Book Review: The Girl Before

girl-before

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Emma
Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

Jane
After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

For a book that consumed my attention nonstop for an entire day, I sure was left feeling unsatisfied.

The premise sounds delicious. A beautiful home, stark and pristine and worth far more than the rental price. Okay, so fine, there are rules — about 200 different items that tenants must agree to in order to live there. And then there’s the fact that only a select few are considered worthy: A lengthy, intrusively intimate questionnaire only possibly gets you in the door for an interview with the property’s architect and owner, and even then, you’re likely to get turned down..

But still, in a tight housing market where even exceeding your budget gets you little better than a dump, this place is a true find.

(Okay, not for me. Once the “no books” clause comes into play, I’m out. But I digress…)

The Girl Before is told in alternating chapters, of “Then: Emma” and “Now: Jane”. As their stories unwind, there’s no doubt that these two women, both vulnerable and bearing emotional scars, are just the sort of easily manipulated prey that might appeal to someone who needs total control. As we get to know each woman, we learn why the house at One Folgate Street appeals to them, and why they’re so eager to upend their lives that they’re willing to accept the terms and conditions that come with the home.

Warning signs abound. There are the odd little facts about the history of the house’s origins, the architect, Edward, and his personal life. There’s Edward himself, who’s quite overly involved for a rental landlord. Emma moves in after a terrifying crime, and Jane after a personal loss, but both are desperate for a fresh start — desperate enough to overlook the little clues (oh, like a house that’s programmed to only turn on the shower after you do a regular assessment of your moods) that they may be in over their heads.

The Girl Before is a thriller that pushes all of a reader’s buttons, with plenty of clues and alarms and suspicious behavior. I could not put it down… but that doesn’t mean that, in the aftermath, I actually enjoyed reading it.

Here’s the deal:

This book certainly makes for compulsive reading — but by about the 2/3 mark, the narrative and the personalities started to change. We find out more about each of the characters, and certain stories and statements get turned on their heads. Emma’s storyline in particular gets completely turned inside out, and I found myself filled with disgust for her actions and their fall-out. (Trying to be non-spoilerish here…)

In fact, certain characters are so not at all what they seem that the revelations and the book’s climax seem to come completely out of the blue. And yes, that’s what thrillers try to do — throw the reader off the scent, come up with a scenario that hasn’t been done before, one we never see coming. But it has to make sense, and I’m not sure that the climax and denouement of the story actually do.

I also, I will admit, am predisposed to dislike “girl in peril” stories, and setting up these two characters as victims and people easily controlled, for different reasons, kind of set my teeth on edge. By the end, although Emma’s circumstances should make her an object of pity and sorrow, it’s hard to feel any compassion for her, the more we get to know her. And Jane is all over the place too, although at least she ultimately displays some backbone and agency.

In the end, while I couldn’t stop reading, I wound up feeling rather cheated. Plot points that were practically lit up in neon ended up being red herrings. Characters’ actions in the big reveal seemed totally divorced from what we’d known of them up to that point. And again, I found it pretty much impossible to care at all about Emma once a particularly unforgivable action of hers is revealed.

So, do I recommend The Girl Before? Not so much. It’s a thriller, to be sure, and it was a good diversion on a rainy day (which is why I spent all day indoors today reading it, instead of going out where it’s wet and chilly). But I don’t like the portrayal of the women characters’ actions or motivations, and didn’t feel like their inner lives made a whole lot of sense or did credit to them as people.

Also, a minor complaint: Why is this book published under a pseudonym? Is that the trendy thing to do now? The author bio on the back flap says that J. P. Delaney is a pseudonym for “a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names”. Hmm. I looked it up, and the identity of J. P. Delaney isn’t hard to find. From an article in the New York Times, it sounds like the author chose to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym to keep readers guessing. (Spoiler: He’s a man.)

Are we supposed to be impressed by his ability to get inside the women characters’ heads? For me, at least, it didn’t work. Maybe that partially explains my feelings about the characters. Not that a male author can never write from a female perspective, but it takes a great deal of talent and empathy to do so convincingly. The Girl Before misses the mark.

I’ll end this rambling review with a not-too-surprising insight: Writing reviews is pretty cathartic. As I sat down to right, I was still feeling overall kind of positive about The Girl Before. But now that I’ve been actually putting my thoughts together, I’m left with a pretty deafening UGH. The last third or so of this book made me feel used and manipulated, and that’s not a good thing.

Can I get my rainy day back for a do-over?

