Book Review: MILA 2.0 by Debra Driza (2013)

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Sixteen year-old Mila Daily and her mother have recently moved to a small Minnesota town following the death of her father. After surviving an accident that should have proved fatal, Mila is forced to confront a difficult truth. She isn’t a normal girl. She isn’t, in fact, even human.

This was the December pick for my monthly book club and overall, I enjoyed it. It’s well paced with an engaging heroine who behaves with all the impulsiveness of any teenage girl. I loved the descriptions of Mila’s “bonus features” which point out both the positives and the negatives of having something like Terminator-vision. The action sequences were well-written and easily to follow, which is a lot harder than it sounds. The most interesting scenes take place when Mila is talking with Three, her counterpart.

I finished this book in about a day, and it kept my attention the entire time. I wish I could rate it higher, but at the same time there were a few glaring problems that kept me from truly submerging myself in this fictional world. MILA 2.0 sometimes feels like an alphabet soup of common YA tropes. I picked up strong hints of Divergence with Mila’s constant internal (whining) monologue. The author, Debra Driza, has a habit of ending every chapter on a cliff-hanger, which is one of the reasons I eventually stopped reading The Maze Runner books. I also found some of the characters to be a little implausible. Hunter, as the generically perfect romantic interest, is introduced and then almost immediately left behind. The military general was unnecessarily evil. I get that the military does shady things for shady reasons but at least there are reasons. Whereas this guy seemed to be a dick just for the sake of being a dick. The bond between Mila and her mother is awkward. One minute, it’s a normal mother-daughter relationship with typical angsty rebellion. Then it’s wild anger and betrayal, followed way too quickly by forgiveness and undying loyalty. Also the character of Lucas was obviously a plot device; from the moment he showed up it was painfully obvious exactly what role he was there to fulfill.

I wish that the science part of the science fiction had been given a larger voice. We discover pretty early on that Mila isn’t human. Let’s talk about that! This novel had the wonderful opportunity to explore the essence of humanity and to question the existence of a soul. Instead, too much of the book is given over to lengthy chase scenes and internal monologuing.

With all that, I still did enjoy the book. It was a fun and uncomplicated read. I will probably pick up the other books in the series at some point.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Holidays everyone!

I Left a Church for Harry Potter

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Disclaimer: For the sake of the sanity of various family members I need to state outright that I did not leave THE church for Harry Potter. As in it did not drive me from Christianity.

Now we can proceed.

While I was brainstorming exactly how this site should run over the course of next year , I decided that I shouldn’t include any re-reads. I have a small collection of well-loved books that I like to think of as “comfort novels”. You know the ones. The old favorites that you’ve read and re-read to the point where you can quote them line for line. The ones that are like curling up with an old friend. My personal collection of comfort novels includes Gone With the Wind, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Pride and Prejudice. And of course, Harry Potter. Once I realized that I was effectively banning myself from reading Harry Potter for an entire year, I was of course overwhelmed with a burning desire to read Harry Potter. So before the new year rolls around, I’ve decided to take a nice relaxing stroll back into Hogwarts and spend the holiday season unwinding with a series that has had a significant impact on my life and the life of millions of others. So grab a cup of hot chocolate, snuggle down in the warm glow of your tablets, and I’ll spin you the tale of how Harry Potter became a book I would have to fight for.

When I was about eleven years old, my language arts teacher decided to spend the first five minutes of every lesson reading aloud to us from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. My parents, who had recently watched a Fox News broadcast which suggested that Harry Potter was leading schoolchildren to form Satanic cults or something, talked about having me pulled out of class. However, they were already too late. Harry had just unleashed a boa constrictor on his cousin and I was hooked. I threatened to purposely fail my classes if they had me removed. Thankfully, once they saw how much the books meant to me they relented. Perhaps they noticed that I had made my way through three of the novels and had yet to sacrifice the family cat to Mephistopheles. In the summer of 2000 my Dad even ended up driving me to Walmart at midnight so I could buy The Goblet of Fire. This was the first time I went to battle over Harry Potter but it was not to be the last.

The summer after my wonderful teacher introduced me to the world of Hogwarts, I went away for a week to a sleep-away Christian Bible Camp. At the time, joining one of the local churches had seemed like a great way to make new friends, as I was still relatively new to a small town. I’d actually lived there for nearly three years at that point, but it was a small enough town that we were still the “new” family. Anyway, I was really excited to spend a week hiking and swimming with the girls from my youth group.

Turns out, the emphasis at this particular summer institution was on “Bible” far more than it was on “camp”. If memory serves, there was a two hour sermon in the morning, another two hour sermon in the afternoon and a group bible discussion every evening. Now this was your proper Southern Baptist sermon. Lots of singing and dancing and praising of the Lord. It’s actually a pretty rousing good time. But that’s still a lot of church for a twelve-year old.

Towards the end of the week, we had a guest pastor. He arrived with a Powerpoint presentation and proceeded to spend the next two hours detailing all the myriad temptations that would befall us and lead us down the dark road to hell. His list included, but was not limited to:

  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • Madonna
  • Looney Tunes
  • Yoga
  • Video Games
  • The Backstreet Boys

and of course, Harry Potter. Now, I think he had written this sermon back in the 1980’s (none of had ever played D&D and Madonna was something my mom danced to after a few glasses of wine) but he had updated it to include a few of the more modern evils. He latched on to Harry Potter with particular vengeance. It was foul and wicked and tempted children away from God. It taught witchcraft to impressionable youth and as we all know from Exodus we “must not suffer a witch to live”.

As I sat there, becoming more and more confused and angry,  a voice piped up from the congregation, asking the pastor if he had ever actually read any of the Harry Potter novels. He, of course, had not. Another girl chimed in, saying that she had read them and that the books embodied such themes as friendship, heroism, maternal strength, and the power of love to triumph over evil. None of which, in her opinion, pointed one down the road to hellfire. Their voices gave me courage, and I found myself on my feet, agreeing and adding my voice to theirs. Honestly I cannot remember for the life of me what exactly I said to this pastor. I was scared out of my mind. This was probably the first time I had ever actively disagreed with an adult that wasn’t a family member.

Now as some of you may know, it is difficult if not impossible to coherently argue with a self-righteous evangelical. The discussion lasted for only a few minutes before he abruptly switched topics. Perhaps to point out that glitter nail polish was an affront to God. Everyone sat back down and the sermon carried on more or less normally from there. But the damage was done. A thin crack appeared in my worldview that day. I had raised doubt with a member of my church. I had dared to object to his teachings. It made absolutely no sense at all at the time. But in hindsight I have always looked back on this week at bible camp as the first time I began standing up for what I believed in. To question and demand real answers to those questions. All thanks to one fictional boy with a lightning shaped scar.

After I got back home, I stopped going to that particular church. It bothered me in a way that I could not express at the time that none of my friends at camp had stood to support me. Instead, I think they were embarrassed that I hadn’t quietly agreed with the pastor. It also bothered me that the man was so eager to judge that which he knew nothing about. So I quietly began seeking out a more tolerant congregation.

Looking back, I realize this story doesn’t seem particularly exciting. I didn’t shout down the guest pastor and storm out in a fury. I didn’t demand that my parents come and rescue me. All I did was stand with others to show my opposition to his teachings.

But isn’t that one of the most important lessons that a child can learn?

So I’m going to snuggle up in my blanket and continue reading Harry Potter while it snows outside. And I’ll give a silent thank-you to Harry, Ron, Hermione, and J. K. Rowlings for helping me to learn some valuable lessons.

Happy Holidays!

Ashley

 

 

Book Review: The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan (2000)

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I found this novel on a Buzzfeed list of scary novels to read around Halloween. I had high hopes that it might be a historical account of the Bell family and the facts surrounding the numerous accounts of the Bell Witch. I was very, very wrong.

Written in the voice of Richard Powell as a letter to his children, The Bell Witch is a fictionalized account of the famous Tennessee haunting that took place in the early 1820s.

The Bell Witch is a short little novel, under two hundred pages. All I can say is thank goodness. By page one hundred, I was frustrated. Fifty pages later, I was getting ready to tear my hair out. I finally finished the book yesterday evening and actually gave a sigh of relief.

I can sum up my problem with The Bell Witch in one short sentence. It is boring. Presented in its book jacket as nonfiction, this is instead a fictionalized account masquerading as a recovered letter. This letter, which drags on with no chapter breaks, chronicles in agonizing detail the account of the least frightening spirit ever recorded. An unnecessarily racist spirit too, as the author insists on dropping the n-word around like bigoted breadcrumbs. If this was supposed to add historical accuracy it was a horrid misstep, as it simply upped my lack of sympathy for any of the idiots that were supposedly involved in the haunting.

My rating: 1/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. However, if you’re looking for a ghost story with actual ghosts, I would recommend Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Or The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson if you enjoy a true life account of a haunting.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Burning by Jane Casey (2011)

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After the fifth girl is found brutally murdered and burned in a London park, Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan must hurry to find the killer before he strikes again. The only problem is that there are subtle differences between the most recent murder and the previous deaths. Has the Burning Man struck again, or is there a copycat killer on the loose?

This novel was recommended to me after I finished reading one of Tana French’s novels; and on the surface, Jane Casey’s The Burning does share some similarities with French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. DC Kerrigan is Irish, though the novel is set in London not Dublin. We focus on Kerrigan’s relationships and struggles with her fellow police officers. The police are treated as fallable, unlike some books in the detective genre where the lead officer is basically an omniscient God.

However, that’s where the similarities end. One of the reasons why I am such a fan of Tana French’s novels is that it never feels like I am reading the script for an episode of Law and Order. With Casey’s novel, there was a strong “police procedural” vibe that got a little tedious in later chapters. Casey also made the strange decision to split her points-of-view between two female characters using first person narrative. It might be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I find it’s much easier to do split-POV from a third person perspective. I can only occupy headspace with one character at a time.

Overall, The Burning was a very “by the book” murder-mystery. It kept my attention throughout, but didn’t provide anything particularly exciting. If you like whodunnits, you’ll probably like this novel.

I have other things to say but there are spoilers so scroll down if you dare!

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Burning here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

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The ending of this book was bullshit. The Burning took its time building to a climax. We solved the mystery. We caught the killer. And then it all got thrown in the toilet with a nonsensical “suicide letter” wherein the murderer explains their dastardly plot in exquisite detail like a second-rate James Bond villain. It was such a cop-out. Either the police needed to gain a confession through interrogation, or actually I was kind of hoping that in the end they weren’t going to have enough evidence and the killer was going to walk free. That would have been at least passingly original. It was almost like Jane Casey couldn’t figure out what to do, had to meet a deadline, so she just tacked on this “Morgan Freeman showing up to explain the plot” ending. It completely ruined the novel for me.

 

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

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Julia and her family wake up on a seemingly normal Saturday afternoon to find out that the world they took for granted has changed. The rotation of the Earth has begun to slow, causing night and day to extend by a few minutes each day. As the process stretches out, gravity is affected, birds begin dying off, and people are split between those who stick with the twenty-four hour clock and those who still follow the rhythms of the Sun.

“There was no footage to show on television, no burning buildings or broken bridges, no twisted metal or scorched earth, no houses sliding off slabs. No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe”

Take a moment and think about how dependent we are on the rotation of the Earth. For billions of years the sun has risen and set on a twenty-four hour cycle. The movements of the sun tells us when to begin and end our day. It tells us which meals to eat and when. When it is safe to go out on the street versus when should we lock our doors. Now what would happen if all of the habits ingrained in our circadian rhythm were suddenly disrupted? What if school began in the middle of the night? Or if you were expected to go to sleep in the bright afternoon light? The Age of Miracles explores the idea of how society would adjust to cope with the loss of the intrinsic dichotomy of night and day.

“We were, on that day, no different from the ancients, terrified of our own big sky.”

This book is difficult to categorize. It’s a little bit YA, a little bit science fiction. It’s a coming of age story, a natural disaster story, and a story about time and our natural relationship with night and day. It’s also a beautifully written novel about a girl who is trying to come to terms with her life when everything she took for granted in her life is suddenly upended.

My favorite part of this book is that it is written from the perspective of an eleven year old girl. Too much of the natural disaster genre focuses on “scientist who is totally brilliant but overlooked until its too late”. Instead, we watch the Earth stop spinning through the eyes of someone who is more focused on whether or not the cute boy on the bus is going to pay attention to her. Children don’t expect the same things from life that adults do. For Julia, the biggest problem she is currently facing is not that the sun hasn’t risen in twenty hours, it’s that her best friend is no longer speaking to her. The main plot of the story almost plays like a backdrop to the everyday pitfalls and triumphs of an ordinary teenager. In this aspect, The Age of Miracles is utterly unique, which means that it is also utterly unpredictable.

Something else that kept cropping up in this novel was the idea that even when presented with an extinction-level crisis, humanity will somehow always find time to create an “us” versus a “them”. In this case, it’s the people who choose to carry on with a twenty-four hour clock versus the people who decide change their sleeping patterns to fit with the changing sun. It is sadly unsurprising that the two groups cannot seem to peacefully coexist. Even when faced with our own destruction, society will feel the need to know that they went down swinging in the “correct” way.

Overall, this was a quick read that kept me thoroughly engaged from start to finish. Walker’s prose borders on poetry at times, but she manages not to stray into the realm of overly sappy or purple language. I would definitely recommend this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Throne of Glass (Books #1-5) by Sarah J. Maas

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Over the summer I discovered Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) trilogy on a Buzzfeed list of fantasy novels. I read the entire series in a few days and thoroughly enjoyed it. The second installment, A Court of Mist and Fury, was one of my favorite books of the year. When I learned that Maas had another fantasy series out, Throne of Glass (ToG) I quickly downloaded them from my local library and got to work.

I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but there may be important plot points given away. You’ve been warned!

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Magic has been banished from the continent of Erilea. The king of Adarlan has expanded his empire by overthrowing the nearby kingdoms, leaving thousands either in poverty or in slavery. Celaena Sardothien is in the latter category. An infamous assassin, she was sentenced to life in a labor camp after she and her partner were betrayed and caught. After a year of struggling to survive, a man shows up with the power to change her life. The king of Adarlan is holding a contest to find a new Champion. He is recruiting thieves and killers from all of Erilea to compete against one another, the winner to receive riches and a position in the court of Adarlan. Celaena must now compete against others just like herself or risk being thrown back into the horrors of the slave camp.

Aelin Galathynius is a princess without a throne. After the king of Adarlan had her parents slaughtered, she has been running and hiding for most of her life. She journeys across the sea to Wendlyn, the kingdom of the Fae, to beg for help from the ruthless Fae Queen, Maeve.

I love a badass heroine, and there is no more heroine more badass than Celaena Sardothien. I’m going to be very frank right now, the first novel does not do her justice. I noticed something similar with the first installment of ACOTAR. Maas struggles to get her characters on their feet and behaving like people as opposed to paper dolls. Had the series as a whole not gotten such rave reviews I might have stopped reading midway through Throne of Glass. The other characters spend an awful lot of time referring to Celaena as a dangerous, bloodthirsty, heartless killer…but we are often treated to long descriptions of her pretty dresses or the books she likes to read. Celaena frequently muses on how quickly she could kill the people she is interacting with, but we never actually see this happen throughout the duration of the first novel. I got the sense that Maas was trying to make sure her deadly killer could still be seen as likable, but she somehow managed to declaw Celaena in the process. This problem is quickly solved in the next few books, so I would encourage readers to at least get to Crown of Midnight before making any final judgments.

It must be acknowledged that ToG is YA fiction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I really enjoy YA fantasy, however; it still is reined in by the limitations of its genre. Parts of the series get overly hung-up on various love affairs and relationships. There were times when you want to roll your eyes and tell two of the characters to please just f*ck already so we can move on with the plot. And Aelin Targaryen – I’m sorry –  Galathynius’ journey to reclaim her kingdom takes a lot of time to get off the ground as she weebles and wobbles her way from place to place. ToG shares many themes with GoT except that, for me anyway, it lacked a little of emotional resonance. I never doubted that the characters were going to end up where they wanted to be, and with the impossibly good-looking people they wanted to be with. This isn’t necessarily a criticism; there are few authors in world who can match George R. R. Martin’s malevolent delight in killing off his main characters. It does, however; take away a certain amount of suspense. Who knows, perhaps the next novel in the series will make me eat those words. One can only hope.

After the underwhelming first novel, ToG shakes off its early sluggishness and begins fleshing out its characters and their various story arcs. Our primary focus is on Celaeana, and her journey builds momentum at a blistering pace. Once she gets into her groove, Maas is an expert at hooking her readers and keeping them on the edge of their seats. I recently finished the fifth novel and am livid that I have to wait a few months until the sixth installment becomes available for checkout at the library.

Overall, I would definitely recommend these novels to anyone who is a fan of high fantasy in general and YA fantasy specifically. Yes, there are some moments when you are going to roll your eyes. But overall, the Throne of Glass series is a fun and riveting set of books that is perfect for those days when you want something that is generally uncomplicated but still capable of packing a punch.

Note: I will mention that this series is on the mature end of the YA genre. Some of the scenes get very steamy. I wouldn’t recommend this series to anyone under the age of sixteen. 

You can find the first book of the series here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

My Rating: 4/5

Happy reading everyone!

This Post Has a Shocking Twist Ending That Will Leave Your Jaw On the Floor!

