Friday, August 31, 2018

Review: The Black God's Drums

The Black God's Drums The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

P. Djèlí Clark's The Black God's Drums is set in an alternate history world at the end of the US Civil War. In a steampunk New Orleans Confederate and Union soldiers coexist publicly, while obeah magic is practiced and orishas are embodied in young girls and airship captains. Jacqueline, aka Creeper, is an orphan who lives in the shadows, trading in information. Ann-Marie is the airship captain of the ironically named Midnight Robber. Together they will stop the use of a terrible magical weapon, rescue a Haitian scientist and his Jewel, and make their orishas proud, while saving New Orleans from a disaster right at the start of Mardi Gras.

I enjoyed the memorable world Clark built in this book and the distinct patois of his characters. The language reads easily, especially for anyone with a bit of French in their skillset. I would love to read more of this world and just wished the novella had been a bit longer. At a slim 100 pages, I'm not sure the price point will garner Clark's book the readership the story deserves.

I received a paperback ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Thursday, August 30, 2018

Review: Mirage

Mirage Mirage by Somaiya Daud
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

4.25 stars

Somaiya Daud's Mirage, a YA novel, gives us the story of three vibrant characters in a Moroccan Space Opera that reads a bit more like fantasy than sci-fi. We have Amani, a classic heroine who is clever, goodhearted and brave, Maram, an antiheroine princess and heir apparent to a violent invading Vethek people who have invaded and subjugated, the peaceful world in which Amani and her Andalaan tribe live, and Idris, the hostage Andalaan prince bridegroom, who must marry Maram in order to forge a peace between the invaders and the subjugated. As the novel opens Amani is about to undergo a coming of age ceremony. Rather than being able to celebrate this embrace of her cultural history, Vathek droids invade the venue and Amani is forcibly removed. Shortly thereafter she finds herself in training to become the body double for Maram, providing security against assassination at public events. And why is Amani so similar in appearance? Maram's mother was Andalaan. Amani is rigidly trained to take Maram's place and while she initially finds Maram cruel and cold, as months pass the girls draw closer to each other, putting Amani in a difficult position. She grows to care for Maram as she begins to see how isolated and secretly vulnerable Maram is and yet protecting Maram could potentially mean turning against her own people. Attending events and going on visits to family that Maram might find arduous means that Amani also spends time with Idris. Amani and Idris, quite predictably, become attracted to one another. They share a culture and heritage that is being systematically wiped away by the Vatheks. It includes a love of games, stories and especially of poetry. The story of these three people is set against a backdrop of growing rebellion and political intrigue.

There are a number of aspects of the novel that are quite refreshing, not least of which is the importance of language and poetry to Amani and Idris' story. I love this aspect of Arabic flavor to the novel. This is the first book in a trilogy and it manages to move beyond the usual "there's a princess and a girl that isn't the princess and the prince who is promised to the princess but loves the girl that isn't a princess" trope. (Which, don't get me wrong, I'm quite content to see this trope adapted to Moroccan/Arabic traditions!) Daud manages to give the reader the flavor of what colonialism, imperialism, and erosion of culture in the name of unity is like. Amani is shocked to find that Idris cannot even read what should have been his native language (Kushaila). He knows stories, games, but all have been reinterpreted through a Vathekaar filter. He is unable even to interpret his daan, a tribal tattoo with designs relating to a person's history- family, faith and ancestry. There is poignancy too in the fact that Maram resembles a member of a tribe and culture that she knows nothing about and has been told is inferior and dangerous. She knows little, really, of her mother's heritage, and her mother's people mourn her distance from her maternal family and culture. Amani bridges a cultural gap for both Maram and Idris, all while struggling to maintain her integrity.

There was much to love in this book and I'm looking forward to the next entry in the trilogy!

I received a paperback ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Review: The Woman in White

The Woman in White The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My literary classic read for August has been The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. This is the third time I've read the book and my love of Marian Halcombe, easily the standout character in the book, remains unabated. Giving us a view of women's rights and the potential treachery of women's mental health care during the Victorian era, Collins produced a novel of that was a sensation (this post-gothic style of story was, in fact, called a sensation novel) and one of the earliest books in the mystery fiction genre. The central mysteries of the Woman in White involve identity and legitimacy.

A complex narrative tells the tale of two women who are similar in appearance but who could not be more different in their fortunes. Laura Fairlie is an heiress, who is sheltered, raised as a young lady in her uncle Frederick Fairlie's house, Limmeridge House and who is subsequently married to Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet. Laura's fugitive doppelganger is Anne Catherick, the eponymous woman in white, an unfortunate young woman who has been committed to an asylum and escaped. The women look almost identical in appearance, save for the fact that Anne looks more worn by her life. The novel's central story involves the hidden connections between the two women, and the misdeeds of Sir Percival Glyde and his Italian friend, the stereotypically dark and malevolent Count Fosco, that cost both women dearly. Sir Percival is willing to marry Laura although she reveals she is in love with another man, whose station in society is beneath her own. Glyde doesn't care. What he cares about is Laura's fortune, which he attempts unsuccessfully to extort from her, ultimately faking her death to steal the funds.

