Posts Tagged 'three and a half stars'

Book Review: Incubus, by Ann Arensberg

It’s not often that an American Book Award winner decides to write a supernatural thriller centered around the haunting of a small town in Maine, but that’s exactly what Ann Arensberg has done with Incubus. While the premise may not seem original (and indeed, seems like something Stephen King has pretty well covered!) Arensberg’s take is unique, owing to her choice of narrator.

We follow the increasingly frightening events through the eyes of Cora, wife of the town rector, Henry. The novel starts with a letter from Cora, stating that – due to the nearly unexplainable events that afflicted their town – she and Henry have established a center that studies supernatural phenomenon, and helps those who are currently suffering the way they suffered. It’s a nice touch, and made the novel seem as though it were actually a tale of true accounts.

Throughout the novel, Cora is preoccupied by the day-to-day, the mundane: caring for her garden, running the church’s bake sale, cooking three square meals a day for her husband. (Warning: Do not read while hungry. The descriptions of her food will set your stomach to rumbling!) Cora notes potentially-supernatural events – unseasonable heat, lack of rain, the paralytic nightmares suffered by her friends and family – dryly, straight-forwardly. Everything has a logical explanation for Cora, leaving the reader to doubt both her interpretations and our own…until there simply are not more logical explanations, and even Cora needs to recognize that something otherworldly has been influencing these events.

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Book Review: Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

I often feel that there are two readers inside of me. One is driven by pure emotion. She loves angst and melodrama and relationships in conflict. Story is the most important thing to this reader, more important than innovative story structure or deep and thoughtful characterization. If the story is exciting and heart-wrenching, she’s happy. She’s capricious and fast, but also just completely enjoys reading and can finish a book in a day.

The other reader inside me is a close and critical reader. And I don’t mean critical in the nit-picky, grammarian sense (though I can certainly fall into that categorization as well). I mean that this reader applies a critical lens to the text. She draws on her experience in cultural competence and feminist theory and history and social justice to help provide context and meaning to books. If your book utilizes stereotypical gender roles or racist constructions–without critically examining them for some better purpose–this reader will raise her eyebrows, lower her estimation of your book, and say, “Really?”

It’s the rare book that gets my two inner readers to uniformly agree on its quality. Obviously, for me to appreciate a book, I don’t even have to achieve that agreement–some books are enjoyable for my brain, some are enjoyable for my heart, and both are important for my overall love of reading. I don’t discriminate! It does, however, make it really difficult to review books sometimes, when my heart and my mind disagree.

With that long explanation out of the way, let’s talk about Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

This book hit me right in the feels, just as I imagine it will hit the teen girl YA audience for whom it is aimed at. I got the little angst chills in my arms that I get when something is deliciously painful. Reading it made my morning and evening commutes fly by, and I didn’t want to have to put it down.

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Book Review: An Object of Beauty

An Object of Beauty, by Renaissance man Steve Martin, is the tale of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young Manhattan transplant with dreams of becoming a world-class art buyer and collector. We follow Lacey’s trajectory from unpaid intern at Sotheby’s to gallery-owner and tastemaker, and observe the emotional and professional wreckage she creates along the way. Told from the point-of-view of her college friend Daniel, we are privy to many of Lacey’s private moments and personal failings.

I generally enjoy these sorts of longitudinal character studies, but for a handful of reasons, An Object of Beauty failed to wow me. It’s one of those books that I simultaneously liked and didn’t like, averaging out to a “it was good, but not great” sort of feeling. I certainly don’t regret reading it, but I don’t think its story or writing will stick with me, the way other novels have.

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Review: The Orphanmaster, by Jean Zimmerman

A creature stalks the shadows of New Amsterdam. Known as the witika, it is a deranged beast that consumes the flesh of its fellow man. In Jean Zimmerman’s The Orphanmaster, the witika has been blamed for a recent string of orphan kidnappings and killings. Dutch merchant Blandine von Couvering, who is an orphan herself, has her doubts, and sets out to solve the mystery with the help of  British spy Edward Drummond, her servant/companion Antony, and Kitane, a Lenape trapper.

Though it had its faults, The Orphanmaster was well-written and provided an engaging lens through which to learn about some interesting history. The central mystery was gripping, though most readers will probably figure out who/what the witika is fairly early on. (Though it took me until the final author’s note to realize that the witika is the same legendary creature as the wendigo!) In part, this is because Zimmerman employs several point-of-view characters, including some who are thought to be the culprits behind the orphan kidnappings. Being able to solve the mystery didn’t necessarily lessen the novel’s tension, especially due to a revival of the creepiness during the third-act. Seasoned readers of mysteries may not be entirely impressed by the weak red herrings, but I thought Zimmerman’s writing and setting were enough to give this thriller a fresh gloss. The B plot, about Drummond hunting down the judges who signed the death warrant for the formerly-exiled English King Charles the I, is interesting, but because Drummond isn’t actually an assassin himself, I was much more intrigued by the witika, and it’s really the mystery that drives the plot.

