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Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Ann Marie Lee)

January 11, 2016 6 comments

cover_sharpobjectsSummary:
Camille Preaker, journalist to a small Chicago newspaper, recently out of a mental institution after an in-patient stay to address her long-standing inclination to cut words into her body, has been asked by her boss to go to her hometown.  Two little girls have been found murdered–with their teeth pulled out.  Camille is not inclined to go home. She’s barely spoken to her distant, southern belle mother since moving out years ago and hardly knows her half-sister, 13-year-old Amma.  But home she goes, staying with her mother, step-father, and half-sister to save money, drinking to cope as her demons haunt her, and investigating the murders that have shaken the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri.

Review:
This book hit my radar around the time there were all those articles judging Gillian Flynn for writing female characters who are bad/evil. I immediately was supportive of Gillian Flynn (bad women exist, hello) and interested in more of her writing. I started with Gone Girl so I could read it before seeing the movie, but Sharp Objects has been in my sightlines for a long time.  The mere idea of an adult self-injurer going to her hometown and facing her demons was something I would want to read even without knowing how much I enjoy Gillian Flynn’s work.  What I found was a tightly-written, fast-paced mystery with multiple complex characters and simultaneously breath-taking and heart-breaking lead.

I thought through most of the book that I knew the solution to the mystery. Whodunit. That didn’t bother me. I liked everything leading up to what I thought was going to be the ultimate reveal. The plot twists, though, surprising myself and characters in the book.  While part of me likes the twist, part of me felt it was more cliche than the original ending that I thought I was getting. Ultimately, while I didn’t necessarily find the resolution satisfying, I did find it surprising and something to chew on. It will stick with me in a I’m thinking about it way like eating something unusual you’re not sure if you liked, rather than in an I remember feeling so pleasantly satisfied way, like how you might look back on Thanksgiving dinner.

The pacing in the book is superb. I read it in audiobook format, and I found myself using time to listen to it as rewards for accomplishing other things. I listened to it every chance I had because the pacing was so spot on. It never felt too quick-moving or too slow.  Every scene felt like it had a reason for being there and kept me on the edge of my seat.

There is a lot of mental illness represented in this book, and that is wrapped up in the characters.  I’ll talk first about the spoiler-free mental illnesses.

Camille is a self-injurer who has had a stay in a mental hospital where her roommate managed to commit suicide.  Camille never names more of a diagnosis the doctors gave her than self-injurer.  However, much of her behavior, including her self-injury, points to PTSD from her childhood.  This includes the foreboding feeling she gets when returning to her hometown. How she feels driven to drink herself numb for dealing with certain triggering situations. Her impulse to inflict hurt on herself, etc… All of that said, the representation of Camille as a cutter is superb. This is an adult woman who still struggles with the impulse to cut. Who talks about how most people think of it as an adolescent problem. Camille manages to describe her urges to cut, what drives her to cut, without ever actually definitively saying what causes it. And this is great because we don’t actually know. Camille is nuanced. She is a woman who used to (still wants to) cut herself but that is not, not by a long-shot, all she is.

The book also secondarily depicts alcoholism and drunkenness as a self-medication technique.  Camille drinks as a lesser evil compared to cutting when she needs to relieve her stress and discomfort from dealing with terrible situations.  It shows how alcohol and cutting both can end up being used as coping mechanisms when no healthier ones are learned or taught. It also shows how stressors can impact sobriety and health.

Despite being both a self-injurer in recovery and a woman who abuses alcohol, Camille is depicted as a heroine.  Her investigative journalism helps break the case open. She exhibits care and concern for her half-sister and loyalty to her boss and career.  She is ultimately depicted as resilient in spite of her struggles, and I loved seeing that.

If you are interested in reading about other depictions of mental illness in the book, they are in the spoiler section below.

