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ARC Review: The Blackbird Season

ARC Review:  The Blackbird SeasonThe Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
three-half-stars
Published by Atria Books on September 26th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Kate Moretti’s The Blackbird Season takes place in Mt. Oanoke, Pennsylvania.  Mt. Oanoke is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else and where pretty much nothing ever happens.  That is, until one day when a thousand dead birds plummet from the sky and land on the local high school baseball field.  Since most of the town was there to watch their baseball team and beloved teacher and coach, Nate Winters, play, the rumor mill starts running rampant right away, as everyone tries to make sense out of what has happened.  Some assume there is a logical explanation for the birds, while others see it is a bad omen, a sign of trouble to come.

Pretty soon, however, the mystery of the birds take a backseat when a news reporter prints a story alleging that Nate Winters is having an affair with one of his students, troubled teen Lucia Hamm.  Without giving him a chance to prove that the story isn’t true, everyone in the town immediately turns on Nate. He goes from being the hometown hero to the town outcast and ultimately loses his job over the alleged affair.  Lucia doesn’t help matters when she corroborates the story and tells everyone that she and Nate are in love, thus breathing even more life into this small town scandal and causing even Nate’s wife to question his innocence.

When, soon after, Lucia goes missing, all eyes turn to Nate as the most likely suspect and the reader is filled with questions:.  Is Nate actually guilty of having an affair?  If not, can he prove his innocence?  What has happened to Lucia? Did Nate have anything to do with that since she made him look so bad?  If the affair isn’t true, why would she lie about it?

 

One of my favorite parts of The Blackbird Season is the way in which the story is presented.  It’s a character driven mystery that is told from the alternating points of view of Nate, his wife Alecia, troubled student Lucia, and perhaps the only person in town who believes Nate is innocent, his friend and colleague Bridget.  I liked watching the story unfold in this way because as each piece of the puzzle is revealed, you get to see not only how Nate keeps getting himself into situations that make him look bad, but then you also get to watch those who are closest to him, his wife and his best friend, and their changing reactions when more and more details unfold about Nate and Lucia.  Then finally, you also have the perspective of Lucia and see some of her motivations behind her actions and why she keeps approaching Nate.

If you enjoy a suspenseful read, you’ll probably enjoy The Blackbird Season.  Moretti writes suspense very well and so there are lots of twists and turns along the way as we seek to unravel both the truth behind the alleged affair and the mystery of what happened to Lucia.  I liked that the story kept me guessing, so much so that I changed my mind about whether Nate was innocent or guilty every few chapters.  From that standpoint, it’s a wild ride and a solid read.

 

My biggest issue with The Blackbird Season was that this ended up being another of those books where none of the characters are very likeable or sympathetic.  Since I typically enjoy books more when I can connect with at least one character, this made reading The Blackbird Season somewhat challenging.  Nate Winters, in particular, just flat out got on my nerves.  As a teacher, he should know better than to be creeping around on the internet keeping an eye on his students.  Whether he means well or not, there’s no way that’s going to turn out well for him if other adults in the community find out.  He’s one of those characters that just constantly makes bad choices and does stupid things that make him look guilty even if he’s probably completely innocent.  If you’re being accused of sleeping with a student, for example, you don’t keep randomly meeting up with the student.  The man just had no common sense and was infuriating because of it.  I actually screamed at the book a couple of times because he was just so frustrating, lol.

I also wish the author had done a little more with the actual blackbird theme that runs through the book.  The opening scene with all of the dead birds plunging onto the baseball field was fantastic and set an ominous tone for what I thought was going to be an atmospheric and creepy read, maybe even a bit supernatural, but then it just kind of fizzled and was mentioned occasionally in passing – that scientists were investigating the bird deaths, etc.  Since more wasn’t made of it, it ended up just feeling unnecessary to the rest of the storyline and somewhat out of place, for me anyway.

