Book Review: Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney (2017)

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Review #35

 

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me: 
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie

Amber Reynolds wakes up in the hospital, unable to open her eyes or move her body. She can hear the people around her, but cannot respond. Amber is in a coma, but can’t remember anything about the accident that put her there. Alternating back and forth between the days leading up to the accident, her incapacitated present, and a series of diary entries from twenty years before, Alice tries to piece together the mystery of what happened before it’s too late.

Last year I wrote about publishers who feel the need to advertise the “surprise twist ending” on the front cover of their novels. It spoils my enjoyment of reading when I am constantly trying to figure out what the twist is before it happens. It screams of laziness and click-baiting. I began this novel in a state of mild dismay that the twist ending was given away on the front cover. Also, because the publishers have already seen fit to spoil the novel, I won’t lose any sleep about giving away a few plot points. You’ve been warned.

When choosing fiction novels, I tend to gravitate towards horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Even though this was a bit outside of my usual, Sometimes I Lie started off strong and captured my interest in the beginning. Amber tells us straight away that we cannot trust her memories, so her narration is therefore unpredictable and suspicious. She appears to suffer from a mild case of OCD, and is both selfish and self-centered. Therefore, she was relatable in a world where too many female characters are manic pixie dream girls. The chapters set in the early 1990’s are clearly written by a troubled child, and I immediately sympathized with a sad, lonely girl who is struggling to discern the difference between truth and fiction. Author Alice Feeney crafts her characters with care, and sets them loose in a world that has been built in a realistic manner.

Towards the end of the novel, however; things started to spin out of control. The first plot twist was interesting and honestly surprised me. The second one made things a little confusing. The third twist left me rolling my eyes and muttering about overkill. It wasn’t that Feeney set up red herrings; in fact everything fell into place by the end of the book with surprising ease. It all just felt so unnecessary.

In the end, if you are a reader who enjoys the “twisty thriller” genre, you will probably love this book. Personally, I enjoyed it, but in a superficial way. Sometimes I Lie was a fun diversion, but I doubt that I will remember much of the plot after a few months.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Sometimes I Lie here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (2017)

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Review #34

 

When her brother is killed by an evil monster, Tea surprises herself and her entire village by resurrecting him from the dead. All of her sisters have some magic, but Tea now finds herself destined to be a bone witch, a necromancer. Feared and shunned by her community, Tea travels to Kion, where she can gain the training that she desperately needs if she hopes to control her powers. She quickly learns that her Dark gifts come with a heavy price.

I’ve read the first two novels by author Rin Chupeco. The Girl in the Well and The Suffering are both excellently crafted horror novels that left me very excited to read her next book. With a title like The Bone Witch, I assumed that Chupeco’s third book would be yet another foray into the world of horror. Instead, I found myself submerged in high fantasy, where magic has a concrete and useful place in society and those who can control the elements are celebrated.

The bulk of The Bone Witch could just as easily be titled Memoirs of a Magical Geisha. For nearly two hundred pages the reader is treated to numerous descriptions of the dwellings of the magical asha, the clothes they wear, the training they undergo, and the parties they attend. Instead of any meaningful use of magic, there are the mundane problems of political alliances, rivalry between competing asha, and annual dance performances. This is all very useful in setting up the fantasy world that the asha inhabit, but it does wear a little thin towards the end.

Each chapter of the novel is preceded by a short flash-forward, where Tea has been banished to a lonely cave by the sea. She reveals early on that she is raising an army of dark spirits to enact revenge upon those who have wronged her. However, the book ends before the two segments of time intersect. The reader is left trying to figure out why Tea has been banished and exactly who she is so keen to take revenge on. It felt a little like a bait-and-switch to spent two hundred pages reading about her training in the village of the Willows, only to have the novel end before anything meaningful has taken place.

