Random Reads 2/18/21

Are You in the House Alone? by Richard Peck
Are You in the House Alone? came out in 1976 and though I totally could’ve read it when I was a teen—and thus still a member of its target audience—I never did.

Gail Osburne is a sixteen-year-old high school junior and native New Yorker who’s not at home in the quaint Connecticut village her family relocated to several years back. I knew that the plot involved Gail receiving menacing anonymous notes and phone calls, and I was expecting these events to get started quickly and the suspense to remain high throughout. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, the story is told retroactively, so we know Gail survives. Also, obvious culprit is obvious. (I hope the reveal wasn’t intended to be a surprise, but perhaps readers were less savvy about such things in 1976.) Initially, much more of the focus is on Gail’s relationships with her parents, boyfriend, and best friend, and in particular how the latter two are in the slow process of dissolution. Eventually she receives some threatening notes and creepy phone calls, gets scared, is let down by people in positions of authority, and comes face-to-face with said obvious culprit. That happens halfway through this slim novel. The rest of the book is about Gail’s recovery from her ordeal.

I thought Are You in the House Alone? was going to be fun, suspenseful fluff, but it turned out to be fairly serious and occasionally (intentionally) infuriating. I really appreciated how Peck was able to weave in a couple of threads that seemed very random at first and make them integral to the denouement, too. Ultimately, I didn’t love the book, but I kind of… respect it, if that makes sense. It didn’t go the cheap route.

automaticThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez
Mack Megaton is a hulking robot who was created to destroy. He developed self-determination, however, and went against his programming. Now, he’s a probationary citizen of Empire City, where mutagens and pollution have created a very diverse population. While some “biologicals” are still “norms,” others have been physically transformed (like rat-like Detective Alfredo Sanchez) and others have been changed in not-so-visible ways (like Mack’s friend, Jung, a talking gorilla with refined literary taste). Mack works as a cab driver and is trying to keep a low profile, but when his neighbors are abducted, he can’t help but try to rescue them. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, of course.

Despite its name, The Automatic Detective isn’t really much of a mystery. I suppose it’s more… sci-fi noir. Mack meets various thugs, beats some of them up, gets beat up himself, etc. Slowly, he makes progress on uncovering a huge conspiracy. At times, I felt like Martinez was a little too enamored of the gimmick he created, and places in the middle dragged a bit as a result, but the ending is pretty satisfying and overall the book was enjoyable enough, even though it’s quite far from the sort of thing I usually read.

As a final note: I really liked that Martinez limited himself when it came time to invent universe-specific profanity. Instead of the text being liberally sprinkled with words like “frell” or “frak,” the phrase “Oh, flurb” appears but once (during a moment where the meaning is 100% apparent) and made me laugh out loud.

I don’t know if I’m necessarily eager to read more by Martinez, but I’m glad I read this one.

jeeves2The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
When I read My Man Jeeves back in 2010, I was somewhat disappointed because so much of it was repetitive. While there are some common elements that recur within the eleven stories that comprise The Inimitable Jeeves, it is still so very much superior that I’d now say… forget about that first book. Start here. Go back and read My Man Jeeves for completist purposes, if that’s your inclination, but start here for the best introduction to these characters and Wodehouse’s uniquely charming and amusing writing.

First published in 1923, The Inimitable Jeeves contains a linked set of stories that typically involve affable Bertie Wooster being imposed upon by either his eternally lovesick friend Bingo Little (who is “always waylaying one and decanting his anguished soul”) or his mischief-making younger cousins, Claude and Eustace. One plot thread involves convincing Bingo’s uncle (who provides him with an allowance) to agree to Bingo marrying a waitress. Jeeves comes up with the idea to ply the uncle with romance novels featuring class differences to soften his heart, and it ends up that Bertie is compelled to go visit the old fellow and claim to be the author. In addition to containing the most elegant description of sweat I’ve ever seen—“The good old persp was bedewing my forehead by this time in a pretty lavish manner.”—this situation is referenced a few times in subsequent stories until Bingo succeeds in getting married to a different waitress who really is the author of those romance novels.

So, even though you’ve got episodic happenings, it’s rather a satisfactory conclusion. Bertie is endearing, Jeeves is competent, the writing is excellent, and it made me laugh. (I especially liked when a character was described as resembling “a sheep with a secret sorrow.”) I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on the series after the first book; now I feel as though I finally see what the fuss is all about. I’d also like to give credit to the fabulous narration by Jonathan Cecil. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but I hear echoes of Fry and Laurie in his performance, and I heartily approve. I will certainly seek out more unabridged versions read by him.

The Murders of Richard III by Elizabeth Peters
This is the second in the Jacqueline Kirby series of mysteries. I haven’t read the first, and wouldn’t normally begin with the second, but the book promised an English country mansion plus “fanatic devotees of King Richard III” so my usual routine flew right out the window.

Even before university lecturer Thomas Carter likened himself unto Watson, I’d noticed the similarities between how this tale is told and the Sherlock Holmes stories. We are never permitted inside Jacqueline’s head. Instead, we see her how Thomas, hopeful of one day securing her romantic affections, views her. It’s fairly interesting, actually, because Thomas’ opinion of her fluctuates, sometimes peevishly. “You drive me crazy with your arrogance and your sarcasm and your know-it-all airs,” he says at one point. And though he soon after claims “I’m no male chauvinist; I don’t mind you showing off,” the fact is that earlier he was grumbling inwardly about her feigning “girlish ignorance” to reel in mansplainers and then walloping the “unwitting victim” with a cartload of knowledge. It’s true that Jacqueline isn’t especially likeable sometimes, but for remorselessly trouncing the sexist louts she encounters throughout the book, I must commend her!

The mystery itself is somewhat bland, unfortunately. The leader of a Ricardian society has received a letter purportedly written by Elizabeth of York, which would exonerate Richard of the deaths of her brothers, the “princes in the tower.” He calls a meeting of the society, with each attendee costumed as one of the historical personages involved, and summons the press, planning to unveil his find with much fanfare. But someone begins playing practical jokes on the Ricardians reminiscent of the fates of the people they are pretending to be. The book isn’t a long one, and soon the pranks start coming right on the heels of one another. Because of the swift pace—and some shallow characterization—the solution is rather anti-climactic.

Still, while I’m not sure I’ll seek out any more Jacqueline Kirby mysteries, this was overall a decent read.

A Perfect Match by Jill McGown
The series of books featuring Detective Inspector Lloyd (whose first name is a secret for now) and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill begins with a short yet enjoyable mystery in which a wealthy young widow is found dead in a small English town on property she’d just inherited from her recently deceased husband. Unlike some mysteries of which I am fond, there’s no preamble where readers get to know the victim or the circumstances of their life. Instead, immediately there’s a policeman discovering the body and then Lloyd turns up to question the victim’s next of kin. This same lack of character development hampers the romantic tension between Lloyd and Hill, leaving me with no idea what motivated Hill to finally decide to act on her feelings for him, betraying her marriage vows in the process.

The mystery itself is interesting enough, however, involving long-married Helen and Donald Mitchell who have ties to both the victim, Julia—her late husband was Donald’s older brother and Helen thinks they were having an affair—and chief suspect, Chris, originally a friend of Donald’s who has fallen in love with Helen. I can’t claim to have mustered anything more than a mild curiosity as to what the outcome would be, but neither did I guess the specifics, so that was good. I liked the interrogation scenes, too.

McGown’s writing had some fun moments. I loved the super-evocative imagery of Lloyd telling Hill that her new perm makes her look like Kevin Keegan. I also really appreciated a recurring bit where each chapter ends with the point of view of wildlife. When Chris is eventually brought in by the police, his arrest is depicted from a bird’s perspective, for example. There are also ducks, a moth, a fly, a cat… I don’t know if this device recurs in later books in the series, but I look forward to finding out.

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
This is the second mystery/thriller I’ve read in which a single mom who is a lawyer with a cold and unfeeling mother of her own attempts to work out the mystery of what happened to a family member (the other being Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw). Is that some kind of trend these days?

Kate Baron has a demanding job at a swanky firm, but she’s trying her best to be a good mom to her fifteen-year-old bookworm daughter, Amelia. She’s shocked to get a call from Grace Hall, the prestigious private school Amelia attends, saying that her daughter has been accused of cheating, and by the time she makes her way to the school, Amelia has evidently jumped to her death from the school roof. The police are only too happy to classify her death as a suicide, but when Kate gets a text that says “Amelia didn’t jump,” she starts trying to put together the pieces of what happened.

Reconstructing Amelia has quite a few problems. Despite her better judgment (and a promise to her best friend), Amelia joins a clique of bitchy girls at school who end up publicly humiliating her and trying to get her expelled when she falls in love with someone deemed off-limits. It’s hard to muster sympathy for what she ends up going through when one remembers the cruel prank she was willing to pull on someone else as part of the initiation process (largely kept off-camera to keep us from disliking her too much, I guess). We’re repeatedly told about the great relationship Amelia and her mom share, but never shown it. The subplot about Amelia’s dad is the literary equivalent of wilted lettuce. And the fact that the new detective who gets assigned to the case allows Kate to question suspects is absolutely ludicrous.

And yet, I couldn’t hate the book, largely because of Amelia’s friend, Sylvia. For much of the book she comes across as shallow and self-absorbed, but when Amelia really needs her, she’s there. She gives Amelia this tour of “great moments at Grace Hall” to cheer up her impressive pal, right before breaking down about her own legitimate pain. I never would’ve thought at the outset that I would have such immense sympathy for Sylvia, but I do. I find myself hoping that she’ll be okay.

shutterislandShutter Island by Dennis Lehane
It sure is nice going into a book unspoiled, particularly one as twisty as Shutter Island. I was quite happy with the book as it began, with U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule taking the ferry to Shutter Island to track down a patient missing from Ashcliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It’s late summer 1954, and these guys are manly but accessible, and surprisingly funny. Consider this relatiely early exchange that cracked me up:

Pretentious Doctor: *makes remarks on the lives of violence the marshals must lead*
Chuck: Wasn’t raised to run, Doc.
Pretentious Doctor: Ah, yes. Raised. And who did raise you?
Teddy: Bears.

For a while, all seems straightforward. Then Teddy confides to Chuck that he’s actually come there looking for a patient named Andrew Laediss, who was responsible for setting the fire that killed Teddy’s wife two years before. Gradually, one starts to doubt everything (and there was a point where all of the uncertainty got to be a little much for me) but the ultimate conclusion is a very satisfactory one.

