Monday, December 5, 2016

Gilded Cage by Vic James

From the publisher: Our world belongs to the Equals—aristocrats with magical gifts—and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world. A girl thirsts for love and knowledge. A boy dreams of revolution. And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

Gilded Cage is a bit like Hunger Games meets Harry Potter. It is set in an alternate, modern Britain. Although they don’t use wands, there are people with magical skills called Equals. They live in luxury while those without magical powers must serve them as slaves for 10 years of their lives. It’s the kind of world imagined by Harry Potter’s Gellert Grindelwald and Tom Riddle.

The perception among those who haven’t served their slavedays is that they aren’t that bad, but they are. While serving their slavedays, people have no rights, and most are not adequately fed, clothed, housed, or cared for medically. Most Equals take their better circumstances as a right, although a few among the Skilled are fighting to end the slaveday system.

Gilded Cage focuses on a family of five that decides to do their slavedays together. (I never really understood how people could choose their slavedays – if you could put it off indefinitely, couldn’t you die before doing them?) The parents and their three children expect to be sent to one of the cushier spots – serving one of the aristocratic Equal families. But their teenaged son Luke gets sent to one of the brutal factory towns instead.

Although the focus and narrative viewpoint of the chapters moves between several characters, Luke and his older sister Abi seem to be the focal point. Abi works with one of the sons of the Equal family who has no Skill (a squib, if you like, although he seems to be the only one around). There is a lame insta-romance between them that really just got in the way.

There are a lot of nuanced characters, and you cannot always tell if they are good or bad. There are some truly evil characters too, and some really good ones. There is also some heavy handed writing (for example, a man in a cage tells Abi, “You’re in – the pen – too….Just – I see – my cage – my leash.” (p. 208 of the advance reader copy)). Many of the scenes (especially those in the factory town Millmoor) felt so familiar I had to remind myself that I haven’t actually read this book before. But there are some original touches, and the plot twists compelled me to keep reading. If you are looking for a well written dystopian novel with interesting characters, you may enjoy Gilded Cage (first in a series).

I read an advance reader copy of Gilded Cage. It will be published in February 2017, and it will be available through the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

 I give All Our Wrong Todays 4.5 stars. I deducted half a star only because the ending wasn’t perfect (although I don’t have a suggestion for a better ending). Otherwise it is mostly 5 stars  because I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

The narrator, Tom Barren, is straight with us right from the first chapter. He lives in our world in 2016. But it’s not supposed to be like this. An unlimited energy source invented in 1965 is supposed to have changed everything, leading to peaceful lives, plenty of food and health care for everyone, transport for all, and plenty of other cool things. But it’s not like that in our current timeline – and Tom himself is to blame. A stupid mistake while stupidly time travelling has changed everything.

Not everything is worse though. Our world is as messed up as we know it to be. But Tom’s personal situation is much, much better. This causes him some highly believable angst, since he knows he need to restore the timeline if possible, no matter what it costs him personally.

Everything in this book seems so plausible, and the time travel science seemed real (whether it is or not) and not too confusing for a nonscientist. I felt I got to know Tom well, given his complicated personal circumstances (I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more), and every now and then Tom hit me with something that I found insightful.

After finding a damaged pocket watch in his original timeline world:
 In the early twentieth century, railroad accidents were commonplace because trains running on the same tracks weren’t accurately synchronized. Keeping time was actually a matter of life or death. A watch like this was made to protect people. Every piece of technology in my world shared a global chronometer, coordinated to the microsecond, a planet of people all living in unison. But this pocket watch was from an era of temporal isolation, a planet of people each inside their own definite of time. (pp. 67-68 of the advance reader copy)
Wow, temporal isolation. What a great concept.

About the new timeline world (our world):
Part of the problem is this world is basically a cesspool of misogyny, male entitlement, and deeply demented gender constructs accepted as casual fact by outrageously large swaths of the human population. Where I come from, gender equality is a given. I’m not talking about absurdly fundamental things like pay equality. I mean that there is no essential difference in the way men and women are perceived in terms of politics or economics or culture. (pp. 159-160)
Maybe the author put this in as a ploy to appeal to his female readers, maybe it’s sincere, but I loved it either way.

At one point he describes his mom as “rereading The Time Machine with what I guess you would call passive-aggressive literary exasperation.” (p. 215) Ha, what a great turn of phrase!

I found this book cleverly constructed and very very entertaining. The author kept me guessing with the plot and threw in twists I didn’t see coming. This would be a perfect book for a long plane ride. Also, it is separated into nice short chapters if you read in short bursts, always a plus for easily finding a place to stop reading.

I read an advance reader copy of All Our Wrong Todays. It will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library in February 2017.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Death Comes to the Fair by Catherine Lloyd

Do you love a good mix of mystery and Regency romance? Then Catherine Lloyd’s Kurland St. Mary mystery series could be for you. 

Major Robert Kurland was seriously injured at Waterloo. Miss Lucy Harrington, a childhood friend, is the daughter of the widowed rector. They live in the charming village of Kurland St. Mary, solve mysteries together, and enjoy a spirited relationship. The fourth book in the series, Death Comes to the Fair, comes out in a few weeks, but the Galesburg Public Library already owns the other books in print and electronic format. The first book in the series is Death Comes to the Village.

I thought book three slipped a bit in quality, but book four was as good as the first two. Major Kurland and Lucy spend a lot of time alone in this one, and there is much worried concern from the rector about her reputation and need for a chaperone. But they always find a way to investigate together.

