Monday, February 28, 2022

February 2022 Reflections

In February, I read thirty-seven books. (36 books and 1 Bible.) I was able to read some of the award winners and honor books from the ALA Youth Media Awards. I read (and in some cases reread) a few classics.  

My favorite book may just be Operation Do-Over by Gordon Korman. Maybe. Probably. Quite a few stand outs this month.  

Books Read for Becky's Book Reviews

17. Exodus. Leon Uris. 1958. 610 pages. [Source: Library]
18. The Last Cuentista. Donna Barba Higuera. 2021. 336 pages. [Source: Library]
19. Our Mutual Friend. Charles Dickens. 1865. 801 pages. [Source: Bought]
20. The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Eugene Yelchin. 2021. 208 pages. [Source: Library]
21. Linked. Gordon Korman. 2021. 256 pages. [Source: Library]
22. Operation Do-Over. Gordon Korman. 2022. [January] 304 pages. [Source: Library]
23. I, Robot. Isaac Asimov. 1950. 304 pages. [Source: Library]
24. How Not to Fall in Love. Jacqueline Firkins. 2021. [December] 239 pages. [Source: Library]
25. I Must Betray You. Ruta Sepetys. 2022. [February] 336 pages. [Source: Library]
26. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Gabrielle Zevin. 2014. 260 pages. [Source: Library]
27. The Caves of Steel. Isaac Asimov. 1953/1954. 270 pages. [Source: Library]
28. Total Recall. Philip K. Dick. 1966. 31 pages. [Source: Library]
29. The Kitchen Front. Jennifer Ryan. 2021. 408 pages. [Source: Review copy]
30. Dune. Frank Herbert. 1965. 687 pages. [Source: Library]
31. Rima's Rebellion: Courage In a Time of Tyranny. Margarita Engle. 2022. [February] 208 pages. [Source: Library]

Books Read for Young Readers

18. Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued. Peter Sis. 2021. [January] 64 pages. [Source: Library]

19. Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper.  2021. 32 pages. [Source: Library]
20. The Book of Hugs. Tim Harris. Illustrated by Charlie Astrella. 2021. 32 pages. [Source: Library]
21. The More the Merrier. David Martin. Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa. 2021. 40 pages. [Source: Library]
22. Soul Food Sunday. Winsome Bingham. Illustrated by C.G. Esperanza. 2021. 48 pages. [Source: Library]
23. Watercress. Andrea Wang. Illustrated by Jason Chin. 2021. 32 pages. [Source: Library]
24. Dear Librarian. Lydia M. Sigwarth. Illustrated by Romina Galatta. 2021. 40 pages. [Source: Library]
25. Merry Christmas, Anne. Kallie George. Illustrated by Genevieve Godbout. 2021. 40 pages. [Source: Library]
26. Raising Lumie. Joan Bauer. 2020. 272 pages. [Source: Library]
27. Nazi Prison Camp Escape (Great Escapes #1) Michael Burgan. Illustrated by James Bernardin. 2020. 128 pages. [Source: Library]
28. Monster and Boy. Hannah Barnaby. Illustrated by Anoosha Syed. 2020. 144 pages. [Source: Library] 
29. Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Perfection. (Cookie Chronicles #3) Matthew Swanson. Illustrated by Robbi Behr. 2021. [December] 336 pages. [Source: Library]
30. The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. Cynthia Levinson. Illustrated by Evan Turk. 2021. [April] 48 pages. [Source: Library]
31. Survival in the Wilderness (Great Escapes #4) Steven Otfinoski. 2020. 128 pages. [Source: Library]
32. Tuesday--The Curse of the Blue Spots (Total Mayhem #2)  Ralph Lazar. 2021. 196 pages. [Source: Library]
33. Dino Trouble (Arcade World #1) Nate Bitt. Illustrated by Glass House Graphics. 2022. [February] 144 pages. [Source: Library]
34. The Disappearing Act (Teeny Houdini #1) Katrina Moore. Illustrated by Zoe Si. 2022. [January] 112 pages. [Source: Library]

Books Read for Operation Actually Read Bible

8. The Practice of the Presence of God: A 40 Day Devotional Based on Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God (Includes Entire Book). Brother Lawrence AND Alan Vermilye. 1691/2021. 115 pages. [Source: Bought]
9. Read It, See It, Say It, Sing It: Knowing and Loving the Bible. Hunter Beless. 2022 [April] 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]
10. The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God. David Schrock. Edited by Miles Van Pelt and Dane C. Ortlund. 2022. [February] 144 pages. [Source: Review copy]
11. The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church. Dustin W. Benge. 2022. 208 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Bibles Read for Operation Actually Read Bible

2. Wycliffe's Bible with Modern Spelling. John Wycliffe and John Purvey. 1395. 1000 pages estimate only. [Source: YouVersion]

February Totals

February Reads
# of books37
# of pages8593

2022 Yearly Totals

2022 Totals
# of books78
# of pages19448


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Friday, February 25, 2022

31. Rima's Rebellion

Rima's Rebellion: Courage In a Time of Tyranny. Margarita Engle. 2022. [February] 208 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: During the lull between protests
we ride bareback
no bridle
or bit
no spurs
just silent messages
sent to our horses
through the pressure
of hands
is the magic
that helps us gallop
side by side
as we ride
in dazzling

Premise/plot:  Rima's Rebellion is Margarita Engle's newest verse novel. All of her novels (or at least most of her novels) are set in Cuba in varying time periods. This verse novel spans 1923-1936. At the center of the book is our heroine, Rima, an illegitimate or "natural" born daughter. Women do not have rights--equal rights, voting rights, etc. Natural born children do not have rights--they are not recognized and are lacking some basic rights. Rima takes up both causes alongside other members of her family. She's twelve when the novel opens in 1923.

