Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Artemis by Andy Weir

From the author: Jazz Bashara is a criminal. Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you're not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent. Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Artemis is a fun romp from the author of the bestselling novel The Martian. Weir’s book is dedicated to the Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon but didn’t get to land and walk on it, a nice touch.

The world building is good. I totally believed in a city on the moon. There are a number of ambiguous characters, neither good nor bad. The science seemed real enough to this non-scientist. I liked how currency worked on the moon and also how justice for minor infractions was handled by former Canadian Mountie Rudy. I’m not a big map person but the maps at the front of the book helped me visualize the layout of Artemis.

Weir has a way with words: “If my neighborhood were wine, connoisseurs would describe it as ‘shitty, with overtones of failure and poor life decisions.’” (p. 5 of the advance reader copy)

Although I’m sure I didn’t get them all, I enjoyed the references to pop culture (e.g., "Don't get me wrong, this wasn't the farthest I'd been from the Shire or anything....But this was the farthest I'd ever been from safety." (p. 102 of the ARC).

Artemis is not a perfect book. I kept forgetting the narrator was a woman; I don’t think Weir quite nailed a female inner voice. Although I applaud his attempt to add diversity to science fiction, Jazz also didn’t seem credibly Saudi Arabian. She acted and talked like a snarky American. (Although, who knows, maybe we’ll all think and talk like that in the future when we have a city on the moon.)

Jazz is on the run at one point and dresses up like a prostitute, which seemed like a clichéd choice. Also, there is romantic/sexual tension with a number of different men, and yet she is hung up on the gay ex-boyfriend who left her for another man.

The book was slow starting as Weir did his world building but once the action started it really drew me in. The biggest issue for me was probably the amount of science. I totally believed that scientist Mark Watney knew all the stuff he knew in The Martian, but Jazz is a porter and smuggler. Although several characters comment on how she has so much potential and could be doing more with her life, I had a hard time believing she understood all the complicated science that comes in to play by the end.

So, I can’t say Artemis is as good as The Martian, but it’s an enjoyable science fiction read if you think you’d enjoy a story about a slightly implausible adventure that contains a lot of detailed factual information about staying alive in a city on the moon.

I read an advance reader copy of Artemis. It is scheduled to be published in mid-November. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in print, as an audiobook, and as an ebook. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Are You Sleeping by Galesburg native Kathleen Barber is a compulsively readable psychological thriller. It started a little slow for me but by chapter 5 I was fully engrossed.

Narrator Josie Buhrman has changed her name and is trying to escape from her family history. Her professor father was murdered 13 years earlier. After the conviction of the teenager next door for the murder, Josie’s mother fled to join a cult and Josie suffered a terrible break with her twin sister.

But Josie can no longer escape because a journalist has brought the crime back into the news. A series of podcasts challenges the guilty verdict, suggests someone else might be to blame, and stirs up family secrets. The podcasts catch the fancy of the public and become a social media sensation. Josie leaves her home in New York to travel to her hometown in Illinois to attend a family funeral and finds herself in the middle of the controversy. Josie’s hometown, Elm Park, is a lot like Galesburg. It’s a small city in the Midwest anchored by a liberal arts college.

Are You Sleeping is not a perfect book but I rate it a solid four stars. I would never have guessed it was Barber’s first book. The narrative flows smoothly and the plot makes you want to keep reading so you can find out what happened. Josie rather foolishly thinks she can keep her past from her partner, to a point that strained credulity for me. However, Barber’s secondary characters are flawed, fleshed out, and believable. Josie's cousin Ellen is particularly both likable and unlikable and convincing. The ending didn’t stun but I was in doubt about who murdered the professor almost until the end.

The title was a good one – it had me singing Frère Jacques in my head, which kept me thinking about and wanting to get back to the book. The plot line about the podcasts and their popularity on social media was extremely believable; it made me wonder about other people whose lives have been damaged by sensational reporting.

Galesburg readers who enjoy psychological thrillers and mysteries will want to get their hands on a copy of Are You Sleeping. The book can be purchased at Stone Alley Books & Collectibles.

 Author Kathleen Barber will be at the Galesburg Public Library on Thursday, September 14 at 7:00 pm to discuss, sell, and sign copies of her book. In addition, the Tuesday/Thursday Book Clubs will discuss Are You Sleeping on Tuesday, September 12 from 1:00-2:00 pm and Thursday, September 14, from 6:00-7:00 pm. All readers are welcome to join either discussion at the library.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi

From the publisher: In 2015 Manoush Zomorodi, host of the popular podcast and radio show Note to Self, led tens of thousands of listeners through an experiment to help them unplug from their devices, get bored, jump-start their creativity, and change their lives. Bored and Brilliant builds on that experiment to show us how to rethink our gadget use to live better and smarter in this new digital ecosystem. The outcome is mind-blowing. Unplug and read on.

I am very interested in the topic of phone use and overuse. I am not anti-technology (and neither is the author of this book), but I do find the overuse of phones by much of American society alarming. Zomorodi was definitely preaching to the choir with me as a reader.

Zomorodi includes research to back up the idea that we are more creative when we allow ourselves to be “bored” and allow our minds to wander. I do not carry my smartphone around in my hand and it is seldom in view when I am out with others, so I am actually not her primary audience. Still, even I found some of her seven challenges (to change your relationship with your phone and increase your productivity and creativity) of interest. Most of them are not a challenge for me (keep your device out of reach while in motion – already do that; have a photo free day – most of my days are photo free, etc.). But I certainly waste time on the internet on my laptop, if not my smartphone.

I found myself wanting to quote long passages of the book because they match my own experiences so well. For example,
“In a study from 2014 called the iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interaction in the Presence of Mobile Devices, researchers at Virginia Tech found that the mere presence of a mobile device, even just lying there, seemingly benign on the kitchen counter, can lower the empathy exchanged between two friends.” (p. 56)
and
“This isn’t just a productivity or focus issue. [Gloria] Mark’s lab has found that the more people switch their attention, the higher their stress level. That is especially concerning, she says, because the modern workplace feeds on interruptions.” (p. 89)
The text was engaging and the research cited compelling. If you would like to decrease the amount of time you waste on your smartphone (or laptop), you might find this short and easy to read book of interest.

I read an advance reader copy of Bored But Brilliant. It will be published in early September, and a print copy will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

From the publisher: An ingenious new thriller that weaves a path through history, following a race of human-like machines that have been hiding among us for untold centuries.

The main characters in The Clockwork Dynasty are June, a young human woman who researches mechanical antiquities, and Peter, an automaton or avtomat (a Russian word that means both “automatic” and “machine”). Peter has a “sister,” another avtomat, who looks like a doll but is determined, intelligent and logical.

The world building in The Clockwork Dynasty is amazing. It opens with June exploring a mechanical doll, which pulled me in right away as a doll collector. The story covers the lives of the two avtomats and others like them across continents and millennia. June gets dragged into an avtomat civil war against her will, but she has the knowledge and skills to alter the course of something that has gone on for thousands of years. I would describe the book as a sort of steampunk mystery. Why are the avtomats fighting? It was refreshing to read a book that didn’t dwell on a romantic trilogy – or any romance for that matter.

Wilson does a great job of painting images throughout the book. There are many little believable details about the construction of the automatons. Wilson draws them in such a way that they felt both real and inhuman to me. I felt I came to know Peter and his sister Elena better than the human June. The narrative jumps between Peter’s past and June’s present, but not in a way that seemed at all confusing.

The Clockwork Dynasty is not a perfect book – parts of it were a bit slow, and a lot of questions remained after I finished it. But I very much enjoyed this unusual read. The Clockwork Dynasty is available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an audiobook, and it will be available as an ebook shortly.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

From the publisher: Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
One of the most hyped upcoming releases in science fiction is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. It is well written and kept me reading. It is, however, extremely bleak. The way the author deals with the issue of autonomy for both humans and robots is thought-provoking, as are the plot threads about health care in the future. While I had a hard time liking any of the characters, they were memorable.

This debut novel from the founding editor of the science fiction site io9 reminded me of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, the TV series Andromeda, and most of all the movie Blade Runner. If you like bleak space operas about a fallen Earth, this book may be for you.

I read an advance reader copy of Autonomous. It is scheduled to be published in late September 2017. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and as an ebook.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

From the publisher: In this brilliant crime novel from the author of Missing, Presumed, a detective investigates her most personal case yet: a high-profile murder in which her own family falls under suspicion.

Persons Unknown is the second book in Susie Steiner’s police procedural mystery series. The lead character is a detective, pregnant through artificial insemination, who has recently moved to provide a better life for her adopted black son Fly. Then the father of her sister’s toddler is murdered, and Fly becomes the main suspect when he is seen on camera walking home from school near where the man was killed. The evidence is flimsy and circumstantial, but Manon’s colleagues seem to be working against her as she tries to prove Fly’s innocence.

Steiner is a good writer, and I wanted to see where the case was going and how Manon was going to cope with pregnancy while striving to clear her son’s name. Manon is messy and imperfect, and while I don’t always like her I appreciate that she seems like a real person.

The plot was inspired by a real case. While I fully believe young black man are falsely accused and even convicted on weak evidence, I did have a hard time fully buying that the adopted 12-year-old-son of a white police officer would be railroaded in quite the way that Fly is in this book.  Still, like the first book (Missing, Presumed), Persons Unknown is a definite recommend from me for lovers of British police procedurals.

I read an advance reader copy of Persons Unknown. It will be released in early July and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

From the publisher: Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This is the story of what happened first… . Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a presequel of sorts to Every Heart a Doorway. Jack and Jill are two of the main characters in Every Heart a Doorway; this book is their story, of the fantasy land they stumbled into at the age of 12 and returned to at the end of Every Heart a Doorway.