Why Did You Lie? by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Set in Iceland, Why Did You Lie? starts out with three different storylines taking place a few days apart. The first involves a photographer on a helicopter journey to take pictures of a lighthouse on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the second is about a policewoman whose journalist husband has recently attempted suicide, and the third is about a family who returns from a house swap with an American couple to find some of their stuff missing and weird footage on the security camera. Of course, as the book progresses, these storylines converge, and it’s pretty neat when the police activity the helicopter flew over in chapter one turns out to be almost the culmination of the policewoman’s plot thread.

For some reason, I can’t help wondering how Ruth Rendell might’ve written this book. I think Rendell would’ve done a lot more with characterization, for one thing. There’s certainly some here, especially for the anxious husband who struggles to make his wife admit something really has gone wrong with their houseguests, but the primary concern seems to be getting on with the suspenseful action. Quickly, each plot features some kind of creepy lurker and then ominous notes (variations on the “why did you lie?” theme) figure in to all three, as well. Nina, the policewoman, digs around and talks to people and works out that everything connects to a supposed suicide from thirty years ago.

The result is certainly an entertaining book, but not one I could really love. One major issue I had is being able to predict something very significant. The number of characters who could’ve been angry enough about the 30-year-old lies in question to terrorize people in the present is very small. And once the existence of a certain person is oh-so-casually mentioned two-thirds through the book, I thought, “Oh, well, it’s them, then.” And then a little later, I figured out which of the characters it must be and I was right. This made for an anticlimactic ending that was clearly meant to be a shocking one. Also, I would’ve liked to have cared more that one character ends the novel poised to move on with life but, in reality, still in jeopardy.

I still would read more by this author, though.

My Hero Academia, Vols. 1-19

By Kohei Horikoshi | Published by VIZ Media

Reviewing nineteen volumes of a manga at once is a pretty daunting task, but here goes!

In a world where 80% of the population possesses superpowers known as “Quirks,” some people turned to villainy while others, officially trained and licensed, embarked upon careers of heroism to thwart them. Izuku Midoriya grew up idolizing heroes, particularly All Might, the Symbol of Peace, who always saved people with a smile. Unfortunately for Izuku, he was one of those unfortunate few without a Quirk and was forced to watch as his classmates and friends manifested abilities while he did not.

When Izuku is fourteen, he meets and impresses All Might when, despite being powerless, he rushes in to help his childhood friend Katsuki Bakugo when he is attacked by a sludge villain. As it turns out, All Might, who possesses a Quirk called One for All that endows him with super strength, was grievously injured several years previously in a battle with his nemesis, All for One. One for All is unique in that it can be passed on to a successor, and All Might has decided that Izuku is worthy of inheriting his power. All along, it’s been Izuku’s dream to attend U.A. High School and, after ten months of intensive training (and after ingesting one of All Might’s hairs), he succeeds in passing the entrance exam for U.A.’s Hero Course, much to Bakugo’s annoyance. (Bakugo believes he has been deceived about Izuku having been Quirkless all this time.)

Like many other shounen manga, part of the plot of My Hero Academia involves Izuku and the other students gradually getting stronger. Izuku goes through various stages of control over his power and eventually injures himself seriously to the point where he must switch to fighting primarily with his legs because his arms are so damaged. By volume nineteen, he can sustain 20% power only briefly, and All Might (who now teaches at U.A.) is training him how to, for the first time, add long-range attacks to his arsenal.

Meanwhile, just as Izuku is the protégé of All Might, All for One had taken a boy under his wing, as well. Tomura Shigaraki is a nihilistic villain with a particular grudge against All Might. He forms the League of Villains and so far has attempted to assassinate All Might at the school, attacked a training camp and kidnapped Bakugo, and ambushed a police caravan in order to steal Quirk-erasing drugs that had been seized from a former ally. While All Might exhausted the remainder of his powers to vanquish All for One, Shigaraki remains an active threat. Because of the power vacuum left by All Might’s retirement, the U.A. first years are able to take their provisional license exams earlier than normal and also go out into the field in work-study capacity.

The TL;DR version is: the plot is very good. Horikoshi-sensei writes with exuberance and mastery. However, the plot is not the reason I love My Hero Academia. I love it for the characters. I was thinking… I have read almost 90 volumes of One Piece by this point. Clearly, I enjoy it a lot and particularly admire the worldbuilding and continuity. However, while I’m fond of a few of the Straw Hats, I wouldn’t say I love any of them. Whereas with My Hero Academia, I love, like, ten of them. Here are some standouts:

• Izuku Midoriya – One of the things I really like about Izuku is that he’s smart. As a Quirkless hero fanboy, he spent a lot of time analyzing how they handled situations, and he’s good at coming up with strategies. Plus, he possesses all the idealistic qualities that a good shounen hero should have. He’s always out to help people, even if they don’t ask for it.

• Katsuki Bakugo – Bakugo has an explosive temper, but gradually reveals he’s a lot more sensitive that he lets on. Because of his volatile performance at the Sports Festival, Shigaraki targeted him, hoping to recruit him for the League of Villains. This ultimately led to All Might’s final confrontation with All for One, and Bakugo feels responsible that the Symbol of Peace (whom he also deeply admires) has been depowered. He’s the only one who knows Izuku’s secret and, after the most moving brawl I’ve ever seen in which he’s able to process some of the feelings he couldn’t express, he’s finally able to talk to Izuku without hostility. The day he actually smiles at Izuku, I will bawl.

