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Book Review: The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Series, #3)

August 9, 2014 2 comments

Woman wearing sunglasses peeking out over the top of them.Summary:
Miriam Black is on her own once again after sending her truck driver boyfriend to the curb.  She’s taken to periodically messing with fate by killing the killers she sees in her visions of the deaths of the people she touches.  When she gets an offer on Craigslist to read someone’s future death in Florida, it comes at a time when she can’t pass it up, as a recently homeless person.  She heads to Florida figuring she might also tackle the demon of her relationship with her mother. Two birds, one stone.  But Florida ends up being much more than a quick job and a quick visit.

Review:
I snatch up a new Miriam Black book the first chance I get because I so love the prose style of the books (I’m uncertain if Wendig’s other books read similarly, as I haven’t read any), and I also love Miriam as a character very much (I would definitely run the other way if I spotted her on the street at night).  This third entry in the series didn’t disappoint, although I periodically wondered if Miriam’s bad-assness would be sacrificed for character growth.

The urban fantasy world of Miriam Black continues to be slowly fleshed out in this book.  We meet a couple more characters with supernatural abilities, not exactly Miriam’s but similar in that they function in the mind.  We also start to understand what might cause such a thing to happen.  And how Wendig presents this information is beautifully crafted.  It is a part of the story, a wonderful example of showing not telling.

Miriam doesn’t just cause chaos and get away with it, and this book fairly clearly exists to show us that Miriam is not invincible, even if she may sometimes seem it in earlier books.  She’s a tough broad with a mental gift brutally acquired, and she’s trying to figure out how to function and do the right thing in this incredibly fucked up situation where she is battling unknown forces, particularly fate.

The plot forces Miriam to confront two bad specters from her past: an ex lover and her mother.  I was fine with confronting the ex lover, and how it went down made sense.  I was incredibly wary of her confrontations with her mother.  Her mother was established as a fundamentalist abusive ball of shit in the previous books, and I was deeply concerned that Wendig was going to try to either make it seem like it was all in Miriam’s head or offer redemption for her.  And the plot does sometimes dance on the edge of doing one or the other of these.  But the way Miriam reacts to her mother in their confrontations help keep it grounded and realistic that not all mothers are great people.  In one confrontation she tells her mother,

Don’t act surprised that I have this cyanide cocktail in my heart. Like they say on that old dumb-ass drug commercial: I learned it by watching you. (loc 1824)

On the other hand, an awful lot of the plot revolves around Miriam saving her mother from her untimely death at the hands of a kidnapper.  I just have a hard time believing, especially given the vitriol Miriam has felt for her mother this entire time, that she would actually care that much if her mother dies.  I get it that Miriam might very much not want the kidnapper to get away with it, because she hates him and he’s fucking with her, but I don’t think Miriam would actually get misty-eyed at the thought of her mother’s untimely demise.  It felt forced instead of being Miriam.  That said, the plot does manage to stick to its guns enough that Miriam comes out of the situation still seeming like her cyanide-filled self, so I can’t fault it too much for veering that close to the edge.

I would be amiss not to mention the fact that his book establishes the fact that Miriam is bisexual.  Of course, she refuses to use the term herself, and I’m fairly certain no one actually ever calls her bi.  Normally a bi character refusing to call herself bi would drive me batty, but Miriam refusing labels fits 100% into her character.  She doesn’t see the need to label who she fucks and other characters’ attempts to figure her out are met with disgust on her part but that’s how she feels about everything about herself.  Yes, I wish more functional non-cyanide cocktail hearted characters were bi, but I also am pretty darn happy that a character I enjoy so much is bi.  Plus, scenes of Miriam banging a woman were an unexpected utter delight.

The plot does a great job of being both a single book conflict and something that ultimately propels the overarching plot forward, which is exactly what one hopes for from a series book.

The writing style maintains its gritty sharpness that the series has enjoyed from the beginning.  Both the narration and the conversations are a pleasure to read.  Passages like those listed below are peppered throughout the book, accosting the reader with the knowledge that we are in Miriam’s world now.

Meetings are like black holes: they eat up the hours, they suck in the light, they gorge on his productivity. (loc 92)

I’m a certified bad-ass indestructible bitch. The sun tries to burn me, I’ll kick him in his fiery balls. I don’t need no stinking suntan lotion. (loc 2787)

Overall, this book brings most things readers have come to expect from a Miriam Black book.  A gritty female main character with hard-hitting prose and a plot with a touch of the fantastic and grotesque.  Some fans might be a bit disappointed by the direction Miriam’s relationship with her mother goes, but all readers will be pumped by the ending and eagerly anticipating the next entry.  Recommended that fans of the first two books pick this one asap.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Previous Books in Series:
Blackbirds, review
Mockingbird, review

Book Review: Fire Baptized by Kenya Wright (Series, #1)

Woman covered in fire against a black bacground.Summary:
The humans won the supe-human war, and now all supernaturals are confined to caged cities whose bars are made up of every metal that is harmful to supes. They also all have a brand on their forehead letting everyone now immediately what type of supernatural they are–crescent moon for shifter, full moon for vampire, wings for fairy, X for mixbreed, which is what Lanore just happens to be. Lanore is hoping to be the first mixie to graduate from the caged city’s university, and she also works on the side with another mixie, Zulu, to run a mixie civil rights group. The purebloods by and large hate mixies. As if her life wasn’t already complicated enough, one night Lanore witnesses a murder, and the murderer turns out to be a serial killer. Now Lanore is on his list.

Review:
I am so glad I accepted this review copy.  The branding of supes and caged cities was enough to show me that this is a unique urban fantasy series, but I wasn’t aware that it’s also a heavily African-American culture influenced series, and that just makes it even more unique and fun.

It’s not new to parallel supe civil rights issues with those of minorities, but they often flounder.  Wright’s book depicts the complexities eloquently.  Making a group within the supes that the supes hate makes it more closely parallel the real world.  The addition of the brands on the foreheads also makes the supernatural race immediately identifiable just as race is in the real world by skin color.  The caged cities are also a great analogy of inner city life and how much of a trap it can feel like.  The fact that Lanore accidentally witnesses a murder on her way home from school is something that can and does happen in the real world.

The other element that I really enjoyed is how Wright brings the African-American religion of Santeria into the mix.  She provides multiple perspectives on the religion naturally through the different characters.  Lanore doesn’t believe in any religion. MeShack, her ex-boyfriend and roommate, does, and it helps him in his life.  And of course the serial killer also believes in Santeria but is going about it the wrong way, as Lanore eventually learns.  The book naturally teaches the reader a few things about Santeria, which is often maligned and misunderstood in America.  But it does it within the course of the story without ever feeling preachy.

The sex scenes (we all know we partially read urban fantasy for those) were hot and incorporated shifter abilities without ever tipping too far into creepy beastiality land.  They were so well-written, I actually found myself blushing a bit to be reading them on the bus (and hoped no one would peak over my shoulder at that moment).

The plot itself is strong through most of the book.  The serial killer is genuinely scary, and Lanore doesn’t suddenly morph into some superhero overnight. She maintains her everywoman quality throughout.  I wasn’t totally happy with the climax.  I didn’t dislike it, but I also think the rest of the book was so well-done that I was expecting something a bit more earth-shattering.

There are two things in the book that knocked it down from loved it to really liked it for me.  They both have to do with Zulu.  Zulu is a white guy, but his beast form is a black dude with silver wings. I am really not sure what Wright is trying to say with this characterization and plot point.  It wasn’t clear when it first happens, and I was still baffled by the choice by the end of the book.  In a book that so clearly talks about race, with an author so attuned to the issues innate in race relations, it is clear that this was a conscious choice on her part.  But I am still unclear as to why.  Hopefully the rest of the books in the series will clear this up for me.  My other issue is with how possessive Zulu is of Lanore. He essentially tells her that she’s his whether she likes it or not, and she goes along with it. Why must this theme come up over and over again in urban fantasy and paranormal romance? A man can have supernatural powers and not use them as an excuse to be an abusive douche. I’m just saying. But. This is part of a series, so perhaps these two issues will be addressed in the next book.  But for right now, I’m kinda sad that Lanore chose Zulu.

Overall, this is a unique piece of urban fantasy.  The tables are turned on the supes with them in caged cities, and the creative use of forehead brands and the existence of mixed-breed supernaturals are used intelligently as a commentary on race relations in the United States.  I highly recommend it to urban fantasy fans and am eagerly anticipating reading the next entry in the series myself.

4 out of 5 stars

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

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Book Review: Lemon Reef by Robin Silverman

Silhouette of a person diving.Summary:
Jenna is a high-powered, newly appointed commissioner in San Francisco where she lives with her wife and their dog.  Life is good, and Jenna tries not to think too much about her rough childhood and teen years growing up in Florida.  But a phone call comes in.  Her first love, Del, has died diving at lemon reef at the young age of 30.  The mutual friend invites Jenna to the funeral, but when she arrives in Florida, she discovers that there’s more to it than that.  Del’s mother, Pascale, wants her help in getting custody of Del’s daughter, Khila, instead of her father, Talon, who Pascale insists must have murdered Del.

Review:
This book was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read, which of course is a sign of a good book.

The plot structure is incredibly complex and engaging without ever being confusing.  There is the mystery of Del’s death, but also (for the reader) the mystery of why and how Del and Jenna’s romance ended tragically, as it is evident it did.  In addition there is the powerful emotions of a first love and first romance for a pair of teens who must grow up too fast thanks to the rough circumstances they find themselves in.  Silverman handles the past reminisces intermingled with the current mystery and discoveries quite eloquently.  I found myself admiring her talent in plot structuring throughout.

There are no easy answers in this book, and no one is easily demonized, including Talon.  Every single character has flaws and good qualities.  Del stands up for her siblings but won’t stand up for her love of Jenna.  Jenna loves people but can sometimes get too caught up in her own world and her own needs.  Pascale was an alcoholic when Del was in highschool but successfully quits in order to be able to spend time with her granddaughter.  Del’s sister Nicole breaks a lot of laws (including breaking and entering and prostitution), but she is fiercely loyal and stands up for those she loves.  The complexity of the characters and the situation is part of what makes it such an emotional read.  There’s no one to easily blame for the problems these women find themselves in.  I think this complexity points to Silverman’s experience both as a counselor and a lawyer.  She clearly understands human psychology and how problems are not always black and white but can be very gray.

The writing is lovely and fills in the framing of the plot and the characters.  There are lines that just totally grab you.

Because minds do blow and hearts do break. Those are not just sayings. And wolves and roaches are not the only creatures that chew off their legs to get out of traps—human beings do that, too. (location 3058)

I also really enjoyed that while Jenna’s coming out story (told in flash-backs and reminiscing) is rather typical, Del’s is much more complex.  She is bi but is uncomfortable with the fact that she likes women too.  She doesn’t want people to know, doesn’t say a thing about it to her sisters, denies it even.  But we find out later that there were other ways in which it was clear she did identify as bi and part of the community.  I won’t say how, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.  But I found this complexity interesting.  It shows how for Jenna she had to push and come out because there was no other option. Del could sometimes pass but not always and clearly it was a struggle for her throughout her whole life.  This shows an understanding of what it is to be bi that I honestly was not expecting, as it is hard to find that in novels.

There were, unfortunately, a couple of things that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.  There were a few passages that weren’t as well-written or well-edited that detracted from the overall beauty of the book.  For instance, there is a scene in which a character points a flashlight at a floor but the narrator calls it the ground.  Things like that that are periodically clunky.  I’m sure this will improve with time, though, as this is Silverman’s first work of fiction.

I also was disappointed that we didn’t get to see very much at all in regards to how this whole drama of the first love’s mysterious death impacted Jenna’s relationship with her wife.  I was hoping this would be at least touched upon in the last chapter, but instead we just see Madison show up with Jenna for the funeral.  Since I had come to care for Jenna, I wanted to know how such a dramatic, emotional event would affect her new life and marriage with Madison.  It seems obvious to me that such an incident would at least lead to a few discussions and maybe difficult moments between a married couple.  I wanted to see that and not seeing it made Madison and Jenna’s marriage to her feel more like a prop than an actual element of Jenna’s life.

Overall, though, this is a unique work of GLBTQ lit.  Its themes of reconciling with your past, coming out, being queer, and first love are all beautifully told within a plot that keeps the reader invested and interested.  I highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers, but also to anyone with an interest in stories addressing the complexity of human relationships and the long-reaching impact of first loves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Reread Review: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Girl in bonnet in a strawberry field.Summary:
Birdie’s just moved to Floridy from Caroliny to farm strawberries with her family.  But their neighbors, squatters headed by a mean drunk of a dad, won’t make life easy for them.

Review:
Rereading a childhood favorite is a dangerous endeavor.  However, last year rereading Reddy Fox went well, so when the ebook version of this Lois Lenski classic showed up on Netgalley, I just had to try it out.  I can see why I enjoyed it as a child, but I can’t really imagine adding it to the collection if I was a public librarian or, in the realm of more possibility, giving it to my nephew.

This is part of a series that Lenski wrote and illustrated in the 1940s about children living in different regions of America.  The thought process was that kids saw children around the world in literature but not the vastly different ways of growing up all over America.  A good idea, for sure.  I can totally see why these books, written in painstaking vernacular to boot, were popular back then.  They just didn’t age as well as they could have.  Or, at least, this one didn’t.

Unlike the Little House series where the problems and dramas and joys are relatable, Birdie’s family basically repeatedly lets the neighbors walk all over them.  There are also odd conundrums, such as how is Birdie’s family so working class and yet mysteriously has money?  Most bothersome, though, is the fact that the central conflict of neighbor worthless father is wrapped up overnight when he gets saved at a revival meeting.  Only the most evangelical of children will accept that as a fix.  Plus, it gives an unrealistic expectation to children that the serious problem of an addicted parent can be solved with some yelling from a preacher.  Not the most useful of message to be giving to children.

Although it’s not an unenjoyable read and the details of life in rural Florida in the 1940s are painstakingly accurate, it just simply hasn’t aged as well as other classics.  It is still well-written, researched, and illustrated, however.  I’d recommend it to adults with an interest in the history of American children’s literature.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe

Snout of a gator on a yellow background.Summary:
One day on his way home from work, a homeless man shoves Jasper in front of a subway train.  Waking up months later from a coma with medical leave from his job, his (now ex) girlfriend living in his house with her new boyfriend, religious Donny, Jasper decides to join Donny and his best friend Duane on a trip south from Canada to Florida.  Donny and Duane are going fishing, but Jasper is on a hunt for his brother who disappeared ten years ago at the age of seventeen.  He has a hunch he may have returned to what was previously a happy family vacation spot.

Review:
This is one of those situations where I recognize that the book is well-written, but personally I just didn’t like it.  The combination of the plot and characters struck a sour note for me, although I can see other people enjoying it.

I struggled because I simply did not find a single character to like.  I didn’t like Jasper, his ex Kim, her new boyfriend Donny, the best friend Duane, the long lost Aunt Val, well, you get the picture.  None of them were people I could relate to or sympathize with.  Not a single one!  That is rare in a book for me.  I can relate to characters from all over the world and all over time itself, but here. Yeesh.  I mean, it’s bad when you’re agreeing with the villain (who you also don’t like) that the main character is a pussy.  That’s just generally a bad sign.

I also found myself struggling some with the flow of the plot.  It’s rather unevenly structured with random side stories such as an entire chapter devoted to Duane taking a bar bet to eat 19 pickled eggs.  So much time devoted to this point (that was gross to read about) and it never turned out to be relevant.  It felt at certain points like Crowe was writing just to write, and it’s not that they’re badly done scenes, they’re just not relevant to the book.

Similarly, and consider this your spoiler alert, characters escape alligators just a few too many times.  Having one character who is a gator whisperer is fine, but having other characters repeatedly escaping gators is just insanity and unbelievable.  It left me wondering if Crowe has ever actually watched the Discovery Channel.

Overall, this is a book that left me decidedly lukewarm.  The characters are so average as to be dull, and the way they look on the rest of the world left me feeling a bit sour.  I would recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction that moves at a slow pace, as well as those interested in a Canadian’s view of Florida.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Librarians, Enough With the Hero Complex

March 15, 2010 7 comments

Last week, I was chillaxing on my couch, enjoy some crackers and cheese whilst watching tv, and I checked in on my twitter feed.  My twitter feed is an interesting mix of folks–writers, publishers, libraries, gardening tips, celebrities who amuse me, veg folk, real life friends–but predominantly other librarians.  Well, suddenly everybody started tweeting at once.  The freak-out was over loss of funding for Florida libraries.  This turned into everybody bemoaning the fact that nobody understands the importance of libraries.  Then out of the blue, a male librarian said, “Simple truth- police & firefighters can always rehire when times get better. Close a library & what are the chances they’ll bring it back?”
I replied, “Well, y’know, I’d rather my house not burn down than be able to use old crappy computers for free.”
To which a different male librarian replied: “If a fire starts, no matter how much you spend on fire fighters, your house it totalled in a matter of minutes.”

I have refrained from naming them, because this isn’t about these individuals.  It’s about a general attitude going on among librarians that is just wrong and self-centered, and I wanted to illustrate it with actual quotes.  The attitude that libraries are the most important public service, and they–and by extension, librarians–are misunderstood and under-appreciated.  I mean, a book just came out whose subtitle is How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (LibraryThing record of the book here).  You know what? No.  We’re not more important than policemen and firemen.  We’re not even as important.  As librarians, we’re not out there risking our lives to save strangers’ lives.  Contrary to what male librarian #2 said, not all houses burn down anyway, and even if they did, there’s still people to save.  There’s also the fact that the blaze needs to be prevented from spreading, but I digress.

We are librarians.  We are not out there providing for the safety of lives.  The fact that we exist doesn’t make it so people can sleep at night safe in the knowledge that if a fire starts in their house, someone will show up and run into the blaze to save them.  Public librarians, at best, provide educational support outside of the public school system.  At worst, public librarians are providing entertainment to the low income masses, and do you think the low income would rather be entertained or be alive and able to walk down the street safely?

I don’t enjoy the fact that libraries and fire departments are pitted against each other for money.  However, it is an economic crisis.  The money just is not there.  Of course I would rather see libraries’ hours cut instead of the doors closed, but if the choice is keeping the library open a few hours a week or maintaining a safe number of firemen for the community, I would choose the firemen.  You know why?  Because I don’t have some hero complex.

What we’re really seeing is people freaking out because they think either their job won’t exist in the short-term or that libraries are going to cease existing entirely, making their career choice a really poor one.  I get it.  I do.  It sucks to be worrying about getting laid off.  It sucks to wonder if your career will still exist in 10 years, but you know what?  Almost everyone is having to worry about their job right now, if they’re even lucky enough to still have one.  There are also plenty of people worrying that their careers will cease to be an option due to technological advances, changing world economic climate, etc…  I saw it happen to people I care about when the Silicon Valley happened.  Yes, it sucked, but maybe it’s time to admit that you chose your job because you like it.  Because you enjoy organizing things, helping people, books, literacy, and more, and yes that’s more noble than becoming a back-stabbing CEO.  However, it’s not this superhero career.  It’s just a nice one.  One that I certainly hope continues to be needed, but I’m not about to go out there and over-inflate it because I’m worried about jobs.  I’m realistic, and the fact that other librarians are being so unrealistic in the face of this economic crisis is just making us look like a bunch of snobby, privileged, unrealistic bookworms.

(Yes, I realize this post is mainly about public libraries, which is something I strive to avoid, but I haven’t been hearing much of the same thing regarding academic or special libraries.)