avanta7: (CartoonAngela)
The Devil in Silver
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, in Queens, New York, a man named Pepper got in a squabble with three plain-clothes police officers. The police officers were nearly off-shift and didn't want to deal with the paperwork involved in actually arresting him, and so they washed their hands of him, more or less, by dumping him in New Hyde Hospital's psychiatric ward for a three-day observation.

Three weeks later, Pepper is still on the psych ward. Not necessarily because he's mentally ill, but because he has trouble with rules. He's a big man, you see, loud and boisterous and rowdy, and accustomed to blustering other people into getting out of his way. None of this behavior does him any favors with the psychiatric staff. He ends up in restraints and medicated into submission.

Gradually, Pepper begins to find his place, even as he works at fomenting insurrection. He makes a friend or two on the ward, while still wondering how the hell he wound up there in the first place; he participates in therapy; he questions procedures; he gets placed back in restraints; he eventually learns the unspoken rules of every institution, which, boiled down to their essence, all say: Don't rock the boat.

Lavalle's portrayal of life in a locked ward -- the diffidence of the nurses; the casual, if unconscious, cruelty of the orderlies; the burnt-out psychiatrists and their reliance on medication rather than therapy, control rather than cure -- rings true. And Pepper's outraged reaction to his wholly unexpected circumstances is dead on. Even while he plays at accepting his situation, he's plotting.

As would I.

Many thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for this book.

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avanta7: (Dukedom)
Bellwether RevivalsBellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the way home after his shift at the care home where he worked as a nurse's assistant, 20-year-old Oscar Lowe wandered into a chapel on the grounds of Cambridge University one day to listen to the organ music. After the service, as young men often do, he began chatting with an attractive young woman, Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden was the organist. From such chance meetings do lives change.

Iris and Eden were products of privilege: boarding school, music lessons, prestigious university education, with neither a thought to money nor concept of cost. Oscar's life couldn't have been more different. But his and Iris's mutual attraction transcended the difference in their social backgrounds, and they swiftly fell in love. Iris's and Eden's small group of friends made room in their closed circle for Oscar. Eden, on the other hand, remained aloof, disapproving, with a penchant for insults so subtle Oscar wasn't sure he actually heard them, or if he was being overly sensitive.

Over time, Iris began to confide in Oscar her worries about Eden: the childhood mistreatments, the obsessive behavior, the sheer hubris of his belief that he can heal people through music. Convinced he suffered from a severe psychological disorder, she wondered if there was someone who could help: in secret, of course, because Eden would never willingly subject himself to therapy. Together, she and Oscar came up with a plan to have Eden evaluated, thus setting in motion the beginning of the end, and the tragedy that opens and closes the book.

Benjamin Wood's debut novel is beautifully written, and somewhat reminiscent of Donna Tartt's A Secret History. He captures the opulence and arrogance of the Bellwethers' lifestyle as seen through Oscar's eyes, with echoes of Fitzgerald's "The rich are different" ringing through the prose. The living room at the Bellwether family home had "...the conscious extravagance of a hotel lobby;" Iris's parents "...spent more money on cognac than most people could retire on." Oscar enjoys the luxury of becoming part of this privileged circle, but he is not seduced by it, and in the end, may be the only person who survives relatively undamaged.

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avanta7: (Reading in Bed)
The 19th WifeThe 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, book first: Well written and readable. Although initially I enjoyed the 19th century storyline, I got bored with Ann Eliza's story about 2/3rds of the way through. She struck me as whiny, strident, and self-serving, which is only to be expected in an autobiography detailing her struggles as a plural wife and attacking one of the (then) fundamental doctrines of the Latter Day Saints. As the book wore on, I became more interested in Jordan's contemporary fight to save his mother from a murder charge than in Ann's 19th century fight against "celestial" marriage and the Mormon church.

And now, a brief meditation on the fundamental issue of this novel, plural marriage.

As an advocate of personal liberty, I don't think plural marriage is necessarily evil in and of itself. However, as it was practiced by the Mormon Church in the 19th Century (and is practiced still by its bastard offshoots today), in which the man has multiple wives and holds all the power, it is blatantly discriminatory, demeaning, and harmful. That's not marriage, that's concubinage. That's slavery.

To me, plural marriage must mean all parties involved have multiple spouses.

In other words, a husband doesn't just marry another woman, or man, for that matter. His current partner must marry her or him also. And conversely, if a wife wants to marry another man (or woman), her current partner must also marry him or her. All parties involved are married to each other. Any children that result from the marriage are the children of all. In theory, such a family structure makes a certain amount of sense. Several working adults contributing monetarily to the household while one or two nurturing types stay home and care for the children and the house? Sounds prosperous, comfortable, almost idyllic. In Caprica, a television series hardly anyone saw, just such a marriage was depicted. And, other than one of the spouses being a spy and another one a murderer, it seemed to work just fine.

