Book Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher


Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Vox is a look at a United States where the government has been taken over — not by force, but by the power of the voting booth. A magnetic leader of the Christian right has rallied his followers to vote for his puppet candidate, and suddenly, the US government is in the hands of people who very much want to restore the country to a time when women stayed home, cared for their families, and were seen but not heard.

AP science classes in high school are replaced by AP Religious Studies, focusing on Christian philosophy. Boys and girls are educated separately, with girls’ studies focusing on home economics and basic math — just enough to be able to run a household, not enough to actually encourage higher thinking or learning.

Most insidious of all, all females in the population are fitted with metal counters on their wrists, tracking their allotment of 100 words per day. Woe betide the woman who talks in her sleep! Every utterance counts. And if you exceed your daily allotment, you receive a nasty little reminder by way of electric shock.

We view this warped world through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan, an esteemed neurolinguist who, like all professional women, is denied her work, her money, and her independence. She’s reliant on her husband for everything, and even her jerky teen-aged son has more autonomy than she does, spouting off his anti-woman rhetoric that he’s so quickly absorbed through the poisoned atmosphere of school.

It’s a compelling and intriguing set-up, and the writing keeps the plot move along at a fast pace. While the book focuses on the awfulness of this society and the punishments meted out to those who dare bend or break the rules, it’s quite chilling. The story becomes less compelling in the final third, as the tone shifts more to scientific thriller and away from the greater societal upheavals at play.

I found the premise mostly implausible. I’ve read several of these types of books by now, and the key to making me believe in them is in providing enough information to make the world of the book feel real and possible. Vox fails to truly establish how we got from our current society to the society of the book in just one year. How exactly did the people in charge come up with the counters and get them installed on all women? How did they manage to enforce the new society so quickly and with so little opposition? There isn’t enough backstory here to make me believe in it, and that ended up being an obstacle for me in terms of getting fully engaged in the story.

Vox is a gripping read, and it tries very hard to be topical and timely, a warning for our age and a call to action. Look, it seems to say — stand up now and be heard, or face a future where you may have no voice at all. Yes, being heard and taking a stand are worthy messages to put out there, but the lack of foundation in Vox makes the actual threat feel too shadowy and unbelievable.

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The details:

Title: Vox
Author: Christina Dalcher
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: August 21, 2018
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Source: Library

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Drop everything and read this book!!! (A review): The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

 

A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.

One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.

Once again, I find myself in the position of wanting my entire review to simply say:

This book is amazing.

Read it.

Not enough? Okay, I’ll elaborate.

What do you get when you throw 90s asteroid films Deep Impact and Armageddon into a blender with Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff, and Interstellar? Probably something good, but maybe not as thrilling and inspiring as Mary Robinette Kowal’s first of two Lady Astronaut books, The Calculating Stars.

(Yes, this review is going to be one big gushy love fest. Buckle up.)

The Calculating Stars starts with disaster. The year is 1952. Newlyweds Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a romantic getaway in an isolated cabin in the Pocono mountains, when there’s a flash that lights up the sky. Atomic bomb? Nope.  Elma and Nathaniel are both scientists, and they can rule out a bomb pretty quickly. But the flash is followed by an earthquake that brings the cabin down around them, and they figure out what it must be: a meteorite strike, someplace near enough for them to feel the aftershocks, and they brace for the airblast that they know must follow.

It’s an unimaginable catastrophe. The meteorite has struck Earth just off the eastern seaboard. Washington DC has been obliterated, as have most of the coastal areas of the United States. But this is only the beginning of the disaster. Elma has advanced degrees in both physics and mathematics, and is able to calculate before anyone else that this isn’t just a rough period that society will eventually overcome. The cataclysm and its impact on the world environment will, inevitably, over a period of years, lead to extinction. The Earth will become uninhabitable within their lifetimes.

There’s only one solution: Space. The world’s scientific communities must come together to accelerate research into space travel, with the aim of establishing colonies on the moon and on Mars.

Nathaniel becomes lead engineer for the international space agency, and Elma works in mission control as a computer, one of the brilliant mathematicians who calculate trajectories and all the complicated equations that enable rockets to leave earth and enter orbit. But Elma, a WASP pilot during World War II, has even bigger ambitions. She wants to fly… and she’s determined to become an astronaut.

Those little girls thought I could do anything. They thought that women could go to the moon. And because of that, they thought that they could go to the moon, too. They were why I needed to continue, because when I was their age, I needed someone like me. A woman like me.

This story is just so damned amazing. The author clearly draws heavily from history, and provides a guide to historical events and references and a bibliography. Her depiction of the space race, moved up a decade to the 1950s, feels real and exciting. By placing events in the 1950s, she also captures the social inequities and injustices of the time. The story takes place pre-Civil Rights, pre-feminism and  women’s liberation. Women may be able to apply for the astronaut training program, but they’d better be damned sure to put on lipstick first. Their press conferences feature inane questions about what they might cook in space, and the women are forced into skimpy swimsuits for their underwater tests – not the flightsuits the male candidates wore.

The (male) speaker, at a briefing for the first batch of female trainees:

“Good morning. I wish all conference rooms looked this lovely when I walked in.”

Women of color don’t even make it through the door, excluded from the application process entirely, even those with advanced degrees and unbeatable hours as pilots. You might think that in the desperation to save a species, these types of discrimination might fall by the wayside for the greater good of preserving humanity… but people in control tend to want to stay in control. It’s just as infuriating to read about in The Calculating Stars as in any non-fiction account of the era – and because we come to know these women and understand just how amazingly smart and talented they are, it’s all the more frustrating and painful.

Elma is a magnificent lead character, brave and brilliant, but by no means perfect. She has hidden weaknesses to overcome, and battles her own inner demons every step of the way. Elma’s husband Nathaniel is almost too good to be true – a scientist who’s incredibly gifted and dedicated, and yet also a man who adores his wife and supports her in her quest to become an astronaut. Their bedroom banter is adorable in its sexy dorkiness:

He shifted so he could reach between us. His fingers found the bright bundle of delight between my legs and… sparked my ignition sequence. Everything else could wait.

“Oh… oh God. We are Go for launch.”

I think you get the picture. If you’ve stuck with me this far, you can probably tell just how very much I loved this book. My inclination is to move straight on with book #2, The Fated Sky… but I think I want to savor this moment for a bit before continuing (and reaching the end of the story).

The Calculating Stars is a brilliant read, combining a story of people we come to care tremendously about with a world-ending disaster and the human spirit of ingenuity that’s so key to the early days of space exploration. This book is by turns heart-breaking and inspiring, and I loved every moment.

READ THIS BOOK!

 

Note: In 2012, the author published a short story called The Lady Astronaut of Mars. You could consider The Calculating Stars as a prequel of sorts, as it’s set in the same world and features certain of the same characters. I was charmed and moved by the story when I first read it, and read it again after finishing The Calculating Stars — and was even more moved than I was originally. If you’re interested in the flavor of this world, you can find the story here… but I recommend starting with the novels for the full, rich experience.

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The details:

Title: The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Length: 431 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Promised Land by Martin Fletcher

 

Promised Land is the sweeping saga of two brothers and the woman they love, a devastating love triangle set against the tumultuous founding of Israel.

The story begins when fourteen-year-old Peter is sent west to America to escape the growing horror of Nazi Germany. But his younger brother Arie and their entire family are sent east to the death camps. Only Arie survives.

The brothers reunite in the nascent Jewish state, where Arie becomes a businessman and one of the richest men in Israel while Peter becomes a top Mossad agent heading some of Israel’s most vital espionage operations. One brother builds Israel, the other protects it.

But they also fall in love with the same woman, Tamara, a lonely Jewish refugee from Cairo. And over the next two decades, as their new homeland faces extraordinary obstacles that could destroy it, the brothers’ intrigues and jealousies threaten to tear their new lives apart.

Promised Land is at once the gripping tale of a struggling family and an epic about a struggling nation.

Promised Land is an ambitious novel about family and love, set in the aftermath of the Holocaust and tracking two brothers’ lives during the early years following Israel’s independence.

As the book opens, Peter and Arie are young boys living with their family in Germany as war looms. Their parents are able to send Peter to America, but the rest of the family can’t avoid the Nazi terror, ultimately being sent to concentration camps.

Peter spends his teens with a kind American family before fighting in WWII, then ultimately moving to the new state of Israel and joining its intelligence service. Arie survives Auschwitz, but the rest of the family perishes, and Arie too ends up in Israel, where the brothers are reunited. A meeting with an Egyptian Jewish refugee, Tamara, changes both brothers’ lives. Peter and Tamara have an instant connection and a moment of passion, but Peter is sent on a mission with no communication possible for months. Meanwhile, Arie woos Tamara, and by the time Peter returns home, Arie and Tamara are married and expecting a child.

Promised Land takes place over a roughly 20-year period, from Israel’s birth in 1948 through the Six Day War in 1967. As the brothers and their families build their lives, we see the country also build and develop. Peter rises in the ranks of the Mossad, known for his operational expertise and sense of honor, while Arie becomes an astute businessman, always ahead of the curve in seeing opportunities for making money and profiting from the growth of the nation. Peter marries a lovely woman, a fellow agent, and has a good life with her; Arie and Tamara, while becoming fabulously wealthy, have a rocky marriage due to Arie’s excesses and infidelities.

Eventually, the love triangle between Peter, Arie, and Tamara explodes, which isn’t surprising… the only surprising element is how long it takes to reach that point.

