Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic.

First, let’s pause to admire the sheer gorgeousness of this book cover. There. Now we’ve had our daily dose of beauty.

In The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a young woman learns that the world is not entirely as it appears, and that she herself isn’t quite who she thought she was.

January’s father is employed by the fabulously wealthy Mr. Locke to travel the world and seek out rare and exotic artifacts. Because his journeys take him away for months at a time, January lives in Mr. Locke’s mansion, pampered but isolated, feeling abandoned by her father and unsure of her place in the world.

When a battered book called The Ten Thousand Doors comes into her possession, January begins to learn about Doors — secret portals that bridge the thin connection between worlds. According to the book, Doors are real, and people who know how to look and find can access their pathways. And yet, there are those who would see these doors destroyed, viewing them as dangerous to the world we know.

The more January reads, the more she learns about the secrets of her own life and why she lives as she does. She also begins to learn about her own hidden powers, and realizes that her life with Mr. Locke is built on control and lies. But freedom comes at a steep cost with great danger, and as January struggles to get away, she becomes hunted by very powerful people who want her stopped.

The writing in this book is lovely, capturing the magic of books as well as the beauty of the natural world and the mysteries all around us. For book-lovers, there are special little passages that touch our hearts:

Those of you who are more than casually familiar with books — those of you who spend your free afternoons in fusty bookshops, who offer furtive, kindly strokes along the spines of familiar titles — understand that page-riffling is an essential element in the process of introducing oneself to a new book.

It’s like the author has been spying on me! How did she know that I feel the need to touch the spines of my favorite books when I see them at the library or a bookstore, and maybe whisper a quiet “hello” while I’m there?

The book’s imagery and use of unusual words also delighted me:

Time went strange. The hour-dragons stalked and circled. I heard their belly scales susurrating against the tile in my sleep.

January is a wonderful lead character, brave but not without fear, curious, open-minded, and desperate for both belonging and the truth. She risks herself over and over again to fight for freedom, and remains utterly loyal to the important people in her life. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that the truth about her family is its own story-within-a-story, and is beautiful as well.

Once we have agree that true love exists, we may consider its nature. It is not, as many misguided poets would have you believe, an event in and of itself; it is not something that happens, but something that simply is and always has been. One does not fall in love; one discovers it.

The only thing that keeps this from being a 5-star read for me is that it really starts off slowly. I had to reach the 25% mark before I truly started to feel invested in January and the other characters. Of course, later I was so involved that I didn’t want to pause even to sleep, so I’m absolutely glad to have stayed with it. Still, I had enough doubts early on that it took me a while to overcome my reluctance and really plunge in.

A final note: As I read the excerpts from The Ten Thousand Doors (the book that January finds), I found myself struggling a bit with the footnotes and missed quite a few. They’re worth reading, but in Kindle format, they weren’t always easy to access and are actually embedded at the end of the book (at least in my copy), and the back and forth was a bit irritating. Small annoyance, but I thought I’d mention it.

I won’t say any more about the plot, but it’s best experienced fresh and without foreknowledge. I highly recommend The Ten Thousand Doors of January. It’s both an enchanting fantasy story and a very human story as well, with memorable characters and filled with emotion and passion. What a lovely read!

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The details:

Title: The Ten Thousand Doors of January
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!

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Audiobook Review: Reticence by Gail Carriger (The Custard Protocol, #4)

Dueling covers: US version

 

Bookish and proper Percival Tunstell finds himself out of his depth when floating cities, spirited plumbing, and soggy biscuits collide in this delightful conclusion to NYT bestselling author Gail Carriger’s The Custard Protocol series.

Percival Tunstell loves that his sister and her best friend are building themselves a family of misfits aboard their airship, The Spotted Custard. Of course, he’d never admit that he belongs among them. He’s always been on the outside — dispassionate, aloof, and hatless. But accidental spies, a trip to Japan, and one smart and beautiful doctor may have him renegotiating his whole philosophy on life.

Except hats. He’s done with hats. Thank you very much.

Reticence is a fun, enjoyable wrap-up to a delicious series. The Custard Protocol is four books of fluffy good times, as an odd crew of misfits and eccentrics set sail through the aether on their giant spotted dirigible, seeking danger and adventure all around the globe.

In Reticence, the last remaining unmatched member of the Spotted Custard’s officers finally meets his true love in the form of Dr. Arsenic Ruthven, a Scottish doctor whose no-nonsense approach and absolute devotion to learning and libraries secures her a spot in Percy’s antisocial little heart.

As Arsenic learns to love the crew and vice versa, they set off on a trip first to Egypt and then to Japan, seeking out more supernatural shapeshifters and a missing spy, and discovering all sorts of new and exciting mysteries to solve. With plenty of explosions, tea, and parasols along the way.

As the conclusion to both the Custard Protocol series and, it would appear, the Parasol-verse at large, Reticence features cameos by a who’s who of characters from all of the related books (including the Parasol Protectorate and Finishing School series). Because really, how could we possibly leave this amazing world without one more check-in with Alexia, Conall, Ivy, Lord Akeldama, not to mention Sophronia, Lady Kingair, and more?

Dueling covers: UK version

The adventure itself is fun, and seeing Percy lose his heart in the most awkward way possible is highly entertaining. With Percy at center stage, I did miss spending time with Rue and Quesnel, who are much more my favorites, and the wonderful character Tasherit spends most of this book literally asleep.

Once again, the audiobook is a total delight — so much so that I can’t imagine enjoying this series quite so much on the printed page. Narrator Moira Quirk is outstanding, giving each character a unique voice, capturing the silliness to perfection, and keeping the action sequences exciting and easy to follow.

I’m sorry to see the series come to a close. I know there are more related novellas in the works, but I do hope the esteemed Ms. Carriger decides to treat us to yet more full-length books (or, dare I suggest, four-book series?) set in this oh-so-special world. The Custard Protocol is a treat. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Reticence (The Custard Protocol, #4)
Author: Gail Carriger
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length (print): 339 pages
Length (audiobook): 12 hours, 21 minutes
Genre: Fantasy/steampunk
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Unkindest Tide (October Daye, book 13) by Seanan McGuire

I am beyond thrilled to have received an ARC of the newest book in the amazing October Daye urban fantasy series. Thank you, NetGalley and DAW Books! I love this series just as much now, 13 books into it, as I did many books ago… maybe even more! October herself continues to grow and change as a character, and the big-picture story arcs continue to evolve in a way that moves Toby’s world in new, exciting directions, all the while keeping us in touch with the huge cast of characters and letting us see their ever-changing roles and lives.

Hundreds of years ago, the Selkies made a deal with the sea witch: they would have the sea for as long as she allowed it, and when the time came, she would call in all their debts at once. Many people assumed that day would never come. Those people were wrong.

When the Luidaeg—October “Toby” Daye’s oldest and most dangerous ally—tells her the time has come for the Selkies to fulfill their side of the bargain, and that Toby must be a part of the process, Toby can’t refuse. Literally. The Selkies aren’t the only ones in debt to the Luidaeg, and Toby has to pay what she owes like anyone else. They will travel to the fabled Duchy of Ships and call a convocation of the Selkies, telling them to come and meet the Luidaeg’s price…or face the consequences.

Of course, nothing is that simple. When Dianda Lorden’s brother appears to arrest Dianda for treason against the Undersea, when a Selkie woman is stripped of her skin and then murdered, when everything is falling apart, that’s when Toby will have to answer the real question of the hour.

Is she going to sink? Or is she going to swim?

This book! This story! Toby… Tybalt… the Luidaeg… Gillian…

Ugh, someone stop me before I become a totally incoherent, mumbling nincompoop.

I just love them all so much!

The Unkindest Tide is EXCELLENT. I love the plot and the character development. I really don’t want to give anything away here, so…

In this newest book, Toby is called upon to pay her debts to the Luidaeg by using her magic to fulfill the Luidaeg’s vow to the Selkies, to force the Selkies to answer for their ancestors’ long-ago crimes. The backstory of the Selkies and the Luidaeg’s relationship to them never fails to make me want to cry. The Luidaeg has been portrayed throughout the series as the scariest thing around, but over the course of these thirteen books, we’ve been able to also see her heart and her pain, and I love her to absolute pieces.

In terms of the plot, the gang gets together to travel to the Duchy of Ships, a sort of floating kingdom where the Selkies gather to learn of their fate. But there are other political forces at play, involving violence and intrigue and murder, and Toby has a limited amount of time to fix it all, save the day (yet again), and be back in time to carry out the Luidaeg’s plans.

The end result of all this is the beginning of a new chapter in the world of the fae. I absolutely can’t wait to see what happens next!

And yes, I really did love everything about this book, other than my ongoing annoyance with Gillian, who needs to stop being such a brat and start appreciating her mother. But hey, what kind of dramatic tension would we have if everyone got along perfectly?

I’ll wrap things up with a quote from the book, without providing any context, just because I love the writing and dialogue in this series so, so much.

Whatever. I’ve been mocked by better than a few octopus people…

A final note:

The Unkindest Tide includes a bonus novella, Hope is Swift, with Tybalt’s nephew Raj as the main character. It’s fun and affecting, and a nice bit of entertainment after the more intense subject matter of the main novel.

And, okay, a word from Raj, just for fun:

I don’t have my Uncle Tybalt’s skill with flowery, archaic declarations of love, a fact for which I’m genuinely grateful — sometime listening to him is like listening to the audio version of some dreadful period romance, the sort of thing where the men are constantly losing their shirts and all the women keep swooning at the shameful sight of their exposed pectorals.

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The details:

Title: The Unkindest Tide (October Daye, #13)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW Books
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Word Puppets: A collection of short stories by Mary Robinette Kowal

 

Celebrated as the author of five acclaimed historical fantasy novels in the Glamourist series, Mary Robinette Kowal is also well known as an award-winning author of short science fiction and fantasy. Her stories encompass a wide range of themes, a covey of indelible characters, and settings that span from Earth’s past to its near and far futures as well as even farther futures beyond. Alternative history, fairy tales, adventure, fables, science fiction (both hard and soft), fantasy (both epic and cozy)—nothing is beyond the reach of her unique talent. WORD PUPPETS—the first comprehensive collection of Kowal’s extraordinary fiction-includes her two Hugo-winning stories, a Hugo nominee, an original story set in the world of “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” and fourteen other show-stopping tales.

Talk about a fascinating author! Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of the Hugo-winning novel The Calculating Stars (one of my all-time faves) as well as other works. She’s also a highly gifted audiobook narrator (narrating, among other books, the October Daye series and other works by Seanan McGuire). And on top of all that, she’s a professional puppeteer! Yes, a puppeteer. So yeah, given her eclectic talents and interests, I’m not at all surprised that this collection of short stories is varied, unusual, and very, very entertaining.

Eighteen of the nineteen stories in Word Puppets were originally published elsewhere and featured in various anthologies and other publications, with one story (set in the Lady Astronaut world) original to this collection. The publication dates for the stories range between 2005 and 2015.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection (which is shocking for me, since I usually have an aversion to short stories). Of the stories included in Word Puppets, I strongly preferred the ones leaning more toward science fiction and speculative fiction rather than the stories I’d classify as fantasy.

My particular favorites:

Chrysalis: About an alien race for whom adulthood means the end of serious study, as they metamorphose from larvae to beautiful winged creatures, but leave their scholarship and ambitions in the past.

Rampion: A short but powerful take on the Rapunzel story.

Clockwork Chickadee: About some devious and tricky mechanical animals.

Body Language: A really clever kidnapping/heist story, in which an expert puppeteer works with a gifted AI to save the day. (So awesome!)

Waiting for Rain: A vineyard owner in India deals with family obligations and honor while trying to cope with the financial struggles of having to subscribe to controllable weather.

First Flight: A 105-year-old woman is assigned a time travel task, and uses it to change history.

Evil Robot Monkey: Very short, very good, very surprising.

For Solo Cello, op 12: Wow, this one was great! About a concert cellist, an awful injury, and the even more awful way he might be able to heal.

The White Phoenix Feather: Talk about adventures in dining! This is an action story about a woman who provides dangerous dining experiences to those who can pay. Full of flying dinner knives and hurled soup and flaming baguettes.

Finally, the last three stories are all set within the world of The Calculating Stars:

We Interrupt This Broadcast: This story offers a possible explanation for the events in The Calculating Stars, and it’s frankly creepy. I’m choosing to interpret this story as an early version of events that the author eventually decided didn’t work in the context of the larger series, because otherwise I find it too upsetting.

Rockets Red: A fun interlude on Mars!

The Lady Astronaut of Mars: The story that started it all! I read this story when it was first published on the Tor website in 2013, and absolutely loved it — which is why I was thrilled to death when the author ended up expanding this world into the Lady Astronaut series. This story works as a stand-alone, set decades after the events of The Calculating Stars, and provides a different take on Elma and Nathaniel and the space program. (Fun note: This story was originally written as part of the audiobook collection Rip-off!, in which an assortment of sci-fi authors wrote new stories using the first lines of classic books as a starting point. The Lady Astronaut of Mars begins with the opening line of The Wizard of Oz: Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.)