Look, if multiple consenting adults want to marry each other and raise a family, I see no reason why they shouldn't. Human nature being what it is, though, I don't hold out much hope for such an arrangement actually working in the long run. Jealousies and rivalries will develop, factions will evolve, power struggles will ensue....sheesh, it's hard enough being married to one person. I can't imagine dealing with multiple spouses. (Go ahead, watch Caprica and see what happens in the above-mentioned plural marriage.) And when such a marital arrangement falls apart? I can't even begin to imagine the unraveling of that legal tangle in a divorce court.

On a personal note, if my husband ever came to me with the notion that he wanted to add another wife to our household, he'd find himself out the door in a hurry. I just asked him what his response would be in the opposite scenario. His response can't be printed.

Given that most of the United States can't even bring itself to allow consenting adults of the same sex to marry, I don't see much chance of plural marriage as described above becoming permissible at any point in the future, so speculation on its nature and effect on family and society is simply that: speculation. We can only go by history, and thus far history shows us only one form of plural marriage. As portrayed in The 19th Wife, it's not a pretty picture.

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avanta7: (BookWorms)
A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One day, while on an international flight somewhere over the Pacific, Bill Bryson looked out the airplane window and realized he knew virtually nothing about the ocean -- indeed, the planet -- below him. As he says in his introduction: "I didn't know why the oceans were salty but the Great Lakes weren't...I didn't know what a proton was, or a protein, didn't know a quark from a quasar, I didn't know how geologists could look at a layer of rock and tell you how old it was...I became gripped by a quiet, unwonted urge to know a little about these matters and how people figured them out...and so I decided to devote a portion of my life to reading books and journals and finding saintly, patient experts prepared to answer a lot of outstandingly dumb questions." This book is the result of his three-year quest to distill all general scientific knowledge into one easily accessible, readable, and above all understandable volume.

Bryson covers the construction of the universe and the deconstruction of DNA; reintroduces us to scientific pioneers such as van Leeuwenhoek and Mendel, Newton and Hooke; and terrifies us with volatility of the not so solid ground beneath our feet and the sheer number of bacteria we carry around on our skin. But he doesn't just present us with facts. He also tells us how we discovered those facts: how we came to know what we know. It all makes for fascinating reading. His material can be a trifle dry at times, but Bryson does a good job of making even the most dessicated scientific idea entertaining. Plus, there's the additional cool factor of the occasional lovely oddball word, like fossiliferous.

Other than required basic biology courses, I've never formally studied science. But I'm curious, and I've developed a grand fascination with the subject over the years. I often tell my husband if I ever go back to college, my course of study will be in one of the -ologies. If you're like me and have the least bit of curiosity about the mechanics of the universe, you ought to read this book, too.

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avanta7: (Dukedom)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seth Grahame-Smith follows up the simply marvelous Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with this fun, gory twist on vampires as a driving force in world history.

When Abraham Lincoln was a child, his mother was killed by vampires: his father's punishment for defaulting on a loan from a vampire. This tragedy galvanized young Abe into swearing vengeance on vampirekind and provided the impetus for his subsequent efforts at building his strength, stamina, and fighting skills.

Aided by Henry, a vampire who early on convinced Abe that he wasn't one of the vampires who needed killing, and by other friends met along the way, Lincoln embarks upon his quest, traveling the Mississippi by flatboat and taking care of business, personal and otherwise, along the way. As time goes on, he becomes convinced that slavery is the chief evil which supports the vampires. And he goes into politics.

Grahame-Smith gleefully combines historical details from Lincoln's life with the fantasy of a United States secretly controlled by vampires, especially in the slaveholding South, and weaves together an entirely believable tale. It's great fun for the most part, but Grahame-Smith does not gloss over Lincoln's deep sorrow and that of his wife Mary over the tragedy of their lost children. In this reality, however, these losses can be laid almost entirely at the feet of the vampire.

Smashing good read.

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avanta7: (Reading in Bed)
Heart of Gold: A NovelHeart of Gold: A Novel by Sharon Shinn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Sharon Shinn's Samaria series many years ago (when it was still a trilogy), and thought it simply wonderful. Heart of Gold, while good, doesn't measure up. And that's disappointing, because there's a lot of potential in its premise.