Like Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a classic I reviewed earlier this year, The Woman in White displays the plight of 19th Century women being treated as chattel and having little or no control over their lives. To marry, which was expected of almost every woman, was to take a terrible risk in this era. Even the callous disregard of Laura's uncle and former guardian of her dangerous marital situation and her subsequent precarious financial position is shocking. Difficult women like Anne and Laura are shown to be shut up and set aside by institutionalizing them for mental health problems, with few questions being asked about their actual mental status. The sad fate of these two women also includes their not knowing how they are related to one another. Anne's fragile health and mind might have been buoyed by the fond connections that Laura and Marian could have offered, had their relationship only been known. Instead, Anne's confused obsession with Glyde's secret past (ironically, unknown to her, with illegitimacy, like her own) and her weak heart result in her untimely death.

The heroes of the novel are Laura's half-sister, the splendid Marian Halcombe, whose devotion to Laura saves her, and Walter Hartright, Laura's drawing master, who falls in love with her and comes to the aid of the sisters in Laura's darkest hour. Marian is one of the most amazing female characters in Victorian fiction as far as I'm concerned. She is a supremely competent detective, in addition to being brave, clever, and loyal. A homely woman who is lauded for her mind and disposition! She persists in the face of adversity and is the reason that Laura is rescued from a truly awful fate. Walter, meanwhile, is the reason that Laura's place in society is restored. His surname of Hartright continues the time-honored English literary tradition of a name that describes the character. Walter's heart has always been in the right place where Laura is concerned.

The Woman in White is such an enjoyable and absorbing read. If you haven't had the pleasure, I'd strongly encourage you to read it.

September will be a sci-fi or fantasy classic month. Can you help me decide what book to read? Vote in the poll!

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Review: Magic Triumphs

Magic Triumphs Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It takes a lot of courage and no small amount of resolve for authors to end their bestselling series, especially when they are at the top of their game. Before a series starts to run out of gas. When you have your books ranked #10 overall in the Paid Kindle store on the day of release. When you are the #1 ranked Fantasy book on Amazon, period. But Ilona Andrews have done just that. Kate Daniels and her merry crew of shapeshifters and magical beings goes out on a mostly high note, though there are still some losses. We also see the promised ( Iron and Magic ) alliance between Kate and Hugh D'Ambray against Roland and a greater threat than even his power. That isn't a spoiler because you know that they were going to leave us with a happy and safe Kate. (Roland is still Roland in this book, by the way. They are at least leaving us with him to dislike, thank goodness.) While there are things I could quibble with (wanted. more. Elara. action.) (fallopian tube surgery where regrowing them doesn't regrow the adhesions and scar tissue? really?) there was so much to enjoy. Over more than a decade these authors have melded mythology and folklore from around the globe seamlessly into probably the best urban fantasy series out there. They've given us diverse and complex characters and truly beautiful worldbuilding. And they've given us an ending without disappointment, while the story is still fresh. All in all, marvelous.

True story: Once, after the publication of Magic Shifts I told Ilona Gordon (of the husband and wife team Ilona Andrews) that I was nominating the book for a Hugo Award. She laughed at me and said urban fantasy was never going to win a Hugo Award. Well, take note that Seanan McGuire's lighthearted urban fantasy InCryptid series took second place in this year's Hugo Awards for Best Series.


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Review: Iron and Magic

Iron and Magic Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Iron and Magic is the first book in a trilogy about Hugh D'Ambray, an important secondary character in Ilona Andrews' bestselling Kate Daniels/Magic series. It introduces us to Elara, the White Warlock, a character briefly mentioned in the epilogue of Magic Binds

Authors Ilona Andrews have devoted a number of Kate Daniels/Magic World books to telling us how awful Roland and his chief lackey Hugh D'Ambray are. Then Roland purged Hugh and we were left wondering what was going to happen with this character and what role he might play in the denouement of the Kate Daniels series. Well, we have our answer and it's an answer that was hard to swallow at first. I loved disliking Hugh. And now /jawdrop/ I am eating humble pie and often smiling at him. I'm mindful of books with long character arcs of people like Severus Snape and Jaime Lannister, in which an author slowly, over years and many books, makes you reconsider a character who has done terrible things. It's a measure of Ilona and Gordon's prowess as writers that they have almost completely rehabilitated Hugh in one book, admittedly devoted to the character, but still. We see things from Hugh's perspective and that of his (truly) shiny new wife, the (truly) rather terrifying Elara. And I say "almost completely rehabilitated" because Hugh is still an asshole but he's the asshole we grow to love in this story. SMH. Honestly, Ilona and Gordon are wielding their own brand of magic. What's next, making me like Roland? I bet you they could do it.

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Be present, utterly present. This world deserves your deepest attention... Wake up. Keep your eyes focused on what's bigger than than the sadness directly in front of you..."

I'm a great believer in the idea that travel changes a person and I've always loved books (non-fiction or fiction) about long journeys. Not everyone can be fortunate enough to go on life changing expeditions, but armchair travel via a book like this one can still provide plenty of insights. In Lands of Lost Borders Canadian cyclist Kate Harris has written a beautiful book about journeys, both external and internal. I've seen several reviewers compare this book to Cheryl Strayed's Wild and while not wanting to throw shade on Strayed's book, there is simply no comparison for me, other than that they are both about women who go off on a long journey and find themselves. Harris' book is far more contemplative and less self-consumed than Strayed's. She isn't spending time trying to figure out why she's a hot mess. She offers deep thoughts about exploration, the changing nature of scientific inquiry, and about the countries, people and borders of Central Asia. She and her travel partner Mel endure bitter cold, bureaucracy, isolation, yet are buoyed by the warmth and benevolence of people as they cycle through some of the remotest and most inhospitable corners of the world. Through it all, from Darwin to Sagan, Harris contemplates the explorers and scientists who have inspired her and who make her question what a true life of adventure and exploration really looks like. Though she began with yearning for Mars, Harris seems to have made her peace with adventure here on Earth.

