Book Review: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: June 17, 2014
Length: 581 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity’s home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what’s theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden – with help from the ghostly Detective Miller – can find the cure. 

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to make progress with the sci-fi book series The Expanse — and now that I’ve read book #4, I can safely say that I’m off to a great start!

Before going into the book, its plot, or why it’s so great, I should state up front that there will be spoilers! I can’t talk about the 4th book in a series, or a book with an amazing TV adaptation, without getting into specifics.

There. You’ve been warned. Turn away if you don’t want to know!

Cibola Burn picks up after the events in book #3, Abaddon’s Gate, in which a mysterious alien ring provides a conduit of wormholes leading to thousands of unknown worlds. As the story continues in book #4, humans are eager to explore and exploit the resources of all of these new planets, but caution and legal complications are keeping a land rush on hold — for now.

One group of settlers, after being in homeless, planetless limbo for years, makes a dash through the rings and sets up a new colony on the planet Ilus, where they find a rich source of lithium ore, potentially representing enough value for them to truly create a livable world for themselves and their children.

But because there are fortunes to be made, the squatters’ rights aren’t allowed to stand, and an Earth corporation, the RCE, is granted a charter to explore and develop the planet, which they call New Terra.

Tensions are high, and when a militant group of settlers blows up the landing pad RCE is about to use and deaths result, it seems like violence is inevitable.

Enter our heroes, Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Holden is the idealistic man who has time and again found himself at the center of interplanetary intrigue and war, and who always follows his conscience and does the right thing, even when it’s counter to his own interests or the interests of the political factions who think they own Holden’s allegiance. Rounding out the crew are pilot Alex Kamal, XO Naomi Nagata, and mechanic/muscle Amos Burton. Over the years, these four have formed a family, and their loyalty and love is a wonderful thing to behold.

The Rocinante is send by the UN to act as mediator between the settlers and the RCE, and of course, it all goes to shit pretty much from the start. There’s a murderous head of security, settler terrorists, and the not minor fact that the planet is populated by both deadly organic species and seemingly dormant alien artifacts that — obviously — have the potential to wipe out all human life… if the humans don’t manage to kill each other off first.

“Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death-slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet…”

Yup. Death-slugs. How would you like to be surrounded by death-slugs while losing your eyesight? Shudder. Space exploration is clearly not for me. I prefer a death-slug-free environment, thank you very much.

The writing is fast-paced and exciting, so much so that I finished this almost 600-page book in about 2 and a half days. The dictionary should have a picture of Cibola Burn as the definition of “page-turner”.

The action isn’t at the expense of character: Each of our four main characters get a chance to shine. I’m particularly fond of Amos, the sociopathic enforcer who loves his captain, his crew, and his weapons. The authors (yes, James S. A. Corey is actually two people) seem to take special delight in writing for Amos.

“What,” Holden said, “is all this?”

“You said to gear up for the drop.”

“I meant, like, underwear and toothbrushes.”

“Captain,” Amos said, almost hiding his impatience. “They’re killing each other down there. Half a dozen RCE security vanished into thin air, and a heavy lift shuttle got blown up.”

“Yes, and our job is not to escalate that. Put all this shit away. Sidearms only. Bring clothes and sundries for us, any spare medical supplies for the colony. But that’s it.”

“Later,” Amos said, “when you’re wishing we had this stuff, I am going to be merciless in my mockery. And then we’ll die.”

Another Holden/Amos conversation:

“Okay. Murtry’s pissed about the rescue.”

“Yeah, but fuck him.”

“I also,” Holden continued, “may have shoved him down and stolen his hand terminal.”

“Stop making me fall in love with you, Cap, we both know it can’t go anywhere.”

Besides the Rocinante crew, there are several other POV characters, including both RCE and settlers, and I enjoyed seeing the unfolding events from their perspectives.

I will say thought that the only thing that bothered me in Cibola Burn was scientist Elvi’s infatuation with Holden. It was unnecessary and oddly demeaning for her character, and even though it eventually unfolds that it was more about her hunger for human connection that about Holden himself, it’s an off-putting choice to have this amazing scientist suffering through school-girl crush symptoms.

Now, you may be wondering how the books relates to the (excellent) TV series, currently airing its 4th season via its new home on Amazon Prime. The 4th season has the events on Ilus/New Terra as its centerpiece, but also includes quite a bit of action with Earth politics, Mars crime, and Belter terrorism. None of this really comes into play in book #4, although based on what I’ve read about book #5, I’m guessing those plots will all feature heavily there.

