The Night Girl by James Bow

Stars: 4 out of 5

I went into this book not really knowing what to expect. The description on NetGalley seemed appealing enough and the cover art was okay, but the story could have gone either way.

I’m glad that I gave it a chance though, because it turned out a quick and rewarding read. The story itself isn’t very original – girl moves into big city to escape her little town life and her overbearing mother, and makes a life for herself. She also discovers a cause worth fighting for, makes a few friends, and some enemies, and finds love in the process.

What I didn’t expect was that this story would have so much heart! I loved Perpetua almost from the first chapter. She is a very determined young lady who nevertheless has a very good sense of what is right and what is wrong. She also has the courage to stand up against what she perceives is wrong and won’t stand by when others are mistreated, even if that lands her in to trouble herself.

I liked the fact that all the characters here have real and mostly relatable motives for their actions. Nobody is evil just for the sake of being evil or because the story needs a villain. At first, you would think that the fairies are evil, since they basically forced goblins to live in fear and squalor for centuries. But then you come to understand why they did it. Fairies can pass for human, some goblins can as well, and those manage to integrate into society. But there are those who are too alien looking to ever be able to do that, so they have to hide. Because everyone involved still remembers the pitchforks, the cold iron, and the savagery of men, even if the war ended over a thousand years ago.

It is evident, at least to Perpetua and the readers, that the status quo cannot endure much longer, but both parties are too scared to change anything, because some of them were alive during that war.

My complaint about the resolution of this conflict is that it is too good to be true. With the events of 2020, I admit that I lost a lot of hope in the human race, so I tended to side with the fairies on this one. In real world, this would have ended in rivers of blood and riots on the streets, mass executions and ethnic purges, not mutual, if rather reluctant acceptance. But this is a fairy tale, so I will accept its rather naive happy ending. Maybe we need more positive books right now with all the ugliness in the world.

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

You are invited by Sarah A. Denzil

Stars 2. 5 out of 5

I like a good ghost story from time to time and nothing is more prone to haunting than an old monastery hidden in the mountains, especially when the snow cuts it off from the rest of the world…

This had all the ingredients to be an excellent ghost story that would keep me up at night first rushing to finish it, then being scared by imaginary sounds I hear in my own home. But unfortunately, it wasn’t so.

There are three ingredients for a good ghost story: 1) the characters, 2) the atmosphere, 3) the actual ghost (or the idea of one). It’s essential that all of them mix together perfectly, because that’s when the building becomes alive in our imagination and we root for the hapless characters and are afraid (or pity) of the apparition.

So let’s talk about the ingredient the author did well – the atmosphere. There are numerous beautifully haunting descriptions of the monastery and the mountains surrounding it. I felt the chilly drafts in the old building and the creaking doors. I could hear the howling of the wind and the answering calls of the wolves. I could see the surreal shapes of the trees peaking out of the dense fog. It was beautiful, it was sad, and it deserved a much better story that was told.

The biggest problem with this book is the characters. You HAVE to like at least some of them to care about what happens to them. Here, the characters are so one-dimensional that I couldn’t even picture them in my head. Yes, Irene is beautiful and self-absorbed. Dan is a yoga instructor… and that’s about all he contributes to the story. Nick is a cliche gamer with possible mental issues? Jules is a hapless blogger that happens to befriend our protagonist… And the protagonist… I think the protagonist is the reason why characters don’t work.

I understand the idea behind having the story told by an unreliable narrator, but Cat is too fixated on herself and her progressing schizophrenia to really care about anyone else. She only “sees” the other characters in this monastery to the extent of their reaction to her (and that reaction is often imagined and wrongly interpreted by her as well).

So how can the reader care about them when Cat doesn’t really care about them? Apart from Jules, but even then it’s a stretch.

And the final ingredient is lacking as well. The whole story behind the haunting is horrible, yes, but also too vague and inconsistent. Who is actually haunting this place? Nobody knows, Cat even less so than the others. And with her illness turning into an obsession, all her findings and suppositions are even more unreliable.

