fiction · YA

Book Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Ooh, time travel. And YA. I like both of these, so that’s how Passenger by Alexandra Bracken (Disney-Hyperion, 2016) ended up on my TBR. It’s a series, and while I’m not normally much of a series reader, I figured I’d give it a try.

Passenger tells the dual-narrative story of Etta, an up-and-coming violinist who is thrown back in time to meet Nicholas, a sailor whose skin color has been at the mercy of the cruel, manipulative Ironwood family for far too long. The Ironwoods want nothing more than to control everything, and it’s through Etta that they’ll make this happen- or else her mother will die. Offered a taste of freedom but touched by the desire to keep Etta safe, Nicholas tears off after her through time, and together the two of them seek out the astrolabe hidden by Etta’s traveler mother.

It’s no easy task for a multitude of reasons, including the evil Thorns, the difficulties of time traveling without standing out, and the never-ending prejudice that crops up in every. single. society. Their journey will bring them closer together, but that only makes the danger that much scarier…

I liked but didn’t love this. The characters are fine (Nicholas is particularly enjoyable), the settings are fascinating (various countries at various points throughout history), the villains are utterly dastardly… I think the storyline was just too complicated for me to fully enjoy right now, combined with the fact that I tend to prefer first-person narratives rather than third-person. I realize this may put me in the minority of readers; my library book club has stated that they prefer third-person narration, which surprised me, because I’m so very much a first-person narration fan. (I blame my childhood obsession with The Baby-Sitters Club series. First person narration forever!) Third person keeps everything at such a distance, I feel, whereas first person feels more real and immediate.

For me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

I did feel like Ms. Bracken handles the never-ending racism Nicholas experiences very well, and in a delicate way. She never shies away from it and she makes it a point to drive home how exhausting it is to live with this every day of one’s life. Etta, who is white and has been fairly sheltered throughout her life, occasionally forgets this is an issue and is brought back to the harsh realization in real-time. It’s a little annoying but unfortunately realistic, I think.

If you enjoy time travel and can handle more complicated plot lines right now, this might be the book for you. For me, it was a good story, but the intricacies were a little too much right now.

Visit Alexandra Bracken’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

blog tour

#TheWriteReads Presents: Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D. L. Orton Blog Tour

Howdy ho, fellow readers! Your friendly first chapter reviewer here with a new book that seems fairly apt for the times, Crossing in Time (Between Two Evils #1) by D.L. Orton (Rocky Mountain Press, 2015). Right from the start, this seems like a whopper of a story, and I have questions.

The prologue starts out in what seems like a post-apocalyptic nightmare, where Isabel is forcing herself to buy a gun from a skeevy creeper in the parking lot of a burned-out Walmart somewhere out west in view of the Rockies. Instead of money, she’s got a backpack full of spices- pepper, dry mustard, you know the kind- and the parking lot she’s in is full of other makeshift businesses. She goes through with the purchase, not without Skeevy Creeper Gun Dude nearly murdering a stray dog and making some gross lecherous comments towards her (BECAUSE OF COURSE). The prologue ends with Isabel looking at the wasteland around her and asking herself, “Oh my God, Diego, what have we done?”

Wait- Diego? Who’s Diego??? And what on earth did they do?!?!!???

As the first chapter starts, ten months before the apocalyptic hellscape of the prologue, we meet up with an earlier version of Isabel, who is somewhere in her early 40’s. Life seems normal as she’s coming out of what seems like divorce proceedings in downtown Denver, until she twists her ankle catching her heel in a grate and is rescued by a man who seems familiar- yup, you guessed it, Diego. The two of them had a romantic relationship that ended several years ago; neither one of them seem completely over the other, but now that they’ve reconnected, Isabel reluctantly agrees to have dinner with him.

*record scratch*

How on earth did they get from business casual in downtown Denver to the apocalyptic nightmare scenario in the prologue in just ten months? (Although, looking around at the world right now…*nervous laughter*) Dystopian/apocalyptic fiction isn’t usually my thing, and I don’t think I could mentally handle it right at this moment, but I’m deeply curious as to what the heck happened. This is a strong, strong beginning, and I have a feeling that D.L. Orton had a LOT of agents requesting full manuscripts after seeing these first pages!

There’s time travel here (which I love), and romance, and this is something that’s going to stay on my kindle so I can read it further when my exhausted brain can manage it better and more fully, but this is an intriguing beginning, and if you’re into dystopian love stories (I did not know that was a genre!), this just may be the book for you. I’m looking forward to reading everyone else’s reviews so I know exactly what I’ll be getting into and when I can handle more.

Plus, check out that gorgeous cover. I love the swirl of bluish light!

