Review: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Spoiler-free Snippet

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, is a work of speculative fiction centering around a virulent version of the flu wiping out a large chunk of humanity in a time much like our own. The story moves through time, featuring several different characters and their lives prior to, during, and after the catastrophe. Sometimes this sort of time travel and story weaving can be a bit confusing or boring, but it was done well in this book. The characters were interesting and the story wasn’t completely run of the mill, which was a good sign. One of the weirdest things was that this book followed a similar set of circumstances to a book idea  I’ve been kicking around in my head for a few years. Overall, I would call this a READ, because I enjoyed it and felt like it gave a good picture of the speculative fiction world it sought to portray.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Station Eleven begins with a performance of Shakespeare and an actor dying on stage (not of the flu). That actor’s death and life connect several players in the tale of Station Eleven, as a plague-level flu sweeps across the world and wipes out large chunks of population. You’re given the perspectives of being in a big city during the flu outbreak as well as the experience of twenty years later, as part of a traveling orchestra and acting caravan. The focus of this novel is mostly on the people and how they cope with different situations, rather than an action-based take on the disease spreading.

The whole Kevin Bacon-esque six degrees of separation feel of some books isn’t present in this one. In a way, the book shows how you can touch the lives of others without even meaning to and reminds us that you can have an effect no matter how brief the interaction.

As a fan of Shakespeare and orchestral music, I quite enjoyed the thought of a band of players roaming the country 20 years after the flu epidemic and bringing some of the old world to the new. “Survival is insufficient,” as the caravan’s lead wagon reads. The true mark of modern man is in the will to do more than merely survive.

The novel seems to follow the notion that a complete culture reset might not be a bad thing, as the lives portrayed before the plague are often a bit depressing, with an overall tone of jaded disenchantment. Relationships and lives are mostly ho-hum, with most people feeling as though they’re just going through the motions. The portrayal of life after the plague seems a bit more real, but when you think about it, there are a ton of realities to face that aren’t there in the time before. In short, it’s a bit of a “grass is always greener” situation.

The flu gives a lot of people in the book a chance to change their lives (even if it is forced) and there is a sense of hope there, that even after a disaster the human spirit will go on and survive. This is a bit of a silly, optimistic thought when I write it in this review, but it doesn’t feel nearly that corny when you read the book.
To me, the main point of the book is that art inspires and enriches everything we do, regardless of what our living situation may be and how we interpret art. This resonated with me. From a dismal world and survival comes the chance to show creativity, even a little, and to appreciate the creativity of others. And that, I think, is what makes a society blossom. Even if it’s a simple stone carved into a simple shape, it’s an expression of thought and creativity, and someone else can see and critique and enjoy that thought and creativity. And it lives.

Review: Broken Soul by Faith Hunter

Spoiler-free Snippet

Broken Soul, by Faith Hunter, is the 8th book in the Jane Yellowrock series. The urban fantasy series follows the exploits of a vampire-hunting skinwalker who ends up working for those she normally stakes. Broken Soul was mediocre. I generally enjoy Jane’s character and most of the characters that Hunter writes, but I feel like the last few books have gotten a bit too complicated and convoluted with the myths and legends entwined into the story. The amount of explanation required for certain elements of the story pulled me out of enjoying it too much, though I did like the fact that Jane finally stopped feeling sorry for herself in certain regards. I would call this a READ WITH CAUTION. It wasn’t horrible if you’re a fan of the series, but don’t start with this book, and don’t pay full price, in my opinion.

Here, There Be Spoilers

In this novel, Jane is preparing the Master of New Orleans’ vampire crew for the arrival of a contingent of European vampires. In the midst of this, she uncovers a plot where a team of three evil folks, a vampire and two blood slaves, are looking to kill her and capture a crazy powerful secret hidden in the Master vampire’s lair. Also, she can suddenly stop time. Oh, and there are other magical dimensions and light dragons.

Trying to recap the story was hard to do, because the plot didn’t make a ton of sense. The European vampires are a problem, but then they fall to the wayside when these new vampires come up. Add into that a crazy light dragon that is attacking Jane at random, a living relic of one of the first vampires, and interdimensional magic ley lines, and you get a bit of the confusion that is this book.

It’s a bit like an action movie that decided it didn’t really need a plot so long as there were gratuitous battles and time stopping powers.

I enjoyed the fact that Jane stopped moaning over her ex and let herself get over that. It was also refreshing to see Bruiser’s character in a bit more depth. In spite of this, though, it felt like the book had Jane sort of revisit every character she’d met in order to just have them included.

I was not a fan of the part where Jane kills an over 100-year-old evil blood slave that is known as “the Devil” for her malicious and crazy powerful fighting skills, yet gets all mopey because she “killed a human when she didn’t need to.” I’m fairly sure that someone who has been through what she’s been through and has seen good and evil as much as Jane has would be able to reconcile the fact that a century-old, vampire blood-powered evil warrior woman doesn’t really count as an innocent human any longer. Especially because the “human” in question was actively trying to kill people Jane cared about.
So, there you go. It was just okay. The plot wasn’t thrilling, there was a host of problems with too much description and complexity in the presentation of the supernatural and mythical, and there were somewhat weird and inexplicable time-stopping powers that dealt with interdimensional magic ley lines. The book was a bit of a mess, but if you’re a fan of the series, it might be worth a shot. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it. This is a READ WITH CAUTION, because some folks might want to read this, if they’ve read this series.

Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Spoiler-free Snippet

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, follows the tales of a young French girl and a young German boy as time progresses through World War II. Though their lives are quite different, they become intertwined as a result of the war, as many lives undoubtedly did during that time.The book was quite interesting, providing a variety of points of view about the war that I never learned in history class. The characters were meaningful and the story, though we ultimately know the ending, was captivating enough to make you want to read. Overall, I would call this book a READ.

Here, There Be Spoilers

All The Light We Cannot See introduces a blind French girl and her father living in Paris, along with a young, orphaned German boy and his sister living in an orphanage in Germany. Each chapter switches back and forth between points of view, with certain other points of view thrown in occasionally. It’s done in an easy-to-follow, organized manner, and gives the reader a firm expectation of the two intertwining stories.

Following the French girl is quite interesting, because her blindness means she interprets the world in different ways. She loves books, and though she and her father aren’t rich, they still live fairly well. Having recently learned a lot more about the propaganda that Nazi Germany threw at France prior to taking it over, it was interesting to see a sort of first hand tale of the rumors and fear that the French public was subject to during that time.

The German boy’s story arc is also intriguing, as we see the Nazi party gain hold and the fervent patriotism and cautious fear that grips the nation set in. The boy gets the opportunity to save himself from the coal mines and study science at a school, but he quickly learns that the school is training for the army. This is a look at Nazi Germany that I’d never had before, dealing with Hitler Youth and the fate of those growing up in the midst of the conflict.

This book is not one about fighting in the war. It’s mostly about the lives and struggles of the people in the center of the conflict, and how politics ruled the lives of those that were just trying to exist. It explores the concepts of fitting in versus doing what’s right, morality, and the trap of blame.

This is not a book of all happy endings, and shows the lasting impression that a large-scale war can lead. It does show lives being repaired and the world changing, but it also shows how broken things were and stayed long after the war.
If you’re interested at all in this period in history, I think this would be a great book to read. It has a good story with interesting characters, and shows the war from both sides, from a young person’s point of view. The two main characters are kids who aren’t motivated by politics, but rather the will to live in the world in which they find themselves. I would call this book a READ.

Review: The Gemini Effect by Chuck Grossart

Spoiler-free Snippet

The Gemini Effect, by Chuck Grossart, was a pretty mediocre, action-driven work of speculative fiction. I appreciated some of the storytelling methods of the author, but was overall rather hum-ho about the story itself. Most of the characters were likeable and didn’t make the token poor decisions that often plague stories like these, which elevated the novel beyond the simplistic, expected story. Since I got the book for free through the Kindle First program, I didn’t feel cheated. I wouldn’t pay over two dollars for an ebook copy, though. In short, this is a READ WITH CAUTION.

