Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: Triumph

by Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer

I thought I’d break things up again with a review that’s not science fiction or fantasy.  In fact, it’s not even fiction.

Triumph is Carolyn Jessop’s second memoir.  The first, NYT Bestseller Escape, chronicled her life as a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, the largest polygamist sect of Mormonism.  Jessop was born into the cult as a sixth generation member.  She married at 18 a much older man with three other wives, and two more wives soon followed.  She had eight children in seventeen years, and then left the cult in the dead of night with all eight children.  She is the only woman known to have escaped with all her children, and she is the only one to have won full custody of them after she left.  Escape not only chronicles Jessop’s own life, but also examines some of the beliefs and the culture of the FLDS.  Upon the publishing of her first memoir, Jessop became one of the media’s go to people when they wanted to learn something about the FLDS.  This means that when the state of Texas raided an FLDS ranch near Eldorado on suspicion of child abuse, Jessop was one of the people they called to try and understand what they just walked into.

This is where Triumph picks up: with the raid.  The first half of the book chronicles the events that took place, from the phone call to CPS to late 2009.  Jessop specifically talks about the challenges Texas faced in putting an additional four hundred children into its foster care system, as well as how the case eventually broke down, but how it has also lead to several criminal cases against several FLDS men.  She examines the media circus surrounding the incident with a unique eye: she is someone who is now outside the cult, but who knows all of the major players within the cult.  In fact, it is her ex-husband who is running the Yearning for Zion Ranch, and nearly everyone living at the ranch is in some way related to him.  Jessop knows how the powerful adults all connect to each other, and shows how the cult used the public’s ignorance of them in their favor.

The second half of the book answers questions Jessop received after the publishing of Escape dealing with how she was able to mentally extract herself from such an abusive situation.  Each chapter is a different piece of the puzzle, ranging from random acts of kindness from non-FLDS members to working out at a Curves gym.  Most importantly, she presents her information in a way that can be useful to other people living in abusive relationships.  Most of her techniques can be applied to other situations, which is important because her situation was truly bizarre.

Jessop ends the book by catching us up on her own life from 2007 to 2009, back tracking a bit to flesh out the information she gave in Escape about her initial problems after she escaped the cult.  She talks about taking her ex husband to court for child support, as well as touching base on each of her children and how they are doing six years after leaving the FLDS.

Overall, this is an excellent book.  While it is biased, it does provide a look into the FLDS that I was frustrated with not finding while the raid in Texas was playing out in the media.  However, if you’re interested in more detailed information about the cult, pick up Escape and start there.  The second half of the book dealing with how to pull yourself out of an abusive situation can stand on its own, but as many of the examples come from Jessop’s own life, a full understanding of those examples can be gained by reading Escape as well.

One of my early frustrations in reading Escape was that in 2007 there were very few books on the FLDS cult at that time.  The only other one I could find was Lost Boy by Brent Jeffs, whose family was forced out of the cult when he was a teenager.   After the raid in Texas and the media attention it generated, more books about the FLDS have been published, and they’ve also gotten a bit more marketing.  They include Church of Lies by Flora Jessop, When Men Become Gods: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, His Cult of Fear, and the Women Who Fought Back by Stephen Singular, and Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Break Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall.  I do intend to read these in the future.  There are also several other books looking at different polygamist groups in the United States other than the FLDS.

Triumph is available in hardback and e-book editions.  Escape is available in paberback, audio book, and e-book editions.

Friday, July 23, 2010

I’m going to ask for a bit of patience here today.  When I first started this blog, I had no intention of dealing with the millage the library I work for is trying to renew, for the simple reason that I am extremely biased.  However, on Wednesday our local paper ran an editorial in support of the millage.  While the editorial itself was in support of the renewing the millage, some of the comments posted online were extremely misinformed, and quite frankly downright rude.  In response to this, I’ve decided to post my own little piece of info about the library system in question itself, as well as information about the millage.  Again, I am extremly biased.  I am also NOT an employee who is high up (I'm actually all the way at the bottom).  Some of the information below is observations from my own work experience, as well as taking a look at Board Reports and Budget Reports during my breaks.  I will provide links at the end to what information I know is located on the web.  Nothing in this blog should be taken to be reflective of anything but my own opinion, and should not be taken to reflect the opinions or political stance of the library itself.