My thoughts: The novel is beautifully written. I will not deny that. Here are some of my favorite bits:

is the power
of hoofbeats.
is the essence
of triumph...
but bravery comes and goes, ebbs, then flows
like a tide on the shore of my turbulent childhood.

Fear is like a shadow, always present
but sometimes hidden.

Strength of character is just as powerful
as muscles.
Hope soars like a spirited horse,
crossing fences and streams.
Confidence flutters and flies far away,
then returns, just as loyal
as a homing pigeon.

My mare is my wing,
her hoofs the feathers
as she rises
soaring high
over fences
and streams....
When we leap
I escape.
The enemy I run away from
is my own thought-trapped self,
all these doubts born within me.
If only I could mount a horse of hope
day and night, airborne, free!

Even when I'm surrounded
by men and boys who expect me to fail,
I try to remember that I belong
to a sisterhood
of endless

But I didn't feel as strong a personal connection with the story or characters as I was hoping. I have read and loved, loved, loved, loved some of her works in the past. I wanted to be in love with this novel. I just wasn't. I don't know if it spanned too many years??? tried to do too much??? Or if the decades spent working for the cause were a little too same-same-same.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

30. Dune

Dune. Frank Herbert. 1965. 687 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

Premise/plot: Dune is a science fiction classic originally published in 1965. At the center of this one is a young man, Paul Atreides. His father is Duke Leto; his mother is Jessica, a Bene Gesserit. Is Paul the one?
Will he fulfill ancient prophecy? Perhaps. Perhaps. All in good time. The novel opens with the family preparing to move planets. Duke Leto has been given the desert planet, Arrakis, aka "Dune." But though this is technically a "gift"--one that he couldn't refuse--it's more of a gift horse. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that once the family arrives their lives will become even more endangered. The powers that be--multiple powers--have decided that Duke Leto should die; all the pieces--the pawns--are in place. It's just a matter of time before the House of Atreides is wiped out completely. His father's fate seems set in stone, however, there is hope for the boy and his mother. If there wasn't hope then this would be a much, much shorter novel. Most of the action occurs AFTER the murder of the Duke as Paul and Jessica flee for their lives and take refuge with the planet natives, the Fremen. Their safety among the natives depend on Paul fulfilling ancient prophecy.

As Paul matures his supernatural abilities deepen. One of his powers seems to be seeing all the possibilities of the future at once. He sees how every decision influences those futures: new futures open up; others disappear. Will Paul be wise enough to use his power for good? What does he have in mind for his followers? his planet? the galaxy?
My thoughts: I first read Dune in 2019. (I've copied the premise/plot from that earlier review.) At the time, I thought I would never reread Dune. The new adaptation of Dune had me curious. I knew I would need to refresh my memory with the novel before watching the movie. 

This time around, I really enjoyed the first third to the first half of the novel. I feel it might have been opposite the last time around? The second half may be more action-packed, at least I thought so in my first review, but I felt more of a disconnect. The first half really focuses on the adjustment period--maybe a few weeks??? The second half time has grown fuzzy and uncertain (in my opinion). It's like watching someone's life on fast forward with occasional stops to slow down the action. But I felt a huge disconnect. I didn't feel I got the chance to know ANY of the characters. And I didn't get a good sense of setting or lifestyle. I felt cheated of that time. Perhaps I am completely alone in that. Maybe most readers just don't care how Paul and Jessica adjust to living with the Fremen, what that day-to-day lifestyle looks like. And I'm not saying we need diary-like entries chronicling every day for weeks, months, years. But *some* to just establish relationships and ground the readers in the new-to-us culture/society. I feel it would have gone a long way in making me care. But now, it's like one moment you're just being found/rescued/discovered by this tribe...and then boom the next chapter you have a wife and a child and are thinking about when to make your move politically.

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

29. The Kitchen Front

The Kitchen Front. Jennifer Ryan. 2021. 408 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: A glorious spring morning poured its golden splendor through the tall kitchen window as a whirlwind of boys raced in, shooting at each other in a reconstruction of Dunkirk. 

Premise/plot: Mrs. Audrey Landon, Lady Gwendoline Strickland, Miss Nell Brown, and Miss Zelda Dupont are the four contestants in a local cooking contest. The winner will earn a spot hosting the BBC program The Kitchen Front which focuses on how to cook making the best use of rations. The cooking contests will take place over three months--one contest day per month--an appetizer, main course, and dessert.

The novel is narrated by all four contestants. Audrey is a widow raising her sons; Lady Gwendoline is Audrey's sister trapped in a physically abusive marriage; Nell is an assistant to Lady Gwendoline's manor cook; Zelda Dupont is a professional chef, a Londoner (down on her luck) who is working in a factory. All have their own personal reasons for "needing" to win.

My thoughts: I liked this one. I wanted to love, love, love it. I didn't quite. But it was still an enjoyable enough read. It was predictable in a sweet way. There was drama in the first half, not so much in the second half. Everything did seem to resolve quickly and effortlessly--bit by bit. By the end, there was no conflict whatsoever left. Which I don't mind actually. I don't look for conflict-driven (drama-driven) storytelling. But the characterization wasn't strong enough perhaps to carry the weight my opinion.

Still, I love the war-time setting (on the home front), the celebration of friendship, and the focus on how food can bring us together.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

28. Total Recall

Total Recall. Philip K. Dick. 1966. 31 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: He awoke--and wanted Mars. The valleys, he thought. What would it be like to trudge among them?