All of the stories in Word Puppets are great, in my humble opinion! If you enjoy Mary Robinette Kowal’s writing, or even if you’ve never read her before, give this collection a try. The stories all stand on their own, so if you’re like me and are generally reluctant to commit to reading a book of short stories start to finish, Word Puppets is a nice choice to keep on your nightstand and dip in and out of whenever you feel like reading a story in 15 minutes or less!

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The details:

Title: Word Puppets
Authors: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Prime Books
Publication date: November 19, 2015
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Short stories/Science fiction/Fantasy
Source: Purchased

Take A Peek Book Review: The Warehouse by Rob Hart

“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)

Paxton never thought he’d be working for Cloud, the giant tech company that’s eaten much of the American economy. Much less that he’d be moving into one of the company’s sprawling live-work facilities.

But compared to what’s left outside, Cloud’s bland chainstore life of gleaming entertainment halls, open-plan offices, and vast warehouses…well, it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s more than anyone else is offering.

Zinnia never thought she’d be infiltrating Cloud. But now she’s undercover, inside the walls, risking it all to ferret out the company’s darkest secrets. And Paxton, with his ordinary little hopes and fears? He just might make the perfect pawn. If she can bear to sacrifice him.

As the truth about Cloud unfolds, Zinnia must gamble everything on a desperate scheme—one that risks both their lives, even as it forces Paxton to question everything about the world he’s so carefully assembled here.

Together, they’ll learn just how far the company will go…to make the world a better place.

Set in the confines of a corporate panopticon that’s at once brilliantly imagined and terrifyingly real, The Warehouse is a near-future thriller about what happens when Big Brother meets Big Business–and who will pay the ultimate price.

My Thoughts:

Hmm. The synopsis gives the impression that this is a much darker read than it really is. I experienced The Warehouse as a more of a satire than a thriller, for the most part. In The Warehouse, Cloud is everything, and has basically taken over much of what we might consider normal life, including privatizing government agencies such as the FAA and creating their own energy sources. No matter what you want, Cloud can provide, and Cloud seems to be the only source of steady employment left in the US — providing not only a paycheck, but also housing, access to material goods, and even to rare commodities such as hamburgers.

Of course, there’s a price, like a total lack of privacy, having every move tracked, having performance rated in real-time, and having no say over work assignments —  not to mention an economic set-up that’s like a throw-back to the days when workers owed their souls to the company store.

We get to know Cloud through the experiences of Paxton and Zinnia, two new employees learning the ropes, each with their own agenda, as well as through the blog entries of Gibson Wells, Cloud’s multi-billionaire founder and CEO, now ailing and attempting to create a record of his legacy before his death.

The plot moves along quickly, but I didn’t altogether connect with the book as a whole. I wasn’t particularly interested in Paxton or Zinnia as individuals, and while the inner workings of Cloud were interesting and disturbing, the book’s uneven tone (is it dark? is it dark humor? is it a thriller?) left me mostly unengaged. I should probably mention that a particular reveal made me want to hurl… but hey, maybe you have a stronger stomach than I do!

Overall, The Warehouse is an entertaining read, but without the solid impact I’d been expecting.

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The details:

Title: The Warehouse
Author: Rob Hart
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Terrifying two-fer: Our War and Wanderers, two all-too-believable versions of our world (and its future)

Over the past two weeks, I read two gripping, enthralling, un-put-downable books that scared the pants off me. These two books are quite different, but each presents a vision of our world that’s utterly terrifying because it’s so utterly possible.

Title: Our War
Author: Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: August 20, 2019
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher 

A prescient and gripping novel of a second American civil war, and the children caught in the conflict, forced to fight.

When the president of the United States is impeached, but refuses to leave office, the country erupts into civil war.

10-year-old Hannah Miller, an orphan living in besieged Indianapolis, has joined a citizen’s militia. She had nowhere else to go. And after seeing the firsthand horrors of war, she’s determined to fight with the Free Women militia.

Hannah’s older brother, Alex, is a soldier too. But he’s loyal to the other side. After being separated from Hannah, he finds a home in a group calling themselves The Liberty Tree militia.

When a UNICEF worker and a reporter discover that both sides are using child soldiers, they set out to shine a light on something they thought could never happen in the United States. But it may be too late because even the most gentle children can find that they’re capable of horrific acts.