I assume all of this will be resolved in the recently released sequel, but there is a different between ending a novel on a cliff-hanger and ending a novel in the middle of the rising action. Ending the narrative with a cliff-hanger leaves the reader hungry to find out what is going to happen next. Ending a novel midway through the rising action leaves the reader frustrated and annoyed. I definitely found myself in the latter category.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Bone Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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Review #33

 

In rural Utah, a nine year old girl and her family are driving back to Idaho on a dark night. The girl’s brother falls asleep at the wheel, loses control of the car, and crashes into a utility pole. All members of the family suffer injuries, including her mother who sustains major head trauma. None of them go to the hospital because of their father’s belief that doctors are evil figures put in place by the Illuminati. They will instead rely on herbal remedies and the power of their Mormon faith to heal their injuries. The girl’s mother suffers significant brain damage and is never the same again.

This event happens early on in Educated, a memoir by a girl who is raised by religiously fanatic family isolated in the mountains of southern Idaho. Tara Westover was seventeen years old before she ever entered a classroom. Her lack of formal education left her vulnerable to the manipulations and abuse of her mentally ill father and elder brother. What follows is an account of the struggle between one person’s desire to fulfill themselves and their duty to their family. It is also about the price that sometimes must be paid to extract oneself from a potentially destructive situation.

Tara Westover’s Educated will inevitably draw comparison to The Glass Castle, the  memoir by Jeannette Walls that I reviewed earlier this year. Both feature young women with highly unconventional childhoods who fight to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Both feature the importance of education and family solidarity. And both deal with the idea of having to sever the bonds of that same family in order to survive.

Compared the The Glass Castle, Educated tells the more bitter story. Some of this may have to do with the immediacy of the events detailed in Westover’s memoir. While Jeannette Walls was writing about her childhood through the tempered and nostalgic lens of decades, the events that Westover is describing bring us to the right up to the present day. Time has not been allowed to heal her suffering and create scars. The pain and grief that is still being felt by Westover is palpable. Because of this, we feel the catharsis present in every page, as if the writer is attempting to draw poison from a wound. While reading The Glass Castle, I found myself chuckling every once in awhile. There is not a single moment of joy present in Educated, and I felt my own bitterness rising as I continued reading.

Your opinion on Educated will be strongly connected to your feelings on homeopathic and alternative medicines. My personal feeling is that the creation of antibiotics and vaccinations are the most important advancements in human history since the printing press. The idea that people are resisting vaccinations and antibiotics is utterly baffling. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the government is holding the cure for cancer hostage in an underground bunker so that they can continue to exploit profits from sick people, you will probably be more likely to sympathize with Tara’s father. If so, make sure to get your tinfoil hat on nice and snug before picking up this memoir.

See what I meant about the bitterness?

My rating: 4/5

You can find Educated here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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Review #32

 

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

Most of us have looked up at the night sky at one time or another and asked ourselves about the nature of the universe. What is the relationship between time and space? What fills up the empty spaces of the cosmos? And what is our place in the scheme of it all? Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson boils these burning questions down to their essence, and explains them in a way that the average person is capable of understanding.

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy in the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period on the end of this sentence.”

Together with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a short and esteemed list of scientists that are easily recognized by most adults. Part of this is because when you see him on television, his enthusiasm is purely and utterly infectious. Tyson never lost that wonder that so many children feel when they first learn of the universe spinning and burning outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. He combines this sense of excitement with an staggering intellect in his most recent book. Every line of Astrophysics is teeming with exhilaration. While reading, I sometimes got a mental image of an energetic five-year old, dragging me around by the hand to show me all of his favorite toys. That is, of course, if the five-year old then rattled off complex mathematical formulas to explain how those toys worked.

As a theoretical physicist, Tyson’s mission in life is to poke at the universe with a stick, trying to see what might pop out to say hello. He manages to sound colloquial even when he’s talking about immensely complicated topics such as dark matter and the theory of relativity. One of my favorite chapters was where Tyson lists half the elements in the periodic table and explains which ones have always been around and which one are more recent discoveries. As someone who barely passed high school chemistry, I was surprised how interesting the subject matter can become when you have a teacher who knows how to break a subject down to its core.

