Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Shards of Honor

Shards of Honor (Vorkosigan Saga, #1)Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book in Bujold’s wildly popular Miles Vorkosigan series. In fact, it’s technically the 0th book in the series, because this is pre-Miles; it tells the story of how his parents met, and introduces us to pivotal characters and events that influence the entire series. It really should be read before any other books in the series.

We meet his mother, Cordelia Naismith, an officer in the Beta Colony Expeditionary Force. She is leading a scientific mission to an inhabited planet. While she and another crew member are away from their base camp, the camp is attacked by forces unknown. As Cordelia rushes back to aid her crew, she is attacked and knocked unconscious. When she awakens, a gruff officer from Barrayar (a military caste planet) is her captor. But he is wounded, and also seems to be a victim of the attack. Nevertheless, they do not trust each other, at first, but as they make their way to what he says is a cache of supplies, they begin to find admiration for each other, despite their differences. (Beta Colony is very “free” sexually, and has no rigid societal rules, while Barrayar is ruled by an emperor and the military ruling class of Vor families.) We discover that her captor is Lord Aral Vorkosigan, of one of the more prominent families on Barrayar.

After several harrowing close calls, Aral manages to return to his ship, with Cordelia as a prisoner. We discover that Barrayar is attempting military expansion in the area. Events ensue such that Cordelia manages to escape and eventually return to Beta Colony.

Months later, the war progresses, and once again Cordelia ends up a prisoner on Aral’s ship. Critical events transpire on this ship, this time, and Aral and Cordelia realize they are in love. (At last!) The book ends on a hopeful note for all concerned.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and the blossoming romance is handled with a minimum of “cute.” (It is nice to have a mature romantic relationship, and not moody, emo teen romance!) We learn much about both Cordelia and Aral - their backgrounds, planets, and especially their shared sense of honor. All of this sets up the appearance of Miles in later books. But, even as a stand-alone novel, this is a good space opera, with a nice little romance thrown in for good measure. A most enjoyable read!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Rosie Project

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I guess I’m in the minority, here, as I didn’t love this book or find it fabulous and life-changing. I enjoyed it, it was ok, but it felt like reading a rom-com, with the standard events for the genre: couple meet “cute,” couple disagree about things and think they hate each other, couple eventually ‘discover’ they were made for each other and end up getting married. The End. The only thing setting this book apart from other stories like this is the narrator being on the Autism spectrum (probably high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.) Everything else was completely as expected, including the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Rosie.

But, I get ahead of myself.

The Rosie Project is the story of Don Tillman, a professor of genetics at a university in Australia, and his search for a wife. His Asperger’s Syndrome makes him a humorous narrator, as his quirks are on display in full force. He decides to apply logic to the problem of finding a wife, and creates a long questionnaire to weed out the undesirables (smokers, vegans, etc.) His best friend, Gene, a womanizing psychology professor, helps him find women to evaluate, and one day Rosie appears in Don’s office, telling him that Gene sent her. From the very first, Rosie is obviously unsuitable, according to the questionnaire, but Don decides to help her in her quest to find her biological father. Hijinks ensue.

I found the book mildly humorous, and the mystery of Rosie’s father was handled well. The story moved along at a good pace - I read the book in just two sittings. Nevertheless, I had issues with it, overall. As mentioned above, Rosie is a quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Nathan Rabin, who coined the phrase, defined a MPDG as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” That is Rosie to a T. This book was ALL about Don learning to embrace life and its quirks, and not be so regimented. And that’s what Rosie does. She dresses non-traditionally, has tattoos and piercings, and is generally depicted as a “free spirit” who introduces Don to the fullness of life. I had trouble fully enjoying the book because of the shallowness of her character, and her blatant MPDG qualities.

The other issue I had was Don’s Autism/Asperger’s. As he is the narrator, we get first-hand experience of his thought processes and approach to life. I almost felt as if we (the ‘normal’ readers) were supposed to laugh at this poor sap who has his life scheduled out to the minute. “Ha, ha, ha, those crazy Aspies! Aren’t they funny?” I just felt uncomfortable the whole book, as if Don were someone to be ridiculed and pitied. This is in sharp contrast to the (also fictional) narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the non-fictional narrator of \Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant. With neither of these books did I feel that the narrators were comic relief, as I did with The Rosie Project. (I should note that two of my book club members who listened to the audio version of the book did not feel that way toward Don, so maybe it was just my interpretation as a reader, versus a listener. Still, I didn’t feel that way with the two books I just mentioned, so I don't think I have a super-sensitivity to narrators on the Autism spectrum.) I would be curious to know the opinions of people on the spectrum to this book and narrator, to see if they felt he was the object of ridicule or not.

