January 11th, 2011


Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

Publisher: Hachette, 2010
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Contemporary, YA
Rating: 4 pints of blood

Cross-posted from genrereviews.

Ellie has the normal types of worries for a seventeen-year-old girl, fretting about things like her lack of popularity, her weight issues, and getting away with breaking school rules. She's supportive of her friends, even when it means she gets roped into helping out with the school play, and she has a huge crush on Mark, her mysterious and gorgeous classmate.

When she literally bumps into Mark one day, everything changes, but not in the way she might have daydreamed about. After running into him, Ellie starts noticing weird things all around her, especially anywhere Mark is concerned. Because Mark's not quite normal, and the collision has opened Ellie's eyes to an entire world full of myths and stories come to life.

Guardian of the Dead is not like anything you've ever read. Yes, it's a dark fantasy novel in a contemporary setting with teenage protagonists, and those books are overpopulating the world at present, but there's not a whiff of European monsters in here. The mythology she uses is Māori and incredibly well researched (complete with an afterword and a glossary at the end of the book). The heroine is uncomfortably overweight, and remains so even after the end of the novel. Nobody "fixes" it, either by magic or by instilling self-confidence in her from an outside source. Ellie's best friend Kevin is asexual and just coming out to his closest friends in the beginning of the book, and it's never treated as a quirk or a gimmick. The whole thing is set in New Zealand, where Healey herself hails from.

Full, spoiler-free review over here.

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham

One-line summary: Presents the thesis that control of fire was not merely a side effect of our evolution, but an essential component of it; humans have evolved to eat cooked food.


Goodreads: Average: 3.65. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.1. Mode: 5 stars.

Until two million years ago, our ancestors were apelike beings the size of chimpanzees. Then Homo erectus was born and we became human. What caused this extraordinary transformation?

In this stunningly original book, renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking created the human race. At the heart of Catching Fire lies an explosive new idea: The habit of eating cooked rather than raw food permitted the digestive tract to shrink and the human brain to grow, helped structure human society, and created the male-female division of labor. As our ancestors adapted to using fire, humans emerged as “the cooking apes.”

A groundbreaking new theory of evolution, Catching Fire offers a startlingly original argument about how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today

Collapse )

Verdict: Recommended for anyone with an interest in evolution and/or food science. Wrangham's thesis is revolutionary, but not in a crackpot "This changes everything we thought we knew" way. Rather, it challenges some basic assumptions about how we evolved without denying any of the existing evidence. His arguments are mostly quite strong, and while to my knowledge, some anthropologists have challenged his assumptions about when humans started using fire, there have not yet been any serious challenges to his conclusions from an evolutionary perspective.

Taliesin by Stephen R. Lawhead

Charis is an Atlantean Princess living in a seaside paradise, but too young to understand that Atlantis is on the brink of war. When her family is betrayed and her mother killed, Avallach takes his daughter and their remaining servants into the safety of their stone walled home. Or at least he tries to. Charis is too overwrought with the guilt he places on her over the loss of her mother and joins a religious band of performers, the bull dancers, who once enchanted her as a child. She returns as an adult, only after an injury wounds her ability to perform and finds home a much different place than when she last left it.

War has ravaged the land and strained her father’s fragile psyche. Nursed by a strange new woman calling herself Avallach’s wife, the King is a shadow of his former self and haunted by the ghosts of his bitter persistence. Charis will soon have to face other threats as visions of impending destruction plague her mind; her stepsister Morgiana’s strange lurking behavior and alien presence fail to ingratiate herself into Charis’ life. Whom should Charis trust? A father crawling toward senility, a step-mother who claims to rely on peculiar herb remedies to keep him alive and well, or a step-sister flirting with an unnameable darkness? And what exactly does any of this have to do with Elphin, the Briton-raised Prince of Gwynedd, his son, Taliesin, or Arthurian Legend?

Wither (Chemical Garden, Book One), by Lauren DeStefano

Author: Lauren DeStefano
Genre: YA Dystopia
Pages: 356 pages
Rating: a very confused 2 to 4 stars
Read ARC in November, 2010

Summary (ganked from Goodreads): What if you knew exactly when you would die? Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb -- males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out. When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden's genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape -- to find her twin brother and go home. But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden's eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limted time she has left.

My thoughts: For me, Wither is a tough book to review. It has a lot of strong points: the quiet, evocative prose; the complex relationships among the three sister wives and how they change; the slow build of tension as Rhine begins to suspect Housemaster Vaughn (Linden's father) of all sorts of terrible deeds in the name of his research; Vaughn's pleasant creepiness; the cover design, which I can't decide if I like but definitely draws the eye. However, readers who like their dystopias to make sense should be frustrated by the underdeveloped, unexplored world-building, which basically became a deal-breaker for me. The premise is a movie-blockbuster idea: it has a big concept, it's stylish, it sounds like it will be salacious (but it actually isn't, and I give props to DeStefano for not making it read like a reality show like "Sister Wives" or whatever), and it doesn't make a lick of sense when you really think about it. Not a lick of sense, people!

(The usual: plot spoilers and lengthy overthinking here at my journal.)