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Review: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

when she wokeIn Hannah Payne’s world, a dystopian United States set in the future, criminals are punished by having their skin turned various colours, length and colour determined by the severity of the crime. Chromes, as they’re called, are society’s outcasts, shunned and often killed for their crimes. When we join her story, she’s been turned red, indicating that she is guilty of murder. She is guilty of aborting her child – the product of her adultery with one of the foremost religious figures of her day, whom she absolutely refuses to turn in, even though it would make her sentence more bearable. This cross between The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale has a considerable amount of power as we follow Hannah into defying her upbringing in a world that has startling parallels to our own.

When She Woke is a book that gained a lot of praise when it first came out, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale - as much as you can love a book in that vein – and I’m alternatively fascinated and horrified by these indications of where society might go. In light of the recent controversy in the United States over birth control, this book seemed like an incredibly timely read, and the implications not entirely far-fetched, either, certainly not when a debate I thought (hoped) was in the past has turned out to remain relevant. The book certainly has a pro-abortion slant, and would likely go against the beliefs of many conservatives.

While I don’t think it’s quite as powerful as the two books I mentioned in the description, particularly not The Handmaid’s Tale, it is a worthy addition to that crowd. I found the scenes after Hannah is released from her initial imprisonment to be the most powerful – her father finds her a safe house, which turns out to be a place where women are brainwashed into feeling incredibly guilty and traumatised over their sins, to the degree of creating dolls to represent their aborted children and telling the story of their abortions over and over again.

I did have some trouble with Hannah’s choices – at one point, she risks her life and those of many others simply to see the man she loves again – especially at the end of the book. After all that had happened to her, I simply don’t think I would have done that, even though it’s clear she loves him beyond all degree of sanity. But overall, I really was swept away by the story and found myself absorbed and disturbed by the book as I read. This is an emotional read and I did really feel for Hannah throughout the very large majority of the book, alongside her fellow suffering women.

When She Woke is indeed a fantastic read, and Hillary Jordan remains an author I’ll be watching.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Agent to the Stars, John Scalzi

agent to the starsTom Stein is finally achieving some success for his superstar client, Michelle, in between teasing his stern assistant, Miranda, and bowing down to his boss, Carl. He’s not expecting what Carl lands him with next; no less than the position as agent to the world’s first alien contact. The Yherajk are blobby, morphable aliens with personality, and the one that has come down for exposure to the masses is Joshua. Tom is charged with representing Joshua and somehow earning him a place in pop culture, facing the biggest and most potentially rewarding challenge of his career – and for humanity.

I’ve felt very much into science fiction lately, but because this is all fairly new, I don’t actually have very many books in my TBR bookcase that actually fit the bill. Years of historical fiction isn’t cutting it for me right now. So the book sitting by John Scalzi on my shelf – even if humorous rather than the sort of epic I was craving – was the best possible option.

In the introduction, Scalzi writes that this was his first book, his attempt to find out if he could actually write a novel before he tried to get published. Once his books took off, it made sense to dust it off and actually publish it, and that’s roughly how it landed in my hands. The book is full of trademark Scalzi wit, and it’s really obvious as a reader of his blog that it’s his voice coming out through the characters. I find this with almost all of his books these days, and I can’t say I really mind. I’m used to his voice, and I find him very amusing.

That said, this was different regardless as it’s set in the present day, amongst superstars and ordinary working folk alike. I actually liked the setting and the concept, and I found the book to be a fantastic ride. It’s not particularly deep, and it’s relatively predictable, but I think the fun factor is probably precisely what Scalzi was going for here. How much more ridiculous can you make the first alien encounter? I loved the Yherajk, they were truly a great concept for a race of aliens, and I think the book really shows off how Scalzi’s wild mind works.

It’s also a very speedy read – it’s only a short book – and works well as the standalone it is. I often feel there isn’t enough standalone fiction like this – there is the compulsion to turn everything into a series now. While I love series, I also love a book that resolves itself at the end like this one.

I can tell you that I’m now definitely looking forward to reading more of Scalzi’s humorous books as well as his deeper Old Man’s War style reads, but I’d easily recommend both. Agent to the Stars is also not what I’d imagine as a science fiction novel, so it’s a great taster for those who aren’t sure if they’d like the genre or not.

All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: Miles, Mystery and Mayhem, Lois McMaster Bujold

As with the other volumes, this is an omnibus composed of three separate stories – two books and a novella. I won’t avoid spoilers for Young Miles or Cordelia’s Honor, so read those reviews before starting this book!

All of the stories in this particular omnibus deal with genetics and the manipulation of them.

In the first of the two books, Cetaganda, Miles and his cousin Ivan find themselves amongst the Cetagandans when a murder mystery sets off – with him and Ivan at the center of it. Miles was passed a mysterious object and set up so the Cetangandans will think he stole it. He needs to use his famous mind to get the Barrayaran embassy out of trouble, and if he meets a few of the gorgeous Haut class, who ride around in opaque bubbles, along the way then he certainly isn’t going to protest. This particular planet, Tau Ceti, separates genetically the higher class from the public face, the ghem lords, leading to some very interesting politics. While I don’t think this was actually my favorite story of them all, I still enjoyed watching Miles dig himself out of trouble.

Ethan of Athos, the next story, doesn’t feature Miles at all, but it’s set in the same time period. The title character is from Athos, a planet where only men are allowed to live. They create children using a limited number of female ovaries donated in the distant past – the babies are then placed in the uterine receptors, developed on Beta, and selected to be male. As you can imagine, this leads to an absolutely fascinating society of men who simply have never seen women and don’t know what they’re like. When a new batch of ovaries arrived and is found to be contaminated, it is Ethan, who has made his life’s work creating babies, who is sent to Jackson’s Hole to investigate the problem. While there, he meets Elli Quinn (who was introduced in Young Miles), one of the Dendarii Mercenaries, and has his expectations of women flipped upside down as they team up to try and get to the root of the problem.

Even though this particular book didn’t feature Miles, it still manages to give us a wider view of the universe Bujold has established, show Ethan how women are actually independent and different beings just like men (I loved this), and also shows us how Miles is regarded by an outsider like Elli. She has a lot of hero worship for him, especially given he made her life liveable again, but it was nice to revisit the character and see what Ethan gathered of him just from Elli’s recollections. It’s also a bit lighter than the other stories in the series, and Ethan’s behavior towards women before he learns is absolutely comical. I loved seeing his expectations completely subverted by the women he meets.

The last story, “Labyrinth”, finds Miles in a desperate battle to rescue a genetically modified woman from the basement. Because she’s considered a “monster”, she’s about to be killed, but he is persuaded to save her. Miles may not be genetically mutated himself, but he always has a soft spot for people who simply look different. A sweet story, but again not my favorite, and lacking the power of “The Mountains of Mourning”.

Still, even if this wasn’t the best volume, I loved reading every virtual page of it, and I can’t wait to carry on with the series.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I downloaded this book from the Baen Free Library.

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Review: Cordelia’s Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold

This is an omnibus edition containing what I’ve found out are the first two novels in the Vorkosigan saga. Unfortunately, if you’ve read my review of Young Miles, or heard anything about the series, you know that most of it centers around Miles, so you probably know the outcome of this book as much as I did. So I’ll avoid spoilers to some extent, but assume you’ve read my earlier review.

We start out with Shards of Honor. Captain Cordelia Naismith is heading a scientific survey of a new planet when things go very wrong and she winds up a prisoner of the Barrayarans, under their leader Aral Vorkosigan, the “Butcher of Komarr”. Barrayar and Beta, Cordelia’s home world, are complete opposites; the Barrayarans are a military-led society, very firm with rules, while the Betans are more relaxed in almost every way. While struggling to get Cordelia’s wounded comrade to safety, Aral and Cordelia learn that they actually have a lot in common; namely, a sense of honor and a surprisingly strong attraction.

This is Bujold’s first book, and since I’d accidentally read later work first, I could kind of tell. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed it any less, though, because like most women would I immediately fell in love with Cordelia – the best kind of  honorable woman who does the best for her country and herself, with a whole lot of brains to back her up. She’s strong, but not so strong as to be stupid; she knows where her heart lies, and she’s the appeal of the book.

But this is really the story of how Cordelia and Aral meet and come to fall in love – it’s obvious that they will do so from the first page – and the conflicts of two similar people from very different cultures coming into contact. I preferred Cordelia to Aral, but both characters were wonderful, and with the adventure mixed up with romance, I found this overall to be a very appealing book that I enjoyed greatly.

The second book, Barrayar, comes after Cordelia and Aral are married, and while Cordelia is pregnant with Miles, who takes center stage for most of the rest of the series. Aral’s political career, not so much a factor in the first book, is taking off, and he finds himself in the dangerous position of being in charge of the infant Emperor. Dangerous for not only him, but also for Cordelia and their unborn child as the enemies of the Regent appear.