 

If I hadn’t had the issue with not liking any of the characters, The Blackbird Season would have easily been a 4 star read for me.  Even with not liking any of the characters, I was still drawn in enough by the mystery of the dead birds, the small town skewering the town hero over his alleged affair with a student, and that student’s subsequent mysterious disappearance that I just had to keep reading to find out what happened.  If you enjoy a good mystery, I’d say The Blackbird Season is a good choice.  If, like me, you just really need at least one likeable character, this book may or may not be a good fit.  I hate to make the comparison since it’s so overdone, but if you enjoy books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you’d probably like this one too.  If not, I’d probably say to pass on it.

 

Thanks to Netgalley, Kate Moretti, and Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book for review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Known for novels featuring “great pacing and true surprises” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and “nerve-shattering suspense” (Heather Gudenkauf, New York Time bestselling author), New York Times bestselling author Kate Moretti’s latest is the story of a scandal-torn Pennsylvania town and the aftermath of a troubled girl gone missing.

“Where did they come from? Why did they fall? The question would be asked a thousand times…

Until, of course, more important question arose, at which time everyone promptly forgot that a thousand birds fell on the town of Mount Oanoke at all.”

In a quiet Pennsylvania town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a high school baseball field, unleashing a horrifying and unexpected chain of events that will rock the close-knit community.

Beloved baseball coach and teacher Nate Winters and his wife, Alicia, are well respected throughout town. That is, until one of the many reporters investigating the bizarre bird phenomenon catches Nate embracing a wayward student, Lucia Hamm, in front of a sleazy motel. Lucia soon buoys the scandal by claiming that she and Nate are engaged in an affair, throwing the town into an uproar…and leaving Alicia to wonder if her husband has a second life.

And when Lucia suddenly disappears, the police only to have one suspect: Nate.

Nate’s coworker and sole supporter, Bridget Harris, Lucia’s creative writing teacher, is determined to prove his innocence. She has Lucia’s class journal, and while some of the entries appear particularly damning to Nate’s case, others just don’t add up. Bridget knows the key to Nate’s exoneration and the truth of Lucia’s disappearance lie within the walls of the school and in the pages of that journal.

Told from the alternating points of view of Alicia, Nate, Lucia, and Bridget, The Blackbird Season is a haunting, psychologically nuanced suspense, filled with Kate Moretti’s signature “chillingly satisfying” (Publishers Weekly) twists and turns.

three-half-stars

About Kate Moretti

Kate Moretti lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like.

Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.

ARC Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

ARC Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia GrayDefy the Stars (Defy the Stars #1) by Claudia Gray
four-stars
Series: Defy the Stars #1
on April 4th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Noemi Vidal is a teen soldier from the planet Genesis, once a colony of Earth that’s now at war for its independence. The humans of Genesis have fought Earth’s robotic “mech” armies for decades with no end in sight.

After a surprise attack, Noemi finds herself stranded in space on an abandoned ship where she meets Abel, the most sophisticated mech prototype ever made. One who should be her enemy. But Abel’s programming forces him to obey Noemi as his commander, which means he has to help her save Genesis–even though her plan to win the war will kill him.

Together they embark on a daring voyage through the galaxy. Before long, Noemi begins to realize Abel may be more than a machine, and, for his part, Abel’s devotion to Noemi is no longer just a matter of programming.

MY REVIEW

Wow, what a pleasant surprise this book turned out to be! I’ve never read anything by Claudia Gray and so really had no idea what to expect going into Defy the Stars. I literally spent my entire weekend reading it and I regret nothing.  Such a riveting adventure!

The premise of the story is that Earth has basically used up nearly all of its resources so the planet is dying and its inhabitants therefore need to find another home to move to as soon as possible.  A few other planets have been made habitable, but they are not nearly big enough to hold Earth’s population.  The planet Genesis is the ideal choice for resettlement, but Genesis isn’t having it.  They have seen what the humans of Earth have done to their own planet and have no interest in letting them come, take over Genesis, and do the same thing to their planet.  For this reason, Genesis and Earth are at war when the book opens.

In many ways it’s an unfair fight because Earth has developed an army of what are known as Mechs.  Mechs are incredibly sophisticated robots and humans are just no match against them, especially humans on Genesis because they don’t have nearly the same technological capabilities that Earth does. When the story opens, Earth and Genesis have been fighting for decades and the people of Genesis are in real danger of losing the fight and therefore their planet.

The world building in Defy the Stars is quite fascinating and intricate.  In addition to Earth and Genesis, there are also several other distinct planets, such as Kismet, which is a lush playground of sorts for the wealthy, as well as Cray, which is where all of the great scientific minds have been sent, and then Stronghold, which reminded me a lot of Mars in the way it’s described.  These planets are aligned in a loop and travel between them is accomplished via Gates, which are basically wormholes, and in an act of desperation, the leaders of Genesis have come up with a plan to try to cut off Earth’s access to Genesis by damaging the Gate that lies between Genesis and Earth.  They don’t believe they have the firepower to truly destroy it, but believe that they can disable it enough to buy themselves a few years of peace so that they can regroup and rearm themselves.  The ultimate problem with the plan – the only way the leaders think they can do enough damage to this Gate to render it useless is to send 150 of their soldiers on what is being called the Masada Run, where they will each crash their ships directly into the Gate.  It’s a suicide mission.

When we meet our protagonist, teenager Noemi Vidal, she is training to take part in the Masada Run.  A surprise attack while the Genesis soldiers are making a practice run leaves Noemi’s half-sister, Esther, who was working as a scout, critically wounded.  In an effort to save Esther, Noemi takes her aboard what appears to be an abandoned ship from Earth in search of medical supplies. It is here that Noemi comes face to face with, and is nearly kill by, Abel.  Abel is a Mech, and as it turns out, a one-of-a –kind mech, the most sophisticated Mech prototype ever made, in fact.  By virtue of his programming, he should inherently be Noemi’s enemy, but his programming also requires him to obey his commander, and as Noemi has basically commandeered the ship he is on, by default, she becomes Abel’s commander and he is therefore sworn to follow her every order.  Once Noemi is reassured that Abel is, in fact, loyal to her, she begins to pump him for intelligence.  She learns that Abel was traveling with his creator and a team of researchers who were examining the Gate between Genesis and Earth, looking for deficiencies in it that they could exploit it for their own benefit.  As crucial as this intel is, what Noemi learns that is even more important, is that with a few key supplies that can be secured from other planets, there is another way to destroy the Gate.  A mech could fly in there and destroy it and since a mech isn’t human, there would be no casualties.  Because Noemi is now his commander,  Abel of course volunteers to destroy the Gate and save his commander’s planet.  This knowledge sets Noemi on a new course, with Abel by her side, in which she hopes to not only save her planet but also spare the lives of those who would all die in the Masada Run.  The Masada Run is scheduled to take place in less than three weeks so it becomes a race against time…

LIKES

The Action:  As you can guess by my lengthy lead in, this book is pretty intense in terms of the overall storyline. Pretty much everything I just laid out happens in the opening few chapters and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  That race against time, coupled with the fact that Genesis is not viewed favorably by the other planets in the system because they feel like Genesis abandoned them  to save themselves, leads to a lot of potentially hostile encounters as Noemi and Abel make their way across the galaxy in search of what they need to destroy that Gate.  If you like action and adventure, you should enjoy this aspect of Defy the Stars.

Earth as the “Bad Guy”:  I found it very intriguing that Earth is the one who must be stopped here.  This idea seems pretty timely too, now that we have a U.S. President who apparently doesn’t believe in science.  This fictional scenario could end up being closer to reality than we care to think about.

The Characters:  As exciting as the storyline is, what really captured my attention and made me love the read are the characters themselves.  I loved both Noemi and Abel.  I loved them individually and I especially loved them working together as a team.

Noemi  – I really loved Noemi from the first moment we meet her.  Claudia Gray has created Noemi with this wonderful combination of fierce determination and selflessness that drew me in right away. We learn early on in the story that Noemi has volunteered to take part in the Masada Run, not just to save her planet, but also because the mission will only allow one representative from each household to volunteer to die and she is determined to protect her half sister, Esther, whom she has deemed the more worthy of living.  As much as I was already intrigued by the idea that this teen soldier was willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her planet and to save Esther, her belief that she was somehow less worthy of having a chance to live her life just added a layer of vulnerability to her that made her all the more compelling of a character.

