coraa: (girl with book)
Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games), by Suzanne Collins

This is the third (and final) book in the "Hunger Games" series, and as such it's difficult to talk about without spoilers for Mockingjay, and almost impossible to talk about without spoilers for the prior books. So I'll keep the outside-the-spoiler-cut brief: I still think this trilogy is worth reading, but this final book left me feeling curiously deflated. I won't say it was a bad book, or that I didn't enjoy it, but I really, really wanted to love it and I... didn't. Couldn't. I liked it okay, but after the lead-up, it left me feeling disappointed.

Spoilers leave the arena behind )
coraa: (changeling)
The Bones of Faerie, by Janni Lee Simner

(Disclaimer: [livejournal.com profile] janni is a friend of mine, although I read The Bones of Faerie before I met her.)

Before Liza was born, the world of faerie and our human world went to war. The war is long since over, but her world bears the scars: blackberry brambles invade homes and strangle their inhabitants, food plants resist the harvest, dandelions bite, and trees reach out with sinister intent. Magic—the latent malicious magic left in the plants, and pockets of wild magic left around the world—is the enemy, as are children with strands of shining-clear hair that indicates the touch of magic. All such things found within the safe confines of the village must be destroyed. Liza knows this; it is her life. But when Liza's sister is born with glass-transparent hair, and her father exposes the child on the hillside to die, everything changes. Liza's mother vanishes... and Liza's own unexpected magic power reveals itself: she is clairvoyant. And so she must flee her father and her village, and go out into the deadly danger of the faerie-touched wilderness.

I know [livejournal.com profile] janni has referred to this book as post-urban fantasy, and that's a label I like quite a bit for it. And a big part of what I like about it is the setting, the post-fantasy-apocalypse North America. It's set, not in a vague post-apoc location, but in the wilderness near St. Louis, Missouri, and though the isolated villages themselves have a culture of their own (a culture born of the vastly changed world they live in), I love that it's actually set in a specific place, that it touches on the atmosphere, the landscape, and the landmarks of a particular place. I don't even know Missouri, and I loved that the book felt set in a specific place.

I also like the way that the book focuses on the small elements of a post-apocalyptic world. The scarcity and preciousness of food; the dangers of injury and illness and the high value placed on medicine; the tremendous dangers of venturing outside the sanctuary of established enclaves. The dangers in The Bones of Faerie are the dangers of traveling in a pre- (or post-) industrial society, but magnified: rather than brigands or wild animals or hunger or exposure, it's the landscape itself that will do you in. I also just like the concept of a fantasy apocalypse: not one where science destroyed civilization, but one where magic did; not one where nature is crumbling in the face of humankind, but one where humankind is crumbling in the face of nature.

That leads me to the other thing I really like, which is Liza herself. She knows perfectly well that the world outside her village has a fairly high chance of doing her in, but she also knows (from bitter experience) that if her 'faerie' gift, her magic ability of clairvoyance, is discovered, she will also be killed. She considers the odds and takes the chance that an uncertain fate beyond the village is preferable to hiding and living in fear within the village. I like that a lot. She's smart, tough, and survival-oriented. Even when the odds are against her, she acts rather than giving in. And so, even though she's not a physical badass in the mold of, say, Alanna or Katsa, she makes my list of awesome girl characters with agency.

No book is flawless, so there are some things that twigged me. I expected more of an explanation of how and why the faerie war started than I got. And I kind of wanted more of an explanation of the fundamental difference between faeries and humans. But those are minor complaints; I'm hoping to see more of the worldbuilding in the forthcoming sequel.

Spoilery discussion under the cut )

And now, on to a book I don't expect to like as much (although, who knows, I could be surprised): Vampire Beach: Bloodlust, which I got in a random YA book grab bag. I can't wait. ;)
coraa: (bookses)
Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre (Link points to ebook at Book View Cafe. Book appears to be out of print in paper format.)

Snake is a healer traveling on her proving year, along with her three serpents. Mist is an albino cobra, and Sand is a diamondback rattlesnake; both have been modified so that, when fed the proper catalysts, they can produce medicines: vaccines, antitoxins, antibiotics. Grass, by contrast, is a dreamsnake, an alien serpent whose bite produces dreams and relieves pain. Snake's three snakes are medical laboratory, pharmacy, and hypodermic all in one. But when Snake heals a child from a desert clan of a cancerous tumor, she neglects to realize that the only snakes they are familiar with are the deadly sand vipers, whose bites result inevitably in a lingering, painful death. And so when she leaves their child unattended with Grass, they, ignorant of Grass's healing purpose, kill the snake to protect the child. Unfortunately, dreamsnakes are rare—they are difficult to clone and even more difficult to breed, their alien biology confounding even the healers—and Snake cannot be a healer without one. So she sets out on a search for atonement . . . and for another dreamsnake.

I read Dreamsnake for the first time years and years ago, when I was in high school. I read it at the time because it had won the Hugo and the Nebula (actually, as I understand it, it won the Nebula twice, once for the original short story "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," and then again for the full novel). But most of all I read it because it had a strong female protagonist, one with valuable skills and who set out to solve her own problems. I reread it, when I saw that it was avaliable on Book View Cafe, because I had very fond (if dim) memories of having read it when I was fourteen.

Interestingly, although Snake was the reason I read the book, I actually feel that I know less about her than many of the other characters. She is very proud and very reserved; I feel like I spent the book seeing through her eyes but not, necessarily, into her mind. Indeed, because Snake had an incisive grasp of other peoples' characters, I often felt that I understood the other characters better than her: the prospectors Jesse, Merideth and Alex; Gabriel, a haunted young man; the scarred and abused Melissa; Grum, the caravan leader.

I've mentioned before that I read for character and worldbuilding first, plot next, and idea last. So when I say that the characters and worldbuilding are fantastic in this book, you will understand why I love it. Though Snake is difficult to understand, it's obviously for a reason: she really is proud and reserved, and that comes through very clearly. And the other characters, major and minor, are sharply and clearly realized like cut gems. The worldbuilding also delighted me—while it's clearly a far-future setting (indeed, it seems to be far-future post-apocalyptic Earth, though I wouldn't swear to that), it's clear that physics and mechanical sciences have taken a nosedive, and biological sciences have taken predominance. Hence the ability to use snakes as portable chemical factories, as well as the fact that 'biocontrol' (a biorhythmic manipulation to control fertility) is expected as a basic skill that every adult should have.

The book isn't flawless, of course. The major flaw is the fact that it doesn't hang together as a single novel very well: it's extremely episodic, with Snake moving from one group of people who she must help to another. Her quest for more dreamsnakes is the thread that ties them together, but most of her stops don't have much to do with that. This doesn't bother me much, since plot isn't my first concern, but it might bug someone who cares more about a smooth or fluid plot than I do. Similarly, I didn't quite... buy the romance; while it was obviously an important part of the book, I didn't understand why those particular characters were so taken with one another, given how little time they spent together. (This is partly not the fault of the book but the result of my own fictional romance preferences; I prefer long-developing romances a la Crown Duel or Graceling, and am dubious about love at first meeting.)

There's no serious spoilers under the cut, I don't think. I'm mostly cutting for length. (Too late, I know!)

Read more... )
coraa: (bookses)
(Yes, I'm going through these at a rapid pace. I've got a backlog to post.)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

In Mary's village, all life is focused on two things: preserving a vestige of humanity within the fence, and keeping the Unconsecrated -- the vicious, shambling dead -- out. To that end, life is extremely restricted, and each villager knows his or her role well, and follows the instruction of the religious Sisters who rule the village.

Mary, though, dreams of something else -- something beyond the village. So she chafes at the restricted possibilities for her life, dreams of the ocean... and is fascinated when someone arrives from outside the village.

This book had a lot of promise, which is, I think, why the flaws made me pull my hair out. I could see how great the book could be, and so I winced all the more when parts of it fell flat. It really was a page-turning read, with a lot of intriguing ideas, and so the holes in it frustrated me.

First, the good things: the book was written beautifully. Ryan has a lush, lilting voice, and that meshes well with the wild dangers outside the fence and with Mary's dreamy, searching-for-the-horizon personality. It read so easily and so enjoyably that, even with its faults, I'd be happy to read the next book.

I also liked some of the things that were done with the worldbuilding. It was enjoyable to read a zombie book that was so quiet and personal, and one that was set so long after the unspecified disaster that caused the zombies to appear. (I think it's actually several generations after.) I liked the details of how the villagers worked to slowly increase their protected village, and I was intrigued by the Sisters and by the stranger who arrived at the village. The book definitely kept the pages turning.

The biggest problem was the characters, which is a big problem for me because characters are the number one most important thing in a book for me -- and a big problem because this is a very character-centric book. Mary (the first-person narrator and definitely the main character) was well-characterized enough, but not terribly unique: she was a young woman who felt stifled by the options available at the village and who wanted to see the world. Not bad, and a character motivation that I, in general, like and am sympathetic to, but a fairly recognizable type. That would have been okay if the other characters had been more fully-rounded, but they weren't. The book focused on a core of, let's see, seven characters (eight if you count the dog), and unfortunately each one of them is defined only by their relationship to Mary. One is Mary's best friend and envies her; two are boys who are varying degrees of in love with her; one is her brother, who resents her; one is her brother's wife and has really no traits at all besides being her brother's wife; and one is a kid. The only desires and motivations they express are either a) related to Mary, or b) "not getting eaten by zombies." I really wanted one of them to have a goal or a desire or a response to something or anything that didn't have anything to do with immediate short-term survival or Mary.

The second big problem is that the book gets me intrigued by a lot of mysteries and secrets and then... never really explains them, or explains them in ways that don't make much sense. But I can't get specific about that without spoiling, so, cut for discussion and some flailing.

Spoilers venture beyond the fence )

Despite all my flailing, I'll still be reading the sequel, partly in hopes that some of the unexplained things will finally be explained, and that Mary will get a bigger goal. I'd still recommend this, especially if you like zombie stories and/or smooth, pretty prose, but it's not as highly recommended as some of the other things I've recced.
coraa: (girl with book)
This was a good book, and I think I would have liked it better if I hadn't loved The Hunger Games so much.

It's also basically impossible to talk about this without spoiling The Hunger Games to some degree, so if you're really strictly spoiler-phobic, you should probably scroll on by. I don't think any of the spoilers outside the cut are book-killers, though; all the major spoilers for either book will be behind the cut. Anyway, past this paragraph there are spoilers -- mild ones, but still spoilers -- for the end of The Hunger Games, but all serious spoilers for either book are behind the cut.

Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off, and Katniss is in an awkward situation. Because of the way she survived the Hunger Games, the oppressive, totalitarian government of Panem and the Capitol have it in for her. In order to prove that she was not a deliberate revolutionary -- and, therefore, save not only her life but the lives of her whole extended family -- she has to convince them that she was young, foolish, and desperately in love, rather than sharp-minded, clever, and a little bit ruthless, as she actually was.

To make matters worse, the other Districts -- inspired, largely, by her -- are fomenting rebellions, and the Capitol is, shall we say, not happy.

I really liked the beginning of this, and I liked elements of the whole thing. The writing and characterization remain strong, as in the first book. We got to see things that were only hinted at in the first book: the other Districts, more of Capitol politics, the growing unrest. And I liked watching Katniss deal with the aftermath of the Games while putting on a happy face for the benefit of the Capitol's propaganda machine. (She has to, on pain of her family's lives.) I liked seeing more of Gale. I liked the exploration of Katniss's romantic dilemmas. I also liked that we got to see one of Katniss's weak spots: she was extremely competent at keeping herself alive in the first book, but she's naive about politics, because she has grown up with no political voice whatsoever (even in terms of the smaller politics of her own hometown), and so there are moments where she was in over her head. I liked that: having established her as thoroughly competent, we can now see some of the places where she's not as competent, which makes her more well-rounded.

