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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Wave - Susan Casey

9674788There is something utterly fascinating about the ocean and how little we know about it.  Fascinating, and completely terrifying, because have you ever witnessed an 1,800 foot high wave?  No?  Neither have I, and after this, I plan on avoiding the ocean for like, ever, because I don't want to! 

In this, Casey splits her attention in a few different directions to examine big waves in various contexts.  First, in a narrative she goes back to again and again, she follows surfers, particularly Laird Hamilton, as they attempt to surf bigger and bigger waves across the globe, with a lot of focus on Hawaii's "Jaws" surf spot.  Interwoven with the surfing, which is probably the easiest for the layperson to understand, she talks to scientists who study waves, salvagers who recover ships wrecked by huge waves, historians who look at
the big waves of the past--like the 1958 mega-tsunami in Alaska that I referenced in the first paragraph of this review--and other assorted "wave" personalities. 

What all of this underscores is that the ocean is really freaking scary, and it's likely to get even more so.  We actually know very, very little about how waves, particularly big waves, work--one of Casey's interview subjects points out that, after a certain size, waves kind of stop acting like water waves and start acting kind of like waves of light, which is totally weird.  We can't study them in their natural environment to any great degree because, as another interviewee pointed out, if you encounter a hundred-foot wave, you're probably trying to survive it, not measure it.  But we know that they occur much more often than we used to think they did, and that they're doing a lot of damage--like apparently sinking two shipping ships or tankers per week, and why is no one pointing that out???  I think Casey did a good job of pulling in all kinds of information that people don't really encounter about waves and the ocean, and by using the surfing as the core of the narrative, she focused a lot of the science into through a lens that a lot of us laypeople can understand.

I listened to this an audiobook, and the narrator, Kirsten Potter, was excellent.  She has a very conversational way of reading the book and, while some of her "surfer guy" impressions came off as very stereotypical and maybe even mildly offensive, she really made the book engaging.  I think this is one that would have been good in actual book form as well, but it was a good choice for audiobook!

Overall, I really enjoyed this.  It's a great science book about a topic that I don't think is really frequently covered in the "popular science" category.  Apparently Casey has written some other books that have serious ethical questions involved regarding her behavior in researching and writing them, but I really liked this one, didn't see any issues like that, and would recommend it to others.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Stone Sky - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #3)

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)N. K. Jemisin has come to the conclusion of her latest series with The Stone Sky, wrapping up her Broken Earth trilogy, which began with the Hugo-winning The Fifth Season.  While I absolutely loved The Fifth Season, I thought that the second book, The Obelisk Gate, fell victim to a serious case of second book syndrome with nothing really happening.  But by the end of the second book, things were shaping up in a mildly more-interesting direction, with main-character Essun's daughter, Nassun, entering the picture as a serious character in and of herself.

The pacing of this book is rather slow; a lot of it is the process of Essun and her new comm moving on from their now-unusable home and to another abandoned settlement.  Meanwhile, Nassun decides that she's going to destroy the world and sets about figuring out how to do it.  All of this takes a startling amount of the book, and a lot of the rest of it is padded out with a series of chapters that are, essentially, info-dumping on Hoa's past and how the world got to be the way it is.  This seems to have been a trope I've encountered in a few series lately--wait until the last book and then just infodump all of the background that wasn't really worked in elsewhere.  But the background focusing on Hoa means the first-person segments are expanded, so the book is pretty evenly divided between first-, second-, and third-person chunks, focusing on Hoa, Essun, and Nassun respectively.

Ultimately, this was not as good a book as the first one in the series was.  In the end, I felt like Jemisin had come full-circle back to her first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  The way the narrative is structured is very similar, as are significant parts of the plot, even if the world-building and overall story are very different.  There is some really good characterization; Jemisin notes in her acknowledgements that she really struggled with the idea of motherhood in this series and this book in particular, and it shows in Essun's internal struggle regarding Nassun and her other children.  Hoa is given added dimension with his background, but I'm not entirely sure that it's worth the info-dumping, and a few other characters are characterized excellently but summarily written off, which had a very strange feel to it.

Overall, a book I enjoyed, definitely stronger than the second, but without the snap and sizzle of Jemisin's other series.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The King of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #3)

The King of Attolia (The Queen's Thief, #3)The third book of The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, The King of Attolia continues in the third-person vein that the series switched to after the first book.  Additionally, it introduces a new protagonist, Costis; indeed, Eugenides, now the King of Attolia (and sometimes going by the "official" name of Attolis) only has a few, very brief sections that focus on him as the main character.  Instead, this has become Gen's story through Costis' eyes, as he seems to struggle to come to terms with his new role.  After all, if we can recall, Gen only took the role of king because he wanted to marry the queen, not because he actually wanted to rule.

I'm not sure if I'm a huge fan of this perspective shift.  The thing is, by now readers should know that Gen is a tricky character.  This means that, instead of seeing him as a bumbling fool for much of the book, as Costis does, I spent the duration squinting suspiciously and going, "What is he up to now...?"  And, of course, Gen is up to something.  Costis is an interesting point of view character because he resents Gen, just as much of Attolia does, but because we know Gen is up to something, he's not entirely convincing in his depiction of Gen as a bumbling fool.  Seeing Costis coming around is something of a paradigm shift, for the character rather than for the reader in this case, but honestly it just makes him, and the rest of Attolia, seem easily manipulated, rather than showing anything of Gen growing as a character.  And ultimately, this is still Gen's story--it is a series called The Queen's Thief, after all.

However, I think I did like this better than the second volume.  The relationship between Gen and Attolia/Irene is more believable here, and while the story is still very political in nature--with Gen apparently failing as a king--it was on a much smaller scale.  This is a story of intrigue and assassins rather than the movements of armies and navies, and I think it's a scale that was done much better than the preceding book.  If only the dynamic of Gen being incompetent could have been kept up, I think it would have been good...but two books of that was more than enough for readers to catch on that it's just a trick and to wise up to the ongoing deception.  With that in mind, I'm not sure how much longer this series will continue to be convincing.  The setting remains interesting, and there's clearly a rising of forces on the horizon, but without a compelling central character, it can't help but fall flat, and I'm not sure how much longer Gen can be compelling unless the dynamics are seriously switched up.

3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Cinder - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #1)

11235712It feels a bit weird reviewing this book so long after I put out my first review on this series, for Cress.  I had read Cinder before, but I wasn't writing reviews at the time, and so this comes to anyone following along a bit out of order.  Cinder was the Unapologetic Romance Readers' theme read of "A sci-fi romance" for September 2017, and I was delighted to have an excuse to re-read it, especially as I'd been in a bit of a reading slump and going back to books I've previously enjoyed always helps with that.

Cinder is, as you can guess from the title and cover, a Cinderella story.  Except this Cinderella is a cyborg.  Injured in an accident she can't remember, Cinder has been left with a mechanical arm and lower leg/foot, with wires in her brain and nervous system and an interface that flashes information over her eyes.  She's also one of the best mechanics in New Beijing, and her business is her step-family's main (only?) source of income.  Oh, and New Beijing, and the rest of the world, are currently being ravaged by a plague with an unknown cause and no cure.  But one day, when Prince Kai stops by Cinder's stall to get an android repaired, Cinder is pulled into a web that she never imagined and that will destroy--or rebuild--her entire life.

I love this story so much.  It follows a very traditional Cinderella structure, but with little flourishes and garnishes that make it seem new.  The pumpkin coach is a decrepit car, the glass slipper is a cyborg foot.  The characters are also wonderful; while Meyer makes Cinder's stepmother absolutely loathsome, the daughters aren't entirely without redemption, particularly Peony, who Cinder actually likes.  And then, of course, there's Iko, Cinder's android sidekick who has a quirky, perky personality all her own.  Adding the plague and the brewing conflict between Earth and Luna adds dramatic tension to a story that traditionally lacks it, and having Prince Kai and Cinder meet and grow closer multiple times before the ball is absolutely necessary--the "love on first site" aspect of Cinderella has never sat well with me, so I appreciate this added relationship building.

That said, this isn't a perfect story.  It has a bit of a cliffhanger ending, which I didn't remember.  Given the narrative arc of the series as a whole, I can see why Meyer had to break it where she did, but it definitely doesn't lead to a satisfying conclusion for this volume.  And while the Cinderella element helps to tie together a story and genre that could otherwise alienate some readers--I probably wouldn't have normally picked up a story about a cyborg--it also means that, despite the flourishes, the plot itself can be quite predictable.  Of course, the story as a whole goes past the Cinderella story, but that doesn't mean that parts of it can't be called from a mile away.

Still, I really enjoyed rereading this.  It's not my favorite book in the series--that goes to Scarlet--nor does it feature my favorite main characters--that would be Cress--but I still think it was a solid intro volume, and would definitely recommend it to others.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Wild - Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailAnother audiobook down.  These are great for listening to while working on spreadsheets, guys!  This one drew me because it was on several recommendation lists; one for adventure-lovers, one for memoirs, and I think it was on a list of recommendations from the cast of something that I watched recently, but I'm not 100% sure on that last one.  The idea of a woman whose life is in shambles going on a twelve hundred mile hike and finding herself along the way appealed to me, and so off I went.

The narrator for this was good, and so is the book structure.  Strayed intersperses the parts about her journey on the trail with more biographical sections about her life before the hike.  Breaking it up like that is a wise decision, so that neither part seems like too much of a slog.  However, I felt like there was more pre-trail biographical material in here than was really needed.  She spent a lot of time re-hashing things that she had already gone over--yes, yes, she loved her mother and was devastated in the wake of her death.  This was a wrenching story the first time around, less the fifth or sixth time.  With all of this going over and over again, it really felt like the book ended up being the story of her pre-trail life interspersed with her trail life--that is, that the pre-trail life was the bulk of the book, and the hiking actually took up less of the book than one would think, given the title and cover of the book and how it begins, with a scene of Strayed losing one of her hiking boots over the edge of a cliff.

And here's something to keep in mind if you're planning on reading this book: Cheryl Strayed, at the time that she embarked on her adventure, was not necessarily a good person.  Her marriage had dissolved after she confessed to sleeping with a ton of people who were not her husband while they were married; she had substance abuse problems, including heroin.  Sometimes she acknowledges that she was not really a good person, nor was she in a good place before the hike; at other times, however, she tries to spin it off with a sort of "Hee hee!  Look how messed up and quirky I was!  Tee hee!" sort of tone, which annoyed me vastly.  Because that's the thing: if you're going to put your whole life out there for everyone to read, everyone gets to judge you for it.

As for the hiking portions of the book, not a lot actually goes on.  It becomes very quickly evident that Strayed was not prepared for the hike, which she freely admits.  There's a lot of suffering, toenails falling off, boots plaguing her, burning the pages of books as she reads them to lighten her pack, dubbed "Monster" for its size.  She sees a bull, bears, and rattlesnakes, but no mountain lions.  But mostly it's pretty much exactly what you can expect: a lot of walking.  The people she meets along the way are enjoyable, but for the most part this was a solitary journey for her, and that shoes.  It was definitely an adventure for her to live, but it perhaps doesn't shine quite as well when you're reading (or hearing) about it, especially years later.  Parts of it did make me want to go off and have a hiking adventure of my own--but other parts made me never want to leave the city again, though in an age of cell phones (and solar chargers) and GPS technology, it would no doubt be a very different experience from the one Strayed lived in 1995.

Overall, an amusing listen, but certainly not what I thought I was getting myself into (much like Strayed herself) and probably not something I would go back to, with the balance issues it has.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Slightly Tempted - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #4)

Slightly Tempted (Bedwyn Saga, #4)Finally, I found the book I was waiting for in this series.  After three disappointing volumes, fully half the series, I was almost ready to give up, but I wanted to read the book focusing on Morgan Bedwyn, because she had seemed like such an interesting character, different from the rest of Bedwyns.  I'm glad I stuck it out, because I really enjoyed this one.  Just like Morgan, this was different.

The beginning of the book finds Morgan in Brussels with the family of a friend, swept up in the social scene surrounding the buildup of armies in the wake of Napoleon's escape from Elba and return for the Hundred Days.  She's being courted by her friend's brother, something she inadvertently encouraged but wants to get out of.  She catches the attention of the Earl of Rosthorn, Gervase, both because of her looks and youth and because she's the Duke of Bewcastle's youngest sister--and Rosthorn and Bewcastle have beef that goes back nine years.  Wanting to start a scandal (really, this should have been titled Slightly Scandalous instead of Freyja's volume) to hurt Bewcastle, Rosthorn starts to court Morgan with the intention of dropping her like a hot potato after gossip starts circulating, but the encroaching war gets in the way and the two find themselves suddenly and truly close.

This is an age-gap romance (Rosthorn is twelve years older than Morgan) which is a bit strange, because Balogh really hammers that gap home, but I'm a bit more forgiving of that in the historical romance context, and I think the book makes up for it in so many ways.  The setting of Brussels in the shadow of the looming and then present war lent the first half of the book an atmosphere that the other books had so far lacked and gave the blooming relationship between Morgan and Rosthorn a snap and sizzle that was absent with the other couples.  And when the deception at the heart of the relationship is revealed, Morgan doesn't just crumple or throw a fit--she vows to get her own form of revenge, and despite her doubts forges ahead and ultimately manages to redeem the relationship.  The one thing that I didn't like here was how Rosthorn uses humor as a shield; while this is totally a thing, I felt like it's already been overused in this series, and therefore didn't do a good job distinguishing Rosthorn from the previous hero, Joshua.

Ultimately, this was such a great book in contrast to the preceding ones, and it's encouraged me to continue on with the series; there's only one more book before the other one I was looking forward to, Bewcastle's, and I'm interesting in seeing how they're going to deal with Alleyne coming "back from the dead," which is totally not a spoiler because clearly Alleyne is alive, he's the next book!

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sing My Name - Ellen O'Connell

Sing My NameContinuing the 2017 Unapologetic Romance Readers' Reading Challenge, I picked up Sing My Name in hopes of fulling the category of a romance taking place in the antebellum, Civil War, or Reconstruction periods.  However, after reading it, I shifted it to another category I hadn't filled yet: the secret baby category.

The story here revolves around Sarah, a young woman travelling west to marry her fiance who is in the army, and Matt Slade, a man who was arrested for a murder he didn't commit.  When most of their travelling party is murdered by Comanches on the trail, Matt and Sarah escape and find themselves trying to survive in the wilds, and falling in love.  But when they finally make it back to civilization, it seems like their troubles have only just begun.

I've read another of O'Connell's books before, Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, and I have to say I liked that better for one main reason: in Sing My Name, all of the romance happens in about the first quarter of the book.  After that, Matt and Sarah are separated for a good deal of the book, pining separately and going through separate travails, until they finally reunite but are still held apart by Matt's conviction that he's not good enough for Sarah.  Sigh.  That is my least favorite romance trope: the "I"m not good enough for you!" trope keeping the protagonists apart, rather than anything in their actual lives or environments.  O'Connell tries to throw in a few disapproving allies and townsfolk, but it's pretty clear what's keeping Matt and Sarah apart is ultimately Matt himself.  Additionally, there's Sarah's use of her child as an attempt to manipulate Matt into coming back to her.  While Sarah clearly loves her daughter and values her, she also uses her as a tool rather than as a person, leaving her raising mostly to other people except when Matt shows back up and Sarah decides to prove a point.  This is so underhanded and underlines another reason I don't really like child characters in novels.

Overall, this was an okay book.  The pacing was incredibly slow; while the beginning was good, when Sarah pretty much immediately decided she loved Matt, I knew that the remaining 75% of the book probably had unpleasantness in store, and it did indeed.  This definitely wasn't as good of a book as Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, and if it had been the first of O'Connell's I'd read, I probably wouldn't bother with any other ones.  Sigh.

2 stars out of 5.