A Rogue Librarian's Reading List

{September 8, 2014}   Animal Farm by George Orwell

animalfarmPlot: Tired of the tyranny of man, the animals of Manor Farm revolt. They take over management of the farm based on seven commandments, the most important of which is “All animals are equal”. But as time goes on the commandments seem to change and the pigs seem to take on the qualities of their former human oppressors.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Tamsin Greig with a full cast.

This is a dramatized version of Orwell’s famous novel, modified for the purpose by the author himself. I have never read the full version (though I hope to correct that in the near future) so I cannot comment on how it has been changed. I can, however, say that this short audiobook (1h27) is engrossing and the narrators are effective. I found myself completely caught up in the story and thus deeply troubled by the pigs, led by Napoleon.

Orwell doesn’t hide the fact that this is a criticism of Stalin’s socialist regime. But though it isn’t a subtle criticism, it is very effective. He shows the ways in which ideals are twisted to the benefit of those in power, how loyalty and illiteracy is abused, how a cult of personality is formed and used to manipulate the populace.

Animal Farm is a classic for a reason and this audio version is very accessible.

2014 (#51)

{September 8, 2014}   Lock In by John Scalzi

lockinPlot: 25 years ago, a virus spread throughout the world. Though its symptoms were flu-like, it caused 1% of patients to become locked into their bodies, conscious but unable to move in any way. Those suffering of Lock In became known as Hadens. Agent Chris Shane is a Haden and is assigned to a murder case involving an integrator, a person who can share their body with Hadens. This case will put Chris in the midst of political and economic upheaval surrounding new Hadens-related legislation.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton. Please note that there is a second version of the audiobook narrated by Amber Benson.

I was already a few chapters in when I finally realized why this novel came in two different audio versions with two different narrators: Scalzi never once specifies whether Chris, who narrates the novel, is a man or a woman. I imagine that in a paper version, the reader’s own biases and imagination will fill in the gender. I’m curious to find out how most readers read Chris; I suspect “male” is the overwhelming answer, but I might be pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile bear with me as I attempt to write a review without using pronouns.

This is a fascinating book on many fronts. It is, on the one hand, an intriguing police procedural with many twists and turns that kept me guessing about both the criminal and the means used to commit the crimes until the end. Agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann follow leads across the country, into a Navajo reservation, into the boardrooms of major corporations and into the very depths of the human brain. And they are put in mortal danger more than once as they get closer to the improbable truth.

It is also a fascinating sci-fi novel that explores disability and the mind. The Hadens function in society thanks to robots known as Threeps (after C3PO) and integrators with which they can interface while their bodies remain immobile. They are also able to interact and form communities in a virtual world known as The Agora, a world all but inaccessible to non-Hadens. Some Hadens spend most of their lives in Threeps, others like Casssandra Cain, never leave The Agora. I thought Scalzi’s comparison to the Deaf community was especially apt. He explores their relationships with non-Hadens, with their own bodies and with the world. But it is the integrators like Chris’ partner Vann who are most interesting. These are people who volunteer to share a body and mind with strangers. The implications and difficulties of such integration are at the very center of the novel’s mystery.

The audiobook also includes a short story which recounts, by means of testimonials, the beginnings and the effects of Hadens on the US population as well as the developments of Threeps. The narrative style reminded me a bit of World War Z though it isn’t exactly a tale of apocalyptic horror. It isn’t necessary to understand the story but it adds depth to the world and makes me wish for more stories in this universe.

Lock In is a brilliant sci-fi mystery. I couldn’t stop listening. Scalzi seems to get better with every book and finishing this novel only makes me eager for his next one.

2014 (#50)

{September 8, 2014}   The Human Division by John Scalzi

The_Human_Division_CoverThese reviews are based on the audiobook narrated by William Dufris.

These reviews cover episodes 10 to 13 of The Human Division, for my review of the first 9 episodes, see here.

Episode 10: This Must Be The Place

This is a more quiet episode. Schmidt, who has most often been seen assisting Harry, goes home to Pheonix to visit his family. He gets caught up in the colony’s politics and the family drama. We get to see, for the first time Schmidt’s qualities and his perspective on his life and his work. It is not an exciting story in the same way as some of the others, and it is not my favorite, but it really humanizes Schmidt and lends gravitas to the events in later episodes. If I had one complaint about the audio version it would be that Dufris doesn’t use the same voice for Schmidt as he does in other episodes; I was confused at times to find that he sounded more like Harry.

2014 (#46)

Episode 11: A Problem of Proportion

The Clarke, and its diplomatic team led by Abumway, meet with a Conclave diplomatic team. Instead they are attacked by a ship that had been reported missing and the Conclave ship suddenly surrenders to them. Together the two crews investigate the attacking ship and find it empty except for a brain connected to the ship’s computer. This was an intriguing episode with a great cast of one time characters. I found the relationship that Harry forms with the brain on the ship especially touching. It also sets up a lot of what happens in the final episode.

2014 (#47)

Episode 12: The Gentle Art of Cracking Heads

Danielle Lowen, who had been on the Clarke in The Observers, as part of the Earth’s diplomatic mission is back in this episode. She is trying to investigate the assassination that occurred. Her investigation is hampered by exploding embassies and a mysterious man (possibly related to the one in A Voice in the Wilderness?) with outlandish theories that point toward a conspiracy to keep the Earth and the Colonial Union at odds. This was a fascinating and ominous lead up to the final episode starring a character that I’m rather fond of.

2014 (#48)

Episode 13: Earth Below and Sky Above

This is the final episode and it is, appropriately, a full 2 hours long. Earth and Colonial Union diplomats are set to meet on earth station to negotiate a treaty. But the station soon finds itself under attack by missing Colonial ships and the cast we have come to know must put their lives on the line to save the negotiations. It is explosively exciting; I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. The novel ends with many questions still unanswered: who was truly behind all the attacks? why were they trying to divide humanity? and who will the Earth ally with? But I wasn’t left dissatisfied, merely eager for more books in The Old Man’s War universe. Fortunately there are plenty.

2014 (#49)

I have loved The Human Division as a whole and I think that the format, in episodes worked wonderfully well. I highly recommend the audiobook version: it felt like following a sci-fi show.

saywhatyouwillPlot: Amy was born with cerebral palsy: she can’t communicate without mechanical assistance and can’t walk without a walker. She is keenly intelligent but needs help to get about her days and has few friends. For her last year of High School, she requests  peer helpers so that she can learn to interact with people her own age. One of these helpers is Matthew, who has a less visible disability: he suffers from a severe case of OCD that affects his life and relationships in many ways. As they work together, their feelings begin to blossom into something more.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman.

I read a lot of books, many of them YA, and yet this is the first romance I’ve read about a young woman with cerebral palsy (OCD and other mental disorders are not entirely new but still rare). I think that is a real shame that there aren’t more disabled teens in YA and I’d like to take the opportunity to direct everyone to Disability in Kidlit who will better be able to tell you if McGovern’s portrayal of Amy is accurate (they are rather critical, actually). But even with the problems they describe, I hope the popularity of this book encourages the publication of more books starring teens with disabilities (hopefully written by people with disabilities!) perhaps even dealing with problems that have nothing to do with their disabilities.

As a YA novel, it is still quite enjoyable. I’ve seen this novel recommended to fans of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park and I can hardly disagree. It is an unconventional romance told with humour and honesty. The narration alternates between Amy – who struggles to connect with people her age in spite of communication problems – and Matthew – who cannot resist his compulsions but fears having them revealed – interrupted by the occasional email exchange. They grow closer and try to help each other through their difficulties (though the tasks that Amy sets Matthew to help with OCD seem rather cruel at times) and sometimes, in their failure to connect, hurt each other. They are disabled but ultimately, they strive for the same goals as the teens in most YA novels – friends, love, work and college – and struggle with parents who don’t understand them. Which leads me to my least favorite character: Amy’s mother. She’s almost cartoonishly terrible. She pushes Amy to excel, doesn’t listen to her desires or needs, manipulates her life, chooses her friends and makes decisions for her. I wouldn’t wish her on anyone, no matter how good her intentions.

Even if it is far from a perfect portrayal, I do think that being in Amy’s head can help able-bodied readers rethink how they view disabled people, especially non-verbal ones. I like that her ultimate problem in the novel has little to do with her CP and that by the end she stands up to her mother. I also like that McGovern doesn’t shy away from discussing Amy’s sexuality. Our society sometimes likes to pretend that disabled people are asexual. Amy’s one sexual experience could have been handled better (there are some serious issues of consent, for one) but it is refreshing to me that her desires are recognized and openly discussed.

I want to give this book a glowing review as I listened to it with great pleasure. I rather enjoy Lowman’s narrations, for one, I already knew her from Rainbow Rowell’s audiobooks and was pleased to find her again. And I found Amy and Matthew to be witty, endearing narrators. However, I do have to nuance my praise with the concerns of actual people with disabilities.

2014 (#45)

{September 8, 2014}   White Night By Jim Butcher

white nightPlot: Witches of middling power are being murdered in Chicago and the murders are disguised as suicides. Harry and Murphy see the crimes for what they are but their investigation is hampered by mistrust: the female practitioners most at risk don’t trust the White Council and it’s wardens like Harry. His investigations will lead him deep into the politics of the vampire courts.

This review is based on the audiobook narrated by James Marsters.

The 9th Harry Dresden book begins as a murder mystery, one that seems tied to many of Harry’s friends and former foes. Witness accounts and the manner of least one of the deaths ties Harry’s brother Thomas, a vampire of the white court, to the killings. And Thomas’ recent behaviour worries even Harry. He wants to trust his brother, but he has been looking remarkably well fed of late. Meanwhile, a group of witches has taken refuge from the serial killer with Harry’s first love, Elaine.

But as Harry digs deeper into the murders, he finds that they are tied both to a tragic young warden training session that he led (the cut to this particular flashback was unpleasantly jarring in the audiobook version; I thought I’d blacked out for 20 minutes or something) and to power struggles within the white court of vampires.This is when the action goes into high gear: political manipulation, high stakes battles worthy of Hollywood action flics and startling revelations.

We also learn a lot of interesting new things about Thomas, about Marcone and about Elaine which add real depth to their characters. But there is one revelation that I felt really overdone: someone, I won’t tell you who, is a vigin. <sarcasm>Hahaha, despite his bluster, he has never had sex! Hilarious! </sarcasm> No really, this joke is old, boring and perpetuates the myth that sex is a rite of passage that men need to become true men. I probably could have forgotten about it if it hadn’t been dragged out for so long. As it is I couldn’t roll my eyes enough.

Still, that is my only real complaint. There is some cheesiness and the number of foes thrown at Harry at once is, as usual, nearly ludicrous… but I think those my be half the reason I enjoy the series. It is a pulpy, action-packed, occasionally silly magical romp and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2014 (#44)

{September 8, 2014}   Like No Other by Una LaMarche

likenootherPlot: Devorah is Hasidic and has little to no contact with people outside of her community. But when accompanying her pregnant sister to the hospital during a terrible storm, she finds herself trapped in an elevator with a young, black man. She and Jaxon strike it off immediately. Despite the rules she was raised by and always followed, despite all the difficulties, Devorah and Jaxon seek each other out and begin to fall in love.

This review is based on a review copy received through Netgalley.

I first learned about Una LaMarche when I attended SummerTeen this year. She described seeking a remaining relationship taboo in order to write a modern Romeo & Juliet story. She decided upon the Hasidic community which remains isolated and which discourages relationships with people outside the community. Hearing her talk about it really made me want to read the book.

