Archive

Archive for the ‘Length – chunkster’ Category

Book Review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark (series, #1)

Image of a digital book cover. A Black woman with short hair and muscular arms stands in a keyhole doorway with her arms extended holding each side of it. Sand swirls around her, and she has a weapon on her hip.

Summary:
Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.

Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.

Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

Review:
I don’t read high fantasy very often, but when I do, I need it to be different and unique. When I heard about a military high fantasy with a Black woman lead, a sapphic subplot, and based roughly on North Africa, I knew I needed to read it.

This book took a little while to get up to speed. There’s a lot to introduce, and. it is a chunkster to be fair. By about the 25% mark, I felt like the plot was really moving, and I was glad I hung in there. The basic plot is that Balladaire colonized Qazāl. Balladaire forbids religion. Qazāl is religious. Balladaire abducted children from Qazāl and trained them to be soldiers. They fought on behalf of Balladaire in other regions they were colonizing, and now they’ve been sent back to Qazāl to put down the rebellion. These soldiers are called the Sands. Touraine is a Sand. Luca is in her 20s and is supposed to be the queen, but her uncle is holding onto the throne until he deems her ready to take it on. Luca has a permanent injury to her leg that necessitates her walking with a cane (that has a secret sword in it). Luca is determined to prove her ability to rule via her overseeing of Qazāl.

I think for a lot of readers Touraine will be the big appeal of the book. She’s a muscular, badass soldier who is unapologetically lesbian. And she’s not the only wlw in the book. There’s a rebel couple who are married women. There’s also a minor Balladairan teenager who has a romance with a Qazāli girl. Then there’s Luca, who’s bisexual. There’s also a character partway through who is very cool and is nonbinary. My only question about this character was how, exactly, when Touraine met them, she knew their pronouns without being told. Just because I thought that would be interesting world building.

The Qazāli are varying shades of Brown and Black. The Balladairans are mostly pasty white except for a few who grew up in Qazāl and manage to have tans. The Balladairans speak a language that’s basically French, and the Qazāl’s language, names, and food all seem to be drawn from Arabic culture. The author has stated North Africa as inspiration for this tale of colonization and rebellion. I think it does a good job of exploring colonization and race without ever verging into preachy or beating you over the head with it.

So the big romance (if you can call it that?) of the book is Luca and Touraine. The author describes it as enemies-to-still-enemeis-but-horny-about-it. That said, don’t go into this book expecting on-screen sexy times. For any characters. There’s a lot of longing but nothing on-screen.

This is a violent book. It has to be as it’s military high fantasy. Please keep that in mind. There are scenes including torture, battle, and various types of warfare.

Speaking of battles, this brings me to the other interesting aspect of the book. A key part of the Qazāli religion is the use of magic. And the magic is real. Everyone acknowledges this, even the Balladairans. Luca wants to use magic without being religious. She thinks it will help her take her throne. I myself was quite fascinated by this aspect of the plot, especially when a third and a fourth culture are brought into the mix later in the book. If you like some magic in your fantasy, you’ll get it here.

The one last thing I’ll say is I think this author is quite talented at metaphor and simile descriptors. I highlighted quite a few throughout the book. I was inspired by them. Like this one:

her eyes glittered with life, sharp as a dagger beneath the ribs.

page 206

Swoon!

Overall, if you’re looking for a fresh take on high fantasy with some military mixed in and almost entirely woman leads, this read won’t disappoint.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 528 pages – chunkster

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Get the Reading Group / Book Club Discussion Guide
A beautifully graphic designed 2 page PDF that contains: 1 icebreaker, 9 discussion questions arranged from least to most challenging, 1 wrap-up question, and 3 read-a-like book suggestions
View a list of all my Discussion Guides.

Book Review: An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows (Series, #1)

26225506Summary:
When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl – an accidental worldwalker – really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

Review:
A fantasy written from a queer, female perspective that explores race and social justice featuring the common trope of multiple parallel worlds.

The basic plot is an intertwining of two common to fantasy: 1) there’s multiple parallel worlds 2) political intrigue warring societies etc… These are both done to a level I appreciate. They make sense without overwhelming me with world building and pages of explanations of how a society that doesn’t really exist works.

