BOOK REVIEW: The Italian Party, by Christina Lynch

BOOK REVIEW: The Italian Party, by Christina LynchTitle: The Italian Party by Christina Lynch
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: March 20th 2018
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A delicious and sharply funny page-turner about "innocent" Americans abroad in 1950s Siena, Italy. Newly married, Scottie and Michael are seduced by Tuscany's famous beauty. But the secrets they are keeping from each other force them beneath the splendid surface to a more complex view of ltaly, America and each other.

When Scottie's Italian teacher--a teenager with secrets of his own--disappears, her search for him leads her to discover other, darker truths about herself, her husband and her country. Michael's dedication to saving the world from communism crumbles as he begins to see that he is a pawn in a much different game. Driven apart by lies, Michael and Scottie must find their way through a maze of history, memory, hate and love to a new kind of complicated truth.

Half glamorous fun, half an examination of America's role in the world, and filled with sun-dappled pasta lunches, prosecco, charming spies and horse racing, The Italian Party is a smart pleasure.

As soon as I began reading The Italian Party, I was swept away to post-WWII Italy and enveloped in a domestic spy thriller that captivated me from the first page to the final sentence. Scottie and Michael are newlyweds moving to Siena, Italy, to start their new lives as husband and wife. Michael’s been sent to Italy to sell the Italians some American tractors to propel Italy to more “modern” industrialization, or so Scottie thinks. Scottie appears to be the perfect person to fulfill Michael’s want and need for a wife, or so Michael thinks. Each of them have secrets upon secrets of their own, and the book deftly explores and unravels these secrets as the story progresses.

Michael has been sent to Italy with orders from the CIA to stop the Communist candidate from winning an election. His Ford office in Siena is merely a cover for his actual work. Without spoiling too much of the novel itself, Lynch explores one facet of the post-WWII/Cold War fears of the rise of communism and the fears from America about that rise. Little struggles throughout the book, including the “favored” American dessert of a can of peaches topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry over delicious Italian gelato, showcased the “rightness” and “righteousness” of American idealism over anything else.

The Italian Party is probably going to end up on my favorites of the year list. I loved the secrets weaving themselves through Scottie and Michael’s marriage and life outside their marriage. I love the development of the characters from beginning to end, and I love how both of them choose to support each other after all of these secrets between them come to the surface. The 1950s were mostly a different time and place compared to now, but Lynch shows that even then, people struggled with and faced the same difficulties in a relationship that people do today. So much of this novel reflects the current time, and it’s eye-opening to see history begin to repeat itself.

Christina Lynch weaves in domestic life with a spy thriller incredibly well, and the pacing of the book was excellent. I loved how the chapters themselves were divided into small sections, and somehow that made it even easier to zip right through and enjoy this book. Lynch’s sparkling prose makes you feel as if you are a fly on the wall in Scottie and Michael’s life in Italy, and it’s the perfect spring escape.

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a free copy to review; all opinions are my own!

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeer

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: April 25th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 323
Format: Hardcover
Source: Work
Goodreads

"Am I a person?" Borne asked me.

"Yes, you are a person," I told him. "But like a person, you can be a weapon, too." In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company—a biotech firm now derelict—and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump—plant or animal?—but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts—and definitely against Wick’s wishes—Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford. 

"He was born, but I had borne him."

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.  

“He was born, but I had borne him.”

Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne evokes a sense of the weird and the unsettling in a probable near-future reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. In the novel, a young woman named Rachel scavenges and survives in a city ravaged by an unnamed ecological disaster. The city’s grounds are littered with the remnants of the now-defunct Company’s biotech, and the city is not-so-subtly governed by the actions of Mord, a giant flying bear. During one of her scavenging missions, Rachel finds a little lump of something not quite plant and not quite animal named Borne. Borne disrupts Rachel’s life little by little until his very existence threatens to upheave everything in Rachel’s life and in the strange ecosystem of Mord’s territory.

This standalone novel from the author of the Southern Reach trilogy explores how humans abuse science and nature for technological or monetary gain, and Borne shows us the aftermath of that greed. The novel also explores what it means to be a person, what it means to love and then to let go of love, what it means to live and then to die, and what it means when one finds beauty in the midst of so much chaos. VanderMeer manages to pack so much description, emotion, and longing into such a short novel, and it’s a novel that will make you reread passages and sentences again and again because of their beauty and complexity.

BOOK REVIEW: Borne and The Strange Bird, by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: The Strange Bird: A Borne Story by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 96
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

 The Strange Bird is a companion story to VanderMeer’s Borne, and the novella adds even more depth to the world in which VanderMeer has created in Borne. The Strange Bird is part human, part bird, and she is rejected from the world in which she lives, because she is not wholly human nor wholly animal. The timeline of this novella occurs before, during, and after the events of Borne and offers an outside view of those events. While Borne explored in its complexity what it means to be a personThe Strange Bird explores what it means to be free and know oneself when the world seems to “naturally” conspire against your very existence. It’s a highly recommended follow-up if you’ve read Borne and wanted more.

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah SchmidtTitle: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
Source: Goodreads
Goodreads

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

 How many years does it take to grow into someone?

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a strange and sometimes engaging reimagining of the famous Lizzie Borden murders. Told from alternating perspectives over the course of a few days, we are given insight into the minds of Lizzie and those involved in one way or another with the murders of Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby.

By the end, I enjoyed this book, but I felt the book suffered from two things: target market and a slow exposition/initial pacing. I understand that publishers want to reach a wide range of audiences with certain titles, but I felt like this one was YA as I was reading it because of the writing style. It took me about a good third or more of the book to feel really engaged with the characters and the story, and then it seemed to pick up and then I couldn’t put it down. If you aren’t much of a YA reader, this one might feel a bit simplistic in the way in which it’s told. However, in some ways, I think that starkly simple language is what makes Lizzie’s story effective, because if you’re familiar with Lizzie Borden, you already know what’s coming, and by the time it does, it’s one of those chest-grabbing moments.

See What I Have Done explores in greater depth the relationships between Lizzie and the rest of her immediate household. At thirty-something, she still lives at home, unmarried, and behaves as if she is still a teenager with temper outbursts and juvenile outlooks on the world (which is where my “this feels like YA” comes from). It’s apparent from the very beginning that something is off about Lizzie’s mental state, and this disconnect between reality and what goes on in her mind adds to the Lizzie’s relationship with her father is odd and unsettling. At times, her attention-seeking behavior appears as if she’s a love-sick girl starving for the object of her affection’s attentions, and other times it feels as if her behavior is that of a child wanting her father to pay attention to her. Lizzie’s behavior toward and eventual murder of her father and stepmother stems from her deeply rooted jealousy toward her stepmother. As it happens in fairy tales, the stepmother “replaces” the dead mother, and to the main character, the stepmother is therefore “bad/evil,” and for Lizzie, she is the displaced princess.

In a series of twists and turns, Sarah Schmidt delivers a chilling examination of what goes through the minds of those closely involved with Lizzie Borden and her forty whacks. While it takes a bit to warm up to it, See What I Have Done is a solid debut.

I won a copy of this book through Goodreads giveaways for review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain NeuvelTitle: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Series: Themis Files #1
Published by Del Rey
Published: April 26th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

An inventive debut in the tradition of World War Z and The Martian, told in interviews, journal entries, transcripts, and news articles, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by a quest for truth—and a fight for control of earthshaking power.

 If you fall in love with someone, there’s a good chance the person won’t love you back. Hatred, though, is usually mutual. If you despise someone, it’s pretty much a given they’re also not your biggest fan.

Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants is the story of a girl named Rose who falls into a pit in the middle of the earth in South Dakota, and when she wakes up, she discovers a piece that’s part of a very large robot. Told through a series of interviews, we see from different perspectives the discovery of more of those robot parts and the dawning realization that there is no possible way that humans built this thing. The question remains – who did? Where did this robot’s creators originate? Why was Earth chosen as a destination point for this machine? Are there more?

I enjoyed the style of this book. It reads quickly, and I was constantly turning the pages to see what happened next. The biggest frustration, and it seems relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, in reading stories through the eyes of interviews, articles, and detached narratives are that we’re forced to piece together what happens behind the scenes and who these characters are in relation to the story at hand. When the interviews jump ahead in time by months or years or whatever, I was left wanting to know more about the in-between times, which isn’t a bad thing in the end, because the jumps kept the story moving forward and I don’t think anyone wants a 700+ book of interviews detailing every exact thing. I just enjoyed Neuvel’s world-building so much that I wanted that extra stuff. I’ve got the sequel ready to go, so I’m hoping for more greatness!

It’s billed as something for fans of The Martian, but I think it’s more in line with Pacific Rim and any other machina science fiction. For a debut novel, I was impressed with Neuvel’s scope in his world-building, detail, and character development. It’s a solid novel that feels like it’s been written by someone who has been doing this sort of writing for a long time. I really enjoyed it, and I think it’s a thrilling read for people who love science fiction and for people who love a good thriller.

BOOK REVIEW: Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

BOOK REVIEW: Stars are Legion, by Kameron HurleyTitle: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
Published by Saga Press
Published: February 7th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Set within a system of decaying world-ships travelling through deep space, this breakout novel of epic science fiction follows a pair of sisters who must wrest control of their war-torn legion of worlds—and may have to destroy everything they know in order to survive.

On the outer rim of the universe, a galactic war has been waged for centuries upon hundreds of world-ships. But these worlds will continue to die through decay and constant war unless a desperate plan succeeds.

Anat, leader of the Katazyrna world-ship and the most fearsome raiding force on the Outer Rim, wants peace. To do so she offers the hand of her daughter, Jayd, to her rival. Jayd has dreamed about leading her mother’s armies to victory her whole life—but she has a unique ability, and that makes her leverage, not a leader. As Anat convinces her to spend the rest of her life wed to her family’s greatest enemy, it is up to Jayd’s sister Zan—with no stomach for war—to lead the cast off warriors she has banded together to victory and rescue Jayd. But the war does not go at all as planned…

In the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune, The Stars are Legion is an epic and thrilling tale about familial love, revenge, and war as imagined by one of the genre’s most imaginative new writers.

 When you understand what the world is, you have two choices: Become a part of that world and perpetuate that system forever and ever, unto the next generation. Or fight it, and break it, and build something new. The former is safer, and easier. The latter is scarier, because who is to say what you build will be any better?

I read this book in March, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it or recommending it since. Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion is on its way to becoming (if it’s not already there) one of those must-read science fiction books if you’re into even the barest sliver of science fiction. Science fiction often explores that question of “what if” and reflects on current aspects of life that are problematic in some way. Today, women’s bodies are policed. They are often told they cannot choose for themselves when and how to reproduce, and if a woman is control of her sexuality, she is seen as a threat. I sell this as a “politically charged womb-punk space opera that will thrill you and make you rage, oh, and there are no male characters in this at all.” Most of the time, I get a look like “… what?” My roommate even thinks that me liking this book so much is weird, but this book, at least for me, speaks of certain aspects of an experience that is difficult to convey to someone who doesn’t have a body part that has been consistently policed by men in positions of power.

Aside from this being an amazing space opera, The Stars are Legion has a cast of brutally unlikable characters, blood and gore up the wazoo, and feels like it could have come right out of that wave of sff that was written in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The characters are unlikable and cruel and you can’t trust anyone, but you’ll be rooting for them in the end. The Stars are Legion is a an angry, visceral yell into the void of space, and the world within the covers is just an expanse waiting for you to live in it for a while, get pumped up, and want to go kick some ass in the real world.

I mean, don’t you want to read about asexual ships that give birth to whatever the ship needs, cannibalistic women who eat their deformed young, and womb/uterus/placenta references (with all of the associated fluids) all over the place? Yes, you do. I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot or the characters because half of the enjoyment of this is getting to discover that for yourself. Just read it. ASAP. The hardcover is out now, the ebook is h*ckin cheap, and the paperback is out in November.