For me, the appeal of this second book wasn’t really in the plot, but in Cordelia’s growth as a character. Barrayar is a difficult place for a Betan like her to live. She isn’t used to the rules, to the idea of birthing her baby herself, to the lack of privacy that her husband as a political figure has. Despite the action, this is a very character-driven novel.

As Bujold says herself, the book is also about motherhood. It’s not only Cordelia learning to be a mother; other characters also learn the difficulties and the joys of having children. This was written after some of the Miles books, so I felt like it was appropriate here that I knew what Miles was going to become. Seeing the way his mother felt about him – as well as the evolution of Barrayar society – really shed light on the book I’d read already and the ones I have read since.

I keep talking about it, but I just loved the characters in this book, and in the series as whole. They just come to life, leaping out of the page, with all their flaws and problems and little quirks intact. It’s simply brilliant. I haven’t read a series so addicting in what feels like years – probably, in fact, is actually years. Read this; you truly won’t regret it.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I downloaded this book for free from the Baen Free Library.

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Review: Young Miles, Lois McMaster Bujold

young milesMiles Vorkosigan is born into a noble family on a planet called Barrayar, but with a disability that may permanently bar him from gaining any merit in his warrior-based society. His bones are as fragile as glass and a simple fall can render him unable to walk. Yet Miles is clever, resourceful, and determined to live up to the example set him by his father and grandfather.

This omnibus edition actually consists of three different stories; two novels and a short story. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles fails to gain entry to the military academy due to his handicaps. Instead he goes off-planet to visit his Betan grandmother, along with his bodyguard Bothari and Bothari’s daughter Elena, with whom Miles is enamored. Miles manages to get himself and his companions into serious trouble in a war zone.

It’s hard to emphasize how pleased I was even just by this first story. The plot is surprisingly complex as Miles manages to think and innovate his way out of the many difficult situations he encounters. But what really makes this shine is the immediate fondness and admiration we feel for Miles, starting off with his painfully failed entry to the military academy. I don’t know if anyone could fail to feel for Miles, but it’s not just pity, it’s admiration of someone who refuses to let his damaged body restrict his possibilities.

Miles isn’t the only fantastic character in these books; each and every one of them is well-drawn. Even just a few encounters lead us to build up relationships and understand how each character relates to one another. Once I’d started reading, I was hooked. While science fiction, these fall more into the genre of “space opera”, which I’ve always understood to be more character and story-focused than science based. I like this definition, from the Wikipedia page: “colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.”  To me, this means almost everyone can enjoy this book without getting bogged down in the details.

The second story, The Mountains of Mourning, is short and demonstrates Miles’s life on his home planet, as an old woman comes to him begging for justice. Her baby daughter has been murdered due to a deformity, a subject naturally close to Miles’s heart given his own physical problems, even if they aren’t genetic. This was a perfect contrast to the first novel, showing another side of Miles as we encounter the difficulties he grew up with. Miles still shows his trademark clever ingenuity, but it’s at a completely different pace.

Lastly, we finish with The Vor Game. Ensign Miles hopes for spaceship duty as his first assignment, but instead ends up on frozen Lazkowski Base in the midst of a mutiny. Eventually, he finds himself once again dodging high treason, but with the young emperor in tow, who he has to save from himself, and then from those who would cause him harm. This shows how much Miles has developed since the start of the series, tying in more world-building and giving us a glimpse of how Miles advances through the various challenges that he is presented with.

As Bujold tells us herself, all of these stories touch on growing up. Miles is learning how to inhabit his skin, coming of age in a world of pressures made even worse by his physical problems. This utterly fantastic novel takes a deeper look at prejudices, war, and politics as Miles questions himself and makes decisions that he believes will work the best. I honestly could not believe how much I enjoyed this book – it’s incredibly thoughtful yet action-packed space opera, mixed with just the right amount of humor and tragedy, which has had me eager to read the next book every time. I couldn’t believe how quickly the “pages” fled by as I was wrapped up in this story.

Best of all, if you’d like to try these books for yourself, they are all available freely from the publisher. I know I’ll be reading all books available, and then proceeding to purchase everything Bujold writes in future. I would highly recommend you give this a try!

I downloaded this book for free from the publisher.

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Review: Under the Skin, Michel Faber

Under the SkinIsserley spends almost all of her days driving.  She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland, looking for hitchhikers.  Not just any hitchhikers, though.  She’s looking for muscled men, alone in the world and without any ties.  Sometimes she’ll drive past them three times just to make sure that they’re right.  But why?

This is a book that was not at all what I’d expected.  Your idea of the book from reading just that synopsis is probably the same as mine was, especially when we become aware in the opening pages that Isserley is wearing a low-cut top and checks herself in the mirror before pulling over. It’s not what you think it is.  I’m actually surprised by the depth of Michel Faber’s talent, that he can turn out novels so different in style and genre; all they have in common are his beautiful prose style and talent for fantastic storytelling.  It’s interesting because you might like all of them, or perhaps you might just like one.  So far I have enjoyed all of them.

I don’t want to give away much about this one because so much of it is built on suspense and unpredictability.  I had no idea what was coming and I think the book was better for it; it wouldn’t have had the same effect if I knew what was happening.  I was left guessing up until the very end.  I will say, however, that it could easily be classed as science fiction but it’s another one that could be easily appreciated by anyone who is looking to think a little more deeply about the issues presented.  I was astonished as each layer of the story peeled away and I was confronted with some uncomfortable truths even as I was stuck to the page wondering what was going to happen next.

The whole book is ultimately an allegory for something we think very little about.  It’s disturbing and makes you rethink certain things.  It’s also, however, a very good story.  I find it hard to believe that this was Faber’s first novel because it feels like he’s already a master of the craft.  His writing is already well polished and really drew me into the story.

Under the Skin was an intensely compelling, thoughtful mystery.  I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book from the publisher for review.

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Review: The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar

bookmanOrphan is just that – an orphan.  But he loves his girlfriend, Lucy, and he has his mentor, Gilgamesh,  to guide him through his Victorian world.  But when Gilgamesh disappears and Lucy is killed in a terrorist attack, supposedly committed by the Bookman, Orphan longs for revenge and a way to get Lucy back.  The Bookman offers him this, but soon Orphan realizes that nothing is as simple as he thinks, and that perhaps everyone is lying to him.

This was a very interesting read.  It’s set in a steampunk world where the ruling family of Britain are Les Lezards, in short not human at all, and there are automatons and other various mechanical elements sprinkled about.  It made sense to me internally, which was good, and I liked seeing how the author chose to mix actual British history with fictional history.  I really liked the origins of the mechanics, how the author used real historical figures as inventors.  I also liked when they popped up in the narrative.  Jules Verne makes a nice lengthy appearance.

As far as the story was concerned, I was less engaged than I should have been.  Whether this was the book’s fault or mine I’m not entirely sure, but I had trouble really immersing myself in the book.  I was mildly interested in Orphan’s plight but I think it was all just a little too much to take in.  Orphan was constantly learning new things and going new places – there is no time for a reader’s brain to rest.  Plus, part of it took place on a ship, which we all know doesn’t really work all that well for me.  I struggled to really care about Orphan.  I felt like I didn’t have much of a chance to know him before his life got chaotic and the plot took the story away.  The story had a lot of twists and turns and I actually didn’t predict the big surprise, but I think someone who is more accustomed to actually guessing the ends of books would have more luck!

The Bookman is definitely a good read for anyone who is interested in trying steampunk or has a lot of experience with it.  For the rest of us, I think it’s best to take it a bit more slowly than I did and let the world sink in even though you want to race through and see what happens next.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

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Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

Astronomer Jimmy Quinn is having a long night at work after time with his friends when he hears an alien radio signal.  Almost immediately, plans are laid to explore this alien signal, and a group of friends, including a few Jesuit priests, heads into space to make contact with and study the alien population.  While on the planet, however, things go wrong, and only one damaged man returns.

The story begins with him, Emilio Sandoz, and his return, switching between time periods to explore the back story of the mission.  So don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled anything.  And let me also start off by saying I simply loved this book.  I read it when I started working and I actually enjoyed that because this was the first book that I really enjoyed that I had to spend more than a day with.  Spreading it out over four days meant I could grow to love these characters and I was completely wrapped up in the story every single time I picked up the book.

This is science fiction which works for people who don’t like science fiction, with tons of character development and a truly enthralling plot.  We know the basics of what’s happened from the start, but finding out why it’s happened, especially to people we care about so much, is amazingly compelling.  There isn’t really any technical jargon at all; there is only basic detail to understand what’s happening.  The focus is all on the breathtaking story.  Even though so many clues are laid, it’s hard to guess what’s happened.  I feel like I could almost certainly pick up more on a reread than I did this time, and this is a book that is worth rereading.