In terms of my reaction to the book, I was hooked from start to finish, but at the same, I felt that the emotional set-up of the relationships in the story was somewhat flimsy and not well-developed. Arie is a terrible husband, no two ways about it, and just isn’t a particularly good guy. Why Tamara chose to stay with him really makes no sense, and neither does his reaction to learning the truth about Tamara and Peter, other than demonstrating Arie’s possessiveness and selfishness.

Peter really is a good person, a devoted family man and brother, and he acts in Arie’s best interest even when Arie is engaging in shady, criminal behavior. He is a good loving husband to his first wife, and (spoiler alert) after her untimely death, denies  his love for  Tamara well past the point when there was a reason for either of them to think that her marriage was worth saving.

What this book does very well, and what makes it a deeper read than a typical love triangle story, is the positioning of these characters at such a distinct and eventful moment in history.  The author, a former news correspondent, uses his well-researched knowledge of the events of the time to paint a portrait of a people’s psychology.

We come to understand the underlying needs, fears, and guilt of a Holocaust survivor. While despising much of Arie’s actions, I could also sympathize with his pain and understand why he acts the way he acts and what drives him to pursue wealth, power, and admiration.

We also learn about the psychology of the early Israelis, coming from the horrors of genocide, knowing that their new homeland may not be a safe place, and wanting desperately to find the security so long denied. The author does not sugarcoat the more unpleasant aspects of Israel’s creation, but does show a context and depth of understanding that’s often missing in today’s narratives.

At the same time, as the characters live through Israel’s cycles of war, we get a more in-depth look at the political machinations behind the scenes, thanks to Peter’s role in the intelligence service. It’s fascinating to read about the hidden reasons for Israel’s actions, the lingering impact of Nazi scientists on Middle Eastern politics, and the ways in which Cold War politics play into Israel’s strategies.

Overall, I found myself immersed in the story, fascinated both by the historical setting and the characters’ lives. Yes, I found the characterizations a little formulaic (good brother, bad brother, exotic love interest), but the story progresses in a way that kept me engaged and made me care about these people and their lives.

I did find the ending somewhat abrupt. The story seems to just end. I think even one more chapter, perhaps an epilogue, might have helped to create a better sense of completion and satisfaction.**

**While doing a final proofread of this review, I popped over to Martin Fletcher’s author page in Goodreads and discovered that this book is the first in a trilogy! I guess that explains why it ends when and how it does, and why I was left feeling that there was more of the story to be told.

Despite a few drawbacks that got in my way here and there, I’m glad to have read Promised Land. For anyone interested in Israel’s early years, this is a fresh take on the history of the time, and the characters in the story are memorable and relatable – you won’t soon forget them or their struggles.

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The details:

Title: Promised Land
Author: Martin Fletcher
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Girl in the Green Silk Gown by Seanan McGuire

“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)

The second book in the Ghost Roads series returns to the highways of America, where hitchhiking ghost Rose Marshall continues her battle with her killer–the immortal Bobby Cross.

Once and twice and thrice around,
Put your heart into the ground.
Four and five and six tears shed,
Give your love unto the dead.
Seven shadows on the wall,
Eight have come to watch your fall:
One’s for the gargoyle, one’s for the grave,
And the last is for the one you’ll never save.
 
For Rose Marshall, death has long since become the only life she really knows.  She’s been sweet sixteen for more than sixty years, hitchhiking her way along the highways and byways of America, sometimes seen as an avenging angel, sometimes seen as a killer in her own right, but always Rose, the Phantom Prom Date, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown.

The man who killed her is still out there, thanks to a crossroads bargain that won’t let him die, and he’s looking for the one who got away.  When Bobby Cross comes back into the picture, there’s going to be hell to pay—possibly literally.

Rose has worked for decades to make a place for herself in the twilight.  Can she defend it, when Bobby Cross comes to take her down?  Can she find a way to navigate the worlds of the living and the dead, and make it home before her hitchhiker’s luck runs out?

There’s only one way to know for sure.

Nine will let you count the cost:
All you had and all you lost.
Ten is more than time can tell,
Cut the cord and ring the bell.
Count eleven, twelve, and then,
Thirteen takes you home again.
One’s for the shadow, one’s for the tree,
And the last is for the blessing of Persephone.

My Thoughts:

This has been quite the year for me and Seanan McGuire. I was a fan of her Wayward Children books already, but this year I obsessively consumed her October Daye and Incryptid series — so of course I had to read the Ghost Road books too.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is the sequel to the 2014 book Sparrow Hill Road. I first started Sparrow Hill Road about a year ago, and couldn’t get into it. This year, in the midst of my Seanan McGuire frenzy, I decided to give it another try, and actually enjoyed it — enough so that I was keen to read The Girl in the Green Silk Gown as well.

This book is the continuing story of Rose Marshall, who was killed in a car crash on the way to her prom back in the 1950s, and has haunted the highways of North America ever since as a hitchhiking ghost. Rose is the stuff of urban legends, who escorts doomed drivers to their afterlives but also helps those that she can to avoid a deadly fate. All the while, she’s been on the run from Bobby Cross, the driver who killed her, and this time around, it looks like he finally has her trapped.

