Saturday, December 27, 2014

87. "The Vampire Diaries: Awakening" by L. J. Smith

Smith, L. J. The Vampire Diaries: Awakening. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

276 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

After reading Vampire Diaries: Awakening, I have a really hard time believing that Stephenie Meyer never read vampire fiction. Twilight parallels this book so very closely, it almost seem like she ripped off the story from L. J. Smith. That being said, in Vampire Diaries: Awakening, Stefan Salvatore is a new guy in town and, naturally, he’s a vampire. Elena, the female protagonist of the story is haunted by the recent death of her parents and infatuated with Stefan but Stefan is too troubled about being a monster to truly let Elena into his heart. By the cliff-hanger ending, a love triangle has formed. Sound familiar?

I found this book entertaining but a bit dated. It’s dated in the ways it illustrated teenage social structures. In the story there is one “queen” of the high school (Elena) and her “crowd” of cool people. Their values and interests are shallow and materialistic. The social structures are reminiscent of the films Clueless and Can’t Hardly Wait; they’re very 90s era and irrelevant to teenagers of today’s world. My biggest issue was how manipulative Elena was in trying to “have” Stefan. I’m pretty sure Mean Girls blew this kind of behavior out of the water (again, going back to how 90s clichéd this book is). If she could drop the manipulation and give some concrete reasons for why she loves Stefan other than him being “so hot,” I might actually like her.

If we stripped away the 90s social structures, the story itself is pretty interesting. One of my favorite parts of reading vampire fiction is picking about the vampire mythology used in each series or book. These vampires don’t sparkle and in order to change from human to vampire, the Dracula method is used (vampire sucks human blood and then human drinks vampire blood). There are some other fun magical features to these vampires but I’ll leave that up to you to discover should you choose to read this book.

2 darts out of 5

This book is FOR people who: want a quick, meaningless read with some fun vampire characters.

This book is NOT FOR people who: want character depth or maturity.   

Saturday, December 20, 2014

86. "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni

Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

224 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Dysfunctional teams are something I’m sure many of you have experienced. You know the team—at a meeting one member stares off into space, another makes rude or sarcastic comments and the leader seriously fumbles the entire agenda. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team seeks to identify and alleviate the problems that arise when building a team. Lencioni argues that the success of a company depends largely on how successfully its leadership team acts as a high functioning team.

The first dysfunction is lack of trust followed by several others such as focusing on individual success rather than team success, lack of commitment to decisions, and an absence of healthy conflict. All of these concepts are first illustrated with a story about a team in the Silicon Valley experiencing some major dysfunction. To fix the problem, the CEO steps down and the board of directors brings in Kathryn, a woman with years of experience in leadership in the automotive industry, to fix the problems. Readers follow Kathryn as she walks the team through the steps of fixing the five major dysfunctions of the team.

Lencioni breaks down his concepts clearly and while some might think the story a bit cheeky, I found it really helpful to see how the concepts might play out in an actual organization. As a leader myself, I’m going to put some of these concepts to use and see how it goes!

3 darts out of 5

This book is FOR people who: want to learn more about management and leadership skills, and who may be interested in Industrial/Organizational psychology.

This book is NOT FOR people who: want empirical studies and intense management theory.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

85. "Chronicles of Steele: Raven" by Pauline Creeden

**I was given this book in exchange for an honest review**

Creeden, Pauline. Chronicles of Steele: Raven, The Complete Story. AltWitPress, 2014.

249 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Raven is a reaper. She has been trained as an assassin, but for every life she takes she must redeem another. Her latest assignment is to protect a young boy, Darius, who has fits that cause electric and steam devices to go haywire. He’s the son of a duke who plans to have him killed if his fits are not cured. Raven’s job is to take young Darius to the Wood Witch in search of a cure.

Chronicles of Steele: Raven is a set of installments that were previous published separately. This steampunk fantasy novel takes readers on a magical quest. There are many stories woven into this journey from a romance turned heartbreak and the unbreakable bond between a daughter and her father. These stories are intriguing and, as a reader, I wish they were fleshed out more thoroughly. The story of Raven and her father could have been so much more touching had readers been given more details. I wanted to know her father’s quirks and see more of their interactions. I wanted more information about his death and why Raven felt so responsible for his death. I wanted more information about Gregory; what were some of the sweet moments they shared as children? I wanted to know more about Captain Jack. What is his back story? What has shaped him? These questions were left unanswered.

