Caves of Steel

CavesOfSteelThe Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been many years since I’ve read/listened to any of Isaac Asimov’s work. I listened to “Nighfall” when I was a freshman in high school and enjoyed it. I tried to listen to “Foundation” and couldn’t really get past the first 10 minutes of the reading – more on that in a future post. I didn’t pick up Asimov again until I was a junior in college and read “I Robot” (this was well before the movie came out). First of all, I was surprised that it was actually a compilation of short stories instead of being a novel, but enjoyed it immensely.

I’ve always been curious about Asimov’s famous Robot series, but never got around to actually listening to it until 2012. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from the series. I knew that there was a humanoid robot (like Data from Star Treck) in it, but I didn’t expect the robot to take on a secondary role.

Caves of Steel begins a series of novels about a Detective Elijah Baley. Though there are many robot related plot points and questions raised, the main story is first and foremost a detective story. Baley is tasked to solve the murder of a “spacer” before his assigned robot partner, R. Daneel Oliaw has the opportunity to solve it first.

Two of the primary emotional themes of the book are “am I smarter than a robot” and “will robots take my job?” (The funny thing is that humans continue to ask these questions today in 2013 as our technology becomes smarter and faster than humans.) Baley also has to deal with the emotional distress of having to work with a robot that can not only potentially make him obsolete but deal with the fact that this robot looks so human that people mistake him for a human being. This causes Baley distress because he’s used to treating robots like machines and not like people.

Asimov poses the question very poignantly for Baley and forces him to do a top job to solve the murder. Baley is delightfully logical and methodical about how he goes about solving the murder, what makes it even better for me as a reader is that he makes several mistakes due to insufficient information. This throws him for a loop, but he persists in his duty.

The Earth that Asimov creates in these books is well-rounded and relevant to today’s imagination. He creates his world in few words and, though he occasionally appears to go on tangents, every detail is used to further either character development or plot. Everything the main character feels is based on the experience of his version of Earth, where humans live in vast enclosed cities and rarely if ever sees the light of day. Every bit of Baley’s environment affects who he is and how he acts, which gives me a great appreciation for Asimov’s world building.

I am continually amazed by the artistry that this father of science fiction is able to weave to keep you interested in what he has to say. No wonder many of the terms he made up such as “hyperspace” and “positronic brain” are still used in science fiction today. Amazing!

Not many “hard science fiction” can be recommended for the non-SF reader, but Issac Asimov’s Cave’s of Steel is certainly one novel that I can recommend. The emphasis in the story is Baley and how he deals with solving a difficult murder case and not on the high-tech of the world. It’s Baley and his struggle that is most compelling and keeps one’s interest. The environment that surrounds the murder is just a stroke of genius.

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City of Ember

The City of Ember (Book of Ember, #1)The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading/listening to a lot of YA and Middle Grade fiction the last couple of years. I find it interesting how the stories and narrative style of these genres have been changing over the years. I thought the story concept was clever and think maybe a young reader, like my seven year old niece would like this book. It’s exploratory and encourages kids to be curious, even though many of the adults in the book say you shouldn’t be curious.

I liked the idea that these people had been underground for so long that they’ve forgotten about the surface and the words and stories that went a long with it. So when the hero and heroine of the story learn things that we’re familiar with their discoveries are fresh and exciting, like a baby discovering its hand.

I think what I found disconcerting about this book was its narrative. I felt like the book was trying so hard to be told by a kid that I felt like the book was talking down to me instead of just being itself. I realize that’s a funny thing to say about a narrative, but it definitely felt like an adult talking down to a child versus an adult talking with a child. Many older YA and Middle Grade books feel like that, which is why I think I never read them much as a child myself, so I was surprised to realize that the book was published in 2003.

Fairest

FairestFairest by Gail Carson Levine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved Ella Enchanted and had high expectations of this novel. I enjoyed it, though I didn’t enjoy it as much as Ella Enchanted. There was a lot more singing that I expected, until I was reminded that this land was filled with singers. I listened to the full cast audio so I got a full operatic performance of this book. It would have to be a musical if this book were to ever become a movie.

The base story of a girl who thinks she’s ugly was a refreshing twist for Snow White, though I must say that I was surprised to realize how vain Aza was even though the rest of her personality was caring and compassionate toward others. Even though I didn’t agree with her position on beauty, it made for a good story arch. I liked how she got trapped within the lies and temptations of beauty and I was especially happy that she didn’t become “typically beautiful” at the end of the story.

