Mini-Reviews: Station, Artistic, You, Book

Station ElevenArtistic License

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven — This novel centers around an apocalyptic event, a virus that wipes out 99.9 percent of the world’s population. There are two major narratives: one involves a famous actor who dies just as the virus begins to spread, and the other is set several years after the virus, focusing on a traveling theater troupe and orchestra whose motto is the Star Trek: Voyager quote “Survival is insufficient.” I was much more interested in the latter story than the former, and I also found the postapocalyptic landscape somewhat implausible (there’s not a single person left alive who can figure out how to keep a power plant running, yet there are multiple cellists?). So my feelings about the book are mixed, but overall I liked more things than I disliked.

Elle Pierson, Artistic License — When I discovered that Elle Pierson was a pseudonym for Lucy Parker, I downloaded this book immediately! The heroine is a painfully shy art student; the hero is a tough-looking security guard who is extremely insecure about his “ugly” looks. Their budding romance is threatened by the baggage they each bring to the relationship. This book really worked for me because I loved the main characters and how they both cherished the most “unlovable” parts of each other. It’s not quite as polished as Act Like It or Pretty Face, but it’s still a very enjoyable contemporary romance.

It's Not Me, It's YouBook Jumper, The

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You — This is a chick lit novel about Delia, a girl whose life is turned upside-down when she proposes to her longtime boyfriend, only to discover that he’s been cheating on her. She promptly moves out of their shared home and relocates to a new town, where she gets a new job with a shady boss. Ultimately, Delia has to uncover the boss’s shenanigans with the help of several friends, including an abrasive-yet-handsome young journalist—all while her ex-boyfriend desperately tries to win her back. On the surface, the book is about a woman choosing between two men, but really, it’s about the choice between two lives—the familiar vs. the unknown, the safe vs. the brave. I liked this book a lot, and Mhairi McFarlane will definitely be one of my go-to authors for this type of read!

Mechthild Gläser, The Book Jumper (trans. Romy Fursland) — When Amy and her mother move from Germany to their ancestral home in Scotland, Amy discovers that her family has a special legacy: they can “jump” into books and spend time in their favorite fictional worlds. As Amy practices her book jumping skills, she learns that someone is stealing important plot elements from her favorite works of literature (the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the cyclone from The Wizard of Oz). While solving this mystery, Amy also uncovers secrets from her family’s past and embarks on a romance with unforeseen complications. I really liked the premise of this book, and I was impressed by the ending, which is a little darker and more complex than I’d expected. But overall, this was just an okay read for me. A more interesting take on the book jumping premise is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-theBecky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

In a universe where space travel is common and humans mingle with aliens of various species, Rosemary Harper is about to join the crew of the Wayfarer, a spaceship whose job is essentially to facilitate interplanetary travel by punching wormholes through space. When Rosemary boards the Wayfarer, she meets a wildly diverse crew that nevertheless manages to live in (mostly) harmony. There’s Sissix, the lizardlike alien pilot; Kizzy and Jenks, the chatty engineers; Ashby, the captain; and Lovelace, the ship’s artificial intelligence system. They all embrace Rosemary as one of their own, even when they discover that she’s hiding a big secret from her past. But when the Wayfarer is hired for a particularly dangerous job, peace is threatened both among the crew and within the whole galaxy.

I’d read a lot of great reviews of this book, and I saw some comparisons to Firefly, so I was really hoping to love it. Unfortunately, I guess I’m in the minority on this one, because it honestly did nothing for me. The worldbuilding is excellent; the various alien species are well drawn, and the author obviously had fun exploring the cultural differences between her main characters. But the plot is practically nonexistent until the very end of the novel, when it’s finally revealed why this job is so dangerous and what’s at stake for the main characters. I also didn’t particularly care about any of the characters, and again I think it’s because there are no stakes; I don’t know what these characters want or what obstacles stand in their way. Finally, there’s an interspecies sexual encounter that I found distasteful, but of course other people’s mileage may vary. Overall, the great worldbuilding wasn’t enough to save this novel for me, and I won’t be reading the rest of the trilogy.

