Monday, February 13, 2017

What the Dead Leave Behind by Rosemary Simpson

From the publisher: As the Great Blizzard of 1888 cripples New York City, heiress Prudence MacKenzie sits anxiously in her Fifth Avenue home waiting for her fiancé’s safe return. But the fearsome storm rages through the night. With daylight, more than 200 people are found to have perished. Among them is Prudence’s fiancé—his body frozen, his head crushed by a branch, his fingers clutching a single playing card, the ace of spades . . .  . Close on the heels of her father’s untimely demise, she is convinced Charles’s death was no accident. The ace of spades was a code he shared with his friend, Geoffrey Hunter, a former Pinkerton agent. Wary of sinister forces closing in on her, Prudence turns to Geoffrey as her only hope in solving a murder not all believe in—and to help protect her inheritance from a stepmother who seems more interested in the family fortune than Prudence’s wellbeing.

What the Dead Leave Behind is a well written and well researched historical mystery. I don’t know much about 1888 New York, but nothing jumped out at me as being historically inaccurate. Main character Prudence does not always act the way young women of that time probably acted, but that’s excusable in a novel about a strong-minded and independent young woman.

This book has a lovely cover and a winning heroine who has weaknesses – like a fondness for laudanum she must resist – as well as great strength of character. She does not fall into the arms of the first eligible man she meets after her fiancé’s death.

I’m not a mother or a stepmother, and even I am tired of the wicked stepmother trope. Still, author Simpson does well with this overused plot device. At least the author makes no secret of the fact that the stepmother is the one to watch out for. The plot took turns that I did not expect but were believable. The main characters are well developed, and there are interesting side characters. This seems to be the first in a series, and I’m sure some of those characters will continue forward in later books. 

If this does continue as a series, I will be on the watch for book two. If you are a lover of historical mysteries with lots of detail, you may want to read What the Dead Leave Behind.

I read an advance reader copy of What the Dead Leave Behind. It is scheduled to be published in late April and will be available through the Galesburg Public Library in print and as an ebook.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

From the publisher: Geek girl Elle Wittimer lives and breathes Starfield, the classic sci-fi series she grew up watching with her late father. So when she sees a cosplay contest for a new Starfield movie, she has to enter. The prize? An invitation to the ExcelsiCon Cosplay Ball, and a meet-and-greet with the actor slated to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot. Elle’s determined to win…unless her stepsisters get there first. Teen actor Darien Freeman used to live for cons—before he was famous. Playing Carmindor is all he’s ever wanted, but Starfield fandom has written him off as just another dumb heartthrob. As ExcelsiCon draws near, Darien feels more and more like a fake—until he meets a girl who shows him otherwise. But when she disappears at midnight, will he ever be able to find her again? Part romance, part love letter to nerd culture, and all totally adorbs, Geekerella is a fairy tale for anyone who believes in the magic of fandom.

Galaxy Quest meets Cinderella in this delightful homage to fandoms and fans.  The author has done a fine and believable job of creating a fandom that doesn’t exist that can serve as any fandom that the reader loves. Darien and Elle take turns narrating, and I felt that they had distinct voices.  I enjoyed the personalities of many of the side characters as well. A neglected Dachshund adds comic relief and heart to the story.

On the diversity plus side, the story includes a teen same sex romance, and Darien is a person of color.  (In fact, much is made of the important role the original Carmindor played in breaking acting stereotypes for people of color, and what a relief it is that the actor playing the role in the reboot is also a person of color.)

Although Geekerella is about a fictional fandom, there are plenty of obvious and subtle references to real fandoms, of the kind that real fans actually make (like "Have fun storming the castle!"  and my favorite, "This day, we fight." 💗). I'm sure I didn't even get all of them, but I got enough.

Geekerella would probably have benefitted from being a little less faithful to the tale of Cinderella. Because it adheres so closely to the story for much of the book, the plot is predictable. The evil stepmother is just a little too evil. But there are plot twists, and I especially enjoyed the scene in which a desperate Elle tries to get ready to enter the cosplay contest with the help of many other con attendees.

This is a sweet story that might bring a smile and a sigh to anyone who has ever felt alone or like they didn't fit in, and it ends the way we want it to – happily ever after. Although it’s aimed at the young adult market, I highly recommend it for all geeks, nerds, dorks, and other fans of fandoms who’d enjoy a young love romance that is also a love letter to us all.

