Adult Fiction · Book Review · Horror

Fellside

FbyMRC.png

I’m sure most of us here remember or have heard of The Girl With All of the Gifts. It is sci-fi/post-apocalyptic novel with action, surprises, heart-warming moments, and it gives a lot of food for thought with its themes. The author’s next novel, Fellside, is more of a mystery/thriller with a touch of fantasy.

Fellside is a maximum security women’s prison in the Yorkshire Moors. Jess Moulson finds herself heading toward the prison after an intentionally-set inferno consumed her apartment, killing a child in the flat above her. Jess has no memory of the fire, and she would have never killed Alex, the child from upstairs that she had befriended. With no memory and no grounds to defend herself, Jess goes to Fellside where she encounters a drug ring, tough and troubled convicts looking for a fight, rampant corruption, and a familiar ghost.

I was completely on board with the tone and pace of this novel, at least during the first half. It is creepy, you are unsure of what is going on, and we start becoming close to the main character who has an unreliable memory. However, I have heard that many readers found the pace of Fellside slow, and I can at least see why. The book begins after the tragic fire, so we know how the biggest plot point turns out, but we spend the rest of the novel rather slowly finding out how it all happened. The novel also focuses on some other subplots related to the prison staff and inmates, but they lack the same emotional pull as the mystery of how/who started the fire and killed Alex. The prison subplots have been done before– corruption, drug rings, prison riots and fights– so I wish there was more focus on Jess’s personal mystery because that felt more unique and interesting.

Although Jess is our main character, there are several chapters that center on other characters within the prison. These chapters usually move the prison-related plots forward, so I found myself wanting more of Jess’s chapters instead. In fact, you could probably completely remove several of the side character chapters without impacting the overall plot much, but it would speed up the book and make it more focused on Jess and the fire. I know it probably sounds like I hated the subplots (I didn’t), but they made the book less unique, they slowed it down, and they took focus away from Jess and her troubles, which was what hooked me to begin with. Add to that, when we do figure out everything about Jess, the ghost, and the fire, I ended up pretty disappointed. Also, I mentioned that there is some fantastical element to the novel. This element is not clearly explained in the way it works, its limitations, and who can use it and why. Some readers won’t care that it isn’t clearly defined, but I know other readers who are more strict about magic systems. I am usually OK with a lot being open to interpretation, but even I wanted a clearer explanation of what was going on. Because things were a little muddled in how they were described, the scenes taking place on other planes of existence felt cheesy and unrealistic, which clashed with how dark and serious the “real world” issues had become by the ending.

I had high hopes for this one, but it was a slight disappointment. M. R. Carey can certainly write, and he has some very unique plot ideas. I am still interested to read more from this author, but this novel wasn’t quite as strong. I gave it a three out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

The Gloaming

TGbyKL.png

In the fall I like to read Gothic tales and historical fiction– things that are a little gloomy and brooding. The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan fits this mood as well. If you recall my review of The Gracekeepers by the same author, The Gloaming is supposed to be a “spiritual prequel,” though it has little to do with her other novel, and you do not need to have read The Gracekeepers to understand or enjoy The Gloaming.

The Ross family lives in a very large, pink house on an island where people turn to stone instead of dying. In the Ross family we have Peter and Signe and their children, Islay, Mara, and Bee. As with any family, people change, grow, and go away in one way or another. Islay and Mara are both becoming young women, and they must decide whether to stay on their island or find a home elsewhere. The novel includes themes of grief, romantic and familial love, fairy tales, and growing up to name a few. We follow Mara, Islay, and their family throughout a few years of hardship and acceptance.

The Gloaming is a melancholy little novel. Kirsty Logan’s writing is always beautifully descriptive and lyrical but not over written. Her descriptions have an economy to them, and she easily sets the tone of a scene in a few well-chosen sentences. The writing is easily one of the strongest parts of The Gloaming, but that is up to personal taste to some extent. I also enjoyed the characters. I especially liked how Peter and Signe’s relationship was portrayed almost mythically in the beginning of the novel, but as time goes on, the reader learns more about the reality of their relationship’s beginning and a more realistic story unfolds. Mara and Islay both grow up and change in ways that may be surprising but are realistic given their circumstances.

I enjoyed the experience of reading The Gloaming, but the atmosphere and interest in the characters wasn’t quite enough for me. I wish there had been more of a plot. An event tests the family’s bond, which is the catalyst for the novel, but from there it withers out. There’s a love story, some family drama, and of course some death, but there is a lack of direction or urgency. There’s a slight threat in that people turn to stone instead of die on the island, and there’s something about a bridge connecting the island to the mainland, but not much really happens with that until the abrupt ending.

It’s a very character driven novel, and that’s fine for some people, but even I wanted a little more plot to guide the narrative. There are also many flashbacks that slow the pace even more, though they do add a lot to the character development. However, I do wish that some parts of the characters’ lives were shown in more depth. For example, I wanted to see where Islay and Mara went when they parted ways. The ending was also a bit disappointing. It is open ended, but a major event suddenly solves some of the potential plot lines (like the bridge), which felt a little unsatisfying.

This is a novel for people who enjoy fairy tale influences but don’t need a solid plot. If you enjoy character driven novels that are a little dreamy, a little gloomy, this might be perfect for you. For me, it was about a 3.5 out of 5 star read. Enjoyably moody and thoughtful but lacking a little in the plot area.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Real World

RWbyNK

As we get closer to fall, I get more in the mood to read mysteries and thrillers. I’m also craving some Gothic fiction, so this fall’s reviews might turn out to be very fitting for the season.

If you remember my review of Out, Real World is by the same author. In Real World, we follow four Japanese high school girls. The girls are all friends, but you can tell that there are some issues with their relationships with one another. As she is getting ready in the morning, one of the girls hears glass breaking and a scream from the house next door. After frantically calling her friends, she sees the neighbor’s son exit the house looking quite pleased with himself. The girls are soon tangled up in a murder investigation, and their differing personalities make them handle the situation in very different ways.

I liked this novel, but I would say that Out is a little stronger in both plot and characterization. In Real World, each chapter is written in first person perspective, but the narrator differs between chapters. The strongest part of the novel, in my opinion, was the characters and how in depth their narratives were. This is a very short novel (~200 pages), but each character is given a bit of backstory, and their pasts impact the current plot line. The reasons behind the decisions that the characters make and why they react to certain events in a specific way are all connected. It was interesting to see how the author pulled back each layer of the characters’ personalities and pasts to highlight their unique thought processes.

Despite all of that, I still considered some of the choices the characters made to be a bit dumb. All of the main characters are teenagers, so some questionable choices are going to be made, but I had a hard time understanding why anyone would make some of these very dangerous choices. Sometimes it felt as if the character made a choice simply to move the plot forward, which made some events near the end feel unrealistic. I also had some issues with the dialogue feeling a little stilted, which could be a translation issue. The author writes in Japanese of course, and the translator for Kirino’s other novel, Out, was different from the translator or Real World, so there could be some difference in translation quality.

I gave Real World three out of five stars. It was an entertaining and fast-paced read, but I felt some character choices and plot points were a little unrealistic. I will certainly read more from this author if I can find more translated works from her.

Book Review · Nonfiction

Collapse

CbyJD

Collapse begins by telling the story of modern-day Montana’s small towns changing and collapsing. The farms have shuttered, the youth are moving away, and the rich are using the farmland to build mansions in the beautiful valley. This greatly impacts the demographics, economy, and daily life of the people who originally carved out a living by farming, mining, and logging. This is done so that the author can show how real, micro-level problems develop and affect the people living in modern society. Since we cannot get this “micro view” of past collapsed civilizations, this is helpful for perspective’s sake, but some readers might view it as casting doom and gloom on America’s small towns. This is not the case. It is clear that the author has a deep love of Montana and is friends with many of the people there (the book is even dedicated to Montanans).

Collapse was published in 2005, but as it is a history/science book, there have probably been some scientific advances and discoveries since its publication. It is easy to see parallels between modern society and those that have fallen in the past, and in some cases, the book is nearly prophetic in what it suggested would happen after the book was published. All of the environmental and societal issues are presented in a sympathetic but factual way. After setting the stage with Montana’s current problems, the author discusses collapsed island civilizations, native North and South Americans civilizations, as well as Norse civilizations, then the book moves to more modern societies in Rwanda, the Dominican Republic, Hati, China, and Australia. The final part reflects on the causes and cures for civilizations that have or are in danger of collapsing.

You could go into this book with very little environmental knowledge and not knowing much about the histories of these people and regions. For each civilization, the author explains the geography and issues with each settlement, how the people lived/live, what factors led or are leading to their downfall, and ultimately what happened to the settlers or what was left of the land after the humans died or left. The text is accompanied by detailed maps and a few photos of the regions, people, and artifacts from the civilizations analyzed in the text. Particularly in the long chapters on Greenland and Iceland, the text drags with smaller, inconsequential details that cloud the main point of the chapter. A little more editing might have helped, but the massive amount of detail lets the reader more clearly picture parts of daily life in these past civilizations. I was just surprised that chapters on smaller civilizations sometimes had more detail than modern, more developed societies, like China. The text might be a bit long winded and dry at times, but I read this 542 (not counting the index and bibliography) book very quickly. If this is a topic that interests you, I am sure you will be as hooked as I was.

Other reviewers seem to enjoy the author’s previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (which won a Pulitzer Prize) a bit more because it is a little less meandering, so I will certainly pick that one up soon. Although it was a little depressing to read, I learned a lot from this book and would give it 4 out of 5 stars. My biggest takeaway would be this: humans must always be willing to adapt to survive, and greed, a lack of foresight, and  prioritizing the wrong things (large monuments, luxury items over needs) will lead to a civilization’s downfall. Luckily, humans are great at adapting, but we just have to be willing to do it.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

Homegoing

HbyYG

This book has been sitting on my shelf for at least two years. Everyone praised the book when it came out, but I never felt the urge to pick it up because I knew it would not be an easy read. And it wasn’t, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Homegoing discusses the slave trade, family, racism and discrimination, the criminal justice system, motherhood, and so much more. Somehow the novel is able to highlight these issues using a human touch and an engaging and heartbreaking narrative. Though the characters are fictional, their stories hold many truths.

Homegoing tells the story of two half-sisters separated by chance, Effia and Esi. The novel covers 300 hundred years and alternates chapters between each sister’s line, following one child from each side of the family tree. We begin in Africa where the sisters were born. One sister marries a British slaver, while the other is enslaved and taken to America. We follow Effia and Esi’s descendants throughout history as the African tribes fight against each other and the white men and as America fights for civil rights.

For a book that attempts to comment on so many of these issues, it succeeds in doing so without being preachy. As I said, each chapter focuses on a different member of the family, so unfortunately, the time spent with each character is rather small. Some of the earlier ancestors, Effia and Esi especially, have longer chapters, while the chapters get a bit shorter as the book comes to a close. However, once you progress to the next person in the family, there are references to and appearances of past characters to tie things together. A lot happens off-page because of this, so sometimes assumptions must be made about what happened to previously featured characters.

This is an important book, now more than ever, as the U.S. president attacks people for not being “American enough” or tells them to “go back to their own countries.” Homegoing explores what home can mean to different people as well as how difficult it can be to fit in because of one’s skin color. I cannot believe this is the author’s debut novel because it feels so polished. Despite there being so many characters, I can still clearly remember my favorites. I may not be able to remember all of the characters’ names, but I can remember the plot from most of the chapters. And, if the alternating times and characters sounds confusing, there is a family tree in the physical copy of the book at least.

If I had to pick out something I thought could have been better, I would have to say the ending. The whole book packed a punch, but that left the ending feeling slightly unsatisfying in comparison. I’m honestly not sure how I would have made it any better though! So, I had to rate Homegoing a perfect five out of five stars. Such an impressive debut that was certainly worth the hype in my opinion.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

The Poppy War

TPWbyRFK.png

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. I am tired of white-bread, European/Medieval fantasy. So, any time a fantasy  novel comes out that is a little different, I have to try it. And fantasy novel based on Chinese history and mythology? Yes, please!

The Poppy War, as the author puts it in her review, “is not a romance story. This is not a YA fantasy school story. […] This is, as I’ve always conceived it, a war story. It draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war.” Rin is a war orphan with unloving foster parents who blazed her own trail to Nikara’s most prestigious military school, Sinegard. Making her way into the school is far from the end of her journey though. At the elite school, Rin faces discrimination for her looks and her social status. When another war sparks up between Nikara and the neighboring island of the Mugen Federation, Rin and her classmates are tossed into a battle they may be unable to win without the help of gods…

As the author herself stated, this is a bloody novel based on a bloody part of history. If you have a problem reading about drug use, torture, rape, and a whole host of other bloody, terrible things, you may want to avoid this series. There are a lot of historical references, from the books the students study to the major events in the novel. However, there are original ideas in the novel as well; it isn’t just a retelling of history with some fantasy splashed in. What could be just another coming-of-age/chosen one story arch is turned into something quite unique with the mixture of Chinese history, mythology, and fantasy.

Even as someone who isn’t wild about the magical school theme, I really enjoyed the first part of the novel as Rin gets into and adjusts to Sinegard. Rin is an underdog from the start, but her plucky attitude and fighting spirit are hard to dislike. It is fun to root for Rin, and even when she faces near-impossible resistance, she presses forward. I enjoyed getting to know her friends and enemies at the school as well as the classes she was required to take. Only a handful of her classmates are focused on, and it seems that very few are important to the broader plot. I wish there would have been a little more time spent on the development of the school and the instructors, but the school portion of the series is overall relatively minor. As the author stated, this is not a YA school story; it is a war story, which brings me to the one thing I slightly disliked about the novel: the pacing.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 deals with Rin getting to Sinegard and her studies there. Parts 2 and 3 deal with the impending war. The pace in Part 1 was fine, but the war began quite quickly, leaving me a little confused about how some events linked together. This happens throughout Parts 2 and 3. Rin has some “fade to black” moments that I thought would benefit from a little more exposition. Rin also mouths off quite a bit, and at times it was surprising that she avoided trouble. The novel doesn’t test the limits of disbelief any more than most other fantasy, but I can see how some readers might find Rin dislikable, too plot-armored, or just plain annoying. Personally, I liked Rin more in Part 1, but she changes for understandable reasons. I look forward to seeing where she will end up in the subsequent novels.

I gave The Poppy War four out of five stars. It is a very solid fantasy novel, especially if you are looking for something a bit different with real-life history and myth thrown into the mix. It’s sequel, The Dragon Republic will be released in the U.S. August 6th, 2019.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

Big Fish

BFbyDW

Big Fish is my favorite movie. I actually wrote two papers in college about the movie. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty passionate about the story. And, well, it never fails to make me cry like a baby at the end. I knew that one day I would have to read the book, just to compare the two. For once, the movie is much, much better than the book.

Edward Bloom is dying. His son, William, tries to make a lasting connection with his father before he passes, but Edward cannot seem to tell his son his true life story. Edward has always been a grandiose storyteller, but William can’t take it any more. Edward’s stories, while fun, leave William with very little real information about who his father was. As Edward fades away from sickness, William desperately tries to understand his often-absent father.

I can’t help but compare the book and the movie, but I know that those who have not read or seen either will be a bit lost. So, apologies in advance. The book has many small chapters. Each small chapter tells a short story about Edward Bloom’s life. The stories are usually over the top and bordering on fantasy, but you can sense a grain of truth in each one. In between a few of the stories, we have sections in the present when Edward is on his death bed. During these present-day sections, William and his mother try to talk to Edward, but Edward has a lot of trouble opening up about who he really was.

The problem is that these short, magical stories just don’t feel cohesive. Characters and places come and go without any impact on Edwards’s overall narrative. The grains of truth do not connect or give much detail about what really happened. The book is much more open-ended, which feels unsatisfying. In the novel, Edward holds tight to his secrets and the moral of the story is a little muddled. The movie succeeds by filling in some of these blanks. For example, book-Edward befriends a giant, but we never hear from the giant again after his short story. Movie-Edward’s giant friend pops up here and there to help Edward on his life journey. The events and characters simply do not have as much development in the book. The stories feel isolated and lack the heartfelt, romantic, and fun moments portrayed in the movie. By the end of the movie, there is a sense of closure for the audience and for Edward’s son, William. The book lacks this, in my opinion.

Both the book and movie are an extended allegory about life, death, truth, and fiction, but the movie just executes it all more smoothly. I could not connect to book-Edward. He was portrayed as someone everyone likes, but his charm did not translate on the page. Movie-Edward is a charmer, but he is also more fallible. He is a bit of an ambitious underdog, while book-Edward never has much trouble getting what he wants. The book portrays Edward’s life a bit more realistically than the movie, but somehow, the movie feels more authentic.

If I say any more, I will probably spoil both the book and the movie. My recommendation? Watch the movie. Then, if you are still curious, read the book for a different perspective. In my opinion, the screenwriter for Big Fish took a good idea and made it into a great movie. For me, Big Fish the movie is a solid 5/5 stars. Big Fish the novel? Maybe three out of five, but only because I love the story itself so much.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

The Chalk Man

TCMbyCJT

The Chalk Man alternates between two time periods: 1986 in which the characters are young teens to 2016 when they are adults bordering on middle age. After Eddie’s friend received a large bucket of chalk for his birthday, the friends began to use the chalk to write secret messages and make rude drawings around town. It was innocent enough, but the fun ended quickly when the chalk drawings were connected to a string of murders. The quaint English town was quickly upended by salacious and bloody scandals. Now, in 2016, the past comes back to haunt Eddie and his friends when they become the targets of a new murder spree.

Since I’m still battling a reading slump, I wanted something fast paced and gripping. The Chalk Man definitely made me turn the pages, but by the end, I was slightly dissatisfied. The plot was the main draw for me, and I felt it was executed pretty well. There are a lot of twists, turns, and red herrings. I was hoping that the “bad guy” wasn’t the person that the book seemed to be pointing the reader toward in the beginning. Luckily, it wasn’t that predictable. Although, a couple “hints” toward the real bad guy were pretty heavy handed. As always, there are some overly convenient plot devices to move the story in the intended direction, and some parts of the plot could be more clearly explained to tie up lose ends. However, it was not bad. It was entertaining. The book is fairly short and the pace is quick, which could be a pro or con depending on what you’re looking for.

Eddie and his friends did not do much for me as characters. The story was told from Eddie’s perspective, so it is a little limited in what we know and see. Add to that, Eddie as a narrator was slightly unreliable, which made the book a bit more interesting. Still, if you’ve read a lot of the domestic thrillers with unreliable narrators, this is not something new. (This time at least it wasn’t a woman with a drinking problem…) Somehow, despite seeing everything from his point of view, I did not feel very connected to Eddie or any of his friends. Maybe I am spoiled from the mountains of character development in Stephen King’s novels, but I felt like The Chalk Man could have spent a little more time on the main characters and their relationships.

All in all, it was an OK read. For a debut novel, it was good. The writing has some personality, and it pulled me into the story well enough. The plot was unique to me, but the book as a whole could have used a little more polish and depth. I would still recommend The Chalk Man as a quick, entertaining thriller. If you consider some thrillers as “beach reads,” this one might qualify. I gave The Chalk Man a middle-of-the-road three out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Borne

BbyJV

Do you ever find a new author, read and like a book or two they wrote, then all of the sudden realize that you found a new favorite author? Well, that’s what is going on with me. I’ve read and reviewed two other books from Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook and Annihilation. I really liked them both, and he might be the author to finally get me into the sci-fi genre. But enough about me. Onward to the review!

Rachel survives by scavenging in her ruined, half-abandoned city. The whys and hows of the city’s destruction is a bit of a mystery, but the city’s fate is closely tied to The Company’s. The Company’s experiments and disregard for humanity as well as the natural world are at least partially to blame for the city’s downfall. In fact, The Company’s biggest and most terrible experiment now lords of the city in the shape of a giant, violent, flying bear named Mord. On one of Rachel’s scavenging trips she finds a strange plant-like creature. She takes it home, not knowing exactly what it is. Rachel’s partner, Wick, disapproves of the strange creature, but Rachel cannot bring herself to give it up. Things become even more complicated when what she thought was a plant becomes a sentient being.

Is this one of those Bizarro fiction things? I mean there’s a giant, flying bear terrorizing a city, after all. No, skeptical reader! Don’t let the flying bear distract you! This book has a lot of heart and serious themes, actually. If you read Annihilation, or the entire Southern Reach Trilogy, you might be skeptical of that statement too, as I have seen many readers complain about Annihilation and its sequels lacking in character depth clarity of plot. Yes, Annihilation is a bit odd, and it does not fully explain everything. Borne’s plot is much more focused, and I was more attached to the main characters. Was everything perfectly explained? No. For example, if you want to know why the bear flies, well, he’s been experimented on, and that’s really all the book tells you. If details like that bother you, you might not like it. The science isn’t super scientific. This isn’t The Martian.

As I mentioned, the characters in Borne are more refined and easier to connect to than those in Annihilation. However, like Annihilation, Borne is written in first person from the perspective of a female character. VanderMeer writes from a female perspective well. Rachel is intelligent, strong-willed, caring, and resourceful, but she also has flaws and makes mistakes. Wick, her partner, is also a good character, but he was more difficult to connect to because of his murky past and because we are reading from Rachel’s perspective. And of course, I have to mention Borne himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is hard not to love this non-human character because he is so human.

As for the plot, I liked it, but it felt a little less experimental than VanderMeer’s trilogy, which might be better for some readers. As I said, the plot is much more clear-cut in Borne. The plot takes some predictable turns, but it was still a very unique and engrossing read. The ending wraps things up very well, but I found myself wishing that a few more events, characters, and creatures were explained in depth. This isn’t to say that there are huge plot holes. I just wanted to know more about the world and what happened to the city. The world building feels very vast. The city feels both desolate and feral, but the wider world is mentioned here and there, giving a sense that maybe there’s many other stories to tell.

One last thing I want to mention is why I, specifically, liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. As someone who has always enjoyed fiction and non-fiction that deals with the environment and nature, VanderMeer’s work just clicks with me. His descriptions of plants and animals and how humans connect with and exploit the natural world is just great. He examines so many themes of environmentalism, society, and humanity in a sci-fi novel with a flying bear in it. That impresses me! There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual depth in Rachel’s musings too. This is the first sci-fi novel that I have read that felt literary.

I debated on rating Borne 4 or 5 stars, but ultimately went with 4. It was a great read, but I expected the main story arch to be slightly less predictable, and well, I just wanted more from the book. I’m a harsh judge though, and even as I write this I am considering raising my rating…

 

Book Review · Nonfiction

Intelligence in Nature

IiNbyJN

After reading The Genius of Birds and loving it, I was on the hunt for another nonfiction book on animal intelligence, preferably something with a wider of array of animals to discuss. Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. Spoiler: it was not, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

Intelligence in Nature is a bit of a travelogue with some research findings mixed in. There is a definite anthropological spin to the book, as Narby meets with and interviews several natives of the regions he travels to. He interviews healers, guides, and several shamans. He asks them about their views on intelligence in nature, and he collects a variety of beliefs and responses. Narby also includes recent research regarding intelligence in animals, plants, and microbes as well as meetings with experts in scientific fields. Narby presents a variety of views of intelligence in nature, but as a whole the book feels a little disjointed and slightly off topic.

While it was interesting to hear what the shamans and healers had to say about their world, I was hoping to read about more scientific, concrete discoveries. I liked when Narby introduced the shamans to some ideas of modern science, but ultimately, the content of the book did not quite match the title or synopsis, in my view. I was looking for some in depth explanation and analysis of intelligence in other organisms, but Narby glossed over some of the details in favor of an anthropological approach to the subject.

Intelligence in Nature was a slight disappointment because its content didn’t quite meet my expectations, but it was still an interesting and informative read. It would have benefited from a little more organization of the ideas presented in the text, but the journeys Narby took and the people he met along the way bring a unique perspective to the topic of intelligence in the natural world. I rated the book 2-2.5 out of 5 stars.