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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 1 comment

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

Book Review: Bits of Bliss – Volume 1 by Andrea Trask (Series, #1)

May 8, 2015 5 comments

Book Review: Bits of Bliss - Volume 1 by Andrea Trask (Series, #1)Summary:
A collection of nine erotica short stories, mostly featuring elements of fantasy.  Covering everything from fairy tale retellings to vampires to a bit of scifi.

Review:
This erotica short story collection was quite hit or miss for me.  The stories that excelled were creative and unique, but the stories that did not featured some problematic elements that prevented me from enjoying the erotica.

When I read a short story collection, I always individually rate the stories.  My rating of the collection as a whole is just the average of those ratings.  The highest rating any story in this collection received from me was four stars.  There were three stories I gave four stars, and two of them were the first two stories in the collection, so it definitely started out strong for me.  One is a F/F story featuring a woman who is also a flower (or a flower who is also a woman).  It is poetic and heart-quickening.  The second story features a sentient house that has missed its owner and demands attention.  This made me laugh, and I enjoyed the oddity.  It read like a lighter-hearted, erotica version of dark fantasies where there is an evil house–this one is just horny.  The third four star read was enjoyable for a different reason.  It’s a scifi erotica where two lovers are in a spaceship that is running out of air.  They decide to make love, even though they will die quicker.  It was so heart-breaking and beautiful that I wished it was a whole book.

Four of the stories received three stars.  In each case I felt the story either didn’t take an idea far enough or the story wasn’t long enough to tell the story.  Take it farther, and these all could be just as good as the first three I discussed.

Unfortunately, there were two stories that were big clunkers for me, with each receiving only one star, and they both had almost the same problem.  “Hunting Hound” has a woman mating with a werewolf.  She meets him when she is out riding, and they start making out against a tree, with her a willing participant.  Then this happens.

“Stop” she said, and his face darted in toward her own with a low growl. “Too late to stop.” (loc 1650)

He proceeds to penetrate her.  There is nothing sexy about a woman asking a man to stop and him claiming it’s too late and proceeding to rape her.  It is never too late to stop, and it’s never too late for a partner to change their mind.  It really bothers me that this type of scene is still being presented as sexy.  I know everyone gets off to their own thing, but this is such a clear scene of consent being removed and then ignored that I just cannot say to each their own in this case.  I also want to mention that the book blurb claims that this story features “consensual sexual violence” but it definitely did not read that way to me.

“Summer Nights,” which also received one star, has a similar problem.  This story features a woman who keeps seeing the same mysterious man at parties.  She goes out to the woods behind the house at one of these parties, and he follows her.  She finds out he’s a vampire.  She stands in the woods talking to him, holding a wineglass, when this happens:

“he struck like a train, his swinging backhand sending the wineglass flying toward the treeline, and I faintly registered the tinkling shatter of it, perhaps hitting a rock, or a fallen log.” (loc 5654)

She finds the fact that he just hit a glass out of her hand to be massively sexy and proceeds to bang him.  This is, again, something I feel like I shouldn’t need to say, but there is nothing sexy about a partner violently hitting something out of your hand.  Nothing. Sexy. This is not a sign that oh man she should totally bang this vampire. It is a sign she should run because she is alone in the woods with a violent motherfucker.  This could have so easily been foreplay if, instead of hitting a glass out of her hand, he said something like, “I want you now,” and he gently took the glass from her hand and tossed it away.  Or if she said, “I want you so much,” and tossed the glass over her shoulder.  It would be so easy to have the same erotica about a powerful vampire alone in the woods with a woman without it turning into problematic territory.

I truly wish these last two stories were not in the collection.  The rest of the collection is creative, features some fun queer content (the F/F story and a gender-swapping story), and in the case of the best three stories, has some unique ideas.  Where the collection flounders is, interestingly enough, with the two most mainstream stories that take the agency out of the hands of the women in them and instead retreats to the tired idea of violent men being sexy.

