Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review, Catalyst Moon: Breach, by Lauren L Garcia

Catalyst Moon: Breach (Catalyst Moon Saga Book 2)Catalyst Moon: Breach by Lauren L. Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I reviewed Book 1 in this series, Catalyst Moon: Incursion, I wrote “I’m glad I read this book, and I do want to know what happens to the characters. But I wish I didn’t have to wait so long to find out.”

It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long at all. Book 2, Breach, is here, and it’s significantly better than Book 1. The characters and relationships are more complex, and the story more riveting. Now there are so many threads to be resolved that I am wondering if the author has bitten off more than she can chew. Like Incursion, this volume does not stand on its own, and it leads you to want to read the next book in the series to find out what happens.

Breach essentially picks up where Incursion left off, with Stonewall and Kali separated and Kali beginning to receive magical treatment for her bad knee, the ostensible purpose of the trip that set this whole thing in motion. For a magical system that is otherwise quite well thought out, I think Kali’s knee poses a “transporter problem.” Like the transporter in Star Trek, the magic of this world should be capable of solving almost any problem a human writer can throw at it. But since that would make for a less dramatic story, the author has to set up some artificial obstacles and constraints that the technology (or magic) can’t easily solve. That is what Kali’s knee problem feels like to me. Magic that can cure the deathly ill and that works by rearranging fundamental subatomic particles is not going to be stopped by a limp. So I am wondering if there is more to Kali’s knee problem than we’ve been told so far. We don’t find out much in this installment.

We do, however, find out much more about Stonewall/Elan in Breach. His struggles with learning to lead his squad, with learning to read and write, and with his feelings about the reappearance of his long-lost brother, round him out as a character and lift this story above a simple cliched romance. I continued to enjoy the romantic plot between Stonewall and Kali, although it is a little sappy at times. And the fact that sentinels in this world don’t seem to live past age 40 very often would make the love story tragic enough even without all the other stuff going on.

The subplot involving Eris, Gid and the other mages also starts to take off in this book (literally). In Incursion, I found these characters somewhat puzzling and annoying, but here they find their voice. The author herself seems to be going through a similar process of finding her voice, and it is a pleasure to watch it happen.

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Not A Scientist

My blogging friend PJ Lazos at “Green Life, Blue Water” has a great blog about a great-sounding book, Not a Scientist by Dave Levitan. It is about how politicians misuse and abuse scientific facts. It also sets the story straight, giving you the real facts behind some recent political whoppers.

Unlike the politicians profiled, I am a scientist, and I don’t think I could have re-read all these examples again without the process driving me crazy. I’m glad Dave was able to hold his nose and compile them (and the debunking of the various political falsehoods) into one volume. PJ was also able to meet the author in person at a recent book festival in Collingswood, NJ! As she writes in her blog, “knowledge is power. Read Not A Scientist and get on with your powerful self.”

Green Life Blue Water

Not A Scientist

Did you go to the March for Science on Earth Day? Did you feel the swell of pride for all the people who lent their support in favor of science? Do you worry about the current state of science in America, especially when politicians are holding the purse strings? Then Not A Scientist, How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan is your next read. Not a Scientist is loaded with examples of real life politicians ditching the facts, disputing the evidence, and generally disrupting the scientific status quo on topics of which they know little to nothing about.

Today, there is an ever-growing divide between science and politics. Maybe it’s because the problems are too big, the solutions too expensive, the public loathe to change. There’s little disagreement in the scientific community that humanity is on the brink of critical mass, a 6th…

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Review: Xenotech First Contact Day by Dave Schroeder

Xenotech First Contact Day: A Story of the Galactic Free Trade Association (Xenotech Support, #0)Xenotech First Contact Day: A Story of the Galactic Free Trade Association by Dave Schroeder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this short introduction to the Xenotech series. It was quick and fun and it made me laugh. These books would make a good read-aloud book for families because the humor works on both kid and kid-at-heart levels. I am curious how and whether the author will be able to sustain this pace and tone through an entire book series, but he seems to have enough depth of life experience to draw on to make it work. I’d also like to see him take a few more risks and let a darker, more serious side show in his work too (a la Douglas Adams). That would be hard to do in this short intro but would give more depth to longer works. A promising beginning to what looks like a fun series!

