Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy
AD 98: The bustling army base at Vindolanda lies on the northern frontier of Britannia and the entire Roman world. In twenty years’ time, the Emperor Hadrian will build his famous wall, but for now defences are weak, as tribes rebel against Roman rule, and local druids preach the fiery destruction of the invaders.
Flavius Ferox is a Briton and a Roman centurion, given the task of keeping the peace on this wild frontier. But it will take more than just courage to survive life in Roman Britain...
I picked this book up on a whim before a transatlantic flight, hoping for a tale of high adventure in ancient Britain. And Vindolanda certainly delivers; Goldsworthy is clearly an expert in the customs of the Roman army and the ancient tribes of Britain. His immense knowledge of weaponry, battle maneuvers, political machinations, and cultural traditions shows on every page of his novel. Vindolanda is by far the most circumspect book I've read about Roman Britain, and certainly among the best-researched historical fiction books I have read. Unfortunately I think Goldsworthy's exhaustive knowledge of his subject was as much curse as blessing. Although his attention to detail makes the world of Flavius Ferox more complete and immersive for the reader, at times the plot lags behind lengthy descriptions of minor details. Some chapters feel written as an excuse for Goldsworthy to include as much of his expertise as possible, leaving the conflict of the story to stall momentarily.
Overall, these slow sections are a small price to pay, as even the less crucial scenes are often made interesting simply by the detail with which Goldsworthy renders the ancient world. He earns extra points from me for choosing to write about Roman Britain, a part of the empire that is fairly seldom visited by historical fiction writers. The combination of Roman imperialism and Briton custom and superstition is fertile ground for epic storytelling, and Vindolanda is a respectable beginning for Goldsworthy's series.
I, for one, am intrigued, and I look forward to reading the sequel. I hope that the next installment in Ferox's story will bring more character development, as Vindolanda focused mainly on Ferox himself. Despite the lack of intimacy between most of the characters and the reader, very few of the characters were stock characters and many were engaging, but their sheer number prevents the reader from getting to know more than the most central players. Hopefully now that these core characters have been introduced, they will come alive as fully as Goldsworthy's rendering of the world they inhabit in the next book.
Pandora's Lab by Paul A. Offit, MD
What happens when ideas presented as science lead us in the wrong direction?
History is filled with brilliant ideas that gave rise to disaster, and this book explores the most fascinating—and significant—missteps: from opium's heyday as the pain reliever of choice to recognition of opioids as a major cause of death in the U.S.; from the rise of trans fats as the golden ingredient for tastier, cheaper food to the heart disease epidemic that followed; and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.
These are today's sins of science—as deplorable as mistaken past ideas about advocating racial purity or using lobotomies as a cure for mental illness. These unwitting errors add up to seven lessons both cautionary and profound which can be used to investigate how we can separate good science from bad, using some of today's most controversial creations as case studies.
Science is wonderful and amazing, and has contributed immensely to our wellbeing and longevity - but it's not perfect, and neither are the people who practice it. Pandora's Lab is a vindication of the principle that science and scientists can do just as much harm as good.
While this is an especially important lesson for young scientists to learn, it's something we all need to be aware of - especially in the age of the internet, when information is everywhere but evidence is sometimes lacking. Luckily, you don't have to be a scientist to understand and learn from Pandora's Lab. Written in clear prose that avoids being unnecessarily pedantic, with chapters that strike a balance between detail and conciseness, the book manages to be packed with information without reading like a textbook.
The first seven chapters contain a mix of scientific information and historical context and follow important personages, so that they read more like stories than dry recitations of facts. And while the history of these discoveries and their impact on our world - both historically and today - is fascinating, Offit is careful to point out that pseudoscience, misinformation and misunderstanding, and overreaction aren't confined to the past. Linking the mistakes that led to the disasters reported in the first seven chapters to the scientific discoveries and inquiries of today, the last chapter of Pandora's Lab serves as a guide for how we can prevent such disasters in the future.
Meticulous, thoroughly researched, and thoughtfully written, this is a book that science and history enthusiasts will enjoy reading and learning from. But it's also a book with a very important lesson that everyone needs to hear - not just scientists, but the public who is their audience and whose lives are altered by the implementation of their findings. It's very rare that I come across a book that I truly believe should be required reading, but this is one of them, and it comes with my highest recommendation.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
It's been a long time since I stayed up all night reading a John Green novel, but that's what I've just done. I'm not quite sure if it's because of Turtles All the Way Down itself or just a sense of nostalgia for the days when John Green's novels were practically my Gospel.
It's been five years since there was a new John Green novel to read, and for me it was both pleasant and strange to be reading his writing for the first time again. I was afraid that I would have outgrown his books, or that this one wouldn't live up to the rest, and I had to try very hard to start Turtles All the Way Down without any expectations or presumptions.
This tactic might be the only way to approach Turtles All the Way Down in some ways, because the novel is both quintessentially John Green and completely different from his other writing. I won't explain exactly how simply because it would take a long time and a lot of words, and because I think respect for the author demands that each new work be allowed to live on its own.
Turtles All the Way Down is extremely existential - Aza, the main character, is plagued by thoughts of her "self" and what that means, whether or not a true "self" really exists, and often gets stuck in spirals of these and other intrusive thoughts. The spirals mean that she tends to repeat herself a lot, illustrating the invasive, cyclic nature of disordered thought unflinchingly and realistically, though sometimes frustratingly as well.
For people who live with these types of thought spirals, it's a familiar motif - living like you're walking through underbrush that might be hiding bear traps or spear-laden pits - and it's easy to empathize with Aza's character. For those whose thoughts are not disordered, it might be harder to empathize with Aza (even if they can sympathize), and without this implicit understanding the book and its style of narration might become frustrating and tiresome.
This is where I think Green's genius has struck, since these are precisely the emotions that people often feel when dealing with mentally ill people in real life. But even as it inspires these emotions, Turtles All the Way Down offers people unfamiliar with disordered thought a window into what it is like inside the mind of someone like Aza. And for people who can identify with Aza, it provides a different angle, a different point of view, that allows readers to potentially examine and understand themselves by proxy of her.
I will stop myself from writing a dissertation here, since that's what it would take to fully unpack Turtles All the Way Down and its relationship to non-fictional people and mental illness, but suffice it to say that Green's literary genius is alive and well. Good fiction reveals something to us about ourselves, and Turtles All the Way Down certainly accomplishes that. It may not be the most fun book you ever read, but it may well be one of the most important.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.
Then Vasya's father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.
But Vasya's stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village's defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has concealed - to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse's most frightening tales.
I have always loved folklore and fairy tales of all kinds, so naturally I've read my fair share of retellings and adaptations. Very few manage to capture the soul of the stories as well as make them into something new and exciting. With The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden has not only managed it but succeeded with flying colors.
The language and lyricism of the writing are captivating, pulling you further and further into the story like an enchantment. Rich descriptions of Vasilisa's world and the careful inclusion of details from Russian folklore create an atmosphere heavy with both magic and humanity, and it is easy to suspend one's disbelief and be swept up in the story. It's been a long time since I got so caught up in a book - so lost in its pages - that I read for hours without realizing it, but there was almost no other way to read this book. Every time I set down The Bear and the Nightingale it felt like pulling myself from a dream and I immediately wanted to dive back into the story.
This heady, atmospheric narration, combined with Arden's perfect plot pacing, has me convinced that she is one of the most masterful storytellers I've had the privilege of reading in a long time. In addition to being well-plotted and captivatingly rendered, The Bear and the Nightingale is populated skillfully portrayed characters, human in their faults, desires, and motivations, lending a lovely hint of realism to the fantastical story-line. Of these, the shining star of the novel is its heroine, Vasilisa. Spirited, courageous, and compassionate, Vasilisa is the type of heroine I dreamed of reading about as a little girl, but she is also flawed and fully realized.
Much of the story hinges on Vasya's independence and strong will, at odds with the time and society in which she lives. It is clear that Arden has devoted careful attention to maintaining this balance, allowing readers to feel Vasya's frustration at her curtailed freedom while understanding her actions as well as the actions of those around her. She is one of the best-written "strong female characters" I've yet come across, and I cannot wait to read more of her adventures.
The Bear and the Nightingale can be read as a standalone, if one so desires, but the sequel is set to be released next January. I, for one, am ravenous for more of this magical, winter-dark world and can't wait to sink my teeth into the next installment!
A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.
Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.
I was so excited to read this book, so intrigued by the premise, and I'm equally disappointed that it didn't live up to my hopes. The plot was clumsy and the pacing was erratic, so that it was difficult to really get caught up in the story. The characters were only minimally developed and not always easy to relate to.
Some parts of the book, like the inclusion of Puerto Rican folklore, were really enjoyable, and like I said, the premise was really cool. Which I suppose is why I'm so disappointed by this book - it had so much potential, and I think if it had been told differently, it would have been an amazing novel. If Isabel had been the narrator, the mystery aspect of the story would have had so much more impact (honestly I'm so sad that instead of being narrated by a cursed, half-native girl in the heart of a mystery the novel is narrated by a rich white boy from the mainland). If the author had spent more time developing and exploring the characters, it might have been a truly moving story. If the pacing had been smoother and the plot less clunky, I might have been swept away by this book.
But I wasn't. For me, this book was just an entertaining read for a boring Saturday.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...
A convict with a thirst for revenge.
A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager.
A runaway with a privileged past.
A spy known as the Wraith.
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.
Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.
This is the best adventure book I've read in a long time, and maybe the best adventure book I've ever read.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, but I didn't love it like I love Six of Crows. Alina and Mal's story was engrossing and well-told, but it wasn't a five-star read for me, and Six of Crows definitely is. There wasn't a single thing about it that I didn't like.
The worldbuilding is beautiful and intricate and so realistic I had to remind myself that Ketterdam and Fjerda are not real, and I can't vacation there. The level of detail in the description of Kerch alone is mind boggling, and Bardugo put that much detail and more into six other countries in a god-like show of writing ability.
If Bardugo's writing prowess is evident in the construction of the countries and cities in Six of Crows, it shows even more in her skill at creating and developing characters. I have a certain weakness for bands of outcasts that form their own little families, especially when they're on daring, death-defying missions. But the Dregs blow all others out of the water. I love these stupidly brave, flawed characters with all my heart. Each of them gets near-equal attention from Bardugo, who gave them all a detailed backstory without bogging down the plot. The details of their characters were revealed so masterfully as the story progressed that it felt like I was getting to know them while going on this crazy, brilliant mission with them.
I don't think I've ever been so immersed in an adventure story. The realism of the story never broke down for me (and I know that someone somewhere is hollering "But it's unrealistic that teenagers could do the things the Dregs do!" To which I reply, the world Bardugo has created is very different from ours, and it is one where kids are expected to grow up very quickly, so I'm not surprised that teenagers in the Dregs' position are far more quick-witted and talented than most teenagers of our world. And if some of their skills still seem a little out of reach, remember that you're reading a book in which a kind of magic exists).
Everything that I loved about Bardugo's writing and the world she'd created in the Grisha Trilogy have returned tenfold in Six of Crows, without it seeming like a rehashing of the Grisha Trilogy. Whether you've read Bardugo's first series or not, Six of Crows is an imaginative and impressive story that will leave you anxious for more. As for me, I'm glad the Dregs' story doesn't end here, but not quite sure how I'll make it to Crooked Kingdom's release in September!
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Simon Snow is the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen.
That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.
Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here—it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.
Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story—but far, far more monsters.
I don't know how to carry on after reading this book.
I read almost the entire book straight through last night, finishing well past one in the morning, at which point I was basically a puddle of emotions. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it all day - every other thought in my head is related to Carry On, and how amazing it was, and how I'm probably going to go home and immediately start rereading it. A book hasn't made me this ridiculously happy in a long time.
I don't read a lot of romances, or get super emotional over them very often, but Rainbow Rowell has this amazing ability to write a romance that leaves me flailing my limbs like an overexcited toddler and feeling like a swarm of Amazonian butterflies have settled in my stomach. And the romance inCarry On is just so well done. The growth of Simon and Baz's relationship is so realistic and beautifully written (and wonderfully cliche free!) that I don't think I'll ever be over it.
Carry On is, at its core, a romance, but it's also a fantasy novel that loosely parallels Harry Potter. The first few chapters have a lot more parallels and veiled allusions to HP, but after after that, Rowell sets up her own magical world with a unique set of rules, values, spells, and magical creatures. The worldbuilding is honestly genius, playing off of what people expect to find and adding plenty of twists. The politics of the World of Mages and Simon and Baz's place in them are fascinating and intricate, and the magiclore is clever and intriguing (I especially love the spells - they seemed a little silly at first, but after we got a better explanation of them, I was blown away by how ingenious they were).
The adventure/fantasy side of the story is predictable (I guessed the Big Twist not even halfway into the book) but with enough small surprises that it isn't stale. The focus is on Simon and Baz's characters and relationship, and their roles in the magickal world add more depth to that without being the center of attention. That said, if you're only interested in Carry Onbecause of the fantasy aspect, Rowell created such a cool world and villain that it's still worth the read.
(And the reread. And the next reread).
I think the only thing I didn't like about this book was that there wasn't more of it - which is saying something, given that it's 522 pages!
Winter by Marissa Meyer
Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana.
Winter despises her stepmother, and knows Levana won’t approve of her feelings for her childhood friend—the handsome palace guard, Jacin. But Winter isn’t as weak as Levana believes her to be and she’s been undermining her stepmother’s wishes for years. Together with the cyborg mechanic, Cinder, and her allies, Winter might even have the power to launch a revolution and win a war that’s been raging for far too long.
Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters?
This book was hard to finish. Not because it was bad or anything, but because I didn't want this series to end. From the first page of Cinder, Marissa Meyer delivered lovable characters, fast-paced action, political intrigue, and beautiful storytelling, and she didn't stop until the last page of Winter. I think The Lunar Chronicles are the only YA series that has never let me down. I loved every sentence of every book, and I am so sad to be finished with it.
That said, Meyer absolutely nailed the ending. Bittersweet and wonderfully thought out, Winter is the perfect conclusion to this amazing series. The elements of Snow White are incorporated with the subtle genius that Meyer brought to her sci-fi/dystopian/political thriller/romance interpretations of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.
The leading ladies of The Lunar Chronicles are the best part of the series. I could rant for hours about the importance of a series based around six fully realized female characters and filled with a beautifully diverse cast of characters, but for now I'm just going to thank Marissa Meyer.
Thank you for this exciting, heart-wrenching, stay-up-reading-until-two-am-good series.
The Mission by Jason Meyers
Kaden Norris's life is shattered when his older brother -- his best friend and hero -- is killed in Iraq. All Kaden has left of Kenny is a letter, urging him to break away from his sheltered life and to go to San Francisco to visit his cousin, James.
Kaden is blown away as James introduces him to a life filled with drugs, sex, and apathy. He goes from extreme high to extreme low, having no idea what to expect. And when Kaden uncovers secrets about his family that have been kept from him for years, his entire world comes crashing down. This may not be the trip his brother had envisioned for him, but it's one Kaden will never forget.
DNF at page 270 out of 361
This book reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye, but somehow even less profound. After 270 pages, not much had happened besides Kaden wandering around San Francisco being stupid and reckless and thinking it made him "rad." I have honestly never heard the word " rad" used so often and so unironically before reading The Mission.
My biggest problem with this book was that I didn't like any of the characters at all. More than that, I just didn't care about them. James Morgan, who could have been a very complex character, only waltzed into the story occasionally to add a bit of drama before becoming irrelevant again. Caralie, the only character I liked even a little, was oversimplified and sexualized.
Kaden's characterization was lazy and conflicting rather than complex. He's described a being both a timid kid with self-esteem issues and as a confident tough guy unafraid to dress like a rapper in rural Iowa. All of Meyers' descriptions of Kaden are scattered and contradictory. He's described as poor enough to wear a coat he found in a parking lot on one page, and fifty pages later as "well-off." He's afraid to kiss his girlfriend but has no issue hooking up with unknown girls.
And every single woman in the book is described in terms of her body. Even Kaden's mother. It was honestly gross, and combined with a disturbing amount of slut-shaming, is a huge reason I'm not finishing this book.
Maybe the end of this book is great and does something to negate the crappiness of the first 300 pages, but I really don't feel like slogging through another 100 pages of drunk, high assholes arguing with each other and acting like that's the best way to live to find out.
The Darkest Corners by Kara Thomas
There are ghosts around every corner in Fayette, Pennsylvania. Tessa left when she was nine and has been trying ever since not to think about it after what happened there that last summer. Memories of things so dark will burn themselves into your mind if you let them.
Callie never left. She moved to another house, so she doesn’t have to walk those same halls, but then Callie always was the stronger one. She can handle staring into the faces of her demons—and if she parties hard enough, maybe one day they’ll disappear for good.
Tessa and Callie have never talked about what they saw that night. After the trial, Callie drifted and Tessa moved, and childhood friends just have a way of losing touch.
But ever since she left, Tessa has had questions. Things have never quite added up. And now she has to go back to Fayette—to Wyatt Stokes, sitting on death row; to Lori Cawley, Callie’s dead cousin; and to the one other person who may be hiding the truth.
Only the closer Tessa gets to the truth, the closer she gets to a killer—and this time, it won’t be so easy to run away.
I love a good murder mystery, especially one with a big twist. I was certain that The Darkest Corners would deliver the shocking, double-check-your-locks thrills of a good mystery, but it just...didn't.
Not too long after starting the book, I got the feeling that Kara Thomas had read Gillian Flynn's books, decided she wanted to write mysteries too, and then wasn't quite able to write a book that set itself apart. The Darkest Corners has a lot of similarities to Flynn's Dark Places, from the title to the basic plotline (girl witnesses murder as a child and puts a potentially innocent man in jail; years later she must revisit her podunk hometown and re-investigate the murder) to the use of non-police true-crime-junkie groups and prostitutes as sources of information.
I want to make it very, very clear here: I am in no way accusing Thomas of plagiarizing Flynn; I am simply saying that The Darkest Corners emulates Flynn's Dark Places in enough ways that it doesn't really feel like a new story, so there's no need to read both. And if you're only going to read one, it should probably be Dark Places, which is infinitely better written.
The Darkest Corners was interesting enough to keep me reading and didn't lag, but I also think it didn't lag because it didn't spend enough time on things. The relationship between Callie and Tessa - which had been broken for ten years - healed very quickly; major themes, like corruption in the police, were barely touched upon; and all of the events at the end of the book were resolved so rapidly that I hardly had time to start worrying for the characters before they were out of trouble again!
All of that aside, the end of the book was dark and twisted enough to save The Darkest Corners from a 2 star rating. The last few chapters are the only part of The Darkest Corners that readers really see the darkness alluded to in the title; while the rest of the book is implicitly dark, it's overshadowed by teenage politics and randomly inserted backstory from Tessa, to the point that you have to stop and think for a second before you realize just how messed up something is. Maybe that was Thomas' intention, but it's not what I was hoping for from this book, so it only earns 3 stars.
If you're thinking of reading The Darkest Corners as a follow-up to a Gillian Flynn novel, don't waste your time. But if you're looking for a YA-friendly murder mystery with a good twist, you could do worse.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.