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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 17:28
The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

A book about America’s territories: part travelogue, part history, part investigation of the territories’ political status, this is a lightweight, readable introduction to a complicated topic. Doug Mack takes readers along on his trip through the territories: beginning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then traveling to American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, and ending with a trip to Puerto Rico. He even makes a stop in the Marshall Islands and briefly discusses the U.S.’s “freely associated states” of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. (These are independent Pacific Island countries that have a special relationship with the U.S., even having U.S. post offices and citizens serving in the U.S. military; as a group, they were best known to me for being the only other U.N. member states to always vote against sanctions for Israel.) Along the way, he shares his research about the territories in an accessible way that provides a good primer for readers new to the topic.

I found this book interesting, educational and easy to read. The author shows readers each territory as a unique place and digs into their histories and the history of U.S. international policies more broadly. He also examines the legal oddities governing the rights of the territories and their residents: for instance, they are eligible for some public benefits on their islands, but never become eligible for others even when living in the mainland U.S. (some of which actual foreign immigrants can receive after several years). Meanwhile mainland Americans can’t vote for president if they relocate to the territories. Mack pushes for opinions on the territories’ political status, and except in Puerto Rico often finds them hard to come by; for the most part, territory residents seem to prefer a flawed status quo to possibly losing individuality by becoming a state, or losing economically by becoming independent.

Mack could have improved the book a bit by being a little more willing to go out of his comfort zone as a traveler. He does meet a variety of people living in the territories, including, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a man who spent several years in another part of the Pacific learning traditional navigation, and a woman who immigrated from China to work in the garment factories. But his only exposure to obeah in the U.S. Virgin Islands is asking a well-off couple (he’s a local but she is a scuba instructor from the mainland U.S.) about it, to which they essentially smile and roll their eyes. Toward the end, he comments with surprising honesty that “In all my travels in the territories, I’d seen countless shacks and set foot in many middle-class houses and gaped from afar at the occasional oceanfront villa.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to get invitations to some shacks as well, and the book gives little sense of how most people live in the territories.

All that said, with the exception of Puerto Rico, the territories are tiny islands about which relatively little has been written, especially in such an easy-to-read, bite-sized format, and this book did an excellent job of filling them out on my mental map. I would recommend it to any American to learn a bit more about some of the furthest-flung parts of the country. It can even be funny: did you know about the U.S. government’s machinations in the 19th century to claim uninhabitated islands for their bird poop?

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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 2018-04-20 04:06
Red Dirt Heart (Red Dirt Heart #1)
Red Dirt Heart - N.R. Walker

I like this! It was standard, as far as M/M goes, but has the distinction of being set in the Outback. Charlie and Travis were fun, and it was nice to see Travis pull Charles out of his shell and self-loathing. I really liked Ma and George, too. (Though I did get a little annoyed with the chapter headers, gotta be honest.)

 

This is a short read though, barely longer than novella length, so we don't get to see much of the other workers on the ranch, who are basically just there as set dressing. A lot of the relationship development between Charlie and Travis was set in the bedroom too, and after one-and-a-half standard sex scenes, I just started skipping them altogether. There was still enough development outside the bedroom for me to appreciate why they're clearly good together, so that was good.

 

The next one looks longer, so hopefully it'll have more meat on its bones. And be better formatted. The formatting for this book was all over the place. It though Ch 6 was Ch 8, for instance, and thought the book was complete when I was still at 70%. 

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review 2018-04-19 21:31
Marshall Islands Legends and Stories by Daniel Kelin
Marshall Islands Legends and Stories - Daniel A. Kelin

It’s hard to rate books of folklore; it seems odd to judge another culture’s traditional stories on my standards for literature or entertainment. But I can only rate from my own perspective, which is affected by factors out of the author’s control. One, I’ve read several books of folklore lately, and may have begun to tire of it a bit; I can say this is neither the best nor the worst such book I’ve recently encountered. Perhaps I imbibed too many somewhat similar, very short stories in too little time, and my interest has waned. Two, I had this through Interlibrary Loan on a tight schedule, which left me feeling obligated to pick it up at times I would otherwise have chosen something else.

That said, this is a perfectly readable collection of folklore that made sense to me as a foreign reader. Which makes sense, because the stories were told to a foreign (Hawai’i-based) author/dramaturge who collected them. The book is sized to fit in with textbooks, and has ultra-wide margins in which definitions and pronunciations are sometimes included. But with large font and illustrations, it is still a quick read. It includes brief biographical sketches (and sometimes photographs) of the storytellers, but to me these were too brief: the barest of bare-bones, without room to for the storytellers’ personalities or life experiences to come alive. 

Overall, there’s nothing here that would make me hesitate to recommend the book to those who enjoy folklore. But I prefer books from which I can learn more directly about what people’s lives are like.

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