On an unnamed continent of an unnamed planet, three diverse races live in a state of unarmed truce. The Indigos, a blue-skinned matriarchal society, are the de facto rulers of the continent by virtue of their numbers and control of arable land. The Guldens, a gold-skinned patriarchal society, are more technologically innovative, but stifled by restricted access to land, wealth, and power. The third race, the Albinos, exist in meek servitude, primarily to the Indigos.

Nolan Adelpho, the scion of one of the High Hundred families, the Indigo elite, is a scientist in Biolab in the Central City. His family is waiting for him to get this notion of working for a living out of system and marry according to family arrangement. He is quietly rebelling: although he loves Leesa, his fiancee, he is resisting the pressure being put on him to come home, where all he will then be required to do is raise the children and take care of the house. He enjoys his work and has made several satisfactory discoveries in his field: antivirals and antibiotics.

Kitrini Candachi is the somewhat disreputable member of another High Hundred family: disreputable by virtue of her father's youthful rebellion in leaving home and raising her among the Guldens. Much to her indomitable grandmother's dismay, she does her reputation no good by being the mistress of Jex Zanlan, the son of the Gulden chief Chay Zanlan.

The Indigo and the Gulden have viewed each other with suspicion for generations. Long ago, the Indigo bullied the Gulden out of their native lands and pushed them toward the rocky coast. Non-aggression treaties were eventually signed, but lately the Indigo have been pushing into Gulden territory again. Terrorist attacks have taken place in retaliation, attacks laid at the feet of Jex Zanlan, now under arrest and awaiting trial in the Central City.

Shinn spends nearly half of the book introducing us to the various aspects and conflicts of Indigo and Gulden society, and then plunges us into the midst of a terrorist attack, a frantic escape from Central City, and a clandestine journey to Gulden territory in an effort to thwart a malicious plot. The slow build-up is necessary, especially due to the severe role reversal of Indigo society, where women have all the power, land, money, and prestige, and men are the virginal chattel bargained away in marriage. Even the action-packed second half progresses at a leisurely pace. For all its leisure, though, this is a fast read, easily consumed in a day or two.

All that being said, this book's premise is one that could have easily been expanded to twice its length. Too much was left unexplored. What was the origin of the different skin tones? Did the Indigo come from some other planet or some other continent and take over the Gulden lands? If not, how did two such radically different societal structures evolve on the same continent? Was there some geologic feature which separated them that the Indigo eventually surmounted? Why did Shinn even include the Albino race since they played virtually no part in the story? What about the Guldens' trading partners on other continents, mentioned only in passing? Were they Gulden as well? Albino? Or something else? So many questions, so little information. I guess that's what comes from having a mind attuned to anthropology....

So. Bottom line. Enjoyable light SF/fantasy with a romantic bent, not too taxing on the brain. Could have been better, but not too shabby a way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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avanta7: (Robot Overlords)
How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic ResurrectionHow to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection by David F. Dufty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, let me say the idea of creating an android in the image of Philip K. Dick, with independently functioning AI software, no less, and with the blessing of his family, is so beyond cool it almost defies understanding. Second, the fact that this miracle of concept and technology went missing in late 2005 and has never been found is tragic beyond words, and is exactly the sort of ironic scenario that PKD would have written into one of his books and incorporated into an elaborate conspiracy theory.

Quick summary: In 2004, a consortium of scientists affiliated with the University of Memphis (Tennessee) collaborated on the creation of a lifelike replica of a human head using some advanced artificial intelligence software. In a fit of ironic whimsy, they decided to model the head of their creation after renowned writer and noted paranoiac Philip K. Dick, author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and other science fiction classics. Author David Duffy, a minor player in this drama, steers us through the scientific and creative journey from technical drawings to working model with a minimum of technobabble and treats the reader to a quasi-biography of PKD himself: his work, his private life, his probable psychosis, and his acute paranoid-cum-religious fantasies.

The sheer hubris involved in this entire project is stunning in its scope, and it all makes for fascinating reading. Whether you're a science fiction fan or a technology geek, interested in voice recognition or robotics, or just a plain all around nerd, you're sure to find several hours of entertainment contained within the pages of Duffy's treatise.

Many thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program for the opportunity to read this book.

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avanta7: (BookOwl)
Sacrilege (Giordano Bruno # 3)Sacrilege by S.J. Parris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some historical novels read like lighting; others trip lightly down their historical paths; still others plod, heavy and weighted with their historical sense and period sensibilities. Sacrilege by S.J. Parris is a plodder.

