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: The Broken Heavens (The Worldbreaker Saga #3) by Kameron Hurley

The Broken Heavens by Kameron Hurley

Rating:  ★★★★

The Broken Heavens is the third book in the Worldbreaker Saga (be warned, possible spoilers for book two ahead). I enjoyed it even more than the previous two installments. All the issues I’ve had with the previous two books, the chaotic POV shifts, the occasional lack of clarity, the excessive description, were trimmed away neatly and left me with just the story. Of course, it could also be that by the time we reach the last book in any series there’s simply not much extra left to tell.

The Broken Heavens takes place about one year after the events of Empire Ascendant, in which the Tai Mora successfully invaded the Dhai territory and left most of our main characters scrambling in the wilderness. If you’ve been following the trilogy up to this point, you know that we said goodbye to some characters in book two, and the improved focus and amount of quality time we were able to spend with each character in book three made me appreciate them all that much more. (I also noticed that Hurley took the time to start each first line of every chapter with a character name, which was one of my main complaints about book one.)

The action is almost non-stop from the very first page and the story didn’t feel at all bloated. Every chapter left me wanting to know what happened next. Perhaps most importantly, at no point in this book did I ever feel like I could guess what was coming next. I genuinely had no idea how it would end or which characters would survive. This series had already surprised me so much. It’s refreshing and feels completely unique.

If I have one complaint- it’s that this book occasionally felt like it had everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. I don’t always mind this, but in a series that feels so gritty, a fantasy that feels like it’s meant to be taken a little more seriously, I found myself occasionally rolling my eyes. I think it would have been fine if there had seemed to be some more rules governing these things, or references to them happening in the past, but at some point I just had to shrug my shoulders and accept that this was a fantasy world in which anything goes.

Overall- I’m glad I finished out the trilogy. I don’t think it changes drastically enough to make it worth reading if you didn’t enjoy book one, but if, like me, you felt a little ‘meh’ about it, I can say that each book is better than the next.

The Broken Heavens released on January 14, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or ordered on Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

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 Better Liar by Tanen Jones

The Better Liar by Tanen Jones

Rating:  ★★★★

The Better Liar is about a woman, Leslie, who inherits a large sum of money from her father. In order to collect her half of the insurance, she must appear before the lawyer with her sister Robin. It takes Leslie three months to track Robin down, and by the time she arrives at her sisters apartment, her sister has OD’d and died. On her way back to Albuquerque, Leslie chances across a woman (Mary) who looks a lot like her sister, and hatches a plan to collect her inheritance anyway, using Mary as a double.

We read this story from three points of view, Leslie, Mary, and Robin’s ghost. All three women are liars. The reader is never sure at any given moment which of them to trust. The lies here aren’t necessarily outrageous, jaw-dropping lies. Calling them lies might even be a stretch- some of them are more like secrets or half truths. While they never made me stop to question what the heck was going on, the whole novel manages to be suspenseful. A lot of it was because I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the big reveal.

When we finally get to that point, it was a pretty awesome moment. Some readers may guess it, but I sure didn’t. This is a low-key sort of suspense. I was never bored and I read the book in just three sittings, always compelled to keep turning the pages, but I think it was more about the characters than the plot, which is not usually what I expect in a suspense novel. At its heart- this is a novel about both sisterhood and motherhood, and I think Jones did well with portayals of both.

The writing and structure were wonderful. The chapters were quick and the overall length was just what it needed to be.  I only gave it 4 stars instead of 5 because I think there is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed for the plot to work. I can’t say why that’s needed without spoiling a lot of important plot points, so I’ll just leave it at that. I can see it being a sticking point for some readers.

Anyway- I really enjoyed this debut effort by Tanen Jones and I’ll look forward to more of her work in the future.  The Better Liar releases on January 14, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or preordered on Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher who sent an ARC in exchange for review.

Book Review: Follow Me To Ground by Sue Rainsford

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford

Rating:  ★★★★

This book is so weird.  I mean that in the best way possible.  I don’t even know how to go about describing it, because it’s just that weird.  Witchy healer does witchy things?  Witchy healer starts an affair with a guy who might not be so upstanding himself and chaos ensues?  Is she good?  Is she not so good?  No one knows.  Certainly not this reader.

It’s like this: Ada starts out seeming like a perfectly sweet, innocent young girl, with some peculiar abilities.  She cures illnesses, which she learned to do from her father.  A man named Samson from the village begins an affair with her.  Her father is not enthused.  Neither, it seems, is his sister.  Throughout this affair, we begin catching glimpses into something darker lurking beneath the surface.  Maybe Ada is not so innocent as she seems.  Maybe Samson’s not either.  Maybe it’s both of them.  Maybe it’s everyone else.  I’m still not sure.

But I think that’s what makes it interesting.  I’ve put off writing this review for probably two weeks now because I still don’t know how I feel about it except to say that I mostly enjoyed it.  The writing is strong and the pages breeze by.  The plot is meandering- not always my favorite- but I think it works here because it’s only 200 or so pages long to begin with.

The magic is confounding, and not too in your face.  It seems like a subtle but necessary element.  If you’re squeamish (like myself), I’m just giving you a heads up, this book is no picnic.  The way the healing is done… it gets graphic.

I read Imaginary Friend not too long ago, and complained that literary horror wasn’t something I wanted to revisit.  Well, I feel like I did accidentally revisit it here, and apparently it does work in small doses.

The ending is ambiguous- we’re left to draw our own conclusions about everything that takes place in those last few pages.  It annoyed me upon finishing, but it’s also the reason I’ve found this so haunting.

Follow Me To Ground releases on January 21, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or preordered on Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

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.

 

 

Book Review: Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

Rating:  ★★★★

This is my first experience with Stephen Graham Jones, and I’m really sort of sorry for it. I wish I had started reading his work sooner.   Mapping the Interior is a story about a boy who is being haunted by the ghost of his father.  It’s a quick story, and the plot really is that straightforward.  It can be read in just a couple hours.

The prose is easy to read but also had a really strong sense of voice, which I loved.  It held a rhythm and cadence that felt unique to Jones.  This is a horror story, and it’s a slow burn, at least as far as a novella can be slow.  At first, the ghost just seems like a benevolent spirit, watching over his sons, but after a dangerous encounter with the neighbor’s dogs, we know that’s not quite what’s happening. (Content Warnings: violence against animals.)

The ending snuck up on me, and I wasn’t at all prepared for it.  It’s disturbing, not necessarily scary.  There are a couple flashes of horror between the beginning and the end, but it wasn’t anything that felt so horrific I couldn’t hand it off to a friend to read.  But then the ending came and I had to put the book down, and stop, and digest, and think about it, and think about it some more.  My initial reaction was that I didn’t like the ending at all.  It was a little ambiguous.  It makes you think twice about our heroic protagonist.  It seems to renege on the initial conclusions we’ve drawn.

If you’re wondering why I was raving about Jones all last week, it’s because this book stuck with me long after I had set it down.  It may be with me for awhile yet.  I’ve been putting off this review because I’m still not 100% sure how I felt about it.

If I had one critique, it’s that Mapping the Interior often felt literary: metaphorical and symbolic and allegorical.  But I was never quite able to grasp the meaning or the message behind it all.

Mapping the Interior can be found on GoodReads or ordered on Amazon and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good horror story now and then.

Book Review: QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling

Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling

Rating:  ★★★★

If you took the humor of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and mashed it up with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I think QualityLand is what you would get.

From the moment I started reading I found this almost impossible to put down. I am always a little nervous when reading a translation, because some books I don’t think translate as well no matter how talented the translator. I needn’t have worried with this one. The translator (Jamie Searle Romanelli) did an excellent job. At times I was even surprised that the book was originally written in German, since the setting felt very much like the US.

It takes us a little while to get to the heart of the plot, and I didn’t always feel like all the viewpoints we were given were necessary, but all the view points were so entertaining that I didn’t mind so much. The plot is this, TheShop – The World’s Most Popular Online Retailer – has sent a product to Peter Jobless. Peter Jobless (his surname comes from his father’s occupation at the time of his conception) believes the product was sent in error. He is now on a mission to return it. But TheShop, won’t let him. After all, TheShop does not make mistakes. It’s in his profile. Of course he wants the item.

It sounds ludicrous, but it’s entertaining, and clever to boot. There are so many topics the author managed to comment on, everything from privacy, to evolving technology, to consumerism and politics. And he managed to do it without sounding preachy. That didn’t make the result any less terrifying though.

The characters were a lot of fun. Peter is an average Joe kind of guy with a soft spot for defective machinery. Kiki, a character we meet later in the book, absolutely stole the show once she entered. I adored her. She’s a pull no punches, tell it like it is, kind of girl, with many shades of gray.

The chapters are short and the pace moves pretty quickly. It does a fantastic job of world building without lengthy info dumps. Humor is a subjective thing, so I would recommend checking out Amazon’s Look Inside or Sample feature before purchasing. If you aren’t laughing at the first chapter (maybe even the first page) this might not be the book for you.

Otherwise, a relevant and entertaining satire that I highly recommend!

QualityLand releases in the US on January 7, 2020 and can be found on GoodReads or preordered on Amazon.