August 31, 2014

Review: These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By far, my favorite POV is first person. I like being able to go into a character's head and see the story from the inside out. Not that a tight third-person can't do the same thing, but my preference is first. I like watching a character grow, and hear his/her voice voice distinct in my head, until, if it's done right, I can recognize that character from a few paragraphs, whether or not I know said paragraphs are from a specific book.

Where first-person becomes a challenge is when there is more than one viewpoint character. The author must create a distinctive voice, rhythm and cadence for each character. I've read first-person POVs where the characters are so similar that if you as a reader weren't paying attention to the chapter headings, you wouldn't know which character is speaking. (One such book I read had the male protagonist's chapters in a cutesy gold font. Since the male lead sounded identical to the female, this soon became an irritating distraction.) The solution to this as a writer is to really break down and get to know your characters, so when your brain slips into that writing flow, each one springs forth from your fingers with a distinct voice that cannot be mistaken for the other person.

These Broken Stars accomplishes this feat in spades. The two main characters, Lilac and Tarver, are fully-fleshed and immediately recognizable from the get-go. Besides making for two wonderful protagonists, this is necessary due to the fact that these characters are front and center throughout four-fifths of the book, with no supporting cast. Just these two stubborn, flawed kids, starting out as poor-little-rich-girl/unexpected-war-hero antagonists, thrown into a terrible situation, overcoming impossible obstacles, bickering, struggling, learning about each other, falling in love, and, in Lilac's case, dying and being brought back to life.

This probably sounds like a teetotal mess. It isn't. It's one of the best books I've read this year. It's a science-fiction thriller, planetary mystery, sweet and realistic romance, young-adult coming of age, alien contact story that's unique and wonderful. I had a couple of minor plot quibbles, but nothing big enough to distract me from a great story and characters. I checked this out from the library, but rest assured I will buy it as well. That's the highest compliment I can give a book, that even after I've read it I still want a copy to keep around.

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August 23, 2014

Review: MILA 2.0

MILA 2.0
MILA 2.0 by Debra Driza

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Occasionally, a reader comes across a book s/he just doesn't click with. The reader may think the subject matter is right up her alley, and there's nothing all that wrong with the book, but it simply doesn't push the reader's buttons.

For me, Mila 2.0 is that book.

When I first checked it out from the library, I thought I would like it. It's right in the wheelhouse of the things I've been reading all year: a young-adult science fiction novel, described as "one part teen love story and two parts super-spy thriller." To distill a rather convoluted plot to its essence, a teenage girl slowly discovers that she's neither teenage or a girl at all; she's an artificial intelligence, a biomechanical android with implanted memories who was busted out of the lab where she was created by her "mother," the lead research scientist. Mila and her mother then go on the run, both from the sadistic lab boss who wants her back and another shadowy group who wants her for her abilities.

Just going by that description, the book sounds pretty exciting, don't you think? Yet I couldn't connect with it at all. I had to think about this for a while to come up with a reason why--and the reason why turns out to be Mila herself.

(That and a few logic fails surrounding the concept of an android who thinks she's human. Does she sweat, urinate, defecate, and menstruate? She certainly eats, drinks and feels hungry, or thinks she does. In one memorable scene, she has tubing and a "polymer hydrogel" under her skin instead of muscle tissue and blood, sort of a Terminator-lite; which, come to think of it, would apply to her character as well.)

To put it bluntly, Mila (in either her guise as a human girl or as an android) is an overemotional, angsty, whining mess. I can't figure out how that could be so without a working endrocine system and neurotransmitters in her reverse-engineered nanocomputer brain, and the explanation given for this simply isn't satisfying.

Unfortunately, said mess is necessary for the plot.

It's necessary because it sets her apart from the first of her kind, Mila 1.0, who had too many pain receptors and was eventually tortured to death, and Mila Three, who really is a Terminator lite and might even give Ah-nuld a run for his money. Because she's more angsty, no matter how annoying it is, she's more "human." She's learning and making her own decisions, and has obviously crossed the barrier into sentience, but you would expect any sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence to do that. The AI doesn't have to be a whiner to boot.

