Noumenon – Marina J. Lostetter

Review (Amazon): 

In 2088, humankind is at last ready to explore beyond Earth’s solar system. But one uncertainty remains: Where do we go?

Astrophysicist Reggie Straifer has an idea. He’s discovered an anomalous star that appears to defy the laws of physics, and proposes the creation of a deep-space mission to find out whether the star is a weird natural phenomenon, or something manufactured.

The journey will take eons. In order to maintain the genetic talent of the original crew, humankind’s greatest ambition—to explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy— is undertaken by clones. But a clone is not a perfect copy, and each new generation has its own quirks, desires, and neuroses. As the centuries fly by, the society living aboard the nine ships (designated Convoy Seven) changes and evolves, but their mission remains the same: to reach Reggie’s mysterious star and explore its origins—and implications.

A mosaic novel of discovery, Noumenon—in a series of vignettes—examines the dedication, adventure, growth, and fear of having your entire world consist of nine ships in the vacuum of space. The men and women, and even the AI, must learn to work and live together in harmony, as their original DNA is continuously replicated and they are born again and again into a thousand new lives. With the stars their home and the unknown their destination, they are on a voyage of many lifetimes—an odyssey to understand what lies beyond the limits of human knowledge and imagination.

My Review (spoilers, duh):

In a Nutshell: creative and amazing

This book is broken into two main parts – Resistance and Resilience, and within those parts, it’s broken into sections which jump ahead many years. It works really well with the story, but it is a bit unusual. I am going to detail it out pretty thoroughly so really, you should take my word and just read it because it’s awesome. The book has a sequel scheduled, and I know it will be a little while, so at that point, I want to have this to refer back to!!

The book begins in 2088 with Reggie, a PhD student who has discovered an unusual star, like it’s encrusted with something, and he is about to give a presentation to convince people that they should invest in getting a shuttle there to research it. The presentation goes well, mainly with the speculation that whatever is surrounding it was built, not naturally created, so the mission gets funded and is a go! During the party Reggie has to celebrate his mission, Noumenon, being a success, he meets a beautiful woman named Abigail and they hit it off.

2097: Noumenon’s team has assembled. Reggie, and his mentor Dr. McCloud (who pushed him to go to the summit in the first place) meet with the team. McCloud asks Reggie why he still hasn’t proposed to Abigail – it’s the mission. Everything was on hold because Reggie might have gone, but they have done their selection and he’s not on the list. We meet Nakamura Akane, the head of the ship design team, Donald Matheson, the head of the social systems (who hates Reggie’s implant “C” as obsolete and too chatty although Reggie has quite the attachment to her), and Dr. Sachta Dhiri, the head of strategy. They plan to have 9 ships with over a million people. How will they find that many volunteers? Matheson suggests clones. They choose a group of 100,000 people based on their skills and psychological strength to go, and those people continue to get remade every other life cycle (so people never end up with themselves) as the mission lasts.

2099: Reggie meets Jamal, who he introduces to C. Jamal also believes that C is a good, robust AI, and Reggie easily convinces him to build C to go along Noumenon, and he wants Jamal to go as well.

2124: The convoy is preparing for lift off. Reggie goes to Iceland with Dr. McCloud to see them off. They meet I.C.C. (new C) and Reggie uploads C’s memories to it without anyone knowing. All the ships have names – Mira is the one they live on, Eden is their small forest, and Bottomless is their storage ship, among others. We learn that although Reggie himself isn’t boarding the spaceship, his genes made the list to be a future clone.

2125: The convoy deploys with Reggie watching. He has incredible mixed feeling about being left behind. We switch over to the people on the convoy, and we’re quickly introduced to Nika and Margarita. Donald Matheson has been nicknamed “Father” and another of the heads becomes Mother. Father and Mother have worked with those selected for many years prior to deployment while in Iceland, and are both aboard the ships for the long haul. Everyone has their own job. Margarita is in charge of communicating back to earth, while Nika is an archivist. Cabins are divided between singles, doubles (if you got married), and quadruples (if you get married, you commit to raising two clones). Once the convoy has taken off, and everyone has a little time to get situated, there’s a huge blowout party!

The party is a huge celebration, and everyone is having a blast until Captain Mahler arrives with a shrill whistle, reminding everyone that the party was over, they had responsibilities, and they were to clean up and be ready for work the following morning.

Margarita arrives at her job, and although she was supposed to send the first message back to Earth, one from her contact, Saul, is already awaiting her. It asks “How are you?”. On Earth, in face-to-face communication, Saul is at best socially awkward, but Margarita soon learns that he is very social, and is always curious how she is doing. He doesn’t just care about the facts, but also the personal details, which both his life and hers are growing more interesting. At only about 6 months into the mission, already over 4 years had happened on Earth. Saul was married and had a son. Margarita started to think more about the “How are you?” question. She wasn’t the only one who was depressed. Suicides began happening on the ship, the first one being Nika’s biological cousin. Margarita continues to report back to Saul, more personally now which helps her, and after a few more suicides, she went to see the captain. The captain informs her that the original planning for the trip assumed that there would be suicides – expected them even. But no one expected them to happen so early in the mission as they expected them to start happening after the government had formed. A few suicides continued after the elections, but they dwindled away. Margarita was married, and was assigned a son–Reginald Straifer II. She sends Saul a last message to tell him, as Saul is in his 70s now and retiring. He’s replaced with someone Margarita has never met.

January 3, 2415 (30 years PLD – Post Launch Day):

We meet 8 year old Jamal III, who is about to get a sibling who happens to be a sister despite him REALLY wanting a brother. When he leaves school, he learns that his parents waited until the following day so that he could go with them and not have to miss school, so he visits his friend Diego instead. Diego is Jamal’s grandfather’s friend, but he’s more fun. Diego tells Jamal about how he had a sister; she was born the old fashioned way, and that Jamal needs to learn about prejudice because it’s not his sister’s fault that she is a girl. Diego talks about his life before leaving Earth, how he met Jamal 1 before they left, and how everyone needs to work together for this community. (Diego is great.)

