Whisper Network, by Chandler Baker (Review)


Whisper Network
by Chandler Baker

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 2, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Four women learn their boss (a man who’s always been surrounded by rumors about how he treats women) is next in line to be CEO—what will happen when they decide enough is enough?

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita are four women who have worked at Truviv, Inc., for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Ames is a complicated man, a man they’ve all known for a long time, a man who’s always been surrounded by…whispers. Whispers that have always been ignored by those in charge. But the world has changed, and the women are watching Ames’s latest promotion differently. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues set in motion a catastrophic shift within every floor and department of the Truviv offices. All four women’s lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

“If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened.”

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My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

When I saw Whisper Network described as essentially a mystery novel for the #metoo era, I was super intrigued but also a little wary. I think with books that seem very timely, there’s always the risk that they’ll come across opportunistic and insincere. Not so with Whisper Network, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise of a novel.

An undercurrent of whispers in the corporate world comes to a head when the sudden death of Truviv’s CEO leaves one infamously badly behaved higher up in the company poised to take over. The story takes place mainly in one timeline as tension is mounting, with hints at the disaster to come shown in the form of police interviews after the fact. (Think Big Little Lies style snippets, giving you tiny bits of information at at a time.)

Of the four main characters mentioned in the synopsis, Sloane and Roselita seemed to be the best developed. I think the sheer number of POV characters is part of what kept this from hitting a full five stars for me. I understand why the author made the choices she did, as she was trying to weave together a lot of secrets and personal histories, so this may be down to my own personal taste, as I generally like spending more time in a novel with one or two characters in order to really understand them. I would have liked a bit more focus on Sloane and Roselita, but your mileage may vary.

As a woman in a professional setting, there was something kind of cathartic about this novel, particularly certain sections which were written somewhat aside from the main narrative, and read almost like a plea directly to the reader, such as the following passage:

So when we said that we would prefer not to have to asked to smile on top of working, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to hear a comment about the length of our skirt, we meant that: we would like to of our jobs, please. When we said that we would like not to have someone try to touch us in our office, we meant that: we would like to do our jobs. Please.

Every woman with a job, particularly those of us with already relatively high-stress jobs, can feel this in her bones. The frustration of having so much to deal with at work… and then having someone else’s inappropriate behavior thrown on top of it like the cherry on top of the sundae is just too real.

Baker has written several books prior to Whisper Network, but appears to have focused on the young adult genre. I think she’s starting to find her groove with her latest novel and I hope she comes out with more adult fiction in the future!

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Fairy Tales and Space Dreams, by Jasmine Shea Townsend


Fairy Tales and Space Dreams
by Jasmine Shea Townsend

Genre: Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction

Length: 114 Pages

Synopsis: 

“Fairy Tales and Space Dreams” is a fantasy and science fiction anthology containing three fantasy and three sci-fi stories. The synopses of each story are as follows:

“Princess Snow White” is a retelling of Snow White whereas she has hair as white as snow and skin as black as ebony, rather than the other way around. Although the original fairy tale lends this story its bones, this version of Snow White deals with the idea of Afrocentric beauty as an acceptable standard, as opposed to Eurocentric beauty being the only standard.

“The Sea and the Stars” is a queer love story between a mermaid wallflowering at a party and a star that’s fallen from the sky.

“Rapunzel the Night Maiden” is a retelling in which Rapunzel finds out a secret about her identity and goes on an adventure to find her people.

“Omega Star Genesis” takes place far in the future, when humans are making a mass exodus from a dying Earth to flee a deadly virus. They are on a 10-year trip to Alpha Centauri when the Captain finds out their head engineer is building illegal A.I.s

“The Cosmic Adventures of Sophie Zetyld” follows River, an ordinary grad student living an ordinary life in the suburbs when a comet is spotted soaring over his town. He later finds out that that wasn’t a comet at all. It was an omni-dimensional space being named Sophie, who’s come to let him know that he’s been chosen to help save the world.

“Evangelina’s Dream” is mainly an epilogue to “Sophie Zetyld.” Not much can be said without giving anything away, but the reader will be in for a trippy ride.

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My thanks to Jasmine Shea Townsend for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

This collection of short stories is such a gem. It’s dreamy, diverse, and super eclectic, with varying topics and styles to guarantee pretty much everyone will find something to love in it. The synopsis above will give you a good idea of what to expect with some of these stories, so I want to focus on my favorite story in the collection, The Sea and the Stars.

Moonray, an introverted wallflower of a mermaid, ditches the chaos of the Spring Equinox celebration and finds herself in the company of a fallen star. This section is short, sweet, and overwhelmingly cute. It feels like the first chapter of a sweeping love story, and the end left me wanting a full novel about these two. (Seriously, please can I get a novel? These two are so adorable!)

One of this collection’s biggest strengths was the attention to representation, both in regards to race and sexual orientation. As the synopsis says, the author tackles Eurocentric beauty standards. The adaptation of Snow White definitely stands out in this regard; by changing the race of Snow White and inserting her into the household of a white queen/step mother, the dynamic between the two characters changes. Suddenly the queen’s antagonism feels more rooted in reality; the story now turns towards the queen’s sense of racial superiority. This made for a more compelling villain than a woman who hates a child simply because she is overcome with jealousy over her beauty.

Omega Star Genesis was another strong point. As you might guess from the name, this one fell on the science fiction side of things rather than fantasy. I always love stories which explores the nature of artificial intelligence, and this was a great example. The story also grapples with some of the complicated questions surrounding leadership, and the constant struggle to balance privacy with security and safety.

Overall, this collection was all over the place in the best possible way, with variation in topic, writing styles, and even genre. Every science fiction or fantasy fan will find something to love!

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Recursion, by Blake Crouch (Review)

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Recursion
by Blake Crouch

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: June 11, 2019

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group

Synopsis: 

Memory makes reality. That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith already understands the power of memory. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious moments of our pasts. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?

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My thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing Group for sending me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Crouch’s last novel, Dark Matter, is very preoccupied with the road not taken. Recursion, despite all of its differences, continues in the same vein in that regard. What starts as an attempt to map and artificially store memories so that they may be experienced again turns into something quite different, with far-reaching consequences.

This is a difficult novel to review. I will keep this brief, because I think readers should ideally know very little about the story going into it. It’s a story best discovered organically, watching the plot unfold as the author intended. I will say that the story is very fast-paced, twisty, and intricate. You will want to pay close attention as the timeline jumps around.

Despite all of the action and food for thought, at the heart of this book is really a love story, which was very unexpected. This part of the book is thoroughly intertwined with the science fiction aspects of the book, making for a really interesting dynamic between the two characters at times.

“False Memory Syndrome” brings up lot of interesting question for the reader; what are we without our memories? If we cannot trust our own minds, how do we go on? The answer for many people in Crouch’s book seems to be simply “we don’t.” Part of the urgency surrounding FMS is that it brings with it a rash of suicides, as people wake up one day and suddenly remember a life lived with a spouse they’ve never met, raising children who don’t exist. The existential horror and loneliness are too much.

I enjoyed Dark Matter, and I think Recursion has proven to be somewhat of a step up. The science fiction aspect is a bit mind-bending, but not difficult to follow. The pacing is spot-on. The love story kept me emotionally invested in the outcome, perhaps more than the fate of the world at large did. While we never really get as much in-depth exploration of the mechanics of the sci-fi aspect as we do in Dark Matter, it’s hard to mind very much; the book is just so much fun.

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Thank you for reading! If you could store one memory so that you could experience it all over again, what would you choose?

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The Binding, by Bridget Collins (Review)


The Binding
by Bridget Collins

Genre: Historical Fiction / Fantasy

Length: 437 Pages

Release date: April 16, 2019

Synopsis: 

Imagine you could erase grief.
Imagine you could remove pain.
Imagine you could hide the darkest, most horrifying secret.
Forever.

Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.

But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.

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“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the witch’s apprentice. Who the hell are you?” 

The reviews for The Binding  seem to be all over the place; either it will totally enchant you or bore you to tears, apparently. I think part of the problem for some readers is that the synopsis and marketing leave one expecting a full-blown fantasy novel. While there are fantasy elements and magic in this book, the overall feel is much more “historical fiction.” If you’re going into The Binding ready for a magical adventure, you may be disappointed.

But there’s a lot to love about this story. We get to watch the characters struggle with thorny ethical questions; what are the ramifications of helping someone to forget that they’ve done something terrible? What about forgetting the terrible things which have been done to them? What about binding good memories in exchange for money? If a person is so desperate for money that they’re willing to sell off their knowledge of, for example, their wedding day, are they really in a position to be capable of consenting to such a thing? Is offering money for something so treasured and irreplaceable inherently predatory?

At the heart of this novel is a love story, complicated by circumstances and drastic power imbalances. It’s messy, high stakes, and gut-wrenchingly genuine. It’s also the rare enemies to lovers story that doesn’t make me cringe. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Emmett has problems processing his feelings towards the love interest, for reasons that are obvious to the reader but not to him. His confusion manifests as hostility, and Collins managed to write the transition from that mindset into the love story very convincingly.

The Binding is slow, intricate, and contemplative. I think it’s somewhat a victim of poor marketing. Do not pick up this book expecting a fairy tale with loads of magic; with the exception of the ability to bind memories to a book, Emmett’s world is basically the real world of a few hundred years ago. Fans of detailed historical fiction or magical realism may want to sink their teeth into this novel.

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Thank you for reading! What was the last book you read that was completely different from the impression given by the synopsis? Let me know in the comments!

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Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton (Review)

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Next Year in Havana
by Chanel Cleeton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 361 Pages

Release date: Feb. 6, 2018

Synopsis: 

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity–and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution…

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba’s high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country’s growing political unrest–until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary…

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa’s last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba’s tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she’ll need the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.

ratingthree

Have you ever finished a historical fiction novel and been left feeling like you’d have been better off reading nonfiction? That was my experience with Next Year in Havana. I love historical fiction, and (as much as I love WWII fiction) I’m always on the lookout for something interesting outside of the over-saturated WWII historical fiction genre. (Other time periods exist!)

So I went into this book with high hopes. I can’t recall ever reading a book that takes place in Cuba, so I was looking forward to a nice change of pace in terms of time period as well as location. The author clearly desperately wanted to write about Cuban history and culture… to the point where the narrative itself and the characters felt like very thinly veiled excuses to do so.

Fiction can of course be great and also heavily steeped in real history and culture (In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, is an example of a book which I think accomplishes this better), but the narrative needs to be interesting in its own right. The characters need to feel genuine. Next Year in Havana never felt like more than a vehicle to write about Cuban history.

As you can tell from the synopsis, this book is made up of two alternating time lines; one in the modern day told from the point of view Marisol as she returns to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes, and one telling the story of her grandmother’s youth in Cuba. Both of these timelines have a romance sub-plot, and neither feels really justified. This is particularly true in the case of Marisol, who falls madly in love in the span of the maybe two weeks that she spends in Cuba. Both romances feel insta-lovey to an extent.

Overall, I did enjoy delving into a different culture and historical period, and I felt like I learned a good bit about Cuba through this book. Ultimately, though, I can’t help but feel like the time would have been better spent on a documentary on the same topic.

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Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim (Review)


Miracle Creek
by Angie Kim

Genre: Mystery

Length: 357 Pages

Release date: April 16, 2019

Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books

Synopsis: 

My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first . . .

In the small town of Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night—trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges—as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author’s own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. An addictive debut novel for fans of Liane Moriarty and Celeste Ng, Miracle Creek is both a twisty page-turner and a deeply moving story about the way inconsequential lies and secrets can add up—with tragic consequences.

ratingfour

Miracle Creek is the best kind of mystery novel in the sense that it is so much more then just a puzzle to solve. The story is filled with fleshed-out, complicated, morally gray characters and loads of food for thought. As you can tell from the synopsis, the parenting of disabled children is a major theme of the story, particularly in regards to autism.

Elizabeth, the mother of Henry (the boy whose death provides the focal point of the trial), is hyper-fixated on her son’s autism, to a nearly obsessive degree. This opens the door to explore the “hierarchy” of disability among parents of disabled children. Henry was relatively high-functioning compared to a lot of the patients at Miracle Submarine, and there’s a sense that many of the other parents, particularly those with children who would likely never be independent, were skeptical of Elizabeth. Was her obsession with making Henry fit into a socially acceptable box more harmful to him than his autism could ever be?

I love books that aren’t afraid to face the darker side of human nature, even when it comes to relationships which we value overall. Kim wrestles with the frustrations of parenting and the fleeting thoughts that are, if we’re being honest, are totally normal… but too awful and shameful to voice aloud. I’m not a parent myself, but I think we’ve all had moments of frustration where we’ve wished a loved one would disappear. And we all know how devastating it would be if it actually came to pass. Miracle Creek brings this scenario front and center.

Another theme which worked really well in this novel was that of an immigrant’s experience in America. The Yoo family moved to the US from Korea, primarily to provide greater opportunities for their daughter, Mary. Kim explores Mary’s struggles to adjust in a new country and the way those struggles differ from those of her parents beautifully. Each member of the family is experiencing a sense of isolation in their own way, and the difficult transition, combined with the tragedy of the explosion, drives a wedge between all of them.

Finally, I was so interested to learn that the author, Kim, is a former lawyer. The trial plays such a huge role in the novel, and those scenes were all so engrossing. It’s not surprising that Kim’s personal expertise helped to bring the courtroom to life.

In looking over other reviews, I noticed some of the lower ratings pointing out that the disabled children in the novel never get much focus. None of them are point of view characters, and they don’t feel particularly developed as people. I think this is fair, but I also think that was kind of the point, especially when it comes to Henry. Elizabeth had a hard time viewing her son as a person rather than simply some embodiment of autism. Part of the tragedy of the story seems, to me, that she missed out on ever really knowing her own child because she was so fixated on his diagnosis. We never learn much about Henry in the course of the story. Sadly, it feels like none of the people around him ever did, either.

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The Red Labyrinth, by Meredith Tate (Review)

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The Red Labyrinth
by Meredith Tate

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: June 4, 2019

Publisher: Flux

Synopsis: 

The massive labyrinth was built to protect Zadie Kalver’s isolated desert town. Unfortunately, living in the maze’s shadow makes her feel anything but safe. Even without its enchanted deathtraps and illusions, a mysterious killer named Dex lurks in its corridors, terrorizing anyone in his path.

But when Zadie’s best friend vanishes into the labyrinth-and everyone mysteriously forgets he exists- completing the maze becomes her only hope of saving him. In desperation, Zadie bribes the only person who knows the safe path through-Dex-into forming a tenuous alliance.

Navigating a deadly garden, a lethal blood-filled hourglass, and other traps-with an untrustworthy murderer for her guide-Zadie’s one wrong step from certain death. But with time running out before her friend (and secret crush) is lost forever, Zadie must reach the exit and find him. If Dex and the labyrinth don’t kill her first.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Flux for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

“People are more than the worst things they’ve ever done.”

Oh, gosh, this book had so much potential. There’s something so terribly frustrating about a fantasy novel with an interesting concept but paper-thin world-building. The world Zadie inhabits is intriguing, but seriously lacking in development. Zadie lives in a small town surrounded by a massive and ominous labyrinth. The town’s Leader lives in a remote mansion inside the labyrinth, seriously isolated from the people he’s meant to be leading and protecting, which doesn’t seem ominous at all to anyone, for some reason. Also, there’s Absolutely Nothing beyond the labyrinth beyond a total wasteland (according to Dear Leader), and no one really questions this much, either.

I’m not necessarily opposed to stories about brainwashed populations revering an undeserving leader; certainly this can be portrayed convincingly… but the dynamic here feels very odd. The Leader’s characterization of the outside world is accepted at face value despite the dismal conditions in Trinnea, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a cult-like level of devotion to the Leader which would make sense of this wholesale acceptance. Particularly among the “blanks” like Zadie, who are treated as second class citizens in every possible regard, one would expect more skepticism and resentment than is really seen in the story.

And, goodness, the character arcs. The two major male characters have painfully predictable developments from start to finish. (Minor spoilers ahead, I guess, but really it’s painfully obvious very early on that this is how things will develop.) Zadie has a huge crush on her best friend, Landon, and it’s obvious to everyone except the two of them that the feeling is mutual. (This is the friend the blurb mentions disappearing into the labyrinth.) Zadie has to rely on Dex, a ruthless killer and “devil of Trinnea,” to lead her to the center of the labyrinth if she has any hope of helping Landon.

Dex, of course, turns out to be a bad boy with a heart of gold who obviously just needed Zadie to bring out the good in him. (Ugh.) This leaves Landon on the outs, and since the good guy always has to get the girl, it turns out that Landon was a secret villain all along. Because of course he was.

The whole concept of the journey through the labyrinth was fun, but I wanted more from it. The trials felt a bit underwhelming and it always felt like the stakes could be a lot higher than they were. In one stage of the labyrinth, for example, Zadie has to give up her most treasured memory in order to get through. This could have been such a poignant moment were it not for the fact that Zadie feels rather under-developed as a protagonist.

Finally, the ending feels very rushed and abrupt, and the main focus there is clearly trying to set up a sequel. Unfortunately, given the lackluster opening of this story, I don’t think I’ll be able to stick around long enough to get a real conclusion.

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