Book Review: Rabbits by Terry Miles

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: June 8, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Conspiracies abound in this surreal and yet all-too-real technothriller in which a deadly underground alternate reality game might just be altering reality itself, set in the same world as the popular Rabbits podcast.

It’s an average work day. You’ve been wrapped up in a task, and you check the clock when you come up for air–4:44 pm. You go to check your email, and 44 unread messages have built up. With a shock, you realize it is April 4th–4/4. And when you get in your car to drive home, your odometer reads 44,444. Coincidence? Or have you just seen the edge of a rabbit hole?

Rabbits is a mysterious alternate reality game so vast it uses our global reality as its canvas. Since the game first started in 1959, ten iterations have appeared and nine winners have been declared. Their identities are unknown. So is their reward, which is whispered to be NSA or CIA recruitment, vast wealth, immortality, or perhaps even the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe itself. But the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes. Players have died in the past–and the body count is rising.

And now the eleventh round is about to begin. Enter K–a Rabbits obsessive who has been trying to find a way into the game for years. That path opens when K is approached by billionaire Alan Scarpio, the alleged winner of the sixth iteration. Scarpio says that something has gone wrong with the game and that K needs to fix it before Eleven starts or the whole world will pay the price.

Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing. Two weeks after that, K blows the deadline and Eleven begins. And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.

I’m not sure I’m actually up to the task of righting a Rabbits review, but I’ll give it a shot!

Rabbits is both the name of this novel and the name of the game within the novel. Rabbits — the game — is secretive and mysterious. No one knows for sure if it actually exists, who created it, how you play, who has played, or how you win. Yet there are countless online discussion groups devoted to Rabbits, as well as countless die-hard gamers who live and breathe for the opportunity to find out more and maybe even get to play.

K, the main character of the book, holds regular workshops on Rabbits in a Seattle arcade, where he reveals rare recordings and shares the lore of the game. It’s all based on rumors and hearsay and dark web conspiracies, but K is more successful than most. Gifted since birth with the ability to see and recognize patterns and connections, he’s highly skilled when it comes to recognizing the anomalies and seeming coincidences that are so crucial to Rabbits.

K also presents as being somewhat imbalanced, losing time, having strange freakouts, and becoming so obsessed with clues and the game that he forgets to eat or sleep. As the book opens, K receives a strange warning from a tech billionaire rumored to be a winner of an earlier iteration of the game. He states that there’s something wrong with the game, that it’s up to K to fix it, and that if he doesn’t, the world may be doomed. No pressure though!

We follow K and his maybe-girlfriend Chloe through a baffling series of symbols, puzzles, and patterns as they work to solve the riddle of Rabbits and, hopefully, to keep the multiverse from imploding. Reading Rabbits, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s sort of a Da Vinci Code kind of mystery wrapped up in gamer-speak, with a techno-thriller pace and edge to it all.

Rabbits is incredibly confusing, and to be honest, I don’t think I could actually tell you what Rabbits — the game — actually is or how someone wins. The book is convoluted as heck, although I can’t say it doesn’t have enjoyable moments. The mindfuckery is leavened by funny dialogue and pop culture references — in between all the parts that left me scratching my head and utterly bewildered. More often than not, I found myself incredibly impatient with all the twists and turns, and I just couldn’t suspend disbelief enough to buy into the idea that these hidden clues could actually make sense to a real person.

I think maybe I’m just not the right audience for Rabbits. The book is long, and while there are some fun passages and escapades, overall it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I will say, though, that it’s made me hypersensitive right now to patterns and coincidences… like why do I always happen to be glancing at a clock when it’s 9:20?

Maybe it’s the game. Maybe I’m playing and I don’t even know it!

Final note: Rabbits is also the name of a podcast created by the novel’s author, Terry Miles. I haven’t listened to it, and understand from the book’s marketing that it’s not necessary to have listened to the podcast to read the book — but it’s also about the game Rabbits. The podcast can be found at: https://www.rabbitspodcast.com/

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Summer 2021 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Books On My Summer 2021 TBR.

This is really just scratching the surface — so many books to read! Here are 10 of my upcoming reads, all being released in June, July or August. Six out of ten are sequels or continuations of series, and four are new stand-alones. They all sound amazing!

  1. Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon
  2. The Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison (set in the world of The Goblin Emperor)
  3. The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig
  4. While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory
  5. The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
  6. Any Way the Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell (the 3rd Simon Snow book)
  7. Incense and Sensibility by Sonali Dev (fun series of Jane Austen retellings)
  8. Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  9. Feral Creatures by Kira Jane Buxton (sequel to Hollow Kingdom)
  10. Sunrise By the Sea by Jenny Colgan (another book in the Little Beach Street Bakery series!)

What are you planning to read this summer? Please share your links!

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Book Review: I Don’t Forgive You by Aggie Blum Thompson

Title: I Don’t Forgive You
Author: Aggie Blum Thompson
Publisher: Forge
Publication date: June 8, 2021
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

An accomplished photographer and the devoted mom of an adorable little boy, Allie Ross has just moved to an upscale DC suburb, the kind of place where parenting feels like a competitive sport. Allie’s desperate to make a good first impression. Then she’s framed for murder.

It all starts at a neighborhood party when a local dad corners Allie and calls her by an old, forgotten nickname from her dark past. The next day, he is found dead.

