Monday, February 29, 2016

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book over 500 pages long

Premise: Ifemelu grew up in Nigeria, began attending college there, met her lover Obinze there. The desire to travel and study abroad impacts every one of her family and friends through upheaval in their country. After she decides to return home after spending years in America, she reflects on her life and how it has changed.

This is a lovely book. I don’t always like literary fiction, but this is beautifully written and I found the story deeply interesting. Much of it is told in flashback, exploring Ifemelu and Obinze’s intertwining stories. Their lives are present, tangible and real.

A lot of the book centers on culture and race. Ifemelu comes to America and immediately is assumed by many to share a specific experience/attitudes common to African-Americans. But she isn’t American, and finds ‘black American culture’ extremely confusing. Excerpts from her blog explore these ideas in more depth.

She also deals with an additional cultural tension around Africa itself. She is faced with people who have baseless assumptions about Africa and don’t understand the differences between various countries there, but she often finds herself more comfortable talking to other expatriates/immigrants, even those from other African or Caribbean countries. There’s a shared experience, but outsiders can falsely see it as an identical experience.

This is also a book about romance, although in very realistic ways. Ifemelu and her family and friends react to different and/or changing cultural mores about relationships. What importance to place on love and what on money? How impassable is the cultural divide? As an extremely intelligent young woman, Ifemelu is also brushing up against the issue of otherwise kind, loving men who are sometimes determined to show that they are smarter than she is.

It’s also about the way we change over a lifetime. As people experience different cultures and points of view, as well as just the passage of time, their experiences and expectations shift in unexpected ways. ‘Americanah’ is the slang among the young Nigerians for those who have lived abroad and returned with foreign ways. But the way Ifemelu reflects on her childhood in Nigeria isn’t the same as the way she reacts to living there as an adult, and it isn’t just because of her time abroad.

Reading Americanah is living in another culture for a while, with another set of eyes. I am grateful for the experience.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Confidence Game

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Confidence Game
Maria Konnikova, 2015

New release! I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.

Premise: Explores the art of the con - every part illustrated with cautionary true stories and explained with findings from cognitive and/or social science.

I looked for this book after reading an adapted excerpt online, and at first I was disappointed. The first few chapters are somewhat repetitive both internally and with each other and the stories weren’t that interesting.

The structure lends itself to this problem, though, as the research that explains who is likely to become a con artist or a mark isn’t that different from the research that explains why people fall for the preliminary set-up and story parts of a detailed con. Breaking the con into “phases” felt overly artificial through the first few chapters.

Happily, after that it picked up. The true stories became more detailed and more connected to the chapter subjects and the science more current and more interesting. The only issue I still had was that if I put down the book in the middle of a chapter, sometimes a story that had been described at the beginning of a chapter would be referenced again at the end without quite enough of a call-back for me to remember which person the author was referring to.

Overall, this is an interesting book. I liked the stories best, although the various studies that shows just how likely people are to fall for various cons and why were interesting.

I did appreciate that in the last chapter, after study after study that implied how helpless most people are to a well-played con, the book did include some experts on how people can help themselves remain skeptical enough to avoid being tricked.

3 Stars - A Good Book

[Further reading: Profile of David Sullivan (described in the final chapter), a man who devoted his life to breaking people out of cults.]

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Monday, February 15, 2016

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Lois McMaster Bujold, 2015

Premise: Three years after the end of Cryoburn, Cordelia Vorkosigan takes a long look at her life up to this point, and what she wants going forward.

I agree with many reviewers that this is a polarizing book. Whether you like it will really depend on what you enjoy the Vorkosigan series for. If you only like the adventure and excitement, this is not the book for you. If you more deeply value the complexity of the characters that Bujold has carefully constructed over the series, if your favorite parts are those of reflection and emotion, than you might find a real winner here.

I loved it.

I’m going to try not to say too much about the central conceit/reveal of this book, although it comes up early. I will say that while I understand to a point those fans who were unable to get behind it, for me it clicked immediately. It fit with everything that had gone before, but cast many things in a new light. (Yes, I did go back and check The Vor Game.)

I had recently re-read Shards of Honor/Barrayar, and I think that really enhanced my appreciation of the story. Cordelia’s history and the start of her and Aral’s romance was fresh in my mind, so all of the scenes here that looked back over their life together really worked for me.

And when Miles finally appears as a secondary character, I was surprised how satisfying I found it that the book feels honest around him. He's getting older, and he lived hard in the early books, and his upbringing and experiences combine to create a flawed person who feels real and true.

This feels like a potential cap to the series. It creates a solid arc that starts in Shards of Honor and ends here. It’s not that there couldn’t be more with any of these characters, and it’s not that Bujold couldn’t easily write more in this world. But if this were the end, this whole book feels like a denouement.

The themes were as rich and lovely as I have come to expect from Bujold: the many acts of life, the secrets and nuances of families, how aging changes or doesn’t change us, love and all the forms it takes over a lifetime. And of course, the particularly SF issues, like the effects of longevity and reproductive technologies on the forms families and relationships can take.

By all means don’t start with this one, but if you’re a fan of the series, walk in with an open mind. It made my heart hurt in a beautiful way.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

In the After

Monday, February 8, 2016

In the After
Demitria Lunetta, 2013

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel (actually this is both!)

Premise: Amy is one of the only survivors of the invasion. She struggles to survive and protect a little girl she finds (“Baby”), until black ships bring a series of unbelievable changes.

On paper, this has a lot of elements that I like. Survivalist narrative, alien invasion, post-apocalyptic society. But in practice, it all sort of fell apart.

Some spoilers are necessary to discuss this book, FYI.

The first section, which covers Amy and Baby's day-to-day survival and flashbacks to the apocalypse, didn’t really grab me. I didn’t connect with Amy, she felt flat and uninteresting. The story perked up when the arrival of Amber and other survivors complicated their situation, but it still never really took off for me. The ‘aliens’ were described as instant death, but weren’t often scary in any visceral way. I did like the emphasis on the way Amy uses sign language to communicate without speaking, because noise draws attacks.

Then they’re brought to the human enclave of science and military survivors, and the structure of the narrative changed. The story got more interesting, but I found the switching back and forth between the new “present” of Amy imprisoned and drugged and the path she took there didn’t work. The foreshadowing in the “present” sections decreased instead of increased tension and a lot of the “flashbacks” were too circuitous when we knew what was coming. Although on the other hand, I also wished that there had been some indication of this from the start of the book. It seemed very weird to start a fundamentally different mode of storytelling all of a sudden.

The reveal of the seemingly awesome but strictly regimented and secretly kinda-evil human settlement ran more or less on rails. Props for using the threat of forced pregnancy to push the heroine into action training, though. I bought that. There were some neat wrinkles around the creatures and the various final plot twists, but all the characters who seem off from the start are not to be trusted, and the characters who seem genuine are. Not super compelling stuff.

Finally all the reveals are revealed and we get the resolution-for-now, but I’m not going to run out and read the sequel.

I didn’t hate this, but I did find it a bit of a slog.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another (Heartstrikers, Books One and Two)

Monday, February 1, 2016

Nice Dragons Finish Last and One Good Dragon Deserves Another (Heartstrikers, Books One and Two)
Rachel Aaron, 2014, 2015

Premise: Julius is the most insignificant dragon in the Heartstriker clan, and he’s spent his short life happily unnoticed by his more powerful kin, until now.

This is a fast-paced, fun fantasy with just enough bite. (I think the only time I paused in reading through both books was at one point when I was convinced a scene was going to end in the death of one of two great characters.) It’s set in the near future on an Earth where magic has returned and influenced society.

Rachel Aaron is also known as Rachel Bach, under which name she wrote the Paradox series (sci-fi fabulousness) that I devoured in 2014, so I had been meaning to try some of her fantasy for some time.

The main characters are Julius and Marci, a young human mage. I like how her magic is completely different from dragon magic, and humans are still rebuilding their knowledge of magic and magical creatures. I also loved the contrast of Marci’s brash, ask-whether-this-is-a-good idea-later attitude against Julius’s caution and (justified) paranoia.

Marci’s perspective is also great because it grounds the reader. Julius, despite being an odd dragon semi-permanently disguised as a human, is still a dragon. He thinks and looks at situations in a way which is subtly but fundamentally different than a human, and getting Marci’s take on events reminds you of that.

Julius has to prove to his mother that he can be useful to the clan, otherwise she might just eat him. This is not a metaphor; dragon families are not cute and cuddly. Marci, meanwhile, is trying to make it as a solo mage, and is on the run from a magical mob boss type.

I really enjoyed the range of personalities and abilities in the rest of the Heartstriker clan. Particularly in book two, many of Julius’ siblings get some time to shine. Justin is a brash frat boy, but an impressive fighter. Chelsie is the clan enforcer. Ian is a scheming businessman who will use anyone to climb the ranks. Bob is ineffable. But they’re all Heartstrikers, and they have a certain bond, even when they’re threatening or fighting each other.

Prophecy and a certain twisty take on foreseeing is key to the plot of these books. There are three dragons on Earth who can see the future, and when they work against each other, things get extremely complex, and I really liked the way this magic was used.

The books take place mostly in the Detroit Free Zone, a city ruled by an ancient earth spirit who hates dragons. Naturally, this further complicates matters for all the characters.

I had a great time reading these books and being introduced to this world. While book two didn't end on a cliffhanger, exactly, there are enough unanswered questions and new elements introduced by the end that I am eager for the release of book three later this year.

Both books: 4 Stars - Very Good Books