Book review: C is for Chalice #atozchallenge


Chalice might be my favorite book by Robin McKinley.  I say might be because, generally speaking, I really love books by Robin McKinley.  Sunshine is another contender for the favorite spot and Pegasus might be too, someday, if McKinley ever get around to finishing it*.   What I’m saying it, Robin McKinley is a really good author and if you have not read anything by her, you can pretty much pick any book to start with because with the notable exception of Pegasus** all her her books are self contained stories.  So if you stumble across any of her books at a used book store, I recommend you buy them and read them, because seriously, such a good author.

Now, Chalice.  Chalice is the story of Mirasol, who was a beekeeper and a keeper of a small woodright.  Mirasol who, upon the death of the previous one, becomes Chalice, second of the Circle.  A Circle rules over each demesne, each of the 12 members with different duties which keep the demesne running smoothly.  The Chalice binds.  The Circle, the people, the land itself.  It is Chalice’s duty to make one united whole.  The previous Master (first of the Circle) and Chalice died in a great, calamitous fire,*** and the common people are in shock, the earthlines which run through the land weep, and the remaining members of the Circle find themselves unable to help, so Mirasol find uniting the fractured demesne a very difficult duty.

Part of the difficulty is due to the fact that the new Master must be a blood relative of the previous Master and the only suitable person, the previous Master’s younger brother, was sent to become a priest of the Fire years ago.****  He has entered the second stage of his priesthood, where it may no longer be possible for him to live among humans, but his deep sense of duty obligates him to try.  But he is a long time coming and during that time Marisol must try to hold together a demesne and a people who seem to be falling to pieces around her.

When the new Master finally arrives, his condition is shocking.  Previously a light skinned brunette, his skin and hair are both now charcoal black and he can barely move like a human.  He tries to preform the ceremony of welcome but has not the strength to lift the cup of welcome the Chalice offers him on his own.  Mirasol helps him but glancing contact of their two hands leaves the back of her hand charred to the bone.

Can such a Master bring peace and prosperity to his land?  Can Mirasol bind the fractured Circle into smooth whole?  Will the Overlord’s political machinations spell disaster for the weakened demesne?  Chalice is a novel of struggles, of coming to term with the past, of learning to trust the new and unknown, of learning self confidence, of duty, and of honey.  It is a novel of both delightful and detestable characters, of a well built fantasy world, of slow moving plot, and delightfully descriptive writing.  It is a novel well worth your time.†

*Because, to me, Pegasus does not read like the first book in a series, it reads like the first part of on unfinished book, seriously it ends on the worst cliffhanger ever.^

^It says worlds about how good Shadows is that once I started reading it I forgot to hate it because it wasn’t the much desired Pegasus continuation, but instead a totally unrelated novel that McKinley decided to write instead of the much desired Pegasus continuation.

**Nope, not bitter at all.

***Due to a flagrant disregard for duty and an inability to bind her Master to his duties, respectively.

****The younger brother of an unmarried Master should not have been sent away thus, but the two brothers (who have always been said to have been born in the wrong order, the younger much more suited to the duties and responsibilities of Masterhood) could not bear each others company.

†If you’ve spotted the tribute to Robin McKinley’s own blogging style, congratulation, you are a huge nerd and I love you.

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Book review: B is for Birthday* #atozchallenge


Today’s book! The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin.  The reason this post is a day late is that when I glanced at the book to remind myself of details of the stories, I got sucked into rereading it because Ursula K. Le Guin is the queen of short stories,** yo.  Nobody does it better.  The first six stories in the book are part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle,*** the seventh may be, and the eighth isn’t.

In the first story, Le Guin returns to the world of her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a planet populated by androgynes, who only have gender once a month, when they go into kemmer and can become either female or male.  They spend a couple of days in the kemmer house, having sex with other people currently in kemmer, and then return to their lives. In “Coming of Age in Karhide” we get the story of Sov’s first kemmer, told from the advantage of old age. Without gender, the universality of going through adolescence shines through, both the physical and emotional/mental discomforts ringing true. When Sov snarls “I’m fine” at their mother, I chuckled a little at my own very similar memories. Le Guin uses the concept of a genderless population to show that some things are simply human experiences, similarities between us all.

