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.

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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!

Book Review: To the Bright Edge of the World

Bright Edge

Set again in the Alaskan landscape that she bought to stunningly vivid life in THE SNOW CHILD, Eowyn Ivey’s new novel is a breathtaking story of discovery and adventure, set at the end of the nineteenth century, and of a marriage tested by a closely held secret.

Colonel Allen Forrester receives the commission of a lifetime when he is charged to navigate Alaska’s hitherto impassable Wolverine River, with only a small group of men. The Wolverine is the key to opening up Alaska and its huge reserves of gold to the outside world, but previous attempts have ended in tragedy.

For Forrester, the decision to accept this mission is even more difficult, as he is only recently married to Sophie, the wife he had perhaps never expected to find. Sophie is pregnant with their first child, and does not relish the prospect of a year in a military barracks while her husband embarks upon the journey of a lifetime. She has genuine cause to worry about her pregnancy, and it is with deep uncertainty about what their future holds that she and her husband part.

A story shot through with a darker but potent strand of the magic that illuminated THE SNOW CHILD, and with the sweep and insight that characterised Rose Tremain’s The Colour, this new novel from Pulitzer Prize finalist Eowyn Ivey singles her out as a major literary talent.

I’m a bit of an Alaska geek, and one of the ways that comes out is that I’m inordinately excited whenever great new fiction set in Alaska appears on the horizon. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to get my hands on a copy of Eowyn Ivey’s newest book — I think I snagged the very first copy that arrived at my local library!

To the Bright Edge of the World is a novel told in letters and other first-person written documents, with occasional archival pieces such as newspaper clippings, photos, and maps mixed in as well. The main writings in this novel are journal entries by Colonel Allen Forrester and Sophie Forrester.

Allen is leading a small team of men up the dangerous and uncharted Wolverine River, with the goal of finding a passage through to the Yukon River. Previous expeditions have met disaster along the way and have been forced to abandon the attempt. Sophie is dismayed at the prospect of being left behind in the army barracks — she’d originally intended to journey to the starting point of the expedition with Allen, but the unexpected news of her pregnancy forces her to abandon that plan.

Sophie is a bright, energetic young woman who has no interest in or patience for the small, suffocating social circle of officers’ wives that seems to be her expected occupation while Allen is away. Sophie is fascinated by the natural world, and almost accidentally discovers an interest in photography. After a tragedy leaves her at loose ends, she purchases a camera, converts a room in her quarters into a dark room, and sets out to capture her concept of light through the photography of the wild birds in the area, with the elusive hummingbird as her true target.

Meanwhile, Allen’s expedition is beset by challenges and hardships at every turn, from starvation to injury to the delicate task of asking the local tribes for assistance without being seen as enemies. Through it all, Allen and Sophie record their thoughts, hopes, and emotions, as well as their daily activities, in their journals. The picture that emerges is of two highly intelligent people who, despite seeming an odd match, are truly suited to each other in a way that’s rare and beautiful.

The writing in To the Bright Edge of the World is lovely. The author captures the different writing styles and voices of the different characters, giving a unique flavor to the documents each writes. The descriptions of the landscapes and natural wonders is powerful, as are the thoughts and reflections on what it means to love another person, heart and soul.

There is yet another element to the book, which is the sense of the unexplained and magical that lives in the natural world. As Allen’s small team progresses, they encounter things they cannot explain, including an Old Man who also appears to be a raven, who follows them along their path — either to hurt or to help, they can’t be quite sure. Other magical, otherworldly elements come into play, and it’s interesting to note that while Allen records them all in his journals, the official reports of the expedition most certainly do not include these stories and observations.

Meanwhile, the framing device of the novel is a series of letters between an old man, a great-nephew of Colonel Forrester, and the curator of a small Alaskan musuem, as they get to know one another and form an odd friendship as they bond over the treasure trove of documents and artifacts from the family attic — the documents that make up the bulk of the novel.

While I loved the characters, the setting, and the imagery, I do have some minor quibbles. My biggest quibble is the limiting effect of telling a story through documents rather than a direct narrative. While this gives us insight into the characters’ thoughts, it’s by necessity not the most immediate way of depicting the events. Instead of experiencing the most dramatic moments as if we were there, we’re held at arms’ length by reading about the events as the narrators remember and record them. The epistolary approach works in terms of letting us inside the characters’ heads, but it’s a distancing tool when it comes to living and breathing big adventures as they happen.

Likewise, because of the epistolary approach, the supporting characters are known only by the main characters’ observations. I would have liked to know more about what makes certain characters tick, especially the soldiers in Allen’s company and the young native woman who accompanies them, but I felt that we never truly get beyond their outward appearances. (Of course, this is actually rather true to life — how do we get to know anyone, except by what they show us? It’s only in books that we get to know another person’s innermost thoughts.)

I question too the inclusion of the scattered photos, drawings, etc that pop up throughout the book. It felt to me as if they were included rather haphazardly — if the decision was made to augment the story with these types of things, then there should have been more. I actually love seeing the old photos (as if they were truly the products of the fictional characters in the story), but I would have liked a stronger commitment to this approach. Either go for it, or leave them out!

The quibble about the writing style is what keeps this from being a five-star read for me, but overall, I do think the book is a wonderful achievement and hope that it will be widely read and appreciated. Sophie is a remarkable woman, well ahead of her time, and I admired her pioneering spirit and commitment to her dreams, and absolutely love how she and Allen support each other and refuse to be boxed in by the traditional ideas of a proper marriage at that time.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a beautifully written historical novel with well-developed characters and an  unforgettable setting. If you enjoy historical fiction or even just have a hankering for Alaska, check it out.

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The details:

Title: To the Bright Edge of the World
Author: Eowyn Ivey
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: August 2, 2016
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Before the Fall

“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.Before the Fall

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

On a foggy summer night, eleven people—ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter—depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs—the painter—and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members—including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot—the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.

Amid pulse-quickening suspense, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

My Thoughts:

Wow, what a thrill-ride! Although choosing to start this book the night before a long plane trip was maybe not the brightest idea I’ve every had.

In Before the Fall, the story starts almost immediately with the terror of the crash, and then the miracle of Scott’s long swim to safety, saving his own life as well as that of one small boy. But that’s only the beginning — from here, the author takes a post-mortem approach, giving us chapters focusing on each of the people on board the small plane, so that we see how the pieces fit together. Was it mechanical failure? Something deliberate? And if it was deliberate, who was the intended target?

The storyline shows Scott’s growing closeness to the surviving child, the intensity of the government agents investigating the crash, and the firestorm of media attention and sensationalism that soon follows. The chapters focusing on the different characters and their backstories are fascinating, always leaving me wanting more.

Overall, Before the Fall is a gripping read that builds and builds. It’s tense, well-constructed, hard to predict, and surprising in all the right ways. The characters are well-defined, so much so that it’s hard to approach the end of the story and realize that these people — good and bad, all flawed, almost none irredeemable — are doomed to the end that we knew about from the start.

It’s a pretty neat trick, telling us up front that all of these characters have died, and then taking the time to let us get to know them. Somehow, the tragedy of their senseless deaths is all the more striking with this backwards approach. Meanwhile, Scott’s story is compelling and sympathetic. It’s hard to see a decent man caught up in the tabloid frenzy that follows the crash, but how Scott manages is pretty good stuff too.

Before the Fall is a great summer read — quick, absorbing, and impossible not to care about.

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The details:

Title: Before the Fall
Author: Noah Hawley
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: May 31, 2016
Length: 391 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Purchased (e-book)

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: I loved it!

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Today’s the day! And what a day it’s been!

Thanks to the glory of Amazon PrimeNow, I woke up to find this on my doorstep (delivered at 1:00 a.m., according to the tracking notice):

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Which I ripped open as soon as I got my hands on it, and grabbed this:

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At which point, I sequestered myself away with my book and a big mug of coffee, and didn’t come up for air until I got to this:

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Well, you certainly won’t get any spoilers out of me about the plot, but I will say that I loved being back in the world of Harry Potter, was delighted by the familiar characters as well as the new ones, and thought it was clever, moving, and loads of fun! Yes, it’s a bit weird reading a script and not a novel, but that’s okay. One thing that absolutely came out of this reading experience for me was a burning desire to get to London and to see the play! Don’t know how, don’t know when, but I’m going to make it happen.

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Because I loved it all, and I’d give anything to see these two — and the rest — live on stage:

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Did you read it yet? What did you think?

Book Review: Defending Taylor

defending taylorMiranda Kenneally’s newest book set in Tennessee (part of her Hundred Oaks series) is, as expected, an unusually fine example of thoughtful and smart young adult writing.

In Defending Taylor, Taylor Lukens is the hard-working, hard-playing daughter of a US Senator, on her way to Yale if she can just get that early admission essay done — when her life falls apart. After attending an upscale, exclusive boarding school for years, where she maintains a 4.2 GPA while starring on the soccer team, Taylor is suddenly expelled and forced to live at home with her parents again while finishing out senior year at Hundred Oaks, the local public school.

What went wrong? Taylor’s boyfriend Ben is from a poor family and attended St. Andrews on scholarship. When Taylor is found by the dorm monitors with a backpack containing pills and weed, she claims it’s hers, figuring that her dad’s clout will get her out of trouble. Wrong. Taylor’s dad won’t lift a finger to save her from the consequences of her supposed drug dealing, other than to have her attend public school with mandatory counseling rather than face any legal action. What no one knows is that the backpack was actually Ben’s, and Taylor covered for him to keep him from getting kicked out. Her heart is broken and she feels utterly betrayed when he doesn’t step forward once the consequences become clear… so not only is Taylor forced to attend an inferior school with an inferior soccer team, but her relationship is over as well.

Fitting in at a new school is hard at first, but Taylor is 100% focused on the future she’s been groomed for all her life. Highest grades, top-notch soccer career, impressive extracurriculars, then onward to Yale and a place in the family’s investment firm. Is this what she really wants? It doesn’t matter — it’s what’s expected.

Defending Taylor gives us an inside look at what happens when someone’s ambitions and someone’s heart lie in two different directions. Taylor’s parents are completely focused on politics and her father’s reeelection campaign, and there’s little time or patience for a daughter who suddenly veers off the path of high achievement and respectability. Taylor faces a senior year with no friends and the daily frustration of a poorly organized soccer team where the domineering captain resents her. Fortunately for Taylor, she does have one ally — her older brother’s best friend Ezra, inexplicably back home rather than away at Cornell where he’s supposed to be. Taylor and Ezra have always had chemistry, and when they start spending time together again, sparks fly.

I always enjoy Miranda Kenneally’s depictions of teen love. She doesn’t shy away from complicated emotions, and while the sex is a touch more explicit than in other contemporary YA novels I’ve read, it feels realistic and empowered (and safe — the characters always stop for a condom). Family dynamics are complicated as well. Being rich doesn’t necessarily mean happy, and the town and the school present a cross-section of different economic statuses.

The message in Defending Taylor has a lot to do with honesty — being honest with oneself, and being honest with the people who love you. Taylor hides the truth for so long from her family, afraid to be a snitch but at the same time suffering terribly from the ruined reputation she endures once word gets out about her supposed drug use. Meanwhile, she’s also never admitted to her parents, or even to herself, that Yale and investment banking might be the family tradition, but might not be her own true path. On top of the honesty theme, there’s also an ongoing message about stress, pressure, and having fun. Taylor’s guidance counselor asks Taylor what she does for fun, and she’s pretty stumped. Fun? School, soccer, studying all night — Taylor’s life is non-stop pressure, from herself as well as from her family, and she doesn’t even realize how unhealthy it is until she’s forced to take a hard look at her life, once it becomes clear that her hard work still might not be enough to overcome scandal and disgrace.

Probably the only bit of this otherwise terrific story that seemed a little off to me had to do with her father’s campaign. When someone leaks the news about Taylor’s expulsion from boarding school for having prescription drugs in her possession that weren’t prescribed for her, it creates a scandal that ultimately costs her father the election. And I couldn’t help but feel… really?? The man has been a Senator for years, has been a successful politician for years more, has a family that’s always been upstanding and has two older kids who have exemplary behavior… and he loses an election because his 17-year-old had a lapse of judgement? Seems like a very lame reason for someone who was supposed to win easily to suddenly lose an election. But what do I know? This is Tennessee, and the politics trend toward conservative, so maybe that could be enough to sink the career of an anti-drug legislator… but it felt unlikely to me.

Other than that, I truly enjoyed Defending Taylor. I liked Taylor’s backbone and self-sufficiency, her dedication to her own success, and her underlying belief in treating others with decency. She’s clearly a very good friend, and becomes a unifying force on her soccer team once she earns the other girls’ trust with her positive energy. Taylor’s relationship with Ezra is hot and steamy, but founded on mutual friendship and liking, not just hormones.

It’s not necessary to have read the other Hundred Oaks books to enjoy Defending Taylor, but for those who have, you’ll enjoy the little glimpses of characters from previous books. You can really start with any of the books in the series — and if you like one, give a few others a try. All feature strong, athletic girls who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves, even while dealing with family complications of all shapes and sizes.

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The details:

Title: Defending Taylor
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: July 5, 2016
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley