Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review-itas: Science will blow your mind edition

The World without us by Alan Weisman
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, has a premise that enthralled me as soon as I read about it.  What would happen to the world if humans just disappeared?

I read this book via audiobook and a few things really stood out to me, though they are pretty unrelated to each other:

  • Cats apparently kill almost half a billion birds a year, I think in the United States alone.  Good heavens!  They are natural-born killers of lovely sing-songy birds.  There's a reason our mornings are not quite so chirpy as they used to be, and house cats are a big reason why.  I hope you keep yours inside!
  • The nuclear weapons that we're just holding onto (and not very securely) and the chemical waste that they are likely to create are very, very scary.
  • The amount of plastic we have created and poorly disposed of over the past 50 years is potentially even scarier than the nuclear waste problem.
Weisman's book is not a very positive one.  Honestly, it seems like even if humans were to disappear tomorrow, there's a lot of stuff we've done that will take eons to fix.  But in other ways, the book made me feel a little bit better.  The world existed before we arrived, and the world will continue to exist and evolve after we're gone.  While much of the information shared here was a little depressing, there was a lot of good information about the history of the world, just how difficult it is to keep nature (especially water!) at bay, and a lot of interesting speculation on what our lasting impact will be.  Definitely glad I read this one.

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
After reading The World Without Us, I felt like I was really on a science cusp.  And really, if we're well on our way to messing up our own planet, I think it's important we have some sort of contingency plan or back-up planet (preferably uninhabited so that we do not do the whole colonizing thing again).  So reading Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible seemed like the right next move.  

This book also has a pretty sweet premise.  Kaku looks at the science fiction literature and popular culture around him, and other "wouldn't it be SO awesome if...?" scenarios and discusses them as a physicist.  What, based on the known laws of the universe, is actually feasible?  What is not?  And why?  Topics covered include invisibility cloaks (we are actually really close on this one), time travel, teleportation, parallel universes, and wormholes.

I mean, seriously, how baller is it to be able to discuss the limitations of teleportation and telekinesis with people as a professional and intellectual exercise?!

I read this book as an audiobok, and admittedly, a lot of it went over my head.  I think if I could read some sentences again and give myself time to understand the implications, especially those about cubic roots and the theory of relativity and other formulae, then I would probably be able to follow along better.  But my main takeaway from this book is that so many more things are possible than I'd ever dreamed.  We have no conception of what awaits us in the universe (well, maybe astrophysicists do.  I certainly do not).  And it's a heady feeling to imagine what life will be in 1,000 years.  Kaku points out that humans have really only been around for 10,000 years or so.  Imagine if there are intelligent species out there that have been around for 100,000 years or longer; think about how much more advanced they must be than us.  The thought is both heady and terrifying.  

Another fact that I always understood vaguely before but now feel has been imprinted in my mind is just how far things are in outer space.  I mean, traveling to another planet is hard enough, let alone another solar system.  And to somewhere in another galaxy - that just takes FOREVER.  (Unless, of course, we can jump into hyperspace or find a wormhole somewhere that will just quickly dump us out, saving us time and hassle.)  There is SO MUCH of the universe out there that we cannot even dream of contacting, and they probably feel the same way out there as we do.  But, if we could contact them, then we could communicate with them through math or physics because (and this is something else I generally understood before but did not quite get the implications of until now) those would be the same everywhere!  In case you too were vague on what this means, it means - aliens could have microwaves, too!  And nuclear bombs!  And any matter of other devices, because the science behind those inventions is the SAME ALL OVER THE UNIVERSE.  (Well, I think - that is, if I understood Kaku correctly.)  Isn't that so fascinating?  I think so.

And on that note (TV dinners of the universe unite!), I shall end this :-)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Beautiful girls in the city by the bay

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
I think Lisa See is one of those authors that I like in theory more than I do in actuality.  The plot summaries of her books sound so fascinating!  They take place at such pivotal moments in history, in such vivid settings!  But somehow, the characters never seem to come alive for me, and I'm left vaguely disappointed.

This is pretty much what my experience was reading Shanghai Girls.  Two sisters living it up in Shanghai in the 1930s!  Then they move to the US and struggle to make ends meet through the 1940s.  And deal with the racism of the Communist scare in the 50s.  It all sounds so fascinating.  But it just didn't work for me.

The book did have its good points.  I really enjoyed learning about the high-flying lifestyle of the Chinese middle class between the wars.  I had never heard of the "beautiful girls" who posed for commercial artists in China in the 1930s, whose likenesses ended up anywhere from ads for matchsticks to (later on) propaganda for communism.  I also didn't know much about the conditions for immigration into the US in the 30s, and just how blatantly racist the system was.  It never fails to amaze me just how horribly western governments treated non-whites for so long.  And seeing just how deeply the Red Scare infiltrated people's everyday lives (especially those with a direct link to a Communist country) was eye-opening.  Really important, fascinating stuff.

But gosh, the characters did not do it for me.  The two sisters, Pearl and May, were hard to know and not very likable.  The story is told from Pearl's point of view, but she is not a very dynamic character, and it was a little boring to spend so much time inside her head.  She was scared of everything.  (Granted, much of it with good reason.)  And her sister, May, was so self-absorbed and spoiled that I didn't want to spend much time with her, either.  The other characters were fine, I guess, but didn't stand out as having distinct personalities.  Really, the book seemed to be more about all the suffering and hardship the characters went through rather than their development into strong and individual people.  This is how I felt when reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, too - I just felt like all the characters kept me at arm's length, and as a result, I just never felt emotionally connected to this one.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Stuff of Dreams. But in real life, not in Dreams.

The Dream Thieves Maggie Stiefvater
The Dream Thieves is the second book in Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Boys series.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed this book more than The Raven Boys, even though it's in the middle of the series.  I think this is mostly because each character finally has a distinct personality, and the focus is on the two characters that interest me more than any of the others, Adam and Ronan.

Adam!  Ronan!  Those two are so intense and are at that point in their lives where things can go in so many directions and so they make some really horrible decisions but some brilliant ones and sometimes they are jerks and sometimes they are sweethearts, and I just loved it.

Adam has so many personal demons, growing up unloved and trying to be a better person than everyone around him.  His struggle not to become like his father is so painful to watch, and you cannot help but want him to win REALLY BIG in the lottery of life because he works so hard to deserve it.

Ronan is a completely different kettle of fish.  I don't know if I understand him much better now than I did before, but I like him, and I liked being in his head.  He certainly doesn't waste words or time or space on anyone he deems unworthy, but he is willing to go deep-sea-diving without an oxygen tank for those he loves.  There was this scene when he realized that he didn't have to steal things but could just ask for them and people would be generous enough and love him enough to give them to him, and that was just great.  And his whole development as a rough guy into someone with moments of generosity and kindness - it's great.

I mean, Gansey and Blue are fine, but they seem likely to descend into doomed lovers mode shortly, and I don't think that will appeal to me.  Of course, I thought that would happen in the first book, and it didn't, so perhaps Stiefvater will pull through for me again.

I am not sure what all I can say about this book as it is the second in a series.  Suffice it to say, the plot moves forward, and in very compelling ways.  We get more backstory on all of the characters, and we even meet a new one, Mr. Gray, who was one of my favorites.  Honestly, Maggie Stiefvater, I feel like you do not get enough credit for writing Mr. Gray so well because people are so obsessed with the Raven Boys themselves, but I found Mr. Gray's development fascinating, and I loved spending time inside his head.  That a hit man (not really giving much away here, we know this very quickly in the book) could be given so much depth and that you can have compassion for a character who is both terrifying and suffering from his own internal angst and fear is just glorious.

I have gone on at length about the characters, and that is probably because I feel like I lost track of the plot a bit in this book.  I am not *quite* sure where we are going, but I trust Stiefvater to get us there in an exciting and unexpected fashion.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Golden, magical horses to spirit you away

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
Later I read that there are things inside us too tiny to see.  Not even a microscope can capture them.  This got me thinking -if there are things inside us too tiny to see, might there be things outside us too big to believe?

Rene Denfeld's The Enchanted is one of those books that defies categorization.  Books like this are difficult to describe and I bet even harder to get published, but as a reader, I just soak them up.  That people in the world exist who can think up plots and characters and amazing sentence structure .... well, just knowing that makes me feel better about the world.

I would think for hours how strange it was that some parts of words are silent, just like some parts of our lives.  Did the people who wrote the dictionaries decide to mirror language to our lives, or did it just happen that way?

The Enchanted takes place in prison, mostly around those on death row.  Our narrator is unnamed, but he has done something unspeakably horrible in his past and now awaits his execution date.  While he waits, the kindly prison warden brings him books to read.  And a woman he knows only as The Lady works to commute sentences from death to life in prison.  Her burdens are shared by a Fallen Priest, who is running from his own demons.  And then there are the beautiful, wild, golden horses, who run free and untamed whenever a death row inmate is executed.

The author of The Enchanted is a death penalty investigator, so she is intimately familiar with the setting of this book and the people who populate it.

There is no one like the lady for someone like the white-haired boy.  That is the irony of prison.  People like the lady are reserved for those sentenced to death.  It is only when a man is sentenced to die that the faucets turn on and people start to care.  The rest, like the white-haired boy, are erased.

The death penalty is a deeply divisive issue in the United States, particularly with the many botched executions and posthumous pardons that occur.  American prisons are overcrowded and we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world.  But like so many hot button issues, we think about the death penalty almost in a vacuum, as though it is a theoretical thing that does not have consequences for real people.  We hear ghastly stories on the news about people who murder, rape, and wreak horrors on so many people, and we wonder how people can commit such vile acts.

But we don't always consider that those people probably were victims of many vile acts themselves, and that they suffered and cried and bled as witnesses to horrors that somehow slipped between the cracks.  And they became part of a cycle that seems pretty hopeless.  And maybe the acts they did were truly despicable, but does that mean they do not deserve to have someone listen to their story, too?

Denfeld shows us the desperation of a life on death row, not only for the people who are living with the knowledge that their days are numbered, but also for the toll it takes on the people who work with the prisoners and carry their burdens, too.  And she opens a door to the idea that maybe, even people who commit horrible acts are capable of redemption.

"Men like York, like Striker.  Even men like Arden.  They can see the magic just like us," she tells him.  "No matter what they did, they can see the magic.  I think your God would understand that.  He may send them to the fires of hell, but he would understand that their eyes can be the same as ours."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Death of a Frog-Catching Cross-Dresser

Frog Music Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue's Frog Music has gotten a lot of attention because, well, it's Emma Donoghue.  Frog Music is her first novel since Room, but has more in common with her previous novels than with that one.  It's a historical fiction book that is based on a true story - or rather, a small newspaper blurb about a murder that remains unsolved which Donoghue spun into a story.  I love the way she does this.  She did the same thing in her novels Slammerkin and Life Mask, both of which I really enjoyed.

The plot as described by the publisher is:

Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead. 

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny's murderer to justice--if he doesn't track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It's the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, FROG MUSIC digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue's lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other. 

The two main characters in this book, Jenny Bonnet and Blanche Beunon, come blazingly to life.  Jenny has a carefree and seemingly happy-go-lucky approach to the world but asks all sorts of questions that set Blanche on edge.  And Blanche starts the book thinking that she is doing pretty well in life with a boyfriend who loves her and a job that pays well, but ends the book as a determined and resourceful woman who depends on no one but herself.

I appreciated the way Donoghue wrote these two characters.  She plays a lot with the roles of women and feminism and female friendships in all her historical novels, and this one was no exception.  She gives us insight into how a woman can be a mother who loves her child enough to risk everything for him, but still feel unsure about whether she likes her baby because he cries all the time and seems not to appreciate all the work she does for him.  She shows how friendship can develop between two women so quickly so that they understand so much about one another, even when they know hardly anything about each other's backgrounds.  The friendship that develops between Jenny and Blanche is wonderful to see unfold.

This is one of those books in which the setting, a sultry San Francisco in the decade after the Civil War, is a main character that almost steals the show from the people who populate it.  I enjoyed reading about all the saloons and dance halls and neighborhoods; I'm sure people who live in San Francisco would enjoy it even more.

I read Frog Music as an audiobook, so the songs and the accents came to life for me in a way that I am sure would not have happened had I read the novel in the more traditional format.  I appreciated this because other things made the audiobook pretty difficult.  The story unfolds in different time periods and even from within those two time periods, there are flashbacks, and the narrative jumps all over the place.  In the audiobook, especially at first, it was hard for me to always make those jumps and I got confused.  This got easier as the story went on, but I can't help feeling like I missed some key things at the beginning that were probably important.

I think I appreciated this book more for its themes and messages than for the story itself.  While I loved the central characters, I didn't much care for the mystery or about the unsavory people in Blanche's life.  As these were pretty key components to the story, I am unsure of whether I can say that I really loved the book.  All I can say is that the characters were so vividly drawn, and the setting came to life so well, that I suppose for me the plot was the frosting, not the cake.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

#Diversiverse Sign-Up Post!

It's time to sign up to participate in A More Diverse Universe!  Thanks to the glorious talents of Sandstone78, we have loads of buttons and banners for you to use wherever you would like.  Use any of the ones you see on this post and go crazy!

For those who have not heard about #Diversiverse before, it's a very simple challenge.  For those of you who have participated in the past, it's even easier this year.  The criteria are as follows:
  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th - 27th) 

 That's all!

I have talked at length before about why reading diversely is important.  But in case you are one of those people who doesn't like to click through to other posts, I'll just quote myself below (that's ok, right?):
 I know your TBR list is huge.  I know your commitments are many.  I know that there are so many things on which you must take a stand, and it can be exhausting to make reading a political activity.  But this is so important to me, and I really think it should be important to you, too.  None of us lives in a monochromatic world, and yet the fact that terrifying hate crimes still occur makes it clear that we do not fully understand or trust each other.  And maybe part of the reason is because the media we consume does not accurately reflect the diversity of our society.  And books are such a massive part of the media we consume that we should demand and fight for those that do represent minorities and those that do present the world from a different perspective than the one we are used to.  So please - participate.  You may just discover a character or an author or a setting or a story that will completely change your life.
So!  I urge you to sign up and read just ONE book.  Well, I hope you read WAY more than one book, but perhaps #diversiverse will help you dip your toe into the water before you cannon ball completely in.  Read a book, change the world - that's a good deal, right? 

And it's really not that hard, I PROMISE you!

To quote myself one more time: You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation.  You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits. 

In the past few weeks, I have posted book suggestions for people who are interested in reading non-fiction and historical fiction for this challenge.  Posts from prior years have many, many, many suggestions for books in the science fiction and fantasy genres.   And if you'd prefer not to focus on just a genre but choose your reading based on other criteria, here's a post with resources you can use to read diversely across all genres.

So what are you waiting for?  In my opinion, I have left you with NO EXCUSES not to participate in this challenge ;-) 

Sign-ups are on the Mr. Linky below.  Please participate and help create the bookshelves we all want to see!  Convince your friends to sign up!  And your followers!  And see you in mid-September, when the link-up post will be up!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Whoa, timelines are complicated when you are a time traveler

Ok, so these books by Connie Willis are absolutely massive, weighing in at over 1100 pages combined.  I am reviewing Blackout and All Clear together as they are technically two halves of the same book, but were separated due to the large size.  However, you really can't read All Clear without reading Blackout.

It's pretty difficult to do a summary of such a huge book without giving away spoilers.  Suffice it to say that three historians travel back in time from 2060 Oxford to 1941 London during the Blitz to observe what life was like for civilians during such a tense and stressful time.  And things go very, very wrong, so the three of them are basically stuck in WWII.  And then they get even more stressed out because it's possible that they are having an impact on historic events - what if they changed the course of history?  Uh-oh!

I have been going back and forth over whether I should even review these books.  There are already a lot of reviews out there, and I am not sure I have much more to add to the discussion.  I fell in love with Connie Willis when I read To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was wonderful and hilarious and romantic and not really in the same style as any of her other work.  Then I read The Doomsday Book, which was not funny at all but very tense and quiet.  Blackout and All Clear are a mix of all of these - there are moments of humor, quite a bit of tension, though not a whole lot of quiet.  Obviously, in the midst of the Blitz, there are a lot of sirens and booms and planes.  The books are long but read very quickly, mostly because you are so stressed out about what is going to happen that you are incapable of doing anything but reading very quickly to find out what happens next.  Willis definitely knows how to write a nail-biting, stomach-clenching story, and she's in fine form with that here.

Willis also really knows her London map, buses to Underground to streets and back alleys.  She makes sure that all her readers know that she knows the map, too.  I think the book could have been cut by at least 20% if she would stop telling us all the directions and transfers that her characters kept taking.  They got old to me after a while, but I can see how telling everyone just how many stops were closed down due to bombs, and all the complicated ways people had to get around instead, was a great way of adding to the setting and atmosphere of this story.

Truly, these books brought to life just how harrowing living through the Blitz may have been.  I think the London Blitz is one of those moments in time that the English like to look back on with pride at getting through, and I expect it's romanticized quite a bit.  After all, it's not like the English weren't crossing the Channel and doing much the same thing to other cities on the Continent.  Willis goes full throttle into the romanticism, calling out the many unsung heroes that kept St. Paul's Cathedral standing, that helped save friends out of the rubble, that worked to keep up the spirits of their comrades with plays and dramas and small, unexpected gifts.  And I liked that.  I am sure that there was looting and fighting and all sorts of horrors that happened during the Blitz, but hey, sometimes you just want to hear about the good things and not the bad.  There is a time for gray areas and people with complex motivations, but perhaps a story about everyday heroes is not the place for them.  I respect that.

My main complaint with this book probably isn't a fair one, so I'll just touch briefly upon it here.  Couldn't there have been just one person of color in the story?!  I mean, there's this Badri guy who seems to just kind of mess up people's space-time coordinates (assuming he is South Asian based on his name), but he is the ONLY ONE, and he can hardly be counted as even a secondary character.  I mean, come on.  These historians are traveling back in time from 2060 - there's probably a lot of mixed race people at that time.  And maybe they are mixed race, but their names and physical descriptions make it hard to believe that they are.  And then there's the people in London, which was the seat of a global empire, and apparently NO ONE there was not white, even so.  It bothered me a lot.  In a book of 1100 pages set in the midst of a massive world war, I feel like there could have been one person.

Anyway, I have talked in zero ways about the plot or the characters of this book, and have managed to write quite a bit.  I don't really want to talk plot or characters. The plot is a bit complex and I don't want to spoil what was really a great ride for you. And while I enjoyed the main characters, I didn't fall in love with any of them. Really, my heart belonged to the secondary characters in this one, and they make so many of the scenes so wonderful that I have a feeling you will fall for them, too.


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