The Last One is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller about the world in shambles. There’s also a big-budget nationally televised survival reality show, with almost no lead time between filming and airing, starring twelve competitors. Only one of them can win.
Some elements of this story may sound familiar to the avid sci-fi and fantasy reader, but debut Alexandra Oliva offers a fresh twist on the end-of-the-world scenario which immediately drew me to her novel. Imagine being a contestant on a Survivor-type reality show, in a remote part of the country with no communication with the rest of the world when a very real disaster strikes. As a devastating outbreak wipes out a large chunk of the planet in just a matter of days, you’re still currently trekking through the woods by yourself on a Solo Challenge, unaware that all your friends and family back home are probably dead. Instead, your full attention is fixated on trying to survive and outlast your fellow contestants, because that’s the only way you’ll win the one million dollars. Even now, you think, hidden cameras are probably everywhere capturing your every move. And the wily show producers have already proven they would do anything for ratings, using cheap tricks and props in an attempt to throw the competitors off their game. You can’t trust anything you see, anything you hear—not when anything can be a hidden challenge or scripted part of the show.
All this is going through Zoo’s mind as she stumbles out of the woods upon car wrecks, abandoned stores, and empty towns. As she tries to make sense of the horror and ruin she sees, the lines between reality and reality TV are blurred beyond recognition. For all she knows, the game is still on.
Zoo is not her real name, of course. She and the other eleven contestants are given nicknames by the show creators and viewers, all based on their professions and stereotypes. For example, our protagonist was designated “Zoo” because of her love of animals and her teaching job at a nature and science center. Her main competition is a man dubbed “Tracker”, a survival expert whose work gives him a clear advantage on this show. The rest of the cast include “Engineer”, “Carpenter Chick”, “Waitress”, “Air Force”, “Black Doctor”, “Rancher”, “Cheerleader Boy”, “Biology”, “Exorcist”, and “Banker”. No real names are given in the chapters that serve as an overview of the show, describing the production process with an almost cold, detached attitude. These sections follow the contestants on their team challenges, but also include behind-the-scenes looks at how the episodes are filmed and put together. We come to realize that all the contestants have their own reasons for being on the show, but the editors try to twist and frame each situation so that they become less like real people and more like “characters”—fabricated personalities to fit the narrative they want shown on television.
But in between these chapters, we also get a more up-close-and-personal perspective. These sections are narrated by Zoo, bringing the only part of this reality TV show that feels REAL. True names are used, humanizing the cast once again. We can finally make the connections and discover who everyone is, such as, Tracker is actually Cooper, who wants to win the money to pay for healthcare for his sick mother, or that Waitress is actually Heather, a recruited actress who secretly hopes this stint will be her big break.
Zoo’s own reasons for applying to be on the show in the first place are more complicated. There’s always more to the truth, which we discover as we follow her on her struggles through the wilderness. There’s definitely an element of the unreliable narrator here as well, as we recall Zoo’s memories and live through her fears, and all the while her resolve (and sanity) continues to break down. As such, Zoo’s willful denial of the true reality was probably my biggest issue with the story. I could appreciate what Oliva was trying to accomplish with this, but I also must have lost count of the number of times I wanted to shout “STOP BEING SO STUPID!” at the pages of this book. Zoo’s tunnel vision was overplayed to the extent that it damaged my esteem for her character, and ultimately kept this from being a perfect novel.
Still, there’s no denying that its premise is unbelievably clever and well thought out. I’m no fan of reality TV myself, but I’ve seen my fair share of them in the early 2000s spending summers with my cousin who was a real Survivor, Big Brother, and Amazing Race junkie. For The Last One, Oliva nails the “Reality TV” angle right down to the tiny little nuances, making it all seem so scarily convincing, capturing that kind of atmosphere so perfectly that it’s uncanny. This juxtaposition between carefully crafted illusion and true reality is also a theme present throughout the novel, as Zoo tries to come to terms with what she sees in the real world. I was so wracked with suspense over what might happen to her once she figures out the truth, several times I almost caved to the temptation of flipping to the last page just to see how it all ends (but I am glad I didn’t).
All told, I can’t tell you how impressed I am that this is Oliva’s debut effort. She’s taken an incredibly unique idea and executed it in a very ingenious and ambitious way—and I think that boldness paid off in spades. I would definitely recommend The Last One to readers looking for a thought-provoking and eye-opening novel, especially if you like the idea of a very different kind of apocalyptic dystopian story. ...more
In order to choose one finalist from the pool of 30 books in our SPFBO batch this year, The BiblioSanctum had decided to read partials (approximately five chapters or 20-25% of each entry) to help narrow down our choice and determine a handful of five or six titles that we would want to put forward to the next phase. When I picked up Claire Frank’s Assassin’s Charge though, I didn’t need five chapters to know it was special. I was hooked after only the first few pages, gripped by the author’s smoothly polished and enticing writing style, but more importantly, I knew right away this was a book I wanted to spend more time with because I found myself irresistibly drawn by its enigmatic heroine.
Rhisia Sen is the best at what she does. Known throughout the land as the Reaper’s Bride, she is one of the most notorious and highest paid assassins in the Empire. She’s efficient and disciplined, and the caution she takes while choosing her contracts is a way to guarantee that she will never miss a mark. That kind of dependability is what earned Rhis her success and reputation.
However, all that is about to come crashing down around her. For her latest job, Rhis is only given the name of her target—Asher—as well as where she’ll find him, in a village located in a far-flung corner of the empire. It is a lucrative contract, which originated from the palace, and Rhis has reason to suspect that it came all the way from the Emperor himself. Still, believing this to be an assassination order like any other, Rhis sets off on a long journey across the ocean only to arrive at the designated rural village and discover that this assignment is like nothing she has ever gotten before. Asher turns out to a dark haired, silver-eyed foreigner who lives on a farm. And he is also just a little boy.
Even the most hardened assassins have a line they will not cross, and for Rhis, she draws it at killing a child. This was NOT what she signed up for, and why would the Emperor order a hit on a harmless farmboy anyway? But before she can wrap her head around these bizarre circumstances, Rhis discovers to her horror that she has become a target of the Empire herself. Clearly, someone doesn’t want any loose ends, and now Rhis’ only shot at survival is to take Asher on the run and hopefully convince a few of her old allies to help the two of them stay alive.
From this point onwards it’s a non-stop race around the Empire to avoid Imperial guards, Guild magicians, and even a merciless metal-armed bounty hunter. As enemy forces chase our protagonists across oceans and over mountain ranges, the pacing of this novel never lets up. And even though this cat-and-mouse pattern of events will continue to repeat itself over the course of the story, Claire Frank does a fine job keeping things interesting with plenty of action and mystery. Like, who is Asher and why is he so important? I confess, at first I thought I had the answers all figured out, but as it turned out, I underestimated the story’s potential. While it’s true that for the most part, Assassin’s Charge is an uncomplicated action and adventure oriented novel, I was still delighted to discover it had a few surprises tucked up its sleeves.
But of course, my favorite thing about this book is what drew me in the first place: the characters. Rhis is a wonderful protagonist, complex and well-written. I found her personality and mannerisms very genuine, and in particular her obsession with routine and counting really resonated with me because I experience a similar compulsion, and I remember when the moment of understanding hit me during the beginning chapters when Rhis first showed this behavior. Though she comes off as harsh and aloof in the intro, Rhis has a good heart within her and that gradually becomes apparent as the story unfolds. I liked how that the transformation felt natural, as opposed to a swift and abrupt change in her personality. Her relationship with Asher is similarly written in a way that feels just right, with wariness eventually giving way to trust. And let’s face it: a lot of times, fictional partnerships where one of the characters is a child can potentially be really annoying, depending on said child’s personality and maturity levels in the book. Thankfully, I found Asher very likeable. He reads realistically like a young boy, but he also makes a great team with Rhis.
As for criticisms, there’s the aforementioned issue with the repetitive nature of the story, and I think it’s more noticeable because the action and suspenseful scenes are spaced so closely together. There’s also a romance between Rhis and her old smuggling buddy Rickson (who’s like a roguish, charming piratey kind of character) which I thought was sweet, but could be better developed. Even though the two have known each other for a while, their relationship seemed to go from a spark to a wildfire in almost no time at all. Finally, I thought the ending was left rather open-ended. A couple major conflicts were resolved somewhat conveniently, and even then there were some important questions I felt weren’t answered in full. I’m not sure if Frank intends a follow-up novel about these characters, but I think this was meant to be a stand alone and yet I do get a sense of unfinished business.
I also wouldn’t have minded more world-building and detail about all the exotic places we visit in the book; given the characters’ travel times, I imagine this must be a huge world. However, it wasn’t until after I finished reading this that I learned Assassin’s Charge is actually a separate tale that takes place in world that Frank had already established in a series called Echoes of Imara, so perhaps more background information and history can be found there. What’s certain for now is that I’ve just added those books to my reading list, because Claire Frank is definitely an author that I would read again. I really enjoyed Assassin’s Charge so thank you SPFBO for putting this book on my radar....more
Sarah Pinborough is the author of a couple of my favorite historical horror novels, Mayhem and Murder in the Dr. Thomas Bond duology about the Jack the Ripper, so when I was offered a chance to review The Language of Dying, I didn’t hesitate. This novella couldn’t have been more different than her other work though, and yet I loved it no less. A beautiful soul-rending song straight from the heart, this tiny little book packs an emotional punch by shifting gears instead to look at the turbulent nature of grief and the profound effects it has on one troubled family.
The story starts with a woman, our unnamed narrator, sitting by her dying father’s bedside waiting for the other members of her family to arrive in order to say goodbye. First to arrive is her older sister Penny, who has always lived a charmed life, but for all her successes still hides behind a façade of materialism that she fears can shatter at any moment. Next come Simon and Davey, the twins, who arrive within half an hour of each other even though they live hundreds of miles apart. The narrator notes this uncanny connection between her younger brothers with a heavy heart, thinking where one twin goes the other will follow, even when their lives are spiraling out of control. The last to show up at the house is Paul, the eldest brother, coming off from another failed business venture or financial debacle. With that, the whole family is under one roof again. The children’s mother, who abandoned them so many years ago, is already gone in every sense of the word.
But deep in her heart, our narrator is secretly hoping for one final visitor. Only twice in her life has she seen him; the first time when she was ten, outside her window the night her mother left them all behind, and the second when she was twenty-five, after another painful loss in her life. She can tell no one what she saw, because she’s not even sure what she saw was real. But still, she believes, and now, she waits.
This is a hard book to categorize. Despite its label as a fantasy novella, the ties that bind the story to the genre are light and ambiguous. However, it’s the themes that really come through: pain, grief, death, loss. Family, support, togetherness, love. Death will come for us all in time, and when it happens the living are left to struggle with the loss. But sometimes the grieving process actually starts well before the person dies, as this story shows. For months, the narrator had known that the cancer would kill her father, but it is in the final days, watching him waste away while feeling helpless to stop his pain, that’s when she starts to fall apart. When the rest of the siblings arrive though, their presence and their shared memories offer some comfort. Her brothers and her sister might not be perfect—some of them surprise her, while others disappoint her—but regardless, in them she finds a new source of strength.
I don’t know if I could have read this book if someone close to me was dying, or if I’d just experienced a recent loss of a loved one. I’m positive it would have broken me. I’ve never seen a more transparent, open and honest portrayal about the agony of confronting the inevitable, of letting go of a dearly beloved, and something tells me this is a personal tale for the author. The style in which it was written, narrated by the protagonist in present tense and in the first person but addressing her dying father as “you”, made this book even more moving and intimate. Her memories of her own past are presented as if she is sharing those painful moments directly with him, with us.
Ultimately, it’s this closeness that defines the sweet poignancy of this beautifully crafted novella. The Language of Dying is an astonishingly good read, simple in its approach, but thoughtful and heartbreaking in its execution. It’s not an easy book to read, but you will be glad you did....more
All is Fair is the third installment of Emma Newman’s The Split World series. After two books of introducing multiple threads and building everything, we’re finally starting to see it all come together.