I work for the Capitol Area District Library, which operates in Ingham County, Michigan.  We operate all public libraries in the county except for the public library in the city of East Lansing.  CADL was formed 12 years ago, as a way to combine all the public libraries under one umbrella, and thus save money in consolidation.  All the communities in the county voted on the proposal to do this (and the original CADL millage), and all except East Lansing approved it.  You might not understand how it saves money to have one giant library system instead of many smaller ones, but consider this: we all now have one Director.  We have one Human Resources, Public Relations, Building Management, Financing, Information Technologies, and Processing departments instead of many.  We maintain one singular website, and use one computer program to track our materials.  We buy all of our materials together.  CADL operates thirteen branches, so imagine duplicating all of those vital services thirteen times.

There have also been other positive aspects of combining.  Because CADL is one system, we allow our patrons to check out materials at any of our branches with their library card.  They can then return those materials to any other branch free of charge.  They can also reserve an item at a branch and have it delivered to another branch, usually within twenty-four hours again, free of charge.  This means that even though each library has control over its own collection (what’s ordered, what’s discarded), from our patrons’ point of view, CADL maintains one singular collection that is housed in thirteen locations.  So patrons living in Aurelius Township can go to the tiny Aurelius branch library, and still have full access to the downtown Lansing Library without having to drive an hour to get there.

I saw some questions on the editorial about how money was allocated within the system, and how much each community got back of the millage it paid.  And the truth is that almost the entire budget is centrally allocated.  Employees are hired by and paid by CADL itself.  Instead of saying that each branch gets this much money to spend on staffing, CADL takes a look at the size of the collection and the circulation numbers (in short, how much work needs to be done on a weekly basis) and assigns a number of hours to that branch broken down by department.  Each branch has a head librarian, other librarians, library assistants, circulation clerks, and pages.  Now, a theoretical example of why it’s not a set dollar amount could go something like this: the head librarian in Leslie has been at CADL since it started, and so has received a number of raises.  The head librarian at South Lansing has only been at CADL for a few years, and has received only a few raises.  Their base pay is the same, because they are doing the same job.  But South Lansing is a busier library than Leslie.  If CADL allocated staffing by dollar values instead of hours, the head librarian at Leslie at some point would have had to either accept a pay cap, or move to another branch with a bigger budget.  This may not seem like a big deal, but CADL tries to maintain ties between the staff and the community they serve.  Employees of CADL do not move between branches other than substitute shifts (someone is sick, on vacation, or there is a vacancy that has yet to be filled), or if they are moving up in the system (page to clerk, clerk to library assistant, etc).  The building maintenance budget is also central, and doled out as needed.  Otherwise, if a branch doesn’t need the money that was earmarked for that purpose, that money has not gone to waste.  Conversely, if a library needs more money than was earmarked for it, it doesn’t go wanting.  The only part of the budget that I know of that is allocated in dollar amounts per branch is the materials budget.  And as I talked about above, materials are shared throughout the system, so librarians are only controlling what is shelved in their library, not what their patrons have access to.

