Wednesday, July 17, 2019

[Book] Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Cover
Every once in a while, I try to get in a review of a classic.  Something that some of my readers are likely to have read themselves.  I do this, mostly, to help readers calibrate my taste...  That is, it seems likely enough that some readers are likely to disagree with everything I like, and might find it compelling to read a book that I really didn't like.

In this case, the publisher link below points to Project Gutenberg, which has free downloads, in multiple formats, for this fiction which is long in the public domain.

The story is set in the mid 18th century starting in for the first sections, but becomes a sea-faring story in the Caribbean.  The narrator (with the exception of two chapters), Jim Hawkins, is a boy or young man (the book doesn't make his age clear), though it is made clear that he is not grown to the size of a man, and lacks the strength of the adults around him.

Since this story has been in the public domain for many years, I found that every major turn of the story was predictable as I read it, as the story in whole and in parts has been used many times in many, many other stories.  That said, the world building is outstanding.  The topography, flora and fauna of Treasure Island was very carefully described making the island truly feel like a real place.  One quirk of this book, which authors typically try to avoid, is that there are three characters named Tom, and three named John, which I sometimes found to be a little confusing.

Overall, I'm very glad to have read this book, even though the story itself was familiar from other sources.  This book is the original origin of that now clichéd pirate with one leg and a parrot, and treasure maps with the treasure trove marked on the map.  It is a wonderfully told story and the language was wholly accessible.

Recommended for those that want a swashbuckling nostalgia trip ... due to the familiarity of story ... told in vivid details.  Skip it if a pirate fantasy just doesn't sound interesting.  Also skippable for those readers that cannot forgive the clichéd tropes (even knowing that this is the book where those clichés were fresh and new).

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

[Book] Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

Book cover
This short book (novella) is the first in the trilogy.  Binti is the name of the main character.  This book starts on a distant future (unspecified timeline) Earth where humans are now space-faring, and alien races are known.

There is a lot to unpack in the world-building and the world is built along with the story.  Each chapter is unusually episodic, in that some small part of the last scene of a previous chapter will be often be repeated at the beginning of the next.  This took a little getting used to, but I imagine is much easier for readers who are going to read one chapter, and put the book down for a day or two.

Like much of my my favorite Sci-Fi, this book explores racial tensions and cultural wounds through the lens of the far off and vastly different.  The character Binti's understanding of mathematics and electronics is described as magical, as if some humans evolved to be able to create and control electrical currents in their mind.  It does a great service to explaining how distant future culture and humans have become from what we are used to now.

This is a great story, but is very brief, and suspect the book may have been better had it been a little bit longer.  More world-building could have dropped in the first few chapters before the story really got going.  The strength of this story is Binti's internal monologue, and how she navigates through harrowing tragedy and survival itself.  I look forward to reading Binti: Home, the second book in the trilogy.

Book 2 Cover
Trigger warnings for terrorist violence and detailed gore.  Read this if you like space-drama and stories that don't feature a love triangle (as so much YA does).  Skip if Sci-Fi really isn't your thing.


Binti: Home

Binti: Home picks up nearly a year after the end of the first book, and follows Binti and Okwa (her Alien friend) on a visit back to Earth.  The book is much longer than the first, and it does not have the episodic repeating of the last scene that the first book occasionally had.

There are seeds from book 1 that are mined and expanded, but the style of world building as the story unfolds is very useful as new elements are revealed and used as the story expands.  This book continues to follow Binti's internal monologue and highlights the amount of change in who Binti is after the trauma of book 1.

The themes from book 1 are still there, but this book's theme seems to focus more on family bonds (and family fractures).  This book ends on a very dramatic cliff-hanger, and really does not feel like a complete story.

While it is possible to read book 1, and be satisfied with a story I don't recommend reading book 2 unless you are committed to also reading book 3, and ... maybe read my review of book 3 (just below).

Book 3 Cover

Binti: The Night Mascarade

Binti: The Night Masquerade picks up a heartbeat after Binti: Home, and Binti is still on Earth, but as she joins the tribe of her paternal grandmother, her nuclear family is in dire trouble.  This third book is over twice as long as the first novella.

The first half of this book (maybe a little more than half) feels like the conclusion of Binti: Home.  The second half feels like a different short story.  I suspect that this book is delineated in the way it is because the theme focus is on intersectionality (and how much heartbreak comes from those who do not understand).

I would have been more satisfied with the story had this book ended in the middle.  The second half felt a little too much like it was pushing for a happy ending, and maybe in sensing that it was going too far, ended on a bittersweet note.

After three books, this universe seems very ripe and full of subtleties.  I really enjoy Binti's personality, but I feel like I was done with Binti's story in the middle of this book.  That is, I would live to read about other characters in this universe.  I want to know of the adventures of other alien races, some of which were even hinted about in these stories.

Overall, I'm happy I read these books, but I can't say I recommend the second two as much as I'd highly recommend book 1.  I think, perhaps, I feel the second half of this book really needed some technological foreshadowing.  This is a place where the unfolding of world building along side the plot does a disservice to the reader.  For me, at least, there is a point in the book that broke my suspension of disbelief.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

[Book] Defy The Worlds by Claudia Gray

Book cover
This is book 2 of the Defy the Stars trilogy.  I recommend first reading my review of Defy the Stars before diving headlong into this review.  Also, there may be mild spoilers of the first book in this review.  I'm not sure that can be helped.

I recommend not reading Defy The Worlds until Defy The Stars has already been read.  Like most sequels, this book could stand-alone, but there is not as much exposition and recap as I'm used to reading in sequels.  It seems to be more closely written with the expectation that readers will start from book one.

The book starts with Noemi back on Genesis, trying to fit back into military life while dealing with global inquests, and summons to talk with world-leaders, many of whom do not trust her, or her judgement.

Most of the characters from the first book have a part in this second book.  The conflicts in this book are more political and far-reaching, and the pacing of action is quick throughout.

In part, due to the abbreviated recaps, and the little space dedicated to explaining the world-building that had occurred in book one, the action in this book picks up very quickly.  If this were a stand-alone (or first) book, I would be complaining about this, but it works very well for a second book.  Overall, I actually enjoyed this book more than the first one (which is very rare).  This has me looking forward to book 3, even more.

I recommended reading this series.  At this point, I recommend reading anything by Claudia Gray.  Her writing has yet to leave me unsatisfied.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

[Book] The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King

Book cover
Subtitled, The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, this is a biography of a man that most Americans over 30 grew up watching as children on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which is a show that ran on US public television stations (PBS) for 31 years (1968-2001).

I cannot review this book without noting that Fred Rogers means a lot to me, as I watched his show regularly for many years.  Because of this, I find his life interesting... possibly more than most.  Then again, David Bowie means a lot to me too, and I didn't review that book well at all.

The narrative line of this book is solid.  There is very little jumping around in time, and there are few narrative conflicts (and those that happen, are explained as conflicts in a straight forward manner).  There were some chapters dedicated to explaining the times he was in, people he worked with, and the beginnings of the Television Industry, in which he was an early entrant.  Some of these chapters didn't make sense to me until I saw how that background became important in the following chapters.

There was one chapter that was filled with religious references, and comparing Fred Rogers to revered religious figures.  That was awkward for me to read, and I think I would have gotten the same thing out of the book, had I skipped the rest of that chapter once I felt awkward.  Overall, after the first quarter of the book, I found myself crying pretty regularly.

In any case, if you grew up watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, or you have a friend who won't shut up about him, or even if you saw the 2018 documentary and want to know more, I highly recommend this book (it covers so much more than the documentary).  Like any biography, it probably won't be interesting if you don't know who this is.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

[Book] Defy The Stars by Claudia Gray

This is book one of a three book series (the third book came out earlier this month), and since I've already had good reviews of two other books by this author, I decided to pick up this series as well to see what she had done outside of the Star Wars universe.

Book cover
Through a ring of stabilized wormholes, large enough for whole ships to pass through, Earth expanded to five other planets.  Over many years, one of those planets, Genesis, decided that the leadership of Earth would use up their planet as they have used up their own, and through great cost, they waged a war to gain their independence.

Thirty years after this war was thought to be won, Earth has started sending new regiments through the gateway, and Genesis isn't ready.  This is where the book begins as we join Noemi, one of the fighters of Genesis, training for a suicide mission.

From the very beginning of the book, the characters are alive with backstory.  I read this book in under a week, despite having a pretty terrible cold.  There is a deep thread here on the difference between intelligent machine and sentient beings.  I want to clarify that nothing about this series feels like the Star Wars universe.  It's a lot more grounded and there aren't sentient alien creatures.  I am really looking forward to book 2, Defy the World.

I recommend this book.  There is violence and injuries, but no gore.  Some romance, but only mentions of sex.  There is little politics, and a little more mention of religion, but overall, the only reason to skip it is if you really aren't a science-fiction person.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

[Book] Maid by Stephanie Land

Book cover
Start from one mistake, one that is tragically common - becoming a parent a little to young.  From that point, almost everything that can go wrong in someone's life while still making the best possible choice for the circumstance is laid out in the first four chapters of this book.  This beginning is a treatise on despair and government anti-poverty programs.

The arc doesn't exactly get better from there, but it starts to be framed in a way that shows gratitude for the things that haven't gone completely wrong, though things do continue to go wrong.  It reminds me of parts of my own childhood being raised by a single mom.  Those memories of being able to do the really simple things that don't cost a lot of money.

There is a lot to unpack here about how poor people are treated as fundamentally broken and lazy.  This is a really good reminder that people are people, and that the hardest working among us often do get the least reward.

Some of my most well-off acquaintances truly believe that they got there through smart-decisions and being willing to put in the work: That luck has very little to do with it.  Those are the people that I really think should skip this book.  I think they'd get the wrong thing from it.  Ultimately this is a memoir from a New York Times Best-Selling Author.  Someone who, through smart-decisions and being willing to put in the work, climbed out of poverty.  In a strange way, this book would only prove the narrative that merit is all it takes.

Read this if you want to go on a journey through some beautiful places in the Pacific North-West while experiencing some truly painful arcs.  Like any good memoir, I come away from this book feeling like I know the author, and really like her as a person.  Maybe you'll feel the same.  Trigger warnings for domestic violence, emotional abuse, medical gore, hoarding and bodily fluids.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

[Book] Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Book cover
This is the second book that I've reviewed by Naomi Novik, the first was Uprooted.  At a high level, there are some parallels between these books, but they are definitely different worlds.  Here's a quick overview of the setting:

A Jewish girl of about 16 named Miryam lives in a medieval small unwalled town with the name of either Pakel or Pavys, but the residents simply called it town which is a third of the way between two larger cities in the Kingdom of Lithvas.  Year over year, winters in Lithvas are getting longer and growing seasons dangerously short.

Anywhere in the kingdom, but most often in the forest near town a magical road of white ice to a winter kingdom of the Staryk will sometimes appear.  The road is a magical, almost dimensional, crossing that the Staryk king is able to open.  Lithvas itself is not a magical place, but the road and the Staryk kingdom is.  The Staryk use the road to pillage Lithvas for gold.

There are three women in this book who are all under-estimated in their own ways, and who all find a greater strength through doing the right thing and not having permission to do so.  Three times at the end of the book I wept with pride.  The character arcs are strong, and even the villains are mostly sympathetic (one exception).

Read this for strong women kicking ass and getting things done.  Content warnings for graphic violence and mention of rape in past context without graphic rape descriptors.