Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

The end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to come with a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion or a natural disaster that wipes the majority of the population. In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, it starts with a high fever that has a 98% fatality rate in men, 99% in women, and 100% in newborn babies. And while researchers identify the virus causing this, nobody manages to find a cure before the loss of human life is so significant that all governmental structures simply crumble.

 

The survivors are faced with a bleak future for the human race – with every baby born stillborn or dying shortly after birth, most often killing the mother as well, they might well be the last generation on Earth. People react differently to this news, but one thing is certain – it’s not fun or save to be a woman in this brave new world. There are bands of desperate men roaming around the ruins of our civilization for whom a woman is nothing more than a rare commodity and a slave, to be used and sold for other commodities. And a pregnancy might as well be a death sentence.

 

Our protagonist used to work in the OBGYN department in a San Francisco Hospital, but being a midwife is a dying profession as things stand. She survived the fever, but woke up to a world where meeting another human being was often more dangerous than meeting a pack of wolves.

 

This books is written as a mix between a series of diary entries and normal third person exposition. Most of the entries are by our unnamed midwife, though we also get stories from other people she meets along the way. That was a nice touch, because it gives the reader different perspectives into what is happening. Not everyone reacts the same to the seeming end of the world, which is normal, and I appreciated that the readers got to witness this story through several lenses.

 

But the main narrator is, of course, our unnamed midwife, though she isn’t unnamed per se. It’s just that she uses different names during the story, depending on the circumstances. I think by the end of the book, even she doesn’t remember what her real name was…

 

But constant name changes notwithstanding, I really liked her. She is a fighter. She is not one to roll over and give up, just because the situation seems dire and the future even bleaker. She adapts, she changes what she can in herself when she can’t change the external factors, and she presses on.

 

If it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman, she will dress like a man. But unlike a lot of other female protagonists we see, she doesn’t merely cut her hair and dress in bulky clothes, she tries to act, behave and think like a man. She exercises to bulk up. She practices with guns and other weapons until shooting is almost an automatic response.

 

I like just how tough and resourceful she is. How self-reliant. But that doesn’t mean that she is okay with living by herself the rest of her life. One of the problems this book tackles is the slow insanity that grips you when you spend too much time cut out from the rest of the world. Humans are social animals. We need to be able to interact with other humans on a regular basis, even a little, even just to hear somebody else’s voice answering you from time to time. And I understand why our unnamed midwife choses to join a community in the end, no matter how distrustful she’d become of other humans.

 

My review might have made it sound like this book is rather bleak and depressing. It kinda is, since it is a post-apocalyptic novel, after all. However, the overall message is one of hope. Life will find a way, no matter how bleak the circumstances…

 

So all in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the post-ap genre and would like to read something more realistic than the usual zombie fare.

A Witch’s Kitchen by Dianna Sanchez.

Stars: 5 out  of 5

 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer at the beginning of my review – this is a children’s book. Well, a Middle Grade book, but the point is that this is not my usual reading fare. In fact, I stumbled upon this book by mistake: I loved the cover on Netgalley and requested it without looking for the intended audience. Glad I did, because I loved it!

Millie thinks she is a useless witch who can’t do proper magic. None of the spells her mother tries to teach her turn out right. In fact, the only thing she can do and loves to do is cook, much to her mother’s disappointment. But then she is enrolled into the Enchanted Forest School and discovers that there are other kinds of magic then the one her mother uses and that maybe she isn’t as useless as she thought. She also makes some friends and a few enemies and uncovers the truth about who her father really is.

The story sounds simple when summarized like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its simplicity, this is a wonderful story that touches on some important topics like the importance of friends, the struggle to meet expectations and the desire to fit in, the difficult choices one has to make when deciding to follow a different path in life. It also talks about things like bullying at school and split families.

Oh, and you can really tell that the author loves cooking just as much as Millie does. The descriptions of most of the dishes Millie made in this book had me salivating and running for the fridge, though sadly, I didn’t have anything as good there to treat myself with.

Millie is a wonderful protagonist. She is shy and very self-conscious because all her life she considered herself a failure, a disappointment and a source of shame for her mother. She has zero self-esteem because she’d been mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by the other witch apprentices because of her inability to cast any “normal” witch spells. But that rather brutal upbringing didn’t turn her into an embittered hag. She managed to remain a very sweet girl who loves making others feel better with her cooking skill.  I like how she more self-assured once she makes some friends in school. Growing up is a hard and often painful process during which you can learn some rather unpleasant truths about people you considered your heroes when you were a child. I like that Millie stands up to her mother and decides to undertake the dangerous journey into the Logical Realm (aka our world) to find the truth about her father.

The Magical Realm of the Enchanted Forest is delightfully fleshed out. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic because it’s a children’s book, but it’s still full of depth and colors and different magical inhabitants, friendly or otherwise. I loved the School and the different creatures that teach there , and I kinda wish the book spent more time there, a bit like the Harry Potter books in Hogwards. I mean the caretaker is a giant tree! The whole school is located on its branches. And the Headmistress is a dragon. I would have loved to see what other classes were taught there, because the few that we saw seemed really interesting. Not that I’m disappointed with Millie’s journey into the Logical Real either, but talking about that would be a huge spoiler, so why don’t you find out about it for yourselves?

I don’t have kids, but I think A Witch’s Kitchen would be an excellent book to read with your middle grader on those fall evenings when the air turns colder and the sun sets earlier and paying outside is out of the question. I think there is something to enjoy in this story for both children and adults. So go on, buy it! You won’t regret it!

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

Can I just take a moment to say just how much I loved this book? It is rare to find something new in the overly saturated zombie apocalypse genre, so The Girl with all the Gifts was like a breath of fresh air. I loved the premise, I loved the story and the characters, and I loved the author’s unique take on the whole people turning into zombies trope.

Melanie’s life is a well-oiled routine. Every morning, she waits in her cell to be collected by armed guards and taken to class. She likes her classes. She learns all sorts of things about history and the world outside the Compound, a world she will probably never see, even though she likes to imagine herself exploring it when she lays in her bed during quiet time. Her teachers tell her that she was found wandering out there one day, but she doesn’t remember. They tell her that she is special. They call her “our little genius”, but the guns the guards keep pointed in her direction and the fear in their eyes tell her that there is more to the story than she suspects…

I love zombie apocalypse books, whether they are the “OMG shit just started happening and nobody knows why” genre or the “the world went to hell twenty years ago, how do we pick up the pieces” genre. My only requirement is that I get an interesting story with strong characters and no Deus ex machina in the end. And no gratuitous splatter gore that does nothing to advance the story. And that’s where a lot of books in this genre loose me, because a lot of authors concentrate on the horror of the situation (or the joyful elimination of throng upon throng of shuffling zombies) and forget that a story is first and foremost about people and how they change when faced with horrible situations.

That’s what I loved about this book. Since the world as we know it ended over twenty years ago, humanity has already come to terms with what happened, discovered why it happened and is how trying to recover and maybe find a cure. So even though the book doesn’t have the life or death urgency of the first days of the zombie outbreak books (at least in the beginning), this gives the author a chance to explore the drastic changes such an event would bring to the world and our civilization.

I liked the fact that we know what cause the outbreak. I like the fact that there is a scientific explanation that doesn’t sound too farfetched because it makes this story even more chilling. The hungries are not really zombies in the classical sense – they didn’t die and come back to life, they were overtaken by a parasite instead. So they are still alive, even though the parasite is the one at the wheel. And none of these half-rotting, shuffling nonsense either. The Hungries are fast and once they latch to your scent, they don’t stop until you kill them or they feed on you.

I also liked the overall message of this book that this outbreak isn’t something that can be reversed, that it’s only the next step in the evolution of our planet and of the human species as well. Yes, humans as we know them will perish and the first generation of hungries, but the next generation will be like Melanie -smart, strong and capable of individual thought, even though they will still be parasite carriers. Earth will be different than what we know now, but life will carry on and humans will still walk it.

I am actually really interested in revisiting this world and seeing what became of it say 10-20 years after the end of this book, so I am definitely preordering the next book in this series, The Boy on the Bridge, which comes out in May 2017.

Urban Shaman (The Walker Papers 1) by C. E. Murphy.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

 

I don’t give a one star review to a book very often. Usually, when a book is only worthy of one star in my opinion, it ends up in my DNF (Did Not Finish) pile, and I don’t write reviews on DNF because it wouldn’t be fair to the author if I reviewed something I didn’t finish.

 

But I actually stuck around until the very end of Urban Shaman, because I kept hoping that things would get better. Sadly, they didn’t, which is a shame, really, because the book is well written. There is plenty of action. I didn’t particularly hate the protagonist, even though I didn’t fall in love with her either. There are a few juicy pieces of worldbuilding that kept me interested and wanting to learn more… Problem is, the bad in this book outweighed the good, at least for me.

 

But first things first, Joanne Walker is a car mechanic working for the police department. She is also a mixt race, because her father was Native American and her mother Irish, though she knows little of either of those cultures (I’m not even sure it’s mentioned which Native American tribe her father belonged to, just that Joanne spent some time with the Native Americans in North Carolina). While on a plane back from Ireland where she attended her mother’s funeral, she spots a woman being chased by an armed man and decides to help as soon as the plane lands. This choice will change her life forever…

 

I can see you frowning in puzzlement and trying to re-read that last paragraph, but no, I didn’t make a mistake. Joanne spots a woman running away from a man armed with a knife FROM A DESCENDING plane. Wow, even Hawkeye from the Avengers would be impressed with that! Not only that, but she manages to triangulate the part of the city in which it happened “using basic math she learned at school” (I didn’t say that, the author did). Once again, I’m impressed. Even if I could see something this precise from a descending plane (again, the plane wasn’t even landing yet, but executing the descending approach), I would only have a vague idea where it happened even if I’m familiar with the city.

 

I kept hoping that this miraculous ability would be explained later in the book, but like most of the perks Joanne acquires, the only explanation we get goes along the lines of “it’s magic” or “it’s part of her shaman abilities”. I would be okay with that if there was a learning curve involved in discovering those shaman abilities, but that’s where this book is severely lacking.

 

Every time Joanne encounters a problem, a new ability lands on her lap to bail her out. Pierced by a sword and dying? No problem, let’s enter a trance and heal ourselves! Never mind that Joanne has never attempted a trance before or that healing people and repairing cars have very little in common.

 

Don’t know why the killer is targeting certain people? Let’s enter yet another trance, have an out of body experience and go talk to the ghosts of the victims. Never done that before? Not a problem. You’re a shaman. You instinctively know how to do things like that.

 

It’s that instinctive knowledge that I have a problem with. Shaman is like any other profession, if you think about it. Everyone starts not knowing what they are doing and become more and more proficient with training and experience. Knowledge doesn’t simply land in your lap when convenient. That’s lazy writing.

 

Another sign of lazy writing is how easily both Joanne and people around her accept the existence of the supernatural, even though this world is like ours – logical and materialistic, where supernatural elements stay hidden. Seriously, in the real world, the moment Joanne started spewing all that nonsense about the Wild Hunt and being a shaman to her direct supervisor, he would have called 911 and had her committed. Or he would have just driven her to the psychiatric ward himself, being a cop. Here, he just… accepts it. And he is only one in the long line of people who just take this in stride and roll with it. So much so that this complete non-resistance to the absurdity of the situation threw me completely out of the story on several occasions.

 

And finally, I find it extremely improbable that a person who, in her own words, has no knowledge of either of her parent’s cultures, manages to become an expert in both Celtic myths and Native American shamanism after a few trance induced dreams and a couple internet searches…

 

So to sum this rather extensive review up, this is a very disappointing first book in a series. The world has potential, but I have no desire to stick around and watch Joanne put yet another new ability out of her butt anytime her own rash actions get land her in danger. There are a lot of exciting series that I eagerly follow, but this isn’t one of them.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Stars: 5 out of 5

 

I must admit that I really enjoyed this book because it’s well written and has a rather unusual premise. I’ve seen stories taken place during World War II and stories taking place during earlier periods, like the Civil War in the US, or the Gold Rush, not to mention all the regency novels. But this is the first time I come across a book taking place during World War I. And this book not only uses WWI as the background for the story, but makes the war its integral part.

 

Ginger Stuyvesant is a medium in the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritual Force within the British army. Each soldier is conditioned to report to the Spirit Corps after they die and give all the details of the location and manner of their death as well as what they heard and saw at those last moments before they can move on to the afterlife. Ginger and the other mediums are in charge of documenting this and passing the relevant information up the chain of command.

 

This is a thankless and grueling job, because there aren’t enough mediums, so they have to work double if not triple shifts, and the casualties keep piling up. The mediums are at the verge of collapsing from exhaustion and their circles are just as worn out, but there seems to be no end in sight…

 

One day, Ginger takes the last report of a ghost that hints at the fact that the Spirit Corps are not as secret as they thought they were, and that the Germans are not only aware of them, but are actively seeking to destroy the mediums. More worrying still, the ghost hints that there is a traitor within the British command. Ginger goes to her superiors only to be ridiculed and sent home, but she won’t just sit still and watch the events play out, not when the lives of those she loves are on the line.

 

I loved the attention to detail the author put into this book. It touches on a number or important subjects, like the role of women in society at that time, or the disdain towards people of color, who, even though they fought in the war and died alongside white soldiers, were still considered second rate citizens at best.

 

I loved how well-developed and “alive” all the characters were in this book, even the secondary and tertiary ones. They all felt like real people with their own hopes and stories, all of them worthy of a novel of their own, and that’s a big accomplishment!

 

Ginger is a capable young woman who stands up for those she loves, even if that means going against racial prejudice and injustice like in the case of the medium who she thinks is more than capable of serving as liaison between the Spirit Corps and the commanding officers in her stead, but the medium being black and a woman to boot, this idea is promptly shut down. I love that Ginger judges people by their personal worth, not by their skin color or place in society.

 

At the same time, I love that Ginger isn’t depicted as a feminist (I’m pretty sure that notion didn’t exist at that time yet) or even a suffragette. She is very much the product of her time and her upbringing, and she behaves in accordance with the rules of polite society of that time, even if she pushes the boundaries a little when she needs to.

 

The story itself is fast-moving and packed with action, but also has poignant and heartbreaking moments as well as providing a pertinent commentary on prejudice, misogyny and racism. My only complaint is that the ending was rather underwhelming, but it was logical and in line with the world that was depicted in the book.

 

So all in all, it was a fun and refreshing read, and I really loved it! I would definitely recommend it to my friends, and I hope that there will be a second book set in this world someday.

 

PS. I received an advanced reader copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wrong Side of Hell (The DeathSpeaker Codex 1) by Sonya Bateman.

Stars: 4 out of 5

 

What a fun fast read it’s been!

Gideon Black is a body mover, which means he is the person who chauffeurs the dead from hospitals to funerary homes, or from crime scenes to the morgue. He works nights, lives out of his van, and prefers the company of dead people to the company of the living. At least, the dead don’t talk back… until one night the corpse of the cop he killed does exactly that. And after that things go from bad to worse for Gideon.

I liked how fast-paced and easy to read this book is. The action starts on page one and doesn’t let go until the very end. Gideon is thrown head first into this new dangerous reality where fae and werewolves and boogeymen are real and are hunted down like vermin by a powerful organization called Milus Dei. Moreover, he discovers that he isn’t who he thought he was and that his family (who are awful people by the way) isn’t his real family. Oh, and Milus Dei wants him at all costs because he is the DeathSpeaker.

A lot to process in such a short time you would say? You would be right. And it’s even harder to come to terms with this when your life suddenly becomes one nightmarish race for survival.

I must say that I like Gideon a lot as the protagonist. He has a sense of humor, even if it’s gallows humor most of the time, and he doesn’t sit and mope around when life throws him a curve ball. I like how he simply refuses to give up, no matter how many times he is beaten down. He just gets up, dusts himself off and keeps going, or crawls forward if he can’t walk anymore. I also love that his resilience is explained by his backstory and well-woven into the plot. He comes from a family where weakness wasn’t tolerated. He’d lived through terrible abuse and had learned to grit his teeth and ignore the pain, and grin at the face of the enemy through bloodied lips and broken teeth. So even though his upbringing was horrible, he wouldn’t have survived this story if it had been any different. I love it when a tragic backstory isn’t just thrown into the book for character angst but is a driving force shaping his actions.

As I had mentioned before, it was a fast read… a bit too fast for my taste actually. This is the first book in a new series, and as such, it has to establish the world and the characters and make us want to follow along. In my opinion, the book did well on the last two, but not so much on the first one. We get almost no worldbuilding at all. All we learn is that there are the Others, who include fae, werewolves, boogeymen (excuse me, boogeypersons, let’s be politically correct here) and some other unidentified supernaturals, and there is the Milus Dei – a human organization dedicated solely to the destruction of the Others… And that’s it.

How did the Others end up in our world? How did the Milus Dei come to be? Why do they hate each other so much? Why does Abe trust Gideon so much that he is willing to cover up for him even when his direct superior gives him the order to arrest him?  Who are the boogeypeople? We’ve only seen one so far and he seems more powerful than even a fae noble. Are there more? How didn’t they take over the world yet if they possess such power? Not to mention that we get almost no backstory on any of the characters apart from Gideon and Taeral and maybe Sadie. It raises so many questions and gives no answers at all.

So while this book is a fast and fun read, it leaves you with the impression that you just ran in a dead sprint through a glass tunnel that allowed you very small and unsatisfying glimpses into what seems like a rather interesting world. I wanted to slow down and have a better look, but the story wouldn’t let me.

But all in all, I admit that the book accomplished its purpose – I want to read the next one in the series. I just hope that we would slow down a bit and get a chance to learn more about this world and the characters.

PS. I received and advanced reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Shattered Girls (Broken Dolls 2) by Tyrolin Puxty.


Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I had really loved Broken Dolls, the first book in the series, which I reviewed here, if you are interested. So I picked up Shattered Girls with a certain amount of trepidation. Would it live up to its predecessor? Would it expand the world and manage to weave a compelling story at the same time? Sadly, it failed on both accounts, at least in my opinion…

Shattered Girls takes place about 10 years after the first book. The Professor made his invention public and went on to work for a big company and make lots of money. Gabby transformed from a vivacious little girl into a sullen teenager. And Ella… well, Ella is still a doll. But at least she is happily hanging out with Gabby and even attending school classes with her, since everybody thinks that she is just an exceptionally well-made robot.

But all isn’t well in the little town where Gabby and Ella live. Girls keep disappearing and the police doesn’t seem to be able to find any clues as to why or who is behind this. And now Gabby and Ella come back home to an empty house and visible signs of a fight. Something very fishy is going on, but the girls will definitely get to the bottom of it all with the help of their crazy aunt Sianne.

The book follows a similar recipe as the first one – two girls fighting against evil adults and their evil machinations, only this time it doesn’t quite work. Let me explain why.

In my opinion, it doesn’t work because of the stakes are too high in the second book. In Broken Dolls, Ella was fighting against the evil Professor in order to save Gabby from the same unfortunate fate that befell her – being turned into a doll. Nevermind that the Professor wasn’t evil at all and that what he did was to cure Gabby, or that Ella had chosen to remain a doll in the first place as it turned out. What I’m saying is that the stakes were localized and attainable even for a little girl and a plastic doll.

In Shattered Girls, the stakes are much higher: a big corporation is kidnapping children and turning them into dolls. Moreover, they have policemen, politicians and even the press on their payroll. They are big, they are powerful, and they are motivated by nothing but profit. Unfortunately, the fact that the villain is so powerful makes the idea that a teenager and a doll can defeat it rather ridiculous. In which world can a child and a doll go against an evil corporation and win? Even Harry Potter needed friends and all the help he could get often from unlikely allies to defeat Voldemort.

But Ella and Gabby are the protagonists of this story and they will defeat the super villain and restore order even if the author has to bend rules to achieve that. Hence we have adults behaving like they all got struck with a highly contagious case of the stupids. We have a huge corporation whose headquarters have such lax security that a teenager can walk right through the front door just by jamming the surveillance cameras. And so on and so forth.

By the end of the story, I didn’t really care what happened to Ella and Gabby and if they managed to restore all the kidnaped people to their own bodies, because the story turned so ridiculous that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief any longer.

So all in all, I wouldn’t recommend this book, even though the beginning is rather fun and fast-paced. But as soon as the action shifts from the confines of a school or even a small town to New York, the story goes off the rails.

PS. I received and advanced reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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