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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Take A Peek Book Review: The Family Plot

“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.

family-plot

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Chuck Dutton built Music City Salvage with patience and expertise, stripping historic properties and reselling their bones. Inventory is running low, so he’s thrilled when Augusta Withrow appears in his office offering salvage rights to her entire property. This could be a gold mine, so he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.

The crew finds a handful of surprises right away. Firstly, the place is in unexpectedly good shape. And then there’s the cemetery, about thirty fallen and overgrown graves dating to the early 1900s, Augusta insists that the cemetery is just a fake, a Halloween prank, so the city gives the go-ahead, the bulldozer revs up, and it turns up human remains. Augusta says she doesn’t know whose body it is or how many others might be present and refuses to answer any more questions. Then she stops answering the phone.

But Dahlia’s concerns about the corpse and Augusta’s disappearance are overshadowed when she begins to realize that she and her crew are not alone, and they’re not welcome at the Withrow estate. They have no idea how much danger they’re in, but they’re starting to get an idea. On the crew’s third night in the house, a storm shuts down the only road to the property. The power goes out. Cell signals are iffy. There’s nowhere to go and no one Dahlia can call for help, even if anyone would believe that she and her crew are being stalked by a murderous phantom. Something at the Withrow mansion is angry and lost, and this is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever. And it seems to be seeking permanent company.

The Family Plot is a haunted house story for the ages-atmospheric, scary, and strange, with a modern gothic sensibility to keep it fresh and interesting-from Cherie Priest, a modern master of supernatural fiction.

 

My Thoughts:

Meh.

Not scary.

That about sums it up for me. The Family Plot is more or less a classic ghost story. A woman and her crew sleep in the house they’re working to strip for salvage. The owner of the house seems to only want to be rid of it, and is intentionally cryptic about the house’s history. The house is completely isolated, up a hard-to-get through country road. It seems to be full of treasures, but weird things start happening almost right away.

(And by the way, that Goodreads synopsis is fairly awful, emphasizing the wrong things and giving away way too much.)

The key problem for me is that the surprises and secrets weren’t terribly surprising. The ghostly presence and its history seem pretty typical for this kind of story. Even when the drama comes to a peak toward the end of the book (cue the stormy night, blocked roads, and lack of emergency vehicles), I did not for a single second feel frightened or chilled or spooked out.

The story is fine, but I can’t say much more positive than that. If you’ve ever read a haunted house book before, then you’ll see pretty much the entire plot coming. It’s not boring, but at the same time, it just didn’t move me in the slightest.

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The details:

Title: The Family Plot
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: September 20, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Ghost story
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

 

Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark MatterThis is one twisty, suspenseful, mind-f*ck of a book… and I mean that in the best way possible!

Synopsis via Goodreads:

“Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious. Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable–something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

Okay, wow. I could not put this book down. I mean, edge of seat, biting the nails, all in.

So… enough gushing. Let’s talk about why this is such a great read.

In Dark Matter, the author (a) creates a scenario that feels actually possible, even though it’s pure science fiction; (b) trusts that his readers are intelligent enough to follow the plot down the physics rabbit holes; and (c) creates characters who we can truly care about.

Poor Jason. Of all the ways a life can go wrong, I’m sure he never expected this one! One day he’s teaching college physics, married to a lovely woman, father of a pretty awesome teen boy. Next thing he knows, he’s kidnapped, drugged, and waking up in a strange lab to applause and cheers, surrounded by people who seem to be his super-impressed colleagues.

It all comes down to quantum physics. Of course. Years earlier, Jason and Daniela each compromised on their dreams — Jason to make the kind of physics breakthrough that changes the world, Daniela to achieve renown as an artist — in order to focus on family and marriage. But what if there’s a world where Jason made different choices? In the multiverse concept (as explained by me, a non-physicist, so be kind and forgive anything I get wrong), each decision a person makes spins off an entirely new universe from that decision point (okay, yeah, that’s totally simplistic, but best I can do in a quick digest)… and  Jason, being a world-class physicist, can appreciate the dilemma of worlds colliding and splitting more than most.

I really don’t want to say too much about the plot of Dark Matter. It’s complicated and fast-moving, will occasionally make your head spin, and moves along its path in all sorts of WTF-ish ways.

I loved the complexity of Jason’s situation and the seeming hopelessness of his quest. The climax of the book includes scenes that are absolutely out there, but also kind of perfect. There are shades of grey and some practically impossible decisions that must be made. And oddly, beyond being a very cool and fascinating science fiction novel, I think it’s fair to say that Dark Matter is also a love story. It’s Jason’s love for Daniela and his son Charlie that propel him through his despair and force him to keep trying when all hope seems lost.

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The details:

Title: Dark Matter
Author: Blake Crouch
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: July 26, 2016
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (and then bought myself a copy!)

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Book Review: Leave Me

Leave Me

For every woman who has ever fantasized about driving past her exit on the highway instead of going home to make dinner, for every woman who has ever dreamed of boarding a train to a place where no one needs constant attention–meet Maribeth Klein. A harried working mother who’s so busy taking care of her husband and twins, she doesn’t even realize she’s had a heart attack.

Afterward, surprised to discover that her recuperation seems to be an imposition on those who rely on her, Maribeth does the unthinkable: She packs a bag and leaves. But, as is so often the case, once we get to where we’re going, we see our lives from a different perspective. Far from the demands of family and career and with the help of liberating new friendships, Maribeth is finally able to own up to secrets she has been keeping from those she loves and from herself.

With big-hearted characters who stumble and trip, grow and forgive, Leave Me is about facing our fears. Gayle Forman, a dazzling observer of human nature, has written an irresistible novel that confronts the ambivalence of modern motherhood head-on.

This is going to be a tough one to review. On the one hand, I love Gayle Forman’s writing. You should see my Kindle — section after section of highlighting all my favorite little paragraphs and fabulous wording. On the other hand… I pretty much didn’t buy the premise for a second.

Maribeth is in her early forties, raising twins, a busy New York career woman. Her best friend Elizabeth is also her boss, and lately Maribeth feels like their friendship has been lost to their working relationship. Life is busy, busy, busy — and even as she’s in the hospital getting checked out after her initial chest pains, it’s still on Maribeth’s shoulders to plan dinner and arrange the family’s social obligations.

After emergency open-heart surgery, Maribeth is back home with her family — but it’s still all too much. She’s the planner, the organizer, the worrier, the arranger. She’s the key breadwinner. Her husband is pretty laid back, and does his work out of passion, not in pursuit of a dollar. Even in convalescence, the pressure on Maribeth never ends, and it seems like everyone is just waiting for her to snap back into her normal role.

And so, three week after surgery, Maribeth leaves a note and disappears, resurfacing in Pittsburgh one train ride later, with wads of cash in her pocket and a brand new clean slate. She rents an apartment — in cash — under an altered version of her name, finds a new cardiologist — who accepts cash — and sets about living a simple, unencumbered, no responsibilities kind of life.

There’s a darker, more secret reason for Maribeth’s flight as well. She’s adopted, but has never known anything about her birth mother. Now, as she deals with her health issues and worries about what sort of mother she is, she’s consumed by the need to find out more about her own origins. She knows that she was born in Pittsburgh, so this is where she’ll start her search.

That’s the basic idea. Along the way, Maribeth befriends the young roommates who live in her building, as well as an older women who helps people find their birth parents and even her new cardiologist, a man with his own secret and painful past. For the first time in a long time, Maribeth makes friends who have no strings attached — no PTA or twins groups or work colleagues — just people she enjoys spending time with. She relaxes. She starts to exercise and eat better. She is unplugged — just a burner cell phone, no email, no laptop, no internet. It’s great — and yet, she misses her family, and starts a collection of unsent letters to her children.

So, what did I enjoy about this book? Well, Gayle Forman can write, that’s for sure. The characters are well-defined and quirky, clearly individuals rather than standard cookie cutter types. While there’s emotion and sorrow in Leave Me, there are also plenty of light, funny moments. Maribeth’s stress and fears are instantly relateable, and it’s no surprise that her crazy, high-pressure life leaves her in such dire straits, health-wise.

I tore through Leave Me in about two days. It’s eminently readable, super fast and engaging, and held my interest even when my body was telling me to put down my Kindle and just go to sleep.