Chronicles of Steele is categorized as a steampunk fantasy novel and for people who have never read steampunk before, this would be a good starter. There wasn’t a whole lot of steam in the steampunk, though. Some of the genre staples were present: zeppelins, Victorian age clothing styles, steam powered horses and automaton servants. I wanted more of this stuff though! Steampunk is a genre that relies on details. Some of the reaper weapons were fantastic steampunk elements but there is more that could have been done here as well.

That being said I really enjoyed this book for its entertainment value and its girl power. Raven is a wonderfully feminist lead character. She’s someone I’d want as a friend and companion and I believe her to be a solid role model for young girls. The mission and story of the reapers was also interesting and I certainly hope that Creeden will continue writing stories about these mysterious warriors.   

3 darts out of 5

This book is FOR: people who want a good introduction to steampunk and a powerful female protagonist.

This book is NOT FOR: people who are deep into steampunk already.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

84. "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo

Russo, Richard. Empire Falls. New York: Random House, 2001.

483 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

I have a slight obsession with diners. There is something about old-fashioned diners with a line of bar stools, the smell of hamburger grease in the air, and a constant stream of coffee into anxiously awaiting mugs that makes me feel at peace with the world. I’m not sure why exactly, but I love any story whether told on film or in print, that has something to do with an old-fashioned diner.

Empire Falls is the story of a failing town in Maine, and the diner that is the heartbeat of the community, the Empire Grill. Miles Roby runs the grill for the invidious Mrs. Whiting. Miles is unsatisfied with life in Empire Falls, though he isn’t really aware of it. He is kindly reminded by his brother, daughter, and life-long crush that he wants more for himself and that his deceased mother had always wanted more from him as well.

Empire Falls is a character-driven novel. It tells the story of a small American town and its inhabitants, how they came to be who they are, how their pasts are interwoven and how their futures depend the next choice that Mrs. Whiting will make. Russo is an enchanting and masterful story-teller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Well-deserving of the Pulitzer, Empire Falls spirals into an unexpected climax that ties all the looped story lines together in a compelling and artful way. The title is apt as nearly everyone’s empire—Mrs. Whiting’s, Miles’, even John Voss’—falls by the story’s resolution.

I could not get enough of this book. I read it slowly, drinking it in as if I were sitting for coffee with Miles and the boys at the grill. It was a book that I didn’t want to end. I wanted to follow these characters through the rest of their lives. I imagine I will re-read this book several times and find something new to savor with each reading.

Empire Falls was turned into a TV miniseries that’s waiting in my Netflix queue. I’m excited to see how these characters will come to life on the “big screen. Empire Falls is by far one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

5 darts out of 5

This book is FOR people who: like a character-driven read, can appreciate the literary artistry of a novel, and are interested in fictional depictions of small-town, American life.

This books is NOT FOR people who: want a fast-paced, action packed story, or are looking for a light romantic read (this story can get pretty heavy).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

83. "The Red Bishop" by Greg Boose

Boose, Greg. The Red Bishop. Full Fathom Five, 2014.
305 pages
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

**I was given this book in exchange for an honest review**

Lake Price’s entire life changed when her brother, Kimball, disappeared. Since his disappearance Lake’s main goal was to get into dangerous situations that would help her forget about the pain his absence left behind. One evening, shortly before Thanksgiving, Lake and her friends decide to spend the night in a haunted house and they get way more than they bargained for. They discover a coven of evil witches and from that point on, Lake’s life spirals into a crazy adventure of witch hunting. Halstead, a man who spends his life tracking the witches, believes that Lake is the Red Bishop, an individual genetically programmed to hunt witches.

The Red Bishop is not written for adults. It is not written for young adults. It’s audience is mature children and pre-teens and the writing reflects this as the language is simplistic and the story very linear. The characters are very much teenagers and their dialogue is peppered with “dude!” and “like” and “bro”. That being said, the characters are pretty lovable, though they could stand for some better development. It appears that this will be the first book in a series so hopefully we can learn more about the characters in the coming novels.

My only quibble with this book really is the character development. Lake’s initial reaction to first being attacked by the witches is blasé. She doesn’t react with disbelief or with shock; she is angry and intensely determined to figure out the connection between the witches her brother. Halstead has the potential to be an immensely interesting character but lacks the required back story readers need to bond with him. The best developed characters are Lake and John and, as I said earlier, I hope in the next books of the series, we can get to know the rest of them more deeply too.

