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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

If you like: murders* family drama * pretending you’re a PI

The Story:

In Dark Places, Libby is haunted by the murder of her mother and sisters one night when she was young, and her brother is currently serving time in prison for committing. The nightmare of the crime has shaped her entire life. The weight of the pain has made it impossible for her to live a normal life. Additionally, it has come to light that the circumstances around her testimony are suspicious, and events may not have occurred in the way she has been led to believe.

What I liked:

Using a non-sequential timeline and multiple points of view can sometimes seem like a gimmicky way of concealing the truth from the reader. In this case, it makes sense. Libby was a young child at the time of the events surrounding a murder. Often we only have a limited understanding of what really went on at that time, so the flashback chapters pair nicely with her present day investigations into what happened. It is not the case of an unreliable narrator purposely misleading the reader.

Libby is a perfect mess of a character. Her life was rough before her mother and sisters were murdered. Being guided to be the primary witness against her older brother who always favored her only makes the tragedy worse. It is easy to imagine suffering through that and then living in the spotlight of pity could permanently alter a person. But what happens when that pity is directed at a new tragedy, and you have developed no coping skills? Libby Day, a woman who barely knows how to make it through the day. Then Libby discovers what she has based her life around may be wrong anyway. She is the type of person you would expect to be despicable, or completely lazy. And maybe she is to a point. But, she also tries to find the truth, at the risk of her own life. She may think she is motivated by greed, but in the end she has an insatiable desire to find the truth. We all stumble through life in one way or another, but Libby does it spectacularly.

If you like something picking at old wounds, read Dark Places. 

Flynn, Gillian. Dark Places: A Novel. Crown/Archetype, 2009. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Chimera by Mira Grant

If you like: tapeworms* family * the lesser of two evils

The Story:

Chimera is the third book in the Parasitology series. (Click to see my reviews of Parasite and Symbiont.) Leaving behind Nathan, Dr. Cale, and the rest of the team, Sal has agreed to work with Col. Mitchell in the hopes that it will allow her family to survive. While this is going on, Sherman has released a new strain of parasites that invade humans, sleepwalkers and chimeras. The remaining refuges of humanity rapidly begin to fall apart, and Sal realizes that she must change her plan of action in order to protect herself and her family from these new threats.

What I liked:

I really enjoyed the final step in the evolution of Sal. During the first book she was just learning who she really was and spent most of the story living in the fog of the lies she had been told. In the second book she spent much of her time reeling from the stress of learning she was not who she had been led to believe she was, and evading capture by those who wished to dismantle or control her because of her unique position as a natural chimera. In the third book, Sal must move past all that. She learns to embrace her combined abilities of her human and tapeworm selves. By combining them into Sal, she is able to achieve much more than she could have otherwise. Once she learns to embrace her nature, she becomes a much more powerful protagonist. No longer needing rescue she is able to take matters into her own hands and escalate the battle on her own terms.

The new wave of tapeworms expands the future of Parasitology. By bringing the majority of civilization to its knees, it allows Dr. Cale and her team to do what they do best: solve problems. Sometimes, it is only in a moment of desperation that a compromise can be reached. In order for the government, scientists, and chimeras to come together it will take nothing short of a miracle--even if that miracle comes in the form of a disaster. Sal could easily become a tool for someone to use against the parasitic invaders, but instead she positions herself as an asset to work with rather than to use. Her pheromones could be used for mass control, but instead she is able to use her “brain” and help come to a solution that allows hope that her family can survive past the end of this outbreak. There is no coming back from the near extinction level event, but that doesn’t mean there is not a future.

If you feel who you really are wriggling around inside, read Chimera.

Grant, Mira. Chimera (Parasitology). Orbit, 2015. Kindle Edition.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs

If you like: rats * Hollowgasts * strange loops

The Story:

Library of Souls is the third book in the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series. (Click to see my reviews of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and Hollow City.) Separated from the other Peculiars, Jacob and Emma seek to keep themselves safe while also freeing all of their friends. On top of all the other dangers they face, they must make sure that Emma does not age forward as they mount their rescue mission. Throughout their journey they learn there is much more to the Peculiar mythology and history than either of them knew.

What I liked:

The infinite possibilities of new loops is one of the most intriguing parts of this series. Having been separated for so long by the danger of Wights and Hollowgasts, the Peculiars have evolved into varied sects, rather than a cohesive group. The decades and centuries that separate the loops allow them to vary widely. This allows the story to jump through many time periods and climates without the need for tedious travel explanations. The threads that tie together the Peculiar universe are interesting enough to engross the reader in this story and many imagined adventures.

