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Review – The Girl with the Ghost Machine

The Girl with the Ghost Machine, Paranormal by Lauren DeStefano

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is a story about loss, grief, and the damaging effects of failure to accept death. Emmaline’s mother died when she was young, and she was left to move on with no support from her father because he basically abandoned her to build a machine to summon ghosts and give them form. Luckily for Emmaline, she had her childhood friends the twins Gully and Oliver to sustain her. However, she was essentially orphaned, and she seems to know it, if not consciously.

Even if the machine had never worked, I think there could have been plenty of discussion of the themes. Obviously it would have been far more difficult and wouldn’t have all of the science fiction and almost occulty appeal, but I do feel like it could have been done. The basic question of the entire book is this: “Should you trade a lifetime of memories for a brief period of being with a deceased loved one again?”

The answer is not an easy one to come to, although of course since the majority of the characters are children, they each come to their own answers swiftly. Any reader answer to the question is pretty much justified, which surprised me.

I was impressed to see such a heavy topic covered so well in such a short book. It’s sympathetic and respectful, never stooping to coddle or pretend that death is not a big deal or conversely, such a big deal that it can’t be broached. The writing style has some poetic moments, but it’s mostly a clean and simple vehicle for the story. Bravo, I say.

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King of Teeth

One of the better jobs was simply maintaining the cage. Quiet, predictable work that was always done in a group or at least a pair. No chance that a grudge might sneak up on kill you. The others in the group didn’t even have to be allies. You were all united in not wanting to add to the blood you had to scrub off the concrete. Cleaning the cage was a little spot of peace in the Underground.

A flash of light caught Zaymie’s eye. She set down her bucket of rinse water and crouched, careful not to let her bare knees meet a soap-covered stain. No immediate joy. One of her locks slid over her shoulder as she  turned her head this way and that, trying to get the firelight from the sconces outside the cage to catch on the mystery object.

There. More of a glint this time, flashes over more than one angle, as if the thing had many facets. Her hand shot out and she jumped back to her feet. “Found a tooth,” she called out, palming it. “Who’s got the bag?”

“I do.” Tiger appeared at her side, the curt reply the only sound he made. Only long acquaintance with the short knife fighter kept Zaymie from jumping. He handed her the smelly burlap sack reserved for debris such as teeth and fingers.

Ill fortune. If Kickaby had been holding the bag, he would have simply thrown it to her, never mind the chance of spilling. When it came to a sharpness contest, Tiger was a dagger and Kickaby was a bowl. “Thanks.” She reached into the bag and relaxed her hand, not quite letting go of the thing. “I’m gonna see if it has any fellows.”

Their eyes locked. Tiger’s normally straight-lipped expression broke into something akin to a bemused smile. The cage was designed to be a heatsink, to cool the combatants in the sweaty, literal heat of battle. Not the sort of environment that allowed for flushed skin. Certainly not from something as basic as lying.

Goosebumps rose to sharp points, prickling hard across her neck like sandpaper under her skin. “Unless you want to be the King of Teeth.”

“Not today.” He turned away first, his breath and shoulders shaking. Laughing at her.

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Free-writing On the Run

Hadley leaned forward to get her head between her knees. Her frizzy black hair draped over her legs like a ragged curtain. “Are they still out there?”

It was a stupid question, which Brian wasted no time answering. “Where do you expect them to go? They’re as trapped as we are.”

She disagreed. Nothing with teeth like that could truly be said to be trapped. Predators were the masters of all they surveyed. The beasts weren’t trapped. They were in charge.

That and other similarly bleak and useless things crossed her mind in a whir of activity. She bumped her head back and forth between her knees like an indecisive pinball, then launched herself up. Too fast. Combined with the smell of neglect and old rat leavings, the whiplash blurred her vision. She slapped her face with one hand and rubbed her eyes. “You think the chains will keep them out?”

“I don’t know.” Her brother sat on the crumbling old mattress beside her and rubbed her shoulder absentmindedly. “The door is made of metal, so they probably won’t just chew through it.”

Probably. So comforting.

“Those claws didn’t look like they’d help much with tool-manipulating, either. Even if they’re smart enough to open the door, I doubt they could.”

The warehouse had been a boon. From the outside, it had seemed to span the whole world. It very well could have done. The truly wonderful part about it was that it clearly connected contiguously from within, while only threatening a few entrances.

The truly disgusting part about it was that it looked like a concrete factory had thrown up into a dusty wood pile. Hadley coughed into both hands, then twitched away from that comforting hand on her back. “Then we should find all of the doors and chain them.”