Premise/plot: Originally published as a short story called, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," it was adapted into the film Total Recall. Douglas Quail, our hero, is always dreaming--day and night--of going to Mars. But since going to Mars is NOT in his budget realistically, he is hoping that visiting Rekal, Incorporated, for (false) implanted memories (complete with souvenirs) will be almost as good. Maybe his wife still wouldn't approve, but, even if it just shuts him up a bit, maybe she won't stay annoyed with him. (He does go on and on and on about wanting to go to Mars.) But...turns out that implanting memories isn't as straight forward as he thought it would be...suddenly his life is turned upside down and inside out.

My thoughts: I enjoyed this one so much!!! I had low expectations. I'm not all that familiar with Philip K. Dick's work. This story made me want to read more of his books to see what else I've been missing out on.

I have not watched the film adaptation yet, but I hope to get to it soon.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Thursday, February 17, 2022

27. Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel. Isaac Asimov. 1953. 270 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Lije Baley had just reached his desk when he became aware of R. Sammy watching him expectantly.

Premise/plot: The Caves of Steel is BOTH a classic science fiction novel and a classic mystery. Lije Baley is a New York City detective tasked with solving a murder. Of course, this is futuristic New York City and Lije Baley's new partner for the case is, well, a robot. 

[Humans still have a phobia about robots; and perhaps rightly so. Most robots are filling jobs previously filled by human beings. But the Spacers (who live in their own settlement and NOT in the (overpopulated) cities) feel differently. Robots and humans work and live (or should I say "live") side by side.]

Lije brings home his new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, and, it doesn't exactly go as well as he hoped. His wife, Jessie [aka Jezebel], is suspicious that Daneel is a ROBOT. And she fears that if the public finds out that there is a humanoid robot "passing" as human in the city... and living in their apartment, well, it could lead to a riot. 

So Lije has to balance solving the case and following the clues with pacifying his wife. 

My thoughts: I do have thoughts! It was interesting to read a book that is attempting to be both science fiction and mystery. It has elements of both. There is a murder case. There are suspects. There are red herrings. There are actual clues. There are moments of brainstorming. But the setting is all sci-fi. The world needs a lot of info-dumping. And these info-dumps come through dialogue.

I was not at all expecting Asimov to bring up the Bible, Bible characters, and Bible stories. Elijah (our hero) and Jezebel (Jessie) his wife. When they meet there is a long discussion (in the scheme of things, long) about how they both happen to have names from the Bible. They talk about their Bible character counterparts. Jessie takes pride in being named Jezebel and wants to live up to that name--be as "special" and "memorable" perhaps. He talks his wife out of her need to be Jezebel 2.0. But he does it in an odd way saying that Jezebel is misunderstood. She wasn't wicked, bad, evil. She was faithful and loyal to the old ways; committed to protecting the "old ways" from those demanding "newcomers" the Hebrews. She was the portrait of a good and faithful wife who stood up for what she believed in. Jessie settles down--literally and figuratively--but they decide not to name their own child after a character in the Bible.

I was expecting this to be premise-driven and not character-driven. I wasn't wrong. The characters come across a bit clumsy in terms of development. In my opinion. There are characters that "represent" ideas and concepts. The dialogue is very un-clumsy--polished--when it comes to building up philosophies and world views and establishing the world. But when the book is not "selling" the future: explorations of new planets and worlds, new settlements with robots and humans living together in harmony, discarding the problems of earth and forging ahead with new ways of doing things...well, it can be a bit awkward and clumsy. 

The book is fascinating and charming in its own way. I did get attached to the robot Daneel. I liked the developing relationship between Lije and Daneel. It was interesting to see this story unfold. Together they solved the case. It wasn't a smooth, easy case. There were a lot of fumbles and stumbles. But the process of solving the proved that humans and robots don't have to be enemies.

While I definitely liked it, there were so many red herrings. In my opinion. I have been binge-watching House lately, and it reminded me of that. I knew there was no way that the detective had solved the case when the book wasn't even at the halfway point. 

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

26. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Gabrielle Zevin. 2014. 260 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor's notes. "Island Books, approximately $250,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer months to folks on holiday," Harvey Rhodes reports. 

Premise/plot: A.J. Fikry, a widower, has a bookshop--Island Books--on Alice Island. Since his wife's death, well, he's been a tad crankier than usual. His grumpiness startles saleswoman Amelia Loman for a bit. (She'll have to adjust her approach if she hopes to sell him any books for the store.) The day they meet is memorable--in hindsight. He heats up a frozen dinner, gets drunk, can't remember much of anything. But the next day, well, he discovers that his most valuable (rarest) book, a book by Edgar Allen Poe, has been stolen from his home. This book wasn't valued for its contents, mind you, but for the hope it represents. He could at any time sell the book at auction and have enough money to live on. He doesn't *have* to depend on Island Books for income. But without the book, well, he'll have to make some effort--consistent effort--to provide for himself....

But such is life, he won't be alone for long. For that very weekend a BABY (well, a toddler) is left "on his doorstep" (so to speak) with a note. The mother is leaving her child to him because she values books and wants her to have a better life. The child's name is Maya...

Thus follows the adventures and misadventures of a single father raising a little girl....not quite on his own...but mostly. For this little girl changes him and brings him into the community in a way that he hasn't been least since his wife's death. 

Each chapter opens with HIS notes on a particular book (short story, poem, novel, whatever). His notes sometimes mention Maya by name. So readers learn these notes are for her.