Giordano Bruno, former monk and current secret agent on behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the London establishment of the French Embassy, is surprised by the reappearance of his former love Sophia. Dressed in rags and disguised as a boy, she is on the run and accused of murdering her husband. She begs Giordano for his assistance: please go to Canterbury, discover who really killed Edward Kingsley, and clear her name. Giordano, still half in love and feeling some guilt over their past, obliges. He sets off for Canterbury, but not without a secondary purpose as assigned by the Queen's spymaster Francis Walsingham: while there, he should look into rumors of a Catholic plot to unseat the Queen.

Once in Canterbury, and under an assumed identity with the aid of his court connections, Giordano begins his investigation. However, Canterbury harbors more secrets than a possible assassination plot and the identity of Kingsley's murderer -- missing and murdered children, a cultish devotion to the murdered St. Thomas Becket -- and and such a questioning presence unsettles someone powerful behind the scenes. When he finds himself arrested and accused of murder himself, Giordano finds he must prove his own innocence as well as Sophia's.

Parris tells a good story, rich with historic fact and period detail. The pace is steady and the language straightforward. This novel is third in a series, however. It's a personal quibble, I suppose: this story stood well enough on its own, but given that Sophia's and Giordano's relationship had been previously established and explored, I felt I would have been better served and enjoyed the story more had I read the previous novels.

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avanta7: (Reading in Bed)
Dirt: A NovelDirt: A Novel by David Vann

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's difficult to rate this book: the writing is stellar, but two stars and "it was okay" is all the enthusiasm I can muster for the story itself. That's the trouble with a rating system based on how much I like something. I came away from this novel feeling covered in dirt myself, not a feeling that engenders the warm fuzzies I associate with a three-star rating, nor the cheerful joy of a four-star rating, nor the stunned awe of a five-star rating. Two stars. Yep, that's about it.

Maybe it's because none of the characters, with the possible exception of Grandma, are likeable. And Grandma herself is a victim of some form of senile dementia, so who knows what she was like when she had all her faculties? Ah well. On to the synopsis.

Galen, age 22, lives with his middle-aged mother, Susan, in a rural suburb of Sacramento, in the old family home on a once-working walnut ranch. Galen lives inside his head, and seeks transcendence from this mortal coil through Eastern philosophies, Richard Bach novels, vegetarianism, and bulimia. His mother tells him there's no money to send him to college. He's not sure if he believes her, especially when his Aunt Helen continually brings up "the trust fund" and keeps asking Susan to write her a check so she can pay for her daughter Jennifer's college education. Susan insists there's only sufficient money left to maintain the homeplace and fund Grandma's stay in the assisted living facility where Susan placed her, and this subject is a continued source of family friction and viciousness. They all say the most awful things to each other, and Galen wonders why they continue to call themselves a family and follow family traditions such as the annual trip to their mountain cabin.

This year, the annual mountain cabin trip results in a massive family meltdown, and they return early. Something has shifted inside Galen, however, which drastically changes his perception of family and of the world, and leads to the disturbing events of the rest of the novel.

As I mentioned before, the writing is stellar. David Vann's gift for description makes Galen's odd thought processes seem almost rational; his search for enlightenment through binging and purging almost reasonable; and the events of the last two-thirds of the novel almost inevitable. Ultimately, though, I did not enjoy my experience with Galen and his family. But this may be a story I will like better, later, upon more reflection.

Many thanks to Goodreads First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.

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avanta7: (BookWorms)
Losing Clementine: A NovelLosing Clementine: A Novel by Ashley Ream

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clementine Pritchard, in a fit of determination, has fired her shrink, fired her assistant, and flushed her meds down the toilet. After decades of suffering with bipolar disorder, she's through. She's given herself 30 days to wrap up her affairs and then she's taking her own life. Neatly. Cleanly. No fuss, no muss. And definitely not like her mother, who murdered Clementine's sister and then herself with a powerful shotgun blast one black day when Clementine was a girl.

Throughout the next 30 days, one chapter per day, we follow Clementine -- a denizen and bright light of the L.A. art world and beyond -- as she sets things in motion and begins distancing herself from her life: she buys a cemetery plot, makes a suicide plan, writes her notes, makes arrangements for the adoption of her cat. She even manages to finish a new painting or two to leave behind as a legacy. She's very focused, and so incredibly sad. The sadness seeps through every word, every deed, every action Clementine takes. She's good at masking it, maybe even from herself at times, but the black permeates her very soul, colors her every thought, informs every piece of art she's ever made. It sits on her shoulder and whispers in her ear, insidious, lethal, and inescapable.

The more Clementine tries to disentangle herself from the people in her world, though, the more they refuse to be disentangled. We -- and Clementine -- come right down to the last few days, unsure if everything is completely set...

