Book Review | City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city-from one of America’s most acclaimed young SF writers.

Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Divani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters-dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem-and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well. (description via Goodreads)

I would like to say that I loved this book, that it was phenomenal and delivered on every promise it made and lived up to the hype. It was some of those things, but not all of them. Decent, a good read for fans of futuristic fantasy, with wonderful characters and an enjoyable espionage spin that you don’t typically find in books about dead gods and characters attempting to outlive their pasts. There are some wonderful moments – notably starring Sigrud and Shara, two perfectly matched platonic partners. They’re a good mix of intellect and muscle, and there’s an established history of admiration, trust, and respect when we first meet them. Thank to Bennett’s worldbuilding, you really feel immersed in Bulikov. The opening trial scene and interspersed excerpts from primary sources and historical texts help the story feel grounded. I’m not into origin stories, and this is squarely outside of that – our first glimpse into this world, but one that’s already broken in a way, and with centuries of history behind it.

My major issue is that some of the reveals felt a little too heavy-handed, even a little too convenient. However, there’s an opening for a follow-up and if Bennett writes a sequel, I will definitely read it.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. I selected the book based on my own preference, and all opinions are my own. 

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The Masked Songbird by Emmie Mears

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I’m really pumped to share this review with y’all because it’s a pretty different book than I would normally pick out. I met Emmie at a writing conference in 2012 and I was so impressed with her. She was so down-to-earth and fun, and she radiated confidence. When she posted about her book being published, I was so excited for her – because it’s obvious she’s worked her butt off and made hard choices to prioritize her writing.

So obviously I pre-ordered The Masked Songbird for my Kindle. And, uh, once I found my Kindle, dusted it off, and charged it, I loved it.

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Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends—even her country.

I don’t read a ton of urban fantasy, and while I love comic book flicks, I don’t tend to gravitate toward the action/thriller side of fiction. Something I’ve admitted could be an unfortunate oversight. Because The Masked Songbird falls into the “superhero” category, it features familiar tropes. This book is essentially the Shrike origin story, so you’ve got your mysterious accident, even more mysterious powers, flirting with vigilantism, and adoption of the secret identity.

Origin stories aren’t my favorite, but The Masked Songbird succeeds because Mears knows her characters and her pacing. Gwen can be flustered and passive, but also charismatic and resilient. She might not make the best choices, but she will grow from her mistakes. It’s refreshing to see a character so well-balanced in terms of flaws and strengths. Gwen feels real; the kind of person you’d grab a pint with, or share a scone. Although nobody feels “one note” in this book, Gwen is the real standout to me.

The pacing works very well. Especially with the superhero genre, you have to know your beats. Mears knows when to keep the reader anxious, when to make them laugh or cry. Tearing up on the recumbent bike in the gym? Yep, that’s me. Almost ruptured something trying not to wake Scott and Huckleberry from laughing too hard? You betcha. Deliberately saving this book for my workouts because it would push me? Heck yeah.

Setting the novel against the backdrop of the Scottish referendum made the story resonate even more in the wake of the “no” vote. It features prominently in the plot, and it’s woven in well. Some of those tears came from well-placed and well-timed Saor Alba moments – no surprise given Emmie’s personal posts of late.

Please give The Masked Songbird a read. It’s the first in the planned Scottish Songbird series, and I can’t wait for future installments.

Want to share an opinion about this book? Drop a note in the comments!

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Book Review | Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

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Book: Dark Eden
Author: Chris Beckett

Goodreads Synopsis:
On the alien, sunless planet they call Eden, the 532 members of the Family shelter beneath the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees. Beyond the Forest lie the mountains of the Snowy Dark and a cold so bitter and a night so profound that no man has ever crossed it.

The Oldest among the Family recount legends of a world where light came from the sky, where men and women made boats that could cross the stars. These ships brought us here, the Oldest say—and the Family must only wait for the travelers to return.

But young John Redlantern will break the laws of Eden, shatter the Family and change history. He will abandon the old ways, venture into the Dark…and discover the truth about their world.

My Review:
So…I can’t figure out how I feel about this book.

On the one hand, it’s an interesting story and there are a lot of fascinating character dynamics. It’s refreshing to see a novel make such good use of oral storytelling as a narrative device, and it fits very well with some of the spiritual and allegorical themes. And the setting is literally out of this world, on an alien planet that feels remote, claustrophobic, and both frigid and tropical. I’ve seen some bloggers liken it to Pandora (of Avatar fame) due to its light coming for bioluminescent plants and animals rather than a star.

At the same time…I felt like for as imaginative as it was, there was a huge plot point in the last few pages that I was expecting just from the blurb. When it hit, it didn’t pack that visceral, emotional punch that would have at least made up for its obviousness. Instead, it fell somewhat flat.

There were also gender dynamics that I couldn’t quite disentangle. A Goodreads review thread explores this, specifically in relation to agency/power. I was more interested in sexual politics and this idea of men wanting to make the story all about them – which I found the novel guilty of doing!

I’m sure others will enjoy this book more (I can see some loving it); a sequel is in progress and will be published this year. I haven’t decided if I will pick it up.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. I selected the book based on my own preference, and all opinions are my own. 

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Go Read This! | The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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Book: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer

Goodreads Synopsis:
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

My Review:
Dot recommended this book to me, and I’m so happy she did. I listened to the audiobook, which immersed me in the characters’ lives and gave me a sense of place that I find normally takes a few chapters (or doesn’t take at all). And while Rowell knows how to make her secondary characters sing, Wolitzer seems to know how to work with multiple main characters without anyone feeling left out or second fiddle. Throughout my listen, I was surprised by how engaged I was in everyone’s lives, even if they hadn’t been the primary focus – and how adept Wolitzer is at characterization. Interactions and other characters’ observations provided insight about our current character of focus, as well as others. In my opinion, it’s rare for an author to do this so well and so consistently throughout a novel.

I do, however, have to add an imaginary asterisk to this review. See, after I finished it I recommended it (with much fanfare) to my mother. She couldn’t even finish it! In her words, “perhaps it’s a generational thing.” She also made some pun about the book’s title. This book is similar to The Girl in the Road, where I want everyone to try it, but I don’t think everyone will like it.

…but you should definitely, definitely try it!

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Go Read This! | Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

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Book: Red Moon
Author: Benjamin Percy

Goodreads Synopsis:
They live among us.

They are our neighbors, our mothers, our lovers.

They change.

When government agents kick down Claire Forrester’s front door and murder her parents, Claire realizes just how different she is. Patrick Gamble was nothing special until the day he got on a plane and hours later stepped off it, the only passenger left alive, a hero. Chase Williams has sworn to protect the people of the United States from the menace in their midst, but he is becoming the very thing he has promised to destroy. So far, the threat has been controlled by laws and violence and drugs. But the night of the red moon is coming, when an unrecognizable world will emerge…and the battle for humanity will begin.

My Review:
Red Moon is a great entry into the literary/mainstream horror craze. It’s Justin Cronin’s The Passage mixed with Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. Each chapter ratchets up the action, with characters who are sympathetic (or perhaps just pathetic). I have a deep appreciation for authors who craft suspenseful books, and there were so many tense elements and moments that I sped through it. It also offered a few twists that I didn’t see coming, but fit well with the plot and character traits. Too often I find twists obvious or illogical. This was the first book in a while where I felt the characters had agency and weren’t just moving along, being orchestrated into certain scenarios. I’m eager to read more of his work.

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Go Read This! | The Vanessa Michael Munroe Series by Taylor Stevens

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Books: The Informationist; The Innocent; The Doll; The Vessel (ebook novella); The Catch
Author: Taylor Stevens

I’m going to do a slightly different format since copying and pasting five different synopses might be cumbersome. Click the links above to view each book over at Goodreads.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, even though it’s a genre I enjoy in other formats. Too often, book thrillers feel contrived, stereotypical, or too dated. It’s like a Michael Bay movie: entertaining and explosion-heavy, but no sustainable substance. I figured that the Vanessa Michael Munroe series would fall into that category – a summer action read that was heavy on things that go boom! and light on emotional resonance.

Lesson One: Don’t underestimate Vanessa Michael Munroe (or her creator, Taylor Stevens). Stevens creates a character that is distant and reserved but wholly present; someone who should be unlikable but is the protagonist you didn’t know you were rooting for.

Each book starts with a catalyst that didn’t pull me in – at first. With each chapter, more of the mystery unravels and I would find myself more eager to continue with VMM. Her adventures – and vendettas – are shared with the reader.

Lesson Two: This is a highly personal series. Stevens’ background contains similar elements to several of the characters/plots of her series. When she writes about religious communities (cult sounds like a strong word, but I don’t think it is) and breaking away from repressive relationships/families, it’s coming from a place of familiarity. Yet VMM doesn’t feel like a stand-in for the author. There’s a detached neutrality that ensures VMM isn’t Stevens in fictionalized format.

Going along with the personal notion, I found the book plots to be more intimate. Sure, the decisions and actions may have long-reaching implications outside the immediate cast of characters, but this series is not about saving the world – or even <insert country of origin>, a la the Bond series or a Tom Clancy novel. It often boils down to saving one person’s life. For example, in The Catch, VMM makes the choice to save a captain’s life. That decision is the inciting event for the bulk of the novel’s action.

Lesson Three: Identity is temporary.

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In the series, VMM is referred to as Munroe (narrator), Essa (other character), or Michael (other characters) – not including any aliases she takes on as result of her work. It’s a brilliant author choice; nicknames offer more clues into our characters, and what better way to reinforce the nationless status VMM often adopts?

Lesson Four: Something unexpected will happen. Stevens knows how to avoid settling into common territory. Her first three books start with VMM working to save a young girl or woman. This involves brilliant exchanges about gender, like this snippet:

2014-07-20 05.11.57 pmBut The Catch throws all the familiarity aside: no female MacGuffin catalyst. No sidekick/support stepping in early on – this is VMM at her best and worst. No client compelling her. No safety net. And while you trust VMM to make it out okay (with held breath and rapid-fire reading), you never realize how dangerous she really is until this point – because without a client, she can be the one calling the shots, and without a safety net, she doesn’t have another moral tether. The latest book is a jolt of energy, with gripping scenes layered with intense vulnerability I wasn’t anticipating.

If you’re in the market for a new series to add to your reading list, I highly recommend this one!

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. I selected the book based on my own preference, and all opinions are my own. 

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Go Read This! | The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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Book: The Girl in the Road
Author: Monica Byrne

Goodreads Synopsis:
Stunningly original and wildly inventive, The Girl in the Road melds the influences of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Erin Morgenstern for a dazzling debut.

Meena, a young woman living in a futuristic Mumbai, wakes up with five snake bites on her chest. She doesn’t know how or why, but she must flee India and return to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. Having long heard about The Trail — an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea — she embarks on foot on this forbidden bridge, with its own subculture and rules. What awaits her in Ethiopia is unclear; she’s hoping the journey will illuminate it for her.

Mariama, a girl from a different time, is on a quest of her own. After witnessing her mother’s rape, she joins up with a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. She meets Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. Yemaya tells Mariama of Ethiopia, where revolution is brewing and life will be better. Mariama hopes against hope that it offers much more than Yemaya ever promised.

As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama’s fates will entwine in ways that are profoundly moving and shocking to the core. Vividly imagined and artfully told, written with stunning clarity and deep emotion, The Girl in the Road is a true tour de force.

My Review:
I have so many thoughts about this book. The shortest thought: I love it. The next? I want to read it again. Because I can’t help myself: I want to write like this, honest and fearless and beautiful.

TGITR is on the shortlist for my favorite book of the year. A book that counts Gaiman, Morgenstern, and Atwood on its list of influential authors might be reaching, but Byrne isn’t. She’s comfortable walking among the greats, authors I love. Byrne pulls it off, with beauty and subtlety and honesty. She seems to have an innate understanding for when to go big and when to reign back. Her writing is beautiful, and she gives equal weight to mundane moments and life-changing seconds. There’s a lovely transparency – I checked out her blog and the person and the author share the same voice. That may sound silly, but sometimes I feel like writers have a tendency to take on a voice that just isn’t true to them, and it feels inauthentic to me. It takes something from the writing.

Byrne understands that personal heroes can be deeply flawed. I appreciate a layered, challenging story, and that’s what this is. You will love and hate the characters sometimes, but you’ll understand them. They are real people, with flaws and goals. They have coping strategies and solutions for obstacles. They also come across as familiar but unique – I felt like I already knew pieces of them, but they didn’t seem like a permutation of another character I loved. Meena can be frustrating and obstinate, but there’s something soft and sad about her. Mariama comes across as naive and childlike, but she has a hard streak in her that comes out at the best and worst times.

This book is not for everyone, but I can see my Gender Studies professors from Northwestern adding this in a mad rush to the fall syllabi. It explores a lot with gender and sexuality, topics not everyone is comfortable reading about or discussing. Byrne writes fearlessly, queuing up a slew of uncomfortable truths that the characters have to confront about themselves. It’s refreshing and engaging, and the tiny mysteries she embeds into their histories are unraveled slowly and well. I carried this book around for the better part of a week, and I’m already eager for Byrne’s next novel.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. I selected the book based on my own preference, and all opinions are my own. 

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One-Liner Reviews | 2014, Part I

Here are some brief notes on the books I’ve read lately that haven’t made the GRT cut. Click the cover image to go straight to Goodreads for more information!

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Analysis of history’s biggest female authors; a little white-washed but a quick read.

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Mystery about a relatable madam, oh damn!

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Watch your head and check your judgments.

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I don’t remember this book other than I enjoyed it at the time; that’s like an endorsement, right?

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A little dated and formulaic, but an interesting blockbuster lit analysis nonetheless.

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I kind of stopped caring after a while, but it was well-written with interesting characters.

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Don’t believe the description, this is not quite that story.

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One of the creepiest books I have read; it’ll stay with you (watch out, parents).

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Not as good as Desire of the Everlasting Hills.

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Show, don’t tell – no, no, stop telling us, start showing us; oh my gosh, never mind.

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Spoiler alert, you’ll probably figure out one of the twists just from the description.

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A coming-of-age story in a pre-apocalyptic world, this one is sad, sweet, and too short!

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An interesting mystery, but doesn’t quite hit the high points it should.

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The “high” stakes never feel larger than flea circus-sized.

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A little dated, but still just as entertaining!

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Don’t read if you’re expecting the same sharp wit and visceral emotion of the TV series.

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Great promo for the upcoming novel – let’s see if that delivers what this promised…

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Overhyped for me and I just didn’t get it!

Disagree about any of these reviews? Want to know more? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Go Read This! | The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

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Book: The Winter People
Author: Jennifer McMahon

Goodreads Synopsis:
West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s fate, she discovers that she’s not the only person who’s desperately looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

My Review:
Jennifer McMahon is becoming one of my favorite mystery authors. She really knows how to build a story and layer in twists. The alternating voices of Sara and Ruthie work well, knitting the past and present together and showing how the history of White Hall creates an unusual modern atmosphere. This is a book about mothers and daughters, things that go bump in the night, and uncomfortable answers to questions you never thought you would have.

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Go Read This! | Looking for Alaska by John Green

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Book: Looking for Alaska
Author: John Green

Goodreads Synopsis:
Before…Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.

After…Nothing is ever the same.

My Review:
I’m going to get this out of the way first: I liked this book better than The Fault in Our Stars.

Stop throwing things, please. Let’s be adults about this.

TFIOS is great. It really is. It is THE John Green book right now, because it’s a phenomenal novel and, from what I hear, an amazing film adaptation. Looking for Alaska has some of the same elements: solitary people connecting, characters grappling with unexpected loss, philosophical questions about life and adventure, heroes letting you down, and ambiguity. I felt a closer connection with these characters – I saw high school friends in them. Hell, the description of Alaska made me visualize a friend of a friend. I have asked some of the questions.

It’s purely personal, why I love this book a tiny bit more than TFIOS, but give Looking for Alaska a shot.

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