Mila began to grate on me very quickly, which is why I won't be reading the second book. However, for someone else, given this story, her characterization would be perfect. For me, it simply doesn't work.

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August 13, 2014

Review: Maplecroft

Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Full disclosure: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway. First time that's ever happened.)

I've been following Cherie Priest's Livejournal for quite some time, and have read a lot about her, but this is the first book of hers I've ever read. My goodness, what an introduction.

The back cover of this ARC categorizes it as "fantasy," and I suppose that's partly true, but to me it's old-school horror. Slow and measured, with a steadily escalating tension and creepiness, until the last fourth of the book when everything suddenly explodes. There's monsters wailing in the deep, mutated something-or-others scuttling around front yards, a madman who has metamorphosed into something inhuman hunting down one of the two protagonists (at least the two women I think of as the protagonists, although there are several other first-person POVs), swinging axes, bubbling acid baths, lashing waves, and last but not least, a single, seemingly off-handed (but of course it isn't) mention in a three-page chapter that made me shiver. Tentacles.

Somewhere, H.P. Lovecraft is smiling in his grave.

Of course, most of us remember the legend of Lizzie Borden. (Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks...") According to Lizzie's Wikipedia entry, nearly all of the people Priest weaves so skillfully into her book actually existed. So did Maplecroft, the house where Lizzie and Emma, her sister, lived after the murders and Lizzie's acquittal. Of course, the real solution to the Borden murders isn't green stones from the sea that take over people's minds and slowly metamorphose their bodies into...something else, something wet and twisted and murderous, that seem to be responding to the commands of an unseen deep-sea goddess. A Goddess who wants a particular woman, Lizzie's actress lover, Nance O'Neil, and later Emma Borden.

One likes to think so, at least.

Seriously, the amount of research that went into this is astonishing. The prose is slow and formal, very 19th-century; but if you think that sounds boring, it isn't. On the contrary, this masterfully constructed story sucks you in, step by careful step, until the reader realizes those steps are becoming wetter and bloodier...and doesn't give a damn. Until the explosive climax, which features one of the most gruesome, but most completely earned (remember the bubbling acid bath, a machine set in the cellar floor cheerfully labeled the "cooker"?) deaths of a villain I have ever read.

This book is unique, and wonderful, and terrifying. Don't miss it.

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August 8, 2014

Review: The Forever Song

The Forever Song
The Forever Song by Julie Kagawa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the "Blood of Eden" trilogy, and it wraps things up quite well. The villain is vanquished (in a nasty, bloody, thoroughly satisfying manner), the young lovers come together and conquer all, the ancient, guilt-ridden mentor sacrifices himself and gets his redemption, the innocents are saved, the snarky sidekick becomes a very reluctant hero and lives to fight another day, and the selfish heroine learns to love and discovers the value of family.

That sounds like a paint-by-numbers, cliche-ridden book. It isn't. From the beginning, the strength of this series has been its characters. Allison Sekemoto, the dying protagonist who chooses to live, even if it means becoming a vampire, and struggles with her choice throughout; Ezekiel Crosse, the human who falls in love with the thing he hates and is eventually forced into the vampiric life himself, who learns to live with what he has become because of his love for Allison, and hers for him; Kanin, Master vampire and Allison's sire, plagued with guilt for sixty years because of his role in the evolution of the Red Lung humanity-destroying virus, who eventually discovers the cure lies within him and sacrifices himself to save the remaining vampires and humans on Earth; Jackal, Allison's "blood brother," the delightfully wicked sometimes-villain who shoots off quips faster than Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who finally steps up at the end and kinda-sorta does the right thing.

What a motley crew. They're all wonderful. Unfortunately, the villain, Sarren, isn't quite as finely drawn as this; he has his motivations, but he's mostly just batshit crazy. However, he does Get His Comeuppance at the end, oh yes.

