Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this intensely unsatisfying. I love dystopias, and I love post-apocalyptic worlds, and I found the worldbuilding in this to be wonderfully imaginative and intriguing, but somehow it managed to be incredibly dull and plodding at the same time.

I think the problem is that nothing happened in this entire book. I was fully halfway through it when Jimmy finally decided to leave his tree, and I thought “aha, finally there will be some plot”, and then his adventure simply served as the prelude to more flashbacks which still only served to build the world, not have anything happen within it. I would have much rather learned about the disaster from a present-day perspective than the hackneyed flashback structure used here. The characters weren’t likable, and they did nothing of note for me to care about, which made the entire thing fall flat on its face. Which is a shame, because the world is a fascinating backdrop.

I see it is a series, so I assume this serves as the introductory paragraph and there will be plot in the later books, but it’s already lost me. I might read a synopsis of the rest of them, I guess.

The Orenda

The OrendaThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was given this for a book club, and I am glad they chose it because I don’t think I would have read it otherwise. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, and historical fiction based on Canadian history (the most boring type of history on the planet) just does not grab me. The Orenda turned out to be a gripping read, though, and lays out historical tribal life in brutal fashion, not sparing any details. If my history classes had been anything like this I might have actually been interested.

I was initially turned off by the first-person-present-tense and how difficult it was to tell which point of view we were following, but once I locked down on the fact that we were only following three different characters it wasn’t too burdensome. The ‘voices’ of the characters weren’t distinctive enough, and you had to wait until they observed something to orient you, or dropped a snippet like speaking to “my love” or “Lord” to figure out who the chapter was following, so I dislike the choice and I think it would have been easier to follow if it hadn’t been in first person. At many points the minor characters change names based on which viewpoint we’re following, the events that happen to name them, or even whether the person we’re following likes them right now or not. I was able to keep up, but I thought I would issue a warning that it’s going to require a bit more attention than usual.

I really liked how the story drew parallels between the three viewpoints we were following, but at no point did it seem to take a side. Each group had their beliefs and motivations which made sense to them and they acted appropriately within those beliefs and motivations, weaving a strong narrative as the cultures clashed. I think my only complaint would be that I wish the ‘magic’ had been more plausible, to draw a stronger compare/contrast between belief systems. It started losing me when they started having prophecies. Ambiguous visions and their interpretations of them is one thing, but literal visions of what is about to happen was kind of ehhhhhhh…

The book is nearly 500 pages and I don’t know that there is much else for me to elaborate on. I really enjoyed the journey through the story, but it might also be worth mentioning that it is not for the faint of heart or those who deal with depression.

Above All Things

Above All ThingsAbove All Things by Tanis Rideout

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I was given this to read for a book club and was pretty interested in the premise as presented by the book jacket. The story of Mallory tackling Everest is pretty interesting in itself, but to see the homeward side of things adds a fascinating twist. Unfortunately, the book opened with a harlequin-esque erotica scene and went downhill from there.

The blurb makes you believe the story will be about Mallory’s wife. In practice, Ruth is a two-dimensional character that does absolutely nothing but pine over George. She has no other substance to her. The bulk of the story ends up being about George’s expedition, which is sort of interesting, but it’s not what you were probably expecting to read and it’s incredibly slow with occasional breaks to follow his companion for no apparent reason. There are jarring switches in POV between George and Ruth, swapping between third person and first person with one spanning weeks and the other spanning a day. Also there are occasional breaks where both George and Ruth consider times when they cheated on their partners (complete with cheesy erotica scenes, as if there weren’t enough opportunity for them already). I don’t even know.

Even ignoring the misleading blurb, on the surface the plot looks like it should be interesting: a deep investigation into George’s struggle between his obsession with Everest and his desire to be with his wife. Instead, it’s a hot mess with shoe-horned sex scenes and plodding filler.

If it helps, the other women in the book club seemed to enjoy it. Maybe you will like it if you are ovulating.

Homefront

Homefront (Phil Broker, #6)Homefront by Chuck Logan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I queued this one up because the premise sounded interesting. As I work through my reading queue I often forget why I added books to it, and a chapter or two into this I had to stop and look it up to figure out why the hell I had added it. Then I was like “Oh, right. That DOES sound interesting.” I slogged away at it but… I just can’t do it. The writing is pretentious and overdone, littered with isolated sentences and choppy wording that’s designed to hype up the drama. There’s a complete lack of subtlety here. It feels like being bashed over the head with words. Watching the movie will be less painful.

Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard, #3)The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started late on the Gentleman Bastard journey (thankfully? Since the fourth book has apparently been delayed, which is unfortunate) and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. The first book was so full of promise—a few novice mistakes, but with characters so loveable that I couldn’t wait to see where the series went. The second was a disappointment, still full of promise but rushed and unpolished to an unfortunate degree. When I saw what a gap there was between the second and the third I was eager to see how the writing had progressed, because the potential here simply NEEDS to be fulfilled.

I have very few complaints about the third book, and I’m picky as fuck. At worst, I’d say I saw a few places where the characters did some things, then immediately turned around and explained all those things in detail to another character who wasn’t present, which smacked of bad editing. The plot maybe had some contrivances you could bitch about if you wanted to, but I chose not to because I could see the purpose of them.

It actually felt more like two books in one, which I’m not sure I like all that much. It’s got the time-skip stuff again which I disliked in the first books, skipping back and forth from the past and the present, but in previous books that mechanism was used to show the characters acquiring an item or skill which was then presented in the present, and it felt a little contrived. In this book, the past story and the present story are running parallel, and I kept waiting for them to converge and it never really did. The two timelines merely exist to show the relationship of Locke and Sabetha developing side by side. I think it works, but I would have been equally satisfied with two distinct books, and less distracted besides.

I also noticed a couple exposition dumps that I felt could have been handled a little better because I started drifting off in the middle of them, but I feel that’s a victim of the two timelines. You get invested in one story and then blam, dropped into an exposition dump for the other and you’re all “I don’t give a shit about this, I want to know what happens next in the OTHER story” and you end up skimming, which is bad for the story as a whole. I also felt like I didn’t really need to sit through everyone rehearsing their lines for the play, but maybe I started skimming and missed the point.

I think that’s the extent of my bitching. The characters were fantastic, the banter was fantastic, and I burned through it until I had eyestrain. Be warned, though, if you’re not already invested in the characters, you might find it hard to get into. I loved it BECAUSE I love the characters. The fact that the plots took a backseat to character development became an asset BECAUSE I love the characters. If you haven’t reached that level of commitment to the characters, you might be a little annoyed.

I don’t normally like to draw comparisons to other works, but the plot actually really reminded me a lot of Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, in that it was a battle of wits between two forbidden(ish) lovers. In Night Circus, the “battles” were fantastic displays of magic which were very pretty to describe but ultimately made no fucking sense because they never opposed each other, and that was kind of dumb. Locke and Sabetha oppose the shit out of each other with non-stop displays of wit and connivery and it is awesome. I think the snake rebuttal was where I decided it would probably get a five even if it went off the rails at the end.

I’m a little surprised at the sheer hate I see for Sabetha in some of the other reviews.  I suppose that’s the risk of leaving a character shrouded in mystery for two books—people will make their own expectations, and you will never, ever, live up to them. She’s a character driven by pride, which can be a little hard to swallow for some, but all of her motivations seemed logical to me. A little more communication would certainly help matters, but there are pretty clear explanations for most of those difficulties too.  She’s essentially a femme fatale who is not entirely defined by the male protagonist, and I enjoyed that.

I was a little annoyed that
WARNING: SPOILERS: Read more of this post

The Other Side of the Bridge

The Other Side of the BridgeThe Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a bit surprised to see that this book is newer than Crow Lake, because the writing didn’t feel quite as polished. Much like Crow Lake, though, the author excels at writing emotions… and it almost hurts the book because they feel so similar that you can’t help but compare them and find The Other Side of the Bridge to be the lesser of the two. It failed to grab me in quite the same way as Crow Lake and that could be equal parts less sympathetic characters (I found many of them to be flat, which was a shame after the excellent characters in Crow Lake) and just me not being able to relate to them in quite the same way, but it was still an interesting read even if it didn’t grip me and keep me up. A solid 3.5 stars.

Red Seas Under Red Skies

Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was desperately in need of a ruthless editor. The plot was bloated and aimless, and it was only the excellent characters and witty banter that kept me going. The first book had its fair share of bloat, but it wrapped up fairly tightly by the end, with only a few stray threads that you could argue served as obfuscation. This book has endless ramblings and descriptions that make your eyes glaze over, that ultimately serve no purpose other than to show off how much research the author put into the background. I think the sea training montage was a good 15 to 20% of the book on its own and served only the barest of purpose in terms of setting up later plot points, not to mention the 40% of the book you had to get through before being jarringly dropped into it. The plot threads didn’t tie together as well as in the first book, and it took me so long to slog through everything that I started forgetting who all these people are or why they’re important, so a lot of the impact was lost. It felt like it was trying to weave a super complicated twisty-turny plot but it really should have stuck to one or the other: deal with the casino con and pitting the two men against each other, or deal with the piracy plot. Mixing the two together just didn’t feel like it was working.

The book as a whole felt “immature”. Not in terms of banter, but in terms of polish. A lot of it felt like first pass writing that never got a proper second going-over. It needed to age a bit more, to let all the nuances seep in and flavour it throughout. And it needed all the useless crap strained out of it before it was bottled. In short: it needed an editor.

It does the same time-skipping bullshit as the first book, and I found it even more intolerable this time somehow, probably because we’re skipping between a short period of time instead of decades. Those interludes taper off midway which was a relief, but there’s a big one that the book opens with that isn’t resolved until the end, some 500 pages later. That resolution was so eyeroll-inducing that it could have knocked a whole star off the rating on its own. Seriously. Stop it. Along with that one, a couple of the big “twists” were so badly telegraphed (as well as being tacked onto plot threads that were basically ENTIRELY optional if not for the need to have this thing happen because it has been decreed that this should happen) that it was really cramping the book. One of my favourite parts of the first book was that their narrow escapes always seemed to have wit behind them, and some of their escapes in this one are blind luck or coincidence.  Unfortunate. If this one had been left in the polisher just a little bit longer it would have been a rock-solid romp with some powerful moments.

Having said all that, the characters were as fantastic as always, and the plot was reasonably entertaining even if it felt a bit rickety. The witty fast-paced banter is something I really enjoy, and I’ll probably venture into the third book just for the hell of it.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would at first. The premise is that of a young orphan boy raised into the art of thievery, unfurling clever schemes and heists on a town in a medieval-style fantasy setting. My first impressions were that it was severely over-written, dripping with largely pointless descriptions and flowery language, even though the descriptions were certainly colourful. I… wasn’t really wrong. But the characters caught my interest quickly enough to keep me slogging through it.

In terms of flaws, the book has many. The author is definitely excited to show us the world they have created, and even though it’s described well it becomes almost tedious to realize you’re about to take an aside to wade into ANOTHER section where a dozen new settings and concepts will be introduced before we can get on with it. Too many times I was really into a sequence, and then it was like “And now, an interlude to introduce some backstory:” and I was like “Welp, I guess that’s enough reading for tonight.” It was irritating and made the book take much longer to read through.
Honestly though, I tried to think of better ways to do it and I can see why it was done this way. We take interludes to introduce Locke’s past and how he got to know the things he knows, right before stepping back into the present to watch him use that knowledge in the current scenario. Apart from creating a prequel series to introduce everything (which only your die-hard readers will probably read), or creating a Tolkein-esque encyclopedia of worldbuilding (which ONLY your die-hard readers will read, guaranteed. I don’t like it when a series requires a wiki to understand…), both of which then distance the link from the current plot… the back and forth time-skipping seems like a decent option, though I’m a ‘chronological’ sort of girl so I feel like I’d probably have preferred starting at Locke’s childhood and reading a book or two about that before getting to here.

There’s also the issue of a few ‘foreshadowy’ sort of pieces that annoyed me. There are a lot of different elements of the world that are introduced that end up having no bearing on the current plot whatsoever. That actually didn’t annoy me SO much, because it served as a sort of obfuscation that aided the plot in this case. There’s a little thing called Chekov’s gun that, when followed to the letter, ends up being a GREAT BIG REALLY OBVIOUS SIGNAL to the reader when something is introduced and you’re like “uh huh, well, that’s what’s going to happen.” and then oh look, guess what the big twist in the story is later! This book introduced so many little details that you have no idea what’s going to be important or not, and that WORKS for it because of the nature of the plot.
But then there are other little bits, like long-winded descriptions of things that don’t matter a goddamn bit when you’re busy trying to get things underway, or characters that are continually talked about and then never actually introduced, complete with vague lines like “She’s off doing whatever it is I told her to do.” That’s just a really obvious attempt at hand-waving. When things are getting lengthy and wordy and you find yourself flailing your hands around that much to avoid getting into details, just do us all a favour and don’t mention it at all.

The plot, though. “Clever” stories like this require a fair amount of plotting skill to pull off believably and boy did it impress me there. I thought I caught a continuity error or two but I actually wasn’t entirely sure, and I was so busy enjoying it that I didn’t even care. The details finally come together at the end and leave you satisfied. The characters, too, are all lively enough that you get attached to them, and they all have believable flaws. That’s the real trick with a plot like this: the protagonists aren’t infallible gods of perfection who have everything under control at all moments. These guys are getting themselves eyeballs-deep in shit at every turn through their own fuck-ups, and then using their wits to pull themselves back out of it. Sure there’s a few flashes of plot-armor, in that you ASSUME the title character will probably make it out of this alive even if it seems a bit dicey right now… but even then the body count is high enough that you’re never entirely sure what might happen.

I’m going to launch straight into the next book in the series and see what’s next. It’s a solid 4.5/5, and if it could stop being so goddamn long-winded it would be an easy 5.

Crow Lake

Crow LakeCrow Lake by Mary Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really loved this book. It did an excellent job of tackling themes of trauma and abuse, and I felt the characters were portrayed very realistically.

I did a quick browse through the negative reviews and the majority of them mentioned that it was too slow. It is certainly guilty of that, but I feel the short nature of it helps to make up for it. I never felt like it was slogging on. There were plenty of points where it sort of meandered through a side story and you were like “This is all very interesting, but what is the point?” and then you get to the end and go “Ah. I see.” I felt like it all tied up at the end, although maybe lacking the ‘punch’ a lot of readers might have expected after all the foreshadowing hints that were dropped.

I did get a little annoyed by all the breadcrumb hints about “events to come”. Those are always meant to hook the reader and keep them going with a promise of something big later, and to a degree they work, but it feels cheap and sets up a book to be underwhelming. This book could definitely be accused of that, but I enjoyed the characters enough that I didn’t penalize it.

The other major criticism of the book is that the main character is unlikable and dense. If you’re holding that against this book, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. The problem is, I think, that these characters will appeal a GREAT DEAL to people who can relate to them – that is, those who have felt snippets of how that sort of trauma can affect your personality, your worldview, and how you react to others. Everyone else will be stumbling along wondering why the characters are acting so strangely, perhaps because they’ve never been unfortunate enough to experience those sorts of emotions and mental states themselves. There are so many powerful scenes in this book that spoke to me because I know exactly how those characters were feeling as they acted that way. I could feel what they felt. It was beautifully executed.