Both of these basic plots are used to explore queer viewpoints, feminism, and race, all through the lens of social justice. How much you’ll enjoy this lens depends upon the reader. I think the queer part is fairly well-done with a broad representation including: bisexual (by name!), lesbian, trans*, and polyamory. I’m not big on polyamory plots but I thought its inclusion in a parallel world made sense and was clearly not written from a perspective intended to purely titillate, rather, the emotional aspects of these relationships was explored. I do think the explorations of race lacked some of the subtlety present in the explorations of queerness. The white Australian girl being thrust into a parallel world where the majority race is black who is guided by another “worldwalker” who similarly fell through but decided to stay because she’s black and this world is better than Thatcher’s England struck me as a bit heavy-handed and overly simplistic. I’m also not sure how I felt about the black character being put into a secondary role as guide. I kept finding myself thinking how I would have preferred to have read her story. (You quickly find out she stayed in the world, gained some power, joined a polyamorous marriage, had a child, and more! What an interesting life!)

All of that said, I don’t often enjoy traditional style non-urban fantasy, and this one did keep me reading and interested. It’s fun to read a book about political intrigue and multiple worlds dominated by women, touched by dragons, and with no male gaze. I doubt I will seek out the second entry in the series, though, because I feel I’ve already got everything out of the story I’m going to get.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 494 pages – chunkster

Source: NetGalley

Buy It

Book Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)


Book Review: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)Summary:

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture……

Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Review:
I wanted to say “I’m sure this was super progressive when it was first published” but actually it was first published in 1989 so….actually not so much. I think if I read this in print I might have flown through it faster and not noticed how kind of all-over-the-place it was but actually…it’s kind of all-over-the-place.

First there’s the weird backwards planet that for some reason has decided to revert to medieval European ways of being in spite of being settled at some point in the future when people figured out how to travel through space and colonize planets. Then we jump back to planet Earth which has been taken over by both Catholicism and some weird new religion that I still haven’t figured out but that seems to believe in saving the soul to computers? But also has forced monk servitude?

So some Catholics go to Grass (the medieval planet) because some evil flesh-eating plague is spreading all over the galaxy and Grass is the only place that doesn’t have it. Somehow Grass is blissfully unaware of the impending plague. The Catholic family consists of the mom who used to work helping people who didn’t obey the two child mandate, the father and his mistress, and their two teenagers (one boy and one girl and the girl is of course super sullen).

Then we have a long diatribe about this weird Fox Hunt the Grassians do using entirely alien species. Riding the aliens gives the women orgasms, and this is dangerous. I couldn’t help but feel like the author had some huge problem with horseback riding, and what is with that in scifi? HORSES ARE GREAT, SCIFI WRITERS. STOP WRITING THIS PLOT. Anyway so then somehow this plot of maybe the alien Fox Hunt is saving the Grassians from the plague takes a super weird religious turn involving morals and ethics and what are the aliens actually and the Catholic lady has some weird religious dream after she whacks her head and the aliens start attacking the humans and somehow they find a scientist/doctor person in the midst of all this who can help them with the cure yadda yadda. See? All over the place.

Ultimately it’s realized that this whole thing was basically Catholic lady’s mid-life crisis, and she finally comes into her own as a result of the whole thing and wow. I just kept thinking….who is so out-of-touch with themselves that it takes this whole huge interplanetary incident to sort your shit out? In the end I sort of felt like this is the book version of that random old lady you meet on the bus who talks to you through your headphones to tell you her “tragic” life story and you sit there nodding because you think she might be just a bit coo-coo and well her story is all-over-the-place but at least it’s moderately interesting and then at the end you realize her life has been awful because she is awful.

So…..if you’re a person who didn’t sort your shit out until mid-life and you have a lot of empathy for people who claim to be trapped by their own damn choices then you’ll probably enjoy this book. Also if you have some weird problem with horseback riding you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Why three stars? Because while I found it annoying and disappointing the plot was at least interesting, it was well-written on the readability level, and it was an audiobook but I read the whole thing, so I think that’s saying something.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 544 pages – chunkster

Source: Audible

Buy It

Book Review: Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

September 28, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Tara Road by Maeve BinchySummary:
Ria lived on Tara Road in Dublin with her dashing husband, Danny, and their two children. She fully believed she was happily married, right up until the day Danny told her he was leaving her to be with his young, pregnant girlfriend. By a chance phone call, Ria meets Marilyn, a woman from New England unable to come to terms with her only son’s death and now separated from her husband. The two women exchange houses for the summer with extraordinary consequences, each learning that the other has a deep secret that can never be revealed.