*spoilers*
It is ultimately revealed that Adora, Camille’s mother, suffers from Munchausen by Proxy (MBP). This MBP is what ultimately killed Camille’s other little sister, Marion. Camille escaped this same fate because her mother didn’t love her and thus also didn’t really enjoy caring for her or garnering attention through her in this way.  What Adora does is unforgivable and certainly causes a visceral reaction in the reader.  However, there are scenes that discuss things such as how Adora’s mother didn’t love her.  The implication is that some of the mental illness in the family is learned or a reaction to poor environment.  It manages to keep Adora human rather than monstrous.

Similarly, it is ultimately learned that Amma is a sociopath. Camille seems to be uncertain if this is just Amma’s nature or a reaction to Adora’s “mothering” or some combination of the two. I feel that not enough time is given to analyzing Amma, once Camille learns her true nature. This depiction, compared to the others in the book, is just much flatter due to the lesser amount of time Camille and other characters spend pondering Amma.

The book ends with Camille wondering if she is able to love in a healthy way or if she’s doomed to repeat her mother’s unhealthy, hurtful mothering. Essentially, she wonders if MBP is inherited or if she can escape that.  Some time is spent discussing what made Camille more resilient than either of her sisters. I think this is some of the more valuable portion of the book, as it really highlights the nuances of some of the things we still just don’t have a solid answer to about mental illness. What makes some people more resilient, more able to overcome bad childhoods and genetic tendencies than others? What makes some people better able to cope with a mental illness than others? They are important questions, and I like that they are addressed.
*end spoilers*

There are some scenes that will bother some readers. While rape is never depicted, it is discussed, as well as the idea of what counts as rape, with one female character arguing that a woman who is intoxicated is still responsible for any sexual activity that occurs.  The character saying this was a victim of rape while intoxicated herself, so readers should bare in mind that this reframing of a rape as not a rape is very normal for rape victims who have not fully addressed the rape yet.  Additionally, at one point one character has consensual sex with a character who has just barely turned 18. Also an adult partakes of illegal drugs and alcohol with characters who are extremely underage. All of these scenes work within the book and are necessary for the plot, however.

Overall, this is a fast-paced mystery with a strong yet flawed female lead and an engaging and thought-provoking plot that presents many different nuances of mental illness. Recommended to those looking for a fast-moving book with a unique depiction of self-injury who do not mind the violence or gray moral areas innate in a mystery revolving around serial killing.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)

October 21, 2015 1 comment

Book Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)Summary:
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government.  Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.”  He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion.  And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.

Review:
I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds.  So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it.  While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.

The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa).  He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do.  While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me.  The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought.  It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me.  I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones.  I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it.  It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you.  I appreciate that.  But for me personally this plot point just does not work.  Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to.  I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm.  I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper.  If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall.  The arm got mad. The arm got out of control.  There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.

I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist.  His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together.  I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function.  Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors.  While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really?  The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.

On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read.  They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.

The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard.  He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper.  I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point.  It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative.  Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy.  Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people.  Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?

All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest.  I’ve barely touched on a couple of them.  The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it.  I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such.  Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go.  I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.

Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one.  The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense.  Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists.  The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Unwind, review

Book Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)

September 29, 2015 8 comments

Book Review: Unwind by Neal Shusterman (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)Summary:
In the near future, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate explodes into a war called the Heartland War.  The only way the war could reach a peace was to come to an agreement.  There would be no abortion but when children are between the ages of 13 and 17 their parents can sign an order to have them unwound.  New scientific technology allows doctors to transplant all of a person’s body parts.  They will then “live on” in a “divided state.”  Teens whose parents choose to sign an unwind order for them are rounded up by juvie cops and brought to Harvest Camps to await their fate.  Some families, particularly from fundamentalist branches of all faiths, believe in tithing 10% of their children, and will have a child simply to raise them to be a tithe.  Additionally, many children end up unwanted and living in State Homes, where they are all given the last name of Ward–for ward of the state.

Connor is a light-hearted bad boy who just accidentally found his own unwind orders in his parents’ desk and immediately goes on the run.  Lev is a tithe who is on his way to Harvest Camp.  Risa is a ward of the state, and she is on a bus to be unwound, because she isn’t deemed exceptional enough to justify her upkeep.  A series of events throws them into each other’s lives and leaves whether or not they will be unwound in question.

Review:
This was recommended to me years ago, but when I first read the description I was skeptical that the book was anything but Pro-Life propaganda.  Years later I decided to check it out again, and most reviews mentioned how neutral the book was.  Additionally, I read some interviews with the author where he stated he genuinely was trying to present a neutral story that analyzes some tough questions, so I thought I would give it a shot.  Ultimately, the author has succeeded at creating a future world that is fascinating to visit and that also analyzes medical ethics in a creative way.  I would honestly say the book is much more about medical ethics, particularly in regards to transplants, than it really is about abortion rights.

The basic plot is that three very different teenagers are supposed to be unwound but then find themselves on the run instead of actually at Harvest Camp.  The book is in the third person but from the limited perspective of one character, and that one character switches around.  It is predominantly Connor, Risa, or Lev, but it is also sometimes someone like a juvie cop or a parent.  Sometimes this narrative structure works really well, providing many different perspectives on the same event or issue.  Other times it feels too contrived.  The perspective switches at just the right moment to keep the reader in the dark, or to reveal something we wouldn’t otherwise know.  Sometimes this structure builds suspense and other times it kind of ruins it.  Overall, though, I enjoyed the structure and found that the multiple perspectives really added to the world and the story.

This narrative structure is enhanced by clippings from real, modern-day newspaper articles and blogs, as well as fake advertisements and news from the future the book is set in.  Partially due to the Audible narrator, who did a fantastic job at the ads, I really enjoyed these snippets of media from the future.  They are very tongue-in-cheek and adult, but will still appeal to teens reading the book for their over-the-topness.  I found the modern day news articles to be less interesting, and mostly felt a bit like scare mongering.  They read as a bit heavy-handed in pushing the “this could really happen!” angle.

I did find it a bit frustrating that all three of the main characters are white and straight.  While it is acknowledged that a few people (primarily adults) could be GLBTQ, the assumed norm is straight and cis, no matter what social organization is in control.  Whether it’s mainstream society, rebels, or anyone in-between. The norm is always straight cis.  Similarly, while the author does include non-white people to a much greater degree than non-straight/non-cis people  (there are a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented in the society), they are all secondary characters.  One thing that really stuck out to me was that at one point in the book we meet a Chinese-American girl who is being unwound because her parents wanted a son, and they just kept trying until they got one and then picked a daughter to unwind, because they couldn’t afford all the kids.  She’s also got an interesting punk aesthetic to her.  What an interesting main character she would have been!  Can you imagine her in the role of Connor? They are both running away from being unwound, and she could easily have taken that main character role.  It just bothers me when a book has three main characters who are all in a similar situation due to society-wide problems, and yet they are so non-diverse, with just a nod at gender by having one female character.

With regards to the female character, Risa, I must say I was very disappointed to have one plot point be an attempted rape of her, and her then being saved by a male character.  First, we only get one female main character and then she naturally is almost raped.  Then naturally she must be saved by someone else.  The whole scene sickened me, especially when I thought about teen girls reading it.  It was just a completely unnecessary plot point.  I once read an article that talked about how often rape scenes (or attempted rape scenes) are a sign of lack of creativity. I don’t think all of them are, but this one certainly came across that way.  Unnecessary and a convenient plot point without thought to how it would affect the readers.

In spite of these characterization and style complaints though, the plot is very good, and the world is fascinating.  Characters in a natural manner talk about and explore the ethics of life, when life begins, and who has the right to life, as well as who has the right to end it.  The plot is fast-paced, and I read as quickly as I could to find out what happened.  There are also a couple of twists at the end that rocked my socks off and left me immediately downloading the next book in the series.

All of that said, I have a few questions about the world that were never addressed.  First, if everyone who is unwound is between the ages of 13 and 17, how does that work out with transplantation?  People have not yet finished growing at 17, especially their minds.  Does this mean a 67 year old woman would have a 15 year old’s arm if she needed a transplant?  If so, that sounds very grotesque to me, and I wonder how society has learned to deal with something so mis-matched.  This isn’t particularly addressed, except to say that sometimes it’s weird to look at someone with two eyes that don’t match.  Similarly, the world at large isn’t really talked about at all.  The kids who are trying to escape being unwound don’t even consider running into another country but they never explain why.  How has the world at large reacted to the United States’ new law? Is there any country that would be a safe-haven for unwinds?  Are there other countries following suit?  The international impact is woefully underaddressed.

In spite of these various shortcomings, the plot and the world still sucked me in.  It was a quick read that left me wanting more.

Overall, fans of dystopian ya looking for another series to whet their appetite will definitely enjoy this one.  It’s a completely different dystopia from most of the ones that are already big, and I am sure YA readers who are currently teens themselves will find the idea of their parents being able to sign an unwind order on them chilling.  Dystopian YA fans should definitely give this one a go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Thieves’ Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)

September 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)Summary:
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion.  Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good.  He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring.  The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.

Review:
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much.  (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy.  It is awesome).  This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.

Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first.  Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way.  It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders.  I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew.  I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t.  This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.

Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot.  I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship.  Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other.  Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do.  Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize.  It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.

All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook.  I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect.  The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed.  I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things.  It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.

The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating.  This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series.  I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.

Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series.  Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere.  But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Thieftaker, review

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

July 14, 2015 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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

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: Rewinder by Brett Battles (Audiobook narrated by Vikas Adam)

March 21, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: Rewinder by Brett Battles (Audiobook narrated by Vikas Adam)Summary:
It’s 2015, and Denny Younger of New Cardiff, California, is a caste of 8.  He loves reading and studying but he knows he will probably end up working in the shops just like his father.  But when he takes his placement test, he’s offered a position that he is promised is better, but he can’t know anything about it until he starts working, and he must leave his family behind.  Denny’s family life is in pieces, so he eagerly agrees.  Before he knows it, he is re-caste as a 5 and soon discovers that he will be traveling through time as an observer, recording family histories for the elite.  Even the smallest error in time-travel can have far-reaching consequences, and before he knows it, Denny finds himself racing against time (and other time-travelers) to fix everything.  But what does fixing everything actually mean?

Review:
I love a good time-travel book, so when Audible offered this one up to me for review, I eagerly agreed.  This is an action-packed book but with far less time-travel than it originally appears and much more parallel universes.

The basic premise of the book is that this is the year 2015 in a wold where the American Revolution never occurred.  Without the American Revolution, the British Empire ended up taking over most of the world (except East Asia).  Everyone is sorted into extremely strict castes, and family history is everything.  These people haven’t made it to the moon yet, but they have managed to discover time-travel.  And they use this discovery solely to send people called “rewinders” back in time to verify people’s ancestry to solidify their ranking in this world.  Now, this was my first major problem with the book, and it’s a plot point I just never was able to let go of.  This society acknowledges the risk of the butterfly effect and yet they brazenly send people willy-nilly through time risking everything for what? Geneaology.  And this has been going on for decades with no ill effects.  Perhaps other readers can get past the idea that a federally (er, royally) backed agency would do this, but I simply could not.

Naturally, when our brave hero goes back in time, he is the first to woops his way into a butterfly effect.  He knows he’s probably done it (he causes someone to leave a location 12 seconds late), but he still pops back up into the present to check on things.  Once there, it takes him days to figure out that he’s changed history.  Daaaaays.  It should really not take him this long to figure this thing out.  Denny causes a change.  Denny pops up to the present.  Denny has troubling connecting to his companion (a person in the present who grounds the person time-traveling), so he gets sick for a few days.  Denny then wanders through our universe’s New York City and can’t figure out what’s going on.  It takes traveling to California’s New Cardiff (in our world, Los Angeles) and seeing that his family home is gone to figure out what’s happened.  Really? A person who has been trained in time-travel takes this long to figure out this very basic time-travel problem?  It’s hard to believe, especially after we’ve been told repeatedly how smart Denny is, that he could be that stupid.

Denny then starts living in Los Angeles to investigate this parallel universe.  He naturally meets a girl and falls for her.  He then has trouble deciding whether to put everything back or not.  And of course there are other rewinders out there he must contend with.

The basic plot idea is interesting.  What would have happened if there had been no American Revolution and how would a person from that society react if they discovered a different option for their lives? But how the author gets there isn’t fully thought-out or fleshed-out enough.  There are too many logical fallacies, such as the ones I’ve laid out above.  That said, it was a fun read with a different plot than what has been coming from a lot of YA recently.  I was glad to see a scifi that contains some history for YA readers.  I also appreciated how many women characters are present in the book, including Denny’s trainer and his nemesis.  Similarly, Denny’s world is extremely lacking in diversity due to the success of the British empire and its traditionalism.  When he travels to our world, he immediately encounters greater diversity, both of race and of sexuality, and he seems to appreciate that, which is a nice touch.

The narrator does a good job both keeping a good pace and setting the tone for the book.  While I understand why the narrator uses a British accent for the British characters from the 1700s, the history geek in me was frustrated, since the stereotypical modern “British accent” didn’t exist back then.  (I knew this from my History BA, but here’s an article that explains what I’m talking about).

Overall, this book has an interesting premise and fast-moving plot.  It has some romance, but is thankfully free of any love triangles.  Time-travel fans may be frustrated by how easily characters brush off the real presence of time-travel issues.  The science of time-travel is simply not explored enough, nor is history.  However, YA readers looking for a quick read and something different in the genre will most likely enjoy it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Free download from Audible in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Storm Born by Richelle Mead (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Jennifer Van Dyck)

March 17, 2015 1 comment

Book Review: Storm Born by Richelle Mead (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Jennifer Van Dyck)Summary:
Eugenia Markham is a shaman who spends her time sending the fae back to their own world.  She hates the fae both for trespassing into our world and for kidnapping women into their own.  When fae start referring to her by her given name, rather than her working name, she becomes concerned something is awry.  What she discovers is a prophecy that will change everything.

Review:
I picked this up because I love Richelle Mead’s Georgina Kincaid series (review) so much.  I wish any of the summaries I read of the book had even hinted at one of the big plot points, as I think how a reader responds to that plot point will dictate how much they enjoy the series overall.

Without revealing too much, early on in the book, fae start showing up and attempting to rape Eugenie.  She finds out that there is a prophecy that her child will be the one to bring about large changes in the land of the fae.  (This is not particularly a spoiler, it is revealed early on and there are even more plot twists later on to complicate this).  What this means for the reader is that our main character must repeatedly physically fight off would-be rapists.  If I had realized this was such a key plot point, I would not have personally picked up this book, and I think there are probably quite a few other readers who would be similarly bothered by this repeated scene of our heroine trying to fight off rapists.  To be clear, this is not one single solitary incident.  It is one of the main repeated problems for this character.  Fae keep trying to rape her.

Another plot line is that the fae are known for kidnapping and raping young (this is specified, young, as in early to mid teens) human women.  Because the fae have fertility problems.  In fact, the case that Eugenie takes on early in the book is trying to save a teenaged girl who has been kidnapped by the fae.  Eugenie normally doesn’t go into the land of the fae in a corporeal form (she does send her spirit via astral projection), but she agrees to in this case because she is so bothered by the knowledge that this teenage girl is facing a lifetime of rape.

These are just two non-spoiler examples of the rape plots, and there is at least one more that I won’t reveal as it’s a big spoiler.  Readers who for whatever reason do not want to read either about rapes occurring off-screen or about the threat of rape or about a woman repeatedly having to physically fight off rapists should not pick this book up.  These are key and frequent plot points in this book.

Having said this, I do not judge the book for including these plot points.  Rape is a part of some fae mythology, and the author has every right to include it in an urban fantasy book based in fae mythology.  I also think the author handles the inclusion of the rape and threatened rape well.  Rape is never excused, rapists are denounced, and there are some fae characters who state they would never have sex with a human female who hasn’t consented.  The author has a valid reason for including the rape plots, and she handles them well.  I simply wish that it was clearer from the official book blurb what a large role rape plays in this book, and thus, in my review, I am being certain to be clear for potential readers the extent of rape plot points in this book.

So what about the rest of the book?  Eugenie is mostly what one expects from an urban fantasy heroine.  She is strong, talented, wears her hair short and hates dresses.  She has a questionable roommate and a cover story of being some sort of private investigator.  What makes Eugenie unique in urban fantasy is that she is a shaman trained by her step-father, and the only really supernatural humanoids in her world are the fae and some mythological shapeshifters from other cultures (think of Japanese myth’s shifters).  Don’t come to this series looking for vampires and werewolves.  You won’t find them.  The fantastical world of this book is simply that there is another world of fae, and sometimes they cross over into ours.

The prophecy at the center of the book has more to it than it originally seems, and the plot twists are surprising and exciting.  Yes, many urban fantasy books revolve around a prophecy that has our heroine at the center, but this is the first one I’ve seen in a while that’s more about the heroine’s child than the heroine herself.

As is to be expected, Eugenie has two potential love interests, a half kitsune (shape shifting fox) half human man and a fae.  Personally, I didn’t like either of her love interests.  One is too bourgeois/royal, and the other is too macho for my taste.  But I can see how other readers would enjoy one or the other or both of them and appreciate Eugenie’s difficulty in deciding who has her heart.

The audiobook narration by Jennifer Van Dyck starts out a bit awkward and gets better with time.  For the first half or so of the book, her narration can sometimes be a bit stilted. She almost sounds like she’s reading lists.  She pauses at odd times.  Also, her voice sometimes comes across as elderly, which doesn’t suit the tone of the book.  For the most part, though, the narration doesn’t detract too much from the book, it simply doesn’t elevate it either.

Overall, this is an entry in the urban fantasy genre that sticks closely to the well-loved trope of a strong, non-girly woman battling supernatural forces while also adding on some unique elements, such as a prophecy about her future child and sticking to the fae of mythology.  Readers should be aware that attempted rape and rapes occurring off-screen feature frequently in the book.  The plot itself is twisting and exciting, with enough unique elements to keep regular readers of urban fantasy engaged.  Recommended to urban fantasy fans looking for a universe that sticks more closely to the traditional mythical depiction of the fae world and who don’t mind the inclusion of rape and attempted rape in the plot of the book.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Preserver by William Shatner, Judith Reeves-Stevens, and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by William Shatner)

February 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Preserver by William Shatner, Judith Reeves-Stevens, and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by William Shatner)Summary:
Captain Kirk and his nemesis from the mirror universe, Tiberius Kirk, pair up to hunt down the preservers, orbs left by some more intelligent race.  Kirk is teaming up with Tiberius because Tiberius holds the key to saving his wife’s and unborn son’s lives.  Their quest will reveal hidden secrets about the universe.

Review:
This is the second audiobook my fiancé and I listened to on our road trip to and from Michigan.  We listened to the previous book in the series, Dark Victory (review), on the drive out.  We listened to this one on the drive back.  (Each direction is a 13 hour drive).  Whereas the previous book kept us entertained and awake for our road trip, this one left us confused and concerned we might actually be drifting off into sleep periodically, because it made so little sense.  (For the record, we were not drifting off into sleep. This book just makes very little sense).

All of the audiobook qualities that were great about the previous book stay great here.  Shatner’s narration alternates between hilariously good and hilariously bad but mostly is just hilariously Shatner.  The sound effects continue to be stellar and one of my favorite parts of the book.  It continues to feel like listening to a Star Trek movie as a radio show, and that it was kept me going through it.

The plot, however, just makes very little sense and seems to fall apart.  Whereas in the previous book a continuing plot point is Shatner’s ruined hands, in this one it’s Shatner’s unborn (and then born) son who is all kinds of genetically messed up thanks to the poison in his mother’s system from the cloned children of Tiberius.  (Are you confused yet?)  This could possibly make for an interesting plot, but it’s dropped frequently to pursue the other plot about the preserver orb things.  We read this book and both fiancé and I are still unclear as to precisely what the orbs mean.  We’re not even sure if they’re good or bad.  This is how confusing the plot is, I can’t even properly sum it up for you folks.  In spite of the plot being really confusing, there are still some fun scenes, such as when Kirk meets his son for the first time.  It’s a short audiobook, so I’m not unhappy I listened to it, even if I mostly only understood the Kirk’s son plot.

Overall, while this provides very little clear closure to the plot point set up earlier in the trilogy, it does feature the birth of Kirk’s son and all the fun of listening to a radio show version of a Star Trek movie.  If you liked the previous books in the trilogy and don’t mind a confusing plot, you’ll enjoy finishing up the trilogy.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Spectre
Dark Victory, review

Book Review: Breed by Chase Novak (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Peter Ganim)

October 2, 2014 5 comments

Red outline of a woman's pregnant body against a black backgroundSummary:
When Leslie married Alex, she knew they both agreed on wanting children.  What she didn’t realize, though, was how fiercely Alex, the last son in a long line of wealthy and powerful New Yorkers, would want only their own biological children.  He’s willing to try anything to get them biological children, and she feels she can’t deny him one last-ditch effort with a doctor in Slovenia that a couple from their infertility support group swears worked for them.  And the woman has the baby bump to prove it.  So they fly off to Slovenia, and from the first instant in the doctor’s office, Leslie feels that something just isn’t right….

Review:
I’m a real sucker for evil pregnancy/children stories.  Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen are two of my favorite movies.  So when I heard about this new take on a classic trope, I knew I had to try it out.  The book ends up being much less about pregnancy and more about the perils of genetic modification, providing an interesting twist on the evil pregnancy trope that carries out through the childhood of the babies that were conceived.

Essentially, the parents’ genetics were so messed up by the treatments performed by the doctor that they start turning into something different from human.  Something a bit more animalistic.  The children, of course, also have some of this animalistic genetics, but most of the differences don’t show up until puberty.  This allows the children to be innocents for most of the book while their parents have gone off the rails from their very first treatment.  My favorite part of this book is how it offers a smart critique of pushing our bodies to do something they don’t want to do.  Where is that line?  How far should we push things with science and at what point will using science make us something different from human?  And is that something different going to necessarily be better?  Leslie clearly feels that her children were ultimately worth everything she, her husband, and their bodies went through, but the book itself leaves the answer to that question up to the reader.

Beyond this concept, though, the actual execution of the characterizations and the plot get a bit messy.  The writing can sometimes wander off onto tangents or become repetitive.  Some aspects of the plot are explored too much whereas others are glossed over too quickly.  The book starts out tightly written and fast-paced but toward the end of the book the plot gets disjointed and goes a bit off the rails.  Part of the issue is a bit of a lack of continuity regarding just how messed up Leslie and Alex actually are by the treatments.  Are they still at all human or are they completely untrustworthy?  Is there any possibility of redemption for them?  At first both seem equally far gone but then Leslie seems to pull back from the edge a bit, thanks to a MacGuffin.  It’s hard to be frightened of the situation if the frightening aspect of the parents comes and goes at will.

Similarly, in spite of the book wanting us to root for Alice and Adam (the twins Leslie and Alex have), it’s hard to really feel for them when they come across as extraordinarily two-dimensional, particularly Alice.  Children characters can be written in a well-rounded way, and when it’s well-done, it’s incredible.  Here, though, Alice and Adam seem to mostly be fulfilling the role of children and not of fully fleshed characters.

Most of these issues are more prevalent in the second half of the book, so it’s no surprise the ending is a bit odd and feels like it leaves the reader hanging.  I was surprised to find out there’s a sequel, as I thought this was a standalone book.  On the one hand I’m glad there’s another one, because the story isn’t finished.  On the other, I’m not a fan of such total cliffhanger endings.

Overall, the first half of the book offers up a thrilling and horrifying critique of just how far people should be willing to go to get pregnant.  The second half, however, is not as tightly plotted and drops the well-rounded characterization found in the first half of the book.  Recommended to pregnancy and/or genetic modification horror enthusiasts who may be interested in a different twist but won’t be disappointed by a cliffhanger ending.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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