Listen, if you haven’t read any of these book or watched the TV series — and if you’re a fan of science fiction — then start one or the other, or both! The books are long but absolutely obsession-worthy, and the massive page volume just flies by.

The TV series is brilliantly done, and I’m tempted to start over again from the beginning just to enjoy it all once more.

And I can’t wrap up talking about The Expanse without a shout-out to Chrisjen Avasarala, who is a great book character but an absolutely AMAZING TV character. Played by the glorious Shohreh Aghdashloo, Avasarala is a glamorous, powerful, foul-mouthed woman who is always ten steps ahead and gives zero fucks for anyone or anything that gets in her way.

So let’s finish up with a look at Avasarala’s greatest hits, because even though this is a book review, it’s all from the same world, and any day I can hear Avasarala dropping f-bombs is a glorious day indeed.

Oh yeah. Back to the book. Read it. It’s terrific. Start at the first book, and keep going! As for me, because of the huge size of these books and the frighteningly huge size of my TBR pile, I’m going to hit pause on the book series and wait a bit before starting #5, Nemesis Games. Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to wait for long… I may just need to power through the remaining four available books long before 2020 grows much older.

Aubiobook Review: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

From Rob Thomas, the creator of groundbreaking television series and movie Veronica Mars, comes the first book in a thrilling new mystery series.

Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is not a simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

My Thoughts:

More Veronica Mars? Yes, more Veronica Mars!

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last couple of months, chances are you’ve seen me chatting up my VMars obsession, which was reignited by the new season of the TV series, then further fueled by going back and re-watching the show from the beginning. I capped it off by watching the 2014 Veronica Mars movie… so naturally, what came next was the first of two Veronica Mars books, written by series creator Rob Thomas.

And in case you’re wondering — no, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line does NOT read like a cheap novelization. Instead, it’s a complex, well-developed detective story that kept me on the edge of my seat. And of course, the true delight is getting to spend more time with the characters we know and love.

As a bit of context, the plot of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is set about two months after the events of the movie. (Seriously, go watch the movie if you haven’t!). Veronica is back in Neptune, turning her back on a lucrative law career and a boring relationship (bye, Piz!) in New York to join her father in the family business, Mars Investigations. And if you think Papa Mars is happy about that, think again! Keith explodes in anger, furious that Veronica has given up the safety of corporate law to wade back into the seedy, dangerous PI business. Of course, his anger is really a mask for fear. He’s terrified that Veronica will end up hurt, or worse, and with good reason. She just does not know how to back down when she’s chasing a lead, no matter the danger involved.

What about Logan? Well, Veronica and her true love Logan Echolls reunited in the movie, and they’re still together, building a relationship, in this book — although “together” is a relative term, since he’s in the Navy and away on a mission for the duration of The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. Still, it warms my little heart to know that these two crazy lovebirds are back in each other’s lives.

As to the mystery fueling the plot, it centers around the lunacy of spring break in Neptune, a magnet for drunken rowdiness for college students from all over, who descend on Neptune and party like there’s no tomorrow. And for one unlucky girl, there isn’t — a college freshman named Hayley goes missing after a wild party at a fancy mansion. Once national attention becomes focused on the debauchery of Neptune, the town’s leaders realize they need the girl found in order to protect the lucrative Neptune spring break business, so they hire Mars Investigations to find her (because the local sheriff is both corrupt and incompetent, don’t ya know.)

Keith is out of commission, having been severely wounded in a car crash (in the movie) and still recovering, so Veronica jumps in and takes the lead on the case. Her investigations lead her to college campuses, the rich and powerful of Neptune, and even to a Mexican drug cartel, putting her own life in grave danger (naturally). A second girl goes missing, and this time, it’s personal — it turns out that Aurora is the underage stepdaughter of Veronica’s mother, a woman who abandoned her years ago and whom she hasn’t seen in over a decade.

The plots twists are just as good and unpredictable as any Veronica Mars fan might expect. And Veronica herself is as much of a reckless bad-ass as ever, with plenty of smarts and a handy Taser to back her up. Not to mention her good friends in her corner — Wallace and Mac are back, as are some other old favorites, such as the DA Cliff and even the ridiculous Dick Casablancas.

The writing is terrific, with all the quippiness that makes Veronica Mars so much fun.

Sometimes, if it looks like a murderous duck and quacks like a murderous duck… well, you know.

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line is tons of fun. If you’re thinking about reading it — I can’t stress this enough! — pick up the audiobook! Kristen Bell does the narration, and it’s perfect. I mean, you really can’t get any better than having the actress who plays Veronica Mars reading the Veronica Mars novel. She does a good job with the supporting characters too, although it’s a little weird to hear Kristen Bell doing Keith and Logan, but I got over it.