Review:
Is “two women swap houses and their lives change” a subgenre of women’s fiction? Because I feel like it should be. I have a real soft spot for house swap stories, starting back when The Holiday came out (one of my favorite romcoms). I was excited to see one featuring both Ireland and New England (Connecticut, specifically), and I sensed that the drama would be pretty high in this story. I wasn’t disappointed.

I learned a lot about recent Irish history from this book. For instance, I had no idea that divorce wasn’t legal in Ireland until 1995! The whole culture, too, wasn’t just that divorce wasn’t legal but that young marriage was expected. This directly impacts Ria’s life and her decisions. Learning this recent Irish history through Ria’s eyes helped make it more real and reminds the reader that these cultural norms and laws have a real impact on real people.

The settings were beautifully rendered. From Tara Road to the home in Connecticut, I felt completely present in each. I could hear the noises and smell the cooking at Tara Road and feel the cool pool water in Connecticut. The rich settings helped me take the perhaps at times ridiculous plot with the grain of salt such a story warrants.

Many issues are covered without ever feeling like the book was written just to talk about them. Rather, the issues exist because they just happen to in real life so why wouldn’t they in this book. Among the issues: alcoholism, domestic violence, grief, infertility, and more that I can’t mention without being plot spoilery.

Still, though, in spite of the strong setting and interesting plot, I did feel that it ended a bit too abruptly. I felt as if I was left hanging, wondering what ultimately was going to happen with these women. Being left wanting more isn’t necessarily a bad thing but after investing so much into these two women, I would have enjoyed at least an epilogue.

Overall, a strong entry in women’s fiction. It’s a house swap story that stays unique with the house swap not being about romance but rather about dealing with personal issues and where you want your life to go.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 648 pages – chunkster

Source: Library

Buy It

Book Review: It Ain’t Me, Babe by Tillie Cole (Series, #1)

Book Review: It Ain't Me Babe by Tillie Cole (Series, #1)Summary:
River “Styx” Nash was born into the Hades Hangmen motorcycle club. He always knew he was set to inherit running it, in spite of his speech impediment, but he never expected to be running it at the young age of twenty-six. When a young woman shows up at their doorstep, bleeding and unconscious, he’s reminded of a girl he met at a fence in the woods when he was a boy….a girl who has haunted him ever since.

Salome grew up under Prophet David’s rule in the commune that’s the only home she’s ever known. When her sister dies, she finds the strength to run and somehow ends up in the arms of the man who was once a boy she met at the fence of the commune.

Review:
I’m being a bit charitable with my rating of this read because the juxtaposition of commune and motorcycle club (gang) is one I haven’t seen before, and I do think it’s interesting. Additionally, I do realize that these types of romances are basically fantasy so I try to cut them some leeway. That said, this book is not executed as well as it could have been for its genre. There are some jarring elements that take the reader out of the read, thus leading it to be less enjoyable.

First, it’s poorly edited. There are many clear mistakes such as saying things like “gotta to.” It reads like a first copy, not a final draft. Better editing would have really helped this book.

Second, you have to imagine that the reader who might pick up a romance featuring motorcycles might know a thing or two about them. While everything else surrounding the motorcycles can be pure fantasy, the motorcycles themselves should function like the real world (unless it’s scifi). Motorcycles, though, are treated in the book as basically cars with two wheels, and anyone who’s ridden one can tell you that’s not so, and a motorcycle gang definitely would know better than to treat them that way. One glaring instance of being unrealistic about bikes is when Salome first rides on one. The book sets it up that she has no idea what a motorcycle is. She’s never seen one before, she has zero idea how they work. In spite of this, the only riding instruction she’s given is to “hold on.” Even someone giving the most bare of instructions to a new passenger will tell them to follow the lead of the rider — to lean when they lean and not to counter-lean against the rider. This is basic safety and even a motorcycle gang would give those basic instructions because a passenger who is startled could easily cause the bike to crash and riders love their bikes. Similarly, in spite of Salome not knowing anything about motorcycles, she puts on the helmet with zero instructions. I have never seen anyone who’s never worn a motorcycle helmet before be able to put it on with zero instructions. The strap is complicated and almost always takes guidance. Additionally, we are to believe Salome is riding with someone who cares about her, yet he doesn’t check on her helmet at all. This is not something a rider who cares about his passenger would ever do.