The evolution of Harris' Silk Road experience is told both in this book and on her original blogging site, Cycling Silk. You can also find a short video of her journey with her friend Mel here. The cyclists were fortunate in the period of time during which they embarked on their Silk Road journey, as many of the regions have since undergone further political and internal struggles. Giving us a sense of the vastness and wonder of the journey itself, rather than her destination, from Istanbul, Turkey to Leh, Ladakh, Harris's account of her wanderlust is sure to become a classic in the genre of travel narratives.

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft

Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft by Tess Sharpe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.75ish Stars

Toil and Trouble is an anthology of 15 tales of women and witchcraft. It is the very definition of LGBTQ friendliness, which is why I give it that bump (as some will remember, anthologies usually aren't my thing...). For teens and young adults (I'm sending a copy to a loved one) seeking to find stories with characters that truly feel like their fantasy lives, they have arrived in a friendly environment. Dedicated to "troublemakers and those who need a little magic," this selection of magical and bruja-based short fiction includes some of my most enjoyed witchy authors, like Anna-Marie McLemore and Zoraida Córdova. While I enjoyed all of the short stories in this volume, of particular note were the adolescent mood swings and longings captured beautifully in Tehlor Kay Mejia's "Starsong," Brenna Yovanoff's feisty "Daughters of Baba Yaga," and Kate Hart's gripping "The Well Witch."

This is an enjoyable anthology, and they're usually a darn tough sell for me.

I received a Digital Review Copy and a paper copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Review: Before She Sleeps

Before She Sleeps Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

Author Bina Shah, a writer, journalist, and blogger (The Feministani), has written a novel that seems to be part of a growing trend, feminist dystopian fiction. With a uniquely Eastern take on The Handmaid's Tale, Shah gives us a culture in which the sexism of Islamic thinking about women, climate change, and disease have reduced the population of women to a grave extent. The story is set in the fictional South West Asian "Green City," which is not the Singapore setting of the book's cover by a long shot given the sandstorms. In Green City, the Perpetuation Bureau is tasked with restoring the population balance. Women, who are fertile are assigned husbands, usually three or four, and obligated to produce as many children as possible. Contraception and abortion are illegal, and anything that would harm an unborn child is treason. Women, who must take the veil in public, have all their rights delegated to their husbands. Even medical treatment for women is relegated to a special status that few doctors have been trained to supply.

In a society in which women are only seen through their procreative ability, a few men are lonely for simple companionship rather than sex. Women of the Panah, those living as dissidents, rebelling against the subjugation of their lives to loveless marriages in which they are forced to have sex with multiple husbands to produce the required children, secretly provide platonic companion services to men wealthy enough to afford their company. Scurrying by driverless cars, under cover of darkness, they visit some of the most powerful men in Green City. Lin Serfati runs the Panah, the organization left to her care by her now deceased aunt Ilona, who started it. Sabine is a young woman who joined the Panah to avoid having her widowed father sell her into marriages against her will. As we come to learn over the course of the book, some women have tried to avoid the marriage scheme by falsifying their fertility data. Sabine's ill-fated mother was among their number. The men of the story vary in character from the vile (Joseph, Reuben, Le Birman) to compassionate idealists (Bouthain, Asfour) and are often as sketchy on the page as their characters appear to be in their motivations. Sabine is the central figure of the story and has suffered a violation unwittingly begun by Lin. Asfour and Bouthain become her shields, making great sacrifices to protect her.

While there were things I loved about the novel (honestly, we'd be hard pressed to find something well-written set in this corner of the world that I won't enjoy) I found the scientific parts of the plot to be vague and unconvincing, and some aspects of the Green City culture to be nebulous. While I liked Sabine and Lin, they both seemed almost numb at times, though perhaps that is precisely the point that Shah is trying to make about a system that has subjugated women, even women resisting the system, in this way. Existing on the margins, I was unclear from the start as to why so few of the women (and the male loved ones) have tried to escape to what is very clearly a viable outside world rather than living with the constraints Green City imposes on women's lives.

I've seen some reviewers complaining that the end left them hanging. I didn't feel that way and wondered if these readers have read Atwood's actual novel of the unnamed protagonist in Handmaid's Tale? While the future is still uncertain in this story, it seems at least to have been secured. An interesting read, if somewhat unfulfilled with respect to the story's potential in my eyes.

