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