When Jamal goes with his parents to pick up his sister, he remembers to ask what Diego wanted him to find out – what is the baby’s number. The adults start discussing how Diego must be close, much closer than Jamal’s grandfather. They watch the new baby, Nakamura Akane, be born, and head back to their ship. The next day, Jamal meets up with Diego, and tells him that having a sister isn’t that bad. He tells Diego the number, and then they head to Eden so that Diego can explain to Jamal that their ship is a closed system. For every baby born, an elderly person has to “retire”. There’s not enough supplies to not maintain that balance. Diego understands this, and he believes solely in it and in the mission. Jamal does not. He decides to find Jamal II (2 clone cycles ahead of him) to ask his opinion. Jamal II also believes in the mission. When the day comes for Diego to retire, he smuggles onto the shuttle to that ship and tries to stop the procedure. Diego definitively tells him that it is time to say good bye, and is retired. Jamal is in the biggest trouble of his life, and he turns to I.C.C. as his friend.

October 19, 48 PLD (2589 CE)

Still with Jamal III, 18 years later, Captain Mahler is inquiring why I.C.C. is having issues. A banner flashed saying “Remember clouds. Remember sand.” And neither I.C.C. nor Jamal know where it came from. I.C.C. turns on her full consciousness to try to deduce what is going on. She tracks down some people who witnessed the display, and tries to gauge their reactions to the messages, as they continue with “Remember ice cream trucks.” and “Remember holiday breaks.” I.C.C. thinks that there is something malicious going on, so she continues to turn on her full consciousness to spy on various crew members. She pieces together that the psychiatrist, Dr. Evita, was the connection between the crew members who had turned off the messages, and I.C.C. decides to tell this to Jamal…but Jamal is also one of Dr. Evita’s patients. He is who overrode I.C.C. in the first place to send the messages, and he tells her their plan – they intend to uprise to turn the convoy around to head back to Earth, all because of Diego and him being retired, in Jamal’s mind, too soon. The uprising happens, and there’s nothing I.C.C. can do to stop it. Jamal and his gang tell the governing officials that they are to turn the plane around, and when they say that they need more time, Jamal switches off the air into their room – the same room his sister is in too. Luckily I.C.C. has one last trick up her sleeve, and shorts herself out. When she comes back online, she learns from Margarita that the revolt lasted for a week, during which time Jamal was trampled, and none of the ringleaders were ever allowed to be reborn again. It’s Margarita’s retirement day, and she, like Diego, believes in the mission, and is happy I.C.C. is back online for her new version.

May 22, 98 PLD (3075 CE)

Captain Reginald Straifer IV is about to come out of SD travel and see LQ Pyx for what it is. He and Margarita discuss what the general mood will be and discuss the various messages that have been prepared for Earth. It’s been 100 earth years (10 convoy years) since they last received a message in return. There are many reasons that Straifer can think of as to why this may have happened, and coupled with the uncertainty of what they may or may not find at the star, there are a lot of pretty depressing ideas. Straifer rewatches the speech that his original gave on Earth so many years ago kicking off the project, and we learn that it was not supposed to be Straifer who was captain when they reached LQ Pyx; it was supposed to have been Mahler III, but he committed suicide and therefore eliminated his line forever.

They reach LQ Pyx and once they get everything in focus, they realize that the shell that surrounds the star…is man-made. It’s a mostly complete metal net of sorts. Still no reply from Earth regarding the incredible discovery. They discuss that they are also not receiving communications from whomever built the Dyson Sphere (which is a structure built around a star to passively gather energy), and they could be close-by, so they decide to open up their communications wavelengths further.

Six months later, they officially arrive. They have lots of speculations about the structure, but are excited to investigate it. The biggest question is – why isn’t the structure finished. Straifer seems to be getting more and more into his own head. We learn that after Mahler committed suicide, his widow remarried to Straifer. It seems to be plaguing him. When they are looking at the web, they keep going back to this section where there is a “seed” which seems to be at the middle of that portion of the web, and every night Straifer dreams of the seed, and it often has Mahler’s voice. When one of the probes returns, the pictures show a spaceship, and there’s a question as to whether that’s who is blocking the transmissions. Upon more research, it appears that not all of the web was constructed by the same individuals, or at least not all done at the same time. So what’s next? The original deployment allotted only a specific time to investigate LQ Pyx and then return to Earth with the results. Do they keep to the original plan, despite no news from Earth in years, or do they stay until they can complete the web?

They take a manned mission to the seed and find that one of the previous groups picked it apart fairly crudely to determine what was going on with it. As they are there, Straifer has an anxiety attack. He’s convinced there’s something wrong, and that they need to turn the ship around and get away from it. He goes so far as to tamper with the shuttle that is going to be heading back, but luckily I.C.C. alerts Nakamura to come stop him. He’s taken to the medical ship, where he dies – an aneurysm they suspect. Has the Seed claimed its first life?

February 9, 121 PLD (3088 CE)

The scientists finish collecting their samples of the mission as they were only allowed to stay for the allotted 20 years. I.C.C. is evolving, and has written a poem.

October 3, 121 PLD (3088 CE)

As the ships are transitioning into SD, something happens and part of Bottomless (the storage ship) is lost along with a bunch of crew members. They aren’t sure if SD travel can be used any more, so they proceed back at regular speed.

April 1, 161 PLD (3138 CE)

Something is different, even though it’s only 39 years later, and it takes a little bit to discover. Captain Mahler, the clone who was never re-cloned after his freak-out upon arrival at LQ Pyx is now the Warden, over a prison called The Pit developed out of the discontinued lines, aka “bad clones” who are used strictly for work details. This came out of … The problem is that the Warden and his prisoners don’t really fit into the system so they self-govern, and Mahler is abusing his power by killing prisoners. At the same time, we learn that Margarita (who is part of the governing board) and her former wife have sneakily reintroduced Jamal into society as their child Diego as they wanted general society to realize that the discontinueds do not belong in the Pit. This comes to a head when Mahler sees Diego and realizes he is the same as Rail who is in the Pit. Mahler approaches the board, but they refuse his request to allow him to check all the children who he believes to discontinued, so he hijacks a convoy that Diego is on. Margarita and her new wife hurry to find and protect some of the other children, and they learn that one of them is a clone of Mahler, who Margarita takes with her to the Pit. Margarita apologizes to Mahler for how this all turned out, but the convoy has sent a security team over as the feed of what is going on at  the pit is being distributed throughout the fleet by I.C.C. A battle ensues, and the Warden kills himself, both ending his suffering and stopping the purpose of the Pit.

May 28, 271 PLD (4101 CE)

Removing the Pit has made the crew take a handle of their fear and go back into SD, so they are quickly approaching Earth, and they are curious what they will find, since it’s been over a thousand Earth years since they’ve received any communication. What will they find when they return to Earth? The speculations that the book gives via discussions from the government board and how they might plan for such occurrences are all great possibilities for an ending to a book. Will they find anyone there? Is that why no communications? They have to wait to see. It’s no longer a homecoming, but more like a first contact.

When they finally do arrive, they see signs of life, but still, no response to any communications including the one that I.C.C. has been continually broadcasting since their arrival. They decide to wait for contact before fully landing, and give Earth 30 days to respond, and when they don’t, the convoy lands in Antarctica (a neutral zone). Shortly thereafter, they are approached by 6 humanoid figures, and they go out to meet them. Nika tries communication in multiple languages with no response and then reverts to sign language. All that occurs is that the 6 figures mimic her motions. Stopping to think about what to try next, the figures begin to run off, followed by the crew members. They are led down a long elevator, and the suspicion that the humanoids are indeed robots is confirmed when they power off upon arrival.

Once they reach the lower level, they find a huge underground city in the warmth of the geothermal. They begin seeing humans, but none will respond to them. They look frustrated and confused, and no one can understand why. They are led to an unusual room where the new robot escorts awaken a man who struggles to speak to them in a sort of code of abbreviations. None of the crew members can decipher it. They’re a bit creeped out about the situation so they go to leave the way they came when they meet Ephenza, the first person who can speak to them!

January 27, 4136 CE

We’re introduced to Esperanza Straifer – the daughter of Nika and Reggie Straifer. In the olden, on-ship days, they would have never been allowed to have a child as they were of different classes, and they weren’t allowed a clone. They had to have a baby the “old fashioned way”.  Esperanza is brilliant, but belligerent about life, partly due to ridicule she (believed she) experienced as a result of her parents and partly due to having to live up to her mother. She has been given implants similarly to the other Earth people so that she can communicate with them–a similar career as her mother had.

In the 35 years since landing, there’s been seemingly no progress on integration. Those from the ship are still considered outsiders, and the residents can’t be bothered by them. When Esper returns to the ship, there’s a message waiting for her, and she is surprised to learn that there was an agreement about the lease (of the land where the ships were parked) that she hadn’t been privy to. It turns out the board went over her head, and they thought she’d be happy since she seems to hate her job, and really, everything, but she isn’t. We learn that Earth likes having them there because they have the capability to grow lots of luxury items.

They instate another person to take over her role as ambassador to Earth, and it’s suggested that when they leave Earth (since even after years of trying, they aren’t integrating properly), maybe she should stay. She’s one of the few who has had successful implants (most can’t handle them) and she hates the way that she’s been treated. As she’s packing up to move out of her office, she gets a visit from her half-sister Caznal (after Esper’s father died, her mother married Ephenza, Caznal’s father). Caznal alerts Esper that there is something more going on, and she should not accept the loss of her job so willingly. I.C.C. backs up the suggestion that there is something more going on, and the board has consciously kept Esper in the dark about it.

Caznal begins to tell Esper that she has figured out the purpose of the Nest. It is full of hydrogen and she believes that it has the capability of pressurizing at such a high pressure that it can turn the hydrogen into a metallic state creating a circuit. However, when Caznal presented this data to the board in hopes of being allowed to study the seed to figure out how the ship’s computer, she was taken off the project. She knows that they believe her, but as she is an Earthling, not from Ship City, they don’t want her to know that they want to track down the creators of the Nest and make contact. Earth is too comfortable in their ways now to want change, and the concern from Ship City is that if Earth knows what they are doing, Earth will take away and destroy the Nest and not allow them to leave.

Negotiations begin without Esper, and everyone is excited to hear that Earth is agreeing to let them leave. Esper tracks down the full details of the negotiations and is shocked to find out that part of the negotiation was that Earth was to terminate I.C.C. She attends the board meeting to tell them how upset she is that they are agreeing to these terms when I.C.C. was the only thing to save them multiple times throughout their journey. Then to make the point even more cynical, she points out that if Earth thinks that I.C.C. is too outdated to make the trip, why wouldn’t they also think that the crew itself is too? It turns out that Esper is correct.

All the board and all the crew are subpoenaed for their genetic material so that Earth can determine if they are the correct people to go. Years go by as Earth has decided that the trip will necessitate 3 additional ships. Esper meets another janitor (her new job) named Lawrence, and is pregnant with twins. She goes to see her friend Toya who is still involved in board decisions when she realizes that Earth doesn’t want I.C.C. because they think it’s outdated. She realizes that Earth wants to keep I.C.C. because the knowledge of making fully artificial intelligence was lost long ago, and they realize that they need to stop Earth from taking the AI.

They fake a fire in which I.C.C. and Esper and Lawrence die (which means that they will not be able to go on the mission and will have to stay on Earth – a penalty that Esper is willing to take). Earth teams come in to salvage what they can, but they determine that I.C.C. is of no use without the main server which was destroyed.

A year later, January 19, 4148, a little over 2 millennia after the original voyage, the ships depart. Esper, Lawrence, and their two fraternal twins are there to watch, but the reader learns that the twins’ DNA was selected for the mission. Three hundred Earth years later, the book cuts to Toya introducing herself to the 20-something year old twins the day before her retirement and telling them that the ship owes everything to their biological parents.

An elderly Caznal meets with a young Jamal to continue studying the Nest, and they realize that the aliens who created it could control the hydrogen circuit with their bodies allowing them to biologically manipulate their gravitational field. Jamal initially is upset thinking that means that they will never figure out the Nest, but Caznal and I.C.C. are not so easily deterred. They believe that they can create something to bridge the gap and allow humans to do the same. It will take a lot of time and many years of research, but what do they have if not time?

Verdict: 4.5 stars

This book is one of the best books I have read in recent times, and I have recommended it to multiple people who have all really liked it as well. It’s still enough science to be sci-fi, but with a really incredibly interesting people story to go with it. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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The Wrath & The Dawn – Renée Ahdieh

Review (Amazon): Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.

She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.

My Review (Spoilers):

Wow, I really could not get behind this book. I typically like YA, but this one had confusing (and/or bad) writing, and the plot never went anywhere. There’s a sequel, so presumably the author thought that she’d sell some more books by not revealing anything in book 1, but not from this reader. Typically a series has a plot which finishes in the specific book, and then an overarching plot which finishes in the series. This book was missing the first part of that, and I will never know if it’s also missing the latter.

I will admit that I wasn’t familiar with the story of 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights. I’m not sure how I missed that, but alas. Maybe that would have filled some gaps for me.

The book begins with “a young man” and his father, General al-Khoury, having a conversation on a rooftop. I think it was supposed to be the hook to get you interested in the book, but it did not reveal enough to leave me with anything but confusion about who these characters were and what they were alluding to. (At the end of the book, I still don’t know.)

Then we meet Shahrzad. She’s getting all done up by her hand maidens, but we know there’s something going on. The suggestion is that she won’t live til morning, and there’s mention of another girl, Shiva, who we eventually learn is Shahrzad’s best friend. Shahrzad’s father comes to visit, and she promises that everything will be fine, and he should go home to her sister and be strong. She then meets the king, or caliph, and reveals to the reader that she intends to live to the following day, and her intention is to kill the king.

Cut to Tariq and Rahim, who we eventually piece together (sort of) that Tariq is Shahrzad’s boyfriend (sort of?) and Rahim is (I guess) his friend. Shahrzad sent Tariq’s family a letter, which he goes home to receive. We learn that Shiva was Tariq’s cousin, and upon her death, which Shahrzad is apparently avenging, Shiva’s mother, Tariq’s aunt, killed herself. Not much is revealed in the letter except that Shahrzad apologizes to Tariq for “her betrayal”. (aka we still don’t really know what is going on)

Cut back to Shahrzad. She’s waiting in her chamber for the king to arrive, and when he does, he makes a bit of small talk and then asks her why she volunteered. Is she willing to throw away her life at sixteen? (Finally, we are getting somewhere.) She begins to tell Khalid a story, and says that at the end, she will answer his question of why she volunteered. She begins the story of Agib and Mount Adamant, and talks until dawn when she stops as she has made it through the night. Khalid grants her one more night.

Meanwhile Shahrzad’s father and sister are preparing to go into hiding, but not before her father stops to pick up a book. I think this is important, but the whole story line of the father is exceptionally confusing.

When Shahrzad awakes, we’re introduced to Despina, her hand maiden, who although claiming to be curious about Shahrzad (as she’s the only one who has made it through the night) as well as a spy, she’s just an annoyance throughout the whole book and is not a spy in any way. Once Shahrzad is ready, she is escorted by “the best swordsman in Rey”, the Rajput, who is basically her bodyguard/watcher to the courtyards where the soldiers practice. She’s hoping to see the caliph in action as he is “the second best swordsman in Rey”, but when he’s not there, she awkwardly pretends she wants to learn how to use a bow and arrow. The caliph’s (only?) friend, Jalal, “teaches” her, and he’s fully aware that she already knows what she’s doing. He does give her a little insight into Khalid – he became a different person once his mother died. Jalal wants Shahrzad to help Khalid go back to the person he was before her death. Khalid finally enters the training field, and upon leaving, he tells Shahrzad that he’ll “see her tonight”, and when her stomach flutters, we know that her original plan won’t happen.

He meets her again that night, and they have sex, although he doesn’t kiss her (which she is thankful for because she’s already smitten with him but still has some small hope that she will still avenge Shiva’s death), and then she continues the story. Again, she makes it til morning. And again, she wants to go see the caliph fighting. There’s a tournament going on, and she watches as Khalid fights with his specialty weapon, two shamshir swords. The following evening, he doesn’t visit, but instead, she’s visited by the soldiers who take her to be killed. The cord is tied around her neck, and she is dropped…only to be released at the last minute.

Khalid comes to visit her to make amends and to tell her that he’s leaving for a week and she won’t be bothered while he’s away. Not much happens while he’s away. Shahrzad evades an attempted poisoning, and she meets Khalid’s childhood tutor who tells her of a troubled childhood, and then gives her a threadbare carpet because she possesses magic power. (Huh?)

When Khalid returns, Shahrzad takes him out into the city without a bodyguard, presumably to kill him although there’s no suggestion of how she plans to do that. They’re attacked in the street, but come out unscathed, and are so overcome with emotion that they kiss in the alley, and they’re now inexplicably in love.

We learn that Despina is pregnant, and it’s Jamal’s baby, and despite (I think) this book being set in ancient times, Shahrzad takes the modern stance and continues to push Despina to tell him and make things right which I found really out of period.

Shahrzad has moved on from trying to figure out a way to kill the caliph, but now instead is trying to figure out why the wives have to die (because she loves him now). She tries telling him another story about a wife trying to figure out her husband’s secret, but Khalid easily catches onto what she’s doing and beyond not telling her anything, gets really upset.

There’s a big event where a bunch of different emirs across the kingdom are coming to the castle, one of whom is Tariq. He’s there to get Shahrzad out, but she doesn’t want to leave because she hasn’t figured out the mystery, but also she’s in love with Khalid. At the same time, her father is presumably learning how to do some sort of dark magic with the book that he took from the library. He’s sacrificing animals, but beyond that, we have no idea what he is doing. When Tariq returns with the news that he did not bring Shahrzad back with him Jahandar (Shahrzad’s father) tells Tariq that he can help him get her back. Dunh dunh dunh

Another attempt is made on Shahrzad’s life, but of course is again foiled. But Khalid takes her to his chamber to recover – the first time she’s ever been there. Once Khalid leaves, she snoops around and finds a book of letters of apology to the families of every wife who he killed. No reasons were given as to why they had to die, and it’s obvious that the letters were never intended to be sent. She finds the one for Shiva’s family which breaks her, and then she finds one partly written and abruptly stopped to her family. He has to answer for what he did!! (Even though she still loves him and doesn’t want to kill him any more)

She intends to ask Khalid, but a confusing unexplained situation occurs where his headache is unbearable (presumably related to his lack of sleep?) and his uncle comes in and cures the headache with some sort of magic. After the headache goes away, he then tells her why all these women had to die. He married his first wife Ava when he was very young through an arranged marriage. She grew more and more withdrawn and he wasn’t giving her the attention she needed as he was trying to figure out how to rule the kingdom. He told her he loved her but she knew he didn’t mean it, and she kills herself.

After Ava’s burial, her father curses Khalid. “One hundred lives for the one you took. One life to one dawn. Should you fail but a single morn, I shall take from you your dreams. I shall take from you your city. And I shall take from you these lives, a thousandfold.” He tried to resist but the rains stopped, drying up the city, but Shahrzad mentions that it has rained since she’s been there, and that maybe the curse has weakened.

It seems like things are going well between the two until Shahrzad’s father follows through on his plan and lights a bunch of fires using his magic allowing Tariq to enter the castle and get Shahrzad while Khalid is gone for a few weeks. She is torn between resisting and not, but she wants to find her father and stop what he is doing. They encounter Jalal, and he tells Tariq to take Shahrzad out of Rey and make sure she never comes back. And the book ends.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

Many things are discussed but not followed through or explained properly. These include the magic, the caliph’s headaches (and the treatment for them), the fact that the caliph’s people are looking for Shahrzad’s family (why?) but can’t find them (are they actually looking?). Also, the curse. What? It doesn’t say marry a new woman every night and then kill her. Why not kill a hundred prisoners? The whole thing just felt very amateur and jumped around quite a bit which made it really hard to keep track of. Also it was a lot of staring into tiger eyes and leaning forward and taking “his lower lip between hers”. There are many other better YA books to spend your time reading, but it’s unfortunate because it’s always nice to read a book with non-white characters. I really wish this one had been better.

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The Cafe by the Sea – Jenny Colgan

Review (Amazon): 

Years ago, Flora fled the quiet Scottish island where she grew up — and she hasn’t looked back. What would she have done on Mure? It’s a place where everyone has known her all her life, where no one will let her forget the past. In bright, bustling London, she can be anonymous, ambitious… and hopelessly in love with her boss.

But when fate brings Flora back to the island, she’s suddenly swept once more into life with her brothers — all strapping, loud, and seemingly incapable of basic housework — and her father. Yet even amid the chaos of their reunion, Flora discovers a passion for cooking — and find herself restoring dusty little pink-fronted shop on the harbour: a café by the sea.

But with the seasons changing, Flora must come to terms with past mistakes — and work out exactly where her future lies…

My Review (spoilers, although not that many. it’s a love story; you can guess the ending):

This is our romance novel for 2018, and honestly, one of the best novels I’ve read of this sort. I always find them to be so dramatic or so WW2 or just so boring. It’s still adorably predictable, but I found the setting to be unique and captivating enough to really make up for any of that.

The author sets up the book with a prologue saying that the island of Mure, where the book takes place, is not a real island (so she didn’t get any correspondence from readers telling her how she got something wrong lol), but it’s a pretend Scottish island, like Fair Isle. I’ve never been to Scotland or the Scottish Isles, but the book definitely made me want to go (in the summer).

The main character is a young woman named Flora. She’s 26, and a paralegal in a big law firm in London where she has a huge crush on her boss, Joel, even though she knows better. He’s a big shot American who breaks up with women like it’s his job, and just isn’t very nice of a person.

Then one day, another American, Colton Rogers, approaches the firm because he’s having difficulty with a wind farm which is going to be installed right beside his resort, on an island in the Scottish Isles–the same one on which Flora grew up, and has never looked back at. She’s brought into Joel’s office to discuss with Colton about this, and is straightaway on the case.

We’re introduced to selkies, which was a new story for me. They are a well known myth in this region of the world, something akin to a mermaid. Selkies are seal people who lose their ocean shape while they are on land. They seem to be more common in women where the story is that the only way to keep your selkie bride is to hide her sealskin so she can’t leave you. Selkies also have a very distinct look, pale skinned with pale hair just like Flora and her mother.

Flora begrudgingly heads back to Mure, a place she hasn’t been for a long time, and she’s not excited about returning to visit, although we don’t really know why. She gets to her family home where she sees her brothers Fintan, Innes, and Hamish – all completely different from each other – the family dog Bramble, and her father, a man of a few words.

We learn that Flora’s mother died, and no one has been the same since. Flora and her father had a falling out, and she returned to London, not returning to the island since. The brothers are all struggling in their own ways, and no one is happy with Colton Rogers and his big fancy resort he put in.

Then she gets word that Joel is coming to the island. Colton is uber wealthy and Joel doesn’t want to lose him as a client, and he doesn’t know what is going on with the case. Flora is in a frenzy from it, and she meets up with her old friend Lorna to catch up and gossip, and Lorna suggests that Flora make some good old-fashioned cooking for her family since they haven’t really been eating since their mom died, and Flora’s mother was the best cook.

Flora tries, but is wildly unsuccessful at dinner, and of course her brothers and father start kidding her about how terrible it is, and she gets frustrated and hurt and leaves for a walk. Old buddy Bramble decides to follow her, and he gets injured as it starts to rain. Flora carries him into a cave, where she stumbles upon a big broad shouldered man named Charlie who is on a camping trip with a bunch of kids who have one parent in prison. They help her get Bramble back home but not before Flora gets to meet Jan, Charlie’s partner, who is quite rude and dismissive to Flora.

Still waiting for instructions from Colton or from Joel’s appearance, Flora begins to settle back into her old life. She cleans the house from top to bottom where in the meantime, she finds her mother’s recipe book and begins to start cooking for the family. The family has a modest farm, which is getting tougher each year, and we learn that there is an underlying issue that Fintan isn’t carrying his weight at the farm. It turns out, he’s been doing a side project of making his own cheese.

Joel finally arrives at the island, and Flora is in a frenzy. It’s weird though because although she’s been there for a bit, she hasn’t seen Colton or really done any work except collect gossip about how much the islanders dislike Colton and the Rock (the place he’s building) because he hasn’t integrated with the locals whatsoever, and he isn’t hiring or importing from the island. Flora picks up Joel at the airport and takes him to his hotel and then returns for him later to go to Colton’s.

Colton gives them a tour, and as Flora is inquiring about why he’s not using locals, he mentions that most of the locals move away, sell their produce and supplies elsewhere, and generally he doesn’t find the capability to buy stuff here. Flora explains to Colton that he needs to intermix more with the locals, because The Rock is absolutely exquisite and it’s easy to understand why Colton doesn’t want the wind farm there, but if he wants to sway the vote, he needs to make nice with the voters. Flora’s first task is to start gauging the leanings of those on the council.

After visiting 2 unbudging council members, Flora headed for the shop to buy some groceries for dinner where she bumped into Charlie and invited him over as well. They had a great dinner until a bit of awkwardness when Flora suggested that Fintan bring out his cheese to go with the fruitcake (I guess that’s a thing) and their dad realized that was what was taking him away from the framework. As Charlie is leaving and we start to see the beginnings of attraction between him and Flora, Joel calls.

We learn that Joel was a foster child for his youth, never having an adoptive family. The closest thing he has to a father is a child psychiatrist he has had for many years despite no longer being a child. We learn more about Joel and the struggles he has with relationships and people and trust through phone calls throughout the book to this doctor. We also learn that Fintan and Flora have a strenuous relationship because Fintan was always jealous of the attention that Flora (the only girl) got from their mother. Fintan didn’t want to be sent outside to play with the other boys, and it hurts Flora deeply to realize that she never noticed how hurt he was by this. They have a huge fight, but to make things up to him, Flora invites him to go with her to The Rock to have dinner that evening with Joel and Colton.

A few things develop in this meeting – one being that Colton had no idea he also owns a shop (the pink house) on the main street, and as he didn’t know that it was part of what he bought, it has been abandoned since he moved in. He also had no idea that nothing about his menu was actually local. And we also learn that Colton and Fintan are gay.

The boatman goes to Flora and Fintan’s house to pick up some of Fintan’s cheese along with a variety of things that Flora has recently made, and returns to The Rock so that they can have a more satisfying meal. Colton and Joel are so impressed that the decision is made to open the pink house to sell some things made of Flora’s mother’s recipes along with Fintan’s cheese.

She awakes in the middle of the night to texts from Joel. Not outright flirty, but certainly in that direction. She and Bramble decide to go meet Joel who can’t sleep because of how light it is outside. They walk along the beach discussing work mostly, and once it’s actually morning, they head back to the farm for breakfast. After a wildly chaotic breakfast (Innes’ young daughter was there as well), Joel headed for the airport to go back to London.

While Joel is gone, Fiona gets busy opening the pink house as The Cafe by the Sea and employs some locals to run it using her mother’s recipes. Charlie is there on the first day to buy pastries for the boys he’s taking out hiking that day. Flora is glum that Joel left with nothing being said or happening further, so she asks Charlie for a drink. Lorna and Colton also stop in. Lorna is incredibly impressed, and Colton wants to pry for info about Fintan and just to see how it’s all going. He brings the painters round that same day, and tells Flora that he’s going to host a huge party for the locals to come see The Rock which Flora is also involved in planning.

The day of the party comes and Joel arrives at The Cafe by the Sea. Flora unsuccessfully tries to convince him to wear a kilt for the party! She unbeknownst to him has been persuaded into dancing in her old troupe, costume and all. At the party, all the townspeople and council members are there. Colton is all decked out in his heritage outfit. Joel sees her dancing and starts doing some serious introspection of his own life and begins to realize that things are different with Flora and on this island. But of course Charlie is also at the party. He tells Flora that he and Jan (who is also at the party) are separated.

Flora goes to find Joel. Inge-Britt, the owner of the hotel and the town floozy, has sunk her hooks into him. Joel was just being nice, but he can’t find the words when Flora, visibly upset, finds them. Flora leaves to find Charlie, while Joel, a bumbling idiot, continues to entertain Inge-Britt. Flora and Charlie dance, and at the end, they kiss, with a rude awakening of Jan yanking her away. A fight ensues as Jan does not believe they are separated, and Flora leaves the party.

On other fronts, the party is a success. Colton asks Fintan to work for him full time, and Colton brings up the option of buying the farm with Flora. She struggles with the idea at first but realizes it is definitely for the best. Joel shows up, back to his old cold-hearted self, and becomes enraged when he has to stay overnight because the weather is too bad. Colton, Joel and Flora head into the pub, none really knowing what to do. Colton can’t get back to The Rock in the weather, and neither Colton nor Joel have any more dry clothes, so Flora leaves the pub to head to her house to find them some. Colton urges Joel to go with her, and he does.

They get to her home and some PG-13 action ensues. Flora stops though as she suddenly realizes that she’s conflicted and he’s her boss, and she pumps the brakes. She tells Joel the story about her mother dying, and how at the funeral, she shouted at her father for telling people that her mother was a Selkie who had returned to the ocean. She yelled in front of everyone that he kept her chained to the kitchen even though she had wanted to go out and experience life. And she’d never returned since. In the midst of their heart-to-heart, Charlie arrives. He needs to borrow the tractor due to a whale beached from the storm.

While Flora is helping get the whale back into the water, Joel again being a complete dummy, manages to get to the airport to get off the island. When Flora returns home, she realizes this, but Colton and Fintan are there to discuss the farm. They eventually convince their father that it is the right thing to do, and in the meantime, Fintan comes out to his father about his relationship with Colton. Flora apologizes to her father for her behavior at her mother’s funeral, and the vote for the wind farm is nearing.

Flora has still heard nothing from Joel, but she finally hears from another coworker that Joel took over Colton’s old job in New York and he’ll be up for the council meeting in Joel’s place. The meeting happens, and Colton wins the argument to have the wind farm moved from in front of The Rock to instead in front of his personal home. They leave the council meeting to attend the harvest celebration – a bunch of debauchery – and as Flora is out celebrating, she sees some familiar lights. She takes off to the airport where she finds Joel (he has taken Colton’s private jet) and they return to the Presidential Suite at The Rock. And in the end, there’s happily ever after.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Like I said at the beginning, I liked the setting. This book made me want to visit the Scottish Isles immensely! The love story was a bit average, but the rest of the story was definitely enough to pull its weight. I would definitely recommend this as an upscale beach read.

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Victoria – Daisy Goodwin

Review (Amazon):

Drawing on Queen Victoria’s diaries, which she first started reading when she was a student at Cambridge University, Daisy Goodwin―creator and writer of the new PBS Masterpiece drama Victoriaand author of the bestselling novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter―brings the young nineteenth-century monarch, who would go on to reign for 63 years, richly to life in this magnificent novel.

Early one morning, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria is roused from bed with the news that her uncle William IV has died and she is now Queen of England. The men who run the country have doubts about whether this sheltered young woman, who stands less than five feet tall, can rule the greatest nation in the world.

Despite her age, however, the young queen is no puppet. She has very definite ideas about the kind of queen she wants to be, and the first thing is to choose her name.

“I do not like the name Alexandrina,” she proclaims. “From now on I wish to be known only by my second name, Victoria.”

Next, people say she must choose a husband. Everyone keeps telling her she’s destined to marry her first cousin, Prince Albert, but Victoria found him dull and priggish when they met three years ago. She is quite happy being queen with the help of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who may be old enough to be her father but is the first person to take her seriously.

On June 19th, 1837, she was a teenager. On June 20th, 1837, she was a queen. Daisy Goodwin’s impeccably researched and vividly imagined new book brings readers Queen Victoria as they have never seen her before.

My Review:

Executive Summary: not worth reading

This book gets great reviews, and also there’s also the related PBS special, but I honestly thought it was quite boring. It basically took the reign of one of the greatest monarch’s of England, and condensed it down into a silly girl’s love story. I’m not really OK with that. The book basically covered ~2 years of Victoria’s life from right before when she became queen to when she proposed to Albert.

Victoria, whose name is Alexandrina Victoria, is about 17.5 years old when the book starts. Her father has died, her mother and her “friend” John Conroy look after her exceptionally closely, and her only real friends are her lady Lehzen and her dog Dash. She’s extremely sheltered and plays with dolls. She isn’t allowed to play with other children or even sleep in a room separate from her mother. Upon the death of her uncle, the previous king, she is just over 18 years old and is next in line to the throne. But no one believes that a young girl should be the queen (and frankly the portrayal in this book makes me agree).

Victoria  moves into the Buckingham house and starts to call it the Buckingham Palace. She sleeps in a room all to herself, essentially banning her mother and Conroy to the other end of the palace, and she develops a close relationship with “Lord M” aka the prime minister Lord Melbourne. Throughout the book, we don’t get to see Victoria develop into a leader who is competent and respected. We get to see her crushing on Lord M – a man 40 years her senior.

Shortly after she becomes queen, there’s quite a bit of drama as she becomes misguided by rumors and her hatred for Conroy. She orders the royal doctor to examine her mother’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings as she believes that she is pregnant to  Conroy. She’s not. She has an invasive tumor and dies shortly thereafter, and there is some sizable damage to Victoria’s reputation.

Everyone and their brother is working on trying to find Victoria a husband since she’s too unstable to rule without one. While Victoria thinks herself an independent queen like Queen Elizabeth, this book certainly paints her as someone who probably does need a husband. She can’t marry Lord M for a variety of reasons despite she supposedly wanting to, so we are introduced to a plethora of suitors – the soon-to-be Russian tsar (although this is also not a valid option for political reasons), her cousin George, and Leopold, Victoria’s mother’s brother, who is the King of the (newly formed) Belgians, insists on visiting with his sons Albert and Ernst.

It’s quickly apparent that Albert is the only viable option, despite Victoria loathing him and thinking he is such a bore until they sit down to play the piano together side by side, and the feel of him touching up against her is just electric. She soon proposes (is is customary for the Queen as she’s not just some ordinary lady), and he agrees, and the book ends leaving the rest of Victoria’s life for another story.

Verdict: 3 stars

I think I am either too old or just not the right target audience for this book. It felt very flighty and young adult to me, and according to other articles such as this one, a lot of it was untrue widely embellished. So I’d say skip the book, watch the PBS special because although I haven’t seen it, I am a big Doctor Who fan, and Jenna Coleman is quite impressive.

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Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give – Ada Calhoun

Review (Amazon): 

We hear plenty about whether or not to get married, but much less about what it takes to stay married. Clichés around marriage―eternal bliss, domestic harmony, soul mates―leave out the real stuff. After marriage you may still want to sleep with other people. Sometimes your partner will bore the hell out of you. And when stuck paying for your spouse’s mistakes, you might miss being single.

In Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, Ada Calhoun presents an unflinching but also loving portrait of her own marriage, opening a long-overdue conversation about the institution as it truly is: not the happy ending of a love story or a relic doomed by high divorce rates, but the beginning of a challenging new chapter of which “the first twenty years are the hardest.”

Calhoun’s funny, poignant personal essays explore the bedrooms of modern coupledom for a nuanced discussion of infidelity, existential anxiety, and the many other obstacles to staying together. Both realistic and openhearted, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give offers a refreshing new way to think about marriage as a brave, tough, creative decision to stay with another person for the rest of your life. “What a burden,” Calhoun calls marriage, “and what a gift.”

My Review:

Executive Summary: meh

I am so ahead of the game this year. First book club book of the year, and I’m already writing the review. Let’s see how long I can keep this up!

I thought this book was really just kind of snarky and not in a good way. The premise of the book is how all wedding toasts are sappy and unrealistic. Well, duh. No one wants to hear a wedding toast that talks about how marriage is incredibly challenging to make work, and how most marriages don’t last. Why would anyone want to hear that on their wedding day? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the most sappy and sentimental person in the world. My now-husband and I went out to dinner before we got engaged to talk about whether we wanted to have kids, how we were going to handle the finances, and whether I was going to change my name. Maybe I should write a book.

Anyway, back to the book. Ada talks us through how marriage means paying for not only your mistakes but also your spouse’s mistakes, how you have to compromise, how sometimes (a lot of times) things are boring, how sometimes your spouse does things that you hate but you have to think about the good things so that you can stay married. Nothing newsworthy here. Marriage 101.

The book just sort of flits along with stories about someone she knew or the weird old timey summer camp where she worked (which I don’t know why that was included), and some more relevant stories of her own life. I enjoyed the part about the pre-Tinder type of mail in dating service where she worked because I thought it was a fascinating glimpse into a tiny flash in the pan in time. Some of them are good, some of them not so much. I didn’t need a whole background about her cousin Jeremy to be introduced to his friend who was Ava’s “soul mate” when she was 15 for her to then explain that soul mates are overrated.

She goes into a little detail about how her husband, Neal, had an affair. It took a lot to get over but they did (she honestly goes into more detail about her trip to Gettysburg than she does about his affair), and then a lengthy bit about how she made out with an old boyfriend while on a book tour, and when she told Neal about it, he mentioned that he flirted with someone they both knew, and how they talked through her makeout session and moved on.

She talks about love and death, and then at the end of the very short, 192 page book, she writes a lengthy wedding toast which she would give at a wedding which is completely unlike the rest of the book, incredibly serious and dry. I get the point wrapping the book up that way, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me. I can’t imagine a person who wrote this book also writing that speech.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

On the plus side, this book was a quick read, and it wasn’t boring or anything that should warrant such a low rating, however, it just didn’t strike me as a book that needed to be written or to be read. I felt a bit like I had wasted my time, and I rarely feel that way about reading even if it’s a book I don’t like that much.

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2018 Book Club List

I’m really going to try to do better with my blog this year! I felt like I fell behind a little a lot in 2017, but moving onward and upward!

We’ve actually had some updates in our book club – a few members have moved, and a few new members which is always exciting!! Similar to last year, we all picked our categories, and then brought to the meeting a few different options in our category and then we collectively pick one for the year.

My category for the year was sci-fi/fantasy which is one of my favorites. The big challenge for this category is that a lot of the books are the start of a trilogy or series. So I picked three books as options, all which I felt were fairly different in context. The two runners up were Noumenon by Marina Lostetter and The Power by Naomi Alderman. Both seem like really great books, that I will definitely try to read this year on top of my book club list! And without further ado, here is the list for this year!

January (Memoir): Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun

February (Bestseller): Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

March (Romance): Café By the Sea by Jenny Colgan

April (Young Adult): The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

May (Sci-Fi/Fantasy): An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (MY BOOK! 😀 )

June (Classic): Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

July (Literary Fiction): A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

August (Book to Movie): The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

September (Non-fiction): How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life by Lily Singh

October (Mystery): An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James

November (Historical Fiction): Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

December: Book Swap!

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2017 in Review

2017 was a pretty weird year, especially for Houston which is where I live. I’m still volunteering a lot with my animal rescue work, and in 2017, I started a new project at work, which both helps and hinders my reading schedule (more airline travel but also busier in general). This is also…the fifth year for this blog!! I’m happy to say I read about the same amount of books as I did in 2016, but I’ve been a bit slow in the last 6 months (timeline with the new project at work) for putting my posts together. In fact, one of the books has never gotten a review, but I’ll do my best to get it written!

For this year, I had less of a variety of genres. No classics, no romance. A pretty even split between Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction (arguably my 3 favorite categories) and then a pretty even split on the others.

2017 genres

Also for this year, I spent a bit more than usual on books – a little over $50 for the year. But really, in the grand scheme of things, that’s just over $4 per month on books. It’s nothing. I do try to utilize the library and borrowing books when I can, but sometimes, you just gotta read!!

I varied between a 2.5 and a 4.5 rating (one on each end of the scale), and the split between book club and non-book club books was relatively even.

Sixteen books, or 1.3 books per month, and 5,752 pages read, equating to just under 16 pages per day! Two years in a row I’ve held steady at 16 books. Will this be the year that breaks the cycle?!

Happy reading in 2018!

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