Stormbreak

by Natalie C. Parker
First sentence: “The fire crawling through Lir’s veins had started hours ago and was only getting worse.”
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Others in the series: Seafire, Steel Tide
Content: There is a lot of violence, some graphic, and some off-screen implied sex. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Steel Tide, obviously.

Caldonia has defeated the evil overlord Alric, though her arch nemesis, Lir, has gotten away. She has opened her city to Bullets if they want to detox from their drug, Silt. She is doing well, all things considered. But, Lir is not letting it go, and attacks Caldonia’s city setting her on the run, again. She needs to end this once and for all, reclaim the Bullet Seas, stop the reign of terror. But will her plan work?

There really isn’t much to say about this book that hasn’t been said about the series as a whole. It’s got a ton of action, and Caldonia is making tough choices for her crew and fleet. It’s amazing seeing a woman command the role of commander so fully and so easily; she has a crisis of conscience now and again, but she never doubts that she is the one in charge. And her crew and followers support her. It’s incredible to read.

Parker is great a writing action, as well. The battle scenes are packed and the whole book kept interesting in continuing reading. I enjoyed that it wasn’t just Caldonia who got character arcs, but rather that her whole crew felt real.

It’s really a good series.

Parable of the Talents

by Octavia Butler
First sentence: “They’ll make a god of her.”
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Others in the series: Parable of the Sower
Content: It’s rough, violence-wise and emotionally. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

This book picks up five years after Parable of the Sower: Acorn is a settled community, not large but flourishing and prosperous. Earthseed is growing as a movement and Oamina and Bankole are expecting a baby. But, in the wider world, the United States has elected a Christian American minister and facist as a president — someone who believes that all vagrants, homeless, and heathens should be “reeducated” and their children taken away and raised by Good Christian families. Once he’s elected, he backs off, but there is a movement –Jarrett’s Crusaders — that takes it upon itself (without consequences) to follow Jarrett’s philosophies. They attack Acorn, take away the children (including Olamina’s 2 month old baby) and enslave the rest of the adults. It’s a pretty horrific section, reminiscent of the Nazi Concentration camps (and made me ashamed to identify as a Christian though I understand these people were Not Really Christian.) Eventually, Olamina escapes and then spends the rest of the book looking for her child and restarting her Earthseed movement.

The most interesting thing about this book was that Olamina’s daughter, Asha Vere (which was the name her – admittedly not great — Christian adoptive parents gave her), narrated it as well. Every chapter began with an Earthseed verse and then some narrative by Asha. At first, this bothered me — Asha blamed her mother for starting Earthseed, not finding her soon enough, and for decisions she made, none of which really sat well with me; her mother did the best she could given the circumstances — but eventually, I came to understand Asha’s resentment, and her bitterness toward her mother. Butler had to create conflict — because novels are not life — and she did that brilliantly by creating a division between mother and daughter (as well as between Olamina and her brother, who embraced Jarrett’s Christian American movement). Butler is an excellent writer and a consummate storyteller, and, much like Handmaid’s Tale, is quite prophetic. She pulled from history and put together a tale that is a warning as much as it is an engrossing story. I did find myself skimming toward the end, when things settle down and Earthseed becomes moderately successfull, eventually sending ships into outer space, but really: this duology deserves the accolades it has gotten.

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler
First sentence: “I had my recurring dream last night.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, some frank talk about sex and rape, and some mild swearing (with one or two f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

It’s 2024 and the world has gone to hell. Climate change, drugs gone rampant, violence due to poverty and desperation, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives with her father, step-mother and three-half brothers in a walled and gated community that isn’t rich, but is surviving pretty well. Lauren’s biggest obstacle is her hyperempathy — a condition that allows her to feel and experience another’s pain if she sees it — which makes her extremely vulnerable. And then, as the years and book goes one, things get worse. Lauren finds herself in the open, trying to survive the growing chaos, and finds, among other things, a birth a of a new faith.

I remember reading an Octavia Butler ages and ages ago, or at least trying it. I wasn’t successful. I’m not sure which one it was, but it just didn’t connect with it. But this one? Maybe it was the time — it begins basically in our present — and my awareness of our current political situation, but this felt not just like fiction, but, well, prophecy. It’s less about the characters, though I did care about them and what happened to them, and more about the way the characters interact with the world. It’s a survivalist tale, it’s a dystopian — though it’s in the early stages of being a dystopian — it’s a book about trusting each other and yet not making oneself vulnerable. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, harsh, brutal, and very very hard to put down. I went out and picked up the sequel because I need to now how this story ends.

