Book Review: Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

 

The story is supposed to be over.

Simon Snow did everything he was supposed to do. He beat the villain. He won the war. He even fell in love. Now comes the good part, right? Now comes the happily ever after…

So why can’t Simon Snow get off the couch?

What he needs, according to his best friend, is a change of scenery. He just needs to see himself in a new light…

That’s how Simon and Penny and Baz end up in a vintage convertible, tearing across the American West.

They find trouble, of course. (Dragons, vampires, skunk-headed things with shotguns.) And they get lost. They get so lost, they start to wonder whether they ever knew where they were headed in the first place…

With Wayward Son, Rainbow Rowell has written a book for everyone who ever wondered what happened to the Chosen One after he saved the day. And a book for everyone who was ever more curious about the second kiss than the first. It’s another helping of sour cherry scones with an absolutely decadent amount of butter.

Come on, Simon Snow. Your hero’s journey might be over – but your life has just begun.

Note: Spoilers ahead for Carry on and Wayward Son!

Poor Simon Snow. In Carry On, he beats the big bad (the Insidious Humdrum) and the other big bad (the Mage), but at the cost of his own magic. Now Simon is a former magician with no magical power, and he still has the enormous wings and tail he spelled onto himself before his magic went away. And now, a year after the big showdown, he mostly just hangs around listlessly, sharing a flat with Penelope, still in a romance with Baz, but one that seems to not be particularly romantic or much of anything at all.

Meanwhile, their friend (and Simon’s ex) Agatha is trying to lead a magic-free life in San Diego among the Normals, going to school and hanging out with a health-conscious friend who’s trying to convince her to “level up” in her new, exclusive club (cult?).

When Penelope becomes convinced that Agatha is in danger, she talks Baz and Simon into coming to America with her (using magicked airplane tickets and cash), and off they go to explore a brave new world. First stop? Chicago, where Penelope hopes to set off some new sparks with her long-term, long-distance boyfriend Micah. But it turns out that Penelope’s determination (and inability to really listen) mean that she missed something important. What follows is one of the funniest break-up conversations I’ve ever read:

“You. Don’t. Listen. To me.”

“I certainly do.”

“Really? I told you I was tired of being in a long-distance relationship — ”

“And I agreed that it was tiring!” I say.

“I told you that I thought we’d grown apart –”

“And I said that was natural!” I half shout.

So once Penny’s heart has been broken, she, Baz, and Simon get back in the car and hit the open road on the way to California, but of course, their road trip doesn’t go exactly as planned. Along the way, they discover that what they don’t know about America can definitely hurt them. Magic is much less regulated, and is very much tied to the Normal population, so as they head across the great wide open of states like Iowa and Nebraska, they hit dead spots where their magic sputters and fails, leaving them easy prey for other magickal creatures who have a rather strong dislike for magicians. Oh, and they kill vampires. Publicly. And pick up a Normal sidekick, who seems to know an awful lot about the magickal world.

There’s adventure after adventure, all leading to a showdown with vampires in the vampire capital — Las Vegas, of course. And a big rescue. And lots of fabulous fashion.

I ate this book up — I think I finished it within 24 hours of starting. And it’s glorious fun, but left me hungry for (a) MORE and (b) maybe a bit more content?

Here’s what I wish and wonder, now that I’ve finished Wayward Son:

♥ I want Simon to get his power back! I know, that’s not the way it works… but still, it’s just so sad to see the greatest magician of all times without his power. Although he is still a fierce fighter, wings and all.

♥ At the end, Simon seems to be contemplating getting his wings and tail removed, starting uni, and leaving the magickal world behind for good. Does this mean leaving Baz behind too? SAD.

♥ Poor Baz and Simon love each other so much, yet they can’ seem to connect. Will Simon come around, or is their relationship doomed?

♥ We learn that a vampire bite doesn’t automatically turn a human into a vampire, which is what Baz has believed all along. So how does it work? How does a human get turned?