Sparrow Hill Road is more like a bunch of interwoven stories that make a whole, whereas The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is a novel with a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s a hero’s journey, an epic quest, and a story of belonging and home. Rose makes unusual choices, accompanied by unexpected friends and allies, and has both bravery and kindness to see her along her way.

The ghostly elements aren’t scary — this isn’t a horror story — but create an atmosphere that’s otherworldly and strange and (yes) haunting in the best sense of the word.

For those who haven’t read Sparrow Hill Road, I’d say start there — but you can also start with The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, as there are enough reminders and exposition to get you up to speed even without prior familiarity with the general story. Also, for those who’ve read the Incryptid books, you’ll see some familiar names popping up in this book. Not being familiar with Incryptid won’t get in your way at all, but if you have read those books, you’ll smile in recognition at least a few times.

Rose Marshall is a memorable lead character, and I hope we’ll see more of her!

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The details:

Title: The Girl in the Green Silk Gown (Ghost Roads, #2)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Library

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Book Review: You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac

 

Set in the French countryside on an idyllic summer vacation, a delicious, tender novel about finding joy and love even in the most unexpected places. 

Jess and her ten-year-old son William set off to spend the summer at Château de Roussignol, deep in the rich, sunlit hills of the Dordogne. There, Jess’s ex-boyfriend—and William’s father—Adam, runs a beautiful hotel in a restored castle. Lush gardens, a gorgeous pool, delectable French food, and a seemingly never-ending wine list—what’s not to like? Jess is bowled over by what Adam has accomplished, but she’s in France for a much more urgent reason: to make Adam fall in love with his own son.

But Adam has other ideas, and another girlfriend—and he doesn’t seem inclined to change the habits of a lifetime just because Jess and William have appeared on the scene. Jess isn’t surprised, but William—who has quickly come to idolize his father—wants nothing more than to spend time with him. But Jess can’t allow Adam to let their son down—because she is tormented by a secret of her own, one that nobody—especially William—must discover.

By turns heartwrenching and hopeful, You Me Everything is a novel about one woman’s fierce determination to grab hold of the family she has and never let go, and a romantic story as heady as a crisp Sancerre on a summer day.

I’m not entirely sure what led me to pick up this book at the library — I think I may have read about it on another blog sometime this summer, and something about that colorful cover just beckoned me to it when I saw it on the shelf. I’m so glad I gave into the impulse to pick it up and take it home!

You Me Everything is a sweet and surprisingly down-to-earth story about a single mother, her ten-year-old son, and unexpected second chances.

Jess spent a good part of her relationship with Adam feeling let down by him, and his failure to arrive at the hospital for his son’s birth was the last straw. Now, ten years later, Jess travels to France with William to ensure that the distant relationship between father and son has a chance to finally turn into something real. Jess expects little from Adam for herself, having been burned by his thoughtlessness so many times before, but she’s adamant that he finally step up and become a real presence in their son’s life.

The setting is gorgeous, full of fancy food, beautiful landscapes, endless sun, and great wine. William thrives, and is even willing to put down the IPad once in a while in pursuit of adventure with his dad.

At first glance, I was afraid this would be one of those chick-lit books filled with pretty people in pretty places doing pretty things, but without a whole lot of substance beyond that. Fortunately, my first impressions were wrong.

You Me Everything has deep feeling at its heart. I don’t want to reveal too much here, so I’ll just share that there’s a reason why Jess’s parents push her to spend the summer giving Adam a new chance with his son, and a reason why she agrees. The book has some real sorrow in it, but it also manages to be life-affirming and hopeful. Adam and Jess’s past is complicated and not without plenty of fault to go around — mostly, but not exclusively Adam’s. There’s hurt and miscommunication and some bad times to get past, but as we see through Jess’s memories of their earlier years, Adam was not always a selfish jerk, and they did truly love each other at one point.

The writing conveys the characters’ emotional states while maintaining a sense of fun and good humor, even in the more serious and difficult moments. Jess is a terrific lead character — a devoted mother and daughter, a good friend, and a woman who strives to do the smart and sensible thing. While I thought Adam was worthless at the beginning, we grow to learn more about him, his childhood, and what’s in his heart, so I couldn’t help warming to him over the course of the book. There are some funny scenes that depict parenthood in all its messy, occasionally infuriating, often exhausting glory. And the dynamics between the family members and associated friends who come together throughout the story are priceless.

I ended up really enjoying You Me Everything, and tore my way through the book in about a day and a half. Once I started, I just didn’t want to start. This book is the author’s US debut — I’d definitely want to read more of her work.

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The details:

Title: You Me Everything
Author: Catherine Isaac
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Audiobook Review: Competence by Gail Carriger (The Custard Protocol, #3)

 

 

From New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger comes the delightful sequel to Imprudence.

