Novella: Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

Whoosh. I read this novella all in one sitting… and I think you will too. Stephen King fans will just eat this up. It’s a quick story that casts an eerie spell, just the right length to sink its unsettling claws into your brain.

I wouldn’t call it horror, exactly. There’s very little outright blood or gore, although bad things do happen. Most of the tension and horror is psychological, as we see what happens to Gwendy after that fateful encounter at the top of Castle View.

The strange man gives Gwendy an oddly beautiful box, with eight differently colored buttons on top and levers on the sides. He shows her the levers: One dispenses a tiny piece of chocolate, which will be absolutely delicious, but which will also eliminate her cravings for junk food. The other lever dispenses a rare old silver dollar in perfect condition. As for the buttons on top, the man provides cryptic explanations, and then entrusts the box into Gwendy’s care.

And soon, her life begins to change. Gwendy at 12 is a little on the heavy side, and she’s determined to reinvent herself before starting middle school in the fall. Between her daily runs up the Suicide Stairs, and her new-found freedom from the lure of desserts and sweets, Gwendy gets in better and better shape. Is it Gwendy’s own effort paying off… or does the box have something to do with it?

Other positive changes soon follow. Gwendy’s vision improves to the point where she no longer needs glasses. She becomes a star athlete and a top student. Boys want to date her and girls want to be her friend. Her parents’ over-indulgence in alcohol seems to dwindle away with any noticeable effort. But the box is still there, hidden away for safe-keeping, and Gwendy never quite manages to get it out of her thoughts or to stop wondering what would happen if she actually pressed any of those colorful buttons.

Man, this is a good story! Even though Gwendy’s life gets better and better, there’s a dangerous undercurrent that plagues her — and us. What’s the price of all this good fortune? And who will pay it?

I don’t want to say much more. It’s a quick novella that can be read in one gulp, which is really what I recommend. There’s something about getting from start to finish without breaking the disturbing mood that lends the story even more power.

Gwendy’s Button Box is a must-read for King fans (which probably goes without saying) — but really, anyone who enjoys a tightly woven plot with an air of mystery and dread should check it out.

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The details:

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications
Publication date: May 16, 2017
Length: 175 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Waking Gods

 

As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: Why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force.

Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth . . . and maybe even the stars.

Wow. What a ride.

At the advice of the fabulous Bonnie at For the Love of Words, I decide to listen to Waking Gods rather than read a print version. And also thanks to her input, I first listened to book #1 of the Themis Files — Sleeping Giants — as a refresher. (I read — and loved — Sleeping Giants last year. Check out my rave review.)

Waking Gods picks up the story ten years after the ending of Sleeping Giants. Over the course of the intervening decade, the ragtag team of scientists and robot-wranglers has evolved into an organized global force called the EDC (Earth Defense Corps). Dr. Rose Franklin heads up the efforts, under the ever-present guidance of the unnamed man who pulls the strings. Meanwhile, robot pilots Kara and Vincent enjoy their life on the road with Themis, taking the giant robot on a worldwide goodwill tour to promote international cooperation and harmony.

Until… more robots arrive. Now Earth and all its people are threatened by an alien force that they have no hope of overpowering. If Rose and her team can’t come up with solutions, there may be nothing left.

Okay, wow again. Waking Gods is an absolutely stunning and addictive sequel that kept my attention from the very first moment all the way through to the end. As with Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods is told via transcripts of interviews, lab notes, radio broadcasts, and military communications. It works beautifully. Focusing for a moment on the audio listening experience, I was blown away by the intensity of listening rather than reading. While the transcripts work well on the page, it’s another thing entirely to listen to the talented narrators essentially act out each intense moment.

The audiobook is a full cast recording, so that each character has his or her unique voice, full of expression and personality. The unnamed narrator from the first book is back, and his voice in particular is odd but powerful. The rest of the cast is quite good (if you’ve read the books, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Burns is just perfect), and the listening experience brings a tension and immediacy to the action scenes.