Having said all this, I do have a few rants. One is something I've mentioned before, when reviewing the second book in the trilogy, The Eternity Cure. This point being that TECHNOLOGY IS NOT GOING TO WORK SIXTY YEARS AFTER CIVILIZATION ENDS. Internal combustion engines are not going to be operative after rusting away for six decades; gasoline is going to break down into something so gummy it renders said engine inoperable, even if it was in pristine condition (which it couldn't be, with no maintenance; and there certainly won't be any siphoning the fuel out of sixty-year-old tanks, as Our Heroes persist in doing); and automobile batteries are going to be deader than doornails. Also, when Our Heroes visit the vampire city and find the Master Vampire's tower replete with electricity and hot water, I groaned and had to force myself to proceed. I mean, in the absence of any clearly stated non-fossil-fuel power source, such as solar panels, just where did that electricity come from? Unicorn farts?

The humans in this story (and Our Heroes, for a while) have the right idea. They either walk or ride horses everywhere they go, since their society is basically reduced to a pre-industrial state. In fact, that's another thing: Why aren't there more animals in this story? Seeing as that's the only way anybody should be able to get around, and needless to say the humans would need herds of various farm animals to survive. (Not to mention there would be a lot of feral escapees from zoos, such as lions and elephants.) Of course, maybe the horses wouldn't cooperate with hauling around sacks of dead reanimated meat...

...Which brings me to another rant. (Forgive me for stating the blindingly obvious, and also for being a hundred years too late.) Vampires. I do like them, but I think they belong in supernatural, urban-fantasy type universes. Unfortunately, the author is building this universe towards the science-fictional end of the spectrum, and her more-or-less classic vampires stick out like a sore thumb. I mean, without a beating heart, and without circulating blood, and missing some mystical or Godly intervention, they simply couldn't exist. Sorry, your brain isn't going to work without blood moving through it, and let's not even get into the issue of decomposition. What makes this worse is the trilogy is titled "Blood of Eden," and vampiric/human blood plays a pivotal role in the plot; but if your blood isn't moving through your veins, it either thickens to chunky peanut butter or breaks down into its component parts, just like gasoline (and without the vampire's bone marrow working, there wouldn't be any new red cells/white cells/platelets to replace it). Either way, injecting the cure made in Ezekiel Crosse's system before he died into Kanin, Allison or any other vampire wouldn't accomplish jackshit.

(Of course, this also defeats the entire purpose of the books. So a pretty severe suspension of disbelief is required. It's only because the characters are so good, and the writing and pacing of such high quality, that I was able to do it at all.)

Now, despite all this, I'm placing these books on the Recommended shelf. The writing is just lovely and the characters are unforgettable. I was personally able to hurdle the glaring holes in the worldbuilding. You may not be, so be warned before you take the plunge.

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August 6, 2014

Review: Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection
Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection by Debora L. Spar

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a hard time reading this book. The first time I checked it out from the library, I discovered the edition they had purchased had some major printing mistakes--whole thirty-page sections simply missing, and other twenty-page sections printed twice. I took the book back and pointed this out to the library volunteer, and thought nothing more of it till on a recent visit I spotted the book again. After flipping through the pages to make sure they were all there and in the correct order, I thought, "I might as well finish reading this."

Now, I wonder if it was worth the effort. This book was mediocre at best.