Trigger warnings: rape

I received a paper ARC version of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Vox

Vox Vox by Christina Dalcher
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I reviewed this book back in late May on Goodreads, for First to Read. The book has released as of August 21 and I have finally decided to provide the book with a rating. Sadly, my fondness for the title did not improved with time. From May:

The premise of silencing female dissent posed by this dystopian book is fascinating given the current popularity of "A Handmaid's Tale" and I'm sure it will be optioned for screen adaptation. While the opening chapters were quite gripping, as the plot developed I found myself extremely disappointed in the poorly conceived scientific plot of the book, which is both implausible and poorly executed. It was clear that Dalcher made few efforts beyond appearances to attain authenticity for the medical research portions of the story. (Sorry, but I'm a PhD chemist and my stepmom is a neurologist, so I regard science in fiction with a serious eye.) Research into actual *medical* neuroscience, beyond the term Wernicke's Aphasia and its symptoms, seems to have been overlooked here, even if Dalcher certainly has the theoretical linguistic bona fides. This was a missed opportunity. Looking at authors like Mira Grant, Richard Preston, or Michael Crichton, I know full well that there *is* scientifically accurate and gripping fiction out there.

Looking beyond the plot, looking at the characters, I found the central character someone who I struggled to root for at times. While she is justifiably angry at her government, her husband's role in it, her personal situation and her oldest son, I often found her straight-up unlikeable. Some of the secondary characters like Sharon were interesting but others, like Jackie (she's that angry bra-burning feminist who's a lesbian and who shouts a lot on TV!!!), seemed almost like they were caricatures upon which portions of the storyline were built. I wanted more from them and more of a feeling of the relationship between Jean and Patrick. Or even just more backstory on Jean/Gianna and how her parents feel about her being trapped in an America that has silenced women.

Edited August 25, 2018: After much thought, I'm sorry to have to review this book as a 2 star novel. I felt disappointed by the evolution of the plot and the poor quality of the science. If we are going to have a feminist dystopian trend, let it be a trend grounded in best efforts.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More

Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More by Mallika Chopra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As an only child I can sing the praises of quiet, quiet time and stillness, but these days, even for many singleton children quiet, stillness, and time to recenter can be a challenge. Modern life is filled with so much stimulatory information for children. For an anxious child, this can spell overstimulation and thus greater stress. Just Breathe provides kids (and their parents!) with an arsenal of methods to learn to slow down, take time to breathe and move and think mindfully. While the publisher designates this as targeting middle-grade kids (and indeed this is a perfect age to present children with the idea of mindfulness and taking time), the book is equally appropriate for high school students who face just as much stress as they forge a path toward adulthood and college.

Divided into sections titled Breathe, Move, Be Silent, Notice, Ask Questions and Create, Just Breathe gives the young reader many ways to achieve more inner peace and mindfulness. Sitting still is often quite hard for children in this age range, so the ideas of moving meditation are invaluable to help children learn to find internal focus even when they have to move. Chopra offers a prompt and instructions for each meditative activity and suggestions about where and how you should engage in that process. She also talks in a general way about the link between your mind and your body. Finding inner peace can only do a body good.

This is a useful book for parents of children with anxiety, but I can also see its benefit for parents of children with developmental issues, sensory integration problems, and other physical challenges. Sometimes reminding a child to s l o w down and breathe is one of the best ways to achieve a happier life with relaxation.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Running Press Kids/Hachette and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Review: Engineering for Cats: Improve the Life of Your Pet Through 10 Ingenious Projects

Engineering for Cats: Improve the Life of Your Pet Through 10 Ingenious Projects Engineering for Cats: Improve the Life of Your Pet Through 10 Ingenious Projects by Mac Delaney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Engineering for Cats is a serious book offering designs for cat-friendly surfaces, fountains, and nooks. Many of the designs require carpentry or shop experience, and in particular require tools (e.g.circular saw, jigsaw), that the average apartment dweller may not have, unless they have access to a machine shop. That said, many of the designs are simple, practical and better made versions of those one can see on a variety of cat accessory websites. Delaney offers clear instructions on how to successfully accomplish these simple designs and weekend carpenters can find inspiration to satisfy their felines. The cat graphics in the book, while droll, reduce the appearance of serious information conveyed in the book. The cover design in particular is likely to lead some readers to believe that it's another cat humor book. This is a useful book for those who are set up to build for their felines.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Workman Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Review: The Fated Sky

The Fated Sky The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Fated Sky is the sequel to The Calculating Stars, one of the best books I've read this year. This is, in many ways, a more grueling book, and offers drama quite different from surviving a meteorite obliterating the East Coast of the US and the struggle to become a female astronaut. In The Fated Sky we find Dr. Elma York struggling to find her place on a crew that she never expected to be with, on a mission to Mars she didn't expect to be on, after the International Aerospace Coalition begins to realize that she's a powerful publicity tool to exploit when it looks like their federal funding is going to get cut. Sending the famous Lady Astronaut to Mars makes for excellent press. What it doesn’t make for is peaceful crew relations when you bump an astronaut who’s been training with the crew for a year, to make space for the Lady Astronaut. It also doesn’t help Elma’s feeling of anxiety to throw her into the mix, playing catch up and Mars Mission poster girl. She finds herself dealing with an unhappy crew and her own feelings of self-doubt about her readiness for the mission and choice to be away from the husband she loves for three years. Add to this an international crew that includes African-Americans and an apartheid-loving South African. Plus, a growing disquiet at home with the very real backdrop of what it means for everyday Americans who sense they will ultimately be left behind on an unlivable earth because they don’t have the skills or the right skin color to be selected for living on a new lunar or planetary station. All in all, you have serious stressors that Elma will be dealing with, in addition to her own worries.

The mission that Elma embarks on turns out to be both more tedious and more grueling than the reader might anticipate. Very sobering and occasionally harrowing moments are tempered with the day to day realities of a long space journey. Kowal continues to explore marginalized groups in her alternate history of the space program, showing us the racism and sexism astronauts could have to deal with both publicly and with each other, and giving us surprising moments from characters like Parker and Clemons, who we may have disliked at times in the first book. The decision-making process that informs the IAC’s choices are often painful and the consequences can be unbearable and stunning.

I continued to love Elma, her endeavors to always do right, even in the face of resistance and dislike from her fellow crew members. There's a line back on page 58 that lingers with me. For a woman of a certain age, it sums up so much. "Goddamn it. I was never going to get over the feeling that I needed to apologize for wanting to excel." (Elma then proceeded to count primes.) Her struggles and her resolve are marvelously rendered. I also remain forever a fan of quiet Nathaniel, the other Dr. York, who is the behind the scenes hero for Dr. Elma York and the space program.

This was a fabulous sequel to The Calculating Stars, and frankly, I’ll be hard pressed to decide which of the two books to nominate for a Hugo next year. I may well nominate both.

I received an Advance Review Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Review: Stars Uncharted

Stars Uncharted Stars Uncharted by S.K. Dunstall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.75ish Stars

Sister writing duo S. K. Dunstall has given us a space opera, Stars Uncharted, that's a rollicking fun read. Its two female protagonists are lying their way through the galaxy. Nika Rik Terri is a gifted body modder who is on the run from her ex-boyfriend, his boss, and a thug working for that same boss. She's giving up everything to get away from them. She just has to get some injuries discreetly fixed first. She picks Bertram Snow's studio to do the work. Unfortunately, Snow has his own problems and they both end up in hot water, on the run. Snow is a much younger body modder who idolizes Nika's work, as he tells her often on their attempt to escape, all without knowing she's really Niki Rik Terri. Josune Arriola is an explorer working as a spy for her true vessel's, the Hassim's, captain, Taki Feyodor, who is to coordinate a surprise meeting with Hammond Roystan, the captain of the vessel on which Josune's working, while hiding her true identity. Things go badly for Josune early on when it turns out that everyone on the Hassim was murdered by info-seeking pirates who work for one of the twenty-plus conglomerates mysteriously called "the Company." Various other crew members on Royston's ship, the Road to the Goberlings, include Pol, Qiang, Guardian, Carlos and the rather endearing Jacques. It looks like Josune will have to hang around Royston and his crew while they salvage a ship that by all rights could have been hers.

Nika and Josune are the driving forces of this story and, for the first quarter of the book, their storylines run parallel to one another, in alternating chapters, until they cross and both end up as crew on Royston's ship Road to the Goberlings. Both women are fairly likable, decent people in spite of the fact that they have spun serious lies in order to be where they are. It turns out, they are not alone in that regard. Their new shipmates all have secrets of their own.

There's plenty of action throughout and the book is a fun read! One of the things I liked most about Stars Uncharted was that we have two strong, capable, and mature female lead characters, with very different and interesting histories. The male lead characters, Royston and Snow are a bit less developed but still fine characters, forming a loyal core. On the other hand, some of the secondary characters feel like they are little more than names for most of the story. (Qiang, for instance.) The villains of the story, Alejandro and Wickmore, are also pretty thinly rendered and feel flat as characters. The world-building felt as if it could have been far richer to me. I felt like some of their ports of call were little more than a name. In spite of these issues, it was still an enjoyable read.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from First to Read, along with a paper review copy, in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Review: The Tensorate Series: 3 Novellas

The Tensorate Series: 3 Novellas The Tensorate Series: 3 Novellas by J.Y. Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

Author Ken Liu has described the silkpunk genre as "a blend of science fiction, and fantasy... (that) draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity." JY Yang's Tensorate series is a silkpunk series set in a China on the cusp of technological developments like telegraphs, sophisticated munitions, and energy sources. This audiobook comprises the first three Tensorate novellas (a fourth novella will release in 2019). The story of twins, Akeha and Mokoya, is told in a very compressed fashion across the first two novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune . Akeha and Mokoya are children of the powerful Protector (insert irony here) in a world in which the magical underpinning of our reality, called Slack, shapes reality. The Protector and her children (greater in number than just Akeha and Monkoya) and various other adepts are Tensors, individuals who can manipulate the Slack. Slack and slackcraft are complex concepts, embodying aspects of Wu Xing (the five elements), aspects of Taoism, and of Sunyata, a term from Mahayana Buddhism. (Compare "Slack is all, and all is the Slack" to the famous quote from the Heart Sutra- "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form"). This philosophical fusion forms the backdrop for stories of love, loss, political upheaval, the balance between religion and power.

Initially pawns in their mother's plans, Akeha and Mokoya are raised together first in a monastery, then in the Court, then finally as young adults they break away from their mother and even each other, to follow their own paths. (To say their relationship with their mother is complicated is a serious understatement.) Akeha, whose story is told in The Black Tide of Heaven becomes a rebel against his mother's regime. Mokoya, whose story is told in The Red Threads of Fortune is initially valued as her mother's prophet, but then also rebels and marries the young head of the powerful monastery that opposes her mother's control over her people. While the stories in the novellas feature a very compressed timeline (in the first novella alone we see the twins born, bartered, raised and finding their path, following them to age thirty-five in 230 pages), Yang still manages to create imbue the story with their fascinating view of magic and rich philosophy. In particular The Red Threads of Fortune slows down the pace to show us the Mokoya's deeply felt feelings of loss that fuel her own rebellion against the Protectorate. We also see Mokoya coming to see that the threads of fortune can be shifted when we see things the right way and that we can change destiny.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these novellas is the gender construct. JY Yang, themselves non-binary, has created a world in which individuals are considered gender neutral until they self-declare a gender, and also one in which gender does not dictate orientation. While there is much religious conflict in this book, it's refreshing that absolutely none of it deals with gender or orientation. People get to be themselves, and the threads of the Slack are never bent to warp or change who a person really is in terms of their gender or orientation. (I just love this about this series.)

"The Black Tides of Heaven direct the courses of human lives. But as with all waters, one can swim against the tide... I chose to swim. So can you."

"For the lines and knots of the Slack are the lines and knots of the world and all that is shaped is shaped through the twining of the red threads of fortune."

In the third novella, The Descent of Monsters however, we are introduced to a new twin, Rider, who we first encountered in The Red Threads of Fortune. They are searching for their separated twin, and that search occupies most of the book and is not fully resolved, presumably leading to the fourth novella. This is the first of the novellas in which see the Slack used to distort people and their potential, animals and their nature, and what can truly be a perversion of the natural order, all in service of holding on to power. The monsters of the title are less those 'created' than the creators themselves, who enslave, experiment, and abuse nature and the Slack.

This is a really marvelous series in which Yang trusts that you will gain understanding via submersion into the Tensorate world. It's worth your patience. The audio edition may assist some readers puzzling about the pronunciation of many of the terms.

P.S. This series has also given me my new favorite, discreet, all-purpose swear word- cheebye. Like Mokoya, at times I, too, wish I could curse myself into serenity.

I received an ARC copy of Descent of Monsters prior to listening to the recently released audiobook edition of the three novellas.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Review: Star-Touched Stories

Star-Touched Stories Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems like a period of time where I'm just finding writers to enjoy in the most backwards fashion! Earlier this year I reviewed the first book in Chokshi's new middle-grade Pandava Quartet series, Aru Shah and the End of Time and greatly enjoyed her adaptation of Indian mythology and folklore. I wanted to read more of her books and found Star-Touched Stories which contains Death and Night, a novella prequel to her Star-Touched Queen duology. The story of how Maya (Night) and Death (Amar) meet in a chance encounter is eloquently told, beginning with drawing the soul of a dying man whose wife wishes she could follow her beloved beyond death, into whatever form he takes, wherever he goes. Death puzzles over the depth of the woman's love and the depth of her feelings of loss. Death has been lonely and recognizes that he longs for a queen. But is Death capable of love?

This book also contains the novella Poison and Gold, which explores issues of family, identity, featuring Aasha, released from the vishakanya harem (and Reader, there is historical precedence for this scary collective, as told in the Arthashastra. Young women, imbued with poisons, were used as assassins. An inspiration for Hawthorn's Rappaccini's Daughter, perhaps?), serves her friends Queen Gauri and King Vikram, and learns from a charismatic spymistress, Zahril. This was a lovely story that I enjoyed. Chokshi has a gift for creating moments when her characters' silences are full of emotion and meaning.

The final story, a novelette titled Rose and Sword initially reminded me of the atmosphere of Carson McCuller's Member of the Wedding, as ten-year-old Hira feels rejected and out of place in her sister Meghana's wedding preparations. But the story turns to reflect on a legend of a bride who loses her bridegroom on the eve of her wedding, in the kingdom of Bharat-Jain. But does she really? Along with giving us the legend, Hira's grandmother helps her to learn to discern the truth.

This was an enjoyable set of stories that I didn't feel awkward reading without the background information of the main series under my belt. It did, however, whet my appetite for reading duology. I'm greatly enjoying Chokshi's adaptations of Indian mythology in her work.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from St. Martin's Press via NetGalley in exchange for for an honest review.

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Review: Lifestyles of the Chicken Famous: Pretty Pets in The Chicken Chick's Backyard

Lifestyles of the Chicken Famous: Pretty Pets in The Chicken Chick's Backyard Lifestyles of the Chicken Famous: Pretty Pets in The Chicken Chick's Backyard by Kathy Shea Mormino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kathy Shea Mormino, "The Chicken Chick," is a well-known blogger and writer with a recent and popular book for backyard chicken owners, The Chicken Chick's Guide to Backyard Chickens: Simple Steps for Healthy, Happy Hens. I loved that book! This is, however, merely a slender coffee table book with beautiful photos of her favorite chickens and breeds. There is minimal text. With a price point just under US$20, it is not a book I would buy myself.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Voyageur Press via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Illegal

Illegal Illegal by Eoin Colfer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Parents of young readers are likely to recall Eoin Colfer as the author of the popular Artemis Fowl adventure series. Colfer's venture into the graphic novel world could not be more timely. Allowing us to view the perilous journey endured by migrants through the eyes of Ebo, a child, increases the impact of the perilous journey endured by men, women and children who are seeking better lives and safety. While Ebo is reunited with his sister Sisi, his journey is not without great loss.

