Monday, April 23, 2018

Shadow Tag

          Just as spring comes on, a book set in frigid Minnesota captured my attention.This wasn't a surprise. First, because it's a book by Pulitzer Prize finalist Louise Erdrich, author of  more than 20 books which include novels, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and children's stories, and second because it is about an unraveling marriage, art and the devastating psychological games couples can play. These are not themes I generally read about, but Erdrich is a master at understanding human beings with all their flaws and passions. Shadow Tag is a keenly honest work of fiction.
       Irene America, the main character, is married to Gil, a painter who successfully sells work featuring his wife as the subject. The couple, of Native American parentage, have three children, unique and intelligent kids who become captive to the mounting friction of their parents dissolution, featuring frequent arguing and drinking to excess. As Irene becomes more convinced that her marriage must end, she decides to keep two journals; a red one, which she keeps at home, and a blue one, which she keeps in a safe deposit box in a bank. In the red journal, Irene creates drama and tension by writing fictional episodes of her life, knowing that Gil peeks into that journal on a regular basis, knowing that it will infuriate him. Despite the fact that he paints her, lives with her and has had three children with her, the revelations in the journal lead to a terrible undoing.
     Erdrich navigates the intensity of this couple's interactions, their sexual lives becoming more violent, their wine and vodka bottles being emptied and thrown out windows into the snow, their children trying to make sense of their father's escalating anger. Interspersed are fact filled passages about nineteenth century painter, George Catlin, whose work focused on Native Americans. The pacing of the plot speeds along towards a highly dramatic climax, and a surprise about how the book was put together.
      The title refers to a game in which people chase each other and are tagged when one of their shadows touch another's. The characters in this book encounter each other in shadow and light, in secret and in eventual revelations. If you like this book, check out Erdrich's Four Souls, a story of Native Women, crime and relationships across generations on audiobook, or The Round House, about a family who experiences violence on an Indian reservation and the hunt for the person responsible.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines

Before you go “oh, another space opera,” check out the series name: Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse.

Better yet, have a closer look at the book cover.  There is the space background, a bug alien, people in suitable space attire, but, instead of carrying fancy, futuristic guns, they are armed with mop and spray bottles.

Terminal Alliance is not your usual space opera or typical science fiction fare.

Generations ago, aliens called the Krakau made first contact with Earth, and something went horribly wrong with the first contact, like apocalypse-scale.  A zombie plague decimated the human race, and the Krakau have instituted a recovery program to restore humans their intelligence and culture.  It is a slow process, and they do not know if they even have it right, especially all the nuances and many cultures to understand.  Among the aliens, humans are lower life forms, especially since they could potentially revert back to feral zombies, so they are tasked with grunt work.  On the spaceship, ECMS Pufferfish, it started as a run-of-the-mill call to take care of a dispute between rivaling alien ships, but one of them used a bio-weapon that killed the Pufferfish’s alien crew and reverted the human foot soldiers to zombies. Lieutenant Mops (head of the cleaning crew) is the highest ranking officer left, and she and her cleaning staff are left in charge.  It is up to them to save the ship, escape the attackers, and uncover the conspiracy behind the bio-weapon, once they figure out how to fly the ship.

Hines injects so much humor into this series, making this a fun book to read.  Mops runs her cleaning crew with military efficiency, and it is absurdly funny how cleaning materials can be applied as tools and weapons beyond cleaning.  Their cleaning experience also comes in handy when they go undercover to investigate the trail because who looks twice at the janitor?  Hines provides entertaining commentary on human culture and history with the Krakau’s attempts to translate and understand, especially when they miss nuances.  Talk about culture clash, and is more extreme being between species alien to each other, but the outside perspective does bring out the absurdity and humor of behavior and concepts readers would usually take for granted.  The cleaning crew is a mis-matched bunch but well-developed characters who are more capable than they have been taught.  While sci-fi and fantasy are known for having unusual names to indicate difference, Hines uses familiar names in unexpected contexts.  For example, the Krakau name recovered humans with names from history, so readers will see Marilyn Monroe and Wolfgang “Wolf” Mozart, though they bear no resemblance whatsoever to their historical namesakes. There is even an explanation for how the ship is named the Pufferfish, but you will have to read the book to find out.

Look for Terminal Alliance in the VBPL Catalog.  Try Jim C. Hines’ other series, including the Goblin trilogy starring goblins as heroes (starting with Goblin Quest), Hines’ Princess series is his take on fairy tale princesses, starting with The StepsisterScheme (see review), and his fan letter to the science fiction and fantasy genre, his Magic Ex Libris series, starting with Libriomancer (see review).

Review by Tracy V.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

That title, They Both Die at the End, just about sums up what happens and completely gives away the
ending, yet the what’s, how’s, maybe why’s make it worth finding out what led to the story ending that way.

Maybe you have heard the phrase “YOLO” (You only live once), or some variation of "it is the journey, not the destination that matters", or at least “live like it’s your last day”.  Silvera builds these right into the premise of this near-future story where there is a service called Death-Cast that knows when people’s last days are, and this service calls them on the final day to give them notice they will die within 24 hours.  These people, called Deckers, have time to say their goodbyes and live out their last day.  There is a whole business market and social media to cater to Deckers.  Some Deckers even hold a funeral they can attend.  This story follows two teens, Mateo and Rufus, who are just finishing high school and should be starting life in the real world.  They are both complete strangers who sign up on the Last Friend app to spend their final day with a friend.

Morbid themes aside, Silvera writes with sincerity and thoughtfulness.  Death is a difficult topic, and the premise could have gone in an absurd direction for satire. The writing is straightforward, and the characters’ voices feel honest.  There are ups and downs, screw-ups, humorous moments, and a sense that these people are real with realistic responses.  The characters are well-developed, and the chemistry feels genuine, so readers can relate and care for the characters.  Mateo and Rufus are completely different personalities who had different lives, so readers can enjoy how their friendship grows over the course of their last day.  The story shifts mainly between the two of them, but it also switches to the friends and other people whose lives are connected to their story, even if it is in a small way. 

Besides the science fiction-ish premise, the book reads like realistic fiction.  There are no big action scenes and thrills or fighting the system.  The adventures may not be movie-spectacular, but they are life-changing and personal moments of self-discovery.  Readers can wonder if finding out their last day was some kind of predestination or fate, where finding out they would die led to events happening the way they do, especially when readers see how Mateo and Rufus interact and impact other characters’ lives even in passing by.  Still somehow, it does not matter as much as the slice-of-life experience, made especially poignant with death overhanging, as Rufus and Mateo make peace with themselves and make their last day matter.

Look for They Both Die at the End in the VBPL Catalog.  Try Adam Silvera’s other teen works.  For more speculative fiction stories about people having a countdown to their death date, try Rachel Ward’s Numbers trilogy and Victoria Laurie’s When.

Review by Tracy V.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Machineries of Empire)

Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now – and they’ve put Kurtz in charge” is how author and reviewer, Stephen Baxter, describes Ninefox Gambit, and that pretty much nails it. Science fiction can be intimidating for some with its focus on hard sciences, but Ninefox Gambit goes further with its focus on mathematics and information theory in a story about fighting an impossible war.

Before you go “Eww, math is not my thing. Pass,” this debut title can be a challenge to read, even without accounting for the math, but it is a unique and refreshing piece of science fiction that is worth the read.

Ninefox Gambit drops readers into an imaginative world called the hexarchate empire that runs on mathematical beliefs. The empire is constantly at war with heretics who try to put a new belief system in place. Captain Kel Cheris uses unconventional tactics in carrying out her orders, which leaves her in disgrace, but also brings her to the attention of the empire’s leaders. She is tasked with retaking one of the empire’s fortresses from the heretics where failure could mean the end of the empire. Her secret weapon is the undead genius General Shuos Jedao, the general who has never lost a battle but supposedly went mad and turned traitor. His mind has been preserved for future use, and, even bodiless and stuck in Cheris’ mind, he is still a dangerous weapon.

Ninefox Gambit is a challenging read. There is no hand-holding, as Lee drops readers right into his story, and they just have to immerse themselves in for the ride. There are foreign cultures and customs, a large cast with strange names, places, technology, and weapons readers have to figure out, multiple viewpoints, complex politics and intrigues, and a confusing (but fascinating) belief system based on math. Lee writes cleanly and concisely, which kind of balances the foreignness of his world. It is military fiction, and he is brutally efficient with writing battle sequences and the constant deaths. What holds this story together is the well-developed characters of Cheris and Jedao and their interactions. Cheris provides heart to the story, the one who cares about people and what her actions mean but who believes in serving her empire. Jedao is an intriguing character and anti-hero, more than simply mad or a traitor. He is difficult to understand, especially as he seems to have his own agenda and far-reaching plans. The political scheming elevates this story beyond just a war story.

Look for Ninefox Gambit in the VBPL Catalog. Try the rest of the Machineries of Empire trilogy, The Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun. For more imaginative world-building set in space, try Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (see review). For more military fiction and games in space, try Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (see review).

Review by Tracy V.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep takes The Little Mermaid and strips it of any sugary sweetness while ripping into the mermaid fairy tale and leaving its bloody corpse on the examining table.

Mermaids were trending in teen fiction for a bit, but Mira Grant’s brutal, science fiction-horror version of mermaids is not for little kids or the faint-hearted.

