The Empress Game

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Empress Game
Rhonda Mason, 2015

Premise: Kayla and her brother have been hiding or on the run since their home planet was attacked by troops from the galactic empire. She’s made a new, bare-bones life by fighting in a backwater gladiatorial arena. Now she has the opportunity to get them either safety or in a lot more trouble when she’s asked to double for a princess competing to marry the heir to the empire.

I remember seeing a strong recommendation for this book, so I picked it up when it was on sale. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The book isn’t terrible. The writing is fine, and some of the world-building (the psychic society that Kayla comes from) is intriguing.

But the plot is silly on the surface and doesn’t improve with execution. This highly technical galactic empire has a physical contest where prospective empresses attempt to beat one another into submission. It makes no sense, to the point that Kayla actually attempts to lampshade the situation in-world.

If I had connected with the characters and their motivations more strongly, really felt them, then I could have overlooked the silliness of the setup. (Not to mention the rigmarole about why Kayla’s planet is on the outs with the galactic community, which is supposed to seem politically complex and morally nuanced, but struck me as poorly explained and often convenient for the purposes of DRAMA.)

The book starts to pick up once the focus shifts to political infighting and a tentative alliance between Kayla and the woman she’s doubling for. However, for me it soon started to fall flat again as the villains are more and more villainous, and Kayla’s situation more and more of a soap opera.

The coincidental opportunities for her to help her planet by pretending to be this other woman became sillier as the book went on. The romance plot isn’t as shoved-in as it could have been, although it’s overly dramatic for my taste.

Then there’s some excitement with some last minute danger, but finally the book just sets us up for future installments instead of resolving anything.

In the end, I didn’t buy into the world or the characters, and I won’t be picking up the next volume.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Hidden Brain

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Hidden Brain
Shankar Vedantam, 2010

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a nonfiction book about science

Premise: “How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.”

This is a fascinating survey of research around unconscious reactions, and when they can and can’t be overridden by our conscious minds.

There is a lot about bias. In some cases, no matter how tolerant and fair-minded we may be consciously, the biases we pick up from society may override our intentions. There was one particularly interesting piece of evidence that people found it easier to react without bias after having sugar.

There are details about the invisible currents caused by gender biases. This section includes more detailed stories from a few prominent transgender researchers I’ve heard of before and their unique perspectives on society and privilege.

There is a fascinating chapter on herd mentality, group-think, and disasters. This was probably the most disturbing section of the book. It explained how easily people can make decisions in stressful situations based only on the attitudes of the group. The chapter following that explains common threads behind people who become suicide bombers.

I’ve heard a lot about many of these subjects before, but I enjoyed the systematic way the various areas were dealt with and the details about supporting research.

It’s a solid, quality survey of information that uses personal stories to keep the reader engaged.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Hamilton: The Revolution

Monday, October 10, 2016

Hamilton: The Revolution
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeremy McCarter, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a play (Yes, I'm cheating a little.)

Premise: The complete annotated libretto of the smash musical Hamilton, along with short articles about the writing, production, and cast.

I loved the cast album for Hamilton, but I wasn’t planning on reading this book anytime soon until it occurred to me that I could use it for the challenge. It does contain all the words spoken on stage, so I think it counts as a play.

First: the style of the book is lovely. It’s full of photos, big color production shots and candid dressing room black and white snaps. The design of the book itself evokes the duality in the show. The articles - about hip-hop, about the writing of the show, about President Obama’s visit - are each introduced with a header in the style of a pamphlet or a newspaper from the 1780s.

The book contains both photos of composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s working notes and photos of letters and documents written by Alexander Hamilton. History is present in more than one way.

The content is equally amazing to go through. Each article is a perfect little story about a particular actor or a particular moment, and together they describe the process of bringing this project from idea to the first few partial trial performances, to the Off-Broadway run at the Public, to the Broadway run.

Each song is peppered with Miranda’s annotations about lines that were cut or rewritten. Sometimes he explains why this or that choice was made in adapting the historical facts. Sometimes he just shares a personal experience from performing the song.

The book made me cry the same way the music does, but it also gave me a clearer understanding of both the power of the show and the reality of the history it’s based on.

(Also, I learned that the associate lighting designer was someone I’ve worked with. Cool.)

5 Stars - An Awesome Book


Monday, October 3, 2016

CJ Cherryh, 1988

Hugo Winner - 1989

Premise: You live, you make enemies and friends, you work, and you die. But what happens to a child who inherits your enemies. Your friends. Your work. Especially if the child is a clone...

This is a hard book to talk about, particularly because I listened to it as an audiobook.

A 37-hour audiobook.

It was less reading a book and more drowning in 20 years of an alternate reality.

At the beginning, Ariane Emory is more than a hundred and twenty years old, councilor for the Science bureau, a political power in and out of Reseune. Reseune is an independent, highly advanced science facility on the planet Cyteen. It supplies longevity treatments and cloning. Reseune also provides “azi,” people who are heavily engineered genetically and mentally to be suited to particular purposes.

No one has been able to clone a “special” (exceptionally talented person) like Ariane, not in an exact way. You would have to recreate both nature and nurture. That isn’t going to stop them from trying after she’s killed.