Ashley Ream has done a splendid job depicting the thought processes of someone with a serious mental illness. Clementine is by turns funny, outrageous, bitchy, sweet, and angry. She drinks too much and has a history of other forms of self medication. She hurts, oh how she hurts, and I hurt with her. She's beautifully written, beautifully created, and utterly real.

Lovely work, Ms. Ream. I look forward to your next novel.

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avanta7: (BookOwl)
Dark PlacesDark Places by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some people are doomed from birth, it seems. Libby Day is one of those unfortunates. When she was seven, her family was murdered. Her teenaged brother was convicted of the crime based on Libby's testimony. And twenty-five years later, she's at the end of the money raised for her while she was that sweet-faced surviving tot, and earned from the book she published about the tragedy while she in her 20s. With no education, no job skills, and no family except an aunt who won't return her phone calls, a brother serving a life sentence, and a deadbeat father -- whereabouts mostly unknown -- Libby faces the almost-certain probability of destitution and homelessness. Then a letter arrives in the mail, inviting her to appear at a convention of murder buffs and offering her $500 for the appearance.

As it turns out, these murder buffs think her brother Ben is innocent. And Libby sees an opportunity to milk her tragedy for profit yet again, by making these pathetic fools pay her for finding and interviewing all the remaining players and reporting back any information she discovers. Not that she expects to find anything, or even make much money, for that matter. But when $500 is the difference between having a roof over her head and living in her car, she'll take what she can get.

The story structure alternates between Libby's search in the present, and the events of that terrible day in January 1985 when her mother and sisters died. There isn't a single likeable person in this entire cast of characters: Ben Day is surly and not very bright; Michelle Day, the oldest sister, is nosy and selfish; Patty Day, their mother, is weak-willed; Libby herself was whiny and clingy as a child, self-absorbed and larcenous as an adult. But they -- especially Patty and Libby -- struggle so hard, and fight so desperately for their day-to-day survival, to find a piece of solid ground where they can stand tall and be safe.

I know these people. I see them every day in my work. And while I may dislike them on one level, I still love them on an entirely different level, a "there but for the grace of God" level. These are the denizens of the trash-strewn trailer parks and the ramshackle tumbledown farmhouses. This is the mother too proud for food stamps but terrified she can't feed her children. This is the teenage boy learning to be a man in today's world and lacking any positive role model to emulate. This is the young girl bounced from relative to relative because no one wants her to stay for long, but everyone refuses to let become a ward of the state because she's family and "we take care of our own." They break my heart with their failure, their abject poverty, with being beaten down by a trick of circumstance and the consequence of poor choices.

But in the end, I admire Libby. She had a tough row to hoe. She's a survivor. I hope she finds some happiness someday.

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avanta7: (Sisyphus)
The Years of Rice and SaltThe Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the 14th Century CE, the Black Death wiped out roughly 1/3 of the world population -- and up to 60% of all people in Western Europe -- and changed world history. But what might have happened to the world had the Plague been more severe? In The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson posits a world in which some 90% or more of the population is dead, Europe is utterly depopulated, and the survivors are concentrated in Eastern Asia.

It's an ingenious and startling premise. Seriously, think about it. Christianity and Judaism, gone as practiced religions, and scarcely even mentioned except as footnotes in a history book. No Shakespeare, no Queen Elizabeth, no daVinci, no Van Gogh, no Mozart, Columbus, Magellan, Rembrandt, Dumas, Jefferson, Franklin, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler.... the list of never-to-exist Eurocentric artists, authors, explorers, and other world shapers is virtually endless.

Instead, Robinson introduces us to a world gradually explored and settled by Asian peoples. In keeping with a common theme of Eastern religions, he uses the plot device of reincarnation to tell his story. From a primitive village on the steppes of Mongolia to a 100-story highrise in Burma, centuries later, each character returns in the next cycle, to learn more, to grow more, to be reunited with each other time and again, and to gradually learn to recognize each other, at least a little.

It's a fabulous premise. I wish I had liked its execution more.

Robinson's style is bone-dry and stultifying. Even his romance and battle scenes are presented at an objective distance, lacking all blood and passion. I plodded through this book, one sere paragraph after another, and only finished it out of sheer stubbornness, as in: "By God, I've spent three weeks reading this thing, I'll be damned if I give up on it now.") In the end, what kept me going was drawing parallels between the book's characters and our world's key historical figures. ("Okay, this woman would be Marie Curie in our world," and so forth.)

This isn't to say it's badly written. It isn't. It's beautifully written; it had to be to make me stick with it for nearly 700 pages. Deserts are beautiful, too. I'm still awfully glad when I leave the desert and am free to travel somewhere else.

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avanta7: (Book Whore)
Red: Several Marvelous, Sensational, Absurd, Visionary, Peculiar, Unthinkable, Wicked and Totally Untrue StoriesRed: Several Marvelous, Sensational, Absurd, Visionary, Peculiar, Unthinkable, Wicked and Totally Untrue Stories by Kris Goldsmith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When editor Kris Goldsmith saw a red scarf abandoned in the road one day, she wondered what its story was. And, like any good editor at an independent press, she put that question to several of her authors. This collection of short stories is the result.

It's a rather hit-and-miss collection, I think, but mostly hit. The first story, "Like Smoke" by L.G. Fitzgerald is the big miss, taking the most obvious path to the misplaced scarf. Interesting enough, but with an utterly predictable outcome. "Sober Lake" by Shauna O'Connor provides a darkly funny and startlingly different perspective on the making amends part of a twelve-step program. In "A Fear of Flying" by J. Allen Scott, a young man faces a difficult choice as the plane carrying him and his partner is about to crash. I liked this one a lot, possibly because I kept thinking "'Nathan Burgoine could have written this!" "Trying Too Hard" by Rebecca Gale has the worst title but the most intriguing concept -- when does one draw the line in acquiring knowledge? And finally in "Superhero" by Justin McLachlan, we meet a bartender who knows exactly when he will die, and therefore becomes a fearless crime fighter.

I enjoyed the afternoon spent reading this collection enough to re-read the stories I liked best several times over the next few days. Nice job, Boxfire Press. And thank you, Goodreads First Reads program, for the opportunity to read this book.

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avanta7: (Default)
Pity the Billionaire: The Unexpected Resurgence of the American RightPity the Billionaire: The Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right by Thomas Frank

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I read What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America several years ago, I finished the book determined to conduct any future political discussions with a focus on how economic/social justice issues are inseparable from personal morality: that is, if one claims to be a "Christian", one cannot ignore one's responsibility to care for the needy and the oppressed, and said responsibility includes approving and encouraging government assistance such as food stamps, disaster relief, and jobs programs.

It's been a very frustrating several years.

Thomas Frank's new book helps explain WHY it's been so frustrating. In this new America, The Free Market is God, and any attempt to regulate and control The Free Market is seen as socialism, communism, fascism, choose-your-ism, both by people who ought to know better AND by people who don't know better because they've never bothered to educate themselves in matters of economic policy as it has played out in US history.

As Frank points out, however, it has been ever thus. In one of the few passages that actually made me laugh, Frank briefly discusses how labor unions were seen as a threat to capitalism in the 1840s, and "...sure enough, the form of capitalism they had in those days died, to be replaced by 'capitalism modified by the right of collective bargaining.'" A few decades later, regulation of railroads signaled the End Times and "...the end of the world came to pass. Capitalism died, to be replaced this time by 'capitalism modified by the right of collective bargaining and Federal regulation.'"

The main thrust of Frank's thesis here, though, is the surprising "Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right", to quote his subtitle. Based on previous economic history as it played out in the 1930s, the Right's new fascination with Ayn Rand's doctrine of Objectivism and the anti-government, anti-regulation rhetoric should never have taken hold in the general population. Conventional wisdom dictated the rank and file "common man" should have been screaming in the streets for Washington to come down hard on the bankers, investors, and corporate entities who created the crisis. Instead, the Tea Party was screaming in the streets for government to take its dirty little fingers out of the pockets of the "job creators", to cut back on current and proposed regulations that "crippled the economy", and decrying any government attempt to alleviate social ills as treacherous steps on the road to the evils of a socialist society.

How the Right managed this shift in public perception makes for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, said reading had the side effect of leaving me feeling (a) helpless and demoralized in the face of so much misinformation, misunderstanding, and sheer right-wing obstinacy, and (b) supremely angry at liberal leaders and politicians who cowered in the face of such obstinacy, who did not articulate their positions in language that would be understood by the rank and file Right, who essentially shrugged their shoulders and abdicated their responsibility. (Yes, you, President Obama, I'm looking at you.)

I'll get over the demoralization in a few days, and re-enter the fray with renewed vigor and determination. I hope our elected liberal officials -- who are few and far between these days -- find their courage and their voice and join me.

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avanta7: (BookOwl)
Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Quarter Quell is over, District 12 is destroyed, and Katniss finds herself at the center of a revolution she gets credit for starting. She and her family are safe -- so to speak -- in District 13, while Peeta has been captured by the Capitol and seems to be serving as their mouthpiece against the uprising. To counter his influence, Katniss is asked by the rebel leaders to take advantage of her status as the symbol of the Revolution by being their public face. Hijacked broadcasts of strategically timed photo-ops become the order of her day; Katniss' growing rage and rebellion at this stricture drives her in directions that could cripple the budding independence movement forever.

The action takes place largely in the underground District 13 headquarters of the rebellion, and the reader can easily understand the increasing sense of entrapment and claustrophobia Katniss feels at being confined and closeted away from the fresh air and outdoor life that largely defined her days in District 12. She has nothing to do but be prepped and primped for the camera, while both her mother and little sister have real work, useful work, to fill their days. So when the opportunity to join an actual fighting unit comes along, Katniss jumps at the chance.

The final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy is just as fast-paced and easy a read as its predecessors. Given the plot-driven storyline and breakneck speed, it's not surprising that world-building details and character backgrounds are given a cursory nod and then left alone for the reader to make the best inferences possible. Not necessarily a bad thing in a YA novel, but somewhat frustrating for an older reader more accustomed to savoring those little background details and nuances of character. Rebel leader Coin was particularly cartoonish and flat, even when Plutarch, another one-dimensional character, took time to explain to Katniss the reason for Coin's animosity toward her. Katniss herself was, upon occasion, so arbitrarily contrary that I wanted to smack her. She grows, though, much more in this novel than in the previous two, and by the end, I liked her again, and wished her peace and happiness on her chosen path.

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avanta7: (Reading in Bed)
Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After their stunning Hunger Games double victory, Katniss and Peeta return home to District 12 and try to get back to their old lives. Being the victors, however, means their lives will never be their own again. As they are being prepared for the Victory Tour of all districts, Katniss is stunned to realize she must continue the pretense that she and Peeta are in love. But is it entirely pretense any longer? Katniss isn't certain.

Rumors of rebellion, spurred by Katniss' dramatic public defiance of the Capitol's authority during the Games, leak out. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, the Capitol announces the names of this year's Hunger Games tributes will be drawn from each District's surviving victors. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss knows she's going back to the Arena. The only question is, will Haymitch or Peeta be accompanying her? And which one of them will she need to kill to survive?

The followup to The Hunger Games covers much of the same territory as its predecessor, but provides a somewhat deeper background for the world Katniss and her fellows inhabit. As Katniss and her victory entourage travel the Districts, I got a better sense of Panem's history: still no real details, but I could see some of the blank spaces starting to fill in. I was much more satisfied with this section of the book than when Katniss and her partner re-enter the arena. Really, one visit to the kill zone of the first book was plenty. And, although this arena had an entirely different -- and more intriguing -- setup, there's only so much slaughter this reader can take. Even if it is mostly "offscreen". And the novel's final twist felt contrived and arbitrary.

While it's worth reading on the whole, I think Catching Fire suffers from Middle Novel Syndrome, a failing shared by the second novel of most trilogies -- the story contains information necessary to set up the final novel, but the reader knows that final novel is where all the good stuff will finally happen. This is the chief reason why I haven't re-read The Lord of the Rings in many years. I love The Fellowship of the Ring but I just can't bear to slog my way through The Two Towers again to get to The Return of the King. It's a personal failing, that.

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avanta7: (Dukedom)
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time in the not-too-near future, the United States lies in ruins, and in its place is Panem, with a glittering Capitol City at its center and 12 outlying districts supplying the City's needs. Life in the districts is hard, and nowhere is it harder than in District 12, where 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen lives with her widowed mother and little sister Prim.

All Katniss wants to do is provide for her family, and so she hunts illegally in the forest outside the district fence. She works tirelessly and lives in fear each day of being caught and punished. But, more than being caught poaching, she fears being chosen for the Hunger Games, a mandatory annual competition in which 24 teenagers, one boy and one girl from each district, are selected to fight to the death on national television.

Outwit, Outplay, Outlast, my Aunt Fanny: Survivor ain't got nothin' on the Hunger Games.

When 12-year-old Prim's name is pulled from the box, however, Katniss volunteers to go as tribute in her place. She and the other tribute, baker's son Peeta, travel to Capitol City to take their place in the arena, and face what is likely certain death for both of them. Their mentor, Haymitch, the only winner District 12 has ever produced, has other ideas. And an unlikely strategy that just might give them an edge.

But the rules state that there can be only one winner. Victory. Or death. Those are the only options. Because she's our heroine, we know going in that Katniss must come out the victor, but how she gets to the winner's circle is a harrowing, fretful journey indeed. And one entirely worth taking along with her.

I started The Hunger Games on a Friday evening and finished it the next day by mid-afternoon. I can hardly wait to start the next book.

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avanta7: (Book Whore)
IagoIago by David Snodin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Remember what happened at the end of Othello? Yeah, me neither. At least, not in great detail. But that's all right, because the events of Shakespeare's tragedy are only tangentially important, in the sense that they provide the backdrop and impetus for the events in this novel.

In the aftermath of the murder of Desdemona and her husband Othello (yes, I know that's not what happened in the play....just go with it), Iago, their accused murderer, is the subject of a vast and wide-ranging manhunt throughout Cyprus and Italy. Annibale Malipiero, the Chief Inquisitor of Venice, is especially interested in questioning Iago about the dual murder, and goes about it in a circuitous fashion.

Gentile Stornello, the teenage son of a rival Venetian household and a cousin to Desdemona, is accused of murder. He is arrested and brought to the fearsome Venetian prison, where he is tortured and questioned by Malipiero, among others, and thrown into a cell with a mysterious prisoner who refuses to speak to him for days, perhaps weeks. Time is fluid in prison, and poor Gentile is never really sure how long he's been incarcerated. Eventually, however, the mysterious prisoner gives up his silence, and is revealed as Iago himself. Malipiero enlists young Stornello as his proxy, offering the young man his freedom and a dismissal of charges if he can discover the truth of the murder from Iago. And, after an engineered escape from prison and their subsequent flight across the length and breadth of Italy, Gentile endeavors to do precisely that.

David Snodin constructs his story brick by brick, carefully building upon this event and that occurrence, layer by intriguing layer, leading the reader down a certain path with startling surprises around every corner. It's slow going at first, but the pace picked up about midway through, and the writing itself is lovely. I loved the rich period detail. I didn't love the ample gore and violence, but accepted it as a necessary evil, er, plot device. Overall, this was a satisfying read, and I'd heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or historical novels.

Thank you to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program for the opportunity to read this book.

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avanta7: (Pinup Book Girl)
The Carpet MakersThe Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On an unnamed desert planet in a desolate part of the galaxy, the people go about their lives in service to the Emperor. No one has ever seen the Emperor in person, but his visage is everywhere, and to question him or his instructions is heresy. An elite caste of carpetmakers provide the chief export, rugs woven and tied of human hair, made for the Imperial Palace and shipped offworld every year or so by Imperial Ships who come to collect them. Over the centuries, eons, millennia, society has evolved so that virtually every person on the planet supports this industry in some fashion. And those who choose to disregard their proscribed destinies and follow their own paths are ostracized, even killed...

But over the last several years, a constant rumor floats just beneath the surface...the Emperor is dead, has been for decades. And, if that is the case, some people ask, just who are we making these carpets for?

Told as a series of loosely connected vignettes, Andreas Eschbach unfolds his story in bits and pieces, a intimation here, a hint there, a clear direction over yonder, until the terrible truth of the Emperor and his hair carpets is finally revealed.

Not so much a traditional science fiction story as a meditation on the power of myth and the persistence of custom, Eschbach explores human strengths such as persistence and dedication, faith and curiosity, as well as human frailties such as greed, lust, and hunger for power, and gently suggests we take a good long look at ourselves and our ways, and ask ourselves, "Are we doing this because this is the right thing to do, or because this is how we've always done it?"

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avanta7: (BookWorms)
Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd CultureGeek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture by Stephen H. Segal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The best thing about this little slice of nerddom is its inclusion of sooooo many geeky quotes and references. And so is the worst thing. Editor Stephen H. Segal packed a grand total of 185 separate and related quotes ranging from the usual nerd suspects like Star Trek and Conan the Barbarian to unexpected and diverse sources such as A League of Their Own, Clue, and Goldfinger, and paired them with brief essays outlining the core geek concept contained within each. It's quick entertaining bathroom reading -- meaning each essay is short enough to be read during one, ah, sitting. And therein lies the problem.

When I chose this book (through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program), I expected something a little meaty: thoughtful analyses of "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion" or "Do. Or do not. There is no try." Instead, it seems Segal was anxious to include every geek touchstone he could imagine into one book, and so sacrificed quality of analysis for quantity of nerdiness.

Each unattributed essay barely grazes the surface of its accompanying quote, scarcely getting its metaphysical toe wet in the deep waters of "There is no spoon" or "The truth is out there." Granted, this superficial surface-grazing helps raise questions and may point the reader in a direction he may otherwise not have ventured, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," so to speak (a quote, by the way, that is not included in this slim volume), but this reader would have preferred fewer quotes, more substance, and a sequel.

The postscripts to each essay are a lot of fun and occasionally pose their own separate questions; for example, one proposes the following thought exercise: Who would win a scavenger hunt: Indiana Jones or River Song?

Who indeed?

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August 2013

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