Book Review: Feedback (Newsflesh, #4) by Mira Grant


There are two sides to every story…

We had cured cancer. We had beaten the common cold. But in doing so we unleashed something horrifying and unstoppable. The infection spread leaving those afflicted with a single uncontrollable impulse: FEED.

Now, twenty years after the Rising, a team of scrappy underdog reporters relentlessly pursue the facts while competing against the brother-and-sister blog superstars, the Masons.

Surrounded by the infected, and facing more insidious forces working in the shadows, they must hit the presidential campaign trail and uncover dangerous truths. Or die trying.

Feedback is a full-length Newsflesh novel that overlaps the events of the acclaimed first novel in the series, Feed, and offers a new entry point to this thrilling and treacherous world.

Okay, first things first: DO NOT pick up Feedback thinking that you can start the Newsflesh books at this point. I would absolutely not consider Feedback “a new entry point”, as the blurb says. Instead, it’s a story set within the world of Newsflesh, telling a story that parallels the story of Feed (book #1 in the series). A knowledge of the world of Newsflesh is required in order to enjoy Feedback… and Feedback will absolutely spoil the original trilogy for you. So there — we’ve gotten the warnings and disclaimers taken care of right from the start!

So basically, the deal is this: Feedback starts at about the same point in time as Feed, 20 years after the Rising, just as the presidential campaign is kicking off. The Masons — stars of the original Newsflesh trilogy — are the stars of the blogging world, and have just gotten the sweet gig of following the Republican candidate expected to grab the nomination, and maybe even the White House. Meanwhile, in Feedback, we meet Ash North, an Irish expatriate who’s an “Irwin” — a daredevil blogger who goes out in the field and pokes zombies — along with her team. Ash and company would love to be anything close to as successful as the Masons, but they remain in the crowded field of lesser bloggers until they get chosen to accompany one of the Democratic candidates, Governor Susan Kilburn.

Ash is a sassy redhead, married platonically to her partner Ben and in love with her other partner Audrey. Along with their techie/makeup guru Mat, they hit the road with the campaign, and immediately find themselves in all sorts of horrifying and life-threatening disaster situations. With lots of zombies. And death. And zombies. And carnage. And, you know, zombies.

I was a little nervous about starting Feedback after reading some fairly negative reviews… but you know what? I liked it! While Feedback includes enough context to explain the origins of the zombie Rising and what’s happened since, it doesn’t feel like a repeat. It’s pretty cool getting another take on the events of the presidential campaign, as seen from the more limited viewpoint of Ash and friends. Ash, Ben, and Audrey stumble pretty quickly across similar clues to those unearthed by Georgia and Shaun in the first three books, but they don’t get as deeply involved in the ghastly conspiracies at play behind the scenes of the US political system.

The plot moves along quickly, and it was interesting to note the parallel events here, and to line those up with the events we know about from Feed and the later books. I liked Ash well enough to enjoy her company, and thought her relationships with Ben and Audrey were unusual enough to keep things fresh and different.

As a fan of The Walking Dead, I will mention that there was a section toward the end of the book that felt a bit too Negan-ish and Savior-y for me… but I suppose the idea of a strong, well-armed man taking over and setting up his own society, with himself at the center, isn’t that unusual for a post-apocalypse tale.

As always, Mira Grant’s writing is sparkly and shiny, alternating between describing scenes of incredibly disturbing zombie attacks (and yes, there are a few truly gruesome, terrible attacks in this book) and applying humor even to tense situations, so I never had to go too long without a laugh (or a snort or a chuckle)… in between wincing in horror, cringing at the gore, and being struck by the devastation to the characters’ souls.

Some light and not-so-light snippets:

“Hello, and welcome to the Huntsville Convention Center,” said the attendant. “We’re so very sorry that you’ve been exposed to a biohazard. Please, pick your preferred scent profile and drop the tabe into your shower as you enter. Your shampoo and body wash selections will be set to match.”