Overall, if a reader is looking for some quick fantasy erotica, most of the stories in this book will satisfy this need, although I would recommend skipping over “Hunting Hound” and “Summer Nights.”  The reader who enjoys the other stories for their uniqueness will most likely be disappointed by the “sexy violence” in these two.

3 out of 5 stars

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

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Book Review: An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire (Series, #3)

May 5, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire (Series, #3)Summary:
When two of Toby’s good friends’ children go missing from their own bedroom and another won’t wake up from being asleep, they call Toby in immediately to look for them.  Soon the King of Cats reports that some of his kingdom’s children are missing too, and Quentin’s human girlfriend disappears as well.  It quickly becomes clear that it’s time for the 100 year cycle of Blind Michael’s Hunt.  Blind Michael, the Luidaeg’s brother, is incredibly powerful, and only three roads lead to his realm.  Toby can only take each road once.  That means she has only three chances to save the children and stop the Hunt.

Review:
I picked this book up immediately after finishing the second in the series and, oh man, it did not disappoint.  This book presents an old school Brothers Grimm style blood-curdling, toes-curling fairy tale, peppered with characters we’ve already come to know and love.

Blind Michael is scary. What he does to the children is really scary.  He turns the fae children into “Riders” monstrous twists on real fae features.  He turns the human children into their horses for them to ride.  Everything about Blind Michael and his twisted land scared the crap out of me, and I don’t scare easily.  It was exactly the sort of scare I used to seek out as a child from the original Grimm Fairy Tales (the ones that are not cleaned up).  This book goes a lot darker than the first two, which were already dark, and it went there in such a different way from the first two plots.  The first two plots were entirely about murder, here we have someone stealing children from their beds.  It’s a completely different type of scare and different sort of mystery for Toby to have to figure out.

The plot tells more than just this one mystery, though, it also brings out some information that is key to the overarching plot of the series.  I really enjoyed how smoothly this was worked together, and I also must say I didn’t predict at all where it was going.

There are basically two themes in the book, one I appreciated and the other I didn’t particularly agree with.  Let’s start with the one I didn’t agree with.

There’s a theme in the book that children on some level must deal with and be held responsible for the choices of their parents.  Toby tries to pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t work out so well for her.

Blood will tell. I tried to pretend it wouldn’t that we could change, but blood always tells. We carry the burdens of our parents.  (loc 312)

It basically reads as the idea that you can’t run away from your family or from your blood, your nature.  Personally, I don’t like that frame of thought.  You can leave your family of birth and not have to be held responsible for them.  You are not your parents. You are your own person. You are not responsible for what your parents do after you leave home.  So this theme didn’t sit well with me.  Other readers who agree with this theme will obviously enjoy it more.

The other theme was one I was quite happy to see so directly addressed in an urban fantasy and that is of suicidal ideation.  There are many different ways that suicidal ideation can manifest, but with Toby her symptoms are that she firmly believes her death is imminent and is planning for it, and she repeatedly throws herself into risk situations because she doesn’t care if she dies.  Suicidal ideation essentially means that a person is lacking self-preservation instincts and is ok with dying.  They won’t actually commit suicide but they will put themselves into dangerous situations because part of them does want to die.  So they might run across a street without looking, go walking alone at 2am in a dangerous neighborhood, etc… Toby’s depression from the first two books has grown so much that she is now at this point, and people have started calling her out on it.  Seeing her realize that she’s, in layman’s terms, got a death wish, is interesting and well-done.  What I appreciate most about it is how directly it is addressed.

Because, dear October, you’re the most passively suicidal person I’ve ever met, and that’s saying something. You’ll never open your wrists, but you’ll run head-first into hell. You’ll have good reasons.  You’ll have great reasons, even. And part of you will be praying that you won’t come out again. (loc 3876)

Overall, this entry in the series brings back the characters readers have come to love and puts them into a new mystery much more terrifying than the first two.  Two strong themes in the book include nature/nurture/ties to parents and dealing with suicidal ideation.  Fans of the series won’t be disappointed.  This is a roller coaster ride of emotions and peril.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Rosemary and Rue, review
A Local Habitation, review

Counts For:
Once Upon a Time IX

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Book Review: Zelde M’Tana by F. M. Busby (Series, Prequel) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

April 23, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: Zelde M'Tana (Series, Prequel)Summary:
Zelde M’Tana is one of the lost children, living away from UET influence and welfare or adults at all in gangs of violent kids.  But she gets captured and sent in outerspace on a journey toward being a sex slave on a mining planet.  When the ship mutinies, her chances for a future change for the better.

Review:
I picked this up because I heard it is the prequel for a black woman spaceship captain from a scifi series in the 70s.  I was intrigued (who wouldn’t be by that cover) but I was ultimately disappointed by the characterization of Zelde.

This prequel is designed to be able to be read as a standalone, so that’s how I approached it.  It’s not entirely clear what the problem is in this futuristic world, but it appears that an evil corporation known as the UET has taken over governing everybody and generally encourages violence and treats everyone like dirt.  There are a few escaped ships and some colonies they have set up on other planets where people live freely.  This prequel, then, basically tracks how Zelde comes to be escaped.

I almost stopped reading the book very early on during Zelde’s lost child years.  She is a lost child who joins a gang and winds up climbing the ranks.  There’s obviously a lot of violence.  What I wasn’t expecting was for Zelde to be a rapist.  In the context of the gang wars, when her gang overtakes another, she takes the leader of that gang and rapes him in front of everyone.  (She achieves this by tying a rope around his penis and tugging on it until he gets hard).  In one instance, perhaps in both, I’ve kind of tried to scrub it from my mind, she kills the man right after raping him.  Now, the thing to understand is, Zelde is not ever presented as an anti-hero.  She is 100% supposed to be a hero that the reader roots for.  We want her to escape UET; we want her to succeed.  But she’s a rapist.  A hero rapist isn’t a character I can get behind, and I wouldn’t want other readers to either.

I kept reading the book because I was wondering if this would ever be addressed.  If, perhaps after Zelde escapes and is able to get some education and safety she would realize what she did was wrong.  But that never happens anywhere in the book.  It’s really disappointing.

The second problem I have with the book, which is somewhat related, is in how it presents female sexuality.  Basically, in this world, all women will have sex with other women if a man happens to not be around and convenient right when they get their urge.  So, for instance, Zelde prefers men, but she’ll take a woman to pair up with if a man isn’t right handy.  She also will dump her female pairing the instant there’s a hint she can get with a man.  Similarly, there’s a triad relationship on the ship in which a man, Dopples, is paired with two blonde women.  The women read as sisters, although it’s possible they’re not.  In any case, this is one of our typical interactions with them:

She [Zelde] could never tell the two blonde women apart. The one who opened the door this time had bangs now–but so did the other, standing behind a little. Both naked, hair messed, a little sweaty and out of breath–were they having somebody else in here? no–not on Dopples; they wouldn’t dare that. Must be playing together, just by themselves. That figured–for two women, one man had to be short rations. (page 127)

It all feels like a misreading of female bisexuality.  Female bisexuality isn’t a result of an appetite for sex that is just so high it can’t be satiated by just one person or that must be satiated at every opportunity.  Bisexuality is not this idea that women need to have sex constantly and so will take just anyone, with a slight preference toward men.  While I appreciate that a book published in 1980 includes the idea that women can be attracted to other women it reads from the perspective of a male gaze idea of female bisexuality instead of the reality.  Similarly, not all women are bisexual and yet every single woman in this book seems willing to jump into bed with another woman if a man doesn’t happen to be available or in the context of a M/F/F threesome.  Not all women are bisexual.  Not all bisexual women prefer to pair up with men (some do, but not all).  Not all bisexual women are open to the idea of a threesome.  The only hint to the idea that not all women are bisexual that the book concedes to is that one character is asked at one point if she is “all for women” (page 257) as in are you a lesbian.  (She is not, if you were wondering).  It is just as erasing of bisexuality to operate from the assumption that all women are bisexual (but not all men) as it is to say none are.  Some straight men may like the idea that women are off sleeping with each other every time their backs are turned and that of course any woman would want to participate in a M/F/F threesome given the opportunity, but that is not the reality.