One of this novel’s greatest strengths is the commitment to historical detail. Zimmerman lovingly illustrates New Amsterdam for us, from its dirty cobbled alleyways to the food served at its pubs. The setting pulses with energy, with sights and smells, with the clink of wampum, with the rolling tides. It was not surprising to me at all to discover that Zimmerman is a historian who has previously published nonfiction. Her world-building was really exceptional. It’s also fascinating to be able to compare the New York City of today with its beginnings during this period of time. Similarly, I thought she did excellent work conveying the wildness of the New World, and how perilous the settlement’s position was, threatened by American Indians, the English, and the raw power of nature itself, simultaneously threatening and bewitching.

The unbroken wilderness that lined the shore appeared able to absorb any perception Drummond might have of it and survive unchanged, intact, immune.

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Review: When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan

Imagine bearing clearly-visible evidence of a crime you had committed. Imagine never being able to take off the sigil that branded you as a criminal. Imagine the eyes burning the back of your head, the taunts, the parents protectively grabbing their children when you walked by.

The force of this public shaming is a large part of what makes Hillary Jordan’s  When She Woke such an interesting novel. Anyone convicted of a serious crime–such as murder–is melachromed: their skin is dyed red, or yellow, or blue (depending on the crime), instantly outing them…and cutting down their chances of survival once they’re reintroduced to public life.

The underlying premise of When She Woke is thoughtful and well-crafted: After a sexually-transmitted “Plague” hits the United States, in addition to other unspecified disasters including overcrowded prisons, a large swath of the country becomes extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) religiously-conservative, outlawing abortion and establishing a Secretary of Faith position in the presidential cabinet. LGBTQ individuals are seen as pitable freaks at best and agents of Satan at worst. Much like Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, women are valued only for their ability to procreate, and are expected to be subservient to their husbands’ will. (The truly scary thing is that there are people who really think like this, in 2012, and some of them are even in charge of legislating. Shudder.) Into this frightful (and frighteningly-believable) world, we follow Hannah, a rule-abiding young woman…who has just had an abortion and been melachromed red for the crime of murder.

The few glimpses we get of the world outside Texas and Hannah’s small circle are tantalizing. Her friend Kayla, for example, is not nearly as sheltered as Hannah and has been able to date, attend college, and formulate her own views on religion. We hear that abortion is still legal in California and New York, and that diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Canada have been served. I would love to see Jordan explore this world again, in more detail (sequel alert?). The ramifications of this hyper-religious U.S. would be so interesting to see, especially on a global scale. Have we been denounced by the U.N. as a human-rights violator? Have other countries filled the void we left as a superpower?

Overall, I very much liked being brought along on Hannah’s journey from shame and guilt to strength and empowerment. Many of the changes she experienced felt very natural, as her horizons broadened through the necessity of survival. Her musings about free will versus predestination were especially interesting, and I would have liked to hear more; her struggles to reconcile her religious beliefs with her new experiences was, I think, very true to what many sheltered individuals go through the first time they are confronted with proof that the world is not as straightforward as they were taught. While some reviewers did not like Jordan’s attempt to counterbalance the negatives of blind religious faith with the benefits of religion, I thought it was a nice touch. Hannah has been steeped in this type of thinking her entire life; even after all she’s been though, it’s much more realistic for her to try to find a way to adapt her religious views than abandon them altogether, at least right away.

A few things kept this from being a full four or five star book for me, however.


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Book Review: Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski

With a gamer for a dad, we grew up always having computer and video games around the house. I cut my baby teeth on the Sega Genesis (and totally dominated at Sonic 2 and The Lion King), graduated to the Playstation, and fell in love with the GameCube. At various times, my brother, father, and I have simultaneously played computer games like Morrowind, City of Heroes, and of course, World of Warcraft. I play a mean Pikachu and Toon Link in Super Smash Bros.: Brawl, and can still remember the first time my friend R and I beat final boss Master Hand in the original Super Smash Bros.

So as a lifelong fan of video games, I was looking forward to picking up Erebos, by Ursula Poznanski. Erebos is the story of high school student Nick who notices some funny things going on at his school–his friend Colin becomes withdrawn and no longer answers his texts or comes to basketball practice, other students are consistently absent, and some people are secretively passing around a CD. After finally getting his hands on one, Nick enters the immersive computer game world of Erebos, where the graphics are amazing, the music is almost hypnotic, and the game reacts to you almost like a living, learning creature. Nick gets further and further sucked into the game, even as the game’s quests get creepier. Can Nick and his friends figure out exactly what–or who–Erebos is, before it’s too late?

Erebos is a fun, lightning-quick read. I imagine it would be especially good for young gamers, who might be able to see themselves in Nick. Poznanski does a great job illustrating just how seductive the world of Erebos is, and convincingly depicts what appears like addiction. (Students who are kicked out of Erebos, for example, become desperate, pleading, with some withdrawal-like symptoms.) We can easily follow the changes in Nick’s personality the longer he plays Erebos, and see how concerned his friends become the further he draws away from them. It was quite realistic, and Poznanski deserves kudos for approaching the subject carefully.

Young gamers will also enjoy the lengthy descriptions of happenings in Erebos, which do begin to feel very real. Nick’s interactions with other players, as well as his frustration at failing missions or his exaltation at winning duels will be familiar to any gamer. The world of Erebos was rich, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of me wanted to explore it, too! Finally, the tension and fear surrounding the game–how does it know what your real name is, for example?–are also well-done. I raced through the book because I was so invested in figuring out these mysteries alongside Nick. While the resolution is somewhat easy to figure out, once one of the central mysteries has been revealed to the reader, it still is a heckuva ride.

A couple things kept this from being a five star book for me, though, the first being that I’m unsure if Poznanski has very much actual gaming experience. It wasn’t even that the mysterious game’s set-up bothered me–it was the logistics. For example, Erebos contains an arena where players can challenge one another to fights. But a non-player character (NPC) calls each player by name, one by one, and everyone else waits as the called player fights their challenger. So you’ve got a crowd of around 150 people watching two people fight at a time. The amount of time this would take–and the amount of griping from players–would be unbearable. (Additionally, the fact that no enterprising player tried to hack the game or make mods was hard to ignore, and we are even introduced to a hardcore gamer!)

The more worrisome issue I had with Erebos was its hard treatment of women and minorities. At one point, someone is described as being half-Asian, but the context implies this is a bad thing–something like, “She likes guys like that? Glasses, half-Asian,” etc. Someone else is described as smelling “oriental,” which is both bizarre and politically incorrect. Nick is also incredibly mean-spirited towards a girl who has a crush on him, judging her by her looks, the way she dresses, and her straightforwardness. The implication is that the boy should be pursuing the girl, not the other way around. Overall, the handling of women and people of color is incredibly regressive, and while I don’t think it was intentional, I was still somewhat taken aback. However, I do applaud Poznanski for her inclusion of multicultural characters.  Nick’s friend Colin, for example, is black, and there are minor several Middle Eastern characters. Were I to give this to a younger reader, though, I would make sure to discuss these points with them after they had finished the book.

Erebos‘s strengths are its depictions of gaming addiction, the many intertwined mysteries surrounding the game, and the well-drawn world of Erebos itself. I think young male readers would especially relate to POV character Nick. In many respects, he’s a normal high schooler, with different demands on his time, trying to juggle school, friends, and fun; watching him become a hero is great. Make sure, however, that young readers understand why its judgement of women and people of color is overly harsh.

I received Erebos for review through NetGalley. It was published January 19, 2012 here in the U.S.; it was already a bestseller in Germany.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars

Review: El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency

I recently wrote a term paper on the links between the rise of illegal drug cultivation and increasing neoliberalization in Mexico. (Oh, grad school.) It was a complex and completely engrossing subject, and the more I read about it, the more I shared this knowledge with my parents over the phone. (For instance, a Mexican campesino can receive 10,000 pesos for one kg of opium versus 4 pesos for a kg of corn, and illegal drug cultivation potentially employs 300,000 campesinos.)

Knowing of my interest in the cartels of Mexico, my dad gave me El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency for Christmas.  Written by Ioan Grillo, a veteran journalist based in Mexico City, the book strives to answer the questions, “Who is el narco? Where did he come from? What does he want? And how has he changed the political, economic, and social atmospheres in Mexico and the U.S.?”

For the most part, I thought Grillo did an admirable job of tackling those questions. Looking at the current cartel situation in Mexico through the framework of an insurgency, rather than just a criminal network, was eye-opening for me–as was Grillo’s explanation for why both Mexico and the international community hesitate to use those terms. Descriptions of cartel recruiting tactics (get them while they’re young and poor) and assassination techniques were among the more heart-breaking sections of the book.

Among the most interesting chapters for me were those that covered how religion and popular culture in Mexico had changed in reaction to narcotrafficking. While it makes sense that people will turn to both of those areas in times of extreme violence and fear, I had never really connected them to the influence of drug cartels, until Grillo made those connections for me. The rise of Santa Muerte (the Holy Death) and corridos (ballads) exalting drug culture are a direction reflection of the pervasiveness of el narco, and a testament to how difficult it is to ever truly win the War on Drugs.

One quibble: I reacted very negatively to Grillo’s occasionally lighthearted tone. For example, he would often refer to the severed heads of cartel murder victims as “craniums.” Which, okay, I get that it’s a synonym for “heads,” but it was honestly distracting and perhaps a bit dehumanizing. There were also some odd little quips sometimes tossed at the ends of paragraphs. I understand that some gallows humor must be necessary if you are going to keep your sanity while writing about drug cartels, but it felt misplaced in what was otherwise a serious and well-researched text.

Finding books in English about Mexican narcotrafficking is tough, and finding unbiased or thorough ones is even tougher.   Anyone who is interested in learning about the history and evolution of Mexican drug cartels would be hard-pressed to find a more up-to-date and thoughtful treatment than El Narco.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars out of five

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