Serena’s Review: “Fireborne”

36578543Book: “Fireborne” by Rosaria Munda

Publication Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Annie and Lee were just children when a brutal revolution changed their world, giving everyone—even the lowborn—a chance to test into the governing class of dragonriders.

Now they are both rising stars in the new regime, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. Annie’s lowborn family was executed by dragonfire, while Lee’s aristocratic family was murdered by revolutionaries. Growing up in the same orphanage forged their friendship, and seven years of training have made them rivals for the top position in the dragonriding fleet.

But everything changes when survivors from the old regime surface, bent on reclaiming the city.

With war on the horizon and his relationship with Annie changing fast, Lee must choose to kill the only family he has left or to betray everything he’s come to believe in. And Annie must decide whether to protect the boy she loves . . . or step up to be the champion her city needs.

Review: I’m always interested in a good dragon book. And for as popular as the subject matter is, it’s rare that I find one that really hits the spot for me. Maybe it’s just that the more I like something, the higher standards I set for it. But combined with an intriguing book description and comparison to “Red Rising,” I was excited to see what new take “Fireborne” had to offer!

Revolutions are bloody and brutal, but what comes after can be just as hard. The decks have been shuffled leaving those who survived living very different lives than the ones they had before. For Annie and Lee, these changes hit very close to home, but in very different ways. Now, together, they are slowly climbing their way through the ranks as dragon riders, each hoping to build their own future in this new world. But the old regime has only gone underground, and when it becomes clear that the revolution is not over, Annie and Lee must now, once again, choose sides.

I can definitely see how the comparisons to “Red Rising” came about. For all that a dragon is on the cover, this story is mostly a deep dive into the moral grey zone of what a revolution really looks like. Similarly to that book, it explores complex issues spending extra time highlighting that no choice is perfect and consequences are to be had no matter how good one’s intentions are going in. In our current political and cultural environment, I really appreciated the attention that went into this portrayal and the challenging questions it poses to not only its characters but to readers as well. It’s always refreshing to find a story that goes past the simple (and often unbelievable) “good” and “bad” of it all.

Both Annie and Lee provide insights into the past events of the revolution, the current regime, and, of course, the challenges posed by the resurgence of the conflict. At various times it was easy to side with one or another only to skip to the next chapter, read the other character’s perspective, and feel conflicted once again. I will say that Annie, by the nature of her story, had the easier sell, leaving Lee more often in the role of the character who needed to experience more growth and perspective.

However, at times, the writing itself seemed to let down these greater themes. For one thing, as I’ve gone into before, it’s always challenging to write two perspectives. Yes, Annie and Lee tell different stories and have differing challenges and views on events. But the writing itself is doing very little to differentiate their voices. Take away the actual story beats, and these two characters sound the same and it would be challenging to identify which of the two is speaking. This flaw makes it hard to truly connect to either character as they feel less like people and more like vessels through which to communicate the overall conflicts of the story.

The writing was also a bit slow. It did pick up towards the end and became quite engaging at that point. But it still took a bit to reach that point. This may, again, have to do with the challenge of feeling truly emotionally invested in either character. There were a lot of characters and connections between them that never felt fully explained leaving me more often than not still trying to pin down who was who about half way into into the book. A whiff of a love triangle was also a bit of a detractor even if it never became fully fledged.

I still really enjoyed the dragons, of course. And the overall story has a lot of potential growth. It’s tackling some big concepts and putting in the work to approach the realities of such decisions, actions, or inactions. Perhaps the second in the series will help cement to the two protagonists more fully into their own. I’m still game to check it out! And, if you’re interested in getting your hands on a free copy, don’t forget to enter our giveaway for “Fireborne!”

Rating 7: The story and themes outshine its own main characters at times, but there’s still a lot of potential in this first in a new trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Fireborne” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but, funnily, it is on this “We Fire the Darkness And Flame At Night.”

Find “Fireborne” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Season of the Witch”

43261389Book: “Season of the Witch” by Sarah Rees Brennan

Publishing Info: Scholastic Inc, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: It’s the summer before her sixteenth birthday, and Sabrina Spellman knows her world is about to change. She’s always studied magic and spells with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda. But she’s also lived a normal mortal life – attending Baxter High, hanging out with her friends Susie and Roz, and going to the movies with her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle.

