Review: The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

As a middle schooler, life can be pretty difficult. Between your body doing odd things that seem impossible (random erections or suddenly bleeding for a week at a time) and the sudden interest in other members of your species as potential mates, tweens need little outside influence to make life more trying. Unfortunately for Julia, the world is starting to stop spinning.

As you all (hopefully) know, Earth rotates on its axis. A complete rotation takes approximately 24 hours, which gives us our handy cycle of day and night. It also influences the weather, distribution of oceans, habits of animals, and magnetosphere (that last one is pretty darn important). I was interested to read about living through the experience of the Earth slowing down, so I grabbed The Age of Miracles from my local library’s ebook service.

Life is pretty awesome for Julia. She plays soccer, she has good friends, and her family is pretty happy. One day, however, scientists realize that the spin of the Earth has begun to slow. As such, new hours bleed into every. Over time, the spin keeps slowing until days and nights are long affairs and humanity can’t naturally keep up with them. Soon, every part of life is thrown out of balance.

Overall, the book told a decent speculative fiction story of what might happen if the rotation of the Earth began to slow. I enjoyed the perspective of a middle schooler for these events. When you are younger, the world isn’t the same as it is when you’re an adult. You don’t always have all the facts and most of your world revolves around your parents and your close friends. Though unfortunate for Julia, it was interesting to read about her comfortable world falling apart.

The science in the book seemed a bit odd at times. Though the author cites that she had her work checked over by an astrophysicist who deemed it all “plausible,” I felt like there would be more of a noticeable difference for the characters in the story. It may have been a result of the point of view. Some aspects were there, like plants having difficulty with longer days and nights, as well as the magnetosphere being in danger. Other points weren’t as noticeable, like the fact that the world’s oceans would start to reallocate at the poles. It also seemed a bit odd to me that it took a somewhat substantial amount of time for people to realize the days and nights were longer. When everyone finally notices the slowing, it is staying dark until around 8:00 am in the summer (northern hemisphere). I feel like that would have been a pretty obvious occurrence.

The writing style is interesting. I specifically enjoyed the way the author described some things in an almost abstract way. It seemed fitting to what you notice when events occur—the glint of American flag pins, dark suits, and red ties rather than the names or faces of the politicians speaking. One aspect of her style I didn’t enjoy was the use of the “Little did I know this would be my last…” tactic. It seems that she relied too heavily upon the use of “I was wrong about that” or “I would later find out I was right” to make the story suspenseful. Used tastefully, this can work out fine, especially in memory-based fiction. I felt it was overdone here, though.

The novel ends with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. I do think the book did quite well in establishing the sense of impermanence and lack of control that humans go through when they are adolescents. The Earth’s spin slowing down was an interesting take on the story, but the same story could have be written about a middle schooler without that inclusion. Granted, if it hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been drawn to pick up the book.

This is another READ WITH CAUTION. I was impressed by several parts of the novel, but there were also a few parts that seemed lacking. As such, I can’t get fully behind everyone needing to read this book. It was a decent speculative fiction novel, and a pretty good story about being a teenage girl in the midst of confusing times.

Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Image courtesy goodreads.com

I’ve always enjoyed stories of the American west and southwest, specifically spaghetti westerns. I used to watch such movies with my grandpa and dad when I was a kid. True, the content probably wasn’t the best choice, but bonding rituals don’t always make sense. One of my favorite movies is Tombstone. Though the Earps are compelling, I was always specifically interested by Doc Holliday. As such, when browsing the historical fiction section of my local library’s ebook section, I picked up a novel called Doc by Mary Doria Russell.

John Henry Holliday is a displaced southern gentleman living in the infamously wild Dodge City, Kansas. Having moved west to Kansas to escape the cruel effects of Georgia’s humidity on his tuberculosis, he tries to practice dentistry in towns that wax and wane with Texas cowherds, earning him the nickname Doc. In time, he becomes friends with the Earps and inextricably linked to the history of the old west. Doc’s true story, however, is not the same as history might make it out to be. The shootout at the OK Corral was at the end of a long road.

The novel captures the Doc I’m familiar with: the southern drawl, the love for music, and the impatience with stupidity. I learned a lot more than I previously knew about conditions in the old west and perhaps more descriptions of suffering from tuberculosis than I ever hoped to know.

The book is not told entirely from the point of view of Doc. At times, we see things from Wyatt or Morgan Earp’s point of view, or even Kate, Doc’s companion. Dodge City is about as close to Mos Eisley cantina as a place has ever been on this Earth, and is truly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You’re introduced to the politics of the day, animosity over the not-long-over US Civil War, racial tension, and the hard life of those that moved westward to settle.

The theme of prejudice and assumption is executed well in Doc. You see the difference that education can make, as well as reasoning behind many different types of racism and violence. Dodge City is a melting pot of lost souls, but many manage to find a place in the world.

I felt it was a little disconcerting to go back and forth between characters as suddenly as the book did. For instance, one minute you’d be reading from Doc’s point of view, and then you were suddenly in Wyatt’s shoes. It was fairly easy to pick up on, but still seemed a bit jarring. Many parts of the story were told as future events, while others were presented as blow-by-blow action. I didn’t have much trouble with this, but I could see it disconcerting some readers.

There is little true romance in a story like this. Doc feels isolated because of his intelligence and knowledge about certain things about which other people care little. I related to this quite a bit. When Doc does find another soul who shares his sort of intelligence, he drinks it in like a man in the desert (which I suppose, in a sense, he is).

It’s a sad story of a hard life. There are some parts to make you laugh and smile, and other parts to make you thankful for modern medicine. I came away from the novel feeling a little bit closer to one of my favorite characters, his voice a little clearer in my head.

I’ll call this book READ WITH CAUTION. It’s a bit of a niche read. Generally, if you are interested in that historical time period or any of those historical figures, you’ll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, I can’t really say.

Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Photo courtesy Goodreads.com

Diana is a historian, a tenured faculty member researching ancient alchemical manuscripts, and a witch. She refrains from using her powers as much as possible after the untimely death of her parents when she was young. Unfortunately for her, she unknowingly calls a bespelled book up from the archives and begins a chain of events that lead to her finding out things she never knew about herself and her family, much less the world.

A Discovery of Witches appealed to me because of the fact that the main characters were lovers of old books and the pursuit of knowledge. After having seen the book a few years ago, but not wanting to pay the price for it, I was happy to find it in the ebook section of my local library.

The book is cited as historical fiction, but a lot of the plot takes place in modern times. One of the appealing elements of the novel is that Matthew, the vampire love interest, is very old and has witnessed a large amount of historical events. Since Diana is a historian, this means they have some pretty interesting conversations. I found this to be an enjoyable aspect of their budding relationship. Rather than having some hot and heavy sudden affair, Diana and Matthew discuss alchemical imagery used in ancient texts, banter about The Origin of Species, and discuss the implications of historical events. Passion does come, but it is tempered somewhat (even though the fall-in-love time frame is rather short).

At times it seemed that Matthew was around for a little too many historical events. I was willing to let this slide, though, because the creature races in this world are very much obsessed with intellectual pursuits. Vampires wonder about science and biology, specifically (and not unexpectedly) anatomy and circulatory systems. Daemons are artistically-inclined savants, exceedingly clever and gifted. Witches are known for their incredible familial lineage and variety of powers. As such, it makes a fair bit of sense that a vampire would surround his or herself with the powerful intellectual minds of any period.

The book seemed a bit long for all that went on in the story. I didn’t get tired of reading it, but it just felt a bit longer than it should have been. The story was interesting, but not really unique. You can generally guess where many stories are going. The good stories just make you guess a bit more than the bad ones. I didn’t expect every twist and turn, but the basic gist was pretty easy to ascertain (witch who doesn’t use her powers actually has extraordinary powers she must learn to control and her love with the vampire will somehow unlock or be the key to a mystery).