A big point a lot of people are chocking in is even with the cut, the 1.56 mills CADL is asking for will generate $10 million next year.  That seems like a lot to a lot of people, and it is.  Far and away, the largest part of the budget is staffing.  I can say from experience, that CADL employees have made sacrifices in the last few years to keep that cost from rising.  We’ve taken less pay raises, and smaller ones.  Those with health benefits are paying more of their own costs.  Vacation time has been lessened.  We’re also hiring fewer people to replace those who have left.  We have restructured, moving people sideways within the organization in order to eliminate positions we no longer feel are necessary.  But CADL still employs well over a hundred people (I’m not sure on the exact number, but it is large).  We have also made significant investments in technology, both in the form of public use computers, wifi in ever branch, and more sophisticated and faster ways to track our materials through the system.  Think about it this way: divide 10 by 13.  If all those communities paid the same millage, but it was evenly split between them (which it wouldn’t be due to population distribution), each area would receive roughly $769,000 dollars.  How far do you think you can stretch that?

Another assumption made by many people on the LSJ editorial comments is that CADL is only really supplying research materials, at which point people should either use the internet (more current) or school/university/college libraries.  I think the mistake here is assuming that most of CADL’s circulation is in research materials, or non-fiction materials.  It is not.  Far and away, our circulation is based in children’s, adult fiction, and audio-visual materials.  Most people come into CADL to check out novels/children’s fiction, movies, cds, and audio books.  Of course, the next complaint would by why am I paying for other people to read books for entertainment?  I think I’ll once again refer you to CADL’s Library Use Value Calculator.  It is far and away cheaper to buy collectively than it is to buy everything yourself.  If you were really interested in saving money, you’d vote yes on the millage and then use the library and save more money than you would have by voting no and not having a library.  I’ll post this link, among others, at the end of this.  For instance, my parents check out on average about 5 movies per week.  They save roughly $1,000/year by borrowing from the library and not a movie rental store.  The average CADL resident pays between $50-$80/year to CADL in the form of the millage.

The next assumption is that not everyone in Ingham County is paying for the library, and likely those saying this are pointing their figures at people like me, who are living in rental housing.  But here’s the fact of the matter, I pay money to the agency who owns my apartment complex.  They, as property owners, then pay all property taxes (including the millage) on the apartment I live in.  They include this cost of doing business in my rent payment.  So I do pay this millage, though it’s indirectly.  I’ll also point out that the likelihood of my rent going down as a result of the millage failing is low.

I’ll end this by saying a few facts about the millage itself.  It is on the August 3 ballot.  It calls for a straight renewal of the current millage, and is strictly for operational costs.  The operational millage accounts for 90% of our budget.  The millage calls for 1.56 mills, which will generate less than when this millage was originally approved in 2006.  TIFAs, or Tax Increment Financing Act, will be taken out of the millage, because CADL does not have the ability to opt out of them.

I’ll wrap this up with some links:
Ingham County August Ballot The CADL Millage is near the end of the page.  This is the official language of the millage to be voted on.
Support CADL The official website of the campaign being run by Libraries Now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: Chimera

by Rob Thurman

Chimera is Rob Thurman’s latest release.  It’s her seventh book, though it was actually written just after her debut novel.  It’s so far a stand alone, and does not tie into the alternative universe that hosts the Cal Leandros books or the Trickster books.  Like her earlier books, however, it is an urban fantasy.

Chimera features the first person narration of Stefan Korsak, a first generation Russian-American working for the Russian mafia in Miami.  Stefan is not terribly interested in the mafia, he’s instead using the money and the connections to look for his younger brother Lukas, who has been missing for ten years.  And one of his leads just struck gold.  Stefan rushes off to the rescue, only to find that Lukas is terribly changed.  He’s been made over into a killer that’s been designed from his DNA on up.

If you’re familiar with Thurman’s work to date, you won’t find many surprises here.  Stefan, especially at the beginning of the book, sounds a lot like Cal without the severe self deprecating humor/self-hate.  And since Trixa in Trick of Light has the same general flavor, it feels like you already know Stefan when you pick up the book.  Which is a shame, because as the book progresses you realize that Stefan is a deeply different character underneath the surface snark.  However, Stefan undergoes an incredible amount of character growth during this book, which hasn’t been a feature with the other two characters mentioned above.