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The details:

Title: The Girl Before
Author: J. P Delaney
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: January 24, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

“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.

devils-cub-2

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Dominic Alistair, Marquis of Vidal is a bad lot, a rake and seducer, reckless, heedless, and possessed of a murderous temper. He is known by friend and foe alike as the “Devil’s Cub.” Yet as the handsome and wealthy heir to a Dukedom, he is considered a good prospect on the marriage market. Vidal currently has his eye on the young, lovely, and unintelligent Sophia Challoner, and Sophia’s greedy mother is more than happy to encourage his dubious attentions.

When lovely, saucy Mary Challoner had practiced her bold deception upon the hot-blooded, fiery-tempered young Marquis of Vidal–substituting herself for her young sister he had thought to carry off to France–she had little notion he would grimly hold her to her part of the bargain. Now he had left her, and she was alone, a stranger in a strange land, prey to the intrigues of glittering, heartless, 18th century Paris.

Only one person could rescue her–the Marquis himself. But how could she ever trust this man? How could she even hope to overcome the contempt in which he held her? And how could even the sudden flowering of her love ever bridge the terrible gap between them?

My Thoughts:

Until Devil’s Cub, I’d never read a Georgette Heyer novel before, despite knowing several readers (of excellent taste, in my humble opinion) who absolutely adore her work. Georgette Heyer was such a prolific writer that I had no idea where to even start, but fortunately, my book club decided to go with something on the “classic romantic” side for our February book of the month and came up with Devil’s Cub, so I was spared the dilemma of having to choose.

The description really says it all. There’s a Marquis — such a scoundrel! But devilishly handsome. A sweet, decent young woman. A flighty sister. Oodles of lovers’ quarrels and misunderstandings. Elopements and escapes by carriage. Reputations and ruining on the line!

Devil’s Cub is a galloping piece of entertainment with never a dull moment, as social niceties are observed and broken, all in the name of love and honor. The characters are quite endearing. Mary has a backbone and makes for a great heroine, and although the Marquis’s use of threats to get his way rubs my modern sensibilities the wrong way, he’s exactly the sort of decadent lord with a heart of gold that would have been popular in the romantic fiction of the time.

This was a very fun read, light and entertaining, and a diverting little showpiece of social norms and scandals during the Regency era. Devil’s Cub is actually a sequel of sorts to These Old Shades, but it works perfectly fine as a stand-alone (although I do want to read that one as well, as soon as the library has a copy available).

I’m not going out on a Georgette Heyer binge right this second, but I do want to read more of her books. Any suggestions? Any must-reads? Let me know!

Meanwhile, as always, I’m so thankful to be part of an amazing book club that gives me incentive to read books outside my usual reading habits.

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The details:

Title: Devil’s Cub
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: Originally published 1932
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: Always by Sarah Jio

always

While enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner with her fiance, Ryan, at one of Seattle’s chicest restaurants, Kailey Crane can’t believe her good fortune: She has a great job as a writer for the Herald and is now engaged to a guy who is perfect in nearly every way. As they leave the restaurant, Kailey spies a thin, bearded homeless man on the sidewalk. She approaches him to offer up her bag of leftovers, and is stunned when their eyes meet, then stricken to her very core: The man is the love of her life, Cade McAllister.

When Kailey met Cade ten years ago, their attraction was immediate and intense everything connected and felt “right.” But it all ended suddenly, leaving Kailey devastated. Now the poor soul on the street is a faded version of her former beloved: His weathered and weary face is as handsome as Kailey remembers, but his mind has suffered in the intervening years. Over the next few weeks, Kailey helps Cade begin to piece his life together, something she initially keeps from Ryan. As she revisits her long-ago relationship, Kailey realizes that she must decide exactly what and whom she wants.

Alternating between the past and the present, Always is a beautifully unfolding exploration of a woman faced with an impossible choice, a woman who discovers what she’s willing to save and what she will sacrifice for true love.

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

And a disclaimer: This just isn’t my kind of story, and that fact probably influences my reaction quite a bit… but maybe not. I’ll explain, I promise.

I like a good romantic tale every once in a while. A nice, contemporary story about falling in love, or rediscovering love, or the memory of love… what’s not to — you know?

So why didn’t I love Always? For starters, everything was so completely obvious. In chapter one, we see Kailey sitting down to dinner with her super rich, too handsome to be true, perfect gentleman from a fine family fiancé, and I could tell you already that these two will never work out. He’s a developer; she wants to save the homeless shelters in the square of his next big development project. He’s being kind of insistent in an incredibly outdated way about her changing her name when they get married. They seem to read home decorating magazines for fun. There is just no way that these two should ever get married — so when she stumbles across the former love of her life dressed in rags and seemingly out of his mind, there’s really no dramatic tension. OF COURSE she’s going to end up with Cade. I mean, there isn’t the slightest shadow of a doubt about it.

Still, we get the alternating timeline effect, following the story of Kailey and Cade’s first meeting (Seattle in the 90s) and early romance, intercut with chapters set in the later timeline (2008) as she discovers Cade on the streets and decides that she has to save him. The more we see of Kailey and Cade’s relationship, the clearer it becomes that Ryan is all wrong for Kailey. But anyway…

Cade is homeless, begging for food, and clearly has been through something awful. He only shows a glimmer of recognition when he sees the tattoo on Kailey’s shoulder — because of course, he has the same one. She’s desperate to help him, and he doesn’t actually know who she is. Meanwhile, she never tells Ryan the truth, so she’s living a lie, missing work, and disappearing from life with her fiancé — not a good sign.

Plot-wise, there are just too many pieces that make no sense to me. (As I said earlier, SPOILERS!);

  • Cade just up and disappeared 10 years earlier, but it’s not clear whether Kailey actually did anything to find him. A guy, even one who’s been drinking too much, doesn’t just evaporate from his own life for no reason. Did she go to his apartment and notice that all his possessions were still there? Did she call the police? File a missing persons report? Hire a detective? Try to figure out who last saw him? If she’d done any of that, no matter the state of their relationship, I have a feeling she might have actually found him. Although then we’d have no big romantic reunion all those years later, but still.
  • So what exactly was wrong with Cade? “Traumatic brain injury” — what does that even mean? I know this isn’t a medical drama, but a little bit of a reality check might have helped. What part of the brain was affected? What’s the prognosis? And why is the treatment so vague? Living in a facility with unspecified treatments, medications, therapies… and suddenly he can talk and remember? More detail and grounding would have helped sell Cade’s condition better.
  • And what exactly happened the night of the accident? Apparently, Cade was the victim of some sort of crime… maybe? Or hit by a car? Or really, anything at all? We don’t know. And for that matter, why didn’t James, the former best friend, bother finding out afterward?
  • We find out, through Kailey’s barely-making-an-effort detective work, that a John Doe was admitted to the hospital with a brain injury right around that same time, but was checked out by a family member before treatment could be provided. AND THEN WE NEVER GET A RESOLUTION ON THIS PLOT POINT. Who checked him out? Why? Did something nefarious happen? No answers.

Okay, so the more I write, the more I realize how much the plot didn’t work for me. It felt formulaic and utterly predictable, with very little tension (Kailey’s choice is a forgone conclusion), and a romance that gets a pie-in-the-sky ending that feels like it glazes over any and all obstacles. Heck, they even recover Cade’s missing fortune by barely lifting a finger (and the story I expected, of insidious business dealings and a financial motivation, never actually materializes.) The storybook ending is yet another element of a paint-by-number love story that lacks any basis in the real world.

Sure, some may find this an inspiring story of true love finding its way. When two people are meant to be together, nothing (NOT EVEN A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY) can keep them apart. Love conquers all, yo!

Clearly, this was not a book for me.

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The details:

Title: Always
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day

dusk-or-dark

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers!

It’s hard to describe this lovely, haunting novella full of ghosts and yearning and unfulfilled needs. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, and the concepts underlying the story are original and quite moving.

First and foremost, Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day is a ghost story. Set in our every day world, the story tells the tale of ghosts among us. They live (sort of) and work and spend their days and nights alongside the living, going through the years looking for meaning or redemption or even escape.

Jenna is our main character, a ghost who died accidentally as a teen, right after her sister Patty’s suicide. Ghost Jenna comes to New York looking for Patty, but fails to find her. What she finds instead is a “life” of her own. She works as a hotline volunteer, lives in an apartment building with a ghost for a landlady, and frequents a local diner for its coffee, pie, and interesting visitors.

What I loved:

In this ghostly version of our world, ghosts must take the time they need to reach their intended death date, at which point they can finally move on. They don’t know how close they are until they’re almost there. As they take minutes, days, or even years from the living, the living grow that much younger while the ghost becomes older. For Jenna, she feels she’s taking something that must be earned, and so she limits herself to taking time in proportion to the minutes she spends doing good in her volunteer work. The main thing for Jenna is to join Patty, and she yearns to finally get enough time to make it there.

