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review 2019-03-25 00:14
Sky Without Stars, System Divine #1 by Joanne Rendell & Jessica Brody
Sky Without Stars - Joanne Rendell,Jessica Brody

If you read just one dystopian teen novel based on 'Les Misérables' make sure it's this one. No, but really, this turned out much better than I expected it to. The authors reinvent the core narrative of Hugo's novel into the tribulated teen romance genre and launches what could be a very interesting new series.


The planet Laterre is part of the System Divine, a three-sun solar system surrounded by 12 inhabitable planets. It was discovered and settled by ships that had fled from the First World which had been, or was about to be, made inhabitable. The ships carried with them colonists, technology, supplies and many backwards ideas of how to settle a new planet. Laterre holds the descendants of the French whose leadership set up an Ancien Régime similar to that of France before the Revolution. The First Estate is headed by the Patriarch and his family and live in a grand palace, the Second Estate is made up of fortunate families who live in comfort and ease and support the system by policing or running factories, or exploits. They make up about 5% of the population. The rest, the Third Estate, are downtrodden and forced to live in squalid poverty held in check by the oppressive regime, the hope of their being selected to join the Second estate by lottery, and, of course, the criminal acts of their peers. They don't have any housing at all, the best they can hope for is living in the old berths, staterooms and holds of the rusting freighters that brought their ancestors to the planet 500 years ago.


We hear from three perspectives - Chatine, the daughter of a gangster in the Third Estate who has taken it upon herself to con her way to getting a ticket off-planet, Marcellus, the grandson of the ranking member of the Second Estate and an officer in the regime, and Alouette, a young girl raised in a secret refuge that protects the history of the First World and the chronicles of Laterre. In the centuries since the founding of Laterre, people became so reliant on technology that they forgot how to read. Even the upper classes. Which, OK, sure.


The authors are effective world-builders, and the various elements of their source material are integrated in a plot that keeps up its pace over almost 600 pages. Of course, it's not the whole plot - there will be a sequel. What I'm most interested in though is what classic works they might use to build up the other planets of the system. Hints of the others include a English planet ruled by a mad queen, a German empire and a Frank Lloyd Wright reference (Usonia)? Probably American. I'm hoping for an American planet to involve a gay teen odd-couple signing on to a space-boat where the captain is obsessed with hunting the space-whale that took his leg. 


System Divine


Next: ?

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review 2019-03-24 18:24
An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman
An Armenian Sketchbook - Vasily Grossman

This is a vivid little book, as much a platform for the author’s musings on a variety of subjects as it is a travelogue. Grossman was a Jewish writer in the Soviet Union who had just had his masterwork confiscated by the authorities, when he traveled to Armenia to work on a “translation” of an Armenian novel. (He was actually cleaning up a literal translation into literary Russian, and did not in fact speak Armenian at all.) This short book is more essay collection than straight travel narrative; Grossman reflects on the landscape, on various people he meets and experiences he has, and on aspects of life in general that interest him.

At the beginning I enjoyed this book, appreciating the immediacy of Grossman’s writing and the thought-provoking subjects he touches on, but I found myself losing patience as I went on, and ultimately this book fell on the back burner.

Here’s an example of one of the passages that struck me, from a section in which Grossman wonders why the view of a beautiful lake doesn’t strike a chord of wonder within him:

For a particular scene to enter into a person and become part of their soul, it is evidently not enough that the scene be beautiful. The person also has to have something clear and beautiful present inside them. It is like a moment of shared love, of communion, of true meeting between a human being and the outer world.

The world was beautiful on that day. And Lake Sevan is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But there was nothing clear or good about me – and I had heard too many stories about the Minutka restaurant. After listening to the story of the lovesick princess, I asked, “But where’s the restaurant?”

. . . .

Or was it the thousands of paintings I had seen? Were they what poisoned my encounter with the high-altitude lake? We always think of the artist’s role as entirely positive; we think that a work of art, if it is anything more than a hack job, brings us closer to nature, that it deepens and enriches our being. We think that a work of art is some kind of key. But perhaps it is not? Perhaps, having already seen a hundred images of Lake Sevan, I thought that this hundred-and-first image was just one more routine product from a member of the Artists’ Union.

And here’s a passage that made me want to roll my eyes, thinking that the author puts altogether too much faith in his own feelings and perceptions:

But I repeat: there are many ways through which one can recognize that someone believes in God. It is not just a matter of words, but also of tones of voice, of the construction of sentences, of the look in a person’s eyes, in their gait, in their manner of eating and drinking. Believers can be sensed – and I did not sense any in Armenia.

What I did see were people carrying out rites. I saw pagans in whose good and kind hearts lived a god of kindness.

Why Grossman would think he could recognize Christianity from a person’s gait and syntax, of all things, especially cross-culturally, and why he is so confident in this ability that he can declare a country devoid of real Christians, I have no idea.

At any rate, this is a well-written little book that ranges over a wide variety of topics. Ultimately, I’d have liked it better if it had contained more about Armenia and less of the author’s pontification. But I did learn more about the country than I knew before, which was not much. (Judging from the selection of books shelved on Goodreads as “Armenia” – almost none of which are set there – I had the vague impression that the country had come into being only after the Armenian genocide. As it turns out, it is an ancient country with a long history and unique language.)

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review 2019-03-24 17:50
The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
The Air You Breathe - Frances de Pontes Peebles

This is a generic work of historical fiction that has me questioning my past literary judgment – because I loved the author’s first novel, The Seamstress, to pieces, and thought it was a fantastic literary adventure, featuring two divergent but equally compelling storylines. That was nine years ago, though, and I did not find any of the wonder I remember seeing there in this eminently forgettable book.

Apparently inspired by the career of 1940’s Hollywood musical star Carmen Miranda, this book relates the story of two Brazilian girls who grow up on a sugar plantation, are enraptured by music, run away from home to make their way, and end up singing samba and finally making movies. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Dores, a hardscrabble orphan who befriends the privileged, self-absorbed Graça. Dores is the smart, practical one with a talent for songwriting, while Graça is the diva who captivates audiences.

The novel flows smoothly enough, with competent writing; it’s a quick read and long enough to live in for a little while. That said, it lacks rawness, vitality, momentum; we basically know what’s going to happen from the beginning, and then spend 450 pages following the course that’s been charted out from the start, without any real excitement or surprise, but with standard-issue philosophizing about life from a character supposed to be looking back on events from her 90s. Unfortunately, the first-person voice tends to obscure rather than reveal any personality Dores may have; it’s a generic voice for a generic character in a generic historical fiction story.

The other characters are pretty generic as well – Graça is the only one with much in the way of personality, while the supporting members of the band lack not only personalities but also lives and relationships of their own, to the point that how they feel about unexpectedly spending several years in a foreign country is never even mentioned. The two women’s antagonistic devotion to each other was never entirely convincing to me either; it largely felt like a result of the fact that the novel didn’t have room for distractions like developing their relationships with lovers or other friends, rather than anything organic.

So, unfortunately, the generic title and cover art turned out to be representative of the work as a whole – fine escapism if you want a nice long predictable novel, but nothing more than that. It isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing in the plot or characters or writing that stands out. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest music lover and don’t tend to love books about music; if you did love this, you’ll likely also enjoy The Gods of Tango, another Latin American LGBT music-focused novel (which also disappointed me). I am curious to listen to some samba, though.

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review 2019-03-22 19:34
Review: "The Executioner" (Robert Hunter, #2) by Chris Carter
The Executioner - Chris Carter


~ 3 stars ~


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review 2019-03-22 14:25
The Beast's Beauty (Beauty and the Beast #2)
The Beast's Beauty - R. Phoenix

I have to say I knew nothing about this book or series but just bought it for the cover. LOL. I gobbled up these two books and while it is so wrong...it was so right. I loved the mental play happening here. There is no physical torture and no penetrative rape, but there is humiliation, puppy/kitty play and just an interesting exploration into the mindset of a kidnapper and his victim...into submission and needing to become someone else in order to survive.


This series may not work for everyone but it totally worked for me.


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