Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review of Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber

Eight or nine years ago, my dad gave me a copy of On Basilisk Station, the first book in the Honor Harrington series, by David Weber.  I had never read sci-fi before and I had no reason to start.  I think I even said to him, “I’m not going to read one of those nerd books.”  I picked the book up many times but never got through the first few pages.  Dad kept telling me I needed to give it a serious chance.  I’m so glad he did because once I made it past the first 35 or 40 pages, I was hooked.  A serious David Weber/Honor Harrington/sci-fi fan was born.  Recently I found a random David Weber book that I’d never seen before in the clearance hardcover section at Barnes & Nobel.  Of course I bought it and when I showed it to my dad, he said, “That’s not the first one in the ‘Safehold’ series.”  Which is one of the most important things you need to understand about sci-fi: many books are part of a series and if you don’t start at the beginning you’re lost.  So, I had to find Off Armageddon Reef at the library since it was the first in the series. 
Off Armageddon Reef cover.jpg
Off Armageddon Reef begins about 500 years from now, upon the discovery of an alien species that seeks to destroy all potentially competing species.  The Gbaba completely obliterate every human colony they find throughout the galaxy within only a few decades.  The human race makes a desperate attempt to fool the Gbaba into thinking they’ve destroyed them all when in reality, they planted one more colony on a distant planet more than 10 light years away from the last human stronghold.  The irony is that the Gbaba aren’t that much more technically advanced than we are and in the last few decades, we’ve been able to almost match their capabilities.  Almost, but not quite…
Here is where the story really begins.  On the new planet of Safehold, the colonizers who are chosen agree to have false memories installed.  But what they don’t know is that the command crew of the colonization task force decided to artificially regress the human race to a pre-industrial society.  As part of that, they create a religion that outlaws any technological advances.  The command crew’s justification for this is to keep the human race safe---if the Gbaba can’t detect them because they lack any sophisticated technology, then they’ll be safe forever.  The few dissenting commanders argue that humans are tool builders.  There is no way you can stop technological advancement forever and if you don’t preserve the memory of the Gbaba’s invasion, it will only be setting humanity up for failure again. 
Before the resistance is destroyed, they are able to hide one android, called a “PICA,” in the mountains, along with some “modern” equipment.  This PICA is actually a completely functional, totally realistic appearing robot avatar body with the personality of a real human being inside it.  It has the personality and memories of Nimue Alban, a young naval officer who died in the Gbaba’s final assault.  900 years later, her PICA wakes up to find everyone she knows is long dead, even she herself does not exist.  Her solitary mission is to infiltrate the deeply religious society now inhabiting Safehold and over time, get them to understand the truth of who they are and prepare them for the eventual Gbaba threat. 
I really enjoyed several aspects of this story.  The characters are really great.  Quite early in the story, Nimue Alban’s PICA has to change its gender, since as a woman, she’d never be able to find a place of influence in this male-dominated world.  She becomes “Merlin Athrawes, ” and given his special PICA abilities, he quickly finds his way into the household of one of the planet’s kings.  Merlin’s struggles with being a female consciousness inside a male body are interesting, funny and sometimes sad, but it gives the character considerably more depth.  He also struggles with the realization of his own “immortality.”  He knows that all of the people he is growing to care about will not live as long as he will if he is to complete his mission.  It will probably take decades if not hundreds of years to get the planet to the point of being able to defeat the Gbaba, yet all the humans on the planet will only live a normal lifespan. 
I also really enjoyed the juxtaposition of this almost medieval society with a technologically advanced robot.  It’s almost like you get the best of both worlds---like a historical fantasy and a futuristic sci-fi book in one. 
Crack Factor – 8.5.  I’ve never read a boring David Weber book and this one doesn’t disappoint.  You’ll speed through the book because you can’t wait to find out what happens.  I even had to skip ahead a few times—a sure sign of intensity in my world. 
People Factor – 9.  David Weber never shortchanges the reader on characters.  You’re bound to love at least a half a dozen people in each book and loathe at least as many. 
Story Telling Factor – 9.  The story is very intricate and well thought out.  He develops this whole religion for Safehold and explains exactly how the colonizing command crew designs the planet and dupes every man woman and child who colonize it.  What’s great about the book is that even with these intricacies, it’s still an action book and moves fast. 
Writing Skills Factor – 8.5.  I’ve read a lot of Weber in the past and his writing skills are really fabulous.  At times he does get a little wordy with description which is why I’m putting this lower than a 9.  I tend to skim the overly-detailed parts because they bug me.  But with that said, he can also make you feel the emotions of his characters, and that is a mark of a great writer. 
Bad Ass Babe Factor – 9.  Technically, I guess Merlin is not a woman, he’s a male-appearing robot, but because he started out as a woman, I’m going to keep her in the BAB arena.  Aside from the cool android stuff that Merlin/Nimue can do, what impressed me most about this character was her amazing intelligence, her compassion and her sense of duty and loyalty. 
Total rating 8.8.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review of The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, Part 1

I have a very vivid memory from when I was a teenager and I watched one of the Star Wars movies for the first time in many years.  Those movies had always been favorites when I was a kid.  But something changed when I saw it as a teenager; it was like all of the sudden the story clicked together.  As a young child, I had appreciated those movies for the sci-fi adventures that they were, with the robots and aliens and heroes and heroines, but there must have been parts that I didn’t even realize I hadn’t understood.  Because watching it with older eyes, all of the sudden it was like a whole new story.  I noticed different things.  I understood plots and themes that I hadn’t remembered from my childhood experience.  That was the first time I realized that sometimes things you love and things you hate are worth a second look later on, because as you grow older and change, so does your understanding and interpretation of those things.   
About 15 years ago, I read a book called The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk.  It is a utopia/dystopia novel and I LOVED it when I read it then.  At the time, I doubt I’d read any speculative fiction or science fiction/fantasy and I thought this futuristic earth (set about 40 years from now, 50 years from back then) had some very scary parallels to how I saw our own society moving.  What really moved me, however, was that it also had the most amazing idea for a cooperative society that I could ever have imagined.  This society took care of all its people, valued hard work, celebrated diversity and fiercely protected the earth. 
Lately I’d really been thinking about the book again, and wondering if my impressions would change now that I’m older and have a little more life experience under my belt.  My own copy long ago disappeared, so I requested one from the library and I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in it ever since I cracked the binding.  This review will be in two parts, because I plan to talk a lot more about content than I normally do with a book review.   I also couldn’t wait until I finished the book to start writing about it. 
The book shows us two separate societies.  One, as I’ve mentioned, cares for all, respects and cherishes all and celebrates diversity in ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.  It works tirelessly to heal the damage done to the environment.  The other is a neo-fascist society that oppresses all people of color, all religions except their own and all women.  It has no regard for the environment, only for profits and power.  Here’s a warning to all of those conservatives out there:  I always hesitated recommending this book to people because it is an ultra-liberal story.  It also has content that some people may find offensive—things like group sex, gay sex, and witchcraft.  One thing that I loved about the story, however, is that none of those things are presented in a graphic, titillating or demeaning way.   The parts that I found offensive, were the racism, “moral purity,” pollution, abuse, exploitation (of people and of the planet and our resources) and violence that were de rigueur for the dystopian society that threatens our protagonists’ world.
The overwhelming theme that I remembered from the book was the thought that you become what you do.  If you kill someone to avoid being killed, that only makes you a killer.  The other idea was choice.  Each individual, each society has choice.  You can choose to accept, or reject anything imposed upon you.  The choices may be grim, but they are still choices.  And if enough people reject the grim choice, the oppressors may learn to make different choices, too. Both are powerful messages that you can apply to many aspects of life, both large life choices and small everyday choices. 
What I’m realizing as I’m re-reading this novel, is not so much how I view the story differently now, but how prophetic the book may actually be, and how much my initial read of the story may have changed me in the last 15 years.  We understand more about global warming and the environmental damage our industrial society is creating than we did 15 years ago.  We’ve also seen how discriminatory ballot proposals can sway entire presidential elections.  Both are very scary realities in our world and the characters in this book reap the consequences of our environmental and social neglect.
As for how it changed me, it’s hard to say that this book alone shaped my views, but I’m certain upon revisiting it, that it did help change my views about many social issues.  While not the only factor in shaping my current views, it was definitely a backdrop to the formation of many of my personal beliefs.  I would much rather see one of the two realities illustrated in this novel over the other.  The choices I make today either move toward one reality or the other.  I can choose to buy a bottle of water, or buy a filter for my faucet and re-fill a bottle with tap water.  I can water the plants on my deck with collected rainwater instead of water from the faucet.  I can choose to buy locally grown, sustainably harvested organic produce to support a farmer I know, or I can choose produce trucked from across the country or across the world that may line the pockets of a big corporation, or exploit a poor worker unbeknownst to me.  I can vote for equal rights for all our citizens, or I can vote to discriminate against a particular group.  I can vote for healthcare for all…or not.  Personal is political.  My every day choices do make a difference in the larger world.  I’m certainly not perfect.  I occasionally do buy a bottle of water, but then I do my best to recycle it.  The difference is awareness and intention and overall trend.  If more people lived their lives and thought about these things in small ways every day, then maybe we would change direction of the world. 
Stay tuned for part 2…

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Inforum Leisure Book Club discussion for The Help by Kathryn Stockett