My thoughts: Despite the opening paragraph not being all that wonderful a hook, I soon found myself engaged with the unfolding drama. It reminds me very much of Silas Marner. Perhaps more enjoyable but same idea--a man is forever changed by a child. The "worst" of circumstances lead to the best of outcomes.

The book does need a warning label. Is it happy? Is it sad? It may be a matter of is the glass half full or half empty. I am glad I read least once. I'm not sure I'd revisit it knowing the ending. This isn't a matter of the ending being out of sorts with the text. Everything is leading up to that specific ending...but still. 


They had only every discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?

The things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.

Who are these people who think a book comes with a guarantee that they will like it?

"Love you," Maya says. "Yes, she keeps saying that," A.J. says. "I warned her about giving love that hasn't yet been earned, but honestly, I think it's the influence of that insidious Elmo. He loves everyone, you know?"
We read to know we're not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

25. I Must Betray You

I Must Betray You. Ruta Sepetys. 2022. [February] 336 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Fear arrived at five o'clock. It was October. A gray Friday. If I had known? I would have run. Tried to hide. But I didn't know. Through the dim half-light of the school corridor I spotted my best friend, Luca. He walked toward me, passing the tedious sign shouting from the concrete wall. New men of Romania: Long live communism--the bright future of mankind!

Premise/plot: I Must Betray You is set in (Communist) Romania in 1989. For Christian Florescu, our narrator, his country's freedom (and independence) can't come fast enough. But dare he hope it will come at all? He lives--has grown up--in a country where literally anyone and everyone could be--might me--an informant. Every move you make, every word you speak--might just be used against you or your family. Christian knows this but is can't be guarded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There have to be moments where you can just be... But those moments could cost him dearly. 

My thoughts: It is best to go into this novel--yes, it's probably "historical" fiction--knowing as little as possible about the plot. I found this a beautiful text in a haunting way. I found it to be a page-turner. It wasn't that I loved, loved, loved watching the pain go down. (I didn't.) But despite the emotional damage it will do to your heart--assuming you are a sensitive/empathetic reader--it was worth it. I knew very little about this time period. I had no idea how absolutely horrendous it was--not just for a few years, but for decades.  

This one might leave you at a loss for words, and that might just be okay. I do think the characters and the story will resonate with readers long after they finish the book. 


"Philosophy," nodded Bunu. "Soul nourishment. Sit for a spot in philosophy. You see, communism is a state of mind," he would lecture, tapping at his temple. "The State controls the amount of food we eat, our electricity, our transportation, the information we receive. But with philosophy, we control our own minds. What if the internal landscape was ours to build and paint?" Bunu spoke often of vibrant what-ifs. I pondered them in my notebook. How could we paint or sketch creatively? If the West was a box of colorful crayons, my life was a case of dull pencil leads. 

What films had some thick-fingered truck driver smuggled across West Germany, through Austria and Hungary, into Romania? We never knew when videos might arrive. Most illegal movies from the West were dubbed into Romanian by the same woman. No one knew her name, but more than twenty million people knew her voice. She brought us into a secret, forbidden world of inspiration.

How could we expect others to feel our pain or hear our cries for help when all we could do was whisper?

Betrayal. It's undigestible. It instantly changes the frequency of things. Every Romanian carried a world inside them, and mine had quickly gone from dark to black.

From the author's note: "When justice cannot shape memory, remembering the past can be a form of justice." ~ Ana Blandiana

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

24. How Not to Fall In Love

How Not to Fall in Love. Jacqueline Firkins. 2021. [December] 239 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: I'm kneeling in front of Frosty the Snowman's lesser-known and more flamboyant cousin, Fluffy the Sparkle Monster. Buried inside Fluffy is a very slim, very non-fluffy bride-to be. 

Premise/plot: Harper, our heroine, is skeptical when it comes to romance. Her next-door-neighbor/best friend, Theo, however, is all in for romance. He falls in love on the first date no matter how that first date goes. Harper wants to protect Theo's heart from his thousandth break-up (I am definitely exaggerating on the number). The set-up is simple: 1) can Harper date her crush, Felix, without falling in love??? 2) can Theo learn to read the signs better and not fall head over heels especially when it's not reciprocated. 

Meanwhile, while all these dates, near-dates, and non-dates are happening, Harper has to help manage her mom's bridal shop.

My thoughts: Keep two things in mind really, 1) I have not read all that much YA romance in the past few years. I did read a good bit of YA romance a decade ago. But not lately, so maybe a LOT has changed. 2) Reading is subjective obviously. 

Predictable Tropes. Possible issue #1. This isn't my issue, mind you, but one I've seen addressed generally speaking when talking about romances. This one makes use of both the boy-next-door that-I-never-noticed AND best friends to lovers. Harper and Theo's togetherness is inevitable from page one. Everyone knows it.

Love Triangles. Possible issue #2. This can be a little more problematic for me generally speaking. In this one, there is a definite love triangle--or a very weak love rectangle. Harper is lusting after Felix and Theo. Theo is lusting after Harper, but, "dating" the people he's matching with on an app. And also Harper's friend/co-worker, Pippa. Felix has eyes only for Harper, at least so far as we can tell as readers. But Harper, as I mentioned, has eyes for multiple guys at the exact same time. Perhaps because she doesn't believe in love and romance?

Smutty content. I would imagine that 90% of readers would not find the content problematic. I know without a doubt that I am in the minority here. I speak up because even though I'm not in the majority, I don't think I'm completely alone either. Sometimes when you're trying to decide if a book is for you or not for you, it helps to find reviews that mention the level/degree of "smuttiness" for lack of a better word. 