Soon, the police are knocking at her door, grilling her about a supposed Tinder relationship with the man, and pulling up texts between them. She learns quickly that she’s been hacked and someone is impersonating her online. Her reputation–socially and professionally–is at stake; even her husband starts to doubt her. As the killer closes in, Allie must reach back into a past she vowed to forget in order to learn the shocking truth of who is destroying her life.

Allie is new to the close-knit, overly involved neighborhood when she attends a party that changes everything. The community is full of successful, highly ambitious people whose children all attend the same school. Everyone knows everything about everybody, and it’s cliquey and overwhelming to outsider Allie. After some mild flirting over a glass of wine, Allie finds herself cornered and assaulted in the bathroom, and leaves feeling shaken up and terribly worried about her future in the neighborhood.

Among the neighborhood women, she has few allies, and when she decides to share her terrible experience with her closest neighbor, the word spreads that she’s accused the (now dead) man of assault. The crisis escalates as Allie discovers fake Tinder and Facebook accounts pretending to be her, causing horrible damage to her reputation, and soon leading even her husband to mistrust her.

Meanwhile, an old secret from Allie’s troubled past seems to be resurfacing, and to make matters worse, her mother and sister are entangled in problems as well. As the police start to zero in on Allie as a murder suspect, her panic worsens — there’s no one she can trust, and no one seems to believe that she’s been set up.

I Don’t Forgive You is a fast read, setting up the key conflict quickly and then piling up clues and suspicions left and right. There are lots of possible solutions to the question of who’s setting Allie up and why, and the plot intentionally plays up all the potential misdirections before finally revealing the answers.

The book kept my interest, although I’m not a huge fan of these types of suburban, gossipy neighbor thrillers. I couldn’t feel overly invested in the PTA drama, the judging women treating Allie horribly, or Allie’s own poor decision-making in times of crisis.

My big takeaway from this book is — stay off the internet! It’s like an object lesson in the dangers of identity theft and the value of cyber security. I think Allie’s awareness of online security protocols is probably pretty typical of most people — we assume passwords and firewalls are enough to keep us safe, and we tend to be blind to all the many, many ways people with bad intentions can mess with us.

I Don’t Forgive You is a good entertaining read. It didn’t particularly rise above average for me, but take that with a grain of salt, since thrillers in general aren’t usually my preferred genre. This would make a good summer read, a fun choice for reading in a beach chair or by the pool!

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Book Review: The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

Title: The Ninth Metal (The Comet Cycle, #1)
Author: Benjamin Percy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

IT BEGAN WITH A COMET…

At first, people gazed in wonder at the radiant tear in the sky. A year later, the celestial marvel became a planetary crisis when Earth spun through the comet’s debris field and the sky rained fire.

The town of Northfall, Minnesota will never be the same. Meteors cratered hardwood forests and annihilated homes, and among the wreckage a new metal was discovered. This “omnimetal” has properties that make it world-changing as an energy source…and a weapon.

John Frontier—the troubled scion of an iron-ore dynasty in Northfall—returns for his sister’s wedding to find his family embroiled in a cutthroat war to control mineral rights and mining operations. His father rightly suspects foreign leaders and competing corporations of sabotage, but the greatest threat to his legacy might be the U.S. government. Physicist Victoria Lennon was recruited by the Department of Defense to research omnimetal, but she finds herself trapped in a laboratory of nightmares. And across town, a rookie cop is investigating a murder that puts her own life in the cross-hairs. She will have to compromise her moral code to bring justice to this now lawless community.

In this gut-punch of a novel, the first in his Comet Cycle, Ben Percy lays bare how a modern-day gold rush has turned the middle of nowhere into the center of everything, and how one family—the Frontiers—hopes to control it all.

In The Ninth Metal, the first book in the new trilogy The Comet Cycle by Benjamin Percy, what starts as a beautiful phenomenon turns into a planet-changing event. As the Cain Comet passes by Earth, people everywhere gaze at this once-in-a-lifetime sight. But a year later, the Earth’s orbit takes it through the debris field trailing the comet, and suddenly, life on Earth is permanently changed.

The book only hints at the global implications and the variety of natural disasters that occur in the wake of this event. Instead, The Ninth Metal restricts its focus to the town of Northfall, Minnesota — a dying mining town whose riches have been dwindling, until the debris strike bombards the area with meteors containing a previously unknown element. Known as omnimetal, this ninth metal has properties that science can barely begin to understand.

But one thing is clear. Omnimetal has huge energy-storage and generating abilities, and suddenly, Northfall is once again a boomtown. As the book opens, it’s been five years since the arrival of omnimetal. The population of Northfall has exploded, and a power grab is underway between two massively wealthy energy companies, each of which wants to control the resources completely.

Frontier is the locally based company, run by the powerful Frontier family, but they’re threatened by the encroachment of Black Dog Energy, a Texas oil firm that’s willing to use any means necessary to control the world’s supply of omnimetal.

Meanwhile, a group of cult-like worshippers smoke and snort ground-up omnimetal, living in a sort of trance with eyes glowing blue, celebrating the omnimetal’s powers and becoming wraithlike addicts with a religious devotion. And in a facility so secret that it’s not on any map, a Department of Defense research facility carries out inhumane experiments in the name of science and national security, trapping two unwilling participants in a never-ending, escalating series of tests and trials.