I really really loved Every Heart a Doorway  (see my review at http://lookgoodifyoudie.blogspot.com/2016/03/every-heart-doorway-by-seanan-mcguire.html). I would heartily recommend it to anyone who feels they don’t quite fit in. I enjoyed Down Among the Sticks and Bones because I really love the way Seanan McGuire writes, but it’s not quite as good as the first book in the series. The fantasy land is well drawn, but what’s missing is the immersion in a place where everyone feels different and is seeking the place they belong.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a short book and a quick read. We get to know Jack and Jill better, and it has the same sort of creepy allure that the first book did. It has the same language affirming the right to choose how you are who you are.

For a short time the twins are cared for by their grandmother, and when she is sent packing by their parents when they fear she is influencing them too much, the grandmother thinks:

She had done her best. She had tried to encourage both girls to be themselves, and not to adhere to the rigid roles their parents were sketching a little more elaborately with every year. She had tried to make sure they knew that there were a hundred, a thousand, a million ways to be a girl, and that all of them were valid, and that neither of them was doing anything wrong. She had tried. (p. 34 of the advance reader copy)

I definitely recommend this book if you read and enjoyed the first.

I read an advance reader copy of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. It will be published in mid-June and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

From the publisher: When editor Susan Ryeland is given the tattered manuscript of Alan Conway's latest novel, she has little idea it will change her life. She's worked with the revered crime writer for years and his detective, Atticus Pund, is renowned for solving crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s. As Susan knows only too well, vintage crime sells handsomely. It's just a shame that it means dealing with an author like Alan Conway... . But Conway's latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript there lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder.

If you are a fan of Agatha Christie-style "locked room" mysteries, you will want to put Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz on your "to read" list. This book within a book kept me fully engaged. Both the fictional novel written by Alan Conway and the narrative by his editor were interesting. The ending of both works is satisfactory, and the book really is an homage to the great locked room mysteries of the past. 

Once you get your hands on a copy, settle in for an engrossing read. 

Magpie Murders will be published in early June. The Galesburg Public Library will have it available in print and as an ebook. I read an advance reader copy of Magpie Murders.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Clairvoyants by Karen Brown

From the Publisher: "On the family homestead by the sea where she grew up, Martha Mary saw ghosts. As a young woman, she hopes to distance herself from those spirits by escaping to an inland college town. There, she is absorbed by a budding romance, relieved by separation from an unstable sister, and disinterested in the flyers seeking information about a young woman who's disappeared - until one Indian summer afternoon when the missing woman appears beneath Martha's apartment window, wearing a down coat, her hair flecked with ice." I enjoyed reading this novel. It was an eerie psychological story. The author hooks you in the first two pages and keeps you interested during the entire novel. We are introduced to young Martha on her seventh birthday where we learn about her mystical gift. She is an awkward girl, and considering what was going on in her life we can see why. She has a sister with some issues as well and was considered insane enough to be put in a home. The story really starts when Martha gets sent off to college by her Mother, who is equally as awkward. It is during this time where we learn the truth about Martha, her sister Del and what really happened to the boy who went missing from their hometown. If you like suspenseful, psychological mysteries with a lot of surprises and great writing, then this book is for you! Read On!!

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Wow. Tooth and Claw is definitely the most original comedy of manners I have ever read. Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope meet - well, dragons. All the characters are dragons. 

Much about the dragon society made me uncomfortable. Eating dragon meat makes dragons grow and get healthy, so they share in the eating of their parents when they die. But high ranking dragons also eat the dragonets of their farmers and their servants when they get old. When a maiden dragon falls in love and agrees to marry, she changes from gold to blush pink. But a single male dragon can "crowd" a maiden uninterested in his attention and cause her to blush, which will either ruin her or force her to marry him.

But when I stop to think about it, much about Victorian society, especially in regards to women, children, and the treatment of servants, should make me just as uncomfortable, and that I think is Walton's intent. 

Walton is such a fine wordsmith that I know that when she writes, for example,

"That's amazing," Avan said, amazed. (p. 321)
she means it, and it is not because of lazy editing or unimaginative word choice.

The plot surprised me many times, and the ending is satisfyingly happy - although still with those niggling concerns about society and justness.

Recommended for lovers of Victorian novels and dragons. The Galesburg Public Library owns Tooth and Claw as a print book and as an ebook.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Here is a story of a lovely married couple, David and Adele. David is a successful psychiatrist and Adele is his loving, beautiful and perfect wife. We learn there was some "terrible necessary act" that happened back "Then" - "a thing had been done that could not be undone." Cryptic and creepy, that. But here in the present, we are introduced to Louise, who is a single Mom with no self-esteem and possibly a slight drinking problem. She is David's new secretary, and this is where this dark and disturbing tale starts to unfold. Our naive Louise has no idea what she is getting herself into when she befriends these two. The one thing she learns very quickly, and we the reader discover before she does, is that this marriage is very, very, messed up and she should cut and run far, far away. This is a well-written psychological thriller that was a quick read, but mostly because I couldn't put it down. Completely unpredictable, shocking in places and kind of insane. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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.