Also familiar is the overarching theme of brothers.  This book is about the relationship between Stefan and Lukas more than anything else.  Forget the great escape and the dash across country to find information and safety; this is all about Stefan and Lukas getting to know each other and coming to trust each other.  It’s about these two characters remembering and relearning what it is to be a brother, even what it is to care about another human being.

So those are the strong points of this book: deeply crafted and endearing characters that undergo deftly executed transformations.  The weak points: this book starts really slow.  The first sixty pages are Stefan setting the stage.  Except for a few minor blips of action to establish that yes, he’s in the mafia, nothing happens.  Second, a lot of the action in the entire book feels rather superfluous.  Yes, these points are important to help the brothers grow together, but there is a feeling of randomness to them rather than the feeling that they are driving towards something.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the fact that the main narrative character is so close in style and temperament to Thurman’s other two narrative characters.  Part of me really wants her to stretch herself but then, this is the book she wrote while she was shopping Nightlife to publishers.

Chimera is available in paperback and e-book editions.  I’d recommend it to fans of Thurman’s earlier work, or fans of the Dresden Files, Ann Aguirre, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia C. Briggs, or urban fantasy buffs in general.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: Lightborn

Book #2 of the Darkborn Trilogy
by Alison Sinclair

Lightborn is the second book in the Darkborn Trilogy by Alison Sinclair.  The final volume, Shadowborn, is scheduled to be released in 2011.  The first volume is Darkborn, and was recently reviewed by me.

In this installment, Sinclair expands the reader’s view of her unique world by introducing three Lightborn characters (the previous book followed three Darkborn characters.  For more information on the world, please see my review of Darkborn).  We had already met Floria White Hand briefly in the previous book, and now she becomes a main character.  We follow her into the ruling court of the Lightborn, where she introduces us to Fejelis, son and heir to the prince, and the rebellious mage Magister Tammorn.  Darkborn Lady Telmaine also returns to keep us abreast of developments on the other side of sunset.  The other two main characters from Darkborn, Dr. Balthasar Hearne and Baron Ishmael di Studier do not appear in this book, being offstage preparing for the third book.  I’m sure when we see them again, they will be chock full of useful information.

Floria White Hand is a valued and trusted guard and food taster for the Lightborn prince, and when he is assassinated in a bizarre fashion, she becomes a suspect.  Being unable to prove her innocence, and having far too many political enemies, she claims asylum from the Darkborn.  Before leaving, however, she gives Fejelis the advice of hiring Magister Tammorn to investigate his father’s death because Tammorn is as far removed from mage politics as it is possible to get.  Fejelis and Tammorn work on finding out who killed Prince Isidore while keeping Fejelis alive through another round of attempted assassinations.

Meanwhile, Lady Telmaine is in the Darkborn court trying to master her neglected magical skills enough to keep the Archduke and his brother, the spymaster, alive.  More assassination attempts here, and yes, all these people trying to kill other people are in fact connected.  In any case, things do not go well for Telmaine (this being the second book of three, nothing should go right).  However, all the important people survive and get enough clues to move on to the showdown in book three.

If you are still under the misconception that these books are fantasy romances, I shall further disabuse you of the notion here.  There is not a single romantic line in this book, unlike the hint of one in the earlier book.  Lots of action, lots of politics, lots of intrigue, and of course, lots of fantasy.

My only complaint about this book is that the Lightborn court is really glossed over.  We’ve had an entire book to figure out how the Darkborn politics and society work, but the Lightborn do not get equal billing.  Part of this is that they are, by force, more familiar to us because they have the same set of senses we do.  However, there’s a lot of socio-economical and geo-political stress in this society, and we get barely a taste of it and how it all came to be.  The need for space to explain all of the action has taken precedence over world building, and while the book works well, I’d still like some more background.

Lightborn is available in trade paperback, and e-book editions.  I would recommend this book to fans of Sharon Shinn, Mercedes Lackey, Gregory Frost, and N. K. Jemisin.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

by Meg Cabot

Insatiable is Meg Cabot’s newest adult book, and marks her entrance into the paranormal romance field.  As you might have heard, Cabot is a prolific author who is best known for her young adult Princess Diary Series.    Her works for adults are mostly romances.

Now, paranormal romance is a big thing these days.  Paranormal romance with vampires is even bigger.  And it seems that this subgenre has gotten so big that it’s developed its own tropes.  Cabot has taken full advantage of that in Insatiable, which is quite simply a very straight forward example of paranormal vampire romance.  However, don’t let that make you think that it’s not worth picking up.

The main character is Meena Harper, a dialogue writer for a daytime soap opera living in Manhattan.  She becomes very upset when the network not only passes her over for a promotion, but decides to introduce a vampire story line into the soap to hopefully appeal to a younger and larger audience.  Now, Meena has some issues with this because she wanted the promotion and the person who got is an idiot, but also because she really hates vampires, calling them monster misogynists on several occasions.  And, as you might know by now, no self respecting heroine in a paranormal romance is just your run-of-the-mill gal.  She has to have some special power, and Meena’s is the ability to know how people are most likely going to die.  Now, she’s figured out that what she sees does not always come true; if the circumstances around the death change (for example, the doomed person never shows up to the appointed time and place), then the death may not occur.  But, no one really listens to the crazy woman who thinks you’re gonna die, so most people end up dying anyway in the foreseen fashion.  It also makes it hard to find a steady date when you’re constantly telling them what to do to stay alive.  Something about having your blind date tell you that you need to be on Lipitor for your cholesterol just takes away the romance somehow.

Next up, we need our love interest.  He needs to be a vampire.  Check.  He needs to be really pretty.  Double check.  And since we’re being over the top and this is a romance, he needs to be wealthy and aristocratic and European.  Check, check, and check.  Of course, he needs a name as well, and that’s Lucien Antonescu.  When Meena meets him she, duh, falls head over heels in love with him.  It doesn’t hurt that she can’t see how he’s going to die, because he’s already dead.  Almost a Sookie Stackhouse moment here.  And yes, she does figure out at some point that he’s a vampire, and we therefore move smoothly into the part of the story where our lovers have some relationship issues.

And, paranormal romance grew out of urban fantasy, which centers on mysteries.  Here, we have a murder mystery du jour of a series of young women found dead in New York parks, covered in bite marks and missing all their blood.  Hmm…Paranormal romance and urban fantasy also love to have a contrasting love interest to tempt the heroine away, and so our (not-so) friendly (not really) neighborhood vampire slayer with lots and lots of issues shows up to catch the killer (who Lucien is also after, dead bodies being bad for business).  Alaric Wulf, true to form to his archetype, has a whole bag full of bad boy issues to work through.

Now, at this point all I’ve done is highlight just how archetypal this book is.  I don’t think you can get away from it unless you’ve never been exposed to vampire romances before and have somehow been living under a rock where Twilight can’t find you.  However, the book redeems itself in a few ways.  First, it is self aware of what it is, and the heroine isn’t exactly happy to have found herself in it.  Cabot can therefore make a lot of jokes about the vampire phenomenon in pop culture that other authors haven’t been able to, right down to poking fun at her own book within itself.  Second, Cabot’s gone back to the old school vampires and gotten rid of the sparkles and the every vampire must be pretty thing.  Her vampires are a lot closer to what you see in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, minus a few of the more encumbering traits like having to sleep in coffins.  Even though they are based far more firmly in old folktales, they come off as refreshing when set next to the vampires that we find in so many other popular books.  Finally, this is just a very well written book.  It’s very nicely paced, with engaging, well rounded, and believable characters.  A lot of paranormal romances (or romances in general) I’ve read don’t go to the lengths Cabot has to give their main characters depth, and Cabot has even done so with the supporting characters.  More importantly, everything is consistent.

