Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: And I Darken

Title: And I Darken
Author: Kiersten White
Series: The Conquerers Saga
Volume: 1
Release Date: June 28, 2016
Goodreads

Introduction: Lada Dragwyla is heir to Wallachia- or she would be, had she not been born a girl. After years of striving for her father's respect and affection, he abandons her and her brother, Rabu, to the role of hostages for the Ottoman empire. Lada is determined to return to her home and claim what should be her inheritance, while Rabu just wants somewhere he can feel safe. They rapidly find themselves pulled into the dangerous politics of the Ottoman empire, when they, against all odds, find themselves befriending the son of the Sultan.

Out of Ten: 8/10

Review at a Glance: A character-driven and fascinating alternative history with a female Vlad the Impaler.

Review: This was #YAReadAlong's book this month. I'd actually tried to pick it up once before, but I just didn't end up getting into it. I'm really glad that I gave it another try though, because I ended up really enjoying it. There are so many fascinating things about the story.

I don't typically go for books with unlikable main characters... and Lada is arguably an unlikable character in the extreme. She's aggressive, combative, and often cruel- except that watching her struggle to live her life on her terms meant she became a character that I was really invested in, despite her terribleness. I wouldn't say I supported all of her choices, but I definitely understood them. She's constantly in situations where she has to fear for her life, and covers that terror with rage so well that sometime she doesn't even realise what it is.

She and her brother Rabu have a fascinatingly fraught relationship. They both function as more or less the sole constant presence in each other's lives- but both are constantly growing and shifting, changing into people that conflict with each other on some very basic levels. They're mirrors of one another in a lot of ways- Lada has little use for religion; while Rabu beings to find himself when he finds Islam, Lada fights with a direct approach and by making herself feared; Rabu strategies and fights by making himself loved. They're both incredibly interesting characters on their own, and their interactions were intriguing in how their differences stood out sharply. And yet, they care about each other, in their own complicated, messed-up way. It's this push and pull, with a lot of really complicated emotions.

This conflict made more clear by Mehmed, the son of the Sultan to whom the siblings were given as a hostage. He really brings out the contrasting natures of Lada and Rabu. While complicating things by being both the person in love with Lada and the person who Rabu is in love with.

There's a lot of development, both for the characters themselves and with respect to the plot. This books spans year, rather than weeks or months, though it does focus on specific periods of time within those years. So naturally, a lot happens. Readers get to watch Lada and Rabu grow from being children with very few options... to young adults who still have limited options, but are a heck of a lot better at making those work for them. We get to see them carving out places for themselves in a world that isn't at all welcoming to them.

I could write a whole blog post on Lada's relationships: with herself, with her brother, with the world at large. One of the most interesting parts of this book was her complicated relationship with femininity. She's raised in a way that gives her very little respect for women, and often rails against being one herself. She's in possession of a lot of traits that aren't coded as feminine, and lives in a world where a woman isn't always a good thing to be. It's only toward the later half of the book where she meets women that she might respect and I'm interested to see how that plays out on the next two books. Likewise, I'm really hoping to see Rabu's character (and his relationship with his sexual orientation) develop too. I'm so intrigued by all the facets of both of these characters, and I'm so excited to see what's going to happen with them next (and a little concerned, because it's a very stab-y world they live in).

Overall, this one was a pleasant surprise for me. It's strongly character driven, gritty, and intense, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how the story continues.

P.S. Nazira is fantastic. I really like the friendship between her and Rabu. Also the friendship between Lada and Nicolae. There are a lot of really wonderful and well-crafted secondary characters, did I mention that. No? Well, here I am, mentioning it in a postscript.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Series: The Abyss Syrrounds Us
Volume: 1
Genre: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction
Release Date: February 8, 2016
Goodreads

A Quick Introduction: After rising sea levels reshaped world, the seas became a lawless place. Cassandra Leung has spent her life learning to train Reckoners, genetically engineered sea monsters that protect ships from pirates in the NeoPacific. When, on her first mission, her Reckoner fails, she is taken captive by pirates- who present her with a new Reckoner pup to train, and offer her an ultimatum: as long as the pup lives, so does she.

Out of Ten: 8/10

Review at a Glance: This was a quick, fun read. It contains so many cool things, and I'm really looking forward to the sequel!

Review: I mean, sea monsters, folks, SEA MONSTERS. How cool is that? (Very cool.) The sea monsters in this case a genetically engineered with DNA from different species. In my brain our two main Reckoners look like a combination of sea turtles and plesiosaurs... I would love a picture of what they're meant to look like because I feel like I possibly don't have a perfect imagine my head.

Our main character, Cas, begins the novel at the end of her training, just about ready to be a fully fledged trainer. One of my favourite things about her is how she knows the Reckoners, and also how she applies what she knows from them to her interactions with humans... Also that she's very competent. I mean, obviously she faces some super-tough decisions, (borrowing words from The Winner's Curse here) she plays the game to its end, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what that end is. She's a consistently structured character and I really appreciate that!

While the action isn't non-stop, there is always something happening. If there isn't a high-seas battle going on, there's Cas making her way on the pirate ship, or Cas and Swift's adventure visiting Swift's home. The action scenes were fairly well done, though I think sometimes I did get a bit lost? Mostly, I think, because, as I mentioned I didn't quite have a picture of exactly what the Reckoner looked like.

Now that I've mentioned Cas and Swift, I feel like I should mention them some more... I liked how Swift's character was revealed to the reader, and watching her change in Cas's eyes, while also being a very flawed character. Their relationship was interesting in that it... kind of proceeded in fits and starts, and yet didn't feel stilted? They figured each other out, and I also quite liked how they agreed equal footing was super important for relationships, and didn't wouldn't begin anything romance-wise unless they were able to be equals. (Also points for casually non-straight characters!)

Overall this was a fun, short read. While there were a few moments where I got a bit disengaged from the story, I still had a really good time reading it, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the sequel takes Cas!


Monday, November 7, 2016

All the Ways the World Ends: The Scorpion Rules

(Maybe) new feature! I read a lot of dystopic and post-apocalyptic things, and one of my favourite things about them is collecting all the ways the world could end. (I'm a well adjusted adult human, it's what we do. Ask anyone.) I actually talked about my interest in novels set after the end of the world back in 2013, back when I was a cynical just-out-of-high-school student. Now, since the world had yet to conclusively end, I'm revisiting it as a cynical, almost-out-of-university student!


What triggered this? Mostly, the So You Want to be Human twitter chat a few weeks ago, which brought The Scorpion Rules back to the forefront of my mind- but also the a couple conversations I got into with my classmates about the psychology behind humans' fondness for zombie stories.

Anyway. The Scorpion Rules takes place in a future where rampant climate change has ravaged the world, and resource wars had driven humanity to the brink of extintion- before an AI took over. It was awesome. I feel like I didn't fully apreciate parts of it the first time I read it, but it really ended up sticking with me. Where I thought I didn't love the relationships or characters in my first review, I realised that I had become really quite attached to both when I got the chance to read The Swan Riders. (And hey, canon bisexual leading lady!)

The apocalypse in The Scorpion Rules is fantastic. And when I say fantastic, I mean kind of worrying, of course. But also really, really interesting for an enviro. sci. nerd like me- because it's already happening. It was the thing that grabbed me right off the bat, before I'd even had time to really get attached to the characters, because it's something that I have a little bit of a background in. In my life outside this blog, I'm studying environmental science, so I really latched onto the climate part of it and ran with it, (and ran with it, and then ran with it some more).

Water gets a starring role in the novel- with different countries squabbling over access to one another's lakes, and a very irritated AI trying to stop them from decimating each other ...by threatening to decimate them first. (Saving humanity from itself: it's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it.)

Precipitation patterns under climate change projection from the IPCC's 2013 report. The first is for 1986-2005, the second is the projection for 2081-2100. (Look at it! It's so cool. And scary. Also scary. I feel like it doesn't quite convey the depth of the scary we're facing here, world.)
Water is a resource that is completely essential to life on Earth, and is not distributed evenly across the planet. Humans use water for so many things- drinking, washing, growing crops...  It exists in a lot of different forms all over Earth, but MOST (97.5%) of it is saltwater. What remains is freshwater, though it is not all in a form available for human use. What is in an available form is distributed unevenly around the world in aquifers (think groundwater) and lakes. We're already sapping some of the more sensitive groundwater sources, using water more quickly than they can be replenished. People all over the world are facing drought and contaminated water. It's already causing conflict now, as many parts of the world face extended drought.

It was really interesting to read a world where- rather than some big, catastrophic event bringing about massive destruction, humans just basically continued just on the path we've been on for years. (Okay, the AI was new... but the landscapes and climate? The climate wars? Totally plausible.) The changing climate is going to have huge, wide-spread impacts. We're talking rising sea levels, changes in growing seasons, melting permafrost, changes in precipitation and seasons, and changes in species distributions. It's going to have economic effects, impact access to water, effect how and where crops are grown, and even have health effects as distributions of diseases change.

Anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change has already started to wreak havoc on the planet, and is expected to just keep right on doing that. Even IF we all magically stopped releasing greenhouse gases tomorrow, we'd be facing continued temperature change for the next little while- so many balances have already been tipped, triggering self-fulfilling loops that will only stop once they find a new balance. So that's happening. Not that humans shouldn't be trying to curb our carbon emissions- we definitely should, there's no need to make a bad situation worse- but there also needs to be a focus on adapting to the effects of climate change (preferably without letting an amoral AI with a terrible/excellent/terrible sense of humour take over the world).

 P.S. Please check out this awesome post on Erin Bow's website about the making of the world of The Scorpion Rules. It is, as I said, awesome, Maps!


Further Reading, some of which is to be taken with a grain of salt because the media is often sensationalist and whatnot:


References
Parker, L. (2016, July 14). What You Need to Know about the World's Water Wars. National Geographic. Retrieved from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/07/world-aquifers-water-wars/

[Stoker, T. F., Qin, D., Plattner, G.-K., Tignor, M., Allen, S. K., Boschung, J., Nauels, A., Xia, Y., Bex, V., & Midgley, P. M.] (2013). Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contributions of Working Group I of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

Warren, F. J. & Lemmen, D. S. (2014) Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on Impacts and Adaptation. Retrieved from:  http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/environment/resources/publications/impacts-adaptation/reports/assessments/2014/16309

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

October DNF

It has been quite a while since I've actually had trouble with enough books to do a DNF!


The Graces

This one just didn't work for me. I really did want to like it, and the family of witches sounded so promising. But it just didn't deliver for me, and I just couldn't find a way to drag myself through it. The biggest issue was the main character, who was... just terrible. She spent endless amounts of time telling us how different she was from her classmates, without really seeming to have any defining personality traits otherwise. After getting almost a third of the way into the book without anything of substance happening, I ended up dropping it and just... not picking it up again.

The weak narrator, lack-luster character interactions and apparent absence of a plot were what kept this one from working for me.



Stalking Jack the Ripper

I knew this one was a long shot. I really had one simple, uncomplicated reason for picking this up- the fact that there was a lady forensic scientist. I feel like maybe me liking of the book hinged on that, and, when this book didn't deliver well on that or any other front, I lost interest. 

Side note: for a relatively un-prolific serial killer (most expert agree the true number of victims is most likely five, which, terrible as it was, is on the low end for a serial killer,) Jack the Ripper has managed to capture the imagination of so many in a really interesting way. Part of which was that the Ripper killings took place when society itself was reaching a turning point, in terms of science and it's application to forensics in England. Forensic science was in it's infancy, and psychology too was a growing field, especially where it applied to use in investigation of crimes. Widespread dispersal of information was improving, which meant news could spread. And, of course, the perpetrator of the Whitechapel Murders was never caught.


Friday, September 30, 2016

#YAReadAlong: The Dark Days Club


I know I've been semi-absent from the blog recently, but I have been doing things! Look, a thing! (A thing using Microsoft Paint, don't judge.)

I'm helping coordinate a read-a-long on Twitter, starting this October (aka tomorrow, how time flies). It isn't something I've done before, so it ought to be an adventure! If you're interested i joining us, please feel free to tweet along using the hashtag #YAReadAlong... let's see how this goes!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review: The Swan Riders

Title: The Swan Riders
Author: Erin Bow
Series: Prisoners of Peace Duology
Volume: 2
Genre: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction
Release Date: September 20, 2016
Goodreads
eARC recieved through NetGalley

A Quick Introduction: Greta Stuart has become and AI. Following the traumatic operation, she travels with Talis and two Swan Riders to the seat of the AI's power in post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan. However, her fate has triggered a rebellion against the AIs maintain peace through fear- AIs with no compunction about blowing up a few cities to make a  point.

Out of Ten: 8/10

Review at a Glance: A funny and stimulating companion to The Scorpion Rules explores humanity against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan.

Review: First of all, let us acknowledge the cover. I liked the cover of The Scorpion Rules, but these new covers? Wow. Beautiful. (I know mid-series cover changes are the worst. But look how beautiful the new covers are!) (I digress.)

I always have a bit of difficult time reviewing Erin Bow's books, and I find this duology especially challenging, because there's something about them that feels like they shouldn't work. Except that they kind of do.

It took me a little while to really get into this book- I found that with The Scorpion Rules as well- Erin Bow's writing is not the sort that you launch right into. It takes time to build. The setting interests me because 1) I'm Canadian, and it takes place in post-apocalypic Saskachewan (which for the most part looks a lot like pre-apocalyptic Saskachewan) (if I can't make fun of Saskachewan, what can I make fun of?), and 2) I'm an enironmental science student, so there are aspects that are frighteningly plausible.

Where The Scorpion Rules stumbled for me, The Swan Riders was stronger. The sense of character was stronger. Greta remains a very internally strong character- having survived the AI upload, she's now basically struggling to hold herself together, and to hold onto the human parts of her. She's got a lot going on, but there's sometimes this strange feeling that, while she's the narrator, she's not always the main character. Even more strangely, that didn't bother me much... she's a character who is both an active participant and a more passive narrator, and it made for an interesting combination.

Talis gets a lot more focus during this book, as do The Swan Riders (who would've guessed that, based on the title?) Talis has always been a challenging character to understand, simply because he's so many things at once, and it was intriguing seeing those parts shift and change, and form more of a cohesive whole. In The Scorpion Rules, he was an interesting character because he's this combination of terrifyingly amoral and charismatically funny, but he didn't change much. In The Swan Riders he actually has a character arc, which was great to explore.

The thing about both The Scorpion Rules and The Swan Riders is that they're very much stories being told, in a way that renders the action not very action-y. It's not that it's terribly written, so much as that the action isn't the focus- the effects are, because these books are, in a lot of ways, ruminations on humanity and human nature that just so happen to contain characters and a plot. It's done in such an interesting way!



The humour in these books really works for me. It's alternatingly clever, morbid, and truly, truly bizarre, which fits my own sense of humour to a T. I do wish there'd been more of it, but that probably would have upset the balance!

Overall, I really enjoy The Swan Riders. It took me a while to get into, but I loved the humour and the thought-provoking aspects, and continued to be intrigued by the setting.. This sequel did a good job of wrapping up the story, in a way that was both fitting and somewhat bittersweet, and I'm really glad I read it!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Review: Every Hidden Thing

Title: Every Hidden Thing
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Release Date: September 20, 2016
Goodreads
ARC recieved through HarperCollins Canada's First Look program.

A Quick Introduction: Legends of a massive dinosaur skeleton take Samuel Bolt and his struggling paleontologist father to the Badlands when they recieve a black, fossilized tooth in the mail. Also on the trail of "Black Beauty" is Samuel's father's long time rival, Professor Cartland and his daughter, Rachel- who hopes finding the skeleton will be her key to her university dreams and life as a paleontologist. Despite their fathers' enmity, and the fact that they're both chasing the same fossil, Samuel and Rachel are drawn to each other. When the truth of their relationship comes out, they have to decide whether or not to allow old prejudices and family rivalries to pull them apart.

Out of Ten: 7/10

Review at a Glance: An engaging novel featuring flawed but human characters and an unusual (and very interesting) setting.

Review: Here it is, my review for one of my most anticipated novels for this year!

Okay, a little background. Kenneth Oppel has been one of my favourite authors for a long time. He was kind of my introduction to YA? Airborn remains one of my favourite trilogies ever, so when I heard about this I was SUPER excited. Because I am also a dinosaur nut. I have been since I was about six, when I somehow managed to pronounce impossibly long dinosaur names, while still unable to spell the word because. So be warned, at least part of this is going to be me nerding out about paleontology... I promise I'll fit the review in somewhere, though.

Kenneth Oppel continues to impress me with his crafting of characters that feel very real. Samuel and Rachel are both very flawed people, but they still ended up being characters who I very much wanted to succeed. They're both driven, ambitious, and also quite selfish... so their relationship definitely had it's challenges. Their entire relationship had a bit of "unstoppable force meets immovable object" going on, with a side of feeling like it was rather abrupt. It wasn't necessarily unbelievable, it just felt like they were rushing into things and acting on impulse... which I suppose is a part of the story.


I think I understood Rachel better than Samuel, and I'm always happy to see female YA characters in science- there just aren't enough of them! It was nice to meet a character who also didn't outgrow her dinosaur obsession, and I quite liked her way of looking at the world. Samuel was a bit harder for me to like, but his motivations generally made sense to me (which is something that I think is sometimes more important than liking a character...)

I really liked the time period in which this was set- dinosaurs were still kind of a "new" thing, they were a sensation and fossil hunting was something alternately grueling and glamourous. The science of paleontology was just getting its start. Academics of all sorts are known to have long-reaching rivalries- ones that were known to end in property damage, physical altercations, and careers left in tatters. Or, at least, some very sarcastic peer-reviewed articles.

This book was completely devoid of action, either. The Badlands were a dangerous place at the start of the 19th century- a rough, forbidding landscape with poisonous creatures unfamiliar to visitors, and with the risk of conflict with indigenous peoples who (rightly) felt that their lands were being invaded and their rights disrespected (like, a lot, and we definitely see some of that in this book). The main conflict in this book, though, was that between Professors Bolt and Cartland, and their children's struggle to find a way to be together despite their family prejudices.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this, and really like the portrait of fossil hunting in it's fairly early day. The setting and time period were well crafted, as were the characters. While the impulsive relationship between the two main characters wasn't necessarily something I'd want for myself, it wasn't totally unbelievable, and it definitely moved the story along and set them both on their path. I'm just going to go ahead an recommend this to more mature YA readers (there is sex, sex happens, we do not fade to black, consider yourselves warned) who didn't manage to outgrow their dinosaur phase.