An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole [Review]

AEUI’m actively looking to diversify my reading, especially in genres where minority voices are not always heard, and diverse characters are not always seen. I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of this title and wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes nothing is better than curling up for the afternoon with a book you know you’re going to race through and enjoy in a single afternoon. This book was exactly what I was looking for.

An Extraordinary Union follows Elle Burns, a woman born into slavery. Living free in the North, she chooses to use her eidetic memory to help the Union by posing as a mute slave in Charleston.   There, she meets Malcolm McCall, a Pinkerton detective who’s also in the South under false pretenses. Danger, intrigue, and romance ensue.

I haven’t read a lot of straight-up romance. (I’m not counting romance-heavy YA or historical fiction here.) I’ve read and enjoyed Sarah McLean and Courtney Milan, but that’s about as far as I’ve made it, though every once and a while I get a hankering for a romance and will pick something up. What was immediately noticeable to me with An Extraordinary Union was that the stakes were so much higher than I was used to. Usually in a regency romance, someone’s honour or virtue is at stake, and the biggest obstacle is how society views the couple. In this case, the situations Elle and Malcolm found themselves in were literally life and death, and it added an element to the story that I really appreciated.

One of the challenges with a story like this is the ending. I recently saw some internet angst around the question of whether or not a romance novel needs a happy ending. Romance readers will shout at you (usually politely), “YES, OF COURSE.” In this book we have a mixed race couple working as spies across enemy lines during one of the deadliest wars in American history. I don’t really want to talk about the ending too much, my brain found it hard to reconcile all of the moving pieces here. I do think Cole handled it very well, but it was a little bit jarring to me as a reader.

The best news is that this is the first book in a series, and that we’ll get more of The Loyal League. I will absolutely be looking to read the next installment, and in meantime, will continue my search for diverse romance reads. If you have recommendations, please let them in the comments!

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel [Review]

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review. The thing is, like so many other books this year, I didn’t get to it before the release date, so the galley didn’t really help me out. But I still want to shout out publishers for sharing – it’s not their fault I can’t get my act together!

Image result for waking godsWaking Gods is the second book in the Themis Files series. I will not be including any spoilers for this book, but there might be some slight spoilers from Sleeping Giants. If you haven’t come across this series before, or are waiting for it to be complete before diving in, fair warning. But also, if you haven’t started the series yet, WHYYYY.

I sort of want to caps lock this review because I feel like I’m shouting about how great the series is every time I talk to anyone about it. Waking Gods continues the story of how humans might cope were we to find a massive robot built by an alien race buried in the Earth. (Spoiler: not super well.) Our cast of characters is back and face a new challenge when new robots arrive on the planet and don’t seem to want to move unless we try to attack, in which case they annihilate us. The mystery of why they’re here, who created them, and what might come next deepens, and the more we learn, the more questions that need to be answered.

The thing I really enjoy about the series is that we get multiple narrators helping to tell the story through a series of saved files, so we’re able to jump perspective, time, and format with relative ease and it doesn’t end up being confusing. I’ve listened to both books now on audio, and I really recommend it. There is a whole cast reading for the various characters, and it really lends a cinematic quality to the reading experience. I found myself looking for any excuse to turn the audiobook back on, which is what I really look for in a listening experience.

I’d describe the book as being a true science fiction story, written for literary fiction readers. The story has some great sci-fi elements and pulls those off really well, but the real hook is the character develop and the human reaction to the unknown. We action is taking place on Earth, and we don’t get any more information about the alien race than what the humans are able to figure out.

It makes this an easy book to recommend to all sorts of readers, and so I recommend it to you.


Big Mushy Happy Lump by Saran Andersen [Review]

I read somewhere recently that you shouldn’t start your review with a note that you got the book for review from the publisher. I like to be upfront about things, so I’m including it anyway, and I also like to give credit where credit is due. Publishers sharing titles free of charge means a lot to bloggers, so why shy away from it?

This will be a short review because the book was funny and smart and sometimes so true it hurt, so I don’t feel the need to dissect each panel. Sarah Andersen never fails to write content that I identify with in such a way as to make me feel both part of the in crowd and a slight failure as a human being. Adulthood is a Myth was one of my 5-star reads from last year, though I thought this collection wasn’t *quite* as strong.

But there was still this:

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And this:

Image result for big mushy happy lump period sarah andersen

So…saying it wasn’t as good for me as the first collection isn’t really saying a lot. You should check these books out if you haven’t seen them. I feel the need to buy another copy just to cut apart so that I can frame 70% of the pages.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. But the hardcover is STUNNING and I must have that too…

norsemythology_hardback_1473940163I feel like I can’t really start this review until I come clean about my experience reading Neil Gaiman. It’s a story fraught with DNFs and secret shame. And because this intro is going to take a couple of paragraphs and you likely just want to know what I thought, I’ll tell you up here that it was great. Go read it.

As a librarian, reader and human being, Gaiman is a bit of a superhero. In my mind he’s like Margaret Atwood and countless other authors who champion public libraries, reading, and more generally, the rights of all individuals to simply exist as they are in a free and democratic society. He’s just a lovely human being by all counts.

Which brings me to my shame. I have finished exactly one previous Gaiman novel (The Ocean at the End of the Lane) but haven’t had a lot of success with his books in general. I always want to love them and be part of that group of hardcore fanboys and fangirls, but I just haven’t been able to get there. I feel this odd sense of excitement whenever he publishes something new, but that doesn’t really translate into me buying/borrowing and reading the thing.

I had this book ages ago and didn’t pick it up until it was released earlier this month. So you might be wondering why I bothered at all. Frankly, I always think this will be the Gaiman that gets me and I will fall madly involve with his work. And this book as a physical item is just fabulous. The cover is everything I’ve ever wanted in a book cover, and if you think we don’t judge books by their cover, you’re just wrong. (Sorry. But it’s true.) So I requested the book, stared at the cover, and then finally, FINALLY, read it.

And we’re back into a regular review. Norse Mythology is…exactly what it says it is. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths with all of the characters and places we grew up with: Odin, Thor, Loki, the Frost Giants, Midgard and Ragnarok. And so many more. Gaiman presents these as a complete story, but each chapter reads like a short story that could stand independently. It’s as much a collection of tales as it is a novel, and I’ve seen it called both in blurbs and reviews. On the face of it, it’s a straightforward presentation of stories that we might already be familiar with. But Gaiman has an ability to write about a thing and really give you a sense of time and place that is both familiar and unique. He’s not just rehashing stories for the sake of it. He has said he feels a deep connection to these stories and as a reader, that really comes across. He’s adding something here and making a real contribution to our long history of story-telling.

It turns out that I don’t have a lot to say really in terms of a “review” because the book just…is. It’s there and it’s brilliant and if the subject sounds appealing to you, you should read it. The more I try to write reviews and think about books for longer after I finish them, the more I think that all reviews should be short. Did you like the book? Would you recommend it to others? Reading is so subjective, and if I write a rave review because I loved the book, it’s no guarantee that you will. And I have a hard time condemning a book because I know there will be readers out there who really connect with it.

This blog exists largely to review books. Posting reviews in public places/having some ability to promote the book is why publishers agree to give you the thing (not that I think you HAVE to review every book given to you) and so the blog continues. As a public librarian with some purchasing power, that’s primarily where the impact of galleys is felt for me, but I think it’s also important to contribute to an online conversation. And with that said, I will continue to try to write coherent and fair reviews here. They just might be shorter than expected at times.



Civil Wars by David Armitage [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

civil-warThis book is different from what I usually review. I want to give fair warning to anyone reading this that Civil Wars is very much an academic text. I don’t say this to make it sound dry or boring, because it was neither of those things, but I know that this won’t appeal to everyone. I love footnotes and new ideas presented to me as an essay or thesis, so if you feel the same, read on fellow nerd, read on.

The subtitle of this book really sums up the content better than I can. Civil Wars: A history in ideas looks at the concept of civil war, and how we have come to understand it over time. Beginning in Ancient Greece and tracing the evolution of internal conflict through Rome, early modern Europe, 19th century America and through to the present, Armitage uses the historical record to examine how we perceive war, and how our perceptions have changed.

When I started reading this, I was immediately struck by how timely the book is, and I’m not even sure if Armitage could have anticipated that. He says “democratic politics now looks ever more like civil war by other means” (p. 19) and as I sit here in the relative safety of Canada watching the news from south of the border, I think that’s never been more true.

I think I had always assumed that civil war was a thing that humans did to each other, and I never stopped to really consider that there was a time where this wasn’t true. Greeks and Romans had very different ideas about whether or not infighting was really a war, and those ideas are just as different from each other as they are to our modern understanding.

In terms of readability, I have already mentioned that this is an academic text. Dr. David Armitage has a long list of academic credentials, including being the former Chair of the Department of History at Harvard, and this book is not written to be the sort of narrative non-fiction you seek out at your local bookstore. It’s the culmination of significant research and thought. I also found that having a solid understanding of the historical periods he’s talking about was beneficial. There was a time in my life where I thought I might stay in academia and do my MA and PhD in History. Alas, the library called, but I have found my undergraduate degree to be extremely useful in variety of situations and would recommend to anyone that taking the time to learn your history is well worth it.

I really enjoyed this book. It was great to get back into reading something that reminded me of my love of history and of academia in general. Being a librarian, life-long learning has become a bit of cliché, but I really believe in it. This book allowed me to use what I already know to read a compelling argument and consider the implications on our world today.

I know that of all the blog posts I’ve written about great books, this one will likely result in the least number of people picking up the book, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be this book that you read next. I would encourage you to find a topic you want to learn more about and just go for it. The Great Courses, Coursera, Audible and of course your local library all have fantastic resources to help you expand your knowledge.

*Page numbers were taken from the NetGalley digital edition of this book and may not reflect the pagination in the print edition.

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai [Review]

Image result for all our wrong todaysI’ve been trying to write this review for a little while now. I had a draft, tossed it out, googled “how to write a book review” (I kid you not) and then came back to this again.

I think I’m struggling because I’m finding it hard to come to a conclusion about how I feel about the book. I felt completely differently about the story at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, and I’m not sure if that’s because I always struggle with time travel plots, or if it’s because the premise of the story was excellent, but the execution was lacking.

At the beginning of the story, we meet Tom Barren. Tom lives in the future that the 1950’s thought we would have. They have an unlimited supply of renewable energy, flying cars, and there are thousands of inventions to dramatically improve their everyday lives. As Tom’s father works tirelessly for the next big scientific breakthrough, Tom struggles to fit in and find his place. In a dramatic turn of events, Tom gets caught up in his father’s work, gets transported back in time (and there is some great stuff in this section about why time travel is difficult), and changes the world. Now he’s stuck in “our world”, but soon discovers that it’s maybe not as bad as he initially thought.

What I found particularly compelling about the story was the science that apparently makes all of this possible. The Gottreider Engine is a fictional machine that is the source of energy in the novel, and underpins the entire narrative. It works by harnessing the motion of the Earth through space to generate unlimited power. This source of clean energy is what makes Tom’s world so different and more advanced than ours, and had me convinced that it was a brilliant idea. I haven’t read something like this in fiction before which was refreshing, but the concept has the allure of a Dyson Sphere about it, which is familiar. It’s so big and unwieldy that I can’t fathom actually creating one, but had me wondering if it was theoretically possible. In my mind, this is the key to great science fiction.

I was hooked by chapter two, and raced through the next couple hundred pages. Somewhere along the way, I began to lose interest. It wasn’t a chore to finish by any means, but I wasn’t invested in the character anymore, and while I wanted to know how it all ended, I didn’t find myself drawn to my laptop and wanting to spend all my time reading this book. And I think this is where the time travel elements of the plot bogged me down. As Captain Janeway (the source of all wisdom) said,”Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.”

Image result for captain janeway time travel

What ends up happening is that I try to logic the situation and keep everything straight, and I think that’s the job of the author. The reader should be able to just enjoy the story and not need to create themselves a timeline to follow along. And this plot wasn’t even *that* complicated. I just didn’t want to think about it. And that really slowed me down.
The tone of the writing was great throughout. Mastai has spent years as a screenwriter and it really shows. Tom is speaking directly to the audience for much of the story and he’s honest, crass, at times witty and at other irreverential. But this all serves to draw you into the story and to care about him. He also does some interesting things with the structure of the story that pay off later and I really appreciated that.

At around the halfway mark, there were some interesting discussion between the character about time travel, parallel worlds, and how it all might work. Some of it is based on scientific theories I’m familiar with (insomuch as a lay person can be familiar with quantum physics) and some of it was more philosophical and I loved it all. It was a smart way to break up the frantic pacing and do some character development. In particular:

“We didn’t have the resources to actually make the stuff we came up with, so we stuck them in our science fiction. We kept them safe in our dreams. And then you assholes raided our imaginations, took credit for our ideas, and built yourself a paradise.”

So for me, the second half of the book struggled to keep my interest and I struggled to care as much as I had in the first half. And as I got closer to the ending, I found myself feeling a familiar sense of dread. The writer has spent hundreds of pages developing a world and the rules that govern it, and now they have to wrap everything up in a way that is both convincing yet original. And inevitably, they are doomed to fail on at least one account.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but the end just felt too neat, like a perfectly wrapped gift. I like having a bit of a mess left over. You can’t mess with time and space and then just expect it to all work out. You might argue that it wasn’t tidy and clean for all characters, but I didn’t really care about them anyway, so the painful bits just didn’t land for me. If I was to predict the future, the things about this book that will stay with me will be the Gottreider Engine and the science-y bits about time travel. The characters will fade and I likely won’t even remember the ending.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney [Review]

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

lillianboxfishOn New Year’s Eve 1984, Lillian Boxfish takes a walk. It’s a simple premise that serves the narrative well. What follows is the story of a life fully lived, told in roughly chronological flashbacks as Lillian moves through the neighbourhoods of her past.

Lillian is the heroine we want to read about. In the 1920’s, she takes a job in advertising and quickly becomes the highest paid woman in her profession. She gains fame for writing catchy light poetry and for disdaining all things traditional, including love and marriage. And then she meets the man that will become her husband. She struggles to balance her marriage and her passion for writing. She becomes a mother. And a divorcée. And the times are changing.

As Lillian walks the streets of the mid-80’s she tells her story with a quiet simplicity. She’s not lost her spunk or ability to intuit a new situation, and her insights about what it was like to be a woman living a life of her own through the 20th century feel so understated and wise that I had to remind myself that this is a work of fiction. (Sort of. More on that later.) By this point she’s an old woman who knows herself completely and remains to the end a modern woman.

It’s impossible to ignore New York City as a character in the book. It grows and changes in parallel with Lillian’s life, but is ever-present and beautifully rendered. While reading this, I was also listening to Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run on audio, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and the early songs of Springsteen’s career. The characters of New York City Serenade, It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City, and Jungleland all feel like they could be right around the corner.  Like the best songs, nothing Rooney does is in your face trying to get your attention. Her writing is calm and measured, but immediately transports you to a specific time and place, and then a chapter later moves you again. The result isn’t whiplash. It’s a smooth ride.

I got to the end of the book and was excited to read about the inspiration for Lillian Boxfish. Rooney spent time with the papers of Margaret Fishback, the real-life Boxfish who was the highest paid woman in advertising in the 1930’s. Her life was as remarkable as Lillian’s and reminds us that we need to hear more stories about smart and strong women.

Feminist literature is new to my reading life. I really started to look for fiction titles with feminist themes only in the last year or so. If I know anything about publishing, it’s that readers need to be proactive about finding things that matter to them. You could easily spend your entire reading life reading books that publishing spends money making sure you see on every website and on the front shelf of every bookstore. It’s easy and there are a lot of fantastic books that get that sort of treatment and are deserving of your time.

But if you care about diversity in your reading and therefore in publishing, you unfortunately usually have to do more work. Luckily for this book, it was a Book of the Month selection, so is being read pretty widely already. A lot of books don’t have this advantage. So if you do pick this up (I suggest you do) and like it, and haven’t been thinking about your reading habits, I encourage you to. It’s something I continue to work on with every book selection I make.