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book review: the freedom maze

Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze isn’t the kind of YA book I normally read. It’s a story of a 13-year-old southern girl named Sophie in the 1960s who goes out to her grandmother’s manor for the summer. Her mom is all about Sophie behaving like a proper white lady. Then she travels back in time 100 years (through the intercession of a Creature in the maze) and is taken in as a slave on the sugar plantation. The plantation owners think she’s the misbegotten daughter of their dissolute New Orleans brother.

The story is about Sophie learning to be a slave. She starts off in the house but gets framed for stealing and has to do much crappier work. She makes friends and comes of age and doesn’t get to go home when what she thinks was a fine adventure is done.

It was a pretty good story, and it was easy to be mad at the characters you were supposed to dislike, including Sophie’s bitch of a mother. It didn’t feel preachy though. I was a little bored, but I’m not a huge slice of life historical fiction person in the first place. It felt well-researched, and I was very happy that Sophie’s physical changes from living six months in the span of twenty minutes weren’t taken back, Narnia-style.

book review: ship breaker

Photo Credit: Sect by Kris Krug

Paolo Bacigalupi’s YA novel Ship Breaker is all sorts of awesome. Nailer is a kid who works on a light crew stripping salvage from the long-abandoned oil tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. He and everyone he knows lives out on the beach at the whims of the corporations who’ll buy salvage and the many layers of power between them. Nailer and his best friend make an extremely lucky find but instead of just collecting on it, Nailer does something stupid and saves a rich girl’s life.

The world of Ship Breaker is rusty and painful. Nailer’s dad is terribly abusive, and in that off-balancing way I recognize from real people’s stories, not just fiction. But Nailer saves him from a city-wrecking storm, because he’s family. It’s a post-oil world seen from the point of view of people who have no real say in the forces that shape their lives, except for how they can adapt themselves. The book is filled with cool ideas, culturally mashed-up names and diamond-hulled sailing ships. It’s great, and it doesn’t end on a terrible cliffhanger for a trilogy. Highly recommended.

book review: zeitoun

Zeitoun is a Dave Eggers book about a Syrian-born house painter and his family and their experience with Hurricane Katrina. It’s a nonfiction book, told as a story. There are flashbacks to how Abdulrahman and his wife Kathy met, and stories of his older brother who was a long-distance swimmer, but most of the story is about how Zeitoun stayed in New Orleans and took his canoe around helping people and was thrown into Camp Greyhound and then prison for his trouble.

I haven’t immersed myself in a lot of the post-Katrina story of New Orleans, so while I knew that there was a lot of terrible stuff that happened, I didn’t know about the Guantanamo-esque prison camp that they built while people were trapped in houses and the water rose.

It’s not the kind of book that would make you feel much sympathy for anyone in charge of any kind of bureaucracy ever, but it seems to be a really good story about what being Muslim in 21st-century America is like.

I’m glad I read it, but I didn’t really like Eggers’ writing style. It seemed too basic and earnest. Which is fine, this isn’t a story you really want to be injecting a lot of ironic distance into, but I just didn’t like the writing very much.

book review: vegas knights

I read Matt Forbeck’s Vegas Knights despite the concept being pitched on the cover:

It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Harry Potter when two college students scam a Las Vegas casino – using Magic!

(This was an ARC so I hope to death they change this on the real cover, because it does the book no favours.) The reason I picked it up is because I remember Matt Forbeck’s RPG work, especially on Brave New World. BNW was a bit metaplot heavy and too secretive for its own good, but had some interesting takes on superhero gaming.

A lot of my problems with Vegas Knights come from magic basically just being superpowers. The rules of magic are well-established and once a character does something one way he doesn’t forget that it worked, which can sometimes happen. The thing bout i was that there didn’t seem to be much of a cost to magic. It was just manipulating quantum probabilities and some things were easier than others and bullets got transmuted into air and you couldn’t phase through living things. So it was consistent, but not very grabby.

The characters were what you want out of a Vegas story. The poorer guy who is more timid and the risk taking life of the party who isn’t quite as smart. There’s also a half-Hopi woman who is the savvy local, the main character’s long-lost father and a pretty cool antagonist.

The plot felt pretty predictable, though there were points the characters had real choices to make and they didn’t do exactly what the plot required of them, which I applaud. But I never really got into it. Part of it may have been the constant references to Hurricane Katrina (the protagonist is from New Orleans) and other references that feel dated.

The best part of the book was the (slightly melodramatic) final battle scene. There was a lot going on and by that point you’ve surrendered yourself to the book and you come away thinking it wasn’t a terrible few hours you spent with it.

I suppose I sound a little luke-warm on this book and I am. My copy doesn’t say it’s being marketed as YA, but that’s definitely how it felt to me. If I’d known that going in I’d probably have had different expectations. There are some interesting ideas in there but in general it feels a little superficial. I’d suggest Tim Powers’ Last Call if you want to read a really excellent story about magic and Las Vegas.

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