Grass

Grass by Sheri TepperGrass by Sheri S. Tepper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the dominant, ruling religion, Sanctity, the plague doesn’t exist. Yet, people on every planet are dying from a virulent virus. Every planet, that is, except one, Grass, notoriously suspicious of anything or anyone coming from “elsewhere.” Desperate, the Hierarch sends his nephew Roderigo “Rigo” Yrarier and his family, Marjorie Westriding, Anthony, and Stella–even though they are Old Catholics–to learn what makes Grass different in the hopes of finding a vaccine or cure. As avid horse people, Sanctity believes, the Yrariers have the best chance possible of bonding with the bons, the Grass aristocracy, since the bons are obsessed with riding and hunting. They begin training with a riding master at a young age until they are ready to join the hunt.

As Rigo becomes ensnared in the local mania for the hunt, Marjorie, intuitive, wise, yet remote, seeks out answers that will save the universe. She befriends bon Sylvan bon Damfels, commoner, master carver Persun Pollut, and Sanctity penitents Brothers Mainoa and Lourai as she navigates the closed and secretive society of the bons. What she learns could save humanity–or hasten its demise.

Although the book started out slowly for me, and I worried about reading a book where a ritualized hunt was so dominant, I found that once Marjorie’s character was introduced, I became engrossed in the narrative. Underneath the compelling mystery of curing the plague lies a number of themes, many of which are echoed in Tepper’s other works. On Terra (earth), at least, governments are dominated by religious rule, certainly not to the benefit of women or lower socioeconomic classes, and the book challenges theocracy. Religion is also a means of reproducing patriarchy. As Father Sandoval councils Marjorie when she complains of Rigo’s infidelity, a wife’s obedience will solve problems in a marriage. Sanctity was completely devoid of women except as reproductive vessels. Brother Mainoa minces no words: “The shitheads are wrong…Not just a little bit wrong, but irremediably, absolutely, and endemically wrong.” While Grass is largely secular, tradition demands male dominance. In the book, men are driven to demonstrate their masculinity, as is evidenced by Rigo’s seduction to Hunt, but the costs are high. The book also criticizes those who endlessly debate ethical positions while failing to act and questions the limits of duty and mercy.

While some passages were slightly heavy-handed and the science was confusing (at least to me), I enjoyed reading the book once I got over my initial resistance. It’s definitely a must for those interested in feminist science fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Happy Veggies by Mayumi Oda

Happy Veggies.pngIn 2005, Richard Louv coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder. Although not a recognized medical disorder, it’s easy to see that many of us spend a significant amount of time indoors and are alienated from nature. Some studies indicate that being disconnected from nature is associated with anxiety, depression, and obesity while direct experience of nature promotes creativity, problem solving, focus, and physical health.

Long before 2005, I joined the ranks of those alienated from nature. It’s not that I don’t like the outdoors; I find it beautiful. I just don’t always want to be outside in the outdoors. Along with this comes a disconnect with the source of our food. Recently, I took a completely unscientific quiz assessing how much I knew about the way food grew. Was it from a tree, a bush, or the ground? Needless to say, I did not perform well.

Happy Veggies promotes a connection with the outdoors and shows how popular vegetables like corn, carrots, beans and tomatoes grow. The text introduces the food through the seasons: asparagus and onions in spring; eggplants and beans in the summer; corn and pumpkins in fall; and root vegetables in the winter. We see also creatures who live in the garden such as bees, butterflies, worms, and moles. As winter ends, the cycle renews.

Mayumi Oda’s illustrations are lovely. To me, they draw from the rich tradition of Japanese art. The vegetables are primarily shown in close up, both what they look like above and below the ground, and sometimes below the ground is as or more colorful as what’s seen above. Even though I’m not a fan of onions, the illustration of purple and yellow onions is so stunning, I would put a poster of it on my wall.

I liked the text less than the illustrations. Some of the pages rhymed, some did not. At times, the story talked to the reader: “Do you want to meet Mother Nature?” and “Potatoes are a garden’s heart. Can you hear them?” But other times, the text was directed to the vegetables themselves as when it exhorted beans to “Grow, grow!” Consequently, the book did cohere as well as it could have.

The style is rather dreamy and talks of angels visiting the garden and corn popping from the stalk (which I don’t think can happen normally!). I wondered if the style and these images would not bring children closer to Mother Nature but make her seem unreal.

That said, Happy Veggies is a valiant effort to teach children how their food grows and promote a connection to the natural world. It’s especially worth perusing for the stunning artwork.

Thank you to Netgalley and Parallax Press for providing an electronic copy of Happy Veggies in exchange for an honest review.

Firefly by Henry Porter

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press, and Henry Porter for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Quotations may not reflect the final published book.

A thirteen-year-old Syrian boy, code-named Firefly, begins an arduous journey from a Turkish refugee camp hoping to reach Europe and bring his family to safety, away from the darkness and devastation of his home country. But this precocious boy possess valuable information about a terrorist cell that can prevent a terrorist attack. When the English Special Investigative Service learns of Firefly, they enlist ex-agent Paul Samson, an Arabic speaker and former refuge from Lebanon, to track him, gain his trust, and learn what he knows. Samson is aided by the beautiful and brilliant psychologist Anastasia who works at the Lesbos refuge camp and has witnessed the horror experienced by migrants as well as Vuk, an “unusual but reliable” and usually drunk Serbian fixer. Unaware of Samson’s efforts to rescue him, Firefly follows the dangerous migrant trail where he faces assault, betrayal, disappointment, and despair. He’s joined by the carefree Ikfar and his loyal dog Moon as he races to the Macedonian-Serbian border. But the terrorists want Firefly’s information badly and will kill to retrieve it. Challenged by the weather and terrain, Samson fights to stay ahead of the terrorists and protect Firefly who has his own reasons for remaining hidden.

Firefly excels at conveying the experiences of refugees, particularly those without proper documentation and minors. From harrowing water crossings to overcrowded camps and transit stations, the sights, sounds, and smells are vividly depicted. Firefly encounters myriad fellow travelers from various countries who are all hoping for a better life at the end of the migrant trail. Smugglers take advantage of the desperate while NGOs and relief agencies attempt to improve the conditions of the people in their care.

The pressures on the host countries also come into play. Borders are constantly being opened or closed; transportation is unreliable. Yet, the refugees continue to come. Anastasia “concluded rather bitterly that whatever happened, it would always fall to the Greek islands to deal with the influx. ‘They are drowning in our seas, crawling up our beaches, and that isn’t going to stop soon,’ she said. ‘Just because Europe has suddenly decided that these people are not wanted doesn’t mean they aren’t going to give up getting on those little rafts. They have nothing to lose –there’s nothing where they come from.”

As Samson trails Firefly, he encounters the bureaucracy of intelligence agencies from multiple European countries and sees the politics and behind the scenes negotiating at play. Priorities shift and develop depending on which agencies have the upper hand.

All this is fascinating, and I don’t recall a book that presents as complete and harrowing a picture of refugee migration, particularly from a boy’s perspective. It is heartbreaking to know these conditions are far from fiction and that so many people struggle to leave war-torn and ravished areas for a peaceful existence.

The book is also action-packed and suspenseful. For two days, I hardly put it down, and I certainly was glued to it for the last quarter. As comprehensive as the book is in terms of representing a refugee’s experience, it never detracts from the narrative or bogs down the story. Each detail seems essential for the whole. For the most part, I liked the writing style and thought it was written well, although I did find that the transitions between sections focusing on Firefly and those focusing on Samson were abrupt and awkward. It’s possible that in the final version of the book, the book design will provide a better indication of when the story changes perspective.

Firefly was an interesting and sympathetic character, and I couldn’t help but like him and hope for the best for him. At the same time, I wondered if he was unrealistically precocious. He is presented in completely positive terms which feels inauthentic. For being a central character, I thought Samson was underdeveloped and I would like to have had more backstory for him. It was illustrative to have characters of so many nationalities with speaking so many languages, and it was interesting how language served to bind or separate characters.

While this would fall into the thriller/suspense categories and is worth reading on that alone, I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about refuges, especially from Syria, to read this book. Although I’ve read books that have incisive portrayals of refugee camps I felt like I had a greater understanding of the challenges refugees face in transit after reading this book.

Broken Ground by Val McDermid

Broken Ground by Val McDermidThank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Alice Somerville and her husband travel to the Scottish Highlands to excavate her inheritance–two Indian Scout motorcycles from World War II that her grandfather and his mate, Kenny, had stolen and buried rather than see destroyed after the Americans left Scotland. However, the Somervilles unexpectedly uncover a body, a man wearing Nikes, who was presumed murdered.

Karen Pirie and her Historic Crimes Unit, Jason “The Mint” Murray and newcomer to the team Gerry McCartney, a Detective Sergeant added to the unit by Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie, take over the investigation.The book follows Pirie as she learns the identity of the murder victim and traces his killer. Woven into the narrative is not only a caper from World War II but also a domestic violence incident that might be more than it seems as well as an inquiry into violent rapes that occurred in the 1980s. Pirie must contend with aging evidence, long-forgotten memories, and obstinate colleagues while trying to provide answers to grieving families. Unconcerned with politics yet eager to achieve justice for the victims, Pirie can be her own worst enemy.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book which is well-written and expertly paced. The book includes crimes from four different time lines: the WWII motorcycle theft, the 1980s rapes, the murder of the man wearing Nikes, and the contemporary domestic violence incident. In lesser hands, this could be confusing or overdone, but here it is fascinating. Perhaps my biggest (and sole) complaint about plot is that Pirie seems to figure out certain elements of the mystery without having much information.

Being set in Scotland made the book more interesting to me. I’ve read other Scottish detective novels and it was fun to compare and contrast the treatment hallmark Edinburgh highlights. Descriptions of the Highlands made me want to travel there! I will say, though, there were lots of British words I had to look up!

For the most part, Pirie was a sympathetic and engaging character, and The Mint was entirely endearing. Some of the other characters, though, particularly DS McCartney and ACC Markie, seemed to be be one-note foils for Pirie instead of well-developed in their own right. Peripheral characters had what I imaged to be compelling backstories that might be in play in other books in the series. Even so, it is not necessary to read the other books to enjoy this novel. In fact, this is my first Inspector Karen Pirie novel. I don’t know how I didn’t know about the books before, but I’m eager to read the first four books, I enjoyed Broken Ground so much.

The Burglar by Thomas Perry

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press, and Thomas Perry for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Quotations may not reflect the final published book.

Elle has spent most of her life surviving through her wits and what she could steal. She now makes her living burglarizing expensive homes in Bel Air and Beverley Hills. Skillful and smart, she’s never been arrested or noticed, and few people know her profession. But one morning, she broke into the wrong house. Instead of finding cash, guns, and jewelry, she found three dead bodies, naked in a pile on the bed. What’s more, a video camera had been recording and captured her entering the room. Elle stole the camera, thinking she was protecting herself. Instead, she became a target–but she didn’t know if she was being chased by the police or a more sinister organization. To save herself, she has to solve the murders before she becomes the next victim.

Having the burglar as a protagonist in a murder mystery is interesting and offers some new and exciting approaches to crime solving. However, at times, the descriptions of Elle’s process are a little too detailed. The book is very fast-paced and got my heart rate pumping, especially in the first third of the book. I could hardly put it down last night to go to sleep. It was like reading an action movie, and one tense moment led to another, complete with car chases, double-crosses, secret cameras, and near-misses with the police.

With all the details of casing a house, entering, and finding valuables, not to mention surveillance of characters, I feel thoroughly paranoid now!

Elle is an interesting character. Raised by her grandmother who seems like she was a manipulative sort, Elle was forced to go out on her own when she was fourteen, and she has few family ties left. She’s extremely self-reliant, hyper-aware, physically fit, and an expert burglar. Sometimes, she takes unnecessary risks that seem out of character. In the first chapter, she describes walking a friend’s dog in the neighborhoods she’s targeting so she will know where the dogs live and then avoid breaking into those houses. Yet, she runs to danger several times after she begins her investigation into the murders. Though she clearly is an accomplished thief, she has so many other abilities, it stretches the imagination. She is able to use a welding torch and do simple electrical wiring. Though she does at one point admit that her overconfidence put her best friend into harm’s way, she doesn’t become more reflective of her limitations or the wisdom of her actions.

At times, I didn’t like the writing style. Too many paragraphs had sentences that began with “She…” instead of offering variety in the language. When Elle listed items, she ended with “or something…” more than ten times. There isn’t much dialogue–Elle works alone–but the dialogue in the book is a little clunky, as are some of the sentences. “She would never have considered going where she was going in any other circumstances,” for example, could have been written more clearly. While much of the book is told in the third-person from Elle’s point of view, in explaining the crime and wrapping up the narrative, the author shifts to omniscient point of view which I found slightly jarring.

For a quick read that approaches mysteries in a different way, though, this book is entertaining. A perfect pool-side novel.