“The Matter of Seggri” takes place on a world where for every man there are 16 women. After age 11 men are sequestered in castles, where they compete in sports for titles and the chance to be sent to service women. Men are provided with everything they need by women, who never enter the castles. The first section is told from the point of view of an “alien” man of a religious bent who believes that the title of “Lord” given to some men is a serious one and that the men rule over the women and the gender imbalance as a judgment of God against unbelievers. The second section is from the point of view of a trained observer°, a woman, who is allowed to mix with the women outside the castles. The women who farm, run factories, go to university, govern, and who go to men to become pregnant but who marry and raise their children with other women. It is observed on Seggri men have all the privilege and women all the power. Then come the stories told by the people of Seggri. A girl who loses her beloved brother to the castles. A woman who favors the services of one man but who does not believe him capable of the love he professes. A young man who is of the first generation of men allowed to live outside the castles.  The consequences of allowing an imbalance in power between the genders to exist.

The next two stories, Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways are both set on O, a world divided into two moieties, Morning and Evening. You are born into the same moiety as your mother and to have sex with somebody if the same moiety is the worst kind of incest. The people of O marry in quartets, an Evening woman and Morning man and a Morning woman and Evening man. You marry three people, have sex with the two who are of a different moiety than you, and are brother/sister to the person of the same moiety as yours.  In Unchosen Love, a young man struggles to find his own voice in new relationship with a very intense man. In Mountain Ways, a lack of viable options leads to an unconventional marriage which struggles to find balance in an unusual situation.

“Solitude” is a story which hits very close to my heart. It’s a story about an entire planet of introverts, where adults all live alone and do not go into each other’s houses, even to make love. Children may go into other’s houses, to learn, to be taught how to be a person, a never ending process, one that consumes a lifetime. A society where causing somebody else to share your emotions is seen as casting a spell and being a sorcerer is a terrible thing. Women live within sight of each other, in loose villages called as auntrings, men live further out in even more solitude.  An observer from Hain takes her two young children to learn what they can and report for her, because an adult asking questions is met with silence. Eventually her son is forced to leave her house and spends a year surviving in the wild. When he returns he does not want to be a man on this world, so his mother calls the ship and they go. But this is the only world her daughter knows and she begs to stay, to finish leaning how to be a person. After many arguments she is allowed to return and the story we read is her report to Hain after her own children are born.

The last Hainish story is “Old Music and the Slave Women,” set on the planet Werel, a planet undergoing a rebellion by its slave population (who outnumber their masters 7 to 1). Old Music is an ambassador from another world. He is asked by the Liberation Command to be seen in a certain part of the city to lend support to their cause. On his way, he is captured by the Legitimate Government, who take him to a plantation still staffed by slaves. There he is tortured (in ways used to punish slaves) and then a member of the Legitimate Government attempts to cajole Old Music into making a statement supporting the Legitimate Government. During his recovery Old Music is cared for and comes to care for two female slaves, who were not, for whatever reason, liberated when the other slaves fled during the uprising.

The seventh story, “The Birthday of the World”, is the one Le Guin says may or may not be Hainish. I choose to think not, but to each their own! It is set on a planet where one of the countries is ruled by God. God is a brother and sister who are married to each other and when one of them dies, one of their sons and daughters will marry and become God. The story is told from the perspective of the last female half of God and how her world was destroyed.

The final story, Paradise Lost, tells of a generation ship passing between the stars, each generation born further from the knowledge of what it is like to stand under a sky. Of the stories they tell when the ship is their only world, the rituals they enact, the beliefs that carry them through. Of the discord that is sewn when they find out they well be arriving on their new planet 40 years early.

As I said Ursula K. Le Guin is the queen of short stories. While most of the stories in the book are part of a larger whole, they are all complete in and of themselves.  While you might long for more after a certain story, it will only be because the wiring is fantastic and not because the story feels unfinished. I highly recommended this and any other Ursula K. Le Guin short story volume you come across.

*This entry is being composed on my phone, so if you notice any errors, please let me know!

**Peter S. Beagle is the king of short stories, by the way.

***Which spans 7 novels and 17 short stories. They do not tell a chronological story, so you can jump in at any point (including with the short story volume I’m reviewing!).  My only advice is don’t start with The Word For World is Forest because it is a deeply upsetting book, so much so I can’t even tell you if it’s actually good or not. If you want a specific recommendation, let me know!

°Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist and she seems to have a deep and abiding love of the subject. Much of the “science” in Le Guin’s science fiction is anthropology.

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Book Review: A is for Anne #atozchallenge

It seems fitting to start this month long blog-a-thon with a review of a book by one of my all time favorite authors.  There was a time, when I first discovered L.M. Montgomery (thanks to a friend giving me the first three books in the Anne series as a birthday gift.  Thanks, Kathy Kim!) where I devoured her books with a voracious appetite, checking more books out of the library and begging my parents to buy the ones my school library didn’t have.  But the book which started my L.M. Montgomery obsession and thus always with a special place in my heart was Anne of Green Gables.

Anne of Green Gables tells the story of Anne Shirley.  Anne (with an “e” and don’t you forget it) is an eleven-year-old, red-headed, kind-hearted, fiery-tempered orphan adopted by a brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla, who are looking for help on their farm, Green Gables.  They sent for a boy but received Anne instead.  Quiet Matthew is immediately taken with the talkative and vivacious Anne but Marilla is determined to send her back and get the boy needed for the farm.  Marilla relents (to appease her brother, she says, but we all know she’s charmed by Anne too) and Anne begins living in the first stable home she has ever known.  She makes mistake (she accidentally gets her best friend, Diana, drunk.  She loses Marilla’s prize brooch, she climbs on a roof on a dare and breaks her ankle when she falls off, she smashes a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head when he calls her “Carrots,” etc, etc) but she also brings life and light to Green Gables, sharing her innate joy in life with Matthew, Marilla, and the reader.

I think part of the reason I loved Anne so much at a young age is that she was one of the first fictional characters I ever read about who had had a, frankly, crap childhood.  That ends when her time at Green Gables begins but her telling of her history to Matthew as they travel home from the train station is quite something.  It was not terribly similar to my own crap childhood but at 12 it was relieving to read about a character whose main problem wasn’t that she didn’t have boobs yet (I’m looking at you, Margaret).  It didn’t hurt that Anne was fiercely intelligent, totally disdainful of teasing boys, brave, loyal and fond of writing (bad) poetry.  Anne was absolutely a kindred spirit, is what I’m saying.  She and I have been bosom friends since the day I first read her eponymous novel.

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Blogging from A to Z

I signed up for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge because I have absolutely failed to blog so far in 2016 and I need to kick my ass into gear.  My theme will be Books*.  Each day of the challenge I intend to review a book where the title starts with the corresponding letter of the alphabet.**  It might be a book I finished that day and it might be a book I haven’t read since my childhood.  I’m actually looking forward to reviewing a couple of childhood favorites and seeing if what I remember of them at all matches the Amazon/Goodreads description.  Alright, folks, see you again on April 1st!

ETA: I have decided that if there a multiple books under a letter that I want to review on a given day, I can!  I’m giving myself permission.  It’s very official.

*Because this is a book review blog, yo.

**Failing finding a book in my reading history that matches a certain letter, I will go for author’s name and failing that I will just lie my way into the book fitting the criteria.

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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I did not love this book.  The more I think about it, I’m not sure I even liked it.  Was some of the writing very pretty?  Yes.  Was the main character likeable?  Sure.  But that’s about it for positives for this book, in my opinion.  Obviously I’m in the minority on this, so please don’t let my…ambivalence about this book stop you from reading it.

A brief summary of the plot.  Agnieszka is born in a village protected by the Dragon, who is a 150 year old wizard.  Every ten years, the Dragon takes a 17 year old girl from one of the villages in his care and keeps her in his tower for 10 years.  Despite rumors, all the girls thus taken agree that the Dragon never touches or harms them and when they are released from his service, they are given a large dowry.  But they never fit in again at home and after a brief visit to their parents, always move away.

Agnieszka is the right age the year the tribute of a girl is required but everybody knows her best friend, Kasia, will be the one chosen, because Kasia is beautiful and clever and kind and brave and the Dragon always takes the best.  But of course that’s not what happens, because that is not how stories work.  Agnieszka is the one chosen, whisked to the Dragon’s tower by magic and unsure of how to go on.

The rest of this review will contain spoilers, so if you are still planning on reading Uprooted because of all the nice things you’ve heard, skip the rest.

Agnieszka is chosen by the Dragon because she has magical powers.  He attempts to teach her the standard ways but doesn’t have much success.  Until there is an emergency that incapacitates the Dragon and Agnieszka finds a book in his library that has spells that work perfectly for her but which has never worked for the Dragon.  The rest of the book is Agnieszka learning to use magic her way and combining it with the standard way to make something more powerful than either of the parts and then using that magic to Defeat Evil.

