Mini-Reviews: Station, Artistic, You, Book

Station ElevenArtistic License

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven — This novel centers around an apocalyptic event, a virus that wipes out 99.9 percent of the world’s population. There are two major narratives: one involves a famous actor who dies just as the virus begins to spread, and the other is set several years after the virus, focusing on a traveling theater troupe and orchestra whose motto is the Star Trek: Voyager quote “Survival is insufficient.” I was much more interested in the latter story than the former, and I also found the postapocalyptic landscape somewhat implausible (there’s not a single person left alive who can figure out how to keep a power plant running, yet there are multiple cellists?). So my feelings about the book are mixed, but overall I liked more things than I disliked.

Elle Pierson, Artistic License — When I discovered that Elle Pierson was a pseudonym for Lucy Parker, I downloaded this book immediately! The heroine is a painfully shy art student; the hero is a tough-looking security guard who is extremely insecure about his “ugly” looks. Their budding romance is threatened by the baggage they each bring to the relationship. This book really worked for me because I loved the main characters and how they both cherished the most “unlovable” parts of each other. It’s not quite as polished as Act Like It or Pretty Face, but it’s still a very enjoyable contemporary romance.

It's Not Me, It's YouBook Jumper, The

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You — This is a chick lit novel about Delia, a girl whose life is turned upside-down when she proposes to her longtime boyfriend, only to discover that he’s been cheating on her. She promptly moves out of their shared home and relocates to a new town, where she gets a new job with a shady boss. Ultimately, Delia has to uncover the boss’s shenanigans with the help of several friends, including an abrasive-yet-handsome young journalist—all while her ex-boyfriend desperately tries to win her back. On the surface, the book is about a woman choosing between two men, but really, it’s about the choice between two lives—the familiar vs. the unknown, the safe vs. the brave. I liked this book a lot, and Mhairi McFarlane will definitely be one of my go-to authors for this type of read!

Mechthild Gläser, The Book Jumper (trans. Romy Fursland) — When Amy and her mother move from Germany to their ancestral home in Scotland, Amy discovers that her family has a special legacy: they can “jump” into books and spend time in their favorite fictional worlds. As Amy practices her book jumping skills, she learns that someone is stealing important plot elements from her favorite works of literature (the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the cyclone from The Wizard of Oz). While solving this mystery, Amy also uncovers secrets from her family’s past and embarks on a romance with unforeseen complications. I really liked the premise of this book, and I was impressed by the ending, which is a little darker and more complex than I’d expected. But overall, this was just an okay read for me. A more interesting take on the book jumping premise is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.

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Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in Ravensbrück, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on Ravensbrück.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Review: Every Breath

Every BreathEllie Marney, Every Breath

Rachel Watts has recently moved with her family from their farm in rural Australia to the big city of Melbourne. Watts hates almost everything about her new home — everything, that is, except her neighbor and best friend, James Mycroft. Mycroft is brilliant but unstable, often conducting dangerous scientific experiments in his bedroom. He’s also alone nearly all the time, since his parents both died years ago, and the aunt with whom he lives is never around. Nevertheless, despite the concerns of Watts’ parents, she and Mycroft are inseparable. So when someone they know — a homeless man named Dave who hangs out near the local zoo — is brutally murdered, they decide to investigate the case together. The police assume it was a random act of violence, but Watts and Mycroft suspect that there may have been a specific motive behind Dave’s death. As they investigate, Watts and Mycroft also grow closer, but they both fear the consequences of changing their relationship.

As you might have guessed from the characters’ names, this book owes more than a little to Sherlock Holmes, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it! Though the hero’s name is Mycroft, he possesses all of the frenetic energy, vividness, and charisma of Sherlock. Obviously he would be a pain to live with in real life, but on the page, he’s an utterly compelling character — I can totally see why Watts is harboring more-than-friendly feelings towards him! I liked Watts a lot, too; she provides a much-needed voice of reason to reel Mycroft in when he goes off the rails. The mystery aspect of the novel is well done, although I suspected the culprit fairly early in the book. And in another nod to Arthur Conan Doyle, there’s a dog who plays an important role in the solution of the crime. While the book’s major plotlines are all resolved in the end, the door is definitely open for a sequel — which I have already pre-ordered! I’m not sure why this book struck me so positively, except to say that I enjoyed spending time with these characters and look forward to reading about their further adventures.

Review: The Rosie Project

Rosie Project, TheGraeme Simsion, The Rosie Project

Professor Don Tillman is a brilliant geneticist, but his professional success is offset by his lack of luck in the romance department. Attacking this problem with all the force of his logical brain, Don comes up with the Wife Project: a questionnaire for prospective mates designed to weed out undesirable or incompatible qualities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this does not go well…but then Don meets Rosie. Rosie is the exact opposite of the woman described by the questionnaire: she’s disorganized, spontaneous, and perpetually late. She also needs Don’s help to find her biological father, whom she has never met. Interested in her problem, Don agrees to participate in the Rosie Project. But the more time he spends with her, the more he begins to rethink his list of strict requirements for the ideal woman. He also re-examines his own life and discovers some surprising things about himself — including the fact that he just might have a chance at love after all.

This book was a huge hit when it came out last year, and I can absolutely see why! It’s a charming romantic comedy about two people who couldn’t be more wrong for each other — except, of course, they’re exactly right. Don is a great protagonist and narrator, and he’s unique for a romantic hero in that he has Asperger syndrome. I can’t speak to whether the author’s portrayal of a person with Asperger’s is authentic, but it rang true to me. I like that the book shows both the benefits and drawbacks to having a brain that works differently from most people’s. Don approaches the world in a very logical, structured fashion, which makes him a great scientist. But by the same token, he doesn’t always pick up on social cues or body language, which makes his courtship of Rosie difficult. Rosie herself didn’t make as much of an impression on me; she’s a quirky free spirit who doesn’t really rise above stereotype. But I loved the book for Don’s unique voice and for the sheer sweetness and humor of the love story. This is definitely one of my top reads of the year!

Review: Lexicon

LexiconMax Barry, Lexicon

Emily Ruff is a teenager living on the streets of San Francisco, subsisting on the change she earns by fleecing people at cards. So when she is approached by a mysterious organization that wants to send her to a special boarding school, all expenses paid, she jumps at the chance without asking too many questions. When Emily arrives at the school, she learns that its purpose is to train poets, an elite group of individuals who can use words to “persuade” people to do anything. Emily learns that people can be divided into segments based on their personality type, and each segment responds to a unique set of words. The poets want Emily because they have ascertained that she is more than usually persuasive. Meanwhile, Wil Parte is on the run, accompanied by a renegade poet called Eliot — but he doesn’t know who he’s running from or why they’re looking for him. Both Emily and Wil must eventually face violence and impossible choices as the connection between their stories becomes evident.

I picked up this book because I loved the premise, which is essentially that words have power (something book lovers already know!). Max Barry has imagined a world in which the masses can be controlled by an elite few with words alone — a world that is frighteningly close to our own. For me, the book’s biggest strength is how plausible it is; with our private lives increasingly made public through the Internet, it’s very easy to imagine governments and other powerful groups using that private information for their own ends. The book also reads extremely quickly and is chock-full of action. However, the book was a little too graphic for me, in terms of both sex and violence. And more importantly, I feel like Barry missed a great opportunity to explore some interesting philosophical questions in the novel. Clearly the poets are to some extent sinister, and the villain of the book is quite obviously the villain; but even the so-called heroes do a lot of morally questionable things, and their behavior is never really called to account. The book has a happy(ish) ending, and I just don’t think it’s justified. Still, this is a fun read if you’re interested in the premise, but I’d recommend getting it from the library rather than buying.