I’m so very glad I read it.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
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Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

by Hank Green
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

April has died in a fire, Carl has disappeared, and the world is trying to recover. Mostly April’s friends — Maya, Miranda, and Andy — are trying to move on. And they each do in their way. That is, until they start getting a mysterious book that is telling them what to do. And from there, the plot gets really really complicated and it’s so much better not knowing too much.

And, much like the first book, this one is about more than just humans vs. alien robots. It’s about collective action, and free-will. It’s about whether or not we can stop ourselves from destroying the earth. It’s about friendship and trust and forgiveness.

And, much like the first book, it’s a delight to read. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s pretentious but not overly-so, and I think Green knows (and has thought long and hard) what he’s talking about. It’s a fun romp, and a good conclusion to the story, but it’s also a thoughtful book with a lot to discuss.

Or maybe I just really like the Green brothers. Either way: it’s a good read.

QualityLand

by Marc-Uwe Kling
Translated by Jamie Lee Searle
First sentence: “So you’re off to QualityLand for the first time ever.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some sexual content. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

In the future, our world has been automated to the point where we don’t have to think. Algorithms can pick your partner, determine your “level” in life (which determines your privileges and careers and your partner), personalize your literature and movies, and even send you stuff before you know you want it. QualityLand (which is the “bestest land”) has commodified absolutely everything. So when Peter — a Level 9 (anything under 10 is determined to be “Useless”) scrap machine operator (except he’s kind of bad at that, preferring to salvage the AI that he’s supposed to be scrapping — receives something he doesn’t want — a pink dolphin vibrator — from TheShop (think Amazon), he decides to return it.

This book is a LOT less about plot (there isn’t really much of one) and more an exploration of what life would be like if we took our current society (this was published in Germany in 2017) and pushed it to the extreme. It’s not an argument I haven’t heard before (living in the family I do, married to the person I am married to): while technology itself isn’t inherently bad, letting technology overtake our lives is (she says, while scrolling on Instagram). The people who are behind these corporations are NOT out for *our* collective good, they’re out for personal gain. They’re selling our data, they’re invading our lives, and we should be aware of what’s being taken from us.

That said, coming across as “fiction” makes it sound a whole lot less “grumpy old man conspiracy extremist” than in the essays and non-fiction books I’ve read (or heard Russell talk about). Maybe it won’t make me change my ways but there’s certainly a lot to talk about. It’s clever and weird and funny (at times). And it’s Kling is definitely one of the “prophets” out there screaming to the void (how many of the readers will buy it as an e-book from Amazon, and what’s the irony in that?) that maybe we need to remember our humanity. If only for the sake of our culture, if not ourselves.

A fascinating read.

The Toll

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “There was no warning.”
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Others in the series: Scythe, Thunderhead
Content: It’s very violent, but much of it is mass violence, which somehow doesn’t have the same impact (for me) on the page as it does on the screen. There is one f-bomb and some mild swearing.

Spoilers for the first two, obviously. If you haven’t read this series yet, you NEED to.

I’m going to try and do this with minimal spoilers for The Toll. It’s not easy. Especially since there’s SO MUCH going on in this one.

Endura has sunk and Citra and Rowan with it; the Thunderhead is only talking to Greyson, which makes him a “prophet” for the Tonists; Goddard has taken over as Overblade of the whole Merican continent, except for the Lone Start state; Faraday and Munira think they have found where the “fail safe” that the original scythes created is being housed. I think that’s it.

From there, though, this book winds its way through multiple timelines — sometimes I felt like I needed a chart to help put all the events in relation to each other. Sometimes I lost track of what was happening when. It was a lot to keep track of.

But, I think Shusterman juggles all his balls really effectively. He really is a master of revealing just enough information at just the right time in order for you to put all the pieces together just before he reveals what you just put together. It’s a good ending, too: he wraps up all the plot lines (even though K thinks it was a bit silly) and did one in such a way that made me tear up.

And because all good science fiction is a commentary on real life, this one has shades of what it would be like to live under a narcissistic dictator with unlimited power and funds. And the ways in which the public reacts (or doesn’t react) to that. It’s illuminating. And about halfway through I realized the brilliance of the title as well.. (Not going to spell that one out for you; you have to figure it out.)

It’s a solid ending to a fantastic series.