The all-terrain vehicle trundled through the woods like an armored bear: fast enough to be better than walking, bulky enough to make driving a continuous adventure, and sturdy enough to give no fucks when I overcompensated for the slopes and side-swiped a tree…

(what I pictured while reading those lines… )

I hoped [he] and the others had had a moment — just a moment, because sometimes a moment was everything in the world — to call their loved ones and say they were sorry, that they’d always known it would end like this, but that they’d been hoping it wouldn’t end quite so soon. There were always things left unsaid, undone, and I wanted, desperately, for them to have had the time to say at least a few of them.

Our part in this tale was done, and we were getting the hell out. Leave the lies to the living and the truth to the dead. Nothing ever stays buried for long.

 

I’m really glad that I read Feedback, and recommend it — but only if you’ve already read the other Newsflesh books. I love the world that Mira Grant has created, and reading Feedback allowed me to stay in it just a little bit longer.

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The details:

Title: Feedback
Author: Mira Grant
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length: 560 pages
Genre: Horror/science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


This version of the Bennet family and Mr. Darcy is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy, reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . . And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.

This is the most fun I’ve had with a book all year! (Okay, it’s only January 20th, but that sounds impressive, doesn’t it?)

Eligible is a Jane Austen retelling, part of The Austen Project, in which modern-day authors are matched up with Austen novels, retelling Austen’s classic tales in a modern setting. Eligible is the 4th of the Austen Project books to be published, and I’d have to say it’s the most enjoyable so far.

The author opens this Pride and Prejudice reinterpretation with a quote by Mark Twain about Cincinnati being 20 years behind every one else… and thank goodness she does, because this mindset certainly help Eligible make sense. The problem I have with most modern-day interpretations of Austen stories is the unrelenting emphasis on marrying well, which definitely isn’t a notion that fits with a 21st century outlook.

In Eligible, Mrs. Bennet is a Cincinnatian who wants nothing more than for her five daughters to be married off to wealthy, successful men, so she can go brag about it at the country club. Mrs. Bennet is just as insufferable here as she is in Austen’s original. Liz and Jane have found lives and careers in New York, but when they return home due to their father’s health crisis, they’re sucked right back into the Bennets’ world, full of gossip and obnoxious younger sisters and oblivious parents.

The story is quite fun. Darcy is a snobbish neurosurgeon who forms terrible impressions of Cincinnati and the Bennets. And he does have good reason, as Kitty and Lydia are crass and embarrassing every time they open their mouths. Jane is lovely, of course, and Chip is smitten… but complicating matters is the fact that Jane had decided to pursue single motherhood right before returning to Cincinnati, and a pregnancy could definitely throw a wrench in the romance.

The modern-day touches are sprinkled throughout the story. The use of a reality TV show as a catalyst is quite brilliant, especially as Chip’s ongoing connection to the show comes back into play later in the book. Lydia’s story take an unexpected turn as well, and fortunately, she ends up being more sensible and much happier in Eligible than she does in the original.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

I don’t want to get too far into the details, because the fun is in encountering all the little ways in which the author takes the original P&P story elements and turns them on their head and makes them fit in a contemporary novel. Still, I’ll mention just a few things that I thought were great twist, such as Jasper Wick (Eligible‘s version of Wickham), a married man with whom Liz has an affair for far too long (prior to the events of the story), and who ends up being just the sort of ass we’d expect. Fortunately, Lydia does NOT get involved with Wick/Wickham in this story… but the way the author makes Lydia’s elopement work out is fitting, and I only just now got the play on names that the author pulls off with Lydia’s love interest.

The one thing I had a really hard time with in Eligible is that about mid-way through, as Liz and Darcy keep running into each other, being rude to one another, and clearly expressing their dislike… Liz asks Darcy if he wants to have hate sex, and he agrees, and they end up in bed together! A lot! Okay, fine, I don’t have any problem with consenting adults doing whatever they like, but somehow it’s shocking to think about Lizzie Bennet and Darcy getting physical! I felt like I was going to have an attack of the vapors. Quick, fetch the smelling salts! It actually all works in the context of the plot, but somehow putting those characters in that situation was quite outrageous for my poor, proper sensibilities.

