Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The DivinersThe Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to give it to Libba Bray. She captured the Roaring 20s in full color. I can tell she put some serious research into this book, but also endowed this period with her own spark and brought it to life for this reader.

This was an odyssey in some ways. A long read, and a long listen. Thinking about this book gives me an ambivalent feeling. The subject matter is very dark. The tone quite pessimistic. I realize that this is the authentic feeling of youngsters of this period. How can you believe in the fairy tales your parents tell you about God and country, about safety and peace when your older brothers and friends went to die in the Great War that seemed to have nothing to do with you in America? Especially when things aren't exactly fixed on the home-front? All that the old timers say seems to be hypocritical and designed to suck the life out of you. That they are selling you a dream you can afford to buy.

With this novel, Libba Bray captures that feeling of doubt and despair of this period, and how the Bright Young Things, the Flappers and their male counterparts, threw themselves into the party, the Now, instead of focusing on a future that didn't seem to belong to them anyway. I think my feeling of almost depression when this ended also related to the fact that I watched a documentary on Sunday night about the black American experience and how by and large most blacks never really had a chance at the ever-elusive American Dream, far from it. So I can feel that sense of disillusionment that some of the characters felt in this book, knowing how bad it must have been for many blacks during the 20s, and having false promises about how great America was rubbed in their faces because of their skin color and race, despite being born and raised in this great country.

She also shows the constant party atmosphere that was going on during Prohibition, bought at a hefty price, with the rise of gangster-related crimes in the cities. Immigrants who came to America to get a better life, find themselves living in falling down tenements and preyed upon and despised because they can't afford any better (or to buy into the American Dream). Doors slammed in their faces because of their ethnic origins. The rise of xenophobia and racial hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and espousing of racial purity through eugenics. I imagine it was a scary time indeed for youngsters like Evie, Jericho, Mabel, Theta, Memphis, Sam, and Henry. Much better to drown your sorrows in gin, constant partying, and watching movies on the Silver Screen, than to face the scary present and an uncertain future.

On top of that is a very real and very frightening supernatural peril, at a time where Modernism and self-determinism seems to counter beliefs in a supernatural God, must less anything like ghosts or even spiritual beliefs. How does one protect oneself against a ghost resurrected to continue his blasphemous work, when one doesn't even believe in that sort of thing, not as a Modern person? How can you conceal the fact that you have abilities that you are not able to explain in a rational sense?

Yes, combined together, this makes The Diviners not a fun read. At least most of the time. But it's very good. The characters were very vividly realized and I felt much sympathy for them even when I didn't agree with the choices they made. Evie, particularly, challenged me at times. Her reliance on drinking and her self-absorbed, questionable moral compass chafed at me. However, Bray shows the pain that lurks beneath her careless facade. Being the child who lived when her mother wanted her brother to come back from the War instead. Losing her only sibling to a war that didn't make any sense to her, and not even having a close relationship with her parents to console her. On top of that, her ability to read objects, and its effect on both her body (horrible dreams and headaches) and her reputation when she makes enemies by telling the truth, making her known as the weirdo who doesn't fit in. While Modernism seems the solution to the problems that she and many youngsters face, they run into the brick walls of establishment and parental authority, which is always telling them to follow rules that make no sense or have no personal relevance. Her dream to go to New York is a way to start her Real Life. She belongs there, where the party is, where she will fit in. However, she finds that many of her problems exist in New York as well, since she is answerable to her uncle, William Fitzgerald, and she's still considered a young girl to the establishment. When she gets involved in the case to find a ritualistic killer, her abilities give her a purpose and validation that she lacked before.

I appreciated how Bray uses each young character in this book as a frame of reference, across racial and social barriers, which the youth believe are artificial anyway. I sometimes questioned Bray's modern, almost Rainbow Coalition voice as I read, but with research into the era and the Modernist movement, it is clear that this voice was authentic to this era. I liked that she taught me a lot about the social politics of the time in the context of this fictional work. While I feel that this book has some very mature themes and dark themes and subject matter, I feel that it teaches important history lessons that a mature teen could benefit from. If I were a parent, I would suggest reading it first though.

The supernatural storyline was quite unnerving and disturbing. The tie into religious fanaticism made me uncomfortable, particularly in light of the fact that this was the major representation of modern belief in God in this story. I am not saying that Bray attacked religion, but perhaps these times were not as friendly overall to a positive view of Christianity not related to unpalatable social movements such as racial purity and isolationist xenophobia (keeping America pure). In the context of Memphis' journey as a young black man, Christianity doesn't seem to offer him much, since it has done little to improve either his life or the station of life for many people of his race. In the case of Evie, her parents' Episcopalian worship is strictly a social convention with little life or emotion. From that frame of reference, it's easy to see why this has no major influence on her own beliefs. Her friend Mabel's parents are atheistic social reformers, her father of Jewish background, and her mother a runaway socialite. In the case of Jericho, he renounced belief in a God who would abandon him to a life-threatening illness that changed his whole life. So when you have a killer who has grandiose beliefs of himself as the Beast who will bring about the end of the world, a very heretical corruption of Christian eschatology, it comes off as a very negative view of Christianity in general.

While Bray doesn't describe the murders in detail, she does show us the fear and the hopelessness of the victims of the killer, which was hard reading. Although society might consider them undesirable, to me, they were innocent human beings who didn't deserve what happened to them. I found it disturbing, although not gratuitous. Perhaps some readers wouldn't be as bothered. I admit I am a wimp when it comes to serial killers and psychopathic killers. It especially bothers me when religious imagery is mixed in with it.

While Evie's uncle Will is not a focus, I liked his character a lot. His scholarly bent and carefully disguised soft heart were a good foil for the younger characters. He is Old Guard, but the more time Evie spends with him, maybe he can show her that not all the values of the older generation are worthless. And maybe she can teach that it's okay to enjoy life and have a sense of emotional connection instead of viewing everything through a divorced and academic lens.

While I found the serial killer aspect disturbing, I like how this story sets up the series for a larger supernatural threat. I can definitely see this series building into something quite interesting and worthy of following.

Just a note about the narrator. She was excellent. She conveyed the characters very distinctly. I liked how she sang as well as speaking some of the parts. I felt like I was there in this period with her lively rendition on this audiobook.

The Diviners is a very good example of what young adult fiction has to offer to both teens and older readers who enjoy young adult books. I'd recommend it for the vivid and very faithful rendering of this intriguing time in history, the Roaring 20s, with an intriguing cast of characters that will bring me back to future books in this series.

Just a few casting images:

Evie O'Neill (Kirsten Dunst)

Theta Knight (supposed to resemble Louise Brooks)

Memphis Campbell (Mechad Brooks)

Sam Lloyd (Younger Christian Bale from Newsies)

New York City (Manhattan)-1928

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Searching Issues by Nicky Gumbel

Searching IssuesSearching Issues by Alpha USA
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's really hard to write a review for this book, because the issues discussed in this 100 plus page book are so huge that I could easily write a 100 page review just telling my thoughts about how Mr. Gumbel addressed these issues. At least the ones I've figured out completely. Yeah, that sounds as confusing as it feels.

I think that it's easy to take a "baby with the bathwater" approach to Christianity. You assume that because you put your faith in Jesus, then all the tough things in life go away. Not at all the case. Those tough questions will always be there. Because we are thinking people, and we are also emotional. God wired us that way, and he gives us the free choice to think and feel as he created us to do. God is good in that he allows us the room to make up our minds, and gives us the information to approach those decisions open-eyed.

So if people ask hard questions like Why does God allow suffering?, you end up either giving answers that over-simplify the question or give an answer that leaves the questioner with more to think about than they had before they asked. The same goes for other issues in the Christian faith. Big huge ones like sexuality, New Age beliefs, the so-called conflict between science and Christian faith, and the Trinity. Overall, I feel that Mr. Gumbel accomplishes what he set out to do. It helps that Gumbel is a lawyer, and he has a way of making clear, concise points. What makes it even better for me is that grace, truth and love always go together in this book. That is essential to the embodiment of Jesus Christ. And anyone who comes in the name of the Lord should always follow this model.

I do have to say that the segment on the Trinity really put my mind in a knot. Well, honestly, that doesn't surprise me. One God, three separate persons. Christians who have grown up in the faith accept this as the intrinsic part of what we believe. But when you sit down and look at it, it's just mind-boggling. Probably didn't help that I read this part at two in the morning either. God is so beyond what my mind can encompass, but I don't want a life without him. He's just part of who I am and I relish the opportunity to walk through this life and have him reveal more of who is is to me with every step I take while I live on this earth, until I am in his presence one day. I am glad that he thought enough to give me a tangible view of him in Jesus Christ. I'm a thinking person and a feeler, and that makes the walk of faith both an exciting one and a confusing one at times. Sometimes heart and head are declaring war against each other, and you don't know which to believe.

That takes you back to the "baby and the bathwater" conundrum. If I find it hard to accept one aspect of my faith, does that devalue the whole thing, or is that where faith comes in? Can I accept that having faith in Jesus Christ gives me the support to walk through life and the power to get through circumstances I don't always understand? As well as accepting that some things are just what they are and I have to accept that and ask him for the strength to do what he requires of me as a follower of him, even if that means going against the crowd or what everyone else believes to be true. Faith is when you take what information you have and keep walking in the direction you want to go. And I want to go wherever Jesus will lead me.

I knew this would be a crazy review. It's just hard to pin these incredible questions down into salient points. Hats off to Nicky Gumbel that he was brave enough and empowered to try.

It's a good book to read for Christians and want to be Christians who have some hard questions about the faith and how certain things relate to the Christian faith.

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SEAL Team 666 by Weston Ochse

SEAL Team 666: A NovelSEAL Team 666: A Novel by Weston Ochse

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

Jack Walker’s dream was to be a Navy SEAL. He was going to make it through BUD/S training, no matter how much it punished his body. Just four more weeks.  But he’s pulled out of training early, and drafted into an ultra-secret, elite SEAL team, one that has an unusual team number.  This team fights threats against the free world that are supernatural in origin.  And Jack is specially equipped to be a member.  For the dark scars of his youth mark him with a special ability to sense evil. 

I liked the idea of this book, a military special ops story with a supernatural twist.  Ochse’s attention to detail as far as military ops lends credibility to the writing.  I really appreciated the look at how a SEAL team operates and the whole involved procedure of keeping the world safe, top secret-style, with the ancillary support of various defense agency personnel.  His focus seems to be more on this than the supernatural component, but he grafts together the two aspects of the story fairly well.  Still this book seemed thin to me.  Like it was serviceable, but merely scratching the surface of possibilities.  Yes, I think that was the big issue I had with this book. It lacked depth.

I wanted more character exploration.  While I felt I did get to know Jack fairly well, I didn’t get more than a surface portrayal of most of the others.  I realize that the story occurs in a short period of time, but I had this feeling that the characters merely existed to move the story, or to get killed off.  That saddened me.  The death of a team member and the ritual associated with his passing, had more time spent on it than seeing that team member as a living, breathing human.  Of course, death is an everyday experience for these men.  They know they could die on any mission they undertake.  But I needed to know them better, because knowing someone is part of the process of caring for them, that they live and die for a purpose.  Otherwise, our mental health defenses build a wall between us and the suffering of others in the world, because to cry for every person who dies will destroy you. We just don’t have that capacity.    But if you know someone, even a little, it breaks your heart to know they have died.  To introduce a character only to kill them without much effort to infuse depth makes a mockery of that.  I really dislike the tendency towards presenting characters as sacrificial lambs in a story. Just enough to introduce a character and then they get killed off.  I felt this was a shortcoming of this novel.

The action is well done.  The pace was intense and appropriate.  I got the real sense that I was going on ops with these guys.  In this case, all in relation to the supernatural threats in this book.   If even possible, that brings a higher level of threat to the situation.  There’s only so much a gun can do against an undead, immortal threat, or one from a world of strangeness that doesn’t follow the rules that govern this physical one.

The supernatural storyline was intriguing and definitely horrific.  Ochse does build the sense of wrongness and weirdness that would disturb an average person.    I like a weird supernatural story like nobody’s business, but I had some moments where I was thinking, “That’s just wrong!” Imagine being a SEAL, trained to eliminate lethal threats all around the world, but previously naïve to the supernatural darkness in this world. You have to keep moving and do your job, and you don’t have time for “WTFs”.    So yes, that part was very well done.  The particular threat they faced in this book felt novel and very intimidating, and the author ties it into things going on in the world arena.  While the climax was too abrupt for my tastes, it definitely had impact, and as I said, I enjoyed the action moments.

With this book, I had that feeling that everything was scratching the surface when I wanted things to get deeper. With an intriguing storyline like this, I get excited to see what journey the author will take me on.  Overall, this was a book that kept me reading.  It was a pretty good book.   A nice mélange of spec ops action and supernatural weirdness.  I think the author could have given me more as far as characterization, which is the biggest shortcoming of this novel.  However, I would keep reading this if it becomes a series.

Overall rating: 3.25/5.0 stars.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero (Joe Ledger, #1)Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

I don't like zombies, but I like this book!

I bought this one a while ago because I was intrigued by the idea of an action/adventure series about a special government agency which handles strange science threats. It's been sitting on my shelf, not because it didn't look interesting. I was just reading and doing other stuff.

Glad I was able to read it for the February group read for the Action/Adventure Aficionados group. A very strong selling point is that this one hits the ground running. I hate being bored, so I appreciate a book that doesn't give me opportunities to get bored, and also engages my intellect. This book did both. I felt that I was drawn into the action early on, and the fact that the characters have to think on their feet adds to the sense of urgency. This book is built quite heavily on that sense of urgency, and it succeeds. This was a book that never slowed down, despite the high tech science elements. I feel that the author wrote a book here that is intelligent, but also action-packed. He took zombies and gave them a 21st century update, which makes it even more scary. To think that someone is crazy enough to make a pathogen that would turn people into zombies, and to unleash it on innocent citizens, for any reason, is absolutely frightening.

Mad scientist stories interest me. And this one has a whopper! I did think the actual identity of the mad scientist was quite interesting, although I found their reasons to be a let-down. Not that there was any good reason to do what that person was doing, but the reason didn't ring true to me. Unless it's just sheer craziness.

Terrorism lives up to its name. The thought of murdering people for a cause is appalling. In this book, there is also another dimension here. Maybe terrorism in its essential form isn't the whole picture. Terrorism is also good business. The thought nauseates me. But there are people in this world who happily make lots of money this way. This aspect of terrorism is examined in Patient Zero. That someone in fact uses it to create a demand and supply effect. The zombies aren't the ones with no souls in this book.

This is one of those books I didn't want to put down. Here I am, reading this book in bed when you'd think zombie books would be off the bedtime reading list. Nope. I had to keep reading.

Joe Ledger

Joe has action hero chops. Maberry lays the groundwork for why he's the man for the job, and he acquits himself admirably. I liked that Joe is a tough action hero, but he's also flawed and human. He doesn't have all the answers, nor does he have emotional wholeness, and he knows it. That's another reason he's on the frontline. I kind of liked his attitude. What can I say? A grumpy hero can work for me. And yes, the martial arts, barehanded zombie fighting was pretty awesome. I mean, that takes some guts to tackle a zombie without having a respectable fifteen feet shooting distance between them. How about breaking zombie necks with one's bare hands and other parts of the body? I'll leave that to folks like Ledger. He is a man of action and an intelligent man. A good mix.

Other Characters

I touched on the bad guys. It's hard to write a good villain. You can easily make them too campy or so mundane you're bored to tears. Both is death, no pun intended. How about a little realness thrown in with the evilness quotient? That's a good mix. I'm not sure how effective the villains were on an essential level. They did the job, but something was off. I couldn't identify with the villains. Nope. Not at all. I couldn't put myself in their shoes. To me, they were foul beyond believe. No amount of integrity despite some of them being true believers. Actions speak louder than words. I often asked myself which was worse, the true believers or the ones motivated by almighty dollar? I don't have an answer for that one.

Rudy is like Joe's heart and soul. His conscience. I honestly think having Rudy has kept Joe sane. I liked that he is the voice of reason and the voice of ethics, not that Joe isn't ethical. But he can't always weigh the tough questions in the thick of battle. It's good to know he has Rudy to bounce those off of. Good friends are scarce, so I'm glad they have each other.

As far as the team and the people who work at DMS, I think there are characters that stand out. Church is definitely one of them. He's the mystery man with long fingers, and iron hands that can crush his enemies or protect those who need it. He's a good guy to work for, but not a man to cross. I liked the idea of DMS. How they recruit the best, because the best is needed for a situation like they face in this book. Major Grace Courtland stands out as a female character who is tough as nails, but also three-dimensional. You don't get to see too many military heroines, and she's a very good one. The team that Joe picks don't get as much page time, but I hope to see more of them. They earned my respect in the many confrontations they face, shortly after or right when they find out zombies are real. I'd still be in the pinching myself phase. And then there is Doctor Hu. That was utterly priceless!