As this is an ongoing series, spoilers for Between Two Thorns and Any Other Name are entirely possible, so beware if you haven’t read the first two books yet. We’re picking things up right where they left off, following Will’s violent ascent to the Londinium throne. Now the consequences of his actions have caught up with him, and there is no telling how far his adversaries will go to see him pay. Meanwhile, Cathy is determined to bring change in the Nether, even as she faces obstacles at every turn. Between the threat of the Fae lords and the Agency, no one wants to stick their necks out for her cause.
In Mundanus, Sam is coming to grips with his grief and dealing with a new reality. In the course of his investigations, he has caught the attention of Lord Iron and the Elemental Court, and what Sam finds out from them turns his world upside down. Max and the gargoyle have gone on to pursue their own case, trying to find out the truth behind all the chapter murders. These efforts lead them to uncover even more disturbing questions about the Agency.
While reading the last book together with the SF/F Read Along group, I likened this series to a soap opera, and more and more I’m finding that to be an apt comparison. There are plenty of twists and turns and more than a few shocks, giving these books the addictive quality that keeps me coming back for more. Things slow down a bit in All Is Fair, but that is more than made up for by the last quarter of the book. There’s a real sense of thread-tying and trying to bring everything together, perhaps in an attempt to streamline the plot for the next installment. If you’ve been crying for answers like I have, then the revelations in this book should make you very happy.
That said, I have some issues with the hasty way things wrapped up, almost like Newman was in a rush to finish the book. After spending two and a half books on all these plot threads, it was disappointing to watch some of them resolve with what effectively feels like a snap of the fingers. Cathy’s solution to her problems with the Agency seemed way too convenient, considering all that she went through. The same goes for Sam’s storyline, where the Fae-related conflicts that have been plaguing him for so long are suddenly made trivial. As for Max and the gargoyle, I wasn’t too crazy about the curveball we were thrown at the end either. I enjoy plot twists when they make sense, but not when there’s absolutely no setup for them, like the one we had here.
Still, it’s good to know that there’s more to come. I hear that the plan is for five books in the series, though in many ways All Is Fair feels like the end of an era for a lot of the characters. Cathy has grown so much from when we first met her in book one, and now she is prepared to take on the next challenge to bring change to the Nether. Sam has gone through a huge transformation as well, discovering his new potential. His story has been up and down for me, but there’s a distinct feeling of peace and closure when we last leave him at the end of this book, so I’m hoping that Sam can start afresh now that his past is behind him. For Max and the gargoyle, the future is perhaps the most uncertain, but they too will have to walk a new path given the way things went down. They may have solved the mystery, but left without a clear direction, where will they go next?
I’m really looking forward to finding out what’s next for everyone, despite some of my misgivings here. I have a strong feeling that book four, A Little Knowledge, will be a new chapter in all their lives and I think it would be a refreshing change of pace to explore some new directions. Can’t wait to dive right in....more
Any Other Name is the second book of Emma Newman’s The Split Worlds series, and things are certainly getting very interesting. I read this one as part of the SF/F Read Along group, and as you can imagine, the last month has been filled with much intense and spirited discussion over the characters’ outrageous actions and other unexpected surprises in the story.
While I’ll be keeping plot details to a minimum without going into anything beyond the publisher’s description to keep this review spoiler-free, bear in mind that this novel builds upon the events of the previous one and can’t really be read as a standalone. Back in Between Two Thorns, readers got to meet Catherine Papaver, a young woman who was living in double life in Mundanus while trying to escape the old-fashioned society of the Nether. Any Other Name sees Cathy back in her home world after being dragged back by her family, and against her wishes she is quickly married off to William of house Iris.
Will himself is also tasked with an impossible mission. His patron fae lord has demanded of him the Londinium throne, leaving the newly-wed couple no choice but to move to London’s mirror city in the Nether. Cathy reluctantly tries to integrate herself into their new social circles, while Will sets about finding allies to support his bid for dukedom. As much as he wants to be a good husband to Cathy though, certain desires and other dark temptations seek to draw him onto a different path. Meanwhile, Max the Arbiter continues to investigate the Agency in an attempt to uncover the mysterious circumstances behind the Bath Chapter incident, and Sam also seeks out magical help to figure out what’s wrong with his wife Leanne.
I liked this book, probably just as much, if not more, than its predecessor. While I’m not completely blown away by this series yet, I think we’re gradually getting there, with layers upon layers being built up in the story. In my review of the first book, I commented on the disjointedness of the plot as well as the imbalance the character POVs. Thankfully, these aspects are much improved in the sequel, even though there are still many threads that need to be addressed. I still think there’s way too much going on here all at once, but on the whole this book answered a lot of the questions I had after finishing Between Two Thorns, so I was pleased.
This sequel was a lot easier to read too, now that I have a better understanding of the world. The story was less hampered by the details, which allowed me to settle back and simply let myself be swept away by its events. I gained a deeper appreciation for this relationship between the realms of Exilium, Mundanus, and the in-between world of the Nether. Furthermore, groups like the Arbiters or the Agency who have the ability to affect more than one of these places add an intriguing dynamic to the situation. Max got his chance to play a bigger role again in this volume, allying with Cathy to investigate the dastardly Agency and even briefly teaming up with Sam to see what’s going on with Leanne. This latter plot development was perhaps my favorite part of the novel, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly I’ve enjoyed this thread of mystery.
That said, certain aspects of this novel were…problematic. I remain torn on a couple of our main characters, since one moment they would be turning me off, but the next they could be redeeming themselves. I don’t often flip-flop so much on my feelings for characters, but I definitely sense a “soap opera” quality to some of their dramatics. Still, Cathy is actually a much stronger person in my eyes this time, thinking things through instead of just digging in her heels. Plus, she is starting to see beyond her own predicament, perhaps reaching out to help others as well. Sam steps up too, trying to do some good in his own bumbling way, and I found myself rooting for his cause. In contrast, Max shows us what it means to be literally soulless, having no qualms about resorting to unsavory means to get the information he needs. And Will…oh Will. Pretty much every other thing he did made me angry. It’s a good thing I’m keeping this review sans spoilers so I won’t have to go into details, or else we’d be here forever.
I will say this about The Split Worlds series, though: it’s incredibly addictive. I’m officially hooked, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, especially after the way this book ended. I don’t know what Emma Newman has in store for us, but it’s clear none of her characters are going to come out of this clean and unscathed. Now onward to All Is Fair!...more
With my Pathfinder group currently on summer break, I found myself desperately craving for a good quest narrative adventure. Enter Liar’s Bargain, which really hit the spot. Of course, I’d much rather be playing an RPG campaign, but if that’s not possible, reading a story that feels exactly like one is the next best thing.
This book is actually the follow-up to Tim Pratt’s Liar’s Island, and the third in a sequence featuring recurring characters Rodrick and his sentient ice sword Hrym, but like most of the novels in the Pathfinder Tales series it can be read as a standalone.
This time, Rodrick finds himself deep in crusader lands, the last place you’d want to be caught committing a crime. Lawbreakers in Lastwall are punished harshly, as our hapless hero discovers too late, after being sentenced to death for trying to steal a horse. Intrigued by his magical talking sword, however, Rodrick’s captors offer him another way to serve his sentence: join a covert government program with other seasoned outlaws to carry out missions too delicate (and dangerous) for ordinary soldiers. For one year, he would work under his boss Temple and do the bidding of the Lastwall crusaders. Should he survive after that period, he will go free. In the meantime though, Rodrick and his fellow criminals press ganged into service will be implanted with rubies infused with dark magic. If they attempt escape or try to wriggle out of their punishment in any way, Temple promises to activate the magic in the gems, and the explosion would tear their bodies apart.
For Rodrick, the choice was easy. He’d rather take his chances with a ragtag group of miscreants than face certain death at the hands of Lastwall’s executioners. And that is how he and Hrym find themselves teamed up with the outlaw Merihim and her silent companion Prinn, as well as a thief named Eldra and a mysterious alchemist who only goes by “The Specialist”. For the group’s first assignment, Temple sends them on mission to retrieve a very important person—simple enough, Rodrick thinks. But then, one of the others suddenly decide to go off script, and that’s when things start going horribly wrong.
This is only my second venture into the world of the Pathfinder Tales novels, and it couldn’t have been more different from my first, which was Liane Merciel’s Hellknight, a murder mystery mainly starring a duo made up of a hellspawn investigator and a battle-hardened paladin. In contrast, Liar’s Bargain features a traditional quest narrative plot structure and an ensemble cast, with each character bringing something valuable to the party. Merihim is the “brains” of the operation, much to Rodrick’s chagrin. Our poor protagonist fancies himself to be a good leader, but he and his sword were originally brought in simply to be the team’s muscle. The Specialist, despite his name, is the jack of all trades, playing the much essential support role. And of course, no adventuring group can be complete without its resident rogue, and that’s where Eldra comes in. All told, the cast had all the makings of your classic role-playing group, and the story was definitely more in the vein of what I had in mind when I first tried the series, unfolding like a multi-part campaign.
The plot is not very complex, but it’s every bit as fun as you’d expect it to be, with its fair share of surprising twists and turns. In several places, I even amused myself by picturing an imaginary DM setting the adventures up with a jaw-dropping scenario before announcing in an ominous tone, “Roll initiative”, simply because it was just so damn appropriate. As for the characters, Rodrick himself is somewhat of an arrogant puffed-up blowhard, but he plays the part with plenty of humor and snark. When your book’s protagonist has a best friend that’s a talking magical sword with the ability to ice anyone and anything, you can surely count on getting some excellent banter. I’ll admit to more than a few chuckles when I was reading this book, especially during the witty exchanges between Rodrick and Hyrm.
There were some issues, of course, like the Specialist and his apparent ability to come up with a solution to every problem, which felt much too convenient to me (though who knows, maybe he just rolled high on all his skill checks), or the fact that the story meanders too far off the main track with a couple “side quests” in the second half of the novel. But on the whole, I have to say I was quite pleased with Liar’s Bargain. It was entertaining the whole way through, which was exactly what I signed on for, and in fact, I liked it so much, I’m even contemplating going back to pick up the two previous Rodrick and Hrym novels.
Not a fan or player of Pathfinder or RPGs? No problem. Even readers who know nothing about the game can dive right in. If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced fantasy read, you simply can’t go wrong with this story featuring the misadventures of a lovable gang of scoundrels and rogues....more
Wow, you’ll have to excuse me, but I think I’m having myself another one of those “Why have I waited so long to read this author?” moments. Yes, believe it or not, it actually took me this long to finally try Kelley Armstrong (despite the fact others have been telling me about her awesomeness for years). I also find it a little ironic that even though I’m more of a speculative fiction reader, it wasn’t any of her fantasy or paranormal books that finally caught my eye, but her newest mystery thriller/suspense novel City of the Lost, a book that was originally published in a serially in six parts. Anyway, the moment I read its description, I just knew I had to check it out.
Meet Casey Duncan, a homicide detective with a dark secret. In college, she killed a former lover, who was also the grandson of a crime lord. While the police didn’t have the evidence to catch who really did it, the mob knows and they never forget. Casey’s past finally catches up with her more than a decade later, when she suddenly finds her life in danger. At around the same time, Casey’s best friend Diana tells her that she is worried about her violent ex-husband, who has recently managed to track her down. After Casey discovers Diana brutally beaten and bloody on her bathroom floor one night, she knows that the two of them will have to do something about their situations—and fast—or they’ll both soon wind up dead.
It is Diana who finds a possible solution, letting Casey know about a remote community in the northern wilderness where people can go to disappear. Anyone who wants to leave their old lives behind can apply for entry—which includes abuse survivors like Diana, but also folks who are trying to run from their mistakes, hide from the law, or just don’t want to be found. That’s how the two friends ultimately end up in Rockton, a small town in the Yukon Territories where there’s no phones, no internet, no mail…but plenty of secrets. As it turns out, Casey’s application was almost rejected after a thorough background check revealed that she might have killed a man in college, but the town council is desperate; Rockton has just had its first real homicide, so they feel the local sheriff could use the help from a real homicide detective.
While I usually leave audiobook comments until the end of my reviews, I feel like I have to make an exception here simply because this was such a phenomenal listen. I also don’t doubt that a huge part of my love of this book was due to the format and the incredible performance by the narrator Therese Plummer. This is the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to her read, and I am beyond impressed with her voice acting. She reads beautifully, pulling me into the story so that I hung on to her every word. Her timing, accents, and inflections were all perfect, and the way she dramatized the suspenseful scenes had a way of making feel like I was right in the story, or sitting around a campfire listening to a tale told by an extremely talented storyteller.
Of course, Kelley Armstrong’s writing had a lot to do with creating the atmosphere as well. While there’s no clear speculative fiction element in City of the Lost, I also think that parts of this book can qualify it as horror. After all, there’s a possible killer on the loose, and there are also things lurking in the forest you don’t ever want to meet. The author has created an ideal setting for a psychological thriller, emphasizing the isolation of Rockton. Even without the murders making everyone in town nervous, there’s a real sense of danger and helplessness that hangs over all aspects of life in a remote community like this so far away from civilization, knowing that if the worst happens, you are on your own.
Yet at the same time, there’s a quiet, exquisite beauty about that kind of isolation. It’s a simple but relatively carefree life in Rockton, and the people around you may be quirky but they have their charms. Despite feeling the pressures of her investigation, Casey is also always taking the time to appreciate the wonders of the wilderness around her. I’ve always wanted to visit the Yukon, and the descriptions in this book reminded me why.
I really only have one criticism, and it’s a very minor one. There’s a romantic arc in this book, and around the two-thirds mark the plot stalls as we switch gears to focus on the romantic drama. Still, the romance is super sweet, the kind that I’m sure made other people wonder why I had this stupid, dreamy-looking grin plastered on my face as I was walking around listening to this one on my headphones. The love story might have been a bit much, distracting from the mystery and suspense, but it was also really nice.
By now, I think it’s obvious that I loved City of the Lost, and I seriously couldn’t be more pleased with my very first Kelley Armstrong novel. If you love twisty mysteries and psychological thrillers, I would highly recommend this one, especially the audio version narrated by Therese Plummer. This one made me an instant fan of both author and narrator. Will definitely want to read/listen to more!...more
Welcome to Deadland is a zombie book, but it’s also kind of…not. The end of the world seems almost incidental in this novel pitched as Lost meets The Walking Dead, but in my opinion, its unique perspective also makes it a deeper, much stronger experience. Rest assured, readers will still get a good dose of the zombocalypse, but the predominant themes about growing up, coming out, and finding strength within yourself are what makes this one shine. If you’re in the mood to try a different sort of zombie story, you’ll definitely want to seek this one out.
The narrative focuses mainly on two major POVs: Asher, a college student from North Carolina, who with his friend Wendy have ended up in a post-apocalyptic Orlando theme park; and Rico, a drug-addicted teenager determined to see himself and his six-year-old brother Jayden to safety through a world strewn with death and destruction. In the “After”, all that matters is survival. But at least half—if not more—of the book also takes place “Before”, in the months leading up to the devastating effects of the zombie plague. With chapters alternating between the past and present, the story provides readers with plenty of backstory allowing us to follow the changes in the characters’ lives.
In the pre-apocalypse, everything changes for Asher on the night he meets Ellis at a house party. A spark immediately forms between the two of them, but there’s only one problem: Ellis already has a boyfriend. Add to that, Asher hasn’t actually told anyone he’s gay, but with the support of Ellis and his friends, he’s finally realizing he can let his secret go and be himself. For the first time in his life, Asher feels free and happy, but there’s also no denying the connection he feels with Ellis, who is already involved with someone else.
Meanwhile in another part of the state, a high school student named Rico is being arrested for drugs and disorderly conduct. As punishment, Rico’s father takes away his car privileges, but this simply becomes an invitation for the teenager to act out even further by skipping classes, dealing drugs, and going to all-night parties. Despite being a juvenile delinquent though, Rico is the hero of his younger stepbrother Jayden, and Rico loves the little boy in turn with all his heart.
Without a doubt, it’s the “Before” sections that constitute the meat of the story, which is why I described this book the way I did in my introduction. Zombie horror takes a secondary role to the trials and tribulations of real life, and just because the world has ended doesn’t mean that the past is erased. If you’re solely looking for the action and thrills of a pure zombie survival story, then this probably won’t be the book for you. There are scenes of blood, violence, gore and tension scattered here and there, but for the most part this one is a heavily character-oriented drama with the most interesting plot developments happening in the chapters before the zombie outbreak.
To keep things moving along though, Zachary Tyler Linville weaves together past and present, jumping back and forth between events that happened when the world was still fine and those that happened afterwards when everything has gone to hell. Still, while it was interesting and ambitious, I wasn’t entirely convinced this was the best structure for the novel because of the overall disruptive effect it had on the flow of the story. “Before” and “After” had a way of stepping on each other’s toes, and the plotting wasn’t quite tight enough to make me feel engaged with essentially four different storylines (pre- and post-apocalypse for both Asher and Rico). The POV switches were also distracting because I had to really make a conscious effort to remember what happened with each character when we last saw them.
Something had to give, and it was the “zombie chapters” that suffered, simply because I preferred the stronger, more compelling character development in the “Before” chapters. Framing it that way, Welcome to Deadland isn’t even a zombie book at all, but rather a narrative about human drama: family life, personal relationships, romance and sex, emotional conflicts, etc. Asher’s story almost had a “New Adult” feel to them, featuring themes like sexuality, leaving home, and college life. In the middle of it all is his relationship with Ellis, which is both a source of comfort and frustration to Asher. Much of his plotline involves Asher trying to sort out where he stands while Ellis carries on an emotional affair with him and then later becomes manipulative, playing with Asher’s feelings. Next, we flip over to Rico, whose story reads like a cautionary tale reminding us of the dangers of drug abuse among teens. The end of the world comes just as Rico hits rock bottom, and puts a whole new perspective on his life. With a young child in his care, Rico re-examines his habits and knows he has to be a better person for his little brother, so at least for him, the zombie apocalypse has a silver lining.
All told, I found Welcome to Deadland to be a welcome change from the typical run-of-the-mill zombie novel, though ironically, it was the non-zombie sections that really stood out for me. Despite the pacing problems and other minor issues like choppy writing and awkward dialogue, I really enjoyed the story overall and was amazed at huge amount of effort put into character development. That’s pretty unusual for a zombie story, and I found it very refreshing. It’ll be interesting to see what else this series has in store for our characters, because yes, Welcome to Deadland has all the trappings of a “book one”. Hopefully we’ll also learn more about how the infection started in the first place, since this was only mildly hinted at in the story. Ultimately, I rate this one 3 stars for being a solid debut effort with room to grow, and I genuinely believe Zachary Tyler Linville has a bright career in writing ahead of him....more
I am so in love with these audiobooks. Peter Kenny is the incontrovertible voice of this series, making all my favorite characters come to life with his authentic reading style and superb acting. Fan translations of these books have been around for a while, but I don’t mind waiting longer if it means I can enjoy the audio editions; every time I jump into a new book, it’s like coming home to old friends.
The Tower of Swallows picks up from the end of Baptism of Fire, where the search for Ciri continues. The story begins by mirroring the intro of the previous book with a long convalescence of one of our characters, this time Ciri instead of Geralt. The young princess-turned-Witcher has adopted a new identity and settled into life with a party of young rebels who call themselves the Rats. Something happens, however, leading to her being found unconscious and gravely injured in the middle of a swamp by an old hermit named Vysogota. The old man nurses her back to health, and during her recovery Ciri tells him what happened.
Meanwhile, Geralt and his companions are still traveling together trying to find Ciri, but their precarious alliance keeps coming under fire from distrust and infighting, not to mention plenty of bad decisions. There’s also a lot of political intrigue happening in the background as their enemies keep plotting against them, and a new face of evil enters the field.
While I really enjoyed The Tower of Swallows, I have to confess it wasn’t my favorite. In fact, this was the first full-length Witcher novel in which I felt the pacing stumbled a little. After an incredibly strong beginning, the story loses steam around the halfway point when it takes a very sudden turn in a new direction. We go abruptly from fast-paced action and adventure to convoluted politics, which made the end of the book tedious and hard to understand when compared to the first half.
Still, this is a book you won’t want to miss, especially if you’ve been following along with the series, and the good parts made it all worth it. One of the things I admire most about Andrzej Sapkowski’s storytelling is the way he experiments with different narrative styles, which sometimes involve sudden jumps in the timeline and frequent switches in points-of-view. Normally I am not a fan of this; however, I love the interesting and engaging way Sapkowski does it, as illustrated at the beginning of the novel, where the events that befell Ciri are unraveled by having her share her story with Vysogota. Narrative threads are picked up, dropped, picked up again by different characters, but done in a seamless way that flows well and is easy to follow, even in the audio format.
The characters are also evolving nicely with each installment. Notably, Ciri has come of age and she is settling in as one of the series’ major characters. She’s still finding her way in this book, both literally and figuratively. Torn between her old life as a princess and her new one as a rogue Witcher, she’s frequently waffling on what she wants, and like many troubled teens she is quick to anger especially when confronted with hard truths. She may be an expert fighter, but at the end of the day she’s still just a lost young girl. Geralt is of course the other central figure, and here he suffers his own crisis of confidence, beating himself up for not doing all he can to find Ciri, at some points even convincing himself that she is dead and that his quest is futile. He also clashes with his companions, in particular with Cahir the Nilfgaardian, whom Geralt does not trust. Overall, lack of success has demoralized the party, causing rising tensions and fraying nerves. It almost makes you want to break out the popcorn and watch the fur fly.
Even though the second half is slow, the book does ends with a bang, making me excited for what’s coming next. In total, there are currently six books translated into English and produced in audio, including two that are story collections. I have a feeling all the questions will be answered and everything will come together as the series heads towards its conclusion.
Narration-wise, I really have no complaints. Peter Kenny has already won me over, and he’s probably the biggest reason why I’m such a diehard fan of the Witcher audiobooks, to the extent now where no other format will do. I’m just sad knowing that the next book will be the final entry in the saga. Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all going to end....more
Oh boy, this was exactly the kind of book I needed in my life.
Not that my current to-read list is lacking by any means, being well stocked with all kinds of offerings from mind-blowing cerebral science fiction to sweeping epic fantasies. But sometimes you just gotta kick back with some giant rampaging shark action, you know?
Hence, the Meg, short for Megalodon or Carcharodon megalodon, a species of prehistoric shark that lived more than 2.6 million years ago and makes its extant cousin the Great White look like a precious little baby.
Thank all that is good and holy that these guys are extinct.
Steve Alten’s MEG series, the first book of which is soon to be adapted into a movie, follows the exciting and oftentimes terrifying underwater adventures of former US Navy deep sea diver Jonas Taylor and his family. Meg: Nightstalkers is the fifth novel of the sequence, though like all the other books it can be read perfectly fine on its own as a standalone. Being new to the series, I was grateful for the plentiful background information provided by the author which gently eased me back into this next chapter of the story. The first part technically began in the previous installment Meg: Hell’s Aquarium, and considering that it was published a little more than seven years ago, I am likely not the only reader who would appreciate all the recap details. Regardless, whether you’re a newcomer or just continuing the series, you shouldn’t have any problems at all.
The book starts off following a nightmare situation already underway, with Lizzy and Bela, the two massive Megalodon sisters, having been set loose from the marine facility owned by the Taylor and Tanaka families. They’ve been storming up the coast ever since, ultimately winding up in the Salish Sea off British Columbia. But while Jonas has his hands full trying to figure out how to recapture or kill the Megs, his son David is also dealing with some prehistoric sea monster problems of his own. After witnessing his girlfriend die in a gruesome attack, David has agreed to join the hunt for the creature responsible—a 120-foot, hundred-ton Liopleurodon which had escaped from its refuge in the Panthalassa Sea.
Because giant sharks obviously aren’t enough.
