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Review: Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods by Danna Staaf My rating: 5 of 5 stars Disclaimer: I won a copy via Lib...

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: The Tiger’s Daughter SPOILERS!!!!

The Tiger’s Daughter The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Tor as part of a Librarything giveaway/first read program. Also, spoilers.

I wanted to love this book. When I first started reading the novel, it was exactly what I needed. A novel where the chosen one or ones is/are female, I so need that, especially with all the movies and shows about men doing great things. The book drew me in right away, and the first night I did not want to put it down. The second day, I still enjoyed it, but I was a little confused by a few things – one of which was the setting and character names. The setting seemed to be a fantastical China. There was a wall that the mother of one of the characters destroyed. There seems to be one society that is de facto Chinese, and another that is de facto Mongol. There are steppes on the map for crying out aloud. The strange thing was that some of the names seemed to be Japanese. But I am not an expert on Japanese or Chinese culture. To be honest, the only reason I noticed that Japanese influence was because I had read Johnson, Dalkey, and the Tale of Heike. I do know, however, that any combination of Chinese and Japanese cultures (or any Asian culture with another for that matter) is problematic for several reasons, including what happened during WW II.

Then I read Laurelinvanyr’s review where she goes into detail about the problems with the names used in the novel as well as other cultural issues. I strongly suggest any potential reader of the book reads that review. It’s true that a counter to many of the points that Laurelinvanyr makes would be the simple “it is a fantasy setting that has been inspired by various cultures” excuse that is used for more than fantasy novels. It is also true that this is not the only book that has inaccuracies. Hell, you even get them in a book that is set in say America but written by a Brit. At the very least, there is not enough world building to account for the combination. Laurelinvanyr’s more knowledgeable review goes into far more detail about this problem (and there are other reviews that mention the same issues but in less detail. There is hardly only one review that raises the questions of bad research, cultural approbation and fetishism). Additionally, it is possible/very likely that the use of language and cultural comments by some characters was there to show racism between the Empire and Qorin. The problem is that racism is never really direct dealt with, at least on the part of the Qorin and not really very well in the Empire.

In addition to the question about the world building, there are other problems with the book, that are glaring from a structural and storytelling point of view only.

It is impossible to discuss these without spoilers, so this is your last spoiler warning.

The first problem is the conceit – the idea that whole book is one very long letter that one heroine writes to the other. This works in the beginning but makes no sense later on because why would you write such a detailed letter to someone who was there and experiencing most of what are you writing about with you? You wouldn’t. Not in such a detailed way. (There also is a section where it seems to take a character two years to make a bow, seriously). If this was an actual exchange of letters this would be different, but it isn’t.

The second problem is that because you know the letter is being written after the events described, you know the two central characters are going to be okay. This lack of tension might be replaced with the tension regarding whether they are going to get their happy ever after. Normally, it would be, but the question of whether love can overcome the forced separation is dealt with so quickly that there isn’t any. Not really.

To be honest, the second half of the book feels like little more than a set-up for the second volume. Part of the draw of the first part of the book is the idea that both heroines are somehow divine. This is important for two reasons. The first is that it explains the powers that each girl has (though one power is more developed). The second is it explains why despite the young age of both heroines (both are under eighteen for the whole book), they act so much older, for there is a long tradition in epics, regardless of culture, for such divine or semi-divine heroes to be older than their years. This semi-divine status seems forgotten when one of the characters becomes vampire like (something that most say they are frightened of but no one acts like it). It is to seek a cure for this problem that one woman journeys to what seems to be an Underworld. Sounds interesting, no? Happens entirely off page and is most likely a hook for the second novel in the series. But why would you read that when you know she succeeds? It was a total cheat of an ending.

And finally, there were two smaller things that disquieted me. The first is the relationship between an older woman and a young woman. It is unclear whether they are another lesbian couple, it is strongly suggested that they are. I don’t care that they are couple because of their gender. I have a problem with an adult, in this an aunt, sleeping with niece. I just do. Not only does violate the incest taboo that many culture, fantasy and otherwise, have, but quite frankly, there is something off putting by someone who is family member who helped raise you, taking you as a lover. I hate this when it is a man and woman relationship, and I still hate it when it is a woman/woman one. Sorry. Additionally, there is an incident of spousal abuse. One character is possessed/dealing with vampire traits when she attacks her girlfriend. That’s fine. It’s an interesting idea as is the struggle to contain the vampire cravings. Handled well it would have been a good thing to explore. But nope, everyone, even the woman who was almost killed, seems to get over it in a few pages.