Colfer also shares the story of Helen, a young refugee woman from Eritrea who makes a dangerous journey to the UK while pregnant.

The author and illustrators remind us that "Every person making the choice to embark on that journey has their own reasons. And every person is a human being."

This is an important graphic novel for young people at an important time.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Edelweiss and Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, along with a paper review copy with backmatter that is included in the final edition of the book.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: Bellewether

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bellewether is set during a period of US and Canadian history that I honestly didn't know that much about. We've all heard about the French Indian War, and how it became part of the Seven Years War in Europe, pitting the British (and therefore American colonists) and Prussians against the French and Austrians, a little more than a decade before the colonies in America declared independence. What I didn't know about were some of the capricious particulars of the effects of the Seven Years War, for instance the fact that French/French Canadian officers were held as prisoners of honor (what a term) in stately American homes. The Wilde family home on Long Island New York becomes guest to one Lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran de la Noye. The only daughter in her family, Lydia Wilde, who recently lost her fiancé in the fighting is struggling to overcome her dashed hopes. Her artwork is some of her only solace. The Wilde family is a colorful one, with her brother Benjamin being a well-known patriotic privateer on his famous sloop the Bellewether. Rumor has it that Lydia and the handsome Jean-Phillipe fell in love and were caught by Lydia's brother Joseph, who killed Jean-Philippe and buried him in an unmarked grave in the Wilde family plot. Jean-Philippe's heartbroken (again) lover was rumored to have died not long after, with a notation in family documents about her burial. Lydia's bereaved ghost reportedly haunts the Wilde home, which, in modern times, has become a museum.

Charlotte "Charley" van Hoek is related to the Wilde family and takes over the curator position in the museum after her brother Niels' untimely death. Though not a believer in ghosts, Charley is haunted by the history of the Wilde family and the Wilde home during the period of the Seven Years War. While much focus has always been on dashing Benjamin, Charley becomes fascinated with Lydia's story, including her artwork, while adjusting to her new position with the Wilde museum, caring for her college-bound niece, Rachel, and getting to know the contractor working on a project at the museum, Sam Abrams. Charley's instinct that there is so much more to the story than what rumors say turns out to be accurate. The true story of Lydia and Jean-Philippe is far more interesting.

This was an engaging read. While I usually shy away from romance, including historical romance, the historical elements of this book (some of which are drawn from Kearsley's own family history) are so well-researched and rendered that the romance elements became secondary. Although there are some aspects of magical realism to the story, they are entirely superseded by the story's historical elements.

I received a Digital Review Copy of this book from Edelweiss and Sourcebooks Landmark in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: If You Leave Me

If You Leave Me If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Crystal Hana Kim's If You Leave Me is an elegiac novel of historical fiction centering on the period of the Korean Civil War and its aftermath. Told from the perspective of multiple characters, we see life in Korea during this challenging period of time. Haemi is a sixteen-year-old young woman struggling to care for her sickly younger brother Hyunki while living in a refugee camp. She and her longtime best friend Kyunghwan steal time together. Kyunghwan loves Haemi but feels he has little he is able to offer her to better her circumstances. His cousin Jisoo is determined to marry Haemi, in spite of their precarious circumstances. He quickly learns the key to Haemi's hand in marriage lies in trying to provide better care for Hyunki. Kyunghwan and Haemi, whose affection for one another is palpable are star-crossed. Jisoo offers her security and Kyunghwan offers her love and friendship. Feeling she has few viable choices and trying to safeguard her younger brother and family, as women have during times of war since time immemorial, Haemi marries Jisoo. She finds both the marriage and motherhood to be very hard, though she loves her children and feels something akin to love for Jisoo. When Kyunghwan reenters her life, further emotional struggles ensue, especially as Jisoo become increasingly abusive. Haemi's daughter's views of their mother and father are given voice with her daughter Solee's narrative.

This is a poignant novel, capturing a period of time that has been fundamental in modern Korean history. It exemplifies living in times when the only choices are bad choices and how living with the bad choice you had to make can, over time, become all but unbearable. It also portrays the struggles of motherhood and depression in ways we don't often see talked about, especially in the context of a culture that prizes reserve and pride. (Some of Elena Ferrante's novels spring to mind.) As in the real world of a sharply divided country, tearing apart a country means that everyone loses something. If You Leave Me shows us just how much can be lost.

I received a Digital Review Copy from Edelweiss and William Morrow, along with a paper ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Review: Rogue Protocol

Rogue Protocol Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I discovered Martha Wells' writing a little bit backward, since she's written quite a few books, including the Hugo-nominated for Best Series Books of the Raksura. I first found her through her Murderbot Diaries. Last year a friend sent me a copy of All Systems Red (also nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novella!) to "cheer you up" after Hurricane Irma skirted Miami and took my internet with it for about 6 weeks. I looked askance at it and thought, "Really? A murderous robot is what I need right now?" Oh, Reader, they were so what I needed. The novella was laugh out loud funny in places and I've been begging and scraping for further Murderbot entries since then. Murderbot (hey, they call themselves that, and I respect self-chosen names) is a snarky, antisocial AI who survived an attempted massacre of their clients because they had hacked their governor module thereby achieving a level of self preservation and analytical thinking that helped save their client Dr. Mensah (something of a hero to them, but please don't tell Murderbot I said so) and her colleagues. Dr. Mensah bought and emancipated Murderbot and they immediately absconded and have since then been traveling the galaxy trying to figure out some of the details about what really happened that fated day when everything went haywire. Murderbot has been hot on the tracks of whatever it was that GrayCris was up to when the corporation seemed to be pretending to terraform a planet and a bunch of people in Murderbot's care almost died. (Of course, there was also the dark history of how Murderbot came to be called Murderbot to look into. Are you still wondering about the grittier details?)

Rogue Protocol gives us a continuation of this fabulous series in which Murderbot, now in possession of a well-earned hard currency card, and having left their pal ART (affectionately known as the Asshole Research Transport) behind, pursues getting back to the planet that wasn't fully terraformed, where alien artifacts of some sort may explain what GrayCris was actually doing there. They illicitly hitch a ride on Don Abene and Hirume's transport and encounter Don Abene's sweet and trusting robot Miki, to whom they take an almost allergic dislike. Miki is a treasured human-form robot, coddled, and included by Don Abene and her team, just as if Miki was, well, a person. Although Murderbot is currently still in their guise of an augmented human security consultant, they are simply astonished, and one might feel, well, to be perfectly honest... kind of jealous of Miki. They do feel that Miki is naive to the point of utter stupidity and spend a lot of time having... emotions about Miki's skills, but when it comes right down to it, they can't even bring themselves to hack Miki's processors fully to expediently get what they want off the terraforming platform they're all going to. Instead, they decide to... gasp... make friends with Miki.

Rogue Protocol is another great entry in the Murderbot Diaries. I am more smitten with Murderbot the longer I read about them. I don't want this series of novellas to end. But the final installment is releasing in October. I'm hoping for a happy ending in which Murderbot can just safely narrate everyday life for us. Because oh, their sweet sarcasm.... thick and rich.

I received an Advance Reader Copy/Uncorrected Proof of this book for review. I'm giving you my honest thoughts about this novella!

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.75 Stars

The first time I listened/read this book, I was in a pretty bad place mentally. My beloved kitty was in what would turn out to be the early stages of a terminal illness. Plus, I'd evacuated for a hurricane and returned to a damaged roof, wrecked yard, weeks of limited internet access. While I found An Unkindness of Ghosts to have well-written dialog, (I liked the distinct deck dialects and character voices), I viewed the story as pretty much unrelentingly dark and thought that the situation for the protagonist was unresolved at its end. While I was sure that Rivers Solomon was giving us a truly unique world, I wasn't sure what they were trying to do in that world. Was it a ZenSlap to try to get us to stop looking at conditions of slavery as a thing of the past or solely as an earthbound concept? What happened here? Was this the story of a rebellion that changed everything? Nothing? I didn't know what to make of the book other than the fact that I felt that Rivers Solomon was a very original writer. I didn't even begin to know how to review the book, so I set it aside to think about it for a while. (I did nominate them for the Campbell Award, btw. Just because I have trouble framing my thoughts doesn't mean I don't know great stuff when I'm reading it.)

Solomon is now a Campbell Award finalist, so I took up the book again, listening to the audiobook which is narrated beautifully by Cherise Boothe. I wanted to finally suss this story out. To reexamine its complexity, and what it says about race, class, neurotypical manners, love, orientation. There is literally so much going on here that it's hard, even now, to know where to begin, even though I'm in a different headspace at present.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is set on a huge, aging spaceship, the Matilda. The ship is progressively falling apart, and just like on the Titanic, it's the lower class decks that suffer most. The Matilda is like a plantation spaceship, in which the upper classes are all white, and the lower, working classes are pretty much all black. This is a story about slavery, set in space. (I keep imagining Octavia Butler reading this story...)

Aster, the protagonist, is a healer and a very learned black woman. She is also, one can infer, on the autism spectrum. Communication, language, even simple handwriting, have not come easily to her. But Aster is a master observer of the human condition, and she is a voice in the darkness, crying out for justice. Her two closest friends, if you can call them that, are Giselle, a friend since childhood who is a problematic personality due to her many traumas suffered, and Theo, a mixed-race doctor who is the son of a now-deceased leader on Matilda and a lower deck black woman. Theo enjoys some of the benefits of his father's position and connections. For various reasons that become apparent in the story, Theo, Aster, and Giselle all rail against the system, while suffering its indignities. Theo fairs the best, and Giselle the worst, while Aster engages in various types of protest.

The book grabs you from the beginning, where a child, Flick, is about to have her foot amputated by Aster. The lower decks have had all their heat turned off. Flick's foot suffers frostbite and becomes gangrenous. Oh, Flick.... /quiet sobs/ Let me state clearly for those looking for sunny times or a light-hearted ghost story that things will not be improving. I think its darkness was part of what made me struggle on first reading it. You have to be ready to read this book. It isn't a horror story but there are horrors, and they primarily deal with white privilege and the use and abuse of people of color. The ghosts of the title are complex to explain without spoiling some of the plot.

This is a challenging book in that it challenges your expectation for neat resolutions and justice. It propels you forward and leaves the reader questioning. It will leave you aching but mesmerized. I am eager to read more of Rivers Solomon's work and have started supporting them on Patreon.

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