Book Review: Miss Whitaker Opens Her Heart

91HNJI5C5SLMiss Whitaker Opens Her Heart is about a woman named Sarah who owns and runs a sheep ranch in Australia in 1815 (at the time, it was the Colony of New South Wales). Sarah falls in love with the rancher next door, but he has a Dark Secret. I very much enjoyed this unusual Regency romance, even though the vast majority of the character development fell upon poor Sarah.

At the beginning of the story, eleven-year old Sarah is sailing to New South Wales to be reunited with her father. When she gets there, she’s crushed to discover that he died while she was at sea. Somehow Sarah convinces her cranky and very proper aunt (her chaperone during the sea voyage) that the two of them should stay and run the deceased father’s sheep ranch. The aunt doesn’t get much page time, and frankly I could have used a book just about her.

Anyway, there’s a time jump to 1815. Sarah is an adult and a very capable rancher. The aunt has passed away. Sarah discovers that she has a new neighbor, David. Of course she first meets him when he is bathing in the woods half naked because that’s how these things work.

ANYWAY, at first Sarah sees David as a rival since he buys land she had planned on buying herself, and, like her, is raising sheep for the wool market. However, she quickly warms up to him. For his part, David likes and respects her immediately. However, he’s troubled by her insistence that one cannot trust a convict. Her reasoning is that “people do not change.” David finds this awkward, not only because it makes Sarah act like an enormous jerk to convicts, some of whom she reluctantly employs, but also because David, unbeknownst to Sarah, arrived in New South Wales as a convict himself (he was pardoned on arrival due to having a rich protector).  David keeps trying to tell Sarah the truth but he always thinks maybe the time isn’t right, or he gets interrupted – you get the idea.

Sarah’s biggest character flaw is that once someone hurts her, she distrusts not only that person but also everyone similar to that person. She hates the Aborigines because one of them killed her father.  She hates people who arrived in New south Wales as convicts because they have cheated or otherwise betrayed her in the past. Over the course of the story she makes her peace with both groups. She learns that people can change and that the behavior of one person does not apply to a whole group of people.

She also learns to respect the Aboriginal people. Early on, Daniel becomes friends with Charrah, the leader of the local clan. Charrah is depicted as skilled and knowledgable, but (thankfully) not magical. He and Daniel have a significant language barrier but enjoy hunting together. Later on, Sarah meets an Aboriginal mother and baby. The three are caught in the same rainstorm and the mother is injured. Sarah helps the mother and baby until Carrah shows up to help all three of them. It’s more a matter of teamwork than a white savior sequence. Sarah develops a bond with the mother and the baby and is finally able to respect their clan. These are not point of view characters (the only point of view characters are Daniel and Sarah) but I appreciated their inclusion even though I wanted their characters to be much more fleshed out.

Unlike Sarah, who undergoes an enormous amount of character growth, Daniel gets all of his character growth out of the way in his first couple of chapters. Even then, it’s not really character growth. We meet him in his prison cell and he’s already repented for his crime. He bet on a race, gave a horse some drug that was supposed to make it sleepy, and it died. He is stricken with terrible remorse and thanks he deserves to be hung. He’s the most repentant of all repenters. His character growth has basically already occurred and the rest of the book is the reformed Daniel being a romantic guy.

From this point on Daniel is a paragon. He forms an immediate bond with an Aboriginal man and shows nothing but compassion to the less fortunate convicts in the colony. He has no problem asking a woman for ranching advice. He’s just generally awesome other than feeling unable to reveal his Big Secret to Sarah.

This book is published through a Christian Press (Covenant Communications) but the only quality of the book that tipped me off about the publisher is that there’s no sex. As would be typical of people with access to a church in the 1800s, Daniel and Sarah attend church but the only discussion of religion comes into play when Sarah and Daniel have to deal with sanctimonious, holier-than-thou neighbors.  I’m not a Christian but I thought that the themes of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance and trust were fairly universal.

I liked this book despite its lack of balance with the character development. Both of the characters are likeable. I liked Daniel because is upfront about being new to ranching and grateful for Sarah’s advice, as so few other men are. Meanwhile, Sarah’s intolerance and rigidity are horrible flaws, but she is given plausible reasons for both having those flaws and for being able to overcome them. I admire a woman who isn’t afraid to get messy by sticking her hand up the business end of a laboring ewe to help deliver a lamb. She’s resourceful, tough, and hardworking and still likes a pretty dress now and then.

Above all, I loved the setting. During this time period, there’s a small but well-established town, a clear but somewhat flexible social hierarchy, and opportunities for social events. There’s also a sense of wildness. At one point Sarah takes Daniel and some friends to see a platypus (she calls it a water mole). It’s an idyllic scene, but also one in which Sarah makes everyone take precautions on the hike towards the platypus den to avoid spiders and quicksand. There’s a storm and a fire. The human characters feel very small against a massive backdrop of mountain and forest.

This is a short book that would have benefitted from expansion. It touches on the more painful aspects of that period of Australia’s history (sexism, virulent racism, and the harsh lives that most convicts led) just enough to avoid insulting the reader’s intelligence, but it doesn’t go into detail. All of the supporting characters, regardless of gender, class, or race, exist only to further the character development of the leads, and I would have liked to have gotten more of a sense of these characters as people in their own right.

This book wasn’t perfect, but it was enjoyable. The setting made it special and unusual, and the relatability of the characters made me care about their fates. It doesn’t hurt that there were details about the best shears to use for shearing sheep and details about fabric for a new dress. Also, there’s a lot of food. It was a comforting and entertaining read.I would not use this as a history guide, but I do recommend it for a rainy day with some tea and biscuits.

 

Book Review: The Fishing Fleet

cover of The Fishing Fleet showing women riding elephantThe Fishing Fleet: Husband-Hunting in the Raj may be nonfiction catnip for historical romance readers and fans of Victorian and Edwardian history. This book details the lives of women who travelled to India from England in hopes of finding a husband. The book spans about 1750 to 1940, but most of it involves Victorian and Edwardian Era marriages. It is mostly told in the third person but has a lot of quotes and excerpts from letters in which women speak for themselves.

Women who married British government and military officials during the British Occupation (the Raj) were expected to be intelligent but not too intelligent, virtuous, dedicated to upholding a British way of life, and extremely self-reliant. Women experienced a weird mix of a whirl of parties during social seasons (one woman danced “twenty-six nights in a row”) and stultifying boredom and loneliness the rest of the time. They needed to be prepared to deal with rabid dogs, rats, snakes and insects. They also needed to be ready to choose between going with their children when the children were sent to school in England, or sending the children to school alone and staying in India with their husbands.

This book is worth looking at for the descriptions of clothing. Never have I read so many lavish descriptions of outfits that were so terribly suited to climate and condition. For a long time, both men and women were supposed to wear a “cholera belt” which was a thick layer of flannel wrapped around the belly – so in addition to petticoats and stays and an actual dress, they were also wearing at least one flannel undergarment. It is not surprising that women typically spent the hottest part of the day lying on a bed in their petticoats trying not to cook themselves to death. Here are some descriptions of nighttime outfits:

1896: “She had a new dress for it, blue satin, with spangled net on the bodice and she was instructed by the dressmaker that to suit the new fashions she should wear her hair in a little bundle on her head, with a rose or small comb as ornament – only married women could wear whole coronets of flowers. Her sister Christian wore white satin trimmed with white violets.”

1929: “My new blue bathing suit is the most decent thing ever – a one-piece garment but it has kicks underneath.”

1932: “I had about a dozen evening dresses. My favorite was a gorgeous gold color one with a cowl neck that was backless – you couldn’t wear a bra but one was very firm in those days. Backless was very fashionable then.”