The Power

by Naomi Alderman
First sentence: “Dear Naomi, I’ve finished the bloody book.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some sex, and a few graphic rape scenes. It’s also incredibly violent. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

The basic premise of this book is that one day, suddenly, all women in the world get a power — the ability to channel electricity — that gives them the ability to “fight back” against men of the world. It starts with teenagers, but eventually spreads to most women. The narrative follows four people: a mayor of a New England town, a girl in the foster system, a daughter of a British mob boss, and a young Nigerian man. The change affects all their lives: the mayor becomes governor and then senator, creating for-profit training camps for girls to learn to better control and use their power; the girl kills her foster father (who was raping her) and runs away and eventually starts a new religion, becoming Mother Eve; the daughter of a mob boss ends up taking over the whole operation; and the young man becomes a news reporter, going where the stories — of rebellion, of resistance, of control — are.

It was, for me, a tough book to swallow, and it wasn’t until the end when I realized what Alderman was doing. It’s best to remember that science fiction is more about the present than the future; and Alderman is shining a light on violence against women by turning the tables. The women in this book, once they get the power, become very… well… masculine. They embrace and abuse power, they torture and rape and kill men solely because they are weak. They create laws that restrict men’s movements, and in the end, blow the whole system up.

It’s also a critique of the nature of power, I think. I feel like Alderman is saying that power over another person corrupts anyone, male or female. That there is no “better nature” that will, inherently, make a woman better at leading. That power is, at it’s heart, an violent act of controlling another person.

It’s not an enjoyable read, but it is an interesting one, and has given me much to think about.

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive.”
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Others in the series: The Handmaid’s Tale
Content: There is an instance of sexual assault, some violence (some of which is pretty graphic), and instances of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to preface this with a couple of caveats: I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in about 10 years, though I have kids who have read it more recently and have talked to me about it. I remember basic plot points of the book, but not specifics. And, I have not (yet; I’m kind of curious now that I’ve finished this one) watched the series on Hulu. I think having watched the series and/or having read the book more recently may have an impact on your opinion of this one.

The Testaments follows three women: Aunt Lydia, who was there at the beginning of Gilead, and chose to become part of the founding structure of the regime; Agnes Jemima, who was born in Gilead and was raised to believe in its teachings; and Daisy, who was born in Gilead, but whose mother, a Handmaid, escaped north to Canada and who was raised by a couple there. The narratives intertwine and go back and forth through time; we find out through Aunt Lydia what happened when Giliead was formed, and the choices she made to become in the position of power she is currently in. We find out through Agnes what is being taught to the generation of girls that has since been born. and the challenges they face. And from Daisy, we find out not only what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead, but the future of it.

It’s a fascinating book to read, though I’m not entirely sure it’s 1) coherent with the world Atwood put out in the Handmaid’s Tale (see above caveat) and 2) necessary. It’s really all about the downfall of Gilead, because in Atwood’s view, no matter how “pure” or “righteous” your intent setting out, we are all human and, therefore, corrupt, and any system of government built upon anything but basic human rights for all is bound to fall. I’m not sure how I feel about that — it seems easy to believe that the Commander in charge of Gilead, Commander Judd, was inherently corrupt from the start and just did all this as a power grab and because he’d like any excuse to “marry” and kill off a series of increasingly younger brides. It’s disgusting, but I’m not sure it serves a purpose except to prove that all men who crave power are disgusting and corrupt. (Which may or may not be the case.)

But it’s Atwood, and her writing is engaging, and the storytelling interesting, and while it’s not as harrowing as Handmaid’s Tale was when I first read it, it’s definitely got a bit of a warning: dismiss the power of women at your own peril.

And maybe this is the book we need for this time in history.

Steel Tide

by Natalie C. Parker
First sentence: “The stars felt close tonight.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Seafire
Release date: September 17, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Seafire, obviously.

When we last left our erstwhile captain, Caledonia, she had attacked the Bullet ship of the Fiveson Lir, and commanded her crew and ship to leave while she took on Lir personally. It didn’t go well, and she was left for dead.

She was rescued, thankfully, by a group made up of former Bullets, calling themselves the Blades. They live free on an island, not bothering anyone. Until someone gets wind that’s where Caledonia are, and they join her fight against the all-powerful Aric. Caledonia’s crew has been captured and so she and the Blades work together to get them out, and then prepare to take on Aric and overthrow his all-consuming control.

It’s not the best summary, but there’s a LOT going on in this book. It’s definitely a middle book: it doesn’t really build to much, though there is a great battle scene at the end, but is more laying ground for what is to come next in the final book. That’s not to say this isn’t a GREAT read: it totally is. Parker has succeeded in writing ship battle scenes that keep pages flying, while developing intriguing and complex relationships not only between the girls on Caledonia’s regular crew, but also among the Bullets. You actually feel it when people die (and they do die; she’s not a timid writer). And I adore Caledonia as a captain; she knows how to lead, and the fact that she doesn’t do things on a whim, but actually has a purpose for her madness is brilliant.

I can’t wait for the next one!