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Review: MIDDLEGAME

Review:  MIDDLEGAMEMiddlegame by Seanan McGuire
three-stars
Published by Tor.com on May 7, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 528
Source: Netgalley
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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.

 

 

 

 

 

MIDDLEGAME Review

 

Seanan McGuire’s latest novel Middlegame is a very ambitious novel.  It reads like equal parts science fiction and fantasy, and is a wild ride from start to finish.  It features twins separated at birth who somehow have the ability to telepathically communicate with one another, as well a man who wants to use the twins to help him carry out his ambitious and perhaps delusional plan to become a god and control the universe.  If that isn’t enough to pique your curiosity, Middlegame also features alchemy, time loops, and its fair share of ruthless killers.

This was my first time reading one of McGuire’s novels, but after seeing so many stellar reviews for the author’s Wayward Children series, I fully expected to love Middlegame.  That said, however, I unfortunately didn’t love it nearly as much as I was expecting to.  I can’t put my finger on exactly why it wasn’t a great read, but part of it was because I just felt like I had to work way too hard to keep everything that was going on straight in my mind.  The plot is very complicated and twisty, and then time starts to twist as well, which made everything all the more complicated, and at a certain point, my brain just screamed “Enough!”  On top of that, I felt like the pacing was slow in places which didn’t help since the book is over 500 pages long.

That said, however, even though I didn’t love the read because it confused me a few too many times for my liking, there were quite a few things I did enjoy.

I love how wild and original the overall concept of the novel is.  On one level, it reminds me of Frankenstein, with James Reed using his alchemical skills to create children that can help him achieve his goal.  His actions and motivations are unnatural and more than a little creepy, but yet fascinating at the same time.  On another level though, Middlegame reminds me of nothing I’ve ever read before. The idea of this Doctrine of Ethos being the key to controlling the Universe and that Reed can somehow harness its power and become a God if he places half of the doctrine in each child just blew my mind.  Reed was a disturbing yet almost mesmerizing character just because he’s so passionate that his goal is 100% achievable and is clearly totally okay with the idea of using his homemade children as science experiments and with eliminating anyone or anything that happens to get in his way.

While I found Reed completely disturbing, I found the other main characters, twins Roger and Dodger, quite endearing, especially the connection they shared.  The implanting of half the Ethos Doctrine in each of them has left Roger as a master of all language and communication, while Dodger is an absolute genius at math. There is literally no math problem she can’t solve.  Put them together and they’re pretty much unstoppable.  As soon as they are “born,” Reed separates them.  He has several sets of twins that he’s experimenting with so this “separation” variable is specific to Roger and Dodger’s experiment.  Except that they somehow manage to connect telepathically even though they live thousands of miles apart.  No matter how many times they get re-separated, they manage to find each other again.

Even though I felt frustrated and confused sometimes by everything that was going on in Middlegame, that bond between Roger and Dodger is what really kept me turning the pages. I was just so invested in them and ultimately wanted them to realize they were pawns in Reed’s deadly game and somehow turn the tables on him and stop the madness.

While Middlegame wasn’t a book that I loved, I did enjoy the read overall and would definitely recommend it to fans of science fiction and really to anyone who enjoys a wild and twisty read that makes you put on your thinking cap.  It has also intrigued me enough about McGuire’s unique brand of storytelling that I definitely plan to read the Wayward Children series.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

three-stars

About Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire was born in Martinez, California, and raised in a wide variety of locations, most of which boasted some sort of dangerous native wildlife. Despite her almost magnetic attraction to anything venomous, she somehow managed to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two. The fact that she wasn’t killed for using her typewriter at three o’clock in the morning is probably more impressive than her lack of death by spider-bite.

Often described as a vortex of the surreal, many of Seanan’s anecdotes end with things like “and then we got the anti-venom” or “but it’s okay, because it turned out the water wasn’t that deep.” She has yet to be defeated in a game of “Who here was bitten by the strangest thing?,” and can be amused for hours by almost anything. “Almost anything” includes swamps, long walks, long walks in swamps, things that live in swamps, horror movies, strange noises, musical theater, reality TV, comic books, finding pennies on the street, and venomous reptiles. Seanan may be the only person on the planet who admits to using Kenneth Muir’s Horror Films of the 1980s as a checklist.