The best part of The Red Bishop is the creep factor. These witches are seriously creepy. Seriously. Creepy. I’ve read plenty of scary stories so I’ve been exposed to lots of different creepy bad guys, but the witches in this book are some of the creepiest bad guys I’ve ever met. Even though this was written for mature children and pre-teens, as an adult I was thoroughly frightened by the scenes with the witches. The hair on my arms stood on end and I had to turn on every light in my home. Yeah.

This is a really fun read as long as you don’t expect it to be written for a mature audience. Weaknesses aside, this book is still written better than the last book of the Divergent series. (Did I really just write that? Bad d’Arty….)

3 darts out of 5

This book is FOR people: who don’t mind reading simplistic writing, who are looking for a good scare, and who want a quick, fun read.

This book is NOT FOR people: who want in-depth character development.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

82. "Pink Sari Revolution" by Amana Fontanella-Khan

Fontanella-Khan, Amana. Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

248 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Sampat Pal is a force to be reckoned with. Fontanella-Khan credits her with single handedly starting a revolutionary women’s rights organization in India’s most corrupt and crime ridden areas of Uttar-Pradesh. Pink Sari Revolution follows the story of Sheelu, a young woman accused of stealing from a corrupt legislator. Sheelu is arrested and the legislator threatens her family with murder and every number of unsavory crimes. Woven into this story are anecdotes about Sampat Pal and how she came to found the Pink Gang.

The Pink Gang works to free Sheelu and bring justice to the legislator. They use sticks to threaten police officers being bribed to cover up the crimes committed against Sheelu and her family. They use connections with local newspapers and other media to spread the story and they function with force by numbers.

Pink Sari Revolution is an in-depth study on women’s identities in India and truly offers a clear depiction of the current conditions of Uttar Pradesh. Fontanella-Khan has done admirable research by living in India, learning Hindi and spending plenty of time with the individuals who lived out this story.

The one critique I have of how Fontanella-Khan portrayed the Pink Gang was the way in which the violent crimes committed by the Pink Gang aren’t explored more critically. I understand that the oppression these women faced is like nothing I can ever fully grasp not having experienced it myself and, in some instances, violence is absolutely justified. What I saw happening a lot though, was the gang imitating the same violent and manipulative methods of making change that their oppressors have used. I wanted a better discussion about this but….writing is hard. Exploring a topic like this is difficult. For the most part, Fontanella-Khan pulled it off effectively.

This book is FOR people who: are interested in gender issues in India, who enjoy reading nonfiction, and who want to know more about corruption in India in general.

This book is NOT FOR people who: want a highly theoretical look at the Pink Gang’s methods.

3 darts out of 5

Thursday, November 13, 2014

81. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" by Alexander McCall Smith

McCall Smith, Alexander. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

235 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

In Botswana, Precious Ramotswe uses an inheritance to open her own detective agency. In a world run by men, Precious must be brave and assertive to solve the puzzles her clients bring her. Less a murder mystery and more a caricature, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency surprised me. The past year I’ve been devouring cheap murder mysteries. I was expecting this to be the same, formulaic murder mystery. It did not meet these expectations. It exceeded them.

I should preface this with some background information about my reading experience. I am well-read in African literature. I’ve read the major writers—Ousman Sembene, Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Ba, and Calixthe Beyala. I’ve taken many, many classes on Francophone and Anglophone literature of North and West Africa. I can spot a well-written piece of African literature and pick it out from the pseudo-African literature (books written more from a colonist’s perspective than an African’s perspective, etc., etc.).

That being said, a lot of debate exists about this book in particular. The debate stems from the author of the novel, a white man, whose protagonist is a black African woman. Critics claim that the tone is patronizing, pointing out how “simple minded” the characters are. Critics lauded the slow pace of the narrative as another nail in the coffin for this book.

I myself, found the book delightful. I’ve thought a lot about the criticism about McCall Smith being a white man narrating a black woman’s story and to be perfectly honest, as a feminist I was quick to jump on the bandwagon and fume about what a foul trick he was trying to play. I had to take a step back though, and think about this as a writer and a reader too. If I knew nothing about this author and I read the book with no idea who had written it, I would have found it to be a compelling and authentic story.

Those who find the characters to be simple-minded and the plot slow might not be reading the text and digesting it. If one slows down a bit and digests the story as it unfolds, one discovers an enormous amount of wit and humor in the characters and their interactions with one another. The story moves slowly, but so does life in Botswana. It unfolds more as a collection of vignettes than as one seamless novel but this enables the reader to digest and interpret and contemplate the story instead of speeding through it. One can read a chapter and put the book down for a while. Think about the plot, the characters the connections between this chapter and the last.  It’s not meant to be read quickly. It’s meant to be absorbed one page at a time. The only way to enjoy this book is to read it slowly. It’s not a Tom Clancy novel. There’s a time and place for fast-paced, plot-driven novels, and this is not it.

SO, let’s go back to expectations. I was expecting a beach read, or as a friend and fellow blogger puts it, popcorn lit. My experience with the narrative styles of African writers allowed me to recognize that my expectations were way off the mark. This isn’t popcorn lit; this is African lit and it’s delightful.

4 darts out of 5

This book is FOR: people who like a slow, character-driven story.

This book is NOT FOR: people expecting an action-packed, fast-pasted mystery thriller. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

80. "Animal Farm" by George Orwell

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Plum, 2003.

152 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

It is difficult to review a book as renown as Animal Farm. Originally published in 1945, Orwell’s seminal novel has been studied and read and reviewed enough times that there is little chance I have anything original to add to the conversation at this point. So why write a review?

Well, dear readers, I write this review to perhaps introduce an important work of art which some may not have previously known. I write this review to encourage a broad range of reading. “Beach reads” and reading for entertainment’s sake is a good thing. Reading to learn and to critically think about the work from a socio-political framework is also a good thing. I write this review to encourage my readers to challenge yourselves. Read something that is difficult for you. Read something that makes you uncomfortable. Read something that makes you think about the world differently.

Animal Farm is a novel that has the power to meet all of those challenges. It will challenge you to think critically about the story for it is not just a story about farm animals but of Orwell’s larger political landscape. It may be difficult for some of you to read. Perhaps you will identify with some of the negative behaviors presented in the characters. Animal Farm may make you uncomfortable for that exact reason. It hits close to home and cracks open some societal wounds that are difficult to stare down. Orwell might make you think of the world differently or he might make you feel afraid because the fiction is so much melded with the truth.

It is not enough to just read the book. It can be read in a matter of hours. It is short and simplistic in style. Simply reading it does not do it justice. Read it and digest it. Do half an hour of research about it to elucidate the larger symbols. Discuss it with someone. Think about it. Let it simmer. Re-read it. Read this book to learn, not just to be entertained. It’s worth it. Trust me.

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which” – George Orwell, Animal Farm

5 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Sunday, July 13, 2014

79. "Body of Evidence" by Patricia Cornwell

****Spoiler Alert****
This review contains plot spoilers.

Cornwell, Patricia. Body of Evidence. New York: Pocket Books, 1991

403 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Body of Evidence is book number two in the Kay Scarpetta series. A new killer is on the loose and his victims are all connected by a strange orange fiber found at the scene of the crime. Beryl Madison, a prolific writer, is found dead in her home. Shortly following her murder, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Cary Harper, is murdered in the same fashion. Beryl was a protégée who studied under Harper and become very close to Harper and his sister. Eventually, their killer decides to go after Kay Scarpetta next and from there the plot unravels.

Body of Evidence felt a bit desperate and slapped together. The story came together at the end, but the formula was almost identical to the previous book. Woman is murdered. Another person is murdered. Murderer goes after Kay. How is it they all go after Kay? This wasn’t believable for me as a reader and it felt like a cheap way to get the killer closer to the narrator so catching him would be easy. He would show up at her door eventually, which meant that Cornwell didn’t have to devise any creative ways to track him down.

The narration felt overly dramatic with Kay comparing herself to God at certain points: “I had trained my staff very well. I wondered how God had felt after he created a world that thought it did not need Him” (Cornwell, 281-3). Kay is Catholic so it isn’t entirely out her character to reference God, but it is out of her character to compare herself to God. Kay is stressed, scared, and unsure of herself in this book and the comparison was out of place.

The killer in the story ends up being a paranoid schizophrenic. <sigh> Yes, the book was written in the early 1990s, but come on. Very few schizophrenics have the ability to do organized crime; they don’t function at a high enough level to do so. Cornwell admits this in the narration through Kay's medical knowledge so then, naturally, the killer was also highly intelligent. While not altogether impossible, it felt like a cop-out for having to write a killer that would be more plausible.

In general the book makes mental illness look bad, really bad. The mentally ill characters are dangerous and scary and don’t recover. Instead, they commit suicide and kill people. As a mental health professional myself, this was a really discouraging picture to paint of those struggling with mental illness. Way to feed the stigma, Cornwell. I won’t even get into the rampant homophobia present in the book. I know, I know, early 90s. Times were different back then, but still, I don’t have to like something just because I can put it context.

2 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: Return to library 

Reviews of earlier books in the series:
1. Postmortem

Sunday, July 6, 2014

78. "The Well of Ascension" by Brandon Sanderson

****Spoiler Alert****
This review contains plot spoilers

Sanderson, Brandon. The Well of Ascension. New York: Tor, 2007.

796 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

The Well of Ascension picks up where Mistborn left off; Luthadel is in chaos after Vin defeated the Lord Ruler. Elend is left as king but his leadership is clumsy and inept. Sazed calls on his fellow Terris(wo)man, Tindwyl, to help train Elend and teach him how to become an able leader. Unfortunately, she is attempting to teach him these skills when three separate armies sit outside the city gates, planning a siege. His people are starving and his soldiers are vastly outnumbered. Meanwhile, ghosts are forming in the mists and the mists are killing villagers in surrounding areas of the Central Dominance. Thus begins Vin’s quest to protect her King and city.

The mist grows thicker: “Chaos and stability, the mist was both. Upon the land, there was an empire, within that empire were a dozen shattered kingdoms, within those kingdoms were cities, towns, villages, plantations. And above them all, within them all, around them all, was the mist” (Sanderson, 243). The plot grows thicker as well.

The Well of Ascension moved a bit more slowly than Mistborn but the tension built up beautifully to a climatic, blockbuster ending. The last one hundred pages flew by but would have been empty had it not been for the first six hundred pages. Through this second installment, readers get to know the characters at a greater depth that makes the loss of several in the end dramatic and upsetting. All the subplots had a purpose and fed into the main plot wonderfully. The romance was plausible and not cheesy. The moral questions were natural to the situation and not rote or trite.

Brandon Sanderson is a truly talented writer. Onward!

3 darts out of 5.
Bookshelf Project Status: return to borrower

Sunday, June 29, 2014

77. "Fat! So?" by Marilyn Wand

Wann, Marilyn. Fat! So? Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

198 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

I am very stingy with my use of 5-star ratings. Books that receive a 5-star rating typically need to have a "life changing" quality. In the experience of reading them, I feel different afterwards, changed, more connected to life and myself. Marilyn Wann's book Fat! So? is one of those books I gladly give a 5-star rating.

Wann is one of the founders of the Body Positive Movement, a movement that seeks to embrace bodies of all types and put an end to fat discrimination, hatred, and prejudice. The book starts with an introduction in which Wann describes discrimination she faced due to her size. From there, the book is broken up into sections similar to a zine. This is fitting as Fat! So? is based on a zine written by Wann years before the book came into existence.

Wann emphasizes the importance of re-claiming the word “fat” and returning it back to its neutral state of simply being a descriptor rather than a word loaded with other implications. She writes that fat should hold no more weight than the words “tall,” or “blonde.” While I like this idea on the surface, when it comes down to it, almost all words describing a person’s appearance are loaded with some connection to that person’s worth. It would then be more effective to cut the connection between a person’s worth and their appearance as a whole which I think is the underlying point Wann is trying to make. We are not defined by our eye color, the shape of our thighs or the length of our fingers. Therefore, none of the descriptions “fat,” “thin,” “tall,” “short,” should ever be offensive.

What really hit me at my core with this book is what is indicated in the subtitle “Because you don’t have to apologize for your size.” Fat! So? emphasizes the importance of letting go of shame and embracing who you are no matter what your dress size is. We all need to stop apologizing for our size. There is nothing to apologize for. Society tells us differently, though and nowhere is this more transparent than in the field of medicine. We are told if our BMI is too high, we are fat and need to change our bodies (even though BMI is one of the worst indicators of health, like, ever). We are made to feel guilty, ashamed, and worthless by the medical field. The thing is, Wann points out study after study after study that shows that people can be healthy no matter their BMI.

Fat discrimination is rampant in the medical field stretching into our insurance plans and the commercial diet field where people spend thousands of dollars on diet plans and pills that the diet industry knows won’t work. We are being conned, people! This isn’t new news really, but Wann makes it perfectly clear just how far and wide fat discrimination reaches. It is horrifying, but the knowledge is also empowering. When we know what we are up against, it is easier to stand up for ourselves and Wann offers many, many ways that people can stand up for themselves and stop feeling ashamed.  