In short, you’re not going to pick up Insatiable for its plot.  You’re going to pick it up either because you already like Cabot’s work, or because you want something light, fun, and with great characters.  Or, perhaps, because you just love paranormal romances in general and this happens to be a very good example of the genre.  Insatiable is available in hardcover and e-book editions.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: Darkborn

Book #1 of the Darkborn Trilogy
by Alison Sinclair

Darkborn is the fantasy debut of Alison Sinclair, though she has previously published several science fiction novels.  Darkborn is also the first book in a trilogy, the second of which, Lightborn, was recently released and the third of which, Shadowborn, is scheduled to be released in 2011.

Intrinsic to the book is its world building: eight hundred years ago, a particularly strong mage named Imogene and her accomplices cursed all of humanity.  Half of them would become the Lightborn, who gained enhanced eyesight, but for whom shadow was lethal.  The other half became the Darkborn.  They gained the ability to generate sonar (called sonn) along the lines of what bats use, and for whom light is lethal.  They are also completely blind, having no further need for their eyes.  For the most part, except in the capitol city, the Lightborn and the Darkborn live completely separated, as their living conditions are lethal to each other.  In the capitol city, they use many of the same streets and other infrastructure, alternating with sunrise and sunset. 

This first book follows three Darkborn characters, Lady Telmaine Stott Hearne, her husband Dr. Balthasar Hearne, and the Baron Ishmael di Studier.  When the book opens, Lady Telmaine is at a society function in the country with her family, at which she meets Baron di Studier for the first time.  At the behest of one of Telmaine’s cousins, he escorts her and her two daughters back to the city, where they find Dr. Hearne under attack by thugs, who then seize the opportunity to kidnap the elder Hearne girl.  It turns out that a few days previous, Balthasar helped a society lady bear illegitimate twins in secret.  These twins, however, were obviously strange, and the thugs want the two babies, who have already been sent to fosterage.  The rest of the book follows the Hearnes and di Studier as they try and figure out why these babies are important and get the Hearnes’ daughter back.

Darkborn has for some reason has been slipped into the paranormal romance subgenre, which I think is another fine example of marketing gone awry.  Telmaine is fiercely attached to her husband, though she and di Studier clearly develop some feelings for each other.  There is not, however, any hint of courtship or the idea that Telmaine might either have an affair or outright leave her husband.  Instead, this is an action adventure with political intrigue thrown up on a heroic journey frame.  Honestly, I like it better for it not being a romance.

Darkborn is well written, and by the end of the first quarter of the book I was fairly comfortable with the idea that all of the characters were blind and were using other senses to interact with each other and their surroundings.  It’s very deftly handled, right down to figures of speech: darkborn never say that they ‘see’ anything, because they can’t.  They never say ‘I see’ when they mean ‘I understand.’  The culture, and the various levels of society and how they speak and interact are also well developed.  I have read other reviews that complained that there could have been more world building and an expansion of the politics involved in the plot.  I can agree that there is a lot of room for expansion, as there are times when the plot has more slam/bang action than perhaps was necessary, however I don’t feel that there are any gaping holes that Sinclair forgot to fill.  This is a relatively short book, at 352 pages (well, short for a fantasy novel), especially considering how complicated the plot is.  So yes, she could have added another 100 pages to flesh things out, but overall those pages weren’t strictly necessary, and would have been detrimental in the subgenre it was marketed for.

Darkborn is available in trade paperback, mass market paperback, and e-book editions.  I would recommend this book to fans of Sharon Shinn, Mercedes Lackey, Gregory Frost, and N. K. Jemisin.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Also known as the Fourth of July in these parts.  I'm off preparing for the epicness that is this weekend, and so will leave you with the Muppets.  Enjoy yourselves, and try not to let any stray fireworks blow you up.