Seanan is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. In case that wasn’t enough, she also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.” For details on her work as Mira, check out MiraGrant.com.

In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music (see the Albums page for details). She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”, as well as generating a truly ridiculous number of art cards. Surprisingly enough, she finds time to take multi-hour walks, blog regularly, watch a sickening amount of television, maintain her website, and go to pretty much any movie with the words “blood,” “night,” “terror,” or “attack” in the title. Most people believe she doesn’t sleep.

Seanan lives in an idiosyncratically designed labyrinth in the Pacific Northwest, which she shares with her cats, Alice and Thomas, a vast collection of creepy dolls and horror movies, and sufficient books to qualify her as a fire hazard. She has strongly-held and oft-expressed beliefs about the origins of the Black Death, the X-Men, and the need for chainsaws in daily life.

Years of writing blurbs for convention program books have fixed Seanan in the habit of writing all her bios in the third person, so as to sound marginally less dorky. Stress is on the “marginally.” It probably doesn’t help that she has so many hobbies.

Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot.

Review: YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman

Review:  YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura SilvermanYou Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman
Also by this author: Girl Out of Water
four-half-stars
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on March 5, 2019
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Netgalley
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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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT review

Wow, what a book!  I thought Laura Silverman’s debut Girl out of Water was a great read, but with You Asked for Perfect, she really knocks it out of the park with a book that resonated with me both as someone who has been through and remembers all too well the stressful days of trying to get into a good college, and as the parent of a pre-teen who is already taking advanced classes and will soon be potentially heading down a path similar to that of Silverman’s protagonist, high school senior Ariel Stone.

On paper, Ariel is the ideal college applicant. He’s a straight A student who is well on his way to becoming class valedictorian, first chair violin in the school orchestra, and an active volunteer in his community.  He should easily be able to get into any college he applies to.  However, Ariel is dreaming big – Ivy League big — and Harvard is where he wants to go. Ariel knows he has to push for perfection in all areas if he wants to be the ideal Harvard applicant on paper, so when he unexpectedly fails a Calculus quiz, he knows he needs to step up his game if he’s going to keep his dream alive.

Ariel starts skipping out on time with his friends and family, putting together a rigorous schedule for studying and for meeting other assorted college-related deadlines.  He has his days mapped out by the hour to squeeze every moment of study time in that he can, leaving himself only about 5 hours of sleep a night. Even with this nearly impossible schedule, however, Ariel continues to struggle with Calculus and knows his dream is in danger of slipping out of reach.

Torn between trying to hide the fact that he’s struggling and knowing that he needs help, Ariel reluctantly approaches Amir, who is acing Calculus and asks him for assistance. Even though they’ve never been especially close, Amir agrees to be Ariel’s tutor.  The more time Ariel and Amir spend together, the more Ariel realizes that he likes Amir more than he thought he did, a lot more.  But Ariel is already pushing himself to the limit.  Can he handle adding a relationship into his already overbooked life?

What I loved most about this book is how much the story resonated with me.  Even though it has been many years since I graduated, Silverman paints such an authentic portrait of what it’s like to be a high school senior preparing for the future, that I felt like I was transported right back to my own senior year.  It brought back so many memories:  the pressure of taking multiple AP courses, finding the time for countless extracurricular activities, all in an effort to put together the best possible transcript for applying to colleges.  You Asked for Perfect also resonated with me as the parent of a pre-teen who is already taking advanced math courses and stressing about homework, etc., and who, in the not too distant future, could potentially be heading down a path similar to Ariel’s.  This book brings to life all of the worries I have for my own child and how he will react if he faces the kind of pressure Ariel is facing.