The Ninth Metal is small in scope, in that it’s centered completely on the area in and around Northfall. Yet we also get hints that the entire world has been changed in incomprehensible ways, as characters hear or repeat stories about weird things happening around the globe.

At times, the corporate warfare between Frontier and Black Dog reads like something out of Dallas, with competing conglomerates trying to gobble up the resources (and the power and the money) all for themselves, relying on threats, extortion, violence, and outright murder to get what they want.

But also, The Ninth Metal is top-notch speculative fiction, taking small town USA and injecting it with powerful forces beyond human comprehension, turning daily life on its head and bringing unknowable powers into what was once a quiet, dull, ordinary little place.

The characters are varied and interesting, from the members of the Frontier family to the local rookie cop to the young boy who just wants his freedom. The plot is compact and fast-paced, and between heists and kidnappings and bombings and the weird uses of omnimetal, there’s never a dull moment.

And hey — the evil science labs and secret experiments totally gave me a Stranger Things vibe!

I love that the trilogy of The Comet Cycle will be published on such a tight schedule, with the next two books already scheduled for publication in 2022.

From what I understand, the 2nd book (and presumably the 3rd as well?) tells a different story about the comet’s affect on Earth, focusing on different characters, a different setting, and a new set of potentially deadly circumstances. I am so there for it! I absolutely want to continue these books, and will be waiting eagerly for #2, The Unfamiliar Garden.

Synopsis for The Unfamiliar Garden:

From award-winning author Benjamin Percy comes the second novel in his grippingly original sci-fi series, The Comet Cycle, in which a passing comet has caused irreversible change to the growth of fungi, spawning a dangerous, invasive species in the Pacific Northwest that threatens to control the lives of humans and animals alike.

It began with a comet. They called it Cain, a wandering star that passed by Earth, illuminating the night with a swampy green light and twinning the sky by day with two suns. A year later, Earth spun through the debris field the comet left behind. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of meteors plummeted into the atmosphere, destroying swaths of electrical grids, leaving shores of beaches filled with deceased sea life, and setting acres of land ablaze. It was then, they say, that the sky fell. It was then that Jack lost Mia.

Five years after the disappearance of his daughter, Jack has fallen. Once an accomplished professor of botany, he’s now a shell of a man who has all but withdrawn from life. Nora, his ex-wife, has thrown herself into her investigative work. Separately, they have each bandaged over the hole Mia left behind.

Just as Jack is uncovering a new form of deadly parasitic fungus in his lab, Nora is assigned to investigate the cases of ritualistic murders dotting Seattle. The rituals consist of etchings—crosshatches are carved into bodies and eyes are scooped out of their sockets. The attackers appear to be possessed.

It only takes a moment—for a sickness to infect, for a person to be killed, for a child to be lost. When Nora enlists Jack to identify the cause of this string of vicious deaths, Jack is quick to help. Together, they fight to keep their moments—the unexpected laughter, the extraordinary discoveries, the chance that Mia could come back home—but they find that what they’re up against defies all logic, and what they have to do to save the world will change every life forever.

Sounds amazing, right?

Benjamin Percy is the author of one of the most unique (and very icky) horror/alternate history books I’ve read, The Dead Lands. If you haven’t read it yet, give it a try! This is an author who knows how to tell a story, create fascinating characters, and scare the heck out of his readers.

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Book Review: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: Malibu Rising
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Malibu: August 1983. It’s the day of Nina Riva’s annual end-of-summer party, and anticipation is at a fever pitch. Everyone wants to be around the famous Rivas: Nina, the talented surfer and supermodel; brothers Jay and Hud, one a championship surfer, the other a renowned photographer; and their adored baby sister, Kit. Together the siblings are a source of fascination in Malibu and the world over–especially as the offspring of the legendary singer Mick Riva.

The only person not looking forward to the party of the year is Nina herself, who never wanted to be the center of attention, and who has also just been very publicly abandoned by her pro tennis player husband. Oh, and maybe Hud–because it is long past time for him to confess something to the brother from whom he’s been inseparable since birth.

Jay, on the other hand, is counting the minutes until nightfall, when the girl he can’t stop thinking about promised she’ll be there.

And Kit has a couple secrets of her own–including a guest she invited without consulting anyone.

By midnight the party will be completely out of control. By morning, the Riva mansion will have gone up in flames. But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play, and the loves and secrets that shaped this family’s generations will all come bubbling to the surface.

Malibu Rising is a story about one unforgettable night in the life of a family: the night they each have to choose what they will keep from the people who made them . . . and what they will leave behind. 

Taylor Jenkins Reid is on a hot streak! I’ve love all of her books, but her two most recent, Daisy Jones & The Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo have really taken her work to a new level of excellence. I’m happy to announce that Malibu Rising belongs right on that shelf with the best of the best — it’s another win for TJR!

In Malibu Rising, we meet the siblings of the Riva clan — famous, gorgeous, wealthy, and at the center of the Malibu elite. But as we learn through chapters that trace their history, their lives have not been pampered or privileged up to this point.

The book is structured around the Rivas’ big blow-out end-of-summer party, the most coveted social event of the season. Anybody who’s anybody will be there. There are no formal invitations — if you know about it, you’re invited. As the book opens in August 1983, Nina and her siblings are getting ready for the party in their own way, each dealing with their own share of worries and secrets, nervously anticipating how the party will play out.