Promising start. Disappointing ending.




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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy

A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy by Mary W. Craig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Perhaps the first thing one learns about Mara Hari is that she was dancer and a slut. Then, perhaps one learns she was a slut because she danced naked and slept with a great many men. Then one hears that she was spy and was shot for it. But the important thing that one is told is that she was very, very sexy. In fact, she seems to be the spy that gets remembered not so much because of the doubt of her guilt, but because she was a sexpot.

She also wasn’t a very good spy. She got caught after all

Mary W. Craig’s new book tries to present a more nuanced picture of Mata Hari, or at least as much as one can giving the problem of sources.

Margrethe Zell was born in the Netherlands, where she lived until her marriage took her to the Dutch East Indies. Her early life, Craig points out, was nice until her father suffered a major loss in business. What then followed as an unclear life plan and, what today, we would consider at the very least statutory rape – an affair with an instructor. Craig’s details about Hari’s early life - her struggles after the family bankruptcy and her time spent with relatives are related in a matter of a fact way. There is pity in Craig’s writing, but Craig isn’t turning the biography into a more sinned against than sinning story. Hari isn’t portrayed as a victim, but as a woman who took control of her life.

Or if she is, she is doing it by taking a brutally honest about Mata Hari.

Nowhere is this more obviously in the discussion of Zell’s marriage with MacLeod. It is a marriage that produced two children, possibly infected Zell with an STD, and was abusive. While not excusing MacLeod’s behavior, Craig also places the man in context, in particular with his treatment of Hari after separation and divorce, noting that MacLeod’s actions had more to do with protecting his daughter than anything else.

Hari was no saint, and in addition to her sexual activities (less shocking today than when Hari lived), Craig does closely examine and places Hari’s dancing in the times. The discussion of whether Hari was lying or promoting a fantasy with her “Eastern” dancing. How much of her dancing was imply an illusion that everyone brought into, like the body stocking she wore? Craig can’t give a definite answer but she does truly address the issue, even reading books about Hari that were published during the height of her popularity.

Craig, in part, is hampered by the self-serving purpose of some her sources (and she is clear about this) as well as a lack of sources. Yet, despite these drawbacks, Craig does paint an interesting, more revealing portrait of a woman who is usually known simply for sex.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Wolves in the Dark

Wolves in the Dark Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ebook not Audio.

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Varg Veum is a literary character that I first meet though television. MHZ had the Varg Veum movies on, and I watched them. So, I started reading the series in a haphazard fashion, or in other words, totally out of order.

This installment finds Veum coming out of a drinking addiction fueled by depression after a death. In part, some of his sobering comes from meeting a woman (who has a daughter) and part of it comes from being accused of child pedophilia.

The novel opens with the arrival of the police to arrest Veum and search his apartment, and the book stays to the break neck speed. In a cell, Veum is forced to remember as much as his drunk years as he can because someone, he doesn’t know who, is setting him up.

Not many people believe him. Strangely enough his new girlfriend is one of those who does.

I guess he is lucky that way, for those that have known him the longest, by and large, view him as guilty.

On one hand, the story is a non-stop thriller. It starts with a bust and keeps going. The pace never seems to slow, not surprising when Veum isn’t given the time to catch his breath. The characters are well written, possibly not the girlfriend who seems a bit too trusting, yet she is not stupid. Even though at times it seems like too much coincidental. The ending too, is on level, a typical white male ending. It is difficult to image an immigrant or even a woman, even in Norway, having the same reaction as Varg Veum to the final outcome.

In part, that might be part of the problem with this book – Veum never seems quite aware of the societal pressures, norms, what have you, that contribute or allow the trafficking and abuse of children (and women) to occur. On one hand, there are times when a reader wants to smack Veum for his cluelessness on the matter. Doesn’t he realize, the reader might wonder under her breath, in particular when he is confronting woman. Then one wonders if this genius on the part of Staalesen. What better way to show a problem? There is no preaching, no holier than though. And this provokes more thought.

This book will most likely get less attention then Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A shame considering that it is better written and far more powerful for its subtlety.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have

Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have by Susan Ottaway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Earlier this month, Kate Elliot re-tweeted a thread about little known heroes, women heroes to be exact. And this is true. In America, the story goes women in the Second World War built the planes and nursed. We are usually not taught about the women who dropped into Occupied France, and if it is mentioned, they are British.

And we usually don’t tell. Recently, a student read a selection of Julia Child. He didn’t hate it, but found it a bit boring. It was about food after all, but tell that same student about Child’s wartime work, and he gets more interested.

Violette Szabo wasn’t an American, and she did have a movie made about her. Yet, today, she is not well known by history books. At least the ones used in schools. After the death of her husband, Szabo joined SOE and went into Occupied France twice. Her actions during both missions were heroic.

Susan Ottaway’s biography of Szabo is in many ways, a counter point to Crave Her Name with Pride. Ottaway was able to interview not only Szabo’s brothers but also her daughter Tania. What is presented here is a pretty good and seemingly fair biography. While detailing the heroics of Szabo, Ottaway weighs the validity of stories, looking at not only the narrator but also the possibility of such action.

At times, it does feel that Szabo is just out of reach, but considering the scant sources, this is hardly surprising. What is interesting is looking at what Szabo and her daughter think about Szabo’s work and the “morality” of a mother doing such duty. Ottaway also details life after the war and how the family was treated by the makers of the film.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Amulet 1-6

I picked up the first six volumes in this series for free.  Apparently, it was when volume seven was about to be released and Scholastic offer the first six via Kindle for free.

                The series chronicles the adventures of Emily, her brother Navin, and their mother as they try to adjust to an unexcepted trip to a magical land.  Emily is a Stonekeeper, an Amulet wearer (hence the title of the series).  She received this amulet from her grandfather upon her arrival.

                In short, this is a series where the chosen one is a girl.

                And that is cool because that doesn’t happen too much.  Don’t worry though, unlike some series where the sidekick gets sidelined, Navin too is allowed to come into his own, and his skill set is different than his sister’s.

                Kibuishi makes it quite clear that the siblings love each, though they do tease each.  The back story for the family is pretty much comic standard, one that we have seen pretty of times.  The artwork is cool, and the comic touches on themes such as redemption and protection.  At first it seems that the bad guys are going to be the elves, but the true evil becomes more complicated than that.  Kibuishi also illustrates where hate and fear can lead people.  It’s a tale with morals that doesn’t hit the reader over the head with them.

                Additionally, there is a creature that resembles Cherbourg (you know that mountain demon from Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain).

                I did have some problems with the story.  The first is one that I think only adult readers will have.  Both Emily and Navin at times seem both too adult and too childish.  It doesn’t quite work and at times, it throws you out of the story.  This occurs when Navin says to two children that they are too young to be helpful.  But I am pretty sure this is just an adult perspective.  The other issues are despite Emily being the chosen one, for much of the series the other major players are all male.  This changes in books 5 and 6 where we finally get more female characters who are active and not simply damsels in distress (like Emily’s mother).  This could have occurred before – Emily is being accompanied by men, trained by men (or male animals) so it is a little disappointing.  But if 6 is any indication this is going to change in the rest of the series.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review: Star Wars: Lando

Star Wars: Lando Star Wars: Lando by Charles Soule
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Star Wars, I do, even though in the films the world building lacks the depth of Star Trek. My favorite character was always Leia, but Lando was a close second. I always wanted them to get together. I mean, do you think Lando would turn out like Han did?  Lando ran a city, and he seemed to be doing a pretty good job until Han showed up.

Anyway, this is Lando's adventures after losing the Falcon and before he gets Cloud City. In fact, it seems to be the push for Lando to get Cloud City and to take care of the people there (like Leia, he lost his home. They would have had beautiful babies).

It's a fun read, if not particularly deep in some areas. Nice use of women. I also quite frankly like the reversal of the black man who scarfices himself so the white hero can learn something trophe. That was cool.

Fun fact of the day: Billy Dee Williams was good friends with James Baldwin.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: The Many Selves of Katherine North

The Many Selves of Katherine North The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The two-star rating is somewhat misleading and perhaps unfair. The basic premise of the book is good and interesting. The basic premise is simple – Katherine’s job is that her consciousness inhabits constructs of animals. She does this for study. So, for instance, she wants to study foxes, she inhabits the body of a fox. Her real body is during this time connected to a basically life support. Over the course of the novel, secrets about the company she works for are revealed and you get the general idea.

Geen excels at imaging a person’s reaction to have as many limbs as, say, a squid. When she writes as Katherine adjusting to a different form, the book is really good. The problem is that when Katherine, Kit, leaves those animals you don’t give damn about her because she isn’t a fully realized character.

Now this could be in part because Geen wants to dwell on the question of real life versus the life of unreal – i.e. inhabiting a body that is really a construct as opposed to your own body. While sometimes the book does this, it really isn’t done well and Kit really does seem to lack any ability for interception. This might be because this science fiction book is really a young adult book. There are good ideas here but nothing really gets examined and it almost feels like there is another story here. The bits about Katherine’s past are interesting, a tad, but they come so late that you just don’t care. The romance just feels there.

Yet, I must admit my problem started much earlier and it isn’t just to this book. It was just a bit really. Kit is describing the machines that keep her body alive while she is animal surfing, and notes that there is a cup for when women get their period. She then tells the reader that she hasn’t had a period for years.

She’s 19.

Now, later in the book it is revealed that the process of animal surfing does harm the teens (who are best at it), but it is never clear if Kit’s lack of a period is because of this or some other issue. In fact, it is implied that it isn’t a result of animal surfing. She never seems curious about it. This is strange considering she apparently wrote some really good biology papers so it seems she has some scientific knowledge. Wouldn’t she wonder? I mean maybe she has an IUD, but then why mention the period at all. But Kat is already extra special because no one has animal surfed as long as she has. She’s the bestest. The lack of bleeding seems connected to this.

And she had her period at one point because she hasn’t had one in a while, in years, which implies she had one. Wouldn’t she wonder?

Now, look, I don’t except the female characters to tell readers every time they have to pull out a pad or what’s it. I just presume that’s happening, so when a character tells me information about a period, I pay attention.

And this isn’t the only book where I have seen this.

In much genre fiction, regardless of target age range, there is a tendency for a female character to be the sole female character who can do anything right. She is the unique female character. Written badly, she is simply a man with boobs who looks down on every other female character. If you have read the Anita Blake books that’s an example. At times, the character doesn’t have to be written badly for this to make an appearance. Kitty the werewolf in some of the books in the series is the unique and extra special woman. I’ve noticed that sometimes the extra special woman will not have a period.

Why?

Why is this even thought about? Here, it might be an excuse for why Kit can keep working, yet conversations with others in the book indicate that it isn’t simply a biological but also mental reason why people stop animal surfing.

The only answer I am left with is the lack of the period makes the female character more acceptable. To whom? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is wish fulfillment too. But I don’t think so. There is something strange and discomfiting about this. Perhaps it is because there are still societies were women are exiled because they are considered unclear during that time of the month. Perhaps it is because something natural is being seen as icky – strange in a book where biological animal function is discussed. But I think it comes down to specialness and pureness. A girl isn’t a girl unless she is unbloodied. Now, you can have the girl without the nasty woman bits.

And that frightens me to be honest. It seems to be saying, you can’t be a woman. Not really because it is unclear. Not nice. Just icky. Perhaps I’m just an old grouch. Perhaps I’ve had it with things after hearing about an all-female Lord of the Flies movie, created by two men.

But this rejection just seems so wrong. Look, I’m not saying she has do a Greer and taste her menstrual blood, hell, I don’t even think the period should really rate a mention unless it has a truly important role – pregnancy, starvation. What upsets me is the fact that women writers feel it necessary to point out that the female heroines are even more special because they don’t have a period.

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