Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion.

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species.

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

Being a fan of the original novels, I approached this retelling with a little trepidation.  I know that Scalzi is an excellent writer, but would his vision of the fuzzies and their world work for me, either by itself or as compared to the original?  I’m happy to say that it does both, and wonderfully.

While the bones of the original novel remain in this new novel, there are some significant changes.  Jack Holloway was conceived by Piper as an older man, well past his prime.  Scalzi paints Jack as a man in his mid-thirties, and he gives him the background to allow him to actively participate in the fight to prove the fuzzies’s sentience.  This brings a lot more tension to the final scenes in the courtroom, as it allows the main character to be right in the middle of the action.  I enjoyed watching him whip out legal arguments and wield them like weapons.

There’s also a change in the history of the fuzzies themselves.  Without giving anything away, Piper’s novels glossed over something that could be seen as a plot loophole invalidating much of what happens in the first book.  Later authors picked up on this and ran with it.  Scalzi’s change neatly deals with that little problem.  I will admit, however, that after decades of having one story in the back of my head, the change was jarring upon first encountering it.  I soon accepted it, though, and as most readers won’t have read the original novels, I doubt it will be an issue to the majority of readers.

The author weaves in a lot of worldbuilding and little significant details, and he does so with such care that you probably won’t notice what he’s doing.  Several things that seem like “throwaway” details become quite important later on, and it’s a testament to the author’s writing skill that readers likely won’t see what’s coming until it happens.  There’s not an ounce of fat on this story—everything is relevant, and you’ll be amazed at how well it all comes together.

I particularly liked the courtroom scenes where the fuzzies’s sentience is being decided.  This isn’t a dry procedure with hours of bland bits of evidence being presented.  Events in this novel happen quickly, and thus the trial involves bombshell after bombshell without feeling like it’s forced.  This is just damn good plotting at work, and I devoured this sequence with the kind of glee that you get when seeing someone getting a just comeuppance.

I can’t say enough good things about Fuzzy Nation.  Not just a wonderful reboot of a classic series, it stands on its own as a tightly-plotted and deeply engrossing first contact novel.  I recommend picking this one up in hardback, because it’s one you’re going to want to keep in your collection.  I hope that Mr. Scalzi intends to continue with this series, and if he does, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy.

This review was originally posted on May 5, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

“Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.”

This year I started re-reading some old favorite books, and I had to include Bryson’s works in that category. His narrative A Walk in the Woods was the book that truly got me interested in non-fiction and sent me down the rabbit hole of learning about subjects that I never would have imagined being interested in. In the case of this book, it’s not that I was never interested in Australia, but more that I never really saw anything about it. The most that I thought I knew was that it is home to tons of things that can kill you.

In a Sunburned Country doesn’t gloss over the murderous capacity of the continent and its resident critters, but it also conveys the stark beauty of the place. From Uluru, the massive rock formation sacred to the Aboriginal people, to the beach where a former Australian prime minister was swept out to sea and vanished, Bryson’s wanderings take him to both large cities and isolated hamlets, to sweeping vistas and small forgotten corners.

What it turned out that I appreciated the most was Bryson’s commitment to learning about Australia’s history, politics, people, and culture. During his narrative, he writes about the books that he reads along the way, the newspapers he picks up, and the people that he talks to. He doesn’t shy away from touching on the plight of the Aboriginal people or the uncomfortable reactions of white Australians when the subject is raised. He delves into scientific discoveries and foolhardy ventures. All in all, Australia is a much more interesting place than its lack of prominence in the nightly news would lead you to believe.

And of course, being Bryson, he infused his narrative with his own signature brand of humor, that dry combination of American sarcasm and British absurdity. I always laugh out loud when reading about his attempts to body board with friends, or hearing his observations on some of that lethal wildlife. Learning and laughter–that’s what Bryson excels at.

Curious about the land of kangaroos and koalas? I wholeheartedly recommend this book as an excellent starting point.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield

“Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Having no idea how many weeks have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished.

And with her, nearly all of civilization.

Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters — people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.

In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety.

For the Beaters are out there.

And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world….”

There is so much that I liked about this novel that it’s tough to figure out where to start.  Littlefield has balanced all of the elements so well that they intermingle and play off of each other in a way that I don’t often see.  Characters, plot, backstory, and setting have all been written with a rare skill and talent.

The setting is designed to please someone like me.  The story takes place in Northern California, and in fact references places that I have visited.  With so few books set in our area, I tend to enjoy the ones that do make Northern California their home.  In this novel, it also adds to the brutality of what happens, because of that very familiarity.  Readers who are not from this area will still enjoy the novel, and they will still feel the horror of what happens, but I think it will have a special poignancy for us residents.

For those who are squeamish, be advised that the novel does contain some scenes that verge on the gruesome.  The zombies (here called Beaters) do not attack indiscriminately; rather, they have learned to drag a victim to their nests and consume them there, often while the poor person is still alive.  The sheer terror and pain involved in these attacks comes through the pages and can be hard to read.  Admittedly, I had to put the book down a few times and walk away because it was very disturbing to me.  I wasn’t grossed out—a book that does that isn’t one that I want to read—but I was upset by the idea of such things happening.  The author doesn’t delve too far into the grotesque, but she gives you just enough to bring across that sense of horror.

The story isn’t one of mere survival, although that’s the level that most inhabitants of the world have been reduced to.  Rather, this story has a goal: Cass needs to get her daughter Ruthie back from those who are holding her.  The fact that the novel has a purpose beyond just “survive the zombies and rebuild society” puts it several notches above other novels in the genre.

The author makes a daring choice with regards to her main character: Cass is a recovering alcoholic who was only weeks sober when society fell apart.  Because of this, readers get to see the world through the eyes of someone who is uniquely unable to deal with it and, at the same time, uniquely poised to cope.  Cass references AA and its philosophies a lot, and it gives a structure to how she functions within this terrible new world.  At times, it’s heartbreaking to watch her struggles, because she tries so hard and suffers so much.

Sophie Littlefield is right up there with Mira Grant as the best zombie novelists on the shelf, and this is not praise that I give out lightly.  Aftertime is a kick in the gut that is nonetheless one of the most fascinating and sobering reads you’ll ever find.  Forget about The Walking Dead—grab this book and prepare to have your world shaken.

This review was originally posted on January 3, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

“Bobby Dollar is an angel—a real one. He knows a lot about sin, and not just in his professional capacity as an advocate for souls caught between Heaven and Hell. Bobby’s wrestling with a few deadly sins of his own—pride, anger, even lust.

But his problems aren’t all his fault. Bobby can’t entirely trust his heavenly superiors, and he’s not too sure about any of his fellow earthbound angels either, especially the new kid that Heaven has dropped into their midst, a trainee angel who asks too many questions. And he sure as hell doesn’t trust the achingly gorgeous Countess of Cold Hands, a mysterious she-demon who seems to be the only one willing to tell him the truth.

When the souls of the recently departed start disappearing, catching both Heaven and Hell by surprise, things get bad very quickly for Bobby D. End-of-the-world bad. Beast of Revelations bad. Caught between the angry forces of Hell, the dangerous strategies of his own side, and a monstrous undead avenger that wants to rip his head off and suck out his soul, Bobby’s going to need all the friends he can get—in Heaven, on Earth, or anywhere else he can find them.”

After reading this book, I’m reminded of how good urban fantasy can be in the hands of someone who excels at worldbuilding.  Epic fantasy is all well and good, and it can really transport you to another place and time; however, urban fantasy grounds that sense of wonder in a world that we can all relate to.  It makes it easy to let ourselves believe that a shapeshifter might lurk in the shadows of an alley… or in this case, that an angel might be walking past us as we go down the street.