Here, There Be Spoilers

The Gemini Effect follows the path of a DNA-changing biochemical weapon as it is accidentally exposed to a rat and then humanity. The monsters created by the weapon attack everything mercilessly, wiping out cities in mere hours. The time frame of the book spans a few days, where the US goes from somewhat peaceful, near-future nation to crazy storm of chaos.

The novel seemed to escalate from one expected scenario to the next. A bio-engineered disease, thought to be incinerated long ago, rears its ugly head and causes trouble for the US. The disease spreads violently as people try to cope with it. Add some corrupt politicians, a sleeper KGB plot, Soviets stealing technology from Nazi Germany, the Nazi Angel of Death, and a cadre of increasingly improbable scenarios, and you get the gist of this book.

I really enjoyed the beginning of the novel, and how the biochemical weapon is introduced into the story. You follow the story of a car that gets used as an escape by someone infected by the disease, and then accidently left in a junkyard, mistakenly not incinerated. This was a very interesting hook into the story, even if it’s clear early on that it isn’t going to blow you away. I also enjoyed the epilogue, as it was done well and wasn’t easy to immediately figure out, like most of the rest of the book.

The characters in The Gemini Effect were fairly pleasing. The scientists were smart and didn’t get caught in the crazy notion of  “I need to poke this with a stick just once more, because SCIENCE!” that so often perpetuates the plot of stories like this. The military characters were also plausible, and not just transparent meatheads that had no intelligent thoughts or desires. It was refreshing to see characters that weren’t run of the mill.

There was a lot in the book that was downright odd, as the situations escalated into craziness. Special secret chemicals that allow a sleeper KGB agent to control minds, the threat of nuclear warfare, and even mind powers come up before the book ended. In all, it felt a lot like a medium budget action movie that would air on TV on Saturday night after the primetime spot.

There’s not much to say about the book other than that. I read this novel very quickly, partly because it was easy to read and the action was continuous, but partly because I had the time. I doubt I would have purchased this. There were a few odd grammatical choices, but nothing incredibly off-putting. If the writer can bolster his skill to the match his intro and epilogue, the novels he writes will have some promise. If you’re looking for potato chip fiction that is a bit like reading a movie, this would probably interest you. If you’re wanting something deeper, though, I wouldn’t waste the money or time. READ WITH CAUTION.

Review: The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Spoiler-free Snippet

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of The Wind is a generally well written fantasy novel. It follows the story of Kvothe, a brilliantly clever, naturally talented magic user now living as an innkeeper. The novel follows Kvothe telling a scribe his life story, so most of it takes place in the past, with a few present-day scenes. Overall, it wasn’t a bad book. There were a few parts that lingered too long, and a few parts that really didn’t need to be there, in my opinion. The entirety of the tale was interesting, but Kvothe is arrogant and makes the same mistakes again and again, despite his impressive intellect and cleverness. The book ends incredibly abruptly. If you’re looking for a standard fantasy tale with some interesting magic, I’d call The Name of The Wind a READ WITH CAUTION.

Here, There Be Spoilers

Kvothe is a man of legend, but he’s living as an innkeeper named Kote. A scribe stumbled upon Kote and his student, Bast, quickly recognizing the man as the Kvothe of legend. Drawn by a rumor, the scribe bargains with Kvothe to take down his life story. In this book, we hear of Kvothe’s beginnings as a trouper, horrible time as an urchin in Tarbean, and adventures at the University where he studies magic. Above it all lingers the tragic, unnatural death of his parents and entire troupe, committed by the mysterious, mystical Chandrian.

The major driving force in Kvothe’s life is the death of his parents and troupe, murdered by the mythical Chandrian. He is spared, but vows to search them out and destroy them. As a reader, this was a very good hook, yet it fell short as you go for about 80 percent of the book with almost no more information about all of that.

After this happens, he loses himself and eventually becomes a street urchin. While he spends three years starving and homeless, it seems that he remembers none of his magical training, stage training, or even clever survival techniques. In short, it seems all too convenient and long of a time to have him destitute in a city.

Rothfuss has a very nice writing style, in that he adds elegant descriptions to his prose without it seeming like he’s trying too hard. That being said, he picks out certain phrases that he seems particularly proud of and uses them again and again, making them lose their poetic charm. Some of his descriptions are wonderful, yet in other places he seems almost lazy. He repeatedly has the main character say that those listening to him couldn’t possibly understand something, as they have not experienced it, and then only briefly describes the person or thing.

Kvothe is arrogant, but with good reason, as he has natural talent, a sharp mind, and is really quite brilliant. This brilliance only seems accessible when it is convenient, though, leaving Kvothe making some awful, repetitive mistakes throughout the book. Rothfuss lingers on certain chapters of Kvothe’s life far beyond what I feel he should have, making them seem to drag a bit, rather than giving you a good picture of what happened and then moving on.

The storytelling fell short of what it could have been, in my opinion. Kvothe constantly deals with poverty, yet when he gets money, he always seems to find a very stupid way to lose it or spend it. He then laments this and regains money, only to lose it stupidly again. His pride and arrogance constantly contribute to his problems and poverty, yet he doesn’t seem to learn from these instances at all. He is hopelessly involved with a girl who shows up in his life randomly, yet he keeps getting into odd situations relating to her without being suspicious.

My favorite part of the book was a completely unnecessary part, where the author seemed to say “let me throw some fantasy in here!” As a single part of the novel, I quite enjoyed it, but overall, it was quite superfluous and mattered little to the story. In short, I liked it but would have liked it more had the book ended sooner.

In short, I’m not too keen on continuing the series. Rothfuss failed to hook me with his clumsy storytelling, through his writing and story elements had a lot of promise. This is a READ WITH CAUTION. Plenty of folks might like this, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

Review: When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

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Image courtesy Amazon.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning, is the first non-fiction book I have reviewed for Voraciously. As such, the style and format will be a bit different. This particular novel had no spoilers (unless you somehow didn’t realize that WWII happened), so I’ll just jump right in.

In When Books Went to War, Manning gives a chronological recount of how America decided that books were an important morale booster for the troops. The novel begins with Goebbels’ book burnings in Nazi Germany. Librarians, authors, and book lovers across the rest of the world were understandably disturbed by the incineration not only of books, but also of the ideas, stories, and freedoms they represented. Simultaneously, copies of Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, were shoved in the hands of every German citizen. The US troops being mustered at home prior to their entrance into the war were in sore need of morale-boosting recreational activities, a need that would only grow as the war continued. The government worked to organize a series of book collections for the troops, eventually commissioning books to be printed for the armed forces, embracing paperback technology and special editions. These books were widely regarded as lifesavers by the troops.

I found this novel quite interesting. Not only did I learn some information about World War II that I didn’t know before, but I also found the various efforts of the US to get the books to the troops to be intriguing. WWII has never been billed to me as a war of words and ideas, but this book made a satisfying case for that notion. Having recently read The Book Thief, I was already considering the implications of reading and words on those in the war, but this book taught me a lot more. I had never learned about the overwhelming amount of propaganda that Hitler utilized to subvert the ideals and morale of his enemies prior to even attacking them physically. He even helped the Japanese do this in the Pacific.

When Books Went to War managed to escape being dry or clinical, as it gave a lot of examples of the soldiers and authors speaking with one another and how it felt to have something to do in the time between the comparatively few moments of (unwanted) excitement. The pure boredom and loneliness of the troops was expressed well, and even the descriptions of the bureaucratic red tape that needed to be traversed in order to get books to the troops wasn’t too dense.

I did find that there were an excessive amount of examples of the point that the troops enjoyed the books. While I understand that the work was about the value of books to the troops, at times I felt like Manning was hammering that notion into my skull. There were also a few times when I felt the author was searching for content to populate the book, and threw in a few more descriptions of soldiers enjoying books to help it out.

In a certain sense, When Books Went to War also follows the emergence of the paperback and technology surrounding a line of smaller, cheaper books. The introduction of books and Armed Services Editions to the troops during WWII really inspired a reading revolution in the US, changing the minds of many Americans on what they should read, how they should read, and if they should read. It was a positive change, in my mind, even in the tragedy of war.

Overall, I would recommend this to any book lover with an interest in history. It’s very approachable and not too steeped in people and place names, like some historical works. It is also refreshing, to an avid reader, to see books become companions to those in dire need. For non-readers, I think it’s hard to imagine the escape a book can provide. Manning and the soldiers’ letters capture the power of that experience beautifully. I’ll call this a READ WITH CAUTION, as it is a solid read, but not everyone will be interested in WWII or a non-fiction work.

It’s Okay to Think it Sucked

belle“That book was so good. I couldn’t put it down!” – your friend

“Groundbreaking work of fantasy. Excitement on every page!” – fancy publisher statement

“A great read.” – your librarian

From all the information you gathered before checking it out, purchasing, or borrowing this book, it should have been great. Everyone you know that has read it enjoyed it, the Amazon and Goodreads listings tout five-star ratings, and even your library has it featured on a front table with not enough copies to go around. It’s the genre you prefer, and you feel generally good about sitting down to crack the cover or wake the device. You’re in for a nice, enjoyable reading session.

Except, it’s everything but that.

The prose seems a little slow. The beginning of the novel is dense and heavy, filled with what seems to be superfluous information. The main character seems like a caricature of his or herself, rather than a fully-developed, changing person. The story drags, or goes too fast, and you find your attention wandering. You’re only thirty percent in, though. Maybe it gets better.

It doesn’t.

Sure, there are redeeming qualities; there are almost always a few of those. But the more you read, the more dissatisfied you become. You’re restless. You want to finish the book for the sake of knowing what happens and for the pure sake of finishing it. You want to be able to report back to those places you got advice about the book from and tell them what you thought. But it just seems a shadow of what you thought it might be.

Why not Zoidberg?

That creeping thought sneaks in: is it me? Are over six thousand people on Amazon with glowing, enthusiastic reviews wrong? Is the librarian, whose job certainly requires familiarity with books, incorrect? Or is it you? Are you being overly critical and nit-picky?

Breathe. The answer is no.

I often have this problem, as does my boyfriend. A lot of books we read turn out to be mediocre for a myriad of reasons. It’s important to remind yourself that this is okay. Here’s a few reasons I’ve come up with:

  • Reviewers are moved by strong emotion.  Most of the folks that leave a review are either really jazzed about the book or thought it was horrible. It takes a pretty diligent reviewer to write about something they just sort of liked, or something they found mediocre.
  • People read in different amounts. In my opinion, people who read a lot more books are going to be a bit more picky about what they like or dislike. I find that as I read more and more in the fantasy genre, I’m jaded to some of the more common tropes. I truly think they can still be done well, but it takes a lighter hand than some writers have.
  • Sometimes, it’s easier. Oftentimes, recommending something as good or decent is a lot simpler than saying it was awful, simply because people are less likely to question it. Especially if you get asked for recommendations frequently, sometimes a shorter conversation is better.
  • Positive fading. This is a phenomenon that explains a lot in life, but basically, we tend to remember the better parts of things (see fading affect bias). So, that book you read a few months ago had a really solid story but some awkward prose. As time went on, your brain glossed over the chunky sentence structure and positively recalls the story.

There are probably several other reasons out there. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay not to like things. Sure, some folks might take it personally if the book was super meaningful to them, but opinions that differ are what help us stay sharp and learn to look at other sides of a situation. Be polite and consider why a person may have liked something, rather than responding with vitriol.

Have you ever read a book that everyone else loved, but you thought was merely okay? Let me know what you think.