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.

The Grand Dark by richard kadrey

Stars: 2 out of 5 (and that’s pushing it because at least the language is good)

I love the Sandman Slim series, so I really, REALLY, wanted to love this book… I was so excited to receive the ARC from Netgalley that I pushed all my other half-read books aside to start this as soon as possible. Unfortunately, my excitement soon turned into bewilderment, then annoyance, then boredom. I finished it only because I was already 75% done and felt like I’d already suffered enough torture to stick around and see the ending… which was nothing to call home about.

So what went wrong with this book? Oh where do I begin? Get comfortable, it’s gonna take a while.

First and biggest problem, in my opinion, is the pacing. NOTHING, and I mean, nothing happens in the first 3/4 of the book. The protagonist delivers some packages, then goes home to get high on drugs and have sex with his girlfriend. Rinse, repeat. for over 300 pages!!!

Then the action suddenly picks up around page 300 and we careen to the end at a neck breaking speed. It would be good if the pacing was justified, but it feels exhausting, almost as if the author suddenly realized that he only had 400 odd pages to tell the story and decided to cram all of it in the last 100 instead of editing the beginning and cutting most of the boring bits out. The action feels more like an outline that has been hastily fleshed out just enough to pass mustard. And the big reveal, final big bad, as well as the ending are underwhelming to say the least.

I might have been okay with the lack of story in the beginning if the protagonist was interesting enough to follow along with. But Largo is anything but. He is a doormat. He has no initiative. All his life he simply floats with the current thinking only about his next score or his girlfriend. He doesn’t DRIVE the story, he just floats along in the current. So when it’s not even clear where that current is going, this gets boring very fast.

And even when he actually decides to do something, he doesn’t actually have to work to accomplish anything. There are no real efforts on his part.

He needs to make an urgent delivery and his tires are slashed? Hey, perfect time for character growth and for the author to actually make him DO something to change his circumstance… But no, another courtier, who was never mentioned as being his friend, lends him her bike. Why? Because reasons only known to the author. Mostly, I suspect to move the story along.

He decides to go to Higher Proszawa, which is a battlefield and a quarantine zone off limits for everyone. Does he plan this trip? Does he, you know, gather supplies, investigate the means of getting there an back? Actually do something to get this done? Nope… He just mentions this to his friend Raineer and magically, everything is taken care off. He suddenly has money, and a weapon, and a convenient way in and out via a smuggler his friend knows. Everything handed to him on a sliver platter.

I could go on and on about this, but that would just be beating a dead horse. This character is as interesting as a doorknob. And he is the protagonist, which can tell you a lot about the other characters in this book. They are all cardboard cutouts that have a role to play to push the doormat Largo along. The girlfriend who has zero personality apart from being beautiful and in love with Largo. And her sole purpose in the story is to get captured to push the protagonist into action (or what passes for action for this one). The best friend and wounded veteran that conveniently still has all his contacts and can part with a wad of cash even though he lives in a dilapidated apartment on a meager government pension. And so on, and so forth.

And finally, the worldbuilding really sucks. We are told there was a great war that Lower Proszawa won, but we don’t know when that happened, and who they were fighting against. The other party is only ever mentioned as the Enemy. We also know absolutely nothing about the world outside of this city. I think one other “provincial” town is mentioned once, because a character was born there. Other than that, the rest of the world might as well not exist at all.

In fact, at one point, I even wondered if Lower Proszawa was actually a purgatory for all the souls that died in the war. That would have explained the lack of information about the outside world or why the details of the Great War are so fuzzy, or why they live in constant fear of a new war… Now that’s a twist I would have welcomed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be.

What we have instead is a sub-par story with a boring protagonist in a barely fleshed out world. Very disappointing book from the author of Sandman Slim series. I definitely won’t recommend it. Save your money and your time for other books.

in the shadow of spindrift house by mira grant

Stars: 2.5 out of 5.

I have bad luck with Mira Grant books. Feed is about to join the permanent DNF pile because I have been stuck at 85% for over six months. Now this book…

The story has promise – four childhood friends on the cusp of adulthood decide to take one last case before disbanding their teen investigation agency. If they succeed at this case, they will earn over 7 million dollars which would have them set for whatever future paths they want to take. Only the case hasn’t been solved in decades for a reason, and the price they all will have to pay might be too high…

I picked up In the Shadow of Spindrift House because of the cover and the decidedly lovecraftian vibe the blurb gave off. To be honest, the story manages to keep that feeling, since it deals with things slithering in the deep and observing the human race run its rat race from the comfortable viewpoint of almost immortality, but the end product is underwhelming, at least for me.

My problem with Mira Grant’s books is that I can’t connect to the characters. I think it’s because the author “tells us” about their emotional connections to each other, but never really “shows us”. Case in point – we are told several times that Harley is in love with Addy, but her actions during this story don’t show this. Plus Addy is portrayed as such a negative light throughout the book that I found it hard to believe that Harley was in love with her. Especially since we don’t “see” that love in her actions, we are just told of that feeling through her thoughts. 

And that’s the case with the dynamics between all four characters. We are told they have been close since childhood. We are told they have been solving cases together and are kinda sorta famous, but we are not shown any of it. So when the horrors start creeping in and bad things happen to the characters… yes, it’s horrible, but not as shocking as it could have been, because as a reader, we haven’t seen that emotional connection that is supposed to exist between Harley and them.

And I think that is the biggest flaw of this story. Harley is too detached from everything, even before she leads her team to the doomed exploration of Spindrift House. Heck, she shows more emotion towards that house than she does towards any of her longtime friends, almost brother, and what she herself calls the love of her life… Yet, she casts them all aside seemingly without as much as an afterthought. 

Maybe if the book wasn’t this short, the author could have had time to build to the horror of this last case by showing us how the characters interacted BEFORE it all happened. Maybe actually show us some of the other cases they did together. Show us the dynamic in their little team… If we saw those connections instead of being told they exist, the stakes of what happened in Spindrift House would have been much higher and more impactful.

So to summarize, it’s a well-written book when it comes to creating descriptions and the creepy atmosphere of the house, but that suffers from the excessive case of tell, not show.

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

cinders on the wind by louis emery (The tapestry of retha 1)

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I made it halfway through the book before I decided that enough was enough. Unfortunately, I am DNFing this one. I’m sure there is a good story somewhere in there, but even after reading half the book, I’m still waiting for it to grip me. The author would have benefited from a good content editor, because this book suffers from a lot of pitfalls rookie authors encounter:

1. Infodumps. We got literally the whole geopolitical introduction to the world in the first few pages. Problem with that? My eyes glazed over after a few paragraphs. I didn’t know those countries or kings or events, so I didn’t know to CARE about remembering them. So when they are mentioned again a few chapters later, I’m lost. I already forgot who was fighting with whom and why.

2. Endless flashbacks. Every time a character is introduced, we get a 4-6 pages flashback that explains their story, their motivation and what brought them to the moment in time we are reading about. EVERY SINGLE TIME!!! We are in the middle of an action scene, there is a build up in tension, then bham! new character… and a snooze-fest of a flashback. Yes, let’s kill the pace of an already very slow moving story even more.

3. Lots of tell, not enough show. You might have inferred that from the infodumps and flashbacks, but the author doesn’t know how to show very well. Or thinks that the reader isn’t intelligent enough to understand the character’s reactions and actions unless it’s fully explained to them. Trust me, the reader is smarter than you think, and being spoon fed the information is very annoying. 

4. The blurb is misleading. That young Seer mentioned in the blurb? Haven’t heard or seen her after the first 3 chapters or so. The Kingsguard that is supposed to protect her on her journey? He is off to a neighboring kingdom waging war for his king. There is no mention of that journey and I am halfway through the book. Instead we have 4 characters stuck in different locations doing seemingly unconnected things. There is talk of a rebellion, but who is rebelling, and who is attacking whom is cryptic to me. Probably because my brain switched off during the 6 page infodump in chapter one.

5. I don’t think the author has a very clear idea about his own mythology and divine system. He mentions that the main divinity is the Dragonmother and that there are a bunch of minor gods. The kingdom where most of the action takes place worships the Dragonmother… yet their elite soldiers are called God’s Burden? Yes, with a capital G…

So after wading through half the book and battling with the above mentioned irritating details, I am throwing the towel. This is not for me.

PS. I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for a honest review. Sorry, it had to be negative

The last policeman by ben h. winters (the Last policeman book 1)

Stars: 5 out of 5

Wow, that’s the most different pre-apocalypse book I ever read.

What do you do when the end of the world is coming in just 6 months and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it? A huge meteor is on collision course with the Earth and it will hit, it’s a 100% probability, the only uncertainty is where the point of impact will be. But even that doesn’t really matter, because what isn’t destroyed during impact, will slowly die in the nuclear winter that will follow as the catastrophe puts enough debris in the atmosphere to obscure the sun for decades. So 6 months to expiration date for the human race.

How do you cope? Some people walk out on their jobs and go through their bucket list. Some people find fate and religion, or join a cult. Some commit suicide (there is a lot of those). Officer Palace is dead set on solving a murder. Despite the fact that nobody seems to give a damn about it anymore, despite the slowly crumbling infrastructure, and even faster crumbling social structures. He will solve that murder because this is what keeps him sane while the days count down to the final big impact.

I loved the main character in this story, how obstinate he was in solving this murder, despite anything and everything. How desperately he clings to police procedures, rules and regulations. Because that’s what helps him cope with the end of the world.

I also loved the other characters we encounters, each one representing a different way of coping with the inevitability of death. Some drink, some do drugs, some just give up and wait to die, and some cling to any sliver of hope they can find, even the maddest one.

I also liked that despite certain violence in this book, the world didn’t dissolve into bloody chaos. People are still mostly decent to each other. Things are still getting done. Some people still come to work, mostly because what else would they do? Sit at home and wait to die?

It’s that air of melancholy that surprised me the most about this book. Yes, Henry solves his murder case in the end, but does that really matter? Does any of it matter when the Earth will die in 6 months? And the sad part is – he knows that it doesn’t matter to anyone but him either.

Dead Eye (Tiger’s Eye Mystery 1) by Alyssa Day

Stars: 4 out of 5

I liked this book surprisingly more than I expected, even though the story isn’t particularly original and neither is the world. We have typical vampires, werepeople of various kind, witches and other supernatural creatures briefly mentioned. I think one of the characters mentions having a gorgon for sister-in-law, and another brief mention of a banshee.

The world building itself is rather confusing. It’s implied that their existence is known to the general public, but the book stays vague as to how this works. Jack was part of the rebellion and fought in vampire wars, but apart from those mentions, we don’t know what that means to the characters in this world. He sure isn’t considered a criminal or wanted by the authorities, even though he was practically the leader of the rebellion at one point. So, confusing. Hopefully, the author will expand on this a bit more in subsequent books.

So with confusing worldbuilding and ordinary story, it seemed at first that this book was heading towards a 1 star review or even my DNF pile, but then something magical happened: I actually really loved the characters. Loved them enough to continue reading and even wanting to get the next book in the series.

Tess is a refreshingly normal protagonist, even if she can see how people will die when she touches them. By normal I mean, she isn’t a shrinking violet, or a “strong female protagonist” which usually means someone who talks back, doesn’t accept any kind of authority and never pauses to think before she starts kicking asses. She is no damsel in distress either. She is just a normal girl who loves her pawn shop, cares about her family and friends, and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them. So she resolves to do something about it, because seems like nobody else is there to step up and do it. No, she won’t suddenly learn kung fu. No, she won’t discover some badass magical abilities that would help her overpower the big bad. No, she won’t turn into Sherlock Holmes and save the day with her uncanny powers of deduction. But she will stand up, strangle that fear that makes her insides quiver, and do what she can to protect those she loves and to right a wrong. I loved Tess. I want more protagonists like her.

And I also loved Jack because, surprisingly for the alpha male love interest in a paranormal romance book, he is not an asshole. Oh he tries to be pushy and protective from time to time, but he also knows the boundaries and that no means no. It is hard to find a male character in paranormal romance who actually respects the protagonist enough to back down when she tells him no. Or one that treats her as a smart capable individual who is equal to him, instead of a sexual partner who needs to be protected, coddled, and occasionally listed to… maybe… to stop the whining.

I also loved the fact that the author avoided the typical cringe worthy tropes of evil / psycho exes for both protagonists. Owen is a sweet person. A genuinely good guy. And their break up isn’t because he mistreats Tess or because the author needed to clear out the way for Jack. It’s two adults deciding that while they like each other and are good friends, they do not love each other enough to be more than that.

I think that’s what I like the most in this book and what made me give it 4 stars – most of the characters feel like real people. They might be good, bad, or somewhere in between, but they feel like real tridimensional people with their own needs and wants and personal agendas that are separate from the story and the protagonist. Dead End feels like a real town and I would love to explore it more.

So to summarize, if you want a light story with engaging characters and minimum fabricated drama – definitely give Dead Eye a try. I will be buying the next book in the series for sure.

The Rising Dead by Devan Saglian

Stars: 2 out of 5

I like to indulge in a good old zombie book from time to time, and I was fresh out of zombies (no pun intended), so I decided to give this book a try. After all, it had a lot of glowing review on both Amazon and Goodreads… I don’t know why.

Seriously, the story is cookie cutter zombie outbreak: evil corporation plays with viruses, but something goes wrong and the strain escapes. Cue brain eating zombies everywhere. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind a predictable story in the zombie-verse. After all, there are only so many ways to make a brain eating undead.

The story can be predictable as long as the characters living (or dying) in these events are interesting, fleshed out and likeable (or hateable) enough for me to want to see who meets their gruesome end and who survives despite all odds. Unfortunately, this book has nothing of the sort. All characters are cardboard cutouts with about as much personality. You can just put labels on them and be done with it: the shy geek, the college baseball jock, the slutty partying girl, the meek girl who gets eaten first, the grizzled paranoid war veteran, etc. They are all essentially faceless and characterless, and I didn’t feel any connections to any of them. Oh, someone else got eaten by zombies? Good for them!

And to add insult to injury, the story is riddled with inconsistencies and plot holes. For example, the patient zero gets infected by just spilling some of the virus and inhaling it because he didn’t have his mask on. So then the pathogen is airborne, right?.. Nope. After that first time, ALL other victims are infected through direct contact only – you get bitten, you turn. So why would the virus suddenly change its MO? Why mention it in the first place? It makes no sense. Patient Zero could have been bitten by a test animal, had a fresh papercut and a hole in his gloves, etc. Possibilities are endless…

The final nail on the coffin for me was the lack of editing. And I’m not talking about spelling and grammar here. I can deal with that if the story is worth it. I’m talking about the constant “head hopping” in the middle of scenes. We would listen to the POV of one character, then suddenly hop into the head of another for 2-3 lines, then go back to the first character. It happened so many times it gave me whiplash. You can write a book with different points of views, but be consistent throughout your scenes!

So to summarize, I finished the book, because it was a slow day and I was particularly bored. But I will not give my money to read the sequel. If I want good fast zombies, excellent action scenes, and characters I can actually care about and be sad when they get bitten, I’ll rewatch Train to Bussan.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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