I’m not even going to try and pretend these books are anything more than they appear to be, nor will I deny the fact I read this simply out of pure guilty pleasure. The writing isn’t going to be raking in any awards. The plot is laughably absurd. The violence and gore is flagrantly gratuitous, the science lacks any kind of logic or credibility, and most of the characters are stupid arrogant blowhards with more balls than brains (plenty of shark fodder, yay!)
But man, did I have a helluva fun time with this one.
I’ll be the first to admit a weakness for the kinds of creature features made popular during the 70s and 80s, or those cheesy made-for-TV horror films featuring animals running amok or going on killing sprees. Meg: Nightstalkers felt a lot like the book version of that, and to be honest, I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to read about gigantic prehistoric sea monsters swimming around wreaking havoc on quaint seaside properties, sinking a bunch of boats, and devouring a crap ton of people.
Every once in a while I’ll find myself in a mood for an unassuming and shamelessly pulpy novel like this one, just to let loose and have fun. And I have to say, I was extremely satisfied to get my five hours of guts-splattering, blood-spewing terror and entertainment out of this book. From its fascinating intro to that explosive ending worthy of Jurassic World, I enjoyed every moment. Will it be for everyone? Probably not. But as the old saying goes, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. With books like these, what you see is what you get, which can be unbelievably refreshing and cathartic. I feel that my reading routine is made much richer by mixing in light and fun offerings on occasion, the sort of stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously. When I get the chance to sneak them in between my longer heavier reads, they can be a real treat. After my experience with Nightstalkers, I would definitely read more MEG books. In fact, I’ve already placed a hold on the first one at my library.
So, when you’re heading out to the beach this summer, to hell with the other beach-goers who’ll probably give you and this book funny looks! Consider packing along a copy in your day bag. You’ll have a great time…even if you’ll want to stay out of the water....more
I must confess, I only finished The Rook last month when the surprise arrival of a Stiletto ARC prompted me to do some quick catching up with the series, so I can’t claim to have waited for this sequel for as long as others. That said though, I was no less excited to jump right in! I loved the first book, and practically dove into this next one straight away.
The first thing you should know about Stiletto is that even though it picks up where The Rook left off, it’s also not your typical conventional follow-up. For one thing, Myfanwy Thomas is no longer the main protagonist. Instead, we get two new leading ladies: a Checquy Pawn named Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon named Odette Leliefeld. After centuries of being on opposite sides, the two young women are suddenly thrown together when their respective organizations are forced to make peace in a new alliance. However, putting aside their differences is easier said than done. The enmity between the two groups runs deep, and not everyone is happy about the new partnership. Almost immediately after arriving in Great Britain with the Grafter delegation, Odette becomes targeted by an angry and bitter Checquy agent, and in order to avert diplomatic disaster, a new bodyguard is swiftly assigned to her in the form of Pawn Clements.
Meanwhile, bizarre paranormal attacks continue to plague London, keeping the Checquy busy running around putting out fires. It’s all just business as usual…or is it? Do the Grafters in the delegation know more than they let on? What kind of secrets are they hiding from their hosts? Who can they trust? Both factions are on edge, with a fragile peace hanging between them. Surrounded by paranormal dangers, threats of sabotage, and deep-seated hatreds, just about anything can shatter this delicate young alliance.
Not going to lie; I was initially surprised when I started this book and discovered that we’d shifted away from Myfanwy Thomas as the main protagonist, since the publisher description makes no mention to the contrary. At the same time though, I wasn’t especially jarred by the change. Perhaps it had something to do with the short time I had between reading The Rook and Stiletto, but I found the new voices pleasantly refreshing. Don’t get me wrong; I loved Myfanwy and was delighted to see her make a return in the sequel (albeit in a supporting capacity) but clearly the Checquy-Grafter alliance is the key focus here, and there’s no better way to portray all the consequences and challenges of the fledgling partnership than to give us a new character from each side. Myfanwy might be the Rook in charge of brokering this deal, but in order to get right down to the nitty-gritty details, we had to go to the straight to the frontlines with a Pawn.
Enter Felicity. She’s a warrior, meticulous and determined. She is also completely loyal to the Checquy, aspiring one day to join the Barghests, their most elite combat force. Trained to fight and protect, Felicity won’t flinch from doing what needs to be done either, making her the perfect bodyguard to assign to Odette. Myfanway Thomas knows she can count on the Pawn to lay down her life for her charge, but given the order, Felicity also won’t hesitate to put a bullet in Odette’s head if it turns out the young Grafter woman can’t be trusted.
This makes the relationship between Felicity and Odette very interesting. For almost the entirety of the first book, we got to hear all about how the Grafters were evil, insane, and brutal enemies of the Checquy. But in this one we get Odette, a mild-mannered and well-balanced young woman who is completely overwhelmed by her visit to London and just wants to make it through the day without starting a war. I loved seeing the Grafter perspective through her eyes. She and Felicity come from two very different worlds, making the early friction between them no surprise, but as the story progresses, a precarious link begins to form between them, making this part one of the more rewarding aspects of Stiletto. Whereas in The Rook we got to read about Myfanwy Thomas having a relationship with her own pre-amnesiac self, here we actually get to see an incredible example of true female friendship. O’Malley did a great job developing Felicity and Odette’s connection.
The fresh focus on the two women also means that technically, Stiletto can be read on its own without having to read The Rook first, but I wouldn’t recommend it. For one thing, although the author does a great job recapping and explaining the important details you need to know (which also helps to refresh memories after four years, I imagine), there are various references and other ties to the first book which will feel a lot more rewarding if you can spot and recognize them. More importantly, the first book was so much fun, you definitely won’t want to rob yourself of the experience.
My one and only complaint is that the novel is weighed down here and there by some bloat, but this could simply be a stylistic choice by O’Malley. Huge chunks of history and background information are sometimes injected into the narrative, which was also the case in The Rook. Over time, this has evolved to become a part of the series’ unique charm, but every now and then it still gets very distracting, taking attention away from the characters and main conflict.
When all is said and done though, I had a great time with Stiletto. I don’t love it any less than I love The Rook—I just love it differently. While the protagonists may have changed, all the ingredients that made the first book great are still there: laugh-out-loud humor, compelling characters, a wonderfully twisty plot, detailed world-building, and amazing super-powers! The Grafter perspective is a welcome addition to this series, and I’m surprised how much I enjoyed reading about the Checquy’s former enemies. I’m certainly curious to see how these two organizations will continue moving forward, and I await the next book in the series with much excitement....more
Great to know I can always count on the Alcatraz series to lift my spirits. The Shattered Lens may be book four of the sequence, but I’m just as hooked on the story as I was when I first picked up Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, the adventure that started it all. Brandon Sanderson continues to deliver plenty of laughs and action as he prepares to ramp things up for The Dark Talent; now that the illustrated hardcover re-issues of books 1-4 are out in the world, the stage is set for the long-awaited big finale, dropping September 2016.
You’d think a nice vacation for Alcatraz Smedry and Co. are in order, after foiling the latest Librarian scheme to attack the Free Kingdoms—but no. This time, urgent news has come from Mokia, a Free Kingdom nation currently under siege by the Shattered Lens, the most zealous of the Librarian sects. Thinking like a Smedry, Alcatraz hatches up a crazy plan to charge headfirst into the heat of battle, hoping that his actions would encourage the Knights of Crystallia to follow his lead and send support to Tuki Tuki, the capital of Mokia.
It doesn’t take long for Alcatraz to realize he’s in way over his head. The Shattered Lens’ army of giant robots have Tuki Tuki surrounded, and every day more and more of the city’s defenders are falling to the enemy’s coma-inducing weapons. Still, Alcatraz is determined not to let Mokia fall—not while he’s in charge. He only has to hold out until help arrives, which should be soon…ish?
This was another awesome installment, but I probably didn’t like it as much as the first three books. Obviously I’m not the target audience here, but while the plot, characters, humor, etc. are definitely more on the “youngish” side, on the whole I’ve found this series to be very clever and witty, engaging enough so that adults like myself can enjoy the stories. That’s why I was surprised when I read the first couple chapters of The Shattered Lens and felt for the first time that the series might have gone just a tad overboard with the silliness. Alcatraz’s ramblings at the beginning of each chapter, which has become somewhat of a tradition, also felt a bit forced this time around. Like I said though, these books weren’t written for my demographic, and what matters is that the kids will still love this one, but I just wanted to give the main reason why I felt this fourth book didn’t mesh as well with me as the first three did.
Now that that’s out of the way though, I want to talk about the things that did work for me. Let’s get to the most important subject first: teddy bear grenades. After all, how else are Free Kingdoms children supposed to protect themselves?! I also really enjoyed getting to visit Mokia, despite having to see it in its besieged state. Sanderson continues to expand the cast as well, adding another member to Alcatraz’s family tree which also means—yay!—more bizarre Smedry talents. Aydee Ecks, Alcatraz’s bubbly little cousin, has the talent of being really bad at math…and I just love the way she puts it to good use.
And speaking of Smedry talents, the one thing I haven’t really talked about in my reviews is the way “magic” works in the Alcatraz universe. Considering some of the intricate magic systems in Sanderson’s adult works, I originally dismissed occulator lenses and Smedry talents, etc. as being superficial and overly simplistic. But I was wrong. Much has been revealed so far over the course of these four books, connecting the dots and fleshing out what is known as the Incarnate Wheel, which is a theory used to divide the different talents up into groups. This style of describing and categorizing talents is pure Brandon Sanderson. Although there’s still this humorous, farcical element to the talent system in Alcatraz, it’s probably no less complex and thought-out than the magic systems in his epic fantasy novels, and I’m really starting to appreciate that.
All in all, it’s become quite evident that we’re now gearing up for the final book, as plot threads are coming together or being tied up left and right. It felt like this was the main purpose of the novel, for even though the siege of Mokia played a central role, it’s the big reveals in here that really stole the show. But there are still so many questions: What’s the real deal behind Alcatraz’s talent? How will things play out between him and Bastille? What’s going to happen with his parents? And will we really, truly, finally get that long-promised, oft-teased altar scene? Diving into The Dark Talent soon, so I guess I’ll be finding this all out in due course!...more
After finishing Wildwood Dancing, I’ve decided to give it a solid 3.5 stars. Considering this is my first Juliet Marillier book that didn’t rate at least a 4, I probably should be feeling more disappointed, especially since, out of all her older titles, this was one I’d been looking forward to reading the most. But honestly, I am not. The reality is, while I’m pretty convinced that Marillier is incapable of writing a bad novel, I also wouldn’t expect to fall in love with every single one of them, and even though I didn’t think this was one of her best, I still thought it was a very good book and I enjoyed it a lot.
Naturally, Wildwood Dancing is a reimagining of several fairy tales and other stories inspired by folklore. It’s a Marillier novel, after all. In the tradition of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, the story follows a family of five sisters who put on their fine dancing gowns every full moon in order to travel to another realm, where they would dance all night with the magical creatures who live there. Only the five girls know how to get to this enchanted kingdom through the mysterious portal hidden deep in their home of Piscul Draculi, their castle nestled in the woods of the Transylvanian highlands.
The story is told through the eyes of Jena, the second eldest, who assumes the responsibility of looking after her sisters and running the family business after their father is taken to the southlands to recover from a grave illness. But everything changes with the arrival of their cousin Cezar, a power-hungry man determined to take over the castle and see Jena and her sisters grow up to be “proper” young ladies. His presence has made the girls’ full moon visits through the portal more difficult, and it doesn’t help either that Tatiana, Jena’s older sister, has apparently fallen in love with one of the dangerous dark creatures from the Other Kingdom. As trouble descends on all sides, Jena struggles to keep her family together and maintain her control over Piscul Draculi, even while Cezar tightens his grip around them all and Tatiana continues to slip away.
I should also probably note that Wildwood Dancing is categorized as a YA novel, and it’s possible that some of my issues with the book had to do with the fact it’s aimed at a younger audience. In spite of the story’s charming premise, it’s admittedly predictable at times and hampered by some annoying tropes. Not to mention, they aren’t very subtle. The moment Cezar sweeps in, you could tell he was the evil, evil bad guy, pumped up on his own self-importance and never misses a moment to tell Jena what a silly and improper girl she is for daring to think for herself. There is really nothing more to his character than being teeth grindingly obnoxious and soul-crushing. Tatiana also frustrated me, because while it’s all fine and good to fall in love, it’s not so cool when that love completely consumes you to the point you throw aside the concerns of those who care about you, or that you abandon all your responsibilities including the need to take care of yourself. Tatiana gradually becomes this empty shell because we’re to believe she’s so lovesick after a boy that she loses the will to eat. As the main character, Jena is not immune from criticism either; where her emotions are concerned, she has more blind spots than a drunk bat and I frequently found her stubbornness maddening. For a female protag who is supposed to be strong and independent, she can be stunningly ineffectual.
The characters were probably the novel’s weakest aspect. Happily, predictable or not, I was really interested in the story, and that kept me turning the pages. The Transylvanian setting was intriguing, along with all that it implies. I also liked how snippets of multiple fairy tales were woven into the plot, and the way Marillier somehow made it all work. Like most of her novels, Wildwood Dancing is infused with a whimsical but dark tone, enchanting but also potentially dangerous, and to be sure if you enjoy fairy tale retellings or stories with that kind of vibe, you really can’t go wrong with anything she writes.
Ever since I read my first Juliet Marillier novel and she became one of my favorite authors, I have been meaning to go back to read more of her work. I’m glad I read Wildwood Dancing, but given how I felt about it, I’ll probably set the sequel, Cybele’s Secret, as lower priority while I tackle some of her other adult novels since I find them to be more complex and feature more developed and convincing characters. Still, Wildwood Dancing was a delightful read and it is impressive for YA. Fans of Marillier owe it to themselves to check this one out....more
I was a beta-reader for this book, so it wouldn't feel right to post a review or my rating at this time. That being said, I strongly recommend everyonI was a beta-reader for this book, so it wouldn't feel right to post a review or my rating at this time. That being said, I strongly recommend everyone go out and get this book when it comes out, it's Wesley Chu's best yet :)...more
What a fun little time travel book! As someone who frequently goes trawling through Audible’s site looking for sci-fi and fantasy releases, I often see the audiobooks in this series pop up in my recommendations and I’ve always been curious about them. Now the first book is finally being released in the US in print (seven volumes are already available in the UK, where the series has become quite a sensation) and when the publisher Night Shade Books offered me a review copy, I absolutely couldn’t resist.
Just One Damned Thing After Another is a novel that wastes no time getting to the good stuff. The story stars our plucky narrator Madeleine “Max” Maxwell, a historian who gets recruited by a group of time travelers working undercover behind the façade of St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. After the most hilariously bizarre interview process, Max join up with them and the adventures—and the disasters—immediately begin. There’s a rigorous training program required for all newbies where they learn all the dos and don’ts of time travel, and they also have to pass a series of tests, including a physical component because you never know what can happen during a trip back in time. After a while, it’s clear that Murphy’s Law generally applies to all missions at St. Mary’s.
The plot is very entertaining and filled with boisterous, comedic hijinks (and perfect if you like British humor). I for one love the fact that the historians prefer to call it “investigating major historical events in contemporary time” instead of using the term “time travel” because the latter is just “so sci-fi”. Due to the methods used to prepare new recruits, the beginning of the book also has a distinct “training school” vibe, though I have to say this is one of only a handful of stories I’ve encountered where a section like this feels just as good as or even better than the actual time traveling. When it comes to the evaluations at St. Mary’s, cheating is not only excused but sometimes even encouraged, a system that favors the historians who can “think outside the box”, allowing genuinely interesting characters like Max to shine.
Like many time travel books though, this one had its ups and downs. My main criticism is that, for a novel featuring time traveling academics who label themselves historians (and who also work at an institute for historical research), there was in fact disappointingly little history involved. I don’t consider myself to be a huge history buff or anything, but for me one of the biggest perks of reading time travel stories is being able to absorb interesting historical details and facts behind past events, people, and places. I thought this would be a book like that, but it turned out not to be the case. While the publisher blurb says “From eleventh-century London to World War I, from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria”, the truth is, the most exciting time period Max gets to visit will probably appeal more to dinosaur enthusiasts or paleontologists rather than history fans.
Still, if character-driven stories are your cup of tea, then you’ll find plenty to like. Max is hilarious, and I love her spirited and crafty nature. Working with a bunch of time traveling historians is pretty much as fun and crazy as you’d expect, and even the missions that end in complete disasters seem to have a humorous side. There’s also a strong romantic component, and I loved the irresistible attraction that sizzled between Max and Chief Farrell.
That said, not everything is light and fluffy either; every now and then a grim pall will settle over some of the plot’s events. There’s violence, there’s death, and there’s lots and lots of dismemberment. It can be jarring sometimes, especially when there’s a tendency for all this gruesomeness to come on suddenly. Same goes for the sex, and the random emotional displays that seem to drop in and explode out of nowhere. I certainly don’t mind the darkness and brutal themes, but as with all good things, timing is everything. Maybe this book just needed some extra editing, or maybe it was just a consequence of the author’s personal unique style. Whatever it was, I found it somewhat distracting.
So, here’s the deal. If you’re into history, and was hoping to get lots of it out of this book, then be prepare to dial back on your expectations. This book is also not heavy on the “science fiction” side of time travel. Doing it is as simple and straightforward as getting into a pod, setting the dial, and hitting the jump button. To be fair, the science and tech of it is not the point of this series, so Taylor probably did the right thing in glossing over the process. There are some general attempts to explain how the timeline is preserved and why the historians can’t mess with certain things, but my point is, if you want detailed explanations, quantum theory and the whole nine yards in your time travel fiction, then this book isn’t going to be for you.
This book IS for you though, if you enjoy 1) fun, adventurous stories about time travel, 2) books that make you laugh, especially when there’s just a touch of darkness in its sense of humor, 3) strong, memorable characters with quirky personalities, and 4) simply relaxing and having a good time with a light, entertaining book. I can see now why this series is such a hit, and knowing more about what to expect in future books, I’m definitely interested in continuing with Max’s fantastic exploits through time!...more
Sawbones was a book that caught my eye the moment I saw it, because HELLO! Western setting? An independent, determined woman doctor as its protagonist? Only problem was, its genre was straight-up historical fiction without even the ittiest bittiest hint of a speculative element, and I was already being crushed under the weight of review books that I’ve committed myself to on behalf of my Sci-fi & Fantasy book blog. Reluctantly, I decided to give Sawbones a pass at the time, and probably wouldn’t have thought about it again if it weren’t for a strong recommendation I received weeks later, from someone whose bookish opinions I highly respect. Now I’m on the other side of reading it to say how utterly thankful and glad I am to have given this one a try after all, because it was damn brilliant and I absolutely loved it!
The book’s blurb likens the story to “Outlander meets post-Civil War unrest” which is a comparison I find both very appropriate and also a little misleading. Like I said, Sawbones is completely devoid of any magic or sci-fi, time traveling or otherwise, but that said, I believe it would indeed appeal to fans of Diana Gabaldon’s series who might be looking for a similar blend of romance and adventure set in a very harsh time and place, whose brutal realities we are not spared from at all. It is especially hard for our protagonist Dr. Catherine Bennett, a New York woman practicing medicine in the 1870s in spite of those who regard her profession as scandalous and highly unseemly for someone of her sex.
That is why when Catherine is falsely accused of murder, she finds little support in her societal circles and is forced to go on the run with a $500 bounty on her head. And for anyone looking to start a new life or to disappear, the answer lies west. With her loyal maid Maureen in tow, Catherine escapes to Texas and joins the Warren wagon train under the new identity of Dr. Laura Elliston. Even though female doctors are rare enough to draw attention, Catherine—now Laura—loves her work too much to give it up, and hopes to start fresh with her own practice out in the uncharted territories of Colorado where no one will know her face.
But of course, things don’t go as planned. Those who already know what became of the Warren wagon train can probably guess, but if not, I’m not going to spoil the details of the plot’s early bombshell. I think up until this point, I was still expecting a whole different kind of book, but afterwards it finally hit me what I was really in for. Suffice to say, if you’re like me and picked this one up thinking it would be your typical lighthearted historical romance, you’re going to be in for a huge surprise. To tell the truth, the first 20% of the novel didn’t impress me overly much, but when things took a graphically violent, traumatic, and heart-wrenching turn for our protagonist, that was the moment I realized the kind of story author Melissa Lenhardt has set out to tell, and she’s not pulling any punches. This book had my full attention after that.
The first thing you should know about Sawbones is the merciless, no holds barred portrayal of life on the frontier. Lenhardt confesses to taking a few minor liberties with history in order to make the story work, but a lot of the people, places and events in this book were real. Much research and effort was clearly put in to bring the setting and historical era to life in all its harshness. Racism was rampant. Women had very little say about anything, even when it came to their own business. Settlers in this part of the country were frequently raided by native tribes and white bandits alike. People were raped, killed, mutilated, abducted and abused in the worst of ways. The injured often did not survive, succumbing to infection, bad weather, poor nutrition, or any number of factors that could doom you. This book does not gloss over any of those gory, gut-twisting details.
The second thing you should know is that the characters are amazing. Told from Laura’s point of view, readers are accorded a real treat going deep into the mind of an unconventional protagonist who has followed her heart and given up so much to keep pursuing a dream. Her personal growth as a character follows a riveting arc made even more complex by the subtler themes, which come full circle by the end of the book when Laura is forced to acknowledge that life is not so clear-cut in the isolated wilderness of the west. As a doctor, her principle tenet is to save lives and do no harm, but when push comes to shove, she is also capable of making the difficult choices. Even in her stubbornness, she is likeable and relatable, and I wanted to see her succeed.
There’s also a fantastic love story, featuring a forbidden romance that is at once passionate and convincing. From the moment Laura saves the life of Captain William Kindle, they set off an undeniable chemistry. I enjoyed their sweet interactions and the well-written dialogue between them, making it easy to get on board with their blossoming relationship. Kindle himself is a dedicated and honorable soldier, good to his men and kind to Laura, so I’m glad that the romantic interest in this novel ended up being someone worthy of our protagonist’s devotion and respect.
It was this mix of loveliness with the book’s vicious, ruthless side that made Sawbones so compelling. I must emphasize again that this one is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a strong stomach for some of the more unpleasant things I described in this review, you might find plenty to like in this splendid hidden gem of a historical novel. The story is pretty much self-contained, even if the ending felt just a tad abrupt, but I was ecstatic to find out that there will be a follow-up called Blood Oath coming out later this year. You can be sure I’ll be devouring it as soon as I can get my hands on it....more
Quantum Break: Zero State is the tie-in novel to the action video game developed by Remedy Entertainment, the same folks who also brought us cinematic masterpieces such as Max Payne and Alan Wake. While it’s clearly marketed to fans of the game—and yes, I too did my stint in Quantum Break and consider myself one—I urge you not to write off this book just because you haven’t played it, or because you don’t think a “video game book” would be for you. Often these kinds of books get a bad rap (and goodness knows they deserve it sometimes) but I promise you this one is different.
From the very first page, I was floored by the stellar quality of this novel. I don’t want to sound like a book snob, especially since I consider myself a diehard tie-in junkie, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact this is a book based on a video game. I mean, it’s almost too good to be one? Needless to say, Quantum Break: Zero State surprised the hell out of me. Tie-in novel or not, it can easily stand on its own against any of the more mainstream or popular sci-fi thrillers out there.
The story stars Jack Joyce, a maverick who follows where his feet take him—as long as it’s away from his hometown of Riverport, Massachusetts where six years ago he cut ties with his older brother, the brilliant scientist William Joyce. Will is a genius, but his mind is also very disturbed. Growing up with him as a legal guardian was difficult, after their parents died in an accident when Jack was just a child. Will was withdrawn and consumed by his research, so his younger brother actually ended up being the one to support them both. It got even worse once Jack discovered that Will had secretly taken all the money their parents left them to use on his work after his own funding and research grants ran out, not to mention the massive debts with the local gangs and loan sharks. After years of cleaning up his brother’s messes, Jack finally said enough is enough. He packed up and left Riverport, washing his hands clean of Will and his crazy theories and problems.
But now, an email from Jack’s childhood friend Paul Serene has brought him back. As it turns out, Will’s theories weren’t so crazy after all. As a pioneer and top scientist in the field of chronon technology, Will has been consulting on a top secret project spearheaded by mega-corporation Monarch Solutions at Riverport University. Paul is one of the research leads on the project, and for some reason he wants Jack to come meet him at the Physics building so he can show him something that will change the face of the planet. Curiosity piqued, Jack agrees to go see his friend and thoroughly gets his mind blown when he realizes what is in the lab where Paul brings him. It appears that with Will’s help, Monarch had created a time machine…
You can definitely read this without knowing a single thing about the game, but some background information will probably give more context. In Quantum Break you play Jack, who gains time manipulation powers and uses them to fight the diabolical authorities behind Monarch. The flow of time breaks down and all hell breaks loose, creating all kinds of insane effects with the environment, including time stutters, time stops, time slowing down or speeding up, etc. As well, one of the game’s “hooks” include a live-action component. After each act in the game, an episode of a TV show will play out onscreen letting you see how your gameplay decisions have affected events and other characters in the story. As noted in the book’s foreword, there really is no “canon” version of Quantum Break, since you are going to be making a lot of in-game choices and in doing so create your own version of events. The game is about time travel and branching timelines, so your own playthrough will likely be completely different from another player’s.
This is why the idea behind this book is so brilliant. When I first read its description, I was initially worried that it would be a straight-up novelization—and who would want that, when you have the choice to actually immerse yourself in the cinematic experience that is the game itself? But here’s the cool part: Quantum Break: Zero State isn’t a true novelization because it is actually a combination of what’s in the game along with a lot more stuff that never made it in—think early story concepts, discarded ideas, or other elements that either weren’t used or abandoned because the developers couldn’t make them work for what they had in mind for the final product. It’s like an alternate timeline novel. As a result, you can read this book on its own without having even heard of Quantum Break! And if you have played it, you can also read this without feeling like it’s just a rehash of everything you did in game.
Like I said, the writing is superb and Cam Rogers’ prose is smart, punchy, and electrifying. As Remedy’s game writer and narrative designer, Rogers knows exactly how to capture the suspenseful atmosphere of Quantum Break, following through on the promise of action and thrilling fight scenes. The big theme here is also the time traveling aspect of course, and it is extremely cool, as are the powers that Jack possesses in game which are outstandingly described and utilized here in text. The story was indeed very different from my gameplay experience, but I found the version in this novel to be no less intense and exciting. I even liked that it gave me the chance to know some of the other characters better, most notably Beth Wilder.
Just for a second, forget that this book is based on a game, even if you are a fan of Quantum Break. If you enjoy sci-fi thrillers in general, and the idea of time traveling and superpowers sounds like a good time to you, then you must pick up this book. And if you happened to enjoy the video game too, then that goes double. This was all kinds of awesome, easily one of the best game tie-ins I’ve ever read, and heck, just a great time travel thriller all-around....more
I’ve dabbled in the Pathfinder roleplaying game for a few years now, but this is actually the first time I’ve actually tried one of the books in the Pathfinder Tales series. To be honest, I don’t know what took me so long, since seeking out tie-in novels or any kind of related literature spawned by the movies, games, etc. that I enjoy is something I do quite frequently. Part of it might have to do with the fact that it’s such a HUGE world, and when it comes to what I know of Golarion (the main world of Pathfinder where most of its campaign and events take place) I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It’s all just a bit intimidating, especially when you consider how often new volumes are being released (about every few months or so), and currently the series is sitting at more than thirty novels and that’s not even counting all the novellas and short stories. Though I was assured that the majority of the books are standalone adventures, I still felt uncertain.
Finally, I decided to simply take a chance and go for it. It helped that the book I was interested in, Pathfinder Tales: Hellknight, had an interesting premise and was written by Liane Merciel, an author whose work I’ve been wanting to check out for a while now due to the fantastic things I’ve heard about her Dragon Age novel. More importantly, I was happy to find that Hellknight is indeed a book anyone can jump into and enjoy, no matter what your familiarity is with the Pathfinder franchise. The story is really easy to pick up, and you don’t need to have any prior knowledge at all.
At its heart, this book is about a murder investigation. There’s an organization of warriors called the Hellknights who are charged with maintaining the law and order of the land, and one of them, a hellspawn woman named Jheraal, is dispatched to a nobleman’s estate to investigate the brutal murder of its heir. Meanwhile, the victim’s brother is being called back from the front lines, now that his presence is required at home. Ederras, disgraced and exiled for his part in a rebellion when he was younger, is now an experienced and battle-hardened paladin. For his part, he’s actually quite reluctant to leave his post, but what choice does he have? Now that his brother is dead, someone needs to inherit his family’s title and take care of their lands and holdings.
As Jheraal and Ederras team up to find the murderer, they uncover a deeper conspiracy leading to more death and destruction. A trail involving some missing servants leads to a gruesome find, as it appears that their serial killer has been targeting hellspawn, cutting out their hearts in a magical ritual thus leaving them in a state of lifelessness-but-not-quite-dead. The two of them end up recruiting the services of Velenne, a crafty diabolist who has a history with Ederras, and it seems she is not quite done with the paladin yet.
For a book based on an RPG, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Hellknight. Based on my experience with tie-in novels, I’ve found that the quality of them can vary greatly, and I admit I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but I ended being quite impressed by the high standard of storytelling. The writing is also superb. Liane Merciel does a fantastic job setting up the stage for a mystery, creating a very immersive environment at the same time. It’s the little details that make a difference, masterfully showing without telling us right out what kind of society our characters live in. It is not a very pleasant place, especially not for hellspawn, who live as second class citizens in this world, mistrusted and abused.
I also enjoyed the characters, who come into their own and set themselves apart even when they’re being obviously written to conform to RPG/fantasy archetypes. Again, I was surprised at the depth of their personalities and the complex ways they are impacted by the events of this novel. Both protagonists have interesting backstories and are haunted by their pasts, with Jheraal hiding a secret daughter and Ederras struggling to come to terms with the mistakes he made in his youth. The themes of this book are made fuller by their two tales of sacrifice.
My only criticism is that the story’s pacing is very uneven. Hellknight started off strong, but the momentum tapered off as we entered the middle section, and then plateaued until we reached the last hundred pages or so of the novel, where things fortunately started picking up again as we moved into its climactic ending and resolution. For this reason, I can’t quite justify giving this book more than a solid three stars, though overall it was very enjoyable. Its quality is easily heads and shoulders above a lot of media tie-ins out there, and despite its pacing issues I thought this was a really good story and well worth the read.
So don’t let the Pathfinder name scare you off, which is probably the key point I wanted to emphasize, because tie-in fiction can be great fun and I think most will have no trouble diving into this world and appreciating it like any other fantasy novel. I look forward to reading more by Liane Merciel, and I definitely see more Pathfinder Tales in my future....more
How do I know when I have series addiction? Clearing my reading schedule and dropping everything the moment I get my twitchy fingers on the sequel is a pretty good indication. I simply adore these Alcatraz books! The first four installments are being re-issued this year, with The Knights of Crystallia being the third book to get the fully illustrated hardcover treatment, and my latest fix.
After their narrow escape from the Library of Alexandria, Alcatraz Smedry’s friends are ready to help him take the next step—his first visit to the Free Kingdoms. Finally, our young hero will get to see where his family comes from. The only thing dampening Alcatraz’s spirits though, is his father’s aloof behavior towards him. You’d think reuniting with your long-lost son after thirteen years would be cause for more celebration, right? But no, Attica Smedry seems to care only about himself, and doesn’t even appear to notice that it was Alcatraz who masterminded the plan to save all their lives.
But soon, Alcatraz is distracted from his disappointment. The wonders of the Free Kingdoms turn out to be as amazing as he’d imagined, and the best part is, Alcatraz discovers he is famous! While he grew up in the Hushlands unaware of his true origins, Free Kingdomers have known about him for years, making up fantastical stories about his exploits.
Still, it’s not all just fun and games. Alcatraz’s friend Bastille is about to go on trial, in danger of being stripped of her knighthood. The king is also about to make a deal with the evil Librarians, one that would bring peace but also deal a huge blow to the Free Kingdoms. And worst of all, Alcatraz finds out his mother is in town, sneaking about and surely being up no good. All of these events must be related somehow, but can Alcatraz keep the fame from going to his head long enough to figure it all out?
After three books, I’m amazed this series can still keep me laughing the way it has been, or maybe I shouldn’t be shocked at all, since one should never underestimate the cleverness of Brandon Sanderson. His character Alcatraz is still as devious, sarcastic, and rambling as ever, but with each installment he comes up with new ways to make this shtick feel new and interesting. This particular point is so important for me; because while I may be beyond the targeted age group for this series, sometimes I do feel as though I have the attention span of a middle grader. Yes, I confess—I need fresh jokes and creativity in order to keep me reading, especially when it comes to children’s books, and thankfully this series delivers.
Alcatraz continues to be fun and enjoyable on so many levels. Kids will love the crazy adventures of our main character and his friends, and adults can also laugh privately at the underlying jokes while appreciating the subtler themes and important messages that the stories are trying to convey. By their very nature, these books are so unpredictable thanks to Alcatraz’s zany style of storytelling, but by the final pages I’m always impressed at how everything comes together. So far, each book has given me a moment where I want to cheer and pound my fists on the table at the same time, yelling, “This is brilliant! It all fits so perfectly! Why didn’t I see this coming?” Even if I can’t always guess what’s going to happen, with three Alcatraz books under my belt, you’d think I would be used to Sanderson’s kooky brand of well organized chaos by now.
A fantastic sequel, The Knights of Crystallia is another fast-paced, hilarious and exciting installment which I liked even better than the previous book, since it also does so much more in furthering the events of the overall series arc. Alcatraz continues to play his cards close to his vest, teasing more big things to come, and we’re getting no sign that things are slowing down. Seems I have a hard time being patient when it comes to anything by Sanderson, whether it’s his adult novels or Young Adult/Middle Grade–I can practically feel the serious withdrawal symptoms coming on as I’m already craving the next book....more
The best description I can come up with for my mind-bending experience I had with this book can be summed up in the words of Jerry Garcia: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” I had initially agreed to review The Hike with no small amount of trepidation, fearing that it might be too “weird” for my tastes. Can you blame me, though? I don’t even how I’ll do my usual novel summary for this review, because pretty sure anything I say will sound like the mad ramblings of someone on a bad acid trip, but here goes nothing:
Ben is a suburban middle-aged family man who takes a business trip up to rural Pennsylvania and books himself into his hotel. Before heading out to his dinner meeting though, he decides to explore around the area with a short hike. He sets off into the nearby woods, following a path he has chosen. Before long, he is beset upon by hulking man wearing the skinned-off face of a dog as a mask. Then there are more of them after him. Or something. Ben ends up running away, stumbling upon a campsite among the trees, and suddenly he is in his twenties again, staring into the face of his old college girlfriend. They sleep together and Ben wakes up. He’s back to his normal thirty-eight-year-old self again, with all his correct memories. But he’s still in the woods, and the girl is gone. All that’s left is a note at the empty camp which reads: “Stay on the path, or you will die.”
Ben stays on the path, all right. The book goes on for a bit longer in this vein. Along the way, he meets a talking crab, who lends him help. Then he’s kidnapped by a man-eating giantess named Fermona, who forces him to fight Rottweiler-men and dwarves in her gladiatorial arena. Up to this point, all Ben wants is to find his way back home to his wife and kids. But soon, he is given a mission: to find someone known as The Producer, supposedly the creator of this crazy world he’s found himself in. The “story”, as it is, keeps going on like this, as Ben spirals deeper into despair, wondering if he’ll ever see his family again.
I don’t usually go for books like this, so in case you’re wondering why I decided to give The Hike a try despite the publisher description clearly indicating that this will be a totally insane and off-the-wall experience, it was because of two words that jumped out at me: video games. Try as I might, I can never resist any novel with a video gaming, and I was also really curious to see how Drew Magary would weave together elements from video game and folk tale as the blurb suggests. Indeed, what we have here is completely unprecedented. Admittedly, the story does play out in a style somewhat reminiscent of those classic text-based adventure computer games, but I have to say unless you’re going into this using Catherine as a baseline for trippiness, this one is going to be WEIRD WEIRD WEIRD.
Typically, I prefer my stories to have a semblance of structure, as opposed to, say, just a random string of events thrown together—which was initially how this book came across. But just as I was starting to really regret my choice, Crab happened. Yes, Crab. To explain would be to give up spoilers, so all I’ll say is that my time with Crab changed everything. By the end of Part I of The Hike I wanted to cry. The revelation revealed there made me understand something about this book, like maybe there’s actually some rhythm to this madness, or maybe the madness is just the point.
At this point in my review, I actually had several more paragraphs planned. After some consideration, I nixed them. It was going to boil down to more commentary on why The Hike was so weird and wonderful, and why despite its kookiness I still enjoyed it a lot. I realized given the circumstances of this book, that’s all immaterial. It’ll either work or it won’t, and I don’t want to run the risk of potentially predisposing would-be readers if I make further attempts to describe its themes or to compare the story to something else, because any more would be revealing and that would remove a lot of the magic.
So throw everything you think you know about this book out the window. Even though it incorporates a number of elements from spec fic genres, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter; it’s going to do its own thing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the moment I let go of my preconceptions was also when I started really enjoying myself. There is truly no guessing where things will go, and once you relinquish the reins and simply let this baby take you where it will, The Hike will delight you and enchant you and move you. I’m really glad I took a chance on this special gem....more
I’ll admit, as cool as its cover looked, Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan did not initially grab my interest. Mind you, it’s not that I’m averse to the prospect of a 150-foot-tall Mecha wreaking havoc in my science fiction, but at the time I just wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for that sort of bombast and action. Thing is though, it turned out I was completely wrong, both on the nature of this book and on my early skepticism that the story might not be for me – because, as you’ll see, it absolutely was. There’s a depth to USJ that I did not expect, and it was this mix of profundity and thrilling suspense that made the book such a great read and audio listen.
Described as a spiritual successor to The Man in the High Castle, even if you have not read the Philip K. Dick classic, one can immediately surmise a certain set of expectations from United States of Japan. Yes, it is an alternate history novel, and it takes place approximately four decades after World War II in a world where Japan won the conflict and conquered America. History has been rewritten to praise Japan’s exemplary conduct in the war and most Americans now also worship the Emperor as a god. Anyone who disagrees or does otherwise is looked upon with suspicion, or disappeared altogether. Resistance has been reduced to a small group of rebels called the “George Washingtons”, freedom fighters who are continuing to find new ways to subvert the Japanese rule. Their latest tactic is a video game called “USA” that depicts what the world might be like if the Allied forces had won the war instead.
Eventually, the illegal game reaches to the attention of Captain Beniko Ishimura, the son of two refugees who were freed from the Japanese American internment camps at the end of the war. Ben’s role to censor video games ultimately leads him on a journey to investigate USA’s origins, putting him on a path of secrets, dangers and lies. Together with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police, Ben goes looking for the rebels and discovers a whole lot more than he bargained for.
What I found most interesting about this book is its protagonist, a 39-year-old underachiever who has hit a dead end in his military career. He’s also indolent, cowardly, the worst kind of womanizer, and not even those closest to him will trust Ben as far as they can throw him. After all, this is a man who turned in his own parents for being traitors to the Japanese Empire. What kind of heartless monster does that?
But of course, there’s always more to the story. As events unfold, and we get to know Ben better, it becomes clear he is not the cold-blooded and deceitful snake his actions paint him out to be. In fact, he feels downright human, living an unambitious life and preferring to stay under the radar. In this world where the secret police can come knocking at your door anytime, when even the slightest or non-existent hint of dissension is suspected, Ben’s approach might in truth be the safest, smartest way to live. And after a while, our protagonist doesn’t actually seem like such a bad guy. Sure, Ben might be apathetic and faint-hearted, but he doesn’t seem capable of directly harming anyone. In time though, his character will develop further and make great strides, especially after he starts teaming up with Akiko. I was impressed at how both of them felt genuinely fleshed-out with complex, believable personalities. What’s on the surface is not always indicative of what’s on the inside.
At its heart, United States of Japan is also a political mystery-thriller. I enjoyed how the world was gradually revealed to us in all its horror and unpleasantness. It’s a dark tale, but fast-paced because of the perfect balance of action and suspense. The story holds an incredibly ambitious blend of concepts and themes, but never once did I feel that it was too much, or that any one element overshadowed another. I liked how the towering robots came into play and how video games had a significant role. Simply put, the plot came together like a well-oiled machine. Once you’re drawn into the intrigue, it’s hard to pull yourself out again.
My experience with the audiobook was interesting as well. This is the first time I’ve listened to a book read by Adam Sims, and I admit my first impression was not very favorable. However, either I got used to the narration or the performance eventually improved, because by the end, Sims’ reading didn’t feel as flat and there were more variations in the rhythm and inflection of his voices. It’s not the best performance I’ve ever heard in an audiobook, but it was more than satisfactory and I also thought Sims also did a good job with his accents and acting.
All told, United States of Japan is a fascinating venture into alternate history, and it is not to be underestimated. Highly recommended....more
Pride’s Spell is the third installment of Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series of novellas starring the ragtag crew of New York’s most exclusive kitchen and catering company. While these books can work perfectly fine as stand-alones, I was delighted to read this one and discover multiple overarching story threads and character paths finally coming together to form a larger picture.
Most of NYC’s in-crowd have heard of Byron “Bronko” Luck, a celebrity chef who used to have his own upscale restaurant and even a TV show. Now he is the head of Sin du Jour and the boss of the Lena and Darren, two ordinary junior chefs who have suddenly found themselves thrust into a world of the paranormal and bizarre. For one thing, Sin du Jour’s clientele is anything but ordinary. Lena and Darren’s first gig with the catering company saw them cooking and serving up a banquet for demons. Their second major job involved providing the food at a goblin wedding. But just when they thought they’ve had it with the weirdness factor, Bronko happily surprises the two of them with an assignment that actually sounds halfway normal: preparing a grand feast for a Hollywood movie premiere.
The team is split up. Understanding on some level that this is a test, Lena and Darren accompany Chef Bronko to California with only a few other staff in tow, while the rest of the crew stay behind to take care of the paranormal convention circuit, and Sin du Jour’s Stocking and Receiving department finally gets some well-deserved time off. Still, even as Ritter, Hara, Cindy and Moon are settling back to enjoy some much needed rest and relaxation, their enemies are not so accommodating. One night, all hell breaks loose as the New York team gets ambushed by the strangest group of assassins you could ever imagine. Meanwhile out west, Lena, Darren and Bronko are also dealing with troubles of their own, as they learn the hard way just how cutthroat the world of Hollywood can be.
No doubt about it, this was probably my favorite Sin du Jour tale so far. I was initially wary when came upon the book’s premise, expecting another celebrity-laden story related to the entertaining industry like in the last book, Lustlocked. Instead, Pride’s Spell had other ideas in mind. Matt Wallace deftly launches a two-pronged attack, hitting us with a storm of outrageous action and humor as both groups of characters scramble to deal with their respective crises. In New York, a wacky scenario unfolds as Ritter and his team are attacked by homicidal holiday icons, with the whole fracas finally ending in an epic showdown at Sin du Jour HQ where Dorsky and his kitchen crew have been holding down the fort while the big boss is out of town. In Hollywood, Lena and Darren struggle to come up with a suitable menu to suit the fastidious dietary demands of pampered celebs, while Jett and Nikki have sequestered themselves away to prepare the greatest, most transcendent dessert experience the world has ever seen. They say that sometimes, the after party is even better than the main event, but as we soon see, this is most certainly not the case for the Hollywood team.
In spite of its absurd plot, I thought there was a lot more substance to this sequel relative to the previous one. Looking back at my review for Lustlocked, my chief complaint was that it felt very much like a “throwaway” installment, a fun side-story that doled out plenty of action and laughs but ultimately added little to the overall series narrative or how I felt about the characters. On the other hand, while Pride’s Spell was every bit as zany and twisted, I thought it offered a lot more when it came to emotional weight. Finally, we can see how Lena and Darren have been integrating into the Sin du Jour family, making friends and forming attachments. In between all the cooking and fighting, we’re also seeing glimpses of who all these characters are on a deeper level, like how they’re starting to connect with each other, what kind of backgrounds they come from, or what makes them tick.
This was especially true for the Stocking and Receiving team. So far, Ritter et al. have featured prominently in their own mini-adventures in each book, and this one was no exception. Like a company of mercenaries, they’ve always stood a bit apart from the kitchen crew in my eyes, providing some extra thrills and comic relief on their rare ingredient-hunting escapades. This however was probably the first time I thought of them as more than a sideshow to the series, gaining a little more insight into the kinds of lives they lead when they’re not off doing jobs for Bronko.
Pride’s Spell ended up being everything I wanted and expected out of a Sin du Jour novella. It’s ridiculous but fun. Humor, action, insanity and violence are still key ingredients in this madcap urban fantasy series, but I’m also glad that we’re starting to see more development in the characters and their relationships. There’s a sense of everything coming together here, even tying in some elements introduced from the first book in the series, making me hunger for the next course. I have a feeling it’s all going to culminate into something great....more
Several weeks ago I received a book that I was unfamiliar with, a gorgeous hardcover with its page edges stained an ominous red. The title was Dark Debts by Karen Hall, which I quickly looked up to find out more. Turns out, what I held in my hands was a revised, new edition of an old cult classic theological horror/thriller, published again now by Simon & Schuster for its 20th anniversary.
According to an article I read though, this is not just a simple reissue, as some of the changes are pretty significant and extensive. Among them are a new major character as well as a reworked ending. The reason for these rewrites, the author explained, had much to do with how she has changed as a person in the last two decades, as well as updates to her knowledge on the Catholic faith. Since I’ve not read the original, there’s no way for me to compare the two editions, but knowing all this new information did make me even more curious. It’s a rare opportunity whenever an author gets to rework a previously published novel, and I was drawn to the themes and subjects of this book.
Gothic horror. Theological questions. Demon possession and exorcism. Mystery. Romance. Dark Debts is all of this and more. The story begins with a Jesuit priest named Father Michael Kinney testifying as a witness to a horrific crime involving a teenage boy and his two parents, appearing in court against the wishes of the church. In response, Father Michael’s superiors transfer him to rural Georgia immediately after the trial, forcing him to leave his old parish in Manhattan. Believing his exile to be a result of church politics, Father Michael is stricken when he discovers the truth about the dark, terrible secrets in his family’s past and that his transfer might in fact be no accident at all.
Meanwhile, a journalist in California receives some shocking news. Randa is informed that her friend and former lover Cam Landry, a man she had always known to be a kind and mild-mannered pacifist, is dead by suicide after robbing a liquor store and killing an employee. After promising to return Cam’s belongings to his brother in Georgia, Randa ends up meeting Jack Landry, the last surviving member of their notorious family. Everyone in town is familiar with the name Landry—the father Will was an abusive alcoholic who took out his awful anger on his wife and sons; youngest brother Ethan’s death was a suicide, though rumor has it that his father killed him; oldest brother Tallen went on a murder spree at a church during Christmas services and was then convicted and executed by the state; and their mother took her own life one year later. Now Cam is gone too, and friends close to him told Randa that he was acting strange and having bad dreams before he snapped. Jack is the only one left, and he is terrified of growing close to anyone, convinced that the Landry curse will claim him next and make him lose control.
If you enjoy experiencing the disturbing feelings of unease or creeping dread brought on by the atmosphere of old-school horror movies, then Dark Debts is for you. It is a very subtle novel, and those looking for more of the in-your-face horror elements will probably have to look elsewhere. There is a supernatural aspect to the story involving satanic cults and demonic possession, but at its heart this book reads a lot more like a slow-burn mystery-suspense rather than a straight up horror novel. There’s also a thread of romance woven in as a spark ignites between Randa and Jack, despite the latter’s reticence and fear to let anyone new into his life.