What fell short

I felt that the ending was less well-executed than most of the book. The story was so well-plotted until the end, that I just had this 'huh' moment with how it ended. I mean the final confrontation was pretty good, but some of the hows behind it, not so much. I still don't understand what happened with the one character who turned out to be a red herring. And the master plan seemed a bit campy on the part of the true believers. Other than that, I have no complaints. But this knocked my rating down in the end.

Final Thoughts

I have found a new series to follow. Maberry delivers on action and cutting edge science. I love the idea of the DMS, and a top notch action hero like Joe Ledger combined with it, will keep me coming back. While not all elements were 100%, this was a solid read that I enjoyed enormously. I have to give this one a respectable 4.25 star rating. I'll be back for more!

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine (The Clockwork Century, #2)Clementine by Cherie Priest
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

What kind of book is this? Is it science fiction, alternate history, steampunk, or just madcap adventure? All of the above.

Clementine is is part of the Clockwork Century series, and I admit I cheated and read these out of order, starting with this book. The storyline was a huge draw, honestly.

I'm a sucker for Westerns, especially with a heroine at the helm. Maria Isabella Boyd is on the wrong side of the Civil War, as far as I am concerned, but I don't like her any less. She's a complex woman with her reasons for being a Rebel spy. Deep down, she's a decent human being. While I abhor slavery and all the injustice associated with it, it's a reminder that many on that side of the conflict weren't necessarily people who believed in the inferiority of black people and that they should stay slaves. Many believed in the right to maintain their way of life, and for their families. So, long story short, I still loved Maria despite her loyalties. When you're a young girl growing up, you often wish that Indiana Jones and The Lone Ranger had female counterparts. As a very grown-up girl, I still cherish the opportunity to read about larger-than-life heroines saving the day in a historical setting. Belle Boyd is for you if you are of a similar bent.

Similarly black children hear about the Civil War and think about how much it must have sucked to be deprived of your basics rights and to be treated as property. You want to hear about heroes with brown skin who fought for their own freedom and autonomy, and there are not enough stories about these heroes. It's disheartening to think that all blacks during that period were out of control of their own destinies and basically victims. Well, Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey is for those kids. He's answerable to no man but himself. It's made him into an outlaw, but at least he can be treated as a man and not a 'boy' or property. He's steaming mad when a redheaded thief steals his very own hard-won airship. And he'll go to hell and back to get his Free Crow ship back. When he encounters Belle Boyd, they end up becoming temporary allies, because she's after the cargo on his ship, and he's after his ship himself. Maybe at one time they might have been enemies, but today is a different day. Hainey is a tough, fearless, strong-willed hero. Even when he does questionable things, I still rooted for him for his sheer force of will and determination.

Clementine is for adventure-loving readers who wonder about the 'what ifs', or how what happened could actually have been a little different then the way it's written in the history books. I probably missed a few key points, since I read this out of order. But it's not terribly hard to follow, overall. I get the idea that technology is more advanced than it would have been back in the actual period. It makes this sort of a low tech Steampunk Science Fiction, with an emphasis on the actual adventure. I really liked the idea of this book, more than the execution, to some extent. On the good side, I loved the manner in which Priest conveys this time period. I did feel like I was right there in the book as I read. My biggest issue with this book lies in the confusing descriptions of the workings and machinery of the hydrogen-driven airships. It was a little dry for my tastes. When descriptions get too technical, my eyes start to glaze. I could have done with a little less of that and more focus on the action and characters. However, I liked what was there. I also feel that more interaction between Captain Hainey and Belle could have enhanced the books. I'm not saying that Priest was going for a romantic entanglement, but the chemistry was certainly there, and I would like to see how that would have been handled in her alternate version of history. Maybe that will come along later. There's always that possibility. I can see the Captain and Belle meeting again someday. Not as enemies, but perhaps as allies once again.

I loved Dreadful Skin, so my bar for this author is set high. That's why I couldn't give this one a higher rating. At 3.5 stars, Clementine is an enjoyable book with larger-than-life main characters, despite its flaws. I'll be paying another visit to the Clockwork Century series in the near future.

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