Friday, February 17, 2017

On the Sickle's Edge by Neville D. Frankel, 2017

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What we cannot keep. What we cannot lose.
A sweeping masterwork of love and loss, secrets and survival, On the Sickle's Edge is told through the voices of three characters who lay bare their family's saga: the endearing, scrappy South-African born Lena, transported to Latvia and later trapped in the USSR; her granddaughter Darya, a true Communist whose growing disillusionment with Soviet ideology places her family at mortal risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inadvertently stumbles into the tangled web of his family's past. Against the roiling backdrop of twentieth-century Russia and Eastern Europe, the novel delivers equal parts historical drama, political thriller and poignant love story.
(432 pages)

Okay, first, full disclosure: there is no way on earth that I would have finished reading On the Sickle's Edge if it weren't for the fact that I hadn't promised to review it for a TLC book tour. As it is, I wound up skipping in the second half. It's not that the book is poorly written, because it actually grabs the attention very well for an over 400-page historical novel. I've always been fascinated by the horrors of life under the USSR regime (in part because they're given far too little attention in literature due to WWII), and the actual story of this increasingly-growing Jewish family hiding in plain sight in Moscow is gripping and very meaningful for me to read. My favorite point-of-view was Lena's, because she had the most dramatic and fascinating life of all three of the main characters. Also, most of the drama Darya and Steven faced was self-inflicted; Lena was the true innocent of the story, the girl whose life was ripped away from her by the cruelty of the USSR dictatorship.

So . . . what happened? Why did I almost put On the Sickle's Edge down, and why did I finish it with a sour taste in my mouth? I think a lot of my distaste for the book boils down to the fact that it's an adult novel, and I very much prefer middle-grade and young-adult books. I forgot, in my excitement about this book's topic, that so many fictional adult books have way more graphic content than I'm used to. And I'm not talking about violence–there was that too, of course, but that was to be expected. No, I'm talking about sex. For one thing, all three characters are way to easy about it; Steven is particularly promiscuous. I could still mostly forgive the book for its characters' loose morals, excusing them away as accurate depictions of the way people in their situations behaved, but what I can't be okay with are the graphic sex scenes (including ones between distant cousins–still kind of ew!) that are sprinkled into the text. I have no desire to read content like that, so I did my best to skip over them and plow through in honor of my pledge to review the book. When the author started throwing important dialogue pieces into the middle of those scenes, though, that's when I got really frustrated and started skipping pages to just get through the book already. There's some horrible stuff in there, including several times where Darya's husband clearly rapes her, and I just don't want to read that!

Call me a baby if you want, but that's how I feel. I don't have much more to say about the book, besides the fact that it's so complex and historically significant that more liberal readers than I will probably love it. Oh, and also that Darya's husband was so evil I actually found him very unrealistic. Were there men like him in the USSR? Maybe, but it seems strange that he never showed even the slightest sign of humanity or weakness–ever.

Maybe I'm just not the right audience for this book, so maybe you will like it more than I did. If you've read the description, and what I've described doesn't turn you off, then try On the Sickle's Edge for yourself. Be sure to comment below with your thoughts once you've finished it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel for the purpose of participating in a TLC Book Tour.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pheonix Rising by Bryony Pearce, 2017

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Sail. Salvage. Repeat.
For as long as Toby can remember, he and his father have sailed on the Phoenix, salvaging from the junk-filled seas to stay afloat, while keeping under the radar of the authorities. His father is, after all, a wanted man.
And now the
Phoenix is on the trail of the ultimate prize, a salvage of solar panels that could mean they’ll never need to hunt for fuel again.
Ayla is second-in-command on the rival
Banshee, where she’s trained her whole life to fight—just as her mother, Captain Nell, demands. Since childhood, Ayla’s been taught the Phoenix must be destroyed. And now they have the ship in their sights. And they’re desperate to have their precious intel, too.
Toby’s sick of a life at sea, and Ayla may be his only hope. Can he turn an old feud into a new alliance that will save both their skins?
Award-winning Bryony Pearce brings the high seas to life with her rousing steampunk pirate adventure that will have you craving more.

(368 pages)

This actually has an even cooler premise than I thought it would going in. I guess I didn't read the description very carefully, because I saw "pirates" and thought "historical fiction." You know, like Blackbeard and shanghaied pirates and the Jolly Roger and all that stuff? Well, it turns out that Phoenix Rising is definitely nothing like that. It has the Jolly Roger, sure, but that's where any similarities to historical pirate stories ends. This book actually tells a story set in a bleak future where fossil fuel supplies have dried up, the sun was entirely blocked by atmospheric gases for several decades, and the oceans have become cluttered full of garbage from ancient garbage dumps that broke apart during land shifts. Toby lives on a pirate ship full of pirates wanted for various (non-violent) crimes, and they move through the water by burning wood and using whatever scraps of natural gas they can find in the junk that fills the ocean.

It's actually an amazing premise, isn't it? I love the way it blends historical pirate culture, modern environmental crises, and predictions of how things could devolve once nations start fighting over resources.

All that to say . . . I didn't like the book quite as much as I'd hoped I would. It's got gobs of semi-minor characters everywhere, and I had a terrible time trying to keep them all straight. Several of those characters die throughout the book, and more random people we don't even know die as well. Even the two main characters, both of whom are about fourteen, kill multiple people throughout the book. I can be okay with death, when it's realistic and contributes to a story, but I just didn't like the way people skated past all the deaths. Toby never struggles with what he's done, not really, and I just needed to see him do that in order to believe in him as a character.

As for Ayla, she's not in the book as much as you'd think from the description. She shows up about a third of the way through, actually. I think she's supposed to be a tough but lovable character, one of those "enemies with a heart of gold." Unfortunately, I never really bought that conception of her character. Ayla seems like a troubled soul, and I do wish her greater happiness in the future, but I don't really see her as an innocent in this story.
I assume there will be a sequel, since the story has a pretty open ending. If one does come out in the future, despite not falling completely in love with Phoenix Rising, I would definitely still be interested in reading it and discovering what happens next. I'd also like to see the conflicting politics of the land countries explained in more detail, because we only get a quick sketch of them in Phoenix Rising but it sounds like they could be really fascinating. Until then, though, I'm content to pass my copy of Phoenix Rising along to my local book swap.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Isaac the Alchemist by Mary Losure, 2017

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A surprising true story of Isaac Newton's boyhood suggests an intellectual development owing as much to magic as science. 

Before Isaac Newton became the father of physics, an accomplished mathematician, or a leader of the scientific revolution, he was a boy living in an apothecary's house, observing and experimenting, recording his observations of the world in a tiny notebook. As a young genius living in a time before science as we know it existed, Isaac studied the few books he could get his hands on, built handmade machines, and experimented with alchemy--a process of chemical reactions that seemed, at the time, to be magical. Mary Losure's riveting narrative nonfiction account of Isaac's early life traces his development as a thinker from his childhood, in friendly prose that will capture the attention of today's budding scientists--as if by magic. Back matter includes an afterword, an author's note, source notes, a bibliography, and an index.
(176 pages)

Wow. I thought I knew a good amount about Isaac Newton (father of modern physics, first person to discover gravity, the whole "apple fell out of a tree" story, etc.). It turns out I knew very, very little, though–and most of what I thought I knew was actually completely wrong. The story about the apple falling out of a tree and inspiring Newton's conception of gravity, for example, simply didn't happen. Also, it turns out that he was absolutely obsessed with alchemy. He spent most of his life, from the sounds of it, inside a cramped furnace-room trying desperately to figure out how to transmute metals! It's fascinating to read about his determination and very active imagination in this arena, but still sad to see how much of his life he wasted chasing after something that he never could have achieved. Also, who knows what else he could have discovered if he'd been focusing on more fruitful pursuits?

Ah, well, I suppose being the father of modern science, the inventor of calculus, and the discoverer of gravity is more than enough for one human being. As someone who's taking AP Physics with Calculus right now, though, I'm not sure I'm entirely happy about the role Newton had in providing for this experience. I can be blown away by his genius and impact on science while still hating physics, right? Totally.

Anyway, I really liked the format of the book. It's pretty short, and the pages are filled with not just text describing his story but also pictures of Newton's actual books and journals. It's fascinating to see his ancient scrawled notes about things like perpetual motion and philosophers' stones! The information is presented in a way that's pretty accessible to kids, focusing heavily on Newton's formative childhood years and then skipping through his adult life to main describe his pursuit of alchemy and then his greatest scientific achievements. I never thought the writing was simplistic, even if it was geared toward kids, and the extra quotes and information in the back of the book really helped enhance my understanding of Newton's world.

Also, this book totally makes me sad that I didn't know Isaac Newton spent most of his life at Cambridge two months ago. If I'd known while I was there for my interview, I totally would have tried to nose around his home base in Trinity College!

Anyway, bottom line, this is a really engaging and fascinating book about Isaac Newton. Is it the most thorough book about him on the market? I very much doubt it. But it's a great book for kids who aren't ready for the bigger biographies, and it's perfect for older people like me who aren't really feeling up for the bigger biographies either. I learned everything I ever could have wanted to about Newton from Isaac the Alchemist, so I for one really love it. If you're looking to dip your toes into learning about the amazing scientist, mathematician and alchemist that was Newton, then this is definitely the book for you!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, 2016

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The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later.
Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage. The play will receive its world premiere in London’s West End on July 30, 2016.
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.
While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
(328 pages)

I was going to be so cool about this book.

I wasn't going to plunk down twenty dollars to buy it on release day.

I was completely prepared to wait three months for the library's single copy of the play to make its way down the list to me.

But then we went to Barnes & Noble, and I made the mistake of picking up the pretty gold-toned book and reading the first few pages. And my mom, a closet Potterhead herself, did what any amazing mother would do: she ran back into the store at the last possible minute, came back out with The Cursed Child, and then immediately handed it over to me.

Like I said. Amazing.

I wish that word could be applied to the play itself, though. I tried, I really tried, but I simply couldn't find the magic in The Cursed Child; it just wasn't there. The entire thing reads like clever fanfiction - it's not it's own story, not really. It's just a piece of sentimental junk designed to spend as much time as possible making clunky throwbacks to the original series. I lost all respect for the play right around the time Harry started having a big emotional conversation with Dumbledore's painting–about stuff that had happened about twenty years ago at this point. And don't even get me started on the relationships. Harry and Albus' strained one is absolutely cringe-worthy, and the whole "resolving issues between Harry and Draco" rang really false after the twenty years (!!) they'd spent not getting along (despite the fact that I'd gotten the impression they had reached a sort of respectful but still-not-amiable understanding at the end of the original series).

Basically, it's really, really obvious that JK Rowling didn't write this herself. And it may be considered official canon now, up there with the original books, but I am never going to be able to see this as a legitimate installment into the Harry Potter franchise. One possible interpretation of the future? Yes. A piece of rather strange fan-fiction? Yes. But not canon, never canon. Please. I can't stand to think of the characters being officially reduced to such clumsy caricatures of themselves.

Also, can we talk about the nonexistance of Lily and Rose? I spent literally years of my childhood playing Rose to one of my best friend's Lily. We created a whole elaborate future around those two characters, spinning our tale from one year to the next–until I had to move away sometime in the middle of the Triwizard Tournament. We declared I'd gone off to boarding school in Beauxbatons with my cousin Victoire (Bill and Fleur's daughter), and kept the story going over the phone and email for a few more years.

I know, it was so much fun. But anyway, my point is that I was really sad to see those two characters relegated to such small roles. Albus had siblings. Where were they when things got hard for him? And Rose, the only one of the Potter-Weasley cousins I can remember having any lines besides Albus, only talks like twice in the entire play (and is only mentioned a few other times because Scorpius has a crush on her). I mean, seriously. Why are they relegated to such a small spot in the tale? I'm not usually one of those feminists who reads too far into everything, but this time I'm a little upset that all of the main characters but one are male–and the only female character is a new one, whose backstory is so laughable I thought for sure it was going to turn out as a red herring in the end. My beloved version of Rose, with whip-sharp brains and a kind heart (pulled straight from her mother, of course), simply doesn't exist in the narrative of The Cursed Child. Instead we get a girl whose sole role in the play is to make a few random remarks and act as a romantic object for one of the male characters. As for Lily, well, she might as well not even exist. I doubt either Hermione or Ginny–both strong, kick-butt witches in their own rights–would be very happy with their daughters being delegated to the sidelines like this.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Future Flash by Kita Helmetag Murdock, 2014

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For as long as she can remember, Laney has been having “future flashes”—visions of the future that she sees when she makes physical contact with another person. Left on a doorstep as a baby, Laney’s past has always been cloudy to her, despite the clarity with which she can see the future. Her caretaker, Walt, claims to be her father, but Laney has a nagging suspicion that he isn’t quite telling her the entire truth. And when a new kid, Lyle, moves to her small town, Laney is dreading meeting him—she almost always gets a future flash when first meeting someone new, and the flashes aren’t always good. Unfortunately, her meeting with Lyle isn’t just bad; it’s painful. Engulfed in flames, Lyle’s future flash is the worst Laney’s ever experienced. But what does it mean? Is there anything Laney can do to change the future? And will she be able to save Lyle not only from a fiery death but also from the merciless class bully without becoming a victim of his antics herself?

In this thrilling and imaginative middle grade novel from author Kita Helmetag Murdock, follow Laney as she works against the clock to understand her past and prevent the disaster looming in the future.

(208 pages)

Such an interesting premise, isn't this? I'll own that I was originally drawn to the book because it had the word "Flash" in the cover–I've been a bit of a flash addict ever since I started watching The Flash last year! The "flashes" that happen here aren't anything like Barry Allen's bursts of speed, though. Instead, the awesome premise of the story is that Laney gets "future flashes" of things that will happen at some point. I'm not sure whether it's ESP or actual magic, but it's fun to imagine what it would be like to grow up with a power like that.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel like the book quite lived up to its potential. It needed to be longer, I think. I wanted more time to get to know Laney's caretaker, Walt. We get no idea of who he is, what his past was or what sort of personality he has, outside of a few stray snatches. Laney seems to be angry at him for not telling her the truth of how she came to live with him, but she also loves him. Why? What makes their relationship tick? And, for that matter, how did she go through her entire childhood without ever letting slip that she remembered the day he found her on the doorstep? I don't think any real child could manage to hold something that big in for so long.

Also, I wish there had been more of an explanation for Laney's powers. Because basically, we don't get  an explanation. There's no hint of a mythology behind it, or a culture, or even an explanation of why certain people got it but most didn't. I was also frustrated by descriptions of Laney's mother, who sounds like such a flake–because seriously, who just ups and abandons their kid like that? I don't care how good she thought her reasons were, she just shouldn't have done that.

There were a few other areas that weren't as well-developed as I'd have liked, but I'm not going to drag this review down by listing them all out. Instead, let's look at the positives: I still really like the idea of getting selective flashes of someone's future. I liked reading about Walt's sort-of girlfriend and Laney's mother figure, Carmen. She's a baker who seems like an amazing person, and I honestly wish she'd come bake and talk with me once in a while. I liked Lyle, though I really would have liked more insight into his character by learning more about his past. I really liked observing the rather complex relationship between Laney and the school bully, Axel. Most of the time he's an absolute jerk, but through Laney's memories of when they were both much younger we get a more nuanced and sympathetic look at why he acts so horribly now. The past doesn't excuse the way he treats people now, of course, but it does make for some interesting complexity in the character.

All in all, Future Flash is an interesting book but it could have been better. I would have been much more invested in the characters if I'd gotten more information about them, if I felt like I really knew them. Since that wasn't the case, I only recommend Future Flash to you if you like sci-fi-ish thriller-ish books with cool premises that they don't quite fill in completely.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.