One final issue I had with the book, which is a bit minor but is still annoying, is a bit of grammar.  Almost every time a character says something like “would’ve” or “could’ve,” it’s spelled as “would of” or “could of.”  It does this outside of times the characters speak, so it’s not an attempt at dialect.

A positive to say about the book is the plot is fast-moving and covers a lot of ground.  Zelde’s life is eventful, and if a reader isn’t a fan of one phase, it will quickly change.  Also, Zelde’s race is not just mentioned and then forgotten.  Her existence as a black woman and what that means for her is confronted in the book in various ways.  Also, Zelde rocks a natural hairstyle and gauges her ears at one point while still climbing the ranks of the ship.

Overall, this 1980 scifi book contains a fast plot and interesting future but its representation of female sexuality may be bothersome to some readers.  Readers who seek to avoid scenes involving rape or being asked to identify with a rapist should avoid it.  Recommended to readers of classic scifi and those interested in seeing representations of black women in literature in the 1970s and 1980s.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: The now-defunct SwapTree (like PaperBackSwap).

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Book Review: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire (Series, #2)

April 14, 2015 1 comment

Book Review: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire (Series, #2)Summary:
Toby Daye, changeling, private detective, and knight to the knowe of the powerful Sylvester, feels like she has her feet back under her after returning to human form after 14 years as a fish and also solving the murder of a powerful fae.  When her liege requests she go investigate why he hasn’t heard from his niece in a while, she expects it to be a quick visit, although possibly a bit irritating since she has to bring along young Quentin, a teenaged full-blooded Daoine Sidhe fae.  Sylvester’s niece just so happens to own the only fae tech company, and she claims that she has indeed been calling her uncle.  But when an employee turns up dead and Toby finds out there have been two mysterious deaths previously, she realizes there’s more here than immediately meets the eye, particularly since she can’t read anything from the blood of the dead.

Review:
I enjoyed the first book in this urban fantasy series about a changeling investigator so much that I immediately checked out the second ebook from the Boston Public Library on my kindle.  (If you have an ereader, definitely check out if your local public library will let you do this.  It saves me so much money!)  This book brought me right back into the wonderfully built world of Toby and offered up a new murder mystery even more mysterious than the first.

Readers of the first book know that Toby’s special fae power is the ability to read a person’s memories from tasting their blood.  I found it startling and intriguing that McGuire immediately took this power away from Toby in the second book.  There’s nothing to read in the victims’ blood.  Why is that?  It’s a plot I may have expected in the fourth or fifth book, but not so soon.  From a writing perspective, it’s bold to take away your hero’s superpower in only the second book in the series.  And it works.  There’s ultimately a logical explanation for why the blood is telling Toby nothing (and no, it’s not Toby’s fault), so it never feels like a gimmick.  I think that is what I like most about this series.  The author utilizes techniques that could easily turn into a gimmick but she always keeps it from actually being a gimmick so it instead is utterly engaging and enthralling.

The fae world is also clearly much larger than we originally saw in the first book.  The fae have a tech company so that they can rework modern technology to work in the fae knowes.  On top of that, we also meet many more races of fae, as well as ways for the races we already know to exist and appear.  For instance, Sylvester’s niece, January, has a daughter.  But her daughter is in fact a tree fairy.  Tree fairies are normally tied to a tree or a forest, so how is she in this tech building?  January tied her branch to the computer server after her forest was destroyed, and she was able to keep living after adapting into the server and treating the server as a forest.  Very cool idea, and it works beautifully in the story.