Much of the book follows Ari, the young clone, as she grows up and tries to figure out who she is, given that context.

On one level, this is the story of two families. One is Ariane: the elder and the younger, her extended family, and her personal bodyguards. The other is the Warricks: Jordan (Ariane the first’s sometimes rival), Justin (his son, also a clone, but not an attempt at an exact replica), and Justin’s companion Grant (an experimental cloned product of Reseune). The arc of the book is 20 years of politics, planning, and maneuvering from the two groups, both in opposition and alliance.

Cherryh, as usual, presents a fascinating world, full of nuanced, flawed people and a complicated social and political structure. The book touches on the ethics of childrearing, of cloning, of military might. It deals heavily with a technology that affects the mind, and the ethics of programming people and societies.

It reminded me a lot of Fascimile, in parts of the theme.

It was not an easy read/listen, though. It’s emotionally taxing, involves mental and sexual assault and a major character with long-term PTSD, and I’m not sure I understood the end. (To be fair, I think a lot of the point is that there are mysteries that the characters, for all their intelligence and power, will never solve.)

It was really, really well done. Just exhausting.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Award Winners


Monday, September 26, 2016

Peter S. Beagle, 2016

New Release! I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Abe and Joanna like their life. He’s retired, she’s finishing out her career. She has her place in Seattle, but they spend plenty of time at his place on Gardner Island. It’s a quiet, normal life until they meet Lioness.

This is not the first book I’ve read set in Seattle since moving here, but it is the most evocative. The city and Puget Sound are beautifully and accurately described.

The descriptions are the best part of this book, and they are truly lovely. The picture of the places, the feelings, the people, are all gorgeously nuanced.

Lioness is a mysterious young woman who appears working at a restaurant on the island. People are drawn to her, trust her without thinking. Mysterious things happen around her, flowers bloom, animals and children react to her. Joanna’s grown daughter Lily is immediately in love.

It’s a melancholy, thoughtful book about the effect impossible, mythic beings have on normal people. It’s about going after what you want, and what you give up when you do.

It is lovely, and it has a very boring reveal in it.

It’s unfortunate, really, because I do like the book and I think it’s very good, but I just found the reveal of who Lioness is… boring.

It’s still lovely, and it has possibly the best description I’ve found about how I feel about walking through crowds.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Feed (Newsflesh Book 1)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Feed (Newsflesh Book 1)
Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire), 2010

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a horror book

Premise: Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy are too young to remember a world without zombies. Their job: to go out and report on it.

This has been the summer of Seanan McGuire for me, as I try a little bit of everything. Here writing as Mira Grant, she’s presenting a sci-fi horror story in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. Society changed forever, but there are still politics and conspiracies and news.

And there are bloggers.

The three main characters: Georgia, the narrator, her brother Shaun, and their friend Buffy are a blogging team that goes into dangerous territory and reports on what they find. They are part of a community providing both news and entertainment to a population mostly hiding in fortified homes and enclaves.

The story follows them as they get a huge opportunity: follow a presidential hopeful around. They jump at the chance and follow the story, even as things get more and more dangerous.

My main complaint was with the build-up to the final climax. There was a lot of off-screen information gathering and otherwise hand-wavy explanation, and I didn’t fully understand the catalyst for the climax, even when it was explained. The villain is too obvious, although the resolution worked well for me.

That said, I loved the style enough to offset my minor complaints. Georgia’s narrative voice was just right for the world and the story, and the interspersed online posts were just enough foreshadowing and additional character development. The author’s extensive research showed through all the careful nuances of the world. I really liked all the little details about human behavior changes or law changes based on the presence of the zombie virus.

Overall, a solid story that punched me in the feelings. (It’s a zombie story, you know not everyone gets out alive.)

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life

Monday, September 12, 2016

Last Night, A Superhero Saved My Life
Edited by Liesa Mignogna, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a collection of essays

Premise: 22 authors write about their relationships with comics and superheroes.

Happily or unhappily, the worst piece in this collection is the first. I was so dismayed to read a pale, pathetic piece about how Batman inspired some well-off guy I’m not familiar with to be a writer. There’s a better piece later in the book with the same thrust - superheroes inspired me to be creative.

And that’s fine.

But boring.

The second piece is a raw, passionate, beautifully written essay from a woman whose rage causes her to connect viscerally with the Hulk, and how she eventually walks away from an abusive, toxic family life.

The essays are overall interesting and often funny, but there is a bright line between the ones that are about the creative process, or even one I quite liked about a love for Spider-Man and a love for Manhattan, and the ones where connection to a heroic story may have literally saved someone’s life.

My favorites also include one about Iron Man and heart defects, one about emotional distance and Rogue, a sweet ode to the lovability of Nightcrawler (again, in the face of childhood abuse), and a piece connecting Thor’s unique place in Marvel to the experience of being different from the other kids.

The weakest (besides the first) are the reprints of earlier pieces by Neil Gaiman and Jodi Picoult. The third piece that wasn’t original to this volume is by Brad Meltzer, and it’s actually a cute and very geeky exploration of the impact of reading a specific storyline as a kid.

Overall, this was fine to read in chunks, and the parts which were good were VERY good. It does suffer from being a compilation, though, because it’s so uneven.

3 Stars - a Good Book