Only Brian could smile in that situation. She couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled. Too much stress. Too exhausted. But Brian was always grinning, laughing at his own stupid jokes, and generally finding the silver lining in everything. He flapped her hair away from her face. “Take a second to breathe. They’re locked onto us, which means that if we don’t move, they won’t.”

“You can’t possibly know that.”

“No, but I can figure it out. Using logic.” He tapped the side of his head with a grimy finger. “The usurper sent beasts after us. That could mean just about anything on his end, but what it means for us is that they’re not gonna do the kinds of things a ranger team would do. Like secure all the doors.”

As much as Hadley’s back ached to flop onto the mattress and curl up for a good long kip, she could smell it all too well. She wasn’t quite burnt out enough to consider it over the floor. There were less places for fleas and lice to live on the floor. “Then you think they’ll just hover where we are until we move?”

“It’s highly likely.”

“We should still chain all the doors.”

Brian scrubbed at his chin. There was a bit of scruff there, but he was still too young to grow a proper beard. “It’d be better if I went by myself. You need to sleep, and if we split up, they might be confused enough to go slow and split their own forces. I’d have a better chance of making it to the next door then.”

The floor definitely looked inviting. It would be hard and cold, visibly dusty with cobwebs that would stick in her hair for ages. Still inviting. Hadley slid to the floor and pushed herself farther from the mattress in little scoots. “And I’ll get the next one.”

“You better.”

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Review – A Confusion of Princes

A Confusion of Princes, Young Adult Science Fiction by Garth Nix

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A compelling premise that was generally executed well, if dragged down by poor aesthetic choices. Although I didn’t read Sabriel until relatively recently (a few years ago), I did grow up with the osmosis understanding that it was an amazing book and anyone who likes Fantasy should read it and fall in love accordingly. Garth Nix is that good, but this particular book didn’t impress me.

Khemri is a Prince of the Empire, which is basically the end all, be all of the galaxy if not universe. However, Princes themselves are all but a dime a dozen, with ten million of them in circulation. All Princes are born on one of any Imperial planet, selected and taken from their parents, and then subjected to decades of augmentation and training. Their parents are either killed or mind-wiped and allowed to return to their lives.

Khemri’s character arc is a little obvious, but quite fun in spite of it. He starts out arrogant and ignorant of even his own place in the big picture. There’s a lot of guidance pushing him towards a goal, and he does improve as a person beyond the intention of that guidance. He goes from arrogant and ignorant to compassionate and canny. At first, his ignorance is eyebrow-raising. There’s not really a good reason for him to be so mis/uninformed. But it’s done to make him a more effective audience proxy, so I suppose it’s not necessarily a flaw.

A lot of the things that make him grow as a character are either forced upon him, or the result of bad luck. He doesn’t take initiative until, surprise, a relationship with another character compels him to do so. Khemri doesn’t really act on his own until at least the last third, if not later. Still, that’s kind of the point. So again, not necessarily a flaw.

There’s a subplot with one of the other Princes that doesn’t get a lot of attention except at very key points and I could have done without it. I confess I hated all of the names but Raine and Alice, thanks to there being a “spacey” theme of putting Zs and Ks and consonant+h combinations EVERYWHERE. It was just distracting.

Even so, Garth Nix is always worth at least a look in, and if you’re looking for a book with cool tech, a logical and well-imagined world, and a character for whom you can cheer, this is a good one.

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Freewriting – Total Cock-up

“Wow.”

“Shut up.”

“No, seriously. I am wowed as fuck.”

“If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna shoot you.”

“There is nothing here.” Fancy Carpenter tossed her head, flicking her partner across the face with her greasy hair. Each lock rendered whip-like by days without a bath. “We have never been this boned before.”

Said partner, one Isaac Namgung–soon to be nicknamed Useless Science Nerd–raised his .32 in a gesture that someone else might have respected. “This isn’t my fault.”

A triumphant ha stuck in her throat. Two weeks, they’d been out in the wastes. The last three days of that without food or water. All in the hopes of finding a fabled cave with an even more far-fetched treasure inside. She could have strangled him. If she’d had the energy, she might have done. “Your research landed us fortnight-deep into the asscrack of hell. I don’t see any cave, and I sure as hell don’t see any dragon bones.” A cough wracked her upper body. More than just lack of water. “I’m pretty sure that puts this all on you.”

“My research is dependant on your fieldwork,” Isaac pointed out. His logic hit the dust along with his butt as he dropped to the ground in a ladylike huff. “And as for boned, I wasn’t the one who decided to come out here without any backup.”

‘Backup’ meant a retrieval and protection company. Men and women no better than mercenaries tracking their movements, waiting for an alert when things went wrong. Outside of the wastes, they looked like a bunch of parasitic jerks, as far as Fancy was concerned. Anything a person could do with a gun, Fancy was a dab hand. Shoot, clean, build, beat someone to death with.

One thing she couldn’t do though, was drive. Not in the wastes. Taking a dainty seat beside Isaac, she dug her fingers into her hair. It felt like digging runnels into mud. “Okay. Maybe you got me there. We could have possibly made a few decisions in a different kind of way than we did.”

“Using all the words doesn’t change the fact that you are the shit who got us into this mess.”

“And doing all the fucking science doesn’t make this flatland patch of sand a goddamn cave.”

“Bitch.”

“Asshole.”

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Friday Book Review –

hatched

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people try to justify unethical copying with the philosophy that everything has already been written and nothing is new. It’s codswollop and it aides lazy, unoriginal thought. In the first two books, I don’t remember thinking often that Condie borrowed ideas. The closest I can remember is that the journey portion in book 2 reminded me of Tally’s journey to find Shay in Uglies. (while preferring Uglies and feeling that the association was probably unique to me.) This time, a load of dystopian YA clichés abound.

Some of the elements in dystopian YA are so oft repeated that I wonder if they’re considered genre standbys. Which is stupid, because dystopian YA is not a genre any more than Zombies is. Elements in that category that show up in the Matched series are:

  • Female main character named after a plant most people don’t recognise. (Cassia, Katniss, Rue)
  • Love triangle. Often with an obvious choice.
  • Oppressive government is poorly explained or not even all that bad.
  • Previous goes hand in hand with: A resistance that is as bad or worse (or the same as?) the reigning government.
  • Dumb made-up words for simple things that don’t exist.
  • Stupid reactions/references to things that are perfectly normal to readers.

And the whole search for the plague cure just felt like something I swear I’ve already read (but can’t put my finger on).

There was a scene that I like to think of as a “two-handed bum-cover” wherein an unpleasant character pronounce new works of art as worthless because it’s all been done before. She even repeats the encounter in the last chapter. Just to make sure all the meanies who try to take her to task over the unoriginal elements,

It’s a good ending to the series, though, and it’s definitely better than the second book. But like any book that deals with a plague as a major plot point, it drags on and on and on so really, do not ever listen to the audiobook. Anything you can listen to comfortably at 2x speed is insane at normal speed. It’s also something you can literally sleep through for at least ten minutes at almost any given time.

The actual Rising coming into power was interesting, because stuff was going on for once. It really shows how ill-defined the world is, though. For all the flowery description, I don’t think I had a mental picture of anything in the world beyond some of the people and the street that Cassia lived on in the beginning. But yeah, political intrigue was great. The stuff about the cure, though, is drawn out to such an extreme length that I got bored and stopped caring. Which is really bad. People are dying and there’s a race to the cure! I’m supposed to give a crap! I don’t! And the reason is: REPETITION. Even months later, I remember the horrible, expecting to encounter readers with an IQ of 7, lecturing repetition. I’ll be damned if Condie didn’t explain the same thing about blood four times.

Really, the Stretch-Armstrong treatment on that part of the story is best illustrated by this passage.

“Remember when you and I were talking about the small red mark on the people who had the earlier virus?”
“Yes.”
“The virologist they took out had a theory about that.”
“What was it?”
“He thought that if someone had the red mark, it meant they’d had the virus, like we thought—and he also thought that it meant that they were protected from the new mutation.”
“How could that be?” Lei asks.
“The virus changes,” I say. “Like those fish you were talking about. It was one thing, now it’s different.”
She shakes her head.
I try again. “People who had the immunizations had been exposed to one form of the virus, a dead one. Then the first round of the Plague came along. Some of us might have contracted the virus, but we didn’t get really sick because we’d already been exposed to it in its weakened form. The immunization did its job and our bodies fought off the illness. Still, we had exposure to the live virus itself, which means we might be safe from this mutation. The dead virus wasn’t close enough to the mutation to protect us, but our exposure to the original live version of the Plague might be, as long as we actually contracted it.”
“I still don’t understand,” she says.
I try again.

And he does try again. This is after the virologist already had to explain it to him twice–and he probably did it better. I read this passage with an outraged look of shock on my face. I felt like the author was talking down to me and patting my head while I was stuck in a nightmare zone of the same easy-to-understand facts repeated ad nauseum. And somehow the grammar just seemed to get continually worse. I just re-read it now and my eyes glazed over. “The virologist they took out?” That sounds like a mafia hit. “Like those fish you were talking about. It was one thing, now it’s different.” Oh no, please, be more vague. I almost understood what you were referring to.

If this book had wrapped up at least fifty pages sooner, I don’t think things like that would have galled as much. I’m just glad I finished it at last.

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Friday Book Review – Acorna’s Search

acornasearch

How funny, I haven’t read another Acorna book since this one, and now I’ve finally reached this review to betterise. I’d better get to the next book soon.

This one surprised me. Acorna’s Search is the first book after the defeat of the major threat, the Khleevi, and overall, I think this was a good place to go with the story. The writing style improved a lot here, and there was much less Twee and Self-righteousness. Always a joy.

In a way that reminded me of post-war healing, the Linyaari return to their original homeworld with to survey the land in preparation for terraforming. But soon after they arrive, people start to go missing. This shouldn’t be a big deal for telepaths who have literally shown themselves capable of contacting one another across lightyears. Except no one can reach the missing ones telepathically.

Depending on your tolerance for the Linyaari’s tendency to complain/whine, their initial reactions to the terraforming project can either make you sympathise or throw your hands in the air and ask if they are ever happy with effing anything. Although I’m usually cheerfully the latter, this time I went with the former, because of the kinds of things they said. Nitpicks like, “I don’t remember that mountain being so high,” etc. Somehow, it made me really think about what a horrible thing happened to them (something their general behaviour tends to make you forget in favour of just being digusted with the majority), and everything that this project means.

However, I would have sympathised more if this had led to a discussion that memories are subjective, and that they can only get so far with an enormous geological project based on what people remember. Most of their records have been destroyed. Unfortunately, no one made that observation, and so leaves readers with nothing but the whining.

After they land, the first person to go missing is the annoying vizir. This is a genius place to start, because no one, and I mean NO ONE is going to miss her. Not readers or the characters. They actually assumed that she had skived off because it’s the kind of lazy asshole thing that she would do. They didn’t think anything bad had happened to her, and a lot of them really didn’t care if it might have. But then they miss someone who is not a douchebag and stuff gets real.

The horror elements were great. Although they could have been done with more emphasis, and the narrative focused mostly on bickering and helplessness rather than fear. Even so, I made up for it by wanting to the tension to affect me. If you step back and consider the idea of telepaths going missing, and even “going dark,” without the sign of fear/pain that would accompany death… You gotta admit, that’s pretty scary. They honestly don’t know whether their loved ones are alive or dead. And all of this is happening on a dead planet with extreme significance for everyone there. Telepaths accustomed to constant thought traffic are suddenly weighed down with silence.

One thing that really didn’t sit well with me was the resolution. My reaction was to close the book on my thumb, look up and say aloud, “Okay, what the heck was…. did that… No. I had to have read that wrong.” Whereupon I read it again. I hadn’t read it wrong.

Then I read it to Hubby and I think he just laughed. [So, people are lost in time. This is cool. Their method of time travel? Fall in the water. Seriously. Acorna gets trapped in time, and falls down a waterfall, then pops out… on the other side? I still don’t get this.] Probably the right reaction.

Anyway, the cliffhanger for the next book is compelling. It’s hard to talk about the latter end of the book without using a billion spoiler tags, or tagging the whole review. So yeah, first half is the expected Acorna installment except a bit darker and with more Linyaari. It’s safe to say that the Uncles have officially been replaced by Becker, who is himself probably on the way out. I mean it about the uncles, Hafiz isn’t even pretending to be retired anymore, and I don’t think anyone even said Rafik’s name.

The obsoletion of the Uncles reminds me rather dismally and uncomfortably of those RPs I have seen where, once a character ends up HEA in a romantic relationship, he or she either falls out of the RP (along with the love interest, if it was a PC) to be replaced by a new single character who will probably meet the same fate, or s/he becomes abominably boring. This impression was not helped by the fact that Becker managed to stay relevant and on-camera by breaking up with Nadhari. To be fair, it might also have something to do with the fact that three father figures is a lot to juggle, and they were never all that distinct anyway.

I struggled with how I felt about the obsoletion for a while. Like I said, all three of those characters were not terribly complex and they petered out by the end of the first book. They’re rather flat, and they fell into the romance trap I mentioned quite quickly. In the end, I’m going to stand by what I said when I first wrote the review: It’s just not very good character management, and further proof that the first book is the weakest in this series–which is a very bad thing, guys.

Still, I want to read the next book. Now that I’ve officially read more than I previously had done, I’m glad I started re-reading this series.