Indeed, I think my biggest problem with the book was that it felt like Collins wasn't confident enough with exploring new territory. We got tantalizing tastes of it... and then ducked back into a very similar plot as the first book. But I'll talk more about that behind the cut.

Spoilers for both books )

But I still really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone who liked The Hunger Games -- and I'll be waiting impatiently for the third book.
coraa: (bookworm)
First, a note: yes, I've ready many books between now and the last time I posted. Most of them were non-fiction, because I was on a fit of not reading a lot of fiction. (I do that, sometimes, when I'm brewing a story idea.) I recently got back into reading fiction, with a vengeance -- mostly YA fantasy -- and I realized that if I went back and tried to blog all the nonfiction I've read between June and now, I'll just never do it. So we'll start with this, which I read a week ago and loved, and I may backtrack to blog some particular favorites.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I heard a lot about this book and how good it was, and, short version: everyone was right. This book is very, very good.

Long version.

Katniss lives with her mother and sister in District Twelve of Panem, a nation that arose out of the ashes of post-apocalyptic North America. Seventy-five-ish years before the story, the Districts tried to rise up against the despotic Capitol -- and failed. To keep the Districts in their place, to reinforce how utterly the Capitol owned them, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games, in which two teenagers would be drawn by lottery each year to compete. The twenty-four adolescents are set to kill one another, with only one survivor, the "winner."

This year, for District Twelve, the lot for the girl fell... to Katniss's younger sister Prim.

Katniss volunteered to take her place.

My favorite thing about the book was Katniss, hands down. She's strong, clever, resourceful, courageous, and calculating -- all without losing her essential humanity, despite the horrors of the Game. She's hard and tough and yet has her moments of sweetness and even vulnerability. And she's smart, and skilled -- because she lives on the edge of wilderness, she has unusual skills at hunting, foraging, and making shelter, and those skills are both effective and realistically portrayed. She's just, oh. Wonderful. And wonderful without being perfect -- flawed without her flaws being stupid or contrived. The book is worth reading just for Katniss.

The plot is straightforward but breakneck in pacing -- I read this book in two great gulps: one night I stayed up until I actually fell asleep on the book, and then the next morning I finished it before I started work. It really was a very compelling read.

And now I need to spoiler cut to continue discussing. )

In summary: I really, really loved this, and I have already pre-ordered Catching Fire, the sequel. Highly, highly recommended.
coraa: (bookses)
Clay's Ark, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

This was a hard book to read. It was rewarding, but oh my goodness, it was hard.

As Blake Maslin and his daughters Keira and Rane travel across the desert of California, they're stopped by armed men. This, while horrible, isn't that unusual a possibility in their dystopian future USA (the setting is some time after Mind of My Mind, but before Patternmaster): in between walled safe zones, extreme gang violence runs rampant, and traveling through those areas -- even armed, in a car -- is extremely dangerous. But the people who stopped them aren't a car family, and their goal isn't robbery, kidnapping, or murder. Instead, the kidnappers take the three back to their farmstead, where they discover what this group really is.

The farm is home to a group of people, small but growing, who were infected by an alien organism. The organism changes them -- enhances them in specifically physical ways. They're stronger and faster than normal people; they have better reflexes; they are physically tough to the point of being extraordinarily difficult to hurt; they have enhanced senses, particularly hearing and smell. But the infection also drives them to spread itself, both by infecting others and by breeding. And yet -- despite the infection that has changed their bodies and that fills them with unbearable, undeniable urges -- they're still people. They still have their consciences, and their memories, and the interests and desires they had before. Their personalities are just overlaid by a set of literally alien and very animal urges.

The bulk of the book is about their conflict, between the undeniable impulse to spread 'their' kind and their desire to remain human, and to avoid spreading the infection to the rest of the world. And that's the most terrifying thing about it: the bearers of the disease, the agents of this change (and indeed of the kidnappings that keep it going) are so sympathetic, they're trying so hard to stay themselves. What hurts the most is watching them fight and fight for their humanity, even as it slowly erodes.

Before going into the spoiler cut, I will say: this book is very depressing, and it's also brutal in places. Horrible, violent things happen; the violence is never glorified, but it also isn't glossed over; it was very difficult going. I warn not because I think people shouldn't read this, but because I was glad of having been warned myself. I think I would have found it impossible in places if I hadn't been prepared for it.

Spoilers below the cut. )

I'd recommend this one, too. But I lined up a comfort reread for after I finished, and I think that might not be a bad idea for others.

Running Tally:

Total Books: 16
Fiction: 5
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 5
coraa: (book woman)
Mind of My Mind, by Octavia Butler (Link goes to "Seed to Harvest", the omnibus addition of all four books of the quartet.)

Mary is a young woman who is part of an... unusual community. Her father is Doro -- sort of; her father is capable of switching bodies at will (and possessing a body kills its original 'inhabitant'), and he was wearing her biological father's body when she was conceived. (He's wearing a different body now, having switched through many in the interim.) Her mother, Rina, is a latent telepath who retreats into drugs and prostitution to deal with the overspill of human emotion she can't block out. Her grandmother slash nanny slash keeper is Emma, who is nearly as powerful in her own way as Doro -- and who doesn't approve of Mary. And Mary is having ever-increasing problems blocking out the emotions of people around her, but clings to Doro's faith in her, that she will be able to come through a true telepath, unlike the hundreds of failed latents that make up most of Doro's scattered 'family.'

Mind of My Mind is about a breeding program to develop people with psi powers, a breeding program run by the enigmatic Doro. And because it's a genuine breeding program, and one that has gone on for countless years, it's not just an experiment but also a family: a sprawling, wildly dysfunctional family. Butler depicts a 'telepathic family' that's about as dysfunctional as you can get: most of the telepaths Doro has been able to create are able to feel the thoughts and emotions of others, but are unable to shield them, making it a torment to live among other humans -- and yet they have also been bred with a desire to find and bond and mate with others like them, which means that they are subject to the hedgehog's dilemma times a thousand. (The Hedgehog's Dilemma: you need to be with others like you to survive and thrive, and yet getting too close to others like you means that you get a painful faceful of sharp spines.) Doro has built a community of people who are extremely powerful and yet deeply unstable and full of pain.

And he's unrepentant: to circumvent the problem that his people can't abide one another for long enough to successfully breed, he simply takes over one half of a pairing for long enough to ensure that the other half becomes pregnant.

And the culmination of his breeding program thus far is Mary, who is extremely special because... because what? Doro isn't saying; Mary doesn't know; and if Emma has an inkling, she also isn't saying.

The books is pretty clearly Mary's story, even though it's told from many points of view, because Butler uses a fascinating POV technique: there are many points of view, but only Mary's is in the first person. Thus Mary's point of view is considerably more intimate, and -- for me -- easier to empathize with. Mary's is the viewpoint that I find myself sympathetic to, if not completely agreeing with, and her own very closely-described confusion and lack of agency regarding her own fate, which is intimately and somewhat terrifyingly described early on, is very compelling.

Spoiler cut for discussion of what Mary is, and does )

Mind of My Mind is a fascinating science fictional look at the development of a telepathic society -- emphasis on 'society.' It's not a book about independent individualist telepaths: it's about how you have more than one telepath, without them competing each other out of existence. It's about the struggle to have a society of semi-equals... and the way that varying power dynamics complicates that significantly. Recommended. (But again, I do recommend that the Seed to Harvest quartet be read in order.)

Running Tally:

Total Books: 15
Fiction: 4
Non-Fiction: 11
POC Author: 4

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April 2013

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