Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

Decades after environmental and economic collapse plus a widespread contagion destroyed the United States, the people are reduced to small, far apart villages on the Coastal Road. The main focus of the government is to keep people living within their means, which means only harvesting enough and requiring a banner for the privilege to bear children. Enid of Haven is an investigator sent with her partner to investigate a mysterious death of an ostracized person in another village. From the beginning, the people are cagey and unwilling to cooperate. Did someone murder this outcast, was it a tragic accident, or is it something else they are hiding?

Bannerless is set in a future where technology all but gone and resources are scarce. People live in small villages, only farming or fishing or hunting what is necessary to make sure food is able to be acquired later. Banners are required for having children to prove you have the resources for them. On the upside, no one really starves. Struggling villages can be helped, relocated and shuffled about to make sure resources get to everyone. Everyone also has to pull their weight in some way to contribute to their household. Because of this, girls hitting puberty are given a birth control implant only to be removed when given a banner. Of course people try to go around the law, but those people are dealt with on a case by case basis. It's implied that abortions can be forced if it's early enough or, if it's too late, have the pregnant woman transferred to a household with enough resources. The only other option is to be ostracized and starve to death. I wish this was a bigger point in the book. It's one of the most interesting and horrific things about the world and the entire doing away with women's bodily autonomy should have been examined a bit more.

The main story is Enid's in the present and the past. In the present, she is investigating a possible murder and finding out why this village is so uncooperative. In the past, she is traveling with her musician boyfriend Dak, performing and doing odd jobs to pay their way across the Coastal Road. In a world that is so interesting, I found Enid and her story rather dull. She was described as emotional and with a temper, but most of what I see is her bottling up her emotions to appease others. The only thing I liked about her was that she didn't find a lot of inherent value in a banner and didn't want children. The murder mystery doesn't have any huge plot twists or anything. It almost seems mundane. I am way more interested in other parts of the world, especially in Auntie Kath who remembers what it was like before the fall. She would essentially be us if we lived through something like that, remembering everything she lost while others have no idea.

Bannerless has an interesting world, but kind of a dull story. It's written well and kept me reading, but Enid is kind of a wet blanket. I think nonchalance was a problem for me There's no big revelation. It's just people being predictable. I will be reading the second book in the series to see if a different focus in the world would be more enjoyable.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Lovemurder by Saul Black

Valerie Hart and her boyfriend Nick Blaskovich are adjusting to a new dynamics where she is a homicide detective, available at all hours, and he transferred to forensic technology with consistent hours. They are trying to have a romantic weekend when a murderer who hasn't killed in 6 years strikes again out of nowhere. His accomplice Katherine Glass was given the death penalty and waits in jail. The mystery killer demands the she be released or he will continue to kill. With each murder, they get closer and closer to Valerie and her loved ones. The only clues sent are ones that Katherine can decipher due to shared memories and references. Can Valerie catch the killer before he does irreparable damage to her family?

Lovemurder is the second book in the Valerie Hart series. The first was good, but I had some problems with it. This second one is so much better. Valerie is in a much better place. Her relationship with Nick is stable and she's even thinking about having kids. They're adjusting their dynamic since Nick transferred out of homicide. He's the househusband, cooking dinners, making plans, and being left alone when she has to rush off on an investigation. Since he's done the job, he completely understands her and there's really no conflict there, just a bit of guilt on her part for becoming so absorbed with her job. I love their relationship. They fit together so well and there's no hidden resentment or grudges. It's heartwarming and balances the dark parts of the book.

On the other side, Katherine Glass captured public hatred due to the brutal nature of crimes she committed that contrasts with her beauty and intelligence. She knows how to get under someone's skin and enjoys mind games especially with Valerie. I liked seeing how their dynamic had changed since the first time they interacted with Valerie beocming much less easy to shake and Katherine a bit cowed by her time in prison. Katherine's relationship with her murderous partner looked so similar to a loving relationship in the videos they made while they raped, tortured, and murdered women that it's grotesque. Working with her is a nightmare since she enjoys making everyone as uncomfortable as possible and it gives her leverage for getting things she wants. You never know if she's just bored or if she has some sort of plan going on underneath it all. The only think known about her partner is that he's amazing with technology and as well educated as her. I didn't know who he was at all and I was pretty surprised when it was revealed.