All that sounds like something I would normally really, really enjoy, so let’s break down why I didn’t.

Let’s start with the characters.  Nobody except the main character and maybe Prince Marek have any personality.  Not the best friend, not the love interest, not the adversary, NOBODY.  And even the main character, Agnieszka, her main traits were that she was clumsy and she was stubborn.  Really?  I thought we went through this was Bella Swan.  Being clumsy is not a personality trait.  And there is some attempt to explain this through the fact that Agnieszka’s magic is just SO POWERFUL that it leads to her being clumsy/making messes.  But while I can see where it would lead to a tree reaching out to snag her skirt, it does not explain why she is always spilling shit on herself.  Does the overwhelming force of her magic make her hands shake?  How has nobody else noticed and commented on this?  Despite this, the character is, as I said, likable.  I can picture the “What the fuck is wrong with you?” look that must have been on her face for so much of her time at Court and it endears her to me.  But everybody else was SO BORING.

Next up, the oh so unnecessary romance.  WHY.  WHY DID THERE NEED TO BE A ROMANCE.  And if there had to be one, why did it have to be this one.  Where a 17 year old girl becomes romantically involved with her 150 year old teacher.  WHY.  STOP IT.  GROSS.  Plus, so many of their interactions were him calling her names.  That’s not romantic.  It doesn’t make me go, “Oh, that’s just the way they banter, so cute.”  It makes me go, “God, the Dragon is an asshat.”  If the scene where they discovered that the combined parts of their magics make a great whole had gone, “Well, the backlash of that spell caused a physical reaction that manifested itself as lust but once cooler heads prevailed we decided that getting romantically involved with one another was a bad idea not the least because ONE OF US IS THE OTHER’S TEACHER,” and their relationship had progressed from teacher and student to friends, I would have LOVED that storyline.  It would have been unexpected and fresh.  Instead we get a retread of a gross trope.  Ugh.

The much touted friendship.  The very beginning, before Agnieszka is taken by the Dragon, did well with the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia, I thought.  But after that?  I just kept waiting for the girls to have an actual conversation.  Almost all of their interactions seemed to be shouting each others’ names in time of crisis.  It was a very much tell and not show version of a friendship.

And then there are little things, like it’s explained why the Dragon takes a girl from the villages every ten years but why on earth does it have to be a GIRL?  Why couldn’t he have used anybody for the purpose?  An orphaned child.  A widow with no way to support herself.  A 40 year old man who hates farming.  It literally could have been anybody and the fact that it was always 17 year old, usually pretty, girl just makes it creepy.  And then there was the fact that I was in no way convinced that Agnieszka had enough training/skills to be declared a full fledged wizard.  And speaking of magic, there is absolutely no consistency to the magic system in this world, even allowing for the two different ways of doing magic we are shown.

In conclusion, boring characters, gross romance, telling and not showing in important relationships, and lots of shit that is poorly or not at all explained.  I think I’ve talked myself into out and out disliking this one, y’all.  Sorry to all the people out there who love this book, I just really, really don’t get it.

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Maia is the fourth, much despised, half goblin son of the of the emperor of the Elflands. He has lived his whole life in exile, banished for the crime of being borne of a bride that the Emperor did not want. Uneducated, uncouth, and unpolished, Maia is ill-prepared to become Emperor when his father and three older brothers die in an airship crash. But Maia is thrust into the position and must learn how to govern, how to be always surrounded by people but forever set apart from them, how to bear the great weight of responsibility he feels for the people of the Elflands.

Now, anybody who talks to me for any length of time about books will soon find out that my favorite characters are always the ones who need a hug. But it’s more exact than that. Not only do my favorite characters need hugs, they are usually the ones who probably wouldn’t accept a hug, especially one given with the “OH BEBE, I FEEL YOUR PAIN” look that would be sure to be on my face at the time of said hug giving. The eponymous Goblin Emperor is no exception. Maia might personally accept a hug from somebody who seemed genuinely sympathetic to him but obligation to protocol, to his duties, would keep him from accepting. Which just means I want to hug him all the more.

The Goblin Emperor tells the story of the first few months of Maia’s reign. Of how there are some of his father’s policies that Maia absolutely cannot live with, of how he learns which things his people will not allow him to change, of how Maia learns who he can trust and who he cannot, of how Maia builds relationships with the family he has left, of gender relations in the Elflands, of class disparity and the consequences of that going on too long, of Maia learning who he is now that he is suddenly The Goblin Emperor.

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Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie.

While I enjoyed learning more about Catherine the Great, I did not enjoy this particular book very much. The author was clearly totally in the bag for Catherine which, while understandable (Elizabeth I is my homegirl, yo), does not make for the most well balanced of books. I mean, he seemed to take as gospel everything Catherine had to say about her husband, but it was in Catherine’s best interest that Peter III be seen as an idiot, no? I’m not saying he wasn’t, because at the very least he clearly understood nothing about the national character of Russians, but he also, you know, passed a law allowing freedom of religion in Russia, mandated education, freed nobles from mandatory state service, etc. None of which seems so bad, so why am I supposed to buy into Catherine’s idea that he was utterly hopeless?

The author was also very focused on the men in Catherine’s life instead of her actions/policies, which was not my favorite. She was a fascinating woman, not solely because of her love life/the men around her. I wanted to know more about the expansion of Russian during Catherine’s reign, her deep love of culture and art and what the meant for Russia, about her thoughts on the continued reliance of her country’s economy of serfdom. All fascinating subjects and all either ignored or seen through the lens of what romantic relationship was in at the time and how that might have influenced her actions and emotional state. A subject that was not NOT interesting but which at some point makes you go, “OMG SHE HAD TO HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT SOMETHING OTHER THAN WHO SHE WAS SLEEPING WITH AT SOME POINT, SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT DAMMIT.” You know?

I also was not a fan of the structure of the book/the tangents the book went on. For instance, so much time was spent talking about the French Revolution. SO MUCH. Dude. You did not need to spend fifty pages going into detail about the French Revolution and whether or not the guillotine actually caused instant death to explain why Catherine was upset by a fellow monarch being beheaded, okay?

So all in all, yay knowledge, boo this particular book. Well, except for one fact I could have lived happily my whole life without knowing. Apparently for a man to sleep with his niece was no big deal during this time period. Catherine’s uncle asked for her hand before she went to Russia, Voltaire had a long term affair with his niece, and Potemkin had affairs with three of his. Wtf, 18th century, wtf.

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The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan is the story of Tenar.  According to the Priestesses of the Tombs, Tenar was the reborn spirit of the First Priestess.  Tenar is taken from her family at five years old and sent to the Tombs, where no man, not even the Godking himself, can enter, to train to serve the Nameless Ones, to live the life she has lived hundreds of times previously.  After a year her name is taken from her and she is only ever to be Ahra, the Eaten One, from now on.

It is a cold and lonely life, full of ceremony and duty and very little else.  Ahra has two teachers, Kossil, who is jealous of the statues conferred by the title of First Priestess, and Thar, who is stern but fair; an eunuch, Manan, who is given into Ahra’s service and is devoted to the young girl; and one fellow student, Penthe, who is brave enough to be her friend.

Thar said to her, “It is not fitting that you be seen climbing and running with other girls, you are Arha.”
She stood sullen and did not reply.
“It is better that you do only what is needful.  You are Arha.”
For a moment the girl raised her eyes to Thar’s face, then to Kossil’s, and there was a depth of hate or rage in her look that was terrible to see.  But the thin priestess showed no concern; rather she confirmed, leaning forward a little, almost whispering, “You are Arha.  There is nothing left.  It was all eaten.”
“It was all eaten,” the girl repeated, as she had repeated daily, all the days of her life since she was six.

As Ahra grows up, little changes at the Tombs, except those things that isolate her further.  Thar dies, Kossil become more jealous, status separates Ahra from Penthe and the other girls of her age, and Ahra, a teenager like all other teenagers, chafes under the constant eye of the devoted Manan.  Ahra is almost choked by the boredom and loneliness sometimes but what other option is there?  She is the First Priestess, servant of the Nameless Ones, forever bound.  Nothing will ever change.

She was fifteen. It was over a year since she had made her crossing in to womanhood and at the same time had come into her full powers as the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, highest of all high priestesses of the Kargad Lands, one whom not even the Godking himself might command. They all bowed the knee to her now, even grim Thar and Kossil. All spoke to her with elaborate deference. But nothing had changed. Nothing happened. Once the ceremonies of her consecration were over, the days went on as they had always gone. There was wool to be spun, black cloth to be woven, meal to be ground, rites to be performed; the Nine Chants must be sung nightly, the doorways blessed, the Stones fed with goat’s blood twice a year, the dances of the dark of the moon danced before the Empty Throne. And so the whole year had passed, just as the years before it had passed, and were all the years of her life to pass so?
Until one day it does.  Until one day, quiet Penthe, who alone was brave enough to be Arha’s friend, introduces the concept of unbelief to the never questioning Arha.
“Doesn’t the Temple mean anything to you?” she asked, rather harshly. Penthe, always submissive and easily bullied, did not take alarm this time. “Oh, I know your Masters are very important to you,” she said with an indifference that shocked Arha. “That makes some sense, anyhow, because you’re their one special servant. You weren’t just consecrated, you were specially born. But look at me. Am I supposed to feel so much awe and so on about the Godking? After all he’s just a man, even if he does live in Awabath in a palace ten miles around with gold roofs. He’s about fifty years old, and he’s bald. You can see in all the statues. And I’ll bet you he has to cut his toenails, just like any other man. I know perfectly well that he’s a god, too.  But what I think is, he’ll be much godlier after he’s dead.”
Arha agreed with Penthe, for secretly she had come to consider the self-styled Divine Emperors of Kargad as upstarts, false gods trying to filch the worship due to the true and everlasting Powers. But there was something underneath Penthe’s words with which she didn’t agree, something wholly new to her, frightening to her. She had not realized how very different people were, how differently they saw life. She felt as if she had looked up and suddenly seen a whole new planet hanging huge and populous right outside the window, an entirely strange world, one in which the gods did not matter.  She was scared by the solidity of Penthe’s unfaith.

And the one day things change again.  To the Tombs comes a man.  A wizard.  He is looking for a treasure hidden in the Labyrinth under the Tombs.  Arha sees him in the Undertomb, the entrance to the Labyrinth, where he as brought light, a forbidden thing.  Arha manages to trick him into the Labyrinth and lock the door, where surely he will die of hunger and thirst, for there is no way out.  But Arha is drawn to him and eventually, when he is near death, brings the wizard to a place where she can watch him through a spy hole after giving him water and her cloak to rest on.  And Arha goes back to see the man, the wizard, to learn why he has come to the Tombs, of the world outside, of magic.

I’ve read reviews that suggest that the wizard, Ged (hero of the first book in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea) is the impetutus for change in Arha, that he rescues her from the Tombs.  I say that it is much more subtle and layered than that.  Had Arha not learned of unfaith from Penthe, had she not had a heart filled with curiosity, had she not been horrified at the things done in the name of the Nameless Ones, Arha would not have sought Ged out, asked him questions about the world, about magic, about her gods.  She craves more than the emptiness she has been given and when the chance comes for more, she takes it.
I love this book.  I love the clear, spare writing that make it so easy to see the vast emptiness that surrounds young Arha.  I love the feminist themes, the imagery of finding your way out of the dark into the light that Ms. Le Guin invokes over and over again.  Most of all I love Tenar/Arha and her strength, her journey, her temper, the bright, shining light that even years in the darkness cannot disguise.  So if you haven’t, read A Wizard of Earthsea first because it is a lovely book, but then read The Tombs of Atuan and come worship at the alter of Tenar/Arha with me.
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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer.

A brief summary of the plot.  An asteroid hits the moon and moves it closer to Earth, causing swelling tides which flood the coasts, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions that put massive amounts of ash into the air, turning summer into winter.  The story is told through the diary entries of the sixteen-year-old Miranda, who goes from a normal high school student to a person fighting, with her family, for survival.

If you’re like me and you love YA speculative fiction, that sounds good, right?  And then you go on Amazon and most of the reviews are positive and you check a book blog that has stood you well in the past and they loved it!  “Yay,” you think, “I’m about to start an awesome new book!”  So I went into this book ready and willing to love it and part of the reason I’m so upset about this book is I feel liked EVERYBODY LIED ABOUT IT BEING GOOD.  WHY.  IT’S SO BAD, WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME, WHY.