Other things of note: young women often gathered up their skirts in their hands and rode bicycles to dinner, sports were all the rage among men despite frequent injuries, and people often married very quickly, sometimes right after arrival. The stories of proposals are often delightful. One woman met a man in India, but he was deemed by her mother to be too young to marry (military men weren’t supposed to marry until they turned thirty). The woman went back to England and got a call from the young man six years later (they had been writing but hadn’t seen each other during the six year interval). He asked her to marry him over the phone and she said, “Certainly I will!”

On a less delightful but certainly fascinating note are tales of disease and skin ailments and lassitude brought on by the heat and by frequent illnesses. One woman survived malaria, smallpox, and the bubonic plague (she didn’t actually catch it but avoided catching it despite living through an epidemic). This same woman had two children, one of whom was delivered by a gynecologist and the other by a veterinarian (both turned out fine). Life in India was often extremely difficult for married women who had no occupation to pursue, were not encouraged or often allowed to make friends with Indian women, and were tasked with maintaining a British lifestyle in a hostile climate.

My biggest criticism of The Fishing Fleet is that it does not provide a rigorous critique of nor context about the British Empire. No Indian viewpoints are expressed and there are no major Indian characters with the exceptions of a woman who is part English and part Indian. The book is entirely about the viewpoint of the British, and British women in particular, who were very much encouraged to have minimal interaction with Indian people other than servants.

The problem with the tight focus of the book is twofold. In practical terms, it’s confusing. There’s very little information regarding how the British came to rule India, or what happened during their rule. This book covers the mid-1700s to the 1940s – almost two hundred years. Yet almost no historical events are noted. The only changes in women’s lives are clothing styles. With more context, this might be an interesting contrast to historical upheaval and a commentary on how tightly bound these women were. With no or minimal context, it loses all meaning. The implication is that nothing happened in India during all this time, which is untrue.

This leads us to the second problem, which is that the lack of context, critique, and Indian voices presents an image of the Indian people as passive and unimportant – not only to the British women profiled in this book but to history at large. I’m not an expert on the history of India, but even a few minutes of online research indicates that Indians were far from passive during British Occupation.

One way to keep the book focused on British women and their daily lives would have been to delve more deeply into the lives of the British women’s servants. Not only would this have reminded the reader that Indian women (and men) also had important lives, but it would have provided more insight into the running of the households. The book might also have provided a look at the daily lives of Indian women in villages and in cities, which would not only have been more inclusive but would also have provided a helpful contrast and comparison to the lives of British women. As it is, the book perpetrates the idea that only stories about white wealthy people matter.

I felt that this book was half of a very good book. What it offered was fascinating – a look at the lives of women who are barely known about today, with everyday details and a touch of scandal and glamour mixed with raw survival. However, because the focus was so tight, the book felt half-finished. I was left with a lot of questions about Indian history and culture, and a lot of frustration about the omission of Indian voices.

I may also have been left with an intense desire to go on an adventure, marry impetuously, and buy some new clothes. Just not a cholera belt, because, I’m sorry, but those are just silly.

Book Review: The Book Of Dust

cover of The Book of dust
Reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman, was one of the most emotional experiences of my reading life. Other than bits and pieces of scenes, I remember two things about reading the His Dark Materials trilogy. One was that I read it feverishly and passionately. The other is that when it ended I cried, with big sobs, and tears pouring down my face. I have the trilogy, but I’ve only read it that one, revelatory time.

Now Philip Pullman is back to rip my heart out of my chest and jump on it again with a new series. The first book, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, is out and it reminded me of what an amazing storyteller Pullman is. La Belle is magical, fast-paced, thrilling, and sometimes horrifying. I ate it right up.

First some background. The first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass) came out in 1996. The series was incredibly influential and popular despite being overshadowed by a small series you may have heard of that was launched in 1997 (Harry Potter). The series followed the adventures of Lyra, who is twelve years old at the start of the series.

Lyra lives in an alternate world version of Earth, one in which every human has a daemon. According to the His Dark Materials Wiki:

The dæmon /ˈdiːmən/ was the physical manifestation of a human soul in Lyra’s world Humans in other worlds had dæmons; however they were invisible to those who had not learnt the technique used to see them.

During the childhood of a human, their dæmon could shapeshift into any kind of animal. This change could be due to emotion, need for a particular skill such as night vision, or simply whim.

When the human and their dæmon reached maturity, the dæmon settled into a permanent form. This form represented the personality of their human.

Lyra’s world is ruled by the Magisterium, a religious institution that seeks to conceal the existence of a substance called ‘Dust’. Dust is a conscious elementary particle (don’t worry about it) not to be confused with the stuff that accumulates on my piano when I forget to practice. Eventually the series involves other worlds, including our own. As you may guess, the series involves a lot of philosophy and science, but also intrigue, action, cute animals, and armored polar bears that talk.

This brings us to The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (I know, FINALLY). In La Belle, which is set before The Golden Compass, eleven-year-old Malcolm goes to school during the day, helps his parents run their pub at night, and helps out the local nuns on Sundays. When someone leaves an orphaned baby named Lyra at the convent, Malcolm becomes enchanted with the baby and determined to help protect her. In the course of his efforts he becomes a spy for the resistance movement against the Magisterium. As the plot thickens, Malcolm and one of the helpers at the pub, Alice, get caught up in a flood and a chase, both of which force them to find a safe haven for Lyra. The eleven-year-old boy, sixteen-year-old girl, and infant have to fight off human and supernatural enemies as well as the natural perils of the massive flood that they navigate in Malcolm’s canoe.

The characters in this book are wonderfully realized, even baby Lyra who is fussy and wriggly and poops a lot. Since she’s an infant her job is basically to be alternately cute and infuriated, coddled and imperiled, but she’s realistically hard to care for and her shape-changing daemon is freaking adorable. The more interesting characters are Malcolm, who always has a question, and teenaged Alice, who sulks and snarls at everyone except the baby. The story is told in third-person from Malcolm’s point of view, and I adored him because most of his sentences end with a question mark.

This book is not a romance, but it does emphasize the importance of connection and love in many forms. Malcolm and Alice start off as bitter enemies but become allies and then friends. Here’s a lovely passage in which Malcolm studies Alice’s face as she sleeps:

The little frown that lived between her eyebrows had vanished; it was a softer face altogether. Her mouth was relaxed, and her whole expression was complex and subtle. These was a sort of kindness in it, and a sort of lazy enjoyment-those were the words he found to describe it. A hint of a mocking smile lay in the flesh around her eyes.

The book is an amazing study in pacing, in tone, and in descriptive writing. Initially, we learn about everyone’s everyday lives. Malcolm peels potatoes and does his homework. Alice rolls her eyes. Lyra poops. Because Malcolm keeps picking up new information, the story isn’t boring, it’s just grounded. Then a flood transforms the landscape we’ve come to know into something else:

Through the bare branches he saw a wild waste of gray water, surging from left to right across the wide open space that had been Port Meadow; he could see the city’s spires beyond it. Nothing but water: no ground, no riverbank, no bridge. And all speeding with a mighty force, almost silent, certainly irresistible. There was no possibility of paddling against it and making their way back home.

My only problem, and it’s a big one, is that this is not a full book. It tells of one episode of Lyra’s life, and it describes that episode from beginning to end. It is probably pretty accessible to anyone who hasn’t read the His Dark Materials story. However, while it’s a pleasing prequel, it doesn’t have much substance of its own. We don’t have enough context to understand why Lyra is so important (unless we’ve read the other books), and even though Malcolm and Alice complete their arc in terms of plot, they don’t get any time to complete their arc emotionally. The book doesn’t conclude. It just stops.

The book ends on a major cliffhanger, but you can resolve the cliffhanger, more or less, by immediately starting The Golden Compass. The problem is less that it ends on a cliffhanger and more that it doesn’t end at all except in the sense that the pages run out. Because of the lack of context for new readers and the lack of closure, I’m giving this book a B+ instead of an A, but I loved it and I’m so much looking forward to the next one which will, no doubt, cause me to cry like a baby.

Book Review: These is My Words, by Nancy E. Turner

Cover of These Is My WordsThese Is My Words is a work of historical fiction (NOT a romance novel, despite considerable romance) loosely based on stories that the author, Nancy E. Turner, heard about her real-life great-grandmother, Sarah Prine. The story begins in 1881, when seventeen-year-old Sarah Prine and her family are part of a wagon train heading from the New Mexico Territory to Texas. Due to a series of calamities, the family ends up in the Arizona Territories, where Sarah struggles to run a ranch more or less on her own.

 

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901 is one of our “family books,” that is to say, it’s a book that the women in my family pass back and forth and deeply love. These Is My Words has two sequels, Sarah’s Quilt and The Stone Garden. However, both my mother and I thought they were good but not as good as These Is My Words, which we have both read many, many times. This book is not a romance novel in the sense that the ending is bittersweet at best. However, it does contain a wonderful love story, and a wonderful portrait of a tough, smart, and frequently cranky woman, Sarah Prine.

 

From the start, Sarah is tough, fighting to defend her friends and family despite being uncertain about her life and being dazed with grief after seeing many deaths. I don’t want to spoil much of the story, but as she becomes a wife and a mother she develops a deeper layer of toughness beneath which there is a keen longing for education, a love of beauty, intense curiosity, and great affection for her loved ones. Sarah wishes she was more of a “lady” like her sweet sister-in-law, Savannah, but as Savannah tells her over and over again, her loved ones like her (and depend on her) just the way she is.

 

The best thing about the novel is Sarah’s voice and her character development as she grows from a naïve teen into a sharp businesswoman and rancher. Here’s an excerpt that shows off the keen business sense she develops as the story progresses, along with her sharp wit, and her independence. In this passage, Sarah is talking to a bank clerk in Tucson:

 

I went to one of the windows and introduced myself, and after I told the man what I wanted to do, he had the gall to sniff in my face and tell me to let my husband handle my money and not trouble myself with the confusion of it all.

 

Oh, I said, how confusing is it? If it makes you confused, I surely don’t want this bank holding my five hundred dollars.

 

Well, he perked right up and said, Five hundred dollars? I believe we can be of service to you after all.

 

I doubt it, I told him. I made this money with the sweat of my brow and the labor of my hands and I’ve got the rawhide to prove it. I don’t intend to leave it with any man that thinks money is confusing.

 

He puckered up his face kind of nervous and said, Oh, I assure you, Ma’am, we are not the slightest bit confused about money. We have a fifteen hundred pound safe, he says. Completely, one-hundred-percent theft proof…we offer one point nine percent interest, he said.

 

I stood up. Well, I told him, I can turn this around in supplies and stock and see about twenty-five percent interest on cattle as long as there’s no drought, and a hundred and fifteen percent interest on soap, more if there’s a drought. It’s a little at a time, but it comes right in steady as a clock. In case that’s confusing to you, Mister, it’s called profit. Thank you to you, and good day.

 

While the love story in this book is one of my favorites, this book is not and was not marketed as a romance novel. I don’t even want to spoil whom the romance is with given that early on there is more than one option. This is not a book that shies away from the realities of a hard and violent life and on many occasions you will need tissues and maybe some booze, although you will laugh a lot too. It’s a story about love, but it’s also a story about grief.

 

I want you to get to see the love story unfold for yourself. But I will say that it involves some banter, a lot of humor, brittleness and tenderness, and a lot of honesty. It also involves Sarah reading The Happy Bride, an instructional tome that advises Bible study as being “the first importance in being a wife.” But this book doesn’t end up being of much practical use to Sarah, who is very worried about an incident early in the book when she accidentally cries herself to sleep in a man’s arms:

 

As for that rainstorm and a certain soldier, I will just turn from my wicked ways and be sure never to place myself in a situation like that again. If I was, I would turn him away with a strong command rather than bawl like an orphan calf and fall asleep like I was safe with him. The book says “a young lady is never safe when in close physical proximity to a gentleman, and although he would pursue her, he thinks all the more of her of her if she rebuffs him heartily.” So I have thought of a hearty rebuff that I will tell that Captain Elliot if ever I see him again, or any man who presumes to be in close physical proximity.

 

The book doesn’t say what to do if you have slept in your underwear on top of a soldier in a wagon during a rainstorm. I will study this book so the first chance I get not to be an old maid I will be ready.

 

Best of luck with that book, Sarah.

 

One thing I like about this book is that while it stays true to Sarah’s perspective, it’s fairly even-handed in its treatment of Native Americans and in its treatment of other minorities. To be clear, Sarah is the narrator and this is very much a story told from a white pioneer perspective, which means that Sarah is often in deadly conflict with the Comanche and the Apache tribes. Initially, the attackers are presented as creatures of utter terror, raiding the wagon train and raiding local homes. They are nameless and faceless and everyone is terrified of them.

 

However, even early in the story, there are hints that Sarah is too smart and too curious to see people as caricatures. Early on, she has a silent moment of connection with a Comanche man who sees her kill a rapist. This man offers her silent respect, which Sarah clings to in the aftermath of guilt that follows the killing. Sarah is horrified to hear of massacred tribal women and children. She hears people arguing about how the wagon train people are encroaching on Comanche Territory, and she worries about it. Later, she hears about another character’s horrible sense of ambivalence in his job of chasing and capturing Geronimo. And eventually she learns more about the differences between local tribes after she hires an Apache woman to help her around the house, while she also becomes friends with a Yavapai man.

 

The book is very clear that the West wasn’t just a sea of whiteness. Sarah gets to know a Chinese family, and she becomes close friends with a Mexican family, from whom she learns Spanish and a lot of new recipes. It’s not that Sarah is incredibly progressive. It’s simply that Sarah tends to take people at face value. She likes people who share recipes and she likes people who chat with her on the porch and she dislikes people who shoot arrows at her even if she has some sympathy with their motives. She tends to see people as people, not as types, and she likes people who help her out and who let her help them in return.

 

I have a long list of trigger warnings for this book. First all, as much as I appreciate that Sarah sees Native Americans as individual people and does not look down on them, this is still a story about the white takeover of native lands, told from a white perspective. We already have a million stories about Indians attacking white people. This story is told better than most but it’s still the same story in many section of the book.

 

Also, there are multiple rape threats, rape attempts, and actual rapes. Children are frequently in peril and some children die. So do some animals. This book runs the gamut of emotions, and it doesn’t glamorize the hardships of the place and time.

 

I love this book for a lot of reasons. I have some family in Arizona, and that gives me some personal interest in the topic. I love the romance and the incredibly sense of place that is conveyed on Sarah’s ranch and in Tucson. I love the combination of dramatic events with every day life. But the main reason I love this book so much is because of Sarah and her unique and wonderful voice, and because of the different ways that female strength is portrayed in different characters.

 

This is an amazing story, beautifully and powerfully written and deeply feminist, but it’s not intersectional, meaning that it doesn’t address this lives of anyone other than Sarah’s family in much detail. However, if you want something historical that features more perspectives from non-white characters, here are some suggestions:

 

Wake of Vultures, and the sequel, Conspiracy of Ravens, by Lila Bowen

 

This Weird West series (not a series of romance novels) is narrated by a biracial, transgender man. The series includes characters of many ethnicities in its fantasy depiction of a West in which monsters, shapeshifters, and magic exist. I reviewed Wake of Vultures. Beware of literal cliffhangers.

 

The Girl With Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson

 

I reviewed Girl with Ghost Eyes and loved the main character, a Chinese teenage girl who uses magic and martial arts to defend her family in gold rush San Francisco. Again, this is historical fiction, not a romance novel, although there’s some romance in it.

 

Bitter Springs, by Laura Stone

 

I wrote a capsule review of this book for RT Book Reviews. I loved this romance novel about Texas in the 1870s. Renaldo Valle Santos trains with Hank Burnett. Hank is Black, a freed slave who has made a name for himself as an expert on catching and taming wild horses. The two men fall in love and prepare to face the consequences with Renaldo’s traditional family.

 

Destiny’s Captive, by Beverly Jenkins

 

This book, which I reviewed here, is a romance novel that begins on the shores of Cuba but primarily takes place in 1870’s California. It involves a romance between Afro-Cuban Pilar and Afro-Spanish Noah. The book combines swashbuckling and shopping and a lot of female bonding, so catnip alert right there for most of our readers. The book is the third book in a trilogy that includes Destiny’s Surrender and Destiny’s Embrace, You can also enjoy Redheadedgirl’s review of another Western by Jenkins, Forbidden.

 

 

I also found this link, which features books by and about Native Americans.

 

http://www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com/blog/2011/the-20-essential-american-indian-novels/

Guest Book Rant: A Tween Reviews My Immortal

We have a very special guest blogger today. My tween daughter read My Immortal because her clueless mom (ME) didn’t catch on to what she was reading until it was TOO LATE. I cannot recommend this book to tweens (or anyone) but I can tell you that we had many candid talks about the subject matter, we laughed a lot, and we’ve been using the word “keenly” as often as possible.

Anyway, Dear Daughter wrote this review/rant for all of you. It’s too late for her – she has already been traumatized by what has often been referred to as “The worst fan fiction of all time”. But you can save yourself! Don’t let her sacrifice be in vain!

My Immortal is a Harry Potter fanfiction and is rightfully known as the worst fanfiction ever written!  The book (if you can call it that) is about a vampire who is also a witch and goes to Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. Her name is Ebony Darkness Dementia Raven Way however it changes multiple times throughout the book. (Evony, Enboby, Tebony, Ibony, Enbony, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Terra Raven way etc…) She is a hardcore goth and a satanist and a lot of people tell her she looks like Amy Lee. She falls in love with Draco Malfoy (In the book his name is spelled Dracko multiple times) and befriends (with benefits) Vampire Potter (Harry Potter, but he got a new nickname because he likes the taste of human blood.) at some point Voldemort shows up and tells Ebony, and I quote, “Thou must kill Vampire Potter!” And when Ebony refuses to do this he says and I quote, “Thou must! If thou does not, then I shall kill thy beloved Draco!” and Ebony is faced with what to do.

The Author of My Immortal is a girl named Tara Gillesbie. However she claims she had spelling help from her friend Raven. The two girls are “goffick” and also have a youtube channel called xXblo0dyxkissxX. (Subscribe at your own risk watching these videos may cause brain cell damage/loss)

Speaking of brain cell loss just reading the fanfic will probably cause this to happen as well! The entire thing is full of bad grammar, people acting out of character, overly long and unnecessary descriptions, and even some stuff that is super offensive! For example this line I was feeling kinda depressed so I slit my wrist and read a depressing novel  and listened to GC while waiting for the blood to dry I drank some human blood, then I was ready to go to the concert. (Grammar errors made in this passage have been removed for your reading pleasure, you’re welcome.) Okay first of all, the protagonist  just casually slits her wrist because she was feeling kinda depressed. Thats offensive to anyone who struggles with depression or suicide! This is a real issue! And that’s not the only time the author casually talks about people slitting their wrist. In one chapter the protagonist is talking with her friends and they are planning what to do during the day and the the teacher (That’s right the teacher) says, “OMFG let’s have a group cutting session!” (Once again bad grammar has been removed, you’re welcome.) NO thats is super offensive to people who struggle with suicide! Also this teacher should be fired!

Like I said before My Immortal is full of characters acting out of character! For example in one scene Ebony and Draco are “Making out keenly against a tree” in the forbidden forest (I swear that’s exactly how the author writes it). When Dumbledore shows up out of nowhere and screemes, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERF******” That’s right DUMBLEDORE says this! There are no words to describe how out of character this is! Later in an author’s note Tara claims that the only reason Dumbledore cused was because he had a headache. How stupid can you get?

Despite all of this My Immortal does have one good quality, and her name…. Is Britney. Britney is the arch enemy of the main character but she never does anything wrong. She is the only named Gryffindor character and is a “prep”. Ebony always makes sure to give her the middle finger. Britney is probably the most loved character even though she only shows up about 5 times for 2 seconds. She’s just that awesome!

I don’t think that anyone should read this. Not even Britney can save it. Like I said before it’s full of grammar errors and people acting out of character, and will probably manage to be offensive to you no matter who who you are. It’s impossible to like. It’s extremely inappropriate for children as well. If however you decide to read My Immortal despite everything i’ve just told you, know that YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! Dont come crawling back to me begging for holy water and brain bleach. You can read My Immortal on Fanfiction.net or Wattpad (it’s an app its awesome I love it so much.) Or you can simply google My Immortal and a bunch of sites will pop up that will let you read it, not to mention some people made a movie of it and it’s on youtube.        

Book Review: The Wicked + the Divine

6358968060753326911867408242_WickedDivine01-2ndPTGI sure do love a book that leaves me saying, “Holy crap, what just happened? Did that really happen?” The comic book series The Wicked + the Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is full of such moments, none more than in Issue #11 which was so WTF that I had to rummage around online to make sure that I actually read what I read (I did).

 

The premise of The Wicked + the Divine is that every ninety years a pantheon of twelve gods is reborn. The gods have great fame and great powers but are fated to die within two years of being granted godhood (before that they are humans with no knowledge of what lies ahead). Each god is recognized and deified (by an immortal, Ananke) with these words:

 

You are of the Pantheon.

You will be loved.

You will be hated.

You will be brilliant.

Within two years you will be dead.

 

The first two volumes (Issues #1 – #11) involve a human, Laura, who becomes friends with Lucifer (modeled on David Bowie’s Thin White Duke Persona). Laura tries to solve a mystery that involves Lucifer and in doing so she becomes part of the Pantheon’s world. Laura longs to become one of the gods even though her life would be short – she’s a very frustrating character in her endless obsessions and her angst, which seems at odds with her supportive family life but which is also in keeping her with her being a lonely teenager.

 

The gods are massive celebrities, literal and figurative rock and pop stars. The book is a commentary on mortality (the author was inspired to write the series by his father’s diagnosis with terminal cancer). But it’s also a commentary on how we worship, hate, and discard our celebrities. Of course in reading the series, the reader becomes another level in this examination of how we consume people we think are glorious and beautiful and how their deaths add to their fascination. The comic book characters are fictional, but the reader’s process is much the same as the rock star fan’s process – the characters entice us because they are beautiful and gifted, and the tension of the comic comes from the fact that most of the characters are fated to live no more than two years from the time the story begins.

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In her insightful essay, “The Assassination of Cordelia Chase,” Jennifer Crusie points out that readers “want to be surprised; they don’t want to be betrayed,” and that “The choice between honoring character to show growth and mutilating character to serve plot spells the difference between the delighted reaction, ‘I can’t believe she did that!” and the betrayed protest, “I don’t believe she’d do that.’” W+D is full of moments that are insane and yet don’t feel like a betrayal. You don’t see these moments coming, particularly the end of Issue #11. But after it happens, there’s a sense that all along this moment was inevitable.

 

The coloring and lettering of the comic is brilliant. Everything you need to know about Laura’s fascinating with the Pantheon can be seen in the contrast between the coloring of the everyday world and the coloring of scenes that include a deity. The comic includes male, female, transgender, and gender queer characters, including several who are bisexual. Many of the characters, including Laura, are people of color (a running theme is that Ameratsu was previously a Caucasian girl named Hazel and that therefore she is committing cultural appropriation by assuming the identity of a Japanese Deity).

 

This is a dark comic, not a happy romp, definitely for older teens and adults. However, it is incredibly textured and original and compelling. I have no idea where it’s going but it’s an exciting and chaotic ride.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

61rH8sThrbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Geek Girl Heather Thayer discovered N.K. Jemisin and she has much to say!

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a book that I had to read twice in one week. The first time, I devoured it; I gulped it down in frantic, too-large bites. My desire to find out what happens/what is happening/what happened outpaced my ability to digest what I was reading. As soon as I finished the last page I turned back to the first page to start over, but to slowly savor this time.

 

Let’s start this again. The end of the prologue tells it like it is:

 

This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.

But this is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

This is the way the world ends.

For the last time.

 

And so it is. Or will be. We aren’t there quite yet. The book is set at a time when the Earth is plagued by earthquakes and other seismic events. Some of these events are so severe that they cause massive death and long periods of famine – often near-extinction-level events. These periods are called “seasons.” There are people — politely called “orogenes,” offensively called “rogga” — who can reach into the earth and use its seismic power. A trained orogene can do amazing things, move mountains as it were (literally). An untrained one can unintentionally cause seismic events or release/draw power that kills. Often a young orogene is discovered because someone gets killed or hurt in a moment of anger or annoyance. People are terrified of them and they are ostracized – exiled when lucky, killed when not.

 

The book is written in a conversational tone – it flips from past to present, third person to second, gives little hints and asides that sometimes don’t make sense until suddenly they do. One can almost picture an old auntie at a fireside telling the tale. I won’t say anything about what actually happens in the book because the inherent pleasure of the book is letting it unfold around you. It can be initially quite confusing until one gets one’s bearings, but that is part of the enjoyment – that moment of “oh, I know where we are!”

 

N.K. Jemisin is an author who has become famous for writing stories that feature outsiders. By creating worlds and characters that have to grapple with the idea of “other” she takes on issues of diversity and identity, without (in my opinion) getting all preachy about it. I found The Fifth Season much more compelling than her previous series, The Inheritance Trilogy, which also addressed concerns of being an outsider. I read that series recently and it was fine, but it didn’t stick with me. This book was more compelling, largely due to the writing style and an important difference. Orogenes are not a good stand-in for diversity issues facing America today — unlike non-whites, women and LGBT people, orogenes are decidedly different and have powers that can make them inherently dangerous. Of course, they can also be immensely helpful, so the story addresses how society chose to balance the two. Spoiler alert: (horrific) mistakes were made.

 

This book is the first in The Broken Earth series. The next book, The Obelisk Gate, is due out this year – probably in autumn. In the meantime I will undoubtedly read and re-read this wonderful book with chapter titles like “Syenite breaks her toys” and “you’re getting the band back together” to see what other gems I can find hidden in this intricate tale.

 

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

220px-The_Last_Man_1st_editionThe Last Man is just as depressing as it sounds. It’s a book by Mary Shelley that was panned on release but has gained a following in the last couple of decades as an important early example of post-apocalyptic literature. It’s also a fascinating look at Shelley’s emotional life, since the main characters are very loosely based on Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Claire Godwin.

 

The Last Man is told from the viewpoint of Lionel Verney, the impoverished son of a nobleman. Lionel is loosely, and again I emphasize loosely with regard to all of the characters, based on Mary Shelley. He becomes close friends with Adrian (shades of Percy Shelley) and Lord Raymond (Lord Byron). Lionel’s sister, Perditia (Claire Godwin) falls in love with Lord Raymond, and various love triangles ensue. There’s a revolution in Greece and political turmoil in England, and a lot of personal drama, until a plague hits and suddenly everyone has to focus on survival as one by one everyone dies.

 

The structure of the book is such that we know two things from the very start of the book: humanity is not going to die out, but everyone Lionel knows is going to die and the world as he knows it is going to end. There’s no victory in the book, it’s a just a long, long death march into misery. Any time something happy happens, it’s bittersweet because we know it won’t last. To read this book is to ponder the following quote from its pages: “What is there in our nature that is for ever urging us on towards pain and misery?”

 

There are early hints of trouble, but the apocalypse doesn’t really get under way until over the halfway point of the book. A plague strikes the Middle East, then begins moving into Italy, then into Europe. Anyone who has ever read a plague book or a zombie book will know exactly how this goes – in fact, other than a lack of guns and gore, the book matches up quite well with The Walking Dead. Think how well a quote like this could apply to the heroes of The Walking Dead, or 28 Days Later, or WWZ: “I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot of its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”

 

The plague is described as a disease, like flu, but this book was written before germ theory. That means that no one quarantines the sick – instead everyone bands together for safety, and keeps watch over the sick, and hover over dead bodies a lot. No one washes his or her hands. I was overcome with a furious desire to throw bars of soap at everyone. One of the leading ideas about how disease happened at the time when Shelley was writing was that disease spread through ‘miasmas’, basically through bad air. So the steadily dwindling group of survivors travels around in an attempt to escape miasma, wandering into uninfected villages, and insisting that anyone uninfected join the party, which of course means that no one has a chance to escape contamination.

 

I’m not gonna lie – this book was a slog. I’m glad I read it. I was fascinated by how Shelley wrote about her contemporaries and I was interested in the early science fiction angle. But this book is both flowery in the Romantic style and horribly, horribly depressing. No reviewer is truly impartial, and no doubt I was influenced by the fact that I read this book during the two-week period in which David Bowie died, Alan Rickman died, and a dear friend of mine died. But by any standards, this book is an exercise in exploring the totality and inevitability of loss. With every step Shelley’s hero took, my heart sank lower and lower until I just wanted to climb into bed. The endless need to scream “WASH YOUR HANDS” did not help my reading experience.

 

So, do I recommend The Last Man? Well, sort of. The writing style is flowery and extravagant, which is not to everyone’s taste today, and the plot is unremittingly depressing. I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it. But from a literary history perspective, it’s fascinating, and many of the passages, especially those about grief, are beautifully written. The panic of Lionel’s wife when her children fall ill is devastating. Lionel’s desperate search through empty villages, and his delusions that maybe someone is left to welcome him, are haunting. The early sense that the rich are hiding in their mansions, believing that they are protected by their money, resonates all too well today. Just be prepared that this is not a light-hearted romp through a romanticized Merry Olde England. As a survivor of countless losses, Mary Shelley paints an all too vivid picture of being the sole survivor of a group that thought itself above all suffering.

She’s Such a Geek, Edited by Annalen Newitz and Charlie Anders

She’s Such a Geek is a collection of essays by women who are scientists, computer programmers, and gamers. Written in 2006, it feels both very current (why yes, women do still face sexual discrimination in the job market) and oddly quaint (it predates the controversies surrounding Gamer Gate and the “Fake Geek Girl” stereotype). While I admired the essays, I felt oddly detached from them for two reasons. One reason is that I am neither a computer programmer, nor a scientist, nor a gamer and therefore my experiences as a self-identified geek have been different than those of women in gaming and in STEM. The other is that these women speak overwhelmingly of being the only girl in the room – and that’s usually not my experience.

 

The essays explore growing up, working, finding love, and raising kids within the geek culture. Stand out essays include “Really Good for a Girl,” by Kory Wells, in which Wells writes about being and raising a daughter. “Gimp Geek,” by Theda Cornes, talks about being a geek with a physical disability. “When Diana Prince Takes Off Her Glasses,” by Annalee Newitz, talks about some of the many cultural and logistical barriers women face in the workplace.

 

One reason I didn’t relate to this collection is that although I identify as a geek I’m not competing in a glaringly male-dominated field. I don’t mean to sound naive about sexism in publishing, but since I tend to write about romance novels, fiction by and about women, and women in history, I’m not faced with the same expectations or isolation that I might face in STEM. I appreciated this collection because it reminded me of the challenges that women in other fields have to deal with.

 

The biggest thing I got from this collection was an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my experience as a woman who loves science fiction and fantasy. I’m almost never the only girl in the room. I never thought of science fiction and fantasy as being “for boys” because girls introduced me to it – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Elfquest, James Cameron movies, Blade Runner, Mad Max, X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – all of these things were brought into my life by my friends, who were other teenage girls. Boys introduced us to gaming, but our core gaming group always consisted of at least as many girls as boys. We went to Star Trek conventions together and wrote fan fic together and I don’t think it occurred to any of us that we were trespassing on boys’ turf.

 

When men have introduced me to science fiction things, they’ve never suggested that I might like it “because I’m a girl” or “even though I’m a girl.” My dad thought I’d like Ray Bradbury because I was a precocious reader with a good imagination. My husband thought I’d like Babylon Five because, let’s be honest, my husband thinks that EVERYONE will inevitably love Babylon Five. He’s an equal opportunity B5 evangelist.

 

I feel incredibly blessed to have always been part of a community of geek women. She’s Such a Geek is a powerful reminder that many women are not so lucky. I’d love to see an updated version of this anthology that reflects the cultural changes of the last ten years. It’s been a long strange trip!

Book Review: Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

nimona_final.jpgNimona is one of those graphic novels that is always on lists with titles such as “Graphic Novels You Should Read.” It is usually described as “fun.” So, I read it. At the beginning it is fun. In fact, it’s incredibly fun. But even early on, this is one dark comic, and as it progresses, it becomes unbelievably dark. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s excellent. It’s a simply amazing graphic novel. But it’s some dark, dark shit.

 

Nimona is a graphic novel that originated as a webcomic. It details the adventures of Lord Ballister Blackheart, a self-proclaimed villain who grudgingly takes on a sidekick, Nimona. Blackheart fights against The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, and his nemesis is the self-proclaimed hero, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin (not a typo).

 

Nimona is a book in which tropes are challenged, overturned, and blasted through walls. The story is a fabulous mix of stuff – knights with cyborg parts, robots, dragons, mad science…you name it. The Institution is not heroic at all. Blackheart and Goldenloin were once best friends, possibly lovers. Nimona is a child, but a bloodthirsty one who kills and who urges Blackheart to kill. But she’s also a funny, playful, silly person – and also a terribly tragic one.

 

Nimona starts off very funny and silly. Nimona, a shapeshifter, delights in playing tricks on Blackheart, which is why the Internet is alive with variation on “I’m not a ____! I’m a SHARK!” Blackheart is exasperated by her need for attention and her constant desire to kill their enemies with wild abandon.

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As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Nimona and Blackheart are both deeply sad and lonely. They establish a beautiful father/daughter relationship. When Nimona feels very needy, she begs Blackheart to carry her, and when he says she’s heavy, she turns into a cat. They watch scary movies together, and Blackheart fails to grasp why Nimona is scared by movies but not by anything in real life. They fight about pizza (he likes anchovies, which is probably the only truly villainous thing about him).

 

Ultimately, the story becomes so terrifying and heartbreaking hat writer Noelle Stevenson had to post the following online for her fans:

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“No matter what happens, remember that there is always an alternate universe out there somewhere where this is a story about some hip gay dads who adopt a baby and everything turns out OK.”

 

This story is deeply melancholy, but not depressing. For one thing, it moves fast. It’s exciting. There’s a ton of action and plotting and crazy science and shapeshifting. For another thing, the ending is bittersweet, not a total downer. Some characters reconcile, some are redeemed, some both. Even in its darkest moments, this comic is, at its core, a sweet story. For all the explosions and dragons, it’s really about love – what we do when our hearts are broken, and how we put them back together. It’s also a story about reclaiming joy. So was it the lighthearted romp I expected, Hell no. It was something better.

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Classic Sci Fi: Dreadnought! by Diane Carey

Dreadnought_coverWelcome to my beloved Star Trek novels shelf. In an earlier review, I mentioned the high caliber of novels written in the 1980’s and 1990s. Many of these novels were written by women. Diane Carey has written thirty-nine Star Trek novels to date. You’d think at that speed she wouldn’t be able to produce much quality, but her novels are great – exciting, thoughtful, and often highlighting lesser-known characters or introducing new characters who have their own adventures. My favorite is Dreadnought, which introduces Lieutenant Piper.

 

Piper is a hotshot with dreams of her own command who is thrilled to find herself posted to the Enterprise. Alas for Piper, before she even gets a chance to change from her civvies into her uniform, she’s implicated in a treason plot. Piper and her roommates form a mirror group to Kirk’s command group. Piper is the boss and the first-person narrator of the book. She’s human, but has never been to Earth before Command School (she’s descended from colonists of Proxima Beta, another planet). Scanner is the tech guy. He’s human, from the American South. Merete is the doctor (she’s another human descendent of colonists). And Sarda is Vulcan.

 

Piper has another roommate who is a Gorn. I would have loved for the Gorn to have been part of the team, although the Gorn doesn’t seem to communicate verbally so no telling how that would have worked out. Presumably due to this issue, the Gorn is sadly left behind. One of my favorite things about the novels is that, unlike the show, they are unconstrained by technological and budgetary limits, and therefore they have the opportunity to introduce more unusual alien species. Authors Barbara Hambly and Diane Duane had a lot of fun introducing all kinds of bizarre life forms. It was a disappointment to start the book in that direction and quickly devolve into a book in which everyone looks human with the exception of pointy ears.

 

Piper and Sarda have a complicated history in which she spilled some secrets about him “for his own good” at Starfleet Academy and then proceeded to bully him about being Vulcan. This kind of bigotry is omnipresent in Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s a show that very much pushes for inclusion, and yet has an odd dynamic in that people feel compelled to constantly needle Spock about being Vulcan without actually trying to understand him. McCoy is the most blatant offender, with his comments usually being played for laughs. It’s refreshing to see that Piper quickly realizes how inappropriate her reactions to Sarda are. Instead of continually trying to challenge him to behave in a more human manner, she starts to educate herself about Vulcan history and education, and she becomes more respectful of Sarda’s boundaries. This allows them to develop a healthy balance that nicely mirrors the Kirk/Spock relationship and even improves on that relationship a bit.

 

Piper is brash, awkward, nervous, and very young. In the course of this book and the sequel, Battlestations, it’s great fun to watch her mature as a leader. This isn’t a heavy book, but it has some substance behind it as people deal with cultural and ethical problems. It’s one of my go-to books for the bathtub, or when I’m sick. When I was nursing my baby, who wanted to be held all the time, I read piles of Star Trek novels, because they were fast reads that kept my attention and neither strained nor insulted my intelligence, and because they were lightweight paperbacks that I could hold in one hand when I had a baby in the other.

 

The other time in my life when I read a lot of Star Trek novels was high school. Whatever flaws these novels have, they were instrumental in introducing me to the work of many women who were writing science fiction, and they matter-of-factly placed female characters in leadership positions. This was long before Star Trek: Voyager. I was thrilled and astonished at the idea that women would be starship captains, but these books treated the concept of women in high positions of power across multiple disciplines as a matter of course. It’s largely thanks to these novels that I never thought of science fiction as something that was “for boys.” I’ll always be grateful to the women of the Star Trek novels for helping me believe that Space, actual and literary, is a Frontier for everyone.