I don’t begrudge the book for that, though. I enjoyed the unique look at creatures, though I find it odd that there are only three types, aligned in neat little categories. I would consider this novel a READ WITH CAUTION. It was a pleasant book, but had its flaws. The predictability of the story wasn’t too overt, but I could imagine it annoying someone easily. Somehow, the novel manages to both be a basic love story and not be a basic love story. I applaud the book for showcasing a variety of families and love, as well as not resting on the tropes commonly associated with and expected when it comes to fantastic creatures.

Please note that this is the first book in a trilogy. As such, the story wraps up fairly well, but still does a good job of hinting toward the next book. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with the trilogy, because the library only had the first book and I’m not too keen on the way the books are priced (the second ebook is $4.99, but the third is $11.99). I will probably grab them if they are available from my library in the future, though.

Review: Binary Cycle: Revelations

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Image courtesy wjdaviesauthor.com.

Humanity’s new planet is in danger. Most people are going about their lives as normal, which is what Kenneth is trying to do as well. In a specific region for his job, he unwittingly makes friends with a scientist trying to figure out how to save the planet. After a brief meeting and a suspicious robbery, Kenneth decides to try and figure out what’s going on himself, with the help of two new friends he met in the market. Meanwhile, the dangerous fauna called Spindroth are starting to exhibit new signs of awareness, mental aptitude, and even appear to be working with a terrorist organization.

Binary Cycle: Revelations is the second book in WJ Davies’ Binary Cycle Saga. If you read my review of Binary Cycle: Disruption, you might be a bit confused about the plot synopsis above. That’s okay, because I’m pretty confused too. As I mentioned in my last post, book one doesn’t really resolve itself as an individual book—it’s expected that you’ll read the second (and ostensibly, the third). As such, I was expecting the second book to pick up on the story.

This book barely includes any of the characters we got to know in the first part of the saga. Instead, we follow a rather boring character named Kenneth who seems to be an outlet for the author to express his odd poetic musings about life. There are several instances where I think the author is trying too hard to provide elegant imagery; the most notable of which includes this quote:

“Sporadic chunks of inky sky were visible through the canopy of trees, like intricate black and white patterns intermittently placed over a semi-transparent, quivering tablecloth.”

Semi-transparent, quivering tablecloth.

Kenneth is always in the right place at the right time. He’s been brought to the region by his father’s company and ends up meeting Skyia through the vent in their shared hotel room wall (creepy). She divulges minimal information, but has Kenneth all flustered thinking about relationships and life. After they speak briefly, a robbery occurs. Obviously overcome with the momentous small talk exchange that he had with Skyia through a vent, he feels the need to search their hotel room and save a data pad, which he then reads to gain highly classified information. After giving it to their bodyguard, he decides to follow the team through a dangerous jungle with two 20ish locals he just met. He also develops a crush on one of them as well, who is named Hanna and called Han. Another Star Wars reference? What are the odds? Don’t tell me.

I’m a fast reader, even with stuff I don’t enjoy, but it was a real struggle to keep reading about Kenneth. Everything seemed so contrived at this point that it was a little painful. The author creates an interesting plot in some regards, with an cryptic message from an Earth that has been silent for over a century and a terrorist organization suddenly working with newly-sentient, highly dangerous animals. All of this, however, was overshadowed by the unfortunate, Hamlet-esque musings of Kenneth and his lack of being anything other than a handy plot device (only less slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and more quivering tablecloth).

After reading this second installment, I’ve pretty much forgotten most of what occurred in the first book, since there was barely any mention of those characters and plotlines. I feel no desire to read the third book in this series. These should have been released as a single book, or either each should have been a bit longer and had a more satisfying conclusion. The promising start provided by the first book was injured by the Lifetime TV series feel of the second, and I’m not sure there’s enough life left in the story for it to limp home in the third.
I would call this a DON’T READ. It’s not unreadable, but it does not meet my expectations and I feel it was a waste of reading time.

Review: Binary Cycle: Disruption by WJ Davies

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Graphic courtesy wjdaviesauthor.com.

In the seemingly inevitable future, humanity has to abandon Earth and colonize elsewhere. Unfortunately, planets to support life as we know it are not ubiquitous, and only one planet was successfully colonized. The inhabitants have spent over 200 years making it their own home, dealing with threats from indigenous wildlife and adapting life as humans to a new place. Such is the premise for WJ Davies’ Binary Cycle: Disruption.

I like to support indie authors, as my boyfriend is one and I respect the pursuit of putting pen to page (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). Binary Cycle: Disruption is noted on Amazon as the first book in a saga. It’s really more a novella-sized work and I would not call this a stand alone book—it’s expected that you will keep reading.

In general, this first installment was intriguing. It was fairly run of the mill sci-fi, but with an interesting world and a nice set up to pique the reader’s interest (oh no, our new world is doomed!). Humans, it seems, ruin everything.

I felt there were a few too many characters presented in a short amount of time, but they each had a good debut and were meaningful enough in my head. They all felt a bit too self-aware. Each character seemed to have just a bit too much of a grasp on their own strengths, weaknesses, and places in life. Even when thrown into disorienting circumstances, they remained a bit more together than I would generally assume. As such, I was a little thrown off.

I took issue with the fact that one of the main characters is named Skyia Walker. If you’re not a Star Wars fan or member of the last century, you may not be familiar with this name. I understand paying tribute to things you like and adding pop culture references to your work, but I feel that should be done in a more minor way, rather than with a protagonist. Considering that this character also doesn’t know who or father is and has never met him, I’m even more unimpressed. This may not bother you, dear reader, but it was a point of contention for me.

The book ends with several loose threads waiting to be woven into the story, so there’s no overarching resolution. I felt the desire to read the next book, however, so the goal of the first was ostensibly fulfilled. It was entertaining, if not magical, and left me wanting more, if not fervently.

I’d call this a READ WITH CAUTION. If you’re into science fiction or speculative fiction, you’ll probably be entertained. You’ll also be supporting an indie author, if you’re into that sort of thing. The price tag is also quite friendly.

 

Review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

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Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia. http://bit.ly/1xhyq1G

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, tells the story of an Earth in peril, beginning with a night when the stars disappear.

I picked this up as part of a Humble Bundle eBook bundle. Overall, the book was entertaining, with an ending that fell just short of satisfying. I particularly liked this quote and first line from the novel:

Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere.

The narrator switches back and forth between the present time and the past, which recounts the Spin event, as it is called. A large barrier has formed around the Earth, blocking the stars and slowing time. As Earth plods along at its own pace, billions of years pass beyond the dark sphere. This is an issue, as our powerful sun is but a star and has an eventual date with death. The narrator’s generation must face the fact that they will live to see the world end.

The novel explores humanity’s reaction to knowing when the world will end. Some people cling to religion and various movements spring up around the world, from lewd sex festivals to groups trying to breed a blood red calf to usher in apocalypse. Science takes a different route, hatching a plan to colonize Mars and give humanity more time to figure out how to fix things. No one knows who has caused this Spin event, but it isn’t a naturally occurring thing. With the oncoming end, everyone is falling and everyone lands somewhere different.

This was a book I wasn’t sure how to take. It wasn’t necessarily boring, but it wasn’t quite riveting, either. I think a lot of that has to do with the main character and his sense of detachment from everything. He very much lives vicariously through his closest friends, a brother and sister pair who take on polarized roles in the end of the world. The sister clings to religion and a husband, while the brother pursues science and understanding in the shadow of his father’s monetary empire.  Through the main character’s lens, we view all the doom of humanity—and it seems largely underwhelming.

I thought humanity’s initial reaction to the stars disappearing was rather odd. Everyone seemed to take it very well. I can only imagine that finding out a giant sphere of black made the stars disappear would drive most people into frenzy. As long as humans have existed, we’ve gazed up at the night sky. To have that suddenly vanish would be terrifying.

The book makes a good point, though, about the number of people who o don’t know much about science or subscribe to religions or beliefs that don’t give much credit to science (such as the Earth being 6000 years old). There isn’t an easy way for a good chunk of the population to grasp an event like a large barrier forming around the Earth and slowing down time. These same people would have a harder time grasping that the sun could die and die soon. I feel like this is a pretty accurate assumption.

I would rate this book as READ WITH CAUTION. You might like it, you might not. I honestly can’t say, at this point. The sensation of finishing this novel was similar to thinking you have a Diet Coke and tasting sweet tea instead. You’re not really upset or disgusted, but it isn’t exactly what you wanted and you’re not really sure if you’re going to be satisfied with tea.

There are two more books in the trilogy, Axis and Vortex. I don’t think I will be reading these, at least right now. If you do check any out, please let me know what you think.

Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

944073There are books that leave you in awe and books that leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, similar to having licked a particularly dusty boot.

In the middle of that scale, there are books that make you shrug your shoulders and utter a few vague, non-committal words like “It was decent” or “It was a pretty good story.” This is one of those stories. If we were to talk of this story in the sense of steak doneness, I would consider this medium-well. (Note: we’re not considering flavor here, but rather the actual cooked status of the steak, saying that well-done is as cooked as it can be and is therefore best.)

Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself is a journey through a fairly generic high fantasy world, where you meet several characters whose lives begin to intertwine as the story progresses. An important point to consider before reading is that Abercrombie writes using British English and style, meaning that single quotation marks are used for speech, and certain words are spelled differently. I have no issue with this, but it can be a bit awkward to get used to at first.

In general, I found the story to be entertaining. The first 50 percent of the book seemed a bit slow and almost unnecessary, though I can see the value in learning many of the things you do in that time. I was much more interested in reading the second half of the book. There are some issues with a failure to execute a “show, don’t tell” writing style (meaning that we experience the characters emotions and actions rather than being told what they feel or think). An example of this would be when we encounter Jezal at the card game he plays with his friends:

“He had a faint, mysterious smile which seemed to say, ‘I am not a nobleman, and may be your social inferior, but I won a Contest and the King’s favour on the battlefield and that makes me the better man, so you children will damn well do as I say.’”

I also felt some words and descriptors were oddly used. The men often giggle at times when it seems like a better word might have been found to describe the laughter in the sense of the scene.

The first chapter of the story was difficult for me. The halting style of writing and odd sentence structure might have been an attempt to depict the rough, hurried nature of the action throughout that chapter, but for me it just became annoying to read. In my opinion, you can convey a rushed, panicked tone without hacking away at sentence structure and using periods a bit too frequently. Some might call this creative license.

Each character can stand in his or her own right as a person of interest, and the plot and people are well-balanced. The characters mirrored many races and peoples from our own history, but vaguely enough that they stood on their own in Abercrombie’s world. I actually find it interesting to see the cultures of our own world re-worked into a fantasy tale’s world building, so I have no problems on that front. It’s fairly easy to classify Logen as someone of Norse descent, Jezal as European, and Ferro as African.

The characters are really the shining triumph of this story. I developed complex feelings toward all of them. You never truly know if they are good, bad, or just trying to blunder through life as best they can.

The story has no real closure, unfortunately. It just seems as though you’ve read a minor resolution to some things, then the pages just stop. I didn’t feel especially inclined to pursue the next book in the series. Overall, many of the issues with the story were stylistic; however, as a reader that is my prerogative. It may work for some, but to my mind the story and characters weren’t a good enough trade off for my dislike of the style.

✪✪✪ = The book was decent, but could have been better.

Threads Writing Excerpt: The Portal

Disclaimer: The following passage is an excerpt from a work of fiction I am currently writing. It is completely unedited prose, so pardon any mistakes or things that might not make sense. Though probably not the final form of the story, feel free to let me know what you think. Please do not copy or re-post this without attributing it to me. Thank you. For more information on Threads, check out this page.

As her mind lapsed back to the conversation, she managed to only sound slightly miffed in her reply. “No, I’m looking into some other options. Really, I just want to be anywhere but here.”

“I hear that! I’m sure you can do whatever it is you want to do, too.” said Shannon, and the two fell silent but for the clicking of Shannon’s heels on the concrete. Fay glanced down at her own flats and wondered if she’d feel more potent and professional if her shoes made that sound. It seemed that all the really professional, well-kept women wore noisy footwear.  Finally reaching Shannon’s car, the woman veered off and waved a few fingers in Fay’s direction while calling, “Have a good one!”

This time, Fay’s reply was genuine. She wished Shannon a good evening in turn, and walked on to her own car with a warmer feeling in her chest than when she’d left. This woman that didn’t know her that well seemed to have faith in her, and she thought that maybe that meant something. Maybe fate had something more in store for her than just typing numbers into a computer all day.

Plopping down in the driver’s seat and wrestling her bags across the steering wheel, Fay buckled her seatbelt and started the car. The engine came to life with less than a purr, but it was still sturdy and got her where she needed to go. She had a fondness for the car she’d had for a while now, and was loathe to pursue another one until the current was rendered useless. She easily dropped into the dreamlike state of the commuter, with her elbow propped on car door, her hand cradling her head as she leaned to the left.

The drive home was mercifully short, even if the scenery was beautiful as the trees were at their peak of autumn glamor. The sunset’s light on their upper branches seemed to set them ablaze, the reds and oranges glowing vibrantly. This was Fay’s favorite time of year, and the time of year that reminded her most of where she’d grown up. She’d never really left the area she was originally from, only moving to the nearby big city for college and remaining there afterward. Fall had a way of making her miss the small town of her youth, and the comforts she could find there. As she pulled into her parking space in front of her apartment, she finally snapped out of her reverie.

After climbing the stairs and fumbling with the key in the lock, Fay heard the unmistakable noises of a ecstatic canine. She opened the door carefully, smiling at the small blur of excitement that rocketed around her living room, yelping happily. Coming home to a happy dog made it hard to remain upset, and soon Fay laughed at the little animal’s antics. Setting down her bag, she scooped the warm, wriggling Chihuahua up in her arms.

“Hey there, Vy. How are you, little girl?” She cooed at the dog, who responded by licking her chin and letting loose and chirping trill. Sometimes Fay thought Violet was more a parakeet than a Chihuahua.

She put Violet down, then attatched her leash and prepared to go outside. The dog pranced happily out the door, hopping down the steps. Fay didn’t lock the door; there wasn’t a need as she’d be back in about three minutes. Plus, she figured that only the most desperate thieves would actually see any of her things as worth taking. Fay tightened her coat as she waited for Violet to sniff each individual blade of grass in order to find the perfect one to christen with her pee.

Fay laughed to herself as she thought about how often it seemed that she was the pet waiting on the master, rather than the other way around. She glanced around, shaking her head at the fact that she was standing in the middle of a grassy yard waiting for an eight pound dog to pee instead of relaxing. She glanced back at Violet, her little curly tail wagging.

A glittering shine caught the edge of Fay’s peripheral vision, and she turned to see what was there. The air seemed to shimmer for a moment, but was quickly gone. Blinking, Fay rubbed her eyes, thinking that her contact lenses must have blurred up from the chilly autumn wind. Violet had finished her business, and the two began to walk back toward the steps when she noticed the shimmer again. This time, it seemed more apparent, and as Fay watched, it formed a large, nebulous shape in the air. She looked around, wondering if anyone else was around and if they were seeing what she saw. Turning her attention back to the glimmering, Fay watched in amazement as the glittering swirls became more opaque, deepening to purples, blacks, and blues. The effect was entrancing.

♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think in the comments below, or catch me on Twitter (@hewts). Stay tuned for more excerpts as I continue writing!

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