I read an advance reader copy of Geekerella. It will be available for checkout in April 2017.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Just One Damned Thing After Another, by Jodi Taylor

"History is just one damned thing after another" -Arnold Toynbee

  This book, first in a series by Jodi Taylor, introduces us to Madeleine Maxwell, known as Max.  Max is a professor of history from Thirsk University and receives the offer of a lifetime for an historian, the chance to "investigate major historical events in contemporary time," as its described at St Marys Institute of Historical Research.  So begins Max's adventure through history, studying events both great and small from a very close viewpoint.
  I have to enthusiastically recommend this series for anyone who enjoys history and science fiction.  Jodi is an entrancing story teller, and her characters are vibrant and attention grabbing from the start.  The story unfolds from Max's viewpoint, and her struggles with her inner demons are just as engaging as the many moments of hilarity and frivolity as she and her coworkers move through history.  The only issue I have with the series is how quickly I ran through the books available here, now I'll have to either wait patiently for more, or engage in a more directed search myself.
  As a warning, Jodi is not shy about showing relationships with an unabashed earthiness, and her descriptions of death and injury pull no punches either.  If that warning doesn't scare you off, I would be willing to bet that this series will grab your attention.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

From the publisher: When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from other witches. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized. But Tea finds solace and guidance with an older bone witch who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training. In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha - one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.

The Bone Witch is beautifully written, with lovely passages and good world building. I was able to clearly visualize the world and its inhabitants. The narrative alternates between two points in time. In the first, Tea (pronounced Tey-uh), surrounded by teachers, fellow students, and her asha family, is learning what she needs to know to be a powerful and effective wielder of magic. In the second, she is alone and in a dark place, telling her story to an interested bard and preparing for action. The novel opens strong and the cover is gorgeous.

However, the pace of The Bone Witch is glacial. Glaaacial. And the slow pace is not spent developing character. Despite the slow pace, I never felt I got to know Tea; her dead brother Fox was the most interesting part of the book. We also don't see any action to explain how Tea went from the first place, surrounded by friends and family, to that place of solitude until late in the book. We do see her undergo training in dance, voice, martial arts, how to wear her special asha clothing and jewelry, etc. Oh, and a little bit about raising the dead.

The narrative is relentlessly joyless, yet I was compelled to keep reading.  Big questions are left unanswered, and I am intrigued enough that I will plan to read the sequel.

Although much in this book feels original, sometimes the author does wander into cliché territory (from p. 202 of the advance reader copy: "Don't worry your pretty head over it, my dear," the old man said kindly”).

I give The Bone Witch points for a transgender character, a boy who knows he won't survive as a soldier and dreams of being the first male asha instead.

This book will find its reader, but many others will stop reading long before the end. You might be that reader however, so watch for the book at the Galesburg Public Library in March if you are intrigued.

I read an advance reader copy of The Bone Witch.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

From the publisher: In the not-too-distant future, a simple outpatient procedure to increase empathy between romantic partners has become all the rage. And Briddey Flannigan is delighted when her boyfriend, Trent, suggests undergoing the operation prior to a marriage proposal—to enjoy better emotional connection and a perfect relationship with complete communication and understanding. But things don’t quite work out as planned, and Briddey finds herself connected to someone else entirely—in a way far beyond what she signed up for. It is almost more than she can handle—especially when the stress of managing her all-too-eager-to-communicate-at-all-times family is already burdening her brain. But that’s only the beginning. As things go from bad to worse, she begins to see the dark side of too much information, and to realize that love—and communication—are far more complicated than she ever imagined.

Crosstalk is the best book I’ve read in some time! Not perfect – I give it 4.5 stars – but I was totally engrossed and entertained. I enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland quotes that are scattered throughout at the beginning of chapters (including one of my favorite passages, “this is the driest thing I know”). The book is pro reading and pro library and a ton of fun. I saw major plot twists coming but that didn’t stop me from enjoying them when they were revealed. While thoughtful about over-communication in this age of social media and technology, Crosstalk is not deep thinker science fiction; it’s a sci-fi romantic screwball comedy. Recommended for anyone who enjoys a romantic romp with a likable heroine and hero. Also recommended for readers who like to think the Irish have something special that others don’t have.

The Galesburg Public Library owns Crosstalk and other books by Connie Willis.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gilded Cage by Vic James

From the publisher: Our world belongs to the Equals—aristocrats with magical gifts—and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world. A girl thirsts for love and knowledge. A boy dreams of revolution. And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

Gilded Cage is a bit like Hunger Games meets Harry Potter. It is set in an alternate, modern Britain. Although they don’t use wands, there are people with magical skills called Equals. They live in luxury while those without magical powers must serve them as slaves for 10 years of their lives. It’s the kind of world imagined by Harry Potter’s Gellert Grindelwald and Tom Riddle.

The perception among those who haven’t served their slavedays is that they aren’t that bad, but they are. While serving their slavedays, people have no rights, and most are not adequately fed, clothed, housed, or cared for medically. Most Equals take their better circumstances as a right, although a few among the Skilled are fighting to end the slaveday system.

Gilded Cage focuses on a family of five that decides to do their slavedays together. (I never really understood how people could choose their slavedays – if you could put it off indefinitely, couldn’t you die before doing them?) The parents and their three children expect to be sent to one of the cushier spots – serving one of the aristocratic Equal families. But their teenaged son Luke gets sent to one of the brutal factory towns instead.

Although the focus and narrative viewpoint of the chapters moves between several characters, Luke and his older sister Abi seem to be the focal point. Abi works with one of the sons of the Equal family who has no Skill (a squib, if you like, although he seems to be the only one around). There is a lame insta-romance between them that really just got in the way.

There are a lot of nuanced characters, and you cannot always tell if they are good or bad. There are some truly evil characters too, and some really good ones. There is also some heavy handed writing (for example, a man in a cage tells Abi, “You’re in – the pen – too….Just – I see – my cage – my leash.” (p. 208 of the advance reader copy)). Many of the scenes (especially those in the factory town Millmoor) felt so familiar I had to remind myself that I haven’t actually read this book before. But there are some original touches, and the plot twists compelled me to keep reading. If you are looking for a well written dystopian novel with interesting characters, you may enjoy Gilded Cage (first in a series).

I read an advance reader copy of Gilded Cage. It will be published in February 2017, and it will be available through the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

 I give All Our Wrong Todays 4.5 stars. I deducted half a star only because the ending wasn’t perfect (although I don’t have a suggestion for a better ending). Otherwise it is mostly 5 stars  because I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.

The narrator, Tom Barren, is straight with us right from the first chapter. He lives in our world in 2016. But it’s not supposed to be like this. An unlimited energy source invented in 1965 is supposed to have changed everything, leading to peaceful lives, plenty of food and health care for everyone, transport for all, and plenty of other cool things. But it’s not like that in our current timeline – and Tom himself is to blame. A stupid mistake while stupidly time travelling has changed everything.

Not everything is worse though. Our world is as messed up as we know it to be. But Tom’s personal situation is much, much better. This causes him some highly believable angst, since he knows he need to restore the timeline if possible, no matter what it costs him personally.

Everything in this book seems so plausible, and the time travel science seemed real (whether it is or not) and not too confusing for a nonscientist. I felt I got to know Tom well, given his complicated personal circumstances (I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more), and every now and then Tom hit me with something that I found insightful.

After finding a damaged pocket watch in his original timeline world:
 In the early twentieth century, railroad accidents were commonplace because trains running on the same tracks weren’t accurately synchronized. Keeping time was actually a matter of life or death. A watch like this was made to protect people. Every piece of technology in my world shared a global chronometer, coordinated to the microsecond, a planet of people all living in unison. But this pocket watch was from an era of temporal isolation, a planet of people each inside their own definite of time. (pp. 67-68 of the advance reader copy)
Wow, temporal isolation. What a great concept.

About the new timeline world (our world):
Part of the problem is this world is basically a cesspool of misogyny, male entitlement, and deeply demented gender constructs accepted as casual fact by outrageously large swaths of the human population. Where I come from, gender equality is a given. I’m not talking about absurdly fundamental things like pay equality. I mean that there is no essential difference in the way men and women are perceived in terms of politics or economics or culture. (pp. 159-160)
Maybe the author put this in as a ploy to appeal to his female readers, maybe it’s sincere, but I loved it either way.

At one point he describes his mom as “rereading The Time Machine with what I guess you would call passive-aggressive literary exasperation.” (p. 215) Ha, what a great turn of phrase!

I found this book cleverly constructed and very very entertaining. The author kept me guessing with the plot and threw in twists I didn’t see coming. This would be a perfect book for a long plane ride. Also, it is separated into nice short chapters if you read in short bursts, always a plus for easily finding a place to stop reading.

I read an advance reader copy of All Our Wrong Todays. It will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library in February 2017.