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Search tags: Three-and-One-Half-Stars
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review 2018-04-20 19:29
Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Warrior's Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

This is an enjoyable science fiction caper. As a rule I don’t like sci-fi, so if it sounds like the sort of book that will push the right buttons for you, you should expect to like it better. Warrior’s Apprentice seemed like a good choice for me because its focus is on the characters rather than the technology, and it’s better-written than a lot of genre fiction. As these books tend to go, it is mostly lighthearted – with a plot driven by the protagonist’s prowess at social engineering, with which he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole – but there’s war involved so there’s also some death and gruesomeness.

At age 17, Miles Vorkosigan flunks the imperial officer exam in a disability-related accident. But he soon finds a new adventure when he picks up a couple of desperate men in need of work, and a dated spaceship providing exactly the kind of work they need. The small crew tangles with a mercenary army and things escalate from there. It’s a fun and fast-moving adventure, with reasonably well-defined characters. Miles fits a lot of sci-fi and fantasy stereotypes: the boy who’s a native military genius; the physically disadvantaged, snarky guy who runs mental circles around everyone else; you’ve all seen this before. I think he’s a good example of the type though, perhaps because Bujold is writing less from her id than other authors with similar protagonists. Miles was born with his disadvantages, but he also has a lot of advantages, and the book doesn’t try to engineer sympathy for his circumstances in place of making him a sympathetic character. Some authors will have a character treated absurdly badly for no fault of his own and use that to justify anything, in place of giving the character a moral compass; Bujold doesn’t take that shortcut. Miles is also more explicitly defined as a disabled character than I’ve seen in spec fic before.

Overall, this was fun but I wasn’t over the moon about it, likely in part because this simply isn’t my genre of choice. I might read the sequel someday, though it’s hard to tell which book in this complicated series picks up where this one leaves off.

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review 2018-04-20 16:02
Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak
Forbidden Bread - Erica Johnson Debeljak

This is an interesting memoir by a former New York financial analyst who moved to the newly-formed Slovenia in 1993 for love. I read it because it’s set primarily in Slovenia, and in that respect was rewarded: it provides not just a vibrant snapshot of a particular place and time, but information about culture and language and history. I learned more about the most recent war in the Balkans from this book than from any other that I’ve read. As a memoir and especially as a love story, though, I found this a bit lacking.

This book is mostly about Erica Johnson Debeljak’s first year in Slovenia, but it begins by tracing her relationship with her future husband, Aleš, in New York, and the final chapter, set in 2008, puts her experiences in context and reflects on how dramatically the country has changed. An outsider’s perspective gives her a sharp eye for detail, but being married to a local and living in a country that was not a destination for westerners at the time means the author isn’t a typical expat: her in-laws, who grew up in a small village and lived most of their lives under communism, are involved in her life, and she lives in a working-class area and spends time with Aleš’s rural extended family. She even gives birth at a local hospital, where the judgment of whether a childbirth is successful seems to depend mostly on the mother’s making no noise (epidurals aren’t even mentioned, though surely they must have been common in New York by 1993?).

But the book is rather lacking in emotion for the first 2/3 or so, up until the author’s decision to have a child. Perhaps she really did take moving to a newly-formed country bordered by war in stride, but this doesn’t let readers get to know her very well. The emotion snaps into focus toward the end, as pregnancy and childbirth put her in conflict with traditional Slovenian beliefs and practices (this is apparently a country where people wouldn’t open car windows in the hot summer because All Drafts Are Deadly), and as having a child brings home the fact that her decision is permanent.

There was something oddly unsatisfying about the author’s personal story, though, because her depiction of her relationship with her husband is so charmless. He’s a renowned womanizer, and their early relationship seems to revolve entirely around sex. While she’s clearly pleased with the sex and seems to find him excitingly exotic, that doesn’t explain why she would keep pursuing – ultimately across an ocean – a man who routinely pushes her away, insisting the relationship won’t work out. A few months into their marriage, she’s pleasantly surprised that he’s been a good husband, because it turns out her greatest fear in moving to Slovenia was that he’d cheat on her within a few months. I’ve seen memoirists depict relationships with exes with more charm and sweetness than this author brings to the marriage for which she gave up a career and moved across the world. In the end I wasn’t sure whether to attribute the lack of romance to secret unhappiness on the author’s part, or simply to her storytelling: perhaps she was afraid of seeming sentimental or felt the romance was self-evident. But she didn’t provide enough to make me root for them as a couple or understand what drew either of them so strongly to the other and to this relationship.

At any rate, I did enjoy book for the author’s depiction of her life in Slovenia, and even looked forward to reading it. It’s accessible and interesting and I learned from it. It is a good choice for anyone interested in Slovenia, though perhaps not ideal for those seeking a love story.

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review 2018-04-08 20:54
Review: "Treuepunkte" (Andrea Schnidt, #4) by Susanne Fröhlich
Treuepunkte - Susanne Fröhlich

 

~ 4.5 stars ~

 

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review 2018-03-29 22:10
Watching Her: A Dark Romance (Keep Me Series Book 3) by Angela Snyder
Watching Her: A Dark Romance - Angela Snyder

Wowza! Jackson was just W-O-W! He was such an adorable dork with the right amount of sexiness and lots of sweet appeal. Honestly, what I loved the most about him was that he didn’t behave like an overbearing alpha and was always happy to be there for those that trusted him. The story itself was intense, exciting, and gripping. Although this is the 3rd book in the series and it’s set parallel to the first two, it can still be read as a standalone. Be warned though, you’re going to want to read the first two once you get to know Jax. 
So, despite his kinks and voyeurism, Jax has some personal issues that prevent him from truly loving someone. It isn’t until he meets strong, determined Katya, a woman with her own dark past, that he allows himself to develop feelings for someone. 
Katya is my kind of heroine: self-reliant, clever, and compassionate. Of course she could also be stubborn but overall she was understanding and was able to keep a level head at the most critical times.
In short, Jax and Katya are now in my top 5 favorite couples, and I totally recommend this book.

*** I received this book at no cost to me and I volunteered to read it; this is my honest opinion and given without any influence by the author or publisher ***

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review 2018-03-23 18:35
Zealot by Reza Aslan
Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan

This is an accessible work of history, looking at what the historical evidence tells us about Jesus of Nazareth and his times. Not knowing much about the context of those times, I found it enlightening, though it sometimes seems that the author overstates the certainty with which much of anything about the ancient world can be known. In the end much of the book is educated guessing – worth reading because it is very educated, but not much can be proven.

Part 1 covers the context of first-century Palestine, a far-flung Roman province bursting with discontent about tribute requirements, leading to high taxes, leading to exploitation of the poor. Many men claimed the mantle of messiah, or the chosen one who would liberate their land from the Romans and restore God’s kingdom. Eventually the Jews revolted in 66 C.E. and kicked out the Romans, only for the Romans to return and wipe out Jerusalem four years later. In this milieu, and given the way the Romans executed Jesus (crucifixion was the standard punishment for sedition and treason, as a warning to others), the author builds a case for interpreting him as a political revolutionary. For instance, an act such as overturning the moneylenders’ tables at the Temple would have been a protest against the priests’ collaboration with Rome and enrichment of themselves at the expense of the common people.

Part 2 is more focused on the information in the gospels: what is credible from a historical perspective, and how Jesus’s words would have been understood at the time. Finally, Part 3 is about the early church in the aftermath of his death, particularly the schism between James (Jesus’s brother, who led the Jerusalem assembly) and Paul, who comes across as a bit of an egomaniac who reinvented Jesus’s message entirely, transforming it from a Jewish sect into an entirely new religion. Jesus claimed that he had come to fulfill Jewish law, while Paul decreed that he had replaced it; when Jesus was originally referred to as “Son of God,” the author argues that this designation meant simply the “chosen one” (David was also a “Son of God”) while Paul interpreted it literally. During his lifetime Paul did not have great success, but his version of Christianity was better suited to take off in a post-Jerusalem world, where the Jews had become pariah and the Temple no longer existed.

I found this to be an interesting and thought-provoking book. While not a fast read, it provides an engaging narrative and is readable and accessible to the non-academic reader. The author’s arguments in general seem extensive researched, well-documented and persuasive. When discounting sources or filling in gaps in the record, he generally explains his analysis rather than simply stating his conclusions as if they were fact.

However, it isn’t a perfect book. The organization can be a bit scattershot, jumping around in time and between general historical background and Jesus, especially in the early sections. There are no footnotes, and some assertions are supported by extensive endnotes while others are not. While not representative of the book as a whole, there are some eyebrow-raising arguments to authority, stating that “the overwhelming consensus” (204) among scholars tells us something, or that another author has “definitively proven” (240) something else. It is helpful to know which ideas are subjects of controversy and which aren’t, and I don’t expect the author to perform independent research on every single topic surrounding life in the ancient world, but it is an odd phrasing for a book premised on the method of drawing conclusions from primary sources even if they differ from established dogma.

More broadly speaking, the book’s analysis left me with big questions unanswered. If the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death by people who didn’t know him, and who did not live in a society where fact-checking and documentation were a thing (though the Romans kept extensive records on issues of interest such as tax collection), and were written as testaments of faith with the intention of converting non-Jews to their religion rather than as historical documents, then why remove some politically-charged bits but not others? The author argues that the Gospel writers must have changed the agency in Jesus’s execution from the Roman governor to the Jews for palatability to their intended audience, given that Pilate cared little to nothing what his subject population thought about anything, but why then leave in the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables, the sermon on the mount (which the author argues would have been about the new social order in God’s kingdom on earth rather than a spiritual promise), and other statements targeting the Temple and the Roman government? 

And if the writers needed to transport Jesus’s birth to Bethlehem to argue that he fulfilled the prophecies, why would they have explained this through a census story that their readers would have known to be false, because the census not only didn’t happen at that time but did not work that way (the Roman census was about tallying up property in order to tax it, and putting the economy on hold for months for everyone to travel to their home village without said property would have been absurd)? It’s fair to say that I am hopelessly modern and nonreligious and can’t claim to understand the mindset of a first- or second-century convert, but immersion in a story to me depends on finding it at least plausible. It also seems likely that a new religion isn’t trying to recruit skeptics who will question its facts but rather true believers who will accept the religious leaders’ word. But there still seems to me to be a difference between facts that can be disproven, and unverifiable assertions that must be taken on faith, and why hand your opponents the former if you can avoid it?

So I wish the author would have delved more into the historicity of the Gospels as a whole rather than focusing on specific passages one at a time; for me at least it would have been helpful in evaluating the overall argument. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and educational book of reasonably short length, and I’m glad I read it.

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