Now time is running out on her every day, normal world, and leaving behind Roz and Susie and Harvey is a lot harder than she thought it would be. Especially because Sabrina isn’t sure how Harvey feels about her. Her cousin Ambrose suggests performing a spell to discover Harvey’s true feelings. But when a mysterious wood spirit interferes, the spell backfires in a big way.

Sabrina has always been attracted to the power of being a witch. But now she can’t help wondering if that power is leading her down the wrong path. Will she choose to forsake the path of light and follow the path of night?

Review: It’s Halloween season, and I had initially thought that that meant that we would be getting the next installment of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to pass. I am always going to be waiting on pins and needles for new content for this show and anything related to it (STILL WAITING ON VOLUME 2 OF THE COMICS!!), so thank goodness we have “Season of the Witch” by Sarah Rees Brennan to tide us over until it comes back!

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Couldn’t have said it better myself! (source)

This novel is part of the TV show canon, and serves as a prequel to the series set a few months before the first season. Sabrina Spellman, the teenage half mortal/half witch, is still struggling with her identity as she prepares for her dark baptism. She loves her mortal friends, but knows that if she takes the path of darkness she may have to say goodbye. It’s a conflict that has kind of been left behind on the show, and I’m not sure that I felt the need to revisit it at this point. I totally get why a book would function better as a prequel than occurring at the same time as the show since we don’t know what that canon is going to look like. I did like the overall plot for the most part, however, even if it did feel a little bit regressive, thematically. I liked seeing Sabrina take risks, risks that didn’t always pay off, and I liked how she and her cousin Ambrose interacted within the plot as he helps her with a potential ‘love spell’. Ambrose and Sabrina’s relationship is one that we see bits of on the show, but Brennan puts it at the forefront of the plot, and really lets us see the ups and downs of it and how they perceive each other in positive and negative ways. Ambrose envies Sabrina because of her freedom (which at this point he still does not have, as he’s still under house arrest), while Sabrina is resentful of the fact that he is more favored by Aunts Hilda and Zelda than she is, in her mind. They care about each other, but the tension definitely starts to bubble over, and it made for the most emotional part of the story. The rest of the plot was pretty okay too, though I will say that it doesn’t really add much to the show mythology. But on the other hand, it relies on it enough that I think you really do have to watch the show first in order to fully understand a number of the plot points and implications, even as a prequel. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was hoping it would stand on it’s own a little bit more.

However, I really liked the characterizations of this book. The majority of the perspective is, of course, Sabrina’s, but interspersed throughout are vignette chapters that give you insight into the other characters within the series. From Aunt Hilda to Roz to Theo (still Susie at this point) to Harvey, everyone gets a chance to shine. Aunt Hilda is especially well done, as Brennan captures her kindness and quirkiness with ease. But the best ones were the ones I wasn’t expecting as much. The first is the chapter revolving around Prudence, the head of the Weird Sisters and Sabrina’s frenemy. Prudence is complex on the show, but what I liked best about her chapter was that we got to see a deep look into her insecurities about feeling like she doesn’t really belong anywhere, and how Sabrina’s loving family makes Prudence envious, and therefore leads to her lashing out. Prudence is a top three character for me on the show, and I liked seeing her vulnerability really explored. The other chapter was even less expected, and that focused on Harvey’s brother Tommy. All we really know about Tommy on the show is that he is the most supportive person in Harvey’s life, and that he is a great person and a golden boy around town. But in his chapter we really got into his mind and his heart when it comes to Harvey, and why he stayed behind in Greendale when he had other opportunities. This chapter was endearing and rather bittersweet, as we know how things change and shift within the Kinkle family as the show goes on.

Fans of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” will find a fun and entertaining story in “Season of the Witch”. It may not add much to the universe as a whole, but it gives the reader some really good material for the characters that we know and love. It’s a witchy read for this witchy time of year!

Rating 7: A cute and fun side story/prequel to the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” Netflix show. It doesn’t add much to the mythology and even reverts a little too much sometimes, but it does explore character motivations of characters who don’t get as much attention on the show.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Season of the Witch” is on some pretty broad Goodreads lists, but I think it would also fit in on “Young Adult Novels with Witches”, and “All Hallows Reads”.

Find “Season of the Witch” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Blacksmith Queen”

43129821._sx318_Book: “The Blacksmith Queen” by G.A. Aiken

Publishing Info: Kensington, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: With the demise of the Old King, there’s a prophesy that a queen will ascend to the throne of the Black Hills. Bad news for the king’s sons, who are prepared to defend their birthright against all comers. But for blacksmith Keeley Smythe, war is great for business. Until it looks like the chosen queen will be Beatrix, her younger sister. Now it’s all Keeley can do to protect her family from the enraged royals. 
 
Luckily, Keeley doesn’t have to fight alone. Because thundering to her aid comes a clan of kilt-wearing mountain warriors called the Amichai. Not the most socially adept group, but soldiers have never bothered Keeley, and rough, gruff Caid, actually seems to respect her. A good thing because the fierce warrior will be by her side for a much longer ride than any prophesy ever envisioned …

Review: When every book is “The Something Queen” or another, it takes a bit for a title like that to draw my attention. But blacksmith. Huh, that was a new one! The description also sounded interesting. Something about a feud for the crown and…centaurs?

It all starts with a lot of death. First that of the King, and then the beginnings of a power struggle between his many sons, all vying for their right to wear the crown. Add to the mix a prophesy that a queen, not a king, shall be next to rule the land, and all sense of order goes out of the window. Keeley, a simple blacksmith, is happy enough to spend her days in her forge, blithely profiting from the sudden need for swords and war hammers. That is until her sister is drawn into it all, suspected of being the queen at the heart of the prophesy. A woman of action, Keeley is quick to jump to her sister’s aide, and grudgingly accepts the help of a band of wild warriors, among whom is the rough and tumble Caid, a man who is particularly intriguing.

What a bizarre story! Apparently the author has written other books focused on dragons, I think, that is set in the same world. But, typical me, I hadn’t read those going in. I don’t think it had a huge impact on my read of this story, and I was able to pretty quickly get a sense of the world and tone of the book. The thing that makes me refer to it as bizarre is the strange balance it seems to strike between urban fantasy and classic fantasy. Of the two, this would definitely lean towards the latter, given its medieval setting and such. There’s the fight over who will rule the kingdom, a magical prophesy, swords and warhammers.

But there were also tinges of urban fantasy in there with the style of writing and the sheer number of magical creatures all at once. There are demon wolves, witches, elves, dragons. And oh yeah, centaurs. This type of hodge podge assortment of classical fantasy creatures is often found in urban fantasy. Add to that the writing style that had a strong focus on humor and more than a little swearing, and it started to also feel very similar to a urban fantasy novel. And, of course, the brewing romance between a young woman and a man with some type of magical origins (typically vampires or werewolves, but we get something different here).

And of course, Keeley herself would fit right in amid most urban fantasy heroines. She’s badass, has a cool profession all of her own, and is loyal to the core, going to great lengths to protect those she loves. She’s also the sort of woman who easily inspires loyalty and camaraderie among those around her and wins over certain gruff men.

It was all…strange. I didn’t dislike it and there were definitely some laugh out loud moments. But it also didn’t fully connect as much as I would think it would. Everything that I just said above makes it sound like just my kind of thing. I think it was mostly the writing style. I struggled to reconcile the humorous, urban-fantasy-style writing with the type of story I was actually reading. And I’m not a stickler about language, but the swearing also started to feel like it was trying a bit too hard. There were also a sort of stilted feeling to some of the dialogue that made some of the characters sound almost childish at times.

Fans of urban fantasy and swords and staffs fantasy alike could find things to enjoy in this novel. If you like humor in your story, especially, than this is the book for you. The romance definitely takes a back seat to the rest of the story, however, so readers looking for more of that should take that into account.

Rating 7: A strange mix of two fantasy genres, but not quite mastering either.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Blacksmith Queen” is on this Goodreads list: “Books about Blacksmithing.”

Find “The Blacksmith Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Lady Rogue”

43822758Book: “The Lady Rogue” by Jenn Bennett

Publication Info: Simon Pulse, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler—more widely known as Dracula—and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Review: I’m always up for a good Vlad the Impaler story. Pair that with what sounds like a romping adventure and an Amelia-Peabody-like heroine, but a teenager, and this book seemed right up my alley. I know the author is a favorite romance author for many people, but I hadn’t read any of her stories previously, so I was excited to see what this one had in store!

For all of her father’s overprotective ways, Theodora finds herself suddenly alone in Eastern Europe and now, he’s the one in trouble and she’s the one tracking his trail. Good thing she’s been preparing for this moment for her entire life. Less good thing that her father’s protege, the irresistible and annoying Huck, is on the trail as well. Together, they discover that her father has gotten himself caught up in matter way above any of their pay grade and those responsible for his disappearance may now be after Theodora and Huck as well.

While this book wasn’t an absolute hit for me, it was still a quite fun read. The author has definitely mastered a witty, style of writing and the dialogue was definitely her strength. From the very first page, I was laughing at Theodora’s descriptions of the troubles she gets herself in. And once Huck shows up, their verbal sparring was on point. You can definitely see the author’s romance writing roots in this, as I’ve always found that the best romance books depend most on the the strong dialogue that pulls together the hero and heroine. Anyone can writing a steamy scene, but the heart of romance writing is the characters themselves since there isn’t a lot of plot, often. Thus, they have to have an amazing inner voice and repartee.

I also enjoyed the adventure and action of this book. The story takes off running and never really lets up on the gas. Mysterious strangers hunt them across multiple countries and even aboard the Orient Express. As the mystery about her father’s disappearance and his connection with the infamous Vlad the Impaler comes to light, I enjoyed seeing Theodora put her own unique skills to the test to rescue him.

Huck, on the other hand, never really landed for me. As I said, the dialogue and witty banter between him and Theodora was engaging from the beginning, but for his own part, he was kind of bland. It was hard to completely buy the connection between him and Theodora since it often came across as having come about simply due to proximity growing up, rather than any particularly unique bond between the two. He also had a habit of tipping a bit too far over the arrogant line from “charming” to “kind of rude.”

Really, the romance was my problem with this book. Maybe if I hadn’t known the author was a romance novelist, my expectations would have been adjusted. But I really just found myself wishing, as I went along, that this had just been a regular, old adult novel. Age up the characters by a few years, increase the romance, and boom! Fun book! As it was, it felt like the author was continuously pulling her punches and the story was wobbling along, crippled by the need to be YA.

I had a fun enough time reading this book. But by the end of it, I mostly remembered it for some witty banter and a few fun action pieces. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t capture me the way I wanted and it’s unfortunately the kind of story I enjoyed once but will probably easily forget I ever read. I am interested in checking out the author’s adult romances, however! Fans of the author will probably enjoy this and if you’re looking for a good beach read, this is the book for you!

Rating 7: A fun, but forgettable, ride.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lady Rogue” is a new title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads books, but it should be on “Best Books Featuring Dracula.” 

Find “The Lady Rogue” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “The Joy Luck Club”

7763._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989

Where Did We Get This Book: Borrowed it from family; the library!

Book Description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts. 

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Joy Luck Club” right after college, when I found it on my sister’s book shelf and decided to give it a go. It was around this time that I really started to devote my life to reading again, and I remember really enjoying the book in my early twenties. So when it was chosen for book club, I was interested to see if my thoughts and feelings would have changed as time passed. I found my Mom’s old school copy in their basement, and dove right back in.

Time and reading experience has definitely changed my perceptions, but not in a bad way, necessarily. I still liked how Tan portrayed the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, sometimes because of the complex relationship between parents and children, and other times because of a culture clash between immigrants who grew up in one place and culture, and their children who grew up in a different place and different culture. We see their lives and personalities through various vignettes and experiences, and see how the hardships that the mothers had made them approach how they raised their daughters, and in turn how the daughters may or may not understand those approaches. Sometimes the relationships were touching and loving, and other times there would be conflicts that were hard to read. For me, the most effective vignettes mostly involved Suyuan Woo (the founder of the Joy Luck Club) and her daughter Jing Mei. Suyuan was living in China during the Japanese Invasion and the lead up to World War Two, and endured the tragedy of not only losing her husband, but having to abandon her twin daughters on the side of the road because she was too sick to carry them. Jing Mei always felt like she wasn’t good enough in her mother’s eyes, and when she finds out that the rest of the Joy Luck Club found out that her half sisters are alive, she has to decide if she’s going to pursue them. Her complicated relationship with her mother is filled with a lot of painful subtext and context, and while through my Western experience I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how Suyuan (and many of the other mothers) treated their daughters I did think that the stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei had the most emotional oomph, and definitely made me tear up multiple times. Tan does a good job of not necessarily excusing some of the manipulative or cruel behaviors of her characters, but showing why they may be acting that way. Her writing is also gorgeous, as it flows well and brings out a lot of imagery in vibrant ways.

I can see how there are criticisms from some Chinese American authors and scholars when it comes to “The Joy Luck Club”, as for so long this seemed like the go-to book for Westerners when it comes to what Asian American stories are consumed. Hell, I am pretty sure that when I picked it up a decade or so ago it was one of the first books I’d read written by an Asian-American author about Asian and Asian-American characters. As time has gone on it’s important that more Asian and Asian-American authors have been able to tell stories of all kinds, and to show all kinds of experiences that don’t necessary reflect stereotypes that “The Joy Luck Club” may have contributed to, inadvertently or otherwise. But on the other side, this story definitely seems to be a very personal one for Tan, and therefore it’s hard to completely write it off or to say that it should be left behind completely. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to where “The Joy Luck Club” should be in the literary canon.

Reading “The Joy Luck Club” a second time was an interesting experience, and with older and wiser eyes I think that I got more from it. I’m glad that book club gave me the chance to read it again.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was a book that I only knew through vague familiarity with the title and the fact that it had been made into a movie in the early 90s that I may have caught bits and pieces of, here and there. So other than knowing that this type of literary fiction is typically my jam, I didn’t have many preconceived notions of the book going in.

Overall, I was right in my initial assessment that this wouldn’t be my type of book, but there were things that I did appreciate about it. I don’t know a lot of about China during the Japanese invasion and many of mother’s tales were an interesting (if tragic!) look into that time period and how these women came emigrate to America. I do wish there had been a bit more variation between the tales. While they were each distinctive enough, towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the next mother’s tale to be the starkly contrasting tale to balance out the others. Instead, most of them were fairly similar at their heart, which leads to one of my main criticism.

I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and how each was related to the one who did what. Part of this comes down to the similarity between some of the stories. But there was also similarity between characters. Many of the daughters ended up married to varying levels of scumbag husbands who all also tended to blend together in my mind. The story was also broken up into chapters for the mothers and chapters for the daughters, but they are all scattered throughout the book in a way that forced me to always flip back to the chart in the front of the book and to previous chapters to try to figure out just who we were talking about how and how their story related to others’.

I think the way the book was laid out in this way had a detrimental effect even on one of the main messages the author was trying to get across, about how the mother’s lives effected how they interacted and raised their daughters, and vice versa. Every once in a while I’d be able to form a clear connection from one of the mother’s stories to how she interacted with her daughter. But I think there was also a lot I missed simply because I couldn’t keep track of who’s story was who’s. The book was originally written as a collection of short stories, and I almost think it would have been more successful had it been left as that. The attempt to draw it together as a novel is just enough to technically earn that description, but left me, the reader, more confused than I would have been had I just read the short stories seperately.

We had a really good book club discussion about identity, mother/daughter relationships, and whether or not immigration and 1st, 2nd, generation immigrants may have different experiences now, coming out of differing political climates in their home countries and into a different USA, too. So there’s still clearly a lot of good stuff to be found in this book. As a point of discussion, I really liked it. But as a read, it wasn’t really my thing.

Kate’s Rating 7: An emotional book with complex themes and issues, “The Joy Luck Club” was interesting to revisit, and for the most part still held up for me.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting point of entrance into a larger discussion about immigration, family, and culture, but still a bit hard to read for me.

Book Club Questions

  1. The story is broken into several different stories about the mothers and the daughters. Is there one that stands out to you and why?
  2. The story is focused largely on the challenging relationship between the mothers and daughters. What makes this relationship so challenging but also fulfilling? What about these depictions strikes you?
  3. Immigration is challenging issue right now. How does this book fit into the current narrative about immigrants and their experiences leaving their homes and coming to live in a new country?
  4. When Jing-Mei is talking with the other women of the Joy Luck Club about her mother, she says that she doesn’t feel like she knew who her mother was or anything about her. How much do you think we know about our own mothers? Do you think that Jing-Mei’s perceived lack of knowledge (And Suyuan’s privacy) could be generational? Cultural?
  5. The book is broken into several stories and jumps around from one to another. How did this structure affect your read?
  6. There are rumors of a sequel to this book (in film form). If there was to be a sequel to this story set in the modern day, what do you think it would cover? What relationships, what countries, what cultures?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Joy Luck Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Jezebel’s Books All Women Should Read”.

Find “The Joy Luck Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant.

 

Kate’s Review: “The Last Astronaut”

40881567._sy475_Book: “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

Publishing Info: Orbit, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a paperback copy from the publisher.

Book Description: Mission Commander Sally Jansen is Earth’s last astronaut–and last hope–in this gripping near-future thriller where a mission to make first contact becomes a terrifying struggle for survival in the depths of space.

Sally Jansen was NASA’s leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She’s wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it’s the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen’s hands.

Review: Thanks to Orbit for sending me a paperback copy of this book!

Perhaps you are all looking at the title and the primary genre of “The Last Astronaut” and are thinking to yourself ‘well hey now, isn’t Sci Fi Serena’s literary wheelhouse?’ And you’d be right. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid Science Fiction unless it meets very specific characteristics. But when I was reading about “The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington, my interest was piqued. For one thing, a few of the early reviews used words like ‘terrifying’ to describe it. When you do that and throw around phrases like ‘large alien object’, something about ‘transmissions’, and ‘the future of humanity’, my mind is going to go to one place.

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Did he have the special? (source)

It turns out that “Alien” this is not, but ultimately that wasn’t a bad thing.

“The Last Astronaut” does mix some elements of horror in with sci-fi and character study, and it comes together to be an entertaining tale of slow burn suspense. We have the familiar scenario of a crew of different people with different motivations coming together for the purpose of investigating an alien object heading towards Earth, but the person at the forefront is astronaut Sally Jansen. Jansen was supposed to be the head of a mission going to Mars years before, but disaster struck and left other astronauts dead and Jansen in disgrace. Now she is hoping for redemption, and another chance at discovery. Jansen is a complex and strong protagonist, and has many layers that we slowly get to peel back as the story goes on and the stakes get higher and higher. She is competent and determined, but she is also headstrong and hard to trust, at least for the other crew members. Her actions had severe consequences for NASA and space exploration, but her talent is undeniable, even if her trauma and fall from grace is still haunting her. Her dynamic with the other crew members as they have to board the object is rife with tension, and their inherent mistrust of her makes for emotional conflict on top of the slow revealing other environmental conflict. While there were certainly other compelling characters, specifically ship scientist Parminder Rao who is elated at the prospect of alien life, this is Jansen’s story, and she is well centered and well developed.

The plot, while not as heavy on the horror as I had hoped, is still filled with suspense and tension, which made it an engrossing read for me in spite of the genre clash. The Alien Object is reminiscent of the recent space object ‘Oumuamua (and it is referenced in the book as well), but is larger and seems to have a clear path, heading straight for Earth. When the NASA crew finally encounters it in hopes of learning more, not only have they been beaten by the private company KSpace, but that the crew from the KSpace mission isn’t answering attempts at communication. And once they board the object, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that they are in way over their heads, and that this object isn’t what it seems. I really don’t want to spoil anything in this review, as the slow reveal is effectively creepy and well done. What I will say is that the alien being in “The Last Astronaut” is effective because it feels like something we haven’t really seen before. If you take elements from space horror classics like “Annihilation” and “Event Horizon”, you might be part way there, but Wellington has created a mythos that feels original, at least to this reader.

You may be wondering why this isn’t rated higher, as it seems that I liked a lot about it. And the reason is solely based on personal preference. At the end of the day, “The Last Astronaut” is still pretty heavy on the sci-fi, and it’s done in a way that didn’t really connect with me as much as I had hoped it would. I think that had the horror elements been ramped up more it would have left more of an impression, but as it was, this ultimately isn’t my genre. That said, I really do believe that sci-fi fans would probably find a lot to like about this book, as even I can appreciate the trajectory and story elements that it had. It may not achieve genre crossover as much as I thought it would, but don’t let my words discourage you from giving it a try if it has grabbed your attention!

Rating 7: While the story was more sci-fi than horror and therefore not my usual wheelhouse, I liked the originality that came with “The Last Astronaut” and its main character, and think sci-fi aficionados will find a lot to enjoy!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Last Astronaut” is included on the Goodreads lists “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads or Co-Leads”, and “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2019”.

Find “The Last Astronaut” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Wanderers”

32603079Book: “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig

Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley

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

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

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

Review: Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

I have been totally enthralled by post-apocalyptic fiction ever since my Dad handed me his copy of “The Stand” when I was thirteen years old and told me to read it. While I have a whole lot of anxieties about the potential ways that the world could end, the genre itself has always thrilled me, be it pandemic fiction, nuclear holocaust, zombies, or what have you. “The Stand” has always been the crown jewel of the genre for me, and so when I heard about “Wanderers” by Chuck Wendig, and saw that comparisons to that masterpiece, I requested an eARC from NetGalley and was lucky enough to be sent one. The comparisons were apparent straight away: not only is the book a story about a devastating pandemic, it’s also a deep character study of a huge cast, AND it’s a LONG book (though at 800 pages it’s still only roughly half as long as the uncut version of “the Stand”, which is a mighty beast unto itself). Having this comparison in my head did a weird thing, where it both made me enjoy “Wanderers” more, and also made me more critical than I think I would have been had it not been there. Buckle up, everyone. A long book means a lot of dissemination.

The pacing and content of the plot immediately sucked me in. It’s told when the ‘sleepwalker’ phenomenon starts, and then slowly builds and builds until we have met the big, actual threat, which is a fungal-based disease that has already infected enough people to take out the world population. We have a number of different perspectives we follow, all of which show different group factions as society starts to panic and slowly break down. My favorite perspective, both in terms of characters and approach, was that of Benji, a former CDC scientist whose brilliance was overshadowed by a scandal. I was deeply invested and interested in the science aspect of this novel, and being able to see Benji and his colleagues, which include access to an AI called Black Swan that has been predicting numerous outcomes to the various situations, kept me enthralled and interested as the pandemic began to unfold. Benji is complex and nuanced, and his determination mixed with his anxieties, be it regarding his past, the AI aspect, or the very real catastrophe unfolding, made him very appealing as a character.

I also liked seeing other consequences and cause and effects that you might see in this society as it starts to deteriorate, and especially liked Wendig’s take on how white supremacist and other racist nationalist movements prey on fear and uncertainty. While it did feel heavy handed at times, this plot was mostly seen through Matthew, a preacher in a small town who gets caught up with a charismatic, and incredibly dangerous, militia man named Ozark Stover. While the pandemic is the main driving conflict in this book, it’s Stover, his militia, and the ideas that they hold dear (which are being elevated by a far right and opportunistic Presidential Candidate) that were the scariest by far. Matthew tries to look past the way Stover, and the other right wing groups, use the Bible to promote fear and hate, and you see Matthew fall for his own elevated hype as he becomes a ‘moderate’ voice for their radical views, which in turn promotes violence against the ‘sleepwalkers’ and those around them. Apt and timely, these parts really kept me interested and on the edge of my seat. It was probably also a little heavy handed, but given how these groups and voices just seem to be getting louder and more violent I can’t really fault the non-subtle portrayals of them as dangerous and fanatical.

That said, in terms of characterization, Benji and those in his sections were really the only people I found myself caring about in this book. I wanted to like Shana, the teenage girl whose sister was the first ‘sleepwalker’, but I found her inability to see nuance in many situations to be frustrating, and it made me not care for her too much. I also wanted to like Pete Corey, a nearly has-been rock star who gets caught up in protecting the ‘sleepwalkers’ and their companions (aka shepherds) initially just to get attention for himself before making a true connection. But unfortunately he fit the trope of ‘he’s closeted and therefore pushes everyone away and embraces a hedonistic lifestyle’, and it’s well worn, almost overdone, territory now. And while I enjoyed and was invested in the content with Matthew and Ozark, I had a very hard time with Matthew as a person, and found no one in that arc very sympathetic either. And this is where the comparisons to “The Stand” hindered this book (and given that the narrative itself makes reference to “The Stand”, I feel that the door has been opened to compare the two). Say what you will about the ending of that book, but it is hard to deny that King really knows how to write a multitude of different characters, and to give all of them complex, multifaceted things to do within their character arcs. While some characters are definitely more black and white than others in that book, for the most part you get into the head and motivations of almost every member of that ensemble, for the good and the bad. In “Wanderers”, I felt that Wendig sometimes got lost with his balancing, and because of this the characterization suffered, and therefore so did my ability to care about them.

On top of all this, the ending (and I won’t go into why or how) had a big final ‘gotcha’ twist that felt unnecessary. Sure, it was set up in a way that I could track out and map, so it didn’t feel completely out of nowhere. But when it was revealed I did kind of wonder what it added to the overall story, outside of confirming other well-worn tropes that I had thought we’d left behind.

Finally, there’s one more thing that I really need to address within this novel. This ties in with the HUGE content warning that I want to give it, AND along with that I’m going to be talking about plot points in no uncertain terms. Therefore, we are getting a

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Chuck Wendig used to write “Star Wars” content for Marvel so I had to use this. (source)

There are many characters within this book, and all of them touch upon certain themes such as bigotry, racism, white supremacy, and using religion as a weapon and how these things can all go hand in hand. Matthew, our preacher who lets his own ego get him caught up with a white supremacist movement, becomes friends with the aforementioned Ozark Stover. After Matthew stops towing the line for Stover and white supremacist Presidential Candidate Creel, Ozark beats him, tortures him, and locks him in his bunker on his property. He also violently rapes him. I had no idea that this was coming, and when it did I had to put the book down for awhile and go do something else. While I am never going to be a ‘fan’ of sexual violence in books I read, as how could one be, if I can see a reason behind it or if it’s done in a responsible way I can be more forgiving of that plot choice, even if I’m going to be upset about it. In “Wanderers”, I felt that there was absolutely no reason for it to be there outside of sensationalism. We already know that Ozark Stover is an evil motherfucker. He’s manipulative, he’s violent, he incites hatred and violent actions amongst his followers, and he’s a murderous, misogynistic white supremacist who uses religion as a way to froth up his following. WE KNOW HE IS HORRIBLE. It felt like this scene was just a ‘and how can we REALLY hit the point home that he’s a bad guy?’ when we have rounded the bases of badness MULTIPLE times. On top of that, I didn’t like the framing of it. Matthew is a piece of shit in his own way, and while I know that we were supposed to feel bad for him and see him as more ‘flawed’ than anything else, I personally couldn’t abide him. BUT ALL OF THAT SAID, making him a victim of a graphic and violent sexual assault made me feel sick, because to me it felt like a ‘and now you know why you never should have gotten tangled up with this guy in the first place’ moment, which to me is unnecessary. Like I’ve said, I am NEVER going to be fully on board with a scene like this, but I think that there are ways that it can be done with sensitivity and with responsibility. This felt like it was for shock value, and I didn’t like that.

Overall, “Wanderers” is definitely a worthy contribution to the ‘post-apocalyptic pandemic’ genre, and I think that it’s going to stand the test of time. There were aspects that I greatly enjoyed, and aspects that fell flat, but I definitely can see myself as recommending it to people who like this kind of thing. I am very curious to see what Wendig does next.

Rating 7: While the world building, pacing, and downfall of humanity ticked all my boxes, I had problems with some characterization, a final GOTCHA twist, and a scene of exploitative sexual violence.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wanderers” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Books for a Pandemic”, and “This Is The End..”

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