Waking Gods is a thrilling follow-up to Sleeping Giants. I do, however, have one minor complaint. I thought this was a two-book project. I haven’t seen anything anywhere referencing a 3rd. And it seemed as though Waking Gods finished the story (with an awesome climax, I might add)… until the very last moment, which took the concluding scene and turned it into a cliffhanger. So is there a book #3 on the way? So far, I haven’t been able to find a hint of it online.

I highly recommend both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods — and definitely recommend checking out the audiobook versions, if you’re at all an audio person. Both books make for excellent listening experiences, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time!

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The details:

Title: Waking Gods (The Themis Files, #2)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length (print): 325 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Take A Peek Book Review: Less Than a Treason (Kate Shugak, #21)

“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)

Kate Shugak is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine – and she needs to be to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her.

Two thousand people go missing in Alaska every year. They vanish in the middle of mountain footraces, on fishing boats in the Bering Sea, on small planes in the Bush. Now a geologist known for going walkabout with his rock hammer has disappeared from the Suulutaq Mine in the Park. Was it deliberate? An accident? Foul play? Kate Shugak may be the only person who can find out.

But for the fact that Kate, too, is now among the missing…

My Thoughts:

Kate is back! Kate is back! Kate is back!

Yes, I’m excited. And yes, I loved this book!

If you’ve read my blog at all over the last couple of years, then you may know that I developed a full-on obsession for Dana Stabenow’s amazing Kate Shugak series. Kate is tough, devoted, smart, and resilient, and lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In the Kate Shugak series, the author serves up mystery after mystery — but really, what pulls me back for book after book is Kate herself, the “Park rats” who make up the tiny community in Niniltna, the troopers and cops and aunties and pilots who form the backbone of Kate’s world, and the richly entangled storytelling that builds up over the course of the series.

We’re now 21 books in (plus the Liam Campbell series of 4 books, which somewhat intersect with the Kate books and add yet another facet to her world). The series is still going strong. I gobbled up the previous 20 books (and the 4 Liams) in something like 18 months, and then was bereft over having to wait for Kate’s return, especially as #20 ended with a super cruel cliffhanger.

Well, now my girl is back! The mystery in #21 is standard Kate fare (mining, ore rights, missing persons); the real treat is in seeing Kate recovering from a traumatic event and reconnecting with all the various people who love her. All the old favorites are here — Bobby, Dinah, Katya, the aunties, and more — and Kate’s love interest Jim is as devoted (and hot) as ever. There are call-backs to earlier episodes, and some hair-raising action scenes, but mostly Less Than a Treason is a delight simply because we see Kate reclaiming her place in her own life and community.

Ah. I love these books, and I love the characters. This one made me so, so very happy, and I adored the ending too. I can only sit here now and hope and pray that Kate Shugak will live on in many, many, many more books. Do you hear me, Dana Stabenow??? I want more Kate, now and forever, amen.

Reading note 01 – The Kate books are full of super fun pop culture, literary, and musical references, and this one is no exception. Watch out for a selection in my Thursday Quotables post this week.

Reading note 02 – In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the books in this series do not — in my humble opinion — work as stand-alones. There’s simply too much world-building, full of rich and varied characters with unique and often complicatedly interconnected backstories, to be able to jump in with book #21! So take my advice, start at the beginning, and enjoy!

Reaidng note 03 — I’ll never get tired of Dana Stabenow’s gorgeous descriptions of Alaskan wildlife and scenery, even though she makes me mad that I’m not there right at this very moment!

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The details:

Title: Less Than a Treason
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: May 6, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge

In the 2014 book The Girl With All the Gifts, author M. R. Carey introduced us to a terrifying world in which humanity has been overrun by “hungries” — humans turned into zombies after being infected by a virulent and unstoppable fungus. At an isolated army base in England, a military and medical crew work with a bunch of young hungries, who seem to be a different sort of species, still drawn to flesh for sustenance but able to speak, think, and feel as humans do. (If you haven’t read The Girl With All the Gifts, you need to check it out! My book review is here. The movie is worth seeing too!)