Okay.  What was wrong with this book.  Let’s start with the science.  I’m not an astronomer, a geologist, or a meteorologist and it is seems like not only doesn’t Susan Beth Pfeffer have degrees in those areas, but she also didn’t consult with anybody who does.  In the novel, scientist know for weeks that an asteroid is going to strike the moon and the prevailing attitude is, “Weeeeeeee!  Everybody break out the telescopes!”  Nobody is predicting anything bad is going to happen.  Nobody is saying, “The asteroid is going to hit the far side of the moon, so you probably won’t be able to see much,” which also seems like an important point.  The impact apparently causes no debris, which do not strike Earth.  The moon INSTANTLY hops across the sky, appearing closer right away, as well as changing phase, which means it was also knocked sideways?  See the below VERY ACCURATE diagram I made for your viewing pleasure.


But the sideways push is never mentioned, as far as I can recall.  It’s implied that the moon is pushed directly towards Earth, at unbelievable speeds.  Speeds that would mean the moon would crash into Earth (or at the trajectory it had to actually have taken, be flung off into space to get sucked up by Jupiter or something) because seriously, the moon does not have brakes.  But let’s ignore all that!  The moon gets pushed closer to Earth, nobody is worried about the details, they’re just panicking and worrying about what will happen next.  Massive tsunamis that never stop are the first thing that happen.  Okay.  The moon affects the tides, I’ll allow it.  Coastlines devastated.  Got it.  Next is SO MUCH THUNDER AND RAIN, OMG.  Well, weather is a big pattern that takes time to change.  Water vapor doesn’t just accumulate in the air because the moon moved closer, right?  But asking questions while reading is no fun, so let’s move on!  Next is earthquakes.  Okay.  Tidal stresses don’t just affect the water.  I can see it.  But what about the moon?  Wouldn’t the Earth’s much stronger gravity create massive amounts of tidal stress on the moon?  But everybody in the book is afraid to look at the moon now so who gives a fuck!  Volcanic eruptions follow the earthquakes!  Uh-huh.  Ash clouds that cause permanent grey skies and freezing temperatures in August follow the volcanic eruptions.  But no ash accumulates anywhere because what goes up doesn’t have to come down?  And constant breathing of the ashy air causes a few cases of asthma and sure makes ice skating hard but other than that, no worries!  The whole book, constantly, just one bad bit of science after another, it’s so frustrating, make it stop.

Then there’s the little stuff.  The library is one of the last things in town to close but nobody ever checks out a book called “10 Ways to Catch a Squirrel and 15 to Cook It!” or “Did You Know Some Trees Are Edible?  Fuck Yeah!” or “Indoor Gardening, Why Not Give It a Try, Assholes?”  Or there’s a scene where Miranda’s family is living in the sunroom because it has a wood stove, their only source of heat, and they all decide to cut their hair and “throw it on the fire and watch it burn” and nobody says “Wow, that smells terrible and sure was a bad idea in our closed environment.”  Or the fact that the family subsides on canned food for months and nobody mentions where they are putting all the empty cans, because trash service sure as hell isn’t running.  Miranda’s house has well water and the electricity is out but the (I assume) electric water pump keeps running.  There are a loooooot of little things and they all add up until you twitch every time a new one comes up.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Miranda, the main character, is a whiny, selfish brat who cannot seem to grasp the severity of her situation or think of anything besides prom or chocolate.  Really, Susan Beth Pfeffer?  Really?  She’s a sixteen-year-old girl so prom is the end all be all EVEN WHEN STARVING TO DEATH?!  REALLY?!  Miranda is also passive beyond all endurance.  Her best friend decides to starve herself to death because “it’s God’s will,” and after saying, “Oh Megan, please eat” one or twice, Miranda gives up trying to convince Megan that SUICIDE BY STARVATION IS NOT GOOD.  If a friend of mine told me they were trying to starve to death?  I WOULD NEVER STOP YELLING AND/OR BEGGING.  WHAT THE HELL.

Firewood is seen as vital to survival but only Miranda’s brothers cut down trees.  While Miranda gathers kindling (which is a by-product of cutting down trees anyway, but whatever) and feels useless.  When the bad weather sets in, Miranda stays inside and apparently does laundry (by hand) every day while her brothers do the manly, manly task of chopping wood.  I assume with their dicks, since Miranda isn’t even thought of as a choice for the task.

Then there are the sacrifices made by various members of the family.  Miranda’s mother barely eats at all, right from the start, to give her children more food.  Never mind that the three teenagers would probably do a whole lot better in the new, frightening world with a healthy mother.  And then Miranda’s mother asks Miranda to cut back to allow her brothers to eat more.  Her older brother because he is still recovering from an illness and her younger brother because that’s the person the family picks to survive?  They all kind of just decide that they want Jon, a 13-year-old, to be the last one to die.  Because if all his relatives die, a 13-year-old sure has a chance in the new, brutal world.  EXCEPT NOT AND YOU ARE ALL STUPID.  Oh, and the family also has a cat who they stocked up on supplies for and NOBODY EVER SUGGESTS EATING THE CAT FOOD.  ARG.

At one point during the long, hungry winter, Miranda decides to weight herself.  “I was 118 pounds before all this started and I’m 96 now.  That’s not so bad, nobody is starving to death at 96 pounds.”  WHAT THE HELL, WHY WOULD YOU PUT THAT IN A BOOK WHERE A LARGE PART OF YOUR INTENDED AUDIENCE IS TEENAGE GIRLS, SO IRRESPONSIBLE, I CAN’T.

There’s more but I can’t think about this book any more.  It’s so un-feminist in such a subtle, undermining way.  I can’t.  I hate this book.  I hate this book so much.  I want to punch this book in the face.  If you ever feel the urge to read this book, don’t.  Instead find a copy of The Age of Miracle by Karen Thompson Walker and read that, because it is a lovely, thoughtful book, whereas Life As We Knew It is an un-researched, problematic mess with a whiny main character, seriously, so much face punching is needed.  No stars.  Thumbs down.  Dislike.

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All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen

This book made me sad because I wanted to love it and I couldn’t so more than like it.  The characters were solid and the dialogue wasn’t bad but everything else was lacking.  I mean, I enjoyed the plot, but I can’t really give Lev AC Rosen credit for that, since All Men of Genius is a retelling of Twelfth Night.  A Victorian era, steampunk retelling of Twelfth Night with a dash of The Importance of Being Earnest* thrown in, to be exact.

Violet and Ashton are the twin children of a a famous astronomer and a dead mother.  Their father is going to America for a year for scientific conferences and exploration and feels confident leaving his 17-year-old children at home with the housekeeper, especially after Violet express the intent to spend the year mostly in town, learning to be a “proper” lady in anticipation of coming out (to society, not out of the closet) next year.  This delights Violet’s father, who never thought to tear her away from her inventions long enough to see her become a proper lady.  What he doesn’t know is that Violet really intends to disguise herself as a man and apply to Illyria College, widely renowned for educating only the most promising of scientific (and male) students.

What follows is what you would expect if you’ve read/seen Twelfth Night.  Violet makes it in to Illyria College, confused feelings are had, everybody ends up with who you would expect (well, there’s one swap, but it’s telegraphed pretty early, it’s easy to catch), bing bang boom.  Original plot is not why you read a retelling.  What you should read this one for is the characters.  They’re interesting and fun and diverse and clever.  Sir Toby Blech other one are vast improvements over the original models and Malvolio is much more deserving of his fate.  Cecily (doing double duty as the Olivia stand-in) was fleshed out and given something more to do than be love-struck. Ada Lovelace also makes several appearances and is fucking delightful.

Things that kept me from loving this book.  1) I thought that all the characters were too accepting.  Everybody but the bad guy was fine with gay characters/women stepping outside their traditional roles.  Or rather, I should say that prejudices at the societal level was dealt with fairly deftly, but at the personal level they were more or less ignored.  Not that I in particular want to read books filled with sexist, homophobic asshats, but a little less acceptance would have been more grounded in reality.  2) There were some perspective changes, usually mid-scene, that were very, very jarring.  It definitely felt like first novel territory then.  3) When Ada Lovelace is first introduced she is described thus, “Dressed in deep navy, which seemed to bring out her careful, knowing smile.”  I’m sorry, what?  How does a color do that?  Can you help me find the color that brings out my “I’m being really polite because I hate you” smile?  That would be a useful one.

All in all, this was definitely an enjoyable book that had some flaws that kept it from being fantastic.  But I hear there is talk of a sequel and I hope that Lev AC Rosen will grow as an author and learn from mistakes and deliver a truly awesome book next time!

*I have not read or seen The Importance of Being Earnest, so I could not tell you how big of a dash it is.

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