I will not lie to you and say that I understood all of what Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to communicate. I’m an English teacher. I can rattle off big “literary” sounding words all day, but I struggle to comprehend the language of science. At a mere one hundred and ten pages, this should have been a reasonably quick read. However, I felt myself having to read each paragraph two or even three times to puzzle out the meaning. I think the most important thing that I took away from Astrophysics was a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. I still have no real idea what a quasar is. But I have a better understanding and respect for those who do. Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delight in the mysteries of the universe has rubbed off on me. I’m looking forward to the next time I am out in the country, where I can just look up at the night sky and try to puzzle out the magnitude of what I am seeing.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Astrophysics for People in a Hurry here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. It was while in the midst of this book that I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking. This post, meager and unworthy though it is, is dedicated to his wondrous lifetime of progress and achievement in the world of science.

Book Review: The Call by Peadar O’Guilin (2016)

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Review #31

 

The country of Ireland has dropped off the map. All planes in Irish airspace suddenly crashed, and all the boats sank. A thick fog obscured the views of nearby Scotland, and all television, radio, and internet signals were lost. Then the children begin disappearing, returning exactly three minutes later, horribly mutilated. The Sidh, otherwise known as the fairy folk, have found a way back into our world after being banished centuries ago. Now, they are out for revenge.  Twenty-five years later, survival schools have popped up all over Ireland, where the dwindling population of children learn the skills they will need to survive once they too are Called.

Fifteen year old Tessa is one of the students at one of these colleges, but neither her classmates nor her professors have high hopes for her survival. Tessa’s legs are twisted and useless after a childhood encounter with polio, and the Sidh have little sympathy for a crippled child. This makes Tessa even more determined to buck the odds and live to see her eighteenth birthday. She maintains a stony distance from the other students, except for Anto, a determined pacifist who has also been given slim odds for staying alive against the Sidh.

This novel by author Peadar O’Guilin pulls you in from the first chapter and refuses to let go. This is one of those books where you find yourself debating how much sleep you actually need per night. Thankfully it’s also relatively short, so only one or two sleepless, page-turning nights will be required.

The menace of the fairies known as the Sidh comes from their implacability. They cannot be bargained with. They feel neither pity nor sympathy for the bewildered children who find themselves transported into their realm. They take a sinister kind of glee in finding new and inventive tortures for their helpless victims. And even those who do end up surviving the Grey Land are changed forever in one way or another. The lingering effects of constant fear permeate the pages of The Call, until we understand the hopelessness  that creeps into a person’s soul once they realize the true cost of survival.

Ireland is a country that continues to have respect for its own ancient legends. When I visited Ireland a few years ago there were several mentions of fairy rings and fairy roads. This could have been all a shtick put on for gullible tourists, but at the same time you can still find articles blaming the fairies for all manner of things. If there were ever a place where the veil between the fairy realm and our own is the thinnest, it could be argued that this place would be Ireland.

This was a suspenseful and tightly written novel that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It was disturbing without being overly gory, so would be appropriate for an older teen audience as well as being spooky fun for adults. Extra points for the amazingly creepy cover art.

My rating: 4.5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Review #30

 

In 13th century Russia, the world is ruled by icy grip of winter. Into this cold and unforgiving world, a young girl named Vasilisa Petrovna is born utterly at home in the forests and snowdrifts around her village. She lives her days roaming the forests against the wishes of her father and her nights curled up listening to the fairy tales spun by her nursemaid. But her life changes forever when two new people show up in her village. The first, her new stepmother Anna, fears and hates the wild streak that runs in her young stepdaughter. The second, a priest named Konstantin, is determined to turn his new flock away from the worship of the old spirits and towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He too is threatened by the defiance and spirit shown by the young Vasilisa. She has also captured the attention of one far more dangerous, a dark figure with piercing blue eyes who becomes bolder as midwinter approaches.