Accidentally abandoned!

All alone in Singapore, proper Miss Primrose Tunstell must steal helium to save her airship, the Spotted Custard, in a scheme involving a lovesick werecat and a fake fish tail.

When she uncovers rumors of a new kind of vampire, Prim and the Custard crew embark on a mission to Peru. There, they encounter airship pirates and strange atmospheric phenomena, and are mistaken for representatives of the Spanish Inquisition. Forced into extreme subterfuge (and some rather ridiculous outfits) Prim must also answer three of life’s most challenging questions:

Can the perfect book club give a man back his soul?

Will her brother ever stop wearing his idiotic velvet fez?

And can the amount of lard in Christmas pudding save an entire species?

Picture yourself floating through the air, with a ladybug-spotted balloon overhead, surrounded by your best friends and some adoring crew members. Picture yourself floating above India, Africa, even the Pacific Ocean. Picture yourself with fancy hats, stylish traveling dresses, and oversized parasols.

Fun, right?

Did all that imagining make you feel light and bubbly, maybe even a little giddy? Well, that’s a bit what reading the Custard Protocol books feels like, start to finish. The books in this delightful series are clearly fantasy, feel-good adventures, featuring exotic locales and extravagant fashion mixed with plenty of tea, camaraderie, and mid-air shenanigans.

As Competence is the third book in the series (with one more still to come), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the story so far. In book #1, Prudence, we’re introduced to the young leading lady, Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama, daughter of a preternatural and a werewolf (who themselves are the stars of the phenomenal Parasol Protectorate series). Known as Rue, she’s feisty, independent, and itching for adventure. When her adoptive father, the vampire Lord Akeldama, gives her her very own dirigible, Rue takes to the skies with her best friend Primrose, Prim’s twin brother Percy, the flirty Frenchman Quesnel as ship’s engineer, and a crew full of oddball characters. All sorts of chaotic escapades ensue, including run-ins with weremonkeys and a very attractive werelioness.

In the 2nd book, Imprudence, the crew once again floats off on adventure, this time to Egypt, where they’re pursued by various bad guys, meet a ghost, and befriend some airborne nomadic tribes, And in the midst of all this, Rue discovers the pleasures of physical intimacy and love, and enjoys both immensely.

Competence picks up the story just a little while later, but this time around, Primrose takes over as lead character, occasionally ceding the POV spotlight to her brother Percy. Through their eyes, we continue on to new adventures on board the Spotted Custard (Rue’s dirigible), first in Singapore and then across the ocean to Peru. Prim is a very proper young woman, a steadfast friend to Rue and one heck of a ship’s purser, responsible for keeping the dirigible stocked, fueled, and ready to float off at a moment’s notice. Despite being determined to achieve a society-approved good marriage, Prim finds herself increasingly drawn to Tasherit, the exotically beautiful werelioness who is now a full member of the crew. Prim can’t quite bring herself to venture so far outside the bounds of approved English standards as to enter into a relationship with a woman, but there’s no denying the spark between the two, and as Prim acknowledges, cats can be very persistent about getting what they want.

Meanwhile, the Spotted Custard’s adventures include the discovery of a strange and endangered breed of vampires, unusual weather patterns and weird pirate ships, and a spontaneous heist of helium from an unsuspecting tourist vehicle. Plus, the usual shipboard quibbles and romances, as well as philosophical discussion groups and scientific theorizing.

Competence is just as much fun as the first two books in the series. In this book, the romances in focus do not fit the mold of Victorian social acceptability — but the author’s depiction makes it clear that Rue and friends are open-minded and refuse to be bound by meaningless judgment. On the Spotted Custard, love is love, period… and that’s a very good thing, for the characters as well as for the readers. Prim takes a very long time to make up her mind, but the banter and flirtation between her and Tasherit light up the page, so you know it’s just a matter of time…

Looking back, I’m a little shocked at myself to discover that on first read, I didn’t fall in love with Prudence. It makes me itch to go back and rewrite my original review! Sometimes, though, it’s just a question of mood and timing. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the Custard Protocol when I first read the first book. When I revisited book 1 as an audiobook, I adored it, and loved the 2nd book just as much.

A note on the audiobooks: They’re amazing! Narrator Moira Quirk does an outstanding job with the characters, capturing their voices, their accents, and their personalities, and making each one distinct and instantly recognizable. She’s also great with the action scenes, and really brings out the humor of Gail Carriger’s fantastically quippy dialogue.

The Custard Protocol series is truly delectable, and Competence is a wonderful addition. And now, we wait… Book #4, Reticence, is due out in 2019.

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The details:

Title: Competence (The Custard Protocol, #3)
Author: Gail Carriger
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: July 17, 2018
Length (print): 309 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 52 minutes
Genre: Fantasy/steampunk
Source: Purchased

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Murderbot is back! Rogue Protocol – book #3

Murderbot returns for a 3rd adventure!