I suspect this sort of book will not be ‘for’ everyone. It was definitely ‘for’ me, and I loved it.

Infoquake

Infoquake (Jump 225 , #1)Infoquake by David Louis Edelman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m going to abandon this one, which is unfortunate because I was excited about the premise. It’s a sci-fi setting with a corporate board room twist which is unique enough that I really wanted to see it play out.

It starts off feeling a lot like Neal Stephenson which was a very good sign. There isn’t a lot of over-explanation of concepts which was another very good sign. You’re dumped into the world and the characters react to the world and its unique concepts as if it’s completely normal, which is great, because for them it IS. None of the concepts are difficult to understand, you orient quickly, and it’s interesting to watch the subtleties of the world unfold.

Then you meet Natch, who spends his entire introduction being a prick to everyone. And you think to yourself “Aha, this is probably the villain of the story. A shades-of-grey nuanced antagonist, perhaps?” But then the book does its damnedest to make you sympathize with him, and completely fails on all counts. You also spend a fair amount of time with one of his female underlings who has thoughts like “I hate him so much. I wish I wasn’t so attracted to him!” And you think to yourself “………..”

To be fair, I bailed on it before the conclusion, but I couldn’t give a single solitary shit about any of the characters. I was interested in their world, but I didn’t care about them, I didn’t care what they were doing, and I finally went a couple weeks with the book sitting untouched in my bag and then went “Welp. I may as well read something else.” It wasn’t the setting at all—I was really interested in the corporate angle, even though it means it’s a slower pace than your typical sci-fi might be—but there was simply no one to root for and the characters felt forced.

It’s too bad because it’s a relatively unique approach to a plot and I’d like to see it thrive, but it really needs strong, relateable, characters to carry it. Instead, we have a jackass CEO that I’d like to see shot out of a cannon, while his underlings talk about how much they despise him but also how brilliant and amazing he is. Blurgh.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 3)

Drifters' Alliance, Book 3Drifters’ Alliance, Book 3 by Elle Casey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a little disappointed in Book 3. The ideas are still really solid and very engaging, but the book feels rushed and lacking polish. It needed to mature and develop a bit more to really hit the sweet spot.

We’re still following the ‘episodic’ formula, but this time it barely even felt like an episode. A few more ideas were introduced, nothing new was really resolved, and it ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger. The action is fantastic, and the characters are amusing, but the ‘rushed’ feeling persists through everything from the lack of resolution to the slapstick comedy sequences. Chapters end in bizarre places, cutting sequences in half sometimes. The jokes even sometimes trip over themselves by repeating themselves or explaining themselves to you, almost as if it got a quick editing brush-over and something was left behind that was meant to be excised. It all could have benefitted from a bit more care and attention.

I still love the story, and the characters, and the universe, and I would like to know what happens… but at 5 bucks a pop, I’d be tempted to sit back and wait to see if an anthologized version is released that combines them all once they’re done. It’s almost a shame to read them now if they might get polished into a real blockbuster later.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 2)

Drifters' Alliance, Book 2Drifters’ Alliance, Book 2 by Elle Casey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still enjoyable, but definitely not quite as solid as the first one. One of the things that really appealed to me about Cass was her balance. She was winging it and doing a good job of hiding how terrified she was inside. When shit went sideways your asshole clenched right along with her and you breathed a sigh of relief as she pulled it off and got out. In Book 2, she’s becoming a bit too in-control. We’re learning more about her training and now every time we need to know something, she’s studied it. When we need to do something, she’s been trained in it. Everything that happens to them seems to revolve around her past. It’s too convenient. The characters are a bit too slapstick, too. The humour is starting to feel forced, and I get the sense that the book was written fairly quickly and not polished as much as it should have been to tone down those burrs.

Still enjoying the series, but at 5 bucks a pop I really want them to have a BIT more meat to them.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 1)

Drifters' Alliance (Book 1)Drifters’ Alliance by Elle Casey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A quick, light read that I binged in a couple of hours. It’s far too short, feeling more like a pilot episode to a TV series, which is somewhat appropriate as fans of shows like Firefly will feel right at home with a cast of misfit ship crewmembers who have been thrust together and bumble their way through misadventures. It does leave you feeling like the story is just beginning, though, which is a little unsatisfying.

Despite the brevity and lack of depth, I really enjoyed it. The writing is simple and crisp. I was a little worried in the first chapter when some of the descriptions were a little heavy-handed, but it quickly becomes primarily dialogue with lots of humour. There were tense moments with plenty of suspense that kept you hanging, and there was just enough exposition and worldbuilding to keep you intrigued and interested in the backstory of the universe without being either too much of an infodump or leaving things vague and confusing. Almost a perfect balance of information, actually. You get a sense of the world and the characters within it, and they all react in ways that feel genuine.

I’m impressed by the characters so far, but I tend to bias that direction. The main character is great. She’s a teenager, and she thinks like one. She’s constantly battling internal uncertainty and insecurity while putting on a show for everyone around her. It’s wonderfully insightful character building. The rest of the crew are animated and vivid characters with some real chemistry. I’m curious to see where the series will lead.

Nova War

Nova War (The Shoal Sequence, #2)Nova War by Gary Gibson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I wrote about my distaste for the first book in the series, which had SO MUCH potential but was completely overpowered by sloppy writing and self-indulgent gratuitous eroticism. Dakota Merrick has all the parts in play to be a strong, intriguing character with a lot of depth… but she wastes it by spending the first book fucking everyone (including her ship). Other reviews suggest the series gets stronger as it goes, so I popped open the second one to see how the writing evolves.

It opens with the same problem the first one had: huge exposition dumps from characters I haven’t really been given much of a chance to give a single shit about. The underlying plot points really have some power to them, but it feels like such a slog to care about any of the characters.

We finally get back to Dakota, who finds herself in prison. She’s naked, of course, with plenty of mentions about her breasts, and she immediately notes how her pubic hair has been shaved. This does not look like a promising indication that the writing will be any less indulgent. Sure enough, when she is finally reunited with her boy toy (who, I noted, is also naked but he’s such a flat character that he isn’t even graced with a physical description) the first thing they do is fuck. Even though she’s been starving herself and is so weak she’s barely coherent. Priorities!

Let me be clear: I’m not prudish, and I will happily read explicit content in books, as long as there is a REASON for it. There is no reason for all of the gratuitous sexuality in these books. It’s self-indulgent and distracting, and the worst part is (as I said in my review of the first book) it could fairly easily have been modulated to actually have a point. Dakota Merrick could be a really interesting female protagonist, because she’s been ostracized and traumatized and has difficulty connecting to people. Building a trust relationship with Corso could be a REALLY powerful sequence. But, instead, she prances around naked and fucks everything with a cock at every opportunity (real cocks or artificial ones, it doesn’t matter to her!). It’s pretty clearly biased, too. We become intimately familiar with Dakota’s naked body, breasts, pubic region, anus… but there is barely any time wasted describing Lucas Corso. Who wants to read about him anyway, right? It’s all about the boobies and pubic hair! And, naturally, the males she fucks think it’s the best sex they’ve ever had. Even the main enemy is like “You know what, I kind of like her, despite trying to kill her.” I wonder how long it will take before she fucks him too, despite the fact that he’s a fish in a floating bubble. (He does have tentacles that extend outside of it! Hmmmmm…)

I skimmed through roughly 30% of the book and found the characters were still acting inconsistently (one moment they’re badass, the next they’re weeping and cowering) and just gave up before getting out of the prison sequences. It’s really a shame because the plot is interesting and the action is fast paced, but the characters ruin it for me. As I said with the first book, though: give it to an editor who will slash all the bullshit out of it and an effects team who will bring the action to life and we’ll have a decent (possibly cheesy) movie that I will happily watch.

Stealing Light

Stealing Light (The Shoal Sequence, #1)Stealing Light by Gary Gibson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I feel like I should really like this book. It’s a space opera with daring smugglers and firefights and alien species and mysterious technology and plenty of action, and the main character is a no-nonsense female pilot. Or… at least she should be no-nonsense but somehow a lot of nonsense keeps getting mixed in. I really try not to be feminist about these things, but I’m really put off by how frequently she’s described naked, or how often her anus is mentioned. I mean… we really needed that much detail to get the point across? In chapter three I wrote a note in my book saying “Wait… is she fucking her ship now?” and a few paragraphs later it was like “Yup. She’s fucking her ship.” Literally fucking it. It takes human form and fucks her. Yeah.

There’s a LOT of potential here, actually. The character is a “machine head” with implants in her brain that give her all sorts of (overly described and leaned upon for plot devices) tech abilities and information, but the implants are sufficiently balanced by having some significant downsides: they’ve previously allowed the bearers to become controlled and commit heinous crimes. The implants are actually illegal now because of the exploitation potential, but they offer huge benefits, especially to a pilot like our main character. So there are huge benefits, but not to the Mary Sue level because there are also huge risks. No one really trusts a machine head, so she’s a loner who’s also dealing with the traumas and consequences of the implants, and suddenly it makes a bit of sense that she might become ‘involved’ with her ship since that’s her only companion. Right? Right??

… except every other male she encounters seems to end up fucking her too. Sigh. And, now that I think about it, I’m not sure there are any other female characters of note for her to encounter.

Yeah, I dunno.

I found the first few chapters of the book were far too heavy on exposition (laying out every detail of the technology and world without really giving me any reason to give a single shit about the characters who had all clustered together to talk about it), but the action scenes have been decent enough and I am reasonably interested enough to see what happens. I keep going despite the vague distaste I keep feeling as I plow through descriptions. I feel like this would be way up there on my list of must-reads if it weren’t for this greasy feeling that the book is more self-indulgent than it needs to be for plot purposes.

The characters spend the entire book flip flopping between emotions with no logical transitions. They’re badass in one paragraph, weeping and cowering in the next. Then they’re yelling and screaming at each other, and fucking in the next. It’s disjointed and the poor writing doesn’t do it any favours, with lots of perspective shifts and occasional lapses in tense. But despite all that, the second half of the book was decent, despite a very awkward sex scene that is initiated by the dialogue “I can tell by the way you have your hand on my dick.” They were almost in the midst of growing as characters before they did that, too. Alas.

Give this to a ruthless editor who can cut all the bullshit out of it, and hand it off to an effects team, and I bet it would make a really decent (but probably cheesy) movie. As a book, it’s pretty meh, although I am sufficiently curious to see how the plot wraps up across sequels. Curious enough to put up with more random sex and forced descriptions of nudity? Eeeehhh, maybe later.

Handbook for Lightning Survivors

The Handbook for Lightning Strike SurvivorsThe Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors by Michele Young-Stone

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had trouble with this one. It had an interesting premise that I wanted to know more about (A girl who is struck by lightning repeatedly, with some mysterious events such as watches that tick backwards in her presence, or halos around her in photographs), and it had some really powerful, raw emotion to it, but I found it disjointed and difficult to keep track of.

The author clearly loved the characters (as evidenced by the somewhat unnecessarily detailed summary of everyone’s lives at the end…), but the book failed to get me invested in them. Many of the side characters were introduced haphazardly, and it made it difficult for me to connect with them or care about their stories. I was interested in Becca’s story, kind of neutral on finding out what happened to Buckley, and couldn’t give a shit and had to resist the urge to skim when it started going off on tangents about anyone else, even when those threads eventually tied back in. I feel like it would have been stronger overall if it stuck to following one character (either Becca, or Buckley who learns Becca’s story through his book research) instead of jumping around like that.

POV tended to change mid-page. I suppose it was an attempt at third person omniscient, but instead of offering insight into all the characters it was just disorienting. More disconcertingly, the tense would sometimes swap mid-page, which was jarring. Maybe it was deliberate because of how the story skips around in time, but I disliked it.

Worst was that it just felt sort of aimless and pointless. I kept at it thinking the story was interesting enough that I wanted to see how it wrapped up, but even that was anticlimactic.

The characters have some interesting depth and the emotional moments are on point, but it was a struggle to slog through to the end.

The Half Life of Stars

The Half Life of StarsThe Half Life of Stars by Louise Wener

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a tough one to rate, made ironic by the fact that I almost didn’t read this. I selected it, looked at the cover, hesitated, read the synopsis, and thought to myself “ehhhh I don’t think I’m in the mood for this right now” and then tried reading a different book which turned out to be god awful, so I came back to this and I went “Well, at least it can’t be THAT bad” and dove in. Silly me. This is why I shouldn’t break my rule of just diving into books and seeing what happens, judging them on their own merits instead of pre-judging them by their covers and synopsis and previous reviews!

I really enjoyed it, and I kept waffling back and forth between 4 and 5 stars. The plot was well done, the characters had real life to them, and the language was wonderful. And every now and then there’d be a big twist that made perfect sense but I didn’t see it coming and I’d think “okay this is definitely 5 stars”. Then there would be a badly edited sequence where words were misused (“I couldn’t bare to do it” came up a few times and I’m pretty sure this isn’t just a UK language thing, because it doesn’t make sense that you simply cannot get naked in order to accomplish this thing right now, does it? Or… does it…). I love heavy dialogue, especially when the characters are as vivid as this, but sometimes the dialogue was so poorly edited that you couldn’t tell who was saying what and I’d start to get distracted and lose the flow. Unfortunate. I’d give it a solid 4.5 stars and I’m still really torn on whether to round up or down.

You know what… it’s been sitting on 4 stars the whole time I typed this but, fuck it, I’ll round it up to 5. The writing and characters just had a brutal honesty that I could relate to. I hated her family, because they were too real. That’s worth 5 stars. The surprising plot that didn’t leave any threads was just icing.

Graceling

This is worthy of flak but I just quit at 3%.  This… just… augh no I can’t do it.  I can’t take this right now. I’m not going to officially rate it yet though, and I am dutifully keeping it loaded on my Kindle under the pretense of giving it a proper rating later, but I feel like I should record my attempt, especially since I rarely give up on books.

I picked up Graceling because it was recommended alongside a lot of books I’ve enjoyed, and it features a ‘strong female protagonist’ which I usually enjoy a lot.  It was also touted as being highly original with lots of interesting ideas.  I was looking forward to cracking into this one.

The writing jumped out at me immediately as kind of pretentious and annoying.  Everything just smacked of ‘trying too hard’, and maybe a bit arrogant too.  But hey maybe I’m just grumpy today, so I trundled on and tried to ignore all the choppy sentences that are just begging you to notice how important they are.

The story opens with the main character basically beating the shit out of a buttload of guards.  Great care and attention is given to describing how great she is at beating the shit out of these guys, with precision strikes that fell everyone with a minimum of effort or notice. But then we are quickly reminded that she doesn’t want to do any killing because she’s done enough killing in her life (which, by the way, reminds us she’s really good at killing.  Like so good at it, guys).  So that’s good, at least she’s overwhelmingly good and kind and conscientious on top of being an unstoppable killing machine.  Which is good because her ability to kill like this is due to a special ability that only special snowflakes have, which is why she’s so special.  There’s no way this could turn into a Mary Sue character, right?  Oh wait we’re not done yet, we better lay on the heavy handed references to how she’s the only female who is this good at absolutely everything and no one suspects she’s as good at everything as she is because she’s female.

My eyes were already rolling when I paused to glance at some reviews, hoping this was just an awkward segue and it would settle the fuck down once it got rolling, but it really sounds like it’s not going to.  I just… I don’t have the energy right now.  I can’t do it.  I cannot put several hours into awkward choppy writing that’s pushing agendas about a surly and unlikable Mary Sue, even if the worldbuilding and ideas surrounding it are fantastic and unique.

Maybe when I am on summer vacation, and am suitably drunk.

[edit] Geeze, I just read more reviews that got into the feminist debate surrounding the book and now I’m terrified to even go near it anymore.  I didn’t even have a chance to be outraged by that before I got fed up!  The book has many gifts to give, it seems…

Good Graces

Good GracesGood Graces by Lesley Kagen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book left me feeling confused. It was a rollercoaster, but for the wrong reasons.

I didn’t pay too much attention to it when I started it, and I was 30% of the way into it before I discovered it was actually a sequel to a book I haven’t read. It set itself up well enough, but a lot of things were half-explained and I expected them to be important when they were actually just callbacks to the first book. No big deal, I was able to follow along easily enough.

The first 50% of the book was quite good. The narrative voice is really well done, and the time period is described very well. If you lived during this time period I could see it quickly becoming a favourite. I, however, did not live in that time period, and it started to get pretty old. It was laying on layers of nostalgia that simply didn’t resonate with me, although I appreciated the detail of it.
The next 30% or so of the book dragged on to the point where I almost quit, except that some of the reviews said the ending was really surprising, so I decided to tough it out. It was a real slog, let me tell you. I skimmed a lot and I kept seeing the same shit repeated over and over again. There were parts where the main character would experience something, and then on the literal next page she would repeat it all back to herself. It was a struggle not to just skip right to the end.
Then, in the last 20% or so, things picked up. It was almost as engaging as the first half, except that the voice had lost all of its charm and was merely becoming grating.

And then the ending happened. I don’t even know how to feel about this. I made a prediction somewhere near the beginning and I fully expected it to be how the plot would play out—the fairly obvious main villain would turn out to be a red herring and it would end in a predictable cliche fashion full of shades of grey and moral lessons. Instead, the ‘shades of grey’ prediction turned out to be the red herring, and the big bad guy was the obvious cardboard cutout evil villain the whole time, and by the way, he’s even more comically evil than you thought! I suppose that’s one way to write a twist.

But mostly, I’m confused about the ending. Spoiler time:
They murder the main villain (I suppose it’s technically homicide if they didn’t INTEND to do it but… they did set out to take him down and it just went extra sideways), destroy all the evidence and bury his body, then go to a block party where everyone is like “I wonder where he got to? Oh well”. There are no further repercussions and they sleep soundly because hey, that guy was bad, remember? He deserved it.
These protagonists are 10 year old girls. The ending had a lighthearted tone. I don’t even know. I’m all for a morally grey or even a morally reprehensible character/ending, but I feel like that wasn’t intentionally the aim here. It feels like a “yay we win!” sort of ending and it felt really out of place.

But I suppose it wasn’t entirely out of place, since Sally clearly has an abusive relationship with Troo. I found it kind of off-putting, to be honest, and if that was the intention then well done… but it doesn’t necessarily feel like that was the intention.  Compare with Cruddy, which I just finished reading (funny these two ended up back to back… must have grabbed them from the same genre bin or something).  In Cruddy everything is morally reprehensible and bleak and shitty (well, cruddy) and it’s really super obviously supposed to be that way so it makes sense and it makes a point.  In Good Graces, it’s just confusing.

The slog in the middle lost it two stars, and one more for the confusing message at the end. I don’t really know how to feel.

Cruddy

CruddyCruddy by Lynda Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is disgusting, disturbing, and fucked up… and I loved every minute of it. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up. I read Lynda Barry’s illustrated syllabus and really liked it, so when I saw Cruddy I thought “Oh hey she writes books too?” Turns out she doesn’t write many books but what a book she wrote.

You often find a lot of authors are masters of one thing and then everything else is sort of propped up on that thing. Since she’s primarily a cartoonist, I thought maybe these books would be an experimental foray into something different, maybe a little threadbare or grasping. The imagery is incredible, and you might think “well yeah but she’s used to portraying things in a visual medium” but it wasn’t just that. I enjoyed every facet of her writing. Some of the word choices are things I would never think to make, but they were so effective. I was continually impressed by how vivid everything was. Vividly disturbing, with a whole extra layer of fucked up on top. It was really something to experience.

But it’s also bleak. Even though it has its share of black comedy, this is probably not a book to read if you’re feeling down. It’s a snapshot of a miserable world full of miserable people who are fucked up because of the shit they’ve gone through and they’re getting by as best they can because there’s really nothing more they can do—this is it. Addiction, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, child abuse… everything is laid out bare and unflinching in Cruddy, and the vivid descriptions bring it home in full colour.

I can’t give this book enough stars. It needs to be experienced.

The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was almost good. I kept saying that the whole time I was reading it. “This is almost good.”

I was feeling in the mood for a good ‘curl up and read’ book, and I was about to start ovulating so I figured it would be a good time to tackle a romance (usually not my favourite), so I skimmed through various book club lists until I found The Night Circus. Ovulation is probably the only reason it got the third star.

The premise is that two magicians set up a challenge where they each enter a student and see who wins. The challenge is never fully explained, but it’s heavily hinted that they disagree about the best forms of training methods and seek to prove that their own methods are superior by producing the victorious pupil. But it’s also suggested that they’ve been doing these sorts of challenges for centuries and yet they still feel the need to keep digging up hapless children and abusing them into playing pieces for their satisfaction. They train their students and inform them that they will be challenging an opponent at some point in their life and ‘you’ll know it when you see it guys’ and that’s about it.

So at this point you might be thinking “Okay, so we’ll learn about the challenge along with the protagonists!” but yeah, you’d be wrong.

The venue for this duel is a circus. The girl, Celia, gets a job there as The Illusionist, performing magic passed off as clever tricks except it’s actual magic, of course. The boy, Marco, works from outside the circus, getting a position as the assistant to the owner of the circus. Marco works from outside the circus, Celia works from within. Each of them use their magical powers to create fantastical attractions, and eventually come to realize that this is the challenge. They must out-do their opponent and prove that they are the best.

I mean… I think so, anyway. It wasn’t really explained, and also it made no god damn sense. They spend the entire book creating fantastic things (which are all very interesting to read about) and then they wander around the circus and go “Ooh this is new! My opponent must have made this! How wonderful!” and then every so often they meet up and complement each other on their creations, or collaborate on something, and then occasionally have some forbidden sex.

And then every so often they press the back of their hand to their brow and lament “This challenge is such a strain I don’t know how much longer I can take it!” even though it makes NO sense to the reader why this should be a strain on them at all. It’s not even a challenge. They never challenge each other. They WORK TOGETHER on half of it and it’s constantly described how it’s such a pleasure to wander around through the circus attractions. If it’s supposed to be some sort of battle it certainly didn’t translate well into the text. The ‘scoring’ is never explained, to them or to the reader, and the purpose is never explained. Why would these two ancient magicians constantly play out ‘challenges’ where they enter two students who dally around with magic for decades (the challenges last ~40 years) where the only win condition is the death of your opponent? But they seem to rather enjoy collaborating together on things. It’s not like they’re chucking fireballs at each other, so there is no (reasonably explained) reason why they can’t just carry on forever until one of them dies of natural causes. Why is creating pretty circus attractions so stressful that one of them will eventually want to kill themselves?

Oh, right. Because it provides a tragic backdrop for a forbidden romance.

Plot qualms aside, I had some problems with the actual writing, too. The whole first half of the book felt… listless. I kept reading the descriptions of the circus and thinking “This is a really cool and wondrous location that is being described to me. So why is it so flat and boring?” It wasn’t until after the romance got rolling that the descriptions really started to pick up, and I really enjoyed the imaginative imagery after that, but the first half felt as limp as a warm lettuce leaf.

I had a similar issue with the characters. There are a lot of characters and they all feel flat and unremarkable, other than the main protagonists/antagonists. A lot of the punch in the plot lost its steam because I had some difficulty keeping the side characters straight. The protagonists aren’t necessarily all that remarkable either, if you want to be picky, but at least they have a bit of life to them.

I think a lot of the trouble is the choice to write it in present tense. Now, I’m biased because I hate present tense, but I’ve run across a couple books that used it well so I know it’s not impossible to impress me with it. This case is absolutely not a case where I think present tense is a good choice. If you think about it enough and really convince yourself, it kinda makes sense for this story. We have a circus that we’re clearly meant to be experiencing in the moment (there are several ‘second person’ scenes where the reader themselves are supposed to be investigating the circus. I hated all of them, by the way. Somehow they had the opposite effect of totally taking me out of the story… and they also tended to describe things that had already been described so it felt like a waste of time), and we have this supposedly deadly duel where we don’t know who will survive so present tense, in theory, should make that more exciting because it’s happening now. But the duel itself takes place over three decades and there’s not a single solitary direct attack in the whole thing. Also the setting is over a century ago so by default we know it happened in the past, even though the intent is probably to take us back there. But then the timeline jumps around! It just doesn’t work and it makes the whole narrative awkward and flat. If it hadn’t been written in present tense I feel like it would flow better, the characters would be more memorable, and the reveals would pack more punch.

Then we have the romance. The romance was okay. I deliberately read it while ovulating, and I definitely enjoyed some of the sequences, but by the end it was too sappy even for my ovaries. Once again: it just didn’t make enough sense. They’re bound together, so there’s some leeway there—they’re probably going to be drawn to each other in a special way, and we can forgive the explosions of magic every time their skin touches. It’s magic, after all. The problem is he is very clearly in love with her at first sight but she doesn’t even know who he is for half the book, and then doesn’t fall in love with him until a little ways after that. When she does it feels like it comes out of nowhere. And then, even after they get things rolling, he’s got a girl on the side that he keeps around for years? /facepalm. But, naturally, by the end they’re both falling over each other to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. “I’m gonna kill myself to save you!” “No I’m gonna kill myself to save you!” even though it makes no god damn sense that either of them have to die at all.

But the ending wrapped everything up in a fairly satisfying little bow, even if it dragged on a bit too much. Three stars.

Apparently the movie rights have been purchased already. I can’t decide if it will be good or not. It has the potential to be good, but odds are it will not be good. The imagery is just crying out to be brought to life on a screen but it will be difficult to do it justice, and they’ll Hollywood the shit out of the romance and make it unbearable. I’d probably still watch it but only on Netflix.

View all my reviews

Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on AirLate Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I greatly disliked this book at first, but it ended strong enough that I tacked an extra star onto it, almost out of pity. I ENJOYED reading it (mostly), but it annoyed me enough that it really should only have 3 stars. But then a sentence would float past and I would think “That was a really good sentence. I enjoyed that.” and then I would lament not having it on my kindle to highlight in order to go back and look at those sentences again later. There were enough of those moments that I do not regret offering the 4th star.

This book was far too in love with its setting. I’ve been to Yellowknife and hiked around a bit in the summer, so I enjoyed reading the descriptions, but I’ve always had this stubborn notion that books should have a setting and a plot, and it kept letting me down on the second part.

There was no plot for the first half of the book. It was all setting. Setting that characters talked to each other in, but each of the characters had the exact same voice (the voice of the author, I imagine), and I had to keep checking the names in the sentences to figure out who was saying what. The characters have backstories that are all painstakingly laid out for you in the first 100 pages of the novel in an awful display of telling instead of showing, but their personalities fail to come through until the very end. I could tell them apart by name, but they did not convey any of their personality through dialogue. I hated every single one of them except Gwen for a full 2/3s of the novel, and never really did warm up to anyone else by the end.

I did not care for the writing at all for most of the book. It was fragmented and rambling, constantly bringing up little threads of plot that abruptly end or just get dropped into nothing. I was continually annoyed by flowery descriptive moments where the writing dropped into an almost pretentious tone. I’ve never been a big poetry fan, and a lot of the descriptive passages twigged the same dislike in me that poetry does. And then the incredibly annoying habit of ending a section with something like “They didn’t know it yet, but this would be important later.” Stop telling me things. ESPECIALLY stop telling me things you haven’t even gotten around to writing yet. SHOW me things.

But then there were the good moments. A turn of phrase that strikes you as particularly beautiful or apt, or a character moment that makes you nod. The characters, for all their flat dialogue, were REAL. I loved that they all had flaws and behaved realistically. Some of the interactions were things I could really identify with, such as when Gwen is flabbergasted at being accused of being too proud or arrogant about her skills, when (to her own perception) she was barely stumbling along and hanging in there. It’s so true.

But at its heart, the book feels like a sappy romance, because that’s all there is for plot. This character is in love with that character but shouldn’t be. That character is in love with this character but doesn’t know it yet (but hey at least they will in the future! Look the author says so right here at the end of this paragraph.) Those characters are in love but it was never meant to be. Or was it? That’s really the entire plot. I was intrigued by the jacket cover description of a trek through the barrens, but it takes you 200 pages to even start talking about that trek, and then it’s over long before the book ends. I feel like the jacket should be sued for false advertising, but to be fair, what else would you advertise as a plot?

The barrens trek was by far my favourite part of the book because the characters finally had a purpose and a goal beyond just interacting with each other, and suddenly all the descriptions and character interactions held so much more meaning. That’s when the extra star got tacked on. If only the first 2/3rds of the book had been edited down a bit to have more direction, I might have enjoyed it that much more.

Darwin’s Children

Darwin's Children (Darwin's Radio #2)Darwin’s Children by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is pure emotion.

I don’t actually know how I feel about it. There are parts of it that are probably some of my most favourite scenes I have ever read, and I highlighted a whole bunch of shit just because I really really liked the way it was written. And there are a bunch of parts that made me squint my eyes and scratch disapprovingly at my chin. I spent a whole day reading this book practically non-stop and felt like I was loving every minute of it, until I got to the end, where I stepped back and looked at it as a whole and thought to myself “……. I’m not sure that I liked that.”

But that’s a Greg Bear novel for me, I suppose. It happens every time.

The first book was exhaustively researched and it was a comfortable stretch to believe that the things proposed could happen. This book does not feel quite as tight. The first book spent a lot of time etching out every minute detail, and this one seems to spend a lot of time skimming over those. I’m quite willing to suspend belief for the sake of plot, especially when creating a new species, but learning and behaviour is my pet field of study and I feel like there are some huge holes in the development of the society of the children. Not to mention the religious element that was introduced. It almost feels like the first book was meant to be hard scientific fact and then he wanted the second book to come at it from the other angle to provide contrast, which is a nice idea in theory, but the way it is presented just doesn’t jive with me. I put comments in several places saying “I hope this is explained a little bit better later…” and then I had a moment of hope when Kaye gets all the scans done, but nope, that was just a distraction too, as if it’s trying to explain that there is no explanation so just get over it. It’s like we go from hard facts and figures to watching the book wave its hands spookily and then conclude with “A God did it.” (Well. Maybe. Because that’s not confirmed either.) Unsatisfying.

The time skips are especially bad. I’d be reading almost breathlessly, racing ahead to get to an anticipated point where two plotlines would collide and I could see the result, annnnnnnnddd *poof* 3 years later. That thing happened during those three years and it was cool but we’re past that now and won’t waste any time describing it, thanks. It happened every time and it made me so mad every time.

I have to say, I love the way the characters interact in this book. The characters feel so robustly human to me, full of emotions and flaws and character traits, and I loved them. But they spent a lot of time on superficial interactions and leave the bulk of the plot development behind the scenes to be discussed in hindsight while they go about their superficial interactions. I’m not sure how I feel about that. And apart from the main family (Kaye, Mitch, Stella), no one else gets a lot of development.  They have their template personality and that’s about it.  At times there are characters used from previous books that might have been thrown in purely so that there would be a backstory already in place and there would be no need to add further development.  It led to a lot of cardboard supporting cast.  There are even some characters who felt abandoned. Where are the rest of their stories? Such as:
Minor spoiler:
We skipped entirely over the bit with Stella and Will. Will exists in like, four scenes in this entire book? We start to get to know him and then *poof* 3 years later. Welp, nevermind that now.

I am so exquisitely torn about the main character too. I loved Kaye. I loved the interactions between Mitch and Kaye. I must have been in the right emotional (hormonal??) state of mind for it because I was more invested in their relationship than I was in the fate of the children, most of the time. I highlighted so many of their scenes together because they felt so real. The scene where Mitch finally snaps and Kaye recognizes how unfair she’s been:

“Kaye stood beside the bed and watched Mitch, eyes wide. Her chest felt wrapped in steel bands. She was as frightened as if she had just missed driving them all off a cliff.”

That moment when you emerge from your own misery and realize with a shock that it affects other people too and you’ve been a huge selfish ass about it. That is real.

But then, I don’t know. She struck me as a near Mary-Sue at first. It’s almost textbook – gifted genius girl who doesn’t recognize how good she is and everyone is in awe of her and everyone wants to fall in love with her oh my. But then she displays real, palpable flaws and it dispels the Mary-Sue threat. I found her to be a realistic depiction of an emotional (and at times irrational) female, but at other times she would drop down into a sort of “This is a female being written by a man” template and I’d find it disappointing purely because it was such a contrast to some of her other scenes.  It’s like she has transitions where she grows as a character and changes her behaviour, and then transitions where suddenly she’s just acting sort of different and it seems odd. And then she finds God or something, I don’t fucking know. It felt like a character departure at several points, in this book and the last.
Ending spoiler:
And then I was pissed at the ending. Seriously pissed. I think that means that my ultimate judgement of her is that I like her? I got the impression that the ending was supposed to be hopeful but I guess I’m just not religious enough for that because no, fuck you, give her more time with her family, you fuck. They’ve been through enough!  I think I’m angry at how unnecessary that was.  The injustice of it.  If that was the goal then bra-fucking-vo.

I don’t think I could read this again, but I think I’m going to be thinking of the characters over the next few days.

Darwin’s Radio

Darwin's Radio (Darwin's Radio #1)Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am thoroughly impressed with the depth of research displayed in this book. I’ve got an undergrad biology degree, and I got an A in the genetics parts of things, but I ultimately spent more time studying other things and went in different directions after graduation and got pretty rusty on the viruses and chromosomes front. I’m pretty sure the author knows more about it than I do right now. That is a lot of god damn research for something that is dangerously susceptible to making you look silly within a decade (or, fuck, a year if you’re unlucky). And it’s holding its own.

That said, I’m sure if I actually studied viruses and chromosomes this book would have a lot of bits that would annoy the fuck out of me. And since I did study viruses and chromosomes at one point, I didn’t mind slogging through the absolute tons of detail provided about how they work and the proposed systems at play. Someone else might not.

I really like Greg Bear’s books, but I always seem to have this issue where I start reading them, get absolutely fucking hooked and can’t put them down, and then the ending leaves me with a slightly disgusted look on my face and I feel let down and don’t want to bother reading any more of his books. Until next time I’m craving a very good book and then I’ll pick one up, get absolutely fucking hooked, and…

Darwin’s Radio did not have the same effect on me. It was less extreme on both fronts, actually. I was less hooked than usual, and the ending didn’t annoy me as much. But, perhaps that is because this book has no ending. This book has a sequel. Presumably THAT book contains the ending because this one certainly did not. I remain interested enough to pick up the sequel, quite possibly even start it right now! But there was a shift somewhere in the middle of the book that made me think to myself “Oh, here we go again.” It got away from the facts and figures and started moving into the ‘what happens now’ which might account for that, and there were a lot of really good emotional scenes that I enjoyed, but it felt like reading a different book at times. Suddenly characters that I really admired started acting a bit differently and I started to like them less. I got more ambivalent about what would happen to them. I did not like that change and it makes me apprehensive about the sequel. I want to read about the characters I liked in the beginning, not these new ones they are turning into. I don’t just mean the speciation events, either.

The Kings of Eternity

The Kings of EternityThe Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost gave up on this book several times.  It’s fairly short, but I was a full 25% of the way into it before anything happened.  I was just done with it.  I didn’t particularly like the character, it kept jumping back and forth between two time periods and my lack of interest in the character made it difficult to follow (in one time period there is a girlfriend named Carla and in the other there is one named Caroline, and I’m bad with names so I kept getting them crossed with each other which made his seeming 180 degree reactions toward them very confusing), but worst of all the language in the book was almost pretentious to read.  I had heard the term ‘purple prose’ before and I even remember looking it up once and thinking “aha, that is the name for that” but then forgetting again.  This book is purple prose.  I don’t think I will forget the meaning of it again, after this.  There is even a section in the book that I highlighted where a character reads out a section of writing from the main character’s books (who is also an author, naturally) and criticizes it for being “Interesting, if a little overwritten.”  That is this book.  I was about to give up on it and went back to the blurb on it to remember why I had even loaded it on my kindle in the first place, and went “Oh.  Hmm.  That does sound interesting.  Maybe I’ll keep going for a little more…”

Then I got to 25% and things happened and I was like “ahh, finally, the reason I loaded this.” and once I was into it even the over-writing started to feel more like Jules Verne than simply trying too hard, which may have been what they were going for.  And then at 40% I was like “holy shit this is pretty good actually.”  And by the end I was like “Eeeh, that was flawed, but these characters are cropping up in random thoughts throughout the day so I guess it’s pretty good.”  3.5 stars.

The premise, in case you’re reading this because you haven’t gotten 25% of the way into it yet and want to know if there’s a point to continuing, is that a reclusive author and his three friends stumble upon an anomaly in the woods which turns out to be a gate to an alien planet.  They have an encounter with an alien creature, save him, and are rewarded with some gifts in return.  One of those gifts is the gift of immortality (more or less) via what is not explained as but is almost certainly some form of nano-medical-technology.  Now they must deal with the fact that they will outlive everyone else.  But there’s more… they can give one dose to one other person each.  Who do they give it to?  How will they conceal their non-aging properties?  Use of the technology is forbidden… what will they do when the aliens come looking for them as lawbreakers?

There were a lot of things that I picked up on and I wasn’t sure if they were intentional or not.  A lot of things are repeated.  In a lot of cases it seems like it could be an attempt to signal something significant, but in other cases I was genuinely not sure if the author just forgot they had done that already.  For example, the author in the book writes a story about a reclusive author living in Greece who is finally charmed by a woman and brought out of his solitude.  Guess what happens to the character!  In exactly the same town as the book he wrote!  That can’t just be a coincidence.  But then certain descriptive phrases were used repetitively, like the one about heat hitting their skin like a physical blow.  It’s actually a plot point in the book that the author is accused of plagiarism because he accidentally re-uses phrases from books he penned under different names.  Are these repetitive phrases some sort of nod to that or just a mistake of editing?  Would there be a point to adding a nod to that??  I’m not sure.  It went over my head if there is one.

And I noticed an odd tendency to over-explain things, but only the things that really didn’t need any explanation whatsoever.  To make it even more irritating, when something actually needed explaining, it would be glossed over.  But if you ever wondered how an object got from one end of the room to the other, hoo boy nothing was left to imagination!  Except then sometimes it wouldn’t be explained and suddenly it was glaringly obvious that an object that had previously been described as on that side of the room was being picked up by a character on this side of it.  Ironically, the breaks in continuity wouldn’t have been an issue at all if it weren’t for the anal over-description of everything else.  There were times when I was absolutely positive I could see the author re-reading the scene and then going “Crap, what if someone asks about this,” and adding a bunch of extraneous descriptive text to head off any pedantic questions, then forgetting that it impacted a scene later on.

Minor ending spoilers:
I was actually surprised it worked out the way it did because it spent so much time building up to the ending that I was expecting it to be a twist, because it was just too obvious and the character had everything worked out and naturally life would throw him one last curveball and punch him in the gut or something because that’s how these things work.  But then… nope just the obvious happy ending.  Disney-esque, even.  Satisfying, though.

Much bigger ending spoilers: Read more of this post

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking Finale)

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking, #3)Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are good books and you should read them. The final book in the series holds up its end of the bargain and keeps you reading. It has its flaws (and a fair amount of cheesiness…) but it still deserves a five.

I still hate the random misspellings in Todd’s sections. They add nothing. Stop it. I don’t mean during dialogue where it dictates an obvious speech pattern, I mean in his thoughts where any word that ends in “-tion” is butchered into “-shun” for no reason. I got over it but it’s pointless. I still appreciate that every character sounds distinct, though.

Speaking of which, I absolutely loved the way the alien voice is written. It’s a challenging task to take on a language that is intended to be mostly pictorial and then change it into text, but it was effectively done (even if there were some shortcuts here and there). It felt alien. The worst thing about it is that I don’t think it can ever effectively be translated into a movie format. I almost hope no one tries to make this series into a movie because so much of it will likely be lost in translation.

Many of the complaints I had about the characterization of the villains were completely eradicated in the final book – which brings me to a whole new complaint (no, you can’t win). This series should not have been a trilogy. It doesn’t really feel like a cheap cash-in attempt (selling three books is better than selling one after all) but the books feel decidedly unfinished when you hit the break points between them. You need to read all three to get the whole picture and really appreciate it. It was amazing, but I wonder how polished it could have been if it were constructed as a cohesive whole…

The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking, #2)The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Augh this book. It’s so good, and then it grabs the ball and just drops it all over itself and leaves me going “…” because why. Why did you drop that ball. You did everything else so well. Why.

It has so many flaws and yet I must rate it 5.

The Chaos Walking series continues its excellent character development, and even the villains are interesting this time. The story picks up where the first book left off, and the entirety of it is set in the capital city of the planet. A number of heavy issues are broached (racism, slavery, torture, approaches to morality, self esteem and identity…) and it never once became preachy or uninteresting to me.  It also managed to stop doing that thing I hated in the first book where Todd would discover something and react appropriately and not tell anything to the reader grrrr.  So kudos for stopping that bullshit.

It did, however, become a bit baffling at points. What the book (and series so far, really) seems to lack is motivations. Amidst all of these excellent character depictions and believable responses to things, there is a complete lack of a sense for why they are doing what they are doing. The real strengths of these characters are how believable they are, but the lack of clear motivations is starting to make even that a bit muddy in this book. Before reading these books I probably would have said it wouldn’t be possible to write characters this well and somehow miss their motivations, but, well, here it is, and it’s probably the worst thing about this book given how well the first one developed the characters.

In the first book we had comically evil mustache twirling villains who seemed to be evil for the sake of being evil, because there wasn’t really a decent motivation behind their actions. We still have that here, but the villains are fleshed out a bit more and it’s easy to forget that the bottom line is they’re being evil pretty much for the sake of being evil. Okay fine the motivation is “I will rule the world” but that’s synonymous with “comically evil”.

[Vague plot discussion follows – I try to avoid major spoilers but it’s worth a warning:]

Read more of this post

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So difficult to rate. I really really enjoyed this book, but there were some flaws that marred the experience. If partial marks were allowed I’d probably end up dipping into 1/2s and maybe 3/4s, but as it is I will just start at 5 stars for being amazing, and drop it to 4 for having unfortunate flaws.

The language was not one of those flaws, although it could have been. The book uses “cleetus speak” to show that the characters are uneducated. The dialects aren’t slathered all over everything and, unlike the Dust Lands books, characters had unique “accents” as the characters moved from place to place. I could actually tell characters apart as they spoke. I enjoyed it, even. (And they use quotation marks! How novel!) It did still annoy me when words were misspelled when it made no sense to do so. e.g. words ending in -tion would be spelled “-shun”. Why. It is pronounced the same, so it doesn’t even contribute to an accent. It’s a minor annoyance and I got over it, though.

It’s such an interesting premise. Todd was born on this planet, but he’s actually part of a colony who landed here and soon discovered that something on the planet is causing them to hear each other’s thoughts. The plot is a bit sparse to begin with – Todd is going about his life, and then shit goes down and he needs to flee his hometown. He’s just as confused about it as we are, and the readers learn about the story while he figures it out. It’s like a blend of old time farmland settings and sci-fi genres, and it works. The worldbuilding is good and keeps you wanting to know more.

I have some issues with the second part of that, though. It relies heavily on a “hook” that I dislike – not telling the reader anything, even if the protagonist learns something. It’s mostly handled well, but then there are parts of the book where it cuts to Todd’s reaction as someone explains something really really important to him. No one explains any of it to us, the readers, and it’s such a transparent hook to make you keep reading. It works, mind you, but I resent every moment of it. You can handle it more gracefully than that guys, come on. It’s jarring and transparent. ESPECIALLY when you’re trying to pull off first person present tense. It was shockingly sloppy compared to a lot of the rest of the writing.

There’s a bit of really obvious telling instead of showing, too, which was also really odd given how well most of the book was constructed. In pretty much the first chapter Todd is thinking about how the year has 13 months in it, and I was all “aha, these are not typical Earth years.” Many many many chapters later Viola painstakingly lays out how the years are a different length here. Seriously? Did you forget that shit was in chapter one or did you think “omg the years are a different length why” would be a mystery for the whole book and it better be cleared up?

The characters were fantastic. They were real. They had human thoughts and made human mistakes. They reacted to each other in human ways. Each character was distinct. Even the dog had an appropriately dog-styled personality. Most of the writing was sort of stream-of-consciousness choppy style, which made a lot of sense in the context of all thoughts being audible, and it was used effectively to bring the character’s reactions to life. I enjoyed it, although it was a bit overdone in areas.

I loved almost every interaction between characters in this book, except for the villains. All this effort was poured into the main characters to make them believable and human, and then it came time to write the villains and they slapped some comically evil paint onto some cardboard and propped it up. Their motivations are weak and cliche (“I will ruulllleee the wooorrrlllddd” yeah yeah we’ve heard it before). The protagonists “kill” the main antagonist like 4 or 5 times and oops he just keeps popping back up! No explanation as to how he didn’t die, just vivid descriptions of the visible damage from the wounds they inflicted last time (and a conspicuous lack of descriptions of a terminator-style endoskeleton, because I was getting pretty certain that’s the only way to survive all this shit by the end).  And then the reveal of how Todd is supposed to transition to manhood.

I just don’t buy it. It’s too flimsy. Enjoyable I suppose, but flimsy.

A bit of an aside, I suppose… one thing I noticed in this book is that it used the word “effing” copiously. It was amusing in a number of ways, mirroring a teenager trying to toe the line and test their boundaries. But then it would say something like “(but I don’t say “effing” I say the real word this time)”. Just fucking say fucking. I thought it was so the book could be properly marketed to a younger audience without having to worry about any scary words being included that would make parents angry or saddle it with a profanity warning, but then Viola lets a proper “fucking” slip and Todd reacts to it. … we have no need to self-censor then, do we? So why so much self-censorship? Baffling.

Bitching completed. I really liked this book. Flaws aside, the writing was powerful and well crafted, the characters were fantastic and believable, and the world is interesting and unique. The villains kinda suck but maybe it will come into its own later on and flesh out the plot a bit. I can kinda relate even if it doesn’t… I often come up with characters I really like and then have no ideas for good situations to get them into.

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The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers Are the Angels (Reapers, #1)The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been reading a lot of what can probably quite accurately be referred to as “crap”. As a result, some of the automated recommendations that pop up have been… interesting.

If were asked, I would probably say I am not a fan of zombie fiction, so I kind of scoffed when this book cropped up. But I love post apocalyptic wastescapes and isolation/survival fiction… so it actually seems like something I should really enjoy. The first half of 28 Days Later is one of my favourite movie experiences, where we wander around in an abandoned London trying to piece together where all the people went. And I rather enjoy The Walking Dead video game series from Telltale (not the TV show. I loathe the TV show and all its misogynistic melodrama), where you follow the heart-rending exploits of a little girl trying to survive post-zombies.

The Reapers are the Angels started out as a mix of the best parts of both of them – following a little girl (okay fine she’s 15) trying to survive in an abandoned wasteland.

I was riveted and finished it in one sitting.

It’s actually really well written. Miracle upon miracles – it uses present tense, and I think it is effective and not annoying as shit. It had to happen one day, I suppose. It helps that it is third person present tense, not first. First person present tense is just too awkward. It’s like standing beside someone who is narrating their every thought, and that’s just bizarre. Third person is like standing beside someone as they experience things, which ramps up the tension, and also allows the protagonist to die with a seamless handing of the storytelling to a secondary character, meaning anything could happen. There are also a lot of very vivid descriptions of wastelands and zombie decay which really put you there and bring it to life around you.

What it doesn’t have is quotation marks. And for the life of me I cannot understand this decision. It adds nothing but annoyance. I also noted some other writing weirdness and mistakes, like poor comma usage. It’s nitpicky, but it’s something that really jumped out at me when the rest of it seemed so well done.

Also unfortunately, the vivid descriptions are a bit lost behind tired zombie cliches. There wasn’t much of a plot to begin with: “Temple” is just living her life, surviving, catching fish and smashing zombie skulls. She happens onto a colony of people living in a city and immediately there are shifty looks from the men and warnings from the women to avoid the area where all the single men hang out, because it can be “rough”. “Oh good, we’re going to get to the obligatory zombie-fiction rape scene really early in this one”, I thought to myself. Sure enough, one of them wakes her up and shoves his cock in her face. She obliges by punching it, which made me happy, but the ensuing knife-fight results in her losing a finger and he losing his life. She goes on the run as his brother attempts to hunt her down, presumably to exact revenge. Ta-dah: plot.

The next place she runs to is a little oasis of normal life surrounded by electric fences. Within the barricades, everyone lives life as if nothing untoward has ever occurred in the world. They wear nice clothing, they have a butler, they play the piano, they have proper meals and sit at the table. Oh but father will not be joining us – he’s been sick. I wrote a note saying “There is no way he is not a zombie who they sealed up in the basement out of denial.” Spoiler alert: You’ll never guess what happens next! Can’t we do anything new in this genre?

We can, actually. Those were the only two major blights on the unravelling story of the book. We follow Temple as she travels across the country, and along the way we meet novel dangers and reveal snippets of past events that really enrich the characters and world. You could get out a microscope and pick some holes in the timing and factuality of things, but I felt it was not distracting and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I was a little worried that the religious undertones might ramp into high gear and get preachy (it says angels right in the title and there are plenty of allusions to whether mankind brought the zombie plague down via sin). They stayed sufficiently out of my way, however.  The actual zombie plague is never really explained, which was both annoying and refreshing.  It’s annoying because I like those sorts of worldbuilding aspects… but it was also refreshing because the zombies are in no way the actual threat or focus of this book, so it was good not to waste a lot of time on them.  They’re proper slow, uncoordinated, largely harmless, indefatigable zombies that must be dealt with but are only an issue if you’re careless.  It’s a nice venture back to the roots of zombie-ism.

That was a really excellent little book, and I’m sure whatever drek I will pull out of my recommended pile next will probably be a little bit worse for being compared to it.

[edit] Hrm it’s a series. I don’t know if I dare look for a sequel… it might suck and ruin everything.

Rebel Heart

Rebel Heart (Dust Lands, #2)Rebel Heart by Moira Young

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I merely wanted this book to be adequate. I didn’t want something deep or meaningful, all it had to do was entertain me for the couple of hours it would take to burn through it.

It failed.

I enjoyed Blood Red Road enough that I sought out the next of the series instead of moving on to the next book in the pile. The first book had its issues, but I thought there was enough potential in the characterization and potential for interesting worldbuilding that I wanted to see where it would go next.

Full disclosure time: I am only halfway through Rebel Heart at the time of writing this. Not a god damn thing has happened yet and I’m seriously fed up. I want to finish it and see where it goes, but I’ve also avoided reading anything all weekend because I just can’t be bothered. That’s about where I usually give up on a book and move on to something that actually entertains me. I’m not sure what will happen… I may edit this review if I do slog on. We will see.

The first book impressed me by not making the romance the focal point. It didn’t get distracted with it like so many books do – the romance was just a thing that happened during the course of the adventure. In Rebel Heart, we start out with a little intro chapter starring Jack, who is carrying out his business as quickly as possible so he can get back to Saba as quickly as possible.
So now we know Jack’s inner thoughts and intentions, and we know 100% that he loves Saba and that’s his only real goal right now. Alrighty then.

Then we get punted back to Saba and company (and god awful first person again… The writing was so much better in Jack’s chapter where it used third person. It’s a shame, but I guess you have to experiment sometimes). Saba thinks about Jack. Saba wishes to see Jack again. Saba loves Jack. Saba briefly worries that Jack won’t return to her. Saba thinks about Jack. Saba wishes to see Jack. Tommo falls in love with Saba (WHAT. Oh of course he does because she is so amazing how silly of me. Ugh. Isn’t he like 9? I can’t tell if this is a failure to adequately describe a character in the first book, so we just assume he’s around Emmi’s age when he’s actually supposed to be ~15, or if it just means the series continues to completely fail at consistency in time passage and scale…). Saba continues to wish to see Jack. Saba loves Jack. Word gets back to them that Jack is running around with a group of bad guys. Saba’s world ends.

The whole thing was an infuriating waste of my time. Nothing happens for the whole first part of the book except thinking about Jack. There is no other plot. Then the “shocking news” comes along and we spend entirely too much time watching Saba wrestle with the news. Is Jack a traitor?? Does he not love her?? How could he?!? Saba refuses to believe it despite all the characters saying “I told you he couldn’t be trusted”, despite those characters agreeing that the “threat” Jack sent along to Saba just doesn’t sound like something he would say hmmmmm gosh I guess we really misjudged him we could never believe he’d say things like that! Saba makes the startling leap of logic that it is actually a coded message.
This is all a total waste of time because we, the readers, knew from the fucking prologue that Jack’s only real goal is to survive to see Saba again. You just wasted half a book to have Saba figure out something we already knew while everyone around her argues about it. It’s the worst kind of telling instead of showing… But I said that about Blood Red Road too didn’t I… Hmm.

I’m not even done bitching. We now have a plot (sort of… I mean its still the same plot of “must see Jack again”) so now Saba sets off to find him. We’ve spent half the book with no plot, and now the plot is pretty much exactly the same as Blood Red Road: an arbitrary time limit to travel an immense distance to find someone, except this time it’s less interesting. Saba even veers off deeper into Mary Sue territory by acquiring more animal companions and super abilities. I was almost really interested when she set off down the wraithway because the landscape was interesting, but it rehashes Blood Red Road again by pulling the trope of “I will sneak off when my friends are not looking because I do not want them to be put at risk because of me” and then oops all the animals she so carefully tied up just show up shortly thereafter and help protect her, and then there’s a whole sequence where she is running for her life and has a near escape only to realize what she escaped from was actually all of her friends who followed her. It would be fine, if it hadn’t happened in almost exactly the same way about four times over a book and a half. I’m not certain I can think of a near escape in this series that actually turned out to be something threatening.

And every time Lugh says anything I want to strangle him. Every line of dialogue he has makes me regret spending all that time reading the first book to save his negative ass. I think Nero is the only character I don’t hate right now. Oh I know it’s all going to turn into some sort of moral lesson about friendship and supportive relationships near the end of the book, and I’m actually interested to see how it unfolds (in terms of will it be done well or will it be a schadenfreude-laden trainwreck of writing mistakes?) but I might need to wait until I’m in a better mood to attempt to get there.

And there’s still no real plot.

I feel like I’m just about to get to a point where SOMETHING fucking happens, so I want to keep going, but… I don’t think I care anymore. Disappointing.

[edit] So yeah.  I woke up this morning and read some spoilers for the second half of the book.  She sleeps with the bad guy and has a pregnancy scare?  Holy what the fuck are you fucking kidding me?  I am retroactively regretting reading the first one, now.  I want post-apocalyptic dystopia, not “After School Special” soap opera.  A whirlwind of angst and melodrama and this is AFTER she was magically “cured” of her conveniently Hunger-Games-Like PTSD thanks to some shamanism.  I think I’m done with this :/

Blood Red Road

Blood Red Road (Dust Lands, #1)Blood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave this book four stars. It does not deserve four stars, but I still gave it four stars. That might be confusing to you because I am going to spend most of this review bitching about it.

Blood Red Road is yet another dystopian fiction that popped up in the wake of Hunger Games, with yet another female protagonist wielding ranged weapons and going head to head with others to survive. Saba’s tiny little family is torn apart when a group of men show up, murder her father, and kidnap her twin brother. She sets out on an action-packed quest to brave harsh elements and rescue him, all while saddled with her 9 year old little sister.
I actually really enjoyed it and didn’t feel like it was trying too hard to cash in on “genre of the week”, although there was one kind of “plunked” section that felt an awful lot like it was trying to force Saba to mimic Katniss’s PTSD character arc (especially since it conveniently never really seems to crop up again for the rest of the book, where it ends up being a huge part of Katniss’s character development throughout the entire trilogy. Hrmmm…)

The first thing you will notice, even if all you do is read reviews about the book, is that it’s written in a “dialect” to reflect the idea that the characters are uneducated (ie: they say things like “ezzackly” instead of “exactly”).
I hated it. Hate hate hate hate.
I actually had no problem with the dialect itself – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sort of grammar-less drawl be the ‘voice’ of your character if that’s how you want it. Why are the god damn descriptions written in it too? It’s a description of the character’s actions from the author of the book not a written description by the uneducated characters, so it makes no sense to mangle it. It just adds difficulty to reading without adding any depth to the book.

There are no quotation marks throughout the entire book. They don’t know what quotation marks are, because they are uneducated and don’t know how to write, you see. Which makes no sense because they are speaking to each other. This is not someone’s uneducatedly-written account of who was speaking. What’s more, every single character has the exact same ‘dialect’ which just made them all sound like they had the same voice, to me. Even characters who seemed to be quite well educated would speak in exactly the same grammatical patterns, and it was just bizarre. I had to keep stopping and going to back to weed out who said something vs who thought something vs who described something, and it was tedious and stupid. I actually think I would recommend waiting for the inevitable movie to be made, just to avoid wading through this bullshit.

I felt like the story was simultaneously strong and unique, and also shallow and cliche. Figure that one out. I don’t even know if I can adequately describe it… it felt unique enough that I really enjoyed it, but there were a lot of really obvious cliches at work and I rolled my eyes at each and every one.

One of the biggest flaws that kept jumping out at me was the complete lack of a grasp of scale. Time jumps were very hard to get a hold on. Things would progress at a rate that seemed like it must have been a year, and yet it’s like “one month later”. And then at other times it would be all “she got a tiny scratch that was nowhere near as bad as some of the other shit she’s gone through, but despite that she was knocked out and unconscious for two days, but despite it being two whole days we’re just going to get around to stitching it up now…”. It felt like “seat of the pants” convenience writing which probably reflects a lack of experience more than anything.

The most glaring example is the whole sequence with the cage fighting. She’s captured, they spend a few days travelling (though the way it’s described certainly seems like longer), she’s sold to the fighting ring, and in less than a month she’s got her own private cell and special treatment and has never lost a match, and is even asked by one of the other characters to lead the way because “You know this place better than anyone.” This needed so much more setup. Did she do a lot of fighting in her tiny isolated farm that had no livestock to wrestle or anything? Was she secretly a blacksmith to build up all this strength? If the story had spent a little more time developing her at the rink it would have been best, but you couldn’t do that because of the three-losses rule. And of course, the whole pressing overall time limit for the rescue of Lugh. It’s quite a dilemma – too long and it’s unrealistic for her to still be alive, but too short and it’s unrealistic for her to be the champion, so instead it has to skip out into Mary Sue territory to get through it. A bit more planning (and maybe a bit more hanging on by the skin of her teeth instead of winning everything effortlessly) and it would have been much smoother.

Not to mention how, later, miss “undefeated angel of death” screams at the sight of a skeleton. /facepalm.
Oh I’m sorry. It was a “skelenton”. Ugh.

Having said that and done all this bitching, I’ve seen a lot of bitching about the character and how she does not develop and she’s all mean to her little sister all the time so she’s unsympathetic and people hate her. You know what, the flaws of the character are the part I actually enjoyed the most, and I think those people completely missed the awesome character development that did happen with regards to her relationship with Emmi. No, the book does not end with everything being all rainbows and butterflies between them, and thank god because they’re on an actually believable arc that I’m hoping will continue to develop with the series. Yes, you want to smack her at times. That’s who her character is, and it makes sense.

I enjoy dystopias for the worldbuilding, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding in Blood Red Road… which, again, might be pretty confusing because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of worldbuilding. What was there was very subtle, and (this is the important part) it made SENSE for it to be subtle, because this is Saba’s world. She does not need things explained. That’s just how things are for her. She takes note of things, and occasionally wonders about things, and in that way the world is revealed to the reader. I enjoyed it, but I also hope the series goes on to meet a literate historian and reveal a bit more backstory about how things got to be this way.

I also hope they spend a little time explaining the “magic” that seems to exist in the world. Pa’s seeming divination skills, the strange properties of the “heartstone”, Nero having a unique amount of intelligence (to the degree that it’s even commented on in-book… Chekov’s gun?), the king’s immortality? Are there scientific explanations for some of these things, are there magical explanations for these things, or are we just going to smile and nod? There was a vague attempt at explaining the giant worms (though the hind leg reveal was pretty eye-roll inducing…), so there might be some ideas behind things, but then it becomes a question of whether saying more will help, or if it will just make us go “… well that’s just fucking stupid“.

There were plenty of things that already made me raise an eyebrow. They’re constantly travelling somewhere and going “Oh no we can’t stop we have to make it before dark!!!” while also bitching about the heat and their water supplies. It. is. a. desert. Travel at night, dummies! At least the worm explanation made some sense for the one part, but every single other desert-travel section? And speaking of the worms… they let their horses go because they hope the horses will make it to the other side before dark. Why weren’t you riding the god damn horses to go faster in the first place.

And there were just some weird decisions in the plot, too. Rooster showed some interesting character potential playing the part of the abused husband, and then, well… so much for that I guess? Massive armies using stealth when they quite clearly overwhelm the other side? Except… I guess they didn’t because when the dust clears only two people are injured? … More seat of the pants writing. But I really only noticed these things as oddities, rather than being annoyed by them.

Even the inevitable romance bits were tolerable, primarily because they were part of the story and not constantly tromping all over the plot just to be seen. I am worried about the next books though. Naturally the only not-ugly bad guy is going to turn out to be actually a good guy and spark a love triangle, isn’t he. Ugh. Ugh.

So there it is. That is my review. I enjoyed this book despite its massive flaws and I hope they don’t do a cheap cash-in for the movie, because I think it will make for a decent action adventure where lack of quotation marks won’t make me fly into a rage.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. That’s the only reason. I don’t even really like detective mysteries, and I sought out and read this book solely because I discovered it was written by JK Rowling. And I feel like that was kind of her point.

The book itself was pretty good. Much like Casual Vacancy, it was a fairly solid 3.5, but since Goodreads doesn’t allow for .5s I was once again stuck with the decision to either round up or down. I rounded Casual Vacancy up because I felt like I wanted to reward the risks taken, because it was experimental and I enjoyed the attempt even if the result fell a little flat. This book was not experimental in the slightest, aside from the whole pseudonym thing maybe. It’s a whodunnit from start to finish, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really strike me as anything special, so I rounded down this time.

Here’s the premise: Robin is assigned to be a secretary at a private eye office through her temp agency, and from there we meet Cormoran Strike and follow along as he solves a murder mystery. That’s pretty much it – the mystery itself is unravelling whether a “suicide” of a famous lady was actually suicide or if it was actually a murder, and Rowling displays much of the same aptitude for laying down hints and false trails as she did in Harry Potter. The writing itself is excellent as always, although I felt it often drifted into overly flowery descriptions, which never bothered me with any of her other writing. Either I am getting grumpier and pickier (entirely plausible), or she tried just a bit too hard in some places.

The book is set up to introduce the characters and set the stage for future sequels, which I feel is probably a good thing, because I feel like Rowling is writing to her strengths and things will only get better once we get out of the whole “this is who this character is” stage. I’m going to make a lot of presumptions here and they may not be correct at all, but I got the sense that these characters were bouncing around in Rowling’s head for a good long while. There is a lot of character exposition and it felt like she was just boiling over with the need to share it all with us, even when it wasn’t necessarily very appropriate or timely. Strike’s amputated leg is practically a character in the story for the amount of time we hear about it, and it could be safely deleted without affecting the actual plot whatsoever. There’s absolutely no purpose to it other than to add a bit of depth to him. The story almost starts to spin its wheels when it gets into establishing the characters, but it’s really the characters that make the story worth reading. An interesting dilemma.

Here’s some more presumptions: This book spends a lot of time making points about the lives of celebrities, and I couldn’t help but feel Rowling was adding in a little bit of side commentary based on personal experiences. There’s a bit of meta-story going on which seems to parallel how the book was relatively ignored until it was connected to Rowling, and then *poof* suddenly it’s a best seller. I have to wonder if that was entirely intentional, much like how Casual Vacancy seemed to attempt to manipulate the readers judgements of the characters behind the scenes.
As a bonus, there are also side commentaries about the lives of those living in poverty. They say you should write what you know, and Rowling is in a position to write from personal experiences with both.

I have a note about the plot too which might be a tiny bit spoilery – I felt like the ending was a bit too contrived. It was one of those plots where you think to yourself “Okay, the most unlikely culprit would be…” and then oh look, it’s them. Rowling is usually so good at laying clues down earlier (in the case of Harry Potter, literal books earlier) and you can look back and go “ohhhhhhh…”, but in this book you look back and go “… so WHY did they do that, again? They gained absolutely nothing from it, and it led to their downfall.” The only semblance of explanation seems to be “They’re kind of a narcissistic psychopath and thought they were invincible, you see”. Unsatisfying.

Not a waste of time, though (how’s that for a glowing recommendation…) and I’m interested in seeing future installments of this series with a bit less character exposition and a bit more intuitiveness in the plot twists, next time.

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Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, survival fiction, to some extent military fiction, and I loved The Hunger Games which Divergent gets a lot of crap for copying. I actually saw the trailer for the movie (which I wasn’t really interested in, to be honest) and saw the magical words “based on the best selling novel” and was like “hmm. I should look that one up.” Even if it was just a cash-in ripoff of the success of Hunger Games, I should probably still enjoy it right?

I’m going to put a bottom line up front here: teen and “tweens” will love this book. For the rest of us, it’s just too god damn dumbed down to extract any real entertainment out of. I may have rolled my eyes here and there during Hunger Games, but I never felt like it was actively insulting my intelligence. Divergent… oh my god I felt like I was losing IQ at points.

One of the things I love the most about dystopian fiction is the worldbuilding. What is this world? Why is it dystopian? How did it get this way? Was there a purpose behind making it this way? How are the people coping with their circumstances?
Divergent has almost no worldbuilding. This is the first book in a trilogy (another glaring sign of cashing in… does it need to be a trilogy or are we just hoping to sell 3x the books?) but even if the rest of the series builds the most amazing world, it’s TOO LATE. That shit needs to go in book one, people. The civilization is broken into several factions, and it never explains why. Why do we have these factions? Why were they formed? What is the purpose? There’s a sniff here and there that, hey, maybe there IS actually a plot reason for these factions and it’s not just all pulled out of an ass, but the book doesn’t bother to explain anything to you until a couple of snippets near the end. The main character even explicitly states that she never paid attention in history, to give us a convenient out for not explaining anything.

Speaking of which, the book is in first person present tense, which is a point of view that I loathe. I hated it in Hunger Games and it’s one of the few things I feel really limited the ability to tell the story of that series. In a surprise twist, the POV is probably one of the things that didn’t irritate me about Divergent. I didn’t detect any sloppy mixed tense, and it was effectively used to ramp up the action scenes without losing too many opportunities to advance the plot due to the awkwardness of needing the main character to be present to show the reader every single development.

The problem is, it was probably effective because this book has no god damn plot to advance. The entire plot is “Tris switches factions and goes through hazing rituals for 400 pages”. Then there’s actually a bit of plot in the 10 pages of a war at the end, which is supposed to get you to buy in to the rest of the series. There’s no real background, no worldbuilding, and no real character development either. It’s just Tris going through ordeal after ordeal and trying to survive to make it to the next one, with no clear indication as to why. And also heavy allusions to High School social bullshit (with very one-dimensional bullies), to make sure the kids can relate to her.

The character development was a real issue. We see each and every thought Tris has, and she becomes more and more unlikeable with each one. She comes from the selfless faction, so she’s constantly beating herself over the head with how selfish she’s being now that she’s in a new faction and if she was back home she’d be doing all these selfless acts instead and prostrating herself in front of everyone instead of trying to advance herself. When I say constantly, I mean constantly. She does not shut up about it. Just shut up. Augh. But then she has dizzying bi-polar flips to completely different personalities. She’s flipping between self-loathing to angst to spite to psychopathic rage and then right back to self-loathing (and then incredulousness when she scores first place in everything. How could this be when she’s so bad at stuff?!?). And she’s as thick as molasses in winter, unless the situation dictates that she out-smart everyone by being super clever all of a sudden. Then she will be super clever and amaze everyone. Then she will wonder why everyone is so amazed because she’s so awful at everything how could be they be impressed!??

At one point she asks a stupid question about what’s going on and the reply is “I can’t wait until you finally catch on”. I wrote a note next to it saying “Me too.”  If you ever find yourself reading a book and the main character says “I open my mouth to object, but I can’t.  He’s right.”, and you find yourself yelling “OF COURSE HE IS RIGHT YOU STUPID BITCH”, the character might not be well written.

The characters are all one-dimensional and feel unnatural because they only display character traits when it is necessary to advance the scene (whether or not it makes ANY GOD DAMN SENSE based on past scenes involving that character.  Al?  What the fuck was that, besides a transparent attempt at subverting the expected to elicit shock). The book attempts to use the same “hook” the Maze Runner did of trying to not tell the reader anything about what’s going on, in the hopes it keeps you curious enough to keep reading to find out. What that means is, Tris flips between being completely oblivious and missing the obvious when they want to tell the reader something without “telling” Tris… and asking very pointed and clever questions to try to get to the heart of things, only to be told “I’ll explain later.” It’s infuriating, and it feels completely contrived from start to finish.

And then there’s the romance. The rating of this book plummeted so much during those pages, let me tell you. Before that it was a mediocre but at least sort of interesting attempt at a story that I could see the younger readers really enjoying. The romance heated up and it became porn for 12 year olds. Oh they’ll love it, because it’s perfectly and very pointedly targetted at that age where they’re desperate to know anything about sex and this is a likely parentally-approved route to reading about it (no sex takes place oh goodness no they just cuddle and kiss no sex nope). But it suffers from the same character development flaws as the rest of the book. These characters are not acting naturally, they’re acting in a way that is carefully designed to appeal to a younger audience. Add to that Tris’s ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING obliviousness every single time her boyfriend is on screen (gosh they kissed last night and now he’s ignoring her at breakfast how could this be she thought he loved her he must actually hate her she wants to cry this is so awful because there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation for him not wanting to reveal to everyone in the military compound that they’re in love since you know he’s kind of the leader of the group and boy I don’t see any problems with this news getting out do you? Nope he must hate her now well fine then she hates him too. Oh wait he was acting that way to hide that fact that he loves her because if everyone else found out they might think there was bias going on oh my god he’s soooooo smart she loves him so much for being so smart ~*~dreamy sigh~*~)
… okay I got carried away but ugh. ugh. I don’t even care if this is an accurate portrayal of how teens think. It was tedious.

It gets a lot of crap for copying Hunger Games, but I actually didn’t feel it was much of a rip-off for most of the story… but at the end it veered down a path which is dangerously close to copying plot points word for word. I’m not sure what I think of that, and I’m not sure I will bother delving into book two to find out how Divergent (heh heh heh) it is, because I cannot stand the thought of sitting through another book of Tris’s tortured thoughts and self-flagellation over her lover boy.

In short (yes I know it’s too late for short): I feel like it’s a carefully engineered attempt at cashing in on popular-genre-of-the-week. It doesn’t feel genuine to me. This book was not written to entertain, it was written to sell. It’s unfortunate.

[edit] Now having finished reading, I read some more stuff on the internet and it seems like the author is actually quite young.  I could be wrong about it being deliberately written to appeal to a juvenile audience… it might just be working out that way due to the age of the author.  I bet if young adult dystopia wasn’t “the thing” right now, though, no publisher would have come within a mile of it, much less the movie deals.  But thanks to genre-of-the-week they were all over it like ants in a pop can on a hot day…

Childhood’s End

Childhood's EndChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is hard to write a review for. I don’t know if it’s because I was only able to read snippets on lunch breaks for the last few months or what, but it’s just not grabbing me. This is my first Clarke novel I believe, and don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed his writing, but something about the story just isn’t clicking. It’s like there’s too much premise and not enough plot, and I’m already halfway through.

It’s too bad because I thought I would really enjoy it. Maybe I will try it again when I have more time.

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Blood Music

Blood MusicBlood Music by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have now read two books by Greg Bear, and they both went the same way. They started out good and kept me interested, cranked it up to amazing in the middle and gave me eyestrain, and then became a big pile of facepalm at the end which made me drop my ranking.

The book starts out with what I felt was a very familiar sort of story: a scientist injects himself with modified cells and begins to experience beneficial effects like advanced healing, heightened senses, youthful energy, yadda yadda. I actually went on a short pilgrimage to try to figure out when this style of story was first used, but with this book coming out in 1985 it might actually have been one of the first. But that was kind of moot because a few chapters later the story had changed completely.

It moved from there into a pandemic story, and then into full blown post-apocalyptic descriptions. My favourite kinds of books are stuff involving science, medicine, pandemics, post-apocalyptic wastelands… this book had it all for me so maybe I was a bit biased, but my god it was so good.

Then I got to the end and… nngh. I don’t know. It just totally lost me. Everything I know about quantum physics comes from entertainment media and likely not accurate at all, but it was a little eyerolling for me even taking it from an entertainment perspective. There were long pages full of completely unnecessary reminiscing, which I guess was supposed to mean more to me but I just didn’t care about the characters enough to give a shit. Then there was a long section where the characters argued about the plausibility of what was happening, which almost came across as the author providing a laundry list of all the things that were wrong with it, as if to preempt the inevitable pedantic naysayers.

But the first 3/4 or so of the book was absolutely worth my time. I’m trying to decide if I should take on another Greg Bear book next. I’m pretty sure I did this exact same thing last time… I was halfway through the book and thinking “holy shit I’m going to read every single thing this guy has written”, then I got to the end and went “….” and moved on to something else. Hrm.

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We were watching “Oz the Great and Powerful” (which was decent, but pretty shallow, and very Disney), and I realized I had never actually read any of the original Oz books. I knew I had them so I figured I should probably remedy that.

I’m probably going to piss someone off with this, but, what surprised me the most about it was how bad it was. Not the story! The story was imaginative and unique and perfectly captures that “fairy tale” feeling. What was bad was the writing. I was trying to put my finger on it, and I think it just feels amateur, which probably makes sense. It’s similar to what you would expect from a young author – there’s almost an obsession with documenting each and every trivial action of the characters, almost as if there’s a fear that the reader will either become confused, or call out the story for not describing how something came to be (even when obvious). It makes several parts of it unwieldy and wordy, but even more bizarre, it flip-flops into sections where absolutely nothing is described in detail, which is quite glaring after the painstaking details in every other section.
The oiling of the Woodman is a good example. The whole section is like: “Oil my neck”, said the Woodman. So Dorothy oiled his neck. “Now oil my arms”, said the Woodman. So Dorothy oiled his arms. “Now oil my legs”, said the Woodman. So Dorothy… okay we get it. There’s like two pages that could be condensed into the sentence “Dorothy oiled the Woodman until his joints moved once more.”
In another section, Dorothy pulls out a whistle and the book explains that she always wears it around her neck so it’s been there the whole time. My version was annotated, and the accompanying footnote said “Commentary has been unable to explain this suddenly appearing accessory.” I can take a crack at explaining it though – it’s lazy writing. Either the whistle was mentioned in a section that later got hastily chopped out and not cleaned up, or it was never mentioned and when this part got written, the explanation was jammed in on top with some hand waving.  That’s my interpretation.

Speaking of the annotations… I know this book has been analyzed backwards and forwards and inside and out for the past century, but I read books for the entertainment value, and I tend to analyze them on the same level. I generally prefer going into a book “blind”, without any encounters with any outside opinions to colour the formation of my own opinions. Which is why it drives me absolutely nuts (and I know I’ve bitched about this before in reviews…) to have a classic edition like this that spends literally the first 25% of the book going over the history of the creation of the book, the life and times of the author, their favourite passages from the book, and what they think those passages mean in a symbolic and allegorical sense, all before letting me start to read the fucking book. Put that shit at the END of the book, AFTER I have read the book. It’s absolutely mind boggling. What possible reason do you have for putting all of this shit before the content of the book itself. It’s not reasonable to expect that everyone on the planet has already read the book. What if a 5 year old child is reading this as the first book they have ever read, and now you’ve ruined the story for them! Way to go! [/rant].

That said, I found the footnotes amusing, in that they reinforced my belief that I will never get along with literary analysis. My god, the sheer effort spent trying to derive meaning from every little thing. The tin man rusts, but tin cannot rust! What can it mean! Well, it could have some sort of allegorical meaning, or, it could be that, back in 1900, L. Frank Baum didn’t understand how rust works. It’s probably one of those things. I skimmed over the whole “Oz as an allegory for economics”, as well as something about how Dorothy must have been a vegan because she is only ever seen eating nuts and fruit, and all I can think is that it’s entirely too exhausting to read things while trying to dig up clues that may or may not exist under the words.

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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing EscapeBeyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t know much about Scientology before other than it seemed to be a “church” based on ridiculous beliefs that was taking advantage of its tax-exempt status in what should be a criminal manner in order to fleece its followers. And the internet started a war against them and a lot of suing happened, but not much else. I saw the title of this book and I knew that people had reported non-stop harassment for even casual curious inquiries into the “readings” and whatever else, but I thought to myself it was a little dramatic to label quitting as an “escape”. Couldn’t you just stop going to the “services” or whatever equivalent they have and just ignore the harassing phone calls and letters asking you to come back?

Boy, have I been educated.

This is the story of the niece of the man who took over leadership of the church, so her family was buried quite deeply in the organization, in the “Sea Org”. Essentially where the sun doesn’t shine, and associating with non-scientologists is considered a crime. You get a good look into the depths of the church – maybe not the actual heart where the decisions and rules are made, but the inner layers where the officers are trained. It’s also a fascinating look at how brainwashing works. I knew Scientology was known for brainwashing techniques, but this is brainwashing 101.

Jenna describes her entire life from very young ages all the way up to early 20s-ish or so when she finally manages to leave. I started reading and was thinking “This isn’t so bad… I mean, it’s bad but not completely unusual for fanatical religion.” And then it got worse. And worse. And worse… and … okay it’s pretty fucking bad.

What I found really interesting is the potential glimpse into the motivations of the church. I thought it was 100% a scam designed to pry every last penny from its followers – and it’s certainly that – but it almost seems like the church was designed as a money making scheme and it’s slowly been warped into an entity that, on some levels, actually believes it’s doing the right thing. Some of the decisions made make absolutely no sense if the only goal is to make money. In a lot of the decisions I can’t even see what the goal WAS. The church may have actually brainwashed itself at this point… fascinating.

The book is definitely not well-written, but when you look at the background of the author it’s easily forgiven. The sentences are stilted and dry, and often lack any emotion, but, well… it seems pretty damn representative of what the church attempts to do to a mind. Definitely worth a look if you’re curious.

I hope I don’t get sued for writing this “suppressive” review!

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Liminal States

Liminal StatesLiminal States by Zack Parsons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really struggled with how to rate this. I was originally thinking a solid 4.5, but then the ending was a little too ambiguous, so that dragged it down to 4… but the uniqueness of it deserves to be rewarded, so it bumped back up to 5. Eh, 5. Why not.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. If this book is made into a movie, they will need a very large “fake blood” budget. I meant to go back and see how many times the word “entrails” appears, but I forgot to. It was a lot, though.
It is also not a casual read. I discovered pretty quickly that it is not the kind of book you can read while half asleep at 11PM and still understand what the fuck is going on in the next chapter. The book is a masterful example of showing and not telling, and you have to pay attention to keep up.

How do I even describe this to you. At its heart, the book is a horror novel that reminded me a lot of Stephen King. A lot of the imagery is brutal or disturbing. Despite that, it somehow never seemed gratuitous. The story itself spans three time periods, which correspond to three different genres of writing. The old west, ’50s noir, and finally sci-fi and dystopian present/future.

I’m not sure I even can provide a quick synopsis of this. Let’s just say it involves a mysterious pool that seems to resurrect and provide immortality to someone who falls into it. Each section of the book follows the same characters (more or less…) but examines a different aspect of the consequences of the pool, seeming to widen the scope each time, beginning with individuals and eventually moving to a global scale.

Common criticisms seem to be that the different time periods don’t interface well with each other, making it more like three different related novels than one whole story. Looking back, I would probably agree that is true… the jumps are very significant and you have to re-orient for each one. While I was reading I did not find it to be an issue, and probably wouldn’t have mentioned it if it wasn’t commonly bitched about.

The different genres for each time period are well written and feel authentic. I’m not a big fan of noir, so the middle of the book dragged for me, but someone who enjoys the genre will probably love it. The sci-fi section had a decent “oh, shit is going down now” feel to it, and I thought the visuals worked really well. The over-arching horror story of the pool itself felt a bit vague, though. I read some discussion about it and it seems like it was intentionally left that way, and then a lot of the questions and backstory is resolved in a separate serial. I dislike relying on external material to understand a book… but to be fair, it doesn’t really matter for the narrative of the actual story, so it just left the situation ambiguous in an unsatisfying way.

If you’re looking for something unique, gripping, and disturbing, you should probably give Liminal States a try.

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Tunnels

Tunnels (Tunnels, #1)Tunnels by Roderick Gordon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So much to say about this book.

Quick synopsis: Will Burrows is the son of an archaeologist who likes to dig excavation tunnels (Burrows. GET IT??) around town and uncover artifacts for his museum. His father has had the credit for several “big” finds stolen from him, so when he stumbles on something important, he becomes secretive and withdrawn. Eventually, he disappears. Will takes it upon himself to find out what has happened.

It sounds promising, doesn’t it? And to some degree it is – the environments are intricately detailed and a decent sense of claustrophobic wonder is conveyed throughout. It didn’t quite reach the “Indiana Jones” level of swashbuckling archaeology I was sort of hoping for, but it was interesting enough to keep the pages turning.
Unfortunately it was also bad enough to keep me writing snarky notes.

I’m not quite sure where the line is between “Amateur” writing and “Lazy” writing. I often run into this problem with young adult books, and I can never tell if the authors themselves are actually inexperienced with writing and finding their way, or if they’re like “the kids who will be reading this haven’t read enough yet to recognize how lazy this is” while taking shortcuts to get things done faster.

The very first thing I started bitching about in my notes were similes. The book starts off with a fair amount of description, and for some reason it seems like it was impossible to describe an object or action without coming up with some sort of simile to throw at it. I did a search: The word “Like” appears in this book 344 times. We can probably assume some of those are not similes, but the phrase “It was as if” also appears 186 times. Fortunately it stops drowning in similes towards the end – it felt like the writing was trying much too hard to be “fancy”, but once the plot got rolling it forgot all about trying to show off and focused more on actually describing what was happening, and it was much better for it.

The second major problem is that the book doesn’t seem to know what its point is. It is full of so much filler that you never actually resolve anything that happens.  In some places it even describes the same things repeatedly, back to back in each paragraph (“he has big fingers.  He has sausage fingers.  He has fat fingers.”  WE GET IT.) that it makes me wonder if they were revised, but then not edited to remove the duplicates. The search for Will’s father takes a back seat early on and isn’t really revitalized until the final chapter. It turns out it’s the start of a series, so perhaps that was intentional… but the sheer amount of wasted space in this book would make me question if it’s just a “milking” move to try to sell more books, which just annoys me. You could have fit a lot more plot into this book, but instead it is full of similes, like a pinata full of IOU coupons… (look look I am using a simile!)

I don’t have a good “spoiler tag” solution yet so I should probably mention that I bitch about plot points from here on out.  If you intend to read this book, it will either ruin or enhance your reading experience – You decide!

The plot that IS there feels a lot like “bullied kid escapist fantasy”. The main character has albinism which makes him get picked on at school, and his family is highly dysfunctional. The ONLY scenes involving his mother hammer home over and over and over and over that she is mentally ill, and yet this has absolutely no bearing on the story as a whole except to further hammer home how sick she is when she fails to do anything about anything (like… her husband vanishing). His sister is apparently left to run the entire household (quite efficiently!) at the ripe old age of twelve, is incredibly bitchy, and seems to have OCD to a disturbing degree, especially considering the context of the family unit. But hey that’s okay because she’s actually not from his family at all because he’s actually from this super special colony underground (see he’s an albino, and people underground don’t get much light…) so really he DOESN’T belong to this fucked up family at all!  And she was placed there to spy on him! … which feels like it was written up against a wall and then brainstormed a bit going “hmmmm what’s the most shocking and unexpected thing that can happen right now. Oh, I know!” except it is unexpected because it makes so little sense. For that matter, Will’s age doesn’t seem quite right either. He’s supposedly 14 which makes a bit more sense than 12, but all of the characters act a bit too mature for their prospective age ranges, and I think it would have made more sense to make them all older. But perhaps that would have placed the characters out of the age group they were hoping would identify with them. Hrm.

By the way, in a completely arbitrary filler scene that serves no other purpose, they also beat the shit out of the bullies with their super special underground cat-dog, which makes the bullies cry and run away.  What bullied kid doesn’t have that fantasy, right?

I’m not done bitching about characters! I still need to bitch about motivations! The bad guys in the book (which encompasses the entire fucking cast except for like, two people I think) are all assholes. What is it about living underground that makes you a colossal asshole? Do they need more vitamin D? But it’s not just that they’re assholes, it’s that they’re moustache-twirling assholes. They are purely evil for the sake of being evil. When Rebecca shows back up in her evil role, they even go to great lengths to describe how her hair has been super greased and slicked back, like some sort of Bond villain. There are some vague references to “we don’t like topsiders because they will reveal our civilization” and that is the whole of the motivations for all of these people.  Apparently that gives you license to flat out persecute and torture people, gloating the whole time. It appears to be an entire underground race of empathy-less totalitarian jerks. The vast majority of characters behave in such an unbelievable fashion that it feels like watching a B movie full of bad actors who are hideously over-acting their parts. The non-asshole characters were largely unsympathetic too, because they spend the entire book whining, so I found there was no one I could really latch onto. You root for Will because the narrative is locked onto him, and there’s really nothing else to do.

So I ask again: What was the point of this book? Did the dysfunction of his family serve some sort of purpose? Was that making a point? What is the underground population supposed to represent? They’re not even sympathetic in any fashion, and the characters gleefully slaughter them during their escape attempts. We never even find his father, so what was the point of going down there and getting caught in the first place?

I suspect the point is to get people to read the next book… but if it comes to an amazing culmination later in the series, I’m afraid it failed to convince me to continue on and discover it.

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Long Time Coming

Long Time ComingLong Time Coming by Robert Goddard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I give up. I hate leaving books unfinished, but when I put off reading for several months, it’s time to move on and read something interesting again.

It started out so promising! Mysterious motivations and intrigue, espionage and promises of action, plot twists! And somewhere roughly 30-40% of the way in, it all became so… so… incredibly generic. All the words started blurring together and I just didn’t give a shit anymore. But I couldn’t stop reading – what if it got better!!!! I spent several weeks of opting to watch late-night TV rather than read (there’s the first clue…) and then I picked up the book, determined to take a chunk out of it, and went “Oh, they’re in jail now? When did that happen? …who was that again? ….. do I care?” and I knew it was time to give up.

This is probably an absolutely thrilling story for someone out there. But not me…

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Life of Pi

I read this book ages ago when it first came out (oh my god, 12 years???) and really enjoyed it.  We just watched the movie and I think I enjoy it even more, now.  The movie doesn’t change things too significantly from the book, so this entry can apply to both.

The story is framed as a novelist (Yann Martel himself, I believe) interviewing Piscine, as he prepares to write a biography about him.  It follows a bit of a flashback format, recounting factoids like how Pi was named after a swimming pool, how he went through school with the nickname “pissing”, and how he tried to change that by changing his nickname to “pi”, after the mathematical symbol.
As amusing as it is, absolutely none of that really matters for the rest of the story.  For the amount of time he spends conversing with other humans in this book, he could have been left completely nameless and no one would notice.  I suspect there might be some sort of theme around the meaning of names, considering the name of the tiger, but it was buried deeply enough that I didn’t bother to dig for it.

The story further describes his father’s zoo and the animals within.  Falling on hard times, his family decides to ship all the animals to Canada and start a new life there with the profits from selling them.  Unfortunately, their ship sinks during a storm, and Pi finds himself in a lifeboat in the middle of nowhere.  With a bengal tiger on board.

I’m not even going to describe the rest.  It’s really something that should be experienced.

The first third or so of the book, before the voyage, spends a lot of time talking about various religions and Pi’s attempts to become a believer in all of them at once.  The movie discusses it as well, but spends less time with it.  The book spends a lot of time discussing how people react to that idea and attempt to force him to choose, while the movie really only throws one line at it when his father tells him he can’t worship all of the religions at once.
I fully admit to skimming this part of the book. When I finished the book, I felt that I had thoroughly enjoyed it and did not regret skimming the religious stuff, but I had always sort of assumed I missed some greater themes that would have popped out at the end.  When we sat down to watch the movie I thought to myself “Aha, maybe now I will see what I missed.”  After watching the movie, I still don’t feel like I missed anything at all, but the beauty of this story is that it is so dependent on the reader’s background.  What seems pointless to me will be the crux of the story to someone else, but things that seemed important to me will seem pointless to them.

Religious themes are important to the book, but a large part of the story is about personal interpretation.  I found wandering around the internet looking at different interpretations almost as entertaining as the story itself.  There are so many different – yet plausible – interpretations of the same story, and so obviously coloured by personal beliefs.  An agnostic will get a completely different ending from this story than someone with a strong faith, and yet all interpretations are “correct”.  There is no one true ending, and seeing people squabble over that is pretty interesting as well.  “What does it mean?!” they cry, and the answer is that it means what you think it means.  Literally.  Life of Pi is ambiguity done correctly.