I also thought that Russell’s worldbuilding was interesting and well-done, but not extensive enough to bore any readers.  Rather, it’s wrapped up in the sense of discovery and each revelation ramps up the tension, so it’s impossible not to keep turning the pages whenever you have the opportunity.   The book really made me think about culture clash and what would happen if we ever really came into contact with aliens – and what we’d do if aliens came into contact with us.

Overall, my review doesn’t feel particularly coherent, but I doubt talking about such an amazing book will ever be coherent!  The Sparrow comes hugely recommended by me.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.

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Review: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Even though he lives in a world where happiness – and mindlessness – is the central focus, Bernard Marx is unhappy.  Because he was born an intelligent alpha, but has the physical stature of a much lower-classed citizen, he has never been the focus for women, has often been mocked, and finds himself discontented with everything around him.  He decides to go to New Mexico, where he can meet savages, people who exist as they did before the World Controllers took over.  Perhaps the people he discovers there will teach him to be happy and cure him of his mindless existence.

I’m a big fan of dystopias like this.  I loved The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and 1984 by George Orwell, among others.  I didn’t have the exact same reaction to this book, and I found my answer in the introduction.
This world is eerily creepy; genetic engineering is certainly better than it was when Huxley was writing, and so his opening sequence, where guests are taken through a child-making factory as the embryos are divided and conformed to certain expectations, then brainwashed to love their status in life, is extraordinarily effective.  I had a lot of hope for the rest of the book as I was reading it, but almost as soon as we were introduced to the characters, my hopes virtually fizzled.
For one thing, Huxley hasn’t decided whether or not it’s capitalism or communism that is horrible, and this is what the introduction clarified for me.  Neither of the two theories portrayed in the book is highlighted as more prominent or more satisfying.  Both existences are virtually meaningless, and so rather than making me worried about the future of the world, I just ended up conflicted and dissatisfied with what has been created here.
Worse, I didn’t have anyone to root for.  The characters wind up unhappy wherever they are.  The worst part is when Bernard comes back from the reservation and becomes totally content; in other words, he’s just shallow.  He doesn’t have any real dispute with his world except that a mistake meant he didn’t fit in properly.  So there is no real focal point for the reader to target, no one to sympathize with and hope for their escape.  As a result, the world, which could have been so affecting, falls totally flat.
As a result, I definitely didn’t like Brave New World as much as I’d hoped.  I’m glad I borrowed it from the library and didn’t spend money on it.

I am an Amazon Associate.

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Review: A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

Bob Arctor is a spy for the government.  In his daily life, he does Substance D with his friends.  In his working life, he is called Fred, wears a scramble suit to protect his identity, and reports on those friends, specifically seeking to identify those who are dealers and use them to work up the chain and get higher dealers.  Even though he sees the effect of Substance D on his friends and others who need treatment, he has to keep doing it to maintain his cover, and becomes an addict.  Eventually he winds up spying on himself at the precise time that the drug starts to destroy his mind.  So goes the life of the main character in this introspective look at drug culture and its frightening possibilities.

I have to admit that I was bored by this book.  In my defense, I’d already seen the film while it was still in the preview stage at college, and my friends and I spent a good amount of time discussing it and picking it apart.  So I already knew everything that was coming, including the ending which I think is very appropriate and somewhat haunting, and as a result I don’t think I liked the book as much as I might have otherwise.  As most of us do, though, whenever a movie is based on a book it’s like a compulsion.  I just had to read it and finish it and see how it measured up.

Overall, I found that there was far too much rambling done by the addicts.  I know that this is probably true-to-life, as this book is dedicated to many of Dick’s friends who were either permanently damaged or killed as a result of their drug abuse, and he includes himself on the list of the damaged.  Even so, is it wrong to admit that I found it boring and hard to follow?  Perhaps it’s a perspective I needed, but I have no plan to do drugs, and so their ramblings were unfamiliar to me.  It’s a rare 200 page book that takes me more than a day to read, but this one did, and I fell asleep twice in the day with it still open.

Perhaps Dick’s greatest accomplishment is that he manages not to condemn any of them for what they do.  As he writes in the prologue, they only meant to have fun, and then continued even as they started to suffer the effects.  They were addicted, of course, and so are the characters in the book, unable to do anything for themselves and eventually reduced to mindless, forgetful drones.  He adds the twist in the end that is really what makes the reader think about society.

A Scanner Darkly is a clever dystopia, but I think I would have appreciated it more without knowing the story beforehand.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.

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