Monday, March 27, 2017

Caliban's War (James S. A. Corey)

Caliban's War
(The Expanse series, Book 2)
James S. A. Corey
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A year ago, a team of scientists discovered humans were not alone in the universe - and attempted to exploit the protomolecule, the virus-like creation of an unknown species, for profit, an effort that nearly led to the obliteration of life on Earth. Now, it has taken over uninhabited Venus, running through its inscrutable "program" while baffled humans observe. With the outfit behind the outbreak dismantled and every known sample beyond Venus destroyed, everyone thought that the threat was as good as contained... but everyone thought wrong.
Martian space marine Roberta "Bobbie" Draper was stationed on Ganymede, the "breadbasket" of the outer colonies, when an impossible monster attacks, leaving her the only surviving witness to a strike with all the earmarks of the protomolecule. She becomes a pawn in a political game played by her Martian superiors and the United Nations of Earth and Luna, but what she really wants is to avenge her fallen friends, no matter the cost.
Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede, thought the greatest tragedy of the attacks was the loss of his experimental crops - until he learns that his young daughter Mei was abducted by her doctor, along with several other children, mere hours before the trouble began. His desperate search leads him to a most unlikely knight: Captain James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante, who are either thieves, heroes, terrorists, or traitors, depending upon whom one asks. All Prax knows, or cares, is that when he needed help, they were there... but the search for Mei becomes part of a much greater conspiracy.
Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala has been a vital cog in the government machine, not to mention a shrewd player in the game, for decades, but never in her career has she faced anything like this. As the fallout of the Ganymede incident again tilts the delicate balance of power toward open interplanetary war, alliances crumble and enemies turn up in the most unexpected places. For the first time. Avasalara may have been outmaneuvered - and if she loses the game, countless people may lose their lives.

REVIEW: Like the first book, Caliban's War presents a well-paced tale of space travel, political intrigue, grit, and wonder, not to mention a good deal of explosions and gunfights. The characters aren't always the deepest, but they do grow and change. Holden has been scarred by his experiences in the first book, and must work to rediscover himself even as he finds himself once more plunged into danger. (If the other crewmembers of the Rocinante are somewhat less scarred, they didn't personally experience what Holden did - plus, they're more of a supporting cast than stars, even if their personalities and backgrounds expand here.) The new characters each bring strengths and weaknesses to the table, not without some personality and agenda clashes. They also, like the first book, represent a nice swath of diversity in a genre that sometimes still leans a little white and male. It's not a deep or profound read, with some of the writing still clunking a bit now and again, but it nevertheless entertains. This book also ends on a hook (not a true cliffhanger) that makes me glad I have Book 3 already on hand, even if it might have to wait a bit before I pick it up. So far, I'm enjoying this series.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Romancing Miss Right (Lizzie Shane)

Romancing Miss Right
(The Reality Romance series, Book 2)
Lizzie Shane
CreateSpace/Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Romance
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Romance novelist Marcy Hendrickson may write happily-ever-afters, but has never had the courage to pursue one herself; being rejected by the lead man on the reality show Marrying Mister Perfect last season was more a relief than a disappointment (and would've been even if she hadn't seen the man was already in love with someone else before the cameras rolled.) But the stint has been good for book sales, and being the star of this season's Romancing Miss Right should boost her even more. Marcy holds no delusions about actually finding love on reality TV, not even with thirty gorgeous bachelors (each hand-picked by a team of experts) vying for her hand, but she'd be a fool to turn down the opportunity.
Radio personality Craig Callow's bad boy persona makes him a hot property, but the big money's in television, and the exposure from a show like Romancing Miss Right will go a long way toward getting him out from behind a microphone and in front of the cameras full-time. Those shows love a villain to stir things up and boost ratings, and playing the heart-breaker is second nature. He doesn't even need to go the distance to the final round - which is just as well, as his beloved mother has made no secret of what she thinks of this year's bachelorette, the "Ice Princess" Marcy. Craig will turn on the charm, create a little chaos, then walk away. Nothing to it.
Neither Marcy nor Craig actually expect to find love - but their hearts have their own scripts...