♥ Agatha is still the only person who knows who Simon’s parents are. It’s never mentioned in Wayward Son. Will Simon ever find out? What will it do to him when he does? And does the ritual that gave him all his power in the first place hold some key to getting it back? (Yeah, I really, really do want Simon to get magic back. Can’t help it. What would the rest of Harry Potter’s life be like if he defeated Voldemort but lost all his wizarding gifts as a result? Pretty sad, huh?)

Oh, Simon.

It’s time for me to stop pretending that I’m some sort of superhero. I was that — I really was — but I’m not anymore. I don’t belong in the same world as sorcerers and vampires. That’s not my story.

Baz wants a future with Simon. Simon seems about to tell Baz that he’s leaving their world (and Baz, too, in that case), when Penny rushes up to tell them that they need to get back to England immediately to deal with an emergeny at Watford.

Will Simon go? Will the crew save the day? WILL THERE BE ANOTHER SIMON SNOW BOOK?

I do really and truly love this world of Rainbow Rowell’s, and as always, I love her writing. There’s deep emotion and connection and searches for meaning, but it’s also just really funny.

We literally have three “pickup trucks” in all of England, but here they’re everywhere. What is it that Americans have to pick up that the rest of the world doesn’t?

But she can also break your heart:

There’s no safe time for me to see you, nothing about you that doesn’t tear my heart from my chest and leave it breakable outside my body.

I adore the characters (BAZ FOR THE WIN!), and the author’s spin on a magickal world and what it means for the various types of people who inhabit it. Wayward Son is very much a road-trip book, and I did wish for a little more of the sense of world-building wonder that was so powerful in Carry On.

Please, please, please let there be a book #3! I don’t think I can stand leaving the characters and the story this way. MORE, PLEASE!

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The details:

Title: Wayward Son (Simon Snow, #2)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: September 24 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

 

In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her–freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” –Margaret Atwood

Note: Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale book and Hulu TV series are mentioned in this review, although not in great detail. It feels impossible to talk about The Testaments without referencing both.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it was both revolutionary and revelatory. In it, Margaret Atwood imagined the nation of Gilead, an autocratic theocracy created through the violent overthrow of the United States government. In a world in which fertility rates had fallen drastically, one of Gilead’s prime commandments was procreation by whatever means necessary, including the forced servitude of fertile women as Handmaids, women forced to conceive and carry babies that they’d have no claim to. Through ritualized rape, Handmaids endured their roles as vessels and chattel belonging to the Commanders and their wives — or faced gruesome punishments, including mutilation and death.

Gilead was not much kinder to the Commanders’ wives, who were expected to know their places and stay there. Women’s rights were gone absolutely — no ownership, no money, no independence. No reading! Reading was considered such a sin for women that all public signs were replaced with pictures — a drawing of food to denote a store, rather than letters spelling out words.

In The Testaments, years have passed since the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead continues on, still in power, still subjecting its women to its caste system and degradations, at war with Canada and battling to take down the resistance group Mayday. In this new novel, the story is told through three different narrators’ first-person story.

First, and probably most familiar to both readers and viewers of the TV series, is Aunt Lydia. We’ve known her up to now as one of the system’s enforcers, one of the Aunts whose job it is to train Handmaids and keep them in line through whatever means necessary. Here, we hear Aunt Lydia telling her own story, and we see a much more complex take on who she is and how she came to be this way. Her backstory is fascinating — and, it’s worth noting, substantially different than that of the Aunt Lydia character in the Hulu version. Prior to Gilead, Aunt Lydia was a well-respected and well-established judge. When the forces of Gilead came to power, Aunt Lydia and her colleagues were rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured, until they either agreed to work for Gilead or were executed.

Lydia opted for self-preservation — although it’s left ambiguous as to what her true motivation is. Is she only about her own survival? Or is she playing a very long game, establishing her own power base in her own domain with the goal of bringing down Gilead from within? And if the latter is true, how could she stomach all that she had to do to gain and retain her power? She’s a perplexing character, clearly able to be quite cruel and manipulative and deadly… yet she does save girls from terrible situations as well, and finds her own sly and subtle ways to get back at the Commanders who wrong her and other women.

The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, whom we first meet as a young school girl. Agnes is the privileged daughter of a Commander and his wife Tabitha, and while Agnes’s relationship with her father is formal and distant, she and Tabitha have a loving, tightly bonded connection. Tabitha entertains Agnes with stories, including a fantastical story of rescuing Agnes from a castle and running away with her through the woods. This rings true to Agnes — she has a very vague memory of running through a forest.

Meanwhile Agnes attends school for girls and learns appropriately girlish subjects. But when Tabitha dies, Agnes’s life changes dramatically, from learning that she was actually born to a Handmaid to gaining a new stepmother. And the stepmother can’t wait to be rid of Agnes, pushing for her to marry (at age 13!) so the family can secure a connection to another powerful man. Agnes’s wishes matter not at all.

Third, we meet Daisy, a 16-year-old Canadian girl living with kind but overprotective parents, ready to become politically active despite her parents’ wishes. When tragedy strikes, Daisy learns the truth about her own life. She’s actually Baby Nicole, Gilead’s internationally famous poster child, who was smuggled out of Gilead by her Handmaid mother as an infant and who’s become the symbol of righteous struggle (for Gilead) and the battle to overthrow Gilead (for the opposition). Daisy’s protectors come up with a crazy scheme to smuggle Daisy back into Gilead, to become a resistance courier and retrieve a cache of documents so powerful they could lead to Gilead’s demise.

Insane as it seems, Daisy agrees to the plan, and returns to Gilead in the guise of a convert seeking to become a novitiate Aunt. Here, the three main characters’ paths intersect and become tightly woven together.

It’s an intricate plot, full of the social commentary and political intrigue we’d expect in the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — but the book’s success hinges on the three main characters. We have to believe in them, understand them, and invest in their quests… and for me, at least, I absolutely did.

It’s a fascinating journey, although I couldn’t separate myself from the TV series while reading the book. Although it’s never stated explicitly, it’s plain that Agnes is the child taken from Offred (June) in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching to see that she has no memory whatsoever of her mother. We also understand that Baby Nicole is Offred’s second child, born during her time as a Handmaid. Baby Nicole’s birth and escape to Canada feature very prominently in seasons 2 and 3 of the TV series, although events seem to have unfolded in the world of The Testaments in a different manner. For those who haven’t watched the series, I wonder how long it would take for the connection between Agnes and Nicole to become clear.

By having these two young women telling their stories, we gain a very different perspective on Gilead from that shown via Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. For Agnes, growing up in Gilead is just normal. She doesn’t miss reading, because it was never part of her life. She accepts the social structure as the way things are supposed to be, because that’s all she’s known, and being from a Commander’s family, she’s grown up with privileges and in as much safety as any female in Gilead could have. Through Nicole’s experience, we get to see how weird it would be to be thrust into this situation, to learn to hide by pretending to be obedient and meek, and to meet face to face with girls her own age who are completely alien to her.

Finally, through Lydia’s version of the tale, we see yet another view of the founding of Gilead and its power structure, and see how survival is both a choice and a price. Lydia is fascinating. I’m so eager to hear other readers’ interpretations of her character as portrayed in The Testaments.

The Testaments is a powerful, engrossing read, and absolutely a worthy sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Very thought-provoking, and very much worth reading.

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The details:

Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Dystopian fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Summer has arrived in the Cornish town of Mount Polbearne and Polly Waterford couldn’t be happier. Because Polly is in love: she’s in love with the beautiful seaside town she calls home, she’s in love with running the bakery on Beach Street, and she’s in love with her boyfriend, Huckle.

And yet there’s something unsettling about the gentle summer breeze that’s floating through town. Selina, recently widowed, hopes that moving to Mount Polbearne will ease her grief, but Polly has a secret that could destroy her friend’s fragile recovery. Responsibilities that Huckle thought he’d left behind are back and Polly finds it hard to cope with his increasingly long periods of absence.

Polly sifts flour, kneads dough and bakes bread, but nothing can calm the storm she knows is coming: is Polly about to lose everything she loves?

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery is the 2nd in a series of three (which starts with Little Beach Street Bakery, reviewed here). As I mentioned in my review of book #1, Jenny Colgan writes escapist fiction more or less to a formula, but it’s a formula that works: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. Quirky locals who embrace the new arrival are an added bonus.

In Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly is well-established in Mount Polbearne after living there for about a year, running a successful bakery, living with her hot American boyfriend Huckle (who’s utterly devoted to her), and continuing her obsession with the puffin who’s decided he’s her pet. At the end of book #1, Polly and Huckle decided to buy the decrepit town lighthouse and make it their home. Now living in the lighthouse, they love its charm, but it needs a ton of work, and both are decidedly short on cash for anything but the basics.

Polly’s world gets upended when the old woman who owns the bakery passes away, and her sister (who lives far away) decides to put her worthless son in charge of the place. He immediately takes a dislike to Polly and everything she does, not seeing the value in her high-end ingredients and artisanal breads and instead wanting to make everything cheap and efficient. Eventually, he outright fires Polly, throwing her into despair.

To make ends meet and create a fund from which Polly can invest in a new business venture, Huckle decides to go work on the family farm back in America for a short time in order to make some money. (Is farming really that lucrative? This doesn’t seem like the most realistic plan to me.) So now, on top of her bakery woes, Polly is living without Huckle for a while, and is miserable.

Meanwhile, there are further complications. Polly realizes that Neil the puffin should be wild, but has a hard time letting go. The widow of a man she inadvertently had an affair with (he didn’t disclose his marital status) has moved back to town, and Polly befriends her, without telling her what happened with her husband. Polly and Huckle’s new brainstorm is to convert a food truck into a bread truck, which is a challenging venture that the new bakery owner is determined to ruin. And then a storm blows in, bringing danger to Polly and the people she cares about.

Overall, I really enjoyed Summer — it was a perfect choice for a week when I was looking for a low-involvement, fun, sweet escape. Even when there are problems and peril, it’s a totally safe bet that everything will work out okay in the end.

I did have some confusion about Polly’s business model. In the first book, she opened the bakery in an abandoned old storefront and totally transformed it, creating something special that reinfused the town with fresh life. Polly’s arrangement was to pay rent to the woman who owned the property, but the bakery was essentially hers to run as she saw fit. In this book, when the jerky Malcolm gets involved, Polly is treated as a mere employee and then fired. But the place wouldn’t exist without her! At one point, a very rich friend offers to buy the bakery for Polly, but she turns him down because she wants to make it on her own. Time for a reality check! Take the rich friend’s offer, Polly! I mean, she could always pay him back (not that he cares), but isn’t that a better alternative to having the bakery she created ripped away from her?

You don’t read Jenny Colgan books for harsh doses of reality — they’re meant to be light and lovely, and Summer succeeds in being just that. I enjoyed it, even while feeling that Huckle is TOO perfect, that Neil the puffin is TOO ridiculous as a house-bird, and that Polly finds success maybe a bit TOO easily. But that’s okay.

I really like spending time with Polly and all the quirky people (and seabirds) around her, and will definitely be back for more! The third book is Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, and I can’t wait to read it.

Side note: These books WILL make you hungry. So much delicious bread! There are even recipes at the end. I need one of Polly’s fresh-made loaves NOW.

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The details:

Title: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sphere
Publication date: February 26, 2015
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (The Themis Files, #3)

 

 

In her childhood, Rose Franklin accidentally discovered a giant metal hand buried beneath the ground outside Deadwood, South Dakota. As an adult, Dr. Rose Franklin led the team that uncovered the rest of the body parts which together form Themis: a powerful robot of mysterious alien origin. She, along with linguist Vincent, pilot Kara, and the unnamed Interviewer, protected the Earth from geopolitical conflict and alien invasion alike. Now, after nearly ten years on another world, Rose returns to find her old alliances forfeit and the planet in shambles. And she must pick up the pieces of the Earth Defense Corps as her own friends turn against each other.

I have loved The Themis Files books since day one, so it’s probably no surprise that I really and truly loved this concluding volume as well. In the first two Themis Files books, we see the discovery of a giant robot, which is in truth an alien artifact, leading to an alien invasion that threatens the survival of all humankind. Here, in Only Human, we find out how it all works out.

The previous book, Waking Gods, ends on a cliffhanger. With the immediate threat removed, Vincent, Rose, and Eva are celebrating their victory, when they suddenly realize they’re not on Earth any longer. As Only Human opens, we learn that our Earthlings have been transported to the alien home planet, which finally gets a name – Esat Ekt. And there they stay, learning the Ekt language, culture, and sense of morality, with no means of going home.

The Ekt’s principal code of morality is non-interference. They will not allow themselves to alter the course of any other species’ progress, development, or evolution. If a species is meant to go extinct, the Ekt will not interfere. And if a species, such as the human race, develops in a way that they should not have because of Ekt interference in the past, then all signs of that interference must be eliminated. Of course, the Ekt didn’t mean to commit mass murder, as they did in book #2, and here in book #3, the people of Esat Ekt are deeply embroiled in a reexamination of their non-interference policy after realizing their responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions on Earth.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, in the years following the great battle which concluded in the previous book, human interactions have changed dramatically. One of the giant robots ended up left behind, then seized as property of the United States, which then used it to rewrite the geopolitical lines of the planet. When Rose, Vincent, and Eva return almost a decade later aboard Themis, the Russians want the robot — badly — and will do just about anything to get it and its pilots under their control, in an effort to reshape the world’s balance of power.

As with the earlier books, Only Human is told via interview transcripts and journal entries, with the entries from the humans on Esat Ekt interwoven with the entries from Earth upon the gang’s arrival back on their home planet all those years later. Through these entries, we learn about life on Esat Ekt — the politics, the participatory democracy, the casual bigotry, and the way a free society can have hidden biases and injustices. Meanwhile, we see the ongoing complicated dynamics between the main characters. The highlight is the relationship between Vincent and his daughter Eva. Only 10  years old when they were whisked off to an alien planet, by the start of the action in this book Eva is a 19-year-old young woman who is strong-willed and ready to jump into action to pursue justice, never mind her own safety. Naturally, she and Vincent are on a collision course, and when their conflict finally comes to a head, it’s spectucular.

There are so many memorable characters in these books. An old favorite, Mr. Burns, returns in Only Human, and I also was really fascinated by the American-raised Russian agent Katherine, whose Americanisms and snark hide a truly terrifying ruthless streak.

The audiobook version is amazing, performed by a full cast. In fact, while I had the e-book ARC for some time before the official release date, I chose to wait until the Audible edition became available because I really wanted to experience the story in that way, as I did with the first two books. The voice actors are terrific. I love Vincent, with his French-Canadian accent and excitable nature; Rose’s calm demeanor, Mr. Burns’s humor, and — big treat here — the Ekt characters as well, speaking both a mangled sort of English as well as their own native language. My only complaint is that Eva’s accent has completely changed from the previous book, and it was weird and distracting at first. Oh well. I got over it. As a whole, the audiobook experience is a delight.

Let’s pause here to admire author Sylvain Neuvel’s fantastic use of his linguistics background to create a language for the Ekt that’s weird and alien and sounds just awesome to listen to. I loved the words and phrases, and very much enjoyed learning a yokits swear word in Ekt.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the Themis Files series. If you enjoy audiobooks, absolutely listen to these! The production is top-notch and really added to my enjoyment. But even without the audio, it’s an incredible story, so well written, full of sci-fi adventure and surprises — but even more so, full of human emotion and heart, which are what truly makes this story work.

I really do hope that the author will choose to write more in the Themis-verse… but if not, I’ll still want to read whatever he writes next.

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The details:

Title: Only Human (The Themis Files, #3)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Narrator: Full cast production
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length (print): 336 pages
Length (audiobook): 8 hours, 43 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Audiobook Review: Waking Gods

 

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

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

Wow. What a ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The details:

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

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