, this last, I don’t tell Hex, although I trust him enough to tell him anything. Don’t I? So I’m not sure why I don’t. Because I don’t want him to know I had a crush on a girl? Or because I have a crush on him. (loc 1:39:44)

It’s rare to see a book explore so eloquently what it is to be bisexual, and these feelings Pen has while not universal still explore the difficulty of coming out and being out as a bisexual person, and they were so wonderful to see in a book that I had to restrain myself from jumping up and shouting “Yes!” when they showed up on my audiobook on the bus.

Similarly, Hex, Pen’s love interest and eventual boyfriend (this is not a spoiler, when Hex shows up he may as well have a giant neon “future boyfriend” sign over his head), is a FTM transman.  Hex is just as nervous about being out to Pen and their other travel companions as Pen is about being out to him, probably more.  Being cis myself, I can’t say as definitively about the quality of FTM representation as I could about bisexuality, however, the author certainly tries to broach topics that I believe would be of interest to a trans YA reader reading this book: acceptance (or not) by family members and impact on romantic relationships with other teens.  Hex comes out to Pen as a transman only because she has fallen for him, and he wants her to know precisely who he is before anything more *ahem* romantic happens.  Pen immediately accepts him and tells him he is clearly a boy to her, and this changes nothing about how she feels about him.  They then have to navigate their sex life.  Hex, like many trans people, is uncomfortable with his body.  He would rather touch Pen than allow Pen to touch him.  Eventually, they reach an arrangement that both supports and asserts Hex’s maleness and allows Pen to give the pleasure back to him that she wants to.  I was glad to see a YA book “go there.”  I frankly haven’t seen much of that even in adult literature including a trans person.  It both addresses the “how do they….” question some YA readers would certainly have after learning about Hex and also serves a purpose in the story to demonstrate a mature, healthy, loving relationship between the two characters.

In addition to Hex and Pen, they also wind up with two male travel companions who become a couple.  The characters themselves point out at one point how odd it is that the minority before the Earthshakers is now the majority (none of them are straight AND cis).  I was glad the author acknowledged the quirk and had the characters process why that may be.  The answer they decide upon is a positive one, rather than the potentially negative one of punishment.

So now let’s talk about what didn’t work.  The plot and the setting.  The book is meant to be a magical realism style story told in a non-linear way.  This could have worked if in the end the overarching plot, when reassessed by the reader from beginning to end, made sense.  But it doesn’t.  For most of the book, Pen refers to everything in fantastical ways, such as saying “Earthshaker” for what appears to the reader to be an earthquake.  Why is she saying “Earthshaker”? Was there something different about it?  Does she just like prettying up her language? What is going on with that?  Later it is revealed that an earthquake seems to have happened when some genetically engineered giants escaped (showed up? were released?).  The whole world basically goes to shit overnight, though, and it just doesn’t seem logical that that would happen from just a few giants escaping.  Similarly, there are other fantastical creatures who are never explained.

Similarly, although it is indicated early on that this is a modern retelling of The Odyssey, it doesn’t line up well with the original.  In the original, Odysseus is trying to come home after a war and keeps getting swept into side-quests.  In this book, Pen starts out at home and then quests away from home.  It would have made more sense for Pen to be somewhere away from home (maybe on a school trip or something), have the disaster occur, and then have her have to find her way home encountering fantastical things along the way.  Starting her at home just doesn’t work.

Several elements feel like they are just thrown in because they look pretty or work with the scene even though they don’t work with the book as a whole.  For instance, butterflies appearing around people who can be trusted pops up in the middle of the book, but isn’t particularly present at the beginning or the end.  Similarly, some characters are revealed to have magical powers toward the end of the book, with no foreshadowing about that, only to have them….not use them much beyond the scene where it’s revealed.

Also, I’m sorry, but the whole some evil scientist genetically engineered giants to be his children and now the giants are out to destroy us but also the whole world inexplicably now resembles a myth just really doesn’t work.  First, it makes no sense why a scientist would even want to engineer a giant.  To be his children? Really? Why would anyone want giant children?  Second, to give the mystical elements that started this whole thing a scientific explanation but then leave the rest fantastical doesn’t work.  Either they’re all explained by science or they’re all fantastical.  I really felt the book went way downhill for me when there was suddenly a “scientific” explanation for the giants. But just the giants and nothing else.