I just loved the concept of taking and giving time. Our world is peopled with ghosts trying to move on, and it’s simply sad and sweet to see the longing and wistfulness that fills their days.

Alongside the ghost population, there are witches of all sorts, defined by their source of power. A corn witch, for examples, draws her strength not just from fields of corn plants, but anything within reach that contains corn or corn products. Some of the witches’ power sources are shocking, to say the least. The witches and ghosts have a dangerous relationship, as witches have the ability to both steal time from ghosts, staying young seemingly forever, and to trap ghosts in glass and hold them prisoner, keeping them from moving on. Again, as with the ghosts and their time banking, the concepts behind the witches and their powers in this novella are unusual and mind-bending and a bit scary, to be honest.

As I mentioned earlier, the writing in this short work is what makes it truly special. For one example, see my Thursday Quotables post from earlier this week. Here are a few more little pieces that I loved — but really, the entire book reads like a lyrical ghost story, with words that haunt the reader as much as the characters haunt the city:

The world is full of stories, and no matter how much time we spend in it — alive or dead — there’s never time to learn them all.

It’s two o’clock by the time I leave the diner. The frat boys and tourists are gone, and the homeless have gone to their secret places to sleep, leaving the city for the restless and the dead. I walk with my hands in my pockets and the streetlights casting halogen halos through the fog, and I can’t help thinking this is probably what Heaven will be like, warm air and cloudy skies and the feeling of absolute contentment that comes only from coffee and pie and knowing your place in the world.

He loves that phrase, “time is money,” and uses it every chance he gets. Sometimes I wish I could make him understand how wrong he is, that time is time and that’s enough, because time is more precious that diamonds, more rare than pearls. Money comes and goes, but time only goes. Time doesn’t come back for anyone, not even for the restless dead, who move it from place to place. Time is finite. Money is not.

We’re just part of the background noise, and all the talk in the world of ghosts and witches and hauntings won’t change that. No one believes in things like us anymore. There’s freedom in that.

What I loved less:

The plot’s climax becomes somewhat convoluted and dense, and the actions of some characters didn’t make much sense to me. But it actually doesn’t matter a whole lot, truly. It doesn’t have to make complete sense to still be a treat for the senses.

That said, I wish this had been a full novel-length work rather than a novella. While the novella’s structure and brevity give it a certain elegance, there’s so much here to take in and savor that I wish parts had more room to breathe and that the ghost- and witch-inhabited world of DDDD could have been more explicitly built out.

In conclusion:

Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day is a beautiful work that will stay with me for a long time. The writing is gorgeous, and just cements my admiration for the writer. For more by Seanan McGuire, I strongly recommend the equally lovely Every Heart a Doorway, and can’t wait for its sequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, to be released in June.

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The details:

Title: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 183 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Sleepwalker

“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.

sleepwalker

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. Once, she merely destroyed the hydrangeas in front of her Vermont home. More terrifying was the night her older daughter, Lianna, pulled her back from the precipice of the Gale River bridge.

The morning of Annalee’s disappearance, a search party combs the nearby woods. Annalee’s husband, Warren, flies home from a business trip. Lianna is questioned by a young, hazel-eyed detective. And her little sister, Paige, takes to swimming the Gale to look for clues. When the police discover a small swatch of fabric, a nightshirt, ripped and hanging from a tree branch, it seems certain Annalee is dead, but Gavin Rikert, the hazel-eyed detective, continues to call, continues to stop by the Ahlbergs’ Victorian home.

As Lianna peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Annalee’s disappearance, she finds herself drawn to Gavin, but she must ask herself: Why does the detective know so much about her mother? Why did Annalee leave her bed only when her father was away? And if she really died while sleepwalking, where was the body?

Conjuring the strange and mysterious world of parasomnia, a place somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, The Sleepwalker is a masterful novel from one of our most treasured storytellers.”

My Thoughts:

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, and The Sleepwalker doesn’t disappoint. He can always be relied upon to deliver a read that’s compelling, hard to put down, and with the most unusual of premises. Here, it’s a mystery with a little-known and extreme form of sleepwalking at its core. Told through the character Lianna, Annalee’s 21-year-old daughter, The Sleepwalker takes us inside a seemingly ordinary and happy family to reveal the pain and conflicts wrought by Annalee’s affliction.

Lianna is an interesting point-of-view character, still on the cusp of adulthood in some ways, leaving behind her stoner approach to life when her father and sister need her most. She’s both her mother’s daughter and her own person, challenging the facts and the investigation to uncover the truth behind Annalee’s disappearance, even when she realizes that the truth may be much more painful than she’s prepared to handle.

The Sleepwalker is a domestic story with a narrower focus than some of the author’s more recent books. It doesn’t have the weightiness and overwhelming horror of last year’s The Guest Room, with its focus on sex trafficking, or the historical sweep of earlier novels such as The Sandcastle Girls or The Light in the Ruins. Still, this story of a family’s suffering is absorbing and tightly constructed, and while I tried to figure out its riddles, I found myself barking up the completely wrong tree. I won’t say more, but wow — what an ending!

Bohjalian’s books always leave a mark. The emotional impact just doesn’t let up. You really can’t go wrong with any of his books (no, I haven’t read them all, but I’m working on it!), and if you enjoy contemporary mysteries and family dramas, definitely check out The Sleepwalker.

Note: A prequel story, The Premonition, is available as an e-book download. The Premotion recounts events from four years prior to The Sleepwalker. I recommend reading The Premonition first. It doesn’t spoil anything in the main novel and gives a good introduction to the characters and setting. If you prefer not to , though, you’re fine. The Sleepwalker stands perfectly well on its own.

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The details:

Title: The Sleepwalker
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: I received a review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley… and then I won a hard copy of the book in a giveaway from Reading With Robin!

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Book Review: Martians Abroad

martians-abroad

Polly Newton has one single-minded dream, to be a starship pilot and travel the galaxy. Her mother, the director of the Mars Colony, derails Polly’s plans when she sends Polly and her genius twin brother, Charles, to Galileo Academy on Earth—the one planet Polly has no desire to visit. Ever.

Homesick and cut off from her desired future, Polly cannot seem to fit into the constraints of life on Earth, unlike Charles, who deftly maneuvers around people and sees through their behavior to their true motives. Strange, unexplained, dangerous coincidences centered on their high-profile classmates begin piling up. Charles may be right—there’s more going on than would appear, and the stakes are high. With the help of Charles, Polly is determined to find the truth, no matter the cost.

Martians Abroad is a fun space romp, but somehow feels a bit unfinished — as if this is the introduction to a new series, not (as it’s described on Goodreads) a stand-alone.

There’s also the issue that while this book is billed as science fiction, it reads very much young adult to me. The main characters, Polly and Charles, are 17 years old. Although we don’t learn their exact age until the end of the book, the story focuses on their assignment to a new school, and it’s clear that they’re about college age at the start of the story.

In fact, if you took out the sci-fi trappings, much of the story is straight-up coming of age stuff — being an outsider, figuring out where you belong, dealing with cliques, exploring one’s own path, standing up to authority. The fact that it’s set in a brave new world gives it an extra zing, but the ingredients feel very familiar.

That said, I enjoyed Polly as a character very much. She’s independent, focused, and strong, with a rebellious streak and a core of integrity that sees her through the challenges that spring up in her path.

The best part of Martians Abroad, for me, was getting to see Earth through the eyes of someone experiencing it all for the first time. Polly was born and raised on Mars, and to her, Mars is home. She has no desire to leave it, except to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. The brown-red colors and the dust are what’s normal to her. Coming to Earth, Polly has shock after shock. Her body has to adjust to Earth’s gravity, so that she feels sluggish constantly and struggles for breath. Her Earth-born classmates are bulky and strong in comparison to the off-worlders’ elongated builds and their brittle bones. Polly has bouts of agoraphobia when stepping outside for the first time and dealing with the open sky. In Polly’s home world, she’d be dead without enclosures to keep the air in and scrubbed clean. Over and over again, we see Polly confront our world, and it’s fascinating (and entertaining) to see how alien it can all look.

A few small examples: Attending a banquet with fancy decorations, including floral centerpieces and arches:

They were cut — I checked, they didn’t have roots, just stems stuck in water. They’d all be dead in a few days. This room had more flowers than entire greenhouses on Mars, and they were all dying. It seemed a little sad.

Polly’s first encounter with Earth-style breakfast:

“Good. I was going to warn you not to eat the bacon, it will probably make you sick. We don’t have the stomach enzymes to digest it.”

[…]

“What’s bacon?” I said.

“Fried pig muscle.”