The final thing I found jarring was descriptions of the abuse in the cult. I fully expected there to be cult abuse, but there are repeated flashbacks to the rape of 8 year olds whose legs are being held apart by bear traps. I personally find it extremely difficult to get into a romance that repeatedly flashes back to the graphic underage and violent rape of the main character. It made the book feel like it was at war with itself. Did it want to be a contemporary book about the horrors of cults or did it want to be a romance? You can be both, but that is a difficult book to write, and it’s important to either put all of the abuse in one area of the book (usually where the heroine informs the hero about it) or to make the abuse more minimal (ie maybe the heroine grew up in a cult that restricted her knowledge and movement but that didn’t rape her physically).

Ultimately, while I appreciate the interesting combination of main characters (leader of a motorcycle club and escapee from a cult), I found the execution to not live up to the unique premise. Primarily recommended to those interested in the fantasy of motorcycles with little personal knowledge of them. They will be more able to get fully into the fantasy.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 466 pages – chunkster

Source: Library

Buy It

Save

Book Review: Watership Down by Douglas Adams

Book Review: Watership Down by Douglas AdamsSummary:
When a rabbit low on the totem pole has a bad premonition, he and some friends run from their warren just before man intrudes wreaking havoc on their once-home. What follows is an adventure of evading predators and foes and looking for a new home.

Review:
Let me preface my review by saying that I know a lot of people either: A) love this book or B) find this book to be very traumatic. My experience was neither of these. The fact that this was not my experience does not negate yours. But neither does your love or traumatizing by this book mean that I felt the same way about it.

One of the risks of reading a book that is widely-known and loved (or remembered as traumatic) is that you have a pre-existing notion of just what that experience might mean for you. I came at this book with some trepidation and excitement because I absolutely love bunnies and I also love semi-realistic depictions of wild animals. Those that are accurate about scientific information but also personify them somewhat. I wound up being greatly disappointed because it gave me neither a world of bunnies to get lost in nor an experience of great trauma and drama. What I wanted was a highly emotional experience, and instead I got a bit of boredom and my main emotion being disappointment.

Let me start with what I think was well done. Adams clearly paid a lot of attention to the real science of how wild bunnies live and function, and I appreciated that. I also like the allusions to mythology. But there’s lots of reviews that talk about why they love this book, so let’s get down to why I didn’t.

1) I found it to be way too wordy.
I want cuteness and bunnies and plot not overly long descriptions of fields. This is a really thick book (my copy was 479 pages) and just…not that much actually happens. I don’t like to feel like a book is wasting my time, and I felt that a lot with this one. You could argue that it just felt long because I didn’t emotionally connect to it, but I think part of my lack of emotional connection was because of the lengthy descriptive passages.

2) I was expecting a great mythos of a story, and what I got was WWII with bunnies.
I love WWII. Do not get me wrong. I did an entire course for my History BA in just WWII. But I don’t think bunnies particularly pair well with WWII. A large overarching mythos? Sure. Basically the Battle of the Bulge with rabbits? Not so much. I don’t want my bunnies acting like British colonels and their optimistic soldiers, and I certainly don’t want an evil bunny who is basically Hitler coming into the story. (I mean…who makes the enemy another bunny who is basically Hitler? ? What? Why??)

3)It just isn’t all that tragic (sorry guys).
*spoiler warning*
I thought that basically the bunnies fight to survive all book and then all die at the end. Of the core group of rabbits, only ONE dies. There are many epic battles but just no true peril except for the warren that the rabbits leave at the beginning of the book. They are, true, pretty brutally killed by the farmer, but the problem is we never had a chance to get to know them, and we hear the story of the killing from someone who saw it. We don’t see it first-hand. It’s all very distanced and just not that tragic. This would obviously bother me less if I wasn’t expecting a tragedy from everyone saying how sad Watership Down is. But honestly to this day I don’t get why everyone is so sad. The rabbits get a new warren. They successfully find female bunnies and make more bunnies. One main character dies. That is it. I just. What. Why does this traumatize you people?
*end spoilers*

So, if you are a person who doesn’t mind WWII told through rabbits, quite long passages of description, and will welcome a tale lacking in great tragedies, you might have a better experience with the book than I did. Lord knows many people the world-over have loved it. But for those who come to it expecting to find a great tragedy or a fast-moving tale or warm and cuddly rabbits be warned that it’s not what you’ve heard about it.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 479 pages – chunkster

Source: PaperBackSwap

Buy It

Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Audiobook Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Brandon Espinoza and Phoebe Strole)

March 7, 2016 3 comments

Audiobook Review: The 5th Wave by Rick yancey (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Brandon Espinoza and Phoebe Strole)Summary:
When a giant spaceship showed up above Earth that wasn’t ours, Cassie and everyone else expected contact. What they didn’t expect was waves of attacks, everything from EMP to disease. Now, she’s at a refugee camp with her father and little brother wondering what the 5th wave of the attack might be. When it comes, will they even know?

