Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

Being a fan of the original novels, I approached this retelling with a little trepidation.  I know that Scalzi is an excellent writer, but would his vision of the fuzzies and their world work for me, either by itself or as compared to the original?  I’m happy to say that it does both, and wonderfully.

While the bones of the original novel remain in this new novel, there are some significant changes.  Jack Holloway was conceived by Piper as an older man, well past his prime.  Scalzi paints Jack as a man in his mid-thirties, and he gives him the background to allow him to actively participate in the fight to prove the fuzzies’s sentience.  This brings a lot more tension to the final scenes in the courtroom, as it allows the main character to be right in the middle of the action.  I enjoyed watching him whip out legal arguments and wield them like weapons.

There’s also a change in the history of the fuzzies themselves.  Without giving anything away, Piper’s novels glossed over something that could be seen as a plot loophole invalidating much of what happens in the first book.  Later authors picked up on this and ran with it.  Scalzi’s change neatly deals with that little problem.  I will admit, however, that after decades of having one story in the back of my head, the change was jarring upon first encountering it.  I soon accepted it, though, and as most readers won’t have read the original novels, I doubt it will be an issue to the majority of readers.

The author weaves in a lot of worldbuilding and little significant details, and he does so with such care that you probably won’t notice what he’s doing.  Several things that seem like “throwaway” details become quite important later on, and it’s a testament to the author’s writing skill that readers likely won’t see what’s coming until it happens.  There’s not an ounce of fat on this story—everything is relevant, and you’ll be amazed at how well it all comes together.

I particularly liked the courtroom scenes where the fuzzies’s sentience is being decided.  This isn’t a dry procedure with hours of bland bits of evidence being presented.  Events in this novel happen quickly, and thus the trial involves bombshell after bombshell without feeling like it’s forced.  This is just damn good plotting at work, and I devoured this sequence with the kind of glee that you get when seeing someone getting a just comeuppance.

I can’t say enough good things about Fuzzy Nation.  Not just a wonderful reboot of a classic series, it stands on its own as a tightly-plotted and deeply engrossing first contact novel.  I recommend picking this one up in hardback, because it’s one you’re going to want to keep in your collection.  I hope that Mr. Scalzi intends to continue with this series, and if he does, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.

This review was originally posted on May 5, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.”

This year I started re-reading some old favorite books, and I had to include Bryson’s works in that category. His narrative A Walk in the Woods was the book that truly got me interested in non-fiction and sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about subjects that I never would have imagined being interested in. In the case of this book, it’s not that I was never interested in Australia, but more that I never really saw anything about it. The most that I thought I knew was that it is home to tons of things that can kill you.

In a Sunburned Country doesn’t gloss over the murderous capacity of the continent and its resident critters, but it also conveys the stark beauty of the place. From Uluru, the massive rock formation sacred to the Aboriginal people, to the beach where a former Australian prime minister was swept out to sea and vanished, Bryson’s wanderings take him to both large cities and isolated hamlets, to sweeping vistas and small forgotten corners.

What it turned out that I appreciated the most was Bryson’s commitment to learning about Australia’s history, politics, people, and culture. During his narrative, he writes about the books that he reads along the way, the newspapers he picks up, and the people that he talks to. He doesn’t shy away from touching on the plight of the Aboriginal people or the uncomfortable reactions of white Australians when the subject is raised. He delves into scientific discoveries and foolhardy ventures. All in all, Australia is a much more interesting place than its lack of prominence in the nightly news would lead you to believe.

And of course, being Bryson, he infused his narrative with his own signature brand of humor, that dry combination of American sarcasm and British absurdity. I always laugh out loud when reading about his attempts to body board with friends, or hearing his observations on some of that lethal wildlife. Learning and laughter–that’s what Bryson excels at.

Curious about the land of kangaroos and koalas? I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an excellent starting point.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Everything Trump Touches Dies by Rick Wilson

“In Everything Trump Touches Dies, political campaign strategist and commentator Rick Wilson brings his darkly funny humor and biting analysis to the absurdity of American politics in the age of Trump. Wilson mercilessly exposes the damage Trump has done to the country, to the Republican Party he served for decades, and to the conservative movement that has abandoned its principles for the worst President in American history.

No left-winger, Wilson is a lifelong conservative who delivers his withering critique of Trump from the right. A leader of the Never Trump movement, he warns his own party of the political catastrophe that leaves everyone involved with Trump with reputations destroyed and lives in tatters.

Wilson unblinkingly dismantles Trump’s deceptions and the illusions to which his supporters cling, shedding light on the guilty parties who empower and enable Trump in Washington and the news media. He calls out the race-war dead-enders who hitched a ride with Trump, the alt-right basement dwellers who worship him, and the social conservatives who looked the other way.

Everything Trump Touches Dies deftly chronicles the tragicomic Trump story from the early campaign days through the shock of election night, to the inconceivable trainwreck of Trump’s first year. Rick Wilson provides not only an insightful analysis of the Trump administration, but also an optimistic path forward for the GOP, the conservative movement, and the country.

Combining insider political analysis, blunt truths, and black humor, Everything Trump Touches Dies is perfect for those on either side of the aisle who need a dose of unvarnished reality, a good laugh, a strong cocktail, and a return to sanity in American politics.”

Full disclosure before we get into this: I’m a registered Democrat, and as you can probably guess from that nugget of info, not a fan of our current president.  One thing I try to do, though, is to seek out points of view that I may not agree with so that I have a more rounded view of things.  Now admittedly, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read books by the likes of Cory Lewandowski or Newt Gingrich, but I have been trying to read books by conservative commentators who take a more neutral view of things.  By doing so, I have learned a lot about the way our two major parties and their politics have evolved (or devolved in some cases) since the Nixon era and how we got to the point we’re at now.  I’ve encountered critiques of the Democrats that I think have merit as well.

All of this is by way of saying that no, I’m not perfect and I do have my own personal views, but I make a conscious effort to not get caught up in a liberal echo chamber.

I was initially drawn to Wilson’s book not because of the title (although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me a snicker), but because he is described as a longtime conservative and Republican strategist.  I thought that he might have interesting insights into the current state of the country that gave me a few laughs in the bargain.  Goodness knows we can all use one nowadays.

Sad to say, this book didn’t live up to expectations.  That has nothing to do with the content, honestly; rather, it’s more a matter of how the book is written.  The whole issue of “dark comedy” that the book jacket espouses never quite materializes.  It’s obviously something that can be done–late night comedians do it all the time.  Seth Meyers, in particular, has excelled at blending comedy with in-depth looks at current issues, often devoting up to twelve minutes to his “Closer Look” segment.  In Wilson’s book, I think he was just trying too hard to be edgy.  He does have some witty bits, but there were many times that I wanted him to just stop looking for superlatives and get on with the book already.

On the other hand, the author does offer up some interesting food for thought on various topics.  One that sticks out in my head is his statement that it seems that China’s retaliatory tariffs were aimed squarely at industries in the mid-America red states.  If that’s true, that’s a fascinating tidbit of info about current global politics.  I wish these little factoids had been presented a little more cleanly, simply because some of the internal structure of individual chapters sometimes gets slightly messy, but there are there to be discovered.

All in all, this isn’t the worst book that I’ve read about our current political situation.  There are some thought provoking ideas scattered throughout, and even though I have issues with the author’s writing style, I think the book will appeal to some readers.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

“Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Having no idea how many weeks have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.

And with her, nearly all of civilization.

Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters — people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.

In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety.

For the Beaters are out there.

And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world….”

There is so much that I liked about this novel that it’s tough to figure out where to start.  Littlefield has balanced all of the elements so well that they intermingle and play off of each other in a way that I don’t often see.  Characters, plot, backstory, and setting have all been written with a rare skill and talent.

The setting is designed to please someone like me.  The story takes place in Northern California, and in fact references places that I have visited.  With so few books set in our area, I tend to enjoy the ones that do make Northern California their home.  In this novel, it also adds to the brutality of what happens, because of that very familiarity.  Readers who are not from this area will still enjoy the novel, and they will still feel the horror of what happens, but I think it will have a special poignancy for us residents.

For those who are squeamish, be advised that the novel does contain some scenes that verge on the gruesome.  The zombies (here called Beaters) do not attack indiscriminately; rather, they have learned to drag a victim to their nests and consume them there, often while the poor person is still alive.  The sheer terror and pain involved in these attacks comes through the pages and can be hard to read.  Admittedly, I had to put the book down a few times and walk away because it was very disturbing to me.  I wasn’t grossed out—a book that does that isn’t one that I want to read—but I was upset by the idea of such things happening.  The author doesn’t delve too far into the grotesque, but she gives you just enough to bring across that sense of horror.

The story isn’t one of mere survival, although that’s the level that most inhabitants of the world have been reduced to.  Rather, this story has a goal: Cass needs to get her daughter Ruthie back from those who are holding her.  The fact that the novel has a purpose beyond just “survive the zombies and rebuild society” puts it several notches above other novels in the genre.

The author makes a daring choice with regards to her main character: Cass is a recovering alcoholic who was only weeks sober when society fell apart.  Because of this, readers get to see the world through the eyes of someone who is uniquely unable to deal with it and, at the same time, uniquely poised to cope.  Cass references AA and its philosophies a lot, and it gives a structure to how she functions within this terrible new world.  At times, it’s heartbreaking to watch her struggles, because she tries so hard and suffers so much.

Sophie Littlefield is right up there with Mira Grant as the best zombie novelists on the shelf, and this is not praise that I give out lightly.  Aftertime is a kick in the gut that is nonetheless one of the most fascinating and sobering reads you’ll ever find.  Forget about The Walking Dead—grab this book and prepare to have your world shaken.

This review was originally posted on January 3, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Monkey Mind by Daniel B. Smith

“Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind is the stunning articulation of what it is like to live with anxiety. As he travels through anxiety’s demonic layers, Smith defangs the disorder with great humor and evocatively expresses its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. Aaron Beck, the most influential doctor in modern psychotherapy, says that “Monkey Mind does for anxiety what William Styron’s Darkness Visible did for depression.” Neurologist and bestselling writer Oliver Sacks says, “I read Monkey Mind with admiration for its bravery and clarity. . . . I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.” Here, finally, comes relief and recognition to all those who want someone to put what they feel, or what their loved ones feel, into words.”

I don’t normally review non-fiction, or indeed anything besides science fiction and fantasy.  I felt compelled by this book, though, not only to read it but to write about my experience reading it.  And it’s going to be a hard review to write.

Allow me to explain.

The full title of this book is Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety.  I was diagnosed with panic disorder back in 1990, so you can imagine my interest in reading a story about someone living with a condition that is so familiar to me.  I didn’t go into it looking for wisdom or advice—I’ve gotten plenty of that over the course of time, useful and otherwise—but I was hoping to see the experience of anxiety through the eyes of another.  Knowing, as I do, that the anxious can be sensitive to criticism, I’m going to have a hard time being honest about how much I disliked this book.

I have no quibble with Smith’s actual experience of his anxiety.  Every person’s struggle with it is different and unique, although there are many symptoms and traits that tend to be similar no matter what.  But for a book that purports to be a “hilarious” look at the tragedies and triumphs, it’s incredibly negative.  I didn’t like the tone that the author often took, which was a cross between a self-deprecating “woe is me, this is all my fault” attitude and looking for anyone and anything to blame for his condition.  He also seems to think that anxiety sufferers are, by their very natures, toxic to those around them.  This is hardly encouraging to any readers who might be having their own issues with anxiety.

Now, a lot of what I just wrote is personal preference, and I freely admit that.  A “memoir of anxiety” needn’t take a positive tone to be successful, by any means.  I do, however, think that Smith’s stated aims in writing the book and what actually came out in the writing were two entirely different things.

Taking a more technical look at the writing, there was a quote from Pride and Prejudice came to mind: “He studies too much for words of four syllables.”  Far too much of the book is taken up with lengthy quotes from Kierkegaard, Philip Roth and the like.  I know that the author has spent a lot of time researching and reading about mental illness—he says as much in this book—and it feels like he wants to work as much of that material into this book as possible.  The quotes often slow down the narrative flow, and after a while, it felt like the author was trying to show how educated and well-read he is.  The story could easily have been written without so much literary navel-gazing.

Structurally, the book is all over the place.  Part of that is due to the proliferation of quotes from other sources, but I think it’s also due to the author trying to link his past and present in a bid to explain his anxiety’s roots.  The story is arranged in roughly chronological order, but there is some jumping around time-wise, and there are many asides about aspects of anxiety that seem shoehorned in at moments where they don’t really fit.  For example, during the section about his time working for The Atlantic, he suddenly goes into a dissertation on sweating.  Maybe better organization would have made this work better, but I don’t know.

I do have to wonder if all of the positive reviews for this book were from people who don’t suffer from anxiety.  After I wrote the bulk of this review, I went onto Amazon to see what others thought, and it does seem that the vast majority of the negative reviews are from people like me—those who live with anxiety.  I found that my reaction wasn’t atypical at all.  Monkey Mind may be a fairly accurate representation of one person’s experience with anxiety brought on by certain specific events, but it does not give a good picture of anxiety to those who don’t already know what it’s like.

This review was originally posted on November 4, 2013.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

VIII by H. M. Castor

“VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family’s violent past and once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII.”

I have an odd fascination with British history, and especially with the Tudor era.  So much was changing in the world at that time that much of the historical record reads like the most fantastical novel you could ever hope to pick up.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge where documentation is slim or nonexistent.  One of those periods is the childhood of King Henry VIII.  Never meant for the throne, he was forced into the role of ruler due to the death of his older brother Arthur.

I’ve read many novels about this time period, most notably ones by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.  Most of what I’ve read has also focused on the women, so outside of the non-fiction that I’ve also read, I didn’t ever get a feel for what we do know about Henry’s early years.  Castor attempts to imagine some of those details, extrapolating from what we do know, and also tries to account for how a shining paragon of English royalty turned into the tyrant that we all know and love to hate.

The author’s success at this endeavor is mixed, to say the least.  Castor set herself a hard task: show Henry as a bright, intelligent child and get us to care about him despite what we know he will do, and then show his descent without losing the characterization that she already set up.  In this, she succeeds.  Henry as a boy is shaped by those around him and by the circumstances in which he finds himself.  Castor takes an interesting tack in painting Henry VII as a cruel and domineering father, and although there’s no evidence of this historically, it does play pretty well into Henry’s character makeup.

The author also excels at giving readers a sense of the world as it existed in the late 1400s to mid-1500s.  The author has obviously done a ton of research, and even state in an author’s note that just about everything she described in the novel was found in the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his time of death.  Knowing that lends a strong air of historical reality to the narrative.

What I didn’t think worked all that well was the pacing.  Henry’s life before his father’s death takes up just a few pages shy of half the book.  Another 120 pages cover from his coronation to his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  His tempestuous marriage to Anne Boleyn lasts for around 50 pages.  The final 52 pages cover his last four wives and his death.  By the end, the author is omitting major chunks of time, and wives three through six are hardly mentioned.

The greater missed opportunity here lies in what the author said was her goal: to not only explore Henry’s younger years, but to show his progression from favored youth to cruel dictator.  And if you know anything about history, you know that it’s not just his treatment of his wives in which he shows his colors.  Castor missed some golden opportunities to delve into his general callousness.  The executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More only get a brief mention, and yet they shook the world when they happened.  The Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion in which Henry promised to pardon the participants and then executed the leaders, isn’t even mentioned specifically—just a few words about the north being filled with rebellion that needs to be constantly put down.  Henry’s cruelty cut across all aspects of life, and confining it to his treatment of his wives is, in my opinion, too narrow.

I could have done without the supernatural element, because it wasn’t handled very well.  From a young age, Henry sees visions of a boy with straw-colored hair who is often crying with pain and obviously suffering.  Henry continues to see this specter throughout his life, usually right before some of his most traumatic losses.  Its first appearance is in the Tower of London, where young Henry has just found out about the “Princes in the Tower”, the young princes who were imprisoned there and vanished, presumably murdered.  The story sort of leads you to believe that the apparition is one of the princes, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.  Since the author said that she wanted to show how Henry was haunted by the demons of his family’s past, the way things play out didn’t make sense to me.

There was a lot to like in this novel, especially the attention to historical detail.  I did, however, feel that the author could have tightened her pacing and really explored Henry’s character.  He’s a deliciously cruel, terribly controlling man, and his actions form a tale that could give a sensitive reader nightmares.  I went through this book in a single day, but I kept having the nagging feeling that it could have reached even higher.  VIII might be a good introduction to Henry’s character, but the meat of his reign is ignored.

This review was originally posted on September 3, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

“It starts with an itch you just can’t shake. Then comes a fever and a tickle in your throat. A few days later, you’ll be blabbing your secrets and chatting with strangers like they’re old friends. Three more, and the paranoid hallucinations kick in.

And then you’re dead.

When sixteen-year-old Kaelyn lets her best friend leave for school without saying goodbye, she never dreams that she might not see him again. Then a strange virus begins to sweep through her small island community, infecting young and old alike. As the dead pile up, the government quarantines the island: no one can leave, and no one can come back.

Cut off from the world, the remaining islanders must fend for themselves. Supplies are dwindling, fatalities rising, and panic is turning into violence. With no cure in sight, Kaelyn knows their only hope of survival is to band together. Desperate to save her home, she joins forces with a former rival and opens her heart to a boy she once feared.

But as the virus robs her of friends and family, Kaelyn realizes her efforts may be in vain. How can she fight an enemy that’s too small to see?”

Placing this story in a very small community had the interesting effect of intensifying the action.  It turns it into a true microcosm of what the entire world might be like under these conditions, but it doesn’t have the backdrop of huge sweeping disaster to contrast it with.  Instead, the isolation keeps the reader’s attention focused in a different way than most other novels, and it also makes what happens all the more chilling.  The author also touches on many of the elements that you’d expect in a disaster story—hoarding food stores, lack of medicine, houses with bodies inside—so that you don’t need the epic proportions of a typical book to get the feel for how horrible things are.

Even in the midst of all of this death, the author shows you some glimmers of hope.  While there are certainly a few troublemakers in the novel, most of the island’s inhabitants band together to take care of each other.  The best part is that it’s not in the fatalistic way that you see in many apocalyptic stories, where there’s safety in numbers and cooperation is a matter of necessity; rather, these characters help each other out of kindness and out of a real sense of community.  This may be a novel with disease and death, but there is much that is uplifting as well.

I found that I really liked Kaelyn.  She has a strong narrative voice, and although she’s young and often scared, her resilience shows a quiet strength of character.  The author makes a wise choice in having the tale told as a series of journal entries to an absent friend.  It not only allows her to believably set up her own backstory and give us information on herself, but it also lets readers into her thoughts in a raw and immediate fashion.

Of course, there is also the almost obligatory love story that nearly all teen novels have these days, but I think it makes sense in terms of the context.  Kaelyn is in a situation where friends and family are falling ill around her, and it’s natural to want human contact in the face of these events.  It’s occasionally just a bit clunky, but like I said, I can forgive it in light of how it fits into the story.

The novel is very effective in charting the progress of a rampaging disease.  And I’ll admit that after finishing it, I felt a little paranoid about people around me who might be sneezing and coughing a lot.  This is not a useful emotion to feel in the midst of allergy season, but it does illustrate the power of this comparatively lesser-known teen novel.  The Way We Fall doesn’t have the non-stop action of some of its contemporaries, but instead it quietly and insidiously walks you through a disaster that claims people one by one without mercy.  I’ll definitely be watching for the next in this series.

