Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

oryx_and_crake_1-large_Spoiler-free Snippet

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is a solid dystopian novel that imagines a future where genetic engineering and scientific modification has flung itself forward with little regard for the ethics and moral practices that drive our current society. The overall world was intriguing and the structure of the story was interesting, as it built on different bits of knowledge revealed by the memories of the main character and his journey back to the source of everything going awry. This intrigue was marred a bit by a feeling of bland post modernism that bordered on boring, as well as a disproportionate amount of scientific jargon and explanation. This is a READ WITH CAUTION. If you’re looking to dive into Atwood, I’d check out The Handmaid’s Tale first, which is actually one of the first books I reviewed on this blog.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The overall story of Oryx and Crake is a discovery of what came before through the memories of one of the last remaining people who actually existed pre-apocalypse. Snowman, as he named himself, is the narrator, taking us through his life with snippets of memories and explanations gleaned from interactions with the odd human-like people he is caring for: the Crakers. As the tale unfolds, you learn more and more about Snowman’s life, who Crake and Oryx were, and ultimately that Crake was right off his rocker. There’s a good dynamic of reader info given, reader guesses made, and actual info given to the reader throughout the story.

The tone, or perhaps more appropriately, the feeling evoked by this book was one of dryness, of casual desolation and the silence of once-occupied emptiness. It was similar to walking into a once-bustling warehouse that is now musty, dark, and quiet. The immediate timeline setting was more interesting than most of the memories you encounter within the novel, and I would almost have liked a book more about the present than the past, though the two are woven together decently.

Atwood employs the use of dystopian-style words and phrases a little too liberally for my tastes, taking the general satire of naming conventions in modern culture further than Orwell or Huxley might have. Corporations, products, medicines, and even foods are all given branded, corporate-funded names that are quite obvious notes to the reader about the society, but it easily becomes overwhelming alongside all the scientific mumbo jumbo.

It was interesting to read about Snowman’s depiction of the familiar plight of word people versus number people. That is to say, word people often end up feeling less valued than number people, and tend to hold jobs viewed as less important, even though the value of marketing the projects the number people produce is quite emphasized within the novel. As a word person, I know that feel, bro.

The ending was interesting in that it totally let the reader decide what Snowman would do. You’re left to contemplate and weigh the consequences of all the ways he might act. I appreciate the elegant tie in to the beginning of the story, as well as the thought behind all the different avenues that Snowman might take.

There’s also some very interesting commentary about art versus science versus religion, specifically shown with the Crakers themselves. Even without influence from the previous culture, they start to create–a thing that Crake warned would bring nothing but trouble. Did Crake leave them too human, or did Snowman influence them too much? Was it Oryx who succeeded in squandering Crake’s dream of perfect humans? We’re left to wonder.

Overall, it was a decent enough book set in a familiar and alien world. I call it a READ WITH CAUTION. If nothing else, the mental image of men with erect, bright blue penises waggling them in a greeting dance to a random woman was amusing.

The Best and Worst Reads of 2015

Since the day we arbitrarily chose to mark the new year has recently come and gone, I thought I would take a look back at the best and worst reads I experienced in 2015.

As I looked back through my posts, I was struck with overwhelming mediocrity. Either I chose poorly, or I was just basically unimpressed with a majority of the books I read. There were a few good ones sprinkled in, as well as some horrific combinations of letters and punctuation marks masquerading as “books.”

The Best Book I Read in 2015: Howl’s Moving Castle

howlsmovingcastleThis title goes to Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, with All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr as a close runner up. It’s funny; I actually didn’t give Howl’s a full review, because I wasn’t sure exactly what more to say than it was very enjoyable and vibrant. I loved the brand of magic and mischief woven throughout the book, and the characters all stood well on their own. That being said, I did recently watch the Miyazaki movie before reading the book, which I admitted may have colored what I thought about the book a bit. Either way, I still say this is a great read and should be considered if you’re looking for a whimsical story and characters with some real depth behind it.

The Worst Book I Read in 2015: Arena One

13451182This dubious title goes to Arena One by Morgan Rice. While it wasn’t my worst reviewed book (that title goes to a book called Dust by Jacqueline Druga that I didn’t even get past the first few pages in), it’s the worst one that I actually read enough of to feel like I did more than simply put it down in disgust. Aside from a very predictable, overdone plot, Arena One felt like the author had binge-watched teen dystopian, post-apocalyptic movies and then decided to write a book with everything she liked about every one she’d seen. Add that into clumsy writing, inexplicable circumstances (surviving multiple motorcycle and car wrecks within the same day, traveling 200+ mph in a disused motorcycle with a sidecar, gas being viable long past its half life), and a sloppy romantic twinge, this book was just too unbelievable to even finish. The worst part is, I’m still having to block books by this author from my Google Books recommendations. At least it was free?

So there you have it. Oddly enough, both my choices were books for which I didn’t write a full review. I’m sure that means something. It was a pretty anticlimactic year on the reading front. Hopefully 2016 fares better. Any suggestions for how I might make 2016 a better year for reading?

EDIT: Title originally said 2016. I have changed it to 2015. Apparently I’m having the opposite problem of writing the right year too easily this year.

Review: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

200px-furies_of_calderonSpoiler-free Snippet

Jim Butcher is an author oft-suggested by those who find out the type of books I like. For some reason, however, I’ve never been drawn to his work. When my fiance began reading Furies of Calderon, a early work of Butcher’s, I felt a little intrigued and took a dive in order to, at the very least, incite book discussions. The world of Calderon sees nature spirits called furies bonded with humans to aid work and play. Dealing in Romanesque settings blended with familiar sword and sorcery elements, the book isn’t something completely unexpected. The characters and basic story are intriguing, but Butcher seems to draw out certain parts. There’s a little too much ponderous political intrigue for my tastes, as well. Overall, I call this a READ WITH CAUTION, as most fantasy readers would probably enjoy it enough to not regret having delved into this world. I intend to read the second book at least, because while it isn’t the best series start I’ve read, I do think spending more time in this world could be entertaining.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Butcher’s Furies of Calderon follows a few different points of view, including Amara the cursor and Tavi, a young boy living in rural lands. Amara finds her teacher to be a traitor and barely escapes to a rural farming community, where trouble follows her to an already troubled stead-holt. Tavi winds up in the midst of this, and the two must warn the local garrison and king of an impending attack by a brutally savage people known as the Marat. There are wild wind storms, “fury crafting” of all sorts (think of a somewhat modified Avatar: The Last Airbender flair), and dramatic battles.

The characters were generally likable, although the main protagonist was a bit transparent and overly special. Tavi lives with his aunt and her brother, and is the only member of their race in memory to not have access to the wild spirits that bond with people like ethereal Pokemon. As such, life is a bit harder for him. It’s immediately obvious that he is going to have a special talent or significance. While this isn’t bad, it was an expectation that I read the book with, and probably colored some of my opinion of it.

I didn’t have much of a problem with many of the characters, aside from a little too much hand-wringing on the part of many of the females. Even though none of the women seemed phoned in or otherwise weak, they were either crazy enough to make Lady Macbeth take a step back, or too caught up in thought to act quickly. I think Butcher’s style of drawing out certain scenes added to this feeling. Some of the males felt this way as well, but not nearly to the same extent.

The overall story is fairly simple, but catches your attention enough. The pacing is a bit jarring, and Butcher seems to enjoy reaching a crescendo in action, then switching to another character and bringing them to that point as well before moving forward. While this isn’t a bad tactic when used sparingly, it was a frequent occurrence here and made me want to yell “Oh, come on!” to the book once or twice.

While mostly unremarkable, Furies of Calderon is an entertaining look at sword and sorcery with some flair that isn’t quite common fare in the fantasy world. Think of it as a TV show that wouldn’t air during prime time, but you’d still watch when you caught it on while flipping through channels. Some of you might binge watch it, others might run away. As such, this series opener rests squarely in the READ WITH CAUTION category.

Fantasy Roundup: Werewolves, Circuses, and Moving Castles

silver-in-the-bloodSilver in the Blood – Jessica Day George

Silver in the Blood was an interesting take on Victorian-era historical fiction married with the supernatural. Two girls find out that they’re shapeshifters, having inherited a legacy from their family to protect and uphold a certain ruling family. Though this novel was a little too full of clothing descriptions and the ramblings of teenage girls for me (partly things I have issues with in most historical fiction), it also had some unique takes on the whole vampire, werewolf, and general shapeshifter legends. I also quite appreciate the changes the girls undertake as people and how they don’t immediately bow to tradition or ignore it. These were strong female characters that were actually written as females, rather than having to take on more masculine traits in order to be written as strong (a pet peeve of mine). So, if you’re into the supernatural of that sort and you enjoy historical fiction, probably of a young adult-type variety, I could say you’d enjoy this book. I would call it a READ WITH CAUTION, because there are a few considerations to be made before you’d decide to read it.

The Gracekeepers – Kristy Logan23012481

I picked up The Gracekeepers because it was recommended as a similar work to Station Eleven, which I enjoyed. It was more of a young adult take on that type of world, though. While I agree that there were similarities in the novels, such as a sort of literary fiction take on a speculative fiction novel and a traveling troupe theme, The Gracekeepers fell short of being more than mediocre. The writing was decent, but many of the characters felt flat. While their motivations and personalities should have been interesting, they just sort of melded together into this blob the color of a stormy ocean. The settings and ideas behind the novel and its story aren’t bad, and could have been a lot more interesting if the tone of the book hadn’t been so lackluster. Definitely a READ WITH CAUTION.

howlsmovingcastleHowl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne Jones

I bought Howl’s Moving Castle long ago on a Kindle Daily Deal, but hadn’t read it. After starting a run of watching Miyazaki films, I saw the film version and was intrigued to read the book. Howl’s Moving Castle follows eldest-child Sophie as she gives up her boring life and seeks out adventure after having been bespelled by a witch. The writing is done well, with charismatic characters and intriguing places. Sophie is quite fun to adventure with, and the world itself feels vibrant. I cannot, however, truly say if I would feel this way about the book without having seen the visual interpretation. Miyazaki did an amazing job at capturing Sophie’s character, and while the two storylines do differ, I feel like I had a very precise image of many things in my head which may have caused me to enjoy the story more than I would have otherwise. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I can really give it much of a critique because of this, but I do think it was a very enjoyable READ, suitable for all ages.

Review: Sanyare: The Last Descendant by Megan Haskell

51tybr0fhxl-_sx331_bo1204203200_I received an ebook copy of Sanyare: The Last Descendant from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Spoiler-free Snippet

I would classify Sanyare: The Last Descendant, by Megan Haskell, as an urban fantasy set in a fantasy world. While most urban fantasy I’ve read is set in our own world, albeit one with magic and such, this deals with different realms and only briefly touches on the human realm. The overall story wasn’t entirely innovative (as many fantasy tales tend to be), but it was written in a way that made it interesting, and the characters were done well. The climax felt rushed and sudden, and the ending felt a little like it was merely a set up for another book. Regardless, I think fans of light fantasy or urban fantasy could definitely find merit in Haskell’s world and its inhabitants. I will call this one READ WITH CAUTION, as the overall work was good, but the climax and conclusion had a few issues.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Sanyare: The Last Descendant, is an urban fantasy that leans toward the side of light fantasy. It has the urban locale and somewhat modern-day vibe to it, but it also deals heavily with realms other than the human one and doesn’t have the same grit that most urban fantasy I’ve read seems to contain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was something I thought about several times while reading.

Rie is a messenger for the high elves, a changeling who was once human and taken in by two high elves, though her human status means she can only be a servant in their culture. She’s treated well and life is good until she goes to deliver a message to a high elf living in the human realm, where she is attacked by two assassins. After finding out they are from the Shadow Realm and dealing with politics that will execute her for coming into contact with them (even unwillingly), Rie ventures into the Shadow Realm to try and find out why she was a target.

The novel contains a lot of complicated elvish names. While this is somewhat expected with so many elves running about, this traditional elf naming can be a bit cumbersome to read. Luckily, most of the main characters have simpler elf names, or go by shortened names (like Rie, herself). Otherwise, the cast of characters is one of less popular beings from the otherworld, including brutish redcaps and carnivorous pixies. Upon starting the book and reading about the pixie companions, I almost rolled my eyes (I don’t know why, but pixies always conjure up things like Barbie fairies), but was pleasantly surprised when they attacked the assassins and ate out their tongues.

There seemed to be a little too much awareness of sexuality within the story, at least between the main character and her love interest. I always wonder if perhaps I’m just not as aware of those I find attractive as other people, but I find it odd that in times of stress and being completely out of their element, characters still find the time to examine bulging muscles and get flirty. I don’t necessarily mind Rie’s attraction to the Prince, but it irked me a little how quickly and ardently she admired him, especially after having been around the beauty of high elves all her life (perhaps his differences as a dark elf made him more exotic). This may not be a problem for most readers.

The biggest issue in the book for me was that the climax, while much anticipated, seemed rushed and sudden. I felt like once it crested and started tumbling down the other side, I was still expecting or wanting more. I was very happy that Rie wasn’t imbued with all the superpowers ever, as some characters can be, and I was pleased with the way she solved her own issues. But I can’t help but feel like it just didn’t live up to the rest of the book, and that a spoiled princess getting scared and a challenge to a new ability of Rie’s were the only big things that happened. I guess I just felt like there should have been a little more, or a bigger issue with the souls, or something of that nature.

After the climax left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, the rest of the book seemed a bit off, too. The lengthy description of each child of the Sanyaro and the logistics of how Rie is his descendant may be necessary, but it felt a bit boring to read about, and seemed to go on too long. At any rate, the ending definitely led up to a sequel. I would consider reading the sequel, depending on how much it cost. I will also readily admit that my view of the ending could be flavored by feelings about the climax.
Overall, I would say this is a fairly solid light fantasy book, even if it did have its issues. I felt the characters were compelling and that the author really tried to bring life to a story that may have otherwise been a bit hum ho. I’ll call this READ WITH CAUTION, as many readers would enjoy it, but those with more discerning fantasy tastes may feel a bit underwhelmed by the last 20% of the novel.

Review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Spoiler-free Snippet

Dan Simmons’ Hyperion is a science fiction novel written in the style of The Canterbury Tales. A group of pilgrims set out for a mysterious destination and deity in hopes of having a wish granted. As they make the journey, they decide to share their tales. Hyperion was a READ until about 80 percent through, when you get to the story of the Consul. From then on, it’s as if the writer decides he’d rather recount The Wizard of Oz in a far-future space adventure. The book is worth reading for the compelling stories and characters prior to that, though. With an interesting set of stories and a solid delivery method, Hyperion is a solid choice for a science fiction reader. I’m calling it a READ WITH CAUTION, though. Be prepared for a let down at the end.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Hyperion is basically a science fiction version of The Canterbury Tales, as I said before (with less kissing of bare ass). We follow seven pilgrims on their journey to see the mystical Shrike, a bladed, metal monster that resides in the Time Tombs on the outer planet Hyperion. Each pilgrim has the potential chance to propose a wish to the Shrike, who may choose to grant the wish of one person, then kill the rest. As the journey unfolds, they all decide to share their stories, detailing how each one’s life has been irrevocably changed by the Shrike and Hyperion’s existence. The tales are even named similarly to Chaucer’s Tales, such as “The Detective’s Tale.”

Simmons touches on some grand and engaging themes and locales in Hyperion. We see a giant tree ship that hurtles through space as a living vessel for a grand race of Templars. At one point, the group crosses a vast sea of grass on a wind ship in a Ghibli-esque situation. Giant manta rays pull a barge down a river. Great Tesla tree forests spit fiery electricity at anyone unlucky enough to be in their midst. Houses contain windows to other worlds through teleportation-style transportation devices. The mysterious Shrike legend and cultures themselves are fairly vibrant, even if some aren’t explained enough for me.

The story is solid, but the writing falls prey to something that a lot of fantasy and older science fiction books seem to have a weakness for: over description. The intricacy of buttons on a coat and the mind-numblingly complex functionalities of completely fiction future tech are presented in excruciating detail. It was the sort of thing that makes my eyes glaze over. After I read five paragraphs about buttons, I can’t remember who was wearing the coat. Some folks might like the descriptions of the crazy future tech, but for me it encumbered an otherwise good story, and brought the whole thing down a notch.

