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Review: Caliban’s War

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vomit zombies, a missing child, a possibly sentient planet, a foul-mouthed grandmother politician, dirty-dealing intra-galaxy feuds, a kickass Polynesian warrior, a noble rogue spaceship captain, a brilliant scientist on the edge of despair—this book has everything you could want and more. It’s an engrossing space epic that lives up to the expectations of the first book and leads you desperate for the next one.
If you’re a fan of modern sci-fi shows like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica, and yearn for the depth offered by Asimov or the wicked-cool ideas about how real people would operate in space like in Ender’s Game, this is a book–a series!–you’ll need to pick up.

Following the first (also excellent) book Leviathan’s Wake, Caliban’s War opens with the personal drama of a kidnapped girl and the reappearance of a monster that can survive in the void of space and quickly spirals out to encompass a battle that stretches from Jupiter to Mars.

Our honorable but now-hardened Captain Holden stumbles into the kidnapping and can’t help himself from vowing to find her. Her father, Prax, a biologist from the solar system’s breadbasket planet on Ganymede, guides the crew of the Rocinante as they hurtle from planet to planet to unravel the mystery: who would kidnap a sick little girl…and many other children? And who unleashed the protomolecule monster that attacked hard-line Martian Marine Bobbie and her entire crew?

It turns out the bad apples from the previous book aren’t quite gone, but this time it’s beyond what Holden’s blurt-to-the-system go-to strategy can handle. Luckily he is saved by the fantastically written Avarasala, a shrewd and calculating–but ultimately good-hearted–politician from Earth (I sure wouldn’t want to get on her bad side!).

There are so many great, well-rounded characters in this book that it’s hard to make space for all of them in this review: just trust me. And still I get the thrill of adventure with the incredible, believable, descriptions of humans trying to accommodate life outside of Earth. Everything from the effects of different gravities on human development to what kind of plants would be most beneficial to grow on a space station, to the cultural issues that may stem from human colonies on vastly different planets–it’s a pleasure.

The only thing I can think to ding in this book is that it’s set in the far-ish future and yet frequently references 20th-century American cultural touchpoints (will Alien really still be relevant when we’re actually living in orbit around Jupiter?) but that’s done for the reader’s benefit, not for the realism. And it’s a heckuva lot of fun, I can’t deny.

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2014 Year in Books

I like to use Goodreads.com to catalog what I’ve read (and to write reviews for all of them). Sometimes I forget what I’ve read or wanted to read, and it’s a great app. This year, just like last, I participated in a self-appointed reading challenge: 30 books by the end of the year. I managed to get to 33. But as a bonus, all the books I read just in 2014 are in one neat little list.
Here are the stats:
Books read: 33
Graphic novels: 8*
Male authors: 14
Female authors: 13
Most-read author (page/word count): Margaret Atwood
Most-read author (titles): Gail Simone (5)
Genres: Fantasy, Non-fiction; Horror; Science-Fiction; Chick Lit, Literary; Graphic Novels; Mystery
Most common genre: Fantasy (12 titles)
Books by Genre: 
2014 books by genre
Favorite Book: The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Most-Hated Book: Sick Puppy, Carl Hiasson
Comics read as single-issues (and therefore didn’t count as a “book” in Goodreads): SagaBlack Widow, Bitch Planet, She-Hulk, Star Wars, Sandman prequel
*The graphic novel count is tough: I didn’t input all the single issues I read (they seemed too short to count as full “books”) and the collection of all the issues of Transmetropolitan counted as 1 book…but would have otherwise been 10. As such, Warren Ellis also gets recognition as a most-read author (10 graphic novels in one collected book).
What does your Year in Books look like? Any surprises?

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Review: Dragonsong

Dragonsong (Harper Hall, #1)Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dragonsong is a quick light read that brings dragons big and small to life. This book would make a great transition for the How to Train Your Dragon lovers out there.

Despite this book having “Volume One” predominantly on the cover, I have no idea if this is the first book in the series or not: it reads like the first book in a variant series off an original, but I had the hardest time figuring out where to start. Since this one claimed to be a volume one, I jumped in here. But I may have guessed wrong.

Interestingly, it claims to be “science fiction,” but aside from the foreward, which tells the reader this takes place in an alternate Earth and mentions some sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, Dragonsong entirely reads like a YA fantasy novel. (In fact, the foreward mostly makes it seem like someone dared author Anne McCaffrey that should couldn’t sell fantasy as sci-fi. I guess she managed it…sorta?)

And that’s not at all a bad thing–particularly because it was written before “young adult” was even a genre.

The story focuses on the awkward and gangly Menolly, a girl from the Sea-Hold, a grim and rough sort of place. She is disparaged for having a talent in music and her parents–the leaders of her Hold–forbid it, for fear of disgracing the hold. After she badly cuts her hand, it seems music is out of the question anyway. In frustration and a fit of teenaged pique, Menolly leaves her home and stumbles into a nest of the secretive and mysterious fire lizards–pocket dragons, essentially. With her clever tunes and kind heart, Menolly wins the trust and adoration of the fire lizards, particularly nine, who follow her and are bonded to her. When she ultimately has to return to civilization out of necessity, she finds people respect and admire her for her skill with the fire lizards, and her music is appreciated rather than castigated.

This is the kind of story that I wish I’d written. I enjoy the storyline very much, but compared to modern similar stories, it’s barely sketched out, there’s not any closure or explanation (why did her father think it was wrong for girls to sing, but later other people think it’s more than ok?), and it just sort of mentions pivotal moments. It feels incomplete or hurried. I wish we could see a much longer version of this, with a great deal of backstory, richness, and detail. I want to know more about the dragons! I want to know why it’s so peculiar that she could impress nine! I want to know why some places are so closed-off but others are super-casual.

I may be in luck: McCaffrey has written a lot about the dragons of Pern, so maybe there is more for me to find out. As an introduction, this book was pleasant, easy, and… relatively insubstantial, more of an appetizer than a meal.

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Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress: Nine TalesStone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood’s collection of nine short stories retains her incredible ability with the written language. The writing cannot be faulted, but the collection is awash in quiet tragedy. Furthermore, when the first several stories are not stand-alone but overlapping narratives, but all the following are utterly separate the book feels… well, like half a book pasted together with a bunch of random stories.

I hesitate to say I didn’t like Stone Mattress–with such memorable and haunting prose, how couldn’t I?–but this maybe wasn’t the right time for me to read a book so sad.

Whether intentional or not, all the stories in this collection are threaded through with the slow tragedies and indignities of old age. And there are many: lost memories, lost sex drives, lost eyesight, lost independence, lost purpose, lost spouses… The losses weigh heavily.

Even the stories supposedly not at all about old age, such as “Lucus Naturae,” could be read as being about old age and its unstoppable reach, as insidious as fear of the different and the strange. And just as final in the end.

As I said, it’s not a bad time for me to read about old people being attacked by the young, their homes burned to make room for the younger, bitter generation. It’s not a good time to read about an old writer who has become unhinged from reality, choosing instead of let herself be dissolved into the fantasy land she spent her life creating. But then, is there ever a good time?

My grandfather passed away suddenly recently, and I finally got to visit my other grandfather, who is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember who I am or why I was there. Between these two experiences, Stone Mattress is a very raw and close collection for me. It’s too much like the real tragedies I noticed in both situations.

There aren’t many books that tackle the hoary edges of time. We often assume, as a culture, that old age is the end of the line, that all stories must be told past-tense. For that reason, that bravery, Stone Mattress is a welcome treatise…even if I’m not ready to think on its meanings and significance. When you’re in a suitably contemplative mood, muster your strength and try this collection.

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Review: The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Dreamlike” is the best adjective for this book about magic, secrets, and the wonders of the circus. Though the circus is rendered exclusively in black and white and shades of grey, The Night Circus bursts with color. The descriptions are truly the best part, capturing the allure of the circus, the vividness of life, and the way our struggles can make us feel. It’s a scrumptious read particularly suited to a cold winter’s night and a warm fire.

Erin Morgenstern’s tale follows two ancient, rival magicians who sign up two children for a life-long “game.” Without even explaining the “rules” of this game, or the point, or the stakes, the two children–Celia and Marco–learn magic. When they come of age, the arena for the game is set: a circus like no other. This circus, Le Cirque des Rêves (Circus of Dreams) operates only at night, is exclusively decorated in black, white, and greys, and features performances beyond Barnum & Bailey and the restrictions of reality. It is also a platform for the contest of wills between Celia and Marco.

But the original magicians don’t realize that their competitors are actually more similar than different, and what is intended as a fight turns into an all-consuming love, a love that imperils everyone who becomes ensnared in the circus.

The descriptions of late 1880-early 1900 America and Europe, the possibilities created by a circus without limits, the lush designs and ideas: these I love. I hope The Night Circus is someday made into a film, but the only suitable directors would be a) Terry Gilliam, b) Baz Luhrman, or c) Tim Burton, in that order. Those are the only directors I can see capturing the visual scope and detail Morgenstern puts out, so head’s up, guys.

However, I struggled with the plot. The first third of the novel just didn’t capture me, and with even the character’s names not being determined until later in the book–and not knowing what the game is or what the stakes may be–it was hard to “root” for anyone. The story moves forwards and backwards and sideways in time, making it a little confusing to follow. So it takes awhile for The Night Circus to work its magic on you–but magical it is.

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Review: Juliet, Naked

Juliet, NakedJuliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes I get disillusioned with the world and it starts to feel like the only way I’ll find that spark of beauty is with fantasy, by somehow altering reality, because I just can’t handle the mediocrity of it all.

When I feel like that, I ought to read something by Nick Hornby. He’s a master at looking at the same drab, dreary everyday world and turning up a gem.

Juliet, Naked chronicles what it means to be a fan of a piece of art–music, in particular–and how our perceptions of art can vary from person to person (even from creator to devotee) and what that can mean.

The story focuses on the work of imaginary temporarily famous ’80s rocker Tucker Crowe, who produced at least one album that seized the world with its intensity and then mysteriously stopped performing. The sudden absence of the artist–and the more than two decades with no news at all–leaves super-fans like the British low-tier professor Duncan grasping at rumors and imagination.

Duncan is the literal leader of an online Tucker Crowe fanclub, endlessly obsessed with and analyzing the old albums. His long-time girlfriend, Annie, just accepts that as part of her life–drab, dreary, not worth mentioning.

Until a “raw” version of Tucker Crowe’s hit album is released, sending Duncan into a premature delirium of excitement and Annie into her first real venture into Duncan’s online fandom. The album–and the feelings and thoughts and contemplation it triggers–sets off an unexpected chain of events and totally changes the world for Duncan, Annie, and even Tucker Crowe.

It’s a really great modern book. And when I say modern, I mean it: it’s still strange and wonderful when a book mentions everyday things like cell phones and, heck, the internet! And Hornby did a great job capturing the intensity of a super-fan and balancing that with the reactions of “everyday” fans. It made me think about my appreciation of music and art in general, and what it means to be a creator.

Juliet, Naked is both a thoughtful contemplation of the way music appreciation affects us as well as a deliciously jolly and realistic look at what makes life worth living.

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Review: And Then There Were None

And Then There Were NoneAnd Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And Then There Were None is an old-school murder mystery novel in the truest sense: it was originally published in 1939, and, of course, is written by mystery great Agatha Christie.

It’s interesting to see how some writing tropes have changed in 75 years: things like dialogue placement and word tense are pretty different. In fact, I doubt a modern publisher would give “And Then There Were None” a close look because of those differences, despite the interesting story.

The set-up is this: 10 strangers are called to a mansion in an isolated island, whereupon a gramophone announces that each is accused of murder in some way. And then, one by one, the visitors are killed off, while the survivors scramble to figure out who could have done it, why, and who is next.

In that, it feels a lot like Clue: The Movie; there’s a lot of scrambling about from room to room, trying to guess at straws. Much like Clue, it also features all manners of death, so you never know what will come next. I actually looked to see if Clue was inspired by this book–it looks like no, but there are strong similarities.

However, when you reach the end, we lose the similarities.

(Spoilers to follow)

Because this book does not conform to the mystery structure we’ve all come to know: no one figures it out and saves the day. In fact, the police arrive a full 24 hours after the last victim has died, and leave without having figured it out. It isn’t until the epilogue that anything is explained, and–well, honestly, I think Christie may have cheated the reader some. I don’t think the result is truly “guessable”; it’s a rigged game.

That unsatisfactory ending was a disappointment to me, but it is a good lesson that sometimes the old standby structure is there for a reason. And, of course, it’s not wrong to mess with it. Just not something that appealed to me in this case.

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Review: Ill Wind

Ill Wind (Weather Warden, #1)Ill Wind by Rachel Caine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some books are warm cozy blankets that you just want to snuggle into again and again. That’s Ill Wind for me. Rachel Caine writes with a welcoming, conversational style that makes it easy to forget you’re reading. This is the book (and series) that I most like to imagine as a TV show–it would make a damned good one.

The concept is so great, you’ll wish you’d thought of it first: the natural forces in the world are not entirely science–they’re a little bit magic. And so there are teams of Wardens who can manipulate those magics, whose only jobs are to keep Mother Nature from killing us all. Humans using magic + science to stop sentient storms from destroying the earth? Why hasn’t this show been made already!? (Weather Channel should pick it up; it has a 100% chance of awesomeness.)

Our hero is Joanne Baldwin, a Weather Warden who is in way over her head. She’s too young yet to have earned her Djinn helper, but it is urgent that she get someone more powerful to aid her. Chased by Wardens who don’t know the whole story and hunted by an unknown rival, Joanne sprints off to an intense race to survive. Along the way, she discovers that everything she has been led to believe about the supernatural Djinn is way off: humans are enslaving them, twisting them to their will.
Besides, when they’re wild, they can be damn sexy–well, at least one of them, with scenes so hot it’ll make your skin sizzle.
This is my second or third read of this book, and it doesn’t stop being fun and enthralling. I can’t recommend it enough.

It’s the first in the series, and they really do get better from here.

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Review: The Bride Wore Size 12

The Bride Wore Size 12  (Heather Wells #5)The Bride Wore Size 12 by Meg Cabot

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admit I’m a little disappointed…but that could be my own fault: it turns out I started a series on #5 (oops) and mistook the author for Jennifer Weiner (my bad). But congrats to Cabot’s marketing team! I picked up the book because of the title and because I had seen posters around, so not a total loss.

So, like I said, I came into this series at exactly the wrong point. But it is charming and fun and a nice little mystery to nibble on.

Basically, for those who are as lost as I was, this book is about Heather Wells, a nice enough girl who is about to get married at the end of the month to her tasty PI boyfriend. She works as a residence hall administrator at a college, and she really just wants to get through to the wedding… but the dead girl messes that all up. So Heather takes time out of her busy schedule to solve a murder, too.

I admit it: I only picked up this book because it had the word “bride” in it and, as a very recently married person, I was hoping to enjoy some fictionalized wedding stress. I wanted to see if all the crazy chaos that went into wedding-planning made it into a book.

…it didn’t. In drips, maybe, but really everything in the title is completely disregarded. Rubbish title, in terms of relating to the story at all. I mean, sure, it is periodically mentioned that “OMG Heather is a BRIDE!” but, let me tell you, I had a lot more panic going on in the month before my wedding, and I was, as my groom put it, not a bride-zilla but bride-chilla.

And I have no idea where the size 12 nonsense came from, aside from once or twice mentioning that Heather enjoys a morning bagel (unnecessary fat-shaming, excellent).

So I hated the title and the book wasn’t at all what I expected, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. It was fun.

I found it particularly interesting to see Cabot’s perspective on working in college administration, something I know about first-hand a bit. It’s not exactly a common career path, so I found that refreshing and interesting.

The murder and related sub-plot was a little transparent for my taste, but this is meant to be light reading, so I can’t fault it too much. Overall I thought it was charming, though I don’t think I care to step back into Heather’s world much more.

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Review: Blackbirds

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s got to be hard to find work when your main talent is coming up with detailed, grisly, and inventive ways for people to die. (Though I suppose it’s possible your accountant or barista is also imagining all the ways you could bite it…) However, Chuck Wendig seems to have figured it out with the incredible Blackbirds.

Let’s just say this wasn’t a typical book to be enjoying beachside, and I was more than a little worried that someone would notice I was reading about murders, suicides, and horrible accidents and out me as the weirdo I am.

I’ve never read Wendig before, though I have long intended to. What an introduction! Blackbirds features Miriam Black, one of the most original characters I’ve ever encountered.

Miriam is a deeply disturbed girl, and for good reason: she can see how people will die. The slightest touch sends her a detailed view of death; something she cannot avoid and seemingly cannot stop, despite her efforts. In fact, she has long since given up, and lives as a carrion bird, taking just enough from the dead to get by herself, flitting from place to place, foul-mouthed and alone.

She is a tragic figure, and yet likeable. She’s vulnerable, though she’d hate for anyone else to really know it. She’s an absolute trainwreck and she has a terrible past that we see in fragments. Poor girl; her whole life is fragments.

Through a variety of accidental encounters, Miriam finds herself caring for someone for the first time in years. This, however, is also unfortunate: she has seen that he is going to expire (in a truly macabre way) with her name on his lips. Even before he is dead, he haunts her nightmares.

Miriam is an incredible character, and I can’t wait to read more of this series (even if it does leave my stomach swirling at times). Wendig is an inspiration, and a reminder that stepping outside the bounds of normal can reap huge rewards. He earned at least one fan in me.

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