Even though I was basically able to predict whodunnit, I couldn’t figure out why or how, so the plot still satisfied me as I waited for Toby to figure all of that out.

One thing that kind of disappointed me in the book is that Toby meets a type of fae who can emit a magical scent that makes the person smelling it think they are massively attracted to him and thus sleep with him.  They then become obsessed with this type of fairy, and the fae feeds off of the obsession.  I was glad to see the book treat this as rape (basically drugging someone into sleeping with you) but I was also disappointed to see our heroine have to face off against an attempted rape.  As I said in my review of the previous book, I get really tired of urban fantasy heroines being threatened constantly by rape.  My hope is that this was a one-off type thing to introduce the concept of this type of fae rather than the new normal for the series.

Toby herself and the worldbuilding continue to be my two favorite aspects of the series.  The plots are good, but I’d read almost anything plot-wise to visit Toby and her world again.

The essence of Toby and why I love her is evident in this quote:

Long dresses weren’t designed for walking in the woods. My mother could’ve made the walk without stumbling; she fits into the world that well, even insane. That’s what it means to be a pureblood. I stumble and fall, and I always get up and keep going. That’s what it means to be a changeling. (page 371)

Picking a quote to show why I love the worldbuilding so much is a bit harder, but here’s a particular favorite that really punched a visual of what this world is like home for me.  In this passage, Toby is explaining that she and her mother are Daoine Sidhe and can see memories through blood:

My mother was so strong she could taste the death of plants. She could never stomach maple syrup; she said it tasted like trees screaming. (page 91)

As a born and raised Vermonter who grew up harvesting maple syrup, that line was a bit of a gut punch. An eloquent one.

Overall, readers of the first entry in the series will be pleased with this second outing.  Toby continues to be a strong character set in a fascinating world.  The mystery plot is another murder, but it is a series of murders and has a very different solving pattern and outcome than the first.  Recommended to fans of the first book to continue on to the second as soon as they can.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Rosemary and Rue, review

Counts For:
Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: Set Adrift by D.S. Kenn (Series, #1)

April 4, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Set Adrift by D.S. Kenn (Series, #1)Summary:
Terric, nickname T, a half shifter half demon, and his girlfriend Jordyn, full vampire, have decided to move from New York City to Provincetown, Massachusetts.  T has an opportunity to work as head of security at a nightclub and bar that caters to the supernatural, and he thinks the move will be good for he and Jordyn.  Jordyn had a nightmarishly abusive past, and T has been helping her heal through a safe, consenting BDSM relationship.  But his love for Jordyn is not one of a mate; it is one of a friend.  He intuitively knows that his mate will be a man but he struggles to accept this, due to suffering he has endured in the demon realm.  When Jordyn decides it is time for her to stand on her own two feet and move out, she also encourages T to confront himself and grow as well.  But all T feels is set adrift.

Review:
Every November/December I open up to submissions for books to review in the upcoming year on my blog.  When I saw this one in the submissions, I was excited.  Not very much paranormal romance is submitted to me, and paranormal romance with a bisexual main character is nigh on impossible to find.  Plus, I love Provincetown.  This paranormal romance features a unique set of characters and a wide variety of sex scenes but its world building struggles some.

The strongest aspect of the book is that its main character Terric is so unique in paranormal romance.  Terric actually describes himself perfectly:

I’m an anomaly. A fucking bisexual demon shifter. Not really all of any one thing…. I don’t really fit in most categories, you know. (page 33)

First, I love love love the fact that the hero of the book isn’t just bisexual, but he actually uses the term to describe himself as such.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it is quite rare to have a character self-identify as bisexual and simultaneously have that character be one of the good guy leads.  I really applaud the author for going there.  Terric struggles with his sexuality but not for the reasons the reader might expect.  Provincetown, for those who don’t know, is known for being a small town with a large accepting queer community.  T’s community would accept him for who he is, but he struggles with accepting and loving himself.  The reason given for this is that when he is summoned to the demon realm (as a half demon, he is subject to hell’s dominion), he is sometimes subject to punishment that consists of rape by other male demons (or half demons).  The reason he has trouble imagining being mated with a man is due to this trauma.  Bisexual men experience a higher rate of rape than straight or gay men (source), and I think it’s a good thing that the author works this into T’s past within the context of his supernatural world.  The rape is not misrepresented as causing his bisexuality but rather as a trauma he must get over to fully embrace his sexuality for what it is.  It’s not a storyline seen very often, and it’s handled well.

Similarly, the BDSM subplot in the first half of the book is also handled well.  The BDSM is completely presented as something both partners have consented to with pre-agreed upon boundaries that are respected.  It is also shown as something that is therapeutically used to help Jordyn overcome her past trauma.  This is a use for BDSM that some readers may not know but it is clearly well-understood by the author and well presented in the book.  Plus, the BDSM scenes are well-written and just the right level of steamy.

Unfortunately, the world that T and Jordyn live in is not as well fleshed-out as they are.  In particular, the workings of the supernatural world are never fully explained and can be a bit confusing.  For instance, vampires can apparently have children (as in, conceive and give birth to them, not as in turning humans into vampires), but it is never explained how.  Also the logistics of mixing different supernatural races are unclear.  For instance, there is one character who is 100% shifter, but his parents are both half vampire and half shifter.  Even the character himself doesn’t know how that worked out to him being pure shifter.  Some readers probably wouldn’t be bothered by the lack of details and world building regarding the supernatural and just how it works in this world, but others will be.

There are a few minor editing mistakes, the most startling of which is that the book on page 142 suddenly changes from indenting new paragraphs to having a line space between them (like how paragraphs appear on this blog).  I have no preference for one over the other, but consistency throughout the book is preferred.  There is also one plot point that bothered me.  At one point a character is established as being tipsy.  He then kisses someone and, freaked out about it, decides to leave and states that he can because he is “sober as a judge,” and the other character agrees he is fit to drive (page 152).  Unless that kiss lasted an hour or two, there’s no way he went from tipsy to sober as a judge in the span of one kiss (unless something supernatural was going on that was not explained).  Similarly, sometimes the book veers too far into telling rather than showing, particularly in the scenes that are not sex scenes.  For instance, in one scene, this occurs:

He told Kevin a little bit about his own upbringing, just the basics. (page 144)

At this point, the reader does not know much about this character’s upbringing.  Why not write out the dialogue in which the character tells Kevin about it, rather than telling the reader that the character tells Kevin?  The sex scenes never veer into this telling rather than showing zone, and it would be nice if the plot points didn’t either.

There is also a chapter that is called the “epilogue,” which kind of bothered me since it is a direct continuance of the plot in the previous chapters.  No significant time is skipped, nothing in the future is explained.  It is basically the last chapter in the book.  I am uncertain as to why it is thus called an epilogue.  I was expecting it to update me on the future of these characters, not simply continue the story in a direct linear fashion from the last chapter.

Sex acts in the book include: anal sex (male on female), BDSM (male dom, female sub), and M/M kissing/touching.  Rape is mentioned as an occurrence in the past but is not depicted.  Those readers looking for more in-depth M/M scenes should keep their eye out for the next book in the series, as it appears that a M/M relationship will be building to greater intimacy in the next book.

Overall, this is a welcome addition to the paranormal romance genre, featuring a unique cast of characters, including a bisexual half-demon, half-shifter male hero.  The book contains a wide variety of sex scenes, including M/F BDSM and M/M kissing/touching.  Readers interested in in-depth world building may be disappointed by the lack of explanation of the supernatural world these characters inhabit.  Those looking for a quick, steamy read will enjoy these characters and the development of them that goes on in-between their well-written sex scenes.

3 out of 5 stars

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

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