Though this is only the 2nd book of Ms. Levine’s that I’ve read/listened to, I like the note that each of the heroines had to save themselves from the curses that afflicted them. Yes, they may have had a little help from their male counterparts or female companions, they still rescued themselves in their time of need.

I think this is a good book to hand to a girl who thinks herself beautiful and for the girl who thinks herself ugly. It’s a good book to understand the dangers of vanity as long as you can get past all the random bursts into song. [wink] [wink]

Peter and the Starcatchers

Peter and the Starcatchers (Peter and the Starcatchers, #1)Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a creative retelling of Peter Pan! This book was compelling, exciting, and Peter felt like a real boy and not some magical creature.

To be honest, I’ve never read the original Peter Pan. My primary experience with Peter Pan is the Disney cartoon, though I’ve seen other Peter Pan related movies such as Hook (1991), Peter Pan (2003), and Finding Neverland (2004). So, I’m familiar with the various Peter Pan characters and what kinds of magical things happen around him.

Some could say, this is a story about how an orphaned boy named Peter became Peter Pan, but I’ll leave that the other reader’s discretion. I just know that the Peter in “Peter and the Starcatchers” came across as a real, adventuresome, curious, brave, and good-hearted boy who ends up doing great things.

The author uses all of the references of the original Peter Pan in fun ways. For example, Peter and his orphan friends (who turn out to be “the lost boys”) board a trade ship called “The Neverland” and there’s a substance called “starstuff” that makes people happy and also allows them to fly (how can you have a Peter Pan who doesn’t fly right?). There are savages, pirates, mermaids, a giant crocodile named Mr. Grin, and Smee – the pirate captain’s trusty sidekick.

I like the introduction of the “starstuff,” the concept is magical, fun, and gives the story a stirring adventure. We get a glimpse at how creatures like fairies, mermaids, and the lock ness monster were created in the world. When the starstuff was first introduced, I immediately thought about fairy dust and in the Disney Peter Pan version, there was a lot of emphasis on “happy thoughts” and flying. Was it the same? Apparently not, but I think the idea of the starstuff is a lot more exciting and ominous; it lends more scope to the imagination.

I highly recommend this story for young readers, especially those who enjoy Harry Potter. The story is written so well, that I think older readers would enjoy it too, but it will primarily satisfy the child in you.

I can’t wait to go through the next book in this series.

Fledgling

FledglingFledgling by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always enjoyed Octavia Butler’s novels. I actually haven’t read very many, I read the “Lilith Brood” series when I was in high school. I just remember being struck by how uniquely creative the world that Ms Butler had created was. I also enjoy the distinctly “Black” perspective she portrays in her writing. I loved that because you didn’t really get that in many stories back when these novels were first published.

Anyway, I digress. I was intrigued to get the audio for Fledgling because of an article I read on flavorwire.com about “10 great science fiction books for people who don’t read sci-fi”and of all of her novels Fledgling was on this list. To be honest I was surprised by 2 things: 1) that the book wasn’t “Kindred” (a novel I’ve been wanting to read for a long time – the one she’s most famous for writing) and 2) Fledgling is a vampire novel.

I’m going to start off by saying that vampire novels don’t attract me in any way. I only read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight because I was desperate to understand what all the hype was that made this woman an over night sensation. But, I had such fond memories of Octavia Butler’s story telling that I decided to give Fledgling a shot.

Let me tell you, I was not disappointed at all. I’m may not be the right person to say this since I don’t read vampire novels, but I really thought that Ms. Butler’s take on vampires was a very fresh one. These aren’t evil, kill-all-humanity vampires, but a race of people who are just trying to live in the world. They live in communes with “human symbionts.” These vampires have most of the attributes that we think about when we hear vampire, but they aren’t stereotypically violent or blood-thirsty.

We follow the main character, Shori, as she recovers from a tragic event and we learn as she does about what and who she is. We learn that the main character is different from other Vampire or Ina, as they call themselves.

What I liked most about the way this story was told is that I felt like I understood Shori every moment of her struggle to figure out who she was and I enjoyed the new take on what Vampires are and I like how Shori is a “genetic experiment.” It brought a different perspective that I enjoyed. I was sad when the book was over.

Thorn

ThornThorn by Intisar Khanani

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first picked up this book because it was written by a college friend of mine. I was so excited to hear that she had published a book – a YA fantasy – that I simply had to support her in her endeavor to be a professional story-teller. I am so glad that I did because this really is a beautifully written novel.

This is a fairy tale inspired by a fairy tale. I’m not as familiar with the story of The Goose Girl as I am other stories such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but I don’t really think it matters.

This story stands strongly by itself. It’s the story of a princess who doesn’t feel like a princess but who, by the end of the story, realizes that she is a true queen – at least in spirit if not in name. This is a story about arranged marriage, magic, justice, and the power of one’s true spirit. Princess Alyrra starts out as a girl who loathes courtly gossip and intrigue and wishes to be free of her prickly mother and hateful brother. The Menaiyan king comes seeking her hand in marriage for his son, Prince Kestrin.

You learn early that Alyrra is a gentile soul, who is very introverted, perceptive, and thoughtful; she’s aware of the intrigues that play out around her but she feels powerless to do anything about them. Bound by duty to her kingdom and her family she agrees to the arranged marriage.

The beginning of the book was slow for me. The danger of having the narrative in first person is that I became as apathetic as Alyrra about her situation. I liked her but was not sure whether or not I had the patience to get to the meat of the story. Though there was an interesting scene at the end of Chapter 3 with a sorceress, the threats of the scene didn’t linger long enough in Alyrra’s thoughts to maintain its impact. It wasn’t until Chapter 6, the second appearance of the sorceress, that the story really picked up and started to take shape for me.

I was happy I stuck with her story. Chapter 6 is where treachery truly hits Alyrra at full force and she is forced to switch bodies with Lady Valka, who is Alyrra’s enemy – though the reader doesn’t really understand why until later in the story. Suddenly, the princess physically becomes a lady in waiting and the lady physically becomes the princess. This is the point where Alyrra becomes Lady Thoreena, which eventually shortened to Thorn.

Alyrra’s transformation from princess to goose girl seemed natural, due to her demure personality, her desire to not participate in court life, and her wish to live a life that is her own. The most exciting aspect of the story was watching Alyrra grow and realize that she wants her position as princess back and fights for it.

By the end of the novel I was excited for how soft and yet strong Alyrra becomes. She is a heroine that I would like my future daughters to have as a role model. Alyrra’s not a swashbuckling heroine who gains physical fighting skills to defeat her foes, but a young woman who sharpens her unique strengths to overcome difficulties: her wits, her powers of speech, her kindness and warmth toward the people around her, and innate sense of justice. I was proud that she fought for her prince in her gentile yet strong manner, she trusted him to be a good person, and he too fought for the goodness in his own heart.

I found the end of the story quite powerful and neither Alyrra nor Kestrin walked away unscarred from their experience. My only disappointment was that I didn’t get my kiss at the end of the story, but there was a great bollywood moment where I was left feeling happy as if they had.

Portrait of a Spy

Portrait of a Spy (Gabriel Allon, #11)Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this is my first official “thriller and espionage” novel. I was first introduced to Daniel Silva by the members of one of my critique groups. Our group of three is one of my driving forces is getting my own story written and proofread. There is myself (the SF/fantasy writer), one who is a fantasy, nonfiction, and philosophy writer, and a mystery writer. They both had nothing by great things to say about Daniel Silva’s books and suggested that I read Portrait of a Spy.

I of course, ordered the audio immediately from the library (there are at least 3 YA novels that I’m trying to read the traditional way right now and it’s taking me a long time). The great thing about the audios is that I can listen to them all the time and I can get through them fairly quickly.

The great thing about Portrait of a Spy was, based off the glowing recommendation, I knew that my husband would enjoy it too. So, when my husband and I began to listening to the book when we’d make long drives in the car or instead of sitting and watching netflix we’d sit and listen to our audiobook. It amused me when my husband go so engrossed in the story that he was like “when can we listen next?”

One of the things I didn’t realize when I first ordered this book is that Portrait of a Spy is book #11 of his Gabriel Allon series. The great part is that it didn’t matter! We got just enough information about all the character that it didn’t matter that neither of us had ever read any of these books before. The great thing too, is that since these books are thrillers and not mysteries, if we go back and read the preceding books, it doesn’t matter.

Terrorism is a very touchy subject and I felt that this book handled the subject quite deftly. You get perspectives of extremism and you also get moderate views. Though the characters don’t always justify their reasons there are those who have very high tolerance and those who have very low tolerance for terrorists and varying view on how to deal with/respond to them. I learned a lot about how certain terrorist acts are handled these days. I really liked the explanation of the terrorist attach at the beginning of the book and why the authorities took the actions they did. You could tell that the author did his research to justify what happened.

The story was complicated and I was excited to learn about all the twists and turns that it took. I loved the hidden jabs that the book took on the US government because a great part of me tends to also have a very jaded view of how bureaucratic our government is. I have some personal experience with that, so I enjoyed many of the subtle and not so subtle jabs.

I found the initial chapter a little slow, but I understood that I was learning about the main characters and what they were all about, so I didn’t mind too much. I think my favorite part about the book was the depth of Gabriel Allon. I found him to be a strikingly complicated character and loved how the author described Allon’s thought processes and rationals. Though I think many people may think of Allon as being too idealistic as a spy, but I actually know people who think as complicated and as quickly as this character does, so I found it very real.

I also enjoyed the character of Nadia al Bakari. She too was a complicated character with divided loyalties. (She’s the heroic Arab character of the story.) You get a glimpse of female Saudi life through her perspective and receive her views on terrorism and Islam and her beliefs that they are not one in the same. She is a powerful, courageous character who does what she can for her people.

I’m not much into giving summaries of stories and in this case it probably wouldn’t really hurt to do so, but I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to consider reading this well written book yourself.

Enjoy!

Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is very complicated for me. To be completely honest, my personal enjoyment of this book was a 3 out of 5 stars. I usually consider myself a Tolkien kind of reader, I love the details in novels and become very geeky about it, but somehow this book didn’t make me feel this way. I was very surprised about that, especially considering how popular this book is amongst “high fantasy” readers.

I have to give a 5 out of 5 starts for the world and character building within this book. The world is so rich with detail and you really feel like this is a real place with real pleasures and dangers. It’s obvious that the author has an in-depth knowledge of who each and every character in the book is, what their past is, what their motivations are, and what drives their purpose. It was also interesting to me to see how the author continually challenged the characters and how each character would find themselves in a continuously degrading situation.

Besides the world and character “building”, the plot twists and turns were the most interesting part for me. It was fun trying to figure out who was really rooting for who and where people’s loyalties lied. The problem was, the arch of the story was so subtle that the story turned into a bloody soap opera for me. Each subplot moved slowly because there is so much information and were so many POV characters and intertwining stories that there just wasn’t enough time to go through a full story arc. I think this 835 page book (31 hours of listening time) was more of an Act 1 than anything else.

Of the 8 point-of-view characters, I found that only 2 of them actually “changed” from the beginning to the end of the book: Daenerys Targaryen (she goes from being a meek girl who does what she’s told into a self-assured young woman who is ready to take back her inheritance and be queen) and Bran Stark (had a very small change from being a strong, willful boy to being weak and lost – which I’m sure will change again in another book.). One other character that I felt changed from beginning to end was Robb Stark, who never really had a POV but you saw enough of him that you can see him changing from a boy into a man.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of bad things happen to the characters in this book and you see how they deal with each situation that’s thrown at them. Does it count as change if a character is perceived as not conflicted and then conflicted? But the point of being conflicted was the inciting incident, so I don’t think that really counts as “change” over the course of a story. But a character acts in the same way to every situation and I didn’t really see any “growth” in their character. For example, Eddard Stark had his same fierce clutch on honor and goodness at the end that he did at the beginning (even though it was made to look like he compromised his “honor” to save his daughter at the end, he really didn’t).

I believe this talk about character change, simply reinforces the fact that this book is really an Act 1 and not a full Act 1-3 story.

Some subplots were more interesting than others and I’m excited to follow some into the next book, but I’m not sure if everyone really held my interest enough to continue.

There was tones of action, sex, and complicated intrigue to keep the reader entertained, so I totally understand why HBO make it into a TV series. The problem for me, while I was listening to it is that even with the action and intrigue I got bored and when I was 3/4 of the way through the audio thought to myself, “It’s not over yet?” I was exhausted. A friend of mine told me that she had to stop listening to the audio and “speed read” the rest of the book. [sigh] I wish I could do that, but unfortunately for me the audio reads faster than I do.

I actually picked this book up for the first time in 2006, when I was part of a science fiction/fantasy book group at my local library. I have to admit that the beginning was so painfully slow for me to read through, even though the world being painted was rich with color and life and the characters were complicated, real people, I stopped reading after the 5th or 6th chapter. I just couldn’t handle it. I read very slowly and I usually give a book at least 50 pages before I put it down for a more interesting read.

I feel like I have to justify myself because the book is really as good as the fans claim. I personally, found aspects of the book amazing myself such as the world and character building. I think the execution of the story just wasn’t for me.

Fashforward

FlashforwardFlashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

WOW! It’s been a long time since I’ve read any real adult Science Fiction. I know that sounds a bit weird, but most of the SF I’ve read in the last few hears has been space opera or science fantasy adventure (and rereading old favorites don’t count). But Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer is true Science Fiction at it’s root. I must be honest that listening to this book made me question whether or not I could ever be a good enough writer to write this kind of Science Fiction.