I really feel this book should be required reading in schools. For what class, I’m not totally sure, but it is a message that needs to be heard. I know this book changed my life and the way I carry myself in doctor’s offices or during conversations about body size. I know it will change the lives of many others if they can have access to it.

5 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Sunday, June 22, 2014

76. "Allegiant" by Veronica Roth

***Spoiler Alert***

This review contains spoilers

Roth, Veronica. Allegiant. Katherine Tegen Books, 2013

523 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

In Roth’s final book in the Divergent series, plot holes abound. I didn’t enjoy this one and not for the way it ended, although the ending was lazy and juvenile. My points of contention are as follows:

1. Bad point of view shifts: In Allegiant, Roth attempts to switch the point of view between Tris and Tobias. She failed….horribly. When using two separate points of view, a writer needs to make the narration different in each POV so readers can distinguish between characters. Tris and Tobias’ voices are identical. The only way a reader can tell the difference between the characters are by the convenient chapter titles indicating who is narrating. Sometimes there was a telling context clue to indicate the narrator, but the voice and narration style was identical. IDENTICAL.

2. Suspension of disbelief can only go so far. There were some serious plot holes. A few plot holes here and there and readers can typically suspend their disbelief to make the story work. Suspension of disbelief can only go so far before the story falls apart. The most egregious plot holes are listed below, but there are others outside this list, even.

  • Plot hole #1: David. David is supposed to be inoculated against the death serum. He is the leader of this highly important governmental organization. Why would he not have also been inoculated against the memory serum?
  • Plot hole #2: The government is supposed to be highly organized and scientifically sophisticated. They are sophisticated enough to add and remove genes. Supposedly by removing certain genes they created genetically damaged people, so instead of using their incredible gene technology to fix the problem, they decide to wait a couple centuries to see if it will magically cure itself. Are we supposed to believe that in several centuries' time, they aren't still advancing the genetic science used to remove the genes in the first place? This plot is hasty, lazy and illogical.
  • Plot hole #3: The government used memory serum on the Chicago population to start the gene program. The study falls apart when factions turn against one another, violently wiping out the divergent populations that the government seeks to preserve. So to solve the problem they decide to re-set the population’s memory….because that worked so well the first time. Riiiiiight.
  • Plot hole #4: The ending, according to a blog written by Veronica Roth, was meant to show how Tris chooses Abnegation values over all others. This is a nice thought, BUT it completely erases the entire point of what it means to be divergent. Divergent means that people are able to make choices based on several skill sets and critical thinking skills. They aren’t locked into the patterns of thought that define their factions. If Tris was truly as special and as “genetically healed” as she was described to be, she should be able to think of a creative way to overcome the situation with David without sacrificing herself in the process. The idea of being divergent is something I actually really liked about the series, but this sloppy ending annihilated the entire concept.

3. Poor development of periphery characters. Several periphery characters die in Allegiant: Tori, Uriah, etc. The problem with this is that character deaths are only an effective writing device if the reader is somehow attached to that character. The lack of development in these periphery characters creates a “meh” reaction when they die. It makes their deaths a quick way to tie a neat little bow around their story arc without having to put much creative thought into it.

4. Four. In the first two books, Four/Tobias is a brash, hard, brave leader of the dauntless. He's mature and makes intelligent decisions. In Allegiant he becomes a weepy, fearful, indecisive man-boy. The problem with this is that the change is abrupt. There is no transition or progression that would constitute, you know, character development. The transformation is instead instantaneous with no trigger. This version of Four is far less appealing than the Four of the previous books and serves little purpose in moving the story arc. If Roth was trying to show vulnerability in his character, it could have been done without making him an entirely different person. 

Often, I can redeem books I don’t like by feeling entertained regardless of the weaknesses. I could do that with Divergent and maybe even Insurgent, but I can’t do that with Allegiant. I don’t recommend reading this book. The only reason I can give for picking it up is so one will know how the series ends, but honestly, watch the movie instead. It will probably be better.

1 dart out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: Return to library

Sunday, June 15, 2014

75. "Mistborn" by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson, Brandon. Mistborn. New York: Tor Books, 2006

541 pages

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Have you seen the movies Ocean's 11 and The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring? If yes, imagine the Ocean's 11 story set in Mordor and you'll have Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. In a city where ash falls from the sky, Vin must learn to navigate her powers of allomancy, a power allotted only to those royal-born called Mistborn. Allomancy is a complicated process that I won't attempt to break down for you here, but with her allomantic skills, Vin joins a thieving group with the intent to overthrow the final empire.

Mistborn kept my attention through the entire tome of 500+ pages. It took me a long time to get through the entire book, but it was worth the perseverance. The characters are interesting and amusing and the story, while predictable at points, was highly entertaining. Mistborn explores questions of morality, honesty, trust, and justice.

I'm not an experienced fantasy reader. I mostly stick to urban fantasy which is like "fantasy lite." I have read the LOTR series but that is the extent of my true fantasy reading. With that in mind, I'll say that I was surprised at how easy it was to dive into this book. LOTR was dense and had miles and miles of wordy description to slog through before getting to the meat of the story. Mistborn was much more accessible and if I were to recommend a fantasy "starter" book, this would be it.

4 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: Returned to the Borrower

Sunday, June 8, 2014

74. "Insurgent" by Veronica Roth

Roth, Veronica. Insurgent. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2012

544 Pages

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

I am not the audience for the Divergent series. I get that; I really, really get that. Insurgent, despite understanding that the series is aimed largely at teen girls, left me disappointed. I'll admit, I got my wishes for more action and better plot development I'd hoped for after finishing Divergent (read review here) but there are some really blatant screw-ups in Insurgent that negated any improvements from Divergent.

First, Roth is missing something with which all good writers are skilled: TRANSITIONS. One minute Tris is falling asleep and the next, with no transition whatsoever, she is traipsing across the city. One minute Tris is traipsing through the city, the next she's standing in the middle of Erudite headquarters. The complete lack of transitions made the story jarring and disruptive and not in a way that helped the plot or tone at all. It didn't flow; it skipped and started like a scratched CD.

Second, this is a post-apocalyptic society and survival seems awfully easy for these folks. Food, clean water, clothing and shelter are readily available as is transportation that seems to miraculously appear just when they need to get somewhere. Even as a teen reader, this would have made me lose interest. The factions are warring against one another. Roth repeatedly notes that the two factions NECESSARY FOR SURVIVAL ARE NO LONGER IN TACT. So how in the world are they magically having access to the resources needed to survive?!!!???!?!??!??? It's lazy writing. It's bad writing.

Finally, I might have been able to suspend my disbelief for my second point of contention if the story had not been so predictable. About a quarter through the book, I had it figured out. Very little surprised me about how Insurgent ended. None of the "twists" left me feeling the least bit surprised. They were mostly soap operatic and worthy of eye-rolls.

I think the best way to enjoy this book, is to become attached to the characters. If you are attached to the characters, then the tension that is built from conflicts might hold your interest. This is probably Roth's strength as a writer and what thrilled the general public about this series. It isn't the plot, or the universe, it is the rich, complex, and raw characters that grab readers. It is these characters that compel me to read the last book in the series. If it weren't for them, I'd write off the entire series as a dud.

2 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: Return to Library

Sunday, June 1, 2014

73. "Divergent" by Veronica Roth

Roth, Veronica. Divergent. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2012. Kindle ebook.

487 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

When I first sat down to read the first book in the Divergent trilogy, I was convinced that it would just be a rip off of the Hunger Games trilogy. From reading the description on the book cover, it looked like Roth might be grabbing hold of the streamers on the rocket success of The Hunger Games. Beatrice Prior, the protagonist must choose her faction. In the city of a dystopian Chicago, at a certain point in their lives teenagers must decide which faction they belong to and each faction represents a particular value as a response to a war that happened long before the start of the story. This is all very similar to The Hunger Games, particularly with the strong-willed female protagonist and post-war factions or districts.

That is about the extent of the overlap, though. As stated earlier, each faction represents the polar opposite value of what people believed caused the war. Further details aren’t really given about this war, but perhaps that is coming in the next couple of books. The Dauntless faction values courage and believe that cowardice was the cause of the war. The Candor faction values honesty and believes that lies were the cause of the war. You get the point.

Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, a faction focused on extreme selflessness. She is not allowed to have her own desires; she is not even allowed to look into a mirror because that is considered self-serving. Beatrice must decide if she will stay in her faction with her family, or join a different faction and never see her family again. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say which faction she decides to join, but the majority of the book traces her progress of initiation into this faction.

Before deciding on a faction, students are given an aptitude simulation test that indicates what factions they have specific strengths for. Most students end up with strengths aimed at one particular faction. In rare cases though, some students will have strengths for multiple factions or no factions. These students are called divergent and Beatrice is one of them. Not much is explained regarding her divergent status other than the perception that those who are divergent are dangerous and thus, in danger so Tris is not allowed to tell anyone about her divergent status.

Divergent is a nice set-up for the future books in the trilogy. There wasn’t much work done in developing the “world” as most fantasy or dystopian writers tend to do. As a result, it was difficult to really grasp exactly why Chicago was in its current state and what that current state was. If I were to grade it like a teacher, I would give this book’s world creation a C. I also thought that the middle of the story really dragged. It was full of teen angst and initiation processes and romantic tension and eventually I became bored with this. By the end of the book, the action started to pick up again and I liked it enough to be curious about what happens in the second book in the series. I am hoping for more action, less angst, and better plot development in book two.

Weaknesses aside, I had fun reading this book and if you are a fan of dystopian literature, it’s worth it to give this one a shot. Just remember it is written for a teen audience!

3 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: returned to the library.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

72. "Soulless" by Gail Carriger

Carriger, Gale. Soulless. New York: Orbit, 2009. Kindle ebook.
388 pages
Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Soulless stars Alexia Tarabotti, an enigmatic, assertive Italian who has no soul. Alexia is classified as a “preternatural” in London’s BUR records. Her soulless state allows her to retract the powers of the supernatural beings around her. If she touches a vampire, his/her fangs retract. If she touches a werewolf, s/he goes back to human form. These abilities have caught the attention of a mysterious dark figure stalking Alexia like prey. Thankfully, Alexia has also caught the attention of the Earl of Woolsey, a dashing werewolf pack leader. Between him and Lord Akledama, her rogue vampire dandy, Alexia finds herself in a web of science, mystery, and intrigue as well as some spicy, um...positions.

Set in the late 1900s, Soulless is a fabulous combination of urban fantasy and steampunk. The characters are vivid and the aesthetic qualities of the steampunk genre creates a world that is beautiful and ornate. The plot had some unexpected twists and turns that delighted me and the prose was elegant and witty. Soulless vampires and werewolves are unique in their creation and integration into the London community. Carriger’s creation of the BUR organization is an effective set-up for an intriguing series of steampunk/urban fantasy/crime novels. I’m looking forward to reading the rest!

3 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: Returned to the library

Sunday, May 18, 2014

71. "Postmortem" by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Postmortem. New York: Pocket Books, 1990
342 pages
Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Kay Scarpetta is a doctor who smokes, rarely exercises, and downs meals full of fat and cholesterol. She’s not your average doctor and not simply because she seems to shun taking a dose of her own medicine. Kay Scarpetta is the county medical examiner in Richmond, Virginia, an area known for its soaring murder rate. Scarpetta deals with death on a daily basis: “What the hell. You die. Everybody dies. So you die healthy. So what?” (Cornwell, 41). This was the most profound couple of sentences in Postmortem. The rest of the book is pure entertainment.

Death and the fragility of the human experience is a theme in nearly every murder mystery. It’s present in Postmortem as well, a finely tuned radio acting as background noise to the turbulent plot. There’s a new serial killer in Richmond who the newspapers dubbed “The Strangler” for the gruesome ways in which he kills his victims. Scarpetta, working in conjunction with the local police force, tries to unravel the knot the strangler managers to tie. There isn't a lot of evidence to work with aside from a “glittery substance” found at each scene.

Postmortem was startling creepy is its realism. I found myself double and triple checking the locks on my windows and doors at night before bed while I was making my way through the story. It got under my skin more intensely than other murder mysteries due, though I can’t pinpoint the reason why it affected me in that way. I didn’t identify with Kay Scarpetta, but I liked her a lot. I was rooting for her the whole time.

Postmortem was written at a time when technology was just starting to play a role in police investigations. Dial-up modems were still used regularly (remember that horrible sound?) and DNA testing was just starting to come en vogue. The outdated technology was a chuckle-worthy trip down memory lane. I was just a littlin’ in the early 90s, but I was old enough to have vivid memories of some of the technology that was used before the era of cell phones and iPads.

There were some low points in the writing. The foreshadowing tended to be a bit too obvious and made certain scenes predictable. Some of Scarpetta’s inner dialogue drags on and gets a bit repetitive. Generally speaking, though, I had fun reading this book and isn’t that the purpose of a beach read? To entertain? I had enough fun reading it, that I plan to continue with her series and start in on book number two soon!

3 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: Return to the Library