I was traveling for business for about a week recently and fell behind in my book reviews. Sorry!!  So, here are a bunch of quick reviews of books I’ve read recently.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t make any promises.

Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan (5/5 stars)
I picked this one up because Netflix or Amazon or someone is coming out with a film adaptation (I think they’re doing it as an episodic series or something, rather than a movie.) and one of my friends remarked on how good it was.  They were not wrong!

This is a cyberpunk spin on the noir detective novel.  The mystery is very challenging and it’s not likely that any reader will be able to predict what’s going on with any accuracy very far in advance in spite of a fair amount of foreshadowing.  The characters are rich and interesting and the world-building is very lush.

Not recommended for children, though. This is very gritty and there are some complex psychological themes and some very steamy sex scenes.  But for adult fans of sci-fi, I would put this on the must-read list along side works by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole (3/5 Stars)
I picked this one up after hearing the author on the Imaginary Worlds podcast. They did an episode on military sci-fi/fantasy and he talked about how he brought his military experience into his stories.  He described it in a really interesting and compelling way and since military SFF isn’t something I’ve really read much of, I decided to pick this one up.

This is the first book in his Shadow Ops series and, I believe, his first novel.

It’s fine.  No, seriously, it’s fine.  I will probably pick up the next book in this series when I’m looking for a “pool read,” something I don’t have to think too much about, but has something different and exciting to offer.  That’s what this book is.

But I can’t write any sort of review of this book without talking about things that bothered me. First of all, the magic system is a little fuzzy to me.  That’s fine as long as story points don’t hinge on how the magic works and, unfortunately, there are points in this story that do that.  So, there were lots of places where I was like, “Wait. What?”  Also, the main character’s motivations vacillate too much in too short a time.  In a two minute span, he goes from “I hate the military” to “I love everything about the military” to “No, wait. I HATE IT AGAIN FOREVER!” to “But maybe I love it a little.”  Bro.  And he’s supposed to be this guy with a solid if not extensive military career already, but he seems confused by the way some of the things work.

But some of the characters are interesting and fairly likable and there is a “realness” to the way he describes the military and the action scenes. The plot is straightforward and unsurprising — that is not a complaint — but generally well-constructed.   So, yeah. It’s fine.  I expect subsequent books in the series improve on my complaints, so I am very likely to return to this series in the future.

The Feminist’s Guide to Raising a Little Princess: How to Raise a Girl Who’s Authentic, Joyful, and Fearless–Even If She Refuses to Wear Anything But a Pink Tutu by Devorah Blachor (2/5 Stars)
I almost quit this book.  The far-too-long title is a perfect example of the author thinking she is being funny or cute and juuuuuuuust missing the mark.  The entire book is this.

This is not a thoughtful examination of the pitfalls of the “princess” archetype and what parents can do to avoid them.  This is not a journey of parental introspection and discovery.  It’s a book of satirical essays that, while attempting to be funny and snarky, end up coming off as bitter and resentful.

The bottom line of this “guide” is that parents should really just do what works for them and not feel guilty about it because being a parent is hard work.  You just have to look for those opportunities to teach your child to be “authentic, joyful, and fearless” while indulging their princess whims in order to maintain your own sanity.  That’s it.

So, I am very sorry to say that this book is a huge disappointment.  Not all that thought-provoking. Not helpful.  And, sadly, not funny.

Pacific Fire by Greg Van Eekhout (3/5 Stars)
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, and so I decided to pick up this, the second book, especially after hearing Veronica Belmont rave about the rest of the series on Sword and Laser.  It’s fine. Another pool read, but it doesn’t have the same charm as the first book.

I don’t really have a ton to say about this book. I felt like some of the side characters were underdeveloped for the role they’re supposed to play in the motivations of the main characters.  I also felt like this was mostly a big set up for the third book and less a stand-alone book.  Unfortunately, because it wasn’t all that great and didn’t include as much of the characters I grew to love in the first book, I am not certain when I’ll come back for book #3.

All the same, it is a fast read. If you’re headed to sit by the pool for a few days for the holidays, I think you could take this trilogy with you and probably have a good time.  (I haven’t read the third book, but I’m assuming it will wrap things up well enough.)

The Power by Naomi Alderman (5/5 Stars)
For people who think SFF can’t be “literary,” this book is a slap in the face.  It’s a really great book with well-rounded characters, a compelling plot, and deeeeeep social commentary.

This is actually a book-within-a-book situation. A male author in the distant future has sent his female author friend a copy of his manuscript and asked her to read it.  He’s a historian and his previous work has not gotten the attention he thinks it deserves, so he’s written this book in a different style, choosing to focus on particular individuals and craft something more like a historical novel that is backed by his research on the topic.  Think Erik Larson-style books. So, the majority of the text is that of his manuscript. And letters between the two authors bookend the manuscript and offer something of an epilogue to the story.

The focus of his research is a point in their history when women develop the power to transmit electrical charges through their skin, akin to what electric eels and catfish do.  This is such a powerful advantage that women become the dominant gender in society and the novel follows several women as this change takes place.

So, the result is a look at how men and women relate to one another in business, politics, media, and society in general.  Readers should be warned that there are several instances of sexual violence in which women assault and even rape men using their power.  The result is that in the distant future — when the two authors are discussing the text with one another — there is a complete inversion of typical gender roles in society.

It’s a thought-provoking idea and the way gender plays a role in every interaction — from daily interactions between colleagues to sexual dynamics to wartime rules — is very well highlighted. Nuances that readers may not have considered before are brought out in very interesting ways.

My only “complaint” — if you can call it that — about the book is that the inversion is so complete that I was left with the simple conclusion that people suck. There is just so little virtue on display in the text. “Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely” kept running through my head. But there are a few moments when characters are able to put aside their fixation on power and relate to one another as equals in spite of their differences.  And I think for a rational feminist, this is probably the ideal message.

I have a LOT I could say on this topic, so I need to stop there before I head down a rabbit hole.  The bottom line is that the aggression and defensiveness that power differentials create when people don’t relate to one another honestly and rationally is destructive to individuals and society.  And this book does a good job of looking at different types of power through the lens of a drastic chance to society that shifts some of that power from men to women.

Highly recommended reading!

American Housewife by Helen Ellis (5/5 Stars)
HILARIOUS! QUIRKY! ADORABLE! INSPIRING!

This is an excellent little book of short stories.  I read other reviews of this book and not everyone loves it the way I do, so I am aware of the fact that this collection speaks to me in a way that is particular to me.

The collection starts out with a few very funny, absurd stories.  I love the fight between neighbors in the New York co-op and the introduction to book club.  There is at least one story that is horror/fantasy.  “The Fitter” almost made me cry; it’s very touching and I just wanted to hug all the women in my life after reading it.  The end of the book is a bit darker and more emotional with stories exploring loss of aspiration as life changes.

The arc of the stories all together is really nice and even though the stories all stand alone very well, together they present a “meta story” of a writer that I found relatable and interesting.

Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino (5/5 Stars)
I realized recently, that I actually have several poly/non-monogamous friends. I hadn’t really given it much thought because I figure other people can manage their lives just fine without my help. But when I saw this book referenced in an online article somewhere, I decided to look a bit more closely.

I wanted to understand the question of why people go into non-monogamous relationships. What are “good” reasons? What are “bad” reasons? How does it work?

This is a great book for getting across the message that there are LOTS of different types of relationships out there and people do this for a lot of reasons.

For me, a person in a monogamous relationship, there’s a lot of good information and thought-provoking ideas in here. And I want to emphasize that I would strongly recommend this book for open-minded monogamists like myself and not necessarily because you’re thinking about opening up your relationship.

Reading it sparked a closer examination of what I need in a relationship, what I enjoy in my relationship, and what I could be doing better to make my relationship more satisfying. The emphasis on communication, consent, agreement, mutual satisfaction, and the concept of “compersion” are all things that I want to explore in my relationship.  The emphasis on “non-violent communication” and setting explicit expectations is very important for every relationship.

There’s also a very informative discussion around sexual health and legal considerations for poly families.

So, I would recommend this book even for monogamous people who just want a new perspective on romance, sex, and relationships.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (3/5 Stars)
Uuuuuuuggghhh… I read this one too quickly on too little sleep and I am not 100% sure that I know what really happened. I think this was a Sword and Laser book a while back and had I known this was that book, I would not have chosen to read it when I did.

It’s a first-person novel with a very unreliable narrator.  That alone should tell you not to try to follow along with the audiobook in the middle of the night while feeding an infant.  But that’s what I did and all I can think of when I think about this book is, “WTF?”

I don’t even know where to begin in trying to describe what this book is about or what its theme is.

There’s a team of people — a biologist (our narrator), a psychologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor — who enter a mysterious place called Area X.  They have some sort of task to study the area and “discover” a big hole or structure in the ground. The biologist calls the hole/structure a tower, but others call it a tunnel.  And there are some crazy critters in the tower and out in the marsh.  And the psychologist has been hypnotizing everyone.  And there’s a lighthouse. And… It’s bananas.

It’s as compelling and interesting as it is confusing, though. But it’s scary and tense, too.  I loved how mysterious things where and I couldn’t tell where it was going to go. I really love the descriptions of nature in the book. It sounds a lot like the region of south Georgia where I grew up. I will probably try the second book in the trilogy when I have had more rest because I really want to understand more about this crazy place.