Speaking of Ariel, he was another favorite element in the book.  He’s such a likeable kid — he’s a wonderful brother to his little sister and he volunteers at the local animal shelter where he bathes and exercises the dogs – so it just pained me to watch him struggling so much.  Because his story is so relatable, I found it very easy to empathize with him and want him to either succeed or to realize that nothing in life is worth that kind of stress.

I also thought Amir was just precious.  Even though he could have easily spilled the beans and let all of their classmates know Ariel was failing Calculus, he instead chose to keep it to himself and to help him.  Watching their relationship evolve was really sweet and I was really rooting for Ariel to try to find a way to fit Amir into his life.

I also loved the focus on Ariel’s Jewish faith.  Sometimes books will mention that a character is of a certain faith but then not really explore it further, but in this book, Silverman does a wonderful job of really giving an inside look at Jewish traditions such as Shabbat dinners and the high holidays. There are also some very moving scenes where Ariel seeks counsel from his Rabbi.

Nothing that I can think of.

Laura Silverman’s You Asked for Perfect is a beautifully written and moving story that is sure to resonate with many readers, both students and parents alike.  I also think it’s an incredibly important read because it highlights just how much stress our students are putting on themselves and what can happen when that stress gets to be too much.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Senior Ariel Stone is the perfect college applicant: first chair violin, dedicated community volunteer, and expected valedictorian. He works hard – really hard – to make his life look effortless. A failed Calculus quiz is not part of that plan. Not when he’s number one. Not when his peers can smell weakness like a freshman’s body spray.

Figuring a few all-nighters will preserve his class rank, Ariel throws himself into studying. His friends will understand if he skips a few plans, and he can sleep when he graduates. Except Ariel’s grade continues to slide. Reluctantly, he gets a tutor. Amir and Ariel have never gotten along, but Amir excels in Calculus, and Ariel is out of options.

Ariel may not like Calc, but he might like Amir. Except adding a new relationship to his long list of commitments may just push him past his limit.

four-half-stars

About Laura Silverman

Laura Silverman currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a writer and freelance editor, and spends way too much time hugging dogs instead of working.

Silverman’s debut novel, GIRL OUT OF WATER, is a summery coming-of-age story about a California surfer girl sent to landlocked Nebraska for the entire summer. It debuted in May 2017. Her second novel, YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT, is about the effects of intense academic pressure on a teenage Valedictorian-to-be. It comes out March 2019.

Silverman has degrees in English and Advertising from the University of Georgia, and an MFA in Writing for Children from the New School. While she lived in NYC, she interned at Penguin and two different literary agencies. In addition to writing, Silverman also freelance edits manuscripts and query letters.

Early Review: MIRAGE by Somaiya Daud

Early Review:  MIRAGE by Somaiya DaudMirage by Somaiya Daud
four-half-stars
Series: Mirage # 1
Published by Flatiron Books on August 28, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 320
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:

I have to confess that when I first requested an ARC of Somaiya Daud’s Mirage, I did so because the hints of rebellion and the need for a body double revealed in the synopsis gave me Star Wars/Padme Amidala vibes.  Being a huge Star Wars fan, I was immediately intrigued.  What I got instead of just a story with a bit of a Star Wars vibe, however, was an absolutely gorgeous science fiction/fantasy story set in a Moroccan-inspired land and filled with complex, well drawn characters that captivated me from the moment I met each of them.

Mirage follows eighteen year old Amani, who lives on a moon that has been occupied by the brutal Vathek empire.  Because of her resemblance to the Vathek’s princess Maram, Amani is kidnapped from her home and taken to the royal palace.  There, she is told that if she wants to live, she will learn everything there is to know about Maram – mannerisms, her history, her relationships, etc. – so as to prepare herself to serve as Maram’s body double.  Why does Maram need a body double?  Because the people who have been conquered by the Vathek hate her and would love nothing more than to be able to assassinate her.  Amani’s job is to serve as a decoy, ready to die in Maram’s place if need be.

The story follows Amani as she is forced into this new role and as she meets the princess and suffers her wrath for the first time.  It is easy to see why someone would want to kill Princess Maram, and it makes the reader all the more sympathetic to the plight facing Amani.  The few bright spots in Amani’s days are those moments when she can sit back and admire the beauty of the palace and those when she is in the company of Maram’s fiancé, Idris.  One of Amani’s first tests was to see if she could fool Idris and Maram’s father, and while she succeeds with the King, Idris, on the other hand, suspects after a very short time that she is not Maram. As Amani gets to know Idris better, an unexpected bond forms between them that starts as friendship but could easily become more if either of them were to give in to the temptation.

But when the Vathek threaten Amani’s family if she doesn’t do her job to perfection, Amani knows that she needs to focus and not let affairs of the heart guide her choices, especially if she ever hopes to see her family again.

As I already mentioned, Mirage is filled with complex, well drawn characters.  In fact, I’d have to say it’s more character driven than it is plot driven.  Sometimes that doesn’t work all that well for me, but in this case, I loved it because I was so into Amani and Maram and the complexities of their relationship.  I loved how real these characters felt and how nothing was simple or black and white with them.

Amani was my favorite character, no surprise there.  I fell in love with her right away.  She is of course strong, smart, sassy, passionate, quite simply everything I love in a feisty heroine, but she’s also so much more than that.  I love her passion for all things related to her people and their beliefs.  She knows that the Vathek would love nothing more than to erase all of her people’s traditions as if they never existed and that they have banned so many things that they believe could lay the seeds of rebellion. And yet, she doesn’t care.  She still reads the forbidden poems whenever she can and she refuses to forget the ways of her people, including their language.  I loved how strongly she clung to all of these things and turned to them for strength whenever she felt like giving up.  She’s also not perfect by any means, which makes her feel all the more human.  The fact that she’s so tempted by her attraction to Idris shows that she is prone to make all-too-human mistakes, as is the fact that she really wants to make a connection with Maram even though she knows Maram could turn on her like a viper at any moment.

What probably comes as more of a surprise is that Princess Maram was actually my second favorite.  And OMG, talk about your complex characters.  At first she seems like the most evil, vindictive person alive, but as Amani gets to know her a little better, she starts to sense that there may be a lot more to Maram than originally meets the eye.  Amani actually starts to feel sympathy for Maram and wants to connect with her, but it’s impossible to tell whether Maram will let Amani in and possibly become friends or if she’ll cruelly reject Amani and lash out at her as everyone has come to expect from Maram.  I loved how unpredictable she was and that I could never decide which Maram was the real Maram, the one who lashes out at everyone or the more open and vulnerable one who occasionally came out in Amani’s presence.  I think my fascination with Maram is only going to continue to grow in the next book too.

In addition to these amazing characters, there is also a dash of forbidden love in Mirage that really appealed to me.  That is of course between Amani and Idris.  I mean, seriously, of all the people you could feel attracted to, you have to pick the guy who is engaged to the woman you are pretending to be?  How completely awkward but yet, oh so entertaining!

The worldbuilding in Mirage is some of the best that I’ve read.  Daud has woven together a rich and beautiful atmospheric setting that is inspired by Moroccan culture.  It is also complemented by elements of science fiction and fantasy, with a subtle magical system also included.  I was utterly captivated by this world and every detail in it.

Finally, since I mentioned the whole Star Wars vibe thing, yes there are definitely hints of rebellion and resistance to the Vathek in this novel.  Like Amani, those who have been conquered by the Vathek are clearly tired of being treated like dirt on what was actually their own land before the Vathek descended and took over control.  I don’t want to spoil anything so that’s all I’m going to say, but it screams to me that even though this first book was mostly character driven, the action is going to ratchet up in the next book!

 

I almost hate to write anything in this section because I really did adore the book overall, but since I pride myself on honest reviews, I will say that there were a couple of spots along the way where I felt the pacing was a little slow.  Thankfully there were only a couple and those centered around some of Amani’s training/study sessions where she was studying up on how to be like Maram and the “tests” that she had to take to see if she could actually fool anyone.  Most of those sessions and tests were pretty interesting, but after a while, I was definitely ready for the story to move along and get to something more exciting.