There was an unfortunate amount of what I would consider the author’s passions in the story, to the point that it felt phony. I find it hard to believe that seven centuries after Earth dies in the future that people would quote Twain. Occasionally, there was reference to someone who had done something in poetry or literature beyond our own time line, but every other referenced was bogged down in our time (the Hawking drive and Hyperion itself). Simmons seems to have a fascination with the poet Keats. In the realm of the story, it seems fairly reasonable for the poet to know Keats, but overall it jarred me from immersion.

The tales are each worthy of a review in their own right. Sol’s story was the most moving, as I think we can all understand the pain and awful circumstances he is going through (although the Abraham/obedient Jew angle seems a bit dry). Simmons wrote Martin into a character that I very much disliked. While it is generally a good writer that makes one feel palpable distaste for a character, Martin became a bit of a one-trick pony.

In all, the last 20 percent of the book ruined it all. The Consul’s story felt like it was some odd Romeo and Juliet tragedy with dolphins and time debt, and I skipped a large chunk of it. The ending of the book was baffling. Quite literally, the group of pilgrims holds hands and sings a song while walking toward the Shrike waiting for them with a horrendous space battle happening overhead. I half expected them to skip. It felt so different from the rest of the book, like they had all somehow solved their problems by telling their stories and now they were perfectly settled and ready to face certain death from a red-eyed, blade-covered foe that had caused them all hardship in the past.

I would call this book a READ WITH CAUTION. I don’t intend to read the second book. Really, the book is a READ until you get to the end.

Edit (10/21): Removed my notion that the Templars were assassins. For some reason, I had the sense that they were talking about Masteen as though he was from a race of assassins, but my lovely fiance asked me what I was talking about and I did some research.

Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi, is the second novel in the Old Man’s War trilogy. Existing in the same basic time period as the first book, we see new and familiar faces. My general feelings of this book can be summed up by a simple statement: it existed to connect the first and last book. While it wasn’t a horrible read, it felt largely superfluous to the overarching story, and I had a hard time caring about the main character. Since it is the middle book of a trilogy, I’ll call this one a READ WITH CAUTION. It wasn’t bad, but I had little patience for a lot of things that took place, and I felt like it was a bit of a deviation from what made the first book, Old Man’s War, interesting.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades follows Jared Dirac, who was created in a manner slightly different than his fellow members of the Ghost Brigades. He is thrust into a world where he must cope with being born an adult and slowly learning that his consciousness is a copy of a traitor to his species, though he isn’t an exact copy in the sense of feelings and emotions. He is eventually key in tracking down and bringing justice to the traitor, along with Jane Sagan from the first book.

We’re introduced to the concept of the Ghost Brigades soldiers in the first book, where the main character ends up directly interacting with them after the intrigue of seeing his dead wife’s body. While the creation, design, and moral implications of the Ghost Brigades are interesting in concept, the focus on them in the book felt largely like a repeat of the training sequences in the first book, but with less interesting characters. The reader is forced to relive the training that occurred in the first book, only in a more rapid manner, and is introduced to an upgraded version of the CDF soldiers.

Jared’s journey to find himself and come to terms with the fact that his consciousness was a copy of a traitor is fairly interesting, though it doesn’t really feel compelling to me in a larger sense. The cast of characters here just isn’t what I had expected, and I felt myself yearning for the charisma that the first book’s protagonist had. I feel like Scalzi wanted to develop Jane’s character a little more before he got to the third book, so he created this story arc in order to add a little more oomph to her character while revealing a bit more of the galaxy’s politics.

I did enjoy learning more about the alien species in the galaxy, as well as the ways the CDF was furthering their research when it comes to human modification and those sorts of things. I feel like this could have been an intriguing standalone novel, but as a follow up to the first, it fell a bit short.
While not an altogether unenjoyable story, I will label this READ WITH CAUTION. Breeze through it in order to get to the next book, in my opinion.