This review was originally posted on March 27, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

“You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten…

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”

The mixing of Regency and Victorian literature with fantasy has become more popular in recent years.  Some authors choose to emulate the “voice” of those periods, while others simply use them as inspiration.  Brennan goes the former route by writing her novel as a memoir, which I personally haven’t seen before.  I enjoyed seeing a Victorian-style alternate world through the eyes of one of its residents.

I think I know too much about that time in British history, though, because I’m not sure that I found Isabella believable as a character from that time.  I can certainly see how she got to the point that she’s supposedly at while writing the memoir, but she also seems to have not been as invested in the cultural strictures that were so prevalent.  I would have believed it more if she had taken more part in the society that she was brought up in.  I did admire her spirit—women in that culture didn’t have a lot of freedom, and Isabella took what was the likeliest path to being a scientist.

I also thought that the novel moved a tad too slowly.  The story hints at all of these exciting adventures and discoveries, but the book only covers Isabella’s childhood and her first outing after getting married.  This outing doesn’t bring her into a huge amount of contact with dragons, which are (of course) what we’re waiting to see Isabella deal with.

On the plus side, Brennan’s worldbuilding is top-notch.  She obviously has a grasp of not only what life would be like her alternate England, but also how things would be in the world at large.  Dragons aren’t merely fantastic creatures dropped into the scene for the sake of effect; there’s a real sense that they play a larger role in the narrative, and thus Isabella’s role in the overall story will be large as well.

While I do think this novel’s pace could have been a bit more brisk, A Natural History of Dragons is a complex and cultured tale of a young woman defying social norms to pursue her passion.  The fact that her passion is the study of dragons adds the happy twist to this tale of Victorian science and exploration.

This review was originally posted on April 9, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

A Higher Education by Rosalie Stanton

It is a truth universally acknowledged that first impressions are a bitch.

In a sea of college freshmen, Elizabeth Bennet feels more like a den mother than a returning student. She’d rather be playing Exploding Kittens than dodge-the-gropers at a frat party, but no way was she letting her innocent, doe-eyed roommate go alone.

Everything about Meryton College screams old money—something she and Jane definitely are not—but Elizabeth resolves to enjoy herself. That resolve is tested—and so is her temper—when she meets Will Darcy, a pompous blowhole with no sense of fun, and his relentlessly charming wingman, Charlie.

Back at school after prolonged break, Will Darcy is far too old and weary for coeds. Yet even he can see why Charlie spontaneously decides the captivating Jane is “the one.” What throws Will is his own reaction to Jane’s roommate.

Elizabeth’s moonlight skin and shining laugh hit him like a sucker punch. And he doesn’t like it. Elizabeth Bennet is dangerous, not only because she has a gift for making him make an ass of himself, but because she and her razor-sharp wit could too easily throw his life off course, and he can’t afford for that to happen again.

Yet he also can’t seem to stay away.”

Okay, I feel like I shouldn’t have enjoyed this as much as I did, but damn, it was a fun read.  I’ve been a little hard on people who try to re-write P&P, especially when they change the characters beyond all recognition (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  Because of that, I was a bit hesitant going into this book.  But I can happily say that my fears were unfounded.  This is a deliciously naughty, incredibly snarky, skillfully modernized retelling that had me laughing out loud.

What really impressed me was how the conflicts in the original novel were translated for the here-and-now.  For example, instead of Jane being scorned by the Bingley sisters for her bad connections, in this story the problem lies in the fact that Jane is Black.  It’s a bold choice, but one that resonates strongly, especially in the racially charged climate of today.  In another example, Wickham tells everyone that Darcy framed him for possession of cocaine and got him thrown out of school, instead of denying him a lucrative position in the church.

The one thing that wasn’t in this novel that I really missed was the inclusion of the smarmy Mr. Collins.  I can see that it would have been difficult to put him in this version of the story, though, and shoehorning him in just for the sake of having him present would have been worse.  His wife Charlotte makes a brief “on-screen” appearance, but Collins himself is never seen.  He’s one of my favorite comedic character portrayals and in some ways, the story of Darcy and Lizzy isn’t the same without him.  The tension that he provides the tale is expressed in different ways, and it works pretty well, but I do miss him.

One warning: there are some pretty explicit sex scenes in the book.  They’re well done, and don’t come across as unnecessary to the narrative, but I know that such things aren’t for everyone.  If the thought of reading about Darcy and Lizzy getting it on in a janitor’s closet freaks you out, you should probably skip this one.  Otherwise, read on and have fun!

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

“Bobby Dollar is an angel—a real one. He knows a lot about sin, and not just in his professional capacity as an advocate for souls caught between Heaven and Hell. Bobby’s wrestling with a few deadly sins of his own—pride, anger, even lust.

But his problems aren’t all his fault. Bobby can’t entirely trust his heavenly superiors, and he’s not too sure about any of his fellow earthbound angels either, especially the new kid that Heaven has dropped into their midst, a trainee angel who asks too many questions. And he sure as hell doesn’t trust the achingly gorgeous Countess of Cold Hands, a mysterious she-demon who seems to be the only one willing to tell him the truth.

When the souls of the recently departed start disappearing, catching both Heaven and Hell by surprise, things get bad very quickly for Bobby D. End-of-the-world bad. Beast of Revelations bad. Caught between the angry forces of Hell, the dangerous strategies of his own side, and a monstrous undead avenger that wants to rip his head off and suck out his soul, Bobby’s going to need all the friends he can get—in Heaven, on Earth, or anywhere else he can find them.”

After reading this book, I’m reminded of how good urban fantasy can be in the hands of someone who excels at worldbuilding.  Epic fantasy is all well and good, and it can really transport you to another place and time; however, urban fantasy grounds that sense of wonder in a world that we can all relate to.  It makes it easy to let ourselves believe that a shapeshifter might lurk in the shadows of an alley… or in this case, that an angel might be walking past us as we go down the street.

Of course, this book is set in Northern California, which makes me all kinds of happy.  In my opinion, this part of the state is blessed with such a diversity of cities, natural areas, activities and people, it can’t help but provide an excellent setting for the weird and wild stories that urban fantasy is best known for.  And while Bobby lives in a fictional city—San Judas—Williams describes it in such a way that anybody who has been in the Bay Area will feel right at home.  (I also have to laugh at the fact that the author named the city after the patron saint of lost causes, but that’s beside the point.)

One of the other things that I liked about the worldbuilding extends to the characters as well—neither they nor the setting are perfect.  You would think that a story about angels and demons would feature the epitome of good and evil, but that’s mostly not the case.  Many of the angels drink.  Many have personal issues.  Some of the demons have a surprisingly strong moral compass.  As for the city, it has its nice parts and its run down parts, just like any other one, but rarely does it stray to the extremes of ritz or squalor.  In fact, now that I think about it, locations that are either really nice or really run down are reserved for the most earth-shattering of plot events, which ties in nicely with the good vs. evil theme.

But even though these characters have some rough edges, they’re still the sort of people that I’d love to have a conversation with—probably over some kind of alcoholic beverage.  Surprisingly, I found one of the most interesting characters to be the Countess of Cold Hands.  She may be on the wrong side of the Light, but Williams takes his time developing both her demonic side and the side that will leave you feeling very sorry for her.  Unlike angels, demons remember their life on earth, and it lends the Countess a tragic sense that none of the angels can really match.

I get the feeling that this is a novel that I will not only recommend to others, but that I will re-read a few times myself.  The more I thought about what I’d read, the more I got out of it.  Williams has created a world that I can truly see as being just a step or two removed from ours.  And if I could be sure that there really is a man like Bobby waiting to defend me after death, I’d definitely be grateful.  The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a novel that will entertain you while making you think about what might come after our lives are over.

This review was originally posted on September 5, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

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