The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin

Redd Becker Book Review

N. K. Jemisin has established herself as a leading science fiction by N. K. Jemisinwriter of our times. The Shadowed Sun is another of her engrossing sci-fi epics.

The primary plot retells the ‘thwarted prince fighting for his rightful place on the throne”.  Nothing fresh there, but Jemisin doesn’t renege on her promise to captive readers. Her skill melding attributes derived from tribes of the African desert, the Mid-East and  central Asian cultures with her own imaginative twists, creates cultures ripe for conflict. Within that context she explores issues of religious belief, race, gender roles, cross-culture friendships, trust, sexuality and romance.

Hanani, as an apprentice in the dream healer’s religion, works as a foil to the masculine energies of prince, Wanahomen. When Hanani goes to live with the ‘barbarian’ tribes that Wana enlisted to retake his homeland, cultures and beliefs collide and entwine.

The winning battle, although well written, pales against the full story. And for me, the romantic resolution would have been more true to character if left open. Perhaps it’s a case of less-being-more, but those are personal tastes. It’s clear Jemisin is a wonderful epic science fiction novelist.

Jemisin’s Reputation

Jemisin is creating a reputation as a writer ‘upending the racist and sexist status quo’ as written about in the Guardian. Among a list of awards, she received the 2016 Hugo Award for The Fifth Season and the 2017 Hugo Award for The Obelisk Gate, of which she was also a finalist for the Nebula Awards.

The Shadowed Sun by N. K. JemisinThe Shadowed Sun (Dreamblood, #2) by N.K. Jemisin
Series: Dreamblood #2
Published by Orbit on June 7th 2012
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 492

Gujaareh, the city of dreams, suffers under the imperial rule of the Kisuati Protectorate. A city where the only law was peace now knows violence and oppression. A mysterious and deadly plague now haunts the citizens of Gujaareh, dooming the infected to die screaming in their sleep. Someone must show them the way.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

Redd Becker Book Review

Thank you Jennifer Ackerman for writing The Genius of Birds. Each

by Jennifer Ackerman

day birds come to my balcony to say hello (or whatever they say). Some appear to develop relationships with me over the seasons.  I’ve had birds follow me from room to room by flying to the various windows. Other times birds, particularly jays, caw on our deck until I open the door and talk to them. Although I’m not a proclaimed bird watcher, their antics never seize to amaze me.  I certainly haven’t observed what Ackerman writes about to such a detailed degree.

While The Genius of Birds is an academic read, it wasn’t difficult to understand. She covers matter I’ve seen on documentaries and observed, but goes into greater depth and draws from a much broader range of studies from all over the world.

Jennifer Ackerman

If birds intrigue you, Jennifer Ackerman’s book The Genius of Birds is well worth the time to read.

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer AckermanThe Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
Published by Penguin Press on April 12th 2016
Genres: Non-fiction
Pages: 352

Birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. According to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence. In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores their newly discovered brilliance and how it came about.

As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research, Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are shifting our view of what it means to be intelligent. At once personal yet scientific, richly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.

The Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh Johnson

Redd Becker Book Review

Jaleigh Johnson  gives us an adventurous heroine and a by Jaleigh Johnsonprince who befriends her in this steampunk adventure. Lina, an archivist’s apprentice has a penchant for getting into trouble. Small, agile and inquisitive she wanders the archivist’s underground city where she stumbles upon lost treasures, information and a prince-in-hiding.

Johnson provides a wonderful setting amidst a culture of archivists who study artifacts of unknown origin and puts them in museums. I particularly like the prince’s tour of the archivist’s museum. A magical cat who causes a conveniently-timed fire and a sentient ship named Merlin also provide intriguing twists.

The plot, although thinly veiled beneath Lina’s antics, revolves around a prince deprived of his rightful place in the palace. Simon, a a fellow apprentice, provides Lina clues to the prince’s predicament. Simon’s grudge against her gives him plenty of motive, while his role as lead apprentice gives him the opportunity to spy–or worse. Who is behind the attempted assassinations of the prince remains a mystery until the end.

Jaleigh Johnson writes for Young Teens

Straight-forward language, appropriate for young teens walks readers through each step of action. Johnson covers some details in action sequences too much for my taste. The descriptions can drag scenes, but for those who need or like them they are there.

Point-of-view (POV) plays back and forth between Lina and the prince’s perspectives, sometimes with no chapter delineation. Johnson foregoes the customary chapter change for POV when action within a scene dictates. Sometimes the very next paragraph is from a different point of view. The first time stopped me reader, but I didn’t lose track of the characters and was good-to-go onward.

The power of love appears a prime motivator for Johnson’s characters, including Merlin, the  sentient ship, who remained parted from those of his kind for centuries within the archivists’ mountain.

The Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh JohnsonThe Secrets of Solace by Jaleigh Johnson
Series: World of Solace
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers on March 8th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Young Adult
Pages: 384

From Jaleigh Johnson, the acclaimed author of The Mark of the Dragonfly, comes another thrilling adventure in the magical world of Solace.    Lina Winterbock lives in the mountain strongholds of Solace. She’s an apprentice to the archivists, the wise men and women whose lives are dedicated to cataloging, studying, and preserving the objects that mysteriously fall from the sky in the scrap towns.    Lina should be spending her days with books, but the Iron War has changed everything. The strongholds are now a refuge, and the people Lina once counted on no longer have time for her, so she spends her days exploring the hidden tunnels and passages of her home. The strongholds are vast and old, with twisting paths, forgotten rooms, and collapsed chambers, some of them containing objects that have been lost and forgotten even by the archivists.    And in one of the forgotten chambers, Lina discovers a secret.    Hidden deep in a cavern is a half-buried airship like nothing she has ever seen before. She’s determined to dig it out and restore it. But Lina needs help, and she doesn’t know anyone she can trust with her secret.    Then she meets Ozben, a mysterious boy who has a secret of his own—a secret that’s so dangerous it could change the course of the Iron War and the world of Solace forever.  

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Redd Becker Book Review

Gabrielle Zevin sets her story in an independent bookstore. A wonderful setting for readers who enjoy perusing for their next readby Gabrielle Zevin.

The first few chapters both compelled me to read on and revealed mysteries I wanted answered. Although the chapters seemed disjunct at first, I trusted the author to deliver.  The first chapter introduces a book seller attempting to meet the bookstore owner but is rebuffed. The second presents us with the mystery of who stole the owner’s first edition of an early Poe work. And the third chapter leaves A. J. Fikry with an infant abandoned at his story. These three key events become the focal points around which the story revolves and from them the story is bit-by-bit fit together.

Gabrielle Zevin begins each chapter with notes written by A.J. about a book he read and what he thinks about it. I noticed that the notes become less coherent as the novel progressed, but clues to the reason for the cryptic notes and why Fikry wrote them aren’t resolved until the end of the story.

Gabrielle Zevin Ties Up the Lose Ends

All characters, mysteries and issues are tied up at the end of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Although Zevin goes out of point-of-view to accomplish this, it helped to bring finality to the story. For me, the end was too expected. Nothing particularly fresh was presented, however I must admit, I cried.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
on January 1st 1970
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 260

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.

We are not quite novels.

We are not quite short stories.

In the end, we are collected works.

A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island—from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who's always felt kindly toward him; from Ismay, his sister-in-law, who is hell-bent on saving A.J. from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who persists in taking the ferry to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.'s bad attitude. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It's a small package, though large in weight—an unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn't take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J., for the determined sales rep Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light, for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.'s world. Or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn't see coming.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, a sheep mystery

Redd Becker Book Review

For anyone who likes sheep or likes an amusing twist to their mystery novel, Leonie Three Bags Full by Leonie SwannSwann’s Three Bags Full will hit the mark. From the first page, when a flock of sheep find their shepherd dead, Swann puts us into the mindset of sheep. Maple takes the lead as the flock ferrets out the person who killed their shepherd.

I’ve had the pleasure of spending time on a sheep farm, where one quickly sees that sheep are not necessarily ‘sheepish’. They have various personalities, quirks and foibles, similar to humans. Do they communicate so clearly? I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask the shepherds. Swan certainly takes liberties with how much a sheep can do. Sheep dreams may not be as insightful as Maple’s. But Swann includes enough truth to ground the sheeps’ antics and bring their perspectives to life for us.

Three Bags Full Twists our Perception

The sheep’s interpretations of human events brings levity to the morose Irish village portrayed. Some readers may be startled by Swann’s irreverent associations of God and the church, such as the garden with nice long rows where humans don’t grow anything but ‘they plant dead bodies’. The sheeps’ misunderstandings of who God is and where he lives are also amusing.

The flock make themselves at home in their Irish village, as did I by the end of the story. And I wish them well on their next adventure, which Swann  continues with book two, Garou, of the Three Bags Full series.

A list of sheep on the cover with their unique character traits helps the reader track one sheep from another. Maple, Othelo, Cloud, Ritchfield, Mopple and more. You’re sure to be entertained getting to know them. The mystery is particularly fun for anyone who knows sheep or loves the idea of the quaint Irish village.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, a sheep mysteryThree Bags Full by Leonie Swann, Anthea Bell
Series: Sheep Detective Series #1
Published by Doubleday Canada on June 5th 2007
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 352

A witty philosophical murder mystery with a charming twist: the crack detectives are sheep determined to discover who killed their beloved shepherd.

On a hillside near the cozy Irish village of Glennkill, a flock of sheep gathers around their shepherd, George, whose body lies pinned to the ground with a spade. George has cared devotedly for the flock, even reading them books every night. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), they set out to find George’s killer.

The A-team of investigators includes Othello, the “bad-boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. Joined by other members of the richly talented flock, they engage in nightlong discussions about the crime, wild metaphysical speculations, and embark on reconnaissance missions into the village, where they encounter some likely suspects. Along the way, the sheep confront their own all-too-human struggles with guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love. Funny, fresh, and endearing, it introduces a wonderful new breed of detectives to Canadian readers.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Redd Becker Book Review

Sci-fi world building

Pierce Brown’s dystopian world is built on the brutal power of classes, each with their own color designation, with Golds in charge. Born as a slave in the Red’s mining community, Darrow is set on a course to free the world. A lofty challenge and common plot-line, not unlike Suzanne Collins Hunger Games.

As the story develops, a plethora of characters emerge. Brown had fun creating plot twist after twist. Some changes I anticipated, but many ingeniously altered my expectations, such as Mustang’s allegiance. None were out of character, however.

The action ramps up when Darrow competes in a deadly game against the elitist of Gold youths in order to establish their hierarchy. Obstacles come at Darrow from all directions.

Cliff-hanger chapter ending kept me at night. I forced myself to stop reading mid-chapter, rather than be propelled to the next chapter.

Sci-fi World Building in Red Rising

This novel is often sighted as an example of world building, so I had to read it. Brown creates a multi-layered world with individualized cultures, although his world is built around socio-political issues we know. Slavery becomes a key topic, as does the abuse of power.

Brown endeavors to create not one setting, but three very different aspects of his world. The world of enslaved Reds functions deep within mines. For me, this was the best part of the book, as Darrow shows us his world, from inside a slave colonies perspective.

From there Darrow finds himself a pawn of a ‘carver’ who recreates him physically, but at the premium price of working for the rebellion by infiltrating the world of Golds. The novel really takes off when Darrow competes for his place among the elite of the elite Golds.

Although each world came to life for me, Brown used extensive first person exposition to inform his readers of all aspects of culture and environs. This interested me, because exposition is exactly what teachers advise students not to do when world building. Brown uses his explanations well however. It’s in the details he chooses to tell about settings that keep us engaged.

I’m tempted to continue with the series, but I have got other books on the shelf for now.