Everyone knows the old platitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well I love judging books by their covers. Especially when the cover is as mysterious and beautiful as Katherine Arden’s debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. When I decide to judge a book by its cover, I generally refuse to read even a short synopsis, so I went into this novel with absolutely zero expectations. Within the first chapter I felt myself entwined and entranced in this dark and romantic fairy tale, so much that I could almost feel the howling winds of Russian winter outside my window.

At its heart, The Bear and the Nightingale is about the struggle between the old ways and the new. In the Middle Ages, as Catholicism slowly but thoroughly steamrollered its way across Europe, how many of the ancient spirits were left to wither in its wake? In this way I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel, American Gods. But while Gaiman deals in the bitterness of those abandoned gods, Arden’s novel instead focusing on their sadness and confusion as they find themselves rejected by those who had left them offerings for generations.

Arden’s prose is dark and lyrical and completely mesmerizing. Her heroine, Vasilisa, is strong and independent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability. She behaves in the only manner she knows how, and is utterly bewildered when people begin to whisper that she is dabbling in witchcraft by continuing to practice the old ways. How can it be witchcraft to hold to the same traditions that her people had held to only years before? I also loved the descriptions of the numerous little sprites and spirits that inhabit Vasilisa’s world. There are spirits that tend the oven, spirits that protect the horses, and so on, all of which have their roots in Russian folklore. Because Vasilisa is the only one who can see these entities (at first) it comes as no surprise that she seeks to aid them when they begin suffering from lack of care.

I would highly recommend this book for any audience. I am greatly anticipating the sequel.

My rating; 5/5

You can find The Bear and the Nightingale here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

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Review #29

 

In post-apocalyptic Africa, there is an ongoing struggle between the light-skinned Nuru tribe and the darker-skinned Okeke tribe. The Nuru have taken many Okeke as slaves, and systematically go into the desert to rape Okeke women in the hopes of impregnating them. These children of rape are known as Ewu, and are despised as outcasts by both groups of people. One of these children is Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death”. Early in life, Onyesonwu realizes that she is special. She has the powers of the Eshu, or the shapeshifter. With this knowledge, she seeks the training needed to hone her magic in the hopes of one day hunting down the man who raped her mother.

All of this sounds like the making of a pretty good magic realism novel. With this description, together with the amazing cover art, I was really looking forward to reading this book. But for some reason, Who Fears Death failed to capture my imagination. Part of it may be because I felt as though I were coming into a movie midway through. We are given next to no backstory about why modern systems of government have fallen. What began the conflict between the Nurus and the Okeke? There are constant references to the “Great Book” but more details are needed to understand the connection between this religious book and the current upheaval.

Another reason why I had difficulty maintaining my interest in the novel may have been that the main character has what I like to think of as “Superman syndrome”. Superman is the most boring superhero in existence because he is just too perfect, and his weaknesses are too easily overcome. I felt that same way about Onyesonwu. When the heroine can transform into animals, heal wounds, travel outside of her body, heat rocks without fire, and strike her enemies blind with a thought, there isn’t a lot of suspense. Do we ever truly doubt that Onyesonwu will fulfill her goal? She’s set up as a Jesus-like martyr from the beginning, but the reader is cheated of even that by the muddled ending.

Early in Okorafor’s novel, there is a graphic depiction of female circumcision. All of the female children in the village undergo this procedure without anesthesia at the age of eleven. They are expected to do this willingly or risk social ostracism. One thing that I will praise about Who Fears Death is its handling of this delicate subject matter. Upon discovery of her powers, one of Onyesonwu’s first act as a healer is to restore her own sexual pleasure. This reclaiming of her own sexuality is a powerful act, and its effects create ripples that echo throughout the rest of the novel.

Overall, I was disappointed by this novel. It seemed to be a fantastic premise that relied too much on having an all-powerful protagonist. And although there were aspects that I did enjoy, ultimately I kept finding myself checking to see how many pages were left until the end.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Who Fears Death here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!