It is very much a Romeo & Juliet story: they are not only star-crossed but also rash and ill fated. (You can guess from this that I actually don’t find Romeo & Juliet particularly romantic. :P ) They describe feelings of love and irresistible longing but they are together only a handful of time in the entire book. This, the risks that Jaxon takes against Devorah’s will (coming to see her when she tells her not to, calling her on a phone she should not have, etc.) and the numerous lies they tell in order to meet, make the relationship feel terribly immature to me.  It is their first love so such immaturity is understandable but it kills the romance for me. Nevertheless LaMarche does a good job of balancing their passion and the difficulties of their relationship.

More interesting to me than the romance itself was the exploration of Hasidic culture, which we see through Devorah and her family. LaMarche does this with a great deal of respect and complexity: she doesn’t describe a community that is of a single mind, but rather shows the great variety of personality and opinion (including Devorah’s terrible, self-rituous brother-in-law). Devorah is a great character. She is very intelligent, though a little naive about relationships. She is devoted to her family and “frum”, that is serious about following all the religious rules. She begins to question the path she had been born on and the rules imposed upon her. This questioning and the answers that she reaches were what kept me turning pages.

Though the romance itself struck me as immature with an uncomfortable power imbalance, we need more diverse books like this, books that explore different cultures, different ways of living and being.

2014 (#43)

{September 8, 2014}   Comics and manga of August

ManifestDestinyVol1Amulet, volume 6: Espace from Lucien by Kazu Kibuishi

  • Navin and his classmates enter the city of Lucien, filled with ghostly creatures and seemingly abandoned, on a mission. Meanwhile his sister Emily and the other stone keepers and meet with Max to confront The Voice. The is an amazing all ages fantasy adventure comic and I highly recommend it. Each volume is better than the last.

Batman: Earth One by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank

  • An alternate universe origin for Batman, in the same spirit as Superman: Earth One. It shows a new Batman bumbling with inefficient equipment fighting against the corrupt mayor responsible for his parents’ death. If you like gritty, it certainly delivers and their are quite a few nods to fans.

Batman: Li’l Gotham, volume 2 by Dustin Nguyen

  • The art and the gags continue to be cute but the holiday theme that informs each issue is growing a little thin. I do like that, though lighthearted, Nguyen is true to the DC characters; you have to really know them to poke fun at their quirks as he does.

Read the rest of this entry »

let's pretendPlot: The hilarious mostly true memoir of Jenny Lawson, known online as The Blogess.

This book had me laughing from beginning to end, sometime in recognition, sometimes in horror and always because of Lawson’s clever turn of phrase and perfect comedic timing. I found myself interrupting my boyfriend’s own reading constantly to share Lawson’s words (to the consternation of the strangers around us). I think for the rest of my days, when someone is going through a hard time, I will tell them that at least their arm isn’t stuck in a cow’s vagina.

Lawson’s memoir covers a great deal of territory from her unusual, poverty-stricken childhood through marriage and motherhood. But this is no average memoir. Lawson’s tale is full of dead animals, poop and unlikely incidents. And though she herself admits that her memoir is only mostly true, the strangest stories are the ones I believe the most: they simply defy imagination. With humour and honesty, she shares the struggles of living with mental illness (mainly, though not exclusively severe anxiety) as well as the struggles of work, love and motherhood.

It’s a book I would recommend to most anyone who enjoys a good laugh and who does not quite fit the definition of normal.

Lawson is currently working on a second book which I cannot wait to read. Meanwhile, for more of her writing, check out her blog: http://thebloggess.com/

2014 (#42)

THE QUEEN OF TEARLINGPlot: Kelsea is the heir to the Tearling, raised in hiding to protect her from those who would never see her on the throne. But in her 19th year the Queen’s guard come to take her to the capital for her coronation. Reaching the capital is a challenge in itself but even once crowned, Kelsey will have to deal threats of invasion and with the troubled, impoverished country that her mother and her uncle the regent have left her.

I picked up this book because an interview with Johansen in which she discussed (among other smart things) how heroines always seem to be beautiful and are so often forced into romances that do not fit their plot. If I find it again, I’ll post a link.

Kelsea is not one of those heroines: she is plain and though she has an unwise crush, she has no time for romance. She has a whole, troubled kingdom, full of traitors to run. She is also fiercely intelligent, a great reader and has real care for her people and her country. She wants to be just and refuses to bend her morals in order to make things easier. Our first introduction to Kelsey reminded me a lot of Elizabeth I own rise to Queendom. She is quickly forced to acknowledge her naivete and adapt to the world outside her sheltered upbringing. Everyone around her, even those sworn to defend her with their lives, doubt her and are waiting to see if she is worthy of the role she has been born to. And over the course of the novel, she grows immensely and learns a lot and we truly get the sense that she could one day become the True Queen. It is an amazing process to watch.

The world that Johansen has created is an interesting one. It works like a medieval fantasy, something like Game of Thrones more focused on politics than magic, but there is also an element of the Post-Apocalyptic. We get the sense that the Kelsea’s ancestor’s left our near future to create a utopic socialist, low tech society across the sea (this last is not quite clear in my mind). And this utopia completely failed leading to the flawed monarchy that Kelsea has been saddled with. Johansen fleshes out the history, mythology and politics of this world, weaving these tales into the action so skillfully that it never interrupts the narrative. And anyone who knows me, knows how I love a political fantasy. I was thrilled to find that Johansen made this her focus. Further, she addresses issues of slavery, rape, serfdom and many others that many other fantasy worlds simply take for granted.

The Queen of the Tearling was a real page turner. Working full time makes staying up all night to finish a book something that I can (sadly) no longer afford to do but in this case I couldn’t resist. This is the first book in a series and I cannot wait to see where her rule takes Kelsea next.

2014 (#41)

no one elsePlot: Friendship, Wisconsin is a small, quiet town where people don’t even lock their doors. They are thus not ready for the brutal murder of a teen girl and are eager to condemn her thuggish boyfriend for the crime. But Ruth’s best friend, Kippy, isn’t sure that he’s guilty and is determined to find the real murderer, with or without the aid of the police.

Can we just take a moment to bask in this amazing cover. I am not ashamed to admit that I bought it transfixed by the adorable morbidity of the pink knit moose.

Hale’s debut novel is a mystery but Kippy isn’t your typical intrepid girl detective. There is a murder, there are many suspects and there is a truly terrible, short-sighted sheriff with whom Kippy is constantly at odds. But Kippy is not very sneaky: she gets caught and misled more often than not. And as often as she is thwarted by the adults and authorities in her town, her own neuroses, grief, anger issues and compulsions get in her way. Kippy’s mental illness is an interesting aspect of the book. It puts her into doubt as a narrator and also gives a different and unexpected twists to the typical girl-detective narrative. It also forces us to reexamine our expectations of people with mental illness.

The majority of the novel is narrated by Kippy, a few in a less than lucid state, with occasional snippets from Ruth’s diary. These last were a bit a disappointment, not because they were uninteresting, quite the contrary. When the novel started it seemed that these diary entries would slowly unravel the truth of Ruth’s death (a conceit that I have seen in several other novels) but as the novel progresses they slowly peter out. Kippy simply can’t bring herself to read them anymore. I would have loved to have read more entries, not for the occasional scandalous moments, but rather to learn more about the ambiguous character that is Ruth and of her complicated friendship with Kippy. Just as Hale doesn’t give us a simple stereotype of mental illness, this diary complicated the narrative of two best friends growing up together. Both Kippy and Ruth are deeply flawed and not always likable but they are better characters for it.

I won’t give away the killer or the resolution of the novel but I will say that I found it rather timely given some recent terrible crime in the real world.

This was quick entertaining read with more than a few surprises and some truly unexpected characters (I was especially fond of Kippy’s Non-Violent Communication Group).

2014 (#40)

et cetera

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