I also love the growth that Noemi undergoes both as she begins to meet citizens from these other planets and as she learns more and more about Abel and realizes that he may actually be more human than robot.  She becomes much more reflective as the novel goes on as she begins to question the actions of the leaders of Genesis as well as her own plans.  Was Genesis right to isolate itself and leave the other planets to fend for themselves against Earth?  Wouldn’t they be stronger and better able to resist Earth if they banded together?  If Abel is truly more human than he is robot, can she really let him sacrifice himself to save Genesis?  So many big questions for such a young person to have to even think about.

Abel – As much as I loved Noemi, I absolutely adored Abel.  Even though he is made up to look like a human, with hair, blood, skin, and even neurons, Abel reminded me so much of C3PO from Star Wars or maybe even Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He’s just charming and funny, and sometimes says things that are so annoying, I half expected Noemi to dismantle him to shut him up.  I found him especially amusing when it became clear that he even has a bit of an ego. He’s proud that he’s the ultimate Mech prototype and that he’s the only one of his kind.  He toots his own horn, so to speak, quite frequently on that subject!

In addition to being such an amusing character, Abel also comes across as so human from the moment we meet him that it’s heartbreaking to learn he has been trapped on this ship for 30 years, just floating around all alone.  He tells Noemi that his creator and the crew were preparing to abandon ship and sent him to the airlock to complete one final task before departure. He became trapped there and they just left without him.  He has no idea what happened to them – if they made it back to Earth or if they all perished – but it never really dawns on him that they didn’t think of him as a life and so thought nothing of leaving him there to try to save themselves.  He even thinks of his creator as his “father” and doesn’t realize that even though he’s one of a kind, he is still viewed as ultimately disposable.

What also makes Abel a truly fascinating character is that he too, even though he is supposedly mostly just a machine, undergoes tremendous growth throughout the story.  Those 30 years all alone caused the neurons in Abel’s body to make new connections and begin to evolve in ways Abel’s creator may never even have thought possible.  Even though Abel still has programming, he is supposed to follow at all times, he has developed the ability to occasionally override that programming. It’s as though he is developing free will or as Noemi starts to wonder, maybe even some form of a soul.  Once Noemi starts to question just how human Abel has become over the years, it takes their relationship to a whole new level and it’s wonderful to watch how loyal they become to each other.

ANY DISLIKES?

I can’t really call it a dislike but there was a lot of information to sift through at the beginning with the different planets, the explanation of the cybergenetics and that Abel was a prototype for 25 other models of Mechs, etc.  I love science fiction so I can’t say that it bothered me too much, although I’ll admit I stopped to take a few notes along the way because there were a lot of details to keep track of, but I could see it potentially making it difficult for some readers to get into the story.  My advice would be to push through the beginning though because once you get past that initial worldbuilding and on to where Noemi and Abel meet, the story just flies along from there and you’ll breeze right through.

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you like a book that is action-packed, filled with compelling characters, and that asks big questions about ethics, religion vs faith, the environment, technology, politics, and so much more, I’d highly recommend Defy the Stars.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the publisher, and of course to author Claudia Gray for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

four-stars

About Claudia Gray

claudia gray

Claudia Gray in her own words:

“Claudia Gray is a pseudonym. I would like to say that I chose another name so that no one would ever learn the links between my shadowy, dramatic past and the explosive secrets revealed through my characters. This would be a lie. In truth, I took a pseudonym simply because I thought it would be fun to choose my own name. (And it is.)

I write novels full-time, absolutely love it, and hope to be able to do this forever. My home is in New Orleans, is more than 100 years old, and is painted purple. In my free time I read, travel, hike, cook and listen to music. You can keep up with my latest releases, thoughts on writing and various pop-culture musings via Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, Instagram or (of course) my own home page.

If you want to contact me, you can email me here, but your best bet is probably to Tweet me. I don’t do follows on Twitter, but I follow everyone back on Tumblr, Pinterest and GoodReads.”

ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine ArdenThe Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
four-half-stars
Published by Del Rey on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 336
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Review:

The Bear and the Nightingale is, by far, one of my favorite reads of 2016.  I had high expectations for as soon as I read the synopsis comparing it to Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my all-time favorite reads, and I’m thrilled to say that The Bear and the Nightingale far exceeded my expectations.  A tale steeped in Russian folklore, mythology, and fairy tales, it’s pure magic in every sense of the word!

I personally think the story is best appreciated going in with as few spoilers as possibly so I’m not going to expand too much beyond what is already in the synopsis, but I do want to hit some high points of what made the book so special for me.

What I Loved:

The Setting and Atmosphere:  Not since visiting Narnia when I read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe have I felt so immersed in another place and time as when I began reading The Bear and the Nightingale.  With her rich and vivid descriptions, Arden transports her readers to Medieval Russia. The atmosphere feels so authentic that the snow, the bitter cold, the wilderness, and the dangerous mountainous terrain are almost palpable as we follow Vasilisa and her family through the story.

I also loved that the whole story had this oddly cozy yet often creepy vibe to it – I felt like I was actually taking shelter from the cold in front of the fire with Vasilisa and her siblings and listening to nurse Dunya tell the old Russian fairytales of Frost the blue eyed demon.  It made it especially creepy when the story takes a very Game of Thrones “Winter is Coming!” turn that makes it feel like Dunya’s chilling tales are coming to life right before the characters’ (and our) eyes.

Vasilisa (or Vasya as she is more affectionately known):  I fell in love with Vasya right away. Vasya is an utterly charming free spirit.  She has no interest whatsoever in conforming to anyone else’s preconceived notions of how women should behave. Vasya much prefers to spend her days frolicking outside in the woods and, much to the dismay of her parents, often disappears for hours at a time to go off adventuring.  Vasya is obviously headstrong and a bit defiant, but she’s also smart, brave, and when it comes down to it, would sacrifice anything to protect her family.  Everyone around her has suspected since she was a small child that there was something different about her, and it soon becomes clear that she has a gift and a connection to the spirit world that few others do. In harnessing that gift, she clearly demonstrates later in the novel that she is a force to be reckoned with.  When it becomes clear that extreme danger is closing in on her village and that she is the only one who can stop it, Vasya displays incredible inner strength that men twice her age and size probably couldn’t muster in her situation.

Christianity vs. Tradition/Ritual:  While this story is perfectly entertaining as a magical fairytale retelling, I loved the extra layer of depth that was provided by this religious conflict.  For generations Vasya and her fellow villagers have relied on their traditions of honoring the spirits of house, yard, and forest to keep them from harm.  They consider it to be a symbiotic relationship where they take care of the spirits with offerings of food to keep up their strength and the spirits reciprocate by protecting the villagers from harm.  Then suddenly Vasya’s new stepmother, who may or may not be mentally unstable, comes into the picture, bringing with her Christianity and a priest, suddenly the villagers’ old ways come under attack. The offerings to the spirits are deemed foolish and the priest tells the villagers they must abandon their old ways and turn to God for protection instead.  I found it especially interesting that the least likable characters in the novel are those who profess to be the most Christian.  The priest, in particular, is portrayed as quite arrogant and as having questionable, even egotistical motives, for trying to “enlighten” these villagers.  He doesn’t consider for a moment the possibility that there might really be protective spirits out there or that the danger closing in on the community could be beyond the realm of his wildest imagination.  When he convinces the villagers to abandon the spirits and the spirits abandon them in turn, it becomes clear that perhaps he and Christianity are not the answer.

Any Complaints?

About the only complaint I had was early on I thought the pacing was a little slow at times, mainly the part where Vasya’s father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife.  Once he brings his new wife home, however, the action picks up immediately as the wife is the catalyst for much of the rest of the story’s dramatic events.  If you find it a little slow like I did, stick with it. I promise you won’t regret it!

Who Would I Recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to? 

I’d definitely highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to anyone who loves fantasy, historical fiction, and folklore, but honestly, because the story is so wonderful, I’d recommend it to pretty much anyone.  In fact, I wish this book was already out because I can think of at least half a dozen people who I’ve love to give it to for Christmas. Put The Bear and the Nightingale on your must-read list for 2017. It’s truly a magical read!

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Katherine Arden, and Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine/Del Rey for the opportunity to preview this beautiful book!

Rating:  4.5 stars!

four-half-stars

About Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.