A Dragon of a Different Color (Heartstrikers, Book 4)

Monday, September 18, 2017

A Dragon of a Different Color (Heartstrikers, Book 4)
Rachel Aaron, 2017

Premise: Julius finally has some pull in his clan and an alliance with the Three Sisters. Of course, that was before his favorite brother killed his favorite sister, the girl he loved apparently died, and the entire clan of Chinese dragons set forth to conquer the American clan, ostensibly to protect them all from the rage of a powerful lake spirit. Follows No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished

After I was somewhat disappointed with Book 3, I'm happy to report that I loved this installment. I think there's only one more book in the series, but this managed to raise the stakes in a way that felt organic, set up for a grand finale, and deal with all the fallout of the last book at a breakneck pace that kept me reading.

In case it's at all possible that the premise above wasn't clear enough, this would not be a good jumping-on point. The networks of character relationships are key to this one. We find out where Ghost took Marci, why magic went away from the world, what Amelia's plan is, why Chelsie was her mother's enforcer, and more.

The characters are still charming, and the world is getting more interesting. I really liked how much more exploration there was of the spirit realm and how spirits work in this one. More dragon clans is also always a good thing.

There were so many awesome or sweet moments in this that my heart got all gushy. It's great fun, and the series as a whole is strong.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Blueprint for Revolution

Monday, September 11, 2017

Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Non-Violent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World
Srdja Popovic, Matthew Miller, 2015

Premise: The principles of nonviolent resistance, illustrated by practical examples of every scale from all over the world.

I have been frustrated trying to read books about the current moment in politics. Popular politicians' hottest takes on how we should react to the darkening timeline we seem to find ourselves in leave me cold.

But this. This is the book I needed. Maybe it is the book you need as well?

It's not about dealing with today specifically. It's about changing the world. It's about overthrowing dictators, resisting oppression, fighting corporate policies, improving societies, and building social movements.

It's also incredibly friendly and readable and has Tolkien references.

The book lays out the principles that the people from the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) have seen work around the world in conflicts and issues of all sizes. Each principle is explained with examples of successful and unsuccessful applications and supported with cited research when possible.

The history alone (recent and less so) is fascinating enough to make this a great read. The examples are fascinating, and the commentary is great. Working with CANVAS, Popovic has acted as an advisor or consultant to many recent movements, and his perspective is really down-to-earth and practical.

The book is funny and encouraging and inspirational, and I really do encourage everyone to check it out.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Girl with All the Gifts

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Girl with All the Gifts
M. R. Carey, 2014

Premise: Melanie goes to class with a group of other kids. She likes their teachers, one in particular. She learns a lot in class, but she doesn't learn why she and her classmates live in cells on the base, or why no one is allowed to touch them, or why they only eat once a week...

This book suffered a little for me from expectations that were one hundred percent not the book's fault. I had heard a lot of hype about this book, but on reflection, I only knew two things about it - it's about a little girl who is a zombie, but she doesn't know it, and it was really popular.

I extrapolated from there that it would be a psychological book, full of unreliable narration, twists, and theories. I thought it would be entirely or mostly from her perspective, that the adults around the character might not know what was going on, that there would be a slow-burn reveal, and maybe she was the beginning of an outbreak.

It's not that book. Instead, it's a perfectly fine thriller with a decent theme.

It takes place some time after a zombie outbreak, and although the children in the compound are a mystery of sorts, everyone but the kids themselves knows that they are zombies. You read plenty of the perspective of the teacher, the scientist, the military leader and his men.

I liked it well enough, it was well written and clipped along at a good pace. The mythological parallel is a little forced at times, but works overall. However, by the time I got to the end, I thought that it might be a better movie than it was a book. The emphasis on action set pieces and occasional awkward expository dialogue meant that it felt like a movie pitch first and a novel second.

And it turned out that not only is it a movie, but the screenplay was being written concurrently with the novel! (I haven't tracked the movie down.) So, I guess, that's good.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Patsy Walker, A.K.A Hellcat: Vol. 1: Hooked On A Feline, Vol. 2: Don't Stop Me-ow, Vol 3: Careless Whisker(s)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Patsy Walker, A.K.A Hellcat: Vol. 1: Hooked On A Feline, Vol. 2: Don't Stop Me-ow, Vol 3: Careless Whisker(s)
Kate Leth, Brittney Williams, 2016, 2017

Premise: Patsy has been through a lot. She's been an Avenger. She's been to Hell. Now she just wants to figure out how to make enough money for rent, and help other people out along the way. Collects Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat #1-17 (complete run).

Aww. Shelve this book next to Squirrel Girl, they're both great examples of friendly comics with diverse casts of interesting characters that deal with emotion and action without losing a sense of hope and camaraderie.

Patsy Walker is a really interesting character in a meta sense. She was created as a teen humor comic that turned to romance as the characters aged. (There were many of these comics in the 40s and 50s; the Archie comics are nearly the only surviving example of the type.) A cameo in an superhero title established that the characters might exist in the Marvel universe, and later another author took that cameo and folded the character in by giving her a hero identity.

Yet another series later established that the original humor/romance comics existed in-world, written by Patsy's mother. This modern title comes full circle by establishing other characters from the original comics, having the publication of them be a major part of the plot, and generally melding Patsy's superhero life with humor, romance, and interpersonal stories that wouldn't be out of place in an all ages comic.

(More recently the character appeared in the Netflix show Jessica Jones, although she went by Trish and was only beginning her journey toward becoming a hero.)

I enjoyed all of the minor characters, B-list villains, and entertaining twists of this book. It was just good hearted and pleasant to read. (Also both funny and exciting!) Even when a very light tie-in to a major crossover event meant that the characters had to face some dark events in the larger world, they faced it the way real people do: some denial, some tears, and a lot of muddling through to the other side.

This book also gets bonus points for the most fun version of vampire-Jubilee I've read and copious cat puns,

4 Stars - Very Good Books

Final Girls

Monday, August 14, 2017

Final Girls
Seanan McGuire, writing as Mira Grant, 2017

Premise: A new technology for completely immersive VR promises extremely effective therapy by causing the patient to feel as though they lived through a specific traumatic experience. A reporter is determined to determine whether it's a hoax.

I've liked all of McGuire's novellas so far, and this didn't break the streak. It's interesting that this was released under her horror pen name; it does fit that paradigm. The world created by the VR technology is less intriguing than the magic and ghosts in Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day and a lot less inventive than the world of Every Heart a Doorway (which just won a Hugo!), but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

This one is a tense, short thriller in which, after everything predictably goes wrong, the main characters are trapped in an unreal dream that is trying to really kill them. It's more compelling than most spins on this premise, partially because it ties in strong themes of female rivalry and friendship.

I could have wished for some more satisfying twists on the way to the ending, but the way it is fits McGuire's sometimes fatalistic-poetic style.

3 Stars - A Good Book

A Fire Upon the Deep

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Fire Upon the Deep
Vernor Vinge, 1992

Hugo Winner - 1993

Premise: The galaxy is a big place, full of old civilizations, ancient powers, and ancient traps. What are the lives of two children and a librarian worth in all the universe?

It took me a while to get through this book, and I'm not 100 percent sure what I think of it.

I was thrown off at the start, as it takes a lot of pages to introduce all the characters, factions, and situations. I started expecting one kind of story and ended up in quite another.

I think overall it's a good book, and an interesting one, but it's much more about world building than characters, so how much you enjoy that type of thing will probably dictate how much you enjoy this book.

To be fair, the worldbuilding is really neat. It questions the breadth of consciousness that might be possible across a diverse and strange galaxy. The major alien races include one who is more or less a plant augmented by technology, and a race made up of "individuals" which we might call small hive-minds.

The galaxy is divided up into zones in which different levels of technology not only predominate, but actually function or do not function. Amorphously identified Powers operate at the highest levels, and species can move, or be brought, up into broader levels of civilization.

The story, meanwhile, is good, but I wasn't compelled by it until rather late in the book. The stakes for some of the characters are immediate, but it's rather vague for the galaxy at large, despite lots of threatening description. The climax was viscerally satisfying, but I have little idea what happened.

3 Stars - A Good Book

List of Hugo Award Winners

Thor: The Goddess of Thunder and Thor: Who Holds the Hammer?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Thor: The Goddess of Thunder and Thor: Who Holds the Hammer?
Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina, 2015

Premise: The son of Odin is no longer worthy to wield Mjolnir, and the only one who can lift the hammer is an unknown woman who takes on the power and the responsibility of being Thor. Collects Thor #1-5 and Thor #6-8 and Annual.

The nice thing about waiting and catching up on comic books later is that you tend to only read the good stuff. The less nice thing is that sometimes you know the ending.

Happily, the fact that I went in knowing the reveal at the end of the second volume (the identity of the new Thor) did not diminish my enjoyment in this case.

For me, these issues had just about the perfect balance of humor and drama. The art and writing take the larger-than-life characters and plot seriously, but it never gets too dour or bleak.

It wouldn't be a perfect jumping-on point for someone who's not used to sprawling comic universes and stories that continuously build on each other, but I don't mind reading the set-up in the front of the first issue and moving forward from there.

New Thor is awesome. I loved her powers, her wit, her determination, and her simple conviction that because she could be a force for good, therefore she would.

I like that she's Thor, not Lady Thor or Thor Girl or whatever. The only downside is that, similar to Hawkeye, it makes the characters challenging to talk about.

Her relationship with "Odinson" (the now-unworthy-Thor) is great. He appreciates her strength and courage, and he soon chooses to support her as chosen by the hammer. Of course, he's also determined to figure out who she is.

Lots of awesome ladies who are connected to Asgard in various ways appear by the end of book two, and I might appreciate some of them even more if I catch up on the rest of Aaron's Thor run. I liked that the story played out several intersecting stories of female power, most notably contrasting Odin's blustering attempts to reclaim rulership of Asgard from Frigga with Odinson's cooperation with the mystery Thor.

I've often enjoyed the idea of Thor comics more than the execution, but this was just a solid, fantastic experience, the writing, art, action, and humor all ideal.

Also, frost giants, elves, evil CEOs who dabble in dark magic, and, of course, Valkyries. I'll definitely be reading the further adventures in (the frustratingly numbered) The Mighty Thor #1.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag... and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag... and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha
Jolie Kerr, 2014

Premise: Learn how to clean all your things, with a dollop of motivation and a side dose of humor.

I wish I'd had this book years ago. As an aspiring Clean Person (to use the author's somewhat tongue-in-cheek terminology), I had to muddle through figuring out how, how often, and with what to clean various surfaces and appliances over my adult life. (Seriously, there was way more trial and error in those early days than there should have been.)

I do okay these days, but I still found good tips and knowledge here. I especially like the balance between basics and exceptions. She features some of the wild questions she received as an advice columnist, but the solutions to most of them build on the fundamental advice about types of stains, types of methods, and types of cleansers.

The book also features the same mix of gentle shame and funny encouragement that I loved in her online writing. She distinguishes between things you maybe should do, things that will be nice, and things you must do.

On fighting bugs in the pantry: "You have my permission to wear one of those plastic horned Viking helmets if it will make you feel better about things."

On "hairbleweeds": "the best cure I can prescribe is a combination of a handheld vacuum and constant vigilance."

I definitely think I would have gotten more out of this if I had spent less time working out my own preferred solutions to general cleaning conundrums, but it was still an enjoyable and informative read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Monday, July 10, 2017

Ellen Kushner, 1987

Premise: Richard St. Vier is a sword for hire, a skilled duelist who calls out nobles on request when the situation and the price are right. But the politics of the city is larger than any one man.

I don't think I'd ever heard of this book until I saw some excitement about a new book that returns to this world. I can see why it is beloved by some and enjoyed by others. Unfortunately, it just didn't grab me.

Today, the city of this type is a fantasy archetype - the scheming nobles on the hill contrasted with the fighters and thieves in the slums. I don't know how prevalent it was when this book was first written.

The relatively unique thing about this book is that many or most of the male characters are bisexual. It's not commented on until near the very end, and it seems normal to most characters that St. Vier has taken up with Alec, a troubled scholar with a secret past. Having a gay couple at the center of the intrigue is neat, but it did feel a bit strange that after almost the entire book, a few off-hand comments suddenly implied that society frowned on homosexual behavior and no characters expected such liaisons to last. It was just an odd surprise that didn't seem to match the rest of the book. Also, there were no confirmed lesbian relationships that I noticed.

The politics of the book were extremely complex, which was nice. The nuances were well handled, and I liked all the different characters' motivations.

However, for me, it was just a bit dry. Characters came in and out of the narrative quickly, and the characters you spend the most time with were very secretive or very stoic, and the book gave you little of what they were thinking or feeling.

I think that it's skillfully written, and I enjoyed the related short stories that followed in the edition I had. I just didn't love it.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Princess Leia (Marvel Mini-Series)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Princess Leia (Marvel Mini-Series)
Mark Waid, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, 2015

Premise: After the destruction of the first Death Star, Leia is at loose ends when she hears that the Empire is targeting Alderaan citizens on other planets. Collects Princess Leia #1-5.

I have heard nothing but good things about most of the Marvel-branded Star Wars comics, and after some recent sales, I'm finally getting around to them. This one I found enjoyable, but not amazing.

I really liked the premise. Leia sets out to collect and protect as many survivors from Alderaan as she can. She feels a personal responsibility, not just because she's their leader, but because she suspects Alderaan would not have been targeted if she hadn't been working with the Rebellion.

I really liked the characters. Evaan is a brash Rebellion pilot who respects the royalty that Leia can claim but doubts her commitment. Tula is a girl they pick up early on who doesn't know her sister is working for the Empire. Jora is the leader of a paranoid splinter group who doesn't trust Leia's intentions. All these ladies also have fun, big hair, which makes Leia's various styles seem more like her heritage and culture.

The art is overall great. I've been an off-and-on fan of the Dodsons' style for years. They can stray too far into cheesecake, but there's none of that here: it's just clear, colorful, and kinetic.

Unfortunately, I didn't think 5 issues were enough to convey any sort of real character growth or development. We know what characters are feeling when they tell us, and while there are a few poignant moments, the story moves along too quickly for any real depth. Most notably, the potential emotional weight of the destruction of the planet is almost entirely sidestepped. There was some real potential for nuance and intriguing questions (such as digging more into Leia's feelings of guilt, or her responsibility to Alderaan vs. her responsibility to the Rebellion), but they're skipped for easy twists about secret transmissions or bigotry against mixed heritage.

It was fun, though, and Evaan is a fun addition to the tradition of kick-ass Star Wars women. It does give you that warm, fuzzy Star Wars feeling.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal
K.J. Charles, 2015

Premise: Journalist Robert Caldwell has told the world about the exploits of famous ghost hunter Simon Feximal for years, but he has never before revealed how they met, or their true relationship.

In the spectrum of works inspired by other works, there is more than enough room for delightful books like this one. You can see from the very premise that something is owed to Holmes and his ilk, but it is not as simple as a Holmes story with a paranormal/LGBT overlay. It turns out to be a love letter to Victorian adventure and occult stories.

The book itself is structured as a series of linked short tales. Characters from works of the time come in and out like Easter eggs for the reader, but not being familiar with them doesn't detract anything from the experience. There is a list of references in the back of the book for the curious.

As always, this author crafts her characters to feel incredibly accurate to their time period, and the supernatural elements are often viscerally creepy.

I have enjoyed many books by this author and I especially appreciate how different she makes each relationship. In the fabulous Charm of Magpies series, the main couple is largely effusive and talkative about their frustrations and feelings, and the reader follows both characters closely. Here, the stoic, quietly powerful Feximal and articulate but tentative Caldwell provide a subtler romance than is to everyone's taste. (Don't worry, there's still lots of sex.) Caldwell is also the sole narrator, which is a better match for the stories this is a homage to.

In short, I found this to be an engaging and exceedingly well-written story.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mockingbird: I Can Explain and Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda
Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, 2016, 2017

Premise: Bobbi Morse is a lot of things. She's a spy, a superhero, a scientist. She's an ex-wife and a SHIELD agent and an Avenger. And she is done taking anybody's shit. Collects Mockingbird #1-5, Mockingbird SHIELD 50th anniversary #1, Mockingbird #6-8, and see below.

Like too many people, I only heard about this series when it met its untimely cancellation. I picked up the first trade almost immediately but didn't get a chance to read it until recently.

It is a metric ton of fun.

A few different aspects contribute to the brilliance of this book. One is the balance of superheroic and mundane. Bobbi's life is punctuated by crazy escapades, but she also deals with annoying medical check-ups and clothing stains and relationship drama.

Another is the fun meta-stuff that I love. Tons of little jokes in the background art or the intro pages for each issue or comic pages that include diagrams or flowcharts. (FYI, I have the first volume in both hard copy and digital, and the digital is better because it includes more of the intros, letter pages, etc.) I felt that the inclusion of minor geek celebrities as minor characters in the final arc was a bit silly, but I didn't hate it, and I'm sure plenty of people were tickled.

Also, there's the unapologetic feminism. There are a few moments when you could argue that it's a bit too on-the-nose, but I loved it. Bobbi is loud and proud of her opinions.

It also stays entirely with her. No matter whether or not she's being stubborn, judgemental, or unreservedly kickass, this is her story, and she is at the center.

Related to this, the art is awesome. There's a touch of amusing fan service in two separate male characters running around secret bases wearing very little, but there is no male gaze to be found here. It reminded me of something I read in some reviews of the new Wonder Woman movie - that as a viewer, I didn't realize how much I was used to that male-centric style until it was gone.

Connected to that - the second half of the second book was a big old DNF for me. It reprints a couple issues of New Avengers from before this series started to fill out the page count. As I paged through the beginning, skimming, I was struck by - Bobbi in a coma, men contorting their faces with pain and making important medical delicious for her, and lots of lovingly shadowed boobs. Screw that. I refuse to sully how awesome the Mockingbird issues were by reading that useless page filler. The contrast made me realize how much I have come to hate certain "traditional" comic styles that are used so often in superhero comics.

Anyway, Mockingbird is awesome, and Marvel was dumb for canceling it.

Mockingbird #1-8 - 5 Stars - An Awesome Book
New Avengers - :p

Stranger at the Wedding

Monday, June 12, 2017

Stranger at the Wedding
Barbara Hambly, 1994

Premise: Wizard-in-training Kyra is surprised to receive a letter from her estranged family, even one informing her that her sister is to marry. Her teachers advise her not to go, but the letter crystallizes the premonitions that have been plaguing her - if she doesn't stop the wedding, her sister could die!

This is set in the same world as the Windrose books (The Silent Tower and its sequels) but doesn't involve any of the same characters, except peripherally. It does hinge on the hostile and complicated relationship in that world between "normal" people and those with magical abilities.

Kyra left home because her merchant father wanted to rise in society, and having a wizard as a daughter would be a scandal. But being born to magic is an irresistible call, and no matter what else she wanted, Kyra couldn't not learn to use her abilities. She found a local teacher and her parents looked the other way for a while, but it ended very badly.

How badly is part of the story of the book. Kyra reveals her backstory in occasional stories and flashbacks, and the full complexity of her past lends a different depth to the book than I expected going in. I should have known better and looked past the somewhat silly cover art earlier, though. I've read enough of Hambly's work to know that her stories always twist in unexpected directions.

At first, Kyra seems to be a common character type - the girl set up to be different from the flighty, feminine girls around her. But just because she's practical and clever doesn't mean she isn't also interested in art and sympathetic to love, even before she understands it herself. I really appreciated that she repeatedly defends her more traditionally attractive sister's intelligence and skill with both design and math.

The main romance tends a bit toward sudden and dramatic, but it mostly works given the society/family drama set-up.

Overall this was an enjoyable fantasy about trust, passion, the expectations parents put on their children, the struggle to choose a future that society (or family) condemns, dark pasts and predatory men, and of course, one woman's exhausting struggle to rescue her sister from a curse. I quite liked it, but I'm not sure I loved it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, Book Three)

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, Book Three)
N. K. Jemisin, 2011

Premise: Sequel to The Broken Kingdoms. Time is passing, and the balance of power in the mortal world is affected by the changes in the gods. The power in the gods is changing too, as Sieh finds to his peril.

Sieh is one of the more memorable characters from the first two books - the child-trickster, first-born of the Three's many children. Naturally, he starts the first pages of his book telling the reader in no uncertain terms how his book will be different from those that went before.

This was a worthy sequel to the first two books, although I wasn't sure that was possible. I liked how much of this book was about consequences. The characters in books one and two made what seemed to be good choices at the time, but when the primary (corrupt) structure falls, is that actually a net positive?

For a parallel: if you take away Rome's power, you end the Pax Romana - for good and for ill.

Meanwhile, Sieh has bigger, personal issues. He, the ever-young god of childhood, is aging, and no one can figure out why. Nemisin's tremendous skill in balancing between a world that feels textured and real and a story that feels mythic and fated is on full display here.

I had some moments of existential horror in this book, as it draws the reader most fully into the scope of the gods' powers, and how easily life or light can be extinguished, even accidentally.

There's plenty of humor as well, of course. Don't miss the character list in the back of this book - Sieh has made some edits to the first part.

One final note: the omnibus edition I read also included the related novella, "The Awakened Kingdom." This was a fantastic cap to the series, although it did make the ending of the third book feel less momentous.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Lost Stars (Star Wars, Journey to the Force Awakens)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Lost Stars (Star Wars, Journey to the Force Awakens)
Claudia Gray, 2015

Premise: Thane and Ciena grow up together, even though their families couldn't be more different and still be from the same planet. When they join the Imperial Academy, everything will change.

I wanted to love this book. I heard nothing but praise for it. "It's a YA in Star Wars; it's great!"

Unfortunately, for me, the combination of YA romance and Star Wars novel ended up accentuating the worst of each.

To be fair, I quite liked the beginning, which followed the two characters growing up on a planet that is annexed by the Empire during their childhood. The way they didn't understand galactic politics as children felt realistic. They both work hard to enroll in the Imperial training school to get to fly starships.

As the characters got a little older and started to fall for each other it was a little melodramatic but not bad. Then, however, the plot started to take turns for the obvious, and it just kept taking them.

The YA/romance tropes included a complete inability to solve simple problems by talking to each other, the dramatic makeover that makes the girl-next-door suddenly desirable, the forced reasons they can't be together, despite being willing to sacrifice anything for each other.

The Star Wars tropes included really obvious moments of "the Empire is evil" without any of the nuance of the earlier sections, convenient and somewhat unlikely evidence of the goodness of the Rebellion, forced references to the movies, and belaboring the morality (for example, explicitly explaining the points about indoctrination that had been just implied in the beginning until they weren't interesting). I have enjoyed licensed books, including Star Wars, in the past, but I hate it when tie-in books are used to explain and fill-in every possible moment. It usually feels forced and awkward.

The combination of these two styles ended up being less good than either alone, for my taste. I found the characters unbelieveable and unlikeable by turns, and I was only frustrated with their romantic miscommunications. The book twists itself into knots trying to keep the partner who stays in the Imperial service sympathetic, and for me, it just didn't work.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Pearl Thief

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Pearl Thief
Elizabeth Wein, 2017

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

Premise: Prequel to Code Name: Verity. Julie is going home for the last summer on her grandparents' land; her grandfather has passed away and the estate is being sold. From the minute she arrives, however, she'll run across danger, adventure, and a deadly mystery.

This was not nearly such an emotional wringer as Code Name: Verity. In context, that's probably for the best.

What this is: a delightful historical mystery about an old Scottish family that is lush with historical detail, social commentary, and somewhat idealized adolescent yearning. I really enjoyed it.

If I didn't find Julie's narration utterly believable and enchanting, I might cast a side-eye at how well the protagonist navigates issues of discrimination, but I think it works. It helps that her attitudes are presented as a mixture of how she was raised and her personal stubbornness and morality, not as something that makes her necessarily special.

She's navigating not only mysterious goings-on around the estate but also the heart of a teenager. Her crush on a visiting scholar is an important part of her personal story, but not as affecting as her blended friendship/flirtation with Ellen, part of a family of travellers who risk being scapegoated for many of the summer's mysteries. [FYI: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Gypsy_and_Traveller_groups]

Elizabeth Wein might still be the best writer of female friendship/love/undefined adoration working today.

Overall, a lovely story with characters you want more of.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance, Book Two)

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance, Book Two)
N. K. Jemisin, 2010

Premise: Ten years after The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Oree Shoth lives in the city of Sky, now called Shadow. The world is full of power, and a blind woman who can see magic would be useful to those who would harm godlings.

While I can't say that this was as perfect and intriguing a book as its predecessor, it is a worthy sequel. With a mostly new cast of characters, Oree's story provides a different perspective (both literal and figurative) on the world than Yeine did. Oree's people's history with the ruling Arameri and the gods means that her alliances are different.

This book has a smaller scope, in some ways; it focuses on Oree's conflict with a reactionary cult that sprang up in the wake of the events of the first book. I would have been happy were the stakes only her life and freedom, but of course, more weighty matters are drawn in by the end.

Oree's ability to see magic means that she is drawn to godlings (the immortal children of the three gods) and others who glow of power. This extends to having an extended liaison with one and sheltering another in her home when he seems to have no friends or purpose.

I loved the cosmic-scale characters in the first book, but I really enjoyed that in this one we got better acquainted with lots of minor godlings and got a better idea of how their magic and lives work.

The narration isn't as fraught with double-meaning as the first, and the "reveal" at the end is meant to be less of a surprise. But something only slightly less amazing than an unbelievably outstanding book is still great.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga)
Lois McMaster Bujold, 1991

Hugo Winner - 1992

Premise: Cordelia came to Barrayar to marry and settle down, but the stress of politics and culture shock is only the beginning.

I think this is the first time I've read this book without also reading its companion, Shards of Honor. The plots are closely tied, despite being released five years apart. More than three books (and multiple short stories) which take place after Barrayar were released in those intervening years.

Starting with Barrayar, I admire the skill with which the characters and the plot are introduced without feeling redundant, even after many re-readings.

Of course I adore this book. Shards of Honor is fun but unpolished in sections. This one is the fullest expression of Cordelia's Betan egalitarianism against Barrayar's provincial, painfully-slowly-evolving patriarchy. It expands on Bothari and gives Droushnakovi and Koudelka (minor characters elsewhere) a spotlight. We meet Emperor Gregor as a child and his mother Kareen. It's packed full of quotable and memorable scenes.

In the afterword to the combined volume, Bujold states outright that this little duology is about parenting. Barrayar, more explicitly than Shards of Honor, deals with pregnancy, both traditional and science-fiction-driven, birth, and the relationships between children and parents. Characters fight against or play out cultural scripts about parenting; the value of specific children in a society still driven by lines of class and heredity is questioned and tested.

It's also a complex and compelling story full of action and humor. If you were reading this series when it came out, you already would know the basic plot beats, because this jumps backward in the internal chronology. Yet I've read it a dozen times and I still enjoy the ride.

That skill, if nothing else, is deserving of a Hugo.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Award Winners

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe
Ryan North, Erica Henderson, 2016

Premise: The first original graphic novel starring the only heroine with the powers of both squirrel and girl! Squirrel Girl enjoys eating nuts, kicking butts, and making friends. What would cause her to beat up the entire universe? Many minor characters are from the ongoing series, but you could read this without reading the series as long as you read the character intros.

The current Squirrel Girl series is one of my favorites, possibly of all time, and this story has all the aspects I love. Doreen, her squirrel friends, her human friends, her casual attitude toward superheroics, her belief in the goodness of people, her computer science skills.

The plot hinges on some unanswered questions about the potential power of communication with squirrels and the established fact that Doreen has taken down a huge number of Marvel villains. She's one of the most powerful characters in Marvel, and under this author, her power comes equally from her physical might and her boundless optimism.

Doreen's friend and roommate Nancy plays a large role, and she's awesome as always. Also featured are her friends Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boi, and her social media sparring partner, Tony Stark. As you might expect from the title, playing minor roles are nearly every Marvel hero and villain you can think of and a few you probably can't.

This book features awesome action, poignant moments, laugh-out-loud humor, and even heroes escaping in their underwear. I recommend it for everyone who enjoys fun heroic action with a big heart.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

A Rare Benedictine (Cadfael Series)

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Rare Benedictine (Cadfael Series)
Ellis Peters, 1988 (Kindle version 2014)

Premise: Collects three short stories from across the series' timeline, including the account of when Cadfael joins the monastery.

I love Cadfael, and when I recently needed a quick comfort read, I knew this wouldn't disappoint. However, if you're looking for a dramatic turn of events to drive Cadfael the crusader to the Benedictine order, you won't find it here.

The first story, "A Light on the Road to Woodstock," is the account in question. Given the character as revealed throughout the series, it would be surprising if Cadfael had some supernatural or esoteric revelation.

In the introduction to this volume, in fact, the author describes the decision as analogous to the way some people (more common in certain times and cultures) simply find they have reached another phase in life and choose to renounce the world in some way.

As it is, it's a lovely story in which the Welsh man-at-arms (described as blunt, insubordinate, and an utterly reliable man of his word) accompanies an English nobleman home after fighting in Normandy under Henry I. Said noble faces a land dispute with the Shrewsbury Abbey. While Cadfael will, of course, protect the noble's safety to the best of his ability as he has been asked, his private judgment as to the rightness and fairness of the actors in the disagreement will hold great import by the end.

The second story in the volume, "The Price of Light," is a Christmas tale that I read previously in The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. I liked it then; I like it now.

The third, "Eye Witness," is basically a shortened version of a Cadfael novel. It has all the red herrings, dramatic reveals, and unique characters, plus a bit more of a final punchline.

This volume is short, and it felt even shorter because I had already read the second story. The publisher even padded the end of the Kindle file (from 63% on!) with a good portion of the beginning of A Morbid Taste for Bones.

I still enjoyed what there was here, but I wish there had been a bit more material.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Price of Salt

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Price of Salt
Patricia Highsmith (released under the name Claire Morgan), 1952 (e-version 2011)

Premise: Therese is unsatisfied with her life, her retail job, her boyfriend. One day, she meets a beautiful stranger, and her life is changed.

I watched and enjoyed Carol for Mainlining Christmas, but I was curious about the source material. When I had an opportunity to pick it up cheap on Kindle, I took it.

I think from the descriptions, I was expecting something that felt more dated, or that had more of the conventions of pulp. I found nothing of the sort.

This book could have been written yesterday. At least in style, it could have.

Of course, today it's harder to imagine a person like Therese would get to be nineteen with so little interest in sex or men and not really consider an attraction to women as a possible alternative. But that would have been the reality for many women of the time.

This book is a romance with thriller elements and a character study: a gorgeous and nuanced portrayal of a young woman who overthinks things and gets tangled in her own head. I knew the basics of the plot, but reading the book was still compelling, thanks to the lush descriptions and Therese's complex and conflicted thoughts.

After watching the movie, it was interesting how the book only follows Therese. We only glimpse Carol's motivations and feelings as Therese does.

The aspects of the story which play up the limitations and danger of being a lesbian at that time are vivid but not overpowering. They are simply real and painful, as they were for the author and her contemporaries.

It's a truly lovely book, and I'm glad I read it.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Cutting Season

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Cutting Season
Attica Locke, 2012

Premise: Caren grew up at Belle Vie as generations before her did, and now she lives on the plantation with her daughter, managing the historical reenactments and booking weekend weddings. When a woman is found dead on the grounds, she is horrified, but not prepared for the ramifications for her family, past and present.

This is a solid mystery-thriller made special by context. The plot takes place in the present, but Caren's life is intimately affected by her family's history with the land. Her ancestors were slaves and then freedmen working the same land she now manages. One disappeared, possibly murdered, in the same fields where a woman is now found dead.

Caren is the central character by a large margin, but her daughter, her ex-boyfriend and all the actors and staff at the plantation are each interesting and unique. Her past with the facility and the family that owns it both supports her career and traps her in the past. She both loves her home and is troubled by the history.

The past and the present are connected in a poetic and tragic way in this book, although I could have used even more. Caren understands the ways that her ancestors who cut sugarcane are connected to the Latino migrants doing the same job today.

It's an engaging story with strong characterization and a vibrant setting.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Ancillary Mercy

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ancillary Mercy
Ann Leckie, 2015

Premise: Sequel to Ancillary Sword. Breq has taken on responsibility for more than just her crew, but she doesn't have the standing to solve all the problems on Athoek Station. A stranger who doesn't appear to have a past and a representative from an alien power complicate matters as the empire's civil war grows.

I love this series. I might go back and read the whole thing back-to-back-to-back soon and see how the experience differs.

As it was, it had been long enough that it took me a few chapters to remember what the heck was going on and who the various characters were. The series continued to deal with issues of identity and self-determination in the ways that only science fiction can.

Once I was back on track, I flew through this book. I loved that although a potentially galaxy-changing war could appear on their doorstep any day, the characters still had to deal with obstinate bureaucracy, diplomacy, fallout from the previous books, and, in some cases, interpersonal emotional issues.

Seivarden's emotional arc got quite a lot of page time, and I found it extremely satisfying. Breq even got an extremely affecting passage where you realize that while she doesn't acknowledge many emotions in her first-person narration, that doesn't mean that she doesn't care.

The ending was wonderful, perfectly tense and sharp at some times and drawn out and understated at others. For me, the satisfying quality of it partially comes from the fact that I would never have thought of the resolution, but all the necessary pieces had been established beforehand and it fit perfectly with all the ongoing themes.

5 Stars - A three-book masterpiece