What I liked: The premise has potential. This could be a cute/adorable teen rom/com with film potential. You can almost hear the soundtrack. You know every step of the journey before the opening credits are finished, but you are left with a big smile on your face. Did you notice my use of "could"? I think the potential was there. And I think some/many/most might enjoy this one exactly as is.

The biggest strength is the characterization of Theo. She does a great job in showing (not telling) exactly why Harper falls head over heels in love with him.

I also appreciated that Felix was never rejected because he was "bad" or "a jerk." So often with love triangles, one is "better" than the other. Perhaps one is controlling or has a temper or is neglectful or is narcissistic, or is pushy/demanding. Felix has a certain amount of swoon-factor going for him.

What I didn't like: I tend to think of romances as being on a spectrum. 0 being no sexual content. 10 being might as well be a movie. 5 being PG-13. I found the novel to be VERY graphic. I'd rate it somewhere between an 8 and a 9. As I said, some readers may be HURRAY, bring on the steamy-steam! I'm not the right reader for this one. Romance doesn't have to equal bare skin.

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

23. I, Robot

I, Robot. Isaac Asimov. 1950. 304 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. I’d spent three days at U.S. Robots and might as well have spent them at home with the Encyclopedia Tellurica.
Susan Calvin had been born in the year 1982, they said, which made her seventy-five now. Everyone knew that. Appropriately enough, U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men, Inc., was seventy-five also, since it had been in the year of Dr. Calvin’s birth that Lawrence Robertson had first taken out incorporation papers for what eventually became the strangest industrial giant in man’s history. Well, everyone knew that, too.

Premise/plot: I, Robot is a collection of interconnected stories dealing with humanity's volatile (ever-changing) relationship with robot technology. The framework is a narrator (a reporter) interviewing people and accessing files and records. There are recurring characters in some of the stories. But not all the stories are connected tightly with one another. Each story really focuses on the advancement of robot (technology) and how that evolution effects humanity. Is the advancement of robots endangering humanity? Are the three laws enough? Are there good, valid reasons to fear robots? Or do the robots truly just want to protect humanity?

The stories are "Robbie," "Runaround," "Reason," "Catch That Rabbit," "Liar," "Little Lost Robot," "Escape!" "Evidence," "The Evitable Conflict." 

The three laws are
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
2) A robot must obey orders givein to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

My thoughts: I had LOW expectations. I was surprised by how much I liked the stories. But even more surprised by how much I liked the writing in these stories. I was expecting premise-heavy, plot-driven action. I wasn't expecting there to be depth and substance. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is character-driven. (It's not really.) But it is thoughtfully written. 

Some of the stories (aka chapters) were previously published in magazines during the 1940s. 


“Fifty years,” I hackneyed, “is a long time.”
“Not when you’re looking back at them,” she said. “You wonder how they vanished so quickly.”
She went back to her desk and sat down. She didn’t need expression on her face to look sad, somehow.
“How old are you?” she wanted to know.
“Thirty-two,” I said.
“Then you don’t remember a world without robots. There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone. Have you ever thought of it that way?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t. May I quote you?”
“You may. To you, a robot is a robot. Gears and metal; electricity and positrons.—Mind and iron! Human-made! If necessary, human-destroyed! But you haven’t worked with them, so you don’t know them. They’re a cleaner better breed than we are.”
I tried to nudge her gently with words, “We’d like to hear some of the things you could tell us; get your views on robots. The Interplanetary Press reaches the entire Solar System. Potential audience is three billion, Dr. Calvin. They ought to know what you could tell them on robots.”

Slowly, the robot obeyed. His photoelectric eyes focused reproachfully upon the Earthman.
“There is no Master but the Master,” he said, “and QT-1 is his prophet.”
“Huh?” Donovan became aware of twenty pairs of mechanical eyes fixed upon him and twenty stiff-timbred voices declaiming solemnly:
“There is no Master but the Master and QT-1 is his prophet!”
“I’m afraid,” put in Cutie himself at this point, “that my friends obey a higher one than you, now.”
“The hell they do! You get out of here. I’ll settle with you later and with these animated gadgets right now.”
“No,” said Powell bitterly, “he’s a reasoning robot—damn it. He believes only reason, and there’s one trouble with that—” His voice trailed away.
“What’s that?” prompted Donovan.
“You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason—if you pick the proper postulates. We have ours and Cutie has his.”
“Then let’s get at those postulates in a hurry. The storm’s due tomorrow.”
Powell sighed wearily. “That’s where everything falls down. Postulates are based on assumption and adhered to by faith. Nothing in the Universe can shake them. I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, hell! I can’t sleep!”
“Neither can I! But I might as well try—as a matter of principle.”

The unwritten motto of United States Robot and Mechanical Men Corp. was well-known: “No employee makes the same mistake twice. He is fired the first time.”

Oh, well that’s too bad. I mean, your field-engineers are swell, but can’t we get you into this? Didn’t you ever have a robot go wrong on you? It’s your anniversary, you know.”
And so help me she blushed. She said, “Robots have gone wrong on me. Heavens, how long it’s been since I thought of it. Why, it was almost forty years ago. Certainly! 2021! And I was only thirty-eight. Oh, my—I’d rather not talk about it.”
I waited, and sure enough she changed her mind. “Why not?” she said. “It cannot harm me now. Even the memory can’t. I was foolish once, young man. Would you believe that?”
“No,” I said.
“I was. But Herbie was a mind-reading robot.”
“Only one of its kind, before or since. A mistake,—somewheres—”

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Monday, February 07, 2022

22. Operation Do-Over

Operation Do-Over. Gordon Korman. 2022. [January] 304 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: I'm standing next to the bumper cars when the first bolt of lightning splits the sky and strikes the main transformer. The explosion is like a bomb blast. I almost jump out of my skin.

Premise/plot: Mason Rolle can't remember a time when he wasn't best, best, best friends with Ty Ehrlich. The two have been inseparable since they were toddlers. But when the two are twelve, well, let's just say that new girl, Ava Petrakis, disrupts their friendship. The three become close friends--sharing the same interests and hobbies. But both boys like like Ava. When Ava starts to show preference for *liking* one but not the other (in that way), well, it could just be the end of the friendship. You see these two agreed that neither should go out with Ava.

The title includes the word Do-Over for a good reason. Mason and Ty haven't been friends for FIVE YEARS when the novel truly gets going. And Mason is wishing that he could have a do-over. If ONLY time travel was possible, if only he could go back and change the past, do everything differently... he knows that Ty's friendship is worth saving...

My thoughts: I loved, loved, loved, LOVED, loved this one so much. I am so glad readers get to go along for the ride in this one. Mason's redo of seventh grade is interesting. We don't know each and every choice he made the first time around, but the choices he is making the second time are definitely interesting. He has a unique perspective on his own life--of course--but also when it comes to his classmates and teachers. Physically he may be "young" again, but he is wiser and more experienced. 

I found it an engaging read. I was cheering for him from the start. I wanted his second chance to be a success! Of course, it could have gone either way. It could have given us a tied-up-with-a-ribbon-happy ending. Or it could have gone all message-y with the moral that friendships don't always last forever, that people change, that people grow apart, that sometimes the friends you want aren't always the friends you need. But I am personally SATISFIED with the ending.

I really liked the ending. But I also wonder about those missing memories. I can only imagine that some things would be awkward since he is missing five years of memories.

I am seeing some people compare it to Back to the Future, but, I don't see it as such. It is a LOT closer to 13 Going On 30.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Friday, February 04, 2022

21. Linked

Linked. Gordon Korman. 2021. 256 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: My mother says I'd lose my head if it wasn't attached to my body.

Premise/plot: When a swastika is painted on the walls of a small town middle school, well, prepare for quite a shake-up among the teachers and staff, the students, the parents and community at large. Who painted it...and why?

This middle grade novel has multiple narrators...mainly students, but not exclusively students. Together the pieces begin to fit together. But sometimes there are more questions than answers.

After the first swastika is painted, the students (eventually) come together (after weeks of tolerance training) and decide that action must be taken...and that action, well, it proves inspiring.

That action is making a paper chain with six million links. One link for every Jewish person who was killed/murdered/died during the Holocaust. In making this chain, the number begins to sink many lives lost and each life mattered, each life ended too soon, each is to be remembered forever.

My thoughts: This one is contemporary realistic fiction set in a small Colorado town. Each narrator contributes to the big picture. I found it a compelling but frustrating read. I'll try to explain, there were certain things that frustrated me about how the story plays out. But I don't think you could call it unrealistic. In trying to understand the 'why' of how someone--someone their own age--could do this....perhaps there are no satisfactory reasons.

Of course, there is the WHO. I will not spoil the review. I won't. I think the only way to make it through this one is not to know who painted it...too soon. But my reaction to the story/plot changed as the story unfolded. I thought some elements of the story worked better than others.

I have so many thoughts on the WHO and how that story plays out. But I don't want to write a review that would spoil the book for new readers.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

20. The Genius Under the Table

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Eugene Yelchin. 2021. 208 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The first time I saw real American tourists, they hopped out of a tourist bus in Red Square in Moscow and cut in front of us in line. "Nice manners!" my mother shouted. "We've been freezing our butts off for hours and they just breeze in like that?" We were in line to the mausoleum where the founder of our country, Vladimir I. Lenin, was laid out embalmed like an Egyptian mummy. To see him, you had to wait your turn.

Premise/plot: Yevgeny, our narrator, is growing up (seemingly) talent-less in a country that very much demands talent--if you want to succeed. Genius Under the Table is a memoir, of sorts, of growing up in Communist Russia during the Cold War. 

His parents are pleased that their oldest son is so talented, a pairs figure skater. He will get the chance to travel the world, to one day have his own apartment, his own car perhaps. The possibilities are not without some limits, perhaps. But he's got the potential to have some wiggle room, some tokens of freedom. But Yevgeny, well, he seems to have no talent that offer him any hope of a good future, at least within their country. But what his parents don't realize--especially in the first half of the book--is that Yevgeny does have a talent...a talent that he himself doesn't know makes him special. Every night he draws with a (stolen from his father) pencil underneath the family's antique dining table. The table being even older than Grandma.

The family lives in a shared apartment. All the family living in one room and sharing some common spaces (the hall, a bathroom, a kitchen) with other families. 

The book is a coming-of-age memoir.

My thoughts: It is both dark and funny. It definitely doesn't shy away from some tough subjects...including racism (he's Jewish), death (I won't spoil it), and politics. (Growing up in a Communist country, freedom of speech is unheard of...even in one's own apartment. You could be turned in by anyone for speaking out, criticizing, questioning.) It is 100% coming of age. It is all about finding one's own place, one's own voice, seeking this place of belonging and rightness with the world. Of course, this is complicated by where he is growing up.

I really found it an absorbing, compelling read. There were scenes that just touched me. The writing was great. It is an illustrated book.

However, if I could change one thing about this one, it would be the addition of specific dates--years, I mean. The narrator is young--ten? eleven? twelve? if I had to guess. If we assume (like the description states) that it is the author's memoir, then that would place it in the mid-to-late sixties. (Yelchin was born in 1956.) Yet, the one event that we can definitely attach an actual-actual date to is the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov, June 1974. The author was definitely much older (a late teen) in 1974. So he has made himself younger perhaps to make a better fit for a children's book. Not a deal breaker by any means, but, as an adult I want dates so I can get a better context of how this story fits in with history. Kids, well, I'm going to guess that kids wouldn't be bothered at all by lack of dates. They won't be trying to fit in this story with what they already know about this time period in history.


Life seemed like an enormous puzzle to me then, and drawing helped order the pieces: Mom, Dad, Victor, Grandma, Lenin, the Americans, even Baryshnikov. Each piece was a different shape. I was a puzzle piece, too, but I was made in such a wrong shape that I was convinced I would never fit in anywhere. The only place I fit in well was under Grandma’s table, drawing to the soft squeak of the stolen pencil.

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Thursday, February 03, 2022

19. Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend. Charles Dickens. 1865. 801 pages. [Source: Bought]

I first read this one in 2011. I don't know why it took me over a decade to reread this one. Since I found it so hard to summarize the first time, I am reposting my initial review. (The plot didn't change after all).

My thoughts, well, they stayed just as enthusiastic or gushy. I still love, love, love this one. This is still my favorite Dickens novel.

First sentence: IN THESE TIMES of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.

How does one begin to describe a novel that is 800 pages long?! A novel that doesn't have one or two main characters--but many. A novel that doesn't have one or two main stories--but many. If you're not familiar with Charles Dickens, you should know that he has his own way of storytelling. His stories and characters unfold slowly but surely. Don't expect to meet all the main characters in the first hundred pages. Or even the first two hundred pages. Dickens won't be rushed. This is something that I have come to appreciate--though other readers may struggle with his pacing. I found it delightful; something to be savored.

Since I have to start somewhere, perhaps I should start with the corpse. Lizzie Hexam and her father, Jesse "Gaffer" Hexam discover a dead body during their night's work on the Thames. Her father's former business partner, Roger Riderhood, witnesses this discovery and later has some unflattering stories to spread to any willing to listen. (Stories that threaten Lizzie Hexam and her brother, Charley.) The body was soon identified as John Harmon--there were clothes and papers identifying him, I think. His death brings changes to several households. For his intended, Miss Bella Wilfer, it ushers in pitifully insincere mourning. She mourns--but for the riches she would have had if they'd married and he'd inherited his father's estate. But the household that changes the most is that of the Boffins. For Mr. and Mrs. Boffin will inherit the Harmon estate now that the heir is dead. Will money prove friend or foe to this lovely couple? One thing we learn early on, is that Mr. Boffin has a heart of gold--for he opens his heart and home to Miss Bella Wilfer. He also hires two men--two very different men--after he comes into his money: Silas Wegg, a man he hired to read to him, and John Rokesmith, a man he hired as his secretary. Is either man who he appears to be?

What did I love best about this one? The characters? I loved Bella Wilfer, John Rokesmith, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, Melvin Tremlow, Jenny Wren, Mr. Riah, and Lizzie Hexam. And there were characters that I didn't exactly love--they weren't that lovable, after all--but their scenes were enjoyable nevertheless. The Podsnaps. The Veneerings. The Lammles. The Wilfers. Mr. Fledgeby. Mr. Lightwood and Mr. Wrayburn. Some characters added drama; some characters added humor!

Dickens did a great job with his characters. You'll find characters that you'll absolutely love and adore. You'll find characters that are so enjoyable, so fun, to spend time with. You'll find characters that make you laugh--or at least smirk. You might find a few characters that you love to hate, or hate to love. You'll find characters that are just so despicable, so nasty, so horrid that you hate them--with a passion. There might even be a few that drive you crazy! But I hope that you'll find a few characters that genuinely surprise you! I know a few surprised me! There are so many characters. Some are very important to the plot. Others are very minor. But just because they're minor doesn't mean they're pointless. I loved the romances of Bella and Lizzie. 

 The scenes with Bella and her true love made me giddy! And while Lizzie's scenes were a different nature--a bit more melancholy--they were so heartfelt. But it isn't just a romance. There is action, drama, mystery. There are secrets and lies and malicious plotting.

I loved this one. I loved the writing, the descriptions, the characterizations, the storytelling. It's a great, great book.
"Never was an obstinate person yet, who would own to the word!" remarked Miss Potterson, rubbing her vexed nose; "I'm sure I would if I was obstinate; but I am a pepperer, which is different." (74)
"No one is useless in this world," retorted the Secretary, "who lightens the burden of it for any one else."
"But I assure you I don't, Mr. Rokesmith," said Bella, half-crying.
"Not for your father?"
"Dear, loving, self-forgetting, easily-satisfied Pa! Oh, yes! He thinks so."
"It is enough if he only thinks so," said the Secretary. (511-12)

 I don't have a page number for these two, but:

He was too tired to rest in his sleep, until he was even tired out of being too tired, and dropped into oblivion.

People are always calling other people something.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

18. The Last Cuentista

The Last Cuentista. Donna Barba Higuera. 2021. 336 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Lita tosses another pinon log onto the fire. Sweet smoke drifts past us into the starry sky. Her knees crack as she sits back down on the blanket next to me. The cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon she's made me sits untouched this time.