Review: Crosstalk

crosstalkConnie Willis, Crosstalk

In a near-future society, people are looking for ever more efficient ways to communicate and connect with each other. A new experimental procedure, the EED, allows couples to feel each other’s emotions and thus (theoretically) strengthen their relationship. Briddey Flannigan is thrilled when her boyfriend Trent asks her to get an EED with him, but her nosy family doesn’t like the idea, nor does her reclusive colleague C.B. Nevertheless, Briddey goes ahead with the procedure, only to discover that something has gone terribly wrong — she’s now connected to C.B., not Trent. Moreover, she doesn’t just sense his emotions; she seems to be able to read his mind. Now, with C.B.’s help, Briddey must figure out why this connection occurred and learn how to break it, before the negative effects of their telepathic connection cause irreversible damage.

I’m huge Connie Willis fan, so I had high expectations for this book, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed! This novel has just as much humor and romance as her other light novels, with an added dash of commentary on the negative aspects of incessant communication. I really enjoyed the little asides about past scientific research into telepathy, as well as the speculation that famous historical figures who heard voices (most notably Joan of Arc) might actually have been telepathic. I do think the plot had a few too many twists and turns at the end; the book’s length could have been trimmed somewhat. But I was having such a ball following Briddey and C.B.’s story that I barely noticed at the time! To be fair, the book does have its flaws, which I think the NPR review covers quite well — I can definitely see the reviewer’s point. But I still loved the book, and I would definitely recommend it to Willis fans! Newcomers to her work might want to start with To Say Nothing of the Dog or Doomsday Book (although the latter is much darker) instead.

Mini-Reviews #7: Home stretch

You guys, I did it–I finally caught up with my review backlog! 🙂 I’m hoping to do a better job of keeping up with reviews in the future, and hopefully I can be better about visiting other people’s blogs, too! In the meantime, here’s my last batch of mini-reviews, at least for now:

This Savage SongBoy Is Back, The

Victoria Schwab, This Savage Song — Set in a future where the United States has disintegrated into tiny, isolated city-states, humans and monsters live under an uneasy truce that could snap at any moment. Kate Harker is a human teenager whose father ensures the safety of humans who are willing to pay for his protection. August Flynn is a monster capable of stealing a person’s soul through song, but he’s trying desperately not to give in to his frightening hunger. When August and Kate meet and become friends, they search for a way to keep the peace between monsters and humans. I liked this book a lot; the world-building is excellent, and both Kate and August are intriguing characters. Much of the novel is a setup for the planned sequels, so there’s not a lot of closure in the end (although there’s no cliffhanger per se). But I definitely liked this one enough to continue with the series–looking forward to book #2!

Meg Cabot, The Boy Is Back — I’m pretty sure it was Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door that originally got me into chick lit, so I jumped at the chance to read this latest installment in the series. Becky Flowers has made it big in her small town, but she’s never forgotten her high school sweetheart, the one who got away. Reed Stewart is said sweetheart, a professional golfer who left town after graduation and never came back. When he returns to help care for his ailing parents, he and Becky reconnect…and of course, we all know where this is going. I didn’t actually care too much about the central romance–“old flame” isn’t one of my favorite tropes–but I loved the humor and the colorful characters that surrounded Becky and Reed’s story. I also enjoyed the fact that it’s a modern epistolary novel, told entirely through texts, emails, and even online reviews. Definitely recommended for fans of light, fluffy chick lit.

Arabella of MarsEdenbrookeEveryone Brave Is Forgiven

David D. Levine, Arabella of Mars — Three words, y’all: Regency space opera! I loved the idea of combining 19th-century British society with space travel (they use sailing ships!). Ultimately, this is a really fun adventure story wherein Arabella, dressed as a boy, joins the crew of a ship bound for Mars. There’s a handsome captain, a possibly sentient automaton, a mutiny, and a Martian uprising, and it’s all good fun. If you like the premise, you’ll really enjoy this one!

Julianne Donaldson, Edenbrooke — As with Donaldson’s other novel, Blackmoore, I enjoyed this “proper” Regency romance. Marianne Daventry is invited to Edenbrooke along with her sister Cecily, who hopes to marry the heir to the estate. When Cecily is detained in London, Marianne goes to Edenbrooke alone, and she soon finds herself attracted to the handsome and charming Philip–not realizing that he is the very heir her sister is pursuing. This was an entertaining read, but I couldn’t help being impatient with Marianne; it takes her forever to realize that Philip is the heir, and even longer to accept the fact that she’s in love with him. The book is still a pleasant read, but Donaldson isn’t destined to become a favorite author.

Chris Cleave, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven — This novel is a tale of love and loss set during  the early years of World War II. Mary North is an idealistic, privileged young woman who thinks the war is a great adventure, until the Blitz forces her to confront its ugly realities firsthand. Tom Shaw is an educator who isn’t seduced by the glamor of war; he just wants to keep doing his job. And Alistair Heath is Tom’s best friend, who enlists right away but soon realizes that the war might take more than he is willing to give. I wasn’t sure I would like this book at first–the prose definitely has A Style, and I was worried it might get in the way–but I ultimately found it very compelling. There are a lot of heartbreaking moments, but there’s also some great banter and great friendships. Overall, I’d definitely recommend this one to fans of World War II novels.

Review: Embassytown

EmbassytownChina Miéville, Embassytown

In a futuristic world on a faraway planet, Avice Benner Cho lives in the main colonists’ city of Embassytown. The planet’s natives, whom the colonists refer to as Hosts, have a unique system of language involving two simultaneously spoken voices that makes communication with them largely impossible; while the humans can understand the Hosts, the Hosts can’t understand most humans at all. The only people even remotely able to speak to the Hosts are the Ambassadors, identical twins who have been specifically engineered for the purpose. So when a new Ambassador arrives on the planet, and they’re not identical twins at all, everyone is shocked by the sheer impossibility of it. And when this Ambassador speaks to the Hosts, even more astonishing — and dangerous — consequences ensue. Avice, though not an Ambassador, has a special relationship to the Host language because she is one of its living similes. Can she find a way to mitigate the disasters caused by the new Ambassador?

If you’re confused by my summary of this book, don’t worry — I was confused for about the first half of the novel! Miéville creates an extremely intricate world full of technobabble and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining things; rather, the reader is thrust directly into the world and left to sink or swim. I usually don’t mind this technique, since lengthy world-building exposition can be tedious. But because the world is so complicated, it took me a while to figure out which things were important to the story and which were just window dressing. Additionally, the book jumps between two different time periods, which confused me at first. But once I figured out where the story was going and how the past and present narratives fit together, I became much more invested. People who are interested in linguistics will be fascinated by Avice’s eventual solution to communicating with the Hosts. The book also touches on issues of colonialism: although the humans aren’t overtly oppressors, there is a shadowy empire in the background to remind us that there might be hidden agendas at play. Overall, this is not the most accessible book to a casual reader, but those who persevere will be rewarded.

Review: Saga, Volumes 3-4

Saga Volume 3Saga Volume 4

Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume Three and Saga: Volume Four

Volumes 3 and 4 of this saga (see what I did there?) continue the story of star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana and their daughter, Hazel, who is now a toddler. Fleeing their many pursuers, the family first takes shelter with Alana’s favorite author, D. Oswald Heist, whose romance novels have a surprisingly political subtext. But they’re unable to stay there for long, since a variety of people (and other entities) are hot on their trail. These pursuers include: The Will, a bounty hunter who’s still grieving for his dead paramour; Marko’s ex-fiancée Gwendolyn, who has a score to settle; a robot prince who’s following orders, even though he’d rather be at home with his wife and son; and two tabloid reporters named Upsher and Doff. Now, in addition to the many dangers that Marko and Alana will face if they’re caught, they also begin to face troubles within their marriage. Alana gets a job that introduces her to a dangerous drug, while Marko is tempted by a young mother he meets while at the playground with Hazel.

I enjoyed the first two volumes of this series, and I’m pleased that these two volumes continue to be entertaining, with a nice blend of dark humor and pathos. I remember being a little bit confused in the earlier installments because of the plethora of characters, but I think I’m clearer now about what’s going on. I was particularly happy to get a little more background on the robot kingdom, so I can see now how they fit into the bigger picture. I’m genuinely concerned about Hazel and her little family, and I hope they will be able to stick together going forward! I also have a soft spot for The Will and am interested to see what happens to him next. I definitely think that fans of graphic novels and/or science fiction should check out this series. Unfortunately, I believe only four volumes have been published as of now, but I’ll definitely look for Volume 5 when it comes out!

Review: Saga, Volumes 1-2

Saga Volume 1Saga Volume 2

Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga: Volume One and Saga: Volume Two

This graphic novel tells the story of one family’s struggle to survive in the midst of a brutal interplanetary war. Alana is from Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy. Marko is from Wreath, its satellite. When they meet, they fall in love almost immediately; but unfortunately for them, Landfall and Wreath have been at war for as long as anyone can remember. Since both Alana’s and Marko’s people disapprove of their marriage, the star-crossed lovers have no choice but to flee. They end up on the remote backwater planet of Cleave, where their daughter Hazel is born. The story is narrated by Hazel as she describes her parents’ escape from the forces seeking to tear them apart. But various parties from both Landfall and Cleave are pursuing this family, and it will take all their courage and ingenuity to survive.

After seeing some positive reviews of Saga, I decided to give the series a try, even though I generally don’t read graphic novels. (I have nothing against them, but I’m not a very visual person, so I generally find the artwork more distracting than helpful for the story.) I’m very glad I gave this series a chance, since I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. The story is very compelling and spans several genres, from romance to survival adventure to space opera. I loved the banter between Alana and Marko, who clearly care a lot about each other and express their love through teasing. I also found Hazel’s voice to be very compelling, and I look forward to seeing how she grows as the series progresses. There’s some colorful language and a few graphic (ha ha) images, so be warned if that bothers you. Overall, I definitely plan to continue with the series, and I already have Volumes 3 and 4 from the library!

Review: The Last Policeman

Last Policeman, TheBen H. Winters, The Last Policeman

Hank Palace, a police detective in Concord, New Hampshire, is investigating the death of a man who was found hanged in a McDonald’s bathroom. His fellow police officers are certain it’s a suicide, and with good reason: an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, and collision is both certain and imminent. As a result, suicides are on the rise, along with a variety of other behaviors. Some people are “bucket listers,” quitting their jobs to chase their lifelong dreams while they still can. Some people turn to religion, others to drugs. In these circumstances, one more dead man — especially one who appears to have hanged himself — doesn’t matter very much to the police. But Hank suspects that there’s something wrong about this suicide, and he’s determined to discover what really happened. He uncovers several more mysteries in his investigation, including a hidden cache of drugs and a beautiful woman who knows more than she’s saying. But the biggest obstacle of all is the widespread indifference to his quest. If the end of the world is imminent, does one potential murder even matter?

This novel is an interesting combination of two popular genres, the police procedural and the apocalyptic novel, and I think it’s a fairly successful one. Hank Palace is a dry, unintentionally funny narrator who manages to retain some of his ideals despite the cynicism of his surroundings. Even though he knows that life is about to change forever (assuming life will continue at all after the asteroid hits), he remains devoted to his job. But the world of this novel is even more interesting than its narrator. I think the various reactions of people in the book to the impending catastrophe are very plausible. And the details Hank lets slip about the new role of government are as realistic as they are chilling. In this world, every crime is punishable by death or life imprisonment. There is no habeas corpus, so anyone suspected of lawbreaking is condemned without trial. The US Constitution is still the law of the land, but it’s impossible to enforce — and most government officials and police officers don’t really care. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting of this novel and will eventually continue with the series to see what happens.

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Sometime in the early 21st century, World War Terminus has resulted in widespread destruction and nuclear fallout, so everyone who can afford it has emigrated to Mars. To help these emigrants establish a new civilization, androids were created to be servants and laborers. As time went on, the androids became more sophisticated until they were virtually indistinguishable from humans — except for a complete lack of empathy. Now some of these androids have returned to Earth, where their presence is illegal, and policeman Rick Deckard is charged with hunting them down and “retiring” them. In fact, he is authorized to kill them on sight; but as he pursues the rogue androids, he must confront his own feelings and beliefs, including what it means to be human.

When I started this book, I was expecting the main issue to be the nature of the androids themselves: If they have the same intelligence and (mostly) the same emotions as humans, aren’t they also human? But oddly enough, the book leaves no doubt on this issue — the androids are not human, and Rick Deckard’s struggle with this fact gets him into trouble on several occasions. Even though the androids are machines, Deckard can’t help but see them as human beings, due to his own empathetic response. He feels pity for them, recognizes their contributions to society, and even falls in love with one of them. Ultimately, the real issue of the book is not the humanity of the androids, but rather the humanity of the humans: Can Deckard do his job and still retain his humanity? As such, I found the book a fascinating read, even though it wasn’t quite what I expected.

Blade Runner final cutAfter reading this book, I decided to rent the movie “Blade Runner” so that I could compare and contrast the film adaptation with the original. Basically, the movie is VERY different from the book, and I was bewildered by most of the changes. The movie is visually stunning — I loved the vision of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles — but I just didn’t understand Deckard’s relationships with the androids in the movie at all. It’s hard to say more without spoiling, but let me just say that the final confrontation scene goes VERY differently in the movie versus the book. The movie also suggests (and Ridley Scott confirmed that this was his intention) that Deckard himself is an android, which is 100% NOT the case in the book. So while “Blade Runner” is an interesting movie in its own right, it’s definitely not a faithful adaptation of the book!

Review: Across a Star-Swept Sea

Across a Star-Swept SeaDiana Peterfreund, Across a Star-Swept Sea

In this post-apocalyptic retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel (!), Earth’s civilization has been all but destroyed, thanks to the horrific unintended consequence of genetic engineering known as Reduction. Now, the island of Galatea seeks vengeance through revolution: aristocrats are being captured and forcibly Reduced, their minds irreparably damaged. Meanwhile, the neighboring island of Albion seems more interested in flirtation and gossip than in Galatea’s problems — except for the Wild Poppy, who daringly rescues Galatean aristocrats out from under the noses of the rebels. No one suspects that the Wild Poppy is really Persis Blake, a seemingly idle and frivolous courtier of Albion. In order to maintain her cover, Persis must befriend Justen Helo, a Galatean scientist whose family is famous for curing the initial Reduction. Justen seems to disagree with his country’s violent policies, but can Persis trust him? And will she be able to maintain her cover as their relationship deepens?

The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my all-time favorite books, so I was really excited to discover this retelling with a sci-fi twist! I think the novel does a good job of following the original story while not being a scene-for-scene copy. While the original novel is mostly told from Marguerite/Justen’s point of view, this version is largely from the perspective of the Pimpernel character, Persis. In fact, one of the most fun aspects of this book is that the characters are gender-flipped! I did have one large-ish problem with the book, though; most of the larger narrative of How We Got To This Point was totally lost on me. There were some wars, and some people got Reduced, and the people who didn’t became the new aristocrats, I think? To be fair, it’s not that complicated…I’m afraid I just didn’t want to pay that much attention! Still, I picked up enough to get the gist of things, so I guess it doesn’t matter that much. Overall, I didn’t love the book, but it’s still a fun read for Pimpernel fans, especially those who also like YA.