BOOK REVIEW: City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

BOOK REVIEW: City of Ghosts, by Victoria SchwabTitle: City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab
Series: Cassidy Blake #1
Published by Scholastic Press
Published: August 28th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pages: 285
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Cassidy Blake's parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn't sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn't belong in her world. Cassidy's powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that Victoria Schwab is one of my favorite writers of all time. Her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of my all-time favorite fantasy series, and her YA fantasies — The Monsters of Verity duology and the Archived series — are complex and SO GOOD. When she announced City of Ghosts, I immediately preordered it and couldn’t wait to have it in my hands.

City of Ghosts follows Cassidy Blake’s and her parents’ move to Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin filming a television show (The Inspectres) episode centered on the ghostly activities in old places within Edinburgh. Cassidy has a ghost-friend named Jacob and I loved their interactions, because there’s a lot of spooky in Jacob’s existence. I also want to know Jacob’s history. How did he die? Why did he decide to choose to save Cassidy?? I also enjoyed Cassidy’s friendship with Lara, and I hope to see that developed further in the future books in the series. I liked that Lara was a little bit of a foil for Cassidy in the sense that Lara is able to do some things that cause Cassidy to rethink her own abilities. I won’t spoil anything for you, though!

I read a few pages of this one night, and then I sat down and finished the rest of it in a single sitting. This is just the right amount of scary for younger readers and was just enough spooky for me. In fact, it reminded me a lot thematically and atmospherically of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book to the extent that I considered City of Ghosts to be a companion series of sorts! Both City of Ghosts and The Graveyard Book deal with thematic horror of growing up and facing the unknown as we “cross the border” between the innocence of childhood and the awareness and understanding of adulthood. It’s in those in-between times that we really come to know ourselves and what we’re capable of.

If you enjoy middle grade fantasy/horror and want to be chilled to the bone in similar ways after reading The Graveyard Book and Coraline, definitely pick this one up!

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: February 6th 2018
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants--these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley's book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor's "creature," scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time, and definitely in my list of top ten classics. So when I saw Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster beginning to make its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, I added it to my TBR and wishlist and waited for a good sale because based on the cover and title alone, I wanted it for my own collection.

I love literary histories like these that give the reader an insight into the creation of the novel while also providing context for the scientific aspects of Frankenstein. Sometimes I felt that the structure of the book could be better managed, but overall, I thought that the back and forth between Mary Shelley’s life and the real-life science that inspired the science in her novel worked effectively. Harkup’s book is incredibly well researched, and her meticulous attention to detail adds so much to the experience of reading this. For someone like me who isn’t wholly aware of a lot of medical and science history, the chapters focusing on the medical and science history were the most chilling and most engaging, especially the chapter regarding autopsies and the lucrative business surrounding the digging up of cadavers to sell to institutions of higher learning.

The main issue I had with the book were the biographical sections involving Percy and Mary Shelley because a good portion of those sections read as if they had been poorly edited or were a draft that could have easily been tightened up or finished off. I think Harkup’s strengths lie in scientific writing that is readily based upon set-in-stone information, whereas biographies do require a little more finesse in terms of narrative structure. For example, a lot of sentences in the biography sections ended with prepositional phrases and included digits instead of spelled out numerals for numbers under 100. Several sentences contained dangling participles, and I had to reread the sentences several times to be sure what the “it” was in the second half of the sentence. These are my editorial quibbles from my days editing student essays, so my reading experience is jarred when I notice these things in published works.

Overall, the science and medical histories and the biographies in Making the Monster are accessible to a variety of readers, whether or not they are familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’re interested in the sometimes gruesome practices in the history of medicine and/or enjoy literary biographies, I recommend checking this one out!

BOOK REVIEW: The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole

BOOK REVIEW: The Armored Saint, by Myke ColeTitle: The Armored Saint by Myke Cole
Series: The Sacred Throne #1
Published by Tom Doherty Associates
Published: February 20th 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 206
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

In a world where any act of magic could open a portal to hell, the Order insures that no wizard will live to summon devils, and will kill as many innocent people as they must to prevent that greater horror. After witnessing a horrendous slaughter, the village girl Heloise opposes the Order, and risks bringing their wrath down on herself, her family, and her village.

“That love is worth it. It is worth any hardship, it is worth illness. It is worth injury. It is worth isolation. It is even worth death. For life without love is only a shadow of life.”

I didn’t know I wanted to read a strong character-driven fantasy that felt like a mecha Joan of Arc until I picked up Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint. I feel like I’ve said it a million times before, but it’s worth repeating — tor.com puts out the most amazing, entertaining novellas, and I’ve devoured each and every one I’ve gotten my hands on.

In the short 206 pages that starts a trilogy, Myke Cole packs a punch of a story, crafts a detailed and dedicated character journey that absolutely feels as if you’re immersing yourself in a story that could easily fill up hundreds more pages. By the time I was a third of the way through, I was completely emotionally invested in Heloise.

How many feelings can I feel in 200 pages? A LOT, THANKS.

Myke Cole’s skill at writing vivid, heart-stopping action scenes intermixed with the real, heart-felt emotional development and growth of Heloise is some of the strongest I’ve seen in coming-of-age fantasy in a long time. I love novels set in that feudal kingdom sort of world in which there’s an oppressive monarchy and/or religious order, and Heloise being a young woman who does not ascribe to the rigid morals of the Order in a medieval-esque kingdom so reminds me of the common myth of Joan of Arc that a lot of us are familiar with. And I LOVE IT.

“It is a person you love. Not a name. Not a he or a she. A person in all their shining glory. There is a thing in us, Heloise. A seed. It makes us who we are. It is our core. That the thing that we love. It alone exists. It alone is holy. It has no home, no name. It is neither male nor female. It is greater than that.”

I can’t wait for the sequels, and I can’t wait to see where Heloise goes and what devious trouble the Order contrives next.

If you like grimdark fantasy, coming-of-age stories, and straight up fabulous entertainment, check this one out!

BOOK REVIEW: Improvement, by Joan Silber

BOOK REVIEW: Improvement, by Joan SilberTitle: Improvement by Joan Silber
Published by Counterpoint LLC
Published: November 14th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

One of our most gifted writers of fiction returns with a bold and piercing novel about a young single mother living in Harlem, her eccentric aunt, and the decisions they make that have unexpected implications for the world around them.

Reyna knows her relationship with Boyd isn't perfect, yet she sees him through a three-month stint at Riker's Island, their bond growing tighter. Kiki, now settled in the East Village after a youth that took her to Turkey and other far off places--and loves--around the world, admires her niece's spirit but worries that motherhood to four-year old Oliver might complicate a difficult situation. Little does she know that Boyd is pulling Reyna into a smuggling scheme, across state lines, violating his probation. When Reyna takes a step back, her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events that affect the lives of loved ones and strangers around them.

A novel that examines conviction, connection, repayment, and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki's beloved Turkish rugs, as colorful as the tattoos decorating Reyna's body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising and unexpected as the lives all around us. The Boston Globe said -No other writer can make a few small decisions ripple across the globe, and across time, with more subtlety and power, - and Improvement is Silber's most shining achievement.

The cover of Joan Silber’s Improvement features a carpet that is woven into the connective stories. The novel is written in sparse, well-crafted prose, and connects the stories of six characters through strong, thin threads. I loved the butterfly effect explored in these pages, and Silber seems to know just what to reveal and just what to led the reader consider for themselves in the connected narratives.

I love how the novel itself is structured with an overarching narrative that is split into smaller sections in first- and third-person narration. The stories read almost like standalone stories, and I appreciated that format because each section felt immediate and personal. These stories, including the overarching story, show the masterwork of a literary butterfly effect. Each of the decisions the characters make affect their own lives and the lives of those around them, and we as readers are invited to consider those decisions in tandem with the decisions and the effects those choices have on our own lives.

Joan Silber’s Improvement explores the connective power of love and the changes — no matter how large or small — love brings into our lives. Love improves us if we only let it in.

Thank you to Counterpoint Press for sending me a free copy in exchange for a review!

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Alan Dean Foster

BOOK REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Alan Dean FosterTitle: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster
Series: Star Wars
Published by Del Rey
Published: January 5th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 260
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Set years after Return of the Jedi, this stunning action-packed adventure rockets us back into the world of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Luke Skywalker, while introducing a host of exciting new characters, including Rey, Finn, BB-8 and Kylo Ren. Darth Vader may have been redeemed and the Emperor vanquished, but peace can be fleeting, and evil does not easily relent. Yet the simple belief in good can still empower ordinary individuals to rise and meet the greatest challenges. So return to that galaxy far, far away, and prepare yourself for what happens when the Force awakens...

Star Wars books are my favorite reads when I want to read something fun and exciting in a universe I’m familiar with, and while I spent a lot of my teenage years reading the Extended Universe, I’ve been interested in a lot of the new stuff that’s come out since Disney got involved with Star Wars and began this new trilogy. I read Star Wars books to add more to my movie-watching experience, and more often than not, the Extended Universe, the new canon, and the movie novels add more depth to the stories unfolding on screen.

However, the novelization of The Force Awakens reads almost exactly like the film, the only differences being the a small handful of additional scenes and the lack of humor and vivacity in other scenes. It’s definitely worth reading to find out a little more backstory on Poe Dameron and how he got to Jakku, as well as a little bit more emotional background for Kylo Ren (but if I’m honest, Kylo Ren is my least favorite character, and I don’t really care one way or another what happens to him). Other than that, it’s an easy read, very much like the film, and I was able to read it in an afternoon!