Tarnished Are the Stars

by Rosiee Thor
First sentence: “There was nothing quite like the first tick of a new heart.”
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Content: There’s some death — but not violent death — and some romance. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

It’s the future, and Earth has become inhabitable for reasons unnamed. A group of settlers have made it to a new world — Earth Adjacent — and have put up a settlement there. The Queen is still orbiting the world in the “Tower”, but the ruler of the earth is the Commissioner, who has issues with technology. So a splinter group of settlers have moved out to a hidden city, determined to use tech, mostly because they need it to survive. Something is making hearts stop working.

Enter Anna, the settlement’s most wanted criminal: The Technician. She defies the Commissioner’s edicts, in order to help people survive. And then one day, she runs across the Commissioner’s son, Nathaniel, who has a TICCER — an artificial heart — just like she does. That opens up a whole world of questions. Which only get more complicated when Emma, the Queen’s personal spy — arrives from the Tower, in order to marry Nathaniel and carry out the Queen’s will.

I started listening to this one on audio, and it was a complete fail. I just didn’t like the narrator, and there were enough moving parts that I couldn’t keep it in my head. Note to self: I don’t do fantasy on audio well (this isn’t my first fantasy audio fail). That said, I was interested enough in the story to pick up the physical book and finish it. And… it’s not bad. I liked that there wasn’t a lot of romance, and that the focus of the relationships were friendship and family. I thought the ending was a bit rushed, but it didn’t take away from the clever premise of a new world and what it takes to settle and populate one. And hooray — it was a stand-alone! I appreciate that Thor was able to wrap the story up in one book.

I solid debut, I think.

The Power

by Naomi Alderman
First sentence: “Dear Naomi, I’ve finished the bloody book.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some sex, and a few graphic rape scenes. It’s also incredibly violent. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

The basic premise of this book is that one day, suddenly, all women in the world get a power — the ability to channel electricity — that gives them the ability to “fight back” against men of the world. It starts with teenagers, but eventually spreads to most women. The narrative follows four people: a mayor of a New England town, a girl in the foster system, a daughter of a British mob boss, and a young Nigerian man. The change affects all their lives: the mayor becomes governor and then senator, creating for-profit training camps for girls to learn to better control and use their power; the girl kills her foster father (who was raping her) and runs away and eventually starts a new religion, becoming Mother Eve; the daughter of a mob boss ends up taking over the whole operation; and the young man becomes a news reporter, going where the stories — of rebellion, of resistance, of control — are.

It was, for me, a tough book to swallow, and it wasn’t until the end when I realized what Alderman was doing. It’s best to remember that science fiction is more about the present than the future; and Alderman is shining a light on violence against women by turning the tables. The women in this book, once they get the power, become very… well… masculine. They embrace and abuse power, they torture and rape and kill men solely because they are weak. They create laws that restrict men’s movements, and in the end, blow the whole system up.

It’s also a critique of the nature of power, I think. I feel like Alderman is saying that power over another person corrupts anyone, male or female. That there is no “better nature” that will, inherently, make a woman better at leading. That power is, at it’s heart, an violent act of controlling another person.

It’s not an enjoyable read, but it is an interesting one, and has given me much to think about.

Gemina

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
First sentence: “… over seven hundred thousand employees across dozens of colonized worlds.”
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Others in the series: Illuminae
Content: All the swear words are blacked out, but there’s a lot of violence and some drug use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first one, probably.

The nice thing about not reading a series when it first comes out is that you can read them all one right after another. And I remember what happens! That said, Gemina is part of the whole story, and picks up where we left off, but it also it’s own thing.

It’s the space station Heimdall, and everything is going lovely for Hannah and her boyfriend Jackson for their Terra Day plans. She’s got a super cute outfit, she’s about to pick up some dust to make the party super lit. Except, while she’s on her way, the station is attacked by an elite crew of 24 “auditors” (read: assassins) from BeiTech corp, who is still trying to cover up their attack on Kerenza. They have orders to take over Heimdall and open up the wormhole before any survivors reach the jump station.

(There’s a bit of a gap here: how did BeiTech know that there were survivors from the Kerenza attack?)

Anyway. The assassins capture the station, kill the commander (who happens to be Hannah’s dad), and take over. But, a few people Hannah and her drug dealer, Nik, and Nik’s cousin Ella, who’s a hacker, are left on the outside to stop the assassins from completely taking over.

I wondered how this would go over in print, since I adored it so much in audio. And it’s fabulous. I’m amazed that Kauffman and Kristoff could put so much into just documents, text streams, and illustrations, but they do! (since this one is so heavily illustrated, I wonder how it is in audio?) It never got tedious, I adored the reveals as they happened, and I was never too far ahead of the characters. I figured something out, and by the next page, the characters were there as well. It’s quite brilliantly plotted. And they do tension SO very well. I kept having to take breaks as I read because it would just get too much for me to handle. So very very good.

And yes, I’ve got the third already checked out, so I can see how this story ends.

Audiobook: Illuminae

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Narrated by  Olivia Taylor DudleyLincoln Hoppe & Johnathan McClain, and a full cast.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, but at least on the audio it’s all bleeped out. And there is violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to someone younger if they were interested.

So, people have been telling me to read this for YEARS. I’ve brushed them off, partially because it’s a thick book, and partially because, well, I thought it was hack science fiction. (I’m super snobby. I shouldn’t be!) But, I’ve recently read other books by both Kristoff and Kaufman, and my on-line book club picked this, so it was Time. Someone in the book club mentioned that it was a stellar audio book, and so I went that route.

And Holy Amazeballs! THIS was what I was missing?! (I know: I should listen to the buzz!) Set in the future — 2575 to be exact — and written entirely in hacked documents (reports, emails, texts, images, security footage transcriptions — it tells the story of a planet (which was colonized for illegal mining by one company) that was attacked by another corporation. Our main character, a hacker named Kady, along with a number of other citizens are rescued by a fleet of ships: the military vessel Alexander; the medical ship Copernicus; and the science vessel Hypatia. The ability to jump to safety was damaged in the fight with the other corporation, so the fleet has to make it to the nearest jump station, which is six months away.

And then things get interesting. I don’t want to say too much, because the less you know going in, the better. But let’s say it’s FANTASTIC science fiction. There’s a smidge of horror, and the AI, AIDAN is an amazingly written character (think HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Kaufman and Kristoff take you through twists and turns and reveals, and will keep you guessing at every turn.

And the audio? It really was fantastic. It was full cast, which is usually not a great thing, but this one pulls it off amazingly. I was literally just driving around so I could listen to the book (I got it on CD, so I could only listen to it in the car), and I didn’t want to stop. I was riveted by the whole production, from plot through the performances.

And yes, of course I’m going to go read the other two. I think I’ll try them in print this time. Just to see.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez
First sentence: “There’s all sorts of bad advice out there about how to deal with bullies.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s long and sometimes meandering, which might discourage reluctant readers. There are also hints of romance (but none actual) which might turn off squeamish kids. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Sal Vidón has just moved to Miami from Connecticut, and is starting his first week at a really cool performing arts and technology school. The problem? It’s the third day of school, and it’s the third time he’s landed in the principal’s office. The first two were reasonable: to meet the principal on his first day, and the second because he was eating Skittles after PE and the gym teacher was unaware that Sal is diabetic. But this time? It’s because he played a prank — put a raw, whole chicken — into the locker of a kid who was bullying him. Sure, as a prank goes it’s mostly harmless. The real catch? Sal pulled that chicken out of a different universe.

And he was being watched: by Gabi Reál, student council president extraordinaire, and puzzle figure-outer. And once she turns her sights on Sal, his life is never going to be the same.

This is one part science fiction book: with multiverses, and calamity physics (is that a real thing?) and warping the space-time continuum, with self-driving cars (I want one, please) and really advanced AI. And one part Cuban family drama: Sal’s mother died six years ago, and he’s been pulling other versions of his Mami out of other universes ever since. There’s also Gabi’s drama with an infant baby brother fighting for his life, and the bully with a bigger backstory. There’s a lot going on in this book, but it all works, and works well together. Hernandez has given us a funny, clever Cuban speculative fiction book, that kept me turning pages and wondering where he was going to go next. There are cool teachers and Gabi’s gaggle of dads (too hard to explain), and it’s all just enormous amounts of fun.

We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey
First sentence: “The first time I heard anything about Planet Choom, we’d been on Mars for almost a year.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Content: There are some possibly scary situations, but Rodkey knows his audience, and the book is neither too long or too complex. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lan and his family are part of the last of the human race, the part that escaped to Mars when the Earth dissolved into a nuclear holocaust that made the planet uninhabitable. They’re also the part of the human race that decided to take a chance on the offer of asylum from the Planet Choom — a planet full of insect-like creatures, as well as small wolf-like creatures and marshmallow-like creatures — and take up residence there.

However, when they get out of biostasis and arrive at Choom, they’ve discovered that the government is now against the humans settling there and they want them all to just leave. Except the humans don’t have anywhere to go. So the Choom government — which is run by the insect-like creatures — allows Lan’s family to come down on a trial basis. Which means they’re the sole representatives for the human race and whatever they do the entire race will be judged on it.

If you haven’t gotten the allegory that Rodkey is telling here, let me spell it out (mostly because I knew it going in, and it was quite obvious to me): he’s exploring — in a way that is accessible to kids — the idea of immigration and the idea of being the “other”. And since he can’t write an #ownvoices book, he’s doing it the only way he can: through science fiction. As far as an allegory goes, it’s excellent: it allows the reader to feel how it is to be “alien”, even if they (I’m white and while I’ve felt like an outsider, I’ve never really felt “alien”) are not. But, on top of that, it’s fun to read, it’s got great characters (#TeamMarf all the way! She’s brilliant!) and it’s got a good heart at the center of it. It’s quite probably Rodkey’s best work so far.

And it’s definitely one worth reading!

Pitch Dark

by Courtney Alameda
First sentence: “The wake up shock hits like a sledgehammer to the chest.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There is a lot of violence and gore, and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

I’m going to be up-front with this: I really liked this book. A lot. But I have NO idea how to describe it succinctly. See, it’s kind of Ready Player One meets Indiana Jones meets Battlestar Galactica plus Aliens with a tad bit of Firefly thrown in. It really doesn’t quite know what it wants to be — a space adventure? A horror story? An archaeological adventure? Stopping a terrorist plot? Yes, to all of those — but HEY, it’s an incredible amount of fun while it’s trying to figure it out.

Let’s try with the plot. In the late 21st century, Earth sent people out into space in stasis, with samples of earth, in the hopes that they’d find another habitable planet and be able to terraform it into something livable. They were sent off, and never heard from again.

Fast forward 400 (!) years, and one ship, the USS John Muir, has just woken up out of stasis, and realized that Things Didn’t Go Quite To Plan. Like, most of the crew is dead, and while there were some survivors, many have turned into mutant beings who terrorize the rest of the survivors. Thankfully, Tuck, the son of one of the premier scientists, was a survivor, and has Things Figured Out.

Enter the ship Conquistador, captained by the Cruz family, who are archaeologists in search of the lost ships from the Exodus. Their daughter, Laura (lao-ra, please, not law-ra) is passionate about history and is excited to see what there is when they discover the Muir. But then a hacker gets into the ship’s systems (and frames Laura) and crashes the Conquistador into the Muir. And suddenly everyone is fighting for their lives.

So, yeah. Hot mess of a plot — things just kept happening and happening and happening and while it kind of made a weird sort of sense but not really — but it was all just so much dang fun that I couldn’t put it down. So, I liked it, in spite of the fact that I can’t figure out a really simple way to make it sound appealing aside from it’s just a fun read!