I mean, the author tries her best. She certainly has some cogent points to say about the Myth of Perfection, and society's pressure on women and young girls to be the Best, Blondest, Skinniest, Sexiest, Most Wholesome, Breastfeeding Working Stay-At-Home Wives and Mothers We Can Possibly Be! She readily acknowledges that no one can do that, although she doesn't seem to want to force the HUSBANDS and BOYFRIENDS of all those stressed-out women to help them out. (Indeed, it seems to me that men are hardly mentioned in this book, as if they all get stuffed in the closets as soon as they get home from work. As far as that goes, the explosive topics of lesbian women, trans women, women of color, and intersectionality are barely touched on--this is definitely a White Woman's Feminism book.)But she also dabbles in some evo-psych bullshit--that particular phrase isn't mentioned, but in the chapter I most detested, "Mythologies of Birth," she goes on and on ad nauseum about how ALL WOMEN WANT TO BE MOTHERS and WOMEN WANT BABIES, DAMMIT! Which is simply nonsense. I am a living example of that, and so are many other childfree people I know. In fact, the author's continued assertion of this is almost insulting, and it pretty much spoiled the rest of the book for me.

There are far better gender studies books out there than this one. Start with bell hooks, then move on to Estelle Friedman and Susan Faludi's Backlash, still terrifyingly relevant after more than twenty years. This one, unfortunately, doesn't cut it.

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July 30, 2014

Call Me Young Gun

Each night I go to bed
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
No, I ain't lookin' for forgiveness
But before I'm six foot deep
Lord, I got to ask a favor
And I'll hope you'll understand
'Cause I've lived life to the fullest
Let this boy die like a man
Starin' down a bullet
Let me make my final stand

"Blaze of Glory," music/lyrics by Jon Bon Jovi

I actually wasn't going to comment on this numbnut taking his AR-15 into Sky Harbor International Airport while purchasing his coffee (the better to protect himself from the gremlins waiting to steal it, I suppose), until this was published in the Arizona Republic today. But once I read about this gun rights advocate idjit Alan Korwin, I couldn't resist.

Seriously, where did the reporter find this guy? I have seldom seem a better example of a bug-eyed, paranoid gun freak.

Gun rights advocate Alan Korwin said Peter Nathan Steinmetz was perfectly within his rights to bring the rifle into the public section of the airport: only the area behind the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint is a "gun free zone.''

Phoenix Police Sgt. Steve Martos doesn't disagree, but he said visitors to the airport have to apply common sense when deciding whether to bring such a weapon along.

Police said a woman and her 17-year-old daughter reported fearing for their safety when Steinmetz removed his AR-15 from his shoulder with the muzzle facing towards them in a waiting area.

Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do. You know why that is? It's because we, the public, have no idea if the person carrying that AR-15 is a good guy or a bad guy, and we certainly don't know if this supposed "good guy" might suddenly decide he's going to take everybody out. I don't know about you, but my telepathy simply doesn't work most days.

Damn straight I would've felt threatened by this bozo and his AR-15 in a public terminal, and damn straight I would've called the police. I mean, fer fuck's sake. If you seriously think you need a gun slung over your shoulder to buy a cup of bad airport've got issues.

(None of the stories I've read about this have indicated whether or not the gun was loaded. Although I would have bet money it was, because to people like this, there's no point in having a gun if you're not prepared to use it. No doubt Mr. Steinmetz would have shot a hole in his coffee cup had it failed to please him.)

Of course, this imbecile is raised and matched by his "defender" in the story.

But Korwin said it is obvious that Steinmetz was making a valuable political statement, and a dramatic one at that.

"He didn't do anything illegal. I thought he did it to make a point,'' Korwin said.

What point, pray tell? That it's a wonderful thing to intimidate and frighten people for no reason? Did Mr. Steinmetz know, through his spot-on precognition, that some other "good guy with a gun" was going to be at the airport that day, and said "good guy" just had to see another wannabe Rambo with a bigger dick "Second Amendment Remedy" to make him think twice about whipping out his own?

In Alan Corwin's paranoid little brain, of course that impossible, unprovable scenario could have happened. This is why these asshats must keep their guns with them at all tines.

Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, what a terrible way to live.

Then the story ends with Alan Corwin kicking his mania into overdrive.

He said anyone who would criticize Steinmetz, or others who choose to arm themselves, should think about what would happen if terrorists struck at at Sky Harbor, or if criminals decided to commit a crime there.

