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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:13
Ship Breaker: a review
Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi


Bacigalupi has written a complex, violent novel in a grimly plausible near-future, where our rape of the planet has altered not just the physical plane, but also the way we live. The coastlines are altered beyond recognition as the seas rise, and resources worldwide have failed. Massive destructive storms ("city killers") are now normal events. The gap between rich and poor is so enormous now that they hardly know about one another anymore. Our hero, Nailer, is a wiry youth living on the beaches of the southern coastline, on the fringes of becoming a member of a ruthless recycling gang. Day to day survival is iffy, and the chances of a better life to come are nearly zero. They live (barely) by stripping useable bits from wrecked oil tankers, sleeping at night in shanty huts on the sand, and noshing on roasted rats and bits of fruit.

I liked the first half of the novel better than the second. In the first half, we meet Nailer's "tribe": his fellow crew mates (who would all gladly kill him if it meant another meal for themselves), and his one friend Pima and her mother Sadna (my favorite person in the book), as well as his tormented and abusive father. I was intrigued with how well the author wrote about Nailer's attempts to sidetrack his vicious father (repeatedly described as feral: we need a synonym for that word) as he begins to get worked up into a kid-beating frenzy. It gave me some insight into abused children.


I was intrigued by the half-human "dog man"  character Tool, a genetically engineered bodyguard,  and would gladly read a whole book explaining where he came from and how he became what he is, which defies logic. And I want to know how Sadna managed to retain such humanity in the inhumane world in which she must live.

Bacigalupi is a talented writer, in places completely suspending my reality. When Nailer nearly dies by drowning alone in the dark in an oil tank, for instance, I was engulfed in fear. I also loved the scene in the city, when Nailer, seeing his father with some henchmen, hides under the floating sidewalk and follows them, trying to listen from beneath without being seen. I have actually experienced being hidden in the water, underneath people on a dock like that, low to the water, and I felt he really captured the experience.

I was frustrated by the "pretty" girl Nailer rescues, both because she is not well-fleshed out, even by the end of the novel, and because he had to make her pretty. Why pretty? Why not smart, or interesting, or even just exotic looking to Nailer? I was glad the romance between the two is kept to a minimum. I wish more details had emerged about (a) why so many people with means and money are so loyal to her, and (b) what her motivations are. Maybe in the sequel? I also wished there had been a bit less philosophizing by the young people. For example, just SHOW me that Nailer is beginning to develop compassion: don't tell me what he is thinking about whether or not he should show compassion.

On the whole I really liked the novel. His world building is detailed and wonderful. The fusion of religions, the harvesting of organs for profit, the lack of choices and mobility, the failure of resources, the bits of the old reality that survive (the name Lucky Strike, for instance, or the idea of calendar pictures hung on the wall, inspiring dreams) all rang true to me.

It's quite brutal to read: Nailer must kill several people, in one case by slashing a woman's throat as she lies sleeping, and (spoiler alert) he eventually must kill his own father. Several people die throughout the novel, others get maimed and cast away to be exiled and likely die, and suffer other horrors. Early on, for instance, we are told the tragic tale of a younger, smaller child who got lost in the bowels of the oil tankers while seeking cooper wire to scavenge, and he dies there, alone, his body eaten by rats. Such imagery makes this book for more suitable for older young adults, over 12 at least.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-01 02:06
"The Knife of Never Letting Go": a review, book one of Chaos Walking
The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Book one in the trilogy called Chaos Walking, by Patrick Ness.


Todd Hewitt, a teenager on the cusp of manhood, appears to live in a small town dominated by angry male religious nutcases. He's had an unusual upbringing, since all the women have died. All of them. In fact, he has never seen a woman at all. He's being raised by Ben and Cillian, life partners. And the men in town have all caught a germ that renders their thoughts-- all thoughts, all the time-- audible to others.

Now stop and think for a moment what your life would be life if every single thing you ever thought could be picked up by everyone around you, and vice versa. (Hence the title of the series, CHAOS WALKING.)

The constant barrage of thoughts is called The Noise, and learning to control your noise is problematic. Lying is of course virtually impossible. Yet everyone in his town is in fact lying to him. (I struggled a bit with how such a huge lie would be possible, but accepted it as part of the plot line.) As he and his faithful dog Manchee begin to discover, things in Prentisstown are not at all what they seem. The reader soon learns that Prentisstown is on an alien world, and was a colony-based settlement that has been cut off from all other settlements for decades now.

Why? What made them be cut off?  That question is central to the novel. What great and horrible secret are the men of Prentisstown hiding?

Todd discovers a new something in the swamp near the edge of town, a lack of noise, an empty silence, and sees his first ever female human person. Females apparently do not project their Noise like males do, Todd learns. But they do still HEAR the Noise of men. --- Now stop and think about THAT for a moment: men can hear all other men, and women can hear all men, but women get to keep their thoughts to themselves and choose what to share and say. Fascinating premise. Society would totally change, indeed.  Kudos to the author for this highly original premise.

In very short order, Todd and Manchee must flee Prentisstown, and the female (Viola) comes with them, literally running through the woods across this alien world to the next settlement, then the next, trying to find safety and answers. Todd is carrying a big ole knife from his father figure, and it is a large part of his story, hence the title of the novel. But they are being pursued. Relentlessly, in fact. Some of the long flight across the planet was dull, and some of it felt manipulative, but along the way facts are gained and things are --at least partially --explained.The ostacles they encountered felt realistic, as did the reactions of various townspeople to discovering "Prentisstowners" in their settlements. Todd begins to learn that whathe was raised to believe was mostly a lie, or at best a spin on the truth.


I found the book hard to put down, and filled with things to ponder. I liked Todd and wanted him to do well, wanted him to find what he was seeking and make good choices. Liking the hero/heroine is rather central to enjoying the story at hand. I liked Viola too but did not really connect with her in the first book.

I was broken-hearted at the choice Todd has to make in the river regarding Manchee, (Shades of "Where The Red Fern Grows", and "Old Yeller") and felt exploited by the return and then almost immediate disappearance of his mother-substitute, Ben. I was also irritated that The Book he carries did not get read along the way: Seems to me he would have been DYING to get it read.

However, I liked the way Todd was growing up: he is forced to make difficult choices when right and wrong are not so clear cut and clean. I liked the way the author avoided romance between Todd and Viola for the most part. No sex in this book, just a growing trust and friendship that may or may not blossom into more in book two. I personally really liked the vernacular way of speaking, though some reviewers found it annoying,  and the interesting font changes, especially early on when it represents The Noise. Todd has a great male voice/ presence. I did get quite sick of the word "effing" and wanted the kid to just go ahead and cuss already. Say the fucking word. Quit pretending not to cuss.

The novel appealed to me on many levels. It addresses some BIG questions, especially to those of us who grew up near repressive religious figures, controlling southern men who preach one thing and do another. Mayor Prentiss is a terrifyingly real figure to me. I knew men like him: I still do. But how do we respond to people like him without hurting others? Also the whole alien race question, which is brought up but not resolved in this first installment.  Who are the Spackle?  Not quite humanoid, but not terribly alien either, they seem to be sentient -- but since we cannot communicate with them, what DO we do? Leave the planet?  Force them off of it? Live side by side without communicating? What if they attack us first?

However, The book is pretty brutal and will sadly not be going into my 8th grade classroom, nor onto on my recommend-for-under-16-years-old list. LOTS of killing. People being slaughtered left and right.  Tough choices to be made by young people who should not yet be forced to make such terrible decisions. Manchee's final scene, where Todd makes the right choice but at a terrible cost. Repressive controlling authority figures who lie, cheat, steal, murder, and beat up children. A disturbing scene when Todd unnecessarily murders a Spackle, one of the alien natives. An entire town is wiped out and more are likely to be destroyed.  There's relentless violence. But, like The Hunger Games, the violence serves a purpose. 

By and large, I loved this novel and am eagerly devouring Book Two right now, The Ask and The Answer. This is book one of a series of three, and I am glad I did not find it until all three books were published, because (warning) book one ends on a HUGE cliffhanger that would have driven me nuts.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

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review 2014-03-26 20:40
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: a review
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs


This novel is built around a collection of very strange vintage photographs.  Jacob, age 16, had an interesting Grandfather who filled his head with odd tales of monsters and powers, and showed him these remarkably creepy photos.  As a child, Jacob believed them to be true, but as he grows he begins to discount them. Then his grandfather is brutally murdered (this scene is pretty scary) by what appears to be a monster, and suddenly some of those tales don't seem so impossible anymore. Eventually he convinces his wealthy but largely distracted parents to take him go to Cairnholm island near Wales, where his grandfather was raised, to find answers.  What he finds there is in fact Miss Peregrine's Home for (Peculiar) Children. Still standing on an abandoned end of the barely-inhabited island.  Still filled with children.  In fact, the exact SAME children in his grandfather's photos from 60 years or more ago. And then we meet the monsters.


I do not think I am alone in stating that the photographs might be the best part of the book, and am intrigued by their very existence, from the dog-headed boy to the girl with the mouth on the back of her head.  However, some of the pictures are never used in the story (the clown twins?) and I am wondering why.  Perhaps a sequel?


Sadly, I am less thrilled with the story. The lead character, Jacob, is hard to like, and for me he seemed at times either way older than 16 or way younger.  His attitude towards his parents and psychiatrist -- and most adults, in fact-- are annoyingly self centered.  (Of course, he is a teen, and the adults in this book are pretty useless to him, but still.... this kid is a pain.)   I also did not feel he behaved consistently, and found it hard to believe that a boy that age would use the flowery language he does. 


Additionally, unanswered questions leave me feeling tricked: like why does the town keep experiencing the same day over and over?  How does the Loop work, exactly?  When did it start? Why don't the children act more like adults, given that most of them are well over 75?


I am also passionately violently uncomfortable with the romance, given the 80+ year age difference and the whole I loved your grandpa too thing.  Kinda creepy. That said, I DID enjoy the writing itself, and the very creative ideas, even if they were not all as fully developed as I would have liked, so I found this an easy to finish book. I hope the author keeps writing.  I would give the story a one star, and the writing a three point five:  I am settling for the midmark, a 2.


While advertised as a young teen / older children's book, I would not let anyone under 16 read this. While not really all that scary, it has some very adult things going on, including a deliberate killing.

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review 2014-03-26 19:04
American Gods: a review
American Gods - Neil Gaiman

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.


I'll start by saying that I am a new fan of Gaiman.  I came into Gaiman land via "The Graveyard Book", which I loved.  Then I swallowed "Coraline" in an afternoon and had trouble sleeping for days.  Buttons now freak me out.  In both of these novels, which were written for children, love conquers, but it may not look like love the way we think love should be. So I picked up American Gods hoping for more of that twisted but righteous way of seeing things. I'm still not sure whether or not i found it there.


On the surface, this is a tale of the conflict between older gods-- from the Nordic pantheon to Egyptian goddesses like Bast, and several others I humbly admit to not recognizing-- and the newer American gods of media, commerce, and consumption.  On another level it is a story of a single person, the man we know only as Shadow, a recent prison parolee with a basically decent heart despite his criminal tendencies, as he struggles to make sense of his rather unhappy life.  Shadow is hard to like because he is so enormously passive (those who have read the book will get my pun there), and never questions the exceedingly bizarre things that happen.  But he is hard to dislike too, because he has been so abused and yet he does not abuse others. I never really felt an emotional connection with him, yet I did feel a need to know what happens to him.


But underneath these two stories, there is a set of vaguely-formed philosophical questions: about what makes up the truth of reality, and what beliefs are, and whether or not they matter, and if so, how.  Are there gods?  Did humanity invent them?  Do they affect our daily lives? Can they die? If there are gods, is that a good thing, or a bad one?  Can we even control our own lives?   So many metaphors abound, and the "backstage" part of the book really had me wondering. But in true Gaiman fashion, he never answers the reader's questions about "backstage".  You have to decide for yourself what really happens there.


Gaiman has marvelous vision:  he sees the world ( and other worlds) through a twisted lens which I find fascinating.  he;s also a skilled writer, with a generous gift of using words well.  I enjoy reading his descriptions, which are never quite what one would expect, but always leave you feeling like you saw more than he told.  Perhaps my favorite part of this book were the short little vignettes when he traverses back in time, to when the "old gods" were carried here to America, by various immigrants, from a modern New York Taxi cab driver all the way back to a prehistoric tribe walking across the Bering Strait.


I also enjoyed how he threads throughout the novel the ravenous need that the various gods and goddesses have for us, their worshipers, in order to survive.  I've never really considered that kind of reciprocal relationship between divine beings and their followers.  I was however quite disappointed that he did not include the Big Three Religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Those gods never appear in the book. I'm wondering why he chose to leave them all out. Here's what he says about religion in the book:


"Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you--even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition."


Reading Gaiman, I think, requires a careful and patient attention to small details, and a willingness to wait for understanding, and to accept things that seem completely unrelated to the main plot line, but later are revealed as vital. Not unlike watching a movie, where you start with four or five unrelated scenes and then they move towards a union. Don't expect big battles and massive action scenes in here:  you'll be disappointed. Expect a quiet, almost brutally methodical pace that, if you take the time, reveals many treasures of thought, and some truly beautiful phrasing.


Some of the surprises at the end I saw coming.  Some I certainly did not.  Most --but not all --of the loose ends are tied up:  I especially liked the way Laura was wrapped up at the finale.


On the whole I am glad I read it.  It was dark: lots of murders and some rather nasty behaviors, creepy dreams, dead people roaming about as they slowly rot, and so forth.  But I like a book that asks the reader to ask questions.  So I am giving this one a thumbs up.


Plus how can you not like a book in which a character says this:


"What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul."



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