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review 2017-09-22 20:47
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor
The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death) - Nnedi Okorafor

This short, futuristic novel is essentially a power/revenge fantasy focused on the exploitation of people of African descent, especially in medical research. (Calling it a power fantasy isn’t necessarily a criticism; much of sci-fi and fantasy consists of power fantasies for white male nerds, so it seems only fair for others to get a cut of the action.) Despite a compelling start and socially relevant themes, however, this one flopped for me.

Phoenix lives in a future America in which powerful corporations perform medical experimentation on people, mostly black, who live locked up in mysterious Towers. She knows nothing else and is content until something awful happens to her best friend and love interest, at which point she starts to rebel and discovers the powers with which she was endowed. This is a prequel to a post-apocalyptic fantasy tale and has a frame story, so it’s no secret that somewhere along the way the world as we know it is destroyed, and most readers will guess how; nevertheless, this is your warning that this review will contain SPOILERS.

Okorafor sets the stage well, with an oppressive dystopian setting and a young protagonist struggling to make sense of it and survive. The first third of the book makes for compelling reading, with a fast-paced story full of danger set in a believable world. But as in the companion book, Who Fears Death, the protagonist becomes too powerful, leaching the story of dramatic tension. Once Phoenix learns that she can fly for days on end, die and regenerate as many times as necessary, and move through time and space in an instant and apparently without limit, the story no longer presents obstacles that really challenge her. She attacks one of the Towers alone and without planning and succeeds, so the long stretch toward the end spent preparing to attack another with a group seems unnecessary and anticlimactic (though from a narrative perspective, it allows some down time and for Phoenix to bond more with other characters).

The end also proved unsatisfying. Phoenix suddenly decides the world is irredeemable and that the goddess Ani – who, mind you, does not appear in the book – wants her to destroy it. This decision made little sense to me: after all, her lover is alive and needs rescuing, and while she did just discover that several powerful and corrupt men have used the Towers’ research to extend their lives indefinitely, there’s nothing stopping her from hunting them down individually. The connection to the writing of the Great Book and the world of Who Fears Death also seems strained, though I enjoyed the chapters of the frame story as an independent short story.

Meanwhile, the characterization is fairly simplistic; reviewers who have interpreted this as intentional due to Phoenix’s chronological age may well be correct, but I have my doubts, as the book portrays Phoenix as an adult woman in her intellectual capacity and ability to form relationships. Likewise, the writing style is simple and sometimes staccato, which suits the dystopian setting fine. The world has texture and is a conceivable outgrowth of our world, an important but often-overlooked element of a good dystopia. On the other hand, some details seem under-researched: the bizarre chapter in which, despite the secrecy in which these projects are shrouded, the only records of ongoing medical experiments turn out to be catalogued and housed in hard copy in the Library of Congress (which apparently will switch to Dewey Decimal in the future?) available for browsing by anyone with ID, has been thoroughly dissected in other reviews.

Overall, while this book has some interesting ideas, their execution proved to be a letdown. Not having thought much of Who Fears Death either, I’m ready to conclude that Okorafor’s work is not for me.

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review 2017-09-22 03:34
The Queen's Poisoner (The Kingfountain Series #1) (Audiobook)
The Queen's Poisoner (The Kingfountain Series Book 1) - Jeff Wheeler

Well, this was a strange one. This can't be considered YA, but the POV character is an eight-year old boy. Which also makes getting a woman narrator that much more strange. She does okay with the material, but her voices for the men were not the best. 

 

The story itself was pretty straightforward and includes many of the staples of the fantasy genre. There is some subversion of tropes, so that was nice, but even those weren't anything that were all that surprising. 

 

I probably would've stopped listening halfway through, but that's about the time that Elizabeth Victoria Mortimer arrived on the scene, and she's an absolute delight of a character and most of the stars are for her. Without her, there wouldn't be anyone to really care about in this story.

 

If you're looking for a story along the lines of Game of Thrones, look elsewhere. If you're looking for something light and breezy with a bit of intrigue to read on a lazy day, this might be the ticket.

