Book Review: The Bear by Andrew Krivak

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Rating:  ★★★

The Bear is a literary science fiction/fantasy tale about the last two people on earth.  It’s short, and can be read in just a day if you have the time.  The two main characters are known only as Father and Girl.  When the story begins the girl is very young, and we watch as her father teaches her to survive the world.

The depictions of nature and scenery are beautifully done.  It’s hard to imagine a world in which everything is covered by forests and fields, the remnants of residential areas grown over and covered by soil, a place where animals have no fear of man kind.  There is a sense of wonder to it all.

The Bear feels like a fable rather than a book.  Something handed down over generations and told by a campfire.  The author never dives into the past- what happened to mankind, how these two people came to be the last on earth.  It’s strictly about the story of these last two survivors.

The pacing is slow despite the high level of tension and conflict found at the heart of the book, and the reader grows to care about the characters slowly throughout.  This is why the book ultimately ended up being only a three star read for me.  The story felt very heavy and lonely, and I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to read a story like this one.  Everything else about the book- the setting, the writing, the feelings it evoked, are easily a four star read, but when I put the book down I was left feeling a little sad.  It’s unlikely that I’d ever pick this up to read again.

I’d recommend this to readers who like man versus nature stories or nature lovers in general.  The Bear released on February 11, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or ordered on Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher for sending an ARC for review.

Favorite SciFi Sub-genres

Part of what I love about science fiction is that it covers so many different topics.  Sometimes when I mention to others that I love science fiction, I feel like I occasionally get a funny look or two.  And then I wonder how many awesome books the person sitting across from me has either read without really realizing it was science fiction, or missed out on because they turned their nose up at something with the label.

So I thought I’d share some of my favorite sub-genres with you today, along with a few suggestions to check out if you’re looking to try some of them.

Apocalyptic / Post-Apocalyptic

I love stories about the end of the world.  Granted- my favorites are those that usually explore the darker side of human nature, books like Wanderers and King’s The Stand, but I also like hopeful stories that explore the survival of humanity as earth is becoming uninhabitable (e.g. The Calculating Stars).

What intrigues me about them is the way the human need (instinct?) to survive effects each character.  Will they do whatever it takes?  Will they commit unspeakable acts in the interest of protecting themselves and their families? Or will they come together and unite for a common cause?

First Contact / Alien Invasion

I love all fiction with aliens for a few different reasons.  The easy answer is the almost limitless opportunity it gives an author to exercise the limits of their imagination.  What kinds of tech do they have?  What kind of rituals do they practice?  What sort of hierarchy does their society follow?

But the more complex answer is that alien civilization can act as a sort of mirror, reflecting back all the ugly and beautiful truths about our own civilization.  It gives the reader a chance to question why things are the way they are, how they came to be that way, and how we could set ourselves on a path to change (hopefully for the better).

Dystopian / Utopian

This is an easy one and probably the most accessible to those who aren’t necessarily fans of SciFi and Fantasy.  I like dystopian because I think it’s interesting to consider how the in-book society evolved into what it became.  Qualityland, for example, is very obviously derived from Amazon’s dominion over the retail space.  On the other hand, utopian books examine what it might mean to try and please everyone, or put them all on an even playing field.

Science Fiction Thrillers

And of course- probably my most favorite genre of all- the science fiction thriller.  Not because they have any higher purpose, but because they are damn entertaining.

There are a couple other genres of SciFi I’m hoping to explore this year.  Topics that interest me or genres in which I’ve only read one or two books, but have enjoyed, despite not having had the time yet to dive deeper.

Biopunk

Biopunk is described as “derived from cyberpunk [that] focuses on the implications of biotechnology rather than information technology” (Wikipedia).  I read, and once very much enjoyed, Borne, but I’d love to see what else exists in the genre and how it is deployed.  The big one I have slated for this is Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, but I’ve talked about that particular book quite a bit recently and wanted to spotlight something different.

Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk is described as a “combination of low-life and high tech” (Wikipedia, Sterling Bruce, Burning Chrome by William Gibson preface).  Infomocracy probably fails on the first count.  I don’t think either of the two main characters are necessarily “low life”, but the book has a very urban, gritty, feel that I think qualifies it.  Last year I listened to SerialBox’s Ninth Step Station that I’d say qualifies as cyberpunk also.  Another book most people are probably familiar with is Ready Player One.  I loved them all and I definitely want to read more.

What are your favorite science fiction sub-genres?

Book Review: The Chill by Scott Carson

The Chill by Scott Carson

Rating:  ★★★

The Chill is about a small town, Galesburg, that was once drowned underwater to make a new dam. We follow the ancestors of the people from that small town, now living in the “new” town of Torrance.

When I first started reading, there were a lot of jumps in the POV. So much that I wondered who the main characters even were, and if I’d ever get to spend enough time with any of them to care. The answer is yes and no. Focus does slow down to a handful of main characters, but I still think there were too many, and while I cared about a couple of them, I didn’t care about all of them.

In addition to the POV jumps, the book is weighed down by the description about dams and dam construction. It wasn’t as much as say, the church construction in The Pillars of the Earth, and some of it was interesting, but a lot of it went over my head.  Towards the end, I was confused by a lot of the description about where the characters were and what they were doing.  For example, at one point I swear Aaron swims into a tunnel, and a chapter later I swear Gillian is climbing into the same tunnel.  I think maps of the tunnels might have helped.  (I read an ARC, so it’s possible one is included in final copies.)

It was hard to feel excited about the plot when I was never entirely sure what the stakes were. The characters keep mentioning how they are going to get back at New York City, but I was never really clear on precisely how that was going to happen (flood? tainted water supply?). The Chilewaukee reservoir (The Chill) the story centers on, is a reserve basin and not connected to anything else. Specifics are mentioned towards the end, but by then I was mostly over it.

I feel like the true climax, and the story that felt suspenseful, came much earlier than the end.  I was enjoying the book for the most part until then, and after that point everything came to a full stop for me.  Ultimately, pacing and structure were an issue for me.

That being said- I did like the supernatural part of the story and unraveling the mystery. There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief needed for it to work but those were my favorite parts. I just wished they’d been a little more frequent? It was like the author wasn’t sure if he was writing a thriller or a horror or a science fiction story. It wasn’t quite enough of any one of those things to be effective, and the result was muddied.

All in all- not a bad book, I just wished it had been a little more exciting.  The Chill can be found on GoodReads and Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher who provided an ARC for review.

Book Review: The Resisters by Gish Jen

The Resisters by Gish Jen

Rating:  ★★★

The Resisters takes place in a world where most jobs have been eliminated due to automation, the world is flooded thanks to climate change, and America is run by a deranged AI people refer to as Aunt Nettie. We follow the lives of one Surplus family, through the eyes of the husband and father, Grant. (Surplus are those people that were deemed unretrainable when Automation took over, and therefore don’t work anymore, but are expected to consume via their Living Points, alotted to them via Aunt Nettie.) The daughter of this family, Gwen, has a golden arm. She can throw hard, fast, and with almost perfect accuracy. Eventually this leads the family to start up an illegal Surplus baseball league.

I was frustrated with this book on multiple levels. I suppose I’ll get my big complaint out of the way and tell you there are no chapters, only four parts, and we all know how much I love that…

But most importantly, I could not shake the feeling that this story was told from the wrong person’s POV. Grant is largely an observer in all these events that feel like they happen to his wife and daughter. And sure he’s a valid character, but I just don’t think he was the right character. The plot revolves around Gwen. We are told her story via GreetingGrams (basically letters) that are sent back and forth to her parents in one part and it frustrated me because I wanted to care about Gwen more than I did and couldn’t because of this distance created between her and the reader.

The worldbuilding is vast and detailed, and the author manages to comment on many relevant issues: racism, sexism, politics, climate change, privacy…. but again, Grant is largely unaffected by many of them, given his removal from much of the action. It just didn’t feel like effective commentary to me.  It’s Gwen that experiences what it’s like to be one of two female players on a high performance baseball team, Gwen that attends a university where she is the only person of color thanks to a process called “PermaDerming” (bleaching your skin, basically).

As far as plot and pacing go- this is a character driven book, and most of the action is saved for part four. Most of the characters are likable (except for one whose personality was all over the place).  Most of the book is slow and there were several times I wanted to DNF.  I did become more invested around the halfway mark, as Gwen’s story picks up, but a lot of it was just too slow for my taste.

Finally, the ending was really a disaster for me.  I think in America we expect stories about baseball to be uplifting, and while some of the games had the powerful feeling, the ending is ruined by some very dark events that take place and don’t really seem to fit the tone of the rest of the book.

Overall I had very mixed feelings.  If you are interested in the dystopian aspect, I recommend reading it with a buddy so you can pick it apart and bounce ideas off each other.  If you are interested in the baseball (I was not) then go ahead and give it a try.  You might enjoy this more.

The Resisters can be found on GoodReads and Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher for sending a review copy.

Book Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Rating:  ★★★★1/2

This book is so difficult to put into words.  The blurb isn’t inaccurate, but at the same time I feel like it doesn’t do a great job of conveying how brilliant this story really is.  Nia Imani is captain of a space crew, transporting goods for Allied Space.  The problem is, they travel by what is called pocket space, eight months for her is the equivalent of fifteen years planet side.  She watches her friends’ and lovers’ lifetimes go by in just a few short years.  We also follow Fukimo Nakajima, the woman responsible for saving humanity and launching everyone into space.  Finally, we have Ahro, a mysterious boy with a traumatic past.

This is largely a character driven book.  The plot meanders from different places and view points, exploring the relationships between characters and how the choices they make effect them.  Some choices we regret, some we can’t let go, and others are bittersweet.  Could you choose one family at the expense of another?

One thing I loved about this book was the setting.  If you’re looking for a sprawling intergalactic adventure, this is a good place to look.  We visit farming worlds with purple skies, bustling high tech cities, abandoned planets overrun with dogs, the list goes on (though I will add, most time is spent on the ship between worlds). I was always excited to see where the crew was going and who they’d meet next.

In part three, the plot shifts in a big way.  Where the book was previously content to take it’s time, suddenly every scene is filled with nail biting tension. You don’t know if the characters you’ve grown to love and spent all this time with will live, and if they do, how damaged they’ll come out on the other side.

This was a big point of contention for my friend the Captain @ The Captain’s Quarters (her review can be found here).  It didn’t work for her and I completely understand why. The last third doesn’t feel like the rest of the book.

That being said- I didn’t mind the plot shift.  I felt like the book had become very comfortable in part two and part three brought some much needed conflict to the story.  I am also very accustomed to books like this so maybe I half expected it.  Where I agree with her, is that the ending was mildly unsatisfying.  I won’t spoil it, but I felt like it really could have used an epilogue to wrap it all up nicely.

My biggest complaint about the book is that the chapters are on average 30 pages in length (with some reaching up to 40 pages), which I know I’ve said before and I’ll certainly say again, makes me crazy.  I want an opportunity to put the book down if I need it, and not in the middle of a chapter.

Overall I really loved this book and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more from Simon Jimenez in the future.  Thank you to the publisher for sending a review copy.

The Vanished Birds can be found on GoodReads or ordered on Amazon.

Book Review: Followers by Megan Angelo

Followers by Megan Angelo

Rating:  ★★★★

Followers is a story about the power of social media, and also a warning about the dangers of oversharing. We follow the timelines of two women. One is Orla and her story starts in 2015. The other is Marlow and her story is taking place in 2051. Orla is a blogger with dreams of publishing a book living in New York City with a roommate, Floss, an up and coming social media star. Marlow is living in a town where her every movement is recorded and broadcast to her 12 million followers. She gets one hour of privacy a day, between the hours of 3 and 4 am.

When I first started reading, I was immediately swept away by both narratives. I thought they were both cleverly plotted and paced. The writing was sufficient (good- but maybe not particularly memorable). The cast, mostly all women, was fantastically done. They are all flawed. They have dreams and desires and needs outside of romance and families. They are all at times, unlikeable (I don’t mean that as a critique- I love stories with unlikeable characters).

Each chapter ends on a note that left me immediately wanting more of that narrative, but then would dive into the alternating point of view. I think for some that could be a frustration, but it only took me a few paragraphs to get me reinvested in the other story line. It did feel a little bloated after about the 2/3s mark. I ultimately slowed down and wasn’t reading a hundred pages a day. But not enough to really hinder my enjoyment.

There are references to a weird internet related disaster event throughout the book (called “The Spill”), and at times I wondered if I would ever get answers or if it would just be this vague point on a timeline, but eventually all is revealed. It does require a little suspension of disbelief I think, for the fallout of the event, but I enjoyed the overall moral enough that I was willing to look past it.

I deducted a star ultimately, because the ending was frustrating for me. It wasn’t the ending I wanted for Marlow. I think the characters all grew sufficiently, their stories are resolved, and we aren’t left wondering where any of the characters end up. It’s hard for me to get over a “bad” ending (again- the ending isn’t bad or even unhappy, just wasn’t what I wanted). It sort of soured my otherwise awesome experience. Your Mileage May Vary.

I highly recommend the book and am looking forward to reading more from Angelo in the future.

Followers released on January 21, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

Book Review: The God Game by Danny Tobey

The God Game by Danny Tobey

Rating:  ★★★★

This book is so much fun from the moment you pick it up until the very last page. It’s a book about a group of teenaged friends who call themselves the Vindicators. They are the smart kids, enrolled in honors classes with dreams of ivy league schools. They code and belong to the robotics club.

And at the urging of a friend, they join in on a virtual reality dark web game called The God Game. Either you win or you die. But not really.. right?

At first the game seems harmless. It’s easy to earn gold and make the “good” choices (there are a lot of moral conundrums at play here). Gold can be traded for awesome stuff. But the game increases in difficulty.  Players can reap fantastic rewards, if only they’re willing to step on a few heads first.   They can also earn Blaxx.  A kind of strike against you that will lead to punishment if you accumulate too many.

I really enjoyed all the characters. They all have secrets to hide and are motivated by different things: romantic relationships, college, parents… The plot lines twist and turn and keep you guessing. As the players are sucked deeper and deeper into the game you wonder how they’ll ever make it out.

I was about halfway through the book when I realized how cleverly plotted it all was. I love when a book sets things up and circles back around to them later, and it was done brilliantly here. By the end, it will require some suspension of disbelief, which is why it wasn’t a full five star read for me.

A couple notes about style: this is a book with short chapters that jump between several POVs. For me, that style works perfectly, but I know it’s not for everyone. Though this is written about teenagers it’s also not a YA novel. I was surprised about how dark it all becomes, so content warnings: child abuse, domestic abuse, off screen animal abuse, self harm / suicide attempts, and general violence.

The God Game released on January 7, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads and Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher who sent an ARC for review.

Book Review: A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen

Rating:  ★★★

This is a story about what happens after the “end of the world”. We follow four characters and their intertwining stories: Moira (or MoJo) an ex pop star trying to escape her past and stay hidden from her father, Rob, a widower figuring out how to move on with life after the tragic passing of his wife, Krista, a woman trying to make something of herself and forget her terrible childhood, and Sunny, Rob’s daughter, a kid growing up in a post apocalyptic world.

The story started fairly strong. I liked all the characters. They seemed fully fleshed out. They were mostly likable. They had their own wants and needs and desires. Their stories and the way they intersected was interesting, even if a little mundane (think wedding planning, parent teacher conferences, etc.).

Here’s the thing. When a book says “post apocalyptic” I’m expecting there to be much less civilization present. The world building didn’t make a lot of sense to me for a post apocalyptic story. Most of the Earth’s population was wiped out by a flu virus (think 1 billion left alive out of 7 billion). Some people have gathered in the cities and are trying to rebuild. They still have internet, cell phone service, and apparently french fries and cheeseburgers. Most people suffer from what they call “PASD” or, “Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder”. They go to group meetings for support. They hire bounty hunters to find their loved ones.

Some pockets of people reject that way of life and go out to start a new way of life centered around farming. Others apparently remain as bandits and gangs in the deserted lands between the cities. The world just seemed too populated to really be considered “post apocalyptic”. Was the flu a major disaster? Sure. But nothing about the world really felt like it ended. Things in post apocalyptic life in the metro centers seem mostly normal. There is still flight travel and buses and customs checks and such. I guess in the end I just didn’t buy into the world building.

It was really driven home when one random character states the metro(s) of New England are still struggling due to winter storms while Minneapolis was doing alright. Minneapolis gets more snow then much of New England. South of New Hampshire and Vermont (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut) winter is actually pretty mild. Where I’m from, it’s rare that snow lasts more than a week. New England just isn’t that fragile. I realize this is one tiny line in the whole book, and yeah, sometimes southern New England has a brutal winter, but as a whole it felt overwhelmingly under researched.

Another example (warning, spoilers ahead) is when the government decides that Sunny would be better off without her dad because her dad, who holds a job and raises her alone and yeah, is grieving, but otherwise okay, is “unstable”.  And in order to rebuild society, family units need to be stable.

You know what will screw up a kid real fast? Being ripped from a loving home. Again, I just don’t buy it. Whatever Rob did was done out of love. He was not abusive. He did not abuse alcohol or drugs. He was providing. Taking a seven year old away from her only family is about the quickest way I can think of to destabilize them. Sure, government workers are sometimes incompetent, but in this book none of it rang true. (Aside from the very obvious, why doesn’t Rob just pack up with Sunny and move?!)

The nature of this story is more sappy sweet than I like, and for it to work there are a lot of conveniences built in. I did read through it fairly quickly, and it could be entertaining if you are willing not to look too closely at it. People will likely compare this to Station Eleven, and those comparisons aren’t entirely inaccurate, but unfortunately, A Beginning at the End is simply not as well done.

A Beginning at the End releases on January 14, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher who provided an ARC for review.

Book Review: The Seep by Chana Porter

The Seep by Chana Porter

Rating:  ★★★★

The Seep is an interesting little book.  It’s about a transgender woman going through a painful… um.. divorce?  Aliens invade every aspect of Earth life, connecting us all to each other, making us all high on love.  They’re in the water.  They’re in your food.  They can make you into anything you ever wanted to be.

This was a fairly unique story.  I loved the idea of benevolent aliens who’ve come to “help.”  It’s not really an idea I come across often.  The word invasion typically has a negative connotation.  The Seep usher in a new era in which people can live forever.  Don’t like your face?  Change it!  Don’t want to adult?  Become a child!  Want to be happy all the time?  It’s cool- have this drink spiked with Seep!

Which is where I think the social commentary comes in.  The Seep, despite their insistence that they are only there to help, they only want what’s best for the planet, they only want you to be happy- aren’t really giving you much of a choice in the matter.  On the surface they bring utopia, but beneath it all, they are colonizing Earth in their image.  Sound familiar?

It definitely has a surreal, dreamlike sort of quality to it.  I wasn’t sure how much in-book-time was supposed to be passing.  Sometimes it felt like years, others only months.  There are some weird moments that will have you scratching your head, a bear cooking soup, a woman eating fish and crying about it because she can feel their pain as she eats them.  A friendly face missing the way their fingers turned neon orange when eating Cheetos.

I did become a little frustrated with the protagonist, Trina, at times.  Due to her divorce she spends a lot of time wallowing in self pity and drinking her sorrows away.  She wasn’t the kind of person I’d want to hang out with in real life and she’s not the kind of character I enjoy reading about.  (For reference, I had a similar complaint about The Girl on the Train).

Luckily the book is short, it’s easy to read, and kept me interested until the end, even if I didn’t always understand what was going on.  There were things that I would have loved to know more about if Porter ever wrote a full length novel set in this world.

The Seep releases on January 21, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or preordered on Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for sending an advanced copy for review.