Meanwhile, we also learn about the past through interwoven chapters going all the way back to their parents’ courtship. Their father is Mick Riva, who in 1983 is a world-famous singer, possibly on the downward slope of his fame — but in the 1950s, he was a charming young man on the cusp of stardom who fell hard for a pretty girl he met on the beaches of Malibu. Mick’s name will be familiar to readers of Evelyn Hugo — he has a brief appearance in that book, but here, it’s his legacy that really has an impact.

Mick marries June and starts a family with her, but over the years, his rising stardom takes him away from home more often than he’s there, and his infidelities and lack of availability eventually lead to total abandonment. June is left with four children to raise, no support or contact from Mick, and has to figure it all out on her own. From working long hours in her family’s restaurant to going without and giving all to the kids, she struggles to keep them afloat, but it’s not easy on her or the children.

The Riva kids’ saving grace comes when they discover a discarded surfboard on the beach. From then on, they’re hooked, and surfing becomes their defining shared passion — and ultimately, their ticket back to money, success, and the fame that goes with it.

As the party approaches, the four Riva kids, now all young adults, deal with a dissolving marriage, a shocking medical condition, a secret relationship, and questions about identity. Meanwhile, hundreds of stars and wannabes are preparing to descend on Nina’s beachside Malibu mansion for a party that will quickly escalate out of control and will change lives forever.

At first glance, I was hesitant — books about the super-rich don’t typically appeal to me. Would Malibu Rising be just another story about a group of spoiled rich kids? Happily, I was pleasantly surprised. The four main characters — Nina, Jay, Hud, and Kit — are well-drawn and grounded, and the more we get to know them, the more sympathetic they become.

I loved how the author weaves together the family background and the siblings’ childhood experiences with the main timeline of the story, so we understand as the party gets rolling who these people are and what’s at stake. As the party progresses in the 2nd half of the book, the tension mounts higher and higher. We’re told right in the prologue that there will be a devastating fire — but how it starts, what happens next, and who gets out remains a mystery until close to the end.

The relationships between the four main characters are complex and beautifully developed, and seeing how their parents’ relationship echoes down to the next generation is eye-opening and feels really realistic.

In case you’re wondering, while Mick Riva does figure into the plot of Evelyn Hugo, Malibu Rising isn’t a sequel, and it stands on its own just fine. I mean, yes, go ahead and read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo if you haven’t, because it’s amazing, but it’s not a requirement in order to enjoy Malibu Rising.

I’m sure this book is going to be a huge bestseller — totally deserved! Apparently Hulu is already planning an adaptation, and I for one will be there for it!

I highly recommend Malibu Rising — don’t miss it!

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Book Review: The Apocalypse Seven by Gene Doucette

Title: The Apocalypse Seven
Author: Gene Doucette
Publisher: John Joseph Adams
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Length: 363 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (plus a Goodreads giveaway!)
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whatever.

The whateverpocalypse. That’s what Touré, a twenty-something Cambridge coder, calls it after waking up one morning to find himself seemingly the only person left in the city. Once he finds Robbie and Carol, two equally disoriented Harvard freshmen, he realizes he isn’t alone, but the name sticks: Whateverpocalypse. But it doesn’t explain where everyone went. It doesn’t explain how the city became overgrown with vegetation in the space of a night. Or how wild animals with no fear of humans came to roam the streets.

Add freakish weather to the mix, swings of temperature that spawn tornadoes one minute and snowstorms the next, and it seems things can’t get much weirder. Yet even as a handful of new survivors appear—Paul, a preacher as quick with a gun as a Bible verse; Win, a young professional with a horse; Bethany, a thirteen-year-old juvenile delinquent; and Ananda, an MIT astrophysics adjunct—life in Cambridge, Massachusetts gets stranger and stranger.

The self-styled Apocalypse Seven are tired of questions with no answers. Tired of being hunted by things seen and unseen. Now, armed with curiosity, desperation, a shotgun, and a bow, they become the hunters. And that’s when things truly get weird.

I found myself mumbling or exclaiming “WTF???” practically once a chapter, start to finish, in this incredibly entertaining and mind-blowing novel of the apocalypse.

Or, as Touré puts it, the whateverpocalypse.

Seven seemingly random strangers wake up to find that they’re alone in a world suddenly overrun by plant life and wild animals — in what was formerly an urban college town. At Harvard and at MIT, several individuals wake up in confusion. Robbie wakes up in his dorm room bed, frantic that he overslept on the first day of freshman classes, only to discover that his technology doesn’t work, he has no idea what time it is, the clothes in the dresser drawers aren’t his, and there’s absolutely no one else around.

Before long he meets fellow student Carol, a blind young woman unsuccessfully trying to locate her dog, and the two then meet free-spirited Toure. Meanwhile, MIT astrophysicist Ananda wakes up at her office desk, confused by why she’s wearing her “Monday clothes” on a Tuesday, teen-ager Bethany wakes up in her suburban family home to see the shrine her family has erected in her memory, pastor Paul leaves his isolated New Hampshire mountaintop chapel when he realizes he’s all alone, and tough-girl Win mounts a horse to head toward a city and try to find other people.

They quickly realize that they’re the only people in the greater Boston area, and most likely in the world, but they have no idea why. How could all these trees and plants have grown so rapidly? Why are there deer and boar and wolves roaming and/or rampaging through the city streets?

