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In which whales fly, lizards talk and World War I starts off a little different than you remember

Title: Leviathan

Author: Scott Westerfeld

What it’s about: Imagine for a moment that bioengineering and robotics had been invented in the early 1900s and taken off at an astonishing rate. The British latched onto Darwin’s findings and before you could say “Dr. Doolittle” they were splicing genes together to create fabricated beasts for labor and war. A whole class of animals has been bred to breathe hydrogen and now creatures of the sea have taken to the sky as giant breathing airships. Meanwhile, the Germans have developed colossal walking machines piloted by men, from two-man walkers the size of a tank to giant roving battle-stations stomping about on eight legs. Scott Westerfeld takes us into this world through two points of view: Deryn, a gifted young airwoman who has lied her way into a post as a midshipmen in the British Air Service on the whale fabricant Leviathan; and Alexsander, the son of an Austro-Hungarian archduke whose wife’s less-than-royal blood has kept Alexsander from being next in line for the throne.

Westerfeld creates a clever bridge between actual European history and the events of his alternative timeline. The novel opens just after the now infamous assassination of Alexsander’s father the archduke, which sparks World War I (though Franz Ferdinand did have children, none were truly named Alexsander). From there we see the battle lines drawn out in much the same way as they really progressed, but this time the conflict is at heart an ideological one between “Darwinists” (nature and science) and “Clankers” (mechanics and religion). Alexsander is forced to flee with a few members of his household as he is hunted by Austrians and Germans who fear his claim to the throne. A stroke of luck sends Deryn on her first mission, as part of an airship crew escorting a female doctor to the Ottoman Empire with precious but secret cargo.

I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I edited The Steampunk Bible. Though Leviathan is YA, it’s certainly something an adult could enjoy. Part of the fun of it is the giant thought experiment that’s occuring and the intriguing mash-up between history and fiction. The Steampunk element comes in through the futuristic revisions—living airships vs robots—but at heart it’s an amazing adventure story. Deryn and Alexsander are compelling POV characters, one a sheltered aristocrat forced out of his family home and into a world as a fugitive, and the other a common girl trying to gain respect in a man’s world. Though they come from different classes, they have more in common than they might guess. Both are hiding their true identities and want to achieve great things but have many hurdles to overcome.

As an added treat there are illustrations sprinkled throughout. While working on Steampunk Bible, I learned that Westerfeld and his illustrator Keith Thompson worked together in a very novel and symbiotic way. Sometimes Westerfeld would describe the scene he wanted illustrated, but Thompson would also produce sketches that would then inspire Westerfeld’s prose. The black-and-white line drawings are striking and add to the historical feeling of the work and the authenticity of the beasts. Since the things Westerfeld describes seem so fantastical and strange at times, they are grounded and made more real by these images.

Would I recommend? Sure! If you enjoyed the His Dark Materials trilogy, I think you’ll love this world as well. I got wrapped up in Westerfeld’s adventure story and can’t wait to come back for part 2.

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In which a genre-bending novel uses a sci-fi premise to examine how we all deal with the reality of mortality

Title: Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

What it’s about: Kath, Tommy and Ruth had a happy childhood at Halisham. They kept themselves healthy and developed their art under the care of their guardians, the men and women who were both their tutors and their protectors. But despite their idyllic country home and classical education, the children at Halisham have always known that they’re different from people on the outside. They won’t grow up to be doctors or teachers, they won’t marry or have children. Their paths have been laid out since birth. They will leave Halisham for a few year, then train to become carers. They’ll spend some time driving around the country from one facility to the next, caring for others like themselves. And then they too will begin their donations—four if they’re lucky—and complete by the age of thirty or so.

The story is told through Kath, who has been a carer for twelve years now, a long time but not unprecedented. She’s about to begin her donations and she reflect upon her time at Halisham and her childhood friends, both of whom she cared for herself as they went through their donations. Through her reflections we see the development of these children, their modest hopes for themselves, their accelerated awareness of their place in the world.

Though the concept sounds very sci-fi, the intriguing thing about this book is it hardly reads like it. The topic of donations and the origin of these children is really background noise for a psychological exploration. The story is quiet and emotional, more about their personal connections with one another. It rejects the conventions of the genre—it is not dramatic, action-packed, dire or preachy. But it is raw and intimate. I read an interview with Ishiguro where he addressed this choice and he said he was interested in exploring how people grow up and come to understand mortality and their place in the world, but wanted a condensed time period for this process that we all undergo. We all know on an intellectual level that we’ll die someday. We learn this even when we’re children. And we all accept it. We want more time, but we accept death as a given. It’s not so different for Kath and her friends—they’re just more certain on the timeline.

Would I recommend? I certainly enjoyed it. I will say that if you go into this book with the wrong expectations, you could be disappointed. It’s not a dystopia or a cautionary tale about the boundaries of science and morality. It’s about friendship, love, and personal identity. And clones. If that sounds good to you, pick it up.

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In which I issue a warning: Do not be fooled by this book’s adorable cover. Read at your own risk (of boredom).

Title: Girls in White Dresses

Author: Jennifer Close

What it’s about: Blerg. I’m going to get this out of the way up front. I did not like this book. Reasons:

1. There is no plot. There are a bunch of girls (I could not for the life of me tell you how many, see point 2). They are between 21 and 30 years old. They are not married, but people they know are. They are living in New York or Chicago and they have jobs that they hate. Each chapter consists of a kind of episodic event (or nonevent), mostly to do with boys who they don’t really like that much, but date anyway. This is the whole book. No character progression, no conflict, no resolution. Just stuff.

2. I could not remember which characters were which. In addition to the absence of a plot, there was also an absence of any discernible differences between the characters, which made them just names to me. The very cute cover (I give credit where credit is due, good job designers) is also sadly accurate. They are faceless girls in white dresses (though they spend less time in weddings than the cover and title might suggest…I think there were two wedding-related scenes total). Because the characters all had basically the same voice and no personality to speak of, I had to basically relearn who each person was at the beginning of their next chapter. I found myself flipping back to their previous sections just to get some kind of context. There’s one girl named Isabella who gets mentioned more than the other ones, so I could generally remember her when she showed up, but I couldn’t quite remember what I knew about her. Where did she live again? What kind of job did she have? Was she the waitress or the publishing assistant? Flat. All flat.

3. The writing is childlike, featureless and completely uncompelling. See points one and two. Large casts of characters and a vignette writing style can work. But not in the hands of a poor writer. Whole paragraphs would pass with exchanges similar to the following: “Mary moved to New York. She went to her job every day and didn’t like it. After awhile she found an apartment and moved in. She started to like it.”

I mean, seriously?

Admittedly, I don’t normally read a lot of what we call “chick lit”. Maybe this is what a lot of chick lit is like! I thought I’d give it a try since I was looking for something easy and sweet. I thought, “oh my gosh, I’ve been in a ton of weddings! Maybe I’ll find this funny and relatable.” But I did not. Maybe there’s a reason I don’t read this genre. Maybe my lesson is learned.

That’s all I have to say. You have been warned.

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In which I long for my own beach weekend in Maine

Title: Maine

Author: J. Courtney Sullivan

What it’s about: The Kellehers have come to Maine each summer to stay in the cottage by the sea since Alice’s husband won the property in a game of cards after the war and carved her initials into the tree at the gate. They brought their children and now their children’s children and even their great-grandchildren are coming. But Alice doesn’t necessarily welcome the intrusion. She never wanted any of this—family, children underfoot, the life of a good Irish Catholic housewife. Wrapped up in her own guilt about events from her youth that changed the course of her life, Alice has promised the house to the Catholic Church after her death—unbeknowst to her family who expect to continue spending summers there in perpetuity.

Alice’s granddaughter Maggie joins her in the cottage for a month, fresh off a break-up with her volatile artist boyfriend and pregnant with his child. Maggie is surprised to find solace in the house and courage to accept the challenge of raising a baby on her own. Of course, she can’t tell Alice any of that. Nor can she tell her Aunt Ann Marie, who shows up by surprise one morning. Ann Marie is a Kelleher by marriage, but rather than being the black sheep, she’s something of a too-white one. Always taking on Alice’s care and modeling the behavior of a  ’50s housewife, Ann Marie can’t seem to admit even to herself that her own marriage is not what it once was and her perfect children haven’t turned out to be that perfect. She retreats to the cottage to work on a dollhouse she’s entered in a competition and daydream—harmlessly really—about starting an affair.

I read Maine by a lake and found it to be an absolutely perfect summer read. It’s like The Corrections only with more sun and sand and less anger. The characters are all flawed, but relatable. The book alternates between four women’s points of view and I enjoyed seeing their ships passing in the night as each interprets events differently and shares their side of the story. So many misunderstandings arise from misses in communication. The Kelleher women have more in common than they want to admit, but can’t stop hurting each other. Call it pride or fear, they’re each boxing up a part of themselves and boxing out the ones they love.

This is a story of evolving generations of a family and the way a single event can affect people so differently. It’s about suppression and sacrifice versus self-awareness and fulfillment. It’s about alcoholism and emotional abuse, but also lobster rolls and Irish folk songs. It’s a story about women—the way we talk to each other, the way we tear each other down or build each other up. And it’s just a good story. The writer’s voice is clear and fluid and I felt connected to these women and invested in how things would play out.

Would I recommend? Most definitely. The perfect setting for reading Maine is on the shore somewhere, but it has more than enough depth to hold up in your living room come winter.

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In which voiceless characters keep me from fully connecting with an intriguing premise

Title: The Dovekeepers

Author: Alice Hoffman

What it’s about: When the Romans invade Israel, no place is safe for the Jewish people. Not Jerusalem, where their Temple is toppled to the ground, and not any town or village along the way, where the people are burned out of their houses, forced to flee or be killed or enslaved. There is only one place left to flee, a Zealot fortress in the desert that was once Herod’s palace, his last retreat and defense, a complex built to last a siege and protect its residents. The survivors now place their hope in this stronghold and their small army of boys and men who roam the desert in search of supplies and Roman raiders. But a feeling of dread hangs over the fortress. Its inhabitants know they are only waiting for the Romans to arrive, for the final test of their strength and their faith.

To this place come four women and each is called to work in the dovecotes. Yael crossed the desert with two assassins—her father and the man who became the love of her life. Unfortunately, this man also traveled with his wife and children. Always treated like a dog by her father, she finds a lion within herself when she meets her love and despite her guilt she cannot give up her newfound joy. Revka’s journey is one of loss, as both her husband and daughter are killed before reaching safety. Her son-in-law becomes a different man, leaving her scarred grandchildren in her care. Both boys have lost the power to speak after the horrors they’ve seen. Revka lives to care for them and to restore their voices if possible. Shirah is the only one to cross the desert with purpose, not fleeing the Romans, but seeking her long-lost love. Now she shares her gift of magic and wisdom  with the troubled and bereft in the fortress. She brings her daughter Aziza, a girl drawn to men not for their love, but for their freedom and abilities. Together, these four women must find a way to survive.

Though the premise of this book sounds great, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. The historical context is rich and the characters are unique and interesting, but this book had one major flaw that kept me from getting immersed. It wasn’t in the plot—it was in the writing. Hoffman uses extremely minimal dialogue. Whole chapters seem to go by without any sign of quotation marks and often conversations are summarized rather than shown. As a result, I found the characters understandably rather voiceless. I realized that dialogue is incredibly important to my enjoyment of a book.

Would I recommend? Some people might not feel as strongly about dialogue as I do, and if so, you might enjoy this book. But if you need to hear the voices of the characters to get caught up in their struggle, this isn’t for you.

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In which I greatly miss some characters but get sucked into the continuing saga of Westeros nonetheless

Title: A Feast for Crows

Author: George R. R. Martin

What it’s about: Warning: Spoilers ahead for the three previous books in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. A Feast for Crows focuses on the aftermath of The War of Five Kings. Though only one of the original declarants remains (Stannis), the country is still at war as new kings are crowned. One Lannister is as good (or bad) as the next, so young Tommen takes the place of his brother on the thrown in King’s Landing. As Tommen is too young to rule and Tyrion is out of the picture following his trial for Joffrey’s wedding-night demise (the second death of a king at a wedding…curious) and the subsequent actual murder of his father, the ruling of the kingdom finally falls on Cersei’s shoulders. For the first time Cersei becomes a POV character, but I was disappointed that her chapters didn’t expand my understanding of her motivations much. While I did develop some sympathy for the once reprehensible Jaime when his chapters were introduced in Storm of Swords, Cersei is pretty much how I always imagined her: self-centered, paranoid, and clueless when it comes to politics. She orders deaths like I order pizza (usually while intoxicated and without much thought to how I’ll feel about it in the morning). When we do get glimpses into her past, they almost exclusively focus on a prophesy experienced as a girl which fortold her marriage to Robert, her three bastard children and eventual fall to another queen. This felt like a lot of energy spent foretelling things that had already come to pass. While Cersei assumes her doom will come in the guise of her new daughter-in-law Margery (three times a queen, twice widowed, and still a virgin? I’d like this girl unpacked a little), we all know the prophesy must mean Daenerys.

Which brings us to one of my biggest problems with this book: No Daenerys, no Tyrion, and no Jon Snow. With so many characters and the number of POVs growing, it would be hard to pick a favorite, but those three are certainly in my top five and with good reason. Tyrion is the wise fool, bringing much-needed levity and clearmindedness. Daneryes is the other, a stranger across the sea, and I always look forward to her chapters because they bring us into such a very different world. And Jon? I think many people see a bit of themselves in Jon. He’s still one of the purest characters, trying to “do the right thing” and also find his place in the world. Martin explained that he chose to leave some characters out because as he wrote he found that the scope of the book was unmanageable, but I question leaving these three out in particular. It left this installment feeling unbalanced.

We do get a few more new additions and visit old friends. I enjoyed our journey to the Iron Islands and closer interaction with Asha Greyjoy and her family of kraken lords. Arya’s voice is always welcome, but I don’t know if I approve of her path. Now an acolyte in the temple of the Faceless Gods in Bravvos, Arya’s teachers try to get her to abandon her identity, to no longer be Arya Stark. But though Arya has taken on many names since leaving Winterfell, she’s always quite passionately been true to herself. And with the Stark name dying out, Arya abandoning it feels like a betrayal of her family.

I was glad to be back in Westeros, but I found my visit less than fulfilling. Martin continues to add layers and his story still manages to surprise me (though often in ways that result in me exclaiming in anger or disbelief). My investment in the characters only deepens, which makes their struggles all the more wrenching. As the story becomes more sprawling in scope, I feel a bit of longing for the unified voices of Game of Thrones, populated by Starks and the odd Lannister or Targaryen. The world was smaller and simpler, but though it was easier, I respect the expansion of the world. It’s no easy task and Martin’s aims are ambitious. I’m along for the ride now.

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In which I try a favorite author’s earliest book only to find some welcome familiar faces

Title: Ghostwritten

Author: David Mitchell

What it’s about: In a series of nine interlocking short stories, David Mitchell takes us from a terrorist’s hideout in Okinawa to the booth of a late-night radio DJ in New York City. Ghostwritten (2001) was his debut novel, but many readers, like myself, will have come to Mitchell through Cloud Atlas, his 2003 best seller. It was surprising to me to take a step back in time and find not only a very similar format to Cloud Atlas, but also some familiar faces. In fact, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas inform one another in surprising and revealing ways, and I found myself making connections and opening mental doors as the events in Ghostwritten unfolded.

The nine stories in this book seemed to be more solidly connected than those of Cloud Atlas, as each character encounters the next in a fleeting but tangible way and as the book progresses more and more points light up on the metaphorical switchboard and our narrators tend to have greater effects on their counterparts. While Atlas was a journey through time and space, Ghostwritten spans a much shorter period and most of the stories overlap temporally, all the while drawing us east and forward to a terrible catastrophe.

The book begins and ends with extremes (a cultist experiencing the aftermath of a bomb he planted, and a supercomputer searching for the solution to humanity’s tendency toward destruction), but bookended are a few more grounded tales. Each story contains an element of the fantastic, be it a non-corporeal being searching for its origin or an impoverished ghostwriter roped into a gambling competition in a London casino, but also focuses on a simpler human element. Mitchell’s characters are risk takers and make sacrifices for what they want. They share a kind of drive toward something, a conviction in some goal. This brings an intensity to the book and also a feeling of forward movement. I also enjoyed Mitchell’s different meditations on the nature of love—be it the Russian woman involved in an art theft ring to please her gangster boyfriend or the scientist on the run who returns to her ancestral home on Clear Island for a few days with her husband and son before the U.S. government forcibly removes her to a hidden facility in Texas to create a master-weapon.

I do wonder why Ghostwritten hasn’t found as wide an audience as Cloud Atlas when they share so many qualities. His most recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a beautiful focused historical fiction with only a few spotlighted characters, and markedly different from his earlier books (though many have commented that intertextuality is one of his hallmarks and Mitchell claims there are several carryover characters in Autumns, but I appear to have missed them). But for fans of Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten will seem like a meeting with an old friend. It’s shorter and, with more stories, it clips along at a faster pace. You’re sure to enjoy the winks and nods to Mitchell’s other work. And if you’re coming to Mitchell for the first time, this is as good a place to start as any (and I recommend you do).

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