Red Rising by Pierce BrownRed Rising (Red Rising, #1) by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising #1
Published by Del Rey (Random House) on January 28th 2014
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 382

"I live for the dream that my children will be born free," she says. "That they will be what they like. That they will own the land their father gave them."

"I live for you," I say sadly.

Eo kisses my cheek. "Then you must live for more."

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity's overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society's ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies... even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

The Wish Granter by C. J. Redwine

Redd Becker Book Review

by C. J. RedwineC. J. Redwine writes with all the ingredients of her craft. She assembles protagonist, antagonist, helpers and obstacles with characters who grow within the telling.

The princess is a fun, food centric, tomboy, who’d rather not have become a princess. When her brother signs a contract with the Wish Granter, his life and kingdom are threatened. Princess Ari decides to save all, but it isn’t easy against one of the most powerful fairies alive.

I loved the food centric bits of the story. They make Ari personable, someone I’d like to know. It’s also refreshing to have an over-weight heroine, that’s compelling in all aspects of her personality.

Can use of POV thwart interest?

Redwine use of point-of-view (POV) interested me.  Writing in first person point-of-view (POV) from multiple characters proves effective in many novel. In The Wish Granter I questioned one perspective.

The story starts with Princess Ari’s POV, who introduces setting, challenges and primary characters. Toward the middle, the young weapon’s maker, Sebastian, becomes vital and his POV becomes more relevant. He introduces the reader to aspects of the world Princess Ari is not privy.

Andrews also choses to include the antagonists POV. Coincidentally, shortly after those sections, my interest in the story floundered. I didn’t care as much about Ari and Sebastion. Fortunately, I returned reading, but I wonder whether adding the protagonist’s POV, in this case, interfered with my commitment to Ari and Sebastian, hence my commitment to the novel at that point.

I particularly liked how Redwine inferred the next chapter’s POV in the wind-up of previous chapters. Although the references are often oblique, for me, they effectively set my subconscious up for the change in POV. As a writer this is worth noting.

C. J. Redwine’s attention to the craft

Redwine has a fondness for double alliterations. Rhetorical devices of this nature lighten the read and help drive descriptions forward. She uses anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of sentences), epistrophe (repeating words at the end of sentences), anadiplosis (repeating words at the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next), and the use of structural parallelism (to enhance the cadence of paragraphs) all freely.

A twist in the plot around page fifty, ramps up the tension. Andrew’s attention to full character development, in all aspects of their lives, brings new interest to this old fairy tale.

For a short version of Rumpelstiltskins click here. For other wonderful fairy tale retellings, check out Elle Enchanted or The Goose Girl.

The Wish Granter by C. J. RedwineThe Wish Granter (Ravenspire, #2) by C.J. Redwine
Series: , ,
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 14th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 432

An epic, romantic, and action-packed fantasy inspired by the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, about a bastard princess who must take on an evil fae to save her brother’s soul, from C. J. Redwine, the New York Times bestselling author of The Shadow Queen. Perfect for fans of Graceling and the Lunar Chronicles.

The world has turned upside down for Thad and Ari Glavan, the bastard twins of Súndraille’s king. Their mother was murdered. The royal family died mysteriously. And now Thad sits on the throne of a kingdom whose streets are suddenly overrun with violence he can’t stop.

Growing up ignored by the nobility, Ari never wanted to be a proper princess. And when Thad suddenly starts training Ari to take his place, she realizes that her brother’s ascension to the throne wasn’t fate. It was the work of a Wish Granter named Alistair Teague who tricked Thad into wishing away both the safety of his people and his soul in exchange for the crown.

So Ari recruits the help of Thad’s enigmatic new weapons master, Sebastian Vaughn, to teach her how to fight Teague. With secret ties to Teague’s criminal empire, Sebastian might just hold the key to discovering Alistair’s weaknesses, saving Ari’s brother—and herself.

But Teague is ruthless and more than ready to destroy anyone who dares stand in his way—and now he has his sights set on the princess. And if Ari can’t outwit him, she’ll lose Sebastian, her brother…and her soul.