And on the universality of sweets:

There was a cake — happily, I wasn’t going to have to get anyone to explain cake to me. We had round, fluffy, mooshy sweet things on Mars, because humanity couldn’t exist without dessert.

As Polly acclimates to her school and the planet, she begins to suspect that something sinister is behind a string of accidents that befall her class, and she puts herself in danger time and again to keep others safe and uncover the truth. The accidents provide the key points of excitement in the novel, and there are moments of great adventure and thrill… but unfortunately, the pacing is uneven, so we get these spots of action in between longer segments on daily life at the academy and Polly’s attempts to find a place for herself.

Heck, there’s even dress shopping in the mix. A makeover! Doesn’t that just reinforce the YA-ness of it all?

I don’t really mean to sound overly negative. This is a fun book, but it was a bit too YA and not enough sci-fi for my taste, and I had the odd experience of never quite having a real feel for what kind of book it was that I was reading.

Overall though, I enjoyed Martians Abroad. I can’t help wondering whether there’s more to come. As I mentioned earlier, although it’s billed as a stand-alone, much of this book feels like a long introduction. We’ve met Polly, her classmates, her school — the question is, now what? While the book works on its own well enough, it seems natural that there should be further adventures.

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The details:

Title: Martians Abroad
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: January 17, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

“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.

bear-the-nightingale

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Thoughts:

What a lovely book!

The Bear and the Nightingale reads like an extended riff on Russian fairy tales. While the main character Vasya (Vasilisa) is rooted in real life, with a family, a home, and the realities of harsh Russian winters, her life is filled with hints of magic. Set in the medieval Russian era, the book shows the harmony that exists between the people and the traditional spirits, even as their outward lives are governed by the Church. The women of the house leave offererings for the domovoi and other guardian spirits, but only Vasya is gifted with the ability to see and converse with them. When a new, ambitious priest arrives and forces the people to stop their offererings to the spirits, things go from bad to worse.

The writing in The Bear and the Nightingale is pitch-perfect, with a rhythm that evokes fairy tales and magical beings. It feels throughout that we’re listening to a folktale, and so the mood is sustained from moment to moment, even in the more mundane scenes of household chores or treks through the snow.

Vasya is a wonderful character, unwilling to accept the only two paths — marriage or convent — available to a young woman at that time. Through her independence and strong will, Vasya forges a new future for herself, even at the risk of gossip, ostracism, and physical danger.

It took me a little while to find the thread of the main plot, as the opening chapters feel a little scattered and disconnected. Once we meet Vasya, the story really comes together and develops more momentum. All in all, a very satisfying and enjoyable read.

Note: I didn’t discover until I’d finished the book that this is the first in a projected trilogy. The Bear and the Nightingale reads as a stand-alone, and felt quite complete at the end. Still, I’ll look forward to revisiting these characters and this world.

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The details:

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction – fairy tales
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

“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.

second-mrs-hockaday

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?

Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how that generation–and the next–began to see their world anew.

 

My Thoughts:

While the premise sounded intriguing to me, the execution didn’t quite work so well.

Told through letters and miscellaneous documents, The Second Mrs. Hockaday has a scattered feel to it that makes investing in the story difficult. We first meet Placidia as she’s under arrest and awaiting trial, writing a letter to a beloved cousin. Her letters take us back to the beginning of her marriage, but then jump around in time, and later, the book includes journal pages she wrote during her husband’s absence as well as correspondence between members of the next generation in the family. Because of the jumping chronology, it’s hard to get a sense of which events are linked to which — which is unfortunate, as the kernel of the story is good.

Placidia’s impetuous marriage to the recently widowed Major takes place the day after she meets him, and they only have two days together as man and wife before he leaves to rejoin his troops, leaving Placidia in charge of both his plantation and his motherless child. Her struggle to keep the farm going, to nurture the young boy, and to protect a future with the man she barely knows is moving, and I couldn’t help admiring Placidia’s bravery.

However — the big reveal toward the end of the book when we discover the truth about Placidia’s supposed crime is absolutely obvious from the very beginning. Even though some smaller details offer surprises, the fact that the big secret is so easily guessed takes away some of the punch when awful events actually transpire. A more minor complaint is the lack of any narration (via letters) of anything from later in Placidia’s life. While we learn more from other people, it feels abrupt to lose her voice in telling her own story, as if only those earlier years contained the events she felt the need to document.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday is a touching look at a young bride struggling to create a marriage during the awful war years. Unfortunately, it just lacked some of the power I’d expected.

[A reader note: While I don’t typically think it’s fair to bring up ARC formatting problems in a review, since presumably those will be corrected by the time of publication, I feel that the horrible formatting of this particular ARC absolutely impacted my reading experience for the worse. It’s not fair to criticize the book for these errors, but at the same time, the difficulty I had in sorting out section breaks and all of the missing dates in the text definitely made this a less than stellar read. If I’d read a finished copy, it’s possible that I might have felt the story had a better flow.]

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The details:

Title: The Second Mrs. Hockaday
Author: Susan Rivers
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: World War Z

WWZ

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. “World War Z” is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

First things first:

  1. This book is brilliant; and
  2. This book has very little to do with the movie it inspired.

I was finally drawn to World War Z (the book) after watching World War Z (the movie) last week. The book version of WWZ has been on my shelf for at least 7 or 8 years. It’s not that I regretted buying it or wasn’t interested — I just never was in the right mood to actually tackle it.

Well, this week, the mood was finally right… and all I can say is holy f*cking wow.

Max Brooks has created an “oral history of the Zombie War”, a riff on the Studs Terkel masterpiece The Good War. In WWZ, Brooks creates an utterly plausible history of a world-devastating war that came close to the annilihation of the human race. The book is told through interviews, a series of conversations with people from around the globe who, in one way or another, witnessed or experienced some small piece of the global catastrophe.

From first warnings through the “Great Panic” through all-out war and finally recovery, we hear tales from those who lived through it all. We hear from medical personnel and soldiers, politicians and scientists, bystanders and those in power, and each has a unique voice and a unique perspective.

Why do I consider this a brilliant book? If you leave aside the gruesome fact that we’re talking about a zombie apocalypse, World War Z could be a chronicle of any world war. Brooks does an incredible job of building the history brick by brick through his interviews, so that we don’t need any historical notes or side narratives in order to gain a full picture of the war’s progression. The author lets us see the experience as it unfolded for people living through the nightmare days, as well as through the lens of the statescraft and diplomacy that came into play between world leaders and other power brokers.

It’s fascinating to see the effect on both common people and the greater picture of the worldwide balance of power. Nations rise and fall as a result of the steps taken or ignored, and the world that remains by the end of the war is far different than the one that came before.

Of course, on top of the amazing lesson in political science… ZOMBIES. There are some truly gross, horrifying, nightmarish scenarios that play out throughout the book. Like, who ever thought that zombies could survive indefinitely under water? There’s a reason never to go scuba diving again (not that I’ve ever gone scuba diving). Or how about the fact that in the colder regions of the planet, zombies would freeze during the winter — but that spring thaw could be a real bitch.

I love that World War Z reads like a completely immersive non-fiction record, even though it is of course fictional. The author fully commits to the premise — no wink-wink snarkiness or sarcasm to remind us that this “history” never happened. It’s really an incredible reading experience, one I’d be tempted to recommend even to those who don’t typically enjoy horror. Yes, there’s plenty of ickiness, but the reflection of heroism and sacrifice is like looking at the best of the human spirit and how it rises to the top in times of true need.

A word on the movie: I didn’t think the movie version was bad (hello? Brad Pitt!), just really different. It’s a straight-narrative story of a zombie uprising, seen through the eyes of one man who is dispatched around the globe to try to fight it. Some scenes are really nightmare-inducing (I am not going to get the image of zombies swarming over the walls of Jerusalem out of my mind any time soon), but as a whole, it doesn’t have the grand scope of the book. Also, the ending may work as a movie dramatic climax, but (being vague here) the solution that Pitt’s character finds isn’t in the book at all.

Long story short: This book was first published 10 years ago, but I don’t think it has lost any of its impact. It’s really a remarkable storytelling achievement, and I urge anyone with a taste for this sort of thing to give it a try.

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The details:

Title: World War Z
Author: Max Brooks
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: September 12, 2006
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Extreme Makeover

extreme-makeover

The satirical new suspense about a health and beauty company that accidentally develops a hand lotion that can overwrite your DNA.

Lyle Fontanelle is the chief scientist for NewYew, a health and beauty company experimenting with a new, anti-aging hand lotion. As more and more anomalies crop up in testing, Lyle realizes that the lotion’s formula has somehow gone horribly wrong. It is actively overwriting the DNA of anyone who uses it, turning them into physical clones of someone else. Lyle wants to destroy the formula, but NewYew thinks it might be the greatest beauty product ever designed–and the world’s governments think it’s the greatest weapon.

New York Times bestselling author Dan Wells brings us a gripping corporate satire about a health and beauty company that could destroy the world.

Presenting… the book that will make you scared of your moisturizer.

What better book for getting in the holiday spirit than a terrifying yet farcical tale of the end of the world — not an apocalypse caused by climate catastrophe or nuclear war, but rather by a beauty product run amok.

In Extreme Makeover, main character Lyle thinks he’s come up with a promising product that can prompt the body to amp up collagen to repair wrinkled skin. Cool, right? As the executives’ eyes gleam with greed, they encourage Lyle to rush to market before their competition gets wind of this amazing new product — which works because of DNA manipulation, plasmids and retroviruses, in a way that Lyle himself doesn’t fully understand. Wait, the FDA won’t approve what’s basically a gene therapy formulation? No worries, package it as an herbal treatment and move all corporate manufacturing and business headquarters offshore.

As the initial test subjects begin to show some truly horrifying results, Lyle comes to realize that what he made had implications way beyond what was expected. And while the corporate executives push it further and further to rake in huge profits, Lyle still somewhat naively believes that his new creation, ReBirth, can be used for good.

As the product is first introduced to the public, then distributed through the black market, and ultimately ends up everywhere, the terrifying, world-changing results become more and more obvious. Some of the developments are chilling, some (including the accidental creation of thousands of Lyles) are so awful that it’s actually funny.

And of course, there’s corporate corruption and world domination to consider. As ReBirth starts appearing everywhere, it quickly becomes a global catastrophe — with some considering it a religious opportunity, Homeland Security considering it a terrorist threat, and ultimately, the UN coming to realize its potential use as a weapon of mass destruction.

Reading Extreme Makeover is incredibly addictive, and weird, and utterly fun. You want to laugh at the ridiculousness of what’s going on, and yet, given the billions that people pour into buying consumer cosmetics products every year, is it really THAT far-fetched to think that people will pay thousands of dollars for the chance at a younger, healthier, more beautiful body? And hey, no need for pesky gym memberships or diets or surgery! So what if it means your own genetic code will be overwritten by someone else’s? Isn’t it worth it?

After all, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??? (Cue ominous soundtrack…)

This is the most absurd apocalypse I’ve encountered yet. The end of life on earth as we know it — brought on by hand lotion? Really?

But accept that, and go along for the ride. Extreme Makeover is cleverly constructed, with a chronology that includes a countdown to the end of the world at the start of each chapter. The wide-ranging cast of characters includes Lyle, the NewYew executives plus the head honchos at their competitors’ headquarters, squads of security goons, all sorts of shady street ReBirth dealers, a religious guru, United Nations delegates, and so many more. And then, of course, as the story progresses, you have not only the characters we’ve come to know already, but various ReBirth-created versions of them as well.

It can get a bit mind-boggling to keep track of the fakes and the originals, and the collapse of civilized society happens almost too quickly to make sense, even given the scale of the unintended destruction caused by ReBirth. I had a hard time figuring out where the various evil-doers were getting their supply of original (or as it’s called in the book, “blank” — you’ll see) lotion, but after a while, I just kind of took in on faith that there were still stockpiles accessible for those who were willing to pay or to steal it.

While the outcomes are frightening, some of the scenarios still managed to make me laugh — the idea of someone spraying someone with lotion suddenly is the scariest thing you might encounter. A teen bringing ReBirth into school is practically as dangerous as one bringing a loaded gun. Celebrities are stalked not for photos, but for their DNA. It’s crazy, but it all makes sense in the claustrophobic depiction of a world gone mad.

I really enjoyed the heck out of Extreme Makeover. It’s fast-paced, cynical, funny, and terrifying; the concept has a core of ridiculousness, but like any doomsday scenario, there’s enough in there to make us all very, very afraid. After all, take out the fact that a hand lotion is responsible for the chaos, and it’s like any other apocalyptic tale, where a new technology with the power to make positive changes is ultimately transformed into a tool for unlimited power.

If you enjoy your apocalypses with a touch of humor and relatable real-world characters, check out Extreme Makeover. I promise you, you haven’t read about an end-of-the-world quite like this one before!

A note on the cover: The cover image available via Goodreads is kind of bland and muted. Here’s a photo of the library copy I borrowed — which is hot pink and black and totally awesome:

extreme-makoever

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The details:

Title: Extreme Makeover
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: November 15, 2016
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library

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