The story is set seven years after a ship’s crew filming a mockumentary on mermaids all disappeared, supposedly attacked by mermaids in the Mariana Trench.  Some consider it a clever hoax.  Now, another crew that is better prepared with the best scientists, top-of-the-line research equipment, and safety precautions is going back to find out what really happened.  For some characters, the trip is a fun cruise and research opportunity, but, for some of the characters, this trip is personal and a chance for closure.  Tory Stewart’s sister was one of those who disappeared seven years ago.  For Dr. Jillian Toth, mermaids are her life’s work.

This story has quite a bit of bite, with high body count and plenty of blood to go with it.  Grant juggles a large cast of characters who come on the trip with different goals and varying world views, putting them on a boat they cannot get off.  Of course, people clash, but ideas clash, too, so there is constant debate on issues ranging from politics to diversity to morals.  The mermaids are the central mystery, and how they function is uncertain, but Grant develops some fascinating ideas that portray them as the apex predator of the waters.  There are thriller elements, as the characters, all specialists figuring out a small piece of the puzzle, race to understand the mermaids and survive.  The setting of the deep seas serves as an intriguing frontier that is both familiar and lurking with the unknown to set a story of scientific discovery and survival against.  The science fiction elements and speculative what-if’s are all the more horrifying for how likely they could be.

Look for Into the Drowning Deep in the VBPL catalog.  For more of Grant’s horror sci-fi, try her Newsflesh series (see review) and her Parasitology trilogy (see review).  For more mermaid tales, try Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep short story collection and A Treasury of Mermaids:Mermaid Tales from Around the World.

Review by Tracy V.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Bookstore Cats by Brandon Schultz

“Cats and books go paw-in-paw.  Around the world, bookstores continue to prove that cats and books belong together. Some employ cats, some seem to be owned by cats, and some even double as cat refuges and adoption centers. The bookstore is a place to enter quietly, search endlessly for inspiration, then dive into something unknown for no solid reason other than to satisfy an itch. In essence, it’s where humans act like cats.”

This compelling line from the introduction just calls out to the book lovers who love cats.  Schultz takes readers on a visit to many bookstores with cats.  All shop names and contact information are included for curious visitors.  He shares each unique story about how each cat has made the bookstore his or her place.  Many of the cats are named after book characters, have bookish puns (such as the Great Catsby from the Gallery Bookshop), or just plain creative names (such as Boba Wilbur Bumpus from Postmark Books).  There are plenty of pictures of the cats with tidbits on their personalities and backstories, capturing how they have endeared themselves to their community and have established quite a fan base.  For the book lover, there is plenty of bookish cat fun interspersed throughout the book, such as cats in poetry and lists of cats in different genres to give readers plenty of recommendations to try.  This is a great coffee table book and feel-good read.

Look for Bookstore Cats in the VBPL Catalogs.  For more cats in stores, try the wonderfully photographed Shop Cats of New York by Tamar Arslanian, and, for more working cats, try Cats on the Job by Lisa Rogak.  For more book and cat combinations, try Mark Twain for Cat Lovers edited by Mark Dawidziak.

Review posted by Tracy V

Friday, April 13, 2018

Shades of Magic by V. E. Schwab

In this whirlwind year of reading, I finally picked up a book by V. E. Schwab (Victoria Schwab) and discovered one of the best series I’ve ever read. Shades of Magic is a three part series with titles A Darker Shade of Magic, A Gathering of Shadows and A Conjuring of Light. It will be (sort of) continued with a new series by Schwab called Threads of Power, though that series will focus on new characters, with the Shades of Magic characters in the background. Thus far I’ve read the first two books, with the third one high up on my to-read list.

Shades of Magic focuses on parallel Londons…Grey, Red, White and Black. Grey London is our magicless version of London, and home to main character Lila. Red London is a thriving, vibrant, magic-filled London, home to main character Kell. White London also has magic, but is more controlled and suffocated by magic than supported by it, and is under the dictatorship of two evil twins. Black London no longer exists, long ago destroyed by magic.

Kell is one of two remaining Antari: magic individuals who can cross between the twin Londons. In A Darker Shade of Magic, a mysterious encounter in White London puts him in possession of a piece of Black London, long thought to be gone. With the help of lone pirate/thief Lila, it is up to Kell to save the remaining worlds from the magic that destroyed Black London. A Gathering of Shadows continues that story, but also throws a Red London magic competition in the mix.

As an avid fantasy reader, this series has some of the best world-building and characters of any I’ve read. It’s fun, dark, unique, and definitely worth the read for fantasy readers and non-fantasy readers alike. For similar reads, try Schwab’s ultradark monster dystopian series Monsters of Verity or Leigh Bardugo’s magical heist duology Six of Crows.