Where to even start describing this powerful and upsetting book? It feels all too real, as an increasingly factionalized and radicalized America is plunged into a brutal civil war. Sides are drawn — and armed. It’s deadly serious, and as is sadly the norm in armed conflicts, children are the ones who are caught in the middle, starving, orphaned, witnessing death and brutality that no child should have to see,

Hannah is one of several POV characters; others include a hard-charging journalist pursuing her next great story, an inexperienced but determined UNICEF representative, the militia leader who takes in Hannah’s bother Alex, and Alex himself. Each shares their unique viewpoint on the war and its impact, and through each, we see the futility of the armed conflict and the seeming hopelessness of any attempt to find a resolution.

The political situation in Our War is, honestly, not so far different from our own current situation. It’s scarily easy to imagine these events evolving from where we stand today.

As a reporter, Aubrey had always been shocked by the right wing’s war on facts. They regularly vilified anybody in fact-based professions, from scientists to doctors. They generated and consumed propaganda and called anything else fake. For them, reality wasn’t as interesting as a good simple narrative that had them righteously and perpetually enraged.

At first, I found it confusing to keep track of which side was which, but I think that’s part of the point. After all, your view of whether someone is a patriot or a rebel may depend very much on which side of the line you yourself are standing on.

The writing here is raw and shocking and immediate, and makes for a completely gripping read. Above all, the children caught in the middle are the ultimate victims here, and seeing the war through Hannah’s eyes is truly gut-wrenching.

Title: Wanderers
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: July 9, 2019
Length: 800 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Purchased

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

This massive, 800 page book seemed like a huge reading undertaking… but once I started, I savored every word, paragraph, and chapter. Did it need to be this huge? Why, yes. Yes, it did.

Wanderers is truly epic in scope. What starts as a weird local event — a sleepwalking girl who can’t be woken or stopped — turns into something huge and eerie (and to some, horribly frightening) as Nessie is joined by more and more sleepwalkers in her journey across America. Escorted by family members and friends who look after them, the flock moves endlessly forward. Meanwhile, the CDC scrambles to find out why, and right-wing militiamen, politicians, and conservative rabblerousers see the flock as a harbinger of end-times, and use their existence as an excuse to ramp up their hateful, violent rhetoric, whipping their public into a frenzy.

Just what is causing the sleepwalking phenomenon is revealed over time, as is the connection to a money-hungry tycoon’s mysterious death. The weirdness of the sleepwalking is leavened by the beauty of the human interactions and interconnectedness as we get to know the various shepherds, their motivations and fears, and their own sense of running out of time.

Parts of this book are terrifying. Strangely (or not), I was much more disturbed by the human evil and hate-mongering than by the pandemic threat to all of humanity. Nature, science, possible extinction — these just are, without good or evil. Instead, it’s the people of Wanderers who inspire admiration for their bravery, sacrifice, and wisdom, as well as despair over the cruelty that people display toward one another.

This book takes our current crises related to climate change, increasingly drug-resistant bacteria and viruses, and hate-filled politics, and spins these into a tale that feels prophetic, cautionary, and disturbingly real. Wanderers forces the reader to ask “what if”… and then see how the scenario plays out in full, grisly, technicolor detail.

I suppose I should add, if not already clear, that this book contains violence and cruelty and should be approached cautiously (or not at all) by anyone who may find themselves triggered.

That said, I just loved so many of the characters, felt completely invested in their journeys and ordeals, and could not stop reading. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, reading Wanderers made me feel like I’d been on a journey too. A terrific read.

I want to note that Craig DiLouie and Chuck Wendig are both new-to-me authors, although they’ve been on my radar for a while now thanks to friends’ recommendations. Having read these two books, I definitely want more! Please let me know if you have suggestions for me!

Side note: I have so much more I’d love to say about both of these books, but with my arm and hand in a cast for several more weeks, typing is a challenge — so I’m keeping this on the short side. Bottom line: Both of these books are 5-star reads for me. I can’t recommend them highly enough!

Book Review: Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

From the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel about family, hope, and learning to love against all odds. 

Cassie Hanwell was born for emergencies. As one of the only female firefighters in her Texas firehouse, she’s seen her fair share of them, and she’s excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But when her estranged and ailing mother asks her to uproot her life and move to Boston, it’s an emergency of a kind Cassie never anticipated.

The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Except for the handsome rookie, who doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. But she can’t think about that. Because she doesn’t fall in love. And because of the advice her old captain gave her: don’t date firefighters. Cassie can feel her resolve slipping…but will she jeopardize her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

Katherine Center’s Things You Save in a Fire is a heartfelt, affecting novel about life, love, and the true meaning of courage.

Things You Save in a Fire is, at first glance, a pretty standard contemporary romance — but it’s also an exploration of trauma, forgiveness, institutionalized sexism, and so much more.

Cassie, at age 26, is a decorated, respected firefighter, an established, well-loved member of an Austin firehouse. Her life falls apart on the night when she’s receiving an award for outstanding bravery, when the presenter ends up being someone from her past, and she completely loses it on stage, leaving the presenter in the hospital and herself on the verge of being fired.

She does have a way out of the situation. Her mother had earlier called Cassie and asked her to come stay with her in her small town outside of Boston. Cassie’s mother Diana left her and her father on Cassie’s 16th birthday, and since then, the two have had a distant, unpleasant relationship. Now, though, Diana has lost sight in one eye after surgery, and asks Cassie to stay with her for a year to help her out with the things she can no longer do on her own. Cassie initially refuses, but after her meltdown, she sees an opportunity to request a transfer to the local fire station and start again.

The crew in the new town is much different than the fairly progressive Austin station. The guys (and yes, they’re all male) are old-school Boston firefighters, who see no place for a woman in their house. Cassie is determined to prove herself, and fortunately, she has years of training and hard work behind her, so it’s quickly clear to the other firefighters that she’s the best of the bunch. Still, someone is unhappy with her being there, and starts an underhanded campaign of stalking and harassment to drive her away. The question is, who’s behind it?

Complicating matters are Cassie’s unwanted but undeniable feelings for the rookie, who is kind, attractive, and very attentive to Cassie. Cassie has ruled out romance or relationships from her life long ago, but she’s having a hard time fighting the chemistry with the rookie — despite knowing that getting involved with another firefighter will torpedo her career for good.

There are hints early on about the trauma in Cassie’s past, but she doesn’t think about it or discuss it until much later in the book. Still, we can see the aftereffects and it’s clear that she’s suffered for all these years, even though she thinks she’s compartmentalized her past and that it doesn’t affect her in her present. The relationship with Diana is puzzling at first, and initially, I had no sympathy for Diana. What kind of mother abandons her child like that for the sake of an affair? As we learn, there’s much more to the story. Cassie’s baby steps toward understanding and forgiveness in her relationship with her mother is what eventually enables her to embrace the possibility of greater empathy and connection elsewhere in her life.

I was fascinated by the depictions of life in a firestation, and had nothing but admiration for Cassie’s mad skills and her practical, hard-as-nails approach toward earning her spot. At the same time, it’s hard to read about a workplace and lifestyle that so clearly resists the entrance of women in every way possible — which makes Cassie’s determination all the more impressive.

The theme of forgiveness is quite lovely. Cassie learns that forgiveness is possible, even (and especially) when it’s hard, and possibly the last thing you actually want to do. By practicing forgiveness, Cassie opens herself to connections that she otherwise might never have known, and her life is ultimately enriched in ways she’d never thought she’d experience.

The action in the last third of the book really heats up (no pun intended) as there’s a big fire that the crew battles that has awful consequences. Once I got to this part, I simply couldn’t stop reading until the end!

I enjoyed this powerful story very much, and really appreciated the unusual perspective provided by a tough, troubled young woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated environment. Above all, the relationships and Cassie’s growth are what make this book so special. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Things You Save in a Fire
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh

When an Earth-like planet is discovered, a team of six teens, along with three veteran astronauts, embark on a twenty-year trip to set up a planet for human colonization—but find that space is more deadly than they ever could have imagined. 

Have you ever hoped you could leave everything behind?
Have you ever dreamt of a better world?
Can a dream sustain a lifetime?

A century ago, an astronomer discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star. She predicted that one day humans would travel there to build a utopia. Today, ten astronauts are leaving everything behind to find it. Four are veterans of the twentieth century’s space-race.

And six are teenagers who’ve trained for this mission most of their lives.

It will take the team twenty-three years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years locked in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong.

And something always goes wrong.

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is set during our lifetime, but in a world in which space exploration has advanced much further than in our own. There have already been successful human missions to Mars and Europa, and now, the ultimate goal is being frantically pursued.

Terra-Two is an Earth-like planet light years away, uninhabited but with atmosphere, geology, and natural resources suited for human life. With advanced technology, it will be possible for an initial expedition to reach Terra-Two with a 23-year flight.

The UKSA (United Kingdom Space Agency) is leading the way, and they’ve come up with a controversial approach: Train children from the age of 11 or 12 in an intensely competitive learning environment, so that by age 18, when the expedition is ready to launch, there will be a crew with a senior team and a younger generation in training. After all, even if they launch as teens, they’ll be in their 40s by the time they land. And once they land, it will be their role to prepare Terra-Two for the colonists coming after them.

As the book opens, we meet the students at Dalton Academy, the space training institution. They’re all fiercely smart, but motivated by different dreams and goals. There’s the rich pretty boy who’s the all-star athlete, who seems to have the easiest, most cushioned life; the twins, who each have secret dreams and desires motivating them; the beautiful girl who speaks over 20 languages but has her own demons, and more.

When an unexpected tragedy occurs the day before launch, the remaining crew is thrown into tumult, and a last-minute substitute is both elated at his opportunity and miserable over feeling like he’ll never be accepted or be good enough.

The book really gets going once the mission has launched. One striking element is how well we readers get a sense of the practically unbearable claustrophobia and monotony of being stuck in a contained vessel with the same small group of people FOR DECADES. Can you imagine how awful that must be, knowing that these other nine people are the only ones you’ll ever see or interact with for twenty-three years? I don’t know how they could manage to not go completely bonkers. (It’s not a spoiler to say that there are some pretty spectacular meltdowns and conflicts along the way — these are high-strung teens, after all.)

The plot of Do You Dream of Terra-Two? is fascinating and thrilling. I’m a sucker for a good space story, and I loved reading about the terror and the challenges of prolonged space flight, as well as the intricate interpersonal relationships that ensue when you have a small group in an enclosed space for such a long time.

I did feel that the book was possibly longer than it needed to be. At 500+ pages, it’s a lot, and sections dragged. Again, I don’t feel it’s a particular spoiler to say that the book does not cover all 23 years, but rather focuses on the lead-up to launch and mainly the first year after that — but it does wrap up in a way that’s both hopeful and satisfying (although one character’s conclusion particularly bothered me, but that’s by intention.)

Is it realistic that a space agency would train teens in this way and then send them into space? Well, maybe not — but even in this book,, we see that this is a controversial program that leads to international inquiries and protests. And because these are teens, despite their advanced training, there are moments of disobedience, rule-breaking, and emotional upset that wouldn’t occur with a more mature crew, yet serve here to create some of the drama between characters that drives the story.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading Do You Dream of Terra-Two?, and by the halfway point, just couldn’t put it down. It’s a great story, very unlike anything else I’ve read lately, and I’m really glad I gave it a chance. If you like stories of space exploration, check this one out!

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The details:

Title: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?
Author: Temi Oh
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: August 13 2019
Length: 544 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

“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.

Cover for Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land by artist Sarah Anne Langton

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lior Tirosh is a semi-successful author of pulp fiction, an inadvertent time traveler, and an ongoing source of disappointment to his father.

Tirosh has returned to his homeland in East Africa. But Palestina—a Jewish state founded in the early 20th century—has grown dangerous. The government is building a vast border wall to keep out African refugees. Unrest in Ararat City is growing. And Tirosh’s childhood friend, trying to deliver a warning, has turned up dead in his hotel room. A state security officer has identified Tirosh as a suspect in a string of murders, and a rogue agent is stalking Tirosh through transdimensional rifts—possible futures that can only be prevented by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

From the bestselling author of Central Station comes an extraordinary new novel recalling China Miéville and Michael Chabon, entertaining and subversive in equal measures.

My Thoughts:

Wow, what a crazy read! I can’t say I’ve ever come across Israeli science fiction before, and I enjoyed the heck out of this one.

The initial premise is intriguing — and based on true events. Back in 1904, the Zionist Congress, led by Theodore Herzl, sent an expedition to Uganda to explore land that had been proposed as a site of a future Jewish state. In our (real) world, that didn’t work out particularly well, and the idea was shelved in favor of pursuing a homeland in the “holy land”, resulting in modern-day Israel. In the world in which we begin Unholy Land, the Africa expedition was a success, resulting in the birth of Palestina, a Jewish homeland located between Uganda and Kenya. Certain of our realities exist in this world as well — native populations displaced by the creation of the state, resulting in ongoing border crises and refugee camps, a border wall, debate over the Right of Return, and never-ending peace negotiations.

But wait! There’s more. Certain people are able to travel between alternate realities, including one like our own, one in which the entire Middle East is at peace and unified after the horror of a limited nuclear event which destroyed Jerusalem, and other, more exotic and frightening worlds. There are Kabbalistic elements involved which mingle with discussion of quantum physics, and it’s all packaged up inside a very noir-feeling detective/spy plot.