Finally, we need to talk about the name of the book.  It’s a beautiful title but it’s really wasted on this book.  First, global warming doesn’t come into play in the book at all, so why is it mentioned in the title?  Second, it’s clearly a send-up to Love in the Time of Cholera, but it has nothing in common with that book save both having elements of magical realism in them.  It feels as if the author came up with a title that sounded pretty and couldn’t bring herself to let go of it in spite of it not fitting the book she actually wrote.

Overall, this is a short read featuring four well-rounded and written teen characters on the LGBTQ spectrum.  YA readers looking for positive representations of bisexual and trans characters, in particular, and who don’t mind some inexplicable fantasy elements will enjoy this quick read.  Readers who will easily be bothered by the title not matching the content, a mixture of magical realism and scientific explanations for things, and/or nonlinear plots that when told linearly don’t make sense should probably look elsewhere, in spite of the positive representations of underrepresented letters in the LGBTQ spectrum.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin by Rasheedah Prioleau

July 11, 2015 3 comments

cover_everlastingSummary:
Aiyana Gamelle has been sleepwalking, waking up on the beach of the half Gullah, half Native American Sa’Fyre Island off the coast of South Carolina.  But she knows she’ll soon be transitioning to being Queen of the Gullah half of the island, due to being directly descended from both the founders and a mysterious African goddess, so she brushes it off and focuses on the festival she’s organized on the island to bring in more revenue.  But when an important island guest is murdered and her grandmother passes away before the official crowning ceremony, an unwanted family curse is slowly revealed.

Review:
This is one of the six indie books I accepted for review on this blog in 2015.  Everything about it from the title to the description stuck out to me both as something that I hadn’t seen a mainstream publisher get around to trying in many years and also as something that piqued my interest.  An island that’s half Gullah and half Native American? (Never heard of the Gullah? Check out this informative article about them).  A woman inheriting a position of power from another woman? A family curse? Yes please!  I am happy to say that the book more than lived up to my expectations, it also had some unexpected elements that I was delightfully surprised by.

The known history of the island and the Gamelle family is well told early in the book.  It comes through in bits and pieces at just the right times.  There is never an info dump.  Similarly, Aiyana and her siblings are slowly revealed, going from how you may first perceive them to more well-rounded characters throughout the book.  The island and the people on it are incredibly well described.  I had no trouble imagining what this island may be like, despite having never been to the Carolinas myself.

One thing that caught me by surprise in the book and that I think should be promoted more in its promotional materials, as it’s something that is often sought after, is the romance between Aiyana (who is half-Native American and half-Gullah, since her mother dated her Native American father against the wishes of both sides) and one of the Native American men on the island.  It’s an inter-racial relationship….with no white people.  I can’t remember the last time I saw that in a book, frankly, and I was happy to see it.

This is primarily a mystery/horror book though, so let’s talk about the mystery plot.  It takes many twists and turns, none of which I expected but all of which ultimately made sense.  I found it at times grotesque and at other times it kept me on the edge of my seat.  All the time I was always rooting for Aiyana, which is exactly what I generally want out of a mystery.

One negative I would say is that it’s a bit unclear if the book is the first in a series or a standalone.  Amazon mentions it being the first in a series, but neither the GoodReads record nor the page about it on the author’s website mention it being the start of a series.  If it is the start of a series, the book’s slightly abrupt ending works.  If it’s a standalone, then I would want a bit more closure at the end.  If it is the start of a series, then I’d say perhaps a quick “Look for more Sa’Fyre Island adventures coming soon!” at the end would be an excellent addition to help the reader know to expect more and to keep them coming back.

Overall, this is both a fun and a quite different entry into the mystery genre.  A Gullah woman takes the center stage of the mystery, rather than being a prop. The mystery is well crafted and told, and there’s even the bonus of a bit of romance in the book.  Recommended for readers looking for a completely different mystery from what they may be used to reading and who don’t mind a bit of the fantastical showing up in the plot.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

July 8, 2015 2 comments

Book Review:  Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw Summary:
John W.S. Bradshaw, PhD, has been studying the behavior of cats and dogs and their people for over 25 years.  In this book, he seeks to present the biology behind the modern domestic cat in the hopes of helping their humans understand them better.  He also presents theories about the possible future of cats and suggestions as to how to direct that the best way possible for better human/cat relationships.

Review:
I picked this book up because I wanted to understand my adorable talkative tortie fluffball, Ayla, better.  I certainly learned a few things about cats that I found useful in relating to my own, but I also learned a lot about the genetics of cats (not sure I really wanted to learn that), the history of human treatment of them, and theories on their future evolution.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, which could be casually grouped into the following general themes:

  • the genetic and biological history of the cat or just how did we end up with a domesticated tiger anyway
  • how the domestic cat thinks and feels or yes scientists are now proving that cats actually have feelings although maybe not quite to the extent that their most loving owners believe
  • how cats relate to each other or cats hate other cats except for random kittens that are dropped into their nest or possibly other females from their own family
  • how cats relate to people or cats think you are a giant mother cat who is possibly superior (possibly)
  • how cats relate to wildlife or no cats aren’t destroying your precious birds you overly upset cat-haters (um except for possibly the wildlife on small islands but the invasive rats are actually worse and cats hunt them so there)
  • the potential future of the cat or for the love of god stop spaying and neutering the bestest most loving kitties in the world and only allowing the anti-social ferals to breed.

Obviously this is a lot of ground, so I’m only going to touch on each one briefly.  First though, just let me mention that the author is both a renowned expert in this science (the science of cats), and his book also features extensive references.  This is thus a trustworthy source, however, potential readers should be aware that the author (just as every author) has biases, and Bradshaw’s are fairly clear in the book.  The man clearly adores cats, and thus sometimes may sway a bit to the side of positive representations of cats and optimistic beliefs about the extent of their feelings and internal lives.  Now, I love cats too, so that didn’t bother me in the least, but a reader just looking at the science should note this bias.  Additionally, some of the studies he cites for his findings were quite small (under 100 participants, in one case, only 8 cats were tested).  Studies this small show definite room for further research.  Additionally, all of the cat studies he himself has conducted were in Great Britain, so cultural biases and differences in how cats and people interact should be considered when thinking about how he analyzes cat/human interaction and behavior.

The section about the history of the domestication of the cat and the genetics of the cat is, honestly, a bit of a heavy place to start for the average person just looking to get along with their cat better.  There are sentences that go far more in-depth into the genetics of a cat than I really ever cared to know.  Given that this book is marketed toward the average cat owner, it may have been better to dial down the genetic information just a bit to make it easier and also speedier to read in the lead-in into the more modernly relevant information.  The most interesting things I learned in this section were that domestication of the cat happened in multiple different times and places, meaning multiple cultures saw the potential of the cat and domesticated them (loc 267).  There is Egyptian temple art of cats sitting in baskets (loc 634), something I found to be pretty adorable.  The genetics of just how we wind up with torties, which I admit to only being interested in because my own cat is a tortie:

If a cat carries one orange and one brown version of the gene, then both appear in the coat, in random patches: in one part of the skin, the chromosome with the orange version has been switched on, and in another it is it eh brown-black pattern that “wins,” producing a tortoiseshell-tabby (or “torbie”) cat. (loc 772)

If you found that quote a bit tedious to read, just bare in mind that that is the most interesting to me of the genetics information in this section.  The cat is a “hypercarnivore” (loc 1176), meaning that unlike the dog, it has lost the ability to live on plants.  Cats, unlike dogs, must eat meat.  I also finally learned why I shouldn’t worry too much if my cat doesn’t drink very much water:

Cats do have two notable nutritional advantages over humans. First, their kidneys are very efficient, as expected for an animal whose ancestors lived on the edge of deserts, and many cats drink little water, getting all the moisture they need from the meat they eat. Second, cats do not require vitamin C. Taken together, these make cats well suited to shipboard life: they don’t compete with sailors for precious drinking water, getting all they need from the mice they catch, and they are not afflicted by scurvy. (loc 1192)

The next four sections often blurred together, since how a cat thinks and feels directly relates to how cats relate to each other, humans, and wildlife.

Cats can develop a cat form of PTSD if they are abandoned by their mothers early in life:

Kittens that are abandoned by their mothers and are then hand-raised can become excessively attention seeking toward their first owners, though some subsequently seem to “grow out of” this. Based on what we know about other mammals in similar situations, we can assume that after the mother’s departure, the kittens’ brains endure high levels of stress hormones. These consistently high levels cause permanent changes in their developing brains and stress hormone systems, such that they may overreact to unsettling events later in life. (loc 1371)

I found this particularly interesting, since I know my cat was abandoned by her first owners in their apartment when they moved away, and it took weeks for anyone to find her.  I’ve often suspected my cat has some form of kitty PTSD, and I think this scientific information would support that, although the specific type of abandonment was different.

Cats can’t focus on anything closer than a foot from their nose.  Your cat is not being stupid when it can’t spot a piece of food on the floor, she really can’t see it.  It helps to move it around or tap the floor next to it, to get the cat to sniff that area. (loc 1644)

This section also addresses why cats are harder to train than dogs:

Cats are much more difficult to train than dogs are for at least three reasons. First, their behavior shows less intrinsic variety than that of dogs, so there is less raw material with which to work….Second, and perhaps most important, cats are less naturally attentive toward people than dogs are….Third, although dogs are powerfully rewarded by simple physical contact from their owner, few cats are. (loc 2086)

It goes on to explain how to do basic training with your cat, adapted to cats’ specific needs, primarily using a clicker (a device that makes a noise).

Feral cats have shown us that cat society is a matriarchy, with the females of the family sticking together and the toms getting booted out to go roam and make more kittens, although there are certain scenarios in which toms are tolerated living in close proximity, generally in a situation where the tom is valuable for protection of the kittens if the space is at a premium. (loc 2426)

In spite of the ability of feral cats to live in matriarchies, cats are not well-suited for a bunch of unrelated and gender-mixed cats living in one small space.  Cats generally don’t like most other cats, and Bradshaw talks some about how forcing cats to live with other cats they are not related to or don’t particularly like can put undue stress on the cats.

Cats appear to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships, even when all their neighbors are close relatives. (loc 2438)

However, the bond the cat feels with its immediate family is strong, and scientists believe they extend that bond to their owners, who they perceive of as being a sort of mother cat. (loc 3080)  This section also offers potential reasons for why a cat may purr or lick their owner, but there is no definitive scientific answer yet.  It is also noted that cat personalities are the result of a mix of nature and nurture, and affectionate owners tend to have affectionate cats but whether they pick out affectionate cats or cats become affectionate in response to the owner is uncertain.

Bradshaw then addresses the concern some groups have that domestic cats are hurting native wildlife populations, particularly birds.  It’s clear that Bradshaw believes that this is mostly a bunch of hokum created by cat-haters as a way to get rid of cats.  This is potentially true, and Bradshaw does cite some good studies about the actual impact cats have on wildlife (very small, and in some cases, helpful since they eat the invasive predator of a native species).  However, it is difficult to believe everything he cites, since his bias in favor of cats is so clear, and I am saying this as a cat-lover myself.  I would find it more useful for his evidence to be presented in a more balanced fashion, as I would then feel more confident citing it to people who are concerned about cat impact on wildlife.

Finally, Bradshaw looks at the potential future of the cat.  He is clearly quite concerned that our current method of neutering pet cats will hurt future cats.

Because neutering inevitably targets those cats that are being best cared for, it must logically hand the reproductive advantage to those cats that are least attached to people, many of which are genetically predisposed to remain unsocialized. We must consider the long-term effects of neutering carefully: for example, it might be better for the cats of the future as a whole if neutering programs were targeted more at ferals, which are both the unfriendliest cats and also those most likely to damage wildlife populations. (loc 4039)

I found this argument to be quite moving and logical.  Bradshaw suggests both that owners might let their pet cats breed once before neutering/spaying them and also that breeders could begin to work at breeding pet cats with an eye on personality rather than looks.  He also suggests focusing spay/neuter programs on feral populations.  This is definitely food for thought, and I certainly will consider letting a future pet cat have a litter of kittens.

Bradshaw ends his book with this statement:

Cats need our understanding–both as individual animals that need our help to adjust to our ever-increasing demands, and also as a species that is still in transition between the wild and the truly domestic. If we can agree to support them in both these ways, cats will be assured a future in which they are not only popular and populous, but are also more relaxed, and affectionate, than they are today. (loc 4072)

A good summary of the overall themes of the book.

Overall, this book will definitely teach cat owners and lovers some new things both about the science of cats and cat behaviors.  Sometimes the science can veer a bit too in-depth for the audience of the book, and also sometimes the author’s love of cats can make him seem a bit biased in favor of them.  However, readers who are willing to skim over the science that they are not so into will still be able to gleam lots of information from this book that will be directly helpful to them with their pet cats.  Also, this audience probably won’t mind the love of cats bias in the science. ;-)

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

June 27, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen KingSummary:
Something evil is haunting the small town of Tarker Mills, Maine. Every month another person is found dead, brutally ripped apart.  Can they solve what is haunting their town before the terror consumes them all?

Review:
I picked this up in a used book basement because I’m generally trying to read most everything Stephen King has written, and this particular print book was beautifully illustrated.  Each chapter (or month…or murder) had at least one full-color illustration, and that just spoke to me.  The story itself wound up being rather ho-hum to me, but part of that may be due to the fact that I’m rather hard to shock these days.

My favorite part of the book is that it opens with a note from King stating that astute readers will notice that the full moon couldn’t possibly have fallen on all of the big holidays he has it fall on, but that he’s taken artistic license to make it do so.  The passage reads like it has a wink at the end, and I like that King assertively addresses what could bother some readers or be a controversy and acknowledges that his facts are wrong, but he did it for artistic reasons.  Personally, I’m not a fan of books that take artistic licenses, but if you’re going to, this is the way to do it.  Acknowledge it (don’t hide from it) and move on.

This feels like an early Stephen King book.  The usual small town New England stock characters are there, but they’re not fully fleshed-out.  There’s even a spunky kid in a wheelchair who reminds me of an earlier version of Susannah from The Dark Tower series (the book about Susannah was first published in 2004).  The stock, rather two-dimensional characters work in this book, since the storytelling approach is basically one of folklore.  We don’t need to know much more about these characters than we see on the surface, and that’s fine.

Each chapter is a different month in the year, and they sort of feel like connected short stories.  By the last half of the year, the reader starts to know what’s going on, and the “short stories” become even more connected.

Fans of an underdog hero will enjoy who ends up battling the werewolf plaguing the town, as will those who enjoy seeing the trope of a trusted citizen being someone who should not be trusted.  (That’s as much as I can say without being too spoilery).

This all sounds rather positive, so why did I feel ho-hum about it?  The tension building didn’t work for me.  Nothing that happened really scared me.  The character in the wheelchair feels like a less bad-ass version of Susannah, and what I would want would be Susannah.  This is perhaps unfair of me to say, since Susannah came about further down the line, but I do think it points to how King’s writing improved with time (as does everyone’s).  I also just found the villain to be rather expected and cliche, although I’m sure it wasn’t when the book first came out.  In general, this book just doesn’t feel like it aged particularly well, especially when compared to other older King books.

Overall, if a reader is looking for a quick, beautifully illustrated folklore style retelling of a werewolf story, they will enjoy this book.  Those looking for high levels of tension or gore or in-depth character development will want to give it a pass.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith, used books basement

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Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Todd McLaren)

May 15, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Todd McLaren)Summary:
In the future, people’s memories are backed up on sticks like external hard-drives, and when someone dies, they can just be put into a new body or resleeved.  Criminals are put into the brain bank for a set period of time to serve their “prison” sentence before being resleeved.  Kovacs is an ex-UN envoy but he’s also a criminal, and he wakes up one day in a new sleeve on Earth, not his home planet, before his sentence is up.  A rich myth–someone who has been alive for centuries in the same body, due to their wealth–has been killed.  After being resleeved, the local police told him it was suicide, but he doesn’t believe them.  So he’s hired Kovacs to figure it out for him.  If he solves the mystery, he’ll get sent back to his home planet and get a sleeve of his choice without serving any further sentence.  If he doesn’t, he’ll serve out the rest of his sentence and get resleeved on Earth, far from home.  Kovacs has no choice but to try to figure out who would waste their time killing a man who has endless sleeves to burn?

Review:
I love a good noir, and I liked the futuristic scifi sound of this one (the most famous futuristic scifi noir is Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in case you were wondering).  Unfortunately, in spite of the very cool resleeving concept, I was left quite bored by the plot.

The setting and ideas for this future scifi world are fantastic.  Earth has colonized various planets, and each planet was colonized by different mixes of cultures.  Kovacs’ planet was colonized by the Japanese and Nordic cultures.  When he was a UN envoy he fought on one colonized by Middle East cultures.  So each planet has its own distinct culture, and, Kovacs at least, clearly feels that Earth is quite backwards.  For instance, Earth has a cadre of people who believe that resleeving is unethical and sign documents saying they are ethically opposed to being resleeved.  It sounds as if no other planets have that faction.  Similarly, it sounds as if only Earth has people wealthy enough to become myths–people who can afford to be resleeved in new clones of their own bodies they grow and keep safe, as well as back up their brains at frequent intervals into a cloud.  So Kovacs has some immediate culture shock, which is interesting to see.

Also, obviously, the idea of people’s brains being kept on usb sticks (basically) that you can just stick into the brain stem of another body and what implications that would have is just brilliant.  It’s cool to read about, and it’s an interesting take on longevity.  I also particularly appreciated that people *can* still die in various ways.  For instance, if you shoot someone where this brain stick goes in, you ruin their stick and they therefore can’t be downloaded into a new body.  This whole setting gives both a cool futuristic vibe and a complex environment for solving murders in.  It’s hard to solve for murders when people can just be rebooted, basically.

There is a lot of realistic diversity in the book.  The lead cop on the assignment is a Latina woman. Takeshi Kovacs is clearly intended to be biracial (white and Japanese).  There is a big bad (who I won’t reveal) who is an Asian woman.  The only other major characters are the myth and his wife, both of whom are white.  However, the surrounding and minor characters all demonstrate a clear melting pot of race and creed.  I appreciate it when futuristic scifi is realistic about the fact that all races and cultures and creeds would most likely be present.

One thing I do want to note, although I do think the book tries to address the obvious issue of what if a person gets resleeved into a race or gender different from their own, I’m not sure it was successful.  Takeshi immediately notes that he is in a Caucasian sleeve, and that irritates him some.  He continues to act like his own culture and exhibits a preference for the food of his home world but he doesn’t seem to be too bothered by being in someone else’s body.  (Criminals get resleeved into other criminals at random.  That is part of the punishment…not getting your own body back and knowing yours is out there being used by someone else).  It is explained that Takeshi is able to deal with the dysphoria because he was trained for it in the UN Envoy but I do wish a bit more explanation was given to this issue.  For instance, is being resleeved into a different race usually ok for the person? Or is it difficult just like every aspect of being resleeved into a new body is difficult?  Does it vary person to person? This was unclear, largely because Takeshi’s Envoy training makes it a bit of a non-issue.

Similary, at one point a male character is resleeved into a female body, specifically because sleeving across genders is perceived of as an act of torture in this world (it is a bit unclear to me if this actually happened or if it’s virtual reality, but it is made very clear that virtual reality feels exactly the same as reality to the person in question, so the fact remains).  I thought this was interesting and a nice send-up to trans issues.  However, in the next breath, the character mentions that he can tell he’s in a woman’s body because he FEELS THINGS MORE EMOTIONALLY.  *sighs*  (I would provide you with a direct quote, but I don’t always manage to successfully bookmark passages in audiobooks, and this was one of those times).  I get it that this passage is supposed to be a complement to women.  The man in question talks at length about how women feel things so much more and isn’t that nice and what a burden it must be and men should understand it more.  Yes, ok, fine, the character is being nice about it, but it’s still sexist.  The character could have had the same experience and limited to just this sleeve without making it about all women, but no. He mentions that he’s been sleeved in women’s bodies before and this is how it always is.

On a related note, I just want to mention for anyone who might be triggered by such things that there is a rather graphic scene in which the same character inside a woman’s body is raped by torturers with a rod of hot iron.  Just once I would like to get through a noir book without someone being raped, just saying.  (If you appreciate warnings for this type of content, see my dedicated page here).

So the characters are interesting and diverse, and the scifi world is creative, but the plot is a bit ho-hum.  Part of the problem is that I just honestly cannot make myself care about the rich myth and his problem.  The second issue comes up though when Takeshi ends up having a problem that intertwines with the myth’s, and I just can’t care about his either, largely because it revolves around protecting someone who the reader meets for about two minutes of audiobook, so I’m imagining that’s only a few pages of the book.  It’s basically big money all coming up against each other, and that’s a plot I personally struggle to really be interested in unless there’s at least one character I can really root for, and I just couldn’t root for any of these.  I also think that it didn’t help that compared to how creative the world-building was, the plot is very average.  So I was given high expectations with the world-building in the first few pages only to have a been there, seen that, reaction to the plot.

What lifted the book up from 3 stars to 4 for me was actually the audiobook narration.  Todd McLaren does an awesome job of producing many different voices and accents for all the different characters, helping to keep complex scenes straight.  He also has a great noir detective vibe to his voice when he speaks for Takeshi.  I will note, though, that I did have to speed the audiobook up to 1.25x to match my listening speed.  But I tend to listen fast, so other readers would probably prefer the slower speed.

Overall, scifi readers who also enjoy noir will most likely still enjoy the read, in spite of a seen it before plot, because the world-building is unique and creative.  I would recommend that readers who enjoy both print and audiobook check out the audiobook, as I feel it elevates the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

May 13, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley RobinsonSummary:
Imagine a world where the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out the majority of the European population, rather than one-third of it.  This is the world Robinson imagines, one where Buddhism and Islam rise as the two major religions of the world (with no religion a close third).  See the history of the world through the eyes of two souls who keep reincarnating in different cultures, struggling to better both themselves and their world that could easily have been ours.

Review:
I originally picked this book up because I have long held a fascination with the various religions of the world (I was actually a Religious Studies minor in undergrad).  The “what if” at the center of the book seemed like a great starting place to me.  Indeed, what if most of the followers of currently largest faith (Christianity, source) had died off?  What things would change and what would have stayed the same?  Robinson chooses to tell this tale through reincarnating souls, which sometimes gives us a lot of access to these changes but other times leaves the reader feeling like they got just a passing breath of a culture and a century.

I didn’t realize going into this that Robinson had chosen to tell this story through the eyes of the same souls reincarnating over and over again.  It’s an interesting choice that I am uncertain about as it lends a sort of “this much we know” to the spiritual side of the story.  We, the readers, know that the souls of people in this world definitely exist, they go to the bardo to await judgment and reincarnation.  The bardo they go to appears to reflect whatever faith they had (Muslims have their own, Buddhists have their own, etc…)  The idea is also put out there that each of the faiths is a different path to the same end (enlightenment).  Much as I may personally believe this idea, I’m not sure how I feel about this particular story being so mythology heavy.  The History BA in me very much wanted to see a more analytical power-structure play-out, which we do get some of, but not as much as we get of the how to better our souls question.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that, although I was anticipating a book that was scholarly with a dash of spiritual, what I got instead was the reverse.  That’s not a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do wonder how the story may have played out differently if Robinson wasn’t so tied to the same souls over and over again.

One aspect of the same souls reincarnating that niggled at me a bit was that throughout history, no matter where they were born (or what gender or species), their names always started with the same letters.  So a character whose first name in the first incarnation started with the letter K always had a name that started with the letter K.  It got so I could predict who was who and, to a certain extent, how they would act in each incarnation.  On the one hand, it was a cool idea, although highly unlikely someone’s name would start with the same letter throughout time and cultures and languages.  On the other hand, it distracted me from the more interesting story of the different world developing with the rise of different cultures than actually appeared in our own history.

Similarly, I think there is far too much story and richness in this idea and timeline to limit it to one book.  There were multiple incarnations that I really wanted to know more of.  I wanted to know the whole story of these lives and this place.  Instead, the reader gets a quick glimpse into one time in their lives, and then we are left jumping ahead to the bardo to find out how they died and oh here comes the next incarnation.  Perhaps the point was to make the reader feel as if each life is only a blink, but the scholar in me was left wanting to know so much more about every area and life the book briefly visited.  It was like getting only a small morsel of each chocolate in a box of delicious chocolates, instead of getting to savor them all over a long period of time.

All of this said, let me now discuss the parts of the book I really enjoyed (and would have liked to have seen more of).  My favorite is how Robinson reimagined the Americas.  The same essential problem of real history still exists for the Native Americans even with the change of the Christians mostly dying off.  Mainly, they lacked easily sourced heavy metals to make higher-tech weapons and they were susceptible to all of the germs European explorers brought with them.  (I learned about this in my classes in US History for my BA, but my professors told me this whole idea is also presented in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, written at a level for those who are not history scholars, if you are interested in the topic).  Robinson figures out a creative way for select tribes in North America to avoid entirely succumbing to this fate, thus allowing them to band together and become the nation Hodenosaunee.  This means that one matriarchal, communal culture survives into the 20th and 21st centuries.  (Also of note, the West Coast is colonized successfully by the Chinese, so it is also vastly different in this imagining).  I was so intrigued by the idea of a Native culture surviving and holding on to their land against invaders.  But, on the other hand, I do feel that the author cherry-picked those tribes whose values most closely aligned with his own to “save” in this imagining.  (For instance, all human sacrificing tribes still die out/are enslaved, the Plains tribes are all presented as extremely violent and thus not eligible for inclusion in this forward-thinking group).  To a certain extent, the Hodenosaunee save the rest of the world with their communal and matriarchal ideas, and that verges a bit close to the stereotype/idea that select Native American tribes were/are just simply more spiritual than the rest of us, and we could all be saved if we would just listen.  (Think of the old commercial about littering and the Native man in traditional dress crying over our hurting “Mother Earth.”)  This stereotype removes humanity from Native Americans.  Native Americans consist of diverse nations with pluses and minuses, just like every nation in the world.  If Native Americans hadn’t been decimated by invasion, persecution, and disease, their existence as a power in the world would have been much more nuanced than presented in this book simply because Native Americans are humans, and humans are flawed. Just as no culture is all bad, no culture is all good.

Robinson does a much better job painting Islam and Buddhism with a nuanced brush.  Since their cultures dominate the book, this means most of the book is much more gray area, rather than presenting everything as black and white.  One element that demonstrates this, is how Robinson handles Islam and women.  All sides of the arguments about Islam and women are presented here.  There are incarnations of the souls that are Muslim women who argue strongly that the men are misinterpreting the Quran, what Mohammed said, etc… There are of course other incarnations that say no, the extreme fundamentalism is the right interpretation.  Through showing Islam through many different lenses in a world that is different from our own, Robinson demonstrates how religion is so incredibly open to interpretation, and good and bad people can shape it to their own agendas.  One passage that I think demonstrates how well Robinson walks this line is a conversation some characters have about the women wearing the veil or not:

The veil has a kind of power, in certain situations.  All such signs stand for other things; they are sentences spoken in matter.  The hijab can say to strangers, ‘I am Islamic and in solidarity with my men, against you and all the world.’ To Islamic men it can say, ‘I will play this foolish game, this fantasy of yours, but only if in return you do everything I tell you to.’ For some men this trade, this capitulation to love, is a kind of release from the craziness of being a man.  So the veil can be like putting on a magician queen’s cape…. Or it can be like putting on a slave’s collar, certainly. (page 592)

If this passage appeals to you in how it presents the various nuances and gray areas of religion and culture, then a lot of this book will appeal to you.

One final issue with the book I will note that may turn off some readers is that out of all the many incarnations, only two are in Native American bodies (and then, they are both Native Americans in North America.  South America is completely left out for incarnations, although incarnations visit there).  Similarly, there are no incarnations to Australia, New Zealand, Central America, or any island nation anywhere (Caribbean, Pacific Islands, United Kingdom, Iceland).  There is only one incarnation where one of the souls is in an African, and that African is a slave on a Chinese slave ship who then goes to China (we thus spend very little time in Africa, just at the beginning on the slave ship).  One character in an incarnation mentions that in the past she went to Africa but the reader does not see her time there.  I definitely think that it’s a weakness that so many areas of the world are left out.  For instance, I have zero idea what happened in Australia now that it clearly was never a penal colony of the UK (since the UK never existed).  Similarly, it seems Africa would be very different with all the changes in global power, and yet the only passing mention we get of modern Africa in the later incarnations is that one of the characters visits there to fight against Female Genital Mutliation (FGM).  If so much else changed, why not in Africa?

I know it may seem like I listed out a lot of issues, but it is a very long book that tackles a huge task.  My review is almost as if I was reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop.  Each individual part had issues, as did some of the overarching ideas, but I mostly really did enjoy reading it.  It’s a fascinating thought experiment that wasn’t as well executed as it could have been, but parts of it were brilliant.  I also enjoyed the feminist themes throughout.  Men and women are both just souls, reincarnating into a woman is not a punishment.  In fact, neither gender nor race is a punishment for previous incarnations, just species.  Similarly, the more a society advances the more equal their genders and races are.  There is a lot of thought given to what it means to be a woman in various areas of the world, which could easily have been passed over or not handled well.

Overall, this is a book that tackles a huge philosophical question in a fantastical way.  It is a large task that probably would have been better suited to a series to fully flesh-out the world, the lives, and the nuances in both.  Readers interested in spiritual questions with a tendency to view all religions as different paths to the same enlightenment and a curiosity about how the world might be different with different religions in the lead will be most suited to the book.  Readers interested in a more thorough exploration of an alternate history will most likely be disappointed by the reincarnation aspect and the brief time spent in each time period and culture.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge
and
Once Upon a Time IX

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