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Book Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Book Review: Bellwether by Connie WillisSummary:
Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep.

Review:
This was given to me eons ago because of how much I love To Say Nothing of the Dog (review) by Connie Willis. This book has a similar sense of humor that definitely kept me entertained but the plot and backstory that ties it all together didn’t hit quite the same loved it nerve with me.

I loved seeing a book set in the mountain range area of the country (Colorado to be precise). I feel like this doesn’t happen often enough in books. I also found there was a real nostalgia quality to the book because it was first published in 1996 and set in its own time-period, so the whole thing just screamed 90s nostalgia to me. This played in well to Sandra’s fad studies. It gave the book a good reason to notice and talk about the fads, and this held up well over time. What originally was a “oh look at this silly thing people are doing right now” became “hey remember when West Coast coffee was first a thing?” I also really appreciated that a social science was featured at the core of a scifi book. Not just that but a scientist of a science deemed more important and sciencey (chaos theory) ends up working with her and respecting her research and its methods. Super cool.

While I thought the research study was cool, I wasn’t as huge of a fan of the competition to receive the grant of a lifetime plot. I appreciated Sandra working to save her job, but the big grant loomed overhead from the very beginning like a deus ex machina. Sandra’s disdain for her coworkers wanting to ban smoking from the building as a fad really didn’t translate well over time. This wasn’t a fad; it was a public health policy, and it rubbed me wrong every time Sandra implied it was like the whole are eggs good or bad for you debate. Second-hand smoke is just bad for you, and unlike a coworker eating an egg, it can actually impact your health if you’re around it. I’m sure it was funnier in the 90s but it didn’t work so well now, and it honestly made me dislike Sandra a bit.

Overall, scifi fans looking for a humorous plot with a female lead, an unusual focus on the social sciences with a dash of 1990s nostalgia will enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Will Patton)

February 13, 2014 3 comments

Red-tinged image of a face with the author's name and title in smoke-like white letters over the top.Summary:
Danny Torrance didn’t die in the Overlook Hotel but what happened there haunts him to this day.  Not as much as the shining does though.  His special mental powers that allow him to see the supernatural and read thoughts lead to him seeing some pretty nasty things, even after escaping the Overlook.  He soon turns to drinking to escape the terror.  But drinking solves nothing and just makes things worse.  When he sees his childhood imaginary friend, Tony, in a small New Hampshire town, he turns to AA to try to turn his life around and learn to live with the shining.

Abra is a middle school girl nearby in New Hampshire with a powerful shine.  She sees the murder of a little boy by a band of folks calling themselves the True Knot.  They travel in campers and mobile homes, seeking out those who have the shine to kill them for it and inhale it.  They call it steam.  They’re not human. And they’re coming after Abra.  Abra calls out to the only person she knows with a shine too, the man she’s talked to before by writing on his blackboard.  Dan.

Review:
A sequel that takes the original entry’s theme on overcoming your family origin and ramps it up a notch, Doctor Sleep eloquently explores how our family origin, genetics, and past make us who we are today.  All set against a gradually ramping up race against the clock to save a little girl from a band of murdering travelers.

The book begins with a brief visit to Danny as a kid who learns that the supernatural creatures exist in places other than the Overlook, and they are attracted to the shine.  This lets the reader first get reacquainted with Danny as a child and also establishes that the supernatural are a potential problem everywhere.  The book then jumps aggressively forward to Danny as a 20-something with a bad drinking problem.  It’s an incredibly gritty series of scenes, and it works perfectly to make Dan a well-rounded character, instead of a perfect hero of the shine.  It also reestablishes the theme from The Shining that someone isn’t a bad person just because they have flaws–whether nature or nurture-based.  That theme would have been undone if Dan had turned out to be an ideal adult.  It would be much easier to demonize his father and grandfather in that case, but with the way King has written Dan, it’s impossible to do that.

The way Dan overcomes both his drinking and his temper, as well as how he learns to deal with his shine, is he joins Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  In contrast to his father who tried to quit drinking on his own, Dan attempts it in a group with accountability.  This then shows how much easier it is to overcome a mental illness with community support.  I appreciated seeing this.  I will say, however, that some of the AA talk in the book can get a bit heavy-handed.  Some chapter beginnings include quotes from the book of AA, and Dan can sometimes seem a bit obsessed with it when he relates almost everything to something he learned or heard there.  AA definitely plays a vital role in many people’s recovery from addiction, and it’s wonderful to see that in a work of fiction.  However, it would have been better for the reader to see the role of AA more than to hear quotes from AA so often.

The big bad in this book is a band of supernatural creatures who were once human and still look human.  But they change somehow by taking steam and go on to live almost indefinitely.  They can die from stupid accidents and sometimes randomly drop dead.  The steam is acquired by torturing children who have the shine.  The shine comes out of their bodies as steam when they are in pain.  They call themselves The True Knot.  This troop is a cartoonish group of evil people who try to look like a troop of retirees and some of their family traveling in a camper caravan.  The leader of this group is Rose the Hat–a redheaded woman who wears a top hat at an impossibly jaunty angle.  I was pleased to see Rose written quite clearly as a bisexual.  Her sexuality is just an aspect of who she is, just like her red hair.  Seeing a bi person as the big bad was a delight.  Her bisexuality isn’t demonized. Her actions as a child killer and eater of steam are.  She is a monster because of her choices, not because of who she is.   I alternated between finding The True Knot frightening and too ridiculously cartoonish to be scary.  I do think that was partially the point, though.  You can’t discredit people who seem ridiculous as being harmless.

How Abra is found by The True Knot, and how she in turn finds Dan, makes sense within the world King has created.  It doesn’t come until later in the book, though.  There is quite a bit of backstory and build-up to get through first.  The buildup is honestly so entertaining that it really didn’t hit me until after I finished the book how long it actually took to get to the main conflict.  So it definitely works.  Abra is a well-written middle school girl.  King clearly did his research into what it’s like to be a middle schooler in today’s world.  Additionally, the fact that Abra is so much older than Danny was in The Shining means it’s much easier for the reader to understand how the shine works and see a child, who understands at least a bit what it is, grapple with it.  This made Abra, although she is a child with a shine, a different experience for the reader who already met one child with a shine in the previous book.  Abra is also a well-rounded character with just the right amount of flaws and talent.

There is one reveal later in the book in relation to Abra that made me cringe a bit, since it felt a bit cliche.  It takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe, and I must admit it made me roll my eyes a bit.  However, it is minor enough in the context of the overall story that it didn’t ruin my experience with the book.  I just wish a less cliche choice had been made.

The audiobook narrator, Will Patton, does a phenomenal job.  It was truly the best audiobook narration I’ve heard yet.  Every single character in a very large cast has a completely different voice and style.  I never once got lost in who was speaking or what was going on.  More importantly to me, as a New England girl born and raised, is that he perfectly executes the wide range of New England accents present in the book.  Particularly when he narrates the character, Billy, I thought I was hearing one of my older neighbors speak.  I could listen to Will Patton read a grocery list and be entertained.  Absolutely get the audiobook if you can.

Overall, this sequel to The Shining successfully explores both what happened to Danny Torrance when he grew up and a different set of frightening supernatural circumstances for a new child with the shine.  This time a girl.  The themes of nature, nurture, your past, and overcoming them are all eloquently explored.  There is a surprising amount of content about AA in the book.  It could either inspire or annoy the reader, depending on their mind-set.  Any GLBTQ readers looking for a bi big bad should definitely pick it up, as Rose the Hat is all that and more.  Recommended to fans of Stephen King and those that enjoy a fantastical thriller drenched in Americana.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Hybrid by Brian O’Grady

DNA strand.Summary:
Amanda Flynn’s life changed forever when her Red Cross relief team was exposed to a deadly virus in the Honduras, leaving her the sole survivor.  Seven years later, when she thinks most of the horror is over, the virus resurfaces in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and she finds herself forced to team up with various government officials, a priest, and a coroner, in a fight against a deadly terrorist plot.

Review:
I admit that I bought this book in a haze that I call “Kindle Sale Fever.”  Periodically Amazon has sales of Kindle books where they suddenly cost 99 cents to $2.99, and I tend to impulse buy.  Oops.  (I mean, if you’d told 7 year old me such a thing would even be possible one day, I probably would have curled up and died in pure bliss).  In any case, the Amazon blurb led me to think this was more in the transhumanist/zombie genre than evil terrorist plot thriller, which I tend to avoid.  It’s nothing against the genre; I just don’t do politics in my happy fun reading time.  So, this book was already facing a challenge to satisfy someone who doesn’t tend to like that kind of story.

At first, it definitely was working for me.  The plot of Amanda Flynn mysteriously surviving the illness and escaping the CDC to avoid being treated like a guinea pig was engrossing for the sheer humanity of it.  The initial break-out in Colorado Springs was also intriguing with the virus killing some people but healing others from serious illnesses like childhood leukemia.  At a certain point though it started to feel like O’Grady was trying to do too much.  The book was trying to straddle multiple genres and plot-lines that didn’t quite mesh.  Among the things going on: new general trying to prove himself, survivors who turn psychic, Amanda dealing with her guilt, new African-American head detective dealing with being head detective in a largely white city, priest having crisis of faith, little girl miraculously healed of leukemia, coroner who might be a sociopath, definitely evil dude who hallucinates (or might not be hallucinating) some random Russian guy, head of the CDC trying to figure out the spy in his office, and Arab dude who may or may not be defecting from the terrorists to the Americans.  See what I mean?  This would be totally fine if they all somehow tied up in the end, but the main issue in the book of these survivors with psychic powers is just kind of dropped.  We get far more information on the foiled terrorist plot than on the effects of the virus on the survivors, and that is by far the more interesting part of the story.

It’s also bothersome that the main character, Amanda Flynn, is the least well-rounded and likeable.  The priest and the coroner are far more interesting and well-rounded, showing that O’Grady can write characters well, but Amanda simply rings false.  Perhaps part of this is that we see the priest and the coroner before they become infected and are still entirely human.  The story of Amanda and her survival in the Honduras is simply never fully told, and I think that would have helped a lot, even if addressed only in a flashback.

Overall, although the story itself is not for me, it does suffer from some characterization/plotting issues.  Thus, I would recommend it to huge fans of terrorist thrillers, who would probably still enjoy it.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Friday Fun! (NAMI Walk and Best Friend)

Hello my lovely readers!  Sorry we were a bit short on reviews this week.  I just finished up a chunkster (758 pages) that will be reviewed on Monday.  It slowed me down a wee bit!

Last weekend I participated in the NAMI walk with my hospital.  Thanks to generous contributions from friends and twitter followers, I raised $100 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Yet I felt of more value than the money raised by all the participants was the walk itself.  Mental illness is still so stigmatized and here were people living with mental illnesses, people who routinely treat it, people who love people with it, gathered together and being loud and proud in the middle of Boston.  My absolutely favorite team tshirt I saw was “Stamp Out Stigma” followed by “Stigma Stings.”  People are people, and it is hard enough for those with a mental illness to live with it and attempt recovery without facing stigma from society.  I am so glad out of all the walks in Boston I chose to participate in this one.  It was very moving.

Also this week, I had to say goodbye to my best friend who’s moving from Boston back home to Colorado.  I fully support her decision and know it’s the right one for her, but I will miss her dearly.  We are still working together on a secret project from a distance though.  The internet is amazing like that.  Also, I hope to be able to save up to visit her sometime next winter.  It’s still sad though.  Nothing is the same as getting to see your best friend every week, you know?

So it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster emotional week for me, but I at least have a three day weekend this weekend for Memorial Day.  Happy weekends!