I was fascinated by the descriptions of life in Palestina — the language, the culture, the food, the geography. The author does an incredibly inventive and persuasive job of making it seem like a real and viable country, while also demonstrating that in this world or any other, certain problems and challenges and misfortunes seep through no matter what.

The entire plot is somewhat mind-boggling, and I think I’ll need to let this one percolate for a bit and then return and read it all over again. It’s a quick read, but with plenty to think about. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: Unholy Land
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Ellie and the Harpmaker by Hazel Prior

 

A rich, heartwarming and completely charming debut that reminds us that sometimes, you don’t find love–love finds you.

Dan Hollis lives a happy, solitary life carving exquisite Celtic harps in his barn in the countryside of the English moors. Here, he can be himself, away from social situations that he doesn’t always get right or completely understand.

Ellie Jacobs is a lonely housewife, her days filled with walks and poetry she writes in secret.

One day, she comes across Dan’s barn and is enchanted by his collection. Dan gives her a harp made of cherry wood to match her cherry socks. He stores it for her, ready for whenever she’d like to take lessons.

Ellie begins visiting Dan almost daily, drifting deeper into his world. But when she accidentally discovers a secret, she must make a choice: keep it from him and risk their friendship, or change the course of their lives forever

Ellie and the Harpmaker is a sweet, lovely debut novel that crept up on me and then completely entranced me! Such a magical and deceptively simple tale.

Told through alternating chapters, we get to see the world through Dan and Ellie’s eyes. Dan is unusual, to say the least. He loves his solitude, the peace of Exmoor, the woods and streams and pebbles all around him, and most of all, the hand-carved harps that are his passion and his livelihood. He view the world and understands interactions completely literally — he’s presented here as someone who appears to be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, although this is never actually stated. He functions well, but lacks the ability to interpret many of the social constructs and behaviors that others take for granted.

A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the color of walnut wood. Her eyes were the color of bracken in October. Her socks were the color of cherries, which was noticeable because the rest of her clothes were sad colors.

Ellie is an unfulfilled housewife in her 30s, a woman whose father’s death has prompted her to make a list of things to do before she’s 40 — and one of these is to learn to play music. When she happens upon the Harp Barn, she’s astonished by Dan’s workmanship and the beauty of his harps, and is intrigued by Dan himself. Dan insists on gifting her with a harp, but Ellie’s husband Clive forces her to return it, believing that she misunderstands Dan’s intentions. But Dan then insists that the harp is and always will be Ellie’s, and tells her he’ll keep it for her, for her to play whenever she wants.

It was her harp, and always would be. I never took back a gift. The harp would sit here in my barn and wait for her. It would sit and wait until all the cows had come home. This did not sound like a very long time, so I made it longer. The harp would wait, I told her, until the sea dried up (which someday it would if you gave it long enough) and the stars dropped out of the sky (which someday they would if you gave them long enough), but nevertheless this harp would never, ever belong to anyone else.

Thus begins a warm and unusual friendship between two people whose paths would likely have never crossed. Each adds to the other’s life. As Ellie gets to know Dan better, she digs into his world and his assumptions about the people in it, opening his eyes to new and different aspects of his life that he’d never realized before.

(Being vague here… no spoilers!)

Although the book started slowly for me, I was soon swept away by the lovely writing and the wonderful characters. At first, I was afraid that Ellie and the Harpmaker would feel too much like a clone of The Rosie Project and other recent reads about people who present with social difficulties and/or on the spectrum. Not so. Very quickly Ellie and the Harpmaker won my heart in its own way, erasing thoughts of comparisons to other books from my mind.

Sometimes the ifs work for you and sometimes they work against you. Sometimes you think they are working for you whereas in fact they are working against you, and sometimes you think they are working against you whereas in fact they are working for you. It is only when you look back that you realize, and you don’t always realize even then.

I grew to love Dan and Ellie, and felt all the feels as I read about their journeys, alone and together. Ellie’s marriage is frustrating to read about and I wanted to give her a good shake, but she becomes more self-aware as the book progresses, and I was proud of her for the realizations she finds along the way. Dan is simply lovely — a giving, creative, uncomplicated person who only knows how to be good. He’s really marvelous, and someone I won’t soon forget.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book! Ellie and the Harpmaker is a delicious read that left me hungry for beautiful music and a forest to wander through.
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The details:

Title: Ellie and the Harpmaker
Author: Hazel Prior
Publisher: Berkley Publishing
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley