Book Review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Rating:  ★★★★

I am not going to give you either a blurb or a summary of events here.  I think the blurb is super spoilerific – so if you can go in blind, please go in blind.  I’m going to avoid spoilers here as much as possible.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Glass Hotel.  I read Station Eleven last year via audiobook and it was one of the few audiobooks that managed to capture my attention for the full eleven hours.  For an untrained audiobook listener, that was a big deal. I was even more amazed that I could so completely enjoy a book that lacked any serious plot direction.  It was the characters and the snapshots of their lives driving me onward, and I’m happy to report The Glass Hotel is structured similarly.

The book meanders from one POV to the next and back again.  For the most part, I enjoyed all the perspectives, even if I enjoyed some a smidge more.  These are fully realized characters.  We follow them through the high and low points of their lives.  We bear witness to all their ugly sins and fatal flaws.

Reading print instead of listening, I had the opportunity to appreciate Mandel’s writing in a way I previously hadn’t.  It is compulsive. It flows beautifully.  It’s accessible and literary all at the same time.  It convinced me that I need to read pretty much everything she has ever written.

As for the story, well, I found it to be a good bit darker than I remembered Station Eleven being, despite the fact that this contains no apocalypse inducing pandemics.  Most of the characters aren’t the sort you’d want to be friends with, and they leave other characters devastated in their wake.  Especially haunting considering parts of this were based on a true story.

The are some speculative, supernatural elements to this story – but ultimately I’d categorize it under contemporary literature.  It’s not a significant part of the book.  In retrospect, I wish she’d done a little more with that piece, fleshed it out just a bit, given us more of a reason for it’s inclusion.

The ending for some characters is slightly ambiguous. Not so much that it annoyed me but it just felt a little anticlimactic.  Despite the darkness of some events, Mandel still manages to end it on what feels like a hopeful note. Ultimately, my complaints are minor  and I found most of the novel completely engrossing, and ultimately difficult to put down.

Despite my numerous comparisons to Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel stands on its own, and I highly recommend picking up if you enjoy Mandel’s writing.   It releases on tomorrow, March 24, 2020, and can be found on GoodReads and Amazon.  Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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: 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: The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

Rating:  ★★★★1/2

This is my first experience with Ruta Sepetys.  It didn’t disappoint!  The Fountains of Silence takes place under the reign of General Francisco Franco, after the Spanish Civil War and WWII.

We follow the lives of four very different characters.  Daniel is from Texas, the son of a wealthy oil tycoon.  Ana is the daughter of Republican parents that were executed when she was younger.  She lives with her older sister’s family and works at the Castellana Hilton in Madrid.  Rafa is her brother, who was forced to attend a reform school following the death and discovery of his parents, and became friends with Fuga, an aspiring torero (bull fighter).  He wants nothing more than to work the arena at Fuga’s side as his promoter and protector.  Puri is Ana’s cousin, a staunch  Catholic and supporter of Franco.  She works at the orphanage, caring for all the abandoned children.

This is a largely character driven novel and the plot takes quite some time to reveal itself.  I didn’t mind it here, because the chapters were all very quick (2 or 3 pages, sometimes less) and I was urged onward by Daniel’s relationship with Ana, as well as the tension brought on by his passion for photography in a country that was very careful not to let the rest of the world see inside Franco’s regime.  Puri and Rafa also have story line’s with some intrigue and each line pulled me in and kept me engaged at different times in different ways.

The plot, which as I said is slow to be revealed, is incredibly sinister.  The reader gets hints here and there of what is to come, but it’s something so awful the reader just doesn’t want to believe.  To get to the end and learn the truth of things… I was shocked.  It’s a secret that has really only come to light in 2018, if I understood the note at the end correctly.  A full 40 years after the death of Franco, which only heightened the impact of the story Sepetys has told.

The writing was descriptive and painted beautiful pictures without ever feeling like it was spending too much time on the details.  I love when a writer can make me feel the setting with just one sentence, one single image, and Sepetys does it wonderfully.  People standing in line for blood, a torero in a suit of lights in profile, people washing at the fountain, a garden in Madrid at night… I felt transported to another time and place and found the book almost impossible to put down.

The only thing that held this back from being a full five star read – was I wished I understood Puri’s character and story better in the end.  It’s clear in the beginning that she is young and naive, and she undergoes an awakening of sorts throughout the novel, but in the end we see her, and she’s maintained her silence for ten years, and the reader never really gets a chance to understand what she’s thinking in the end.  Thank you to the publisher for sending a review copy.

The Fountains of Silence released on October 1, 2019 and can be found on GoodReads or Amazon.