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Book Review: The Time Table by Caroline Mather

The Time TableThe Time Table by Caroline Mather

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this independently published book to review as a member of the Book Review Directory, where my blog is listed. The writing style is fluid and a little formal, which fits the setting, and the formatting is clean and error free. I read it in about an hour on a plane, and it made the flight time pass quickly.

The Time Table is about a billiard table, built from slate cut from a Standing Stone in the British Isles, which serves as a portal through which people can travel through time. The author spends just the right amount of time and effort on explaining how this works—that is, not much—and gets right to the stories, which are all set in attractive periods of English history, including the present day.

The book works well as a collection of loosely-related tales centered around the billiard table and the London house where it has been located since the early 1700s. Quite a few people end up going through the table—so many that one is a bit surprised that it’s still a secret in 2016.

Overall the pacing of the stories is pretty good, never draggy, but sometimes the kissing starts surprisingly quickly and without much warning. There is a lot of kissing, caressing, and stolen, smoldery looks, but nothing more. The sexism of past ages is invariably dealt with or mitigated by the love of good men, and the table itself is always a force for good, helping its hapless humans work through their modern and not-so-modern dissatisfactions. The author’s optimism about love, relationships, the power of conversation, and the possibility of living happily ever after, is refreshing.

I don’t usually read time travel romances, so others more familiar with the genre might be less forgiving of some of this book’s foibles than I, but I found it to be a delightful break from heavier reading fare, like a tasty chocolate bon bon.

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Sweetening the Agenda

The Erenwine AgendaThe Erenwine Agenda by Maia Kumari Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Erenwine Agenda is an ambitious eco-fiction romance which wraps a complicated and often contentious topic into an appealing package. The book tells the story of the romance between Amalia Erenwine, an intern at an architectural firm, and Mark Stone, a geologist who works for an energy company that Amalia’s firm is designing a building for. Amalia and Mark express different points of view about fracking and energy policy, and their political differences play out against the backdrop of the 2012 US Presidential election and Hurricane Sandy in New York City. I found it an enjoyable read, even though I wasn’t fully convinced by the author’s environmental or romantic agendas.

The author handled the subjects of fracking and green energy generally in a sensitive manner that didn’t devolve into boredom or preachiness. I especially liked the scene at the church for its characterizations and its presentation of diverse points of view. And I loved her point at the end: that the best solutions to a problem often come indirectly, when you stop pushing for them. The novel provided a blueprint for how people of goodwill can work through tough disagreements and preserve relationships. While this novel takes place in 2012, the contentiousness of the 2016 election makes the message of continuing to talk to each other and look for solutions across the political divide more relevant than ever.

I am only an occasional reader of romance, but as I understand it, the genre has certain conventions that were not evident in this story. Amalia and Mark were both young, hip, nice people, and moderately complex characters, but the story lacked romantic chemistry and sexual tension. Their disagreements with each other at the church discussion came across as off-putting and not particularly intriguing, overshadowed by the more interesting stories told by the other participants. And there were none of the traditional obstacles that keep star-crossed lovers apart—no misunderstandings, dark secrets, or jealous lovers–not even the promise of riches or a change in social station. As a result, it wasn’t important enough to me that these two characters get together at the end for the romance to be able to drive the plot.

In general the pacing was a little off, and the whole book was talky and overly long. It opened with . . . a meeting. Some tension was building for a while as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city, but the storm’s consequences for our hero and heroine were completely benign. I needed to know more about how the characters were feeling about their situation at different points. They needed to be in some danger–physical, emotional, or psychological–but I never felt that urgency or intensity.

I’m also ambivalent about the title. It grew on me as I read the book and came to understand what Amalia’s agenda was and how it evolved. But it didn’t grab me from the start, and it first led me to expect Amalia to be some kind of Jason Bourne-like figure, a la “The Bourne Identity,” but she wasn’t. And naming your geologist Mark Stone . . . Really?

These quibbles aren’t enough to keep me from recommending The Erenwine Agenda as an antidote to the venom in our current political discourse and a way to learn about how communities respond to changing energy needs.

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The Literature of our Time?

American WarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Personal Review of American War by Omar El Akkad

I conceived of the original idea for my WIP in 2012. It is a science fiction novel with a young adult protagonist set in the year 2074, and I wrote an early draft during the 2012 NaNoWriMo. At the time of that election, maps of blue and red states divided into different “countries” with humorous labels were being widely distributed on social media.

USCartoonMap

I used to read these and laugh. I lived then, as now and for most of my life, comfortably in a big, wealthy, blue US state. And I didn’t take the whole idea of my country splitting up very seriously. The Federalized USA aspect of my novel was a thought experiment. In real life I believed that the Civil War, and the slave trade that spawned it, was ancient history, a tragedy and a disaster on a scale too horrific to contemplate ever happening again.

Now here I am in 2017, reading and reviewing a book about a second American Civil War. Others have reviewed it more generally and skillfully; this review will be simply a personal opinion, based on my own experiences and ideas.

My first reaction, upon finding out that this book existed was, “oh rats, I didn’t write fast enough.” Not only does it take place in the same time frame as mine, and depict the USA splitting apart, but some of the action takes place in Louisiana (as does mine), and it follows the fortunes of a teenage girl of mixed ethnicity whose father disappears and who is the main viewpoint character (as my novel does). North America is irrevocably changed due to the effects of fossil fuel overuse, climate change, the flooding of the coastal cities and creation of internal refugees (ideas that also play out in my novel). I picked up American War more out of a sense of duty—because if I’m going to write eco-science-fiction, I should know what’s out there and what’s been written on the topic—than out of real excitement. In the back of my mind, I thought, I should finish and publish my own book before it’s too late and *every* book is about this.

As of this writing, American War has gotten a lot of praise, much of it well-deserved. The world building and construction of future history is excellent. The author’s journalistic touch is evident in the immediacy of the storytelling. Like other groundbreaking works of art, this novel does not hew to a standard creative writing format of protagonist/antagonist/try-fail cycles. Its style will probably have wider appeal than most post-apocalyptic science fiction does; it will likely be read in blue-state book groups. The futuristic technology is not particularly interesting, well thought out, or essential to the narrative: the novel is not really science fiction; it’s not a hero’s journey; and it’s not even a tragedy in the literary sense.

My inability to classify it may be at the root of why I found it unsatisfying. Or there may be other reasons: unsympathetic characters, confusing plot points, a limited view of what human beings are capable of, a failure of vision. Or all of the above.

I didn’t like the character of Sarat Chestnut. A mere lack of likability wouldn’t be a problem in a novel, especially for an anti-hero. But for someone so important to this fictional world and the events described therein, Sarat was practically a cipher with no inner life to speak of. She was ostensibly a tween girl, then a teenager, and then a youngish woman made old before her time, but she read more like a man, and not only because she was 6’5”, bald, good at fist fights, and sexually attracted to girls.

I wanted to know what Sarat thought, and felt, about her parents before they were killed. Her relationships with Marcus and with Albert Gaines were more fully realized than any of her family relationships. Today’s burning issues of racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, and religion itself, appear to play little to no role in Sarat’s ideology or motivation. I wanted to know what it was like to be genderqueer then, in the rotting remains of a society that had once recognized same-sex marriage and held celebratory pride parades. I wanted to know why she insisted that they schlep that statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe northward to the refugee camp. Did Sarat ever think about God, or an afterlife, or any big metaphysical questions, even if only to reject the easy answers?