I was browsing through Pinterest the other morning, on the prowl for new books, and I came across this.

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Decent title. Cover looks promising. But upon closer inspection…

blurb

I promptly took the Nope train all the way to Screw-That ville.

Why are you announcing your plot twist on the front cover? Why do publishers DO this? It’s not even as if this is an isolated incident. In fact, it seems to be a growing trend throughout the mystery/thriller genre.

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See the pattern? Why would anyone advertise the surprise plot twist at the end of the novel? It completely ruins the surprise of the surprise plot twist at the end of the novel!

Am I the only one who is annoyed by this? If I am reading a book where I am aware that there is going to be a crazy plot twist, I’m not going to enjoy the novel. I’m going to spend all my time over-thinking everything in order to try to figure out the plot twist before it happens. And half the time, the “shocking” plot twist is going to either be a) visible from space or b) something completely nonsensical involving a character that wasn’t even involved in the main plot to begin with. Either way, my enjoyment factor is low.

Why does this only seem to happen with books? Movie producers get it. No one went into The Sixth Sense expecting Bruce Willis to have been dead the entire time. So when we found out that Bruce Willis was dead the entire time it was actually shocking. Which is also why by the time The Village rolled around and the entire planet had figured out that M. Night Shymalan was a one-trick pony, the fun was gone. Because the surprise was gone.

It’s irritating because it’s lazy. Can’t find anything interesting to say about your upcoming book? Say it’s the next Gone Girl because people liked that book! Except part of the reason why people liked Gone Girl was that the twist hits you out of nowhere with the force of a bullet train and doesn’t stop hitting you for another two hundred pages. That’s what makes it fun! Advertising your plot twists on the front cover is click-bait for novels. Next the blurbs are going to start saying things like “You won’t believe what happens in Chapter 16!” or “Women be sure to avoid this character’s failure on page 229!”.

Which is too bad. Because those four books up there might be highly enjoyable reads. But it’s unlikely that I will ever read them because they’ve had all the suspense sucked out. Let’s hope in the future that book publishers can find a slightly more subtle way to draw our attention to the upcoming novels. At this point, a baseball bat to the head would show more nuance.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang (2017)

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China, 1908. Seven year old Jialing is abandoned by her mother in their run-down residence on Dragon Springs Road. Because she is zazhong, mixed race, Jialing is met with scorn and derision from her neighbors. She must rely on the residence’s new owners, the Yangs, to take her in and save her from a life of destitution.

I recently finished reading a fantastic historical novel about China during the Communist Revolution, so I went into this book very excited to explore a slightly earlier time, the China during the fall of Imperialism. However, Dragon Springs Road focuses primarily on the relationships between its characters than it does on the historical context. A major theme of the novel is the isolation and restriction of women in Imperial China. Jialing and the other main female characters are utterly powerless to control their fates. They are bought and sold like cattle in order to settle gambling debts or to fuel an opium addiction. Chang does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the futility and claustrophobia that would accompany this kind of subjugation. We feel Jialing’s desperation as she tries to seize control of her own life. We feel her hopelessness when her efforts are repulsed time and again. Chang’s novel is at its best when it focuses on the trials and triumphs of the women living in these difficult circumstances.

Where this book fell flat for me was its lack of historical context. The reader is given glimpses into what day to day life was like during this time period, but we are never really submerged in the era. I was left wanting more. For example, Jialing observes that one of the Yang women has bound feet. This detail is mentioned once, and then never brought up again. Tell me more! I want to hear about the limitations that such a deliberate disfigurement would have on a person’s life. Another example is the abdication of the last Qing emperor. The reader is given virtually no background information on this ruler or why he chose to abandon his lands. Nor does the fact that China just lost its leader carry with it any sense of urgency. It’s simply acknowledged, like a weather report.

Dragon Springs Road is an insightful glimpse into the lives of women in pre-war China. I enjoyed Chang’s depiction of the characters and their struggle to assert their own destinies. I also loved that she painted the entire novel with the softest brush of magic realism. But the novel was crying out for a greater explanation of the historical circumstances, which ultimately left me unsatisfied.

My Rating: 3/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Reviews: Wayward (Wayward Pines #2) by Blake Crouch (2013)

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After an auto accident that occurs while conducting a search for his missing ex-partner, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke wakes up in the small town of Wayward Pines, Idaho. His ID, wallet, and phone are all missing. No calls can be made out of the town. The roads are seem to lead back to the same location. And a thirty foot high electric fence surrounds the area. When people begin turning up dead, Ethan must work to discover the secret behind the sleepy town of Wayward Pines.