If you’ve never watched Veronica Mars, then likely this is all gibberish to you (although what are you waiting for? Go watch the TV series, and be sure to start at the beginning!) This book is a total treat for fans, and I would guess that even folks not familiar with VMars might enjoy the detective story here.

As for me, in case it isn’t already clear, I loved it. There’s one more book available, and I can’t wait to start it!

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The details:

Title: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line 
Author: Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Narrator:  Kristen Bell
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publication date: March 25, 2014
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 42 minutes
Printed book length: 324 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased (Audible)

Book Review: A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years–not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. Her grandmother has even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be–if her husband would just come and claim her.

Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naive village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger. Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life – cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.

A Bollywood Affair is my book group’s selection for February — we do have a tendency to go romance-themed each year at this time, and the results have been decidely mixed for me. I’m not a romance reader, although I do enjoy a good love story every so often. Still, there are elements of the genre that just don’t float my boat, but more on that later…

In A Bollywood Affair, we start with a marriage between two children. Mili, at age 4, is married off to Virat, a much older 12 years old, by arrangement between their grandparents. Apparently, mass weddings between children are traditional in the region of Mili’s birth. And while the two children are immediately separated, they’re expected to eventually live as man and wife once they’re old enough. Meanwhile, Mili’s grandmother raises her to be a perfect wife, and only at Mili’s insistence that her husband would want her to be as educated as city girls is she allowed to attend university and pursue an education.

At age 24, Mili travels to Michigan for graduate work in sociology, aiming to work toward her goal of improving the lives of women in India. She has no money though, and her fellowship leaves her only the barest subsistence to get by on.

Back in India, Virat and his pregnant wife learn that the annulment of his marriage to his child bride was never finalized, and he’s worried that this will interfere with the well-being of his wife and baby. Virat’s younger brother Samir, a playboy heart-throb who is (of course) gorgeous and has (of course) a heart of gold hidden beneath his player, bad boy exterior, is sent to America to get Mili to sign the annulment papers once and for all. And (of course), things get complicated.

Mili is klutzy, innocent, and awkward, and immediately rides a bike into a tree and injures herself in Samir’s presence, so he has no choice but to stay and take care of her, hiding the true reason for his arrival. He’s drawn to her sweetness and beauty; she’s drawn to his kindness and amazing biceps. They open up to each other emotionally, but the secret reason for Samir’s presence looms in the background, ready to ruin the love growing between the two of them.

Mili is a little too naive to be believable, and Samir is too much of the bad-boy-who-is-secretly-good stereotype. Mili clings to her vision of her marriage and the husband who will someday claim her as his wife, even as she works to better the status of women’s rights in India. Samir puts up with an awful lot to be near Mili, and it’s kind of hard to buy his willingness to immediately devote himself to her. Both being gorgeous, amazing in the kitchen, and absolutely fantastic people, they are naturally and immediately drawn to each other, and (we’re told) have a strong chemistry that keeps them both lusting after one another pretty much constantly.

Look, I basically liked the story, but I have issues. First off, please spare me from any book in which the main male character names his penis. Sorry, but no. I do not want to hear Samir refer to “Little Sam”, not once and not repeatedly. I also don’t want to hear about Mili’s “dark crevices”, as in…

Her name rumbled in his chest. She felt the sound rather than heard it and warmth melted through her like molten gold filling a mold at the goldsmith’s. It slid into her heart and into the deep dark crevices of her body.

Did I mention already that I’m not really a romance reader? I’m no prude, but I don’t need every detail of a sexual encounter spelled out for me — body parts and fluids and the rest. The overblown language during the sex scenes just immediately pulled me out (no pun intended) of the mood and made me giggle instead:

She let him jab into her, free her, tangle her. She tasted him, breathed him in. His smoky taste, clean and dark and hot. His tongue, hungry and probing and hot. His heavy shoulders under her fingers, firm and yielding and hot.

Yes. Hot. I get it.

Man, do I sound mean right now, but honestly, this kind of writing just doesn’t work for me.

That said, I actually enjoyed a lot of the story, when the gasping and tasting and “liquid skin” and “sensitive, secret flesh” weren’t getting in the way. I really liked the descriptions of the foods and the clothing and the traditions that we see through Mili and Samir’s experiences, and the backstory about Samir’s childhood is both upsetting and touching. The obligatory secret between the main characters (there wouldn’t be much of a plot without it) makes the drama feel forced at times, but I came to care enough about Mili and Samir as people that I was willing to overlook most of the elements that I didn’t care for.

Would I recommend this book? I’d say it’s a very qualified… maybe. I don’t regret reading it, and I’m looking forward to discussing it with my book group — despite the fact that this isn’t the type of book I’d usually choose to read. Still, if you’re a fan of steamy scenes in the midst of your love stories, you may truly love A Bollywood Affair!

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The details:

Title: A Bollywood Affair
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

For fans of Sophie Kinsella, Jojo Moyes, and Jennifer Weiner, a moving, laugh-out-loud novel—with recipes!—about a young woman who begins her life anew as a baker in Cornwall.

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it.

This is my third Jenny Colgan book — and in each, the pattern seems to be: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. And hey, it may be a pattern, but it works!

In Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly and her grumpy ex have been driven into bankruptcy by the failure of their graphic design business (he’s the designer, she handles the office). With no money, the relationship in tatters, and no place to live, Polly chances upon a flat for rent in Mount Polbearne, a location she remembers fondly from childhood field trips. Polbearne is an island attached to Cornwall by a causeway that’s only accessible when the tide is out. The town features a fishing fleet, a pub, some worn-down local businesses, and for Polly, a place of refuge to lick her wounds and retreat from the world.

It’s Polly’s love of bread that finally draws her out of her shell. The one and only bakery on the island is run by a grumpy old woman, Polly’s landlady, who makes atrocious bread but refuses to allow anyone to sell anything else. Polly starts baking as a hobby, to relieve her own stress and anxiety, but as her baking becomes popular with the local fishermen, she starts to find a place for herself in this isolated community.

Little Beach Street Bakery is quite a fun read. Polly is a relatable young woman, who has been through tough times but still maintains enough hope to start rebuilding. She’s goofy too — after rescuing an injured puffin, she develops a quirky relationship with the bird and the two become inseparable. (Side note, I’ve only just discovered that the author has written some children’s books about Polly and Neil the Puffin — how adorable is that?)

The love story in this book takes a while to build, and Polly makes a big mistake along the way. (Not her fault — he didn’t tell her he was married! Ahem.) But eventually, she realizes who it is that she really loves and wants, and after a prolonged period of misunderstanding, there are fireworks. (Yes, there really are fireworks!)

Along the way, we meet a host of quirky locals, get immersed in the battle between newly arrived trendy folks who want to modernize and the old-timers who want to keep things as they are, experience the trauma of waiting for the fishing fleet to come home after a storm, and get to know a beautiful little corner of the world. It’s no wonder Polly loves it there!

This is pure escapist delight. Who wouldn’t want to run away to a remote, gorgeous location and find true love, friendship, and a way to turn a favorite pastime into a successful and fulfilling career?

I had a lot of fun reading this book. Sometimes, light and frothy is just the right choice! Once again, many thanks to my book group for picking this book for discussion. After a bunch of heavier reads, it’s nice to turn to something that just feels good.

A note on the covers: The image at the top of this post is the cover of the Kindle edition, which I find a little funny, since Polly is a bread baker and never once mentioned baking cupcakes. The audiobook image — with loaves of bread, a jar of honey, and a view of the sea — is a much better fit for the story, in my humble opinion. And just yummy.

And a final comment: There are two follow-up books, Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery and Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery. I’m not planning to read them immediately (SO much else to read right now!)… but I’ll definitely keep them in mind for when I need a nice little reading getaway.

 

 

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The details:

Title: Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: March 13, 2014
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Laughing too hard to actually write a review of Texts From Jane Eyre

 

Hilariously imagined text conversations—the passive aggressive, the clever, and the strange—from classic and modern literary figures, from Scarlett O’Hara to Jessica Wakefield.

Mallory Ortberg, the co-creator of the cult-favorite website The Toast, presents this whimsical collection of hysterical text conversations from your favorite literary characters. Everyone knows that if Scarlett O’Hara had an unlimited text-and-data plan, she’d constantly try to tempt Ashley away from Melanie with suggestive messages. If Mr. Rochester could text Jane Eyre, his ardent missives would obviously be in all-caps. And Daisy Buchanan would not only text while driving, she’d text you to pick her up after she totaled her car. Based on the popular web-feature, Texts from Jane Eyre is a witty, irreverent mashup that brings the characters from your favorite books into the twenty-first century.

Ha ha ha.

Man.

This book is just so much fun. Author Mallory Ortberg has reimagined classics of all ages, from Medea and Gilgamesh to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and has put them together in a book that’s almost too great to read in one sitting (but I did it anyway). 

From Circe defending certain poor choices she’s made:

… to Mrs. Bennet being very Mrs. Bennet-ish:

… this book captures the heart and soul of the stories it includes, and makes then just too damned hilarious.

 

What’s really amazing is that the author clearly knows her stuff, because she absolutely nails the key elements of the stories and the characters, the things that make them unique and recognizable. The texts are clever and so well done — I just couldn’t get enough.

Sure, some of the bits on certain classics went right over my head, since I don’t know the originals, but that didn’t take away any of the enjoyment. This will be one of those books to keep handy and just open up at random once in a while, especially when I need something to brighten up my day.

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The details:

Title: Texts From Jane Eyre
Authors: Mallory Ortberg
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: November 4, 2014
Length: 226 pages
Genre: Humor
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

It’s up to a famous rapper, a biologist, and a rogue soldier to handle humanity’s first contact with an alien ambassador—and prevent mass extinction—in this novel that blends magical realism with high-stakes action.

After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, the earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between 17 million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.

My Thoughts:

The synopsis above doesn’t quite give the full picture, although it does hint at the craziness and unpredictability of Lagoon. In Lagoon, aliens land in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria. We see the ensuing action unfold through the viewpoints of the main characters, as well as bystanders, lost children, preachers, prostitutes, and even spiders, bats, and a swordfish. The author’s descriptive, vibrant writing evokes the sounds, sights, and smells of Lagos, and immediately pulls the readers into the vibe of this chaotic city.

At the same time, the plot gets more and more complicated as the story moves forward, which is both an immersive experience and something of a headache. The powers of the aliens and the native gods come into play as they both make indelible changes to the lives of the humans in Lagos — but the interwoven plot points, the unusual magical and alien elements, and the strange experiences of the characters often are a real challenge when it comes to making sense of what’s happening.

Still, I really enjoyed getting to know the characters, seeing the social dynamics at play in Lagos both before and after the alien arrival, and experiencing the extreme oddness of certain scenes. Let’s put it this way — we have characters turning into sea creatures, and that’s not the weirdest thing that happens.

I’ve been wanting to read more of Nnedi Okarafor’s fiction ever since reading Binti earlier this year. She’s a remarkably gifted writer, and I think it’s pretty eye-opening for American readers to see contemporary science fiction set in Africa — quite unusual, and definitely a hugely positive addition to the genre!

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The details:

Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: April 10, 2014
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: LibrarySave

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Book Review: After I Do

after-i-doWarning: This review will include some minor spoilers. Don’t worry — I’ll flag the spoilery parts!

From the author of Forever, Interrupted comes a breathtaking new novel about modern marriage, the depth of family ties, and the year that one remarkable heroine spends exploring both.

When Lauren and Ryan’s marriage reaches the breaking point, they come up with an unconventional plan. They decide to take a year off in the hopes of finding a way to fall in love again. One year apart, and only one rule: they cannot contact each other. Aside from that, anything goes.

Lauren embarks on a journey of self-discovery, quickly finding that her friends and family have their own ideas about the meaning of marriage. These influences, as well as her own healing process and the challenges of living apart from Ryan, begin to change Lauren’s ideas about monogamy and marriage. She starts to question: When you can have romance without loyalty and commitment without marriage, when love and lust are no longer tied together, what do you value? What are you willing to fight for?

This is a love story about what happens when the love fades. It’s about staying in love, seizing love, forsaking love, and committing to love with everything you’ve got. And above all, After I Do is the story of a couple caught up in an old game—and searching for a new road to happily ever after.

I definitely have mixed feelings about this book. I’ve now read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books currently available, and I think she’s an amazing writer. She never fails to convincingly capture the inner lives of seemingly ordinary people What makes her books and characters so special is her knack for revealing what goes on beneath the surface. What’s really happening in the heart and mind of a young woman experiencing first love? What does it feel like to be so annoyed with one’s partner that it’s almost impossible to remember even liking the person, let alone loving them?

Lauren and Ryan have been together since age 19, when they met in college. For all intents and purposes, Ryan is Lauren’s only love and only relationship. She had a high school boyfriend, with whom she lost her virginity, but that’s it. So Lauren entered adult life partnered with Ryan, and her entire experience of being in a committed relationship is with Ryan.

And once the heady rush of lust and wonder and romance starts to wear off in the face of daily irritations like disagreeing over restaurants or calling the plumber, it’s hard for Lauren and Ryan to see a reason for their marriage any longer.

As the synopsis explains, they decide to separate for a year. Neither utters the word “divorce”. They’re going to take a year apart, with no contact whatsoever, to see if they can reset, explore their own lives on their own, and figure out how to reconnect.

SPOILERS AHOY! I can’t talk about the book any further without getting more specific, so skip this part if you’d rather not know.

As Lauren and Ryan are splitting, Lauren asks if this means that they’ll date other people, and Ryan confirms that this is part of the deal. There are no rules at all about their behavior while they’re apart. And not only do they date other people — they sleep with other people. A lot. And somehow still expect to have a marriage to come back to.

I’m sorry, but while I love the writing and zipped through this book, I just cannot buy the premise. This is so unhealthy and dysfunctional. SEPARATING FOR A YEAR, NOT COMMUNICATING FOR A YEAR, AND SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE IS NOT HOW YOU SAVE A MARRIAGE.

They go straight from admitting that they can’t stand each other and don’t think they love each other any more to deciding to separate. What about couples counseling? They never even give it a try. Granted, going to counseling would be a fairly lame plot for a romantic novel, whereas the separation thing is much more dramatic… but in real life? This is a recipe for disaster.

If the goal is to get back together after a year, you do not sleep with other people! No matter how much their separation teaches them about being supportive and respectful and communicating, how do you get past knowing that your spouse spent a year having sex, including some great sex, with other people?

In Lauren’s case, her sex life with Ryan was all she knew, and it wasn’t very satisfying. So she has a no-strings, friends-with-benefits arrangement with a recently divorced man who’s not over his ex-wife, and through their encounters, she learns more about asking for what she wants in bed. Fair enough — but again, counseling, people!

In a key plot element, neither Ryan nor Lauren bother to change their email passwords during their year apart, so they end up reading each others’ draft emails throughout the year, thereby learning about the things that made them bonkers during their marriage as well as their current sexual encounters.

So, no, I don’t believe that they could have actually picked up the pieces of their marriage after all this, or that a year apart without every working on things together would enable them to realize what they need to do to have a healthy relationship going forward.

END OF SPOILERY BITS

What I did find convincing was the fact that Lauren grew up in a household with a single mother. Lauren’s mother raised her three kids marvelously and clearly devoted herself to them. But at the same time, Lauren never saw her mother in a relationship (she kept her boyfriends hidden from her kids), and never had a healthy adult marriage to model her own after. Which is kind of a debatable point, by the way — I by no means believe that children of divorce can’t grow up to have great marriages of their own, as a general rule. But in After I Do, this does seem to be a factor in Lauren’s unhealthy marriage, especially when compounded by the fact that her relationship with Ryan is all she’s ever experienced, and it seems as though the two of them were unprepared for the realities involved when transitioning to adulthood as a couple.

This may all sound very negative, so I want to be sure to point out all the good too. I loved Lauren’s family — her super-close relaitonship with her sister, her flighty younger brother who finds his own unconventional love over the course of the book, the amazing grandmother who influences Lauren’s life, and the family’s oddball quirks and traditions that make them feel unique and special. Likewise, Lauren’s best friend Mila adds another view of adult relationships to Lauren’s perspective, and helps her come to understand that love and commitment transcend daily drama and household nonsense.

As I mentioned to start with, I really enjoy this author’s writing. She has a knack for making her characters feel real. No one is perfect, and even our point-of-view characters are quite openly flawed. She does a great job of breathing life into her characters’ emotional traumas, as well as their silly fixations and disagreements, and realistically shows how relationships either grow or fall apart under the stress of ordinary life.

Do I recommend After I Do? I do, actually! While I disagreed with many of the plot elements, I still found it highly readable and engaging. If you enjoy reading about young adults dealing with the realities of love and romance in the modern world, try After I Do and other books by this author.

Check out my reviews of other books by Taylor Jenkins Reid:
Maybe In Another Life
One True Loves
Forever, Interrupted

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The details:

Title: After I Do
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

book-of-the-unnamed-midwife

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

The apocalypse will be asymmetrical.

In the aftermath of a plague that has decimated the world population, the unnamed midwife confronts a new reality in which there may be no place for her. Indeed, there may be no place for any woman except at the end of a chain. A radical rearrangement is underway. With one woman left for every ten men, the landscape that the midwife travels is fraught with danger. She must reach safety— but is it safer to go it alone or take a chance on humanity? The friends she makes along the way will force her to choose what’s more important. Civilization stirs from the ruins, taking new and experimental forms. The midwife must help a new world come into being, but birth is always dangerous… and what comes of it is beyond anyone’s control.

My Thoughts:

The whole sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction may be well and truly played out. Certainly, there’s very little in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife that we haven’t seen before. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a worthwhile read, but it’s hard to say that it covers much new ground.

On the plus side, the storyline has at its center an interesting, strong female lead character. She refuses to become a victim, and makes it her priority to help the few surviving women maintain what little control they can over their lives. The depiction of the horror inflicted upon the small number of females left after the plague is chilling and very disturbing.

On the negative end, the writing style is a little uneven. The text is made up of both diary entries and third person narration of the midwife’s journeys. The diary entries for the main character are jerky and full of symbols, and the transition between these and the actual action of the narrative isn’t always smooth.

I was interested enough in the overall story to stick with it despite some clunky moments and the pieces that simply try too hard to deliver the book’s agenda. The supporting characters add a nice variety to the story, showing the different types of lives left after the disaster, and I thought it was a chilling touch to include an omniscient narrator’s recounting of what ended up happening to all of these secondary characters after their paths diverge from that of the main character.

I do recommend this book for readers who find dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds meaningful. For me, while this bleak and often disturbing book held my attention, I can’t help but compare it to other (okay, I’ll say it — better) books with similar themes.

Interested in other post-apocalyptic novels? Here are a few of my favorites:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (review)
Parable of the Sower by Olivia Butler
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan (review)
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (review)

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The details:

Title: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife
Author: Meg Elison
Publisher: Sybaritic Press
Publication date: June 5, 2014
Length: 190 pages
Genre: Dystopian/post-apocalyptic
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Etta & Otto

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Eighty-three-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean. So early one morning she takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots and begins walking the 3,232 kilometers from rural Saskatchewan, Canada eastward to the sea. As Etta walks further toward the crashing waves, the lines among memory, illusion, and reality blur.

Otto wakes to a note left on the kitchen table. “I will try to remember to come back,” Etta writes to her husband. Otto has seen the ocean, having crossed the Atlantic years ago to fight in a far-away war. He understands. But with Etta gone, the memories come crowding in and Otto struggles to keep them at bay. Meanwhile, their neighbor Russell has spent his whole life trying to keep up with Otto and loving Etta from afar. Russell insists on finding Etta, wherever she’s gone. Leaving his own farm will be the first act of defiance in his life.

Moving from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty, burnt past of hunger, war, and passion, from trying to remember to trying to forget, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an astounding literary debut “of deep longing, for reinvention and self-discovery, as well as for the past and for love and for the boundless unknown” (San Francisco Chronicle). “In this haunting debut, set in a starkly beautiful landscape, Hooper delineates the stories of Etta and the men she loved (Otto and Russell) as they intertwine through youth and wartime and into old age. It’s a lovely book you’ll want to linger over” (People).

 

My Thoughts:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James feels as familiar as an old shoe… and that’s both good and bad. There’s a heart-warming, comforting tone to it, and much of the story is told throughout flashbacks and interwoven memories. E&O&R&J seems to be one of several books recently about an elderly main character embarking on a sudden adventure or doing something completely out of character. I was reminded most forcefully of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, but that’s not the only example.

In this book, main character Etta wakes up one day and starts walking, setting off on an easterly course from Saskatchewan in order to see the ocean, which she’s never seen before. She walks all day long, every day, sleeping outdoors and bathing in rivers, with only a coyote for company. The coyote (James) talks, by the way — or at least, Etta believes he does. Magical elements come into play, although I suppose they could also be signs of Etta’s growing forgetfulness and dementia. She carries a fish skull, a token of her childhood, which gives her advice in French.

Meanwhile, Otto stays home waiting for Etta to return, and to stay busy, he teaches himself to bake and makes an entire papier-mâché menagerie. The third human of the title, Russell, a farmer who has spent his long life at home, sets out to find Etta and then to find himself.

Some of the most affecting portions of the story are the chapters and interludes in which we learn more about Otto’s childhood — one of fifteen children on a dusty farm, where attending school every other day in order to carry out chores at home is simply a fact of rural life — and see the complicated interconnections between Otto, Russell, and Etta. We learn, too, about Otto’s wartime experiences, which seem to have crept over into Etta’s own memories and dreams.

E&O&R&J is highly readable, and I enjoyed the light-handed touch applied by the author to even weighty scenes and subjects. However, the magical elements felt a little awkward and out of place to me, and of course Etta’s entire journey is basically impossible to believe… which I guess opens up other lines of thought, such as did her walk actually happen at all, or, like her dreams, is this a seemingly physical experience that’s actually something she’s experiencing vividly within her own head?