Lovemurder has a bit of a silly title, but contains lots of twists and turns that I didn't expect. Black's writing kept me reading for hours and replicated a Lecter-Starling-esque relationship that wasn't a carbon copy. The tension builds as it goes along and gets more intense. I found it far superior than the first in the series and I would love to see where it goes next. There's no sequel listed anywhere, but I'll have my eye out for it.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Waking Land by Callie Bates

Lady Elanna Valtai was kidnapped and held hostage to keep her father in check by the king. Raised in his court for most of her life, she is loyal to the royal family and calls her father and the rest of her own people from Caeris savages and backward thinking people. Elanna renounces her magic power and wants to become a botanist. When the king is killed with a poison mushroom, Elanna is automatically blamed and has to run or be executed with no trial. The only people who help her are those fighting for revolution to turn the corrupt monarchy to a just system. Elanna doesn't believe them until the evidence is right in her face and slowly starts to realize the lies she's been fed throughout her life. While she help the revolution or leave to find her own life somewhere else?

The Waking Land has an interesting premise and setup. I've read a lot of books lately that have two societies where one has conquered the other to oppress them and take away everything they held dear. This one is different in Elanna actually believing the awful things about her own heritage. Even though she is regularly mocked for her heritage, she tries to set herself apart and completely assimilate with the conquering society by rejecting her native language, her culture, and her father. This shows how people can be brainwashed against their own culture, through history lessons through the lens of the winner and bigoted treatment by everyone around them, and develop self hating behaviors that they justify to themselves. As the book goes on, Elanna finds out the truth through the lies she's been told and has to figure out a totally new world view to adapt.

Unfortunately, this is the only really interesting thing about this novel. Elanna turns out to be very wishy washy as the book goes on. One minutes she's totally commited to a revolution and the next  she's right back to being selfish. This goes on for far too long. A similar thing happens when she continually refuses a person who says they can help her learn more about her powers. Why would she say no? She has no idea what she can do. The romance doesn't take time to develop and seems there because it's expected to be. Her powers are amorphous and having sex for the first time seems to make her more powerful for no defined reason. That particular scene where she "wed the land" was odd to say the least. The conclusion seems too easy after almost completely losing and everything is conveniently resolved at the end except for one person's death who could have easily been saved by his best friend. It's a weird detail to add just after the fact and makes that particular character seem like a sociopath.

The Waking Land starts out really well and then descends into Elanna making the same mistakes and going back and forth on several decisions. After a while, it grows frustrating and the book could have easily been a third shorter had all that flip flopping been taken out. Callie Bates has potential to be a good writer because her prose flows well, but there are so many things I don't like about the story and its mechanics. I'm only reading the second book because I already own it and may as well.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Beast is an Animal by Peternelle van Arsdale

It was a normal night for Alys. She couldn't sleep and went out to explore when two hauntingly beautiful women passed her and briefly spoke to her. How could Alys know that they were soul eaters? When she woke up the next morning, all of the adults in the town were dead. Defaid, a nearby town, takes pity on the abandoned children for a price. These children must guard their gates at night to protect the city for the rest of their lives. Alys feels out of place and rumors swirl around her as someone who met the soul eaters and lived. This is in addition to an ability that Alys has to hide for fear of being condemned as a witch. Can she live among these supersititious people and will the soul eaters stay away from their town?