Of course, this book is set in Northern California, which makes me all kinds of happy.  In my opinion, this part of the state is blessed with such a diversity of cities, natural areas, activities and people, it can’t help but provide an excellent setting for the weird and wild stories that urban fantasy is best known for.  And while Bobby lives in a fictional city—San Judas—Williams describes it in such a way that anybody who has been in the Bay Area will feel right at home.  (I also have to laugh at the fact that the author named the city after the patron saint of lost causes, but that’s beside the point.)

One of the other things that I liked about the worldbuilding extends to the characters as well—neither they nor the setting are perfect.  You would think that a story about angels and demons would feature the epitome of good and evil, but that’s mostly not the case.  Many of the angels drink.  Many have personal issues.  Some of the demons have a surprisingly strong moral compass.  As for the city, it has its nice parts and its run down parts, just like any other one, but rarely does it stray to the extremes of ritz or squalor.  In fact, now that I think about it, locations that are either really nice or really run down are reserved for the most earth-shattering of plot events, which ties in nicely with the good vs. evil theme.

But even though these characters have some rough edges, they’re still the sort of people that I’d love to have a conversation with—probably over some kind of alcoholic beverage.  Surprisingly, I found one of the most interesting characters to be the Countess of Cold Hands.  She may be on the wrong side of the Light, but Williams takes his time developing both her demonic side and the side that will leave you feeling very sorry for her.  Unlike angels, demons remember their life on earth, and it lends the Countess a tragic sense that none of the angels can really match.

I get the feeling that this is a novel that I will not only recommend to others, but that I will re-read a few times myself.  The more I thought about what I’d read, the more I got out of it.  Williams has created a world that I can truly see as being just a step or two removed from ours.  And if I could be sure that there really is a man like Bobby waiting to defend me after death, I’d definitely be grateful.  The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a novel that will entertain you while making you think about what might come after our lives are over.

This review was originally posted on September 5, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Lock In by John Scalzi

“Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent – and nearly five million souls in the United States alone – the disease causes “Lock In”: Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.

A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what’s now known as “Haden’s syndrome,” rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an “integrator” – someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.

But “complicated” doesn’t begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery – and the real crime – is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It’s nothing you could have expected.”

My goodness, does this novel have some beefy, chewy issues for readers to ponder. It’s taken me a while to sort through everything in my head to write this review, so let’s see where it goes. This is one of those novels that is going to make you think, and think hard, about a lot of different issues. Many of them may not be ones that you yourself face on a daily basis, if at all, which makes this book doubly valuable.

One on level, you have the explorations of the virtual world where many Hadens spend much of their time. There are some obvious parallels to people today, especially younger ones: there’s a growing concern about how much time we spend “plugged in” and not interacting with real people. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that Hadens can’t actually interact in their real bodies, so they need some form of mechanical intervention, but the basic premise remains. You have to wonder what the effects of a purely virtual existence would be.

On another level, you have the very salient question of disability rights. This aspect is a little more overt in the prequel novella Unlocked (which you really should read, preferably before you read the novel, although it’s not necessary), but it definitely carries over to the novel. For example, is it a crime to beat a Haden’s personal transport (a humanoid “robot” controlled by the Haden’s neural network), since the transport feels no pain and therefore neither does the person driving it? What about a personal transport—which can’t eat—taking up a chair in a restaurant?

And this all feeds into the deeper issue of what it means to be human. You can probably anticipate that Hadens come to be treated as less than human, since all the non-locked-in people interact with is the mechanical aid. How tolerant would we be of the stranger, the “other”, when confronted with them and their basic needs? It is this, even more than the technology, which makes this novel science fiction.

Delivering all of this thought-provoking stuff is a smoothly told murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end. Everything comes together in a satisfying manner with lots of suspense and plenty of suspects and motives. Chris is a likeable protagonist, and I was especially intrigued by his partner, who has her own demons to conquer.

I can only hope that Scalzi wants to continue to tell stories about Chris and the world he lives in. I want to see him dig deeper into what makes these characters tick, and I definitely want to see how the clash between Haden culture and “mainstream” culture plays out. Locked In is a novel jam-packed with goodness, and I’m going to have to read it again to appreciate all the nuances and deep thoughts that run through the narrative. Make sure to grab this one—you’ll rarely find a science fiction writer as skilled and entertaining as Scalzi.

This review was originally posted on August 28, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Rule 34 by Charles Stross

“Meet Edinburgh Detective Inspector Liz Kavanaugh, head of the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit, otherwise known as the Rule 34 Squad.  It’s responsible for monitoring the Internet, following trends to determine whether people are engaging in harmless fantasies—or illegal activities.  Usually their job uncovers those operating on the extreme fringes of the run-of-the-mill porn that still, in 2023, abounds in cyberspace.  But occasionally, more disturbing patterns arise…

Three ex-cons have been murdered, in Germany, Italy and Scotland.  The only things they had in common were arrests for spamming—and a taste for unorthodox erotica.  As the first officer on the scene of the most recent death, Liz finds herself rapidly sucked into an international investigation that isn’t asking so much who the killer is as what it is—and if she can’t figure that out, a lot more people are going to die as the homicides go viral…”

I find this book, and its predecessor Halting State, to be among the more unusually compelling books on the shelves.  One reason for this is their use of second person as a narrative voice.  It’s reminiscent of the old text-based computer games—“You go into the house and see a dark hallway”.  Although some people may have trouble adjusting to it, as it’s not often used in novels, those who can adapt to the style will find themselves immersed in the story.  It’s as though once your brain “clicks” over and accepts the narrative “you”, it’s difficult not to project your feelings into the on-page characters.

This is a help, because there is a lot going on in this book.  There are three regular point of view characters, as well as a smattering of others, so readers will get the chance to see the situation from several different angles.  Pay close attention, because Stross scatters hints throughout the story that lead to the payoff at the end!

It’s hard to talk about this novel’s plot without giving away key elements.  Suffice to say, Stross has crafted a story around a scenario that could conceivably happen in our technology-heavy society, and the issues that he raises are ones that we would do well to consider.  There are also issues of privacy that come into play—Liz and the Rule 34 Squad are combing the internet looking for clues that people might be engaged in crimes… or might even be just considering them.  The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but at what point does that segue into “Big Brother”?  There are many such issues wrapped up in this novel.

Ultimately, this is a novel that is not only entertaining, but one that makes you think about tough issues in a way that could challenge your comfort zones.  And that’s a good thing.  Stross doesn’t shy away from the horrors of our plugged-in society, but instead pulls them into the light for a good once-over.  Rule 34 combines hard science fiction with Brave New World and comes up with a solid winner.

This review was originally posted on July 28, 2011.

This review was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from the front flap of the book.)

The Martian by Andy Weir

“Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”

I picked up this book on a recommendation from a friend. As a note, I don’t usually read a lot of hard science fiction, although I do enjoy science in general. I think it’s more that I don’t like when the plot hangs on technology. In this case, there’s a lot of gadgetry and clever manipulation of scientific principles, but the real story hinges on Mark’s ingenuity in figuring out how to leverage his circumstances in his favor.

Now, this does mean that the narration often strays into (or at least comes perilously close to) the “As You Know” trope. The majority of the novel consists of Mark’s log entries during his stay on Mars, and he spends a lot of time explaining what he’s doing, both in scientific jargon and simpler layman’s terms. The folks on the ground trying to help Mark get home have lots of meetings where they do something similar. It’s a little jarring, but the author does provide a rationalization: Mark is keeping the logs for public consumption, figuring that whether he lives or dies, he should leave a complete record of what happened; the NASA people come from fairly specialized backgrounds and often must share information with others who aren’t knowledgeable in that area.

