alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 62: Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

Goodreads: “For generations, the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt – was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of

Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.”

I’ve really enjoyed the three books so far in the Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate. Where the first set the pace, tone, and foundation for the series in a way that was already epic in scale, the latter two have somehow continued to build on that promise by introducing more narrative lead characters and new high-stakes conflict without letting the story run away from itself. Despite the expansion of character profiles and deeper exploration of those characters’ motivations, the core group we were introduced to in the first book — James Holden and his crew — remain central to the story, thereby anchoring us to a heart of the tale that we’ve grown familiar with and attached to.

Abaddon’s Gate contains a classic redemption tale, a frame-job, and the possibility of massive war among two superpowers, a lesser alliance, and an unknown alien foe that is likely to crush everyone and annihilate humanity in the blink of an eye. Our hero, James Holden, also talks to ghosts and even goes on a one-man mission as an emissary to the alien would-be demolitionists because that’s what the ghost tells him to do. The book rarely takes a moment to breathe, but the slower chapters reinforce the emotional stakes and passion — sometimes quiet, sometimes imbued with burning rage — that drive the characters.

Also remarkable in the series is the way that each book feels, in a way, like a standalone: there are no cliffhangers and the individual stories therein are resolved; however, the resolution sets up a backdrop for what may become the main source of tension in the next book, or the one after. Leviathan Wakes saw the emergence of a dangerous, little-understood alien protomolecule that, by the end, was seemingly dispatched into the inhospitable environment of Venus, therefore saving Earth from destruction. Caliban’s War showed the protomolecule quietly taking over Venus and exhibiting feats of impossible physics, worrying everyone to death over what its next move would be. Abaddon’s Gate reveals what the next move was, and though, again, the immediate conflict was solved, the possibility for major catastrophe still lurks in another form entirely. And none of that takes into account the political and personal struggles of the humans themselves, which could themselves be a collection of compelling and suspenseful stories.

The Expanse series is space opera at its finest. The prose isn’t the most sophisticated, but it’s tightly written and consistently entertaining. Even sci-fi novices could enjoy these books, I think, since they’re not overly jammed with techie jargon and high-concept gimmicks. If you’re put off because it’s set in space, don’t be. The plots are steeped in classic noir and suspense, with war games thrown in for good measure. Highly recommended.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 61: Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

“St. Vladimir’s Academy isn’t just any boarding school—it’s a hidden place where vampires are educated in the ways of magic and half-human teens train to protect them. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a bodyguard for her best friend Lissa, a Moroi Vampire Princess. They’ve been on the run, but now they’re being dragged back to St. Vladimir’s—the very place where they’re most in danger…

Rose and Lissa become enmeshed in forbidden romance, the Academy’s ruthless social scene, and unspeakable nighttime rituals. But they must be careful lest the Strigoi—the world’s fiercest and most dangerous vampires—make Lissa one of them forever.”

When I finished this book and it was added to my Goodreads update feed, my friend dryly asked, “Is this Twilight?” My answer, at the time, was “I haven’t read Twilight, so I can’t honestly say,” but I thought it might be a fun exercise nonetheless to compare Vampire Academy to what I know about Twilight.

  • I am pretty sure that both have “good” vampires and “bad” vampires and the “good” ones don’t kill humans.
  • Twilight banks on pseudo-chaste UST, and Vampire Academy is much less oblique about sex. The romantic leads don’t get it on though — not yet.
  • This book’s cover girl is a second-string Angelina Jolie, and the other one has Kristen Stewart.
  • Arguably, in Vampire Academy (or in the first book in the series, anyway,) the power couple is a pair of best girl friends, not any kind of romantic pairing.
  • Both series give vampires weird abilities that aren’t exactly part of traditional vampire canon, e.g. sparkly skin in Twilight; in Vampire Academy, bending, basically (in the “Avatar The Last Airbender” sense.)
  • Rose, the VA protagonist, is the prototypical snarky kickass PNR type, and Bella, well… we know about Bella.
  • Both have scenes in the woods, I’m pretty sure
  • Both are in high school, kind of
  • Allegedly the VA series does develop love triangles or pentagrams or whatever

I know none of that really tells you how I felt about the book, so to summarize that: the Goodreads plot write-up up top and cover are pretty WYSIWYG, it was fun enough, if you’re into lightweight vampire stories and sarcastic heroines you’ll be in luck.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 60: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

“Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.”

I enjoyed this book a lot. It moves fairly quickly, and has a wry sense of humor assisted by a touch of charming old-timeyness. It’s also poignant and thoughtful without being maudlin, and, not for nothing, I think the cover art is pretty cool. The story takes place during the Gold Rush, and the titular Sisters Brothers — their last name is Sisters — are infamous contract killers. Narration comes through Eli, the “sensitive” brother, and though I put “sensitive” in scare quotes, he really does seem like a kind of cuddly bear when you get down to it: he could definitely kill you if he felt so inclined, but he’d honestly rather not.

As I read this awhile back then settled comfortably into laziness regarding ever writing a Cannonball review again, I’m forced to rely on somewhat stale impressions. One thing I remember really enjoying was the dialogue — both the conversations themselves and Eli’s mental reactions to said conversations. For instance, Eli is about 200% done here with a would-be Scary Guy who is all talk: “Returning his pen to its holder, he told us, ‘I will have him gutted with that scythe. I will hang him by his own intestines.’ At this piece of dramatic exposition, I could not hep but roll my eyes. A length of intestines would not carry the weight of a child, much less a full grown man.” Another great remark comes later, from a man who shares with Charlie Sisters a possible reason for people overpaying, exorbitantly, for everything in Gold Rush-era San Francisco: “…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”

All in all, thumbs up. I had this on my reading list for awhile and was putting it off because though I had heard good things, it’s a member of a genre I don’t regularly gravitate toward. If I’d known how much I would enjoy it, I’d have picked it up a lot sooner.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 59: Endless Knight by Kresley Cole

“Evie has fully come into her powers as the Tarot Empress, and Jack was there to see it all. She now knows that the teens who’ve been reincarnated as the Tarot are in the throes of an epic battle. It’s kill or be killed, and the future of mankind hangs in the balance.

With threats lurking around every corner, Evie is forced to trust her newfound alliance. Together they must fight not only other Arcana, but also Bagmen zombies, post-apocalyptic storms, and cannibals.

When Evie meets Death, things get even more complicated. Though falling for Jack, she’s drawn to the dangerous Endless Knight as well. Somehow the Empress and Death share a history, one that Evie can’t remember—but Death can’t forget.”

Despite kind of hating a lot of Poison Princess, the first book in this series, I decided to read the sequel, since PP ended with a bang and gave me enough confidence to soldier on. I’m glad I did, because this book had a lot more of the parts of the first that I liked: action, expansion of the cool Tarot concept, Evie not being a complete muppet. Oh, also, there are probably spoilers for PP in this review, so tread with caution. Despite it being a slight stretch of the imagination that Evie went from having literally no idea what she was capable of to suddenly displaying a massive show of power, it was kind of fun that we didn’t have to trudge through a literary training montage. In a fluffy book like this, sometimes it’s just more fun to accept that her magic is natural to her and she just needed to unlock it.

I was also curious to meet Death (the guy doing his best Spike impression up there on the cover) since I wasn’t a huge fan of Jackson, the first point of the love triangle. Kresley Cole, having quite a formidable background in PNR (just ask Malin and Mrs. Julien!) draws on traditional archetypes to set these guys up against each other. Jackson is definitely a rogueish Protector, while Death is a romantic Tortured Soul who initially lashes out at Evie because he’s all Damaged like that. It’s an interesting study in contrast, because while both have moments with her where they alternatively treat her like dirt then do something intended to be completely swoon-worthy, their actions come from decidedly different places. I guess it’s just up to readers to pick their favorite type of hero, because neither one is obviously a better choice in my opinion.

This series is meant to be Cole’s foray into YA, by virtue of having younger protagonists and fewer love scenes that are also slightly less explicit. More interestingly, writing for the YA set gave Cole an opportunity to really flex her high-concept plot muscles, which is something I think she’s done well at. She may even be better at this than traditional PNR, since in that area she comes across as having creative ideas that are weighed down with genre tropes like weird gender issues and gratuitous rough sex. And I’m not saying gratuitous rough sex doesn’t have a place in PNR, but I’ve gotten the sense from her that she almost enjoys building new worlds more than writing love scenes (see as evidence: her many sprawling high concept series for which she seems to never run out of ideas, but sex scenes that are mostly the same when you really get down to it. SEE WHAT I DID THERE) Anyway, read if you’re curious, a fan of Cole, the genre, etc.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 58: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

“The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassinit is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist.

Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.”

UGH I AM SO BEHIND UGH. Anyway, I had an interesting relationship with this book. It took me longer than usual to get through it, for a book of its length, because I found some portions of it to be dull, others rather engaging, and it really didn’t pick up steam for me as a whole until about the last third of the book. The end, though, was so fantastic that it basically made up for any of the earlier sections of the book that I wasn’t as fond of.

There are three interweaving narratives. Two of them are directly told by Iris Chase Griffen; one is her retelling her and her sister’s coming of age and, essentially, her memoirs leading up to the present, and the second is the present as an elderly woman. The retrospective is told without much editorializing from present-day Iris; it’s in the current sections that she discusses regrets and consequences in perfect hindsight. The third narrative is a seemingly out-of-place story of an unnamed man and woman meeting in secret. It’s a story about them, but it also includes a fantastical sc-fi tale of aliens, human sacrifice, and yes, blind assassins, that the man weaves at each new tryst. It eventually becomes clear that this story is text from “The Blind Assassin,” Laura Chase’s breakout novel.

Part of the reason that it took so long for the novel to come together for me was how seemingly disparate the stories were, at first. Obviously the two “parts” about Iris made sense together, but there was an uncomfortable tension arising from the suspicion that somehow, when the two finally converged, we’d find out a big secret about Iris. This kind of tension can be a great thing, and it was, for a time (and it eventually paid off!) but it can also seem really belabored if the pacing is inconsistent. For me, it unfortunately was a bit inconsistent, and I spent some time thinking, “Get to the point!”

Despite all that, when I think back on the novel now, I think of it as a net positive experience — that despite having a hard time getting through parts of it, my suspense (it’s not a thriller, but suspense is there nonetheless) was rewarded enough to merit the occasional frustration. I definitely recommend this for Atwood fans who haven’t read it yet, but for those who may be new to Atwood, it might be difficult to start here. It’s an interesting mix of sci-fi (in “The Blind Assassin” Incepto-novel,) historical fiction, and contemporary fiction and ultimately succeeds at blending them, but it can seem, at first, a little needlessly ambitious.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 57: John Dies at the End by David Wong

“STOP. You should not have touched this flyer with your bare hands. NO, don’t put it down. It’s too late. They’re watching you. My name is David Wong. My best friend is John. Those names are fake. You might want to change yours. You may not want to know about the things you’ll read on these pages, about the sauce, about Korrok, about the invasion, and the future. But it’s too late. You touched the book. You’re in the game. You’re under the eye. The only defense is knowledge. You need to read this book, to the end. Even the part with the bratwurst. Why? You just have to trust me.

The important thing is this: The drug is called Soy Sauce and it gives users a window into another dimension. John and I never had the chance to say no. You still do. I’m sorry to have involved you in this, I really am. But as you read about these terrible events and the very dark epoch the world is about to enter as a result, it is crucial you keep one thing in mind: None of this was my fault.”

I am trying to think of a weirder book than this (from my childhood: Sideways Stories from Wayside School comes to mind; I also remember Weetzie Bat being very strange but I may have just been too young to understand it.) Weirdness isn’t bad. In fact, this was a really entertaining book that was as funny as it was genuinely creepy. I’m still not completely convinced that I understood everything that was going on, and I am fairly certain that if I made this observation to the titular John, he’d simply nod and comment that I can’t be expected to; after all, I haven’t ever taken the sauce.

There is something very unique, not just about the plot — which is obviously so — but about Wong’s writing and his ability to, in the face of such weirdness, pretty thoroughly define his characters without really seeming like he is trying very hard to at all. By the end of the book, I absolutely understood the motivations and actions of each character, and that’s without any backstory worth speaking of for most of them.

Sometimes I worry that my review attempts get a little pedantic, talking too much about nuts and bolts, and since doing so for this book just seems kind of inherently wrong, like a square hamburger patty, I’ll just shut up here and say “READ JOHN DIES AT THE END.”

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 56: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

 

This is the third and final installment of the Divergent trilogy, and since it will be difficult to speak another word, including giving any summary, without tremendous spoilers for the first two in the series, the rest of this review will go behind a cut.

Continue reading

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 55: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Goodreads summary: “1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”

I am so grossly behind on reviews that it hurts. Ah, post-Cannonball lethargy! Anyway, this was a very good story: bittersweet with poignant glimpses into close family relationships strained by death, jealousy, prejudice, and alienation. June, the protagonist, feels lost in the world following the death of her uncle. She’s born very much from the Loner Girl mold, an introvert who sees herself as irredeemably weird but who nonetheless manages to get along with people around her (and even attract attention from boys) when she puts the effort in. The relationship between her and her older sister – two girls feeling a chasm between them, trying to bridge it but not trying too hard for fear of getting hurt — was heartbreaking and felt all too real. This and other fragmented relationships in the novel were just a few of several reasons why this book felt very painful to read at times.

I was alive but not really cognizant of the emergence of HIV/AIDS (the epidemic central to the foundation of the novel,) but I have long been curious about both the pathology of the virus and about the curious intersection of paranoia and bigotry that made AIDS such a controversial, willfully misunderstood disease. Reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home didn’t, therefore, stir up any painful memories for me, but it did offer a really powerful and unflinching look at how those living with AIDS, and even those who died of the disease, like Finn, were demonized rather than comforted and loved.

Anyway, I read this over a month ago, so I have forgotten a lot of the details I might otherwise mention in a review, but I can say for certain that I really liked the book and would definitely recommend it.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 54: Warrior by Zoe Archer

Goodreads: “To most people, the realm of magic is the stuff of nursery rhymes and dusty libraries. But for Capt. Gabriel Huntley, it’s become quite real and quite dangerous…

The vicious attack Capt. Gabriel Huntley witnesses in a dark alley sparks a chain of events that will take him to the ends of the Earth and beyond—where what is real and what is imagined become terribly confused. And frankly, Huntley couldn’t be more pleased. Intrigue, danger, and a beautiful woman in distress—just what he needs.

Raised thousands of miles from England, Thalia Burgess is no typical Victorian lady. A good thing, because a proper lady would have no hope of recovering the priceless magical artifact Thalia is after. Huntley’s assistance might come in handy, though she has to keep him in the dark. But this distractingly handsome soldier isn’t easy to deceive…”

This was a fun book. It could be that I don’t delve into steampunk much, so I’m not fatigued by it, but Warrior rose above a lot of the other romance I’ve read recently. The characters themselves weren’t especially unique to historical romance; Huntley is a fairly standard Protector and Thalia is the woman who never learned her place, which of course dazzles Huntley because a docile lady is never an interesting one. They’re both also White Saviors, but that’s another story.

Something I think Archer did nicely here was that she had a good instinct for detail: she included enough to make the world in Warrior vivid and engaging, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader. I also thought she built great romantic tension between the two leads and paced their “union” really well. Theirs was a partnership that benefited both of them and made them better together than either of them would have been on their own, which speaks to a human companionship that doesn’t always leap out of a lot of PNR. (As an aside — since I’ve called it both in this review, is magic/steampunk romance “historical” romance or “paranormal” romance?) In any case, this one is recommended.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 53: Wool by Hugh Howey

Goodreads: In a ruined and toxic landscape, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.

His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.

I got into the game very late with this one, but in the case of this book, better late than never — this was a fantastic novel that I really enjoyed and can’t wait to keep going with the series. I love the story behind the publication of Wool, as well: that a truly talented author saw success based on the merit of his once little-known story.

Since Wool has already been pretty acclaimed amongst Cannonballers, I won’t really go on at length about it. I do want to, in particular, praise the characterization and that Howey’s gradual introductions of new character POVs didn’t ever feel overwhelming or excessive. Each added POV rounded out the developing story by providing insight into the different factions within the silo. Regarding his stories, Howey has said: “A theme in my books is the celebration of overcoming odds and of not allowing the cruelty of the universe to change who you are in the process.” Indeed, his characters are imbued with different backgrounds and motivations that inform their actions, but even within the context of uprising, class warfare, and “choosing sides,” the main players have an individual light that makes them more compelling and human than simply a rote war drone or even the stock iconoclast rebel.

Looking forward to Shift and eventually Dust.