One of my book clubs was looking for a place to post comments as we are reading the monthly selection.  I volunteered my blog as the forum.  Even if you’re not a member of the book club, feel free to comment anyway if you’ve already read or are currently reading the book.  There is just one rule—Not everyone wants a spoiler, so if you are commenting on part of the story, please be sure to start your post with the page number or chapter to which you are referring.  Example:  “Do not read unless you’ve already reached page 174…” or “Spoiler Alert---do not continue if you haven’t read chapter 5…”  etc. 
The first book is The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  We plan to go to the movie after our book discussion in August. 
Comment. Discuss. Enjoy…can’t wait to see you in August to discuss in person. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

At night and on weekends, the janitorial custodian who works in my office transforms into a community theater director and actor.  It’s her passion.  If you take the time to chat with her about it, you’ll see a totally different person than the one who is cleaning the bathrooms from 9-5.  I think for sanity’s sake, we all need to have people who know the real us.  It’s not healthy to live in your own little world and not let other people into it.  One of the beauties of friendship is trust:  when someone trusts you with a part of themselves that they may not share with the rest of the world it makes the world richer for both of you.  Years ago, I remember reading a story with this theme and one line stuck with me—I’ll paraphrase it:  Always leave room for people to surprise you, because they always will.  It’s something I’m trying to be better at in my own life---making contact with people, getting to know them, and letting the surprise happen.
At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book.  It came off as two pretentious people stroking their own egos and looking down upon all the people around them whom they didn’t respect.  I pitied them for their self-imposed isolation.  Neither one let anyone close enough to know her genuine self.   The pretentiousness got old pretty fast, and yet it was fascinating, too…like watching the cool kids at the lunch table across the room, or listening to a celebrity tabloid show while you’re cooking dinner.  It irritates you and yet you watch anyway.  As I began reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I felt that same irritation---These characters are worldly and wise, but are they trying to make me feel inadequate for not having read Tolstoy? 
Barbery introduces us to the residents of number 7 rue de Grenelle, a very high end apartment building.  Two main characters narrate for us:   Renée, the concierge, and Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of a parliamentarian.  Renée, is a 50-something widow from humble beginnings.  She lives amongst the uber-rich who look down their nose at her, taking her for nothing more than a plain, uneducated, poor person.  Yet Renée is not at all what they assume her to be.  Self-educated beyond the level of most college professors, she is constantly critiquing the residents’ manners, grammar, behavior, and lack of cultural sophistication.  She is vividly aware of her own superiority while scrupulously hiding it from all at the same time.  Paloma also possesses intelligence beyond that of her family and neighbors.  She quietly observes, criticizes, chastises and cringes at the behavior of her family and her neighbors and questions the purpose of her being. 
As I mentioned, I wasn’t sure I could take much more of Renée and Paloma’s superiority, and then…Paloma revealed that she was planning to commit suicide on her next (13th) birthday.  Not because of depression, but because she didn’t see her place in a world that didn’t seem to have a point and she didn’t want to end up like everyone else as she saw them.  This plot-thickening got my attention.   And then a widowed Japanese business man, Kakuro, moves into the building.  In just a few days, he figures out that Renée and Paloma are not whom they appear to everyone else.  A whole building of people, even the people closest to them, do not know the real Paloma and Renée, but a stranger who takes the time to look, figures them out in just a few brief moments. 
Despite a rather sad ending, I found the story to be uplifting.  It underlines the need for human connection, friendship and trust.   The characters found these truths at the end, so they I think they all found peace and happiness, despite an unfortunate event.  (I’m trying not to be a spoiler…but if you invest your time in this book and you end up liking these snooty characters, you will be a little angry with the author at the way she ends it.) 
Crack Factor – 7.  While I did enjoy this book, if it hadn’t been a pick for my book club, I may have abandoned it early on, but I’m glad that I didn’t.  Towards the end, it moves faster as the relationship between Renée and Kakuro gets more complex, and Paloma starts finding meaning and purpose in the world. 
Distraction Factor – 7.  The ending of this book is upsetting.  But I didn’t find myself dwelling on the book when I wasn’t reading it, and while it did have some themes I found reflective, I wouldn’t say it kept me up at night thinking about them. 
Enrichment Factor – 7.  This book had many references to art, books and music and movies that I had either never experienced or never even heard of.  It made me want to read Russian literature.  But I’m giving it a lower rating because I also got a little peeved that it made me feel slightly inadequate for not having read Russian literature.    
Writing Skills Factor - ? I don’t know how to rate this one.  The prose is good, but I often times thought some words were ill-chosen or deliberately difficult, perhaps to illustrate the point that these characters think they are so much better than everyone else.  But these could also be translation hiccups since this book was originally written in French.  So the writing negatives may be all on the shoulders of the translator.  As a Spanish speaker, I know how difficult translation is, but if you’re good enough to translate a whole book, you can do better than this.  I’ve read many translated novels where I never had this question in my mind about the translation affecting the story. 
People Factor -9. Barbery really does create good characters.  They are complex and interesting and they keep you guessing.  Characters who are likeable and irritating at the same time are always the best kind. 
Total rating: 7.5