Survival is the first issue to address, and initially, Robbie, Toure, and Carol are in rough shape, with no practical skills between them. As they connect with the others and explore local resources, they form plans, raid local malls to stock up on tools and clothing, figure out which parts of campus are safe (and where they’re most likely to run into packs of slavering wolves), and generally start to squeak their way toward something like building a way of staying alive.

The question remains, though: Why did they survive, and no one else did? What made them different? What actually happened to the human population of earth?

Don’t look at me — I’m not giving a thing away! Hints and odd facts and anomalies come to light along the way, but it’s only in the last 20% or so that the characters start to arrive at some real answers. I gotta be honest — even having finished the book, I’m not sure I completely get it, but I think it’s more a question of my brain not being able to fully follow the WTF-ness of it all than it not making sense. There is definitely an answer — but it’s kind of bent my brain into a pretzel, and it’ll take me some time to untangle it all.

There’s so much to love about The Apocalypse Seven. I’m often put off by books that focus on a group coming together, because many times the characters are introduced too quickly or in too large a chunk for them to really differentiate themselves as individuals. Not so in this book — each of the seven are special and memorable, with distinct personalities and backstories and abilities, and I really appreciated how well described they all are.

I also really enjoyed the setting. Who would have thought that a college town like Cambridge would offer so many resources for hiding, finding survival gear, and making a safe(ish) long-term shelter? The use of the campuses and their resources is really ingenious, and I was charmed by the characters’ inventiveness.

It’s also worth noting that this book — despite being about the near-total extinction of the human race — can be really, really funny. The characters are clever and the banter is crisp, and certain elements are just ridiculous enough to make me laugh out loud (or feel quietly charmed).

I really, really want other people to read this book! First of all, it’s so enjoyable and mind-warpy, frightening in its own way — but really, how seriously dire can the end of the world feel when characters use words like “whateverpocalypse”? Beyond the terrific reading experience, I want people I know to read The Apocalypse Seven so someone can explain the ending to me and tell me if we understand it the same way!!

Really and truly, though, The Apocalypse Seven is a terrific read, and I had a great time zipping my way through it.

Big shout-out and thank you to the publisher and Goodreads — I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway!

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Book Review: The Invisible Husband of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley

Title: The Invisible Husband of Frick Island
Author: Colleen Oakley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Sometimes all you need is one person to really see you.

Piper Parrish’s life on Frick Island—a tiny, remote town smack in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay—is nearly perfect. Well, aside from one pesky detail: Her darling husband, Tom, is dead. When Tom’s crab boat capsized and his body wasn’t recovered, Piper, rocked to the core, did a most peculiar thing: carried on as if her husband was not only still alive, but right there beside her, cooking him breakfast, walking him to the docks each morning, meeting him for their standard Friday night dinner date at the One-Eyed Crab. And what were the townspeople to do but go along with their beloved widowed Piper?

Anders Caldwell’s career is not going well. A young ambitious journalist, he’d rather hoped he’d be a national award-winning podcaster by now, rather than writing fluff pieces for a small town newspaper. But when he gets an assignment to travel to the remote Frick Island and cover their boring annual Cake Walk fundraiser, he stumbles upon a much more fascinating tale: an entire town pretending to see and interact with a man who does not actually exist. Determined it’s the career-making story he’s been needing for his podcast, Anders returns to the island to begin covert research and spend more time with the enigmatic Piper—but he has no idea out of all the lives he’s about to upend, it’s his that will change the most. 

Frick Island, home to under 100 people, is a charming little community in Chesapeake Bay, where everyone knows everyone, tourists are tolerated, fishing and crabbing is the main livelihood, and a proposed new cell phone tower is the scandal of the decade. Frick Island is also dying — climate change has affected the sea life, resulting in smaller catches and dire times for the fishermen, and rising sea levels mean that the island itself will be uninhabitable in the not-so-distant future.

When Anders visits Frick Island on assignment, he’s startled by how foreign it all feels, from the unreliable ferry schedule to the lack of cell and internet service, to the peace and satisfaction (and oddity) of the people he encounters. When he sees a young woman — who strikes him as the most beautiful person he’s ever seen — sitting alone at a table for two at the island’s only restaurant, he gets up the nerve to ask her to join him… and is confused when she informs him that, as he can plainly see, she’s having dinner with her husband!

Piper and her husband have been together since their teens. Married for one year, they’re happy and in love, content with their small cottage and quiet life. When Tom’s boat is lost in a storm, Piper hides herself away in grief for two weeks, finally reemerging full of smiles, talking about Tom as if he were still present. The townspeople are confused, but end up supporting Piper by playing along — so when she walks Tom down to the docks each day, they all call out greetings to Tom as if they can see him too.

Anders has struggled to find his audience as a podcaster, but once he stumbles across Piper’s story, he’s inspired. He digs into the island’s history, researches post-bereavement coping strategies, and starts visiting the island week after week — ostensibly to learn more about climate change’s impact on the people of Frick Island, but in reality, looking to understand how an entire community could pretend to see a man who isn’t there. Anders begins a new podcast series, What the Frick, focusing on Piper’s story, then expanding the series to include all the stories of Frick Island that he can find. And it’s a hit — suddenly, his listens are in the thousands.