As a result, I felt disconnected from the story almost from the beginning. I read about the events that happened, but it felt like I was just looking in through a dirty window. There was no involvement and no connection whatsoever. So there was no fear or even apprehension. I could care less what happened to the animated characters on the other side of the glass. That, my friends, is a ghost story fail in my books.

PS: I received a free advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The living dead by george A romero

2 out of 5 stars

I was excited to read this book, because I loved the Dawn of the Living Dead and I think that George Romero pretty much invented the zombie apocalypse genre. So I was eager to start the book as soon as I got the ARC from NetGalley, but my excitement soon turned into bewilderment, the disappointment.

First of all, this book is way too long at 700 pages and it feels a lot longer when you read it. At least 250 pages could have been safely cut without loosing any plot, which says something. In all the chapters, action scenes are constantly interrupted by characters’ introspection, flashbacks, and philosophical musings. The worst offender is the scene of their “softie” recovery towards the end of the book which is interspersed verbal accounts by all characters present of how they got to that particular point in time. This makes this one scene last over 100 pages! It could have been tense and heart-pounding, or even deep and poignant, considering their mission, instead it’s a snooze fest. When we finally reached the end of that scene, I wasn’t even sure why the characters were there anymore or why I should have cared.

That’s another problem – of all the impressive cast or characters, I could maybe sorta care for about one or two, and even that is pushing it. To my growing disappointment, almost all the characters I cared about died in the early stages of the book. I would have much rather followed Jenny than Nakamura, especially considering the stupid way she died and that we had to then follow the story of the person who killed her.

The biggest problem though is that when George Romero died, somebody else had to finish the book, and the two parts do no gel well, at least in my opinion. And you can clearly see where the original book ended and the new chapters began – instead of continuing the story in its logical progression, the new author chose to jump 15 years ahead. That wouldn’t have been too bad. A lot of books use this plot device, after all. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well here.

I was expecting at least some kind of character growth or change between the two parts of the book. After all, nobody stays the same during 15 years. Heck, I’m not the same person I was 15 years ago, and I didn’t have to live through a zombie apocalypse. But these characters, it’s like they were frozen in time for those 15 years. NOTHING changed for them. They still act the same, have the same motivations or quirks, heck, some of them are still hung up about a lover they lost 15 years ago. That’s why the two parts don’t gel for me. You tell us over a decade has past, yet you don’t SHOW us that, not with your characters.

And that’s the biggest problem of the second part of the book for me. Because of that time jump, instead of following the characters through their struggles in this brave new world past the initial days of the zombie uprising, we have to listen to them recount the experience… as a series of interviews. This is the classic mistake of tell, not show. Sure, some authors managed to use this technique brilliantly (just think of World War Z, which is nothing but interviews and verbal accounts of things that already happened), but it DOESN’T WORK here. Sure, the characters are telling these stories, but as a reader, I am not emotionally invested in them, especially considering that the sometimes horrible things they recount didn’t seem to change them at all.

So by the time I got through the interviews and the slog of a “softie” recovery scene, I wasn’t really invested in the book anymore. Why should I care about Richard and the vote for the leader of Old Muddy? I didn’t get a chance to follow the characters while they met and bonded and built that settlement, so I wasn’t emotionally invested in the stakes anymore. I finished the book, but at that point it was out of cheer stubbornness – I was 85% done and didn’t want to quit this close to the end.

To summarize, this is an over-written, disjointed and disappointing book. The only reason I gave it 2 stars instead of 1 is because there was one glorious chapter that I absolutely loved – the chapter with Greer at the trailer park in the very beginning of the book. That was scary, heart-pounding and horrible just like the best zombie books should be. Too bad that nothing that happened afterwards would even come close.

Stars Uncharted by S. K. Dunstall

Stars: 5 out of 5

I loved the Linesman trilogy by this author, so there is not surprise that I absolutely loved this new book as well. It’s different than Linesman, darker, more ruthless, but excellent in its own way.

I love the way the authors paint the world they create by small touches interspersed in the narrative. No big info dumps needed. The reader gets just enough information to understand what’s happening. and when we get more information than that, it’s woven into the plot organically. Nika lives and breathes modding, so it’s natural that she will be thinking and talking about that. Josune has been an explorer all her life, running after an elusive dream that borders on obsession, so she will know everything she can about Goberlings discovery and disappearance…

I also loved the characters. They are all unique and vivid. Nika and her mod obsession, Josune who isn’t afraid to make hard decision on the spot, Roystan who would do anything for the crew who became his family, even whiny little Snow showed some surprising depths. And Jacques, oh Jacques… please come cook for me every day! From all of them, Carlos was the least fleshed out, but mostly because he didn’t have as much to do.

As I said, this world is ruthless, and an individual is often powerless when big corporations own everything on a planet, including the police, hospitals and news outlets. So our protagonists go through some horrible ordeals and are forced to do some terrible things. I am glad that even through the bleakness, this story never looses its heart. After all, it’s first and foremost the story of lonely individuals thrown together by circumstances who manage to form a dysfunctional, but close knitted family.

I hope this book doesn’t stay a stand alone because I would love to see what our crew does next. And Josune’s promise to destroy Eaglehawk needs to be kept.

Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card

Stars: 2 out of 5.

Sometimes even authors we like disappoint us. Ender’s Game is still close to the top of my list of favorite scifi books. I re-read it several times since I discovered it in my tender teens and had my mind blown away. So to say that I was excited to get my hands on this new book by Orson Scott Card is an understatement. I couldn’t wait to read it! I dove into it as soon as I got it! And… I don’t know… I guess I am not the right audience for his YA books.

I mean the story itself had potential. Kids with micropowers and being ostracized because of them? Excellent. A support group that lets them explore those powers and find useful applications for them or at least to come to terms with having them? Very good. A commentary on friendship and the concept of found family? I’m along for the ride. Add to it a missing person case and cooperation with the police, and this sounded like the perfect book.

Unfortunately, even though these sounded like great individual elements, the mixture turned out to be rather underwhelming. Even though the book is very well written and easy to read, I had several problems with the story.

First of all, the incessant banter between the characters. For a solitary kid, Ezekiel sure talks a lot. While some of it was fun and relevant to the story, but most of it is just that… banter that has nothing to do with the story itself and just fills page after page with words. I think the author wanted to show us how his protagonist thinks and feels by making him talk about irrelevant stuff, but to me it was mostly a snooze fest. I found myself skipping pages upon pages of dialogues that could have been cut without loosing any story at all.

My second problem is with Ezekiel himself. Some of his actions, especially towards the end of the book, make no sense. He is almost 17, not 12. He is painted to be a thoughtful and smart kid… yet he chooses to ditch a cop, who is armed and trained to take down criminals, and go rescue his friend with his dad instead who is… a butcher and doesn’t even own a gun. And that after he HEARD at least 2 criminals being at the place his friend is held at. Two unarmed civilians against criminals who are known to torture and kill their victims. Right. What can go wrong?

And deriving from that second frustration is my next one – there are no consequences to this stupidest move of the century. This whole rescue and taking down of the villains goes way too easily and bloodlessly. The resolution isn’t on par with the stakes. At no point during the book did I feel a real sense of danger or worry for the characters. I understand that this is YA, but the author describes serious crimes here: sex trafficking, kidnapping, murder, etc. Yet the language is so sanitized that it doesn’t grip you. The incessant dialogues about nothing inter-spaced in the story might also be at fault.

Finally, I found that apart from Ezekiel, his dad, and his friend, none of the other characters were particularly developed. The micropower support group kids had no personality beyond their individual powers. Heck, I can’t even remember their names. The cop was… a cop who really wanted to save that little girl and was willing to use unconventional methods to do it. Other than that, he is a blank page. And the school counselor? Why was she even in the story to begin with?

So in the end, this book was a disappointment. The brew didn’t turn out quite like I had expected. Maybe because of the addition of too many different ingredients. I think I might go re-read Ender’s Game.

PS: I received and advanced copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Ten thousand doors of january by Alix E. Harrow

Stars: 3.5 rounded up.

January is an in-between kind of girl. Born to a black father and a probably white mother in the early 1900s, raised by a wealthy patron in huge house full of treasures and wonders pilfered from around the world by her father. Her status is in-between also – not quite a pupil, not quite a servant, maybe a rare find too alive to go into a display case? Until she finds a leather-bound book and opens a door that leads into a different world…

This book is about discovering your own worth and coming into your own strength. It’s about realizing that if you spend your life cutting vital parts of yourself just to fit in to a rigid mold that somebody else created for you, you might look like a perfect little girl on the outside, but you will feel empty and miserable inside.

January tried very hard to be what Mr. Locke expected her to be – silent, almost invisible, perfectly well behaved. A breathing, living doll. What else was she supposed to do when her father was never there to tell her otherwise and when her whole world depended on the good graces of that distant and almighty man who took her and her father in when she was just an infant? But all this time she had felt lonely, empty, miserable, like half of her has been cut off and shut in one of the glass cabinets filling the Locke House.

So when she picks up the silver knife and writes letters into her own flesh, she doesn’t only open a door to a different reality – she also throws open the door to her own cell, the one Mr. Locke had been building around her since her childhood. By stepping through the threshold between worlds, she sets herself free to be what she wants to be – wild and free, and fearless, a wanderer of worlds.

This book is also about our perception of ourselves and the world around us, and about how often things are not what they seem to be. Monsters can hide behind perfectly benign masks. A meek half-blooded girl can turn into a fierce untamed spirit that will blow open all kinds of doors.

I liked this story a lot, but I felt like the beginning dragged. I understand that we needed to immerse ourselves in the oppressive structure of January’s early existence in Locke House, but I feel that this part could have been condensed without loosing much of the effect. She could have found that book earlier. She could have read it over a longer period of time. That way we wouldn’t have had chapter after chapter of seemingly unrelated story wedged into the part of January’s narrative that had just started picking up speed, suspense and tension. It really kills the flow of the book and was a source of frustration for me.

Once the issue of the book is finally over and we don’t get the endless interruptions in the narrative flow, the story picks up speed and becomes much more interesting. There is suspense, there are high stakes and satisfying conclusions. The ending was maybe too neatly wrapped up in a little pink bow for my taste, but I am a cynic at heart, so don’t mind me.

My other complaint about this book is that the only really fleshed-out characters are January, her parents, and her dog Bad (short for Sinbad), and the parents aren’t even present for 90% of the story. All other characters are walking labels put there to advance the story. The mysterious, maybe good, maybe bad Mr. Locke, who serves as a father figure for January in her real father’s continued absence. There is the inevitable love interest, and the mysterious lady protector/friend that was sent by her real father… They never develop personalities outside of those stereotypes. That’s probably why I was more upset when the bad people hurt Bad then when they threatened to hurt January’s love interest (heck, after finishing the book, I can’t even remember his name).

But despite those two gripes, this was a rather enjoyable book. I liked the world, I loved the fact that unlike a lot of urban fantasies now, it’s set in the past century, not in our modern times. I liked the story of one in-between girl deciding to forge her own path and create her own destiny instead of conforming to the image everyone else had of her.

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

steel frame by andrew skinner

Stars: 5 out of 5

There are books that you anticipate and count days until release… and end up disappointed sometimes. Then there are books that you pick up at a whim, just because you were browsing NetGalley offers and nothing else seemed more appealing… only to be blown away by the story and the characters. 

This is one of those books. I requested it because I was in a lull and a story about giant robots sounded more appealing than anything else I saw at the time. I ended up staying up all night to finish it. Then I bought a copy as soon as it released and made my husband read it. He loved it.

Steel Frame is a unique story that borrows some interesting concepts (Giant piloted robots that might or might not be self-aware!) and manages to tell a compelling narrative with them. It’s a story of loosing everything and slowly crawling back from the abyss, assembling yourself back piece by piece until you almost feel whole again. Interestingly enough, this process happens both to our protagonists and the villain of the story as well. I loved that parallel.

It’s also a story about prisons and prisoners. Rook, our protagonist, is a convict who agreed to sell 10 years of her life to a corporation in exchange for a reduced sentence. Heck, most of the people operating the huge starship Rook ends up on are prisoners, even if some of them don’t realize it – they are shanghaied beyond the edge of the explored space, far away from any commercial routes, on a ship that will never be able to escape the strange anomaly it came to study.  Even the antagonist’s main motive is to break free from the prison that held it for millennia. 

But this concept is not all doom and gloom. This story is also about finding friends and a place where you belong and about making a conscious choice to defend that new place even if that means risking your life. 

Oh, and giant robots! I grew up on Neon Genesis Evangelion and giant robots that work in sync with their pilots (or jockeys how they are called in the book) are right up my alley. I loved how they are depicted in this book. I love that the author defined the rules by which they work (rules of physics, but also rules of law, rules of custom, and so on). I love that all jockeys, no matter what faction they originally belonged to, adhere to a few cardinal rules. And that when one of them is broken, it causes real, almost physical shock to all of them. Because to break a rule like that, you really need to be a monster.

A could wax poetic about this book for a few more pages, but I don’t want to give any of the story away, and I want readers to experience this new and complex world for themselves. I want them to experience Rook’s first encounter with the Juno, as well as their first sync. I want them to see for themselves the high stakes battle for survival in the alien prison. I want them to hear the giant ship groaning as it tears itself apart. 

Buy this book. Read it. Ask for a sequel. Because it needs one!

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

A pilgrimage of swords by Anthony ryan

Stars: 3 out of 5.

This was an okay novella. From what I understood, it serves as a prequel or introduction to a new series, and as such, it did a good job introducing the main character, Pilgrim, as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse into the world he inhabits.

Unfortunately, the story fell rather short for me. We follow the journey of several characters who are thrown together because all of them chose to undertake a pilgrimage into the domain of a mad god, in the hope that he will grant their most sacred wish. As such, they should all have their own stories, right? Something that pushed them to this act of desperation. And desperation it is, because nobody ever returned from the realm of the Mad God…

Yet, we don’t really SEE those characters, because because they don’t have personalities of their own. They are cutouts with labels put on top of them – the terminally sick woman and her grieve-stricken husband, the fierce huntress searching for a lost loved one, etc. It doesn’t help that we follow this journey through the Pilgrim’s eyes and his voice is just as bland as the description of the other characters. Seriously, the only character with any grain of personality in this book is the cursed sword. He is a homicidal demon, but at least he has some nuances.

As such, it’s hard to empathize with the characters, and if some of them die gruesome deaths, I just shrugged and read along. I think the only character I felt any empathy for was Priest, but mostly because I never learned what his purpose for this pilgrimage was. What was he going to ask of his god? Why had he volunteered to lead this doomed group?

My other problem was that I couldn’t figure out Pilgrim’s motivation either. For seeing this story entirely from his POV, we get no insight into his inner thoughts. Apart from the banter with his cursed sword, there is nothing. He is painted as this ruthless killer, a scourge upon the world, but his actions go against that picture. Also, his reaction when discovering Book’s true identity in the later part of the story goes against his whole character, especially when we learn in the last page of this story that he dedicated his life to destroying that particular church and its adepts.

I liked the little I saw of the worldbuilding and the hints at other cultures and religions inhabiting it, but I’m not sure I liked that enough to follow Pilgrim for a whole book or a whole series.

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

Recursion by blake crouch

Stars: 4 out of 5.

I requested this book from NetGalley on a whim. The blurb was interesting and I had enjoyed the first book in the Wayward Pines trilogy, but I didn’t have many expectations. It could have gone either way for me. Boy, am I glad that I got to read this!

It’s hard to review this book without giving away too much of the plot, so I will avoid talking about the story itself. Let’s just say that Blake Crouch raises interesting questions about how humans perceive time and space and that our memories define who we are. He also suggests that if our memories of past events become unreliable, humans will most likely unravel. 

If you have memories of two distinctly different lives suddenly pushed into your head, what do you do? Both feel real. You can remember seeing your daughter die in a hit and run when she was 16, but you ALSO remember going to her college graduation. In fact, she is sitting next to you right now. Worse still, SHE remembers dying as well… but she is still alive. What is real? What isn’t? What if you suddenly have 4 or 5 different lives in you head? All yours. All real. No wonder there are mass suicides all over the globe.

This story is told through the eyes of two protagonists: Helena, a neuro-scientist obsessed with creating a memory reactivation device that would save her mother from the slow deterioration of Alzheimer’s disease, and Barry, a NY detective who witnesses a woman jump off a high rise after she claims she a case of FMS or false memory syndrome. At first, it seems that those stories aren’t connected, but they meet and interweave together nicely. 

I loved both protagonists. Barry is believable as a man who has nothing left to live for, so he clings to the mystery of the jumper with FMS and continues investigating it even when everyone rules it out as simple suicide. Then, when he gets a chance to rewrite his past, but has to face the consequences of that act, I fully understood why he wanted to destroy the people who put him through that heartache again.

Helena is even more tragic. All she wanted to do was help her mother keep at least some of the memories that were being eaten away by the horrible disease. Instead, she precipitated the destruction of human civilization. And she has to live with it… over and over again.

I also liked the way Blake Crouch portrayed the time paradox and the effect altering timelines would have on people. I don’t think I have seen this particular take on time travel before. It was original and it made sense, in a horrible kind of way.

So why did I give this book 4 stars instead of 5 if I liked it so much? It mostly has to do with the ending. More precisely, the theory that changing one event would undo the whole string of time paradoxes. I won’t go into any details on that, because this book shouldn’t be spoiled, but I will just say that that sounded like an easy way out to me. 

In any case, I highly recommend this book for fans of time-travel, sci-fi and “what if” stories. It’s fast paced and smartly written, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

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

Dahlia black by keith thomas

Stars: 2 out of 5.

What attracted me to this book is its comparison with World War Z (the book, not the awful movie). I loved WWZ and its (then) new take on the zombie apocalypse. I loved that the author chose to tell the story of what happened AFTER the end of the world as we know it. That it was as much a tale of fighting the zombies as one of rebuilding a life in a new reality where they existed. So another story about civilization coping with a world-changing event and rebuilding after it – I was all in. 

Unfortunately, the only way this book IS like WWZ is that it’s a collection of fictional interviews and diary entries. It is also very, unimaginatively boring… I kept hoping that there would be some emotional reward or grand revelation if only I kept reading, but I turned the last page and the only thought in my head was, “why waste 288 pages on THAT?”

The whole story can be summed up in four steps. 1. There is a mysterious Pulse from space that alters human DNA. 2. About 30% of people are susceptible to the Pulse and change, becoming the Elevated. From those, about 1/3 die during the “transformation. 3. The surviving Elevated disappear from our reality into a parallel dimension during the Finality. 4. The other 70% of the world’s population learn to keep on living.  That’s it! Why drag this into 288 pages of boring accounts? Why rehash the discovery of the Pulse for 100 some pages? 

I guess the biggest problem with this book is that the author chose the wrong people to be his “voices” telling this story. His fictional book writer interviews scientists, members of the White House, the President, and other fellow journalists. None of them were the boots on the ground when all these events happened. They observed and reacted from afar. What made WWZ so great was that we read the accounts from people who survived those zombie attacks. So it felt like we were right there with them when the horror was unfolding. Here, we have several degrees of separation between the events and the people who tell about those events. So guess what? I don’t feel engaged. It’s a snooze fest instead.

Plus, all the major events the Pulse and the Elevation triggered are just summarized by the author. Give me the eyewitness accounts of the massacre of the Elevated Camp, don’t TELL me in a half-page summary that it happened. I don’t want to read 10 different interviews with Dahlia Black about her accidental discovery of the Pulse. I got the gist of it the first time around, thank you very much! You want to keep me engaged? Give me more eye witness accounts of the transformations. Give me survivor reactions. Don’t tell me that the world collapsed and is slowly rebuilding itself. SHOW me. Unfortunately, the author failed to do just that.

I also didn’t quite understand the need to insert this whole side story about the Twelve. It brought nothing to the main storyline and felt absolutely useless. 

To summarize, WWZ this is NOT. And definitely don’t compare it to the brilliant weirdness of the Southern Reach trilogy. This is just plain boring.

PS. I received an advanced copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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