But as I said, it’s not all a positive for me. As entertained as I was by much of the story, I just couldn’t buy it. Why would Maribeth see leaving her children as her best and only option? How could she leave and never even call? And how on earth was her husband so understanding and supportive when they finally did start emailing and speaking a month later? I’m sorry, but I think 99.9% of spouses left in that kind of situation would be absolutely furious, not conciliatory and reminiscing about the early days when they fell in love.

I mean, for goddess’s sake (just kidding, I’m not religious or pagan or anything other than a geek), she completely dropped out of communication less than a month after having open-heart surgery! For all her family knew, she could be dead in a ditch somewhere.

I just kept thinking — not cool, lady. Not cool. At least let someone know you’re alive.

A smaller quibble is just how easily her life worked in Pittsburgh. She came armed with loads of cash (ah, privilege!), but basically showed up empty-handed in a strange town — and found neighbors who took to her immediately and wanted to help her, a doctor who wanted to treat her when no one else would look past her unwillingness to share any information about her identity (or even health insurance), and a new friend who’s able to unlock all of the secrets about her birth mother (and teach her to swim). She didn’t encounter hostility, or mean people, or really, even indifference. It’s a nice little fairy tale, I suppose, to think that you can show up in a new city like that and find a life, but real? No.

On top of which, by the time she goes home months later, nothing has actually changed in terms of their stressful life. I mean yes, supposedly her husband and friend/boss are ready to be more supportive and are full of warm fuzzies, but she’s still going back to a super stressful Manhattan life that they can’t really afford, where she may or may not still have a job, and where they’re constantly under pressure. So even though she’s come to some big realizations about herself, what will actually be different when she gets back?

So yeah, despite loving the writing and feeling very amused and engaged by the book, some little part of my brain was sitting to the side judging and doubting, and that kept me just distant enough to feel like the plot doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

Should you read the book? Well, if you enjoy contemporary adult fiction, modern urban characters, and don’t mind pieces that could (or should) never happen in real life, then yes! You won’t be bored.

Meanwhile, I’ll just add that I’ve read four young adult books by Gayle Forman, and thought they were all great. (I especially loved Just One Day and Just One Year). So I was really excited to hear that the author would be releasing her first book for adults, Leave Me. And even though I don’t consider Leave Me a complete success, I did enjoy reading it and hope that she continues writing for adults. I’d love to see what she comes up with next!

I’ll leave you with a selection of some of my favorite passages from Leave Me:

She looked at the label on her yogurt. Was it full-fat yogurt? Had she been eating full-fat yogurt all this time? She scanned the package for the words, full fat, or whole milk, some kind of ominous cigarette-label warning that the contents might cause death. But she found nothing like that. The label only said it was French.

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Her birth mother had always been a shadowy, abstract figure. Maybe she was out there, maybe she wasn’t, but there was no way of knowing so why bother obsessing about it. It was not unlike how Maribeth felt about God. She supposed this made her birth-mother agnostic.

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Sometimes she really did think her heart no longer functioned. Sure, the muscle beat fine, but the feeling part of it was completely damaged.

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But it was the swimming pool in the basement that called to her. She wasn’t sure why but it felt like this, more than an elliptical machine or a vinyasa class, would ease the itchiness that was growing inside of her. Swimming felt new. Or maybe it was because she was sinking and wanted to see whether, if forced to, she might swim.

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The details:

Title: Leave Me
Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: September 6, 2016
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Thursday Quotables: Leave Me

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.Leave Me

Leave Me by Gayle Forman
(to be released September 6, 2016)

I just read Gayle Forman’s upcoming new release this week — her first book for adults! My review will be along shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a little exchange that made me smile for all the right reasons — an exchange between a pair of roommates who just love to bicker:

“Todd’s all pissy because I went out with Fritz.”

“On a date,” Todd added, as if that sealed the indictment.

“Yes, fine.” Sunita threw up her hands. “On a date.”

“That you didn’t tell me about.”

“That I didn’t tell you about.”

“When it was our night to watch Outlander.”

“We can DVR it. I don’t see see what the big deal is.”

They had me at Outlander.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!