Ok. Enough about my awed feelings.

Flashforward had an incredible concept about time travel, it was loaded with fun scientific debate, and had a very compelling human factor. I must admit that the science sounded much more interesting that most of the human dramas that surrounded it. Even though the human dramas within the story were very realistic, I found Theo’s quest to prevent his murder a much more compelling sub-plot than Lloyd’s conflict over whether or not to pursue a marital partnership with a woman, whom he truly loves, because he’s convinced the relationship is doomed to failure.

I found myself often wondering whether or not many of the scientific opinions and biases are that of the author or simply selected biases for each character in the story. This added an extra bit of fun for me as the reader/listener to anticipate how the story was going to unfold. I found that the science and the story were well weaved together from the perspective that the science supported the story in its progression. Peoples discussions about science were natural. Though if I were watching this book as a movie there were many parts of the narrative where I could picture a bubble appearing with extensive notes about XYZ science fact. Hey reader in case you didn’t know this science fact let me fill you in. It was cool, but sometimes a little distracting to the story.

I found this book to be for the major Science Fiction geek. In my opinion, this book weighed heavier on the science than on the story, but that was all right with me because that’s what the story really was about to begin with.

What was the science you ask? Well… A group of researchers at CERN are working with the Large Hadron Collider to create the elusive “higgs boson particle,” the proposed elementary particle allows other particles to acquire mass. But during their test something unexpected happens, everyone on the planet is flashed 21 years into their future and they experience 1 minute and 23 seconds (give or take a few seconds – my memory is faulty) of their life. Unfortunately, “life” goes on in present day which means that everyone stops functioning for that 1 minute and 23 seconds and all hell breaks loose. How did that happen & how will our cast of characters deal with how their lives have changed because of that “Flasforward Event?”

If you enjoy reading about real up-to-date science and enjoy the questions of quantum mechanics and the origins of the universe. This might be the book for you. 😉 As a science, geek myself I totally enjoyed it.

Oh! And from what I’ve heard, Flashforward was also made into a TV series in Canada, I think I’ll check that out.

Fever Crumb

Fever Crumb (The Hungry City Chronicles Prequel, #1)Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t remember where I first saw Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve, but I do remember being excited about a story about a female engineer. Being a female engineer myself, this was highly intriguing. I wanted to write a book about a female engineer (that book is still percolating in the back of my brain) but here was one already published. Needless to say, this book sat in my “to read” queue for three years before I finally got around to reading/listening to the story. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.

I didn’t realize it when I first started Fever Crumb, but this book is a “prequel” to an already written series called “The Hungry City Chronicles” and am happy to say that it doesn’t matter if you’ve read any of those novels or not.

The world of Fever Crumb is rich, complex, and imaginative. It was kind of funny to think of a futuristic world where no one knows what an airplane or computer is yet alone how they work, there were even some technologies that we don’t have and may have in the future. Most importantly, I bought the idea that there must have been some cataclysmic happening that deprived humanity of knowledge and that we had to start from scratch again or at least nearly from scratch. But I was most intrigued by the concept of Fever and the Guild of Engineers. These men are more like mad scientists and inventors than engineers but it was fun to learn about their place in society and what their lifestyle was. I have to admit that my first thought was that these engineers were supposed to be like Vulcans (yes, as in Star Trek), men who suppress their emotions so they can surrender their minds entirely to logic and “rational” thought. Unfortunately, the word “rational” was overused for my taste. Being a very logical and rational woman myself, I found it got annoying to be constantly reminded that the engineers were “rational” and that everyone else was “irrational.”

I’m glad that I listened to this as an audiobook, I think I would have found the pace a bit too slow for reading and it would have taken me a long time. Again, the world was so rich with detail that I found myself enjoyed learning about what the people knew and didn’t know about the technologies that were “left behind” by technologically advanced human ancestors. I found the mystery of Fever Crumb captivating, though some aspects I was able to guess before the time was due. I also enjoyed the relationships that were built around Fever and the character development felt true to the world that had been created. I do wonder what is going to happen to Fever in her future and look forward to reading – I mean listening her next story.

This is a story about a girl who is abandoned as a baby and adopted by a man who is part of the guild of engineers. She is raised as an engineer and accepts it as her profession. On her first assignment in the real world she goes to a manor in futuristic London where she learns that there is a vault that has secret technologies and she realizes that she has memories about things that she shouldn’t understand.