My favorites sections in the book are those that deal with the war, with the courtship, and with life on the family farm. The story unfolds in bits and pieces, with a fluid timeline that jumps back and forth, sometimes from page to page. Overall, it is both a sad and entertaining read, and I enjoyed this not-quite-real tale about dreams, disappointments, and the idea that it’s never too late for a life to take an unexpected turn.

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The details:

Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Author: Emma Hooper
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: January 1, 2014
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (and later, a used paperback bought at a library sale!)

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Book Review: The Cure for Dreaming

Cure for DreamingIn this YA novel, hypnotism and the suffrage movement are combined in startling ways to give us a portrait of life in 1900 for a young woman who is, pretty much literally, too independent for her own good.

On her 17th birthday, Olivia Mead attends a hypnotism show headlined by the young, talented Henri Reverie, a “mesmerist” whose talents have made him famous across the country. Egged on by her friends, Olivia volunteers to be Henri’s first subject, and astonishes the entire audience by her extreme susceptibility to his hypnotism. She’s so far under that he’s able to make her stiff as a board, suspend her between two chairs (as in the cover photo), and even stand on her torso, all without her knowledge.

Olivia is slightly embarrassed, but also enjoys the newfound attention her moment in the spotlight brings, especially from wealthy, out-of-her-reach Percy, the judge’s son. Olivia’s own father, the local dentist (with a truly horrifying collection of tools), is less than pleased. He wants nothing more than for Olivia to be good and obedient, especially after learning that she’d attended a suffragists’ rally the day before. He arranges for a private hypnotism session with Henri, during which Henri compels Olivia to see the world as it truly is, to understand the roles of men and women, and to be able to say nothing but “all is well” when she becomes angry.

This backfires, of course. Olivia is an avid fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and thanks to the hypnotism, when she looks at her father, she sees him as he truly is — fanged, clawed, and monstrous. She sees the truth of many of the women of her town as well, who fade into invisibility as Olivia watches. Desperate, she tracks down Henri and begs him to fix her — but there’s a reason why he can’t just yet, and the two form a scheme to give Olivia back control of her own mind and voice and to get Henri what he desperately needs.

The Cure For Dreaming is a captivating portrait of the plight of women at the dawn of the 20th century. The author does a wonderful job of weaving together an individual’s personal struggles with the struggles of women at that time. It’s easy for us, sitting here in the comforts of 2015, to take for granted the rights we enjoy, and this book reminds us of the venom and hostility that confronted the women’s suffrage movement. The women who dared to take a public stance and speak out were demonized, ridiculed, accused of being unwomanly or even insane, and were subjected to all sorts of horrible public humiliations. In this book, looking through Olivia’s eyes, we see how far the men — and even many women — were willing to go to silence the voices of women who stood up for equality and the right to speak their minds.

As one character describes to Olivia:

“My father leaned over to me and said, “Now, that’s womanhood perfected, Percy my boy. That’s the type of girl you want. Silent. Alluring. Submissive.”

I can’t say enough about how powerful and engrossing this story is. Olivia is a marvelous lead character — smart, warm-hearted, and unwilling to keep silent when she sees something wrong. Her need to speak out is what gets her into trouble, of course, but at the same time, she makes a difference in all sorts of unexpected ways, even when forced through the power of hypnotic compulsion to be compliant and stifle her anger.

Olivia’s interactions with Henri do not take the anticipated route, and despite the growing feelings between the two, this book does not go down the dreaded path of showing a young woman throwing away her own plans in order to follow a guy. Olivia has a backbone and a commitment to staying true to herself, and that’s a lovely thing to see in a YA heroine.

The book itself is wonderful to page through, as chapter breaks are illustrated by historical photos from the book’s era, as well as by a selection of powerful quotes by everyone from Kate Chopin to Mark Twain to Carrie Nation.

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The Cure for Dreaming is a fast read — I gobbled it up over the course of 24 hours! I was hooked almost instantly, and just couldn’t bear to put the book down. The characters are well-drawn, the subject of hypnotism is fascinating, the relationships between the characters are pitch-perfect, and the context of the fight for women’s votes and the right to one’s own voice is powerfully presented. While written for a young adult audience, the book does not oversimplify or talk down in any way. As an adult reader, I loved the book and was never bored. This would be a great choice for teen girls, and could also provide some great discussion starting points for mothers and daughters who want a book they can share and enjoy together.

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The details:

Title: The Cure for Dreaming
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet
Publication date: October 14, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library