REVIEW: After a couple of breakneck middle-grade fantasy titles, I figured I could use a lightweight escape, and romances are usually a decent choice for that. You generally know what you're getting with them. This one delivered on multiple levels, with well-drawn characters that balance each other nicely and a decent plot to make it more than just an overlong and unnecessarily convoluted seduction (as some romance titles I've read became.) Marcy and Craig may seem like opposites, but both have problems coping with their own emotions; Marcy earned the nickname Ice Princess during her previous reality show stint for her refusal to break into emotional hysterics (which audiences and reality show producers prefer), while Craig has cultivated his bad-boy persona after watching man after man break his single mother's heart. Their relationship comes across as earned and balanced, both complicated and strengthened by their respective flaws and the obstacles they face. A subplot involves executive producer Miranda, whose struggle to balance her high-intensity career with a personal life drives many decisions related to the show, her own attitudes about the feasibility of love coming into play at key points as the show unfolds; unlike many side characters (not just in romances), she, too, is a well-drawn character, not just a plot-shaped cog snapped in to facilitate events. The end result may hit familiar notes, but does so in a way that feels authentic, driven by the characters and their choices, not genre expectations. That sense of authenticity, plus its ability to keep drawing me back for "one more chapter" until close to midnight, earned it an extra half-star in the ratings.
As a closing note, I have no idea why Book 2 of this series was offered for a discount rather than Book 1 - not that it matters so much in romances, where series titles tend to be loosely-linked standalones, but still...

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Witchvine (Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan)

(The Rhyme of the Willow series, Book 3)
Justin Sullivan and Samuel Sullivan
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since coming to the Garden, Axton and Aniva Rhyme have changed in ways they couldn't have imagined. Both have become Wilds, humans altered by the strange and dangerous plants of this world... and both have been part of the turmoil sweeping the Lighthavens, where untainted humans live fearing and hating Wilds. After the disaster in Fire Grove that left much of the council dead, Axton and Aniva have been separated. Axton, tainted by the Green Witch and her "gift" of Witchvines, heads back to Linnea, his first friend and guardian in the Garden. Aniva, meanwhile, returns to the Crows, who are planning a fresh assault on the humans and their Lighthavens; as both a Crow and a Blood Demon, she's become a valuable weapon, but every mindless killing frenzy makes her feel more like a monster. Meanwhile, the Green Witch is up to something, teasing Axton with glimpses of Ivan Rhyme, the siblings' long-lost father. Everything is heading for a cataclysmic event, one that may shake the Garden to its roots. Will the Rhymes survive, or is it already too late?

REVIEW: The final installment of the imaginative Rhyme of the Willow trilogy starts as if it weren't a separate book... and this is a bit of a problem. There's no chance to catch up or even let the reader catch their breath as it plunges ahead into the growing chaos and tension sweeping the Garden. This wouldn't be an issue if there had been no gap between reading the previous two installments and this one - but there was, and I never shook the feeling that I was just reading a part of a larger story, that I was missing significant connections that had dimmed with the passage of time. The breakneck pace and many characters worked against me, here.
That said, it does move decently, finally bringing the Rhyme parents into the picture. Aniva and Axton have both changed, not simply physically, during their adventures. It builds up to a tense finale... but then things start falling apart, with some side-stepping, a bit of an eye-rolling revelation, and a solution that, given the trauma and bloodshed and death endured during the trilogy, felt far too clean and quick, not to mention a trifle forced. This feeling, plus the sense that the trilogy itself was unnaturally presented (it really felt like one story roughly cropped into three installments), ultimately lost it the fourth star in the ratings.
All in all, the Rhyme of the Willow trilogy gets points for imagination and intensity, worth exploring if you want a portal fantasy with some threat and substance, if one with a bit of an abrupt end.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Red Pyramid (Rick Riordan)