Thank you, Tor Books, for the review copy of Rogue Protocol!

The Murderbot Diaries
Book #3 – Rogue Protocol

(160 pages, published August 7, 2018 by Tor)

SciFi’s favorite antisocial A.I. is again on a mission. The case against the too-big-to-fail GrayCris Corporation is floundering, and more importantly, authorities are beginning to ask more questions about where Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit is.

And Murderbot would rather those questions went away. For good.

My thoughts:

What’s not to love about a cantankerous SecUnit who’d really rather just be left alone? Too bad for Murderbot that those darn softy, squishy humans keep getting in its way and requiring its protection. So what’s an exasperated AI to do? In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot once again sneaks its way onto a transport filled with humans on a secret mission, this time looking for evidence against the nefarious GrayCris Corporation. But of course, nothing goes as planned, since the humans involved end up needing looking after, even though they’re not technically Murderbot’s to worry about.

I’ll be honest and say that the action feels a little opaque to me. Lots of hatches and corridors and whatnot… lots of energy blasters and armor and drones… It’s all quite energetic and high-speed, but the technical mumbo-jumbo tends to make my eyes glaze over.

Still, what redeems these novellas for me is the fabulous voice of Murderbot itself, who is just as fed up as always. Why can’t the poor AI just enjoy its media feeds in peace?

I’ll leave you with a few choice snippets of Murderbot ruminations:

This was going to be even more annoying than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated a pretty high level of annoyance, maybe as high as 85 percent. Now I was looking at 90 percent, possibly 95 percent.

Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas.

(Yes, that was sarcasm.)

Right, so the only smart way out of this was to kill all of them. I was going to have to take the dumb way out of this.

If you’re a sci-fi fan and haven’t yet experienced Murderbot, definitely give these novellas a try! Now is a great time to jump in — the 4th (and final?) book is due out in October.

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An early look: October Daye, book 12 — Night and Silence

I am beyond thrilled to have received an ARC of the newest, soon-to-be-released book in the October Daye urban fantasy series. Thank you, NetGalley and DAW Books! October Daye continues to be at the absolute top of my list of ongoing series (and October herself is definitely a favorite hero) — read on to find out why!

Things are not okay.

In the aftermath of Amandine’s latest betrayal, October “Toby” Daye’s fragile self-made family is on the verge of coming apart at the seams. Jazz can’t sleep, Sylvester doesn’t want to see her, and worst of all, Tybalt has withdrawn from her entirely, retreating into the Court of Cats as he tries to recover from his abduction. Toby is floundering, unable to help the people she loves most heal. She needs a distraction. She needs a quest.

What she doesn’t need is the abduction of her estranged human daughter, Gillian. What she doesn’t need is to be accused of kidnapping her own child by her ex-boyfriend and his new wife, who seems to be harboring secrets of her own. There’s no question of whether she’ll take the case. The only question is whether she’s emotionally prepared to survive it.

Signs of Faerie’s involvement are everywhere, and it’s going to take all Toby’s nerve and all her allies to get her through this web of old secrets, older hatreds, and new deceits. If she can’t find Gillian before time runs out, her own child will pay the price. One question remains:

Who in Faerie remembered Gillian existed? And what do they stand to gain? No matter how this ends, Toby’s life will never be the same.

Seanan McGuire never fails to amaze me… and to wreak utter havoc with my emotions. Night and Silence is a strong addition to the October Daye series, with new twists and turns and some totally startling revelations and developments. How many series can get to book #12 with no signs of slowing or slumping? The October Daye series has always been excellent, and this new book lives up to all the rest.

Since this is a pre-release review, I’m going to be vague about just about everything. I know I’d hate to discover spoilers before the book even comes out, so I’ll be discreet, I promise! If you’re reading this review, chances are more than good that you’re a Toby fan, and that you’re panting (and maybe drooling a bit) to find out what happens next, after that doozy of an ending from book #11, The Brightest Fell.

As the synopsis above makes clear, things are NOT okay at the beginning of this book. Toby and Tybalt are more or less estranged, since Tybalt is suffering serious trauma after his ordeal at the hands of Amandine in book #11. And this just breaks my heart. I love the two of them together, and I love Tybalt as an individual. It hurts to see him suffering, and it hurts to see Toby suffering from his distance and her inability to reach him and help him.

When Gillian is kidnapped and Toby springs into action, it brings her back into contact with both the humans from her past and some nefarious folks from the fae part of her life too. Still, it’s great to see Toby on a mission, and to see her allies rallying round to back her up and give her their support.

There are some MAJOR reveals, including the answer to a question that’s bugged me almost from the start of the series. But see, I’m being discreet, so I won’t even say what the question is, much less the answer.

The hunt for the kidnappers and the outcome are not what anyone would expect. Let’s leave it at that. The ending of this book is a game-changer, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

It’s startling to me to realize that as of the beginning of this year, I had not yet entered the amazing world of October Daye. What a difference a few months make! I love this series to bits and pieces, and can’t recommend it highly enough! Seanan McGuire must be part Fae herself, because she spins the best magical stories. I love everything she writes, and Night and Silence is a treat. Read it! And if you haven’t read any October Daye books yet, start with Rosemary and Rue. I dare you to stop after one book!

I’ll wrap things up with a quote from the book, without providing any context, just because the dialogue in these stories always makes me smile:

“You have got to stop defusing every conversation you don’t want to have by talking like something out of a Regency romance.”

But wait, there’s more!

As an afterward to Night and Silence is the long short-story Suffer A Sea-Change. I’m not going to tell you who’s in it (okay, obviously the Luidaeg, but I’m not saying who else) or what it’s about, because anything I might say would be majorly spoilery. Suffice it to say that Suffer A Sea-Change picks up from the end point of Night and Silence, and is a fantastic side note to the main novel — absolutely not to be missed.

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The details:

Title: Night and Silence (October Daye, #12)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 510 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

 

Some houses seem to want to hold their secrets.

It’s 1759 and the world is at war, pulling the North American colonies of Britain and France into the conflict. The times are complicated, as are the loyalties of many New York merchants who have secretly been trading with the French for years, defying Britain’s colonial laws in a game growing ever more treacherous.

When captured French officers are brought to Long Island to be billeted in private homes on their parole of honour, it upends the lives of the Wilde family—deeply involved in the treasonous trade and already divided by war.

Lydia Wilde, struggling to keep the peace in her fracturing family following her mother’s death, has little time or kindness to spare for her unwanted guests. French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran has little desire to be there. But by the war’s end they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that are not broken easily.

Their doomed romance becomes a local legend, told and re-told through the years until the present day, when conflict of a different kind brings Charley Van Hoek to Long Island to be the new curator of the Wilde House Museum.

Charley doesn’t believe in ghosts. But as she starts to delve into the history of Lydia and her French officer, it becomes clear that the Wilde House holds more than just secrets, and Charley discovers the legend might not have been telling the whole story…or the whole truth.

Belleweather starts slowly, layering modern-day chapters with chapters from Lydia’s and Jean-Philippe’s perspectives. It’s masterfully done, like building a gorgeous home from the foundation upward. The early stages may seem like a lot of getting ready, but as the story builds, the pieces all come together to make an impressive whole.

We’re told from the outset that the Wilde House has a long, tangled history, going back centuries through generations of Wildes, who settled, married, bore and lost children, and over time expanded the original Colonial footprint of the house to include a Victorian wing. We also learn early on that the house may be haunted. When Charley accepts a job as curator for the Wilde House Museum, currently under renovation, one of the first stories she hears is the legend of a doomed love between a Wilde daughter and a French officer staying in the family home as a prisoner during the French and Indian War.

Charley is naturally charmed and intrigued by the tale — but the mission of the museum is supposed to be on Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Wilde. The stuffier members of the board of directors are not crazy about Charley anyway, and they refuse to expand their view of the musem’s purpose to include anything about this mysterious ghost story, despite the fact that over the years it’s become a favorite local legend, so much so that the woods around the museum have become a favorite Halloween destination for people wanting a chance at a ghost sighting.

Charley begins to dig through the old records to discover proof to back up the ghost story, and meanwhile, we hear from Lydia and Jean-Philippe about how they met, what conditions were like for them on the farm, and how family dynamics — especially conflicts with another French officer and Lydia’s brothers — seemed to make any future between the two utterly impossible.

Within the contemporary pieces of the story, we also learn more about Charley’s own family tragedies, including a long estrangement from her grandmother, the loss of her brother, her care for her young adult niece, and naturally, Charley’s own romantic frustrations and dreams. On top of that, there’s a particularly difficult and entitled set of board members to be dealt with, and lots of influential people with demands that can’t be ignored.

To be honest, I had my doubts at the beginning. The start is slow, and particularly in Charley’s chapters, there’s a lot of exposition up front, and tons of minor characters’ names to learn and remember. I was much more captivated by Lydia and Jean-Philippe from the start. Because we’re told the outlines of the ghost story at the beginning, we read about these two characters assuming we know where their story is going and wondering about the how and why — but the way it all comes together is both surprising and carefully built up to. I was very satisfied with the resolution, both of the contemporary and historical pieces of the story,

Overall, I enjoyed Bellewether very much, although I felt that certain of the emotional/family dynamics and complications in Charley’s part of the story were rushed. The storyline with her grandmother, in particular, needed a little more room to breathe and develop in order to have the intended emotional impact, and I thought the niece’s grief and healing was given a rather speedy treatment as well.

Still, as a whole, Bellewether is a great read, and by the second half, I just couldn’t put it down. Susanna Kearsley is a master of emotional, complex stories with historical elements that usually come with some sort of secretive or supernatural mysteries. Bellewether is a stand-alone that makes a great introduction to the author’s style and quality of writing, and for those who already love her works, you won’t be disappointed!

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A note on editions: The cover above belongs to the paperback edition released in Canada in April 2018, which I purchased via Amazon Canada prior to receiving an ARC via NetGalley. The US edition, releasing this coming week (August 7th), has a cover that, while nice, doesn’t match my existing collection of Susanna Kearsley books — and I’m enough of a fan and a completist that I just had to have that gorgeous Canadian cover!

Here’s the US cover:

And here’s a look at some of my other Susanna Kearsley books — which may help explain why I needed that particular cover:

 

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The details:

Title: Bellewether
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: August 7, 2018
Length: 414 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: NetGalley (also purchased)

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Book Review: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2) by Neal Shusterman

 

Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the chilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe from New York Times bestseller Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.

The Thunderhead cannot interfere in the affairs of the Scythedom. All it can do is observe—it does not like what it sees.

A year has passed since Rowan had gone off grid. Since then, he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire. His story is told in whispers across the continent.

As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideals of the “new order.” But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.

Will the Thunderhead intervene?

Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?

I absolutely loved Scythe, the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series. So it should be no surprise that I found myself swept away by Thunderhead, book #2, simply unable to put it down once I started.

Note: This review may be a bit spoilery, since it’s for the 2nd in a series. Look away now if you want to be spoiler-free!

Scythe ended on a suspenseful note. Apprentice Scythes Citra and Rowan make it to their final rite of passage, and while Citra is ordained, taking the name Scythe Anastasia, Rowan is not accepted into the scythedom. By rules of their apprenticeship, Citra should now “glean” (kill, permanently, with no revival) Rowan, but instead, she makes sure he gets a year’s immunity from gleaning and he escapes. By the end of the book, we know that Rowan has gone rogue, illegally donning the robes of a scythe and making it his mission to eliminate the worst of the scythes — those who kill for pleasure rather than as a means of keeping balance in the world.

Thunderhead picks right up with the action, as Citra/Anastasia carries out her scythe duties with thoughtfulness and purpose. Scythes are necessary tools in a world in which death has been banished. Without scythes, overpopulation and starvation would result, killing off humanity just as surely as war and disease did back in the mortal age. Anastasia treats those to be gleaned with respect and compassion, and while her task is still grim, she gives it a dignity that “new order” scythes find ridiculous, boring, and unnecessarily serious.

Things become deadly when Anastasia and her mentor Scythe Curie are almost killed in a bombing attack. Everything in the world is governed by the Thunderhead, the sentient intelligence that evolved from cloud computing. The Thunderhead is all-knowing, and has as its mission the preservation of life on the planet to the best of its ability. The one area removed from Thunderhead control is the scythedom — a rule created by the Thunderhead to ensure that humans could make the decisions necessary for their own species’ survival without undue interference. But over the course of the book, the Thunderhead realizes that the things it doesn’t know and doesn’t see, thanks to this separation, may spell doom rather than salvation for humanity.

Scattered throughout the book are pages narrated by the Thunderhead itself, and these are truly fascinating. The Thunderhead knows everything, and knows everyone. It understands what each person needs, and it understands how things must change in order for the world to endure. It knows every probable outcome and the statistical likelihood of every occurrence. And yet, the Thunderhead isn’t some evil computer overlord. It has what it considers the best interest of all things as its focus, and if it can be said to feel, we’d be likely to interpret its musings on human beings as a form of love. Still, there is perhaps something a little creepy about a world in which the illusion of complete choice is deliberately provided by the Thunderhead in certain situations in order for people to feel free, and in which a class of people known as “unsavories” are permitted (and even encouraged) so that those who need a sense of rebellion can get that satisfaction.

I won’t give away too much more, other than to say that the ending is a TREMENDOUS CLIFFHANGER,  with a lead-up that left me gasping. I mean, I could not believe what I was reading, was utterly horrified, kept waiting for things not to be as bad as they seemed (but they were), and could not look away. Really, the ending is a stunner.

Note: Pretty big spoiler here for anyone who’s familiar with classic opera:

At the end, I couldn’t help but chuckle sadly once I realized what exquisite foreshadowing the author used by having characters attend a performance of Aida.

Sorry, I couldn’t not say that.

End of spoilers!

I could rave about this book (and Scythe) a whole lot more, but I think you get the point! I just wish I had someone in my life to discuss this with! I’m trying to push the books on a few bookish friends, and hope to have some success soon. These are books that just NEED to be talked about!

Really, read Scythe and Thunderhead! You’ll thank me, I promise.

And now we wait for #3, coming (I hope) sometime in 2019.

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The details:

Title: Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)
Author: Neal Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 9, 2018
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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