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Review #44: Fiction

First to Read #3

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

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For the most part, this is a highly enjoyable book. It is equal parts romance, thriller, and suspense, though falls short by having small sparks of each, but never going fully in on any one of these.

The story we’re following is of a young woman (we never get her name, which becomes more and more annoying as it’s specifically mentioned several times throughout that she is either happy or irritated when people pronounce it correctly or incorrectly) who meets a widower in the Cayman Islands while working for a tourist boat company. They have a very quick romance – so quick that it never really feels believable. Their relationship is very one-dimensional and a lot of the plot relies on the believability of their relationship. This lack of chemistry between the two characters (Max Winter and our unnamed protagonist) weakens the book.

Max spirits her away to be married and the new head of his extravagant home – Asherley – on Long Island, and to be a stepmother to his teenage daughter, Dani. Dani is the spitting image of her deceased mother, and behaves toward our protagonist as we would expect a teenager to receive a new mother less than two years after her passing. Though, unchecked, Dani begins to go above and beyond normal rebellious behavior, and soon becomes someone to be feared.

The protagonist (I am also annoyed by having to write ‘protagonist’ rather than a character’s name; it was a weird and bad choice by author and editor to move forward with an unnamed protag) gets closer and closer to Max, thinks she’s making strides with Dani, but time and again finds herself on the receiving end of cruel jokes. As these pranks unfold, Dani becomes more unstable, Max becomes more exasperated, the protagonist begins to learn more and more about the secrets Asherley keeps, the truth behind the death of the first Mrs. Winter, and whether or not she’ll meet the same fate.

To get the thriller elements, Gabriele gives us a lot of unsettling moments, creates a truly scary character in Dani, and keeps us asking questions nearly throughout. She uses a lot of misdirection, and red herrings to try to turn the reader’s attention away from putting the pieces together. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work well enough, and before the protagonist figures it all out, most readers will have already deduced the final twist. This leaves around 30 pages of the book where readers will be left waiting for her to catch up.

In the end, there’s not much to be surprised by, and some ill-advised elements (the protagonist’s lack of name, the random addition of a grandmother in Cuba the protagonist doesn’t mention until the very end of the book, the lack of believable romance) weaken what could be a chilling story about family secrets. Dani is the best written character in the book, and definitely moves the story along in ways the protagonist just can’t when she’s not even given a name, is very loosely fleshed out, and finds herself embroiled in this family soap opera based on a foundation-less romance.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I received access to an e-copy of this book for this review.

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Otherworld

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Review #38 Fiction

Blogging for Books #12

Otherworld by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

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This book caught my eye based on so many connections people were making to Ready Player One, which I adore, so I couldn’t pass this one up when the chance to read and review came my way. I’ll say that if you also find yourself reading this book based on your interest in RPO, there are many similarities, so you’ll probably like this one.

My main interest in RPO was the 80s pop culture and nostalgia, which is something that Otherworld lacks. This is not a love letter to the videogames or movies or music of the 80s, but it is a really interesting look into the future of videogames, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Segel and Miller create a not-too-distant future where VR is taking over the real world, creating a world that people never want to leave – which becomes part of the problem.

Segel and Miller pull in other virtual reality troupes we’ve seen before – dying in the game could kill you in real life, an evil corporation (creatively* called “The Company”) putting profits over people’s lives, parallels made to a “Quest” or “The One” coming to save the world. The Company is a semi-faceless organization, we are given a few of the higher ups and some of the low level pawns in the overall scheme, but essentially, it’s a large, overarching nemesis that feels impossible to beat. Some of these low level people believe they are doing the right thing, they believe the Company will use its technology to help people, to make progress in quality of life, but are in the end naïve to the desire for power and money.

Otherworld begins a unique conversation about artificial intelligence, and what it could be someday. Segel and Miller create VR filled with AI that is so advanced, it’s nearly human. These entities exist only in Otherworld, but they have their own wants, and needs, and experience their own pain. This brings up so many questions about AI and what is ethical, concepts of God-like creation, and what existing truly means. Are these entities “alive,” does Otherworld belong to them? They live and breathe and breed in this world – does that not make Otherworld their own reality? And who decides? This concept, and these questions, is really what make Otherworld different from other videogame stories. Segel and Miller take VR to a new level and spark some deep and difficult ideas.

Throughout there is some really good action. The story builds and ends with a few realizations, gun fights and fleeing, and ends on enough of a cliffhanger to set up sequels. A few loose ends are left dangling – who runs the Company? How can they be stopped? After some of the breakthroughs with the technology, are they not just more invested in their goal now? And how far are they willing to go to reach them? Segel and Miller definitely pique an interest in reading further.

With any VR story, the world building is extremely important. Segel and Miller do a decent job of creating and describing Otherworld. We have to understand various aspects of the VR in order to follow our main characters through the world and understand all the creatures they come in contact with. Unfortunately, they do a lot of bouncing around in Otherworld; it becomes a bit hard to keep up. At times it’s difficult to understand where the characters are, who is in charge of the territory they are in (these are entities that naturally exist in Otherworld – the Children and the Elementals), what vice the territory provides (each seems to speak to a vice that people cannot partake in in reality – sex, drugs, gluttony, murder, etc.), and how they got there/how they move on. Though many things within Otherworld are fleshed out, many more questions exist. Some of the stops in each territory are long and detailed – we understand why our characters are here and what they will get out of the journey – others are short and feel thrown in without much thought which really hurts the flow of the story.

Overall, I think the time and attention to detail in a VR universe was successful, the characters were interesting and had a report that kept the story moving through dialogue and action, and the concepts surrounding AI were fascinating and left me asking even bigger and deeper questions. Otherworld is a strong start to this series.

*Please note the sarcasm.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

The Invisible Library

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Review #37 Fiction

Blogging for Books #11

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

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The premise of this book had me from the get go. It just jumped out as something that encompassed so many of the things I enjoy about reading: fantasy, adventure, literature, mystery, romance, escapism. And all of those things come through in Genevieve Cogman’s first installment of the Invisible Library novels. If you enjoy Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, The Librarian/ The Librarians, or V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, you will be pulled headfirst into Cogman’s world.

Irene works for a mysterious library. Tasked with finding a dangerous book from an alternate London, Irene must take a new library recruit, Kai, on his first field mission. Their mission becomes beyond complicated when they arrive to find the book has already been stolen by a deadly underground society. Along with the threat of a legendary enemy of the library, Irene and Kai may not make it out of the chaos-infested London with the book, much less alive.

Cogman weaves an intricate tale filled with an eclectic cast of mythical and fantastic characters, including werewolves, vampires, fae, and dragons. There’s an element of steampunk just light enough to mingle with the classic detective narrative and make something fresh and funky. The alternate London that the story inhabits is beautifully rendered by Cogman, incorporating the dark and gloomy, foggy, cobble-stoned streets and the air of mystery surrounding the city.

Throughout, we’re taken on a bumpy Great Detective story, with twists and turns that shock the reader as much as Irene and her cohorts. Though this case is eventually solved, we’re left with a bit of cliffhanger, a whetted palate, wondering just what Alberich (a notorious Library enemy) is up to, how the Library came to be, and how Irene fits into the puzzle.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Cover art from Amazon.com
*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The One Memory of Flora Banks

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Review #36: Fiction

Audiobook Review #1

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

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This is my first real go at audiobooks; I’m not sure if this helped or hurt the story honestly. I feel like it may have been better having my own control over how the story sounded. However, for reasons that will be addressed, if I had to read it, every word, on my own… I may actually have put this book down without finishing.

Flora Banks is our narrator, and she is struggling with a form of amnesia. Due to health complications, she doesn’t remember much of her life after her tenth birthday. She is 17 now. What sparks the story is that she remembers something from a party she attends, a going away party for a guy named Drake. She remembers kissing him on the beach. And that’s about all she remembers, and talks about, for the next 300 pages.

As a narrator, Flora gets annoying. She is terribly redundant. This is obviously the point, her character has amnesia and only remembers this one event, the first thing she has remembered in years. It’s a big deal. But as an audience it’s off-putting. This is supposed to let us into Flora’s world, we experience her mind and her life through her illness and it gives us empathy and understanding for her character and her struggles. After a while though, it became quite difficult to hear the same passages over and over.

Flora has to be reminded every day about her illness, her memories, but we as readers do not, so it becomes grating. It’s a lot like if 50 First Dates were being told form Drew Barrymore’s character’s point of view. As a movie, this may have actually worked, being visual and fast-paced. But a book demands the reader encounter the same text over and over and over again for hours.

The one thing I will say about this concept – it is a really unique take on the unreliable narrator. Flora is not a narrator that is lying to us; this is not malicious or deceitful. Flora is innocent in her unreliability. Neither she nor we know if what she’s experiencing is the truth.

Flora has all of her memories up until she was about 10 years old. After this, her memory does not stick. One great detail in Barr’s writing is that Flora comes across as very young, very innocent, very curious. She does a great job conveying youth in this character. At times Flora is invincible and impulsive, and at times very scared and meek. Though she is actually 17 years old, we definitely feel her 10-year-old memory in her actions.

The One Memory of Flora Banks is a little like Groundhog Day, though instead of living the same day over, we are living the same memory over and over; the only memory Flora has since her illness. We follow the same process as Flora finds out who she is every day, what happened to her, notes she leaves herself to know where she is and what she’s been doing recently. This is a very real detail, something that must undoubtedly be a reality for anyone suffering from such an illness. However, it is also one of the things that make this book so hard to get through.

It is difficult to be patient with Flora, and relive parts of her story that we’ve heard before many times. Eventually, I was just as curious as Flora to figure out why she has this one memory, and what actually happened to her so long ago, what the real deal with Drake is, and what’s happened to her brother. We are essentially thrown into a world where we are forced to only know what Flora knows, and what she knows might not be real. Though frustrating at times, Barr does create a very distinctive world in Flora Banks’s memory for readers to wade through.

Unfortunately, probably half this book is repetition. We must get through being told over and over again about Flora’s condition, why she’s doing what she’s doing, her one memory of kissing Drake, etc. Without this material being used again and again and again and again and again… the book would be much shorter, move much faster, and be much easier to get through.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

*Cover art from Amazon.com

 

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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Review #34: Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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This is probably one of my favorite novels about loss (close second is Lily and the Octopus). Backman beautifully and simply captures a special bond between grandparent and grandchild. He then knits the heart-wrenching loss of this bond into the fabric of fairy tales allowing the reader to dive completely into the mind of a child processing something so adult.

The way Backman uses these fairy tales, these stories Elsa’s grandmother would tell her, is such a unique way to bring adult readers into the world of young characters. This is not a children’s book, but the main character is a child, and these stories bridge the generational gap between her and the reader. Plus, the fairy tales themselves are fantastically interesting. A book of just these stories would capture the imagination of most readers.

Another genius element of Backman’s writing is his use of supporting characters. Just as in his first novel (A Man Called Ove), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry truly intertwines the lives of every character to build one complete work.The supporting characters all have their own side stories that seamlessly blend into Elsa’s main arch. Each character is so well rounded and real (and interesting in and of themselves) that Backman’s third novel (Britt-Marie Was Here) is the continuation of the story of Britt-Marie, a supporting character in this novel.

In the end, this book is about loss, enduring it, coping with it, and moving forward. Plus rebuilding broken relationships and realizing what truly matters in life. In telling this tale, Backman weaves a beautiful portrait of life, of the struggles we all face, of the idea that our assumptions about people aren’t always correct — that sometimes it’s the fairy tales that are true and our perceived reality that is fiction.

If you’re a big kid not ready to let go of fairy tales, this book is for you. If you have ever lost a loved one, this book is for you. If you have ever lost touch with someone, sometimes not even remembering why, this book is for you. And if you don’t mind crying your eyes out, this book is for you. Or if you simply like an unbelievably well-written book, this one’s for you.

Every character is important, fully formed, and relatable. Every story is imaginative, purposeful, transforming. Backman creates a support system and manual for dealing with grief with this novel. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry holds your hand through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance — and in the end, both you and this new fictional family you’ve gained, are better for it.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

 

Dark Matter

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Review #33: Fiction

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

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This book is a complete and total sci-fi, multidimensional, breakneck mind f*** from start to finish. And I mean that in the best possible way.

It’s hard to even describe how insanely interesting this book is. Much like the brand new ideas filling its pages, the right words are not yet available to praise it enough. The best I can do is tell you I read the whole thing in one day. Every time I stopped, I just couldn’t manage to do something else. I HAD TO KNOW what was going to happen.

Blake Crouch begins with the story of an everyday guy, in an everyday world, doing everyday things. Then BAM! Something not-so-everyday happens and everything goes off the rails. Jason Dessen is kidnapped, given a strange drug, and wakes up to a life that is not his…or so he thinks. Dessen then spends possibly lifetimes attempting to figure out where he is, who he is, when he is and how to get back to the where, who, when he remembers. The always-hard-to-comprehend idea of alternate realities, different versions of ourselves, splitting into someone(s) different after every decision we make is surprisingly easy to follow in Crouch’s story.

I have never been so completely engrossed in a story and world that is so impossibly possible. Crouch sets a new bar extremely high for any alternate reality sci-fi novels that come next. Literally spirally into infinity Dark Matter is a roller coaster ride with unimaginable twists and turns. You won’t see them coming and you’ll eagerly await the next.

My recommendation is to not read this all in one sitting, as I did, in order to enjoy the thrill of it longer, though I don’t think you’ll be able to restrain yourself.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Review #32: Non-Fiction

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

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The Zookeeper’s Wife is as delicate, complex, and, at times, scary as an exotic zoo itself. Beautiful moments intertwined with fear that the wild animal may break through the barriers at any second and devour you — that the SS officers just outside the chicken coup you’re hiding in might find you. The parallels that Ackerman draws between living in (the Zabinskis living near) the Warsaw Ghetto and the animals in a zoo become more and more established the more I continue to think about the text.

This true story was pieced together from so many sources —  interviews, journals, memoirs — the scope of the research and effort that Ackerman put in to create this work is astounding. Bringing this amazing and inspiring story to light was no small feat. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story that needed to be told. The world needs to hear these heroic tales of everyday citizens working against the greatest evil the world had known (especially now), though when asked these people don’t agree that they were heroes. They say they were just doing what was right.

Though the story is one that is both necessary and interesting, the book itself isn’t always. The zoo is important to the story, and it makes sense to include details of the zoo before the war to get perspective, during to feel the immediate loss, and after to see the consequences of war, but there is far too much looking back to before once the meat of the story gets going. Jewish people were rounded up and enclosed in the ghetto, then all of a sudden there were animals running around freely again and cute anecdotes about the animals that once were, but were no more. Perhaps if these had been lumped together in the beginning of the book rather than the back and forth of before and after the war started and bombs had destroyed the zoo, it wouldn’t have felt so out of place. It was a bit frustrating because when I wanted to know more about how Jan Zabinski was helping people escape the ghetto, instead I was reading about their son, Rys, getting a new cat, or hamster, or rabbit.

Unfortunately, much of the book is like this — leaving you wanting more than it’s giving. There was a lot of detail of wartime, “guests” of the zoo, Jan’s work in the Underground resistance — it just never felt like there was enough. Jan spent a good amount of time in an internment camp at the end of the war and the reader is told nothing about it. The book is called The Zookeeper’s Wife so I can almost see why we aren’t told. But we should then be told more about Antonina’s experience without her husband. How she felt, how she dealt with two young children at the time, the stress of also continuing to help people escape when the price would likely be her, and her children’s, life. There needed to be more about the amazing efforts of the Zabinskis’ and other’s survival at this time, and less about the animals that were, unfortunately, a casualty of war.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is about to be a film, and I think the adaptation will focus on the things of this book that worked well, and will leave out those things that were distracting. I look forward to seeing it. This is a story that should be told and known, and the small shortcomings of the book should not deter you from experiencing it.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com