The Beast is an Animal is a dark fantasy novel that reminds me thematically of the film The Witch. Alys is surrounded by a society cowed by a specific type of religion implemented in a way to keep everyone in their place. The higher ups are obviously corrupt and the ones underneath say nothing to keep their space in society. If you step out of line, you could be ostracized, tortured, or killed. Alys is in even more danger because she has a supernatural power and she helps a healer who uses unlawful herbs and treatments to help women on top of being the only one to interact with the soul eaters and live. Alys is a restless girl who doesn't flourish in an oppressive environment. She relatably finds it hard to keep silent when authorities are clearly wrong and fights the most for the people she loves. Alys shows a more modern perspective in the face of backwards, misogynistic, and corrupt rulers.

There are two supernatural figures that are thought to be the same, but turn out to be quite different. The story of the soul eaters is a place exactly like Defaid where the girls were ostracized as children for being twins and female. Their rejection from society coupled with the death of their mother and their ensuing hatred for these people caused them to become monstrous soul eaters. They lure people away like sirens, calling names, singing songs, and tempting people with whatever they want most. The Beast is supposed to be the devil in Christianity, torturing people and luring people to sin, but it isn't that at all. The Beast is simply the force of nature personified, neither evil nor good. The only thing it wants is balance in nature, which the sould eaters disrupt, and calls for Alys' help. Alys is also a little of both. Her power can allow her to feel other's pain and heal them or consume their life force as soul eaters do. She can easily follow in their footsteps or use her power to stop them.

The Beast is an Animal is a dark fairy tale that shows this society's opposition to nature at the time and how the search for evil can create evil where there was none. The story moves a little slowly, but I was completely entrenched in the story the entire time. Alys shows an unconventional strength that is rarely shown in YA novels. She may not be physically strong or completely modern, but she has an emotional strength and a power of her own. I very much enjoyed this novel and I will look for more by Peternelle van Arsdale.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Friday, May 18, 2018

Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

Noemi Vidal has volunteered to die for her planet Genesis, which is focused on religious freedom, conservation of resources, and living life with as little technology as possible. Abel is an android with advanced programming to make him evolve into something close to human. He works only to protect his creator, who also created the hordes of AI that work for and fight for Earth. Earth is ideologically opposite of Genesis and at war with them. When Noemi stumbles across Abel and he isn't able to contact his creator, Abel follows Noemi absolutely and is forced to help her crusade despite being on the opposite side. Being so ideologically opposite and isolated, both start to question what they've been taught when exposed to other ideas.

Defy the Stars is a human/AI romance amidst two planets at war. It's a typical romance trope to throw two people together who hate each other only to have them grow to love each other, but I very much enjoyed it. The story is told in alternating chapters from Abel and Noemi's point of view. Abel is the most interesting character by far because he is self reflective and constantly questioning things about the world and himself. His picture of it broadens as he learns more and more about the world and his place in it. Noemi is more focused on her faith, souls, the will of her god, and questioning the holes in the answers her faith provides. They both started out extreme, raised in their respective planets, and slowly come together in the middle by being exposed to the others ideas. I personally don't like Genesis as a planet that suppresses technology and sacrifices its people for no real reason, but Earth isn't much better consuming planets by polluting them beyond repair and moving on to the next.

Their story had me interested up until one point that isn't even very important to the main story, but made me incredibly angry. When Noemi and Abel become separated, both have the same idea of breaking out a unrepentent terrorist named Riko from prison who bombed a popular music concert and killed hundreds. If that's not enough, after getting her out, the narration muses if Riko can compromise with someone who shares her values but abhors violence. Wow. How is this even a question? Why did both main characters think she didn't belong in jail? Releasing her is the action of a villain, not a hero. In the real world, it would be like breaking out someone who shot up a rock concert or a school or bombed a crowd of people and saying if only we could compromise. That implies that their terrorism has any sort of validity, which completely disgusts me. You don't get second chances after acts like this no matter what your values are. I don't know why this was included, especially in this time where incidences such as this have become much more common.

Defy the Stars has good world building, compelling characters, and enjoyable narration. This one detail really angered me and almost had me not finish the book. It occured so close to the end that I just finished it, but it marred my entire experience with the book. I'm really surprised that no other reviews I've read have mentioned this at all. I will not be reading the rest of this series and I am seriously thinking about chucking the rest of Claudia Gray's books in the trash.

My rating: 1/5 stars

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

You may think you know the true story of Peter Pan, but you must remember that above all, he lies. Peter Pan, the eternally young boy, didn't always have lost boys to play with. Jamie is Peter's favorite lost boy and the very first that he spirits away from the Other Place. As time goes on, Peter lures more and more boys to Neverland with promises of no rules, plentiful food, and fun. The reality isn't as nice with monsters lurking in the dark, lethal pirates, and disease. Jamie starts to realize the truth about Peter Pan after years of blindly following him.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook is a reimagining of the Peter Pan tale with a harsh edge of reality. Peter Pan is the funloving eternally young boy, but he also has the negative aspects of a child as well. He lies to garner support and cover his horrible actions, not really caring who he hurts. He embodies the callousn and selfish nature of children who simply can't understand another's experience. For instance, lost boys die occasionally and Peter simply goes to the Other Place to get another without a second thought. This is one of a great many examples and it feels accurate on a bigger scale. The island itself is full of dangers. Creatures called the many eyed keep expanding their territory and eat children they encounter. Crocodiles or mermaids or pirates can lead to a swift death. Even disease can cause death. Multiple children have died from infection or some sort of contagion with no medical supplies or treatment available. Neverland is a lot less idyllic here.

Jamie, the very first lost boy, is a pillar of his community, reasonable, sensitive, and loyal. For years, he has seen others come and go. He knows Peter's moods, rules, and manipulations. Through it all, he's the one who takes care of the lost boys, whether it's cheering them up, tending their wounds, stopping fights, teaching them how to survive, and burying their bodies if they don't. Magically lengthy youth doesn't mean immortality for all. Peter is too busy having fun to do any of this and doesn't really care what happens to them. At first, Jamie admires Peter and feels special to be chosen. Over time, he becomes disillusioned and realizes how monstrous Peter can be. I felt Jamie's frustration at Peter's selfish behavior and disregard for consequences, especially regarding a new lost boy who just wanted to bully others and the boy he took too young to take care of himself. The inevitable ending is tragic and went a different way than I expected.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook is a takes a dark fantasy version of Peter Pan. I had a couple problems with it. The only girl in the novel dies to give Jamie further angst. If this was supposed to be a horror reimagining, I expected a little more darkness and blood. I also didn't really like the many eyed creatures and found that it didn't really mesh with the rest of Neverland. Other than that, this is a decent retelling with some fun twists and turns.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, May 12, 2018

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

Tina doesn't really exist. She lives on the streets of Sangui City after her mother was murdered while her sister lives at a Catholic school on a scholarship. Every one of her actions is motivated by vengeance. After joining with a gang, she learned how to steal undetected and how to survive in her precarious situation. When she's stealing information to start her revenge, Tina is unexpectedly caught by a childhood friend. She's forced to make a deal with him to confirm the identity of her mother's killer without a doubt. This triggers a series events that reveals the truth about their past and makes her realize she didn't know her mother as well as she thought.

City of Saints and Thieves is a thriller with twists and turns, well drawn characters, and a meaningful journey. Tina is instantly relatable. She puts her sister above everything, making sure she has what she needs and safety. Reading her rules and the way she keeps herself safe on the streets is an amped up version of what women do every day to escape negative attention or worse. Tina is an even more disadvantaged position as a thief who operates within an entirely male gang and chooses to live by herself in order to protect herself. All of her decisions are understandable and I was on her side the entire way. She stayed with her plan even when faced with an childhood friend/crush who could potentially be hurt by releasing information on her mother's murderer. Tina's mind is always looking for the best way to tackle a situation. She never lets anyone have all the information and constantly makes secret plans to keep moving forward.

My favorite part of this story is when Tina goes back to her Congolese hometown to find out what exactly happened there. She has few memories, but her mother had a best friend and a whole life Tina never knew about. This exposes both parts of the Congo: the people and nature in comparison with the expoitative aspects. The people are incredibly resilient and brave, trying to do what they can to help the people and make the place better in an understaffed and underfunded hospital. The landscape is absolutely gorgeous and a stark contrast to the atrocities committed on it. The brutality of war is shown as well as the resulting violence, injury (both mental and physical), and death. All parts of this place are shown just as Tina finds out wonderful and awful things about her mother that were kept from her. Knowing what her mother experienced and how she survived put things into perspective for Tina.

City of Saints and Thieves is an exciting thriller that I could never predict. The only thing I found lacking was in Michael, Tina's childhood friend. I found him nosy, presumptuous, and too willing to underestimate her. However, their romance was relegated to the background and didn't take over the major story. I really liked Tina, her determination, and her story. At its core, this book is about a girl trying to understand her roots and herself.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Dracula vs. Hitler by Patrick Sheane Duncan

After the events covered in the novel Dracula, Professor Van Helsing chooses to bury Dracula rather than kill him. Years later during World War II, the Nazis are committing atrocities in Romania and running rampant where Van Helsing and his daughter fight for the resistance. He chooses to resurrect Dracula to fight the Nazis when conventional attempts to beat them have failed.

I didn't finish Dracula vs. Hitler. I didn't even make it to Dracula's resurrection. I had so many problems with the first 60 pages of this massive book. My main problems are with the uneven tone, the poor logic, the bad fan fiction elements. This book isn't as fun as it sounds. It focuses heavily on war tactics and action scenes. Horror and vampire fans will go away disappointed. However, even with this more serious tone, one particular death was so over the top it could have come out of a Saw film.

There are so many things that don't make sense. Why would Van Helsing spare Dracula? He claims it's because the vampire is a unique creature, but his whole team almost died just putting him in the ground. Apparently, Van Helsing was in his 30s during the novel to make this weird thing work which doesn't really work, especially bringing in other Dracula characters in. Jonathan Harker conveniently shows up later as an English spy and doesn't remember Van Helsing at all. I would think that whole experience would be pretty memorable and I don't get why he wouldn't remember the man who saved his wife (who is apparently not appearing in this book or he's just a huge scumbag).

The biggest problem I had with the novel was the bad fan fiction elements. Van Helsing has a daughter (of course), who just so happens to be incredibly beautiful and a fierce freedom fighter (even though she's shown to make numerous mistakes to expose them to the enemy). She is so emotionally strong that she won't even shed a tear for the boyfriend murdered brutally right in front of her. When Jonathan Harker sees her, he falls madly in love with her right away. This was the point I wanted to throw the book across the room and stopped reading. I can't invest time into a book with the flattest characters who are so awesome at what they do despite all evidence to the contrary. With Dracula vs. Hitler, I really wanted to a bloody, fun, over the top story which was not delivered.

My rating: 1/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Providence by Caroline Kepnes

In a small New Hampshire town, Jon and Chloe were best friends in high school, on the way for their relationship to become something more. Then, Jon was kidnapped by a substitute teacher when he was taking a shortcut through the woods to school. Chloe is frantic and eventually rebels when no one seems to care. Eventually, she returns to her popular friends and acts like everything is normal. Four years later, Jon wakes up in a mall basement with no memory at all of the time elapsed. He finds that he somehow hurts people by being near them and runs away until he can get a handle on the power after he kills someone. Chloe goes on to be a successful artist and a detective named Eggs starts to follow mysterious heart attack deaths with interest. Will Jon ever have a normal life or will his crimes catch up with him before that can happen?

Providence is a  much different book than Kepnes' previous two book, You and Hidden Bodies. Some fans of those books are going to be disappointed with a Lovecraftian, supernatural story. However, the mutual obsession between Jon and Chloe brings in that intense point of view that she did so well. I love supernatural books, so this wasn't an issue for me. The plot has a lot of positive elements. I can't help but feel for Jon, abused by others as a child, kidnapped, robbed of four years of his life, and saddled with toxic powers to those around him. The Lovecraftian elements are well done and friendly to those not familiar with his work. Passages from The Dunwich Horror are provided for context and integrated into the story as Jon's obsession because it was the only thing left by his captor. His actual powers are mysterious for much of the book, but make sense and something I haven't seen before. I also enjoyed how unhinged Jon became nearing the end of the book.

Unfortunately, I had numerous problems with the book as well. First, the book plods along and my interest phased in and out as it went. Second, Chloe is always defined by Jon and never really moves on unless it's to a toxic ex from high school. She never seems to know how to survive alone or find someone completely outside of her hometown and her trauma. It was incredibly frustrating to witness because of her potential and talent for art. Third, the way Chloe treated Jon when they were teens was pretty awful. She would hang out with him and treat him nice alone and then act like she didn't know him in front of popular people. She would never call anyone out for teasing or bullying him and seemed to just be using him. Fourth, so much would have been solved with a simple phone call, text, or email from Jon to Chloe.

Providence is an interesting novel that combines Lovecraftian horror with a mystery thriller. It's a bit out of the box for Kepnes and I enjoyed it about as much as her You series. Even though I have mixed feelings about most of her books, I enjoy the unique ideas she brings to her novels. I would still be curious to read whatever new releases she comes out with, particularly if it has a more fantasy or horror angle.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bright We Burn by Kiersten White

Lada and Radu are still at odds. Radu is reeling over the horror he saw in Constantinople and continues to see through Mehmed's manipulations. He's constantly stuck between Lada and Mehmed as they wage their wars. Lada is ruling as she sees fit, harshly punishing all crimes no matter how noble the criminal. Her people, especially the poor, support her unconditionally because she follows through with her promises, redistributes land to the poor, and has basically abolished crime. However, those that follow her don't feel right bucking tradition or no longer wish to follow her rule. Lada has to ask herself if her actions are for Wallachia and how far she is willing to go to rule the country she wants.

Bright We Burn skates an interesting line that has me rooting for both Radu and Lada even though they are more at odds in this book than any other. Lada is my absolute favorite. She becomes a little more self reflective in this installment. Her rash actions come from selfishness and pride rather than for the good of Wallachia and she eventually recognizes it. Many of her actions are successful like completely blazing her own way regardless of tradition. Power flows from her down instead of always being held by boyars who stay prince after prince. Her rigidity in regards to justice and rewarding loyalty make the people fiercely loyal in turn, almost to a fanatical degree. She never underestimates anyone and makes use of all of her resources that others would overlook or find distasteful. Many might find Lada's actions questionable or pushing too far, but she does what's necessary to protect her people and keep her country from falling into the wrong hands.

Radu, on the other hand, is quite changed from the last book. The horrors of Constantinople weigh on him and he still doesn't know if his lover and wife are even alive. He's caught in the same triangle between Mehmed and Lada's conflict as he always has. Mehmed's patterns of manipulation are much more transparent to him and Radu finds himself falling out of love with him. Being in constant conflict isn't for him and he wants peace sometime in his life. He's tired of the same old power plays in court even though he still deftly navigates them. I feel for him and his frustration, but I still feel he's on the wrong side as he plots against Lada. He doesn't wish to hurt her, but sees her takeover of Wallachia as a dangerous folly. I wish he would recognize her amazing qualities instead of trying to save her from herself. 

Bright We Burn is an amazing novel that ties up the story beautifully. The final ending seemed to deviate from the rest of the series and was slightly disappointing in its view of Lada. Literally everything else was amazing. The most wonderful thing was to see so many women in all sorts of roles doing whatever they could to exert their power and influence in such an oppressively patriarchal system. It shows that while Lada is an outlier in some ways, so many women are just as capable and powerful. I never thought I would get into this series, but I read each installment the minute I got it. Kiersten White infuses her characters with such humanity and emotion that even the war stuff, which usually bores me, had me at the edge of my seat. I highly recommend this whole series.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins