Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Roar by Cora Carmack

From the publisher: Aurora comes from one of the oldest Stormling families in existence. As the sole heir of Pavan, Aurora's been groomed to be the perfect queen. She’s intelligent and brave and honorable. But she’s yet to show any trace of the magic she’ll need to protect her people. To keep her secret and save her crown, Aurora’s mother arranges for her to marry a dark and brooding Stormling prince from another kingdom. When a handsome young storm hunter reveals he was born without magic, but possesses it now, Aurora realizes there’s a third option for her future besides ruin or marriage. She might not have magic now, but she can steal it if she’s brave enough.

Roar is the first in the Stormheart series. It is true to what it is trying to be - a girl power fantasy coming of age romance. It's not a standout or especially original, but the heroine is strong and likable and the world building decent. Oh, and the cover art is gorgeous! Recommended for fans of Kristin Cashore, Laini Taylor and Marie Rutkoski.

I read an advance reader copy of Roar. It will be published in June 2017. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and as an ebook.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

From the publisher: The bestselling author of A Man Called Ove returns with a dazzling, profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.

In Beartown, the latest from Swedish publishing sensation Fredrik Backman, the residents of a small community, struggling economically, have one bright spot in their lives - the junior hockey team. This puts immense pressure on the teenaged members of that team and the adults around them.

Beartown is a slow-moving novel of great feeling that builds to big moments, then backs away and gets thoughtful. It's about sports, friendship, rape, societal expectations, right vs. wrong, female strength, and community. It features some fascinating, multi-faceted characters that felt like real people.  I loved it.

Beartown was not always easy to read, but I had trouble stepping away from it. The plot isn’t original: Something Happens before the big game that threatens the team’s success and pits the townspeople against one another. I guessed much of what was coming all along the way. The backgrounds of the characters aren’t particularly original – the bad boy whose father killed himself when he was a boy, the recent immigrant and his cleaning woman mother, the hometown hero returned in middle age to work for his old team. But Backman works those standard character descriptions into something More. The strength of the characters and the narrative make up for any deficiencies in plot. This is the kind of book where you get to know the characters so well you find yourself wondering about them long after you've finished the book.

I loved Backman’s first book, A Man Called Ove, but wasn’t too impressed with his third, Britt-Marie Was Here. While I enjoyed Ove more, Beartown is the better book. It really shows how much Backman has matured as a writer. Backman has a very specific writing style, slow, repetitive, and deliberate, and I’m sure it puts some people off. But I felt much of the writing in Beartown was masterful. Beartown reminds me in good ways of J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Both are hard to read, and both showcase well developed characters that you come to care about and shine a spotlight on societal issues. (And Beartown is a lot shorter than The Casual Vacancy!)

I would give Beartown 4.5 stars instead of 5, mostly for the comfortable ending (although the ending satisfied me as a reader). I think this would make a great book discussion title. I recommend it for fans of Backman and of thoughtful fiction featuring developed characters.

Beartown comes out on April 25 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in multiple formats.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

From the publisher: 

She's a soldier. Noemi Vidal is 17 and sworn to protect her planet, Genesis. She’s willing to risk anything - including her own life. To their enemies on Earth, she’s a rebel. He's a machine. Abandoned for years, utterly alone, Abel has advanced programming that’s begun to evolve. He wants only to protect his creator, and to be free. To the people of Genesis, he's an abomination. 

They are enemies in an interstellar war, forced by chance to work together as they embark on a daring journey through the stars. Their efforts would end the fighting for good, but not without sacrifice. The more time they spend together, the more they're forced to question everything they’d been taught was true.

Defy the Stars had me from page 1. The plot plunges right into action, with interesting characters and world building. I’m not a huge fan of the robot (or whatever) who wants to become “real,” but the author does a good job with this particular plot device and I bought into it.

Earth is approaching collapse after years of environmental destruction. The people of Earth have created “gates” that allow them to visit other solar systems, and they have chosen four planets as replacements for Earth. However, the people still living on Earth have learned nothing about good stewardship. The settlers on the planet Genesis have taken the mistakes made on Earth to heart and are trying to keep their planet healthy. They are fighting to keep the people of Earth from ruining Genesis as well.

Noemi is a Genesis soldier. She has volunteered to go on a suicide mission with other volunteers. I would have preferred that Noemi be a little older – maybe 21 or 22 rather than 17 - but this book is aimed at young adults and so she is a teenager.

Noemi and Abel, the “mech” (aka robot) that she finds on an abandoned Earth ship, are both strong but flawed. I liked them both and enjoyed the alternating points of view. Noemi and Abel embark on a mission Noemi hopes will end the war between Genesis and Earth. This takes them to each of the other planets and to Earth. The best part of the book by far for me was the descriptions of the four colonized planets, all very different and with very different inhabitants. Some of the people they meet get caught up in their plans and have their own moments to shine. (Oddly, one character is mentioned multiple times throughout the book but never actually appears. Perhaps he will appear in the sequel.)

Let’s face it, the plot is not particularly original, but I enjoyed the ride all the same. There is a fair amount about faith and God, which surprised me, but I didn’t find it heavy handed. I look forward to reading the sequel some day.

Defy the Stars will appeal to fans of the Starbound series by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. I read an advance reader copy of Defy the Stars. It is scheduled to be published in April 2017 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library. 

The Vicar's Daughter by Josi S. Kilpack

From the publisher: Cassie, the youngest of six daughters, is bold, bright, and ready to enter society. There's only one problem: her older sister Lenora, whose extreme shyness prevents her from attending many social events. Lenora is now entering her third season, and since their father has decreed that only one Wilton girl can be out at a time, Cassie has no choice except to wait her turn. Evan Glenside, a clerk, has just been named his great-uncle's heir and he struggles to feel accepted in a new town and in his new position. A chance meeting between Evan and Lenora promises to change everything, but when Lenora proves too shy to pursue the relationship, Cassie begins to write Mr. Glenside letters in the name of her sister. Her good intentions lead to disaster when Cassie realizes she is falling in love with Evan. As secrets are revealed, the hearts of Cassie, Evan, and Lenora are tested. Will the final letter sent by the vicar's daughter reunite the sisters as well as unite Evan with his true love?

The Vicar’s Daughter is a Proper Romance from Shadow Mountain Publishing.  Proper Romances are clean romantic stories that contain interesting issues. In this one, a young woman is affected by social anxiety but is expected to follow the same path as her older sisters and find a husband all the same. While her anxiety keeps her from being able to do that, her younger sister must wait in the shadows, unable to pursue a romance of her own.

I found the plot a bit jumpy, and some of the Messages were a little too heavy handed for my liking, but overall I enjoyed this unusual romance. The character with social anxiety  showed positive growth, as did her family’s understanding of her condition. The characters grappled with right and wrong, and with how to ask for forgiveness and bring oneself to forgive. The plot is more somber than many traditional romance novels, but the ending was satisfying.

The Vicar’s Daughter is recommended for readers looking for clean historical romance with religious overtones.  It could be an excellent book club choice for the right group of readers, as there are moral and societal issues to be discussed.

I read an advance reader copy of The Vicar’s Daughter.  It is scheduled to be published in April 2017 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

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.