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review 2017-09-15 22:01
Dataclysm by Christian Rudder
By Christian Rudder Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) - Christian Rudder

On its face this book sounds good: data guru uses the information people share online, particularly on the dating website OkCupid, to reveal demographic trends. There is some interesting information here, along with fun graphs and charts. But while Rudder may be a good statistician, he’s a poor sociologist, and the book is riddled with eyebrow-raising assumptions and conclusions. It also hangs together poorly, jumping from one disconnected subject to another, with chapters that share a fairly simple finding padded by repetitive discussions of the author’s methods and rhapsodizing about the scope of his data. For a better book on what Big Data says about us, I recommend the more recent Everybody Lies.

Unfortunately, Rudder begins the book with random, skewed guessing. In describing OkCupid, he confidently asserts that “[t]onight, some thirty thousand couples will have their first date because of OkCupid. Roughly three thousand of them will end up together long-term. Two hundred of those will get married[.]” This caught my attention immediately: 10% of online first dates leading to long-term relationships is a fantastic success rate, but less than 7% of long-term relationships ending in marriage seems awfully low for the 20’s-and-up crowd. Curious what definition of “long-term” Rudder was using, I flipped to the notes at the back, only to find that he made it all up based on the fact that the site has 4 million active users and 300 couples per day reporting that they are leaving OkCupid because they found someone on the site. Plus his intuition that fewer than 1 in 10 long-term couples get married: “How many serious relationships did you have before you found the person you settled down with? I imagine the average number is roughly 10.” My own experience of the world is very different (I don’t think I know anyone who’s had 10+ long-term, serious relationships). And since the average American woman marries at 27 and man at 29, and according to the CDC, the average adult woman reports 4 lifetime sexual partners while the average man reports 6-7, Rudder’s impression seems the more likely to be skewed.

The author’s conclusions are equally questionable. He observes that men seem to find 20-year-old women the most attractive (at least on a site evidently without teenagers) throughout their lives, while women’s view of male attractiveness changes to accommodate their own age, and concludes that middle-aged men don’t contact young women for fear of rejection and social judgment. This overlooks the fact that there’s much more to a relationship than physical attractiveness; how many 50-year-old men want to live in a world of exam stress and frat parties, with a partner who has comparatively little life experience?

Another chapter seems to confuse correlation and causation. In “You’ve Gotta be the Glue,” Rudder explains that couples who each have multiple clusters of Facebook connections from different areas of their lives, and are the only person connected to each other’s various tribes, last longer than couples who are connected to all the same people, who all know each other. This makes sense: if you belong to several social groups (co-workers, college friends, book club, etc.) and your partner has gotten to know all of them, your relationship is well-established and likely serious. But if you belong to a tight-knit community and start dating someone within your group, your Facebook connections provide no indication of how serious you are. Rudder, however, interprets the data as proving causation, concluding that the “specialness” of the couple in being the “glue” between different social groups somehow boosts the relationship. He fails to explain how “connecting” his gaming buddies to his wife’s extended family strengthens their marriage – presumably if these social groups cared to mingle much, they’d befriend each other on Facebook and then what happens to the couple’s “specialness”?

When the book moves away from dating-related data, it becomes a series of disconnected one-off chapters. There’s a discourse about group rage on the Internet that involves little data analysis and seems to be included because the author is interested in group rage on the Internet. There’s a chapter about the language used in Twitter posts, concluding that Twitter definitely isn’t killing sophisticated thought because “a,” “and,” and “the” are among the top 10 words used in English both on Twitter and off of it. There’s an equation meant to demonstrate that multiplying a word’s frequency rank in a text by its number of uses will result in a constant, but the chart meant to illustrate this point with Ulysses displays a “constant” ranging from 20,000 to 29,055.

All that said, there is some interesting material here, particularly the data on race. The chapter on racist Google searches is less relevant now that the author of that study has written his own book (the aforementioned Everybody Lies); and Dataclysm, published in 2014, has a rosier view of this than the 2017, Trump-era version. But the study showing massive racial differences in how people rate one another’s attractiveness is still quite relevant: key findings include the fact that people tend to view members of their own race as more attractive than others, but black Americans take a major hit in the ratings from everybody (including other black people, though to a lesser degree). My first reaction on reading this was that it’s hard to judge people for preferring cultural commonalities in their most intimate relationships. But the data isn’t so simple: it’s based on how people rate a photo, not whom they choose to contact, and attractiveness doesn’t only affect one’s dating prospects, but employment too (there’s a chart on that). And in-group biases in American society are hardly limited to dating; while our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, churches, and friend groups are still largely separate, I’m inclined to believe that Rudder’s data does show hidden bias.

Overall, while there are interesting nuggets in here, I wouldn’t recommend the book. A few interesting data points are padded into book-length by ill-conceived interpretations and rambling. By the end I was simply tired of it – the writing didn’t engage me when unaccompanied by charts, the book lacks cohesion and the author had lost far too much credibility. Try Everybody Lies instead.

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review 2017-08-17 22:23
No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers
No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America - Ron Powers

This is a deeply emotional book about an important topic, and it seems to have found a large audience (judging by the number of holds at my local library if not the number of ratings on Goodreads). It’s a great idea, alternating between nonfiction chapters about the nature and history of mental illness and a memoir of the author’s family, including two sons with schizophrenia. And as a journalist, the author has an engaging writing style that kept me wanting to read on. It is marred, however, by odd choices in structure and focus. In the end, there is far less about mental illness in it than I expected, and the author’s major policy proposal involves disempowering the very people to whom he claims he wants to give a voice.

The larger part of this book is the nonfiction, much of which is history. The author writes a bit about the spiritual roles often held in traditional societies by people who would today be defined as mentally ill, before discussing the history of asylums (they seem to have started out somewhere between prisons and zoos, to be later reformed in the era of Dorothea Dix and then deteriorate again). And other low points: eugenics (Hitler was all about wiping out mental illness through murder, but the U.S. pioneered forced sterilizations), lobotomies (shudder), and deinstitutionalization (the U.S. closed most of its asylums in the 1960s, resulting in many of the mentally ill winding up on the streets or incarcerated). For no reason I could discern, the chapter about the aftermath of WWII comes after the deinstitutionalization chapter, but it’s otherwise roughly chronological.

Powers’s writing style is engaging, and there is useful information here for those who don’t know much about the topic, but the nonfiction portions could have been much better. When the subject is science – what is schizophrenia, or the link between mental illness and creativity – there’s little actual science and lots of authorial speculation; Powers spends more time detailing debunked theories with emotional appeal for him than laying out the facts. When the subject is history, he has a tendency to go off on tangents at best loosely related to the topic of the book: the eugenics chapter goes into detail on how Darwin came to travel on the Beagle, but neglects to mention that forced sterilization went on in the U.S. until the 1970s.

The chapter on antipsychotics is particularly off-base. I expected this chapter to answer such questions as: how effective are antipsychotics? What is it like to be on them? How have these drugs changed in the sixty-odd years since they first became available? What are their disadvantages? Instead we get a history of the development of the precursors to the first antipsychotic drugs, including biographical details of involved scientists, and then a long catalogue of misdeeds by drug companies, often not related to psychoactive drugs at all. There’s even a discussion of the intricacies of patent law that cause medication to be expensive in the U.S. in the first place, and mention of Bernie Sanders bussing seniors up to Canada to buy cheaper meds. As a piece of journalism it’s fine, but that isn’t why I picked up this book.

The memoir portion is equally marked by odd choices of focus. Three-quarters of it takes place before either of the author’s sons begins showing signs of schizophrenia. I understand the author’s desire to focus on the happy events in their lives, and even his drive to include supportive emails he sent his kids over the years. Perhaps one of his goals was to get readers invested in Dean and Kevin as people rather than seeing them as representatives of an illness. But a good writer could have done that while focusing on the years when they were actually sick (they’re still people, which is supposed to be the author’s point, and they’re hardly psychotic all the time). And this structure winds up giving the impression that life ends with schizophrenia, that everything worth telling in his sons’ lives happened beforehand – even though one of them is alive and apparently doing well.

Again, there’s a lot of authorial speculation and tangents here. He theorizes that his older son, Dean, was moody and withdrawn as a teenager because he was in the early stages of the disease, never mind that Dean’s first psychotic episode seems to have come around age 30. He discusses at length the social and judicial consequences of a car accident when Dean was 17, during which it becomes clear that he has a bone to pick with the other teenager’s family (who previously wrote their own book). Dean’s own opinions are noticeably absent. The author will mention that he never asked how Dean felt about a particular event, or doesn’t know some fact from Dean’s life, leaving me wondering why he didn’t just walk downstairs and ask. Memoirists generally have living, non-estranged family members read their manuscripts and share their memory of events, which could only have improved this book.

Finally, though there’s little discussion of specific policy proposals, Powers advocates throughout the book for parents having increased authority to force treatment on their unwilling adult children. Of course, early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important to health outcomes, and it was clearly agonizing for Powers and his wife to watch Kevin go off his meds, insisting that he’d gotten better. But having recently read a horrifying account of involuntary commitment in another memoir, I’m hesitant to say we should do this more, and concerned by the author’s pooh-poohing of civil liberties concerns. A basic tenet of a free society is that adults get to make their own life decisions, even if their judgment is terrible, as long as they abide by the law. If someone is incompetent, the court can appoint a guardian. Powers apparently believes this option is insufficient because there can be delay (in which case the delay is the problem) and, bafflingly, because this is “not a medical hearing, with psychiatrists, but a judicial hearing, with a judge and lawyers.” Um, yes, this is how government works; it’s called due process of law and why courts exist. There’s nothing stopping psychiatrists from testifying in them.

At any rate, the author doesn’t seem to have thought this proposal through. Does he believe in involuntary treatment only during episodes of acute psychosis, or indefinitely once someone has a diagnosis? His experiences make it seem like the latter. In which case, what diagnoses are sufficient? How long does someone have to be stable to get their rights back? Does he think parents should have this power for life, or only while their children are financially dependent young adults? How would he prevent situations like Rosemary Kennedy's, where less conscientious parents choose a treatment that destroys their child in an attempt to make her easier to manage? If the ill person is married, does the spouse get to dictate treatment? Has he considered the ways mental illness already leaves people vulnerable to domestic violence (“you’re crazy, so no one will believe you”)? There's a long history of inconvenient women forced into mental institutions, because people given power over others don't always exercise it well. It doesn’t appear the author has considered the implications of his ideas beyond his own pain, and while his experiences are a valid consideration, the inquiry can’t stop there.

 

So in the end, while there is some good journalistic writing here and I found the book more engaging than a 2-star rating implies, it falls short of the author’s stated goals. He writes in the introduction that he wants reading the book to hurt, and he wants to give a voice to people with mental illness. The book includes a few tragic stories taken from the news, dealing with police shootings and suicide in prison, and certainly his son’s suicide is one of the most tragic events a family can experience. But far more page time is spent on Powers family vacations and why the author hates Thomas Szasz. And I’m confused as to how he believes he’s given anyone a voice when there’s no indication he interviewed anyone with mental illness for the book; even his own surviving son appears to have had no involvement. Raising awareness is good, but this book is too much of the author’s feelings and too little of anything else. What a wasted opportunity.

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review 2017-08-01 02:12
Rise of the Empire (The Riyria Revelations #3-4) (Audiobook)
Rise of Empire (The Riyria Revelations, #3-4) - Michael J. Sullivan,Tim Gerard Reynolds

Fantasy-lite at its most mediocre. 

 

My lord, that thing was long! Two books in one volume is just too much when the exposition is this dry. On top of that, whoever edited the audiobook decided that splitting chapters up into several smaller, shorter chapters was a good idea. Honestly, I think it just contributed to the feeling of "this is never going to end" that I started getting about halfway through. 

 

I like the characters, and the stars are mostly for them. Hadrian and Royce have good banter, and Arista, Amelia and Modina have some interesting conflicts and personal journeys to go through. Really, the women do have the better part of the story here. The problem I'm having with these is the execution. Characters speak the exposition in the most expositiony way possible. Instead of aiming for subtext and intrigue, the characters continue to spew every thought to their enemies because of course that's the smart thing to do. There are no twists or attempts to subvert tropes. There is an attempt at a cliffhanger at the end of this one, but let's face it - everything will be fine, so I'm not worried.

 

I'm rewatching Buffy: The Vampire Slayer right now and recently got through the season two episode "Lie to Me." At the end, Buffy asks Giles if life ever gets easier and tells Giles to lie to her. He answers:

 

"Yes. It's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and... everybody lives happily ever after."

 

Sullivan seems to be writing his stories with this sentiment in mind, only he forgot the part about it being a lie (with one or two minor exceptions). This is very "what you see is what you get" and maybe it's just the wrong series to be trying to read alongside A Song of Ice and Fire and Young Wizards.

 

Since I did like the first of the prequels, I think I'll go back to those and see if that was one-time fluke or if Sullivan just got better with time. I'll have to debate with myself if I want to bother finishing this original series though. It's just not holding my attention - though that's no fault of the narrator, whose doing the best he can with the material he's been giving and he's probably the only reason the story even has some semblance of life to it. 

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