December 2021
« Mar    

Review: The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

This companion novel to Oryx and Crake takes the reader into the pleeblands, exploring the effect that Crake’s super virus had on the ordinary people.  Toby and Ren both spent a time as God’s Gardeners, a religion devoted to worshipping God through plants and science, but later leave the group through events out of their control.  Toby, an older woman, is working at a spa when the catastrophe happens, and manages to stay alive through eating the edible treatments.  Ren is a young woman working as a trapeze dancer in a sex club, thankfully locked into a controlled room and saved from the virus.  As these women attempt to survive, they wonder if their friends have survived, and reflect on the paths their lives took before they ended up here.

Whereas it was difficult to relate to any of the characters in Oryx and Crake, it’s amazingly easy here, and I feel comfortable saying that Ren and Toby put a human face on this dystopian world.  They are the marginalized members of society, but they are still real women forced to confront women’s issues.  Toby is driven to the Gardeners after her boss basically rapes her and then decides that she is his, probably intending to kill her.  When Ren joins the Gardeners, she is just a young girl at the mercy of her mother’s mercurial temperament, and later suffers from unrequited love with a man who really does not deserve her.  In a totally alien, if well-described, world, Ren and Toby are easy to relate to and bring the suffering home in a way that Oryx and Crake fails to do.  Ren was actually my favorite, if only because we watch her grow up.  Even though she eventually ends up in one of the elite high schools, she’s still dealing with issues every teenager understands:

I saw the temptation.  I saw it clearly.  I would come up with more bizarre details about my cultish life, and then I would pretend that I thought all these things were as warped as the HelthWyzer kids did.  That would be popular.  But also I saw myself the way the Adams and Eves would see me: with sadness, with disappointment.  Adam One, and Toby, and Rebecca.  And Pilar, even though she was dead.  And even Zeb.

How easy it is, treachery.  You just slide into it.  But I knew that already, because of Bernice.

– p. 195

This is truly a wonderful novel.  I felt the dystopian world was a bit less clear here, perhaps more ridiculous without the inside view, but because I’d read Oryx and Crake, I didn’t have many questions.  Rather, the novels worked in tandem, and I really think it helped to read one right after the other.  I don’t think it’s necessary, but it provides a complete and intriguing picture.  Some of the same characters appear, and actually had bigger parts than I’d expected, plus some bigger issues are clarified.  If I had to choose, though, I’d choose this one.  I’m all about great characters, and Ren and Toby win the day for me. I must admit, however, that I generally skipped over the God’s Gardener homilies and songs, but I didn’t find it deterred from the plot.

I loved The Year of the Flood* and I highly recommend it.

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


Review: Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Humanity has been devastated by a virus and Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy, is perhaps the only human to have survived, for all he knows.  With him are his friend Crake’s perfect creations, people genetically modified to become more perfect than ordinary human beings.  They have better ways of sustaining themselves, go into heat like animals to avoid difficult romantic situations, and can even purr to heal injuries.  Snowman, however, is having a much more difficult time surviving, and juxtaposes his struggle to find more food with his personal history, his love affair with Oryx, and how he found himself to be alone.

This is only my second Margaret Atwood novel, and after loving The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m really wondering why it took me so long to read another.  I adore dystopias and Atwood has created another intriguing world here, if not quite as plausible.  When Jimmy was a child, the Corporations ruled supreme, essentially acting as one big government.  The world outside of the Corporations was unimportant, the people only used as test subjects and cash cows as medicines were infused with illnesses to keep the market booming.  If any worker betrayed insider secrets, they were killed.  This was the world of Jimmy’s childhood, and while he wasn’t brilliant enough for a high position, his best friend Glenn, later known as Crake, certainly was.  It is Crake who sets out to change everything and puts in motion the events that destroy the world as everyone knows it.

While I couldn’t say I actually liked any of the characters, which was the book’s weakest point, it was hard for me to tear myself away from this book.  I was fascinated by the development of the plot; we know early on that the world has changed drastically, but finding out just how and why was riveting.  I didn’t like Jimmy/Snowman all that much, due to his escapades with women and his irritating obsession with Oryx, but I loved the curiosities of his world.  His struggle to find more food allows us to relate to him even as we dislike him, but it also serves the purpose of guiding us through more of the world.

For me, the best part was the Crakers, the genetically altered beings that Crake created.  What I liked about them was that even though they were modified to escape supposed human foibles, they still exhibited that humanity.  This was mainly through their acceptance of a god-like story featuring, as expected, Oryx and Crake. Even though they’re reportedly hard-wired to miss out on all mistakes, they are still people and it’s almost as though we can see their mythology evolving. Snowman doesn’t know how else to explain it to them and they latch on remarkably easily. Fascinating stuff, and that really cemented the entire book for me.

Atwood is a remarkable author.  Oryx and Crake* has convinced me that I really need to get reading more of her work.  I certainly recommend this, especially to those who enjoy dystopias and science fiction.

*I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from the library.


Review: The Maze Runner, James Dashner

Thomas wakes up in a lift with no memory of anything regarding his previous life.  He knows his name and how to speak, but virtually nothing else.  He’s stranded, until the lift doors open and he’s greeted by a group of boys who have similarly lost their memory.  All of these kids eke out a life in a place called the Glade, farming, cooking, and doing their best to solve the ever-changing maze that lurks just outside, without getting killed by the Grievers, machines designed to kill kids.  The gates open in the morning and close at sunset; any kid left outside at night is guaranteed to die in the morning.  The day after Thomas’s arrival, the first girl is found in the box, and she is suspiciously familiar.  Can Thomas solve the maze as the end game engages?

This book is a great read.  It’s going to be hard for me to back up and explain why, but I’ll give it a shot.  Perhaps the foremost reason is how amazingly suspenseful it is.  There is a sense of dread lurking over the entire book.  Thomas is tossed into this strange world with no knowledge of it at all, and as we learn what the boys know, we also learn that nothing is as it seems. This is even more pronounced when things start to go wrong.  I had no idea what was going to happen next or how the boys (and girl) were going to solve the maze, or even if they were going to be able to do so.  There was no way I was going to stop reading this book.  Besides that, I adore dystopias, and while this is another variant of the fight-for-your-life scenario, it has plenty of individualism to spice it up.  The wiped memories, the larger picture that is only available at the end of the book, and the maze itself and the reasons behind it were all fascinating.

Of course, such a book wouldn’t be so great if it didn’t have characters to care about.  We have to care whether or not these kids die, and luckily Dashner pulls this off just beautifully.  Thomas is a great kid.  He’s perplexed, he’s unhappy, but he’s smart as a whip and determined to succeed.  He’s not a perfect wonder boy, but he’s loyal, tenacious, and a true friend.  I also thought his role in the greater plot was excellently planned and made his position a lot shakier than I’d expected.  The other kids, while not center stage, are also characters to cheer for.

This is a YA book, but I had very few moments when I was aware that its projected audience was younger than me.  I did take a while to get used to the fact that the boys are frequently called “kids”.  I haven’t referred to anyone as a kid in quite some time, and somehow I don’t remember coming across this in other YA.  Saying that I’m not sure how else to refer to the group, so I suppose it is more natural.  That was really the only strange moment; otherwise I was as absorbed in this novel as a thirteen-year-old would be.  There is similarly the fact that this book is totally clean; it’s as though these boys have no sexual urges whatsoever, and even when a girl arrives their reactions are subdued.  To be honest, I don’t think a romantic entanglement would have been out of place, but the story works extremely well just as it is, so this is more of an observation than a criticism.

I highly, highly recommend this YA dystopia.  The Maze Runner is a breathtaking work of truly addictive fiction and I am waiting with huge amounts of anticipation for the next book.


Reviews: The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi

I’m going to be a little different and review these together.  They are different books, but they have essentially the same overall plot seen through two different characters.  John experiences different things than Zoe does, but the main events are the same and I thought it would be easier on my blog schedule to just combine!

After spending eight years on Huckleberry, John Perry and his wife Jane, a former Special Forces soldier, are recruited to help start a new world on Roanoke.  Their daughter, Zoe, doesn’t have as much choice in the matter, but is completely ready herself to move on, with her two Obin companions in tow as always, since she is revered as a near goddess by the Obin race.  From the moment the family and their settlers first see Roanoke, they know that nothing is going to be quite what they expected and soon they find themselves embroiled in what may be an intergalactic war.  John, Jane, and Zoe must each use their special advantages in order to keep the colony alive and save all of those they love.

First of all, I just loved the way these books worked together.  I am actually quite a fan of the same story told from two different perspectives, although it was surprisingly difficult for me to yank myself out of John’s head and place myself into Zoe’s since I read the books in a row.  John Scalzi’s brand of prose is very distinctive and while Zoe is certainly a teenage girl (and many props to him and his female test-readers for pulling that off) I have gotten used to the idea that his writing = a man.  This is one of the instances in which having a very distinctive writing style worked against the book. I got over it eventually.  I loved the way that certain holes left in The Last Colony were filled masterfully by Zoe’s Tale in particular.  What’s amazing is that Scalzi didn’t even plan it that way, but rather came back and thought about how things came to be from Zoe’s perspective.

The story itself is, as always, a very interesting one.  More and more problems occur from almost the first pages of the books onwards as the Roanoke colonists realize just how very much trouble they’re in.  Both of these books are very quick reads; they’re on the short side and it’s difficult to put them down.  By now I love all the characters and I have them firmly in my head, but they still develop here.  This is especially so for Zoe, who is a teenager and changing faster than you can imagine with all the pressure placed on her.  She learns so much about the world but I didn’t find any of it to be too much, if that makes sense.  She develops but in a more realistic way given her extraordinary lifestyle.

I love these books.  I’m a little sad that we’ve left these characters behind, probably for good.  I adored the entire series and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t like science fiction.  I know I didn’t.  These are still fantastic books, with strong characters, an exciting plotline, and plenty of laughter and emotional intensity.

The Last Colony | Zoe’s Tale


Review: Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

As an aspiring medieval historian, Kivrin has always wanted to visit the Middle Ages for herself.  Since this book is set a great deal in the future, she actually can, although that doesn’t mean all of her advisors at Oxford think it is a great idea.  In fact, one of them, Dunworthy, is frantic with worry about her; he is even more worried when after the drop, the tech who sent her falls very ill and can’t tell him her coordinates.  Soon, all of Oxford is under quarantine as doctors desperately try to figure out where the mystery illness came from.  In 14th century England, Kivrin’s quest doesn’t go well either, as she both falls ill and realizes that something has indeed gone wrong with the drop and she is about to be tested far more than she’d ever expected.

Since this one appears to be science fiction, Keith had a go at it before I had a chance and really didn’t like it, so I was reluctant to pick it myself.  Shame on me because I absolutely loved it.  Obviously, as a medievalist myself, I am right there with Kivrin, I’d love to go for two weeks and experience it all for myself.  Of course, I don’t think I’d much like her experience there, but I thought one of the coolest parts about the beginning of the book was when she realizes that medieval life wasn’t exactly like a textbook; not every highborn family is going to live in the exact same manor house with the same number of servants.  I’m sure this was the case, although some of it is caused by events that later become prevalent (and which I won’t reveal because I don’t want to spoil the book!)

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this book for me was how exciting it was.  With everyone in Oxford falling ill, and Kivrin doing so herself, and all the craziness occurring in the first third of the book, it’s hard to tell what’s going on.  Events roll on and eventually all becomes clear, but the book definitely had me guessing for a while.  It’s easy to figure out what happened once details emerge, but even then the level of suspense and ensuing tragedy just builds up.  This is a science fiction novel, ostensibly, but that didn’t bother me one bit.  The technology has some fancy words attached, but since there isn’t much explanation and all the fancy words meant things I could translate into layman’s terms on my own, I didn’t experience any trouble with it.

I was so pleased with this book that despite its chunkster status, the pages flew by and I read it in two days.  I would definitely recommend it to fans of both speculative fiction and historical fiction, although given Keith’s experience, if history bores you this one probably will not be for you.  I, however, loved it, and know I’ll be on the lookout for other books by Connie Willis.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon


Review: The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi

Charles Boutin’s defection to the other side is a serious blow to the Colonial Defense Forces. As a top military scientist, he had access to many of their secrets. As a genius, he’s capable of equipping the enemy with more sophisticated technology than humans, even the genetically modified humans in the forces, can handle. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your perspective) Boutin managed to preserve his consciousness on a computer, something that had never before been accomplished. And so Jared Dirac is created from Charles Boutin’s DNA, a clone which they hope will provide them with answers. When Jared wakes up, he is a newborn like every other newborn Ghost Brigades soldier, but as his experiences in war add up, he finds Boutin’s emotions, memories, and personality emerging, making him both dangerous and essential in the war effort.

Does anyone remember how I said I didn’t like science fiction?  John Scalzi has blown holes in that theory.  I read this in three hours on a train and the time simply flew by.  I often comment on characters in my reviews because I think great, well-developed characters are more or less essential to my enjoyment of a book.  I don’t like exclusively plot-driven works.  Thus, this book, in which discoveries that relate to the plot are made only when the main character changes enough to trigger his memories, worked perfectly for me.  Jared was fantastic.  I loved reading about his development from essentially nothing, into this relatively submissive guy called Jared, and then into someone much closer to Charles Boutin.  There is plenty of plot here, but there are also great characters and great human emotions that, to me, made this book.  There is also a tie-in character from Old Man’s War which very quickly enabled me to build on that book with this one.

There is something else I like about this series that others may not.  Scalzi is a little bit merciless with the killing of characters.  I may be weird but I love this.  I like the unpredictability of it, especially in fantasy or, apparently, science fiction.  It makes the world real for me.  I can grieve over characters I’ve become attached to but the unpredictability often makes the book that much more exciting for me and elicits more reaction from me.  There are no guarantees here.  I read enough fiction where endings are assured and I like those in their place, but sometimes I just want something I’m not expecting.  Scalzi delivers just that.

Even more amazing for me and science fiction, I like the world he’s created.  It’s strong and well-developed.  I know which aliens are which and what they’re good at.  I understand the technological advancements that have been made.  For the most part, we’re acquainted with all these details in Old Man’s War, but with the focus on the Special Forces/Ghost Brigades in this novel, we become more familiar with the oddities of the new developments in body technology.  This isn’t at all overwhelming, though.  I was astonished by this personally, but I was actually interested in how the science was going.  I want to know where it’s going next!

I love this series.  I can’t wait to read The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale.  If you are in general cool with the concept of alternate worlds, I highly recommend this series.

The Ghost Brigades is available from Amazon and Amazon UK.


Review: House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski

This one is too hard to describe, so I’m going to go with the publisher’s website:

Johnny Truant, wild and troubled sometime employee in a LA tattoo parlour, finds a notebook kept by Zampano, a reclusive old man found dead in a cluttered apartment. Herein is the heavily annotated story of the Navidson Report.

Will Navidson, a photojournalist, and his family move into a new house. What happens next is recorded on videotapes and in interviews. Now the Navidsons are household names. Zampano, writing on loose sheets, stained napkins, crammed notebooks, has compiled what must be the definitive work on the events on Ash Tree Lane.

But Johnny Truant has never heard of the Navidson Record. Nor has anyone else he knows. And the more he reads about Will Navidson’s house, the more frightened he becomes. Paranoia besets him. The worst part is that he can’t just dismiss the notebook as the ramblings of a crazy old man. He’s starting to notice things changing around him . . .

This book is a little strange.  Well, a lot strange.  This synopsis doesn’t mention that sometimes, the words are scattered in weird shapes across the page.  The word house is always colored blue.  When Navidson climbs a ladder, for example, the words assemble themselves into a column, forcing you to turn the book to the side and read upwards.  When the book references other articles, they are sometimes displayed as cut-outs within the text.  There are prodigious numbers of footnotes and about a third of the book is pseudo-academic, breaking apart and analyzing the Navidson movies, which are at the heart of this whole mess.  This book is supposedly post-modern at its very finest.  I have to confess, I’m not a fan of post-modern.  Creepy, yes, science fiction, more and more, stories within stories, yes.  Reading a pseudo-academic text when I have enough academic texts to read?  Not so much.  I can totally see how it builds upon the story and adds to the general atmosphere, but not for me.

This book, originally distributed through the internet and popular through solely word-of-mouth, has now been picked up and published for the world to read.  I can see how those who like experimental, questioning, thinky reads can sink deep into this one.  I like thinky reads, but I don’t like experimental when I have to turn the book upside-down or try to catch all the clever references in the text to get what’s going on.  More, I didn’t like Johnny Truant.  Whenever I saw his font, I groaned internally.  He’s not even close to a productive member of society.  He spends most of the book panting over girls he can’t have, watching his life go to nothing, and complaining that a book has changed his life and scarred him forever.  I didn’t find his scary scenes creepy because I didn’t care if something ate him.  I would have been happy.  I’m discovering more and more that I don’t really like scummy characters who make no efforts to redeem themselves.  His life story explains to some extent how he got where he is, but maybe I’m just too much of a goody-goody, because I can’t get into these characters’ heads and I struggle a lot with feeling for them or caring what happens to them unless they make some effort to better themselves.

What I did like, and what I liked a lot, was the story of the Navidson record.  I was creeped out by the house and its endless black hallways.  I was interested in the development of the relationships between Navidson, Karen, and all the men who help them investigate their strange house.  I was perplexed myself by the house and what it all meant.  This storyline and discovering what happened to Navy, as he’s nicknamed, was what kept me reading this book until the end when otherwise I’m sure I would have given up.  I would have preferred this book to be stripped of all its post-modern, fancy, academic trappings and to just be a regular science fiction novel about a house.  It probably wouldn’t have achieved its cult fame that way, but I do think that it would have made a much better story and a more arresting read.  Is that just me?  Probably.  

I was glad I liked some of this book – it didn’t look likely for a while and I abandoned it for about three weeks in the middle of reading – but I can’t honestly recommend it.  My fiance also read it and he is the one who urged me to read it myself (it was my book to start with), so obviously it does appeal to some.  Just not to me.  

Check it out on Amazon and Amazon UK.


Review: The Host, Stephenie Meyer

When the alien soul Wanderer is implanted into Melanie Stryker’s brain, Melanie refuses to fade away.  Earth has been taken over by these small souls who are seemingly peaceful and desire to placate the human race like they have with so many other races.  Some humans, though, fight back, and using her memories, Melanie persuades Wanderer to seek out her lover and her brother, leaving behind this so-called peaceful society and entering the world of renegade humans.

Just a few general comments since this has been reviewed over and over:

I was a little impressed with the relationships in this book in comparison to Twilight.  I didn’t like Jared in the book, but I did like the Jared in Melanie’s memories.  I found Wanderer’s love story to be very believable, though, and I was surprised by that considering how I felt about Edward and Bella.  I thought Wanderer a little too submissive, unfortunately, but Meyer creates a society in which her submissive characters belong.  Even Melanie goes quiet after a while despite her determined personality; it seems none of her females have much of a backbone.  Mostly, I just appreciated the better relationships, most particularly the one between Melanie and Wanderer.

That said, I liked the story.  It dragged in the middle when everyone was getting used to Wanderer’s presence, but otherwise I thought it was a quite interesting take on the “bodysnatchers” idea.  For science fiction, it didn’t put me off, and I managed to read the entire book over 2 days.  I worried about the characters on their raids, I wanted them to succeed, and overall I thought the book asked a few interesting questions about the ideals of humanity.  Honestly, I liked it, and I would recommend it.  

The one thing I don’t really understand is how this is more of an adult book than Twilight.  Sure, the characters aren’t teenagers, but not much else changed with regards to prose style, language, or offensive content.  Thoughts?

This book is available from Amazon and Amazon UK.


Review: Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

I love the synopsis on the back of this book, so I’m just going to quote it, especially since I am utterly horrible at science fiction summaries:

“John Perry did two things on his seventy-fifth birthday.  First he visited his wife’s grave.  Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it to the stars.  The bad news is that, out there, planets fit to live on are scarce – and alien races willing to fight us for them are common.  So, we fight.  Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater.  The bulk of our resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Forces, and everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join up.  The CDF doesn’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living.  You’ll be taken off Earth, never to return.  You’ll serve two years in combat.  And if you survive, you’ll be given a homestead of your own, on one of our hard-won planets.

John Perry is taking that deal.  He thinks he knows what to expect.  But the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine – and what he will become is far stranger.”

Ever since masses of bloggers received Zoe’s Tale for review last year, I have wanted to read something by John Scalzi.  It seemed to appeal to even those who don’t read science fiction, and I’m not a fan of science fiction.  Saying that, I was really swayed by all the positive opinions floating around, especially given that his books had great characters.  That’s my problem with science fiction, lack of great characters.  So, where else to start with the first book in that series?

(As an aside, look, I bought books because of bloggers, it does work!)

I was not at all disappointed with Old Man’s War.  The characters are fabulous.  John, the narrator, is capable of eliciting such emotion from me, especially about his deceased wife Kathy.  He’s so real I could almost touch him.  His bonds with the other characters are strong, believable, and interesting.  This book brings up questions about war, kind of like Ender’s Game, and does it extremely well.

The technology in this book, while present, was not scary or hard to understand.  It didn’t make me want to rip my brain out, like some science fiction books have with their explanations.  It’s explained, and some of it is not explained and taken on faith; one of the characters says to another, “You don’t have the math”.  To be honest, I like taking things in books on faith better as long as they follow their own rules, kind of like in fantasy.  And we can pretty much guarantee that I will never have the math to figure even modern technology out, so I was quite happy with that!

I really enjoyed this book.  I closed and immediately thought that I wanted the next.  It was the Read-a-Thon, so I’m only adding it to my Amazon cart now, a few hours later.  I’ll be continuing with this series.  It’s awesome.

Buy Old Man’s War on Amazon.

Side note: I’m not alone in this one; my fiance loved it too, read it in a week (amazing given he works full time and is taking 3 classes), and was so disappointed that I didn’t have the next in the series that I proceeded to buy it for him.  This book has our rare joint recommendation.


Review: Lost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

This is the second book in the Thursday Next series of literary mysteries by Jasper Fforde.  If you haven’t read the first one, The Eyre Affair, you will find spoilers in this review, so go check that out first – I recommend it!

After vanquishing Acheron Hades and giving Jane Eyre a better ending, Thursday Next is dealing with uncomfortable amounts of fame, but is very happy to be finally married to Landon, the love of her life, and expecting his child.  She doesn’t anticipate further adventures, but what she wants is very different from what she gets when the Goliath Corporation kidnaps her husband and threatens her into returning to the world of books.  Apprenticed to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, Thursday must re-learn how to jump into dangerous texts in order to rescue her husband and the world.

I have to say, I didn’t love this book as much as the first one.  It seemed to take forever for the story to get going and Thursday spent far too much time dodging publicity events rather than engaging in more interesting activities.  Once it picked up and Thursday began entering books again, I started to enjoy it and predictably wanted more by the end, though I was bit perplexed by Thursday’s casual attitude towards Landon.

I love when she gets involved with literature that I’ve read, which she does here; it’s really why I’m reading these books in the first place.  Fforde generally does a good job with the characters, making them entertaining but still like their book counterparts.  The AU setting and time travelling doesn’t interest me all that much.  It feels too much like science fiction.  So if you enjoy science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy the beginning of this book a lot more than I did.  I’ll be picking up the third in the series though, especially considering I already own Something Rotten, number four.

I’ll probably still recommend the series for those who enjoy light mystery with a little book love involved. Buy this book on Amazon.