"If the Jihad were to start at this airport, you would be very happy he was there," Korwin said.

The HELL. I. WOULD., you ignorant fuckwit. For one thing, I think the capitol of this state is Phoenix, not Riyadh or Islamabad. In that blessed state Mr. Corwin clearly never visits known as "reality," there are extremely long odds against a "Jihad" actually happening here. I guess there might be a slightly better chance of a "crime," whatever that's supposed to mean--let's say robbing Starbucks' cash register, since what the hell else is there to steal inside an airport terminal? The TSA body scanners? In which case you as the cashier simply give them the money and send them on their way, out to where airport security waits (since of course you have a secret alarm button you pressed as soon as the robbery started going down). You certainly don't invite an untrained, AR-15-wielding yahoo to stick his two bits (or two shots) worth in, since this would be a great way to start a massacre. Those flying patriotic bullets really don't care who they hit.

Finally, Mr. Corwin and Mr. Steinmetz, I do not expect, want or need your so-called "protection." I can run and hide as good as anybody, and I will do exactly that, in the extremely unlikely event of anything happening. As far as I'm concerned, I would much rather take my chances with the imaginary Jihadists than some insecure jackass who thinks his "blaze of glory" is just around the corner.

July 20, 2014

Review: Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils

Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils
Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils by Anthony J. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two excellent science books in a row. This is a wonderful thing.

I picked this book up at the library mainly because of the magical word in the title: D*I*N*O*S*A*U*R*S. I've always loved them; one of the first toys I ever had was a battery-operated, six-inch-tall, motorized Tyrannosaurus Rex. Press one button on the controller, and the little green guy would walk forward, with enough noise to raise the dead; press the other button, and he would roar. As I remember (this was in the Late Cretaceous era, you know) you couldn't press both buttons at the same time.

It didn't matter. I had absolutely no use for dolls, preferring my various plastic dinosaurs and my noisy, cranky T-Rex.

So this book, needless to say, was right up my alley. I didn't even know what a "trace fossil" was when I started it. Trace fossils, as I was to learn, are everything dinosaurs left behind other than their bones: their fossilized footprints, claw marks, trails, body and/or feather impressions, eggs, nests, burrows, toothmarks, gastroliths (stones swallowed by some dinosaurs to aid in digestion), as well as fossilized feces, urine, and vomit. I didn't know such a specialized field as ichnology, or the study of these trace fossils, existed.

Needless to say, such a deeply technical book can get high, dry, boring, and incomprehensible very quickly, if the author permits it. That is the genius of Anthony J. Martin: he never lets his material get out of hand. His love for what he does shines through from the first page to the last, and because he wants to share that love with his readers, he communicates complex scientific concepts in an clear, understandable style. More than that, he writes this book with a sense of humor, so much so that I giggled and cackled throughout.

I mean, when's the last time a science book made you laugh out loud?

As a matter of fact, reading this book made me realize what was wrong with my previous review, Ellen Willis' Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I started Dinosaurs Without Bones while I was still struggling to finish Willis' way-too-serious tome, and the contrast was immediate and obvious. There are some subjects, be they dinosaurs or Bob Dylan, that need to be approached with humor, or you'll just bog your readers down.

Willis falls into this trap. Martin doesn't.

I haven't included quotes in my reviews before, but I'm going to for this one, just so you get the flavor of the writing. This comes from my favorite chapter, chapter 8: "The Remains of the Day: Dinosaur Vomit, Stomach Contents, Feces, and Other Gut Feelings."

Assume that every dinosaur pooped. If so, not all of these end products of dinosaur digestion were preserved in the fossil record. But you will have a load taken off your mind when you know that those found thus far have not gone to waste, nor remained the butt of jokes.

The author is punnier in some places than in others, but the whole book is like this. Who knew piss, puke and shit, along with all the other trace fossils, could be so entertaining?

Anyone who loves dinosaurs will love this book.

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