I will say this, though—the science is fascinating. This is basically Robinson Crusoe in space, but with the main character adrift in an environment that’s infinitely more hostile than any desert island. I don’t think that anybody reading this book will have any doubt that Mark will eventually be rescued. The fun lies in the how of the event. We get to see crop growing in an enclosed environment, use of radioactive materials, exploding chemicals, messages spelled out with rocks, and epic cross country treks. You can’t go for too long without reading about some catastrophe that requires Mark’s boundless creativity.

I am going to call the author out on one mistake, however—and it’s a mistake that should not have been made with a character who is a botanist. In one scene, Mark is shown eating raw potatoes. This is a huge no-no, as raw potatoes are indigestible (and much is made of how much caloric intake he needs per day) and, depending on how long they’ve had to grow, mildly toxic. I can’t see someone well-versed in plant life and farm crops being so silly as to eat something that won’t help him survive.

Aside from this, the science seems accurate and is definitely engrossing. I read this book right after finishing a couple of other non-fiction titles, so it provided a good transition back to fiction. All this science does a good job of supporting the narrative and giving Mark plenty of believable ways to survive in Mars’s hostile environment. And one other note: there’s lots of humor here as well. No stuffy NASA-approved dialogues for Mark! He’s crass and honest and highly amusing, even while struggling for his life.

The Martian is a great book on space exploration, and would be ideal for getting your science-loving friends into reading science fiction. I hope Weir writes another novel, because I enjoyed this one and would like to see more.

This review was originally posted on September 17, 2014.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

“Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.

It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.

They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose”, a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.

You can’t kill what’s already dead.”

I’ve read just about everything McGuire has written, including the books under her pen name, Mira Grant. Her books have at various times made me giggle uncontrollably and hold back tears, all in public. Sparrow Hill Road lives up to everything that I expect of this fine author, and surpasses those expectations handily.

The structure of this book was not what I expected, as it reads somewhat like a series of short stories about a single character, Rose Marshall. This isn’t a style that I’ve seen from this author before, but I felt that for this story, it worked very well. This novel is as much about the ambience and ghost lore as it is about a specific plotline. The format allowed McGuire to bring in a lot of backstory about hauntings and different kinds of ghosts while still keeping a loose framework around Rose’s quest to free herself from the man who killed her.

I found myself really liking Rose, a reluctant guardian angel of the road. It’s her compassion that draws the reader, the kind of caring that allows her to aid the newly dead as they pass on to whatever comes next even though she’d rather not have to be a part of their fate. She’s feisty, fallible, and if there are ghosts on the highways, I hope they’re all like her.

McGuire did a great job with the story’s antagonist as well. He’s truly creepy, driving a car evocative of Stephen King’s Christine and bringing with him the rebellious air of a demonic “Leader of the Pack” character. Both him and the circumstances that made him what he is underpin much of the story and draw on older legends of magical places like the crossroads. I do love how McGuire can weave mythologies together and make them sing.

Once again, Seanan McGuire has a hit on her hands. Sparrow Hill Road was a surprising treat, unlike anything else she’s written to date but just as emotionally engaging and fun to read as all of her other work. Please do yourself a favor and pick this one up. It’s a good introduction to the author’s work, but more than that, it’s just a damn good read.

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

“On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.”

Let’s not mince words: this book is going to rip your heart out.  Don’t expect last-minute reprieves for the characters you will come to love.  Death comes for everyone, and the message of this book is that since you never know when it’s going to happen, you shouldn’t waste your life.  In the case of this story, yes, Mateo and Rufus get an extra day to accomplish some of that living, but the endgame is still the same.  Rufus wanted to travel and take photos, and Mateo wanted to be an architect.  Neither will get to live their dreams, and no amount of living in the course of less than 24 hours can make up for that.

One of the things that this book does extremely well is in highlighting the relationships in our lives and what they can mean to us.  Each boy has people in their lives whom they love, but not in the sense of romantic love, and when they finally get to express that love, the sense of freedom is palpable.  I especially liked Mateo’s deep connection with his friend Lidia, seeing how the two loved each other in a way that transcended any attempts to pigeonhole it.  I have just such an opposite-sex friend myself, one who means the world to me, and seeing something similar in a story was so heartwarming.

I felt connected to this book on a really personal level, because in many ways, I identified with Mateo.  He was someone who holed up in his room a lot, watching movies and playing online, and he wasn’t one to get out and experience the world.  I was like that myself for a long time, but I’ve been able to change that in recent years.  In fact, I’m in the middle of planning a trip to Ireland; as a result Mateo’s journey towards life, and his realization that it’s okay to have a place to feel safe, is one that I can vouch for as accurate.

I haven’t said as much about Rufus, but not because I didn’t like him.  I just identified more with Mateo.  But Rufus is a portrait of someone who is heading down a darker path and is lucky enough to be able to turn his life back around.  The fact that it takes place in less than 24 hours doesn’t make it any less true.

That’s another message from this book: the amount of time that something takes is less important than the fact that it happens.  Mateo and Rufus find each other when each has less than a day to live.  That in no way invalidates what they do for each other, and what they become for each other.  The experience is what counts, in whatever form you want that experience to take.

I hope that this book gets widespread attention, because with all the fears and uncertainties of life lately, a story with a message to get out and live is so incredibly vital.  They Both Die at the End reminds of us where we’re all going, but also what we can accomplish along the way if we truly want to.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

“No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music, hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds…”

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it has many different layers.  On the one hand, Bledsoe has re-imagined the classic and well-known myths of the Irish fairies.  Known as the Tuatha de Dannan, their tales are many and various, and transplanting them to the Appalachian Mountains gives them a breath of fresh air.  In fact, for the most part, the Tufa are normal people.  They guard their privacy and keep their beliefs secret, and it’s only upon getting to know them better that you begin to see the signs that they are more than you think.  The reveal of these characteristics is slow and subtle, and the gradual picture suits the laid-back setting.

On another level, the novel follows a soldier’s recovery from war.  The author has made some interesting choices in the creation of Bronwyn: a female soldier injured in war; brutally tortured but with no recollection of it; rebellious and yet a member of the military.  These seeming contradictions all harmonize into a unique young woman, one that I would love to sit down and chat with… or perhaps go out with her for a drink.

On another level (related to the previous one), this is a story about music and its power to move us, to bring people together, and to heal the wounded soul.  Music is all-important to the Tufa, and Bronwyn’s loss of her music speaks volumes about her state of mind and how much she has—and hasn’t—healed.  Her journey to rediscover her skill, to get back in touch with her music, is essentially a quest to find her voice.  As someone who is shown to be unsure of her place in the world, this is a vital and important journey for Bronwyn.  Even the author’s language and choice of words emphasizes the musicality of these people.  It’s another bit of subtlety that you may not even notice how it influences the novel’s tone.

Yet another layer is a coming of age tale.  Throughout the novel, we learn about Bronwyn and what kind of person she was as a youth, rebellious and wild.  Upon her return, she’s forced to confront her responsibilities to her family and to her community.  It’s a subject that we all have to face at one point or another, and thus it’s one that everybody can relate to.  Not only do we all have to figure out our place in society, but we also have to find who we are and what we hold dear.  It’s rarely easy, and Bronwyn’s struggles resonate with keen intensity.

Take all of these elements together and you have a novel of splendid beauty and heartbreaking intensity.  The Hum and the Shiver ranks with the finest fantasy novels on the shelf today.  Atmospheric and filled with a music all its own, it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.  I sincerely hope Bledsoe writes more novels about the Tufa, because I’ll be the first in line to pick them up and recommend them to anyone that will stand still long enough.

This review was originally posted on October 12, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

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