Book Review: The Scavenger Door (Finder Chronicles #3) by Suzanne Palmer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Daw Books
Publication Date: August 17th, 2021
Pages: 464, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the third book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.

Fergus is back on Earth at last, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. However, it seems the universe has other plans for him. When his cousin sends him off to help out a friend, Fergus accidently stumbles across a piece of an ancient alien artifact that some very powerful people seem to think means the entire solar system is in danger. And since he found it, they’re certain it’s also his problem to deal with.

With the help of his newfound sister, friends both old and new, and some enemies, too, Fergus needs to find the rest of the artifact and destroy the pieces before anyone can reassemble the original and open a multi-dimensional door between Earth and a vast, implacable, alien swarm of devourers. Problem is, the pieces could be anywhere on Earth, and he’s not the only one out searching. 

Fergus is back, and has to save our solar system, if not the entire galaxy in The Scavenger Door

If you haven’t read the other two books in the series, do so. Now. While you could read this as a standalone, your experience will be so much richer with the full backstory, and this is an incredibly great series.

We, along with Fergus, meet his sister, born after his flight from Earth two decades prior. Ignatio and Mr. Feefs are there, and we encounter some of Fergus’s friends (and frenemies) from his days on Mars. 

The threat this time is an artifact that broke up as it fell through Earth’s atmosphere. Assembled, it will allow the Vraet, a scavenger race, to obliterate life in our solar system, and possibly beyond. Fergus, thanks to his forced augmentation by the Asiig, has an affinity with the artifact that allows him to locate and gather the pieces. The Alliance are hot on his tail, and he also has to deal with a wayward member of an apocalyptic cult who want the Vraet to destroy everything.

The story is amazing. Fergus goes through real growth and development. He is a good guy who is constantly put into difficult positions and sometimes has to do the not-so-right thing. He’s not nearly as bad as he believes himself to be, though, and it was nice to see him start to realize this. He demonstrates compassion, self-sacrifice, and empathy. His motivations, and those of the other characters, feel real. 

If I have a quibble, it’s that we still don’t have much insight into the Asiig. They manipulate Fergus and could obviously provide more help than they do, until the very end, where there’s a bit of deus ex machina.

Book Review: That Weekend by Kara Thomas

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: June 19th, 2021
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: Library

Three best friends, a lake house, a secret trip – what could go wrong?

It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it’s clear something terrible happened when Claire wakes up alone and bloodied on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours.

Three went up the mountain, but only one came back.

Now everyone wants answers – most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that… nothing. And now Kat and Jesse – her best friends – are missing.

That weekend changes everything.

What happened on the mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory, but as she’s learning, everyone has secrets – even her best friends. And she’s pretty sure she’s not going to like what she remembers.

This was fully engaging up until the point where Claire goes to college. After that, it seems to lose itself a bit, especially as her going away to college takes her out of the main setting where the action is happening. It never really regained its footing after that and it lost the urgency. 

I do understand that this happens in real life, too, where investigations can go for months and people have to live their lives, so perhaps Thomas was trying for realism here. The problem is that we lose a lot of what happens to Claire during this time, which as we’re told by Claire is quite a lot. 

The other issue was the ending, where Thomas evidently wasn’t content to just have the expected twists; she includes another huge twist that, frankly, was unnecessary and added nothing to the story overall, especially as it’s revealed in one of the last chapters and so the story can’t explore the impact it has on the characters it involves. It felt a bit cheap, to be honest, and didn’t give that sort of thing the severity it deserves. 

So, it’s not my favorite of Thomas’, but it hardly ruins my enjoyment of her works overall. 

Book Review: What We Devour by Linsey Miller

Rating: 0.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: July 6th, 2021
Pages: 336, paperback
Source: NetGalley

From the author of Mask of Shadows comes a dark and intricate story of a girl who must tether herself to a violent ruler to save her crumbling world.

Lorena Adler has a secret—she holds the power of the banished gods, the Noble and the Vile, inside her. She has spent her entire life hiding from the world and her past. She’s content to spend her days as an undertaker in a small town, marry her best friend, Julian, and live an unfulfilling life so long as no one uncovers her true nature.

But when the notoriously bloodthirsty and equally Vile crown prince comes to arrest Julian’s father, he immediately recognizes Lorena for what she is. So she makes a deal—a fair trial for her betrothed’s father in exchange for her service to the crown.

The prince is desperate for her help. He’s spent years trying to repair the weakening Door that holds back the Vile…and he’s losing the battle. As Lorena learns more about the Door and the horrifying price it takes to keep it closed, she’ll have to embrace both parts of herself to survive.

DNF at 22%

This should have been right up my alley. Some light Beauty and the Beast elements in an interesting fantasy world? I should have loved this.

The issue started right off the bat with the world-building. There’s a lot of information thrown at the reader in the first few chapters, which isn’t explained well and left me deeply confused. The basic idea of it is intriguing, but the way Miller went about presenting her world made a muddle of it. 

The biggest issue I had was with Lorena. The book is told from her perspective, in first person, and it’s almost as if the book was written in third person for all that we see Lorena’s thought processes or emotions. She barely even reacts to things. At one point, another character tells Lorena to kill her, and there’s no in-text reaction from Lorena, either outwardly or inwardly. This is made far more apparent when she meets three side characters who frankly outshine her in every way. I could have read a novel about those three characters. I could not continue reading a novel about Lorena, who came across more as a placeholder for the reader than a character in her own right. 

So, it’s a no from me, unfortunately. 

Book Review: Beyond the Sea: A Wren at War by Christian Lamb

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Mardle Books
Publication Date: August 19th, 2021
Pages: 240, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Christian Lamb is one of the last surviving Wren Officers to have served throughout the Second World War, from Blitz ravaged London, to the important Radar and Operations rooms and undertaking a vital role in D Day.

Escaping both the Spanish Flu pandemic when she was born and the pandemic we are emerging from today, she has reached the impressive age of 101. Now she leads us through the story of her extraordinary life and the wartime experiences of her fellow Wrens.

I’m a big fan of WWII memoirs, especially those written by those on the homefront. Christian Lamb’s I Only Joined for the Hat has been on my TBR list for a while, so I was excited to see her new book, Beyond the Sea: A Wren at War.

I’m not sure how, or even if, Beyond the Sea differs from her previous memoir about her time in the Wrens during WWII. I expected Beyond the Sea to contain Lamb’s thoughts and experiences, but there are vignettes from other Wrens sprinkled throughout the book. That’s not a bad thing, but I thought the focus was to be on Lamb herself, and the book to be more autobiographical, given the A Wren at War subtitle.

Lamb takes us through her early life through her post-WWII experiences as a military wife, and even a peek into her life today. Born during the 1918 pandemic, she contrasts that with the current pandemic. She provides her perspective into the causes which led to WWII, and how she and women from all classes felt they had to “do their bit.” There are some stories about culture shock when encountering those from other areas, and apparently, at one billet, the Wrens were bad enough that she asked to be transferred. That, plus some name-dropping of her Wren associate who became a duchess smacked a little of classism, but I could be misinterpreting it. She also talks about how some of the Wrens were not as clean as others, and had body odor.

A surprising amount of the book is about her ante- and post-bellum life, which was also interesting, but I think the book would have been improved by focusing on Lamb herself, and her experiences during the war, rather than bringing in letters from her friends. 

Book Review: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: September 22nd, 2020
Pages: 416, hardcover
Source: Library

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?

 As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.

Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.

It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

A sharp, witty, modern debut, Hench explores the individual cost of justice through a fascinating mix of Millennial office politics, heroism measured through data science, body horror, and a profound misunderstanding of quantum mechanics.  

This is my own fault: I’ve been over the whole “superheroes actually aren’t good people” thing for a few years now. It’s boring and I’ve rarely seen it done well. So in hindsight, I’m not sure why I picked this up, except maybe I was drawn in by the promise of an angry feminist look at superheroes as stated by the summary. If your feminism is of the white brand, it accomplishes the job. 

The internalized misogyny in this book is apparent throughout. Anna goes after women in decidedly misogynistic ways, the worst being when she targets a Maori superhero by the name of Quantum Entanglement by publicizing one of her affairs. Quantum gets a bigger role in the third act, but it doesn’t really make up for the fact that a white woman used a Maori woman’s sexuality to shame her and turned it into a weapon to use against this world’s equivalent of Superman. It’s a very 2010s tumblr idea of feminism, where if a woman gets to be as bad as the men, she’s a feminist icon. That’s not how it works, and the fact that this is never examined in the novel is a glaring misstep.

There’s also two other women who get targeted by Anna in misogynistic ways — one has an ex who stalks her, so Anna gets him to escalate his stalking, and the other is a mother who’s pregnant again, so Anna uses her children against her by having one kidnapped. Anna uses women without any hesitation, then has the nerve to feel guilty about it after the women have to deal with what her plotting has done. 

Which brings me to my other problem: The lack of self-awareness. Anna goes on about how two-faced superheroes are, then says that it’s okay when villains act the exact same way because “they’re honest about it.” So it’s okay when children get kidnapped or harmed when villains do it because, hey, they’re villains, they don’t claim to be good people? For someone as smart as the author kept telling us Anna was, this logic did not hold up. 

The characters are all weirdly lacking in history, as well. We never delve into Anna’s history–her childhood–to see how she might have gotten to the point where she was doing temp jobs for villains. The only characters who get any history, in fact, are most of the men. The women mostly only seem to exist in the present for story purposes. Frankly, some of the lagging pacing in the third act could have been cut out in favor of providing some backstory. 

The world itself, at least, is interesting enough to keep reading, and the dialogue and camaraderie between most of the characters was genuine. It just wasn’t enough to balance out the huge issues I listed above. 

Hench tried to claim it’s a feminist takedown of the superhero genre, but it’s really just more of the same white feminism that everyone grew sick of ages ago. It aims for nuance and falls decidedly short, and its attempt at deconstruction is decidedly half-baked.

Book Review: King Bullet (Sandman Slim #12) by Richard Kadrey

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: August 17th, 2021
Pages: 320, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

The incredible finale of the page-turning, high-octane Sandman Slim series filled with an explosive ending and intense kick-ass action from New York Times bestselling author Richard Kadrey.

It’s been three months since Stark stopped a death cult and a potential ghost apocalypse, and he’s at loose ends. His personal life is a mess. His professional life isn’t much better. And the world…well, the world is going to shit. L.A. is gripped by a viral epidemic that has everyone wearing masks and keeping their distance from each other. But what’s even more frightening is the Shoggot gang and their leader, King Bullet, who revels in the city’s collapse.

Who is King Bullet? No one knows. He seemingly came from nowhere with nothing but a taste for mayhem and an army of crazed killers who follow his every command. What king wants seems simple on it face: Chaos. Destruction. A city in flames. But there’s more to the king and his plans for L.A. and what Stark discovers will change Heaven, Earth, and Stark himself forever.

King Bullet is the final novel in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey. Over the last dozen years, Kadrey has taken us to Heaven, Hell, and all over Los Angeles, which, depending on your point of view, be an equally infernal realm. Stark, AKA Sandman Slim, AKA Lucifer (for a brief spell) has conquered many foes, but this time, he may be up against an enemy he can’t defeat.

A virus is plaguing LA, turning the infected into Shoggots, who consume their own flesh and mutilate themselves. They are led by King Bullet, whose agenda seems to be to cause as much chaos as possible. But is this a means to some other end? 

This didn’t feel like a finale. I had a pretty good idea early on as to how Stark would end up, and I was mostly right. But Kadrey left enough dangling threads that I think, and hope, that he’ll either spinoff a series for one of the other characters, maybe Brigitte or Candy and have some incarnation of Stark have at least a cameo. That said, if this is truly Stark’s last outing, it was a great ride. Everyone (well, everyone who is still alive) is featured, and Stark’s angst about all the choices which have led him to this point is well-considered without being maudlin.

Book Review: Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 432, hardcover
Source: Library

When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.

Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures.

As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?

There were aspects of this I really liked, but there were two big things that kept breaking my suspension of disbelief: 

1. Where are the parents? We have a reasoning for Devon’s mother not really being present in the story, but what about Chiamaka’s parents? Chiamaka reasons that her white Dad, who wouldn’t even protect her from his family’s racism, won’t be much help and of course she doesn’t want her parents to know about what she’s done, but her mother is almost forgotten and there’s no reason given for why. It feels like this was originally written with Chiamaka and Devon in college, that’s how little their parents are around. If Niveus really wanted to ruin their lives, why wouldn’t they pull their parents in as well? 

2. The ending was fine, but it suffers from the same flaw as in Get Out‘s ending: Once you think about where things go from there, it sort of falls apart. I couldn’t buy that Niveus and the Aces wouldn’t somehow pin the events of the ending on Chiamaka and Devon, that they were beaten by this one thing that happened. I do understand what the author was going for (an institution built on racism and white supremacy can’t be salvaged, and the only way forward is scorched Earth) but it wasn’t well thought out. 

At times I got the feeling I was reading a draft of the novel. The main plot was mostly pinned down, but everything else sort of fell by the wayside, including Chiamaka and Devon’s relationship, the setting, and the fact that the author had to very obviously make the parents disappear in order to get the plot to do what it needed to do. 

The atmosphere was appropriately claustrophobic and sinister, and I liked both Devon and Chiamaka’s characters. Their voices were distinct from each other, and their stories on their own stand up well. Their relationship just never clicked for me, especially not to the point that the author took them to in the ending. It seemed as if they mostly tolerated each other because they had to, and I couldn’t see them being in contact after the events of the book. 

Ace of Spades has a lot of good things going for it, but the execution was sloppy. I look forward to what Àbíké-Íyímídé does in the future, as I think once she has more experience writing books, the issues I had in this book will disappear.

Book Review: Yours Cheerfully (Dear Mrs. Bird #2) by A.J. Pearce

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: August 10th, 2021
Pages: 288, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

London, November 1941. Following the departure of the formidable Henrietta Bird from Woman’s Friend magazine, things are looking up for Emmeline Lake as she takes on the challenge of becoming a young wartime advice columnist. Her relationship with boyfriend Charles (now stationed back in the UK) is blossoming, while Emmy’s best friend Bunty, still reeling from the very worst of the Blitz, is bravely looking to the future. Together, the friends are determined to Make a Go of It.

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty and standing by her friends. 

Yours Cheerfully is the sequel (and hopefully not last in the series) to A. J. Pearce’s novel, Dear Mrs. Bird. Both books are set during WWII in a London-based women’s magazine publisher, and feature Emmy (Emmeline Lake) as she learns her craft and becomes a contributing editor to the magazine.

The magazine is tasked by the Ministry of Information to help recruit women to war effort work. Emmy and her best friend Bunty befriend a young mother who works in a factory, and Emmy writes a series of articles on the women and their work. She learns of the heartbreak the women face when their husbands and brothers are killed in action, and how they struggle to provide for themselves and their families on the much lower wages they earn. Childcare is rarely provided, so some of the women are forced to bring their children to work, causing the women to be fired by their uncaring male bosses.

Did I know about the issues before? Sure, but Pearce does a wonderful job in showing the connections between the various characters and how the women learned that they’re stronger together. It could easily have been maudlin, or the women too “stiff upper lip.” These are more of the “make do and mend” mindset. They love their families and their country, and want to “do their bit.” Taking the journey with Emmy to learn about a world far removed from her own was wonderful.

While Emmy is seeing another side of the war, she is also preparing to marry her fiance, before he is sent off to fight. She struggles to accept that he will no longer be in London, and will be, in her turn, doing her bit like the factory workers.