Reviews

Review | The Calculating Stars By Mary Robinette Kowal (Or, Why Bree Loves Mary)

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Mary Robinette Kowal may be an actual goddess. Her ability to convey complicated emotional dynamics in an engaging and entertaining way is pretty much unparalleled.

Want to find out how she spoke to my soul this year? Watch the video below. I don’t cry, but I thought about it.

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Book Review: The Point by John Dixon

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By Jacob P. Torres

Find my spoiler-free review of The Point by John Dixon, Probably the first in a new series? I received an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Cover Description: “What if you had a power you had to hide from everyone—until now? In this bold sci-fi action thriller, a secret training program at West Point is turning misfits into a new generation of heroes.

Welcome to The Point, future leaders of the Posthuman Age.

New Cadets, society is not ready for you. The oldest, fiercest fear is ignorance. The general population would burn you at the metaphorical stake.

Here, you will train alongside other posthumans. You will learn to control and maximize your powers and to use them for the greater good. You will discover camaraderie and purpose.

You will become a part of something bigger than yourselves: the Long Gray Line.

Scarlett Winter has always been an outsider, and not only because she’s a hardcore daredevil and born troublemaker—she has been hiding superhuman powers she doesn’t yet understand. Now she’s been recruited by a secret West Point unit for cadets with extraordinary abilities. Scarlett and her fellow students are learning to hone their skills, from telekinetic combat to running recon missions through strangers’ dreamscapes. At The Point, Scarlett discovers that she may be the most powerful cadet of all. With the power to control pure energy, she’s a human nuclear bomb—and she’s not sure she can control her powers much longer.

Even in this army of outsiders, Scarlett feels like a misfit all over again, but when a threat that endangers her fellow students arises from the school’s dark past, duty calls and Scarlett must make a choice between being herself and becoming something even greater: a hero.

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Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Dread Nation

Cover Description: “Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.

In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.

But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.

But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.

And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

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Book Review: Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

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By Jacob P. Torres

Find my spoiler-free review of Alex White’s, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Cover Description: “Boots Elsworth was a famous treasure hunter in another life, but now she’s washed up. She makes her meager living faking salvage legends and selling them to the highest bidder, but this time she got something real–the story of the Harrow, a famous warship, capable of untold destruction.

Nilah Brio is the top driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation and the darling of the racing world–until she witnesses Mother murder a fellow racer. Framed for the murder and on the hunt to clear her name, Nilah has only one lead: the killer also hunts Boots.

On the wrong side of the law, the two women board a smuggler’s ship that will take them on a quest for fame, for riches, and for justice.

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Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalo

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By Jacob P. Torres

Find my spoiler-free review of Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalo below, this is the first in a series, the sequel Hunting Prince Dracula is out in hardcover now. A third book, Escaping from Houdini is out this fall.

Full disclosure, I snagged this book from a book stall at an airport while travelling for work. It was under their historical fiction section, a choice I feel was mostly correct. It checked off a big box for me when it promised to tie the story to an unsolved real-world mystery (in the case Who Was Jack the Ripper?) and a big one for historical fiction in that the female characters are supposed to be strong characters with agency who get shit done. Honestly if I wanted to read about white male dudes being historically “accurate” and also real shitty I’d go read the reddit thread for Battlefield V and then promptly kill myself. This book was a lot more romancey than I generally go for though, so if that’s your cup of tea you might ignore this review entirely and try it for yourself, it might sit better for you than it did for me.

Cover Description: “A deliciously creepy horror novel with a story line inspired by the Ripper murders and an unexpected, blood-chilling conclusion…

Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

The story’s shocking twists and turns, augmented with real, sinister period photos, will make this #1 New York Times bestselling debut from author Kerri Maniscalco impossible to forget.

What is the book about?

A British Lord’s daughter, Audrey Rose Wadsworth, eschews the role and expectations of her gender to study the burgeoning field of forensic police work with her uncle. There she meets Thomas Cresswell, a boy of privilege and intellect who is also studying to solve crimes with her uncle. When Jack the Ripper’s first victim lands on her uncle’s autopsy table Audrey Rose and Thomas get wrapped up in the case. Then, her uncle is arrested for suspicion of the murders.

Audrey Rose and Thomas will embark on a investigation of period London as they try to track down Jack the Ripper before he can track them down. All the while, Audrey Rose will learn shocking truths about her family and the connection between all of Jack’s murders and the people Audrey Rose loves most.

What Did I Like About the Book?

Maniscalco did a great job of portraying period London, the book is replete with information about the time period, including pictures from the time that add to the general ambiance. When Maniscalco closes out the book she makes a point to describe things that she changed or omitted from both the Ripper case and period London for narrative reasons. Her characterization of mental healthcare for the time period was vivid and very accurate. Ultimately, she admits to changing very little of significance. I imagine this was not as difficult as it sounds with all of the open questions surrounding the Ripper case the persist even today. Seeing how Maniscalco would handle Dracula in the next book when there isn’t a documented historical mystery that she can turn into a narrative is maybe the only reason I’d personally read the next one.

The writing and characters are generally strong and multi-dimensional. Maniscalco does not get tied down by period language or dialogue and creates a coherent narrative that is often engaging, if not as actively suspenseful. She gives us a good cast of suspects for the Ripper and puts up a lot of good set pieces for a decent mystery, the execution of which falls short, but I’ll mention that later.

Who was my Favorite Character?

I liked Audrey Rose the best, she was a compelling protagonist, a daughter stuck between making her family happy and what she wanted to do with her life. Struggling for agency and respect in a world where that’s very unlikely to happen. All caught up with history’s most infamous serial killer and the very real implications that one of her family might be involved. Her relationships with her family are way stronger than her romantic relationships which I’ll get to later. Her father is obsessed about her safety and disease and he tries to “protect” her from the world. Audrey cares for him deeply even though he’s basically holding her prisoner at times. Audrey’s uncle is painted as a mad scientist but has gone out of his way to teach Audrey forensic medicine and lets her sit in on classes he teaches on the subject and apprentice directly for him. Audrey’s brother is both a confidant and a leash, supporting her studies but at the same time encouraging her to turn away from them and take up crochet. Her relationships with them are complicated and full of emotion and conflict, all of which is deepened as each of them is cast as a potential Jack the Ripper. There’s a point about midway to two-thirds through the book where Audrey finally begins to shine, where she is basically done with all the period sexism and decides that we can’t spend any more time on that bullshit, we need to solve this case. It’s a little unrealistic in that everyone around her is just like, “sure, sounds like a plan,” but it was her apotheosis, where she really became the kind of forensic detective she wanted to be.

What Did I Not Like?

There’s a reason that most authors choosing to tell a story like this one has the female character dress as a boy (which this book even did in one chapter), it’s an easy, if over-used, shorthand for letting a female character have the agency to pursue her desires in a time period where they were barred from employment at most jobs, from agency from their fathers or husbands, or even the ability to vote. It is much, much more difficult needle to thread to balance history with your characters and stories and have it come off feeling genuine. This is made even more difficult when you elect to make your characters Lords and Ladies of England, who often had even stricter restrictions on their lives than commoners. If you can hit this in historical fiction or fantasy, it’s a great thing to see. Some stories manage that extremely well and create wonderful, inventive new stories. This one felt… off.

For most of the novel it felt like Maniscalco was trying to have her cake and eat it too. A peer of the realm studying the dissection of human bodies would’ve been ostracized from high society, even if they were male, and much more assuredly so if female.  But despite her work being a semi-open secret, Audrey Rose suffered no real consequences for her decision to pursue forensic science and was able to mingle with high society at will. It feels like Maniscalco missed her mark here, not by very much, but by enough that it pulled me out of the story. But mostly here it feels like a failure to commit. Either you’re writing a fantasy where you create the rules, in which case no consequences is fine, but then it raises the question of “if there are no consequences why is this character the only female doing anything?” or, you commit to historical fiction which means you have to have real consequences to the choices your characters make. A real-world analogue to Audrey Rose is Grace Humiston who the press famously called Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, as an investigator and then first female U.S. District Attorney during the time of the suffrage movements. Grace faced intense prejudice from the men she worked with and worse from the men she investigated. You would expect, therefore, to see similar, if not greater, levels of prejudice against Audrey almost 40 years earlier. And yet, you don’t. Which is fine for your own worlds, but in a novel that went to such lengths to be as historically accurate as possible, the absence of these consequences is jarring.

My other big complaint in this book is the romance. Audrey’s love interest, Thomas, is presented as a caustic, sarcastic asshole. Audrey as much as says that like every other chapter. Thomas is a kind of a poor-man’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s rude and dismissive of Audrey at first but quickly turns possessive and relentlessly pursues romantic engagement from Audrey despite her repeated and many rebuffs. Like someone with a tumor pressing against her temporal lobe, Audrey finds him irritating, arrogant, rude, and, of course, charming, irresistible, and mysterious. Mysterious, I’ve come to believe, is code for “asshole, but surely he can’t be 100% dick, there has to be something good about him, really, really, really, deep down.” I loathe this manner of romance, because it is entirely unhealthy. These bad boys that we toss about as love interest gloss over the fact that they’re bad. In the real world, this kind of person is likely to be selfish, controlling, primarily interested in physical relations rather than emotional ones, is probably emotionally manipulative, and unlikely to be faithful. In other words, abusive. I’ve often thought that this bad boy love interest trope emerged as a way to romanticize the often profoundly shitty behavior that men do. He’s not a controlling dick, he’s mysterious. Oooooh. I also dislike romances where the man is pervasive in his attempts to woo his love interest, because it sends a really shitty message that if a dude pesters a woman enough she’ll eventually relent to his “charms,” or conversely that if a dude is persistent enough ladies should give him a chance. Which is horseshit. That Thomas is supportive of Audrey’s pursuits in forensic sciences is immediately over-shadowed by his desire to explain forensic sciences to her in practically every chapter, effectively turning our protagonist from being her own Sherlock to being the Watson in someone else’s story and undermining all of the other admirable shit she does throughout the book. Just, overall, fuck nope.

Finally, and this might be a bit of a spoiler so skip if you want to, the manner in which the mystery is “solved” irked the hell out of me. First, Audrey was wrong about who the villain was, and she only learns this when she stumbles blindly into his lair and he basically has to Bond villain monologue her through the whole thing. She was wrong about not only the suspect but Ripper’s motive as well, which is fine because no one could’ve expected the utter nonsense that the motives were. Mysteries are good when the reader has all the clues, they’re great when the protagonists solves the bloody mystery. Instead of Hercule Poirot and getting to marvel at Audrey’s cleverness, we got a Scooby Doo mystery where the monster got tired of running from the dog and the pot head and just took off his mask. She also has to be rescued from the villain at the end too. Which all seemed like the book sacrificed Audrey’s character and agency so the book could have a really good twist. To be fair, having the detective be wrong can be a good twist, for established detectives and series, or very early in a novel, not as the god damn denouement.

The Verdict!

I’m giving this 2.0 out of 5 cups of tea. A generally excellent picture of period London and a thoughtful twist on the Jack the Ripper mystery is spoiled by a disconnect between the protagonist and the realism the book strives for, made worse by an abominable love interest. I’m left really trying to nail down what kind of genre it is: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, or thriller? This novel might appeal strongly to people who are fans of period romances and inclined to a sufficient level of suspension of disbelief but despite having several genre elements I love, like women getting to do shit in historical fiction and real-world unsolved mysteries, this book missed my personal target by like a barn or two.

2 of 5
Final Verdict: 2.0 out of 5 cups of tea. A generally excellent picture of period London and a thoughtful twist on the Jack the Ripper mystery is spoiled by a disconnect between the protagonist and the realism the book strives for, made worse by an abominable love interest.
Pros Cons
+ Audrey Rose was an excellent, female protagonist striving for agency and her own life in a time period that would be unlikely to acquiesce. – Abominable love interest hitting on tropes I hate: the bad boy love interest and that creepy persistence wins the girl.
+ Generally, an excellent picture of period London with historical notes and pictures that added to the story rather than detracted. – A real disconnect between what would’ve been real world consequences of the protagonist’s life choices.
+ The actual following of leads and mystery elements were generally well done. I figured out who the big bad was about half way through, though not the nonsense twist at the end. – The reveal of the Ripper changed this from being a mystery novel to, at best a thriller, by robbing our female lead of agency to pay for a good twist.

 

Book Review: Killing Gravity by Corey J. White

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By Jacob P. Torres

Find my spoiler-free review of Killing Gravity by Corey J. White, the first novella in his Voidwitch saga and his debut work. The sequel Void Black Shadow is already out and the third novella, Static Ruin, will be coming out later this year.

Cover Description: “Mars Xi can kill you with her mind, but she’ll need more than psychic powers to save her in Killing Gravity, the thrilling science fiction space adventure debut by Corey J. White.

Before she escaped in a bloody coup, MEPHISTO transformed Mariam Xi into a deadly voidwitch. Their training left her with terrifying capabilities, a fierce sense of independence, a deficit of trust, and an experimental pet named Seven. She’s spent her life on the run, but the boogeymen from her past are catching up with her. An encounter with a bounty hunter has left her hanging helpless in a dying spaceship, dependent on the mercy of strangers.

Penned in on all sides, Mariam chases rumors to find the one who sold her out. To discover the truth and defeat her pursuers, she’ll have to stare into the abyss and find the secrets of her past, her future, and her terrifying potential.

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Five Series to Start While You’re Waiting for Star Trek Discovery to come back.

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By Jacob P. Torres

The summer is general a wasteland for TV which could make it a good time to advocate for some books to read. If you’re missing Star Trek: Discovery or SyFy’s (now Amazon’s) The Expanse as much as I am, you might like these books.

71kOSKVyobL All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
Martha takes the trope of the murderous A.I. and turns it on its head. An A.I. that occupies the body of a highly advanced robotic soldier armed to the gills suddenly finds itself with sentience and a freedom to disobey any order its given. First order of business? Watch some trashy soap operas. Oh, did I mention its name is Murderbot? Yeah, that’s what you get named when you accidentally kill your last owners because of a programming bug, but Murderbot isn’t going to let that happen again, it just wants to be left alone. 5 out of 5 Cups of Tea.

 

Dauntless by Jack Campbell  91H330c+PSL
If you need a series that will keep you occupied for a while Jack Campbell isn’t gonna let you down. The Lost Fleet series is 11 books long but it’s complete. Dauntless is the first book, it’s a little rougher than the ones that come after. Captain “Black Jack” Geary is a legend that everyone thought was dead. Everyone was very shocked then to find him alive in escape pod in the middle of enemy territory. No one more than Jack Geary, who finds himself suddenly in charge of a fleet and in horror at the hero worship everyone is giving him. Now he has to find a way to bring this fleet home when he’s hundreds of years removed from any of his family, and light-years from anything friendly. 3.5 out of 5 Cups of Tea.

 

 the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-3 The Long Way to a Small , Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
In this series Chambers has created something that evokes the feel of Firefly, the space opera setting, and characters that you’ll fall in love with. This book follows the perspective of Rosemary Harper, the least like protagonist you’d imagine, the ship’s new clerk. The crew of the wayfarer will redefine your meaning of ragtag, but the book is full of heart, inventive characters and worlds, and a whole lot of fun. 4 out of 5 Cups of Tea.

 

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig Aftermath
After Disney acquired the Lucasfilm empire, Disney gave Chuck Wendig an impossible job, write the first book (and first trilogy) in the new canon for the Star Wars universe. Wendig gets a kind of unforgivable amount of shit from sad puppies on the internet about these books, because how dare he create new characters, have females or LGBTQA+ characters as protagonists, set the stage for Episode VII, and write a fun book. It’s not the best Star Wars book ever written but it’s really solid and should be fairly accessible to people who have only seen the movies. And its real obvious Wendig loves the franchise and had a blast writing it. 4.0 out of 5 Cups of Tea.

 

 SEEKERS_1_PREVIEW Star Trek: Seekers 1 – Second Nature
I couldn’t leave a Star Trek book off this list, so here we go. The Seekers series follows two crews over four books solving a typically Star Trek kind of adventure. This is a good starting on point for people that don’t read Star Trek books regularly and features a completely original cast of characters that you’ve likely not seen before. The crews of the Sagittarius and the Endeavor (which is captained by the first in series female Muslim captain) adventures are written by David Mack who has written a kind of ludicrous number of Star Trek books, including one with the Discovery crew which I can’t recommend because I haven’t read it. yet. 3.5 out of 5 Cups of Tea.