I read an advance reader copy of Death Comes to the Fair; it will be available at the library in late November.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

How does one go about having a successful, purposeful life? How does one do it if possessions and space have been reduced, as well as freedom of movement beyond confinement in a large, world-class hotel denied? Those are the underlying questions of the latest book by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. The gentleman is Count Alexander Rostov, the hotel, the Metropol, located near the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

In the early 1920s, Rostov is sentenced to live out his life in the hotel, not in his luxurious suite, but in a tiny room with a pitifully small window. His crime - being of the aristocracy and the author of a controversial poem in the early 1900s. While cutting-edge in political thought at the time, post-Revolution authorities doubt Rostov's true intentions and dedication. Rather than a firing squad or Gulag, Rostov is shown leniency, allowing him to live with the threat that should he ever leave the Metropol he would be shot.

On this set of circumstances the rest of the story evolves, following the life Rostov creates for himself within the hotel for over thirty years. The Count and staff of the hotel are Damon Runyon-type characters with charm and unique quirks. The Count lives his life with order, resolve and positive attitude as well as honor and devotion. The story has subtle humor, unexpected twists and some suspense.

One can easily become wrapped up in the cocoon of the Metropol while elements of the outside world insinuate themselves into and touch that life. Criticism could and has been made that the reader needs to suspend reality from the beginning of the novel. Knowledge of the years from the Bolsheviks, through Lenin and then Stalin and into 1950s Soviet Union make Rostov's sentence incredible. As an aristocrat he would have been shot. His poem is a flimsy protection that could not have survived thirty years without re-evaluation by those in power. Towles draws in elements of political dangers for some characters. However, the full horror of Stalin's rule, as well as the devastation of WWII are not in the forefront. The seismic needle of events in Russian history of this period seems barely to move in the more metronomic life of Count Rostov.

Nevertheless, the story is charming, entertaining and philosophic as we see Rostov's life evolve and answer the questions asked at the beginning of this review. I think this was the author's intent, rather than write a gripping, sweeping narrative of the glories and tragedies of Mother Russia. Instead, Towles is paying attention to what really matters in life, no matter when, where or under what circumstances.

I read the advanced readers' copy after the book was published on September 6, 2016. A copy is  available at Galesburg Public Library.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

From the publisher: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, she forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows. As danger circles nearer, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a lovely and lyrical telling or retelling of a fairy tale. (If this is based on a real fairy tale, I am not familiar with it.) The language is beautiful, although a knowledge of Russian might come in handy as I had some trouble keeping the characters and their many nicknames straight. There is a glossary of Russian words at the back. The book has a gorgeous cover.

This is a very slow moving story; readers looking for lots of action will not find it here.  This is not a book that gallops along. It is a quiet, intriguing tale. I will admit, although I enjoyed The Bear and the Nightingale, I really wanted to love it. I don’t need a lot of action, but I would have liked more character development. The characters did not move beyond being one dimensional fairy tale characters, even though the story is 300 pages long. I did enjoy the descriptions and the variety of the many household spirits Vasilisa sees and honors.

The story does not reflect well on the church and organized religion, but it does have a definite and obvious feminist point to make:
All my life,” [Vasilisa] said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. (p. 279)
Some readers may rejoice at this firm and clearly expressed message; I would have preferred something a little more subtle.

If you enjoy novels based on fairy tales and full of beautiful language and imagery, especially those with a strong and spunky female main character, I recommend The Bear and the Nightingale.

I read an advance reader copy of The Bear and the Nightingale. It will be published in January 2017, and the Galesburg Public Library will have the book in print and electronic format.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

What a delight!  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a thoroughly enjoyable space opera. A varied crew made up of mostly humans plus individuals from other species live in a patchwork spaceship called the Wayfarer. The crew makes a living by punching tunnels in space for a fee. Each member of the crew is critical to the ship’s livelihood. They are all fairly well developed, though some better than others, and are not uniformly likable. I imagine we’ll see more about each crew member in future books in the series.

This book is episodic, rather than leading to one great conclusion. This serves to build the world and introduce the characters and species. There are varied romantic relationships – between members of the opposite sex of different species, between members of the same sex of different species, between one of the crew and the ship’s AI. The crew includes a human with dwarfism and a member of a species that starts out female and becomes male later in life. This character, Dr. Chef, was my favorite. He is both the doctor and the chef aboard the Wayfarer; his real name in his own language translates to something like “A Grove of Trees Where Friends Meet to Watch the Moons Align During a Sunset in Mid-Autumn," and he is described as being somewhat like an otter crossed with a gecko that walks like a six-legged caterpillar.

Interactions with other species are believable – there are common languages, but not everyone speaks them. Also, humans are not one of the great primary species in this world. After practically destroying Earth, most humans took to space and were fortunate to be rescued from extinction by others. Life in space feels real - for example, some people get physically sick in space.

Although the book is episodic, it also is thought provoking on issues like war and interaction with those who are not like us. The crew members act like a real family, despite their differences. I will definitely read the next book in the series.

The series would make a great TV show. A definite recommend for lovers of (mostly) light-hearted science fiction set in space. 

The Galesburg Public Library owns The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew

I’m a huge huge fan of Star Trek Voyager – I watched virtually every episode in order as they aired over seven seasons – and so also a fan of Kate Mulgrew (who played Captain Kathryn Janeway). I couldn’t resist reading her memoir, even though I’m not a big memoir reader.

It’s a well written work by one tough cookie. It starts at the beginning of her life and stops five years into Voyager’s run. The book contains a lot of detail, more, really, than I was interested in, and not much about Star Trek (although that was okay). Mulgrew believes in herself and her talent, that’s evident.

I did enjoy this quotation about Robert Beltran’s Chakotay, one of my favorite Star Trek characters: “Strikingly good-looking, he was a curious combination of come hither and go away.” (p. 262) For me it was worth reading Born With Teeth for that quote alone!

If you like memoirs by strong, interesting women, I’d recommend Born With Teeth.

The Galesburg Public Library has Born With Teeth as a print book and as an ebook.