Premise/plot: Petra Peña, our heroine, might just be humanity's last chance to stay connected with our troubled past. The Collective has seemingly won the ultimate victory--making nauseating sacrifices all for a 'good cause.' What better way to protect humanity's future than to completely annihilate any memory of our past. (Even wiping away memories of the planet Earth.) But perhaps I'm rushing things a bit?

The novel opens with a few spaceships getting ready to leave Earth behind. Earth's destruction literally being days (perhaps less than one???) away. The deed being done by a comet. It will take hundreds of years to arrive on Sagan, the new planet believed to be capable of supporting life. Petra, her family, and the other families selected will be making the journey in stasis.

But the humans guarding the sleepers, well, they have thoughts, opinions, ideas that are radically dangerous. Dangerous might not be the right word--deadly might suit better. If memories cannot be totally erased and new programming rewritten, well then, OOPS, that's just a necessary sacrifice.

Petra seems to be the only one to retain her memories. Memories packed with stories, stories, and more stories. Being found out--or found out too soon--may be costly. It will take wisdom to know when to make her move, to act against the Collective... And even then resistance may prove futile. And even if dozens of things go right, well, the odds may not be in her favor. An unexplored planet with a million uncertainties. Still, she's humanity's last chance to REMEMBER, to reflect.

 My thoughts: Newbery Medal 2022. It's impossible to read Newbery winners with a completely open mind and low expectations. (Which, in my opinion, is how most books should be read for the highest degree of enjoyment.)

On the one hand, it celebrates stories, storytelling, and storytellers. It celebrates the notions that stories not only entertain but they inform as well. Stories help us make sense or process the world around us. Ourselves. Others. Life. Stories matter because even fiction (or in this case folklore) can contain truths that make us better. Maybe better isn't the right word. Stories contain truths that can give us an opportunity to think, engage, learn, grow, reflect, etc. Emotions and feelings can be chaotic, messy, overwhelming...stories help us manage life.

The book is political in that many, many science fiction stories are political. The book is essentially a dystopia set on a spaceship and another planet. Dystopias are almost always political because they show us power gone sour. The Collective is BAD news obviously. But how did the Collective come to be? That we really don't have a lot of answers for. Except that we know that the Collective is built on this one idea that knowledge of the past, our history, is irrevocably dangerous to our survival. Wipe out ALL memories of our mistakes, conflicts, tragedies, abuses, injustices, wars, etc., and humanity has a chance. In the same way that the futuristic society of The Giver celebrates SAMENESS. The Collective fears DIFFERENCES.
It asks the question--what is the value--is there value--in history? The Collective perhaps started out rewriting or revising history before changing tactics to annihilating and destroying.

I would argue that history always matters. Whether it be denial or revision, you can't learn from the past that you disconnect from. 

On the other hand, I really HATED the ending. Or non-ending if you will. I don't like endings where you are CLUELESS what happens and what it means. It might as well be written in a foreign language as far as I'm concerned. I've read the last few pages a few times, and still, I'm like what does it mean? what happened? what is about to happen? was it good? was it bad?

© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

17. Exodus

Exodus. Leon Uris. 1958. 610 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The airplane plip-plopped down the runway to a halt before the big sign: WELCOME TO CYPRUS.

Don't read Exodus expecting a grand, sweeping love story between a man and a woman. It is not a romance. I didn't go into it thinking it was a romance, but, at the same time you could isolate a few chapters here and there and get the wrong impression. I have--as of the writing of this review--not seen the film adaptation. I don't know if the movie portrays it as a great romance or not. 

The novel focuses on the birth of the nation of Israel in the twentieth century. While there are plenty of flashbacks (and more flashbacks) most of the action occurs 1946-1948. The nation of Israel is without a doubt the main character. Probably. I suppose one could argue that the main character is collectively speaking the Jewish people. This novel is ALL ABOUT the conflict. The opposing views, the ongoing struggles that surround the 'birth' of Israel. We get glimpses from all viewpoints.

Of course, there are a few (human) main characters. Kitty Fremont, an American nurse who only reluctantly goes to Palestine, is one of the main characters. At the beginning, she is a bit clueless. Why would any Jewish person--she wonders--choose to go to Palestine and 'rough it' in that country where they are not wanted when they could settle in America (for example) and have an 'easy' time of it. Why struggle in a harsh land where you both men and women will have to fight, fight, fight, fight, and fight some more to stay? She doesn't get the appeal of Palestine for the Jews. Of course, at the beginning, she still sees Jews as "other" or odd. She feels saddened and sympathetic to the plight of Jews after learning of the Holocaust, but she doesn't particularly like or understand. I'd describe her as sympathetic from a distance. But she finds herself thrown right in the middle. She meets a young Jewish teen, Karen, and there is an instant bond (at least on her side). Karen becomes her family--unofficially. She dreams of wooing Karen away from her hopes and dreams of settling in Palestine and settling down with Karen back in America. She only goes (or mainly goes) to Palestine because she is following Karen.

Of course, that's only half the equation. Kitty Fremont is also oddly enamored with Ari Ben Canaan. She would never in a hundred million years say "I have a crush on Ari Ben Canaan." But she finds him mesmerizing to a certain degree. And it is mutual. She isn't his ideal either--far from it. She's an American woman whose values, beliefs, and culture are so removed from his own. But they find themselves circling each other, reluctant to admit perhaps that there is something going on...

But this is not a romance. I repeat, not a romance. Don't pick this one up thinking Kitty and Ari have this GREAT love affair. It is politics and war; war and politics.

It is about a nation and the people who are willing to give their all--even their very lives--to see her come into being and thrive.


© 2022 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews