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Book Review: Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

September 19, 2014 3 comments

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.

Review:
I was intrigued by the concept of this book.  Yes, it’s another abduction story, but wrapping it in the therapy sessions after she escapes was an idea I had not seen before.  So when I saw this on sale for the kindle, I snatched it up.  I’m glad I did, because this is a surprisingly edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Stevens deals with the potential issue of back-and-forth with the therapist by having Annie say in her first session that in order to feel safe talking about what happened to her, she needs the therapist to say very little back to her.  It is acknowledged that the therapist says some things to Annie, but it appears that she waits to talk until the end of the session when Annie is done talking.  What the therapist says isn’t recorded but Annie does sometimes respond to what she suggested in later sessions.  This set-up has the potential to be clunky, but Stevens handled it quite eloquently.  It always reads smoothly.

The plot itself starts out as a basic abducted/escaped one, with most of the thriller aspects of the first half of the book coming from slowly finding out everything that happened to Annie when she was abducted.  The second half is where the plot really blew me away, though.  The investigation into her kidnapping turns extremely exciting and terrifying.  I don’t want to give too much away.  Suffice to say that I wasn’t expecting most of the thrills to come from the investigation after the kidnapping and yet they did.

Annie is well-developed. Her PTSD is written with a deep understanding of it.  For instance, she both needs human connection and is (understandably) terrified of it, so she pushes people away.  Stevens shows Annie’s PTSD in every way, from how she talks to her therapist to how she behaves now to subtle comparisons to how she used to be before she was traumatized.

Other characters are well-rounded enough to seem like real people, including her abductor, yet it also never seems like Annie is describing them with more information than she would logically have.

I do want to take just a moment to let potential readers know that there are graphic, realistic descriptions of rape.  Similarly, the end of the book may be triggering for some.  I cannot say why without revealing what happens but suffice to say that if triggers are an issue for you in your recovery from trauma, you may want to wait until you are further along in your recovery and feel strong enough to handle potentially upsetting realistic descriptions of trauma.

Overall, this is a strong thriller with a creative story-telling structure.  Those who enjoy abduction themed thrillers will find this one unique enough to keep them on the edge of their seat.  Those with an interest in PTSD depicted in literature will find this one quite realistic and appreciate the inclusion of therapy sessions in the presentation.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 6 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (Series, #1)

September 12, 2014 2 comments

A line of spaceships head toward a planet.Summary:
John Perry joined the Colonial Defense Force on his 75th birthday.  Americans aren’t allowed to be colonists in outer space, but they can defend the colonies in the outer space army.  Old folks join for many reasons from boredom to having always wanted to see outer space, even though details of what goes on out there are kept secret from Earth.  In spite of all the secrecy, the rumor is that those who join the CDF get to be young again, and who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Review:
Multiple friends have read this book and loved it, and of course I found the idea intriguing, who wouldn’t?  So when a friend offered to loan me his copy, I took him up on it right away.  I was not disappointed in the world Scalzi has created, it is endlessly fascinating, but the main character’s arc failed to be quite so interesting to me.

I can’t imagine how anyone would not find the basic premise of this book interesting.  Outer space colonies that are kept a mystery from Earth.  Only certain countries allowed to colonize (primarily those suffering from population overload). Top it off with a colonial army made entirely up of old people who supposedly get to be young again?  Completely. Fascinating.  And Scalzi really comes through on the science of all of this, the politics, and manages to have some surprises in there, in spite of the what seems to be very straight-forward book summary.  And the world beyond the soldiers and the colonists is utterly fascinating as well.  The aliens are incredibly creatively imagined, not just in their looks but in their cultures.  They feel real.  And that extends to the battles and spaceships as well.  The worldbuilding here is phenomenal.  It is an example of how scifi worlds should be built.

The main character, though, as well as his character development arc, fail to live up to the incredible worldbuilding.  John Perry, from early on, is talented at war, in spite of having only been an advertising slogan writer for his whole life.  He has no real life experience that would make one think he would be good at war. Additionally, even when he is doing battle, he’s kind of flat on the page.  He doesn’t jump off as the leader he supposedly is supposed to naturally be.  Other characters feel that way, but not John.  In fact, I frequently found myself far more interested in the secondary characters around John than in John himself.  I was willing to give this a bit of a pass since, well, the character has to live for us to continue to see the wars he’s fighting, and maybe Scalzi has a thing for unlikely heroes.  But his character arc takes an odd turn at the end that really bothered me.

*spoiler warning*
John meets a special forces woman who is in his dead wife’s body.  Basically, his dead wife’s DNA was used as a base to build a genetically enhanced body. Ok, I’m fine with that, even if it seems unnecessary. But then John becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, even though she is very clearly NOT his wife.  Then at the end, he asks her to move to a colonial farm with him when they retire. And she says yes. Whaaaaat?! This isn’t romance; this is gross! The special forces woman has as much in common with John’s wife as her sister would at this point, since they have messed with the DNA so much.  This is like John pursuing his dead wife’s sister, who is emotionally only 6, since she was put into a fully adult body 6 years ago and had no life prior to that.  It’s gross. It is not romantic.  And I really think the reader is supposed to see it as romantic, when instead it squicked me out far more than any of the aliens in the book, including the ones with slimy appendages or the ones who eat humans.
*end spoilers*

Overall, this is an utterly fascinating scifi world with a bit of a ho-hum main character.  The ending may disappoint some readers, and Scalzi’s politics can come through a bit obviously sometimes.  However, those at all intrigued by the plot summary or interested in high quality scifi world building should check it out.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Borrowed

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Book Review: Fudoki by Kij Johnson (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 10, 2014 4 comments

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture. Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.

Review:
I’m not usually big into fantasy, particularly not ones involving court life, but I am a real sucker for any story involving cats, especially if that cat is a tortoiseshell, since I’m the proud kitty mommy of a talkative tortie.  This book didn’t just not disappoint me, it blew me away with two side-by-side, related by different, thoughtful tales.

I had no idea when I picked up the book that the empress would figure into the story quite so much.  At first I was a bit irritated that she was a) getting 40% to 50% of the storytime and b) rambling off from one thought to another like elderly people tend to do.  But I stayed patient, and I learned that there was more to the empress than met the eye and also that the two stories were actually informing each other.  Kagaya-hime’s story shows everything the empress had secretly wished for her whole life, and the empress’s life translated into how Kagaya-hime felt trapped in her human body.  It’s artfully done in a subtle way, which is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Kagaya-hime goes from a sad lost kitty with burned paws to a warrior woman, allowed along on a quest for revenge by a moderately elite rural family.  She is able to earn respect from the men as a warrior because as a cat she sees no reason not to hunt or defend herself.  She is a woman but no one ever took her claws away (though they may be arrows and knives now, instead of claws).  Thinking of her is empowering to the empress, who always had an interest in war and politics but was forced to remain literally behind screens in gorgeous gowns that are hard to move in.  It’s interesting to note that while the empress may be jealous of Kagaya-hime’s ability to do what she wants and defend herself, Kagaya-hime herself is unhappy because she simply wishes to be a cat again.  It is the conclusion to Kagaya-hime’s story that allows the empress to see a conclusion to her own story (her life) that will ultimately make her feel fulfilled.

The details of ancient Japan were clearly meticulously researched.  Johnson smoothly writes about the outfits, land, and battles as if she was there for them herself.  The information never comes through as an info dump but instead is something that simply is, that the reader learns about naturally just by venturing into Kagaya-hime and the empress’ world.  This is what knowing your history inside and out before starting writing does for historic fiction.  It makes history come to life.

Overall, this is a stunning piece of historic fiction the reading of which feels like slowly sipping a well-made matcha latte.  Fans of historic fiction of all sorts will be engaged, those that love cats will be enthralled, and those with an interest in women’s history will be enamored and touched by how much things change and yet still stay the same for women.  Recommended to all who think they might even possibly be interested in a piece of historic fiction set in Japan featuring an aging empress and a shape-changing cat.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Book Review: The Diabolist by Layton Green (Series, #3)

September 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Shadow of a man walking down an alley lit in blue light.Summary:
Dominic Gray, ex-government worker, ex-military, and once professional jiu-jitsu fighter, is seeing a lull in his work as assistant to Professor Viktor Radek on private detective cases involving religious mysteries and the occult.  He’s set up shop in New York City, teaching jiu-jitsu to inner-city youth.  But when a high-ranking Satanist is murdered in front of his entire congregation by a mysterious figure who sets him on fire at a distance and then disappears himself, Dominic is quickly pulled into a new case with Viktor.  High-ranking Satanists worldwide keep dying in the same, or similar, mysterious ways, and the odd thing is, it’s not the Christians doing it.

Review:
I’ve enjoyed this series from the very beginning.  The combination of religious studies, private detectives, and international intrigue suck me in every time.  This latest entry in the series does not fail to deliver, bringing once again the perfect combination of religious philosophy, mystery, and private detective intrigue.

This entry brings us back to the more mystical origins of the series.  Rather than biomedicine as in the second book, what’s involved here is ancient occultism and what may or may not be magic tricks. I was happy to see this occult mysticism represented in the developed world this time, pointing out that it’s not just surviving in developing countries in modern times.  The actual religion of Satanism is well explained and given room for both good-hearted followers and evil fanatics, just as may be seen in every religion.  Green keeps an even hand when writing about religion, even when writing about Satanism, and that’s to be commended.  A drop of mysticism is provided, and it’s left up to the reader to decide if it was science or magic ultimately responsible for the mysterious occurrences, which is ideal for this type of book.

The entwining of Viktor’s backstory with the mystery was well-done, and it was certainly time for the reader to learn more about Viktor.  Unfortunately, I must say that Viktor’s backstory made me dislike him more than I had previously, but it certainly also helps form him into a more well-rounded character.  There’s a delightful femme fatale, enshrouded in both beauty and mystery.  Her ending, however, did feel a bit abrupt.  Dominic goes very quickly from one opinion of her to another, and not enough known, factual information is provided for the reader to keep up with this.  On the other hand, the ending was surprising and also made logical sense, and it also put the main characters in a frightful level of mortal danger.  Exactly the kind of ending one looks for in this type of book.

Overall, the third entry in the series continues to deliver the private detective exploration of moral and mystical gray areas.  Those who enjoyed the first entry in the series more than the second will be happy to see the return to the mysticism found in the first book.  Those who enjoyed the science of the second will be glad to see the science of magic covered extensively in this entry.  Recommended to fans of the series to pick it up as soon as possible.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
The Summoner, review
The Egyptian, review

Book Review: Lana’i of the Tiger by JoAnn Bassett (Series, #3)

August 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Orane and yellow hues depict the lagoon of an island.Summary:
Maui wedding planner, Pali Moon, wound up as a key witness against a drug ring, and now she’s been whisked into witness protection, sent to the small boring island of Lana’i, and right at the holidays no less!  The feds seem to be taking their sweet time getting the case to court, and Pali is bored out of her mind, used to the hustle and bustle of wedding planning.  When a small local bed and breakfast advertises looking for temporary help while they go to the main island to have their baby, it seems like the ideal situation.  But when a famous guest’s fiancee turns up dead, Pali finds herself right in the thick of things again.

Review:
I picked this mystery up when I saw it on sale (for free) in the kindle store, in spite of it being midseries.  The punny title made me think it was probably a cozy, and I know those series are totally fine to read out of order.  I was right in that I never felt lost in the story due to starting mid-series, but I wasn’t right about it being a cozy.  Pun-filled title aside, this is an easy-going mystery, ideal for a beach read, but missing the appendixes of add-ons such as recipes or patterns found in cozy mysteries

Pali is a three-dimensional character who jumps off the page, and the supporting characters, while not necessarily three-dimensional, each have enough different quirks and personalities that they are memorable.  That said, Pali may be three-dimensional but she’s sure not likable.  One example, she kisses someone on Lana’i, and then later finds out that her boyfriend may be cheating on her and flips out.  But wasn’t she just cheating by kissing someone else?  The hypocrisy left a really sour taste in my mouth for Pali.  Characters don’t have to be likable, but in light-hearted mysteries where we’re supposed to be rooting for the non-professional PI, it really helps for them to be.

The mystery was fairly good.  I certainly didn’t figure it out until right before the reveal, and the ultimate solution made sense.  This is all I really look for in a mystery.

The setting was probably the best part.  Bassett evokes (what I can only imagine is) the real feel of Hawaii.  Each island visited has its own feel, Hawaiian culture is solidly represented with things like islanders calling all the elderly women “aunty” and locals being able to talk their way onto a ferry for free.  What kept me reading the book was my desire to spend time in Hawaii, combined with a mystery I was interested in the solution to.

Overall, the rich Hawaiian setting and actually mysterious mystery make this a fun beach read.  The main character is three-dimensional but could rub some readers the wrong way.  Those looking for a traditional cozy should be forewarned that this book doesn’t come with any traditional cozy extras.  Recommended to those looking for a light mystery set in Hawaii.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Previous Books in Series:
Maui Widow Waltz
Livin’ Lahaina Loca

 

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

August 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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