Book Review: IF, THEN: Disturbing visions strike neighbors in an Oregon college town

day, kate hope - if, then coverIf, Then
Kate Hope Day

Neighbors in a small Oregon college town near a dormant volcano begin to see visions. Mark sees visions of disaster that push him to make preparations beyond all logic. His wife, Dr. Ginny McDonnell, observes herself living happily with a different partner. Samara Mehta watches her mother–who has been dead a month–prepare to sell the family house. And new resident Cass, a brilliant graduate student and new mother struggling to find balance, glimpses visions of herself pregnant.

The idea behind If, Then is fascinating, but the execution did not completely deliver. The book began with an interesting premise and the beginning was fueled by the question of the meaning of the visions and introduction of the characters.

Telling the story from four points of view provides variety and, in the case of the plot of this book, is absolutely necessary, but the characters are not all equally likable. And while I know it’s a reality for new parents, I did get tired of the descriptions of Cass’s baby’s incessant crying.

It seems clear that Kate Hope Day conducted careful research because there are meticulous details about Ginny’s surgeries and Mark’s research, but the narrative at times gets bogged down in these details, and they come at the expense of characterization. Some of the most interesting characters are secondary: Samara’s mother, Cass’s graduate advisor, and survivalist Harry, perhaps because they are among the few characters to have backstories.

With the lull in the middle of the book, I was hopeful the ending would provide a big payoff, but the denouement was rather anticlimactic and the visions and their “rules of engagement” weren’t consistent or explained.

If, Then is solidly written though and I think will appeal to readers who are interested in the “Theory of Everything” and the possibility of multiverses.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WILDCARD, the conclusion of the WARCROSS series

lu, marie - wildcard (2) (1)Wildcard
Marie Lu

Picking up shortly where Warcross ended, Wildcard opens with Emika devastated that Hideo Tanaka, Henka Games CEO and creator of Warcross, not to mention the object of her affection, has created an algorithm that controls 98% of the population and keeps them from engaging in criminal activity–as Hideo defines it. Moreover, Emika gained top billing on the Assassin’s Lottery, commanding a hefty bounty for her death.

Emika’s only option for safety seemed to be Zero, Hideo’s nemesis, a member of the clandestine Blackcoat organization. They claimed to work for the same goals–disabling the algorithm so that no one person had too much power–but as Emika learned more about the Blackcoats, she realized that their agenda was more complicated and nefarious. She struggled to determine a strategy that would play Hideo and Zero off each other to destroy the algorithm and bring Hideo back to his senses.

Warcross described a world completely influenced by Henka Game’s NeuroLink, a type of augmented virtual reality. It provided useful overlays like maps and labels, but also allowed users to customize–or hide–their appearances, communicate, research, and play games, including Warcross. The NeuroLink also enabled Hideo to disseminated his algorithm. Wildcard briefly touches on the interesting question of what might happen if a virtual world so many people (and business) depend on is stripped away, and I think this question deserved even more attention.

The first book in the series focused on the Warcross championships and highlighted Emika’s team, the Phoenix Riders, and her teammates. Although her teammates are in Wildcard as well, they don’t play as prominent a role, and their absence is felt, as is the paucity of time spend in the Warcross game.

Instead, much of Wildcard is devoted to Zero’s backstory which is interesting, harrowing, and raises many ethical questions. The flashbacks that provide his story are presented as enhanced memory files, almost like virtual reality or videos you can enter and walk around in. While this should have been a more vivid way to offer his story that simply recounting it, the choppy nature of the memory files somehow made it more removed to me than I think it should have been.

The final confrontation which takes place partly in the real world but mostly within a game of Warcross is suspenseful, but I couldn’t help but think it was too similar to The Matrix, particular the final battle between Agent Smith and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, with SecurityBots paralleling agents and Zero the Agent Smith character while Emika played Neo.

Still, the ending to me was ultimately satisfying, and it was a quick, enjoyable read overall. This book does though, in my opinion, require reading Warcross first. I wouldn’t read it as a stand alone title because too many characters and terms are used that were only explained in the previous book.

Book Review: PROVENANCE, a science fiction mystery

leckie, ann - provenance (2) (1)Provenance
Ann Leckie

Netano Aughskold has always encouraged her foster-children to be brilliant, not just intelligent, but cunning and clever. Left unspoken is that the foster-child who impresses her most will be named her heir. Ingray has never felt like she measured up to her foster-brother Danach, so in a desperate bid to amaze Netano, she uses all her money, plus money borrowed against her inheritance, to steal Pahlad Budrakim from Compassionate Removal, the Hwae people’s alternative to prison.

Pahlad Budrakim was sent to Compassionate Removal for stealing the Budrakim vestiges, important family artifacts connecting the Budrakims to an extinct race. Vestiges in general on Hwae are revered; they are like souvenirs with a sacred aura, and ancient vestiges can be extremely expensive on the secondary–or black–market. Planners of public and private events always include vestiges to distribute or sell in kiosks, and most people on the planet proudly display their collection. The most important cultural vestiges are collected on the Hwae Station. One is the document that attested that the Hwae paid their debt to the Tyr and became an independent people; another is a ceramic bowl that opens the First Assembly’s meetings.

Igray believes that Pahald can provide her the location of the Budrakim vestiges, which she will then give to Netano. In turn, Netano will gain power over her political rival and Pahald’s foster-father, Ethiat Budrakim. Ingray’s plan, of course, is derailed immediately when the man brought to her claims not to be Pahald Budrakim. Still, he travels with her and Captain Tic Uisine from Tyr to Hwae, but Captain Uisine caught the attention of the Geck Ambassador, the Geck usually being a reclusive people rarely leaving their home planet. Complicating things even further, Zat, an Omkem staying with Netano and interested in an archeology dig on Hwae, is murdered. Ingray’s personal plan hits against larger political forces, and how far she will go to gain her foster-mother’s approval will test the limits of her intellect, strength, and desire.

Provenance is a book that to me was more interesting after the fact than when I was reading it. I did like Captain Uisine and the sassy Geck Ambassador as well as how representations of gender and sexuality in this society shine a light on the fallacies of gender roles and sexuality in our own. Additionally, the obsession with vestiges is at times funny but also thought-provoking. At one point, Ingray believes the ceramic bowl will be stolen and she wonders if the thief will then be in charge of the First Assembly since the ceramic bowl brings the First Assembly to order. That it was a representation (likely not original in the first place) that could be replaced didn’t cross her mind.

While reading the book though, I thought Ingray was irritating. She was reckless, impulsive, nervous, weepy, and made decisions, or rather fell into actions, that endangered herself and those around her. That things worked out often had more to do with her associates than her, though she was given much credit. Also, although this book was deliberately focused on a small cadre of characters, many of whom, like Ingray, actively ignore the larger political forces of the universe, I did wish that Leckie spent a bit more time on those larger forces since they are so interesting.

Leckie fans, I think, will definitely love Provenance, and the book has a lot to offer, though it also has its flaws. It’s best when given thought and reflection, so after you read it plan to let it percolate.

Book Review: SUICIDE CLUB, a great concept with problems in execution

Heng, Rachel - Suicide Club (6)Suicide Club: A Novel about Living
Rachel Heng

Lea, who has just celebrated her one hundredth birthday, has done everything right. She follows the rules, observes the advisories, attends all her Maintenance sessions, and is on track for a promotion at work. With her lifestyle, career trajectory, and body enhancements (DiamondSkin™, Repairants™, SmartBlood™ and ToughMusc™), she easily expects a lifespan of three hundred years. But, if she continues to excel, she may be one of the select chosen for the Third Wave: immortality.

Her behavior and achievements over the past eighty-eight years has virtually erased her troubled childhood and her association with her antisanc father who disappeared when she was just twelve. But, walking to work the day after her one hundredth birthday party, she sees her father for the first time since he left. Eager to reach him, she walked into the street to follow him.

Her choice to leave the regimented routine of her daily life put her under observation from the mysterious Ministry, but also offered her the chance for a world of freedom. As she delves into the ranks of the Suicide Club, she learns the true costs of immortality and has to decide if she’s willing to pay and sacrifice her father.

The concept of Suicide Club was provocative and interesting, and perhaps not entirely unhinged from reality given government intrusion on women’s health. It raises deep ethical questions about who should control decisions about health care, fitness, nutrition, and recreation as well as the inequality of services, the costs of research, and the role of social pressure. Some people are so desperate to extend their lifespan that they acquire black market technology and often become “misaligned” meaning their body parts fail at different times, leading to catastrophic consequences.

The narrative has fun details, such as jazz music being cautioned against because it raises the heart rate too much or dogs being recommended as pets because they lower it. “Lifers,” or those with the genetic profile that puts them in the category for a long life span, exhibit a narrow range of facial expressions to avoid lines and wrinkles, and they forgo sweets, even fruits. When Lea eats chocolate ice cream, it’s a revelation.

Lea herself was a problematic character. Although she was unlikable, that wasn’t the primary issue for me. I was troubled that her characterization was so inconsistent. That she transformed into the troubled child she was into the model citizen she became seemed unlikely, and even within the confines of a single scene she would have a series of multiple, conflicting reactions that didn’t always flow from the narrative. Though she was one hundred, her maturity level was inexplicably low. I was also troubled by Lea’s decisions at the end of the novel. They had no payoff, so they didn’t make sense to me.

Some of the characters that were more interesting, like Anja, a member of the Suicide Club, could have been given more attention. Other secondary characters, like Lea’s fiance Todd, were underdeveloped. Additionally, one of the very provocative questions the book raised was the divide between the Lifers and the sub-100s, those who were not expected to live beyond one hundred years and often had inferior jobs and housing. One minor character represented the sub-100s, but there was so much more potential to mine, and I would have much rather read about the intersection and potential conflict between the groups than about Lea.

I really did enjoy the writing style and the world Heng created, and thought the questions she raised in Suicide Club were important, but after finishing the novel, I felt confounded, unsure of what Heng intended to convey, and it seemed to me the villains escaped while the heroes were punished, leaving me dissatisfied.

BOOK REVIEW: Trail of Lightening, a dystopia with a Navajo protagonist

Roanhouse, Rebecca -Trail of Lightning (1)Trail of Lightening
The Sixth World #1
Rebecca Roanhouse

After cataclysmic climate change reformed the borders of the United States, the Navajo (Diné) closed ranks and built a wall around their land. This Sixth World also changed the borders between the real and mystical realms, allowing figures like the Coyote (the Trickster) to manifest themselves.

Diné Maggie Hoskie thought her life was over when she and her grandmother were attacked. Instead, her clan powers manifested and immortal monsterslayer Naayéé’ Neizghání appeared, seemingly out of the blue. For several years, Maggie traveled with Neizghání who taught her how to fight and use her clan powers to her advantage. But after a gruesome battle, Neizghání left Maggie. She retreated to life in a remote area of Dinétah with only her rez dogs as companions. But then, a representative from the Lukachukai convinced her to help them find a young girl who was kidnapped by a monster.

Maggie successfully defeats the monster, but it’s unlike any she has ever seen before. Its arrival pulls her into a dangerous quest to find who is creating the monsters. Along the way, she partners with Kai Arviso, a medicine man-in-training, who carries secrets of his own. Together, they inexorably advance to an inevitable confrontation with Neizghání who may be more of a monster than monsterslayer.

Having a young adult dystopian novel with a female Native American protagonist makes this a book worth considering since representation is so important. And I was poised to like the book. Unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Maggie is an unlikable main character who is judgmental, defensive, isolated, distrusting, quick to judge, and with an over-exaggerated sense of her own importance. Sadly, she was not a unique character. I felt like her voice was indistinguishable from that of Mare Barrow in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, and probably several other protagonists in this genre as well. Like many of the books in this category, it’s told in present tense which isn’t my preference, but became irritating when some flashbacks were in present tense and some in past tense. In that area, consistency is important. The plot was poorly paced in my estimation, and the motivations of characters unclear, while the denouement offered me no payoff for the investment.

And, Roanhouse violated my cardinal rule regarding the treatment of animals. Maggie went off several times without any thought to her dogs. I wonder if labeling them “rez dogs” means it’s okay in her mind for them to fend for themselves. This is an irresponsible position. Today, Reservation Animal Rescue estimates that as many between 1,500 and 6,000 stray dogs roam the Navajo reservation. Spoiler alert: their lives are not good. Yes, Trail of Lightning is fiction, and yes, it’s set in a dystopian future, but still, the behavior of characters in fiction serves to normalize the attitudes of readers, especially those who are looking for a hero like Maggie. This type of dismissive, fend-for-themselves attitude towards dogs is irresponsible to perpetuate.