Okay, end of spoilers.

The writing in Eligible is fun and light-hearted, and the short chapters keep the plot moving right along, even though the book itself, by pure page-count, is on the long side. Despite knowing overall how the story must work out, given the premise, getting there was really a blast.

I haven’t entirely loved the Austen Project books that I’ve read so far, because I do find the notion of Austen’s plots really hard to force into modern retellings. In the case of Eligible, though, it’s a great fit, and so well done. If you’re an Austen fan, Eligible is worth checking out, and I suppose even someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) would enjoy the story as well.

For more on Austen Project books, check out my reviews of:
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Sense and Sensibility by Joanne Trollope
Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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The details:

Title: Eligible
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: April 19, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on the earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.

Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey to realizing those dreams was as unlikely as it is captivating. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, Massimino catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his qualifying exams and be rejected twice by NASA before making it to the final round of astronaut selection—where he was told his poor eyesight meant he’d never make the cut. But even that couldn’t stop him from finally earning his wings, making the jump to training in T-38 Air Force jets and preparing his body—and soul—for the journey to the cosmos.

Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble telescope—which he’d be tasked with saving on his final mission— Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where the nerdiest science meets the most thrilling adventure, and pulls back a curtain on just what having “the right stuff” really means.

I’ve always had a fascination with the space program, and I’ve loved both fiction and non-fiction books about the early days of NASA and the astronaut program, as well as more humorous (but still informative) works like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. I came across Spaceman purely by chance, and my first thought was, “Hey! It’s that guy who played an astronaut on The Big Bang Theory!”

Well, that’s true, but Mike Massimino is much more than some dude who had a cameo on a sit-com. Massimino embodies the “right stuff”, the true core of what makes an astronaut special. And I’m delighted that I took the time to listen to his audiobook and experience his story.

In Spaceman, Massimino takes us through his New York childhood, his education, his repeated attempts to overcome hideously difficult challenges — oh, for example, fixing his eyesight in order to meet NASA standards — and his determination to one day be a real astronaut.

Through it all, we get an intimate view of the US space program and its triumphs and tragedies, as well as one man’s dedication to achieving his life’s goals.

Massimino presents it all with humility and with humor. For a man who is startlingly intelligent and talented, he’s incredibly self-deprecating throughout the book, and does not shy away from discussing his shortcomings. His repeated message is about sticking with things, even when they seem impossible or out of reach.

Massimino himself narrates the audiobook, which is a wonderful thing. He’s got a gruff, deep voice, and it’s perfect for conveying his own story. Listening to him narrate his first space flight or his father’s illness or his sorrow over lost colleagues, you get the sense that his feelings are real and true, and there’s a sense of immediacy and intimacy in hearing him speak his own words.

There are a few truly beautiful things about Spaceman. One is the portrayal of friendship and goodness that Massimino presents as he speaks about his colleagues in the space program. He describes the dedication, the support, and the sacrifice that they all bring. Through his narrative, the picture emerges of people dedicating their lives to a higher cause, who genuinely believe in what they’re doing and that they’re making a difference in the lives of humankind.

Second is the devotion to one another among the people involved in NASA. When personal needs or crises emerge, the team is there for the individuals and their families, and it’s real. It goes way beyond sending flowers to a bereaved coworker — these people really care and give of themselves in thousands of ways.

Third, Massimino’s descriptions of what it feels like to fly, to spacewalk, and to see the Earth from a distance of 350 miles — just gorgeous. For a scientist, he’s practically a poet.

Finally, I couldn’t help thinking that Massimino himself is just a really nice guy. He says good things about EVERYONE. There’s not a single person he mentions in this book that he doesn’t praise or offer gratitude toward, and he’s quick to point out the talents of just about everyone he’s worked with. Some memoirs focus on the guilty secrets; in Spaceman, we only see the good. Quite impressive.

Sections of Spaceman are particularly moving, but none more so than when Massimino tells of the Columbia shuttle tragedy. He knew all of the lost crewmembers personally, and makes the disaster feel all the more tangible through the descriptions of the terrible events and human loss.

