The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Dan Gemeinhart
Genres: Middle Grade, Fiction
Pub. date: Jan. 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

Middle Grade is such an underrated genre and there are so many quality books out there. Even though I generally enjoy it, I don’t read that much middle grade unless it’s by an author I already know and like, but I always pick something out from the Goodreads Choice Awards every year to read in November. The book that appealed to me most in the long list was The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, which I was pleased to see also made it into the shortlist.

Coyote has been travelling America with her dad, Rodeo, in a refurbished school bus for the last 5 years. They’ve been having a great time exploring all over the country, but there is a certain loneliness that comes with always being on the move. Coyote is 12 years old, but she hasn’t really developed any lasting friendships and the only ongoing relationship she has is with her grandma, who she calls once a week on Saturday.

Coyote and Rodeo never talk about it, but they share a secret; they’re both trying to outrun the grief of having lost 3 other family members 5 years prior. The entire topic of their family is a “no-go” with Rodeo and Coyote is fine to go along with that, until she receives a call from her Grandma that really makes her want to return to her hometown, and in a hurry. But she knows Rodeo would never go for it and deceives him on a separate mission that will take them in close proximity to their old home. They’re both on a journey they don’t even really know they’re on and along the way they pick up some individuals who finally start to challenge their lifestyle and make them confront the demons they’ve been running from for 5 years.

It’s a book about grief, but the author balances the story with lots of humour and fun characters. Coyote has a lot of spunk and I loved how the cast of characters kept growing with each new plan Coyote hatches to try and get her closer to home. I love how children’s lit is able to tackle such emotional themes without being dark or upsetting, while also being super perceptive and comforting. Coyote still struggles with losing her mother and sisters, but it’s Rodeo who is really running away from the past. I liked that it’s a book about how a young girl deals with her grief, but also about how she helps her father to finally deal with his grief too.

Chase Darkness With Me

Rating:
Author: Billy Jensen
Genres: Non-fiction, True Crime
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Sep. 2019 on Audible)
Narrated by: Billy Jensen

Chase Darkness was a bit of an impulse buy. It came up in my search of “best audiobooks of 2019” (or something along those lines) and as usual, I bought it because I thought the narrator sounded good.

I recently listened to Michelle McNamara’s audiobook, I’ll be Gone in the Dark, which I really liked, so I figured I give this one a try too. The non-fiction nature of true crime translates pretty well to audio format and I was not disappointed. What I did not realize until listening to this book though, is that the author, Billy Jensen, is actually the author that finished Michelle’s book after her death. So it made for a really interesting read because he references Michelle’s book throughout and spends a chapter discussing the capture of the Golden State killer, which had not occurred at the time of publication of I’ll be Gone in the Dark.

So I do feel a bit like I stumbled upon this whole fan base of true crime and citizen solved crimes. Billy Jensen is a journalist. Unlike Michelle, he wasn’t totally focused on solving one single case, although there were crimes that have stuck with him over the years that he would really love to see solved. But Jensen’s real focus was on solving crimes through crowd sourcing on social media. He was haunted by several criminals who have never been ID’d, despite the police having decent photos or videos of them. Billy wondered if any of these crimes could be solved using social media. He experimented a bit with crowd sourcing and suddenly he was actually helping solve crimes!

That does make it sound a little bit easier than it actually was. In many cases Jensen was not able to get an ID on the criminals or killers, but in other cases, sharing crime videos and photos on platforms like facebook, and targeting the audience to a radius around where the crime was committed, did actually result in positive ID’s of the criminal!

I found this book interesting because it does look at a variety of cases instead of just one, and there is the immediate satisfaction of finding the answer to crimes that are many years old. Plus it was interesting to learn about the frustrations Jensen faced when he either couldn’t get an ID, or worse, did get an ID, but never a conviction or even an investigation because the police just couldn’t build up enough evidence. It was interesting that some of the criminals were ID’d based not on facial recognition, but recognition of their size, voice, gait, or general demeanor.

I’m not going to discuss any of the cases in my review, there wasn’t any particular case that stuck out to me. Mostly it was just interesting learning about citizen investigations. I find true crime fascinating enough, but I’m definitely not an aficionado, though it was interesting learning about people that are. There’s definitely a huge portion of people out there that are obsessed with true crime and solving decades-old crimes. Jensen is one of them and did let his obsession take over his life, especially once he actually starting solving crimes and had the police and victim’s families actively approaching him for help.

The book did end a little earlier than I was anticipating, because the last part is dedicated to citizen solves and is basically Jensen advising people who want to get involved in citizen investigations. That’s personally not me, so I skipped the last bit, but still enjoyed the book overall. It’s narrated by the author and I thought he did a good job.

I do think it enhanced the experience that I had already read Michelle McNamara’s book, so I’d maybe recommend reading hers first, though definitely not necessary. Both books had similar topics, but offer different listening experiences.

Things You Save in a Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Katherine Center
Genres: Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Aug. 2019 (read Sep. 2019)

Things You Save in a Fire is a book I was wildly excited for, but somehow got missed in my reviews. It’s now been about a month and a half since I read it, but I still really want to review it, so I’m going to do my best, but must admit that some of the details are a little fuzzy.