So, in summation, this was a light, mildly enjoyable read, but one with definite flaws. It would be a nice diversion for someone looking to be entertained, especially if they enjoy rom-coms. It hasn’t much else to offer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

All Tomorrow's Parties

All Tomorrow's Parties (Bridge, #3)All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is the third book in the very loose “Bridge” trilogy. (The first two are Virtual Light and Idoru.) Despite the connection among these books, it’s not really necessary to read the first two before reading this one. While I have read the first two, it’s been decades since reading them, and I don’t remember many details, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. That being said, reading this one has made me want to reread those two, and maybe I’ll find more links among them than I remember.

On to this book:
Like all of Gibson’s books, ideas and their implications for society are at the fore. His world building shines again, with a not-too-distant future full of tech that is just barely beyond today’s science. (Note: this book is copyrighted 1999.) The main characters are Colin Laney, a man whose consciousness has been altered by an experimental drug; Rydell, an ex-cop; and Chevette, Rydell’s ex-girlfriend. Colin’s new abilities to “see” data has him convinced that a major “node” is coming, which will end the world as we know it. Because Laney is sick and dying, he hires Rydell to be his “boots on the ground” in San Francisco, where the node is centered. It is there that Rydell runs into Chevette again, and all of them have roles to play in the Big Event.

Gibson is a master at creating his vision of the future, and totally immersing the reader. His descriptions are evocative and make the world come to life. The first part of the book, where we meet each character, is chock full of little vignettes that help draw the reader deeper into the world he’s created.

Once he’s set up the characters and the situation, then the action starts. And it goes at a break-neck pace from there on out. The ending is a little abrupt, however, and if you’re not paying attention, you won’t understand what just happened, and how it really does change everything.

Anyone who enjoys future tech and/or thrillers will find this book quite satisfying. It’s believable, the characters are interesting, the future world is fascinating, and the story is compelling.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two CitiesA Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was in high school. I don’t recall if it was for a specific class, but I remember that I simply loved it and always thought of it as my favorite Dickens, even after reading such classics as David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield and Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations. However, since high school was over 40 years ago (gasp!) and our book club likes to read at least one classic a year, I nominated A Tale of Two Cities, as I wanted to refresh my memory on why I loved it so much. And a third of the way into the book, I was seriously questioning my high school judgment!

As most people know, ATOTC is about the French revolution. The two cities are Paris and London. The first part of the book introduces us to the cast of characters, which isn’t as large as many other books by Dickens. We learn about Charles Darnay, the young French aristocrat who has walked away from his estate and title to live in London. He falls in love with Lucie, the daughter of Dr. Manette, who was a political prisoner in France until recently. Sydney Carton is the barrister who becomes involved in their lives, and who also loves Lucie. Those are the main characters in London, though there are a few secondary characters that end up playing significant roles in the action that transpires. In Paris, we meet the Defarges, a married couple who are both leaders in the revolution. Again, there are a few other characters that impact the plot, but it is the Defarges that we mostly follow.

Because the entire first half of the book is establishing characters and their relationships, I was baffled by why I had loved the book so much when I first read it. We see lots of little vignettes showing the characters involved in what appear to be insignificant activities. I was just not engaged by any of the characters, and even the love triangle seemed forced. Thankfully, Dickens is a master at creating an interesting turn of phrase, and quirky characters, so I kept plugging away at the book. And I was rewarded by the last third - in spades!

The action in the last part of the book takes place back in Paris, where Darnay has returned to carry out a mission of mercy. But the revolution is in full swing and he is arrested because he is an aristocrat. Things happen fast and furious from this point on, and we see how events from the first part of the book tie into events in this section. Dickens was absolutely masterful at sprinkling these seemingly unrelated events throughout the book, and then weaving them all together in an intricate tapestry. It was brilliant! He also gave each secondary character a scene of their own, where we get to see them at their best/worst. The themes of love, honor and sacrifice were powerfully played out. This last section of the book is clearly why I loved it so in high school! And why I still think it’s one of Dickens’ best books, despite the seemingly slow start.

Dickens’ portrayal of the revolution and its proponents was quite interesting. For someone whose writings helped change the way the poor were treated in Great Britain, he doesn’t paint the revolutionaries in a very favorable light. He certainly highlights the abuses of the aristocracy, but the proletariat are portrayed as blood-thirsty villains, uninterested in truth, only revenge. His depiction of what can happen in mobs, and how easy it is for noble causes to be hijacked by baser motivations, shows great insight. I was reminded of the events in South Africa, when they threw of Apartheid, and how they didn’t succumb to a spirit of revenge, though God knows they had enough motivation. I was also struck by the similarities of the world (and U.S) today, where great wealth is in the hands of a very few, who live lives so completely removed from the lives of the rest of us that they could be on an entirely different planet. I wonder if at some point there will be a similar revolution. Food for thought.