Thanks to Dave from #TheWriteReads and D.L. Orton for including me on this tour!

Visit D.L. Orton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow TheWriteReads and TheWriteReadsOnTour 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.

fiction · YA

Opposite of Always- Justin A. Reynolds

Another book that came from the recommendation of a fellow book blogger, and another book down from my TBR! This was checked out from the library ALL. SUMMER. LONG (you go, local kids!!!), but now that they’re back in school, Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2019) was back on the shelf and subsequently in my enormous heap of library books.

Jack King is the king of Almost, never quite reaching his goal no matter how hard he tries. Years of longing after his best female friend, who is (conveniently? inconveniently) dating his best male friend, have, however, been entirely wiped out by Jack’s attendance at a party during his college visit. There, he meets Kate, with whom he shares an immediate and nearly tangible connection. Hoping to leave ‘almost’ in the dust, Jack begins a slow, easy relationship with Kate, but of course nothing could be that simple.

It turns out that Kate’s sick- really sick- and suddenly, with a speed that Jack can barely comprehend, she’s dead. It’s almost more than Jack can take- until all at once, he’s thrown back in time to the night that he and Kate met. Can he prevent her death? Is that what he’s supposed to do? Or could his best friends, Franny and Jillian, need a little help too? It’s Groundhog Day for the YA set as Jack battles time, over and over again, to finally ditch that King of Always mantle.

If you enjoy that classic Bill Murray film, or even if you’ve ever wished you could have a do-over, this book is worth looking into. Jack is extremely likable as a character; he never quite measures up to what he truly wants to be, and I think that’s something that so many of us can relate to, no matter what our age. His relationships with his best friends are endearing and supportive- we’re talking serious friend goals here (with the exception, of course, the timeline where Jack makes a few decisions that affect Franny negatively, but to his credit, he learns from this), and his commitment to Kate undeniable. The supporting adult cast is also really amazing. Jack’s parents are older and are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary during the story, and while Jack on occasion gets grossed out by their physical affection, it’s obvious that he appreciates what their long-lasting love has given him. Franny (short for Francisco) lives with his abuela, who is a pillar of support, and even his mostly-deadbeat, fresh-out-of-prison father has an admirable character arc throughout the course of the book. Mr. Reynolds really hit a grand slam here in showing how much change is possible, even for adults who have been hardened by time and circumstance.

I love the concept of short-distance time travel, as well as repeated days and situations. While Bill Murphy kept waking up on the same day at the end of every day, Jack lives out a period of four months, time and time again, in order to get everything right- and there’s even a time when he goes FULL Bill Murray and kind of throws his hands up and does basically everything wrong, which I seriously loved. This is the only sci-fi element of the whole story, and it was so enjoyable to read.

And I can’t finish this review without mentioning how much I enjoyed a book with an entirely non-white main cast. (I’m trying to think of any side characters who were mentioned as being white, and none are coming to mind. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and I’ll amend this post!) The skin color or ancestry of the characters isn’t necessarily a focus of the story; it’s just part of who they are, and these are just black characters living their lives (lives steeped in time travel, of course!). The only other book I can think of that I’ve read that can claim an all (or mostly) black cast of characters is The Gift Giver by Joyce Hansen (again, please feel free to correct me in the comments if you’ve read this book and I’m wrong; it’s been a few years since my last reread of this, but from what I recall, the cast was mostly black), which I read repeatedly and loved as a child. Would Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins count here? I can’t remember if there were any named white characters in that story. Reading over my review of that book makes me want to read more from Ms. Bev! I digress… The books differ in that The Gift Giver takes place in the Bronx, amongst families who are struggling financially, whereas in Opposite of Always, these are just middle class black families living their lives. While Franny’s abuela works multiple jobs and is often late to his games because of this, it’s never focused on heavily, and it’s a nice change from so many of the books published when I was young, which strayed heavily into ‘The Dangers of a Single Story‘ territory whenever a non-white character showed up. A book like Opposite of Always is a huge deal just for its cast alone, and it makes my heart sing to know that it’s been so popular.

So, to recap: YA. Time travel with a Groundhog Day-bent. Romance. Saving the girl. Saving friends. Making things right and getting chance after chance to do it. A cast of characters that makes this book stand out. Sharp, snappy writing with a sense of humor and captivating characters. What’s not to love? Don’t let the size fool you; this heavy tome will have you flipping pages like the wind, desperate to know if Jack ever manages to work things out. And if you’re into reading books before the movie comes out, GET ON THIS TRAIN NOW, BECAUSE THEY’RE MAKING A MOVIE OUT OF IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Visit Justin A. Reynolds’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

blog tour · fiction · time travel

TheWriteReads On Tour Presents: A Different Time by Michael K. Hill

I fully blame my mother’s stash of time travel romances (so popular in the 80’s and early 90’s!) for my love of a good time travel story, and when I heard about TheWriteReads‘ latest blog tour book, A Different Time by Michael K. Hill (Tangent Press, 2019), the young teenager in me that used to sneak books from the downstairs coat closet leaped up and begged to join in, and who am I to say no when a story deals with communicating with the past???

Keith Nolan has been a little more than down on his luck for a very long time. His parents both died young, leaving him alone, fending for himself in this big lonely modern-day world. His job pays the bills, but it’s not exactly fulfilling, and his social life consists of a single guy friend with whom he eats takeout food and plays video games. No girls to speak of, Keith’s a little too shy and awkward for that. One of the few things in life that does bring him joy is spending his weekends combing flea markets for the comic books that will complete the collection of Uncanny X-Men his father left him. But when he finally manages to complete his collection, Keith is stunned by the realization that he never planned for what to do with his life beyond that. Enter Lindsey…

Or, not exactly. Lindsey, an artist and a dreamer, is trying to figure out her post-high school life in 1989. Her impatient mother isn’t willing to let her take her time, and her skeezy stepfather isn’t making Lindsey’s home situation any easier. Desperate for someone, anyone, to talk to, Lindsey pulls out an old camcorder and begins to record a video journal in the hopes of talking out her problems and getting her life in order.

The discovery of an old VHS-C tape at a flea market has Keith running for the VCR and an adapter tape, because merely touching the tape sends tingles running up his arm. And as the tape plays and Keith watches Lindsey, somehow, some way, the two realize they can communicate with each other. It doesn’t make sense to either of them, but Keith knows this is something special, something life-changing…if only he can track down Lindsey’s other tapes. But how? And will he be too late?

While it’s not traditional time travel, it’s still close enough to make my time travel-lovin’ heart squeal with joy. Keith is a sympathetic character from the start. In the beginning, we see him as a young boy, surrounded by the love of his parents on a birthday trip to New York where he’s saved from being run down in the street by the woman who turns out to be his favorite children’s book author, and the next thing we know, he’s a new adult, still aching over the loss of his parents who died on his fourteenth birthday. It’s easy to ache along with him and root for him as he searches (in some vividly disgusting situations!) for Lindsey’s other videotapes.

Lindsey is just as sympathetic. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce and subsequent move from Hawaii to California, Lindsey is so many of us in the years after high school, unsure of which way to go and which path to take. Her mother has, for all purposes, abandoned her emotionally in favor of focusing on her new and extremely skeezy husband (there’s a content warning here for an attempted assault, along with what skews toward emotional abuse from her mother, so please beware if you’re sensitive to these subjects), and Lindsey’s sadness and confusion make her a character you’ll desperately want to find a happily ever after.

What Keith and Lindsey discover together through the tapes is close to instalove, but it’s magical and spellbinding and otherworldly. Some of the best descriptions of the entire book come when Keith is desperately tearing through flea market dumpsters in a frenzied search for Lindsey’s other tapes. Do NOT eat while you’re reading this section; the phrase “garbage juice” alone should tell you enough of a reason why, and I was applauding Mr. Hill’s ability to create a scene I could practically smell from my comfortable reading place in my (better-scented!) home. It was entirely grotesque, incredibly entertaining to read, and it ended up being my favorite part of the book because of how easily I was transported right into those dumpsters alongside Keith.

This had a completely different ending than I expected it would, which pleased me quite a bit; I love when I think I have everything figured out, but it turns out that I was wrong and the ending is actually far more interesting than the one I was expected. The concept of being able to communicate with someone in the past has intrigued me for years, I even adored it in my childhood- if you’re familiar with the book Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, that book involved both time travel and communicating with the person with whom Charlotte switched places via letters strategically hidden in a bedpost- but the concept of being able to speak to someone through old VHS tapes was a new (and deeply intriguing!) one to me, and A Different Time has now got me wondering what time travel books will look like in the future when characters travel to and communicate with people of this era. Youtube videos? Files on old jump drives? There are so many possibilities here!

What a fun and ultimately charming book Mr. Hill has written. I’m so happy I got the chance to be a part of this blog tour, and if you’re a fan of books with elements of time travel and a little bit of the supernatural, A Different Time is worth YOUR time.

Thanks for stopping by on this blog tour- huge thanks to Dave at TheWriteReads and Michael K. Hill for allowing me to take part- and I hope you’ll check out some of the other stops!

Visit Michael K. Hill’s website here.

Follow him 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.