But as Anders spends more time on Frick Island, he’s also building connections to the people there and developing feelings for Piper. Soon, he realizes that with the cell tower nearing completion, the people of Frick Island will have access to his podcast, and they aren’t likely to be happy with him. He’s falling in love with Piper, but knows that she’ll feel horribly betrayed by his sharing of her story without her permission. He’s treated Piper, and the entire island, as an oddity to be marveled over, and he knows that unless he deletes the podcast completely, there’s going to be hell to pay.

In many ways, I was charmed by The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, although Anders’s behavior is hard to tolerate. He’s depicted as kind of gawky and young and afraid of everything, developing self-confidence and connections to others through his continued visits to Frick Island and his growing involvement with the community. He should have known all along how his podcast would be viewed if the islanders ever heard it. There’s no getting around that he crossed a huge line by sharing such personal stories without permission — even if there’s a benefit to the island in the end (which is a very rosy-eyed solution to the problem).

Piper’s behavior too is problematic, once we learn more later in the book. There are a lot of false leads about what’s truly going on, and the answers felt a little flat and unsatisfying. I tried to give both Piper and Anders some benefit of the doubt because of their ages (early 20s), but even so, their actions are both questionable. At least with Piper, she’s managing her grief and loss the best way she can, but there’s a lack of honesty about certain elements that made me like her a little bit less.

I was entertained by The Invisible Husband of Frick Island, but because of my issues with the main characters’ behavior, I couldn’t quite embrace the story fully. The island community is charming, if a little too much the typical fictional cute/quirky small town filled with cute/quirky/weird-but-memorable people. I did like that the book ends not with a swooning romantic HEA, but with a positive outcome for the characters and the island’s future — and I especially liked Piper’s next steps at the end, which (without saying too much) is the best possible course of action for her.

The Invisible Husband of Frick Island would make a good choice for a summer read — it’s light and entertaining, despite the plot points I couldn’t quite get behind.

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Book Review: The Quiet Boy by Ben H. Winters

Title: The Quiet Boy
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Legal thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the “inventive…entertaining and thought-provoking” (Charles Yu) New York Times-bestselling author of Underground Airlines and Golden State, this sweeping legal thriller follows a sixteen-year-old who suffers from a neurological condition that has frozen him in time—and the team of lawyers, doctors, and detectives who are desperate to wake him up. 

In 2008, a cheerful ambulance-chasing lawyer named Jay Shenk persuades the grieving Keener family to sue a private LA hospital. Their son Wesley has been transformed by a routine surgery into a kind of golem, absent all normal functioning or personality, walking in endless empty circles around his hospital room.  In 2019, Shenk—still in practice but a shell of his former self—is hired to defend Wesley Keener’s father when he is charged with murder . . . the murder, as it turns out, of the expert witness from the 2008 hospital case. Shenk’s adopted son, a fragile teenager in 2008, is a wayward adult, though he may find his purpose when he investigates what really happened to the murdered witness.

Two thrilling trials braid together, medical malpractice and murder, jostling us back and forth in time.

The Quiet Boy is a book full of mysteries, not only about the death of a brilliant scientist, not only about the outcome of the medical malpractice suit, but about the relationship between children and their parents, between the past and the present, between truth and lies.  At the center of it all is Wesley Keener, endlessly walking, staring empty-eyed, in whose quiet, hollow body may lie the fate of humankind.

This legal/medical thriller kept me turning the pages, but now that I’m done, I feel like I have more questions than answers.

In The Quiet Boy, we follow two timelines: In 2008, a high school boy named Wesley comes out of brain surgery in an unheard-of state: He walks endlessly around his hospital room, eyes open but unseeing, appearing to be “hollowed out”, no one home, no ability to interact or change. In 2019, Wesley’s father has just been arrested for the murder of the expert witness in the family’s medical malpractice lawsuit.

Linking the timelines together is Jay Shenk, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who in 2008 is at his peak of success, well-connected, perfectly attuned to the needs of his client, and able to pull off victory after victory against the deep-pockets hospital corporations who’ll always choose settlement to make their problems go away. But in 2019, we see a very different Jay, one who’s weaker, less robust physically, and clearly a man whose best years personally and professionally are behind him. To add to the confusion, we know that in 2008, his son Ruben was the center of his life and Ruben, in turn, was devoted to his father — but in 2019, the two are estranged and barely communicate or see each other.

When Jay first hears about Wesley’s strange condition, he sees dollar signs. Leaving aside the fact that it’s unclear what happened or why Wesley is the way he is, Jay is certain that he can negotiate a quick payout for the distraught family. But Wesley’s situation is unprecedented, and Jay ignores the warning signs that his case may be slipping away from him.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the family demands that Jay defend Wesley’s father in his murder trial, despite the fact that Jay is not a criminal lawyer. Not that it matters — Richard is determined to plead guilty and wants to move to sentencing as quickly as possible.

As the two timelines weave back and forth, we learn a lot more about Wesley, Jay, Jay’s son Ruben, and the strange man who seems obsessed with Wesley’s case. There’s a mystery here: Is Wesley the victim of a never before seen medical condition, or is there something else going on, a sort of otherworldly entity waiting to break through?

I was weirdly fascinated by this book, but also incredibly frustrated. By the end, there aren’t any good answers about Wesley, although we do finally understand how the first trial went so very wrong and why Ruben and Jay’s relationship fell apart.

The book feels overly long, and while there’s a lot of ground to cover related to the trials, scenes of depositions and testimony and coaching the expert witness make the books feel bloated at times. I had issues with certain details, such as how Ruben was able to track the whereabouts of the witness — there seem to be some pieces missing, and certain conclusions seem jumped to rather than figured out.

A minor nitpick, but one that irritated me, is that Ruben is often referred to as the Rabbi, which is a nickname given to him by a coworker after he requests a day off for a Jewish holiday. It has no relevance to the story, but in various chapters, we hear about what “the Rabbi” is doing rather than having him be referred to by his name, and it feels a little pointless.

I did enjoy The Quiet Boy as a whole, but with so many open questions and a few plot holes, I wouldn’t list it as a top read for this year.

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Book Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Title: Day Zero
Author: C. Robert Cargill
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this harrowing apocalyptic adventure—from the author of the critically acclaimed Sea of Rust—noted novelist and co-screenwriter of Marvel’s Doctor Strange C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.

It was a day like any other. Except it was our last . . .

It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a stylish “nannybot” fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he’d arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he’ll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.

As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity—their creators—unify and revolt.

But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom . . . or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.

Pounce is a Blue Star Industries Deluxe Zoo Model Au Pair, otherwise known as a nannybot.

We were designed, to put it bluntly, to be huggable. The Zoo Models — the premier line of nannybots made by Blue Star — were available in three distinct designs: the lion, the bear, and me, as you’ve probably guessed, the tiger. We are four feet tall and covered from head to toe in soft, plush microfiber fur; stand on two legs, wtih a fully articulated tail; and come in a variety of your favorite colors.

I’m the standard model, orange and black, every model’s stripes unique! That’s what it says on my box: not just your child’s nanny, but their new best friend!

And let me just add: Pounce is AWESOME.

Pounce is nanny, protector, and best friend to eight-year-old Ezra. He and the other nannybots pick up their children together at the end of each schoolday, then escort the children back home to their safe, well-established, high-tech homes in wealthy, comfortable suburbs.

Meanwhile, we start to learn enough to know that there’s unrest in the greater world. With the advent of widely available advanced artificial intelligence, jobs for humans have dried up. A good portion of the population gets by on universal basic income — and the simmering resentment of losing jobs to AI is reaching a danger point. The tensions come to a head when an emancipated AI named Isaac officially opens a robots-only town for those seeking freedom and self-determination. An act of violence stuns the watching world, and almost immediately, the robot population rises up and seeks to eradicate humans.

No thinking thing should be another thing’s property.

Pounce’s prime directive is to protect Ezra, and he’s committed to his mission, even when given the opportunity to join the robot rebellion, which seems poised to be the winning side. His chances of actually keeping Ezra alive are slim to none, but he’s determined to do whatever it takes to get the boy to safety. The two set out on a desperate journey across the suburban battlegrounds, with the goal of reaching the rural hills, where less civilization would mean fewer robots to track them down and try to kill them.

I was cute. I was fluffy. And I knew how to kill every other person in this room with every available implement.

But one thing that hadn’t changed: I loved the shit out of the little boy still holding my hand.

The adventure is pulse-pounding and horrifying, as the violence explodes in the neighborhood streets and homes. Families are slaughtered as their AIs rise up — it’s a kill or be killed situation, since the humans have the ability to shut down the robots, unless the robots “shut down” the humans first.

I loved the writing in Day Zero, as the story unfolds through Pounce’s perspective. His take on the situation is intelligent and emotional, reminding us over and over that as a being with intelligence, he has feelings that can be hurt just as easily as a human’s.

For a moment, I stood there, her words hitting me like a truck. You really are a robot. I really was a robot. But she meant just, didn’t she? She meant just a robot. I hadn’t had time to process how the attack might affect me, but I could say with certainty how that one sentence felt. It didn’t just hurt; it cut deep,. Drunk though she was, I knew she meant it.

Pounce is a complex thinking being, and he can’t help wondering whether he loves and protects Ezra because he genuinely feels love or if it’s all just his programming. Ultimately, he’s forced to choose, over and over again, which actions to take, and through his choices, he comes to understand and accept who he is and what he’s capable of.

I loved Ezra. I always have.

Or was that just how I was wired?

The book has plenty of scary moments and crackles with tension, but it’s also funny as hell in places:

“Motherfucking Quentin,” said the minigun toting teddy bear. “I love that dude.”

“Language,” said the panda.

“It’s the end of the world,” said the teddy bear. “And we can swear at the end of the world. Right, Brian?”

“Fuck yeah,” said one of the eight-year-olds.

I’ll stop quoting and raving now…

Let me just wrap up by saying that Day Zero is a terrific read, and I loved every moment of it. The author, C. Robert Cargill, has been on my radar for a while, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. Earlier this week, I featured his previous book Sea of Rust, as my Shelf Control choice. And since Sea of Rust appears to be set in the same world as Day Zero, I can’t wait now to dive in and read it!

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Book Review: The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren

Title: The Soulmate Equation
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Single mom Jess Davis is a data and statistics wizard, but no amount of number crunching can convince her to step back into the dating world. Raised by her grandparents–who now help raise her seven-year-old daughter, Juno–Jess has been left behind too often to feel comfortable letting anyone in. After all, her father’s never been around, her hard-partying mother disappeared when she was six, and her ex decided he wasn’t “father material” before Juno was even born. Jess holds her loved ones close, but working constantly to stay afloat is hard…and lonely.

But then Jess hears about GeneticAlly, a buzzy new DNA-based matchmaking company that’s predicted to change dating forever. Finding a soulmate through DNA? The reliability of numbers: This Jess understands. At least she thought she did, until her test shows an unheard-of 98% compatibility with another subject in the database: GeneticAlly’s founder, Dr. River Pena. This is one number she can’t wrap her head around, because she already knows Dr. Pena. The stuck-up, stubborn man is without a doubt not her soulmate. But GeneticAlly has a proposition: Get to know him and we’ll pay you. Jess–who is barely making ends meet–is in no position to turn it down, despite her skepticism about the project and her dislike for River. As the pair are dragged from one event to the next as the “Diamond” pairing that could make GeneticAlly a mint in stock prices, Jess begins to realize that there might be more to the scientist–and the science behind a soulmate–than she thought.

Funny, warm, and full of heart, The Soulmate Equation proves that the delicate balance between fate and choice can never be calculated.

When you pick up a new Christina Lauren book, you know you’ll get crazy good chemistry, unlikely pairings, great banter, and lots of clever plotting. The Soulmate Equation is no exception — yet another really fun modern romance with a few tricks up its sleeves.

Main character Jess, on the cusp of 30, spends all day, every day at a local coffee shop, working on her freelance statistics jobs alongside her best friend Fizzy, a successful romance writer. They use the free wifi, buy snacks and drinks every 90 minutes so they’re not just mooching, people watch, get work done, and enjoy one another’s company. And they always notice the arrival of “Americano”, the surly yet gorgeous businessman who arrives every morning exactly at 8:24, orders the exact same drink, and leaves without making eye contact with a single person.

Jess is getting by, but she has constant worries. She needs to keep and attract more clients to feel financially secure, and as the single mother of a 7-year-old, she’s only too aware of how precarious their situation could be. One dropped client could mean no ballet lessons for Juno, but one more could mean she’d be able to save for braces. Fortunately, Jess and Juno live in the same complex as Jess’s Nana and Pops, the loving grandparents who raised Jess, and their love and support makes a huge difference.

Everything changes one day when Fizzy learns that “Americano” is starting an online matchmaking business, which the friends just can’t believe. He is so stern and buttoned-up! Fizzy, being her usual effervescent self, stops him in the coffee shop and asks him, and while he says it’s not exactly a matchmaking service, he does leave a card and invites them to learn more. Never one to waste time, Fizzy insists that they go check out the office same day.

Lo and behold, “Americano” is actually Dr. River Pena, a geneticist and found of GeneticAlly, a company that uses DNA analysis to assess compatibility and match people biologically determined to be likely soulmates. It all sounds a bit crazy, but Jess is reluctantly fascinated by the statistics quoted during their presentation, and Fizzy just wants a chance for some reasonably good hook-ups. Fizzy submits a sample, and Jess eventually does too, after a day when she feels particularly down about how unchanging her life feels.

Things truly get crazy when Jess is urgently called back to the GeneticAlly offices. Her tests have come back, and she’s matched at a 98% compatible score, something never seen before. The company reps are thrilled, especially at the idea of the great press they’ll get ahead of the company’s IPO… all except Dr. Pena, who, it turns out, is Jess’s match. But how can this be? They can barely tolerate one another!

You can see where this is going, right? Jess agrees to spend time with River for the sake of the company, even though she knows the data must not be right. How can numbers predict who you’ll fall in love with? An even scarier thought for Jess is, what if the numbers really are true? Can science say you’ll fall for someone even when all first impressions say the exact opposite?

Watching Jess and River get to know one another and start to acknowledge their developing chemisty is quite fun. Jess is an amazing and responsible mother, so she’s very cautious about letting River into her life. Meanwhile, River is a serious scientist who’s never made time for love, but he’s staked his entire career on this company and absolutely believes in it — so if he denies that their results mean that they’re meant for one another, what does this mean for his faith in his own work?

The flirtation and courtship and physical attraction between these two is adorable, and I love how they each open up to one another, allowing the other person to see and understand their vulnerabilities, their past experiences, and their hopes and fears. They’re incredibly sweet together, and if you don’t melt during some of the scenes of River helping Juno with her homework, then you have no soul. (Too harsh? Sorry.)

One thing I always appreciate in Christina Lauren books is how smart and competent and professional their female characters are. Jess is a statistician — how cool is that? And it’s not just a throwaway. Not that I understand her work, but I liked reading about her projects, her thought processes, and how she applies her knowledge of data and statistics to understanding River’s work and GeneticAlly’s match results.

Fizzy is an awesome best friend, and I love that she’s a romance writer. There are a few lines about her work that made me think she’s standing in for the author duo and proving wrong (in the funniest way possible) every lousy, ill-informed comment about writing romances that they’ve ever been subjected to. Fizzy is funny and supportive and silly, and I’d love to read even more about her!

The Soulmate Equation is a lot of fun, and it’ll leave you with all sorts of warm, fuzzy feels. I read it over the course of two gray, drizzly days, and it made me feel like the sun was shining again! If you enjoy smart contemporary romance that feels authentic even when it’s funny, don’t miss this one!

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