Armada by Ernest Cline

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Book: Armada
Author: Ernest Cline

Goodreads Synopsis:

Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?

At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming of age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you’ve ever read before—one whose every page is infused with the pop-culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.

My Review:

I’ve posted a couple of photos online of my reading progress and the most common questions I’ve gotten have been:

  1. Did you read Ready Player One (RP1)?
  2. Is this better than RP1?

To which I say: Yes, I did read RP1. And yes, in my mind, this book is better….but, I don’t have the kind of nerd hero-worship that exists around RP1. It is an entertaining book. It has lots of nerdy references. The characters are funny and exchange clever dialogue. There are great action sequences.

If that is your threshold for a good book, then congrats – you have nothing to worry about. You will like Armada as well. But the devil’s in the details, so here we go.

I found the stakes to be much higher in Armada – global invasion will do that for you – and I thought that overall, the characters felt more real. There are some moments that feel forced (a big meet-and-greet with several players is especially stilted). Some of the twists are so trope-laden it would have been more daring to go in the opposite direction, and I would love, love to read the version of this novel that’s all about hacker bad-ass Lex. Give the people (or just me) what we (I) want!

(Granted, Lex feels a little…deus ex machina-y at times, but that’s why I want more of her. She’s jailbreaking reverse-engineered alien tech all the damn time. I’d love a short story’s that’s just “Lex jailbreaks the patriarchy” and gives her more depth and dimension, because the potential is there.)

The novel alternates between being another love letter to nerd culture and being derivative. The former is when it works well, and the latter when it falls flat.

Several reviews I’ve seen have noted concerns with the plot and climax. I didn’t share those concerns, and felt the book built up fairly well. There are some moments that feel particularly heavy-handed, but this wasn’t one of them, at least for me. And Cline’s final pages seem to strongly suggest sequel potential, which, again – more Lex, please. Let’s have a lady protagonist this time.

In many ways, Armada is like a summer blockbuster – entertaining and action-packed. Of course there are a quiet moments, for contrast, pacing, and character development (we don’t all have the chops/cojones to pull off Mad Max: Fury Road). But overall, it’s a good popcorn read.

(Literally. I read this while eating a bowl of popcorn yesterday.)

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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Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

mother of eden by chris beckett

Book: Mother of Eden
Author: Chris Beckett

Goodreads Synopsis:

“We speak of a mother’s love, but we forget her power.”

Civilization has come to the alien, sunless planet its inhabitants call Eden.

Just a few generations ago, the planet’s five hundred inhabitants huddled together in the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees, afraid to venture out into the cold darkness around them.

Now, humanity has spread across Eden, and two kingdoms have emerged. Both are sustained by violence and dominated by men – and both claim to be the favored children of Gela, the woman who came to Eden long ago on a boat that could cross the stars, and became the mother of them all.

When young Starlight Brooking meets a handsome and powerful man from across Worldpool, she believes he will offer an outlet for her ambition and energy. But she has no inkling that she will become a stand-in for Gela herself, and wear Gela’s fabled ring on her own finger—or that in this role, powerful and powerless all at once, she will try to change the course of Eden’s history.

My Review:

Mother of Eden is the follow-up to Dark Eden, a novel I reviewed last year. Set several generations after the events of the first novel, I appreciated that it was a departure from some of the previous characters. I found the main characters in Mother of Eden more relatable and interesting. I found some of the major players in Dark Eden downright infuriating at times, and I didn’t have that problem with Mother of Eden. I do find Beckett’s tendency to write from one POV a little lacking, though. The voices don’t seem distinct enough, and sometimes I would have to double-check whose chapter I was reading.

One thing I did appreciate about Mother of Eden is the sexual/gender politics are more clearly defined within the distinct societies. And the idea of men wanting to make the story all about them was explored more fully. Beckett did well articulating some of the more gendered themes that fell flat in the first book, and there was a big reversal in voice. Whereas Dark Eden felt (to me) more of a male-dominated book, Mother of Eden is rightfully female. The major female characters explore women’s roles as leaders, mothers, caretakers, and daughters. And the protagonist, Starlight Brooking, is much more compelling and empathetic than John Redlantern. Perhaps I’m biased because the story was all about him, however.

I wasn’t sure if I would read the follow-up to Dark Eden, but I found myself thinking about the story so much after I finished the first book. I don’t love this series like I love others, but it’s entertaining and different. Beckett manages a rare thing, which is a sequel that improves upon and surpasses its predecessor. I can only hope that if another book is released and this becomes a trilogy or series proper, it will continue the trend.

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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Book Review | Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

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Book: Prayers for the Stolen
Author: Jennifer Clement

Goodreads Synopsis:

A haunting story of love and survival that introduces an unforgettable literary heroine

Ladydi Garcia Martínez is fierce, funny and smart. She was born into a world where being a girl is a dangerous thing. In the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico, women must fend for themselves, as their men have left to seek opportunities elsewhere. Here in the shadow of the drug war, bodies turn up on the outskirts of the village to be taken back to the earth by scorpions and snakes. School is held sporadically, when a volunteer can be coerced away from the big city for a semester. In Guerrero the drug lords are kings, and mothers disguise their daughters as sons, or when that fails they “make them ugly” – cropping their hair, blackening their teeth- anything to protect them from the rapacious grasp of the cartels. And when the black SUVs roll through town, Ladydi and her friends burrow into holes in their backyards like animals, tucked safely out of sight.

While her mother waits in vain for her husband’s return, Ladydi and her friends dream of a future that holds more promise than mere survival, finding humor, solidarity and fun in the face of so much tragedy. When Ladydi is offered work as a nanny for a wealthy family in Acapulco, she seizes the chance, and finds her first taste of love with a young caretaker there. But when a local murder tied to the cartel implicates a friend, Ladydi’s future takes a dark turn. Despite the odds against her, this spirited heroine’s resilience and resolve bring hope to otherwise heartbreaking conditions.

An illuminating and affecting portrait of women in rural Mexico, and a stunning exploration of the hidden consequences of an unjust war, PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN is an unforgettable story of friendship, family, and determination.

My Review:

I chose this book because it didn’t sound like something I would gravitate to purchasing in a bookstore. That’s become pretty consistent with my Blogging for Books approach.

What isn’t consistent? My opinion about Prayers for the Stolen. It has a very different narrator than I’m used to – the first few pages were jarring because she would change subjects and hop around varying tangents before settling back into the main memory/observation. I did get used to it after the first chapter, but it made me want to read the book in one sitting because I worried I would have too hard a time getting back into the narration style. I’d rather want to read a book in one sitting because I have no reason or desire to do anything else, because there is nothing more important than turning pages and discovering what happens next.

There were two stand-out elements of Prayers for the Stolen. Clement’s prose can be breathtaking. She reminds me of Tana French in how she scatters these gems of lines or passages throughout the book, glimmering on the page. If some people can have a shine to them, some writers can, too – and Clement has that talent, that polish.

The book itself features mostly female characters, and they fall into the Gillian Flynn category of portraying a range of flaws and vices, adding a shade of realism. At times they alternated between vicious and wounded. Sometimes I find that characters have troubling existing beyond the page — that the author has crafted a unique, compelling character but one I can only imagine within the context of the novel, imprisoned in between flimsy covers. Not so with Prayers for the Stolen – Ladydi, her mother, and her friends are all women I can see and imagine.

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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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

GO READ THIS

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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