Review:
I really enjoyed Rick Yancey’s other series (The Monstrumologist, series review). I must admit to being surprised that this is the series that got picked up into a movie. I didn’t find the blurb nearly as intriguing as that of The Monstrumologist. But since I liked the other series so much, I figured I’d give it a shot. While I can see why it’s taken off, I don’t find it to be as well-constructed or nearly as unique as Yancey’s other series.

The beginning of the book is very slow-paced. Cassie is off hiding in the woods on her own and through her diary where she tries to deal with what has happened the reader learns about the waves of the alien invasion. I like a diary book, but the slow pacing just really didn’t work for a book about an alien invasion.

At a certain point, this narration switches for one chapter to that of the perspective of an alien. Then it switches to the perspective of a boy from Cassie’s high school she had a crush on and his experiences with the alien invasion. Later it flips back to Cassie, only it’s now no longer her diary. Her diary just sort of gets dropped. While I can enjoy multiple narrators, I don’t think these are handled as well as they could have been. The chapter from the alien’s perspective ruins any tension or mystery that had been building around a certain event, in particular. Often switching between Cassie and Ben just feels like it’s convenient for world building and not adding very much to the plot. That said, I do like that the “star” position of this YA action is shared between a boy and a girl fairly equally.

The plot, although slow-moving, starts out strong. There is a plot twist that made me roll my eyes and that I think makes this less unique in YA literature than it started out.

Initially it appears that there will be no love triangle but there ends up being one. I can’t go into the details without some big spoilers but I will say that you make it through most of the book without a love triangle, and then there ends up being one in the last bit. It was disappointing, as I thought something more unique was being done (something akin to a crush turning into a real friendship…but that’s not what happens).

Ultimately the book ends up feeling less about aliens and more about the horrors of child soldiers and war stealing childhood. I definitely think scifi can bring a current issue such as this to people’s attention, but I also think the narration and various irritating and/or confusing plot points ultimately weakens the point. I doubt when I was a teen that such a book would have made me think about child soldiers. Instead I would have felt misled by the title and blurb and been irritated about that, distracting from the point.

All of that said, if a YA reader is looking for an apocalyptic setting featuring dual leads instead of one hero, this is a book that will fit that bill. Just be sure the reader is ok with some surprisingly slow-moving portions for a book with an action-packed blurb. However, I would suggest that a YA reader looking for something truly different check out Yancey’s other YA series: The Monstrumologist.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 457 pages – chunkster

Source: Audible

Buy It

Book Review: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin

February 1, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan FaginSummary:
The residents of Toms River, New Jersey didn’t mind when a CIBA chemical plant opened up in their backyard in the 1950s. It brought jobs to their small town that mostly depended upon tourism. But slowly the river started to look funny. There were plumes of funny-smelling smoke coming from the building, at first during the day, then only late at night when they were asleep. And a nurse at a hospital specializing in children’s cancer notices an awful lot of cases coming from Toms River. What follows is a multi-year public health investigation and lawsuit, only the second of its kind in the United States (the first being the Woburn, Massachusetts toxic water case).

Review:
I picked this book up for a couple of reasons. I work in an academic library that serves a Public Health program (among others), and I thought reading about a landmark case would be helpful. I also was just personally curious about how bad the pollution actually is in New Jersey. (For my non-American readers, there’s a running joke that New Jersey is the “stinky armpit” of the United States, due to the pollution).

The short version of what I got out of it is that I researched and bought the best reasonably priced water filtration pitcher for my household and will scold my husband if he drinks water directly from the sink instead of from the pitcher. The more academic version is that I learned that epidemiology is not as straight-forward as it seems, and things we can know just by looking at the situation are not easily proved. Additionally, what a woman puts into her body during pregnancy is much more important than what a young child eats or drinks.

The book is written in an investigative journalism style. If you’re comfortable reading the science section of the New York Times or something similar, you will be fine reading this book. Some of the science was new to me, but it was well-explained. On the negative end, the writing can sometimes be a bit sensationalistic. For instance, at one point the author assumes to know the reason why some people leave a meeting, jumping to the most sensational reason–that they were “repulsed” (loc 5441). (If he knows for sure why they left because he interviewed them, he does not make that clear). Most statements that are clearly factual are well-cited, however.  Although the book is well-written and interesting, it simply reads as dense. I often found myself wondering if he could have maybe sped up the delivery a bit. It periodically felt like a slog, even though I was quite interested in the topic.

The book starts with introducing one of the children who was born with neuroblastoma, a particularly nasty form of childhood cancer. Then it flashes back to the arrival of CIBA in the 1950s. This clearly establishes the reader’s empathy with the children with cancer from the get-go. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s not exactly unbiased.

So let’s get to what I learned.  Here are the unequivocally bad things that CIBA did:

  • They claimed to residents that only “the purified effluent, clear, neutral and harmless to fish life, is discharged into the Toms River” (loc 671)
  • When residents complained about pollution, instead of taking pollution-minimizing measures, they just re-adjusted their schedule so that most of the discharge happened at night when residents couldn’t see it. (loc 1071)
  • CIBA came to Toms River after being kicked out of Europe and the Midwest for their pollution but didn’t change their practices at all. They simply pursued the location with the least oversight. (For non-American readers, at the time, there were not the national pollution laws in place in the US that there are now. It was more overseen on a state-by-state level).
  • CIBA hid the cancer rate of employees from employees
  • The CIBA water fountains were too toxic for their employees to drink from–they actually stank.
  • The various governmental protection agencies repeatedly found violations at CIBA, for instance, their toxic waste pits were inappropriately lined.

Here’s what I learned about cancer:

  • “Cancer is not one disease but many–more than 150, by most definitions. their only common characteristic is supercharged cell division, growth run amok.” (loc 1842)
  • A swollen lymph node over the left collarbone is an early warning sign of cancer. (loc 1873)
  • “Between ages 5 and 69, the likelihood of getting cancer in any particular year rises with each year of life, and it does so in increasingly large intervals: from about one in nine thousand in the fifth year of life to about one in fifty-seven in the sixty-ninth year.” (loc 1882)
  • “Childhood cancer incidence jumped by more than one-third between 1975 and 2005–more than twice as much as overall cancer incidence.” (loc 1889)
  • The second largest cause of lung cancer in the US after cigarette smoking is radon. (loc 2343)
  • Pregnant women’s consumption of polluted tap water was much more correlated with later childhood cancer than children’s consumption of it themselves (60% more likely vs 8% more likely). (loc 6757)

What I learned about Public Health epidemiology can’t be summed up easily in a bullet-pointed list. Basically, epidemiological studies are incredibly difficult, particularly when the toxic event has already passed. Study methods rely on things like patient recall of what they did day-to-day and massively complicated retroactive restructurings of how the water supply worked and which person got which well-water. The groups of people effected seem large to consumers but in the matter of actual epidemiological numbers are in fact quite small. Too small to easily prove something. As little as one extra child having cancer can be enough for the percent to appear to skyrocket but that could easily be explained as one of the normal abnormalities. A glitch, basically, that is normal when you look at a large population as a whole. Thus, even though people can look at a group and say, “Hey they seem to have a lot of cancer,” it could just be a chance cluster. Or appear like a large number but isn’t actually when you look at the charts over time. Or it could appear like a large number but actually be difficult to prove, numerically, that it is. David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health, is quoted in the book as saying, “A good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large even an epidemiological study can detect it.” (loc 7495) The government is reluctant to investigate these types of cases, because they take a long time, are expensive (Toms River cost over $10 million), are embarrassing, and often work out without anything being able to be proven anyway. In the United States, cancer registries may only be looked at by government agencies, due to privacy laws, so this means that if the government doesn’t look into it, no one can. The book ends on the horrifying note:

Clusters of rare cancers like the one in Toms River may actually be much more common than we can discern with the crude statistical tools of small-number epidemiology. In other words, many more pollution-induced cancer clusters may be out there, but we don’t see them and we rarely even bother to look. (loc 7535)

In the end, the book was interesting, yet a bit of a struggle to get through, as it was quite densely-written. I learned a lot about how epidemiology and public health actually work in the United States, and I was terrified of basically everything (my own tap water, weird smells in the air) the whole time I was reading it and for a few weeks afterwards. I’m still pretty freaked out by my tap water, honestly.

Overall, I would recommend this book to readers with a vested interest in better understanding epidemiology and public health, particularly in the United States, regardless of how uncomfortable knowing these facts might make them. To those who might not be up to the intensive read I would say: be vocal about environmental protection where you live, be careful what you put into your body especially if you are or will be pregnant, and seriously consider filtering your water no matter where you live or how good it tastes. Chemicals we think now are safe we may end up finding out later are not. That is certainly what the mid-20th century taught us.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 562 pages – chunkster

Source: Netgalley

Buy It

Book Review: Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Series, #2)

January 26, 2016 4 comments

cover_childrenSummary:
Father Sandoz, the only person from the humanity’s first mission to Rakhat to return to Earth, has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Jesuits ask him to assist in preparing the second team. Reticent to assist anyone to go to Rakhat but enjoying the use of the languages again, he agrees.

Meanwhile, one survivor of the mission joins forces with the Runa and a rogue Jana’ata to bring about justice. What world will the second mission find when they return? It certainly won’t be the one previously held in a tenuous working balance between predator and prey.

Review:
The Sparrow really touched me, and I was eager to return to Rakhat, not to mention to see how Sandoz handled his recovery. What I found was a mixed bag. A creative expansion on the world of Rakhat but a message and character development that moved in directions that left me feeling very little.

The presence of humans upset the delicate balance between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The humans demonstrated to the Runa that they didn’t need the Jana’ata, and thus a revolution was born.  The thing is though this culture is just so truly alien that it’s hard to root for the Runa or the Jana’ata.

The Jana’ata have a depraved world, yes, but they are also truly predators who evolved from predators. It’s hard to hate on them when they’re basically cats walking around in medieval clothes. Well, of course they’re acting barbaric. They’re cats! And the thing is, they’re not just cruel to the Runa, they’re cruel to each other as well.

The one real disjointed bit of the narrative is that this culture reads as a developing one, as if they are from the 1200s or 1300s on Earth. Yet they somehow have enough technology that they could broadcast music to Earth? It makes no sense that they would be so backwards and yet simultaneously so advanced in science.

Similarly, the Runa are a people with a culture but they also are a prey species. They reproduce like mad when they have enough food, and they act like herd animals.  Yakking constantly and with no real art or science developing. It is easy to see how these two cultures came to co-exist, as well as the fact that they need each other. Put another way, everyone thinks deer are cute, and they are. But if they exist in a world with no natural predators, they soon over-run the place until they have too much population for the land to support, and they start to starve. Yes, the co-existence between the Jana’ata and the Runa could be handled better (certainly with more clarity and more maturity) but the Runa and Jana’ata need each other. They co-evolved.My perspective on the Runa and Jana’ata impacts how I feel about the rest of the book.

Russell presents the idea that it’s ok for the Runa to become the dominant culture so long as they “allow” the “good” Jana’ata (the ones who have sworn off eating Runa and struggle along eating the eggs of some other creature that can barely sustain them. Truly barely. One character has multiple problem pregnancies due to malnutrition). Positing the idea that the Jana’ata are bad because they are predators, and the Runa are good because they are herbivores (with some outliers in both groups of course) is just hard to swallow. Bad and good is much more nuanced than that. Is a shark bad because it eats a seal because it’s hungry? No. But if a shark kills a seal because it’s fun to kill a seal and then swims off without eating it? Then one could argue that’s a bad shark with a bad nature. This level of nuance is just something I felt was missing from the book and the world.

I also found Sandoz’s path back to god to be a bit irritating, as well as the repeatedly presented idea that we can all have different interpretations of the one god, but there is definitely one. A whole alien planet with two sentient species, and no one can even entertain the idea that there might be more than one god? People are allowed to think there’s not one at all, although the book does present this as a shortcoming of those people’s natures. Basically, if they were a bit more willing to open they could at least be agnostic about the idea. The ultimate “proof” of the existence of god in the book is something that made me laugh. I won’t reveal what is found but suffice to say that if you’ve heard the argument about a watch proving there’s a watchmaker, it’s very similar to that one. After the insight and the gray areas allowed in the first book with regards to faith, I was disappointed.

If my review seems a bit mixed and all over the place that’s because that’s how this book read to me. There were chapters of beauty and then others that made me sigh and still others that made me scratch my head. It’s a mixed bag of content set in a complicated world with an ending that some readers would definitely find satisfying but I do not. I still enjoyed the read overall simply because I love visiting the world of Rakhat. But would I want to visit it again? Given the direction it was going, probably not. Although I would gladly visit the future Earth that gets to meet a Jana’ata or a Runa on our own turf.

Overall, readers of the first book who enjoyed it for Rakhat will enjoy getting to know more about both the Runa and the Jana’ata culture will enjoy the sequel, whereas those who appreciated it for its nuance and exploration of gray areas and difficult topics will be less satisfied.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 451 pages – chunkster

Source: Library

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
The Sparrow, review

Counts For:
miabadge
Illness(es) featured: Autism Spectrum Disorder

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

August 20, 2015 6 comments

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara KingsolverSummary:
In 1959 Nathan Price took his wife and four young daughters on a mission to the Congo to spread the Evangelical Baptist message.  Nathan, abusive and stubborn, refuses to listen to anyone around him–not the chief of the village he’s living in, not their Congolese maid, not the organizers of the mission, and certainly not his wife or daughters.  When the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium arrives, Nathan refuses to return to the United States with lasting consequences on all of the Prices.

Review:
I was told by several people that as a deconvert from the Evangelical Baptist faith I was raised in, I would enjoy this secularly published take on an Evangelical mission to Africa.  While I did enjoy the beginning of the book for its honest look at what missions are actually like, the character development becomes increasingly more lackluster and flat throughout the book, working in direct contrast with an increasingly complex plot and souring the whole book.  Additionally, although the book avoids having a Christian slanted take to missions, it certainly does not manage to tell the neutral story I was hoping for.  The author’s slant is more and more apparent as the book goes on, and it ends up being quite heavy-handed by the end.

The beginning of the book is excellent.  Rather than giving Nathan the voice, all of the story telling is from the point of view of one of the women in his life whom he silences–Orleanna (his wife), Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.  It is so powerful to see him through their eyes.  To see him striving so hard to maintain control over everyone and simultaneously hear from their thoughts that he can never truly control them.  It’s empowering and simultaneously heartbreaking.

It’s also interesting to see how Nathan’s stubbornness and know-it-all nature prevents him from ever truly connecting to or even helping the people in the village he’s working in.  He thinks his way is always the best, completely missing that he and the villagers could actually trade knowledge and information and all end up better.  Because they are, in his mind, backwards and unsaved, he refuses to ever listen to them.  His refusal to ever bend causes the mission to break.  For instance, he insists on baptism in the river, even though the villagers are afraid to go in the river because of crocodiles.  He could have made a compromise, perhaps a tub of water in the church, but he continues to insist on the river, leading the villagers to believe he is out to get their children killed by crocodiles.  It’s a gentle and subtle message, unlike others in the book, that could be applied to many aspects of many lives.  Be willing to listen, grow, and learn.

Once the Congo rebellion starts though, the book begins a slow slide off the rails.  The voices of the women change from developing toward a well-rounded presentation of their characters to flat cardboard cut-out versions of their original selves.  For instance, Rachel goes from being a femme teenager frustrated with being stuck in the jungle to a cardboard cut-out racist white supremacist.  While being a white supremacist is obviously wrong, Rachel isn’t well-rounded enough to let her still be human.  She is instead a monster, which is a disservice to us all.  It is only by seeing how those who seem monstrous are just humans gone wrong can we learn something.  The same is true of the rest of the women, although they are all taken in different directions toward different stereotypes.  One loses her mental health, another becomes a scholar, etc… But they all become stereotypes rather than older versions of their well-rounded younger selves.

Similarly, although the multiple different perspectives work well for a bunch of different sets of eyes seeing the same situations play out in the same village, when the daughters grow up, the multiple perspectives become instead individual perspectives of their own individual lives with some periodic judgment from one sister to another on how she’s choosing to live her life.  Instead of giving a richly varied representation of one situation, the reader instead gets a slanted viewpoint of several different situations.  It again renders the story flat instead of well-rounded.  I found myself thinking many times that the book would have been better if it had just ended at the end of the section that takes part in the daughters’ childhoods.

The plot and character shifts both line up with a tone shift that goes from neutrally presenting what occurs in the village to having a decided political slant.  It feels as if the point goes from telling a good story to convincing the reader to feel a certain way.  I think it’s interesting that this slant and the weaker writing go hand-in-hand.  It’s a good reminder that if you focus on telling a good story, a message may come across on its own anyway, but don’t try to force a story to fit a message you want to tell.  That hurts the story.

Overall, the beginning of the book is quite strong, featuring an interesting plot and characters but about 2/3 of the way through, it loses its strength, falling into caricature and message pushing that hurt the story as a whole.  Recommended to readers who are quite interested in the beginning and wouldn’t mind skimming the end.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 546 pages – chunkster

Source: PaperBackSwap

Buy It

Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge