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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.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

3 Speed Reads for Valentine’s Day (f/f, m/m/, and m/f)

February 14, 2016 Leave a comment

3 Speed Reads for Valentine's Day (f/f, m/m, m/f)Happy Valentine’s Day my lovely readers!

I know, I know, it’s a made-up holiday. But I think there’s something lovely about celebrating romance in the middle of winter. Even if your version of celebrating it is delighting in the quirks of the genre and maybe not necessarily romance in real life.

(Personally I will be celebrating it in real life, but hey, I’m a newlywed. 😉 )

So maybe you’re finding yourself at home with no plans for Valentine’s Day. Sure, you could watch re-runs of The Bachelor, but why not spend the wintry day curled up with a quick romance read? Not sure what to read? Here are three speed read romances, vastly different from each other. What makes them a speed read? They are all less than 200 pages. And don’t worry. All three of them got 4 stars or more here on Opinions of a Wolf.

Girl's hair with flowers and ribbons braided into it.Braided: A Lesbian Rapunzel
By: Elora Bishop
Mood: You believe in fairy tales and happy endings!
Pairing: f/f
Length: 61 pages
Blurb:
A lesbian retelling of Rapunzel.  Gray, a witch’s daughter, visits Zelda every day.  The witch switched Gray’s fate into Zelda, so now Zelda is the one entwined with the spirit of the tree that the people worship.  She must live on the platform and every day lower her hair for people to tie ribbons and prayers into.  Gray feels horrible guilt over their switched fates, but she’s also falling in love with Zelda.
Full Review

Sepia image of dust floating up into the sky in the countryside with the book's title "Listening To Dust" in brown in the foreground and the author's name "Brandon Shire" in black at the top.Listening to Dust
By: Brandon Shire
Mood: You like a tragic romance that makes you cry. Keep the tissues handy for this one!
Pairing: m/m
Length: 142 pages
Blurb:
A chance meeting between orphaned British writer, Stephen, and American soldier, Dustin, leads to a passionate love affair in England.  But when Dustin chooses to go back home to his small Southern town to care for his mentally challenged brother, Stephen is left behind, sending letters that are never answered.  He finally decides to follow Dustin home and arrives only to discover that Dustin is no more.
Full Review

Old book cover with man chasing chickens.Love Among the Chickens
By: P.G. Wodehouse
Mood: You enjoy slapstick and want to laugh. A lot!
Pairing: m/f
Length: 176 pages
Blurb:
Jeremy Garnet, a novelist, is living a relatively quiet bachelor life in London when his old school friend Stanley Ukridge shows up.  Ukridge is starting a chicken farm with his wife, Millie, and wants “Garnie old boy” to come stay with them.  He’ll get to write in the country in exchange for a few hours of work a day.  In spite of the fact that Ukridge is planning to run the chicken farm without any prior knowledge or studying “the better for innovation, my boy,” Garnie takes him up on it.  Of course, life with the eccentric Ukridge surrounded by chickens isn’t quite the quiet writing environment Garnie was planning on.  Not to mention the Irish professor neighbor’s lovely daughter that Garnie can’t quite get out of his head.
Full Review

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)

January 9, 2015 2 comments

cover_hauntingSummary:
Dr. Montague is a scholar of the occult, and he invites three other people to stay with him in Hill House, which is notorious for being haunted.  There’s jovial Theodora, timid Eleanor, and the future heir of the house, Luke. What starts as a light-hearted adventure quickly turns sinister in this horror classic.

Review:
I actually started reading this audiobook way back in September for the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge.  It’s only 7.5 hours long, so I thought it’d be a quick read.  I think the fact that it wasn’t demonstrates quite well how not drawn into the story I was.  This is a classic haunted house tale that perhaps might not work for the modern reader, depending on how much horror they generally imbibe.

This is going to be a quick review because I honestly don’t have too much to say about the book.  Four people arrive at a house. Things appear normal, except one of them, Eleanor, clearly is a bit more emotionally unstable than the rest.  She is, for instance, shocked that anyone is interested in her or asks her questions.  She also has trouble with her own identity, such as knowing for sure what she likes to eat.  Odd things start to happen in the house, and because Eleanor is odd, the others aren’t sure if it’s the house doing them or Eleanor herself.  Eleanor becomes overly attached to Theodora. Drama ensues.

None of the house horror scenes really got to me, because frankly I’ve seen worse in plenty of other horror I read.  I do love the genre.  The parts that actually disturbed me were when the others in the household were inexplicably cruel to Eleanor.  That dynamic of an odd woman randomly tossed in with strangers who proceed to be mean to her in a highschoolish way held my interest more than the house did.  People and their cruelty are so much more frightening than a haunted house.  I understand that the book is sort of leaving it up to the reader to wonder if the house or the people really drive Eleanor crazy, but frankly I think the ending removes all question on this point.

Similarly, there are definitely some undertones in the Theodora/Eleanor relationship that indicates they might possibly have had a fling early on and then Theodora abruptly distances herself from Eleanor when she gets too clingy.  None of this is said outright, however it is heavily implied that Theodora’s roommate back home is her lover who she had a quarrel with, and she and Eleanor establish a close bond early on in the book.  The problem is this all stays subtext and is never brought out in the open of the book.  I get it that this book was published in 1959 so it probably had to stay subtext and was most likely shocking to a reader in the 50s.  But to me, a modern reader, it felt like the book kept almost getting interesting and then backing off from it.  The combination of the former issue and this one meant that I was left feeling unengaged and uninterested.  Basically, I feel that the book didn’t go quite far enough to be shocking, horrifying, or titillating.

The audiobook narration by Bernadette Dunne was excellent as always, and the main reason I kept listening rather than just picking up a copy of the book and speed reading it.  I love listening to her voice.

Overall, this classic was boundary pushing when it was first published but it might not come across that way to a modern reader.  Readers who read a lot of modern horror might find this book a bit too tame for their tastes.  Those interested in the early works of the genre will still enjoy the read, as will modern readers looking for horror lite.  Readers looking for the rumored GLBTQ content in this book will most likely be disappointed by the subtlety of it, although those interested in early representation in literature will still find it interesting.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Series, #1)

June 3, 2014 1 comment

On a yellow backgrond, two boxes over each other display a snake and a spider. The title and author of the book are written on the boxes.Summary:
It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
I’m a fan of time-travel as a scifi trope, and I liked the concept of a time war, so when I saw this sitting on my virtual ARC pile, I figured it would be a quick, appealing read.  The book is less about time-travel, and more a type of scifi game of Clue, with everyone trapped in a waystation instead of a house trying to figure out who turned off the machine that connects them to the galaxy, rather than solve a murder.

The book takes place entirely within the waystation.  The waystation exists outside of time to give the time soldiers a place to recuperate without the pressures of time travel.  All but one of the soldiers are men, and most of the Entertainers are women.  The one female soldier is from ancient Greece, the clear idea being that her era of women are the only ones tough enough to be soldiers.  This definitely dated the book and led to some eye-rolling on my part.  On the plus side, the book is narrated by a woman, and she is definitely one of the brains of the bunch.  There thus is enough forward-thinking that the sexist distribution of time soldiers doesn’t ruin the book; it’s just irritating.

The crux of the book is the soldiers wondering who, exactly, is telling them what to do up and down the timeline and worrying that they are ruining time, not to mention the planet Earth they once knew.  The soldiers are told they’re on the side of the good guys, yet the good guys are insisting that Russia must be stopped at all costs, even if that means the Germans winning WWII.  Thus, the soldiers are awkwardly paired up with Nazis in the fight.  It’s interesting to force the Allies to attempt to see Germans in a different light.  However, the whole idea that Russia (and Communism) will ruin the world is just a bit dated.  It’s easy to get past, though, since the dilemma of how to know if who you are following is making the right choices is a timeless one.

The attempted mutineer ends up trying his mutiny because he falls in love with one of the Entertainers.

I decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. (loc 10353)

The attempted mutiny against the cause is thus kind of simultaneously blamed on love and on the woman behind the man starting the drama.  It’s true that love makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I do wish the characters were more even-handed in dealing out the blame for the mutiny to both halves of the couple.  On the plus side, it is left unclear if the mutiny is a good or bad idea, so whether the idealistic couple in love are right or not is up to the reader to decide.

The final bit of the book dives into theories about time-travel, time, and evolution.  It’s a bit of a heady side-swipe after the romping, Clue-like plot but it also shows how much of an impact the events of the book have on the narrator.  At the beginning, the narrator states it was a life-changing sequence of events, and the wrap-up deftly shows how it impacted her.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Who? by Algis Budrys

January 22, 2014 3 comments

A man with a metal arm and head smokes a cigarette while sitting pensievely at a desk.Summary:
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

Review:
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal.  Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.

Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read.  First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid.  Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else.  However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre.  The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies.  It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test.  Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario.  The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.

Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned.  Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences.  People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science.  I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade.  It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.

All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely.  Budrys evokes setting and tensity well.  I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film.  Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent.  He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations.  The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended.  There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.

Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)

Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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2013’s 5 Star Reads!

January 4, 2014 1 comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoyed assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2013!

Image of a bicycle with a bag of money on its back is under the title of the book in red.The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By: Chris Guillebeau
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Crown Business
Genre: Nonfiction Lifestyle
Themes: independence, success, small businesses
Summary:
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs.  Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.
Current Thoughts:
I refer to things I learned in this book at least once a week.  Guillebeau offers practical advice for the aspiring small business owner on everything from choosing an idea that will work to setting the right price to marketing.  The things I’ve been able to try from the book so far have worked.  This book shows what happens when a nonfiction book bases its advice on solid research.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist, #2)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Horror, YA
Themes: love lost, the nature of good and evil
Summary:
Will Henry, 12 year old orphan and assistant to renowned Monstrumologist, Pellinore Warthrop, is shocked to find a refined woman on Warthrop’s doorstep.  She is the wife of Warthrop’s best friend who has now gone missing in rural Canada while looking for the elusive wendigo (aka werewolf).  Warthrop insists that there is no such thing as a wendigo, but he agrees to go looking for his missing friend anyway, even if he believes his mission was ridiculous and an affront to monstrumology’s reputation.
Current Thoughts:
What I remember when I think about this book is the beautiful language and the dual setting of the horror.  Setting the book both in rural Canada and urban New York is part of what made it feel so unique to me.  A horror that travels instead of being trapped in one setting isn’t seen as often.  The book is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. A rare find.

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Man Plus
By: Frederik Pohl
Publication Date: 1976
Publisher: Orb Books
Genre: Scifi
Themes: transhumanism, artificial intelligence
Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
Current Thoughts:
This has a scifi plot that both explores an issue I’m interested in (transhumanism) and managed to surprise me at the end.  It’s a short book that makes you think and has compelling three-dimensional characters.  I’ll definitely be keeping this one and seeking out more of Pohl’s writing.

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology, and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today
By: Kate Bornstein
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Memoir, GLBTQ
Themes:  religious abuse, trans rights, gender, Borderline Personality Disorder
Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
Current Thoughts:
This memoir is engaging right from the title and stunning in the level of honesty Bornstein displays.  Bornstein eloquently presents the reality of being trans, entering a leaving an abusive religion, and the complexities of gender.  An incredibly readable memoir that stays with you.

Woman standing in front of electrical storm.Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: the grayness of good versus evil
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, has a lot on her hands between dating her human author boyfriend, Seth, (and not sleeping with him to protect his life energy), adjusting to her new managerial position at the bookstore, and her usual succubus requirement of stealing good men’s life energy by sleeping with them.  So the last thing she needs is another new assignment from hell, but that’s what she’s getting.  Seattle is getting a second succubus, a newbie she has to mentor.  When she starts having dreams about having a normal, human life and waking up with her energy drained, it all turns into almost too much for one succubus to handle.
Current Thoughts:
This series glows in my mind as a favorite that I will return to again and again.  This book is where I truly began to fall in love with it.  The third entry shows that urban fantasy can be more than monster of the week.  It does what genre does best.  Ponder real life questions in an enjoyable wrapping.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: soul mates, forgiveness, personal growth
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, is incredibly happy to be back together with her previously ex boyfriend, Seth Mortensen.  But getting back together with him came at the price of hurting his once-fiancee and having to leave her previously loved position managing the bookstore.  It’s all worth it to be with Seth, though.  But then a transfer notice comes in, sending her to her dream job in Las Vegas.  It’d be a dream come true, except Seth can’t come with her because his sister-in-law has cancer.  Georgina starts to wonder just why so many elements seem to keep coming together to try to drive her and Seth apart.
Current Thoughts:
This an amazing series finale that reveals so many aspects of the overarching plot that I wanted to go back and re-read the whole series immediately just to look for more of the overarching plot that I was oblivious to the first time around.  It’s a wrap-up that is satisfying without making everything too perfect for the characters.  It has a lot to say about love and redemption. And it made me cry.

Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: facing your past
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, cannot believe she has been roped into helping plan her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.  It’s enough to make anyone depressed.  But she can’t afford to be depressed, because every time she starts to feel down, a mysterious force tries to lure her away to what must be a dangerous place.  Georgina is fed up with all of these mysterious attacks on Seattle.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What is making them target Seattle? And seem to be maybe targeting her?
Current Thoughts:
The penultimate book in this series isn’t afraid to go dark places with tough questions.  It also addresses the issue in urban fantasy that a lot of people joke about: gee that’s sure a lot happening in this one town!  Mead addresses this in a tongue-in-cheek manner that also ties into the overall plot.  I was amazed at how well this series incorporates both all the things that make urban fantasy fun (demons! sex! supernatural battles!) and an overarching plot that tugs at the heart strings and makes some of the bizarre things that happen make sense.

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By: H. G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Publisher: New American Library
Genre: Scifi, Classic
Themes: dystopia, time travel, evolution, class divides
Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
Current Thoughts:
I’m so glad I added this scifi classic to my list of books I’ve read.  I of course had heard of the general idea of the Morlocks and the Eloi, but reading about them for myself, I was easily able to see how this became a classic.  It kept me on the edge of my seat, concerned for the scientist’s safety, even while exploring issues of inequitable class divides and pondering the future direction of the evolution of the human race.

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
By: Karyl McBride
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction Psych, Nonfiction Relationships
Themes: overcoming adversity, mother/daughter relationships, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, abuse
Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
Current Thoughts:
This is one of the best books I’ve read for adult survivors of abusive childhoods.  It works because it focuses narrowly on one type of relationship and one type of dysfunctional, abusive childhood to be overcome.  McBride explains what happened to the adult survivor when they were a child, how that affects them now, and how to overcome it.  She does this while neither excusing nor demonizing the mother’s behavior.  A great book for anyone with an interest in how mothers with NPD affect their daughters.

Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

December 6, 2013 4 comments

Man and a redheaded woman standing in close proximity. The man has red marks on his face.Summary:
In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other.  The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been.  This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first.  In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.

Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen.  Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive.  Which he does.  What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.

Review:
I got this in a collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley (which I will review as a whole at a future date).  I was surprised to discover that I already had this particular book on my wishlist tagged simply as a scifi classic.  So I went in with an enthusiasm that was definitely well-met.  This book is worth reading for the world-building alone, even if the main plot and point of the novel doesn’t particularly speak to you.

The world Bester built for this book is complex and unique.  Many authors would have left the future building at the jaunting alone.  These people can teleport (and some are telepaths), what more is needed?  But Bester takes it out a step further.  Giving jaunting a limitation allows him to further expand upon how the change impacts people and culture differently based upon their wealth.  On the one hand, since jaunting is only possible if you’ve physically been to the place you want to go, it becomes a bastion of the elite who can afford to travel there first.

They would memorize jaunte stages in widening circles, limited as much by income as ability; for one thing was certain: you had to actually see a place to memorize it, which meant you first had to pay for the transportation to get you there. Even 3D photographs would not do the trick. The Grand Tour had taken on a new significance for the rich. (loc 2465)

On the other hand, the wealthy will show off that they don’t need to jaunte because they can afford outmoded means of transportation like cars and trains.

As men climbed the social ladder, they displayed their position by their refusal to jaunte. (loc 2595)

Jaunting impacts the world further with the wealthy building labyrinths so that people can’t easily jaunt within their estate and home (since you can’t jaunt someplace you can’t see).  In contrast, the working poor jaunte everywhere they possibly can to save their precious time and energy.  On top of all of this, there’s space travel and space colonization, complete with slavery to mine the outer planets.  But even the working poor who aren’t officially slaves are still essentially slaves to the wealthy elite.  It’s a nightmare of a future where a few big corporations, and thus a few families, own the majority of the wealth, power, and luxury, and are unafraid to stomp on the poor to get ever more.

It makes sense that a good plot for this world would be a poor working man out to get vengeance on the corporation that left him to die in space.  But Foyle isn’t a good guy himself.  At first, none of his quest for vengeance is noble or is about anything other than himself.  Plus, Foyle is an animal of a man.  The book clearly believes that this animal state is the fault of the corrupt imbalance of power in the world.  The wealthy elite have made many of the working poor into nothing more than scrabbling animals who will take what they can get violently when they can and live based on the more baser urges.  As Foyle gradually climbs the social ladder in his espionage, he slowly learns what it is to be human and develops a conscience.  I’m not a fan of this idea that the poor are forced into an animal-like state by the elite.  Living without luxury doesn’t make a person animal-like.  A lack of moral education contributes more than anything, and that can occur at any level of wealth.  Thus, although I appreciate the fact that this vengeance plot allows for us to see the entire world from the bottom up, I’m not a fan of how Foyle’s growth and change is presented.

Some readers may be bothered by the fact that Foyle early in the book rapes someone and then later earns redemption, including from the woman he raped.  The rape is described as part of his animal state, and he has now risen above it.  When the rape occurs in the book, it is off-screen and so subtle that I honestly missed it until later in the book when someone calls Foyle a rapist.  I appreciate that Bester does not depict the actual rape, as that would have prevented my enjoyment of the book.  I don’t like the idea of rape being something only done by someone in an “animal state” or the idea that it’s something a person can ever redeem themselves from.  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  However, this is a very minor plot point in an extremely long book.  Most of my issues with it are tied into my issues with the plot overall.  I was able to just roll my eyes and tell the characters that they are wrong.  It’s not that hard to do when most of them are presented as evil or anti-heroes to begin with.  But this plot point might bother some readers more than others.

Overall, the world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals.  Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here.  Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting.  Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

November 22, 2013 1 comment

Man holding mask out away from his face inside a blue porthole against a red planet.Summary:
When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it.  Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress.  They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.

Review:
I was excited to pick up another Heinlein, and he definitely didn’t disappoint.  Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society.

In this version of the future, space exploration has led to the discovery of inhabited other planets and two distinctly different opinions on how to interact with those lifeforms.  Either dominate in a manifest destiny style or come to mutual cultural understanding and trade.  The politician Smythe must impersonate, Bonforte, is the leader of the latter faction.  This novel could easily have turned preachy with such a premise, but Smythe himself isn’t too keen on being friends with the aliens.  As an actor, he is committed to playing his role beautifully.  As a person, he isn’t sure he agrees with Bonforte.  This position allows Heinlein to explore both sides of the question, as well as the gray area in-between.  No easy answers are presented, but slowly what is more just is revealed.

Juxtaposed with the political plot is the whole aspect of Smythe being an actor who believes fully in his craft as an artform.  Smythe takes himself very seriously even when others do not.  At first, others view him as full of himself, but slowly they come to respect him and his talents.  Smythe’s large self-esteem may at first cause the reader to roll their eyes as well, but it gradually becomes apparent that having confidence in yourself and your abilities as a professional is not a bad thing.

I was a professional, retained to do a very difficult professional job, and professional men do not use the back stairs; they are treated with respect. (loc 1660)

Although characters at first seem two-dimensional, the main characters slowly become more fleshed out and well-rounded.  Nothing and no one is quite as simple as it at first seems, and Smythe is a great example of that.

What really makes the book, though, is its unexpected wit.  It’s not so much a laugh out loud book, but it’s very much a snort of amusement style of humor that takes the book from interesting to highly enjoyable.

My vocal cords lived their own life, wild and free. (location 40)

I was as angry as a leading woman with her name in small type. (location 1068)

The romance lacked creativity or sparkle.  It is easy to spot the instant it comes up, but it doesn’t come across as natural or meant to be.  It mostly feels like the woman transferring her affection for Bonforte onto Smythe.  I found it a bit squicky that she fails to ever really see Smythe as Smythe, not even after falling in love with him.  Thankfully, the romance is an incredibly minor part of the book.  The book is also slightly dated by the overwhelming presence of paper and microfilm.  We’re talking the spaceship has a library with print books and microfilm. In general even classic scifi tends to imagine a future with at least slightly different versions of books and information exchange.  I found it a bit odd that Heinlein failed to do that.

The ending is not unexpected entirely but it is satisfying and with enough fun details to entertain.  Of the various options for an ending to this story, the one Heinlein took is enjoyable and makes sense within the world he has created.

Overall, this is a fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit.  The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story.  Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Series, #0.1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a see-through robot with red eyes.  Blurred like it is in motion. It is on a black background, and the book's title and author are in white text at the top.Summary:
This collection of short stories tells the history of the invention and gradual improvement of robots.  The robots in this future must follow the 3 Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But following these laws doesn’t always have quite the outcome the inventors and managers of robots intended.

Review:
I wasn’t aware I, Robot is actually a short story collection.  It’s precisely the type I enjoy though because they all work together to tell one overarching story in order.  Beginning with the earliest robots, they slowly move up through important points in the history of robotics to lead up to the world run by big brain machine robots that Asimov has imagined.  This collection is a prequel of sorts (and of many) to Asimov’s robot series that begins with The Caves of Steel (list of entire series).

One thing I like about the world Asimov sets up is that unlike many scifi books featuring AI, the people in Asimov’s world are highly, intensely cautious of robots.  They’re very concerned about robots taking jobs, killing humans, and even robbing humans of their autonomy.  It sets up a conflict from the beginning and frankly presents the humans as just a bit more intelligent than in some AI scifi universes.

I was under the impression from pop culture that in I, Robot they think they’re protected by the Laws of Robotics but something happens so that the robots aren’t programmed with them any longer.  That’s not what happens at all.  What happens is much more complex.  How the robots interpret the Laws and how the Laws work end up being much more complex and less straight-forward than the humans originally imagined, so much so that they have to have a robopsychologist to help them interpret what’s going on with the robots.  This is really quite brilliant and is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, the book can read a bit sexist sometimes, in spite of having a female protagonist through quite a bit of the book.  (The robopsychologist is a woman).  The book was first published in 1950, though, so when you think about the time period, the sexism is pretty minor, especially compared to having a female worldwide expert on robopsychology.  The main time sexism comes up is when the leader of Europe is a woman and says some self-deprecating things about difficulty leading because she’s a woman.  Yes, there is older scifi that avoids sexism pretty much entirely, but I am able to give this instance a bit of a pass considering the other strong portrayal of a woman in a leadership role.  But be aware that at least one cringe-inducing sexist conversation does occur.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi stands the test of time extraordinarily well.  Its film adaptations do not do it proper service at all.  Come to this book expecting a collection of short stories exploring robopsychology, not an action flick about killer robots.  Recommended to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 7, 2013 11 comments

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds.  The book's title and author are printed on the background.Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.

Review:
I was always aware of this scifi classic but oddly had managed to never hear any spoilers.  When I saw it available for free on the kindle, I decided I should download it for when a classic scifi mood struck me in the future.  I’m glad I did because it was there and waiting for me when that mood did strike, and it was completely satisfying.  Like when you eat a food you’ve been craving for days.

The structure and writing style are typical for the late 1800s.  An unnamed narrator tells us of a strange person he met who then takes over the narration to tell us about an event that happened to him.  In this case, that second narrator is the Time Traveler.  The Time Traveler then expounds quite eloquently and philosophically on everything that has happened to him.  I enjoy this storytelling method, because it gives space for the narrator of the strange tale to do this philosophical thinking.  It makes sense to think about what you’ve learned when you’re talking about a past event.  The events are exciting, but they don’t happen at such a break-neck speed that the reader doesn’t have time to think on what they might mean.  After reading a lot of more modern dystopias, it was interesting to read a slower paced one.  Both storytelling techniques work well, but it was definitely a nice change of pace for my reading personally.

The dystopia is really enjoyable.  Instead of getting hung up on politics or climate change, the dystopia revolves entirely around evolution.  The Morlock/Eloi split happened because of the ever-increasing gap between the haves (the future Eloi) and the have-nots (the future Morlocks).  The Eloi are childlike in both stature and behavior.  They are the ultimate end result for what happens when people have no responsibilities and everything done for them, which is clearly how Wells sees the then modern-day elite functioning.  The Time Traveler talks about the ultimate evolutionary faults of a living that is too easy at multiple times.

Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. (page 30)

In contrast, the Morlocks live underground in old industrial tunnels.  They are physically strong but have lost their humanity due to a lack of the finer things.  They have no contact with the natural beauty of the world and so have turned into these ape-like, cannibalistic creatures.  The Time Traveler expounds on this:

Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth? (page 50)

I really like that this dystopia is so well thought-out but simultaneously so simple and easy to understand.

The plot itself kept me on the edge of my seat and constantly surprised at what happened.  Although it’s obvious the Time Traveler makes it back from his first voyage, there are other threats and dangers that are sufficient to keep the reader engaged.  The ending actually surprised me as well.

This book has withstood the test of time extremely well.  It has not yet saturated pop culture to the extent that the potential reader is unavoidably spoiled for the details of the plot or the ending.  The dystopia is unique and interesting, in spite of the proliferation of dystopian literature since then.  The philosophical thoughts of the Time Traveler are still applicable to modern society.

Overall, this is a piece of classic scifi that has aged very well.  It simultaneously entertains and challenges the reader.  In addition, it is a short read for a classic, more similar in length to modern fiction.  It is the ideal read for both hard-core scifi fans and those interested in dipping their toe in classic scifi.  Highly recommended!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: the Kindle edition is free