• Shoto Todoroki – He became Izuku’s friend after the Sports Festival, in which Izuku encouraged him to finally embrace the half of his powers that came from his odious dad, #2 hero Endeavor. He’s still got a complex about his dad, but he’s working through it. And, for his part, Endeavor is trying to become a better hero, too, though he’s got a long way to go.

• Ochaco Uraraka – She’s a spunky girl who admires Izuku and has other feelings for him that she’s pushing aside for the moment. When she begins the series, she wants to become a hero for financial reasons, hoping to support her parents who’ve worked so hard. After her work study experience requires her to convey a dying hero to the hospital, she realizes in volume eighteen how much she just wants to save people. The monetary side has become less important.

• Eijiro Kirishima – Kirishima is just a supporting character until around volume fifteen, when he suddenly gets more fleshing out than even Ochaco or Ida (another of Izuku’s close friends) has received. He’s got an inferiority complex because his Quirk is purely defensive and castigates himself that he couldn’t help when Bakugo was taken. He presents himself as someone more confident and has a lot of noble ideals about what a hero should be, but I love that underneath that persona he’s a lot more complicated.

• Yuga Aoyama – In most other series, the kid who starts off being puffed up with pride over his own abilities (a naval laser!) would remain comic relief forever. But Horikoshi gives Aoyama several important heroic moments and, recently, he and Izuku have bonded over the fact that both of their Quirks cause them bodily harm, which doesn’t seem to be a problem for the other students. I would really love to see Aoyama star in his own arc.

• Mirio Togata – I was not prepared for the dizzying speed at which I’d come to love Mirio. First introduced in volume fourteen, he’s the one the principal (and All Might’s former sidekick, Sir Nighteye) originally had in mind as the next recipient of One for All. He’s optimistic and works hard and I love that he bears no grudge against Eri, a six-year-old girl that he lost his Quirk protecting. His return to heroism has been foreseen, so that’s something I’m looking forward to. His best friend Tamaki Amajiki is highly lovable, too.

• All Might – He’s not the greatest teacher, but he’s really trying hard. He serves as a father figure to Izuku and says encouraging things to him that make me verklempt, like “You’ve already exceeded my expectations more times than I can count. In my heart of hearts, I believe there’s something special in you and you alone.” He absolutely does not hesitate to give everything he’s got in that final battle with All for One, and has no regrets about the outcome, save that he failed to notice how much pain Bakugo was in about it. “I’m sorry. You too… are only a boy.” Waah.

• Shota Aizawa – I saved the best for last. Aizawa is the homeroom teacher for class 1-A and I love him so, so much. He is a great teacher and puts a lot of thought into how best to encourage development in his students. One of my favorite Aizawa moments occurs at a press conference when he expresses absolute faith that Bakugo will not be tempted to join the League of Villains. “More than anyone, he pursues the title of top hero with all he has.” Later, during a home visit with Bakugo’s parents to discuss the new on-campus dormitories, Bakugo’s mom reveals how much she appreciated this proof that her son has been understood by his educators. “Most everything comes easy to him. His whole life, people’ve made a fuss about him… praising him for every little thing he does.” Aizawa sees Bakugo’s potential but also doesn’t let any of his shortcomings slide. I love, too, how he helps take care of Eri and buys her outfits with kitties on them.

Barring one, the other students in class 1-A are great, too, and I hope they get their own arcs as revelatory as Kirishima’s. And then there’s class 1-B, whom we’ve only glimpsed, as well as Hitoshi Shinso, a boy from the General Studies Course who may have the potential to transfer to the Hero Course.

Alas, there’s one thing and one particular character that I don’t love about My Hero Academia.

• Although the female characters are impressively varied in character design and personality and are always included in various heroic endeavors (and their abilities respected by the male characters), they just don’t get as much of the spotlight as the guys do. True, Ashida and Jiro are more to the fore during the School Festival arc, which is very welcome, but I want to see them out in the field kicking some serious ass.

• Minoru Mineta – Unlike the other students who’ve grown over the course of the series, Mineta starts off as a gross little pervert, remains a gross little pervert, and there’s zero indication that he’ll ever be anything other than a gross little pervert. He doesn’t see girls as people, but as objects, evaluated solely for their attractiveness. In fact, his first words to Eri in volume nineteen—who is, I reiterate, six years old—are, “Look me up in ten years.” I want Shigaraki to use his disintegration Quirk on him. Slowly. And then Shinso can have his spot.

Ultimately, I love this series unabashedly. I love it as much as I love Hikaru no Go, and that’s a lot. And as with Hikaru, I love the anime just as much as the manga and recommend both. It took until volume nineteen to make it to October of Izuku’s first year, so at that pace, we’re looking at around 38 volumes per school year times three years… Sounds good to me! I will plug my ears and go “la la la!” if anyone ever mentions a time jump. This is really too good to rush. Or miss.

My Hero Academia is ongoing in Japan, where volume 24 will be out in August. Volume 20 is due out in English in August. New chapters are also available in English on the Shonen Jump website and app.

Review copies for some volumes provided by the publisher.

Again!!, Vol. 1

By Mitsurou Kubo | Published by Kodansha Comics

Having greatly enjoyed Yuri!!! on Ice, written by Mitsurou Kubo, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of some of Kubo’s manga in English. (In addition to Again!! from Kodansha, Vertical Comics has just published the first omnibus of Moteki, which I shall be reviewing within the next week or so.) Happily, Again!! did not disappoint.

This shounen series begins on March 14, 2014, when long-haired, scary-looking outcast Kinichiro Imamura is about to graduate from high school. He’s friendless, and despite going to a good school, he has no college or employment plans. The graduation ceremony reminds him of his entrance ceremony three years ago, during which the lone remaining member of the ouendan club (a girl, at that) tried to recruit new members. This spurs him to go check out the now-deserted ouendan club room and, when chasing after a female classmate who gets the wrong idea, he ends up falling down the stairs and three years into the past.

Now it’s April 6, 2011 and Kinichiro has a chance to do it all over again. Will he manage to navigate school this time without scaring people? He decides to actually talk to the ouendan girl this time, and learns her name is Yoshiki Usami. In a neat twist, the girl he was chasing also fell down the stairs and ends up back in the past with him. Her name is Akira Fujieda, and while Kinichiro begins to make small improvements on his high school experience—dispelling notions that he’s in a gang or that his blond hair signifies anything other than a hair stylist’s whim—Akira’s knowledge of the future alienates her classmates and would’ve-been future boyfriend.

Mostly, though, the focus is on the ouendan club and Kinichiro’s attempts to help Usami out. She’s stubborn, however, and resists efforts to draw male membership by featuring her image on recruitment posters. This makes more sense later on, when it’s revealed that she originally got a lot of media attention that led to fallout within the group—stoked by an online smear campaign—leading everyone but her to quit. Complicating matters is the captain of the cheerleading club, Tamaki Abe, who is resentful of having to cooperate with the ouendan, and determined to sabotage them. Happily, the girl she picks to seduce Kinichiro has scruples (and Kinichiro is also not an idiot), so this first volume ends with our heroes savvy to her scheme.

Again!! is a lot of fun. If you’re looking for time travel with a reasonable scientific explanation, then you should probably look elsewhere, but if you just accept the premise and go with it, then it’s kind of like a sports manga and a coming-of-age story rolled into one. I do worry what’s going to happen after Kinichiro reaches his graduation year again. Will these changes stick, and will he be able to go forward in life with more ambition and fewer regrets? I’m confident, though, that these questions will be answered eventually.

Again!! is complete in twelve volumes. The second volume is due out in English next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Otherworld Barbara, Vols. 1-2

By Moto Hagio | Published by Fantagraphics

otherworldIt’s 2052 and Tokio Watarai, a dream pilot, is coming home to Japan for the first time in three years. Although his ex-wife and son are in Japan, he’s actually returning for a job involving a girl who’s been sleeping for seven years since being found with her parents’ hearts in her stomach. Her name is Aoba, and when Tokio enters her dream it’s all about an island called Barbara in which kids can fly and cannibalism factors in to funeral rites. Soon, he learns that his son, Kiriya, actually invented Barbara. So how is Aoba able to dream about it?

That introductory paragraph actually simplifies the story greatly. There’s also Tokio’s horrid ex-wife Akemi and the creepy priest Johannes whom she loves and who could possibly be Aoba’s grandfather but also head of an American orphanage in which cloned children were created, including one called Paris who comes to Japan and believes Kiriya might be a boy he knew called Taka. There’s Kiriya’s massive angst, his dreams of Mars, his dream conversations with Aoba, the girl Laika who fancies him, a psychiatrist who treated Aoba who is killed by a tornado she created, his identity-swapping and cross-dressing fraternal twin children, anti-aging research (potentially conducted upon the residents of Barbara) including a suit that turns Aoba’s grandma into a young woman who calls herself Marienbad and has a fling with Tokio, Daikoku’s ominous hinting that Kiriya will kill Tokio someday, parental regrets, etc.

By the end of the first volume, so very many plot threads are in the air that I was not at all sure that Hagio-sensei would be able to make everything make sense in the end. To use just one example: If Barbara is just a dream—and, indeed, no such island actually exists—then how is it possible that the blood of its residents is used for anti-aging medicine? And yet we see evidence that such advances are already in the works. And because of all this plot stuff, there’s not a lot of time for building solid relationships. There is angst aplenty, especially courtesy of Kiriya, but the whole Marienbad/Tokio hookup, for example, is just extremely random. The strongest bond, though, is definitely the love Tokio feels for his son and his regret over having been a crappy father.

Happily, the second volume does make with the answers, starting almost immediately. Not everything is answered with absolute certainty—one particular narrative thread takes a completely unexpected and surprisingly poignant turn. Even 90% of the way through, I would’ve said there was no way Otherworld Barbara would be able to make me cry, and yet it did. I won’t reveal how, but I loved the devastating consequences of a desperate act on Tokio’s part, and how it led him to have faith that Aoba’s dream of Barbara really could be shaping a vision of the future. That ending makes everything else worthwhile. Too, I enjoyed the contrast between Hagio’s uncomplicated, light-filled artwork and the dark and weird story she told.

Ultimately, Otherworld Barbara is definitely worth reading. Thank you, Fantagraphics, for releasing it!

Otherworld Barbara is complete in two 2-in-1 editions.

Review copies provided by the publisher

Random Reads 3/29/17

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Dairdre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption in Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and whose bodily proportions are repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.

Uninvited by Sophie Jordan

uninvitedbook description:
When Davy tests positive for Homicidal Tendency Syndrome, aka “the kill gene,” she loses everything. Once the perfect high school senior, she is uninvited from her prep school and abandoned by her friends and boyfriend. Even her parents are now afraid of her—although she’s never hurt a fly. Davy doesn’t feel any differently, but genes don’t lie. One day she will kill someone.

Without any say in the matter, Davy is thrown into a special class for HTS carriers. She has no doubt the predictions are right about them, especially Sean, who already bears the “H” tattoo as proof of his violence. Yet when the world turns on the carriers, Sean is the only one she can trust. Maybe he’s not as dangerous as he seems. Or maybe Davy is just as deadly.

Review:
We meet Davina (Davy) Hamilton in March 2021, when she is about to graduate from her prestigious prep school and proceed on to Juilliard. Davy is a special snowflake musical prodigy who is also gorgeous, with a studly boyfriend many other girls covet. She’s also not shy about congratulating herself for these things.

Her privileged existence comes to an end when routine screening reveals that she carries the gene for HTS—Homicidal Tendency Syndrome. She is promptly uninvited from her swanky school and sent to a class for “carriers” at the local public school, where some of the kids are obviously creeps but others seem as normal and harmless as Davy insists she is. Carriers are treated poorly by society, and when an angry group of them perpetrates a mass shooting, all carriers are rounded up and sent to detention camps. Davy and a couple of classmates, however, are diverted into a program where they train to kill on government command.

While there were a few things I liked about Uninvited, I must admit that it was not especially good. Original-flavor Davy is not a sympathetic character, but she does eventually realize that she used to be a pretty crappy person and that her friends and boyfriend never truly cared about her. I also found the repeated references to music in her head puzzling—as a musician myself, it’s true that I usually have a song (or at least unformed noodling) in my head, but I thought this was normal for everyone, and not a sign of genius as we are evidently supposed to believe here.

Too, the writing is sometimes weirdly choppy, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. Is it simply bad writing or is it an attempt to convey how grim the situation is? If that’s the case, why use it during a scene where Davy’s boyfriend seems to accept her, kill gene and all?

I need this. So much. His arms. His love.

That’s just one example. I confess that I eventually started internally reading these in a flat robot voice to amuse myself. Jordan sometimes seems to mix up musical terms, too, like when Davy refers to the “pitch” of an aria, or that her body sways to the “harmony.” Plus, there were two instances of “y’all” being spelled “ya’ll.” Can you become an editor without understanding how contractions are formed? Apparently, at Harper Teen you can!

So, irritating main character, bizarre writing style… what is there to like? Well, the concept itself is kind of interesting, and because I didn’t particularly care about anyone, their misfortunes didn’t cause me any anxiety. The portion of the novel set in the training program is the strongest, with Davy becoming determined not only to become strong in her own right, but buying into the claim that if she does well enough, the government will have the neck tattoo proclaiming her as a violent carrier removed.

In the end, I find myself interested enough to read the sequel, Unleashed, though I am very grateful that this series is not a trilogy.

Psyren, Vols. 1-2

By Toshiaki Iwashiro | Published by VIZ Media

Ageha Yoshina is a first-year highschool student who channels his passion for fighting into helping people (for a fee). When classmate Sakurako Amamiya goes missing, he can’t just ignore it, particularly since she seems to know something about Psyren, a mysterious organization that recently issued Ageha a phone card when he answered a ringing public phone. The quest to find Sakurako leads Ageha to Psyren itself, which is not so much an organization as a place—a dangerous dimension where a chosen few (known as Psyren Drifters) brave the harsh landscape and murderous denizens to reach a particular gate, at which point they return home to be called again in the future, using the interval to learn more about Psyren and hone the psionic skills that Psyren’s atmosphere has infected them with.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Psyren at first. It starts slowly, and neither Ageha nor Sakurako are particularly distinct characters (Ageha because he’s so like every other shounen hero and Sakurako because Iwashiro-sensei is admittedly not aiming for any kind of consistency in her characterization). Once Hiryu—a formerly wimpy elementary school classmate who is now simultaneously hulking and thoughtful—arrives, however, things begin to improve. He provides a foil against which Ageha can be compared, which makes their psionic training sessions (in which Hiryu excels with concentrated effort and Ageha fails time and time again until he unleashes a powerful, uncontrolled burst) pretty fun.

It also helps that the concept of Psyren has elements that remind me of other series: the giant insectoid creatures and dire depiction of Japan’s future remind me of 7SEEDS, the cyborgish enemies remind me of BLAME!, and the contract by which unwitting participants are forced to risk their lives for some vaguely explained purpose reminds me of Bokurano: Ours. It remains to be seen whether Psyren will truly turn out to be as great as these other series, but it does have a dark edge—hinting that one’s performance in the game can somehow impact Earth’s future—that I appreciate.

To be sure, Psyren is not perfect. As mentioned, the main problem is Sakurako. She, quite literally, seems to change personality from panel to panel. At first, I thought that maybe this was happening because she’d used her psionic abilities so much that it had affected her mind, but after Iwashiro’s confession—“I was very careful when portraying [heroine of previous series]’s personality, but I’ve tempered that tendency, allowing for more of a kaleidoscopic view of Sakurako”—that doesn’t seem to be the case. Too, I feel like we’re supposed to find Matsuri-sensei, the concert pianist/biker chick who has beaten the Psyren game, cool and awesome, but she just makes me yawn.

Ultimately, Psyren is better than I thought it would be. It’s also, at sixteen volumes, not a sprawling epic that would require a huge commitment. At the moment, at least, I plan to continue for the long haul.

Psyren is published in English by VIZ Media. The third volume came out this week. The series is complete in Japan with sixteen volumes.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

From the back cover:
In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota—and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or by chance, he discovers an exquisite ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life…

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.

Review:
Ship Breaker won the Printz Award this year, and I must say I think it deserved it! It took a little while to grow on me, but I liked it a lot by the end.

At some unspecified point in the future, a community of people has sprung up on Bright Sands Beach (on the Gulf Coast) where the best work to be found is on crews breaking down giant, rusting wrecks of oil tankers. Everyone toils away to meet their quota, all the while dreaming of the lucky strike—oil or other scarce commodities—that could make them rich. Nailer Lopez is fifteen years old and works on the light crew, where his job is scuttling through pipes to scavenge copper, aluminum, and nickel.

After a near-death experience during which his wits and luck save him from drowning in a pocket of oil, Nailer is christened Lucky Boy by his friends. This moniker seems apt when he and his friend Pima discover a valuable wreck left behind in the wake of a hurricane. They set to work stripping it but are stunned to discover a survivor—a very wealthy girl named Nita Chaudhury, who promises her father will reward them for saving her life. When Nailer’s drunken and dangerous father Richard discovers the wreck, however, he opts to trade Nita to her father’s enemies, which forces Nailer to make a whole bunch of difficult decisions.

When he and Pima find the wreck, she urges Nailer to be smart about it. In her eyes, “smart” seems to involve profiting enough to obtain a position of power on Bright Sands Beach. Nailer is aiming higher, however, and makes Nita promise to take him and Pima away and into a better life. The choices he makes from that point on are partly in pursuit of this goal, but also out of a growing sense of loyalty towards Nita, who proves herself capable and quickly loses her prejudices towards those less cultured than she. There are many times where he could have walked away and abandoned Nita to her fate but doesn’t, and ultimately, his concern for her works out in his own favor.

The story ranges over a few different settings, from the beach to the drowned docks of “Orleans” to a clipper ship crewed by people loyal to Nita’s father. As a big fan of the Hornblower series, I liked the ship the best. I hadn’t realized how much I missed depictions of naval battles until the awesome sequence wherein Nailer’s familiarity with the coastline results in a surprise advantage over a superior foe. In fact, the whole final sequence of the book was quite exciting, and makes me think this would make a good movie.

I also found it interesting that the main villain of the work is Nailer’s father, Richard, because Nailer harbors such conflicted feelings about him. He remembers the man his father used to be before his mother died, and though Richard’s now more likely to be high and abusive than relaxed and kind, Nailer feels obliged to care about him and give him chances to be a better person. After many disappointments, he finally realizes that Pima and her nurturing mother, Sadna, are his true family and is able to muster the strength to stop believing that his father is capable of turning over a new leaf at this point. Essentially, he’s a victim of domestic abuse who finally achieves the strength to say, “I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore.”

Lastly, Ship Breaker is commendable for its effortless portrayal of characters of many ethnicities. None of the lead characters is Caucasian. Their skin color is mentioned as part of their physical description, but doesn’t factor in to their relationships at all. Characters are judged purely based on their individual actions. If anything, the only real prejudice left in the world seems to be between the rich (or “swanks”) and the poor, but Nailer’s actions convince Nita, at least, of the errors of her ways, especially since he proves fully capable of functioning in her world if given half a chance.

Although initially a little frustrating—despite my love for dystopic YA, I still get a little frustrated with crappy situations that just seem to be getting crappier—Ship Breaker turns out to be a well-crafted and riveting tale.

Skyfall by Catherine Asaro

From the back cover:
Skyfall goes back to the beginning, to the rebirth of Skolia, showing how a chance meeting on a backwater planet forges a vast interstellar empire. Eldrinson, a provincial ruler on a primitive planet, is plagued by inner demons. But when he meets Roca, a beautiful and mysterious woman from the stars, he whisks her away to his mountain retreat, inadvertently starting a great interstellar war, and birthing the next generation of rulers for the Skolian Empire.

Review:
Skyfall is technically the ninth book in Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire series, but is first if one is reading in internal chronological order. It works well as an entry point, though there were a few things that could’ve used a bit more explanation—presumably this happens in the books that were actually published before this one.

Beautiful and golden (like, literally) Roca Skolia is a “Ruby Psion,” an extremely rare and valued psion descended from similarly rare parents who currently rule the Skolian Imperialate. Because of her pedigree, she is expected to marry someone of the ruling assembly’s choosing and produce more Ruby Psions, the only people capable of controlling “the Kyle web,” an instantaneous interstellar network that somehow protects Skolia. Roca’s been married twice before and her grown son, Kurj, has a lot of mental anguish about the death of his father, the abuse perpetrated by his stepfather, and the atrocities committed by another group of psions who relish the pain of others.

When Roca’s away on government business (she’s the foreign affairs councillor), Kurj calls an assembly vote to discuss going to war with the sadistic psions. She knows he’ll try to stop her from casting her dissenting vote, so goes underground to try to make it back home in time without attracting his notice. Her route takes her to a remote, unspoiled world called Skyfall by “the Allieds” (descendents of Earth) and Lyshriol by its natives. There, her plans are foiled by a treacherous snow storm, and while she waits for it to pass, she falls in love with Eldri, a passionate and epileptic bard with significant psionic gifts, and ends up pregnant just in time for Eldri’s rival to lay siege to his castle.

It wouldn’t be incorrect to label Skyfall as “a romance novel in space.” Certainly Roca’s relationship with Eldri, who believes she’s a gift from the sun gods and is otherwise baffled by the technology she sees as commonplace, is quite romantic, with the two of them drawn together pretty much instantly and conceiving easily when other Ruby Psion births have required much medical intervention to achieve. Roca’s position brings political factors into their relationship, however. It turns out that Lyshriol was once a Skolian colony, so when Kurj eventually comes looking for her and Roca’s family finds out she has actually married this “barbarian,” it is ultimately Eldri’s genes that convince them to accept him (after a barrage of tests during which Eldri’s mental abilities and illness are evaluated).

There aren’t a whole lot of sci-fi elements to the novel, though there are enough to give one a picture of how things work in the Skolian Empire and its relationships with other spacefaring people. Genetic manipulation seems quite normal, as are cybernetic implants, and I am totally envious of the language node Roca has, which enables her to process and gradually learn new languages. Kurj has turned himself into an intimidating metallic giant, but it’s still not enough to shield him from his self-conflicting inner demons. In his case, Asaro effectively uses technology to show just how damaged he is, with some pretty fascinating results.

Suffice it to say, I’m looking forward to reading more in this series!

Additional reviews of Skyfall can be found at Triple Take.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

From the front flap:
In a society where unwanted teens are salvaged for their body parts, three runaways fight the system that would “unwind” them.

Connor’s parents want to be rid of him because he’s a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev’s unwinding has been planned since his birth, as pat of his family’s strict religion. Brought together by chance, and kept together by desperation, these three unlikely companions make a harrowing cross-country journey, knowing their lives hang in the balance. If they can survive until their eighteenth birthday, they can’t be harmed—but when every piece of them, from their hands to their hearts, [is] wanted by a world gone mad, eighteen seems far, far away.

Review:
At some time in America’s future, the second civil war is fought over the issue of abortion. In the end, a compromise is reached. Known as the “bill of life,” the law says that life cannot be touched between birth and age thirteen, but between thirteen and eighteen parents can choose to retroactively abort a child in a process known as “unwinding,” by which the child does not technically die but is instead used for organ donation. Unwinding has now become a common and accepted practice in society.

This is a lot to swallow. One wonders why on earth anyone would agree to such a compromise, and I admit I struggled with the concept. After a while, though, one just accepts it and moves on, enjoying the story Shusterman lays out.

Unwind features three kids who are due to undergo the unwinding process. Connor Lassiter has trouble thinking through his actions and controlling his temper, causing his fed-up parents to decide to have him unwound. Risa Ward is a ward of the state. She’s been living in a state home, working hard to distinguish herself as a pianist, but she’s just not flawless enough to be worth saving, and is scheduled to be sent off to “harvest camp” in order to keep orphanage costs low. Lev Calder is a “tithe,” who was brought up by his parents and church to believe that his eventual unwinding is somehow a holy thing. Circumstances bring the three together, tear them apart, and bring them together again, with no one remaining unchanged.

While the plot of Unwind is certainly fast-paced and frequently surprising, the best thing about it is the way in which the characters are developed. At first, Connor’s lack of foresight and impulse control is maddening. He runs away to avoid being sent to harvest camp, but leaves his cell phone on, making him easy to track. He reacts to a baby left on a doorstep without thinking, saddling him and his companions with an infant they don’t have the resources to care for. In short, he’s more like a typical teen than a typical hero. Very gradually, and with the help from the more logical Risa, Connor evolves. He learns to keep his cool and discovers a talent for fixing things, be they mechanical or societal in nature. He becomes a leader, a genuine hero, and his progress is entirely believable.

Lev also changes a great deal. The youngest of the three, he’s only thirteen, and has spent his whole life being indoctrinated in certain beliefs. When Connor impulsively saves him from his “glorious fate,” Lev is not grateful at all, and turns Connor and Risa in at the first available opportunity. When he realizes that not even his pastor believes that what his family is doing is right, Lev’s world is thrown into turmoil. Separated now from Connor and Risa, he travels on his own, quickly becoming street-wise and meeting up with CyFi, a smart but troubled teen who once received a partial brain transplant from an unwind and is now contending with strange impulses from that other kid. Thrust into the harsh world with no preparation, Lev hardens quickly and learns to think for himself. Through learning of sin and evil, he becomes a much better person than he ever was before.

Risa doesn’t change as dramatically as the others, since she was always level-headed and cognizant of her possible fate. With her, the fact that she’s begun to allow herself to finally hope is what’s significant. I’m fond of her characterization in general, though, especially that she’s capable, competent, and so frequently the voice of reason. Her ability to keep a cool head during medical emergencies is also welcome.

Ultimately, while I could not completely suspend my disbelief in order to buy into the premise of this dystopic future world, I still liked Unwind a great deal. Even though Shusterman makes some Important Points, his approach is still balanced, as he questions whether it’s fair to bring unwanted children into the world in the first place even while his characters struggle so very hard for the right to live. Lastly, I must commend him for a positively chilling depiction of the unwinding process. That will seriously stick with me for a long time.

In conclusion, Unwind is good. Go read it. And Shusterman, get cracking on that sequel (Unwholly, TBA).