I highly recommend Spaceman — definitely for those who enjoy reading about space exploration, but also for anyone who appreciates a straightforward tale of one person’s journey toward his goals, told by someone who appreciates every opportunity he’s had to pursue and live his dreams.

A reading note: While I loved listening to the audiobook and hearing Massimino narrate his own story, I found it helpful to have a print copy (thank you, public library) on hand as well, both for going back and checking earlier chapters, and in order to be able to view the photos that go along with the story.

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The details:

Title: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Mike Massimino
Publisher: Crown Archetype
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 57 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Listen.
All the world forgets me. First my face, then my voice, then the consequences of my deeds.
So listen. Remember me.

My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. We’ve met before – a thousand times. But I am the girl the world forgets.

It started when I was sixteen years old. A slow declining, an isolation, one piece at a time.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A teacher who forgets to chase my missing homework. A friend who looks straight through me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the people I hurt, the crimes I commit – you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life tricky. But it also makes me dangerous . . .

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of the girl no one remembers. But this gripping story – of love and loss, of hope and despair, of living in the moment and dying to leave a mark – is novel that will stay with you for ever.

 

My Thoughts:

Okay, misleading. The cover image and the blurb make it sounds as though this book is about a girl, possibly a teen.

It’s not. It’s about a grown woman, probably mid-twenties — and if the age were the only issue that annoyed me, we’d be in much better shape here.

The premise of this book is actually fascinating. Hope cannot be remembered. People who see her day after day react each time as though they’re meeting a stranger. Hope is so unmemorable that she seems to create holes that the subconscious works to fill. Someone who had a delicious dinner with Hope will remember being at the restaurant — for a meal that they ate alone. She can disappear in any crowd, because as soon as she’s out of sight, she’s literally out of mind.

The parts of the book that work best are about Hope’s inner life and how it is to be in the world so utterly alone, absolutely free of any restrictions or responsibilities, yet with no connections that last longer than a few hours. It makes sense that ultimately Hope would become a gifted thief. You can’t exactly hold down a steady job when each day your boss thinks you’re someone completely new… and it’s easy to get away with crimes when eyewitnesses never remember seeing you.

The plot of the book centers around a creepy app called Perfection, encouraging people to become “perfect” through an endless cycle of feedback on their habits, choices, purchases, and more. Hope becomes obsessed with tracking down the people who profit from Perfection and hurting them, and ends up involved in international espionage as part of a very long manhunt. Unfortunately, much of Hope’s journey has to do with her vendetta against Perfection, and it’s confusing and distracting and really, very disjointed.

Frankly, this book was a slog to get through. Like I said, the concept of Hope’s inability to be remembered is pretty mind-warping stuff — but the plot ends up in a pointless, long drawn-out crime caper, and the writing seems to consist mainly of strings of phrases with a noticeable lack of verbs.

I might have enjoyed this book more if it were about 100 pages shorter, but even so, the entire crime story left me cold. Terrific concept, weak execution. I didn’t hate the book, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it either.

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The details:

Title: The Sudden Appearance of Hope
Author: Claire North
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: May 17, 2016
Length: 468 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library

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A Miniature Review of Miniatures by John Scalzi

The ex-planet Pluto has a few choice words about being thrown out of the solar system. A listing of alternate histories tells you all the various ways Hitler has died. A lawyer sues an interplanetary union for dangerous working conditions. And four artificial intelligences explain, in increasingly worrying detail, how they plan not to destroy humanity.

Welcome to Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi.

These four stories, along with fourteen other pieces, have one thing in common: They’re short, sharp, and to the point—science fiction in miniature, with none of the stories longer than 2,300 words. But in that short space exist entire universes, absurd situations, and the sort of futuristic humor that propelled Scalzi to a Hugo with his novel Redshirts. Not to mention yogurt taking over the world (as it would).

Spanning the years from 1991 to 2016, this collection is a quarter century of Scalzi at his briefest and best, and features four never-before-printed stories, exclusive to this collection: “Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth,” “Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back,” “Important Holidays on Gronghu” and “The AI Are Absolutely Positively Without a Doubt Not Here to End Humanity, Honest.”

Okay, if those story titles don’t already have you laughing til your belly aches, then this may not be the book for you.

For me, it was perfect! John Scalzi’s science fiction never lets me down, and these (very) short pieces are just a treat. Funny, creative, unexpected, and silly, there’s plenty here to tickle and delight (unless you’re a total curmudgeon and have no patience for silliness… in which case, move along. Nothing to see here.)

The book itself is adorable, slightly smaller than usual for a hardcover (here’s a photo of my book plus some desk accessories, to give you a sense of scale without forcing me to get up and leave my desk):

The original hardcover printing was a limited run (and I think may no longer be available), but it is available in e-book format. Here’s the inside of my book, all numbered and everything!

Besides the utter cuteness of the physical book, what about the content?

Fabulous, of course! If I had to pick, I’d say my favorites are a dialogue among different AIs who are definitely not planning to take over the world, a cat’s-eye view of domestic domination, a supermarket workers’ guide to dealing with unusual alien life forms and their customs, and the interview with a celebrity agent for superheroes.

Oh, and let’s not forget the interviews with smart appliances, who spill the dirt on their owners. Makes me quite sure that I never ever need smart machines in my house. I couldn’t take the gossip.

Those are a just a few of the highlights, but really, all of the stories are terrific. What’s more, they’re super short, so this book can be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces or all in one sitting — either way, not a big time commitment.

If you like your sci-fi with a big heaping of funny, you’ll definitely want to treat yourself to this collection. I think I’ll be thumbing through Miniatures pretty regularly, whenever I need a little jolt of silly to brighten my day.

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The details:

Title: Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: December 31, 2016
Length: 142 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Extreme Makeover

extreme-makeover

The satirical new suspense about a health and beauty company that accidentally develops a hand lotion that can overwrite your DNA.

Lyle Fontanelle is the chief scientist for NewYew, a health and beauty company experimenting with a new, anti-aging hand lotion. As more and more anomalies crop up in testing, Lyle realizes that the lotion’s formula has somehow gone horribly wrong. It is actively overwriting the DNA of anyone who uses it, turning them into physical clones of someone else. Lyle wants to destroy the formula, but NewYew thinks it might be the greatest beauty product ever designed–and the world’s governments think it’s the greatest weapon.

New York Times bestselling author Dan Wells brings us a gripping corporate satire about a health and beauty company that could destroy the world.

Presenting… the book that will make you scared of your moisturizer.

What better book for getting in the holiday spirit than a terrifying yet farcical tale of the end of the world — not an apocalypse caused by climate catastrophe or nuclear war, but rather by a beauty product run amok.

In Extreme Makeover, main character Lyle thinks he’s come up with a promising product that can prompt the body to amp up collagen to repair wrinkled skin. Cool, right? As the executives’ eyes gleam with greed, they encourage Lyle to rush to market before their competition gets wind of this amazing new product — which works because of DNA manipulation, plasmids and retroviruses, in a way that Lyle himself doesn’t fully understand. Wait, the FDA won’t approve what’s basically a gene therapy formulation? No worries, package it as an herbal treatment and move all corporate manufacturing and business headquarters offshore.

As the initial test subjects begin to show some truly horrifying results, Lyle comes to realize that what he made had implications way beyond what was expected. And while the corporate executives push it further and further to rake in huge profits, Lyle still somewhat naively believes that his new creation, ReBirth, can be used for good.

As the product is first introduced to the public, then distributed through the black market, and ultimately ends up everywhere, the terrifying, world-changing results become more and more obvious. Some of the developments are chilling, some (including the accidental creation of thousands of Lyles) are so awful that it’s actually funny.

And of course, there’s corporate corruption and world domination to consider. As ReBirth starts appearing everywhere, it quickly becomes a global catastrophe — with some considering it a religious opportunity, Homeland Security considering it a terrorist threat, and ultimately, the UN coming to realize its potential use as a weapon of mass destruction.

Reading Extreme Makeover is incredibly addictive, and weird, and utterly fun. You want to laugh at the ridiculousness of what’s going on, and yet, given the billions that people pour into buying consumer cosmetics products every year, is it really THAT far-fetched to think that people will pay thousands of dollars for the chance at a younger, healthier, more beautiful body? And hey, no need for pesky gym memberships or diets or surgery! So what if it means your own genetic code will be overwritten by someone else’s? Isn’t it worth it?

After all, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??? (Cue ominous soundtrack…)

This is the most absurd apocalypse I’ve encountered yet. The end of life on earth as we know it — brought on by hand lotion? Really?

But accept that, and go along for the ride. Extreme Makeover is cleverly constructed, with a chronology that includes a countdown to the end of the world at the start of each chapter. The wide-ranging cast of characters includes Lyle, the NewYew executives plus the head honchos at their competitors’ headquarters, squads of security goons, all sorts of shady street ReBirth dealers, a religious guru, United Nations delegates, and so many more. And then, of course, as the story progresses, you have not only the characters we’ve come to know already, but various ReBirth-created versions of them as well.

It can get a bit mind-boggling to keep track of the fakes and the originals, and the collapse of civilized society happens almost too quickly to make sense, even given the scale of the unintended destruction caused by ReBirth. I had a hard time figuring out where the various evil-doers were getting their supply of original (or as it’s called in the book, “blank” — you’ll see) lotion, but after a while, I just kind of took in on faith that there were still stockpiles accessible for those who were willing to pay or to steal it.

While the outcomes are frightening, some of the scenarios still managed to make me laugh — the idea of someone spraying someone with lotion suddenly is the scariest thing you might encounter. A teen bringing ReBirth into school is practically as dangerous as one bringing a loaded gun. Celebrities are stalked not for photos, but for their DNA. It’s crazy, but it all makes sense in the claustrophobic depiction of a world gone mad.

I really enjoyed the heck out of Extreme Makeover. It’s fast-paced, cynical, funny, and terrifying; the concept has a core of ridiculousness, but like any doomsday scenario, there’s enough in there to make us all very, very afraid. After all, take out the fact that a hand lotion is responsible for the chaos, and it’s like any other apocalyptic tale, where a new technology with the power to make positive changes is ultimately transformed into a tool for unlimited power.

If you enjoy your apocalypses with a touch of humor and relatable real-world characters, check out Extreme Makeover. I promise you, you haven’t read about an end-of-the-world quite like this one before!

A note on the cover: The cover image available via Goodreads is kind of bland and muted. Here’s a photo of the library copy I borrowed — which is hot pink and black and totally awesome:

extreme-makoever

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The details:

Title: Extreme Makeover
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: November 15, 2016
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library

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All the books I meant to read – 2016 edition

goodbye-2016

2016.

Where did you go? You just whizzed on by, and I haven’t gotten to so many things I thought I’d do this year.

And by “things I thought I’d do”, I mean “books I thought I’d read”.

I thought I’d gotten much better about not buying books unless I’m sure I’ll read them… and yet, it’s somewhat embarrassing to look back at all the new books I bought this past year that I still haven’t cracked open.

Anyone who happens to read my “Monday Check-in” posts might be familiar with my “Fresh Catch” section, where I highlight the new books that came my way each week. When I look back at all of the Fresh Catch books from 2016, it’s pretty obvious that I am just not keeping up with my purchases!

But, hey. I WILL read these books. Eventually. I bought them because I wanted to read them, and I still do. More hours in a day, that’s what I need! Meanwhile, I thought I’d gather up all those Fresh Catch books from the year (excluding library books, ARCs, Kindle books, and books I picked up for $1 at the big library sale), and put together a visual reminder of all of those books I was so excited to get.

Here’s a salute to my unread books of 2016!

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Book Review: The Sun Is Also A Star

sun-is-also-a-star

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

This second novel by the author of Everything, Everything (review) lives up to expectations for great, engaging writing and unconventional teen characters. The Sun Is Also A Star is a “one special day” kind of novel — you know the type I mean: The two main characters are thrown together unexpectedly, and the entire storyline shows the trajectory of these two strangers becoming much, much more over the course of one unforgettable day.

The twist here is that the day should have been a totally crappy one for both characters. Natasha is making a last-ditch effort to keep from being deported back to her native Jamaica, after living in New York since the age of eight. Daniel is heading off to a college admission interview, following his parents’ carefully laid-out plans for him to attend Yale and become a doctor, despite the fact that his real passion is for poetry. When Natasha and Daniel meet, there’s instant chemisty, and the two bond and connect in all sorts of earth-shattering ways, even though the clock is ticking and there’s almost no chance that they’ll have more than just this one day.

I liked the story very much, although I found the little side stories (the lawyer having an affair with the paralegal, the security guard on the verge of suicide, and more) to be distracting, rather than enhancing the story. On top of that, the entire premise requires a big leap of faith, particularly if we’re to believe that Natasha would have the emotional bandwidth to even consider getting to know Daniel on what’s likely her last day in the country. Still, I suppose the point is to show the unintended consequences of all the chance occurrences that occur each day — is it random, or is it fate? Natasha is scientific, and Daniel is romantic, but by the end of the day, they do find common ground and understanding.

Bonus points to the author for the diversity of her cast of characters and the diversity of the neighborhoods and economic statuses shown throughout the story. It’s refreshing to read a love story where the main characters don’t fit easily into typical cookie cutter profiles.

The Sun Is Also A Star is an emotionally rich story, and if  you can buy into the idea of a girl who’s about to be deported also having time to ride the subway all over Manhattan and beyond with the cute boy who just stumbled into her life… well, then you’ll certainly enjoy this book.

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The details:

Title: The Sun Is Also A Star
Author: Nicola Yoon
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: November 1, 2016
Length: 344 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight

good-morning-midnight

Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?

Good Morning, Midnight is a melancholy, introspective novel, with moments of great beauty. And yet, it doesn’t quite succeed — or at least, not for me.

The set-up is interesting: An older man who chooses to remain in his isolated Arctic environment when all others evacuate, knowing that he may not have another opportunity to leave, and the crew of a space mission returning to their home planet with no idea of what awaits them. The book deals with the extremes of loneliness: What does it mean to be the last humans? How does existing have meaning when there likely is no possibility of a future? What does it mean to live without connection to others?

While the themes are interesting, the plot is a bit thin. This is a book about what happens within the souls of people in extreme situations; it’s not a typical post-apocalyptic adventure story. And yet, setting up a plot like this without offering explanation left me feeling very frustrated. Granted, the characters themselves did not get any answers, but I wanted to at least know the cause.

As the astronauts approach Earth orbit, they observe that the planet looks normal — no obliterating dust clouds, no evidence of massive destruction — and yet there’s the eerie fact that the night side of the globe has none of the twinkling lights they’d expect to see. The planet has gone dark, and no one responds to their attempts at communication. The mysterious catastrophe is not the point of the story, but rather what’s left for those who remain, but I simply couldn’t be satisfied without knowing more.

An additional negative for me is the revelation of a connection at the end of the book that’s entirely too coincidental for my taste. It makes the parallel storylines a bit too neat, and is both unnecessary and unbelievable.

Good Morning, Midnight didn’t fully engage my interest, and there are some serious flaws in the approach to the story. I was much more engaged by the idea of the story and how it might go than by the actual execution. Perhaps I expected more science fiction based on the description, and felt let down to discover that the sci-fi set-up is merely a frame for a story that’s very much a look at people’s interiors.

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The details:

Title: Good Morning, Midnight
Author: Lily Brooks-Dalton
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: August 9, 2016
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Crosstalk

crosstalk

Science fiction icon Connie Willis brilliantly mixes a speculative plot, the wit of Nora Ephron, and the comedic flair of P. G. Wodehouse in Crosstalk a genre-bending novel that pushes social media, smartphone technology, and twenty-four-hour availability to hilarious and chilling extremes as one young woman abruptly finds herself with way more connectivity than she ever desired.

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.

 

The world of Crosstalk is very similar to our own, with the notable exception of an advance in technology. Connection is everything, and now there is a way for people in a relationship to take a step beyond, by means of a simple surgical procedure called an EED. Through this procedures — which is BRAIN SURGERY — two people with an emotional bond open up a neural pathway between them, so that they can each feel and experience the other’s emotions. It’s not mind-reading, as the doctors are quick to point out; rather, it’s a way to reinforce the connection already developing in a relationship.

After all, why just tell someone you love them when you can let them FEEL for themselves that the love is strong and true?

Briddey works for the telecommunications company Commspan, a company obsessed with beating Apple at its own game. Briddey’s true love, Trent, works for Commspan too. After a whirlwind six-week relationship, Trent pops the question. Not a marriage proposal, but one that causes just as much gleeful celebration — he asks Briddey to get an EED with him. The gossip flies through the company almost instantaneously, and then Briddey has to find a way to inform her overly-involved family about her decision. Meanwhile, her coworker C. B. Schwartz, who works in the basement and is routinely mocked for his antisocial ways, finds Briddey and rather stridently tries to talk her out of the EED.

When the world-famous surgeon who performs EEDs for royal families and Hollywood power couples (the book includes an already out-of-date reference to Brad and Angelina) becomes suddenly available to perform the EED right away, Briddey decides to go for it, and deal with the fallout afterward. Little does she know how hugely her world will change.

Crosstalk asks us to imagine a world in which we’re not just glued to our smartphones, but in which even greater instant communication is the top prize. Total connection, 24/7 — who wouldn’t want that? Being unplugged is considered a sign of social deviance, or at the very least, dysfunction. Not only is the workplace absolutely crawling with instantaneous sharing of every tidbit of news and gossip, but even on the home front, we see a nine-year-old practically being stalked by her overbearing, hyper-anxious mother.

Doesn’t sound familiar at all, does it?

Natually, when things go wrong after the EED, Briddey makes all sorts of startling discoveries — about herself, her family, her relationship, and her place in the world.

I’ll leave the summary at that, because the break-neck pace and chapter-by-chapter reveals are what makes this book such fun.

In terms of my reaction, it’s mixed.

Briddey is an engaging character, but I can’t help feeling that she’s incredibly naive. She is so completely taken in by Trent that she doesn’t see a single red flag, even though they’re right in her face. We never really find out what her job is at Commspan, which bothers me as well. For someone who spends that much time at work (or, if not at work, then communicating with work), it’s odd not to actually see her, you know, work at all.

I enjoyed Briddey’s large, unruly, nosy family, especially her wonderful niece Maeve, who has a secret taste for zombie movies and becomes more and more central to the plot as the book progresses.

After a somewhat slow start, the plot really picks up steam, and the last third or so of the book is fast and furious and practically impossible to put down. It’s certainly a fun and entertaining read. That said, I’m not sure that the entire plotline makes sense, and the climax and resolution are both hard to follow and hard to swallow.

I also felt that some of the technological insights were a little too obvious. Commspan’s big breakthrough seems to be a set of apps that will send excuses for not picking up the phone or other such types of social barriers — but how is that new? I mean, when my IPhone rings, I can hit a button and send a “can’t talk now” message. A lot of the implied commentary on hyper-connectedness and the need to unplug felt just a tiny bit beside the point to me. We’ve had this conversation already, haven’t we?

Crosstalk, at over 500 pages, is probably about 100 pages longer than it needed to be. Still, it moves fast after the first few chapters, and I was never bored. Briddey is quite fun to get to know, and so are the rest of the characters. Despite the craziness of some of the plot points, Crosstalk is a good choice if you’re looking for a sci-fi-tinged adventure set in our own time, with plot twists and complications that, although sometimes easy to predict, never fail to entertain.

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The details:

Title: Crosstalk
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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