fiction · science fiction · YA

Book Review: Chaos on CatNet (CatNet #2) by Naomi Kritzer

Imagine a world that seems pretty normal. It’s mostly like ours, with smart phones and computers and people enjoying coffee in cutesy little cafes…and then a drone whizzes by. And after that, a robot dog trots past you, careful to avoid the driverless taxi as it crosses the street. That robot dog is still new enough to the tech scene that a few people turn to stare. That’s the world Naomi Kritzer has created in her CatNet series and in which we find ourselves again in her second and latest book featuring Steph and friends, Chaos on CatNet (Tor Teen, 2021). I’ve gushed in the past about Naomi’s Catfishing on CatNet and Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories (which I read before I started blogging, but seriously, if you read *one* book I recommend, this is it, and I don’t even normally like short stories!), but man, she just keeps getting better and better.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Naomi since around 2002. We’ve been part of the same small online parenting group since then, but my reviews are entirely independent of that. I enjoyed but didn’t love her Fires of the Faithful, which was a little outside of my normal reading wheelhouse at the time- it’s well-written, but fantasy isn’t usually my thing. I’m telling you this so that you’re confident that my review is impartial enough to be trusted. These CatNet books are amazing.

Steph is back, finally settled down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with her mother, after a life on the run from her father. Her father is in prison, awaiting trial; things are going well, albeit long-distance, with her girlfriend Rachel; her friends from the CatNet Clowder, including sentient AI CheshireCat, are still supportive; and she’s starting a new school. There’s another new girl there as well. Nell has just left (somewhat unwillingly) the Christian cult she lived in with her mother, who has disappeared. She now lives with her father and his polyamorous wife and girlfriends- it’s a complicated situation, but Steph and Nell find a lot to bond over with their shared unconventional backgrounds.

Not all is well, though. The social media networks Steph and Nell are using are sending bizarre messages, asking them to complete strange tasks that increasingly cause Steph to suspect that these networks are being run by the other sentient AI out there- the one who isn’t her cat picture-loving friend, CheshireCat. CheshireCat shares her fears, and it’s starting to look like Nell’s former cult group (along with Nell’s mother) and Steph’s mother’s dangerous former business partner Rajiv may be involved as well. When the sentient AI-controlled networks begin causing riots and explosions in Minneapolist-St. Paul, will Steph, CheshireCat, and friends be able to intervene in time to stop the chaos from spreading across the country?

My synopsis doesn’t do this near-future YA thriller-with-excellent-queer-rep justice. This is serious edge-of-your-seat reading, one that I didn’t find stressful like I do most thrillers, just deeply intriguing. I blew through this book in less than twenty-four hours, and given my lack of reading time these days, you *know* that means it’s incredible. Steph is mature for her age- who wouldn’t be, after the life she’s led with her mother?- but she’s still subject to the longings of a teenager’s first experience with love. Nell shares in her awkwardness of having been raised in a deeply unconventional way, but hers is more acute, and she’s more wary than Steph. I really enjoyed watching the dynamics of their new friendship play out.

The Minneapolis-St.Paul area, or at least its weather, is as much of a character here as any human or sentient AI, as it features heavily during many of the book’s scenes. Steph and Nell are often out in brutally cold temperatures and this becomes a factor in a lot of their decisions. Nell’s former cult is also another huge part of the book that you know pulled me right in. I may have gasped when I got to that part (Naomi has a degree in religion, so various forms of this often appear in her stories. I love that I know this).

The sci-fi aspects of this aren’t over-the-top; I’m not a sci-fi person, but this was just straight-up interesting. It’s set in the near-future, where technology is just a little more advanced than what we have right now, and all that plays into the plot. It’s not so tech-y that I (who isn’t the most tech-y person out there) was confused, but the story was based in a reality that even I could imagine as stemming from the technology we have now. I never really saw myself as someone who would enjoy- actually LOVE- a series of books where a sentient AI is a main character, but CheshireCat is an utter delight, as is this book, and its companion.

You don’t need to have read Catfishing on CatNet to enjoy Chaos, but both books are so much fun and so enjoyable, why wouldn’t you? I highly recommend this whole series; you won’t regret it.

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction

Book Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Last year, via an email conversation, Nick Clausen, author of They Come At Night, suggested that I read Replay by Ken Grimwood (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1998), after learning that I liked books about time travel. (I’m not much into sci-fi stuff- no space-opera-type novels for me, thanks- but falling back in time? NEAT!). I immediately slapped that book on my TBR after noting happily that my library owned a copy of it…and then it sat there. Because sometimes TBRs are where books go to die. Not usually mine- I work hard on keeping mine to a manageable number during non-pandemic times when the libraries are open- but sometimes you just don’t get to things in a timely manner. But Sunday morning was when I downloaded a library ebook of Replay to my kindle…and Sunday evening was when I finished it.

Yeah. It’s that good.

Jeff Winston, 43, is dying. His chest is exploding with pain- obviously something with his heart- and everything fades to black. Except when he wakes up- wakes up???- he’s 18 again and in college. A young body, a young life, everything in front of him. He can live his life over, make different and better choices, do things right this time. Except he dies again, at 43, and wakes up- again!- to find himself still in college.

Caught in an endless loop of repeating his life, Jeff takes multiple paths and explores options he never had the first time around, living lives funded by the invested money he earns by placing bets on remembered outcomes for various sports matches. It’s a long, lonely existence, always questioning why and never receiving any answers, when he finally, finally meets another replayer…but the answers don’t come easily there, either. But maybe it’s not about finding answers…maybe it’s about what you learn from living through it. And there have been so many experiences for Jeff to live through…

Man. This is a novel. Ken Grimwood’s writing flows like water, and he’s never, ever overly descriptive, spending only the exact time needed in each scene and using precisely the right amount of words to describe what he needs to in order to place the reader directly in the scene alongside Jeff Winston, and not a single word more. Far from feeling bare, this makes for a fast-paced page turner. I have no idea how anyone could possible linger for days with this book; I HAD to keep tearing through it in order to know what happened next. What would Jeff’s next replay look like? Who would he be? Who would he find? What did it all mean???

Pace isn’t something I normally notice in books, but Replay hits the mark in that category. As Jeff experiences many periods of the ages 18 to 43 in this book, Mr. Grimwood had to be brief, but he does so in the most informative way, capturing emotion and zeitgeist without ever leaving the reader feeling as though they’ve missed out. Would I have liked to know Jeff’s exact day-to-day details? Of course, but that’s only because this kind of stuff fascinates me. Each replay is written to perfection- it’s Groundhog Day over a longer period of time, and it’s delicious.

I was a little nervous going into this, to be honest. I don’t read a lot of novels by men, solely because I’m not interested in reading the kind of violence or Holden Caulfield-style navel-gazing that pops up in so many of them (to say nothing of the “She breasted boobily down the hall” style writing that seems to pop up far too often among male writers). I was hooked within the first few pages, though, and I couldn’t get enough.

There are a lot of deeper themes here- loneliness, isolation, self-examination (the good kind!), dealing with loss, but the book can absolutely be read as a guy’s adventures repeating his life, and either way is good. If you’ve read any of Ken Grimwood’s other books, I’d love to hear about them and if you enjoyed them. Replay was amazing. Major thanks to Nick Clausen for the recommendation; this made for an amazing Sunday!

Ken Grimwood passed away in 2003. You can read his wikipedia page here.

blog tour · fiction · science fiction · YA

#TheWriteReads Blog Tour Presents Catalyst by Tracy Richardson

Hey guys! Welcome to the latest stop on TheWriteReads’ Blog Tour for Catalyst (The Catalysts #2) by Tracy Richardson (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2020). I’m your friendly first chapter review guide, so buckle up and I’ll introduce you to our narrator, but you’re going to want to don your tinfoil hat before we take off.

Meet Marcie. Upon first glance, she may seem like your average young woman, set to spend the summer helping her mother on her archaeological dig at Angel Mounds with her brother Eric and his girlfriend Renee. Not a bad way to spend a summer, right? But Marcie’s…different. She’s had some experiences with things not of this world, including a one-time connection with the spirit of a Native American girl that she was never able to recreate, but that always left her open to more, and wondering.

Almost the second Marcie steps foot onto the dig site, she recognizes that something’s up, something that not everyone is aware of. Zeke and Lorraine, two of the grad students, seem to be able to communicate with her just by thought, something that jars her and sets her on edge, especially because Zeke leaves her feeling uneasy. There’s something about them that’s maybe not quite right. It might be a long summer at this dig site…

Okay, I’m definitely intrigued. While I’ve never been a huge reader of paranormal books, when I was young, one of my favorite reads was The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, about a young girl who can move objects with her eyes and who eventually comes across other kids like her. That’s the kind of paranormal stuff I enjoy reading about, and with Marcie being able to both communicate with spirits and hear other people’s thought communication toward her, I want to know more.

This first chapter invites a whoooooooooole lotta questions: What exactly is being dug at this dig site? What’s the deal with Zeke and Lorraine? Where did they come from and what’s their story? Are they dangerous? How can they communicate via thoughts, and why Marcie and no one else? What makes that possible? What’s the extent of their powers, and of Marcie’s? Are there more than just these varying ways of paranormal communication? Is there a how-to at the end of this book? (Yes? Please say yes.)

My reading time right now is so much more limited than usual, but this is definitely one I’ll be coming back to when I’m not trying to get through other stacks of books. From the blurb, this novel also pulls in environmental themes, which is *so* important, and I’m glad to see this cropping up in various genres of fiction. I’m curious as to how it plays out and if it manages to inspire the reader to be more proactive about caring for the environment without verging too far into the dystopian. Guess I’ll find out when I’m able to dive in further, but if you’re intrigued by characters with special powers (and seriously, aren’t we all, at least a little? Who doesn’t want to read minds and move things with their eyes and maybe fly?), Catalyst may be the escapist fiction you need right now.

Thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Tracy Richardson for including me on this tour!

Visit Tracy Richardson’s website here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

Follow The_WriteReads on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · time travel

Kindred- Octavia Butler

I’d heard of Kindred by Octavia Butler (Beacon Press, 1979) before; it was the first science fiction novel written (or published, maybe) by a black woman, which is huge. Since I’ve never really been a big sci-fi fan, I never really considered reading it until Anne Bogel recommended it on an episode of What Should I Read Next. As soon as she started to describe the plot, I sat up out of bed in the dark, looked Kindred up on Goodreads, and hit that Want-to-Read button. I. Was. In.

Dana, a black woman, has barely moved into the new house with her white husband when she finds herself thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, just in time to save a young boy from drowning. The act of doing so nearly gets her killed by the boy’s parents and she returns to her own time with seconds to spare. She’s barely back before it happens again: she’s thrown back to the past to save this boy’s life again, and she comes to realize she’s there to keep him alive, distasteful as he and his slave-owning family can be, long enough to father the child who will become her great-grandmother.

The biggest challenge is, of course, learning to live as a slave. The literal backbreaking work, having no power or control over one’s life, the whippings, the constant disparagement, watching families split apart when someone is sold, it’s almost more than Dana can bear, but she just has to hold on until this despicable boy can become her great-great-grandfather…

What a mesmerizing book. During one of the trips, Dana’s modern day husband, Kevin, is dragged back with her. He poses as her owner, and there are unforeseen consequences that I won’t spoil that really make this novel shine. The descriptions are, on occasion, stomach-turning, and they should be; slavery was a horrible stain in American history and its consequences live on today, so Kindred and books that depict these horrors definitely need to be more widely read. I’m sorry that it took me this long to get to it.

Ms. Butler does a fantastic job at portraying Rufus, the boy who grows up become Dana’s great-great-grandfather, as both a decent human being and a hideous monster. I didn’t quite understand how Dana was able to keep herself from fully hating him, after seeing all the pain he and his terrible father inflicted on the slaves; I’m not sure I could do that, and maybe I’m all the worse for not being that kind of person, I’m not sure. Maybe it was what Dana did in order to survive her time in the past. Either way, though Dana tried her best to influence Rufus to be a better person, both for her sake and for the sake of the slaves on the plantation, for whatever reason, it didn’t take, and his behavior, along with that of his father, is often monstrous.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Race relations, class, women’s issues, politics, I think I could reread this and still miss quite a bit, because it’s an absolute tapestry of complexity. This is one of those books that I feel like almost anything I say will result in a massive spoiler; if history intrigues you, this is your book. Don’t let the sci-fi label fool you. There are no aliens, no space ships, no dystopian societies with robot overlords. This is time travel, pure and simple and terrifying, and it makes for a powerful novel that everyone should read.

Octavia Butler passed away in 2006.

Visit her website here.

fiction · science fiction

Hamartia- Raquel Rich

I’m not into science fiction. Never really have been. With the exception of the Star Wars movies (the older ones, not the newer. I blame my dad watching them when I was young; I must’ve imprinted on them), it’s never really been a genre that spoke to me. But when Raquel Rich offered me a copy of her sci-fi novel Hamartia for review, it piqued my interest, despite it being so far outside my normal reading boundaries, and it might inspire you to read outside yours as well.

Grace’s worst nightmare is coming true: her son is dying. Nine year-old Jordan has been stricken with Metagenesis, a disease in which the sufferer loses their soul and eventually dies. It’s slaughtering humans, but Grace never expected it to come knocking on her door, especially not now, when things are already complicated enough with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Marc. But all the doctors say the same thing…except one. In a secret meeting, Dr. Claudio Messie, the leading Metagenesis expert, proposes a solution to Grace: go back in time, locate one of Marc’s former lives- because Marc is, of course, her soulmate- and inject him with the contents of a syringe that will mark him as Jordan’s donor soul. Jordan’s life will be spared, and humanity will celebrate Metagenesis’s cure. Simple enough, right? Maybe not so much.

Thus begins Grace’s journey to a time more than eighty years in the past, to the early 2000’s, with her former best friend Kay as support. What should have been a quick trip turns into a major undertaking when David Williams, the donor soul, is nowhere to be found; Grace and Kay are being followed; their room is ransacked; and Grace isn’t sure she can fully trust the woman who used to be her best friend. Grace’s ambivalence only grows when a familiar-looking stranger clues her in to the intricacies of the donor soul cure: if she goes through with it, Marc- her future husband, whom she’s not entirely sure she’s truly over- will die.

What’s a time-travelling gal to do?

This is a doozy of a story. Ms. Rich doesn’t shy away from complexity, yet handles it with aplomb, taking the reader on a wild journey with peril and Sophie’s choices around every corner. The ending doesn’t wrap up neatly, instead setting the novel up for an ambitious and intriguing sequel. This is sci-fi for people who have shied away from the genre in the past. It’s time travel and futuristic cars, not space weapons or alien creatures, and something about Ms. Rich’s voice reminds me a little of Veronica Roth (she of the Divergent series). So even if you’ve renounced science fiction, Hamartia may be the book that will change your mind.

I’m glad I read this. I enjoyed Grace’s heart-pounding race through the past for even a chance at saving her beloved son’s life, and was especially entertained by Grace and Kay’s confusion at the bizarre things they encountered while there (people ate that stuff? Single use products? Oil– the kind you can’t even eat- was at the center of the economy? I’m with them). Having read this, I’m definitely going to be taking a closer look at the books marked Science Fiction at the library, instead of wrinkling my nose and passing right by. Hamartia might have opened a whole new door for me.

Huge thanks to Raquel Rich for providing me with a copy of Hamartia for review!

Check out Raquel Rich’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.