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Blythe

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Superb fairy tale reinvention, and great narrator

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-09-14

I love fairy tales, and fairy tale retellings, and this was one of the best I've come across (right up there with Jane Yolen's "Briar Rose"). It has elements of Rumplestiltskin, in that one of the first characters we meet is a young woman (Miryem) whose skill at making money is such that she boasts she can turn silver into gold. Overheard by otherworldly beings (the staryk) who value gold above all else, she is trapped by the staryk king into agreeing to change his purse of silver into gold.

Slowly through the book we're introduced to more characters - Wanda, a peasant girl who comes to work for Miryem, then her parents and brothers; Irina, a duke's daughter to whom Miryem sells some jewelry; and the staryk king and the czar to whom the duke wants to marry Irina, and Irina's nurse. The narrator's perspective starts with Miryem but then slowly changes to some of the others as we meet them. The primary narrators are the three main female characters: Miryem, Wanda, and Irina, but others add in to contribute different perspectives.

Without giving too much plot away, the three women face three similar and inter-related dilemmas of the types women often face - forced marriages, family problems, and powerlessness - and as they find solutions instead of giving up, their plots all tie together.

Overall, loved the writing, enjoyed the constant twists and surprises of the plot, enjoyed the stories about the types of problems that women have historically faced and very much enjoyed that even the "bad" characters aren't just one-dimensional and some of them actually win some sympathy once you learn more about their perspectives. Very much enjoyed this book, even more than Uprooted and the Temeraire series which were also great.

A more satisfying ending to the Gilead story

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-09-14

Growing up in Canada I had to read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, way back when - and it's not an easy read when you're 16 or so. We had an assignment afterwards to write an additional chapter of the book about what happened next. I wish I could remember what I wrote -- but The Testaments is the author's answer to that same assignment.

Offred of the first book is no longer the narrator, no longer even directly present in the story, which is instead told through the writings of Aunt Lydia and the recorded testimony of two teenage girls, one from Gilead and one from Canada. This gives the book a much different feeling from The Handmaid's Tale, in which we have a much more limited, claustrophobic view as we see everything only from Offred's eyes. In The Testaments we have a much broader view of Gilead now mainly seem from the perspective of the Aunts, which is quite different. Through Aunt Lydia's writing we learn how she came to be in her current position, and we get a much broader view of the workings of Gilead leadership because of her visibility into the Commanders' lives and politics.

Therefore, this isn't as creepy and as terrifying a book as The Handmaid's Tale; it also has a clearly resolved ending, unlike Offred's ambiguous close. It wraps up the bigger story of Gilead in a satisfactory manner, but that also means it will not haunt you as long as its predecessor since there aren't really any unanswered questions left to ponder. So if you're looking for another haunting, thought-provoking narrative with a cliffhanger ending, this isn't the book you're looking for.

However, if you're very attached to Offred, either from the original book or from the Hulu TV series, and want to know more about Gilead society and need a Gilead story with a happy ending (or at least as happy as possible, in Gilead) the you'll enjoy this book a lot. If you enjoy Atwood's writing and were amused by the little jokes in The Handmaid's Tale like "nolite te bastardes carborundorum" then you'll enjoy a lot more in The Testaments also - such as the Aunts' official motto, "Per Ardua Cum Estrus" (likely a play on the Air Force motto "per ardua ad astra"), and the Aunts' admonition against reading and writing, "Pen Is Envy". Also a lot of Canada jokes which made me snicker, being Canadian.

Overall I enjoyed it a lot; I could barely pause the book after starting and finished the entire 13+ hours of it within 2 days. With the current political climate down south, I don't think I really felt up to reading another harrowing Handmaid's Tale style novel of despair, and this was a book I enjoyed reading a lot more, while I can acknowledge it doesn't have the individual impact that its predecessor did. It was a satisfactory wrap up and a little bit of hope in a time that really could use a bit more.

13 of 13 people found this review helpful

Tech mystery with surprising plot twists and turns

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-09-05

Picked up the audiobook in an Audible sale and was pleasantly surprised. Don't think I've read anything by this author before, but I generally like science fiction and I definitely enjoyed the frequent twists and turns of the plot of this one.

Briefly, high school English teacher Mike is finally persuaded to help out his DARPA buddy Reggie by investigating some scientists who are trying to build an instant-travel gate (step in here, step out miles away... or on the other side of the world). And they've actually got it working! But Reggie doesn't know any of the details of why or how, and the scientists aren't talking, just insisting it needs more testing, and Reggie has a hunch something feels weird. So in goes his trusted buddy Mike, with a massively high IQ and an eidetic memory, to try and pinpoint what feels "off" and figure out what - if anything - they're hiding.

Mike is, needless to say, not welcomed warmly by the scientists, but does his best to figure out what's going on and whether there's a problem or whether it's all legit. And the tech really is very puzzling. Clearly it works, but nobody can give him a clear answer why or now ... and then he starts to notice strange things happening also. And, due to his eidetic memory, he actually does notice them, unlike most people who'd just shrug and assume they misremembered. Soon Mike is on the track of a bigger problem and eventually, without going into spoilery details, it seems the fate of the world hangs in his hands...

I really liked the teleportal tech (the "Albuquerque Door"), and the fact that Mike himself is slowly trying to figure out exactly what it is and why, allows the reader to be introduced to concepts at a slower pace without turning into a science exposition dump. I also liked that the plot took several unexpected turns that I didn't see coming, and turned into quite a suspenseful mystery which I wasn't expecting from what I thought was a sci fi tech story. I wasn't quite so keen on the characters themselves; Mike was a bit of a deus ex machina, a flawless hero who can know everything and solve everything due to his magic memory. The other characters were all pretty shallowly drawn. It was nice there were 2 tech-oriented women among the scientists, but everyone was pretty two-dimensional so you didn't really get much acquainted with any of them.

Overall though it definitely kept my attention and I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot. I particularly liked the implication at the end that multiple sequels could possibly follow... but don't have to, for this book to end satisfactorily.

Brilliantly narrated

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-09-01

Let's start by saying trigger warnings for rape and domestic violence. They are contextual to the time period (1743), but if those are a problem for you, don't read this book. Secondly, definite homophobic tones to the book also; and again, while this isn't exactly inappropriate for 1743 Scotland, it was also a choice the author made to apparently equate homosexuality with the more villainous characters, cumulating in a homosexual rape. I found this a problematic choice and it makes me a bit dubious about what direction the rest of the books in the series will take.

Those warnings aside, it IS an interesting story of a post-WWII nurse named Claire who's whisked back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland, where she meets fiery-haired James Fraser and is swept into the fighting and intrigue of the Scottish clans, the Jacobites, and the wars against the English, all while trying to survive and get back to her own time if possible. Fortunately for Claire her healing skills give her some personal value and soon enough she's being protected by the Scots and Jamie in particular. There is a lot of interesting interpretation of history and folklore, and also quite a lot of Scottish sex scenes, although for the most part (with a couple exceptions) they're generally pretty tastefully written.

Listening to this as an audiobook was a delight to hear the narrator beautifully rendering the Scottish accents. I'm not sure how the accents were written in the text version and it's possible they might have been annoying or difficult to read in print; in audiobook however it worked very well.

Unsure if I will go on to the sequels, I picked this up mainly because it seems to be so highly spoken of, and I did enjoy a lot of it, but the apparent homophobia did leave an unpleasant note.

Some charm but stretches incredulity

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-08-18

This book is told primarily from the point of view of 8-year old Oskar Schell, whose father was killed in the world trade center towers on 9/11 and who, a year or so later, is still dealing with the loss and grief. He appears to be a very intelligent kid but probably somewhere on the autism spectrum (based both on his behaviour in the book, and the fact his therapist Dr. Fein suggests to his mother that he might be put in some kind of special care facility). Oskar finds a key in his father's closet and makes it his mission to find the lock it fits; the only clue he has is the name "Black" written on the envelope it was in, so he begins an epic journey to speak to every person named Black in New York city.

Interspersed with Oskar's key mission are back stories from his grandparents: his grandmother, who lives across the street now and helps care for Oskar, and his grandfather, who vanished before Oskar's father was born but whose story is told through a series of unsent letters he wrote to his son. Oskar's grandparents survived the fire bombing of Dresden and their stories unwind in parallel to Oskar's search for the lock that his key will open - which he's become convinced will somehow bring him closer to his father.

There were some moments of charm in the book and I was curious to find out what the key would eventually unlock, but there were also a lot of very annoying characters and unbelievable circumstances, not to mention a generous helping of trite melancholy. It seemed to me as if the author was trying to imitate something like "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time", where Precocious Autistic Spectrum Child Observes World, Solves Mysteries, only not as well. The plot and prose often felt rather forced, and Oskar's awkwardness - while probably supposed to illustrate his childish innocence and/or autism - was often simply silly or offputting. The complete inability of anyone in his family to communicate anything to each other was stretched past the point of believably. And the idea that his mother would seriously allow an 8 year old child to wander around New York city talking to strangers for months or sneaking out past midnight for no reason known to her is just preposterous.

Overall the book just asked me to stretch my credulity way further than I can do and still enjoy the story.

Multilayered, melancholy plot

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-08-18

This is a great book, a book with layers on layers and a reveal at the end that makes me realize that if I went back and reread the entire book again now with the full knowledge of the plot, I would see so much more in the story than I did the first time through.

However, it's also a sad book, a book about old age and unhappy marriage and the breakdown of family relationships, so I know I probably won't go back and reread it to get the full extent of appreciate out of the story that I'm pretty sure is possible.

The book tells a story on many layers; it's old-aged Iris telling the story of her childhood with her sister Laura and then her unhappy marriage to Richard. It's the story of The Blind Assassin, a book written by Laura and published posthumously, in which a woman meets a lover who is a pulp SF writer and who tells her the story of the planet Zycron and the pulp SF tales that take place thereon, ostensibly the story of a blind assassin and the girl he rescues, but I now suspect there is a high degree of reflection in these stories of what's happening in the outside world of Iris and Laura, although I didn't know enough to catch it all the first time through. Laura is the most nebulous character all throughout, it's always hard to tell what she's really thinking and doing since we only see her through her sister's eyes, and her sister's eyes. Only at the end do all the remaining loose ends get tied together and we finally understand what each character's place is within the novel and how they all fit together.

Like I said, I think that if I reread the book now, having just finished it, I'd find layers and layers more, and discover that in a way, Atwood was telling the whole story all along, we just didn't know enough to see it until the end of the novel. But, it is also such a melancholy story and left me with such a sad feeling for really almost all the characters in it, that I'm not sure I want to go back and revisit the story again.

Fantastic sequel to "Children of Time"

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-08-18

This is the sequel to "Children of Time" and you should definitely read the first book before reading this one or it won't make a lot of sense. But read the first one, it's also an amazing book, and then come back and read this one!

"Children of Ruin" follows the structure of "Children of Time" by jumping between two different time periods - the far past and the near present, which slowly converge over the course of the book as we see how they relate. The "far past" section deals with another terraforming ship, colleagues of Dr. Kern from "Children of Time", who went to a different planet with the intent to terraform it, only to find it already inhabited by non-intelligent life, the first actual alien life anyone has found. Rather than destroy it to make a new world for humans, they opt to terraform another planet in the same system that is less habitable due to being mostly ocean, but unoccupied. One team goes to investigate the occupied world, while a second team works on the terraforming, and because it is a water world, includes the creation of an uplifted breed of octopus intended to be the humans' helpers.

Without getting into too many spoilers, things go badly wrong, and many thousands of years later when a joint Human/Portiid expedition from Kern's World arrives in the system, they find a race of spacefaring octopods who are so panicked by the sight of a human being that it sparks a violent space battle and the remainder of the book involves the Kern's World alliance trying to figure out how to communicate with octopods, and why the sight of a human and even the suggestion of them visiting either of the populated worlds in the system induces terror to the point of open warfare.

I loved the spiders in "Children of Time" and the way Tchaikovsky believably describes their evolution into an intelligent, tool-using civilization without losing their spider-ness, and the only thing that could have delighted me more than the Portiid race is when he does just as well with the intelligent octopods. This book also has some moments of serious creepiness which were chilling and scary, and plenty of action as well as a thoughtful discussion of the problems of communication that would obviously exist when Humans, Portiids, and octopods attempt to learn to communicate. Dr. Kern is back also in ship's-computer form, and also a key part of the plot.

I felt the ending was resolved a little quickly and a bit predictably if you'd read the first book, as there are many parallels between the structure of the first book and this sequel. However, still lots of great and unique details along the way and some really alien aliens, so if you loved the first book this one is a must-read too. Definitely leaves room open for another sequel also.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

Disappointing and really annoying narrator

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-07-22

Whether or not this book sounds interesting to you, I'd say skip the audiobook and go for the print version (or at least check a sample listen first), because the narrator had an extremely uncertain wavering voice that made him sound super nervous all the time, which was very offputting. He sounded uncertain and nervous about everything for 8 straight hours, and if I had to hear him quaveringly say "oh boy" one more time I was about to delete the book entirely.

As for the book itself, meh. This book mostly disappointed me in that the POTENTIAL of the plot was so great, and sadly so very unfulfilled. I picked it up in a sale because I'm a sucker for books about androids evolving intelligence. There are two major themes to the book: androids developing real emotions and intelligence; and gay android sex scenes. While I'm okay with reading the latter particularly if relevant to the plot, the former is what interested me about the book so I was disappointed to find that the former is really just a paper-thin plot device to excuse writing a lot of the latter. Kind of like watching a porn movie hoping to get the backstory of the pizza delivery guy I guess.

There were lots of potentially interesting hooks that COULD have been a really interesting philosophical discussion about android intelligence and android rights, but they were all just sort of passed over without explanation or examination. For example, the AMA - Android Moral Authority - is somehow a thing that exists and apparently has a really surprising amount of authority to the point that they can raid locations, rapidly mobilize response teams, and get people arrested for mistreating androids - but how or why would this be the case? Like, the tech described in the book isn't that many decades from where we are now and there is NO indication or obvious reason that we are going to develop anything like the AMA unless there's some significant incident that brings it into being - but no explanation or mention of such in the book. Then there's the whole philosophical issue of how it could possibly be moral to design an android to be totally physically dependent on a human being they had no say whatsoever in choosing and who is undoubtedly going to die long before the android, leaving it completely helpless and incapable of being appropriately fulfilled. How is the supposedly powerful AMA okay with this either?

Then the characters in general - Lloyd goes and buys himself Shaun, an android sex toy, it doesn't occur to him he'll develop any type of feelings for Shaun, and then within a WEEK, when they've done very little other than read books and have sex, he's decided that he's in love? Just so much of the relationship building didn't seem to make any sense and was all hugely rushed. Shaun is actually much more likeable than Lloyd but the fact that probably none of his emotions are even a choice, since he's programmed to be entirely dependent on Lloyd, make the whole situation rather creepy if you accept he's really become a self-aware and intelligent being, a creepiness that is entirely ignored by all characters in the book.

I could mention also the highly dubious technobabble such as the fact that androids apparently need to be connected to the internet to CHARGE ... wut ... but let's not even go there because there are so many other questions about the rest of the book that the technological dubiousness of the setting is just icing on the cake. And DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED that a major premise of the book is that Lloyd's favourite FAVOURITE book EVER is ... MOBY DICK? Seriously? Has Walker ever actually read Moby Dick? Because I have, and the idea that this book out of all the books in the world is what the protagonist has chosen to be his favourite read-and-reread-and-read-with-boyfriends book is possibly the most mind-bogglingly unbelievable plot point of all.

Then, after a remarkably short passage of time (maybe 10 days?) there is a CRISIS, which neither Lloyd nor Shaun are much use at predicting, coping with, or avoiding; the whole thing is magically resolved in a technically very questionable way on several fronts, and the whole ending seems very deus ex machina and a huge loss of possible character development and elaboration of the worldbuilding.

So anyway, read this book if you think you'll enjoy a lot of gay human-on-android sex scenes but give it a miss if you're actually looking for a book about the evolution of android intelligence or a societal structure in which this might happen.

Like watching a dysfunctional guest on reality tv

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-07-13

"My job description was elusive at best, but I fantasized that I might arrive and find a wild adventure, a pile of money, and an employer who was no less than Prince Charming. This was my opportunity to shake of my bohemian mantle and re-imagine myself as an enigmatic export, maybe a royal mistress or the heroine of a spy novel. More realistically, I suspected I had signed on to be an international quasi-prostitute. There are worse things I could do."

Picked this up in a sale because it sounded interesting. It's the true memoir of Jillian, an 18 year old in the early '90s who decides to accept an offer to fly to Brunei and join a group of other beautiful women gracing the parties of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei. For a period of just a couple weeks she's promised $20,000, but ends up staying longer and walking away with several hundred thousand dollars and a story she's turned into this autobiography.

It's a pretty fast read, nothing too deep here, but an interesting inside view of the life of the girls in the 'harem' of Prince Jefri. The dynamics of his inner circle, the ridiculous waste of wealth and corruption of power, and the lack of real friendship, support, or happiness anywhere at all - not among the girls, not among the prince and his friends, and certainly not between the prince and the girls at any time. He uses them as display objects, for example having them lie around the pool in bikinis just so he can have important visitors to meetings overlooking the pool.

The latter part of the book is more about Jillian's life and family; her abusive adoptive father and passively helpless mother go a long way to explain why she seems pretty dysfunctional and keeps making terrible decisions like dropping out of university to become a stripper. But was it a terrible decision to fly to Brunei and make a few hundred dollars for a few months' work and fairly occasional sex with the prince of Brunei? The book will make you think a bit about that; given what her other options at the time were, it's certainly not the worst decision she made, anyway.

Reading this book was a bit like watching a reality tv show where the guest is so awfully dysfunctional that it's hard to look away. But it also paints an interesting picture of the time and place, and a lifestyle almost all of us could only begin to imagine.

Solid sequel to Lock In

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-07-13

A solid sequel to "Lock In", rejoining Haden's Syndrome sufferer Chris as he or she (it's never stated) pilots their android "threep" body around investigating crime. Newly joined to the FBI, Chris accompanies snarky partner Vann as they investigate the possible murder of another Haden's victim and professional athlete in the Hilketa league (a violent sport in which androids attempt to decapitate each other to score goals).

Basically an easy-reading detective story set in a slightly future earth, you don't really need to have read the previous book "Lock In" but you'll definitely have a bit more background if you do. It's a light, amusing read that goes down like candy and probably won't stay in memory extremely long, but entertains while it lasts.