 

Somaiya Daud is truly a gifted storyteller whose writing style was just such a good fit for me.  The words in Mirage flow so smoothly and beautifully that I was drawn in immediately and couldn’t put the book down.  Mirage is a beautiful and moving tale with characters that command your attention and whose plight you can’t help but become fully invested in. It’s one of my favorite reads of the year so far and so I highly recommend it to any fans of fantasy and science fiction, but especially to those who love character driven stories.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

four-half-stars

About Somaiya Daud

Somaiya Daud was born in a Midwestern city, and spent a large part of her childhood and adolescence moving around. Like most writers, she started when she was young and never really stopped. Her love of all things books propelled her to get a degree in English literature (specializing in the medieval and early modern), and while she worked on her Master’s degree she doubled as a bookseller at Politics and Prose in their children’s department. Determined to remain in school for as long as possible, she packed her bags in 2014 and moved the west coast to pursue a doctoral degree in English literature. Now she’s preparing to write a dissertation on Victorians, rocks, race, and the environment. Mirage is her debut, and is due from Flatiron Books in 8/28/2018.

Review: STARRY EYES by Jenn Bennett

Review:  STARRY EYES by Jenn BennettStarry Eyes by Jenn Bennett
Also by this author: Serious Moonlight
four-half-stars
Published by Simon Pulse on April 3, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 432
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:

Starry Eyes is a young adult contemporary novel that follows teens Zorie and Lennon.  Zorie and Lennon used to be best friends but, because of something that happened at the homecoming dance, they are now sworn enemies and do everything they can to avoid one another at all costs.  I had never read a book by Jean Bennett before and knew absolutely nothing about these characters, but as soon as I read that in the synopsis, I was dying to know what happened at that dance to drive them apart.

I then read further down the synopsis and saw that these enemies somehow not only end up on a camping trip together, but somehow they end up stranded in the wilderness together.  It sounded like a recipe for disaster, but also a recipe for a fantastic read!

As if the mystery of what happened between Zorie and Lennon and whether or not they would kill each other on this camping trip wasn’t compelling enough, the synopsis goes on to describe their parents as modern day versions of the Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet.  That right there was more than enough to have me dying to read this book.  I mean, seriously…bffs who now hate each other and who have families who are also feuding?  Does that not just scream “READ ME”?  Well, it did for me anyway…

And I loved every page of it.  Jenn Bennett delivers a moving story filled with characters that I fell in love with.  Even though on the surface, Starry Eyes is a book about a camping trip gone wrong, it’s also about family, love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and so much more.  It captured all of my emotions and was just everything I hoped it would be.

 

Zorie.  I just loved everything about Zorie.  I found her addiction to planning and organization, along with her sense of humor and her fondness for astronomy, so endearing. I also found her incredibly relatable at times, especially when she first encounters Lennon.  They’re enemies at this point and she would rather do just about anything than have to come face-to-face with him.  Haven’t we all been in that position before?  Equally relatable was her questionable taste in romantic interests.  Zorie has a crush on a guy named Brett, and I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’m just going to say this guy is just the worst.  I couldn’t figure out what in the world she saw in him. But again, haven’t we all been there at some point?  I think what I liked most about Zorie, however, was how much she matured throughout the story.  Again, no spoilers, but between what happened with Lennon and what has been going on within her own family, Zorie has a lot of issues that she is dealing with and I think she shows tremendous growth as we move through the story, In many ways, it’s actually a coming of age story for her.

Lennon.  Even though I thought going in that I would side with either Zorie or Lennon, I found myself equally attached to both of them.  Lennon is just this cool guy.  He’s a little dark and emo at times, but he loves reptiles and he loves camping and nature so he’s a pretty well rounded and interesting individual.  He really won me over though in an early scene where he’s working in a pet shop and showing reptiles to a young child.  He was just so great with the child that it warmed my heart and made me all the more curious about what happened between him and Zorie.  I mean, how could you not want to be friends or even more than friends with such a great guy!

Zorie and Lennon together.  Yes, you read that correctly! Even though I almost always whine and moan  when there is a romance in a book, I adored watching Zorie and Lennon together as they attempted to rebuild their relationship.  Their chemistry felt real because they already had so much history together, and I loved how authentic the awkwardness felt when they first start trying to talk to each other again, and because I liked them both so much, I just really wanted them to have a second chance, either as friend or hopefully as more than friends since they seemed so perfect together.

Great secondary characters.  Bennett does a fantastic job with most of the parents in this story.  I loved Lennon’s moms and their Toys in the Attic sex shop.  They were hilarious and also two of the best parents I’ve come across in books in a long time. I especially love how protective they are of Zorie, even though they’re supposed to be feuding with Zorie’s dad.  Zorie’s stepmom is wonderful too.  The bond she has with Zorie was lovely, especially since they aren’t related by blood.  Zorie’s dad is a different story in that I loathed him, but I will say he was not a flat character either.

Glamping.  I confess that I completely related to Zorie’s aversion to going camping because I don’t do the outdoors either, especially the whole sleeping in a tent with nothing but some canvas between you and whatever else it out there in the wild, lol. That said, however, I could totally get down with glamping.  It sounded fabulous, especially the wonderful sleeping accommodations, the showers, the chef, and the cocktail hours.  Sign me up!

I could literally go on and on about what I loved, but you get the idea…

 

Aside from wanting Brett to get eaten by a bear, I didn’t really have any issues with this book.

 

This may have been my first Jenn Bennett read, but it will most certainly not be my last.  If you’re looking for a heartwarming read about family, friendship, and first loves, I’d highly recommend Starry Eyes. 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. It doesn’t hurt that their families are the modern day, Californian version of the Montagues and Capulets.

But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.

What could go wrong?

With no one but each other for company, Zorie and Lennon have no choice but to hash out their issues via witty jabs and insults as they try to make their way to safety. But fighting each other while also fighting off the forces of nature makes getting out of the woods in one piece less and less likely.

And as the two travel deeper into Northern California’s rugged backcountry, secrets and hidden feelings surface. But can Zorie and Lennon’s rekindled connection survive out in the real world? Or was it just a result of the fresh forest air and the magic of the twinkling stars?

four-half-stars

About Jenn Bennett

Jenn Bennett is an award-winning author of young adult contemporary romance books, including: Alex, Approximately; The Anatomical Shape of a Heart; and Starry Eyes. She also writes romance and urban fantasy for adults (the Roaring Twenties and Arcadia Bell series). Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, won the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award, garnered two Reviewers’ Choice awards and a Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews, and been included on Publishers Weekly Best Books annual list. She lives near Atlanta with one husband and two dogs.

Book Review: The Immortalists

Book Review:  The ImmortalistsThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
three-stars
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 9th 2018
Genres: Fiction
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:

Based on all of the 4 and 5 star ratings I’m seeing on Goodreads for this book, I think I’m going to be the “unpopular opinion” when it comes to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists.  Let me start off by saying I didn’t hate it – it was a solid read for me and I was able to finish it in just a few days.  It just didn’t wow me like I thought it would based on the synopsis, which hooked me as soon as I read it.

The Immortalists begins its journey in New York, the Lower East Side, in 1969.  The story follows the Gold siblings – teenagers Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya – as they set out to meet a traveling fortune teller. Rumor has it that this fortune teller has the ability to predict the exact day a person will die, and the Golds can’t resist going to see her to hear what she has to say about each of them.

Armed with this information – if the fortune teller is to be believed – the Gold siblings begin to make their way in the world.  They choose not to share their dates with one another, although the youngest, Simon, hints that the fortune teller has said he will die young.  The novel then follows the siblings, one by one, over the next five decades, from the moment they each know their date of death until that date actually arrives so that we can see how (or if) knowing that information has any impact on choices they make in life.

 

My favorite part of The Immortalists is its central question: “Would you live your life any differently if you knew the exact date you would die?” This was the question in the synopsis that initially hooked me.  It’s just one of those questions that immediately makes you reflect on your own life and mortality.  As soon as I began following these siblings and seeing some of the choices they were making, it really made me think about what I would do if I was armed with the same knowledge they were.  Would I do anything differently? Pursue my dreams more aggressively, take more risks, etc.  The thought provoking aspect of this book was its biggest asset for me.  I could see this being a fantastic book club choice because of the discussion it naturally lends itself to.

I also enjoyed the way the story was presented.  In many ways it could be considered an extensive epic history of the Gold family. At the same time, however, because of the way we follow each sibling one at a time, it manages to be an intimate exploration of their individual personal lives as well.  I liked that combination.

 

I think my biggest issue with The Immortalists was with the characters themselves.  I just didn’t feel like I really connected with any of them.  Even though I was getting an in-depth look at each of their lives, I still somehow felt like an outsider just observing them, almost as if they were a psychology experiment.  I’m the kind of reader that really wants to connect with and relate to the characters in a book, so this just made it a little difficult for me to feel completely invested in their lives.

A second issue I had was with the predictability of Simon’s storyline.  As I mentioned, he hints that he will die young.  He chooses to quit school and move across the country to San Francisco. I don’t want to give away too many details so I’ll just say that we learn he is gay and looking for love.  Since much of his story takes place in the early 1980s, based on some rather reckless choices he makes, it became instantly clear to me what was going to happen to him if the fortune teller’s prediction turned out to be true.  It was still sad to read, but the predictability took some of the emotional punch out of it for me.  Thankfully, the other three siblings had less predictable storylines, but this one was definitely an easy guess for me.

A final issue I had was with the story of Varya, primarily because it features some pretty horrifying animal experimentation that I wish I hadn’t read about.  I found it so disturbing that it made it hard to make it to the end of the book.  There is an author’s note at the end to address the experimentation, which I was very grateful for, but it was just still so jarring to read about.

 

While I wish The Immortalists has been a better read for me, it still has a lot of good points and I’m sure plenty of others will love it.  Even with the issues I had with it, I was still pleased that it was such a thought-provoking read overall.  I predict that it will become a book club favorite this year!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

three-stars

About Chloe Benjamin

Chloe Benjamin is an author from San Francisco, CA. Her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2014), received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her second novel, The Immortalists, is forthcoming from Putnam/Penguin Random House in January 2018. The Immortalists will be published in over thirteen countries, and TV/film rights have sold to the Jackal Group.

A graduate of Vassar College and of the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Chloe also teaches workshops on the business of publishing, from writing a novel to finding a literary agent. She lives with her husband in Madison, WI.

Book Review: The Wife Between Us

Book Review:  The Wife Between UsThe Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks, Sarah Pekkanen
Also by this author: An Anonymous Girl
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 9th 2018
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
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.

 

 

 

*

8

 

MY REVIEW:

Okay, so I have to admit I was a little nervous when I started seeing my fellow reviewers compare The Wife Between Us to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Even though I loved Gone Girl, not many of the novels that have been compared to it since its rise to popularity have lived up to the hype.  And boy have there been a lot of them.  I’m thrilled to say that not only does The Wife Between Us live up to the comparison, but I enjoyed The Wife Between Us even more than I enjoyed Gone Girl.  I think we’re looking at what is going to be one of the must-read books of 2018.  I also recently read that there is already a deal in place to make it into a film and I’m really excited about that.

 

 

I know this is the part of my review where I would typically describe the book without giving away spoilers.  In the case of The Wife Between Us, however, I can’t really do that.  To write any kind of description of even the basic plot points and characters would just spoil it. So all I’m going to say is just know based on those Gone Girl comparisons that you’re diving into an addictive psychological thriller filled with twists and turns and complex characters, and that there are also questions regarding narrator reliability.  Most importantly, as the synopsis indicates, assume nothing!

My favorite part of The Wife Between Us is that it really did keep me guessing from beginning to end.  I read the synopsis, which told me to ‘assume nothing’ because everything I assumed would be wrong. And then I proceeded to jump right in and start making assumptions anyway.  The book just lends itself to that and no matter how hard I tried to keep an open mind, I continued to make snap judgments about characters and situations, and yes, as the synopsis warned, I was dead wrong every time.  And that may sound like it should have been a frustrating reading experience, but I LOVED every page of it.  Nothing about the story was predictable and that was just fabulous and refreshing.

There is one plot twist about halfway through that was such a shock to me that it made my head spin.  I actually had to backtrack a few pages to make sure I had read what I thought I had read.  It was truly mind blowing!

The characters in The Wife Between Us are also so well drawn.  They’re complex, flawed, and utterly human, and unlike in many of the Gone Girl-style books, they are actually quite sympathetic in spite of the unreliable narrator issue.  I won’t go so far as to say that I liked any of them, but I did feel tremendous sympathy for what at least one of them was going through.

The book also weeds into some dark territory as we navigate the various plot twists — mental illness, addiction, abuse, jealousy, the struggle to let go and move on after a failed relationship, etc.  All of this dark subject matter weaves together seamlessly into an enthralling tale that you won’t be able to walk away from until you know the whole truth behind ‘the wife between us.’

The only thing that kept this from being a 5 star read for me was that the pacing felt a little inconsistent before that huge plot twist vs. after it.  There wasn’t a huge difference but just enough that it was noticeable in terms of how quickly I moved through each half of the book.

I also can’t say that I was 100% satisfied with the book’s resolution either. I liked it for the most part, but I’ll be curious to see if that is tweaked at all when it is made into a film.

 

The Wife Between Us is a mesmerizing thrill ride that will keep you guessing from beginning to end.  I would definitely say to go into it knowing as little as possible for the most suspenseful reading experience possible.  As the synopsis says, ‘Assume Nothing.’

 

Thanks to Netgalley, St. Martin’s Press, and of course, authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen for allowing me to read and review this book on my blog in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way impacts my review.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A novel of suspense that explores the complexities of marriage and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.

When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.

You will assume you are reading about a jealous wife and her obsession with her replacement.
You will assume you are reading about a woman about to enter a new marriage with the man she loves.
You will assume the first wife was a disaster and that the husband was well rid of her.
You will assume you know the motives, the history, the anatomy of the relationships.
Assume nothing.

Discover the next blockbuster novel of suspense, and get ready for the read of your life.

About Greer Hendricks

GREER HENDRICKS spent over two decades as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Prior to her tenure in publishing, she worked at Allure Magazine and obtained her Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children, The Wife Between Us is her first novel.

Follow Greer Hendricks on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

About Sarah Pekkanen

Internationally bestselling author Sarah Pekkanen’s newest book is THE PERFECT NEIGHBORS. She is also the co-author of the upcoming THE WIFE BETWEEN US (out in January 2018).

Her prior novels are: THINGS YOU WON’T SAY, CATCHING AIR, THE BEST OF US, THE OPPOSITE OF ME, SKIPPING A BEAT, and THESE GIRLS.

Sarah’s linked free short estories, published by Simon&Schuster exclusively for ereaders, are titled “All is Bright,” and “Love, Accidentally.”

Sarah is the mother of three young boys, which explains why she writes part of her novels at Chuck E. Cheese. Sarah penned her first book, Miscellaneous Tales and Poems, at the age of 10. When publishers failed to jump upon this literary masterpiece (hey, all the poems rhymed!) Sarah followed up by sending them a sternly-worded letter on Raggedy Ann stationery. Sarah still has that letter, and carries it to New York every time she has meetings with her publisher, as a reminder that dreams do come true.

Her website is www.sarahpekkanen.com and please find her on Facebook Instagram and Twitter @sarahpekkanen!

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
Also by this author: The Girl in the Tower
four-half-stars
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #1
Published by Del Rey on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 336
Also in this series: The Girl in the Tower
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.