In particular, I really liked reading about the characters in this book. They are all wonderfully flawed and complicated, as evidenced by the prime example of Father Michael Kinney, a Catholic priest whose devotion to his faith often clashes with his progressive views. He has even broken his vow of chastity and is secretly carrying on a relationship with a woman in New York, and every day he fights an internal battle that challenges his relationship with God. This undoubtedly is the cause of some conflict as he is called upon to perform an exorcism, for how is he to vanquish others’ demons when he is still clearly dealing with his own?
If I had any complaints about this book at all, it would have to do with the story’s pacing. I gave a nod to the slow-burn effect, but I still felt the narrative took an inordinate amount of time to establish the two storylines (one featuring Father Michael, the other focusing on Randa and Jack) and the question of how they are related was not answered until much later. Also, I’d expected this book to be a lot more chilling and disturbing from its cover and the blurbs. While I certainly don’t mind that Dark Debts turned out to be more of a supernatural mystery with a greater emphasis on suspense than actual horror, I still can’t help the twinge of disappointment that this was not as scary as I had hoped.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this book after I was finished though, and realized that even in light of the pacing issues, Dark Debts kept me engaged from cover to cover. The research that went into it must have been tremendous. I didn’t even know until later that the downtown Atlanta fire at the Winecoff Hotel, which was central to Father Michael’s story, was in fact a real event, the deadliest hotel fire in US history claiming 119 victims back in 1946. I looked it up after finishing Dark Debts, and reading the details of the disaster sent shivers up my spine. It makes me wonder what else I might have missed.
Whether you’re new to this book, an old fan interested in seeing some of the updated changes, or just an avid reader of horror/mystery/suspense in general, I definitely recommend checking out this edition of Dark Debts if the story intrigues you. An impressive novel featuring great atmosphere, multilayered characters, and a number of complex themes surrounding the conflict of good versus evil....more
A whole generation was scared off from swimming in the ocean by the Spielberg film based on this book. Embarrassingly, I have to say my own reaction was even more extreme. It was the early 90s and I must have been about 7 when I watched Jaws for the first time on VHS, and for an entire week I refused baths because I was terrified little great whites were going to pour out of the faucets and eat my face. I was an especially wimpy kid with an overactive imagination.
Anyway, fast forward more than ten years, because that was how long it took before I finally managed to screw up the courage to watch the movie again. By then, I was in college and had forgotten much of what happened in the story, so aside from my memories of a couple horrific iconic scenes that have forever burned themselves into the hard drives of my mind, in many ways it was almost like seeing it for the first time all over again. The difference was, I was no longer a child. And chalk it up to the impatience of my twenty-something-year-old self or the fact that the movie was already more than 30 years old by that point, I realized then how needlessly I’d hyped that experience up for myself. Watching Jaws through fresh eyes, it occurred to me that the movie was actually kind of…boring.
But don’t get me wrong; I’ve certainly come to love the film now that I’m older, because I obviously wouldn’t have bothered to check out the book it was adapted from if I wasn’t such a big fan. So, why have I rambled on and on about movie in this review so far when, really, I should have been discussing the Peter Benchley novel instead? Well, it’s because a lot of things because clearer to me after I read this. Let’s face it, barring a handful of edge-of-your-seat moments in the beginning of the film and of course John Williams’ classic score, things don’t really get going until Brody, Hooper and Quint finally end up on the ocean to hunt that big damn shark. Up until that point, much of it was terribly long and terribly dry, and if I thought that about the slow burn build-up of the movie, a part of me couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to make out with the source material.
Truth is, I ended up being pleasantly surprised. The book kept me thoroughly entertained from start to finish, and not only on account of the differences from the movie. It’s clear to me now that a faithful adaptation wouldn’t have worked at all, because of the much deeper, more profound themes in the novel—which I hadn’t expected at all. Benchley must also have realized that writing a horror/suspense-thriller book about a man-eating shark wasn’t going to be easy, if nothing else because every scene on land was going to require a little something extra. After all, no ocean means no shark, and no shark means no action. In other words, boring.
So, not surprisingly, actual scenes with the shark—or “the fish”, as it was called in this book—were written with this cold and almost detached attitude, leaving readers with no illusions as to its brutal nature, and when it kills, you can bet there’s no skimping on the blood and gore.
But hey, what about when the story isn’t focused on the shark? Well, as a matter of fact, plenty of other things happen, including Mayor Vaughn’s connections to the mafia, and a torrid affair between Brody’s wife and Hooper. Ellen Brody, who was barely an afterthought in the movie, is actually a central character in the novel with a major storyline surrounding her intense longing for the affluent life she led before she got pregnant by Brody, which is why she ended up marrying him and settling in Amity. The overall feel of the book is undeniably more melancholy and mature.
On the flip side, the darker tone meant that we lost much of the bromance that made the movie so enjoyable towards the end, and the characters were all so thoroughly unappealing that more than once I ended up rooting for the shark. The finale was also nowhere near as explosive or satisfying, so ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that while the book wins in some areas, it also loses spectacularly in others.
Still, I have to say reading Peter Benchley’s Jaws was more enjoyable than I thought it would be, especially for an older book that’s so inherently associated with its popular adaptation. I’m guessing if you’re interested in checking it out, it’s because you’re like me—a fan of the movie who was really curious to see what in the novel made it in, what got changed, and what got cut. If you want to get the full picture, this is definitely a must-read....more
I knew before starting The Lost Boys Symphony that it would not an easy book to review, and now that I have read it, I find I am no closer to figuring out how to put my thoughts into words. What I do know is that when it comes to the prevalent theme of time traveling in sci-fi, few books these days can still make me see the subject in a different light—but this one did. Making a home for itself in that narrow niche between the literary and the speculative, this book probably isn’t going to be for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it a lot.
Time travel stories, by their nature, are not easy to describe. The Lost Boys Symphony presents an even greater challenge because it is unlike any time travel story I have ever read before. On the surface, the focus is on the lives of three friends: Henry, Gabe, and Val. Henry and Gabe have known each other since they were children. In high school they meet Val, and Henry starts dating her. The three have been inseparable ever since.
Partway through college, however, Val suddenly decides to break up with Henry and transfers to another school. Understandably heartbroken, Henry immerses himself in his other passion, music, while Gabe stands by and offers whatever support he can. But then Henry gets sick. Very sick. And his illness is manifesting in very strange ways, making him hear things and see things that he knows should be impossible. Searching for answers, Henry follows Val to New York City, but then ends up passing out on the George Washington Bridge. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a room with two strangers—but in truth, they aren’t strangers at all. They are him, Henry, at 41 and 80. His future selves have kidnapped the 19-year-old him to give him a message, placing several lifetimes of responsibility on his troubled young shoulders.
Rather than summarizing the book though, it might actually be more helpful to describe its themes, like the disillusionment of youth, the lasting regrets for the paths taken and not taken, not to mention the devastating effects of mental illness—for those who suffer from it as well as for their loved ones. At first, I was intrigued by the ambiguity surrounding Henry’s time traveling. Was he in fact seeing his future selves, and as an extension to that, capable of revisiting the past? Or was he simply experiencing an elaborate hallucination, as a symptom of his deteriorating sanity? Associating time travel with a person’s mental state is also interesting, and likewise the mode of it, linking Henry’s ability to travel through time by becoming one with the music and rhythm of the universe.
However, time travel is not the point of this story. It’s not even a big part of it. At its heart, The Lost Boys Symphony is about relationships, growing up, and coming to terms with the decisions you make in life. Henry’s character along with all the versions of him at various ages show how a person can change over a lifetime, and his efforts to go back and alter his future don’t always work out the way he wants them to. Val is another example of a character feeling lost and untethered, after leaving everything behind (her old home, her old school, her old boyfriend) to remake herself and start completely fresh. But it’s unclear that she even knows what it is she wants, and her life does not turn out the way she expected either. Unquestionably, the most melancholic parts of the book are the moments where the “what ifs” and the “what could have beens” come to the surface. If you were offered the choice to find out what your life could have become if you did things differently, would you want to know? For Henry, Gabe, and Val, not knowing might be less painful.
Needless to say, fans of time travel fiction will definitely want to check this book out, though be wary, for this is far from your typical time travel story. It’s easy to get confused if you don’t follow along closely, keeping track of all the different Henrys and the branching paths his life takes as well as how those paths intersect with those of his friends, Gabe and Val. Still, the way the time traveling was handled was one of this book’s most compelling aspects.
In the end, it’s probably safe to say The Lost Boys Symphony is one of the most unique books I’ve read this year. This is a very different book than what I’m typically used to, but the relationship dynamics and mix of emotions really spoke to me. Mark Andrew Ferguson’s novel is a very human tale about life and love, exploring a young man’s grief for lost dreams and hope for a better future. A fascinating read....more
Out of Tor.com’s big lineup of releases for this summer, City of Wolves was one that immediately caught my eye and I’m glad I got a chance to read it. New author Willow Palecek has written an outstandingly well-developed and complete tale in a brisk 100 pages or so, while still managing to leave me salivating for more. I’ve always had a penchant for paranormal Victorian mysteries and detective stories; throw in werewolves too, and I am totally game.
The story’s protagonist is Alexander Drake, an investigator-for-hire in the bustling Victorian London-esque city of Lupenwald. A former soldier who fought on the losing side for a deposed king, Drake now prefers to stay under the radar, taking on modest opportunities while staying away from jobs offered by the nobility even though they often pay a lot better. He’s forced to reconsider that position, however, when he finds himself ambushed one evening by Lord Colin Abergreen’s hired goons. Cornering Drake in an alleyway and dangling a large purse as an incentive, the nobleman makes our detective an offer he can’t refuse.
Drake, now retained by the Abergreens, agrees to investigate the strange death of the family’s patriarch, Colin’s father. The older man was found dead in the gardens right beneath the shattered window of his chambers, his body completely naked. Old Lord Abergreen was also fond of keeping dogs, a large wolf-like breed that Lupenwald is famous for, and apparently the dogs were fond of him too, as indicated by the canine teeth marks on his corpse. Curiously, the man died without leaving a will, which is rather unusual for a nobleman. The easy thing to do would be to chalk this up to an inheritance dispute, but Drake thinks there’s something more to this case, especially when a werewolf follows him home afterwards and tries to kill him…
I’m impressed with all that Palecek was able to pack into this very slim volume, which features well-crafted characters and a fast-paced plot. Hardly any words are wasted here, as in, blink and you might miss something.
There are both positives and negatives to this, of course. City of Wolves feels very much like other paranormal mysteries of its type, except it accomplishes everything in one third the number of pages. The story is very streamlined, with hardly an ounce of fat on it. The mystery takes off at a fast clip and never falters, and I liked that there was never a dull moment. Still, just because the plot is so efficient, doesn’t mean things aren’t tough for our detective. There are plenty of suspects to consider, and just as many scenarios to ponder in the face of perplexing clues and unexpected twists. There are even a couple scenes of thrilling action and chase sequences to shake things up.
As for the downsides, the world-building feels a bit lean, admittedly. Drake zips from one place to another, and aside from a few cursory observations about his surroundings, we don’t get to see much of the city, and I feel like I’ve been robbed of the opportunity to experience Lupenwald in all its glory. I also failed to get a sense of atmosphere from the writing, which to me is such an important aspect of Victorian-era style fiction.
Furthermore, Drake identifies himself as a Loyalist, something that’s clearly significant to his character and goes back to the War of the Wolves, a fight for the throne between two would-be kings. The book doesn’t dwell much on the conflict, but what little background was revealed about it was very intriguing. If the story could have been a little longer, I would have liked to see more of Lupenwald’s sights and sounds and for the narrative to fill in more of the world’s history—especially since the war was so obviously a defining event for our main protagonist.
Needless to say, I would love for there to be a sequel. I wouldn’t hesitate to read another Alexander Drake novella, especially if future installments will be as enjoyable as this one. City of Wolves was a quick, entertaining read and what I saw definitely left me wanting more....more