#18 Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant (2017)

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Thalassophobia: an intense fear of the sea and what lurks beneath.

After her older sister is lost at sea while filming a monster-hunting style show on mermaids, Tory Stewart agrees to ship out with the crew of the Melusine as they travel to the oceans around the Mariana trench. The goal is to dive to the depths of the Challenger Deep to seek out the mermaids that legends say still dwell in the waters. Hopefully they’ll be able to solve the mystery of what happened to the first vessel. Once there, the group of scientists finds out that looking for monsters and finding them are two very different things.

Mira Grant is one of my favorite authors. Her Newsflesh trilogy, about the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, is utterly brilliant. The Parasitology trilogy, about sentient tapeworms taking control of their human hosts, is equally well written. So when I found out that Grant was releasing a stand-alone novel, I was thrilled. My excitement grew when I found out that the plot was going to be centered around the deep ocean.

Being in the deep sea makes me intensely uncomfortable. This might be due to the fact that I grew up in a landlocked state and never saw the sea until I was seventeen. I’m great on boats, and I’m perfectly happy in shallow water. I’ve even been scuba-diving twice. But the moment that I can no longer see the seabed my heart rate instantly goes through the roof. It’s the same with lakes as well, and it’s a pretty straightforward fear. I don’t know what’s down there. Even worse, I understand enough of marine biology to know what’s down there, and I want no part of it. I went into Mira Grant’s Into The Drowning Deep knowing (and hoping) that it might scare me. Boy was I right.

In the year 2022, humans have polluted the Earth to the point of a mass die-off of both land and marine life. Grant does not try to hide her strong environmental message. Leave the orcas alone, stop dumping things into the oceans and the air. Or don’t be surprised when drought, famine, and fires sweep the planet. The hubris of mankind has brought us low in Grant’s novel, and the main characters are scientists who are just trying to mitigate the damage.

This is a science fiction novel with a strong horror theme. There is one amazing scene where Heather, a young scientist, is taking a personal submersible into the chasm of the Challenger Deep. As the blackness and the pressure mounts, the tension rises to a screaming pitch. It is claustrophobic to the point of being physically uncomfortable. What Heather finds at the bottom of her journey sets in motion the rest of the novel’s action.

The basic plot centers around one simple question. What if the mermaids of our mythology looked, not like this:

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beautiful, nubile, pageant queens of the sea. And more like this:

 

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deep sea nightmare fodder?

Grant’s “mermaids” are carnivorous, intelligent, and, utterly in their element both in and out of the water. The scientists on board the Melusine are so egotistically wrapped up in their new discovery that they never stop to think that the “mermaids” chose to be discovered at the proper moment. Of course, not until it is too late.

One of my favorite things about all of Mira Grant’s books is that she has a very pure idea of science fiction. There is actual science present, but it is accessible to the layman. I always come away from one of her novels feeling as though I’ve learned something; in this case about the Mariana Trench, the Challenger Deep, why the ship is named the Melusine, and more. Her main characters tend to be female, and even better, females in STEM. I love the idea of young women reading this novel and having their imaginations sparked by the pursuit and discovery and danger inherent in the exploration of our world.

I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves suspense, the sea, and the thrill of scientific discovery. I would not, however; recommend it for a trip to the beach. Or on a cruise. Don’t even take it in the bath.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Into the Drowning Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

P.S. there is a short prequel novel entitled Rolling in the Deep, which centers around the crew of the first crew. I haven’t been able to find it at my library yet, but if I ever find it I’ll let you know what I think!

 

#16 Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

#12 Everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too by Jomny Sun (2017)

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Jomny is a aliebn who’s a little weird. None of his fellow aliebns seem to think or act like him. He is left alone on Earth in order to research the strange creatures known as humabns. While on Earth, Jomny meets many new friends, and learns a few important lessons about life, loneliness, and nothing at all.

Due to the deliberately bad spelling and grammar, my inner English teacher was in a mild state of apoplexy when I  began this book. I need not have worried. Within ten pages I was absolutely enthralled with this tale of a lonely alien who is trying to learn his place among things. This is a “novel” in the loosest sense of the word. One, it is a graphic novel which gives author Jomny Sun nearly unlimited freedom. Some pages have only one or two words on them. Others don’t have any words at all. The illustrations are simple to the point of being childlike, which makes them somehow more impressive at second glance. It takes talent and a degree of restraint that few artists have to express so much through such spare drawings.

The most important idea presented in Everyone’s a aliebn is that all the people we meet are fighting a harder battle. This is not a new idea in any sense, but it’s conveyed here without the heavy handedness that often comes with that territory. Jomny the alien encounters a variety of characters throughout the book, each one dealing with their own problems. Most notable are an insecure hedgehog who dreams of creating art but anticipates rejection, a bear who is feared by all but just wants to make friends, an egg who is anxious because he doesn’t know what he’ll be when he hatches, and a tree who is lonely because every autumn all his fruit and leaves abandon him and to fall to the ground. None of these characters are defined by their fears, and instead are just trying to work through them. Not everything is sadness and not everything is joy, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes the right book just finds you at the time right. I’ve been struggling for the past few months with pretty crushing loneliness. It’s manageable on a day-to-day basis but then I read a book like this one and come across this:

“u may be sad because u feel alone. the comforting thing abot feeling lonely is that every thing that has ever existed also knows what loneliness feels like too.”

Simple thoughts, told in the simplest words, can have the power of a thousand pithy self-help books. I didn’t even know how badly I needed this book until I was halfway through it. And what’s great is that this isn’t a “self-help” book. It didn’t offer platitudes and self-esteem boosters. It is just a series of observations of the highs and lows that accompany the human condition.

Everyone’s a aliebn deals with questions of life and death, friendship, and creation. It would be a great book for a child to read once they begin asking the important questions in life. It would be a great book for a person who is struggling through hard times. It would be a great book for a person on the precipice of change. Basically, it would be a great book for just about anyone.

Bonus: it’s also an incredibly quick read. I sat down one afternoon and read the book cover-to-cover in thirty minutes. I got up to do some other things around the house but couldn’t shake Everyone’s a aliebn. So I sat back down and read it again.

My rating: 5/5

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

Happy reading everyone!

 

#5 The World of LORE: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mahnke (2017)

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” H. P. Lovecraft “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Humanity has always had a strange fascination with the supernatural. Think of how many movies are produced every year featuring vampires, werewolves, and other creatures that lurk in the shadows. Even when the vampires sparkle and the werewolves are giant puppies, they remain an important aspect of our culture. Aaron Mahnke’s popular bi-weekly podcast, LORE, delves into the historical context surrounding the myths and legends of the supernatural that have become a part of our collective social consciousness. This book is a collection of roughly thirty transcripts from the LORE podcasts, many of which have been combined with beautiful illustrations.

Mahnke covers a lot of ground in a little under three hundred pages. He explores the folklore surrounding the most popular supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies, ghosts, and werewolves, as well as some of the lesser known myths such as the Wendigo, the Jersey Devil, and the Mothman. One of my favorite entries describes the account of Robert the Doll, a  well-documented precursor to the Annabelle legend popularized by The Conjuring movies. Some of these stories take place rather close to home. One account, for example, cites the legend of the Beast of Bray Road that is meant to haunt the woods near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. I’ve driven through that town, though I did not see any monsters in the shadows of the forest.

All of these creatures are contained in short little vignettes that can be read in under ten minutes. This makes The World of LORE the perfect book for busy people, since you can read it in short spats and never feel like you’re missing out on something. The book resembles a series of campfire tales, if campfire tales were meticulously researched and cited. Mahnke is an excellent narrator because he never tries to convince his listeners (or readers) towards the existence or nonexistence of the creatures he describes. He lays out the facts, shines a light into some of the darker corners in history, and leaves it to us to decide what to believe in the end. Mahnke does seem intent on pointing out that a lot of the uproar caused by “monsters” over the years can be attributed to superstition, paranoia, and mob mentality. After all, the ghouls and goblins of the world can’t hold a candle to what people are capable of doing to one another.

Overall, this book should be a delight for horror fans and history fans alike. It’s spooky without being over-the-top or gory. Mahnke has done an admirable job of digging down to the roots of these stories in order to separate truth from legend. And sometimes, the truth can be more frightening than the myth.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The World of LORE here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. You can also find Aaron Mahnke’s podcast here.

Happy reading everyone!

#3 Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017)

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Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a novel set in the city of Milan during the final year of World War II. Pino Lella begins as an ordinary teenager, obsessed with girls and excited about learning to drive. When he is evacuated to a seminary school high in the Alps to escape the Allied bombings , Pino finds himself risking his life to escort Italian Jews over the precipitous heights of the mountains to sanctuary in Switzerland. This sets him on a course of danger and espionage that will echo throughout his life and the lives of his family.

It is very important to read both the foreword and the afterword that Sullivan uses to bookend his novel. Pino Lella is a real person, who is still alive as of the publication of this review. In the foreword, Sullivan details how he stumbled across the story of this unsung hero and how he managed to track Lella down and record his memories of Italy in 1944. Sullivan is also very clear that Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a work of historical fiction.  Some of the events and characters seem a little too contrived, and this has led some people to claim that the all of the events detailed within the pages of the book are therefore falsehoods. Since we only have Sullivan’s word to go on, it is left to the reader to determine what is true and what is false.

I chose to believe the story of Lella’s life. The story is told in too straightforward a manner to have been fabricated in any large part. One of the things that makes Sullivan’s novel so magnetic is that he largely avoids any subplots. He focuses on Pino Lella’s specific story with utter precision. There are few extraneous descriptions of people or scenery. We view this story through Lella’s eyes entirely, and therefore his becomes the only voice that matters. We feel his desperation as he leads terrified refugees over the dangerous alpine cliffs into safety. We are there with him as he fears for the lives of his brother, his uncle, his parents. The reader is given only as much information as Lella has. Since most of the education I was given on WWII focused on the German and Japanese fronts, this was a very informative look into what Sullivan describes as the “Forgotten Front”.

My favorite aspect of this novel is that it was utterly unpredictable. Most literature follows a relatively straightforward arc. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But real life rarely follows such simple lines, and I often felt wrong-footed while reading this novel. Characters I thought would live did not. Characters I expected to die did not. No one’s story wraps up neatly in a bow, instead it all just kind of ends. Not all heroes are remembered and not all villains get their comeuppance. Throughout the dozens if not hundreds of historical fiction written on WWII, I found this novel, with its infinite number of unanswered questions, to be one of the most haunting.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. I was immediately drawn into the story of Pino Lella’s life, and finished the book eager to research and learn more. Unfortunately, his story remains largely unacknowledged outside of Sullivan’s pages.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Beneath A Scarlet Sky here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

#0.04 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!

 

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!