Book Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Title: The Vanished Birds
Author: Simon Jimenez
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A mysterious child lands in the care of a solitary woman, changing both of their lives forever in this captivating debut of connection across space and time.

“This is when your life begins.”

Nia Imani is a woman out of place and outside of time. Decades of travel through the stars are condensed into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her; all she has left is work. Alone and adrift, she lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.

A boy, broken by his past.

The scarred child does not speak, his only form of communication the beautiful and haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and their strange, immediate connection, Nia decides to take the boy in. And over years of starlit travel, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself.

For both of them, a family.

But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy. The past hungers for him, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart. 

The Vanished Birds is both lovely and perplexing, a science fiction story about space travel and corporate domination that’s also a deeply personal story about love, identity, and home.

The book opens on what we come to learn is a Resource World owned by the ubiquitous Umbai corporation. At first glance, we’ve arrived in a rural, agricultural community that seems quaint and unsophisticated. The people of the village work in the dhuba fields; their crop is collected once every 15 years by the space travelling ships that carry out trade across the galaxy.

A boy in the village, Kaeda, is seven years old when he sees the ships arrive for the first time, and he’s immediately captivated by their beauty as well as by the mysterious allure of Nia Imani, the ship’s captain.

The trick here, though, is that ships travel through Pocket Space, secret folds through time that allow them to travel faster than the time passing on the planets. The fifteen years in between visits to Kaeda’s world take only eight months on Nia’s ship. The beautiful first chapter of The Vanished Birds traces the strange relationship between Kaeda and Nia, as each of her visits reintroduces her to Kaeda at a different point in his life, from boyhood to youth to adult to elder.

Later, a strange boy arrives in Kaeda’s world, seemingly out of nowhere. Mute, naked, and scarred, he’s taken in by Kaeda, but because it’s clear that he’s from elsewhere, he’s then given into Nia’s care.

The story shifts to Nia and her crew as they travel with the boy, trying to unravel his secrets and keep him safe. From here, the plot expands outward. We meet Fumiko Nakajima, the brilliant scientist who leaves behind her strange upbringing on a dying Earth to become the creator of the interplanetary systems of travel that fuel the next thousand years. And we learn more about the end of Earth, the expansion of Umbai and their tight control, and the different concepts of space travel.

But what really is essential here is the language and the people. The writing in The Vanished Birds is almost poetic at times, filled with unusual imagery and looping writing. The characters are complex, as are their relationships with time and memory.

While we see the unspeakable cruelty of Umbai and the degradation of the lives considered lesser, the exploitation of the Resource Worlds, and the easy dismissal of the value of life, most of science fiction elements are in soft focus. We learn about the methods of travel, the research institutes and their obscene experimentation, but very little of it is explained in great detail. This book is less hard science fiction and much more a meditation on the meaning of it all.

While beautifully written, at times The Vanished Birds frustrated me, as I do tend to gravitate toward a more literal science fiction approach, and occasionally wanted more straight-forward answers and explanations.

Still, this book overall is an unusual and emotionally powerful read. I think it’ll be on my mind for quite some time, from the almost folkloric beginning to the tragic but inevitable end.

Highly recommended.

For more on The Vanished Birds, check out:

Review – The Captain’s Quarters
The Big Idea – from John Scalzi’s Whatever blog
Review – AV Club
Review – Locus Magazine
Review –

Book Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Memory makes reality. That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith already understands the power of memory. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious moments of our pasts. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?

When I read Black Crouch’s previous novel, Dark Matter, I used the word mind-f*ckery in my review. And apparently, this author excels at mind-f*ckery, because that’s exactly how I’d describe this book too.

And I mean that as very high praise!

Recursion is crazy heaps of mind-melting, time-distorting, reality-altering fun, and I loved it start to finish.

Barry is our non-scientist entry into the world of playing with reality by activating memories. Helena is the scientist who makes it all possible. Her goal is to help her mother before she completely loses herself to Alzheimer’s, but an innovative mega-millionaire realizes that Helena’s invention can be so much more. When he funds her research, the best scientific minds are assembled to create the device at the heart of Helena’s studies, a chair that enables people to save the synaptic imprints of vivid memories so that they can be re-experienced later, perhaps when those memories have been consumed by disease and deterioration.

I won’t go deeper into plot than what I’ve already said. Through Barry and Helena’s separate experiences, we learn about the research, the ulterior motives of Helena’s benefactor, and the mind-boggling way in which her device can be put to use. The end results are far from what Helena intended or even dreamed… and from the reader’s perspective, it’s just so weird and cool. I came close to permanently tying my brain into a pretzel trying to follow some of the logic and cause-and-effect factors and timey-wimey shenanigans that get wilder and wilder as the book progresses. How crazy is it all? There are apocalypses. Yes, plural. Apocalypses.

At the same time that all this reality bending is going on, there are deep and beautiful relationships at stake, painful emotions and harsh truths, and some really intriguing thoughts about the role of memory and the meaning of experiences.

He is always looking back, living more in memories than the present, often altering them to make them prettier. To make them perfect. Nostalgia is as much an analgesic for him as alcohol.

The plot is complex and made me work hard to follow it (and I’m not sure I always understood exactly why things happened how and when they did), but I loved every moment and couldn’t put the book down. Recursion reminded me a little of one of my very favorite science fiction books, Replay by Ken Grimwood (which, if you haven’t read it, drop everything and go find a copy!).

As I think is obvious by now, I completely fell for Recursion and have been recommending it like a madwoman ever since I finished it. And every time I got confused by a freakish time twist? I just remembered a comment of Helena’s:

You have to stop thinking linearly.


The details:

Title: Recursion
Author: Blake Crouch
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 11, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley


Novella Review: Time Was by Ian McDonald


A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Time Was is a haunting, lovely story of love and loss, war and suffering. It’s also a bookish mystery of sorts, all served up in a compact 176 pages.

The framing of the device revolves around a man named Emmett, a book dealer who surrounds himself with stacks of archaic volumes and keeps himself housed and fed through his EBay sales. When he’s sorting through the book-filled dumpster outside yet another failed rare book store, he comes across what he thinks may be a valuable find — an odd little book of poetry, with an “inclusion” — a letter tucked inside. Both are clearly old, and could be worth quite a lot to a collector.

But as Emmett reads the letter, he realizes there’s more to the story. The letter is between two WWII soldiers, Tom and Ben, and it’s clearly a love letter. But there’s something strange about it too, and Emmett decides to try to find out more. He tracks down another person with artifacts related to Tom and Ben, but these are from World War I. And photos show young men who don’t appear to have aged. Are they some sort of immortals? Is it all a joke? How can this be?

Emmett becomes obsessed with finding out more about Tom and Ben, and meanwhile, we see bits and pieces narrated by them as well, as we learn of their meeting during World War II and the top-secret experiment that Ben is involved in. As Emmett discovers, it would appear that something — something inexplicable — happened, and the two have become unmoored in time, using notes tucked into copies of this unusual poetry book, to find one another again and again and again.

At first, it’s hard to see how it all fits together, and yet it works. The writing builds a sense of wonder, informed by a deep, passionate love that keeps Tom and Ben forever seeking and sometimes finding one another, no matter where in time they end up. It’s lovely and mysterious, and unlike anything I’ve read lately. I do love a good time travel story, when done well, and Time Was is done very well indeed.

The best types of time travel books make me feel like starting over again once I’ve reached the last page, so I can go back and see the chronological displacements and events out of order for what they truly are, catching the hints and clues I missed the first time around. Time Was is one of those books.

Highly recommended. It’s a fast, absorbing, and deeply touching story. I only wish we could have spent more time with Tom and Ben. There’s a tragic undertone to every moment they’re together, and I’d like to think they had plenty of happiness along the way as well. If you measure the success of a story by how much the reader comes to care about the characters, then I’d say this one is absolutely a success.


The details:

Title: Time Was
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: November 5, 2017
Length: 176 pages
Genre: Time travel/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley








Shelf Control #54: To Say Nothing of the Dog

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!


My Shelf Control pick this week is:

to-say-nothingTitle: To Say Nothing of the Dog
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 1998
Length: 493 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He’s been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop’s bird stump. It’s part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.

But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right–not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.


How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

About five years ago, after reading about another Connie Willis book that also had to do with time travel.

Why I want to read it:

I always love a good time travel story, and Connie Willis’s books (the Oxford time travel series) are considered modern sci-fi classics. Plus, that title! The title alone makes me want to read this book, just because it’s so much fun to say. I’d more or less forgotten that I have copies of the Oxford books, but now I’m reading the author’s newest book (Crosstalk), and I’m realizing that I should finally make time for some of her older works too.


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control


Book Review: The Here And Now

Book Review: The Here And Now by Ann Brashares

The Here and NowAnn Brashares, author of the much-loved, bestselling Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, takes a leap into new territory with the publication of her science fiction novel The Here And Now.

Main character Prenna James makes a rather spectacular entrance, appearing suddenly alongside a river, naked and shivering, with a strange number written on her arm. And the sole witness, Ethan Jarves, has never forgotten what he saw that day.

Years later, Ethan and Prenna are classmates in high school, and apart from a surface friendliness, Prenna gives no sign of a previous connection to Ethan. But then again, Prenna has a lot on her mind.

Prenna is a new immigrant — from the future. Along with a community of about 1,000 people, she and her mother traveled a time path from the 2090s back to 2010. Now, four years later, the community attempts to hide in plain sight by assimilating into the world of the “time natives” — mingling, but never getting close. And there are rules that must be followed at all cost: No changing history. No trying to alter established events. No seeking medical attention outside the community. And absolutely no intimacy with the natives, emotional or physical. And if anyone steps out of line, the “counselors” will see to it that those people conveniently leave town, have an accident, or otherwise disappear.

Ethan is persistent in trying to befriend Prenna, and when Ethan pushes Prenna to talk to the local crazy homeless man, she’s startled to discover that both may know more than they should… and that perhaps there’s a mission for her here that may be worth risking her security for. Because in the future that Prenna came from, the world was reaching its end. Climate change had already destroyed much of the planet. Nothing grows. Nothing new is made. People go hungry. It’s only a matter of time before the earth itself is no longer able to sustain life — and that’s not even mentioning the worst part of all, a mosquito-born blood plague that wipes out everyone it touches and can’t be stopped or cured.

Prenna’s family came to 2010 to seek refuge from a world without hope — but what if there was hope after all? What if, by changing one event, Prenna could change the entire course of the future, saving lives and saving the planet? It’s completely against the rules, of course — but what if this just happens to be worth some broken rules?

The Here And Now mingles a time travel adventure with a love story, with mixed success. Obviously, Ethan and Prenna will fall for each other, big time. And obviously, there will be obstacles. The rules that Prenna is forced to follow caution that the time travelers will spread sickness to the time natives by getting too close. Is this just manipulation to assure compliance, or is there really something to fear? And clearly, sharing secrets is a huge no-no, but Ethan may be the only person who can help Prenna figure out what needs to be done and how. Prenna is torn — trust Ethan, or shut him out? Love Ethan, or protect him by rejecting him? Fortunately, rather than the all too common insta-love formula, the author is careful to establish their relationship as one that has built over years, so that as they move from casual acquaintance to deep friendship to romance, it feels legitimate and real — not just romance for the sake of the well-worn YA formula for such things.

More problematic is the time travel. There’s a sci-fi “lite” vibe here. The time loops of causation and change are a bit mind-boggling, but the pieces don’t altogether mesh or make sense. It’s intriguing , to be sure, to figure out the various timelines and how they’ve changed, but the reason behind all of this doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The climate change factor feels almost too politically correct, with good guys and bad guys lining up in a very predictable way. There’s also the issue of teens playing in an adult world: In a couple of crucial moments, Ethan and Prenna easily convince a highly skilled scientist to take certain actions that seem far-fetched. Certainly, the lack of systems security that allow them to change events, as well as the fake instructions they provide to the scientist, would never pass muster in the real world in an actual high-level research facility.

The Here And Now is fast-paced and absolutely held my attention, but the dangers never feel terribly threatening and the resolution seems a bit oversimplified. Kudos to the author, though, for not wrapping everything up in the neat HEA bow one might expect, instead throwing a last-minute curveball that makes everything much more bittersweet. I appreciated the ending very much, to tell the truth, as it would have been easy to make the endgame all about the love story. Instead, we see a future for Prenna’s community and the world at large that that has hope, but isn’t sugar-coated into perfection.

Do I recommend The Here And Now? Yes. It’s an engrossing story, with well-developed characters, believable relationships, and a plotline that hums with tension and action. If you’re a fan of time travel fiction, enjoy The Here And Now — just don’t examine it too closely or expect the pseudo-science and timelines to make 100% sense.


The details:

Title: The Here And Now
Author: Ann Brashares
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: April 8, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult/science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Delacorte via NetGalley

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The impossible happens once to each of us.

From the very first line, author Andrew Sean Greer sets the stage for a magical, impossible, emotional journey as we follow one woman through three different lives in three very different times.

Who among us hasn’t at one time or another sighed, “I was born in the wrong era” or some similar sentiment?

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, we meet a woman who gets a strange and miraculous chance to experience her life not just in her current world of the mid 1980s, but also in 1918 and 1941. After being treated for severe depression with electro-convulsive therapy, Greta slips into alternative versions of her life, where the familiar and the strange collide. It’s not time travel, but rather a shift in reality, a journey to an alternate universe in which Greta and the people in her life are the same people, but facing very different choices and circumstances.

Greta is a twin, and her brother Felix is the center of her universe. It is Felix’s death in 1985 during the “plague years” of the AIDS epidemic that pushes Greta first into depression and then on her impossible journey into two other versions of herself. In 1985, Greta’s long-term lover Nathan has just left her after she pushed him away during Felix’s illness. In 1918, Greta is a young wife to Nathan, an army doctor away in the trenches of WWI, but she faces her own set of disappointments and fears. And in 1941, with America on the brink of war, Greta and Nathan are married with a child, but Greta has suffered the loss of her beloved aunt Ruth and is beset by worries over Felix’s own unhappiness.

As Greta moves between lives, she leaves a footprint. She becomes convinced that her purpose is to perfect the alternate lives she inhabits — but she’s not the only one. 1918 Greta and 1941 Greta are on this journey as well, so that “our” Greta finds her own world changed by the imprints left by the others as they circle through one another’s lives.

Confused yet? It is a lot to track, and at times (many times) I found myself flipping back to double-check just which version of Greta’s life I was in now, and just where we’d left off that time around.

It’s fascinating to visit New York of 1918 and 1941, to see the roles available to women — housewives, mothers, lovers — and how those changed over time. Equally fascinating, and quite touching as well, is the view into life for a gay man in those times. In 1985, Greta is destroyed by Felix’s loss . She finds him alive and well in 1918 and 1941, but living lives defined by hiding, pretending, and sublimating. Part of Greta’s quest is to help Felix be happy in the worlds left to him; in his “real” life, Felix was an exuberantly joyful man, and although he (like so many others) died too soon, he was able to live his brief life to the fullest, surrounded by friends and loved by a good man. As 1985 Greta meets Felix again and again, she pushes him to find a way to live in his world and at the same time to seek love and truth in whatever way he can.

The writing in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is lyrical and lovely, full of moments of quiet emotion and heart-breaking truths. In Greta’s first visit to 1918, she is literally stopped in her tracks by seeing a familiar young man on the street — a man who in her own world of 1985 was but one of the many young men struck down by AIDS:

Laughing again, turning, looking around at me: familiar young men appearing in this unfamiliar world. Men who had died months or years before from the plague miraculously revived! There, in an army uniform, was the boy who made jewelry from papier-mâché beads; he died in the spring. And that one soldier, the stark blond Swede jumping from the streetcar, once sold magazines; he’d died two years before, one of the first: the cave’s canary. Who know how many more were off to war? Alive, each one, alive and more than alive — shouting, laughing, running down the street!

Of course, in the joy of seeing these young men alive once more, Greta is overlooking the fact that other perils await. There’s a war on, and although armistice is around the corner, some of these bright young men, “miraculously revived”, will not make it through the war. It was interesting to see the parallels drawn by the author between the great calamities each age: In 1918 and 1941, it was world war that took the lives of so many as such a young age; in 1985, it was the AIDS plague that seemed to wipe out a generation, so that by the time Greta attends the most recent in a string of funerals, there’s almost no one left to be mourners, all of the deceased’s friends having been taken already.

I couldn’t stop reading, once I’d started, and I probably made a mistake in gobbling it up quite so fast. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells has an engrossing plot, but in my rush to see what happens next, I didn’t take as much time as I should have to savor the rich characters and the extraordinary use of language. This is not a long book, but it felt jam-packed — with the jumps through time, with vivid period details, with sights and smells that take you immediately into the worlds of 1918, 1941, and 1985 — so that by the time I reached the end, I felt like I’d experienced something much more than 289 pages of a fictional tale.

The simplest way for me to sum up? I was swept away by the magical possibilities of living three versions of a life, and was enchanted by Greta’s journey. Filled with fully-realized characters and given life by a unique premise, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a reading experience to enjoy in the moment, and then to ponder for hours afterward.


The details:

Title: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Purchased

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

  Kissing Shakespeare

Kissing Shakespeare by Pamela Mingle

From Goodreads:

A romantic time travel story that’s ideal for fans of novels by Meg Cabot and Donna Jo Napoli–and, of course, Shakespeare.

Miranda has Shakespeare in her blood: she hopes one day to become a Shakespearean actor like her famous parents. At least, she does until her disastrous performance in her school’s staging of The Taming of the Shrew. Humiliated, Miranda skips the opening-night party. All she wants to do is hide.

Fellow cast member, Stephen Langford, has other plans for Miranda. When he steps out of the backstage shadows and asks if she’d like to meet Shakespeare, Miranda thinks he’s a total nutcase. But before she can object, Stephen whisks her back to 16th century England—the world Stephen’s really from. He wants Miranda to use her acting talents and modern-day charms on the young Will Shakespeare. Without her help, Stephen claims, the world will lost its greatest playwright.

Miranda isn’t convinced she’s the girl for the job. Why would Shakespeare care about her? And just who is this infuriating time traveler, Stephen Langford? Reluctantly, she agrees to help, knowing that it’s her only chance of getting back to the present and her “real” life. What Miranda doesn’t bargain for is finding true love . . . with no acting required.

Why do I want to read this?

I feel like all of my book choices lately have either been creepy, scary, or heavy — so it’s time for something light, fun, and romantic! I’ve had my eye on this YA novel since it came out last year, and you know what? I think a time-traveling romance involving William Shakespeare sounds like the perfect summer read.

So what are you doing on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Topics That Draw Me To A Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week.

This week’s theme is Top Ten Words/Topics That Instantly Make Me Buy/Pick Up A Book. I can’t say that there are any words or topics that make a book an automatic buy for me — but here are a few that at least make me think about it!

These topics will get me to pick up the book, read the back cover, and at least consider whether I want to read it:

1) Time/Time Travel: I’m an absolute sucker for a good time travel story. Really, include any plot detail that’s at all timey-wimey, and there’s a good chance I’m going to want to check it out. Tops for me are the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Replay by Ken Grimwood, any of Susanna Kearsley’s books, and The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen.

2) Scotland: If it’s set in Scotland, particularly Scotland of a few centuries ago, I at least want to hear about it. Kilts? Highlands? Clans? Castles? Yum. Best examples: Outlander (again) and The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (yes, again).

3) Secret societies: I love books with mysterious organizations secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes and controlling, oh, just about everything. Great examples: The Guild in The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway; The Checquy in The Rook by Daniel O’Malley; the Department of Historical Integrity in The Revisionists.

4) Manuscripts or rare books: I adore books about books! I love stories set in musty old libraries, where the characters chase after obscure old documents and the stakes are life and death. A few great ones: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness; The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova; The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

5) Sisters/Twins: Let me be clear — I don’t actually find twins creepy in real life. Yet in books, they’re often at the center of twisted psychological thrillers or horror stories. Two good examples: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. (Don’t even get me started on Jaime and Cersei Lannister — that is not what I had in mind!).

6) Retellings: Either retellings of classics (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?) or — especially — fairy tale retellings. I’ll be honest, the field is getting a little overcrowded right now, but if it’s a good one, I’m in. My favorites would be anything by Robin McKinley, especially Beauty and Spindle’s End.

7) Graveyards/Cemeteries: Ooh, spooky! Best examples: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; Alive in Necropolis by Doug Dorst; Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

8) Wheels/Gears/Clockworks: Although interestingly enough (or not), I didn’t care for the Cassandra Clare/Clockwork books. But I do love a good use of gears and gadgets, generally in a steampunk setting, as in All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen or The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger.

9) Fae/Faeries: Usually with a hint of menace. If there are faerie curses or changelings involved, all the better. Favorite examples: Impossible by Nancy Werlin, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce, The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue.

10) End of the world/Natural disasters: I just can’t turn away from a good end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story. Volcanoes, asteroids, flu epidemics, what have you — when a catastrophe knocks out civilization as we know it and survival is on the line, there’s a good chance I’m going to want to read about it. Favorite recent examples: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller; The Last Survivor series by Susan Beth Pfeffer; The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker; Ashfall by Mike Mullin.

So, no, I don’t have any words or topics that are ALWAYS going to get me to buy a book. But if the plot includes one of the topics on my top ten list, there’s a good chance I’ll at least consider it.

How about you? What topics are you always (or almost always) ready to read about? Sound off!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! I’m so happy you stopped by!

Book Review: The River of No Return

Book Review: The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, facing certain death on the the battlefield, suddenly and inexplicably jumps from his own time in 1815 into the future — 2003, to be precise. There, he is greeted and inducted into the Guild, a society whose purpose is to assist time jumpers like Nicholas with adapting to their new worlds. The Guild has only four rules:

There Is No Return.
There Is No Return.
Tell No One.
Uphold the Rules.

Yes, that is, in fact, four different rules. Number one refers to time, and number two refers to location. After spending a year in “future school”, during which Nick learns the basics of 21st century life, catches up on decades’ worth of TV viewing, learns to speak a more modern version of English, and has the sharp edges of his upper-crust snobbery sanded down, he is packed off to life in America, never to return to the United Kingdom and the land of his ancestors. And for ten years, that’s pretty much okay. Bankrolled by the Guild, Nick settles into a life as a wealthy playboy in New York with a little Vermont getaway for when he wants peace and quiet.

But when the Guild recalls Nick to London for a meeting, it turns out that rules are made to be broken — at least, if you’re in the inner circle and in the know. For ten years, Nick took it as a given that it was impossible to travel back through time. Turns out — well, not so much. Time travel is possible, if you know how, and Nick is taught the biggest lesson of all: Time is a river, and trained members of the Guild can use the currents of the river to travel to precise points in the past and future. The mission of the Guild is to protect the river, and Nick has been brought into the inner circle to learn a well-guarded secret: A splinter group called the Ofan are trying to tamper with time, and must be stopped. The Guild needs Nick to go back to his original time, infiltrate the Ofan, and do whatever it takes to prevent catastrophe.

Nick has a secret too: He’s never quite forgotten the dark-eyed girl from his youth who once comforted him in a moment of sorrow. Thrust back into his own past, Nick once again encounters the beautiful, tragic Julia Percy, now grown up and in need of his help. Nick cannot deny the growing passion and deep-seated love he feels for Julia, but events and secrets threaten to keep them apart. And Julia has secrets of her own, secrets that may rock Nick’s world if he can manage to unravel the clues.

Enough with the synopsis, don’t you think? I certainly don’t want to reveal too much and ruin the fun. And fun it is! I loved The River of No Return. From the first pages, I couldn’t wait to find out more. Who is Nick Falcott? Who is Julia Percy? What does the Guild want from them? Is there more to the secrets of time manipulation than they’ve been told? And how can they get at the truth? With each new chapter, more pieces of the puzzle are assembled, but the plot twists and turns in so many deliciously unpredictable ways that when the big reveals finally come, they’re still a complete surprise.

Nicholas and Julia are well-defined, sympathetic, strong characters. Nick is handsome, rugged, a soldier, an aristocrat — but also quite happy to put on his 21st century jeans, kick back, and enjoy the freedoms of the modern era, particularly the lack of social constraints based on gender and class. Julia is an orphaned girl raised in relative isolation by a doting grandfather, but this seemingly meek woman has a backbone and a will of her own, and when she finally starts to realize her own strengths and gifts, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Together, Nick and Julia are magical. Their passion is intense and smoldering, and you can feel from their very first kiss that their connection will not be denied.

The River of No Return has so many elements that really make a book sing for me. It’s part historical fiction, part time travel fantasy, with heaping doses of mystery and romance as well. I was reminded in tone, though not really in content, of Deborah Harkness’s books, A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night — not that The River of No Return has supernatural characters, but rather because of the well-researched historical detail intertwined with a modern love story and mystery, the drama of two lovers having to struggle against sinister forces that they don’t fully understand, and the passionate link between two people who probably have no business being in each other’s lives at all.

The writing in The River of No Return is both elegant and fast-paced. As the characters inhabit different eras, their language and surroundings change as well, and it’s vastly entertaining to see them adjust and readjust to the customs, manners, and dress of each world. I loved, too, the characters’ obvious delight in the various sights and smells of the the different times. Nick has a visceral, overpowering reaction to his reentry into the 19th century:

Before opening his eyes he breathed, and immediately he was weeping. The air was sweet, sweeter than any air he had breathed in ten years, and it smelled so powerfully of home that Nick began to sink to his knees.

In less dramatic moments, it’s a treat to see the time travelers and the Naturals (basically, the Muggles of the time-travel world) react with pleasure or confusion as they encounter anachronistic artifacts and articles, such as a photograph, a Rubik’s cube, and a jacket with a zipper — all in the wrong place and the wrong time. It’s all put together with skill and flair, so that the story elements never feel too far-fetched or fantastical. Instead, in The River of No Return, the author creates a world that feels very much like our own, in which there are secret forces at play that affect everything but remain undetected by all but a chosen few.

My only quibble — and it’s a product of how much I enjoyed this book — is that by the time I got to within 100 pages of the end of The River of No Return, I started to have that sinking feeling I get when I realize that there’s no possible way to fully wrap up this story in the pages that remain. And sadly, that turned out to be the case here. While there’s no mention of a sequel on the book jacket or on the author’s website, there are loose ends and further conflicts that remain unresolved at the end of the book. Not to say that The River of No Return ends badly; on the contrary, I loved the ending, and especially loved the promise of what must come next in the characters’ lives. Still, I’d also love to know that there will, in fact, be a sequel. I’m hooked, and I want more!

Do I recommend The River of No Return? Absolutely. Fans of Deborah Harkness and Diana Gabaldon should definitely pick up this terrific novel — and really, so should just about anyone who appreciates good writing, an engrossing plot, and sharply developed characters. Be warned: I lost sleep over The River of No Return, and you probably will as well. Once you start, it’s hard to walk away. I enjoyed this centuries-spanning novel of romance, intrigue, and time travel, and would love to see it become a big success.

Check it out! And then stop by again and let me know what you think. Let’s discuss!

Review copy courtesy of Dutton Publishing.

Flashback Friday: Replay

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight. If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My picks for this week’s Flashback Friday:


Replay by Ken Grimwood (published 1987)

From Goodreads:

Jeff Winston was 43 and trapped in a tepid marriage and a dead-end job, waiting for that time when he could be truly happy, when he died.

And when he woke and he was 18 again, with all his memories of the next 25 years intact. He could live his life again, avoiding the mistakes, making money from his knowledge of the future, seeking happiness.

Until he dies at 43 and wakes up back in college again…

And from Amazon:

Jeff Winston, forty-three, didn’t know he was a replayer until he died and woke up twenty-five years younger in his college dorm room; he lived another life. And died again. And lived again and died again — in a continuous twenty-five-year cycle — each time starting from scratch at the age of eighteen to reclaim lost loves, remedy past mistakes, or make a fortune in the stock market. A novel of gripping adventure, romance, and fascinating speculation on the nature of time, Replay asks the question: “What if you could live your life over again?”

I loved this book. I’m always intrigued by a good time-twisting tale, and this one is a doozy. Given the opportunity to essentially live your life again, knowing everything you’ve already done the first time around and how it all worked out, what would you change? And would changing things make them better? Or just set you off on a completely different path?

I featured Replay in a “timey-wimey” blog post about six months ago, which you can see here. This books ranks up at the top of the list of terrific time-related weirdness in books. Check it out!

(Note: The Amazon synopsis above actually has it a bit wrong, but I’m not going to go into specifics. Read the book — then let’s talk!)

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!