The new release The Boy on the Bridge is a prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts, set about 10 years earlier. Humanity has already been decimated by the Hungry plague, and the remaining humans in England live in a barricaded settlement called the Beacon. The Beacon sends out a team of scientists and soldiers in an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin, to travel the country, collect samples, and search for some sort of cure or treatment for the plague — likely a hopeless cause.

The crew is an uneasy mix of career soldiers and geeky scientists, plus a gifted teen boy, Stephen Greaves, who is considered by most of the crewmembers to be possibly autistic, definitely odd, and generally a burden. The exception to this is Dr. Samrina Khan – Rina — who insisted on bringing Stephen along for the mission, and who acts as a surrogate mother to the boy. Stephen is brilliant, and Rina considers him to be crucial to any chance of making a scientific breakthrough.

We spend the entire book on the journey aboard Rosie, getting to know the crew as they bump along the countryside in very cramped quarters. There are rivalries and resentments, and the enormous pressure of knowing that they may be humanity’s last hope. The team is constantly in danger as well. Beyond taking samples, they venture outside of Rosie’s safety to do cullings along the way — basically, using their firepower to mow down as many hungries as possible.

The scenes of dormant hungries just standing wherever they happen to be, motionless and inert until triggered by movement or smell, are frightening and creepy. The danger is always present, and the reading experience can be almost as claustrophobic as it must be traveling inside Rosie.

I found the book to be slow at first, as it takes a while to get to know the twelve team members as individuals, and the first half or so of the book occasionally feels like one really unpleasant road trip. However, once the team encounters a group of feral children, the tension and the mystery definitely amp up. Who are these children, and where did they come from? What do they want… and can they be stopped? Meanwhile, Stephen and Rina each have secret agendas, and as the plot moves forward, their struggles become the central focus.

I spent much of the book wondering how this story would connect to The Girl With All the Gifts, and by the end, it becomes clear in a way that’s satisfying. The climax is action-packed and dramatic, and I was happy with the resolution presented in the epilogue.

I wouldn’t rate this one as high as the first book, but I did find it an enjoyable, entertaining read. Needless to say, it’s not for the squeamish — but if you enjoy a good twist on a a zombie apocalypse, check out The Boy on the Bridge.

Side note: The title doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and neither does the book’s synopsis as it appears on Goodreads. So ignore those, and just read the book anyway!

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The details:

Title: The Boy on the Bridge
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 392 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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Book Review: The Book of Etta

 

In the gripping sequel to the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, one woman undertakes a desperate journey to rescue the future.

Etta comes from Nowhere, a village of survivors of the great plague that wiped away the world that was. In the world that is, women are scarce and childbearing is dangerous…yet desperately necessary for humankind’s future. Mothers and midwives are sacred, but Etta has a different calling. As a scavenger. Loyal to the village but living on her own terms, Etta roams the desolate territory beyond: salvaging useful relics of the ruined past and braving the threat of brutal slave traders, who are seeking women and girls to sell and subjugate.

When slavers seize those she loves, Etta vows to release and avenge them. But her mission will lead her to the stronghold of the Lion—a tyrant who dominates the innocent with terror and violence. There, with no allies and few weapons besides her wits and will, she will risk both body and spirit not only to save lives but also to liberate a new world’s destiny.

The Book of Etta is an interesting follow-up to The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (review), but I didn’t wholeheartedly love it. It’s incredibly interesting and compelling, but there are ways in which I felt it fell a bit short of its potential.

Etta takes place a couple of hundred years after the plague, and it’s fascinating to see how written and oral histories capture the time before and the new types of societies that have arisen afterward. The people living at the time of Etta live mostly in isolated settlements, relying on the rare traveler or trader for outside news, mainly ignorant of anything happening in the greater world or really anything outside their own communities’ walls.

In Nowhere, Etta’s home, women are either Midwives or Mothers. While there are far more men than women, the men are subservient, working for the good of the women and living in Hives built around a central woman. The books left by the unnamed midwife have become holy scriptures to the people of Nowhere, and make clear that most surviving women live as slaves, in abusive situations, or in hiding.

Nowhere seems ideal in some ways, yet even there, Etta feels stifled. As we learn in The Book of Etta, Etta’s gender identity is fluid and she’s romantically and sexually attracted to women, and there’s really no place in the Nowhere community for someone who doesn’t fit the approved roles, even in a woman-centric society.

When Etta ventures out into the world in her role as a raider, she changes into male clothing and thinks of herself as Eddy. The author switches pronouns when Etta is Eddy, which is actually a pretty neat narrative trick that requires the reader to pay attention, yet gives us immediate clues about Etta/Eddy’s inner life and how she/he views her/his self at any moment. Through Etta/Eddy’s eyes, we see just how bad things can get for women. The worst is Estiel (STL = St. Louis), where a tyrant known as the Lion rules by force and terror, holds all females captive for breeding and sex, and raids outlying areas to take any females he can find, including babies and toddlers. Many women are “cut”, and many are drugged or beaten into submission as part of the Lion’s harem. In other communities, the men and women live separately, with men being allowed into the women’s zone for breeding rituals. Young boys may be catamites, castrated and forced into sexual servitude. Each community shows a different aspect of the horrors of the time. Through Etta/Eddy’s journey, we see what may be a hopeless yearning to find a place where labels and rigidly assigned roles are a thing of the past.

The plot is fast-paced and hard to look away from. And yet, there are certain things that made this book not quite successful for me. The Etta/Eddy distinction is interesting, but we end up spending too much time in Etta’s head, often to the detriment of the story’s continuity. It’s not entirely clear to me why Nowhere’s society would frown on relationships between women the way it does, other than a need to show that even a matriarchal power structure contains its own restrictions and limitations. A segment later in the book centers on a community that it literally underground, living in a series of tunnels and bunkers completely hidden below the earth. It’s quite interesting, but certain aspects of that society — its abundant fertility and the role of its leader and prophet — need more explanation, especially as Alma (the prophet) seems to have abilities that verge on the magical, an odd choice in a dystopian novel.

There are some truly horrifying scenes of abuse and rape. This is not an easy or pleasant book. I was reminded in some parts of Octavia Butler’s outstanding (and brutal) books, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.

The Book of Etta has an open ending, as one chapter of Etta’s world ends and the next has yet to be written. The author is working on book 3, The Book of Flora, which I’m very much looking forward to, as Flora is a fascinating and complex character who enters Etta’s life in this book, and clearly has her own story to be told.

All in all, I’m glad that I read The Book of Etta and plan to continue with the trilogy, even though the writing verges on being preachy from time to time. It’s still an interesting look at a terrible vision of the future, and provides some thought-provoking scenarios about gender and identity.

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The details:

Title: The Book of Etta
Author: Meg Elison
Publisher: 47North
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 316 pages
Genre: Dystopian/post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Thursday Quotables: Final Girls

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Welcome 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!

Final Girls by Mira Grant
(published 2017)

This novella is so scary and wonderful — it starts with what seems to be a straight-up, old-fashioned, horror story set-up, then morphs into something completely different, with devastatingly invasive technology and sociopathic corporate assassins. I’m in awe of Mira Grant!

Here are a few key selections:

On a horror note — the opening lines:

The wood is dark and the wood is deep and the trees claw at the sky with branches like bones, ripping holes in the canopy of clouds, revealing glimpses of a distant, rotting moon the color of dead flesh.

More:

A mother’s love is infinite. Shouldn’t her blood, unfairly spilled, be the same?

And later, on a much different note:

From there, it was a simple matter to roll the chair into the corner and replace it with a fresh one, unburdened by inconvenient corpses.

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!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

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Book Review: Honestly Ben

Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.

Except…

There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else…and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.

If you’ve read my blog at all in the last couple of years, then you’ve probably seen me rave about Openly Straight (review), Bill Konigsberg’s amazing, touching, funny, sweet story of a gay teen trying to recreate his life on his own terms. In Openly Straight, we see the world through the eyes of Rafe, as he enters private school determined to shed his previous life as THE gay kid — completely out, giving talks, mother head of PFLAG, etc — and just see what it feels like to be one of the crowd. However, things get complicated when Rafe falls in love with his best friend Ben, who is startled to discover his own feelings for Rafe. In a nutshell, Ben doesn’t know Rafe is gay, so he believes that they’re exploring new ideas and options and feelings together, and feels completely betrayed when he learns what Rafe has been hiding from him. Seriously, this book made me laugh and broke my heart and was just so powerful!

But then we were left hanging… what happened next?

Well, thank you, thank you, thank you to the author for creating this beautiful sequel! Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after the events of Openly Straight. In Honestly Ben, Ben himself is the narrator, and we start to see more deeply into Ben’s life and world, and to understand what drives him and what scares him.

Ben grew up on a farm in New Hampshire, where working hard and not embarrassing the family are the values drilled into Ben and his brother from a young age. And when Ben starts to shine as a student, he’s not praised, but warned not to get a big head. For all that, Ben does succeed, and lands a scholarship to Natick, the poor boy among rich peers, striving to fit in and to do well enough to earn a scholarship to college. Ben keeps his head down, and tries to be what everyone wants him to be — a decent guy, a good baseball player, a top student — fitting in, but not one to call attention to himself.

Ben’s feelings for Rafe changed everything he understood about himself. In Honestly Ben, he digs deeper. Is he gay? The label doesn’t seem to fit. Bi? He doesn’t think so. He’s never been attracted to boys before, and his fantasies are generally about girls. Is he, as he puts it, just “gay-for-Rafe”? After the initial anger wears off, Ben and Rafe cautiously inch forward with their friendship. Ben is thrilled to reconnect with Rafe, but it’s a struggle for him to understand what this means. At the same time, he’s also facing pressure academically that threatens his scholarship, and he struggles with learning the truth about a former student whom the school idolizes — for all the wrong reasons, as Ben discovers.

The book’s exploration of labels is deftly handled. One of the Natick boys comes out as gender fluid, which takes much courage on  his part, as well as a lot of explaining — but he’s determined to start living his authentic life. As Ben tries to understand himself in the context of a relationship with Rafe, even well-meaners try to push him into claiming an identity he’s not comfortable with. Why does he need to put a label on what he is? He knows who he loves — why isn’t that sufficient?

Ben’s eyes are finally opened by a girl he briefly dates, who gets him to start to understand what he loses by hiding behind a front that doesn’t reveal the real him:

I’ve been doing some reading. This woman talks about vulnerability, and she says that it’s basically the key to everything. Vulnerability is allowing people to see you exactly as you are, which is really hard, because when you’re vulnerable you can get hurt. Most people armor up with bravado or something, but those people are missing out, because without allowing yourself to be vulnerable, it’s tough to have, like, any emotional experience at all.

The characters are just as wonderful as in the previous book. It’s touching to see Ben’s life through his own eyes and to understand the constant pressure he feels to be what he isn’t. The writing is outstanding, conveying both the challenges and the joys of Ben’s ongoing experiences and really capturing the sense of wonder that comes with sex in the context of love.

Obviously, I highly recommend this book! It’s a wonderful look at the inner lives of teens, and for those who read Openly Straight (which, really, you must do), it’s a terrific reunion with characters we absolutely love and care about. Check it out!

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The details:

Title: Honestly Ben
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Publication date: March 28, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

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Book Review: Six Wakes

A space adventure set on a lone ship where the clones of a murdered crew must find their murderer — before they kill again.

It was not common to awaken in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood.

At least, Maria Arena had never experienced it. She had no memory of how she died. That was also new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died.

Maria’s vat was in the front of six vats, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship Dormire, each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it could awaken. And Maria wasn’t the only one to die recently…

Talk about a powerful opening! The first chapter of this exhilarating sci-fi novel introduces us to the world of Six Wakes with a bang, as six clones wake up in their cloning vats… with their previous bodies, all brutally murdered, floating in zero gravity in front of them. None of the crew members has any memory of what happened. In fact, their last memories are of the reception on Luna as the Dormire was about to launch.

But as they look at their murdered bodies, they discover a startling fact: The bodies are all much older then they expected. While they only remember just joining the ship’s crew, it becomes apparent that they’ve been traveling in space for 25 years. All memories are gone. All ship logs have been purged. The ship’s AI is down. There’s a murderer among them, but even the murderer has no memory of what’s happened.

Wow. Now that’s tension!

In Mur Lafferty’s terrific space adventure, clones have existed within human civilization for hundreds of years. There are a set of strict laws governing clone management and clone rights, which are spelled out in the Codicils that appear at the beginning of the book. In the world of Six Wakes, people’s mindmaps are saved, then loaded into their new cloned bodies — produced to approximate age 21 for peak physical condition — when the old body dies. Clones are sterile; they become their own descendants. Clones essentially live for hundreds of years, from one body to the next.

Let me just pause here for a moment and admire the world-building of this novel. We’re thrust immediately into this brave new world, and it’s fascinating, but the author lays it out in such a way that it’s easy to grasp and get totally immersed. There are so many twists and turns and nuances to be revealed, but we get the set-up and big picture from the start. Amazing.

Meanwhile, on the Dormire, the crew have to solve their own murders, but more urgently, get the ship’s systems working again if they have any chance of survival. They’re intended to be on a 400-year journey to settle a new planet, with hundreds of humans saved in cryo, but they’ll all die if they can’t take control of navigation, get the grav drive working, and bring their AI back on line. Oh, and a piece I just loved — there’s a food printer! Think 3-D printing, but able to create any food desired, based on analysis of crew members’ tastes and programmed to synthesize any food stuff requested. It’s just cool.

The matter of identifying the murderer is crucial, of course. The tension and suspicions run high, and as the story progresses, we learn the truth about each crew member’s past. Each has secrets they’d rather keep hidden, but it’s those secrets that will help them piece together the events leading up to the murders… and hopefully enable them to prevent another round. And since the initial sabotage included destruction of the cloning vats, cloning software, and mindmap backups, if they die again, they’ll really and truly be dead.

At times, Six Wakes made me think a bit of Westworld… but my strongest comparison would have to be to Agatha Christie! Kind of a Murder on the Orient Express vibe, but in space! Everyone is a suspect, and everyone may have his or her own motives. They certainly have plenty of secrets to protect.

It’s just so cool.

Clearly, you have to enjoy science fiction to really get into Six Wakes — although I’d think anyone who enjoys a mystery would love this plot, assuming they accept all the cloning/space/technology pieces of the story.

As for me, I loved it. The story is intricate and requires paying attention to the small details, but the payoff is an amazing read that’s fast-paced, entertaining, and ultra fascinating. I loved the set-up, the human/clone history, the individual crew members’ stories, and the characters themselves, all intriguing in their own ways.

I rarely feel the urge to start a book again from the beginning once I finish it, but I definitely did with this one. I’m dying to go back, start over, and see all the clues I missed the first time around.

I strongly recommend checking out Six Wakes! So much fun. So different. So awesome.

Want to know more about this author? Check out my reviews of two other books by Mur Lafferty:
The Shambling Guide to New York City
Ghost Train to New Orleans

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The details:

Title: Six Wakes
Author: Mur Lafferty
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: January 31, 2017
Length: 364 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Another can’t-wait book: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

How did I not know about this sooner? Elizabeth Wein, author of the beautiful, powerful Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, has a new book coming out in May! The Pearl Thief centers on a main character from Code Name Verity at an earlier point in her life:

US cover

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scots Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In the prequel to Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this exhilarating coming-of-age story returns to a beloved character just before she learned to fly.

UK cover

Who else is excited???