Adult Book Reviews

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks
Chernaik, Judith
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

When it comes to biographies of famous artists, it can be difficult to separate their life from their life’s work. It is fascinating to understand the influences of an artist, especially when in the context of their creation. However, much of the ability to talk about the artist’s life depends on common knowledge of their artistic portfolio. For slightly more obscure artists, finding the balance between discussing their personal life and providing an explanation of their art can be a challenge. Schumann: The Faces and the Masks attempts to cover both Robert Schumann’s life and his musical pieces.

While revealing some of the more interesting secret codes in Schumann’s music in this book, the moments discussing the songs in detail seem to derail the whole narrative of the biography. Schumann’s life was fascinating enough as it was, with the drama involved in his marriage to Clara Wieck, as well as his involvement with several other famous musicians (like Mendelssohn and Brahms). Bringing in sections that basically amount to music theory might have been better suited in an appendix instead of fusing with the story as it progressed through his life.

Despite these jarring asides, Schumann’s life story is still interesting enough that I suggest anyone who is interested in Romantic composers, or even music in general, should give this book a read. The author does an excellent job of highlighting the ups and downs of this creative individual who suffered for his art almost as much as he suffered from his various conditions (an STI and a clear case of bipolar disorder). The fact that he had such a talented and devoted wife in Clara throughout his life is merely a testament to how forward their relationship was and how transformative she was on his life on the whole.

A fascinating biography with jarring bits of music theory, I give Schumann: The Faces and the Masks 3.5 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Shadow of the Hegemon
Card, Orson Scott
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

It’s almost fitting how the follow-on book in the spin-off series to Ender’s Game takes the same tactic as Speaker for the Dead and transforms itself into a completely different genre. While Speaker for the Dead and its sequels still maintained a level of science fiction for the Ender saga, Shadow of the Hegemon pivots into a political thriller with almost no hints of sci-fi to be seen. The strength of the characters helped make this transition relatively smooth, but it still highlights how these child-aged individuals hardly have any child-like qualities.

While the Shadow saga certainly needed to start out focusing on Bean, I did appreciate how Shadow of the Hegemon developed many of the supporting characters. For the first time in both series, I felt like the reader was able to know Petra and Peter while also seeing what Achilles was capable of accomplishing. The results of bringing back children war heroes to Earth had a logical feel to its progression, even if I didn’t really care much about southeastern Asian politics to really engage with the politics of the plot. That’s not to say the whole “cat and mouse” between Achilles and Bean wasn’t interesting; it just wasn’t what had brought me to this series in the first place.

Of course, having read the Ender saga first, I can already see the early ripples of how this side-series will start to wrap up. Now that Ender is less of a presence in the Shadow series, other characters finally have a chance to show what they can do. While I’ll reserve my predictions might change with what actually happens, I get the sense that Peter’s tenure as Hegemon changes the world just as Bean changes into some super-intelligent giant. I will admit that some of Orson Scott Card’s predictions from 2000 still seem plausible today, given the political climate, it’s clear that the author did his research before playing with the ever-important sci-fi “what if” scenario.

A political pivot from a well-known sci-fi series, I give Shadow of the Hegemon 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Awards:
Book Review: Jet Girl
Johnson, Caroline
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

This book is an insider's look at the military establishment, particularly the elite Navy forces. Johnson overcomes so much to become a fighter pilot only to be alienated by the Navy's most elite squadron. Told with honesty, Johnson's grit is something to be admired.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Book Cover
Ibanez, Isabel
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Ximenia Rojas has been the decoy for Condesa Catalina ever since the usurper Atoc overthrow the Illustrarians a decade ago. Ximenia's family, along with the Condesa's, perished during the civil war, and Ximenia and her fellow Illustrians want revenge. When Atoc summons the Condesa to the palace to be his bride, Ximenia goes in Catalina's place and uses her weaving magic to send messages to the Illustrians via tapestry. With only eight weeks before the wedding, Ximenia must find intel about a magical gem that is the Illustrian's only hope.

My literary 2020 is off to a great start with this gem of a historical fantasy YA novel! I went in with fairly low expectations as 2019 was, on the whole, not a great year for YA fantasy. This was very good and felt like something of a course correction. The "historical" aspect covers Bolivian politics and the introduction of cocaine, at least somewhat (I know nothing about Bolivia and the eARC didn't have an author's note at the end, but the author does reference her two Bolivian parents) and deftly weaves a story of magic, moonlight and betrayal. The moon magic is subtle, but well utilized. Ximenia's ability is, for lack of a better phrase, quite cool. The author took a familiar story of rebellion and a headstrong girl and combined those seemingly stale tropes with magical realism and Bolivian flavor to create a book that felt like something new. The romance was earned. The main character grows a lot throughout the course of the book. Ximenia's story is tied up by the end, but there's an intriguing jungle based thread that's left dangling (not a spoiler!) that I'd be willing to bet will be a second book. I'll read it.

Also, I dare you to read this book and not want some tasty Bolivian treats. The food sounds amaaaaaaaaaaazing and it's mentioned a lot.

TLDR: Woven in Moonlight takes a familiar tale of revolution and spices it up with excellent character development and creative magical realism. I'm having trouble thinking of something to compare it to, because I like it better than most books that I've read that are similar (The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson for example - this is in the same zone, but I enjoyed it a lot more). Recommended for readers who like their fantasies to be revolutionary (ha) with a strong female lead and a touch of magic. 4 stars - I really liked it.

Thanks to Netgalley and Page Street Books for the eARC, which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. Woven in Moonlight is available for purchase or you can put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Book Cover
Weir, Andy
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

After a NASA crew member is left behind on planet Mars, he has a huge to-do list. First, come in contact with NASA to prove he is alive, don't starve, don't die, then make it home alive. I'm not a huge fan of any science fiction type book, however, this was indeed an exception. I loved the perspectives the author chose to include, and the humor he shot into his characters gives the story personality. I suggest this book to an eighth grade audience; there is some inappropriate language and all of the science attributes are complex to understand. I strongly suggest to you this book if you want to be left on the edge of your seat with every new chapter, right up until the end.

Reviewer's Name: Jaime P.
Heartfire
Card, Orson Scott
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

It’s been a while since I read this far into a series, and I can start to see why I like trilogies and stand-alone books. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this series had evolved into a courtroom drama instead of a historical fantasy. At this point, the whole premise of this series seems to have veered off course and has lost its focus to tackle unrelated issues that were somewhat prominent at the time. Or, at least it’s merely acting as a chance to name drop historical figures and take the side of history against well-known issues that haven’t aged well over time. If anything, Heartfire could have easily been the fourth book in the series, since Alvin Journeyman added nothing to the story. Even so, Heartfire didn’t feel as strong as earlier books in the series. It almost seems like there’s more of a focus on world-building. There is less focus on actually progressing the story—like the path toward the Crystal City. Certain plot elements were almost entirely forgotten as well, even if there was a whole legal battle in the last book to re-hash how Alvin came into possession of a sentient golden plow (which itself is still unclear why it’s important).

By now, I’m merely reading the series on autopilot just to see if there is any conclusion to the alternate history presented here. I still think there are clever takes on historical figures, but by now, they seem added in as a heavy winking nod to the reader, most of whom will already know the referenced individual. Perhaps the lack of overall character growth in this book is what made it such a so-so read for me. Sure, there were baby steps toward some redemption arc, but in the end, nothing ended up changing the drive of the overarching story.

Another weak link in the Alvin Journeyman series, I give Heartfire 3.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Book Review: Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood book jacket
Noah, Trevor
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

Not bad. I was expecting more on his move to Los Angeles and the establishment of his career and time on the Daily Show but the memoir doesn't cover that. I guess I should have known that judging by the title. There was a little bit of jumping around and muddling of incidents in his life, but overall it was educational and entertaining.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Awards:
Pandora's Lab book jacket
Offit, Paul A.
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Science is an interesting realm. The public would sure like to think that all scientists are dedicated to finding the purest form of some scientific concept and modifying it to benefit society. However, some things become readily clear: not all societies are the same, and science can be abused. If anything, some of the worst scientific discoveries of the last few centuries were made with the best intentions. Unfortunately, more often than not, the full science wasn’t brought to the table, and plenty of people suffered because of it. Enter Pandora’s Lab, a selection of a few of the worst scientific discoveries and the stories behind what made them go awry.

Each of the scientific discoveries covered in this book had slightly different negative impacts on the world, but the reason why they became so notorious is almost ubiquitous. Science is no place for emotion, so finding quick fixes for something by using science can create worse problems than the ones that were initially there. Scientific rigor is also of utmost importance. Even if many of these horrific discoveries received Nobel prizes, hindsight showed skewed results from the start. Every new and fantastic technology created from scientific research should be scrutinized with a heaping of salt to ensure it can’t be abused.

On the flip side, ignoring sound scientific facts or not considering the full, worldwide implications of a discovery is just as dangerous. Ignorance is bliss, as long as the consequences don’t directly impact you. While we do have the benefit of hindsight, it’s essential to use the lessons presented in this book. We need to examine the science and technology being developed today and do our due diligence to make sure that they don’t inspire genocide or doom all of humanity to an unsustainable new way of life.

A grave lesson about the consequences of bad science, I give Pandora’s Lab 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin M. W.
The Martian book jacket
Weir, Andy
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

As a crew of astronauts leave from Mars, Mark Watney, an astronaut is left behind as he was presumed dead. Watney is forced to survive on Mars with the limited resources and supplies that he has with him. As he is doing so, NASA on Earth are diligently working to bring him home for a rescue mission.

The Martian is a fictional story that interests those who are interested in either science and/or action. Bringing both of these together, it illustrates a stressful novel that will keep the reader on.

Reviewer Grade: 11

Reviewer's Name: Nam T
1984
Orwell, George
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

1984 introduces Winston Smith as the primary character. Smith is a middle-aged man that lives within a dystopian society in April of 1984. Being nearly 4 decades after World War II and just a couple of years after the apparent Atomic Wars, Smith lives through the totalitarian state of Oceania, where is activity is consistently surveyed. At this point, Smith attempts to relocate himself from this totalitarian state in order to put him back to normal behavior.

1984 is another novel involving a dystopia, however, it stands out for its strong character development. The premise of the story is heavily shown through the setting, as it demonstrates a controlled and tyrannical lifestyle.

Reviewer Grade: 11

Reviewer's Name: Nam T
Awards:
The Things They Carried book jacket
O'Brien, Tim
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

The Things They Carried follows through the perspective of a soldier within the 23rd Infantry Division. Enlisted during the Vietnam War, the book covers over the soldier's, as well as the platoons experiences throughout. The Things They Carried is a collection of stories that correlate to one another, bringing an ultimate immersion to those that are interested of any war, or historical context.

The Things They Carried is a book that has a deeper insight within the emotional, mental, and physical state of the soldiers that went through the Vietnam War. Having a darker and more serious tone than other novels, it is one that stands out and deserves recognition.

Reviewer Grade: 11

Reviewer's Name: Nam T
Bomb book jacket
Shienken, Steve
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

This book is perfect for young history enthusiasts, around the age of middle school. It's all about how the world's deadliest weapon was created, researched, spied on, and used. Explaining the race and allies of America to win the Cold War and beat Russia and Japan in creating the very first atomic bomb, this real-life story includes many famous scientists and new scientific discoveries. If you love action, science, and history, then I promise you'll love this book. It is super unpredictable and has a pretty sad ending when one of the countries wins. But who wins? Guess you're going to have to read to find out. Reviewer Grade: 8

Reviewer's Name: Jaime P
Book Review: Guts
Telgemeier, Raina
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

A graphic novel with heart (and guts). Raina is a fifth grader with crippling anxiety. Sweetly told, the story unfolds to her going to a therapist and getting help. In the end, she learns to cope and trust her friends. Thumbs up!

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Book Review: The Sun Does Shine
Hinton, Anthony Ray
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Wow. I didn't think there is still rampant racism in America but boy was I proven wrong. In 1985, Ray Hinton was unjustly incarcerated in Alabama and will held in Death Row for 30 years. The prosecutor, police, jury, and judge were all white and despite his clear alibi he was found guilty. The police officer who arrested him said he believed Hinton was innocent but was still going to arrest him because if it's not him, it's someone 'like him.'
Throughout his heinous unjust incarceration on death row, Hinton never lost hope that he would be exonerated. His spirit helped the most hardened criminals shoulder their last days.
Eventually Hinton was exonerated, but not before the prime of his life had been stolen from him. He dedicates his life now to abolishing the death penalty, calling it a broken system. According to statistics, 1 in 10 inmates on death row are innocent.
This is a powerful memoir about survival, hope, and resilience. I highly recommend it.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Record of a Spaceborn Few
Chambers, Becky
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

Considering that A Closed and Common Orbit was only loosely related to the first book in the Wayfarers series, I knew that I shouldn’t expect the third book in this series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, to have any significant connection to the previous books. Unfortunately, even the several different storylines in this book were hardly connected, seeming more like a series of short stories that were inter-cut between themselves. While Chambers’ world-building and dialogue are still top-notch, there isn’t anything in this book other than some boring characters living their boring lives.

I understand that any author worth their salt will develop vast amounts of details about the universe they create. However, most authors leave the aspects of the minutia and banal day-to-day lives out of their writing in favor of an actual plot with actual conflict. Instead, this book is filled with the details of world-building and nothing else. If these characters were better connected, or there was a stronger plot driving their stories, it would have maintained my interest. Unfortunately, most of the stories of these characters’ sub-plots are too generic and trope-like for me to care about any of them.

About the only reason I’m giving this book as high a rating as I am is due to the aforementioned writing on the part of the author. The actions and consequences are clearly thought out, and there is a realism to the dialogue that continues from the previous two books (but by this point makes a lot of the characters sound the same). If anything, this book should have been the first in the series. It should have introduced the universe and the stakes that anyone who ventures out into space is sure to face. The fact that it’s (in my opinion) the weakest in the series is probably why more exciting adventures were written for books one and two.

A disappointing and boring record of space, I give Record of a Spaceborn Few 2.5 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin M. W.
Book Cover
Lindsay, Jeff
2 stars = Meh
Review:

Riley Wolfe is the best thief alive. You want it stolen? He can do it. And when the Ocean of Light, an Iranian Crown Jewel, is put on display at a NYC art museum, Riley knows he has his next, best challenge. Because this challenge may be the one that does him in.

I requested this as I loved some of Dexter (the tv show), and have been wanting to read a Jeff Lindsay book for a while. I wasn't really sure what to expect, and I got something a bit unexpected. The plot is that of a pretty standard heist novel. There are a bunch of twists, but never fear, you'll see them coming. The main character, though, is where the real interest lies. He's a horrible person, and Lindsay never tries to make him likable. I mean, did I like him? I did not. But he was sort of interesting when he wasn't doing something very predictable and his actions were occasionally thought provoking. Even writing this review, I'm not sure how I feel about him.

TLDR: This book, while sometimes entertaining, was ultimately just ok. If you can't get enough of heists, you may enjoy this one. Otherwise, check out Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows as it features a twistier heist, deeply flawed but likable characters and will also provide plenty of food for thought. 2 stars. Meh.

Thanks to Penguin Dutton Group and Netgalley for the eARC, which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. Just Watch Me will be released on 03 December and you can put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking book jacket
Cain, Susan
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

While it’s taken me a long time to finally get around to reading this book, most of what Quiet presented was what I had already known by living my life as an introvert. I will applaud this book’s ability to help society realize how ubiquitous the introverts that comprise the population are. Quiet also helps show what our needs are in this world that prizes the traits of extroversion over anything else. Even if there are many times where I have to put on my “extrovert suit,” it helps to know that there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert.

Perhaps my only qualm with this book is how anecdotal the evidence is. Whether it’s stories about famous introverts (which can be inspiring) or younger introverts who are being brought up by parents who don’t quite understand the strengths of the introvert type, Quiet uses a lot of case studies to show how out of place introverts are, especially in the United States. I understand it can be challenging to study a personality type that’s so broad, but a few more references to scientific studies would have been helpful.

What struck me in Quiet was the background it provided on why society evolved to value the extroverts and deem the introverts as “problems.” I still see the effects of this emphasis today. Sure, I put up with being an introvert in an extrovert’s world, and I have made adaptations in my life to survive and thrive in it. I can empathize with the introverts who cannot cope, though, and hopefully, this book can continue to help introverts claim this personality type and own it as I have over the years. Even if we’re different from the perceived norm, we still provide value to a world that insists that louder is better.

A great anthem for those introverts who feel out of place in a gregarious society, I give Quiet 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Genres:
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban book jacket
Rowling, J.K.
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Title: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Author: J.K. Rowling
Rating: 4 stars = Really Good
Review:
The third installment of the Harry Potter series, the Prisoner of Azkaban, continues his story at Hogwarts and the expected trouble with various fantasies and legends that are brought to life. Being his third year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter experiences the mystery of a known Azkaban prison and is curious to find out more of this particular myth. As Harry dives deeper into this myth, he will ultimately find out a surprising truth.

With more character involvement for the protagonists and antagonists, the Prisoner of Azkaban truly envelopes the feeling of mystery within the fantasy world. Bringing out a deep universe and lore to the series, it encapsulates the attention of both casual and avid readers.

Reviewer Grade: 11

Reviewer's Name: Nam T
The Art of Racing in the Rain book jacket
Stein, Garth
2 stars = Meh
Review:

Garth Steins creates a beautiful image of the friendship between a man and his dog in The Art of Racing in the Rain. The narrative follows a dog named Enzo and his owner, Denny Swift, as they navigate the ups and downs of life.
The story is told from Enzo’s point of view as Denny leads his life as a professional race car driver.
I didn’t really enjoy this book. Enzo’s character felt a little bit forced and annoying. The writing style is somewhat similar to John Green’s in that it has this “fake deep” tone. I also thought the book was too depressing. Most of the time I like reading sad books, but with this one, it felt like there was always one bad thing after another. I probably wasn’t in the right mood to read this book, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.

Reviewer's Name: Sophie L
Awards:
Little Fires Everywhere
Ng, Celeste
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng poetically depicts the social intricacies and injustices of American suburban life. The narrative follows Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl as they move to a new town called Shaker Heights. The two become involved with the Richardson family, and Mia clashes with the head of the household, Elena. Meanwhile, a scandal arises when there is a dispute over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing style was perfect for the story, and it reeled me in every time I picked up the book. This style also added to its provocative depictions of social injustices. I adored how Ng wrote both sides of the debate (about the adoption) equally, letting the readers decide who to side with. She didn’t dehumanize any of the characters. My only problem with the book was Pearl’s arc. There was a lot of focus on her character, and I personally thought she was a little bit boring. Her storyline was very predictable and flat. Besides that, it was a great book that was simultaneously lyrical and thought provoking. I highly recommend it.

Reviewer's Name: Sophie L
Awards:

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