Instead, all I got from Sarat, after she had everything brutally taken from her (but survived herself virtually unscathed), was her inexplicably destroying a bunch of her mentor’s books in his office. Even in the depths of the worst torture the Blues could throw at her, she was never really vulnerable. Where did that strength (or that sheer cussedness) come from? Nothing forged it, nothing fed it, nothing broke it; she simply seemed to have been born with it, and it carried her to her grave. The otherwise superfluous Yuffsy fight scene also seemed to be there to underscore this particular theme by showing Taylor, an old, broken fighter, simply continuing to fight his superior opponent, stubbornly and ineffectually, unto death.

There were other aspects of the book that I thought were just silly: the out-of-control drones, for example. In a real war there would have been much more redundancy built into the system; taking out one server farm wouldn’t have been enough to render the “birds” permanently deaf. More interesting was the implication of psychological warfare—hinted at but not stated outright—that the drones weren’t really deaf or out of the Blues’ control; they were just believed to be. And I could have done without the portentous omniscient 3rd-person narrator butting in at random times to tell me that the Chestnuts never really had to move North in the first place, or that Sarat would never see her brother again.

This is not to say that I thought all the characters were cardboard or the relationships unrealistic. I enjoyed the section told from Benjamin’s point of view the most of the entire book. His relationship with Sarat was genuine and touchingly portrayed, and it provided a bit of relief from the unrelenting darkness of the rest of the narrative. But the conceit that it was told from a 6-year-old’s point of view frayed quickly because he didn’t usually sound like a 6-year-old, and events and conversations were described at which 6-year-old Benjamin would not have been present.

The sentence that “you win the peace with stories,” was underlined in my Kindle version, suggesting that it resonated with a lot of readers. Its implication in context was that the Blues might have won the war by superior military firepower, but they were not winning the peace because they didn’t understand that truism about stories. I waited for that quote to be skillfully dramatized in the novel, and am still waiting. It’s not a spoiler to say that nobody won the peace in this book.

Like The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (which I reviewed here earlier this year), American War serves as a well-done cautionary tale of what could happen to the world if humanity does not change course. Such books may be proliferating in these times, and they reflect our deepest anxieties. But it is my opinion that stories like these can only go so far in helping us win the peace. We also need the optimism of Star Trek, the literature of empathy, characters with rich inner lives, and the faith to imagine something different.

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Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend who lives in Beijing recommended this book to me on the occasion of my visit there. I like to read about places that I plan to visit, so I picked it up eagerly. The atmosphere of pre-war Peking is vividly drawn, the author’s attention to detail is exhaustive, and I found myself caring about Pamela’s fate and wanting to know what happened next. Unlike some other reviewers, however, I found the writing style and pacing to be rough going. The events unfolded in repetitive fashion and since we knew from the get-go that the case remained unsolved, there wasn’t much suspense. The lack of a clear protagonist or viewpoint character added distance, compounding the distance already afforded by time and space.  Continue reading Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Book Review: The Little Book of Thomasisms by Marc Townsend

 I received the The Little Book of Thomasisms for review soon after I’d been listed on the Book Review Directory. It is a quick, easy read: a collection of stories told from the point of view of a young man growing up with a brother who has autism. The stories are humorous and the voices of the narrator and his brother both come through quite strongly. After reading this book, I felt that we could all learn both compassion and resilience from Thomas and Marc. It caused me to question, and often to soften, the daily assumptions I make about other people’s intentions and motivations.

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Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt

The Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games SeriesThe Road to Beaver Mill: Volume Three in the Infinite Games Series by Annis Pratt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book begins with an interesting set-up. I was especially taken with the author’s stated goal in writing the Infinite Games series: to show what happens to a society when its environment is degraded. Her blog, linked here, says that Infinite Games is the story of the Marshlanders’ struggle to create  communities in harmony with nature.  Continue reading Book Review: The Road to Beaver Mill by Annis Pratt