[This paragraph contains spoilers.] One of the troublesome parts of the series is the relationship between Emma and Jacob. Not only does she pine for his grandfather, but she also cannot ever be a part of his normal life. Living of two ages creates and uncomfortable restriction on their happiness. Though interesting at times, it almost feels like the concept of aging forward is a regrettable part of the story. Though some might consider the resolution of this issue to a be a little too easy, I am happy with it. I really like the idea of all the Peculiars from the story vacationing through the world and becoming part of the modern world, rather than trapped in an anachronism.

If you like coming back to a better reality, read Library of Souls.

Riggs, Ransom. Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children. Quirk Books, 2015. Kindle edition.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

California by Edan Lepucki

If you like: small treasurers * Occupy * pioneering

The Story:

After years of dwindling resources and increasing unease, the normal way of life we know today has faded away in California. The rich have escaped to gated Communities, where they have control over everything and can hoard the limited remaining resources for themselves. Activist groups have protested this change, and their actions have led people to rush to the safety of Communities even faster, leaving the rest of the world to become a desolate wasteland. Frida and Cal have left the unrecognizable LA behind them and moved into the woods on their own. Over time they meet neighbors and learn of a mysterious group who live on land surrounded by ominous spikes. Once Frida realizes she is pregnant, she and Cal must decide if they should seek out the safety of a group, or contemplate the dangers of living isolated in the world with a baby.

What I liked:

Lepucki has done a masterful job building a dystopian future. Unlike so many stories in which one specific catalyst has led to a calamitous future, California shows a future of slow and inevitable decline. In her world, we are only a few natural disasters, droughts, and shortages away from this future. You can almost hear the rallying cry of Occupy groups in the underpinnings of her activists. The rich hide themselves away and deny what goes on beyond their walls -- except when it comes to doing the dirty work. They will always need others to do that. At the same time, the slow decline of lower class life has a depressing realism. Learning to live without one thing at a time is something that we have all experienced when we hit financial hardships. 

The dynamic between Frida and Cal is a very familiar one. In some ways, they are a couple that makes perfect sense, but also seems like they are together by default. Over time you see the depth of their feelings for one another. The transition from regular life, to hard times, to pioneering, and then reintegration puts them through the gamut of relationship struggles. Reaching difficult times is one of the things that will make or break a relationship. Some people have the ability to dig deep and realize that getting through things is always easier together, and some refuse to accept a new relationship paradigm. Lepucki’s portrayal of the difficulties of isolation and subsequent emergence is also fascinating. As couples spend time together they develop something akin to their only language and culture. The isolation Frida and Cal spend years in magnifies this to the extreme. Seeing their evolution solidifies the core of their story.

If you like gathering artifacts from your life before, read California.

Lepucki, Edan. California: A Novel. Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Armada by Ernest Cline

If you like: space wars * puzzles * Independence Day

The Story:

Zach Lightman is sitting in class, counting down the days until graduation, when he looks out the window and sees an alien spaceship straight out of his favorite video game. Suddenly, he views his whole life through a different lens. He wonders about his father’s delusions and death. He also wonders if he is following down the same path. Has he been playing video games and starting to lose his mind, or is he a part of something else entirely?

What I liked:

Zach Lightman finds himself at the very center of a strange conspiracy. Unearthing the lengthy conspiracy put together by his father has haunted Zach. We all fear finding out we are crazy, and when Zach sees the logic in what his father believed, he starts to question himself. At the outset, the idea of a story where video games have been preparing us for interplanetary war could be ridiculous and cheesy. Instead, the book is a great series of “hell yeah!” moments. We all want our nerdiness to have a payoff. For Zach, the games he has been playing, both for enjoyment and in small part because he believes it brings him closer to his father, make him into a powerful force.

The element of misinformation allows the story to have a feeling of being obvious and unexpected the whole time. From the first page you know that Zach is not crazy and really did see a spaceship. Following along his journey, and staying with him as he decides to follow his gut and do what he thinks is right gives us the opportunity to question what we would do in his situation. He is not some infallible superstar plucked out of anonymity. He has been training and an external hand has been secretly guiding his development. In spite of that, the inquisitive streak he inherited from his father helps him to question everything and not just buy in.

If you have been waiting for your moment, read Armada.

Cline, Ernest. Armada: A Novel. Crown/Archetype, 2015. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

If you like: nerding out * Freshmen * fanfic

The Story:

Cath is entering her freshman year of college along with her twin sister Wren. Cath is uneasy about starting school, and not as confident as Wren who quickly finds a new group of friends. Cath dedicates herself to her fanfic writing. She finds comfort in the safety of the story and world she loves, and the dedication of the thousands and thousands of fans who eagerly await each new post she writes. Eventually, Cath’s roommate, Reagan, discovers that Cath has been avoiding getting to know campus and college life, and along with her boyfriend Levi, drags Cath out of her shell. Cath develops a comfortable rhythm by the end of the first semester, until her world is shaken up.

What I liked:

There are so many things about the world of Fangirl that drew me in immediately. As an avid Harry Potter fan, occasional fanfic reader, and MuggleCast listener, I quickly found that Cath developed a tangible quality to me. It is so much easier to immerse yourself in a world than to deal with the realities of your own. The passion of imagining everything that takes place off the page in one of those worlds creates a jumping board for creativity that can be difficult to unlock otherwise. The solitary nerd who is comforted by her fandom and has anxiety about exploring her world and making new friends is a character that is familiar, but Cath’s notoriety as Magicath sets her apart. She may be afraid of the outside world, but she also has many reasons to stick with the one she knows.

Cath’s relationship with Reagan and Levi drives the heart of Fangirl. Reagan has the potential to be the roommate we all dread, but turns out to care about Cath a lot more than she would like to. People watching in the cafeteria was something that occupied a lot of my time in college, so Reagan and Cath’s snarky review of their schoolmates really rung true. Levi could be the cliché good guy character, but he has enough components to keep him grounded and palpable. He is the perfect blend of old school chivalry and modern appreciation that will make anyone instantly fall in love.

The combination of characters that vibrate with energy and potential, and a story that will have a touch of familiarity for anyone who has lived in a dorm on a college campus makes Fangirl the kind of book you can’t put down. The characters stick with you and are the kind of people you wish could be your friends. I finished it close to a week ago, and I am already eager to reread it.

If you like finding your tribe by being who you are, read Fangirl.

Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl: A Novel . St. Martin's Press. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

If you like: heists * Alice * ghosts of the past

The Magician’s Land is the final book of the Magicians Trilogy. (See my prior reviews here and here.) By now, Quentin has found Fillory, ruled Fillory, and subsequently been kicked out of Fillory. He has continued to struggle to find his way, but all the worlds seem to continue without him. He knows that magic is his true home, but the actions of his past continue to haunt him. He tries to create a new future, first at Brakebills, and then out in the human world. In spite of this, he knows that his true home is a magical land, and he strives to find a way to get there.

Stories like the Magicians Trilogy can end in may different ways. Some ends are epic, and others happy. There are often huge battles and final missions. The Magician’s Land touches on all of these ideas. Fillory seems to be coming to an end, and there are battles and quests to try to find the source of its finality. Alice returns and must be dealt with. Quentin is lured into a magical heist with the hopes of rekindling what he has lost. The Magician’s Land doesn’t stop there, and continues with more of what has always made up this series. The lazy, predestined ruling of Fillory continues, albeit without Quentin as a part of it. Characters old and new are incorporated. There is a return to the Neitherlands, and the continued evolution of the place and its portals. The story brings a conclusion to the quest of learning what makes Fillory what it is, and how to get there and find its future. The Chatwin legacy continues to be an integral part of what makes Fillory, and has new depths in The Magician’s Land.

Quentin’s journey still mirrors the path many 30somethings find themselves on. He began as a whiny and entitled student, not happy with anything. He wanted magic to be the stuff of fairy tales, and then when it was the fairy tales weren’t enough for him. No matter where his life led him, he never found the happiness he expected to. During the second phase of his journey, he struggled and lost his way. He tried to be the sort of person he thought he should be instead of who he was. He learned that the idea of something isn’t the same as what that thing actually is. Quentin also began to understand that you need to appreciate what you have, and not let it wither when it doesn’t meet your expectations. Even living in a fantasy can become mundane if you let it. After having it all and losing it, Quentin's dreams have died. He accepts that we do not live in our dreams. He finds happiness in the day to day life of Brakebills. Then, even that happiness is taken away by a past that continues to haunt him. Eventually, he learns that in order to have happiness you have to work on building your dreams, piece by piece, instead of just taking them. Once he realizes that dreams are just dreams and that life and happiness are what you make of them, he is able to finally grow up. Once he knows he must build his own land to find what he what he has been searching for, he is able to deal with the past and present, in order to move to the future he desires.

If you just want to snuggle the Cozy Horse, read The Magician’s Land.