The Red Pyramid
(The Kane Chronicles, Book 1)
Rick Riordan
Disney-Hyperion Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Carter Kane has a life many middle-schoolers would envy, traveling around the world with his famed archaeologist father Julius. In reality, it's tough living out of a suitcase, never staying anywhere long enough to make friends... and only visiting his sister Sadie in England a couple times a year, if that. Sure, she's a pain in the neck, but she's still family. Sadie, meanwhile, does everything she can to rebel against her stodgy grandparents, jealous of how Carter gets to spend all his time with their father, to whom she seems little more than an afterthought at best or a painful reminder of her dead mother at worst. When Julius turns up in London for a Christmas Eve visit, neither kid is surprised (or particularly excited) when his big holiday surprise is a visit to the British Museum... but this night will change their lives forever. Julius starts meddling with the Rosetta Stone - and chaos literally erupts, as long-imprisoned gods are released. Now Carter and Sadie are on the run, learning things about the Kane lineage neither parent ever told them, such as their connection to the ancient pharaohs and the magic in their veins... not to mention their ties to the long-exiled gods. With the god Set quickly building an army of demons to retake the world and a secret society of magicians ready to execute the kids as a danger to creation, the Kane children must master their untested powers fast if they want to survive.

REVIEW: Riordan's Percy Jackson series took ancient Greek myths and made them fresh and relevant for modern young audiences. Here, he does something similar with Egyptian tales, exploring the roots and ongoing influence of one of history's most powerful civilizations. At first, I wasn't quite sure if he was pulling it off. The pace is relentless, with very little down time to process events, making me a bit numb and overwhelmed and making the parts look a little pre-packaged (the estranged siblings, the parents hiding Big Secrets from kids, the dead mother, the secret society of magicians, etc.) As the story unfolds, though, it comes into its own. Carter Kane deals with a peculiar upbringing and, more than once, with being a black kid in a white-skewed world - and with having a lighter-skinned sister who doesn't understand why he has to be much more careful with his appearance and demeanor. Sadie grows during the tale, too, with her own demons and troubles. Being a middle-grade title, there's an occasional dip into silliness, though nothing crass. Like the Percy Jackson series, Riordan doesn't stick with the pop-culture veneer of Egyptian mythos, but delves deeper into more obscure layers, even offering an explanation for how relationships between gods seem to shift through different stories while repeating the same patterns. Overall, it's a decent story of magic and adventure and sacrifice, and if it's a little breakneck, well, it is written for a younger, generally more impatient audience.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Pax (Sara Pennypacker)

Sara Pennypacker
Balzer + Bray
Fiction, YA General Fiction
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Peter and Pax, the fox he raised from an orphaned kit, are inseparable... until Peter's dad leaves to fight in the war, and forces the boy to abandon the fox on a remote roadside. But Peter can't stop thinking about his friend. Certain the fox will die without him, he runs away from home.
Pax can't understand what happened; one moment, he was playing with his human Peter, and the next the boy disappeared. Surely he'll be back soon... but, in the meantime, the fox must figure out how to survive. He never even learned to hunt or seek water on his own, and meeting other foxes - who resent the stink of human on his fur - only makes him feel more a stranger... but something about the wild calls to him.
Meanwhile, the war creeps ever closer, a faceless force that may destroy the boy, the fox, and their innocent world forever...
With illustrations by Jon Klassen.

REVIEW: Set in a nebulous yesteryear in the shadow of an unspecified war, Pax has the feel of a classic children's novel, a seemingly-simple tale full of heart, pain, truth, and depth. Peter struggles with memories of a violent, painful past, worried about how much of his sometimes-abusive father he already sees in himself, and the things - like abandoning Pax - that he's already done. Pax, meanwhile, must learn what it means to be a fox and an animal, even as he reconciles his love for Peter with the cruelty all humans, even his beloved boy, are capable of rendering. The anthropomorphism is kept to a minimum; animals "talk" not so much in words but postures, scents, and shared "images" of memories. Both boy and fox must do their own growing up, figuring out their own places in a world that's often fickle and cruel, but in which they each have more power than they realize to make their own lives. Pennypacker never tries too hard to make her points, letting the story make them for her. I can certainly see this book becoming a classic, one well remembered by children of today that they will happily share with the children of tomorrow.

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