Book Review: The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey

The Book of Koli by MR Carey

Rating:  ★★★★★

The Book of Koli is a book I have been very excited for since I first heard about it earlier this year.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, given this is my first time reading Carey, but I am thrilled to report he did not disappoint.

The world presented here is one of the more unique worlds I think I’ve encountered. It’s set in a future earth in which trees and plants have become deadly to humans.  On sunny days the trees are active (physically active!), so the village must wait for the rainy, grey days to venture out and do their hunting.  Most of the world’s human population has died out, so people live in villages few and far between.

These villages are run by people with the “magical” ability to wake up tech.  No one knows how the tech chooses who it will work for or why.  These leaders are known as Ramparts.  Koli, our MC, dreams of becoming Koli Rampart, wielding his own tech and joining the ranks of leaders and lawmakers.  The overall result is a strange mix of antiquated societal structure combined with some far future dystopian technology.

The voice of Koli is very strong.  It almost reminded me of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  The grammar is often incorrect, the sentences run on in stream of consciousness style.  While it might bother some readers, I found it somewhat endearing, and easy to connect with Koli as a character.  I also enjoyed the other characters, Ursala-From-Elsewhere and Monono Aware (A-wa-ray).   Ursala especially, with her intelligence and compassion, but also the prickly and unapproachable exterior.

The plot moves along at a breakneck pace.  I found the book almost impossible to put down and read it in just a couple of days.  That’s the fastest I’ve read a book all year.  The plot twists and turns and propels Koli from one peril to the next.  From about the midway point on- Koli’s situation never feels safe.  He cannot take a break to rest, his future is uncertain, and he is surrounded by danger, either from nearby people, animals, or plants.

I also loved the very natural way in which this story is told.  It feels like you might be sitting down with an old friend to hear where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to the past ten years.  Details are woven in about the past through Monono, explaining pieces of what happened to the world and what it was like before it ended.

I do wish we had been able to learn a little more about the natural environment.  I’m curious about the killer trees and the way some animals have evolved over time.  The plot appears to be leading away from village life to an adventure on the road, so I’m hopeful we’ll see more of this in book two.  (And thank goodness we only have to wait until September for it!).

I highly recommend The Book of Koli.  It is brilliantly written, with fully realized characters and detailed world-building.  It releases on April 14, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads, or preordered on Amazon.  Thank you to Orbit Books, who supplied an electronic review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Can’t-Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted at Wishful Endings, to spotlight and discuss the books we’re excited about that we have yet to read. Generally they’re books that have yet to be released. It’s based on Waiting on Wednesday, hosted by the fabulous Jill at Breaking the Spine.

Title: Phoenix Extravagant  Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Author:  Yoon Ha Lee

Publisher: Rebellion / Solaris

Genre: Fantasy

Length: 416 Pages

Release Date: June 9, 2020

Blurb: For generations the empire has spread across the world, nigh-unstoppable in their advance. Its power depends on its automata, magically animated and programmed with sigils and patterns painted in mystical pigments.

A symbol-painter – themselves a colonial subject – is frustrated in their work when their supply of Phoenix Extravagant dries up, and sets out to find the source. What they’ll discover is darker than anything they could have imagined…

Why I’m Excited for it:  Despite the difficult learning curve in Ninefox Gambit, I absolutely fell in love with the unique and complex world building and the flawed and yet weirdly lovable characters.  Though I am also eager to return to The Machineries of the Empire, I’m also excited to see what Lee does with a new world and new characters.

It also sounds like another fantastic blend of science fiction and fantasy with magic powered robot (dragons?).  Either way- I absolutely can’t wait for this!

Which new releases are you looking forward to?

Book Review: The Companions by Katie M. Flynn

The Companions by Katie M. Flynn

Rating:  ★★★1/2

In a future heavily shaped by numerous deadly flu pandemics (wow did I choose the wrong time to read it!), a company called Metis has begun uploading the consciousnesses of the dead, and then downloading them into robots called ‘Companions’.  These companions are most typically used as caregivers to the elderly or the young, but they can also be leased from Metis by the family of the dead.

It’s a theme that’s been covered before.  In this iteration, we follow the story of several characters whose paths all intersect in interesting ways.  Primarily this is the story of Lilac, who suffered a traumatic death and went on to become a caregiver.  Lilac has never really obeyed her security protocols.  Something makes her different.  She was one of the earliest companions, and it’s not long before she’s breaking free and trying to find people she once knew as a human.

In the blurb, The Companions is compared to Station Eleven.  And it isn’t completely wrong, though I think ultimately, Station Eleven was much better done.  This is a largely character driven novel, with a very thin semblance of a plot holding it together.  I don’t mean this in a bad way- I actually did enjoy the meandering pace and drifting nature of the plot.

The writing was okay.  Not particularly memorable but that means it isn’t particularly bad either.  I ultimately deducted a star for the ending, which felt rushed and strung together in a bunch of random scenes to tie it all up and put a bow on it.  I really didn’t understand what the author was getting at with what Nat was doing, or even the relationship between Nat and Gabe in the end, and really had no clue what Rachel’s real purpose was with her chapter.

I read an advanced copy, downloaded electronically several months before release, so I’d have to check to see if it was re-written at all to make it more cohesive.  If it was- this could easily have been a 4 star read.

Thank you to the publisher for the electronic review copy.  The Companions released on March 3, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or ordered on Amazon.

Book Review: Surrender by Ray Loriga

Surrender by Ray Loriga

Rating:  ★★★

Surrender is a dystopian novel reminiscent of many a book that came before: 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  I don’t know when I’m going to learn my lesson.  I really didn’t like any of those books.  They are depressing and dark, and ultimately rather hopeless.

I’d like to tell you this is different…

I’d like to tell you that.

And I can’t.

We have our two unnamed (how original) protagonists.  The wife and the husband.  Their sons, whom they are very proud of, are away at war.  They adopted a boy they go on to name Julio, who appeared out of nowhere one day and lives in their basement since the protagonists don’t want the zoning agent to find out.  Eventually, the war creeps too close to home, and the zoning agent forces them to evacuate.

*cue doomsday music*

Anyway.  This new city seems pretty great at first.  It’s made of this cool new substance extracted from urine.  You get to shower next to your neighbor in the morning because the walls are transparent.  Intimate time with your significant other is spent that way too.  Left or right, up or down, you can see everyone doing everything all the time because somehow the tyrannical government found a way to shut off the night.  Surrender takes privacy loss to a whole new level.

This book is on the shorter side, but it didn’t take me any less time to read it.  It was very slow and I had to push myself to read more pages knowing I just wanted to be done with it.  It picked up for a little while at the end, then there was mass confuddledom and then it ended.

The moral of this story is: Life’s a bitch and then you die.

Shrugs.

I sort of wish I hadn’t wasted time on it.  It wasn’t badly written, but the tone of the book doesn’t seem to fit the occasional swear word that’s thrown in for seemingly no reason.  (Coming from someone who has no filter on her own mouth, that’s a problem.)  You’ll want to shake the MC at some point. Then you’ll want to shake his wife.  And others.

There are some interesting notes here considering perspectives- things aren’t always what they seem, and yes, we wear blinders, and yes, government is full of propaganda meant to bend those perceptions.  I liked those parts.  The characters felt real enough, I just wished we hadn’t been so distanced from them given their lack of names and the wife’s weird personality shift in part three.

Anyway- I’d recommend this to people who liked those three books I named at the beginning.  For my part I can say I actually did enjoy this more than those, just not enough to love this book.

Surrender released on February 25, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or ordered on Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher who provided an ARC for review.

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.