book review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale was a book that I found hard to put down.  The characters were interesting, the plot was creative, and the writing was a mix of mythology and fantasy.  The book addressed Russian fairy tales, but it in itself was a fairy tale.  The writing style had a slight dream-like quality to it that is somewhat reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s books, and yet it felt unique.  Katherine Arden did a magnificent job of spinning her world.  It was hard to tear myself away from her world.

The basic plot is that the main character, Vasilisa (Vasya), uses her special ability to see spirits to try to save her people.  Vasya’s mother dies giving birth to her and she gets a stepmother (Anna) who, while able to see the spirits, fears them.  The differences in their reactions to the same ability defines their personalities and their lives.  Vasilisa accepts her ability, talks to the spirits and befriends them while Anna shrieks and faints and tries to get rid of the spirits.  There is a bit of a clash between the old world versus the new.  The “new” is represented by Christianity and the “old” is represented by the old spirits.  The book doesn’t say that one is better than the other, but it does say that ignoring one for the sake of the other may have unintended consequences.  This is evident in the priest that comes to live in Vasya’s village and what happens to him towards the end of the book.  Maybe the author is trying to say that the old ways are part of our heritage, part of what makes us and therefore abandoning them is a bad idea?

Even if you don’t get any message from the book, the characters themselves, whether they were main characters or minor characters (other members of Vasya’s family), were interesting and well-developed.  The book itself was a pleasure to read just for the sake of reading.

The only people I would hesitate to recommend this book to would be ultra conservative Christians, just because they may be offended that the book deals with old spirits.  If you don’t mind that and can just appreciate a work of fiction, you should definitely read this book.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-copy of this book to preview in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be published January 10, 2017.

 

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book review: Jack and the Geniuses: at the Bottom of the World by Bill Nye and Gregory Mone

This book appears to be the start of a series of adventure stories geared towards middle schoolers.  The book is about Jack and his two genius foster siblings, Ava and Matt, who had themselves declared legally independent.  With two siblings who are geniuses, it is hard for Jack to stand out, but he manages to come up with some clever solutions to problems on his own.

I would say that the target audience would be upper elementary children (4th-6th and maybe even 3rd graders), maybe early middle school, rather than middle school.  The inventions described in the book are very creative and, since one of the authors is Bill Nye, he tries to stay true to the science.  In other words, even though the inventions don’t exist, parts of them do exist so it is possible that some of the inventions may come to fruition one of these days.

In this book, Jack and his siblings do volunteer work for an inventor named Hank Witherspoon who has to judge a contest in Antarctica.  As a reward for their hard work, he takes them along.  When they arrive, they are faced with solving the disappearance of a missing scientist.

I was wavering between 3 stars and 4 stars for this book, but decided to go with 4 because of the neat science bits.  I enjoyed reading about how to make a shelter in the snow, how to survive intense temperatures, and the great inventions.

I wish that the characters in the book had been more developed.  The story is told from Jack’s point of view so the reader becomes most familiar with him.  Unfortunately, little is known about Ava and Matt other than that they are geniuses and that Ava names her robots and Matt likes to work out.  Dr. Witherspoon is a rich man, but expects the children to work for him for free?  Come on, what kind of a person is he?

Maybe we’ll get to know the other characters better as the siblings go on more adventures in future book.  I hope Dr. Witherspoon intends to start paying the poor kids for doing so much work for him.

I received a complimentary e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book will be published April 4, 2017.

book review: The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Personally, I found The Girl Before to be more suspenseful than The Girl on the Train (yes, I’m still hung up on how popular that book is).  The Girl Before tells the story of two women living in an rented home.  The home is in a great neighborhood and is cheap, but comes with a long list of odd conditions.  If you’re like me and skip reading the chapter titles, you might get a little confused at first.  It seems like the two women are applying for the same home and there will be some competition between them to get it.  When I looked back at the chapter titles, though, there’s a “Then: Emma” and “Now: Jane” to make it clear that the title refers to Emma and the present is Jane.  This makes it much more clear for the reader, but I still prefer my method of skipping chapter titles and figuring out what is going on as the story unfolds.

The home itself is interesting.  It is stark, but technologically advanced.  Only the essentials are in the home, no pets or children are allowed, no other furnishings are allowed than what is already provided with the house.  The house measures your biometrics to adjust lighting to give you the best night’s sleep, provide you with the perfect shower temperature, etc.  Occasionally, it asks you to complete questionnaires to ensure that it is best meeting your needs.  Some functions (such as hot water) are disabled until the questionnaire is completed.  It is a remarkable house, but it also makes many demands on its owner.

The architect is an unusual man, somewhat shrouded in mystery, with precise, exacting demands.  He is the one who has the final say in who is allowed to rent the home.  His character reminds me of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, except that Howard was more likeable.

I’m not going to give away too much of the plot.  Basically, Jane moves into this house after undergoing a miscarriage and tries to figure out what happened to Emma.  As always, it’s the journey that matters and I enjoyed some of the twists and turns in this one.  I thought this book was better than The Girl on the Train.  I particularly liked the idea of the house and the way the author slowly unraveled her characters’ personalities.

I received a complimentary e-book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book will be released January 24, 2017.

Book review: Gilded Cage by Vic James

Gilded Cage by Vic James presents an interesting look at what happens when some are born with abilities and some are not.  This book is the first in a series and takes place in an alternate England where people who are born with magic are part of the elite, ruling class whereas people who don’t have magic are common citizens.

This book won’t be released until February 2017 so I don’t want to give the plot away.  Instead, I’ll discuss what I found most interesting about the book – the social dynamics between the two classes.

At some point in their lives, all commoners are required to serve 10 years as a slave.  During those 10 years, they have no rights.  Commoners may request assignment at a certain location, but otherwise have no say in where they will be.  Some are assigned to what amounts to labor camps.  Others may get assigned to serve in an aristocratic family, which sounds like it would be better than labor camps … except that, since they are slaves and have no rights, there are no rules or punishment for mistreatment or commoners.  For commoners, the big decision is when to serve out their 10 years.  If they serve it while they’re young, they will most likely survive, but may be maimed physically or emotionally.  If they wait until they’re too old, they won’t be able to survive the harsh demands of the physical labor.

While they are slave, if they don’t perform satisfactorily, they may have years added to their sentence.  If they do something really bad like murder someone, they may receive a life sentence of servitude.

Interestingly, people who have no magical powers but are born to a family with magical powers seem to be exempt from the 10-year servitude requirement.

Obviously, no one wants to become a slave for 10 years so why would they agree to it?  The answer is that the magical people could force them.  The actual magical abilities are somewhat of a mystery, but there are rumors of mind control, moving objects, destroying objects, making things appear, deleting memories.  Those with magical abilities don’t want to spend their whole time quashing rebellions so they give commoners some freedom.  Getting to choose when they become a slave is one of the freedoms.  When they are not slaves, they are considered citizens and have rights, similar to what we have today.  They may own property, be protected from harm by police, etc.  There is just enough “give” there to keep the commoners intent enough.

The book follows a family of commoners as they begin their sentence.  The family consists of Mom, Dad, Abi, Luke, and Daisy.  Abi is an intelligent 18-year-old who was accepted to medical schools.  However, she turns down her offers to serve her time with her family.  Abi requested that they all be assigned to an aristocratic family so that they could be together.  Abi’s request is approved, but approvals means little once you become a slave with no rights.  Luke is a few years younger than Abi and is bitter about having to give up the prime years of his life in slavery, but understands that his parents wanted to keep the family together.  Daisy is the baby of the family.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), this book is part of a series so it does end on somewhat of a cliffhanger.  Just a warning that you’re going to have to wait a while before the next book is released.  I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the other books in this series.

I received a complimentary e-book from Net Galley in exchange for my honest review.