Things You Save in a Fire is about firefighter Cassie Hanwell. Cassie graduated top of her class and has spent the last few years building up a good reputation for herself at a progressive firehouse in Texas. She’s well respected by the rest of the male firefighters and has the pleasure of working for another female fire chief. But then at the peak of her career, her estranged mother asks her to move to Boston for a year to help her recover her health after a recent surgery. Cassie is reluctant to return, but due to other circumstances, it ends up not being a bad time for her to try something new.

The thing is, her firehouse in Texas was pretty progressive and well funded, but her new firehouse in Boston is not. The firehouse has fallen into disrepair is not well equipped in terms of what Cassie would consider important safety equipment. But the biggest difference is that Cassie is the first female to ever be hired at the firehouse and the male firefighters are not pleased about it. They’re used to things running a certain way and having the freedoms to act and speak as they choose, and despite Cassie’s protests that they can do and say all the same things around her, they choose to believe that they can’t.

As a female, Cassie has obviously had to work twice as hard to gain the respect of her peers, but she’s never worked in an old-school-boys-club firehouse like this one and she is really challenged. Cassie is used to training hard and knows how to fit in, when to speak up, and when to stay quiet, but she really struggles to be taken seriously and the other firefighters continue to be threatened by her female presence in their traditionally male place of work.

On paper, this story has everything I usually look for in a book. Although it is a romance, which is not something I’m usually drawn to, it is a book about powerful women subverting the status quo. There were parts of this book that I really liked – it draws attention to the challenges women face in male fields – how they have to work so much harder to be taken seriously and that everything that is expected of them is contradictory. You have to be as good as your male counterparts, but you can’t be better than them lest they feel emasculated by you. You can’t be girly, but you’ll never be one of the boys. And you can’t expect to be treated differently, even though everyone adamantly treats you differently. On top of the challenges at work, Cassie struggles with an incident that happened to her in her past. An incident that has made her keep her distance from dating for many years and is triggering when she finally develops a crush on one of the other firefighters.

Like I said, there’s a lot to like. Cassie is powerful, but also immensely vulnerable. She has built up a wall around her in order to keep herself safe, but you want nothing more than for her to finally tear that wall down so that she can really experience and interact with the world. So overall I quite liked the story. The romance was a little embarrassing at times, but overall I bought into it. While I generally liked the book though, there were definitely some parts where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and wished the author had maybe taken a slightly different approach.

This is namely when Cassie repeatedly shows up the guys in her firehouse. I understand that Cassie has to work really hard to be taken seriously, but I was frustrated by how much she relied on physical strength to show up her colleagues or try and gain their respect. It just felt like she was good at everything and I didn’t buy that she would continuously beat everyone in every challenge. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, just that no one is that good at everything. I think its still okay to let female characters be vulnerable and not the best at things. It’s unrealistic to think that to be a successful female firefighter, you have to epically better than your male peers at everything. That is never going to happen and it’s discouraging to portray this as the only way to be successful in this field.

Cassie was just good at everything, even non physical feats, like applying for funding. Now don’t get me wrong because I thought this was actually a brilliant example of where a woman would bring valuable skills to a firehouse and a great example of how you don’t need to best everyone physically to be an asset. Though Cassie was vulnerable emotionally, I just would have liked to see a little more vulnerability at work.

Overall, I did like the book, but I didn’t love it and this was what made it a run of the mill 3 star read for me instead of a 4. A good read, but not a great one.

Special thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press, who provided me with a free e-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Girls of Storm and Shadow

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Natasha Ngan
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Nov. 5, 2019 (read Nov. 2019)

I read and liked Girls of Paper and Fire last year. It was a dark fantasy that featured a queer female protagonist – something you don’t see too much in fantasy. So I was really excited to receive an advance copy of Girls of Storm and Shadow from Hachette.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get on board with this sequel. It felt a bit like a parody of the first book and I felt that Ngan’s writing left a lot to be desired. I’m not sure if maybe she was rushed in writing the second book or whether I got caught up in the hook of the first book and didn’t notice, but I found her writing very lacklustre in this book. I thought it didn’t have a lot of style and the dialogue could have been stronger. The writing was just kind of boring, as was the plot.

In Girls of Storm and Shadow, Lei and Wren have escaped from the King’s Court and are trying to win themselves more allies so that they can finally take down the king once and for all. It’s more of a political book, with our gang of misfits traveling from Court to Court, trying to win favour from other demon clans. Ngan does do some interesting things with her characterization of Lei and Wren towards the end of the book, but I felt it took too long to get there. Lei and Wren are just a happy little couple for most of the book and I’m sorry but, even if it’s a groundbreaking queer relationship, you need tension to keep romantic relationships interesting.

Both the character growth and the plot progression of this book are slow. It reminded me a bit of the second book in the Belles series, because in both these series, I really liked the first book, but found the sequel entirely lacking. Even though we had a roughly outlined plot – get more allies – I felt like the story was just too one dimensional in all aspects. I wanted more depth from the plot, more tension between characters, and more overall nastiness. This was just too vanilla and generic of pretty much any other YA fantasy novel. It no longer has anything to set it apart from the rest of the pack.

