Followers, by Megan Angelo (Review)

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Followers
by Megan Angelo

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: January 14, 2020

Publisher: Graydon House

Synopsis: 

An electrifying story of two ambitious friends, the dark choices they make and the profound moment that changes the meaning of privacy forever.

Orla Cadden dreams of literary success, but she’s stuck writing about movie-star hookups and influencer yoga moves. Orla has no idea how to change her life until her new roommate, Floss―a striving, wannabe A-lister―comes up with a plan for launching them both into the high-profile lives they so desperately crave. But it’s only when Orla and Floss abandon all pretense of ethics that social media responds with the most terrifying feedback of all: overwhelming success.

Thirty-five years later, in a closed California village where government-appointed celebrities live every moment of the day on camera, a woman named Marlow discovers a shattering secret about her past. Despite her massive popularity―twelve million loyal followers―Marlow dreams of fleeing the corporate sponsors who would do anything, even horrible things, to keep her on-screen. When she learns that her whole family history is a lie, Marlow finally summons the courage to run in search of the truth, no matter the risks.

Followers traces the paths of Orla, Floss and Marlow as they wind through time toward each other, and toward a cataclysmic event that sends America into lasting upheaval. At turns wry and tender, bleak and hopeful, this darkly funny story reminds us that even if we obsess over famous people we’ll never meet, what we really crave is genuine human connection.

ratingfour

My thanks to Graydon House and NetGalley 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. 

Actual rating: 3.5 stars, rounding up to 4 here.

I was super skeptical going into this book; I sincerely dislike art that never seems to have any thing more substantive to say than “social media bad,” and the blurb was giving off some of those vibes. However, Followers proved to be a seriously addictive read, and while social media plays a huge role in the plot, at its heart the novel is about how relationships can be poisoned by a thirst for money and power.

The story revolves around dual timelines: in 2015, Floss and Orla are attempting to manipulate Orla’s connections to artificially lift up Floss as an “influencer.” The dynamic between these two characters was probably the most interesting part of the book for me; Floss is self-absorbed and vapid and Orla pretends to be above it all, but the two have an uncomfortable friendship forged by mutual necessity.

35 years later, the book follows Marlow, who lives in a town under constant surveillance, (almost) every moment of her life live streamed to her obsessed followers, à la The Truman Show. Marlow lives in relative wealth and comfort, but her life is controlled to a horrifying degree by corporate sponsorships. She is told when and who to marry, what to eat and wear, and even if/when she will have a baby.  She is kept from bristling under the excessive control by means of medication. This part of the plot is a bit over the top and difficult to swallow, but I’m not in this for the realism, I’m in it for the fun thought experiment. Marlow has grown up under these circumstances, and while I don’t entirely buy into the way the novel justified how we got to this point, I do buy into Marlow’s behavior as a character who has never known anything else.

Both timelines of the novel are eventually tied together in a relatively satisfying way, but I do think things went downhill from there, as the ending of the novel was its main weakness for me. I’d like to keep the review spoiler-free, so I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that the interactions between the major characters which happen late in the book didn’t ring true for me.

This is Megan Angelo’s debut novel, but per her bio on GoodReads, she has previously written for The New York Times and Glamour. Followers was well paced and full of interesting character dynamics; this was definitely solid for a debut novel, and I’ll be interested to see what she writes next. buy

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The Deep, by Rivers Solomon – Review

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The Deep
by Rivers Solomon

Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy

Length: 176 Pages

Release date: November 5, 2019

Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press

Synopsis: 

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

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My thanks to Saga Press and NetGalley 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. 

“Forgetting was not the same as healing.” 

The Deep is an interesting novella, inspired by a song of the same name by the hip hop group clipping. (Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes, and William Hutson.)

The premise is such an interesting one, bringing a sense of hope in the face of tragedy and injustice. Some of the fantasy elements, particularly Yetu’s role as the historian, make for some really interesting psychological exploration. What are the trade-offs when it comes to remembering generational trauma or letting it be lost to history?

The story holds a lot of food for thought, but the development of these themes can feel a bit thin, an the pace of the story can feel a bit slow at times, especially considering the relatively short length. I suspect a lot of readers will be left feeling a bit ambivalent towards the novella, as I did. It never quite feels like it lives up to its full potential, but I absolutely don’t regret reading it, and the story will be one that stays with me for a long time.

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The Nobody People, by Bob Proehl (Review)

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The Nobody People
by Bob Proehl

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 496 Pages

Release date: September 3, 2019

Publisher: Del Rey Books

Synopsis: 

After decades in hiding, a group of outcasts with extraordinary abilities clashes with a world that is threatened by their power.

When Avi Hirsch learns that his daughter Emmeline has special abilities, he tries to shield her against an increasingly hostile society. Carrie Norris can become invisible, but all she wants is to be seen by the people she loves. Fahima Deeb has faced prejudice her entire life, but her uncanny connection to machines offers her the opportunity to level the playing field. These are just a few of the ordinary nobodies with astonishing gifts who must now band together against bigotry and fear, even as one of their own actively works to destroy a fragile peace. Will their combined talents spark a much-needed revolution–or an apocalypse?

ratingthree

My thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey Books 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. 

The Nobody People was a bit of a lukewarm read for me. I love superhero stories, but the concept has been done to death at this point, making it really difficult to write one that doesn’t feel stale. There needs to be an interesting twist, super engaging characters, or just… something new to say. Unfortunately, The Nobody People felt just a bit too cookie-cutter for me.

As other reviewers have noted, one of the bigger flaws of the novel is that it feels like someone has taken a four or five book series and tried to cram it all into a novel. Proehl is trying to do a lot of interesting things with his varied cast of characters, and the book has a bit of a long timeline. In the end, it was too much for one book, and none of it got explored with the depth needed to actually engage readers. Avi, for example, who is one of the major characters, has to come to terms with a crumbling marriage and essentially losing his super-powered daughter as she finds a sense of community with others like herself. All of this ends up feeling very surface level, as there is simply too much going on with the many other characters at the same time.

With super-powered humans going to a school and living largely segregated from regular humans, the novel with inevitably draw comparisons to X-Men. One thing I did like about this book was that it took a lot of the things that were purely allegorical in X-Men (i.e., parallels between the civil rights movement, the fight for gay rights, etc.) and brings them to forefront of the novel. Prejudice against super-powered people doesn’t suddenly mean your garden variety racism has been forgotten, and some of the characters in Proehl’s novels are dealing with intersecting levels of marginalization due to their status as, for example, immigrants, mix-race people, or members of the LGBTQ community, making their experiences more complex.

All in all, this was an okay book, but not necessarily one I’d recommend to anyone. If superhero stories are your speed, there are much better ones out there to read. Some of my favorites are the books in the Reckoners series, by Brandon Sanderson, which takes the interesting angle of making all the super-powered humans villains and giving us a cast of ordinary people fighting back.

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Thank you for reading! Who is your favorite super hero and why? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire


Middlegame
by Seanan McGuire

Genre: Fantasy

Length: 528 Pages

Release date: May 7, 2019

Publisher: Tor.com

Synopsis: 

New York Times bestselling and Alex, Nebula, and Hugo-Award-winning author Seanan McGuire introduces readers to a world of amoral alchemy, shadowy organizations, and impossible cities in the standalone fantasy, Middlegame.

Meet Roger. Skilled with words, languages come easily to him. He instinctively understands how the world works through the power of story.

Meet Dodger, his twin. Numbers are her world, her obsession, her everything. All she understands, she does so through the power of math.

Roger and Dodger aren’t exactly human, though they don’t realise it. They aren’t exactly gods, either. Not entirely. Not yet.

Meet Reed, skilled in the alchemical arts like his progenitor before him. Reed created Dodger and her brother. He’s not their father. Not quite. But he has a plan: to raise the twins to the highest power, to ascend with them and claim their authority as his own.

Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained.

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My thanks to NetGalley and Tor.com 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. 

Middlegame is a deliciously dark and fun adult fantasy novel. Imagine one day finding out there was more than a grain of truth in the fairy tales you grew up reading. Roger and Dodger grew up in a world where a series of books about the “Up-and-Under,” written by Asphodel Baker, were hiding alchemical truths under a thin layer of fantasy. These two almost-twins find out that there is a lot more to the world and to themselves than they ever imagined.

While the story itself is a lot of fun (full of psychic links, time travel, and danger), the absolute high point of this book for me was exploring the relationship between Roger and Dodger. They meet for the first time in their own heads, with a seven-year-old Roger trying to convince himself that the girl’s voice in his head is just a new imaginary friend he’s dreamed up. Except… she knows things he doesn’t, mainly how to do the math homework he’s been totally failing to comprehend.

Roger and Dodger are polar opposites in a lot of ways; Roger lives for books and words, and Dodger lives for the straight-forward world of math. But they’re also two sides of the same coin, with their weird ability to see into each other’s minds and a strange sense of not truly belonging. They love one another fiercely and their bond really jumps off the page.

If I have any complaint about this book, it’s that the pacing can feel a bit off at times. At over 500 pages, it is a bit long, but for the most part is very engrossing. Given the sheer size of the book, it also seems odd that the rules of the universe don’t feel entirely pinned down, although perhaps this will vary from reader to reader, as I’m only passably familiar with a lot of the things McGuire employs in this book, like the Doctrine of Ethos, alchemy, and other vaguely magical concepts.

Middlegame is a highly ambitious novel and a perfect choice for those of us who like our books a bit on the weird side. Great for fans of books like The Seven 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (Stuart Turton), The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson), and Dark Matter (Blake Crouch).

**content warning: suicide attempt, violence, mild gore**

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Thank you for reading! This was my first Seanan McGuire book and I’ll definitely be checking out more of her work. Tell me about an author you’ve recently discovered in the comments!

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American War, by Omar El Akkad (Review)

52861895_316834162517377_5928037333659025408_nAmerican War
by Omar El Akkad

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: April 4, 2017

Synopsis: 

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.”

rating

three

“This country has a long history of defining its generations by the conflicts that should have killed them.” 

I had really mixed feelings towards this book, and I feel like it’s one of those stories I like more in concept than in execution. American War is a science fiction novel set in a future where America has been ravaged by climate change, disease, and violence. While the author has done a good job of choosing timely issues to explore, particularly in regards to climate change and clinging to outdated ideals in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, something about the world building felt rather hollow to me.

While excessive info-dumping can surely kill a novel, this one seemed to suffer from a lack of substance in its back story. The American history of Sarat’s world is in a lot of ways a big, gaping blank. There are tidbits thrown into the narrative throughout the book, often in the form of quasi-historical documents, interviews with soldiers, etc., but they focus mainly on the war itself and not how the country got to that point.

Sarat makes for a bit of a thorny protagonist, although necessarily so. This story is in large part about radicalization and how circumstances can poke and prod an ordinary person into becoming a terrorist. “For Sarat Chestnut, the calculus was simple. The enemy had violated her people, and for that she would violate the enemy. There could be no other way, she knew it. Blood can never be unspilled,” El Akkad writes.

The Sarat of the latter half of the book is violent and unforgiving, driven by vengeance. She has been through unimaginable things to make her this way, but still, it makes it difficult to connect with her while reading. Nevertheless, she makes for a very interesting character study and exploration of how victimization and isolation can lead to radicalization under the right circumstances. It’s very easy for the reader to see why Sarat was targeted as a recruit, but less so for her in her young and vulnerable state. Seeds are planted in Sarat’s youth which don’t fully come to fruition until the end of the novel.

American War sometimes felt tonally awkward for me as a reader, with excessively stereotypical depictions of southerners. With the number of years between present day and Sarat’s story (the war begins in 2074, for reference) surely attitudes, slang, etc. would have shifted more in the amount of time? Inventing slang for a futuristic society can be dicey and easily end up sounding cheesy, but with more than half a century between our time and Sarat’s, the fact that their speech patterns so closely mirror the modern stereotypical southern feels like a wasted opportunity to bring some flavor to the world building.

My final issue with this book was that a major spark of the conflict (fossil fuels) didn’t feel entirely believable. Yes, this is a point of contention in the real world, but it is taken to such a ridiculous extreme in this novel that I found it difficult to buy into it. Late in the novel, Sarat has solar cells which are used part time at her home, but she continues to unnecessarily use outlawed fuel… on principal, I guess? A strange hill to die on, but okay.

Given what has preceded this point, Sarat’s continued animosity makes sense. However, it seems like it would be based more on the deaths of friends and family members, to the point where emotional ties to fossil fuels no longer make sense as a factor, particularly given the advances in technology in our modern times, which will make clean energy more and more accessible as time goes on. This is not a woman using outlawed fuel because she needs it or because it’s more efficient than the alternative. This is a woman using outlawed fuel because “eff the north,” full stop.

Overall, this book was just a very mixed bag. Sarat’s slow progression as she became sucked into extremist ways of thinking was well done in a lot of ways, but the overall story suffered from a rather thin backstory and clunky world building. A somewhat enjoyable read, but for all the literary awards and hype, I was expecting more.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read American War? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Review – The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas

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The Psychology of Time Travel
by Kate Mascarenhas

Genre: Science Fiction, Mystery

Length: 336 Pages

Release date: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Synopsis:

1967: Four young female scientists invent a time travel machine in their remote lab in Cumbria. They become known as the pioneers: the women who led the world to a future where no knowledge is unattainable.

2016: Ruby Rebello knows that her beloved grandmother was one of the pioneers, but she refuses to talk about her past. Ruby’s curiosity soon turns to fear however, when a newspaper clipping from four months in the future arrives in the post. The clipping reports the brutal murder of an unnamed elderly lady.

Could the woman be her Granny Bee?

rating

five

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books for the review copy. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher.

Mascarenhas’ debut novel is so delightfully fun! Reading the blurb, you’d expect the mystery to be the main thrust of this novel, and while it is certainly a major focal point, there’s so much else going on that the mystery ends up feeling like a bonus. The novel has several POV characters in several different timelines, but Mascarenhas has made it fairly easy for the reader to keep the various characters straight.

The story begins with Ruby’s “Granny Bee,” or Barbara, in the 1960’s as she and her colleagues are putting the finishing touches on their newly developed time travel technology. Barbara suffers a mental health crisis which seemed to have been triggered by time travel, and she is ousted from the group to prevent bad PR. If the public at large gets wind of a link between mental illness and time travel this early in the game, their careers will be over before they’ve truly begun. Barbara’s contributions are swept under the rug and her colleagues rush onward to fame and fortune without her.

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Fast forward to modern day, and the Conclave founded by Granny Bee’s former friends now operates on its own terms, outside the laws of the land. The logic for this is that laws change over the years and that a time travel organization necessarily needs a constant set of a rules. Sound logic, perhaps, but an organization policing itself is dicey at best. The Psychology of Time Travel is as much about the corrupt politics of the Conclave and the twisted mindsets of long-term time travelers as it is about the mystery.

Mascarenhas asks what death would mean to a seasoned time traveler and explores that in this novel. If your father dies, but you can hop into a time machine and go on visiting him anyway, does he seem dead to you? Why should he seem any more or less alive than any other person if you can travel hundreds of years into the future and then pop back to 1973 later on that day? What happens to you when the only death that truly feels final is your own? And what happens if you already know the date and circumstances of that death?

The Psychology of Time Travel is a science fiction story wrapped in a thought experiment and tied together with a murder mystery. It features multiple female scientists as prominent characters and gives great attention to diversity. The world building is phenomenal and the story is infinitely engaging. I look forward to seeing what Mascarenhas writes next!

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About the Author

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Kate Mascarenhas is a writer.

Born in 1980, she is of mixed heritage (white Irish father, brown British mother) and has family in Ireland and the Republic of Seychelles.

She studied English at Oxford and Applied Psychology at Derby. Her PhD, in literary studies and psychology, was completed at Worcester.

Since 2017 Kate has been a chartered psychologist. Previously she has been an advertising copywriter, bookbinder, and doll’s house maker. She lives in the English midlands with her partner.

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Wildcard, by Marie Lu (Review)


Wildcard
by Marie Lu

Genre: YA, Science Fiction

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Synopsis: 

Emika Chen barely made it out of the Warcross Championships alive. Now that she knows the truth behind Hideo’s new NeuroLink algorithm, she can no longer trust the one person she’s always looked up to, who she once thought was on her side.

Determined to put a stop to Hideo’s grim plans, Emika and the Phoenix Riders band together, only to find a new threat lurking on the neon-lit streets of Tokyo. Someone’s put a bounty on Emika’s head, and her sole chance for survival lies with Zero and the Blackcoats, his ruthless crew. But Emika soon learns that Zero isn’t all that he seems–and his protection comes at a price.

Caught in a web of betrayal, with the future of free will at risk, just how far will Emika go to take down the man she loves?

rating

two

*Minor spoilers included in this review.*

Oh, Wildcard,  I wanted to like you. I gave Warcross a three star review, so it was solid but not super impressive in my eyes, but I was intrigued enough by the end to want to continue the series. I should not have bothered.

Let me start with the positive; this book is trying to do a lot of interesting stuff thematically. Through Hideo’s character, Lu explores how practically limitless power, unresolved past trauma, and technology can intersect with disastrous consequences. The abuse of power through advanced tech is not a remotely new theme in sci-fi, but Wu’s futuristic society in this series does provide an interesting platform to explore it.

Also, Emika mentions her “rainbow hair” probably at least 50% less in this book than she did in the first one, so that was a plus. (Seriously, that phrase was used so often in Warcross that I think it may forever make my eye twitch when I hear it.)

That being said, I had a lot of problems with this book. Complex villains are good, but I wasn’t super thrilled about how Hideo’s character arc was handled, particularly in relation to Emika. She is horrified by what he’s done but can’t seem to shake her feelings for him. I’m not into the dynamic there; if you’re into shipping Kylo Ren and Rey, you’ll probably like it a lot more than I did. Emika spends a lot of time sympathizing with Hideo and thinking about how the loss of his brother has driven him down the path to becoming essentially a super villain. People die due to Hideo’s manipulation of the tech he’s tricked them into using. We all lose people, buddy. Most of us don’t resort to attempting mind control over the entire population of the earth over it.

Overall, it just feels like Wu wants us to view Hideo as a redeemable character, and I don’t see him that way at all. Your mileage may vary.

But on a broader note, I just had a hard time connecting with any of the characters in this at all. They all felt a bit flat and I had trouble keeping Emika’s teammates straight for a good bit of the book. Even Emika never really jumped off the page for me, and she’s the protagonist. She seems like she sometimes veers into that “bland MC who can’t be too much of a character because the author wants you to be able to picture yourself in their role” kind of territory.

Wildcard also features one major plot twist, and maybe it’s a product of being outside of the target audience for YA novels, but it did not take me remotely by surprise. It was an interesting development, but it seems like Lu was laying on the foreshadowing a bit too thick for it to have the punch that she wanted it to.

Finally, it feels very disconnected from the book that came before it in a way I can’t quite articulate. A lot of other reviewers have stated that they almost felt like it took place in a separate universe from the first installment, and I can definitely understand that assessment. Warcross as a game also plays a much smaller role in this book, and I think that also contributes to a totally different vibe.

Basically, there was a lot of potential in this book, but it felt a bit squandered. I don’t know if Lu is planning another installment of this series, but regardless, I’m saying goodbye forever to Emika and her rainbow colored hair.

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Thank you for reading! What’s your favorite story that explores the relationships between power, technology, and morality? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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