Sunday, May 31, 2015

One Sentence Reviews: May

One sentence summaries, one sentence reviews of all the books of May--both the dross I've already mostly forgotten reading, and the gems I'm looking forward to reviewing. I finished up a number of series this month, so there isn't as much variety as before. (Maybe this will be the summer I get around to reading the Discworld books...)

P.S. 69 books and counting for 2015!

MAY 2015

  • Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2010, steampunk)
    • Rambunctious Phoenician schoolgirls have magic, get married, and fail to explain their own plot despite repetitive fact-dumping about their alternate history/steampunk world. -- A lot of plot-induced headache with no payoff. 2/5 stars. (Full series review here!)
  • Cold Fire by Kate Elliott (2011, steampunk)
    • In which our heroines bumble into the Caribbean and make out with everyone; also, zombies. -- This one gets half a star more than the others because the free Caribbean society was interesting. 2.5/5 stars. (Full series review here!) 
  • Cold Steel by Kate Elliott (2013, steampunk)
    • In which our heroines get lost in their own plotlines, change sides several times for no reason, recap the plot to each other in every conversation, and I guess save the world; also, more zombies. -- I was really hoping the author would have the nerve to axe her narrator. 2/5 stars. (Full series review here!)
  • The Finger: A Novel of Love and Amputation by David L. Robbins (2014, contemporary/humor)
    • A flaky writer offers his girlfriend anything she asks to stay with him; she proposes permanent mutilation to demonstrate his sincerity; America's favorite talk show host rigs the outcome. -- A surprisingly tender book, for all of its comedic premise, with great side characters. 4/5 stars.
  • How To Kill A Rock Star by Tiffany DeBartolo (2005, contemporary romance)
    • Music-addicted reporter realizes that she can only secure her budding rock star fiancee's success by breaking up with him. -- A book to remind you of when you were young enough to give your heart 100% to the things you loved without shame. 4/5 stars.
  • Breath and Bones by Susann Cokal (2005, historical)
    • Fallen from convent grace to be an artist's model, Famke tracks her beloved painter across the American frontier, modifying his masterpieces as she goes. -- A great book about drop-kicking the male gaze and classical definitions of beauty, with a side of cross-dressing and robbery, ending as always with tuberculosis. 4.5/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw (1985, historical)
    • Egyptian street rat is blackmailed by two different factions into spying on Hatshepsut's court. -- A dated but nevertheless endearing book about an unapologetically terrible person. 3/5 stars.
  • The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison (2014, urban fantasy)
    • (Part of the Hollows series) Rachel Morgan accidentally steals pieces of a particulate elven goddess, which, as usual, nearly ends the world. -- The heart has gone out of the series, but the comedy and the action remain. 3/5 stars. (Full series review here!)
  • Into The Woods: Tales from the Hollows and Beyond by Kim Harrison (2012, urban fantasy)
    • (Part of the Hollows series) An anthology of various side stories and histories. -- These made so little impression I don't even remember finishing the anthology. 2/5 stars. (Full series review here!)
  • The Witch With No Name by Kim Harrison (2014, urban fantasy)
    • (Part of the Hollows series) Everything blows up. -- Don't ask me to summarize the final book in a series; I have to be vague. Still mad about Ivy. 3/5 stars. (Full series review here!)
  • Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009, contemporary thriller)
    • Former child-survivor of a brutal family massacre makes an appearance at a serial killer fan convention to supplement her donation-based income, learns the brother she put behind bars might have been innocent all along. -- Not personally moving like Flynn's other stories, but a solid thriller. 4/5 stars.
  • Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (2015, YA contemporary)
    • Gay high schooler is blackmailed into setting up his friend with a creep, or risk having his online relationship with a mystery fellow student outed for th world to judge. -- I was not prepared for this book about all the ways you have to keep coming out, over and over again, to be as cute as it was. 3.5/5 stars.
  • All The Rage by Courtney Summers (2015, YA contemporary)
    • High school rape victim is shunned after going public with her accusations, but joins in the search for another missing girl. -- A staggeringly brutal emotional journey that falls flat at the ending. 4/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Shackle and Sword by Alanna Morland (1999, fantasy)
    • Unappealing hero meanders through faux-medieval life while the gods have no effect upon his life whatsoever except to periodically remind the reader that he likes animals as much as he likes fighting. -- What a pointless book. 2/5 stars.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Review: "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

Astronomers studying the Alpha Centauri system pick up a broadcast of unearthly music, finally putting the existence of alien civilizations beyond down. While government and scientists debate, private organizations take action. The first mission to contact an alien race is led by representatives of the Jesuit Order.

Years later, the sole survivor of the mission to Rakhat is retrieved from an alien brothel: bizarrely mutilated and, by his own admission, a murderer.

Father Emilio Sandoz's survival is as miraculous as it is inconvenient. The media demands answers of the Jesuits, outraged by the behavior of their representatives and the civil war they sparked among the peaceful alien society they discovered. To preserve the reputation of their disgraced order, the Father General of the Society of Jesus must force Sandoz to speak. No one, least of all Sandoz, is prepared for his confession.


The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: pass?
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, rape, reference to child prostitution, cannibalism, suicidal thinking
Overall Response: I am devastated and become something new.


More Thoughts: I don't have a category for The Sparrow. It defies classification and shatters my petty little rating system. Mary Doria Russell doesn't just write a successful story--she succeeds on a level I didn't know was possible. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: "All The Rage" by Courtney Summers

No one in Grebe believes Romy Grey about the sheriff's son. Her former crush on him, her willing presence at his house, her family history of alcoholism, all add up to one thing in the eyes of her peers: she is a liar who would say anything for attention. Telling the truth has cost Grey everything.

After the traditional high school lake party, Penny Young, Grey's onetime best friend, goes missing. The police searchers who look for her find Grey instead, wandering in a daze on a country road. Grey's rescue gives her peers a new reason to hate her: if the searchers hadn't split their forces to help her, they might have found Penny by now.

In the face of her classmates' resentment and the Grebe sheriff's accusations, Grey joins in the search for Penny. Despite everything, she thinks that Penny would have done the same for her.


All The Rage by Courtney Summers (2015)
4 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: graphic description of rape, suicidal thinking, bullying, drug use, racism, misogyny, character deaths
Overall Response: I'm almost glad the ending flopped because otherwise this book was almost too intense to handle.


More Thoughts: Generally, I don't like talking about books by comparing them to other books, but I can't discuss Courtney Summers' All The Rage without bringing up Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Series Review: The "Spiritwalker Trilogy" by Kate Elliott

Cousins Cat and Bee Barahal are lucky to be alive in an age of invention and change. They are among the first women to be educated alongside men in the academy of Adurnam. But the daughters of Phoenician spies and soldiers weren't born to sit quietly and behave: adventure is in their bones.

To Cat's surprise, so is magic. On her twentieth birthday, cold mages from the powerful Four Moons House come for her, citing an old contract marrying the eldest Barahal girl to the heir of their house.

But Phoenician families like the Barahals are renowned for their sly dealings. The contract that snared Cat was meant for Bee, whose prophetic visions make her a prize to whoever owns her. The thwarted mages of Four Moons House are determined to try again to claim her--over Cat's dead body.

Now both cousins are on the run, revolution and old magic igniting in their footsteps.


The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott (2010)
2 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 1/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 1/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 1/5
Resolution of Conflict: 1/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Memorability: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: none that I can recall
Overall Response: What a colossal letdown. I have a headache.


More Thoughts: Dear reader, if you took a shot for every Conveniently Overheard Conversation in this series, you'd be dead from alcohol poisoning. And your mourners could still host an open bar at your funeral reception with the booze you didn't get to finish. Yikes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: "The Girls of No Return" by Erin Saldin

Lida has nothing in common with the other girls at the Alice Marshall School for Girls, the camp where troubled teens are sent to resolve their problems with spirit-enhancing nature hikes. Their wounds are superficial and their stories of woe too rehearsed, too tidy, to be genuine. She won't tell them so, of course. Lida won't say anything at all. 

Her infatuation with an elegant new girl draws her out of her silence, and puts her in the line of fire. The camp's resident hooligan, Boone, is as offended by Gia's prideful grace as Lida is enchanted by it. Rumors fly about Boone's murderous temper. As Boone and Gia's rivalry builds to violence, though, Boone offers Lida her friendship--a dangerous gift that Lida is afraid to reject.

The Girls of No Return by Erin Saldin (2012)
4.5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: violence, description of self-injury
Overall Response: Brrrrrrrr.


More Thoughts (But First, An Aside): 

My friend Della just launched her own book blog, The Gorgonist, which you should visit at once. In one of her inaugural posts, she produced a book rec for every one of Taylor Swift's recent hits. I promptly put a half-dozen of them on hold, because Della likes fun books. (On the other hand, Della is also responsible for me reading Code Name Verity, and for that I may never forgive her.)

The book which Della associated with the song "Bad Blood" settled right down into that carved-out hollow within my heart where wilderness adventure stories live. Erin Saldin's The Girls of No Return, picks up the torch dropped by Hatchet, Downriver and My Side Of The Mountain. Then it tosses that torch into the puddle of gasoline that is mental health and queer issues. It's everything that The Miseducation of Cameron Post failed to be. Reading The Girls of No Return was like having a nightmare, but waking refreshed and ready to face the day.

Friday, May 1, 2015

One Sentence Reviews: April

The history of this blog suggests that I take two months off per year from writing reviews. Dear readers, as you may have noticed, April 2015 was one of those months.

Despite the hiatus, I have been reading up a storm this spring. Just a few days ago, I crossed off my fiftieth book of 2015! I'm excited that the books I've read have mostly been new to me(if not necessarily recent publications.) So many books, so little time! My thanks to all of you who recommend books, directly or indirectly. And a special thanks to the local library for being so obliging.

A fair number of March and April's books deserve a full and enthusiastic book grump, which shall be delivered to your RSS feeds in due course. In the meantime, let me take this chance to post something I've been considering for a while: an abbreviated monthly roundup. One sentence summaries, one sentence reviews!

APRIL 2015

  • The Patron Saint of Ugly by Marie Manilla (2014, contemporary)
    • Superstitious Sicilian grandmother convinces hideously birthmarked child that she has holy healing powers; might not be lying. -- A book I never knew I wanted: humor and trauma, family history and fairy tale all in one. 4.5/5 stars. (Full review here!
  • Farm City by Novella Carpenter (2009, memoir)
    • Hapless optimist turns empty slum lot into vegetable garden/chicken run/beehive/pigpen, befriends thugs and hobos, eats well. -- Readers will be entertained and inspired to do all sorts of wacky things. 4/5 stars.
  • Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran (2015, historical)
    • Orphaned girl joins the all-female guard of the Rani of Jhansi, gets a front-row seat to watch the British overrun India. -- An insulting and insipid little wheeze in the direction of a real-life legend. 1/5 stars.
  • Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh (1989, folklore/historical)
    • Two runaways get lost in the deep Russian forests, are beset by monsters, ghosts, and wizards, and decide to make it home. -- I have such a huge soft spot for the characters and the world-logic of these wizards, even if the narration itself gets more than a little muddled. 3/5 stars.
  • Chernevog by C.J. Cherryh (1990, folklore/historical)
    • (Sequel to Rusalka) Formerly-dead wives prove difficult to live with; local trees are ornery; local terrifying sorcerer wakes up and wants to be your best friend. -- A delightful continuation, with the same virtues and failings as the first. 3/5 stars.
  • Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (2006, YA contemporary)
    • Australian teens play war games for what turns out to be no good reason at all. -- I had only the faintest idea of what was happening at any given point in this book. 2/5 stars.
  • If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (2013, YA contemporary)
    • Iranian girl contemplates a sex change to marry the girl of her dreams, who probably isn't worth it. -- The book is more of a summary than an actual story, written vaguely and with no particular heart. 1/5 stars.
  • The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2012, contemporary)
    • A schizophrenic artist attempts to record her haunting by a woman she met twice, each for the first time, who may not have been human. -- A complex read, with moments of great compassion surfacing amid the maelstrom of mental illness. 2/5 stars.
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996, sci-fi)
    • Jesuit mission to the first known inhabited planet ends in disaster; lone survivor wrestles with faith in the face of unbearable trauma. -- This is the sort of book that the phrase "a great and terrible beauty" should apply to, not anemic boarding-school fantasies. I purchased a copy immediately after reading, and violated the terms of this post to write two sentences in its honor. 5/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Heat by Bill Buford (2006, memoir)
    • Ambitious columnist apprentices himself to a professional chef, rises through the ranks of the kitchen, then heads to Italy to learn the art of butchery. -- A fun repeat read, well-composed, evocative, and funny. 5/5 stars. (Full review here!)
  • Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (2013, memoir/humor)
    • A series of illustrated anecdotes about the author's childhood, dogs, and struggles with depression. -- Humorous, but the absence of my favorite stories leads me to prefer the original blog. 3/5 stars.
  • Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve (2008, historical)
    • Foundling child taken under Merlin's wing compares the historical truth of King Arthur with the glorious stories Merlin spreads as propaganda. -- It ended eventually. 1/5 stars.
  • The Girl With All The Gifts by Mike Carey (2014, sci-fi)
    • A ragged group of survivors--scientists and soldiers--try to cross a zombie-filled England, with one child-sized and remarkably intelligent zombie along for the ride. -- It goes both better and worse than you would expect, by which I mean both the book and the plot. 3/5 stars.
  • The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (2001, fantasy)
    • Traumatized war veteran trains a future queen to survive a treacherous court, and learns firsthand how terrifying it is to have the eyes of the gods on you personally. -- If you read can only read one more fantasy book for the entire rest of your life, make it this one. 5/5 stars. (Full review here!
  • The Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (1998, sci-fi)
    • (Sequel to The Sparrow) Disgraced priest plans to relinquish his holy calling and find what comfort he can in an ordinary life; the Jesuit Order plans to send him back to the alien planet, as the only one who can redeem the first mission's mistakes. -- I seem to be alone in feeling that The Sparrow needed no sequel; this was interesting from a sci-fi perspective but not arresting on an emotional or spiritual level. 3/5 stars.
  • I Shall Be Near To You by Erin McCabe (2014, historical)
    • Headstrong bride follows her husband into the Union Army rather than be separated from him. -- No worse and no better than a dozen other books with the same plotline; misses the chance to take a less predictable turn (and be a better book.) 2/5 stars.
  • Doc by Mary Doria Russell (2011, historical)
    • Tubercular dentist/gambler strives to make his life, if not longer, at least meaningful. -- A staggeringly good character piece. 4.5/5 stars. (Full review here!)