February Minireviews – Part 3

We’re just going to pretend like it’s perfectly normal to review books three four months after I read them… (because yes, I wrote half this post in May and am only just now coming back to it!)

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

The Substitute Guest by Grace Livingston Hill – 3.5*

//published 1936//

Are GLH’s books predictable and cheesy?  Yes.  Is that what I want sometimes?  Also yes.  This one was pretty normal GLH fare, but that’s not actually a bad thing in my mind – sometimes I just want something warm, relaxing, predictable, and happy.  It’s rare that GLH doesn’t deliver.

Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 3.5*

//published 2019//

This was one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did.  While the concept was quite good, somehow the book just lacked magic.  The third-person narrative – which I usually prefer – here felt distant and almost stilted.  There were times that there would be an somewhat lecture-y tone to the tale, filling the reader in on a piece of culture or fable, rather than letting those things be a natural part of the story’s flow.  This was also a book that definitely needed a map, as I had no real grasp on the distances they were traveling.  All in all, while it was a fine one-off read, it didn’t really make me interested in seeing what else Moreno-Garcia has written.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John Donohue & JT Malloy – 3.5*

//published 2020//

It’s always hard to review a book that’s memoir-ish, and this one is no exception. The author was in his late 20s during the Vietnam War. He had been a Marine straight out of high school but was considered “too old” to enlist for Vietnam, so he was working as a merchant marine. When the war protests started to turn on the soldiers themselves, the guys from Chick’s hangout-bar thought it would be amazing if someone could go visit all the active duty guys from their neighborhood, take them some local beer, & reassure them that what they were doing was appreciated & they were missed & loved. Chick’s job enabled him to hop on a boat headed to Vietnam with the idea that he would take 3 days shore leave when he got there & find some of the guys. What with one thing & another, his boat left without him, leaving him stranded in Vietnam in the days leading up to & the first couple of weeks of the Tet offensive!

Reading this book is basically like listening to your old uncle tell his stories from the war. It wasn’t a bad book at all, but it did tend to ramble off & sometimes go into back stories not directly related to the main plot & it wasn’t always easy to tell what was happening “now“ & what was an explanation from the past. (i.e. a few paragraphs telling a story to illustrate why Chick doesn’t like ship captains – it was hard to tell if it was THIS ship captain, or one from his past.) Chick is also very pro-unions, which I’m not against unions but I also got a little tired of every chapter having at least a few sentences explaining why unions are awesome & solve everyone’s problems.

For the most part it doesn’t get too political & there’s some great perspective here on how basically the soldiers were just doing their best to do what they were told. Most of them had been drafted, they weren’t passionate about being there, & they didn’t have the ability to see any kind of big picture concerning how the Vietnamese people really felt about the situation. In the end, Chick decides that the protestors weren’t wrong to protest the war, but still felt that harassing the young men being sent to fight wasn’t the right way to execute that protest.

This is a memoir so it’s inherently biased, but was overall an interesting read for a bit of a different look at the war – Chick is pro-soldier, but also a civilian. It was a pretty fast read & I appreciated that the author decided to keep the language pretty clean throughout.

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold – 4*

//published 2021//

I’ve read a couple of Arnold’s books now and have enjoyed them all.  This one is his newest and I read it as part of my personal campaign to read new books by authors I like as they come out instead of just sticking them on the TBR and maybe getting to them in five years.  This one is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a girl who has to take a cross-country journey to find a mythical portal that her father is convinced is real.  She meets up with several other travelers on her way.  This was a book that was eerie and engaging, and one that folded back on itself in a way that was somehow believable.  It had just a few too many unanswered questions for me in the end, but still completely sucked me in and kept me turning the pages.  Like Kids of Appetite, it had elements that it felt like I shouldn’t like, but somehow worked.

You Have a Match by Emma Lord – 3*

//published 2021//

After really enjoying Tweet Cute last year, I was interested to read Lord’s new book.  However, this one just fell short for me.  Mostly, there was just too much going on.  The main character, Abby, finds out that she has an older sister who was adopted.  She and Savvy start communicating without telling any of their parents and agree to meet at a summer camp.  There was a lot of potential here to explore the dynamics between the two sisters and how they related with the adults involved, but Lord’s writing gets sucked into typical YA drama, with way too many pages spent on Abby’s crush on her best friend, Leo.  This was definitely a story that would have been significantly better without the love story aspect.  I was looking for an adoption story with Parent Trap vibes and instead got boring YA-romance angst with bits of adoption drama thrown in.  It made the story feel rather choppy and disconnected.  All in all, it wasn’t a bad read, it just wasn’t for me.

The Broken Earth Trilogy // by N.K. Jemison

Oh man, I was SO CLOSE to actually being caught up on book reviews and stuff… and then somehow the entire end of January just disappeared!!! So here I am in February, writing up some January reviews!

  • The Fifth Season
  • The Obelisk Gate
  • The Stone Sky

I’ve had this series on my TBR for quite some time, so when Jemison came up as January’s #AuthoraMonth on Litsy, I decided it was time to finally read them. While the world-building was excellent and the concept quite good, this story was also relentlessly depressing, which made it a difficult read for me. There is also one view of the narrative that’s told in second person – it was annoying to start with and only got more annoying as the story progressed. Even when I found out who was talking and why – I was still aggravated because not only was it second person, it was second person present tense, which literally made ZERO sense within the context of the tale. Finally, the conclusion of the story really depends on the motivations and actions of one character who I felt was entirely too young for that scenario to make sense – and even if she was older, I still wouldn’t have really believed that she was willing to destroy the world because of this one certain situation, which meant that the entire third book/conclusion to the story arc left me feeling a little so-so about the entire series.

I was going to say some more about these books (mostly complain about the second person thing), but now it’s been a month since I read them and a lot of my stronger feelings have faded haha In the end – interesting but so depressing that I’m not really planning to read any more of Jemison’s books. I also felt like there was a strongly polemic undertone about racism that at times felt a little like I was getting clunked in the head with it, and that wore on me after a while.

All in all, I don’t exactly recommend this trilogy, but if it sounds intriguing to you, it’s worth giving it a try. In retrospect, the story telling really must have been pretty strong for me to stick out even though all that second person nonsense, but that really did drive me absolutely crazy.

The Grace Year // by Kim Liggett

//published 2019//

This book, set during a time that may or more not be frontier days in the US, in a world that may or may not be the same as our own, is about a young woman in a small village.  The young woman, who is also the narrator, is named Tierney, is on the brink of experiencing what is known as the “Grace Year.”  This village believes that young women, when they reach puberty, begin to develop a magic that is so powerful and dangerous that they must be sent off into the wilderness, to an island where they live for a year, releasing their magic so that they can return back home to, of course, be oppressed wives in this absurdly patriarchal town where men are all power-hungry, cruel, and abusive, and can have their wives put to death just by saying that the wife did some magic.

The girls head off to the compound in the wilderness.  Some of them aren’t sure whether or not they even have magic, but another part of the group yearns to experience it.  Soon all the girls are acting completely out of their heads, and we get plenty of delightful violence.  Meanwhile, if a girl leaves the compound, she’s immediately (and brutally) murdered by a group of men who make their living by killing grace year girls every year, then chopping them up into bits and pieces and selling those bits and pieces back to the people in the village so they can eat them for vague reasons that are never actually made clear – aphrodisiac? Eternal youth? Who knows?

Anyway, Tierney tries to bring the girls together, but has little success for the most part.  She spends a LOT of time wandering around bemoaning her fate (pretty boring), then gets almost killed and spends a really long time recovering/falling in love (SUPER boring), then goes back to the compound to free the minds of the girls she’s left behind (mostly boring), before going back to the village so that basically nothing can change except the women become slightly less suspicious of each other (ish).

Here’s the thing.  This story was… okay.  Tierney isn’t particularly likable or interesting.  The reveals about the society are handed out in a way that feels very stuttered.  I think Liggett is going for some kind of shock factor with each one, but instead drags it out to the point that I’m more confused than anything (and bored.  Did I mention that already?  Sorry.)  So … we let random people hunt and kill the girls during their grace year?  So … we chop up the girls and sell their parts for people to eat for… random reasons that are left vague?  So … the girls don’t actually get rid of all their magic during the grace year since women can be accused of having magic at any point in their lives so the entire thing feels completely pointless?  So … if a girl doesn’t return from the grace year, all of her younger sisters get thrown out of town?  So … returning as body parts in a jar is considered returning and your little sisters DON’T get thrown out of town??  Yet the whole eating the body parts things is like kind of a shameful secret – or is it??  What even is the societal structure?  How do you have a town that produces 1/4 the number of males as females?  Is this entire situation because these people are seriously inbred?  How does no one ever leave or come to this isolated village?  Why do all the women hate each other?

Seriously, I had no idea what was happening half the time, and the other half of the time I was being BORED OUT OF MY MIND by being “subtly” preached to about the evils of the entire male sex while AT THE SAME TIME the author has Tierney be rescued not once, not twice, but THREE times BY A MAN, while at the same time acting SO obnoxious and superior to the men who have protected her.  I just.  Why.

Plus, there were absolute loads of completely illogical moments.  My personal favorite is late in the fall, Tierney accidentally spills vegetable seeds on the top of a hill that we’re repeatedly told is windy and rocky, yet when she comes back in the spring, they have not only sprouted on their own (despite being planted in the completely wrong season) but have somehow turned into an incredibly productive garden, full of produce… also at the wrong season.  How amazing!  Maybe magic is real after all!

To me, the themes of this book are so, so, SO tired and boring.  These days, as long as you write a book full of buzz words and trendy opinions (wow, so edgy to write a book about how ALL MEN ARE EVIL and ALL RELIGION IS A TOOL FOR EVIL MEN TO REPRESS ALL WOMEN), your story is automatically lauded as “deep” and “insightful”.  I’m mind blown by all the positive reviews for this one on Goodreads – my personal favorites say things like, “This will inspire women to rise up and take control of their own destinies!”  Because yes, that’s right, women in the US today definitely don’t have THE SAME EXACT RIGHTS as men and need a book with an incredibly boring, choppy, unrealistic plot to inspire them.

All this book inspired me to do was poke my own eyes out from boredom.  I just don’t think that stories about women being completely and utterly oppressed by a bunch of jerks is particularly inspiring, especially when nothing in this book was about the women truly coming together, uniting, or working together.  There’s one really nice guy out of the entire village who also is someone in a position of power and who actually cares about Tierney, but instead of working with him and finding a way to make true change in their society, Tierney basically just hides away and treats him like trash.  Wow, so inspiring.

I read this one for my traveling book club – it’s obviously not my style of book.  I didn’t exactly hate every page, and at the beginning I thought there was maybe going to be something interesting out of it.  There was one plot twist that I didn’t see coming and actually was interesting.  The rest was appalling dull, unnecessarily violent, and completely pointless.

Off Planet // by Aileen Erin

NB: I received this book via NetGalley, which doesn’t impact my review.

//published 2019//

Every once in a while I find a paranormal series that I actually really like.  It’s rare, and it’s kind of a weird thing because it doesn’t seem like a genre I should enjoy at all, but here we are.  Last summer I thoroughly enjoyed Aileen Erin’s Alpha Girl series and signed up for her newsletter, which is what led me to the ARC of her newest book, Off Planet, the first in a new series, due to be published later this month.

Overall, I enjoyed this read and definitely am looking forward to the next in the series.  It’s an interesting concept, decent world building, and a mostly likable main character.  I liked that friendships were an important part of this story, and there was enough sass between the characters to keep me reading.

The pacing was good for the most part, but did somewhat drag in the middle where it felt like the torturing of Maite went on and on and on and ON.  Consequently, the ending seemed more rushed to me as Erin wrapped up some loose ends, leaving a complete story that still has plenty of lead-ins for the sequel.  I felt like more story could have taken place after Maite escaped, rather than literal chapters of her struggling to survive in a never-ending sequence of performing the same task repeatedly.

Throughout the majority of the book I admired Maite for her strength, stubbornness, loyalty, and determination to do the right thing.  That’s why her sudden character change at the end of the book felt out of place.  Trying to avoid spoilers here, but it’s not exactly a surprise to find out that Maite has A Destiny, and the way she wigs out about it honestly aggravated me.  Like, you’ve spent the whole book being willing to do whatever it takes to protect the people you love, but suddenly your life is all about you and what you want and how hard your life is why does everyone always want you to do stuff blah blah blah.  It really felt like the Maite at the end of the book was completely different from the Maite I’d read about for previous 90% of the story, and that frustrated me.  I think the book may have flowed more smoothly if Maite had been less perfect throughout the beginning of the book – then her flipping out over her Destiny wouldn’t have felt as jarring.

A personal drawback to this story was the frequent swearing.  I find swearing, especially f-ing things, to be 100% unnecessary, and it’s something that really brings down a book’s overall enjoyment for me.  Erin’s characters had some of their own slang/swearing, and I would much preferred that to be developed and used as a way to express outrage and frustration, rather than just falling back on boring f*s.  Obviously swearing doesn’t bother lots of people (maybe even most people), so that’s a personal thing.  Otherwise, the book was pretty clean – no explicit sex scenes or anything like that.

I feel like I always spend more time on the negatives than the positives when I’m reviewing the book.  Despite my griping, I really did thoroughly enjoy this story.  I loved the creative setting, and I’m rarely against the trope of Evil Corporations Stealing Your Soul! – and it’s done well here.  The alien aspect really fit well into the overall sci-fi vibe, and I personally love sci-fi that doesn’t spend too much time explaining the specifics of the sci bits haha  Except for the slightly-repetitive middle (which, I’ll admit, does serve the purpose of showing Maite’s strength of character), the pacing was good, and it was definitely a book I wanted to come back to when I wasn’t reading it.  While I’m little scared of the developing love triangle (please, let’s just NOT develop the love triangle, seriously), I’m overall super intrigued to read the next installment.  The bummer about reviewing ARCs is you have to wait such a long time for sequels…

All in all, Off Planet was an easy 3.5* teetering towards a full 4*, and if you like your sci-fi on the lite side, this may be the read for you.

PS Have to say that this cover is SO much better than the original cover that I see floating around.

Enclave // by Thomas Locke

//published 2018//

So I hate reading books out of order, like a LOT.  Consequently, my favorite thing about Goodreads is that it (usually) tells me when a book is part of a series.  According to Goodreads, Enclave is NOT such a book.  The problem is – it felt like a book that was part of a series.

There’s a lot going for this book.  The premise is great.  Set around a century after the “Great Crash,” America looks nothing like it does today.  Instead, a lack of electricity and gasoline means that people have gone back to doing things the old-fashioned way.  And instead of a central government over a bunch of states, there are lots of city-states known as enclaves.  Each enclave has its own rules and its own hierarchy.  And much like the wild west, in this America, the strongest rule.

So great premise, right?  The problem is, I got most of that from the synopsis of the book, not from the book itself.  While I sometimes enjoy the world-building method that doesn’t specifically explain things, but instead allows the reader to observe how things work, unfortunately Locke doesn’t particularly do either.  There aren’t any explanations at all, and there isn’t always anything clear to observe.  For instance, everyone is riding horses.  Then, later, some of the characters ride a Greyhound bus (albeit an old, decrepit one).  So… there is some gas?  Where is it?  Why doesn’t everyone have access to it any more?  Is it just really expensive?  Do we just not have contact with any Middle Eastern countries any more?  If it’s so expensive, how can people afford to ride a bus?

It also seems crazy to me that people seem to know how to do stuff again, like make their own clothes/shoes, forage in the woods, make whisky, whatever.  I don’t really know a lot of people who can do those things, and I live in a pretty rural area.  It seems like if there really was a “Great Crash” (which is also never explained – was it a financial crash?  Another dust bowl?  All the power grids collapsed?  A nuclear bomb?  ??????), there would also end up being a significant amount of death, because I’m not really sure how people would survive if suddenly no one had access to a supermarket.  I realize this book is set a hundred years after said Crash, but it honestly still seems like the population would be struggling to catch back up.

I really liked the characters, and I liked the direction Locke went with the story, but I was constantly distracted by questions that were never answered, which really detracted from the enjoyment of this read.  It really felt like this was the second or third book in a series.  Even the way the characters were introduced felt like I should already kinda sorta know about them.

Still, I was set to give this book a solid 3.5* until the end.  The end just… stops.  Nothing is resolved.  I mean literally nothing.  It’s like Locke had a limit on how many pages he could have in his book, and he just wrote until he got there and then just stopped.  I presuming – hoping?! – that this is the first book in a series.  If so, I would rate this book slightly higher.  But if this is genuinely a standalone book, it really lacks credible world-building and any conclusions to the plot lines followed.

I really did enjoy this book while I was reading it, and would definitely read another book in a series.  But as a standalone, I wouldn’t come back to this one.

NB: This book was provided to me free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

The Infinity Trilogy // by S. Harrison // #20BooksofSummer

  • Infinity Lost (2015)
  • Infinity Rises (2016)
  • Infinity Reborn (2016)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an unfortunate addiction to getting free/very cheap Kindle books even though I know – know! – that most of them are terrible.  Recently, I took the time to actually sort through the gajillion Kindle titles I own and get them into some semblance of order so I can start actually reading them.  Because I have OCD about reading books in order if they are part of a series, it’s been important to me to find out of if books I own are actually part of something bigger or not.

Anyway, I have a complicated rotation schedule that I use to decide which books to read next, and Kindle books are now part of the rotation, reading through them oldest to newest.  Infinity Lost was an early Kindle purchase, and since I have owned it since October 2015, I thought it was time to finally give it a read!

These were weird books in that they were a bit hard to categorize.  They were kind of pre-dystopian in a way – a story of someone trying to prevent the worldwide catastrophe from happening.  It’s not too far into the future, but technology is doing so much more for humanity.  Many of the advances have been made by a specific company owned by a guy named Richard Blackstone.  The series is about his daughter, Infinity aka Finn.

The story starts when Finn is 17 and away at school.  She’s started having these really weird dreams where she dreams about something that happened in her childhood, except in the dream, it’s completely different than what she remembers happening in real life.  The dream version is usually much stranger and more violent than the reality version.  Except now Finn is starting to wonder which of the versions is actually reality…

Finn’s best friend and roommate is Bit, a computer genius.  When the announcement is made that a field trip has been scheduled for the remote and rarely-visited Blackstone Technologies HQ, Finn has a sneaking suspicion that Bit may have had something to do with it.  No one else at school knows who Finn’s father is, because she is there under a different name for security reasons.  Finn has never met her famous father and was raised on a fancy estate by servants and a military commander named Jonah.

At first, the field trip is awe-inspiring and exciting.  But things quickly go south when the technology is hijacked by a rogue force that seems intent on killing Finn – and doesn’t care who else is in the way.

This was a really engaging story, and I was definitely hooked in while reading the first book.  I wanted to find out about all of Finn’s mysteries, including this strange alternate ego who seems to be lurking within her.  Although this book had a few spots of violence that was more gruesome than my usual fare, I was willing to skim over those bits to get to the story.  The first book was a 3.5* read and left me intrigued to read the next story.

Full disclosure is that the next two books were around $4 each, and even though I was interested in Finn’s life, I’m not sure I was $8 interested, which may say something about my true level of engagement with the story.  However, they were also available on Kindle Unlimited, so I decided to embrace another free month’s subscription and read them that way.

I was very glad I had not paid $4 for the second book, as I don’t see myself ever rereading it.  It definitely suffered from second book syndrome.  A lot of what was happening definitely felt like filler.  There was tons of violence – people don’t just die, they’re shredded or liquefied or get their faces melted or are torn apart, all in full detail.  I skipped loads of paragraphs.  The actual story part wasn’t bad, but it was confusing, because for some reason Harrison decided to have the book start with Finn getting dragged into a bunker almost dead, and then tell what led up to that through a bunch of weird flashbacks, which also involved some other flashbacks, interspersed with conversations of the people trying to bring Finn back around in the present (?).  The timeline was very confusing and disorienting.  I think Harrison was trying to emphasize the differences between Finn and the anti-Finn, Infinity, but it was overly complicated.

Infinity Reborn was a bit better.  Now that we finally had most of the backstory filled in, the narrative actually proceeded in a somewhat orderly manner.  There was still too much violence for my taste, but by this time I was completely committed to finding out how everything wrapped up.

While the ending was satisfying for the most part, I still did have some unanswered questions, and I definitely felt like the future was still in jeopardy.  The biggest threat had been removed, yes, but there were still a lot of ??!?! situations floating around.  Like what’s happening with all the Blackstone tech, and why Zero’s identity had been kept a secret and is he still a real person underneath all of that, and why Finn’s dual personality situation was just magically fine now, and what’s going to happen with the technology that made Finn who she was, and whether or not the Infinity project is still considered military property, and a lot of other things.  The big issues were concluded, but a lot of the smaller questions were just kind of swept under the rug with a “everyone lived happily ever after” kind of conclusion.

All in all, I did enjoy these books as a one-time read and would give the trilogy a 3.5* rating overall.  However, they aren’t books I see myself rereading at any point in the future, and they didn’t make me desperate to search out more of Harrison’s writing, either.

Infinity Lost is Book #7 for #20BooksofSummer (#6 is A Wrinkle in Time, which I have read but won’t review until I read a few more L’Engle books and review them together).  The current list can be found here.

June Minireviews – Part 1

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me…

The Wrath & the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

//published 2015//

I’ve seen this book pop up here and there on various lists and reviews.  A retelling of One Thousand and One Nights (ish), it’s set in a desert country where magic isn’t an impossibility, even if it isn’t terribly common.

I really wanted to like this book, but I honestly just found it rather boring.  The first half of the book is soooo slow.  Basically nothing happens except listening to Shahrzad have a lot of feelings.  She purposely becomes Khalid’s bride so she can get revenge on him because she hates him so much, but it takes her roughly .03 seconds to fall in love with him, and then we have PAGES of her agonizing about her feelings and wondering how she can have sympathy for this horrific monster.  I’m not a huge fan of instalove, but I can understand its sometimes necessity to make a story (kind of) work, but in this case it verged on the absurd.  I will say that what I did like was that eventually Shahrzad and Khalid have a REAL CONVERSATION where they both explain their back stories and are honest with each other, which I really, really appreciated because I HATE it when characters lie to this person they supposedly love more than life itself.  But that conversation happens way further down the line than it should have.

Initially I was still planning to read the second book just to see how everything comes out, but life interfered and it was a few days before I had an opportunity to pick it up.  That’s when I realized that I actually just didn’t care enough to plow through another 400 pages.  The Wrath & the Dawn wasn’t a bad book, and I think that if I had gone straight into the second book I would have probably enjoyed that at about that same middling level, but in the end I just wasn’t that intrigued.  There were things I liked about this book, but the overall incredibly slow pace combined with characters who pretty much do nothing but have a lot of feelings (we hear about Shahrzad’s the most, but they ALL have LOTS of feelings) meant that this was really only a 3/5 read for me.

The Man With Two Left Feet & Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse

//published 1917//

Fun little collection of Wodehouse tales – and incidentally the first time that the Bertie/Jeeves duo makes an appearance.  While these were entertaining stories, it was interesting because they lack the guaranteed lightheartedness of his later works.  While they definitely aren’t downers by any definition, there are little things that made me realize just how careful Wodehouse was to keep his best works completely frothy and untouched by any sad realities!  While this may not be the best place to start if you are new to Wodehouse, they’re definitely worth visiting at some point.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

//published 1977//

It’s kind of weird, because I put books on my TBR and then forget about them for years, then my random number generator chooses my next book… and then it turns out that it’s becoming a movie??  This is the second time this has happened to me this year!  I had had Ready Player One on my TBR forever, and then after I read it I found out it was becoming a movie in less than a month.  (Side note: Still haven’t done a compare/contrast on book v. movie for that one even though I have been wanting to ever since I saw the movie!!)  The same thing happened here – I got this book out from the library (it’s been on the TBR since 2015), and then realized that I had seen a trailer for the upcoming movie.  So weird.

ANYWAY this book was a solid sci-fi read that I did mostly enjoy, but with kind of mixed feelings.  I think what it really came down to was that it was a sad book.  Everyone is so mean to Ender (“for the good of humanity”) and I never enjoy reading books where a character is just being consistently bullied and hurt.  There were also some random scenes of violence that seemed abrupt and disturbing to me.

I couldn’t quite get my head around the ages of these kids.  I realize that’s supposed to be part of the controversy, but seriously?  Six years old?  I just couldn’t buy it.  I think this story would have made a lot more sense if Ender had been more like ten when the story started.  I just can’t imagine even a mind-blowing genius six-year-old having the emotional capacity to make the decisions Ender was making.

All in all, this was a thoughtful book, with a lot to really chew on, but the tone was a bit too heavy/downer for my personal tastes, so even though I gave this book 4*, I decided not to continue with the series.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

//published 1998//

This was a childhood favorite that is still a delight.  If you’re looking for just a fun, fluffy little fairytale retelling, this one is a great afternoon read.  It’s a children’s book so it goes quickly, but despite its short(ish) length, there is still enough world-building to give the reader a solid glimpse into Ella’s life and home.  I hadn’t read this one in several years, and I was happy to see how well it has held up.

Ready Player One // by Ernest Cline

//published 2011//

Wade Watts is your typical high schooler.  He goes to school every day and attends classes, eats lunch, takes notes, and tries to avoid the bullies.  Except the year is 2044, and the school Wade attends is part of an online virtual reality called OASIS.

Basically everyone has an OASIS account and spends as much time there as possible, since the real world (of course) sucks.  I actually almost didn’t continue reading this book after having to sit through multiple pages of Wade explaining how God is a myth, people driving cars destroyed the entire earth, and Republicans ruined the economy.  Polemic much?  But I’m glad I stuck it out, because after we got done listening to Wade griping about how if only stupid conservatives had agreed to let the government force everyone to drive electric cars the world would be perfect, an actual story emerged and I was totally hooked.

The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, died five years before the story begins, and left behind his company and a ridiculous amount of money.  But instead of naming a specific person or entity to be his heir, he left behind a quest and a clue – and the person(s) to solve the quest would inherit everything.  Of course, this has led to all sorts of shenanigans and, among other things, created an entire huge group of people who do basically nothing except try to solve the first clue.  Wade is one of these people (“gunters”), albeit one who doesn’t feel like he has much chance of success.  He’s poor, which means he’s stuck on only a couple of the very basic planets in the OASIS with no opportunities to really get out and explore/hunt for the clue.

Halliday grew up in the 1980’s, and was obsessed with the stuff of his youth.  Many of his creations in OASIS reflect this, and most gunters believe that it’s super important to have a thorough working knowledge of all things 80’s culture.  This actually gave a really fun dimension to this book, with the futuristic virtual reality balanced with the retro 80’s tidbits.

Of course, it’s no real surprise when Wade has a bit break through in the quest, and things get crazy from there.  Although the quest is taking place in a virtual universe, there is a lot of real-life money on the line, and Wade soon finds himself a target to a big company that wants to win the quest so they can take over Halliday’s company, money, and OASIS.

One thing that was cracking me up when I was reading this was that Halliday grew up in Ohio, and eventually headquartered his company in our state capital, Columbus.  Hearing Columbus described as a “mecca of technology” totally made my day.

There were some things about this book that kept it from being perfect (beyond the preaching in the first chapter).  The pace definitely slowed in the middle, when a lot of the quest action was taking place separate from Wade (who is the narrator as well as the protagonist, so the story always stays with him) and Wade is busy dealing with romantic feelings (booooorrriinnnnggg).  The ending felt a little too simple/abrupt – an epilogue would have been really nice, to hear how some of the details got wrapped up.  Weirdly, I felt like the message wasn’t clear in this book.  I kind of assumed the Cline would be pointing out the importance of embracing real life, etc. – but that didn’t really come through.  In some ways, he seemed to act like a virtual future is the only bright one we have.

But all in all, this book was just a fun ride.  I was completely glued to the pages, and could hardly read fast enough in some places.  I really liked Wade a lot.  It seemed like although there tons of references to video games/movies/music/1980’s, it didn’t interfere with the plot, and didn’t deter me from enjoying the book even when it was something I had never heard of.  I felt like Wade did a good job describing what I needed to know in order to understand the next part of the story, but without slowing down the plot.  It was just a fun rollick of a read, and I intend both to add this one to my permanent collection, and to check out more of Cline’s work.  4/5 and recommended.

PS I originally read about this book many moons ago when Sophie reviewed it.  Check out her review here!

The Bees // by Laline Paull

//published 2014//

When this book was published a few years ago, I felt like I kept seeing it crop up  here and there.  The thing that drew me to it were the comparisons to Watership Down, which is a book that I really do enjoy, despite the fact that it’s a bit dark.  I actually like books about animals wherein the animals are still basically true to their actual nature.  (The book – not movie, obviously – Bambi also does this quite well.)  I also find bees to be quite intriguing and complex creatures – such an involved and precise colony of activity!

However, The Bees just didn’t quite deliver for me.  It had its moments, but the main problem was that there was basically no plot.  We meet our heroine, Flora 717, as she is emerging into adulthood.  And then the rest of the story is just Flora kind meandering around from here to there.  While the rest of the bees are subject to a very strict caste system – the family you belong to (Flora, Sage, Teasel, etc.) dictates your role in the hive – Flora 717 is an unusually large and strong bee, and is able to perform different jobs throughout her life, rather than just being the sanitation worker her type would normally be.  This allows the reader to see various levels of the hive, but added a rather disjointed feeling to the story.  Flora’s character felt like a tool Paull was using to take us around the hive.  Eventually, the number of times that Flora very narrowly escaped death also became rather implausible.  I mean, how much luck can one bee have?!

Paull sets up the hive as a theocracy.  The Queen is the Mother Bee and a goddess; the Sage are her priestesses who make sure that everyone is following their castes’ set duties; there prayers and religious ceremonies at set times of day, etc.  Overall this worked, although I was honestly disturbed when Paull rewrote the Lord’s Prayer to fit her weird bee religion – it felt a bit sacrilegious to take what is a very sacred text to many and use it in this context.  Religion is used to control all the bees – Accept. Obey. Serve.

Part of the problem with this story on the whole is that bees do really weird stuff in real life, and it was sometimes hard to differentiate between what was physically possible for bees to do, and what Paull was exaggerating for the sake of her story.  For instance, Flora 717 lays an egg, despite the fact that she has never mated with one of the drones.  I was super confused by this.  How is this even possible?  Finally, I had to actually look it up and see – and it turns out that male bees are created asexually, while female bees are produced sexually!  (Actually, it gets even weirder – did you know that a queen bee only makes one mating flight in her entire life?  During that flight, she mates with multiple drones, and actually stores their sperm inside of her.  This sperm lasts her entire life – usually around 4 years!  She lays thousands of eggs in that time span, and the queen determines at the time of laying whether or not an egg will be fertilized, and thus female, or not fertilized, and thus male.  How bizarre is that?!  And as a side note, the drone is killed during mating, as the process actually tears off his penis!??!  Bees are WEIRD.)  And I guess I can’t really expect Paull to put that all in her book, but it was still really confusing and distracting at the time.

Throughout, the story is arbitrarily violent.  I think this was to illustrate the ruthless society of the bees, which was fine, but I didn’t need all the gory detail.  I also couldn’t find any information wherein female bees actually kill the drones at the end of the season – they usually just drive them out of the hive and let them die.  So that whole slaughter-scene, which was genuinely gross, was one of the ones where apparently Paull was exaggerating to make her story more exciting.

And maybe it wasn’t exactly the violence that bothered me as much as just the overall crudity?  There are an awful lot of sexual references for a book comprised of almost all females who don’t actually mate, and, like I said, so much violence in descriptive depth.  There is also this thing where all the bees are way into waiting on the drones and catering to their every whim, etc. all in a very sexual way – which is kind of disturbing considering the drones are all their brothers??  Like it just felt super weird and uncomfortable to me, especially when the drones are having the workers groom them in very personal/sexual ways – it was just WEIRD.

There was also this kind of small but still annoying thing to me where the bees are having a very difficult time making enough food because of a very wet summer, yet the beekeeper still comes and steals honey from them.  I realize that Paull is trying to present this from the perspective of the bees, who would obviously be distressed by this, but she definitely comes through as being very negative about people interfering with bees.  I actually know multiple people who do raise bees, and absolutely none of them would endanger the hive by taking food that the bees actually need to survive the winter – it’s completely counterproductive!  Beekeeping has actually become very important as places for wild hives are becoming more restricted and there are so many problems with disease.  Beekeepers work with and for their hives, not against them.  While some of Paull’s presentations of humans – for instance, spraying pesticide on a field that then leads to bees dying – comes through as reasonable, this particular scene made no sense to me, because no beekeeper would take honey that the bees need.

In the end (this whole paragraph is spoilers) there is this whole thing where the queen gets sick and dies and the hive goes kind of crazy and then two of the battling factions of bees each produce their own potential queen bee – with no explanation has to how these bees could suddenly lay a female egg on their own.  Like it makes a little bit of sense when Flora does it, only because I had done all this bee research so I could actually make sense out of this stupid book, and it was obvious that Flora was at least partially a South African bee, some of which can produce females asexaully.  But we are given no reason to believe that any of the other bees are anything but the standard honey bee variety, so none of them should have been able to just hatch a female bee.  So that was weird.

I was also a little confused because at times the bees were 100% animals, yet at others there were strange humanizing moments.  For instance, at one point there is a reference to one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting doing something with embroidery – as though she had an actual embroidery hoop like a human lady-in-waiting.  At another point, there is this weird scene where some of the worker bees are serving the drones and it says something about the drones touching them in a sexual way… and I just have no idea how a drone bee can molest a worker bee?  Sometimes Paull would reference a bee’s “hands” when bees don’t actually have hands.  It just felt like Paull wasn’t sure how much she wanted to humanize the bees, and the inconsistency was confusing.

Because there wasn’t really much of a story, I wasn’t really sure what Paull was trying to say, either.  Was she just writing about bees?  Or was she trying to give us some kind of message about class or religion?  (In case you were wondering, the religion is presented pretty negatively, of course – a drug for controlling the masses; a tool for the elite few to use to control those masses.)  I wasn’t really sure and never had a clear idea of what the point of this whole book was.

All in all, 2/5 for The Bees.  I wanted to like this book because I like bees and I like books about nature.  But there just wasn’t enough cohesive story to make up for the crudity and violence throughout.  It’s also annoying when I have to stop reading a book and do research to find out whether or not the author is making crap up or if it’s true.  I think this book would have benefited from a short introduction that basically said, “Bees are crazy!” and explained a few of the weirder parts of bee society that are actually true.  Despite not really enjoying this book, I was weirdly drawn into it and wanted to find out what happened.  I also kept hoping that I would start liking it, but I never did.

The Giver Quartet // by Lois Lowry

  • The Giver – 4.5/5 (published 1993)
  • Gathering Blue  – 3.5/5 (published 2000)
  • Messenger – 2/5 (published 2004)
  • Son – 3/5 (published 2012)

It had been many years since I originally read The Giver (and was mind-blown by it), and until recently I didn’t even realize that there were other books that followed it.  So I was pretty excited to dive into this quartet.  However, while I found The Giver as brilliant as ever, I felt that the other books really dropped off, especially Messenger, and, to some extent, Son.  I’m not even sure that I can give this series a rating as a whole because of the wildly differing ratings between books.  I guess a 3/5 overall, but I strongly recommend reading The Giver even if you decide to give the other books a miss.  And you totally can, because while the rest of the books sometimes involve characters from the first book, none of them really build on themes from the first book – and it’s the themes that make The Giver so fantastic.

There will definitely be spoilers throughout the rest of this review, as it’s impossible to really rant without spoilers.  So if you intend to read the series, do that first and then come back and see if you agree with me…

The Giver is a brilliant book that reveals everything in perfect time.  As the reader slowly grows to understand the community where Jonas lives, it becomes more and more creepy, and it’s done just so, so well.  It’s not a very long book, or one full of lengthy descriptions or conversations, but it’s very brevity is part of what makes it so amazing.  The concept of individuality and feelings exchanged for safety is really intriguing.

For me personally, the only let down is the ending, which is rather strange and ambiguous.  First off, the plan that the Giver and Jonas hatched never really made sense to me.  The reason that the original Receiver’s memories returned to the community was because she died, and it doesn’t really make sense to me that Jonas just leaving the community would release those memories to the people.  The ending, with Jonas and the sled is also just really weird.  Like is there an actual sled?  Is Jonas just hallucinating?  Does he actually die out in the snow or does he really make it to safety?  The ending is abrupt and a little strange, which is why the book doesn’t get the full 5* for me.  However, part of that is just personal opinion.

Gathering Blue is listed as a companion novel, not a sequel.  However, I would not have even placed it as that if I had just come across it at random.  The story takes place in a completely different location with a completely different culture.  Still, it was a good story overall.  I really liked Kira, and watching her discover things about her village was intriguing, a similar self-discovery path to Jonas’s in the first book, this concept that just because things “always have been” doesn’t necessarily make them right.

However, I still had some questions about this book.  Like what is the whole thing with the Beasts?  It seems obvious that they aren’t real and are being used as a method of manipulation by the village’s leaders, but that’s never really made clear.  Overall, the village leaders’ whole purpose isn’t really explained in any way.  Apparently they are trying to control the people to… what?  They’ve made sure they have control over certain talented youth in the village, but we never find out exactly what they plan to do with them.

And again, an ambiguous ending.  So Kira is going to stay and ‘fix’ things – but how?  Just by weaving some cloth?  There aren’t really any answers, and I wasn’t particularly left with confidence in her ability to change the whole village.  Overall, I enjoyed the story, but was a bit let down by the vague ending and the complete lack of connection to The Giver.

I don’t really know what I was expecting when I opened Messenger, but what I got was… weird.  This whole book felt extremely strange, and I don’t know if I am just getting worse at understanding things, or if it really doesn’t make any sense.  First off, it got strangely… supernatural, I guess.  The first two books felt like they could be real, a future world but still our world.  But in Messenger, the gifts that people like Kira had in Gathering Blue suddenly become Gifts, and they are a strange supernatural ability that transcends understanding – it felt like this was a weird fantasy book instead of something dystopian like the first two books.  I mean, Matty can heal things just by putting his hands on them and thinking about it??

The forest, which was just a… well, forest, in Gathering Blue suddenly becomes Forest, a restless and potentially malevolent force that physically attacks people, determining whether or not they can ever reenter the woods.  Just…  ????

We find out that Jonas arrived at the village where Matty now lives (Matty was Kira’s friend in Gathering Blue, and these two villages are few days’ travel apart).  This is the first we’ve come across Jonas since The Giver, and apparently he and Gabe literally arrived on a sled?  So there really was a sled on top of the hill?  Like… why?  Why was a sled just sitting by a tree?  Did Forest put it there since apparently it just does whatever it wants?  Anyway, since then, even though Jonas is still just a teenager, he has become the leader of this village (“Leader”, because everyone receives their “true name” when they become an adult, so they are basically known by some random quality instead of a name – Mentor, Healer, Herbalist, Seer, etc. also strange).  He also has a Gift.  In The Giver it made sense that Jonas “saw beyond” because what he was actually seeing were things that the other people from his town had been genetically modified to not see, e.g. color, etc.  But in Messenger, Jonas/Leader is able to actually see things beyond his literal line of sight – so he can ‘see’ the progress Matty is making through Forest, etc.

So yeah, the Gifts become kind of weird, and suddenly the story no longer feels like it’s a future version of our world, but like it’s something entirely different, which put everything off-kilter for me.  And this doesn’t even get into the weird Trademaster thing, where this strange guy shows up and people from Village can go and trade with him, except apparently they are actually trading parts of themselves?  And in exchange they start getting mean and nasty, but then in the end Matty magically heals Forest and Village and everything and everyone just goes back to normal…  I guess?!?!  It was a really weird book and I felt confused literally the entire time I was reading it.

Finally, we get to Son.  This book started really well.  It’s about Gabe’s birthmother, Claire.  Of course, in the community where Jonas and Gabe came from, people don’t have children naturally; certain females are chosen to be inseminated and bear a Product.  Now the book already started weird to me because apparently the community had the Birthmothers have their first pregnancy at age 14??  And while this is quite possible, it doesn’t really fit in with everything else in the community, which is done at maximum efficiency.  Like age 14 is not the ideal age to have your first child, so I don’t feel like that is really when they would have impregnated the Birthmothers.  But whatever.

Anyway, basically Son starts as a kind of prequel/parallel to The Giver, except from Claire’s perspective.  Something goes wrong during her birthing process and they have to surgically remove her baby.  However, during pregnancy, Birthmothers are exempt from taking the Pills that keep people from having feelings.  Claire is declared unfit to give birth again, and reassigned to the Fish Hatchery… but no one remembers to have her start taking the Pills.  So Claire is left with actual real feelings, and, like a natural mother, yearns to find/see/hold/have her own baby again.  She manages to locate him, and is able to visit him (without anyone knowing that she is his Birthmother, of course), and this is the whole first part of the book and is done really well.

Then.  Then the part comes where Jonas and Gabe run away.  Lowry conveniently has Claire escape from the community, but does it without really telling us how –

Years later – many years later – when Claire tried to piece together memories of her last days in the community, the last things she could see whole and clear were the bicycle moving away and the back of the child’s head.  The rest of the hours that followed were fragments, like bits of shattered glass.

So somehow Claire manages to get on a supply boat, ride out to the ocean, get shipwrecked, and then get washed up on a beach, all in about two pages with no real explanations.  This really felt like cheating.

Next, Claire ends up in a remote fishing village, that apparently has no way in or out??  Like they have this horrific path that no one can climb that goes straight up a cliff, or they can try to leave by boat except the currents are too dangerous.  I don’t mean to be weird here, but Lowry specifically says that no one could remember the last time a stranger arrived in their village… doesn’t it seem like this place would be horrifically inbred?  It felt extremely strange, again.

Eventually Clarie regains her memory and is determined to find her son.  A crippled guy helps her train to climb the cliff path.  He did it this one time, years and years ago, but conveniently remembers every single step of the way, down to the exact distances she is going to have to jump between rocks at certain places, so he makes her train FOR LITERAL ACTUAL YEARS and then she leaves.  Of course, she gets to the top, and guess who is there??  Trademaster!

By this point, I was so aggravated with this entire book that I almost didn’t finish it, and basically skimmed the rest.  Blah blah blah Claire trades her youth.  Oh surprise, she never bothers to tell Gabe that she’s his mother.  Instead, she just hangs out like a creeper in Village and watches him from afar.  Eventually Gabe has to go do a final battle with Trademaster because he has a Gift, of course.

It just.  It didn’t make sense.  None of it really made any sense.

So this review has gotten regrettably long and rambly, but the point is that I was really intrigued by these books, but then they just kept making less and less sense as they went along.  The Giver had a very tight, poignant narrative that was thought-provoking and eye-opening.  The rest of the books were just kind of weird fairy tales that didn’t seem to have much of a point.  I don’t regret reading them, but I don’t really see myself returning to them, either.