That’s a quick synopsis from the first book in this series, Pines. It seemed unfair to potentially spoil anything from the previous novel, as it is so much fun and I encourage anyone who loves a good thriller to go pick it up immediately.

First off, let me just commend this novel for making me almost-kinda-sorta-want to visit Idaho. Crouch describes it as a strikingly beautiful area filled with aspen trees, starry skies, and forbidding mountains. You can almost taste the fresh mountain air. Reading this novel was one of the first time I had ever stopped to really consider the geography of the state of Idaho. No offense, Idahoans. I also grew up in a highly overlooked state. I feel you.

“For every perfect little town, there’s something ugly underneath. No dream without the nightmare”

Wayward is an entertaining, uncomplicated read that still manages to raise important questions, as all good science fiction must do. What begins as a relatively straightforward murder-mystery quickly evolves into a debate on societal security versus personal freedom. At what point do we need to stop sacrificing for the greater good? What price is too high to pay for safety?

Blake Crouch is quickly becoming one of my new favorite authors. His writing style is  fast-paced and compelling, yet accessible. It’s science fiction in a Star Trek sense, a irresistible mix of thrills and sentiment, with a dash of science thrown on for flavor.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Wayward Pines has been adapted into a TV show that is currently in its second season on Fox. The third novel in the trilogy, The Last Town, was released in 2014.

Find the books here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

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The official oneyearonehundredbooks won’t begin until January 1st, but I just finished reading an amazing novel and it would be a crime not to share it all with you. So I’ve decided to jump the gun a little bit and begin my year of book reviews by telling you about Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

This is the inter-generational story of the Communist Revolution of China. Much of the story focuses on Sparrow, a young composer living in Shanghai. We watch him struggle through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. We also follow Sparrow’s extended family as they struggle through the student protests of 1989 and the horrific culmination at the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“This is a skill we perfect from an early age,” The Professor said lightly, “How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust”

What happens to a society when all of the art, music, and beauty have been scraped away? What lasting repercussions ripple through the generations when children are made to denounce their fathers or face being denounced themselves? How do you hold on to your hopes, your dreams, your individuality when things like hopes and dreams and individuality have been labeled as seditious?

These questions and more are at the center of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Thien does not shy away from shining a glaring light into the dark places of the Communist Revolution. We veer wildly from the naive optimism of the early days of Mao Zhedong, into the mob mentalilty and paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. The fierce hope of the student protests at Tiananmen are filled with a kind of desperate longing, made all the more painful because we already know how the situation is to end.

Classical composers such as Bach, Prokofiev, and Shostakavich are used to highlight the healing and inspiring power of music. As the Cultural Revolution rages on and such music is labeled “counter-revolutionary” it is replaced by nationalistic operas and government mandated slogans. How the characters deal with this loss of music in their lives is one of the highlights of the novel.

“Beauty leaves its imprint on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed”

About five years ago, the kindergarten I worked for in China hosted a picnic for Children’s Day. About a hundred children attended together with their parents and grandparents. There was music, dancing, face painting, and huge table filled with food. At one point, I was supervising the lunch table and I noticed an elderly Chinese woman, obviously someone’s grandmother. As she navigated the buffet table, she took about fifteen sausages and put them in a plastic bag, and put the bag in her purse. She proceeded to do the same with the fried potatoes, the stuffed buns, and the shrimp. Many of the children and parents had not yet had a chance to eat. To my well-fed American eyes, this struck me as incredibly rude. It was only later that evening that I stopped to truly consider all that that woman had experienced during her long life in China. The beginnings of Communism and the rice famine. The Cultural Revolution and the One-Child Policy. The growing environmental problems coinciding with China’s rise as an economic power. The lasting repercussions of that constant hunger, upheaval, and uncertainty. Reading this book, I felt a new-found respect for everything that Chinese grandmother had endured and overcome.

Good historical fiction has the ability to transport the reader back into another time and place, to enthrall us with detail of a period we can only try to understand. Truly great historical fiction demands more of the reader. It requires that we put ourselves in pain; that we experience the past with all the urgency of the present. It insists that we draw parallels and comparisons with the society we live in today. And it encourages us to learn more, to dive between the pages and conduct our own outside research. For this reader, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is truly great historical fiction.

My rating: 4.5/5

Find it here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!