Guest Review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves_Book_CoverOur faithful guest reviewer Heather Thayer got so annoyed about this book that she called me and ranted about it for a solid thirty very entertaining minutes. Here’s her review!

Book Rant: Seveneves – Learning About What Interests Neal Stephenson These Days and Then The STOOPID Takes Over

By Heather Thayer

Last week I asked a good friend if he’d read Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. “Is that the book where he spends a hundred pages talking about orbital mechanics?” my friend responded. Why yes, that’s the one. Listen, I like a book that teaches me something on its way to telling a good story. I loved The Martian, which was practically a science textbook from time to time. But in The Martian the science served the story – we needed the science we were being given to be able to follow along with what the main character was doing. We got exactly the amount of science that we needed, and the science made sense within the story. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works with Seveneves. In Seveneves, we are subjected treated to a number of things that Neal Stephenson is apparently really, really interested in, and an unbelievably stupid story is tacked on almost as an afterthought.

I have enjoyed a lot of Neal Stephenson’s books, The Diamond Age and Reamde come to mind, and despite the terrible execution, the premise of Seveneves is interesting.   The moon breaks up. Humans have about two years to figure out how to survive what will end up being the end of life on Earth for five thousand years. Our story follows a group of people who go into space to establish an orbital colony anchored by the International Space Station to maintain life until the earth is habitable again. I love apocalypse stories, so the premise is right up my alley — until the book turns into a treatise on orbital mechanics, the theory of how chains might move in space and how we might use that to “crack the whip” and use chains for acceleration, how to pilot a glider, and a story that relies on inexplicable idiocy to create tension. Repeat.

Here’s what you need to know about orbital mechanics to understand the story – if you want to move to a higher orbit, that will take energy and some kind of propellant. Water or ice could be a propellant. Got it? Good – that’s all you need to follow the story. But Mr. Stephenson goes on for pages and pages and pages of detail (including equations), apparently in an attempt to share with the reader every single thing he discovered in doing his research for the novel. And he does this about a variety of topics, all of which detail is extraneous to the plot. He is especially taken with the behavior of chains and cracking the whip for acceleration– he must have discussed it at least fifty times in this book. I might mention it a few times in this review because it came up so often in the book. Dude – we get it, you found out stuff. But there is such a thing as overshare.

All of this might be somewhat forgivable if the plot and characters held together, but alas, no. The plot is driven by incomprehensible actions, out of character behavior and uneven pacing.

SPOILERS

The plot starts going sideways just as life on Earth is ending. The last shuttle sent up to the space station holds (surprise) the President of the United States. This is a problem because all nations on Earth had agreed that no politicians/world leaders would be eligible to go. But here she is, and she immediately starts making trouble. FOR NO REASON AT ALL. We’ve met the President before, and she’s competent and careful. She is described as a moderate who essentially “fell into” the presidency. She shows up on the space station and suddenly she is a manipulative tyrant who is out to cause trouble. This ends in a schism that is ultimately responsible for the deaths of most of the colonists. Why? It makes NO sense and is inconsistent with the character, but that is just the beginning of the ridiculousness.

SPOILERS – SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS BE HERE.

As mentioned, the machinations of the President result in a schism where many of the colonists go off in a collection of pods (the Swarm), while the people on the space station decide to move the station into a higher orbit with the ultimate goal of landing and settling on one of the larger chunks remaining of the moon. This is a process that will take years. About halfway through the book the two groups go their separate ways and the reader is in complete befuddlement. Why wouldn’t everyone think that sticking together, pooling resources and expertise and finding a permanent home is the only viable way forward? Because that isn’t what happens in the plot, you silly billy. I’m not even going to talk about the tiny group that the President encourages to steal many of the resources and head off to Mars, never to be heard from again. Sound absurd? Yep, it sure does.

We rejoin the story years later as the space station is approaching its destination. There are few survivors on the station (less than thirty), and they have lost the entire human genetic archive that they brought with them, but one of the survivors is a geneticist and they are hopeful that with some genetic manipulation they will be able to perpetuate the human race. On their last pass before the final jump into the higher orbit they are contacted by the remnants of the Swarm. Things haven’t gone well for that group and the few survivors of the Swarm are now ready to rejoin with the station. The two groups hook up, but the survivors from the Swarm attack the space station survivors. Seriously, there are less than forty humans left in the universe and they’re going to spend their resources fighting each other – with guns—in space?

The upshot is bang, bang, bang – they land on a big chunk of the former moon, but now there are only eight survivors, all women, only seven of whom are of childbearing age. Seven Eves. Get it? And now the inanity begins. You thought that the above was dumb? Not even. The stupid is about to explode, and is so aggravating that the only thing that stopped me from throwing the book across the room was that it was on my nice new eReader.

The first daft thing that happens is a pivotal meeting among the survivors: the former President, a sociopath from the Swarm, Malala Yousafsai (with a different name, but it’s her), a Russian soldier and four scientists/specialists from the Station. The geneticist explains that through genetic manipulation she will be able to create viable ovum using the eggs of the women of childbearing age. They start a conversation about whether they should modify the ovum to select for certain traits (I am fine with the premise that all of this is possible – one must suspend disbelief at some point, and it is the future, so fine). As might be expected, the women have different ideas of what the human race should emphasize going forward, but instead of having a calm discussion about this, one of the protagonists – a smart, practical woman who we like – gets a bomb and threatens to set it off in ten minutes unless an agreement is reached. WHAT THE WHAT? Why? Isn’t this a decision that is worthy of some consideration – maybe sleep on it for a night? Does Neal Stephenson think that women are all crazy? This was senseless – even more so because the resolution that is reached under duress is probably the same one that would have been reached after thoughtful debate, so the bomb wasn’t needed as a narrative device to get to a specific result. The group agrees that each mother may choose whatever traits she wishes to emphasize in her own children. Each child will have certain traits chosen by the mother (intelligence, strength, compassion, political acumen etc) and over the years, as the later generations interbreed, it will be a stronger, smarter, more compassionate, politically savvy human race. Makes sense, right?

Whereupon the book inflicts the final indignity of idiocy. We skip forward five thousand years. The descendants of the survivors have thrived using the remnants of the moon to build habitats that orbit the earth, populated by billions of people. However, in five thousand years, the various genetic lines have never interbred – there are seven separate races based on the original seven mothers. Huh? We are supposed to believe that in the early generations, when there was almost no genetic diversity, instead of taking advantage of what little diversity there was, each line only inbred with itself? Most of the mothers (with the exception of the sociopath and the President) were friends and colleagues, so why would their descendants stay separate? No interbreeding, for no discernable reason, and then it stays that way for FIVE THOUSAND YEARS.

I can’t even.wpid-Photo-20141013234900

In addition to the stoopid, the uneven pacing makes the second part of the book almost unreadable. There are hundreds of pages of description of the habitats, the rings, and even more descriptions of chain theory and “cracking the whip” to achieve acceleration.  Yes, we get it Neal – this interests you. Descriptions follow descriptions and world building piles upon world building. Although it is virtually suffocating under the weight of exposition, the story slowly reveals that people did survive on Earth by going underground or under the sea and painfully crawls toward a meeting between the space survivors and the Earth survivors. This was interesting, this was worth exploring, and then I realized that there were only about twenty pages left in the book. We meet the survivors. The end.

I can’t even.

Classic Sci Fi: Ishmael, by Barbara Hambly

51VD4QQGZRL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Before there was fan fic on the Internet, there were official spin-off novels – still are, in fact. Star Trek attracted an amazing array of women who were writing science fiction in the 1980s. Writers included A.C. Crispin, Diane Carey, Diana Duane, and Vonda N. McIntyre. Tim Hanley has a great article about the high number of Star Trek novel writers who were women, and the high quality of their work, over at Straitened Circumstances.

From 1968 – 1970, there was a show called Here Come the Brides, about a group of women who come to Seattle to get married in 1860. Many performers on the show appeared later in Star Trek: The Original Series, including Mark Leonard, who ended up playing Sock’s father, and Jane Wyatt, who played Spock’s mother.

I never saw Here Come the Brides, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have watched the show and thought, “Hey, that looks like great material for a Star Trek story.” Luckily, Barbara Hambly did, and she wrote a novel that is bittersweet, balancing humor, horror, pathos, action, sorrow, and joy, sometimes within a single sentence. Spock is kidnapped by Klingons, tortured, and finds himself with no memory in the woods in 1860. Aaron Stemple (the main character in Here Come the Brides) discovers him, takes him in, and helps him recover. Aaron calls him ‘Ishmael’, and as Ishmael Spock becomes involved in the lives of the Seattle characters. Meanwhile, Kirk believes that Spock is dead, but he also believes that Klingons have travelled to Seattle to change the course of history, The story moves back and forth between Ishmael’s attempts to find his place in the world and Kirk’s attempts to solve a mystery.

Barbara Hambly excels at conveying a sense of place, and both the spaceport where the Enterprise is docked and the muddy woods of Washington State feel sharply real. I can’t speak to how well the book handles Here Come the Brides, but it does a lovely job of giving the Star Trek characters additional depth while staying true to the series. Additionally, the book features a number of women in central roles – scientists, a woman who is a doctor in Seattle, the women who come to Seattle to marry, all of whom have their own personalities and dreams, and of course Uhura, who kicks butt in an alley. It’s delightful to see so many “strong female characters” who are all strong in different ways – and who Ishmael respects and has great empathy towards.

The written format means that Hambly can have some fun with aliens, who on TV were usually humanoid. The book features one of my favorite aliens, Aurelia, a Drelb. Drelbs are basically a mass of protoplasm, and they change color and odor with their emotions. They also like to make people comfortable, so when Aurelia speaks to Kirk she changes a tentacle to a hand, and produces eyes, purely out of courtesy:

The Drelb’s glutinous bulk faded from rose to yellow, and developed bright kelly green stripes. The long eyelashes blinks, and somewhere in the protoplasm there was a shifting and a round knobbly tongued mouth formed. A soft voice inquired, “Is the problem theoretical?”

“In a sense,” Kellogg pulled up a stool to perch on.

The blue eyes turned toward Kirk again, studying him. Then suddenly a deep blue suffered the entire tall cone, and that soft voice said, “Deep sorrow with you in your grief, Jim Kirk.”

Even with no prior knowledge of either series, a reader could instantly feel at home in both worlds described in this book, and would relate to and care about the characters. The book is a masterpiece of concise world-building and characterization. It has scenes that are quiet gems of fun, and it has scenes of great sorrow and compassion. Above all, it’s a very kind book – for all that the Klingons are involved in an evil plan, the other characters are capable of great kindness and sympathy. It’s a great book about found family, and like most books that involve time travel, there’s some fate as well.

Incidentally, science fiction fans will notice references to Doctor Who, Battlestar Gallactica, Star Wars, and several Western shows. This book will bring a lot of tears but even through the tears it never stops having fun.

Four Thoughts on How To Fight a Dragon’s Fury

How-to-train-your-dragonThe first How to Train Your Dragon book (How to Train Your Dragon) came out the year my daughter was born. We love the show and the movies, but they are very different from the book series (which we started reading out loud at bedtime when daughter was around five) and the book series has a special place in our hearts. The last book, which happens to be the twelfth book (How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury), was released in the UK just in time for daughter’s twelfth birthday, and I special ordered it from the UK and read it before I wrapped it. Many tears were shed. Here’s a short, non-spoilery review – it will be released in the USA on November 3, 2015. But you guys, a word to the wise – shipping from the UK is actually pretty cheap. I’m just saying.

How to Train Your Dragon is a series by Cressida Cowell about a Viking boy, Hiccup, and how he becomes a hero “the hard way” with the help of his extremely badly behaved dragon (Toothless), his best friend (Fishlegs) and his other best friend (Camicazi). The movie series of the same name shares names, settings, and some common themes, but is very different in story and detail. For instance, in the books Hiccup speaks Dragonese and can talk to dragons, and Toothless is very small and chatty, while in the movies Toothless is huge and Hiccup communicates with dragons through observation, instinct and empathy but not language.

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Here are four non-spoilery thoughts on the final book:

Yes, it really is the last book.

It is actually the last one, and it has an ending that means spin-offs within the universe are possible but the arcs of the main characters are resolved.

It’s dark…

In keeping with the rest of the series, which became progressively darker since Book 3 (How to Speak Dragonese), this book is very dark and scary and at one point I grew so concerned that I skimmed ahead a little just to see if poor Hiccup would ever get some first aid and maybe a snack.

…But it’s also hopeful and inspiring.

As the series grew darker, when my daughter was still pretty young, I worried that it would scare her or upset her, but she was fine. This last book (and the preceding book, How to Betray a Dragon’s Hero), are REALLY intense. However, I like that the series doesn’t talk down to kids. It basically tells them, “Look, being a hero is HARD. And life is hard. But it’s also full of love and joy and friendship, and you can handle it. Now go be awesome.”

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It’s beautiful.

I cried my face off. Seriously. BAWLED. And I won’t tell you if it was a sad cry, a happy cry, or both, but I will tell you that for the most part I was satisfied by the ending. Thank you, Cressida Cowell. Best birthday present ever – at least for me!

USA cover

USA cover

Guest Review: Station Eleven

Sestra Geek Girl Heather Thayer is back with a squeeing review of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel!

I recently finished Station Eleven, and for a long time I couldn’t communicate coherently because I was still so wrapped up in the world of the book that nothing else seemed to matter.

Station Eleven is, at its most simple, a tale of the apocalypse (a flu epidemic), held together by following the pre- and post-apocalyptic stories of a people loosely connected to an actor who dies in the first few pages of the book. In the “bookclub notes” in the back of the book, one of the questions is whether there is a main character in the book. I would posit that there is not, and the book is all the richer for it as we follow the very different characters to or through the end of the world.

It is difficult to describe just why or how this book excels in every way. Looking back on it, the sensation is of being embraced by a warm dream – a vivid dream of the end of everything. A dream of hope and nostalgia; a dream of life, determining what is important, and what we hold on to when everything we know is gone.

If the world ended, what would be important to you? What would you miss? What would you want to preserve? What would you want to teach the children about the world that was? This book asks all the important questions and takes the reader on an exploration of the possibilities, without providing pat answers – other than a line written by Ronald D Moore for a Star Trek episode – “Survival is insufficient.”

Written with prose that somehow manages to be both wistful and gripping, it doesn’t let words get in the way of an exquisitely drawn world, experiences and characters. So many books that win awards (this one has won several, including the Morning News Tournament of Books), have overwrought writing that drown the subject in words, reveling in their own cleverness, but this book is clean and enthralling – letting the story speak for itself. One doesn’t notice the writing as one is carried along by the narrative and the mood of the book. This is the kind of book that makes a person leave a party early so that they can go home and keep reading. Yup, that happened.

Through a compelling narrative with interesting characters, the book explores the ways that people create art, celebrate life, preserve the past, and do more than simply survive. While the larger themes are there, they hover in the background and do not get in the way of the story. It is only afterwards, when it is impossible to stop thinking about the book that one notices that there was all this meaty stuff in there to chew on and mull over.

Find some time, read this book, and marvel at the wonders of the world.