Pure

PurePure by Andrew Miller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am going to start this review with a very important and very relevant fact: I am not interested in history. I really don’t know why that is… I like reading about historical events! I understand the appeal of cataloging and learning from the past. But actually studying and analyzing history? ugghhhh.

So perhaps it is a mystery why I heard about this book and immediately wanted to read it. “Pure” is a story about the Les Innocents cemetery and is probably best described as a historical fiction. This cemetery actually existed, and actually became so full that corpses were packed so tightly that they could no longer properly decay. It stunk up the city and started spilling out through retaining walls into people’s basements, until it was finally dug up and moved elsewhere. It’s all true and the book incorporates all of it into its setting. The book even throws in some references to events which I suspect are true – although I didn’t do enough fact hunting to confirm – such as the discovery of an “incorruptible” body of a girl which was later placed under glass for viewing.

Those parts of the book I actually found quite interesting! Anytime the book started discussing and describing the cemetery I would perk up and dig in. The problem was the book didn’t seem to spend much time actually doing that.

The rest of the plot follows the engineer who is tasked with moving the cemetery. The problem with this is that I found him extremely boring.

Problem #1: Present tense. I hate present tense. Every time I come across it I think I hate it more. It’s so rare to find an author who can use it effectively. It makes even less sense to me to try to use it in this story. We naturally tell stories in past tense – our story telling abilities were honed by telling people about things that have already happened so it just makes sense to us to frame it that way. Present tense shakes things up by being all “woah this is happening RIGHT NOW and we are experiencing it together!” and adds an element of uncertainty about what will happen next. If the protagonist of the story is explaining what happened in the past, well, they probably survived the harrowing sequence they’re describing, right? (unless they’re a ghost I guess).
This story is set in 1785. There is not a single thing about it which is “present”. Furthermore, nothing terribly exciting actually happens. There are no death defying action sequences to “experience” and put you on the edge of your seat and make you wonder what will happen (although there are some close calls here and there, not a single one of them attempts to take advantage of the present tense…). The ending sequences come close to being action-packed, but they miss the mark too. If the intent was to “take me” to 1785, it failed, because the present tense led to so many awkward sentences that I had to trip over and parse. It was exhausting and I finally started skimming a bit just to get it over with.

Problem #2: Unnecessary details. To some degree this is warranted – when introducing the cemetery and the areas around it, there is a LOT of detail, and I suspect it is all accurate to history. The book doesn’t go full out “Unabridged Notre-Dame” and describe the dimensions of every god damn brick, and I suspect actual historians will be delighted by the detail, but it was a bit of a slog.
THOSE details I totally will tolerate, though. It’s historical fiction! The ones I /facepalmed over were the masturbation scenes. On multiple occasions a character will just break into masturbation and then whoops, interrupted by something! In one scene it just casually throws in “rubs herself a little between her legs” when describing getting ready for bed. I’m not a prude, I don’t mind sexual content, but it’s nice if there’s a reason for it to be there. There are enough rambling words in this book that throwing in descriptions of penises and random masturbatory actions feels over the top. The story does cover some romantic relationships, but if it was attempting to build up the characters in preparation for those later scenes, it failed to communicate it to me.

Problem #3: With all the detail that’s thrown around, the book constantly refers to a “Comte de S-.” There is no explanation for why the name is written like that. If I were into history maybe I would know, but a footnote with an explanation might have been nice.

Problem #4: The book feels like it’s not going anywhere. The story of the cemetery is interesting, but that was “already written”, so to speak. The stuff packed around the story of the cemetery feels like cheap filler with no real purpose. Again, if I were more interested in historical stuff I might be more impressed with the accuracy, or the portrayal of the people of the time, or something like that. As it is, I just found myself uninvested and uninterested in the characters. Which is too bad because I did actually find the setting interesting, so maybe it could have gotten me more interested in historical fiction. Oh well.

It really feels like this was a half-formed idea about a story revolving around the story of the cemetery, but it was never fully fleshed out. The story of the cemetery was interesting, but it’s inherently interesting, and it feels like the book relies on its interestingness to carry it. The rest of the book had some potential with the whole “People want the cemetery gone/People do not want the cemetery gone and become hostile to anyone trying to remove it” angle, but that’s not really designated as the focus of the book either. Instead, we spend a lot of time watching people masturbate and pine over prostitutes. Why.

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Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The problem with good books is that you stay up all night reading them and then they’re done. I’m predisposed to enjoy psychology/neurology mysteries, especially TRUE ones, but I certainly couldn’t put it down.

This is the true story of a medical mystery and the subsequent mishandling of the diagnosis by numerous professionals, until someone finally steps in and does the right things to uncover what’s really going on. It is fascinating from a medical standpoint, and potentially disturbing from a social standpoint. I may have a degree that focused on a lot of neuroscience theory, but I certainly didn’t do any training in diagnostic methods, and I was pretty horrified when – 48% of the way through the book and roughly 3 or 4 neurologists into the disorder – someone finally thinks to give her the clock test. Her first symptom was left side numbness and it took that long to use a standard test. Which, naturally, blew the case open… I seriously felt like I had to keep checking to make sure this hadn’t happened in the ’70s. Hrm.

If you’re interested in medicine, brains, mental disorders, or the workings (and not-workings…) of the medical and social systems today, you will probably enjoy this book.

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Selected Stories of Philip K Dick

Selected Stories of Philip K. DickSelected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing. I’ve always meant to read some of his stuff, so a book full of short stories seemed perfect. It contains most of the stories which have been adapted into movies I’ve seen, so it was great to see the source material.

I found it fascinating from a psychology perspective too. I had heard that Dick may have been schizophrenic, and I can absolutely see where that comes from, now. So many of the stories involve paranoia, warping of reality, or a complete disbelief in reality. That he is able to tackle those themes on such a deep level and still construct fascinating stories all around it shows how much skill he had.

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Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of ChampionsBreakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoy Vonnegut, but I have a lot of trouble with his completely unstructured style of writing. This book was the worst example of that yet, so I had a lot of trouble getting into it. The actual writing was excellent, and the humour was spot on, hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time. The illustrations were great. Trying to figure out the reason for the book to exist beyond Vonnegut’s random and vaguely connected humour-injected opinions on things was a challenge, and it really hurts my rating of this book.

Despite that, I am still tempted to boost the number of stars. That is how you know Vonnegut was a good author…

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Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy shit. That was amazing. I wish I could give it 6 stars. Or 10. Masterfully constructed and thought provoking. I don’t know how I managed to avoid reading this for so long… the title was familiar but I only vaguely knew of it, and then I was like “Oh hey I should read that.”

I’m not even going to disgrace it with a review. Just read it.

On another note, I also vaguely recalled that the book was famous for being banned, which is probably why I knew the name but not really the plot. I finished it and was like “…why was this banned???” so I had to go look. Banned for sexually explicit scenes! /facepalm.
This book has gone through so much strife while offering such a valuable story, when things like The Windup Girl (featuring self-indulgent graphic rape and slave fetish scenes that carry on much longer than they need to…) run around freely today. Kind of disgusting, really.
Although when I tried to see whether it was still currently banned, I did discover that in 2010 someone issued a challenge against the novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope, with no explanations attached. But not any of the other ones… hrm!

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The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) (Tiffany Aching, #1)The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30) by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness. That was amazing. I can’t believe just how impressed I am. Perhaps I am just in the right frame of mind for it, but it really “hit the spot”.

I really like Pratchett, but I often find I can’t read too many of his books in a row (which is a problem because there are so many of them!). They kind of blur together and feel very samey. This book definitely had that Pratchett feel to it, but I haven’t read one in awhile so I enjoyed it immensely. He’s just so clever. How can the writing be so clever, and yet still be poignant?

I’m not even sure how to describe this book. It’s set in a sort of old English farmland setting with sheep and sheepdogs and whatnot (except set in Discworld, of course, but the overall Discworld setting has very little to do with the actual book aside from the inclusion of magic so it’s a good place to jump into things too, if you’re looking for one). The story follows little Tiffany Aching, who has decided she would like to be a witch. What’s interesting about this is that Tiffany is essentially a scientist, and what follows is a clash between the world of empirical observation and the land of fairytales, as Tiffany sets out on an adventure to rescue her little brother and learn a bit about herself in the process.

It was absolutely masterfully done.

I wish I could write like this…

I suppose if there were a complaint to be made, it would be that a vast majority of the book involves the antics of the Wee Free Men (shocking, considering the title!), who all speak with a thick accent. It could very easily be tedious to read through, but I had little trouble (perhaps because I just recently watched Brave, too) and actually found it to be quite animated and vivid, to the point where I could hear them quite clearly as I read. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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The Last Policeman

The Last PolicemanThe Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well that was a surprise. I’ve never considered myself a fan of the noir detective stuff, so I really only picked this up because of the “asteroid is hitting the Earth” angle.

The basis of the plot is that an asteroid is about to hit the Earth, killing all life where it lands and most likely resulting in the death of any life that survives since the various dust clouds and ejecta will probably destroy the ability of the sun to breach the atmosphere. The dates of the imminent collision are just being calculated, and society is starting to fall apart as people decide “fuck this” and go off to do whatever it is they decide they want to do in their final 6 months or so. For many people, this includes simply ending it now.
The book starts off with a detective attending yet another suicide scene, but something about it doesn’t sit right with him, and he starts to investigate it as a possible murder. Naturally, everyone else around him is like “…who the fuck cares? The world is ending.” but he keeps at it.

The book spent hardly any time talking about the asteroid (although it did a good job painting it as a background setting) and instead spent all its time doing the noir detective thing. Surprisingly, I enjoyed all of it. All the things that normally annoy me about noir detective stuff – choppy terse sentences, random swaps to dour and unnecessary descriptions, manly fist fights – I actually enjoyed all of it. Not enough to actually look into further noir stuff, but enough to give this book a decent rating. I rolled my eyes through the obligatory “I am investigating you but you are a dame so I am going to sleep with you now” stuff, but I suppose it was required for this style of story.

Worth a look, especially if you already like the noir style detective story.

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The Dog Stars

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was in a post apocalyptic mood so I grabbed this one. The book is set in a world where the vast majority of the world’s population has died of a flu virus, and a good chunk of the remainder are suffering from a blood borne wasting disease, so even the survivors refuse to trust each other or work together if they should happen to meet. The story follows “Hig”, who is a private pilot who lovingly maintains his 80 year old cessna (“the beast”) and flies to the bush to go hunting with his dog to help replenish food stores. He managed to strike an uneasy alliance with a gun-nut and their lives consist of defending their territory (an airport…) and supplies from interlopers.

The world is great. The book doesn’t spend a whole lot of time lingering on describing the wastelands of post-disaster, and instead spends time developing the story and letting the world unfold around it. It was well done and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, one of the first casualties of the flu was apparently the quotation mark. Despite a decent amount of dialog, there is not one single quotation mark in this book. It was an odd choice, and I think the author tried to use it in a few places to add effect (you weren’t sure if they were thinking, speaking to themselves, which character it was meant to be… the confusion was deliberate) but I didn’t like it. It added a layer of confusion and difficulty throughout, and added very little benefit even in the places it was intended to enhance. I’m sure someone will come up with artsy-fartsy explanations of how it adds meaning, but I felt it was a poor choice.

The text itself is abrupt and kind of strange. It took a bit to get used to the style, but I felt like it fit well once I got into it. Normally it would piss me off to no end, so that it is some sort of accomplishment to admit that.

If you really dig down, nothing much actually happens in this book. The plot is aimless and wandering, just like the lives of what remains of humanity. There is no point and no purpose to their lives anymore, and the book conveys that well. Hig becomes lost, and then physically loses himself in the world, looking for something to latch on to.

Well written, well described, well done.

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Unwind

Unwind (Unwind, #1)Unwind by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a dystopian world set in the future (where iPods and plasma screens are in antique stores, just in case you didn’t realize it was the future) where abortion is no longer allowed, so people can choose to “unwind” their unwanted children, thereby donating their organs and various body parts. It is believed that the child will continue to live on (albeit in pieces) through this process, while still doing some good through things like curing medical problems for others. You might imagine that if you are about to be “unwound”, you might feel a bit differently about that… and the story follows a group of children who attempt to escape and attain freedom.

I’m not sure what to say about this book. It popped up on my Goodreads recommendations and I thought “oh sweet, a dystopia that sounds interesting.” I love dystopian survival stories, so I nabbed it.

I will add a disclaimer that a number of things are happening in my life that are probably making me far less patient than I usually am, and that’s probably not entirely fair to this book… but I was almost immediately disappointed.

The writing failed me on a number of points.

1) Present tense. Ugghh. I mean, I’ve seen present tense used effectively, and I suspect it was chosen in this case to try to make the situations the characters were in a bit more urgent (“This is happening NOW and the outcome is uncertain”, as opposed to “This once happened and I am telling you about it, thereby indicating that someone did survive to be able to tell you about it.”), but it was awkwardly handled with some jarring tense transitions, and general discombobulation that I found distracting. I think present tense was the correct choice for the setting, but the actual execution of it was lacking.

2) Character development. I see a number of people lauding the characters in their reviews but I found them stereotypical and flat. The book strayed a bit into the “tell instead of show” territory when discussing their inner thoughts, and I got a bit impatient. It started to feel a lot like the things I used to write when I was a kid, where I was concerned that the reader might miss what I wanted the characters to feel so I had to describe it all in painstaking detail… but after all that work I’d look back and realize I spent a ton of time fleshing out completely arbitrary details.

– In addition, many of the characters simply don’t act in a believable manner. Some of the decisions they make leave you thinking “…what.”

Which leads me to…

3) Unresearched plot points. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to just take the worldbuilding as pure fiction, but I had a hard time swallowing the background behind the organ donations… which was an issue because that is the entire book. I don’t mean “unwinding” as a thing – that was an interesting idea that made me want to give the book a shot. I mean all the stuff about “muscle memory” and personalities living on within the cells of the donated parts, and the bits where brain transplants lead to split personalities. I have studied real world muscle memory and personality disorders and cellular functions, and I had to grit my teeth each and every time it came up in this book. I’m used to fiction getting split personalities wrong because it’s such a popular (and convenient) trope in the media, but so much of this book is inaccurate that I couldn’t just ignore it. So if you’re reading this book and wondering… no, cellular memory does not work that way. If you get a transplanted organ it will not have someone’s ghostly personality wandering around inside of it wondering what has happened and trying to take over your body.

But now that I’m done bitching, it wasn’t all bad! I actually enjoyed a fair amount of it and I think it was an interesting idea that has a lot of merit. I saw a movie recently where clone children were grown for the sole purpose of being harvested for organs for medical purposes, which I thought of many times during the course of this book. I quite enjoyed the movie despite the fact that it was a romance wrapped in a dystopia (why do they always do that), so I thought a similar story wrapped in a survival story would be right up my alley. Unfortunately the premise was executed far more believably in the movie, and the unrealistic bits of the book were too conspicuous for me.

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