My hope is that it’s simply a victim of second book syndrome. I’m sure it can be hard to follow up a successful first book. First books generally read kind of like standalones and it’s not until the 2nd and 3rd books that we actually get into the meat of the story or the saga. I’m hopeful that Ngan has a clear vision of where she wants to take this series, but it didn’t come across in this book and honestly, the whole thing felt like filler. I think it’s easy to fall into that trap when you’re writing a traveling book because everything that happens on the way to the destination can just feel like unnecessary, added drama. I know lots of people read fantasy for the action, but I still want my thinking to be challenged and I expect multi-book series to have much greater depth in the plot. There just wasn’t a whole lot else happening here.

The one part I did like is the slow conflict that starts to wedge its way between Lei and Wren. I think it was too long in coming, but I liked the new darkness in Wren that Ngan introduces. It brought more intrigue to the story and I am interested to see where she may take that in the next book.

Anyways, I hate writing downer reviews like this, especially about a book I was really excited about, but unfortunately it just couldn’t live up to the first book. The story and characters have lots of potential, but I think Ngan needs to put a bit more thought into both her characters and her plot and spend a bit more time honing her writing skills.

Recursion

Rating:
Author: Blake Crouch
Genres: Science fiction, Thriller
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

Okay, I need to get my thoughts down about this book before I start to forget them! Recursion was my book club’s pick for October and I was pretty excited to read it because we also read Dark Matter together a few years ago and all really liked it. I really hadn’t wanted to read Dark Matter, but I ended up loving it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Recursion.

I am going to have to give the edge to Dark Matter, but Recursion takes you along the same wild ride as Dark Matter does. Crouch writes this really interesting blend of sci-fi and thriller, which I think works really well. His plotlines are totally f-ed up, but embody everything that makes for a great I-cant-put-this-book-down read. They have lots of mind-bending science and crazy plot twists, but also maintain a nice balance of emotional depth and characterization. It’s easy to get caught up in the science, but Crouch always grounds his characters through their relationships and it makes for a much more compelling read.

I think it’s best to go into Dark Matter and Recursion blind, but if you want a small synopsis, Recursion basically looks at memory functions – how we remember (or don’t remember) things and how those memories impact our personal well being and understanding of time. What would happen if we could record and map our memories? Would it help people who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, or does it have the potential to completely warp our sense of time and space.

I did really like this book – it has a strong start, it’s very engaging, and it’s definitely hard to put down. But I ultimately decided to give it 3 stars instead of 4 because I struggled with the last third of the plot, which I found numbingly repetitive, and I thought the ending had some major plot holes.

But that’s all I’ll say about that for now. For the rest of this review, I’m going to have to get into some spoilers. I have a lot of thoughts about the ending and I’m hoping that other readers (or my book club) might be able to clear up some of my questions, but if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, definitely tap out of this review now. Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!

.

.

.

So here’s where I struggled with this book. I thought it had great pacing during the first half, but the more messed up everything got with the chair, the less interested I got. The world ending time loop at the end was a nightmare and it just went on forever. It gave me anxiety while also being super long and boring. You could tell Helena was taking the total wrong approach to ending the time loop and with every reset I was counting how much older she was getting and just kept finding it less and less believable that she would be able to live the same life over so many times without losing her mind. By my count she was like 282 years old when she finally died!! As someone who has not even yet reached the age of 33 (the length of the time loop), I found it hard to fathom reliving your life for that long. I thought it was realistic that she finally just passed away from sheer mental exhaustion, but it was a little annoying to have Barry then come in less than a year later and solve everything. Helena was the hero of this story for me and it was really annoying to watch stupid Barry take all her glory.

Fellow readers, I need your help in understanding the ending, because to my mind it has some serious flaws. Here’s all my issues:

1. How did Barry just go back to a dead memory? Going to a dead memory killed the original test subject (forget his name), so why was Barry able to do it? I feel like this should have been explained.

2. On that note, when the first guy died from going to a dead memory he had this wonderful experience where he went to heaven (or whatever you want to call it), which was enough to make him kill himself later, how come no one else had this experience in their many deaths?

3. Barry basically solved the time loop by going back to the original timeline and stopping Helena from dying, which is what started Slade’s obsession with the chair, but I don’t see how this was any different than Helena going back to the age of 16? She was always returning to that time because it was still part of her original timeline, but the fake memories would always still catch up with everyone later. Wouldn’t the fake memories still catch up with everyone in Barry’s original timeline?

4. Or does the memories not catching up have to do with the fact that Barry is springing off of a dead timeline? I don’t really get why that would matter though, I guess the fake memories from the other timelines haven’t been created when you launch off a dead timeline, but it still begs the question, how did Barry return to a dead timeline?

5. What happened to Helena’s memories from her original timeline – the one where she worked for the R&D company? Slade apparently kills her for the first time in 2018, but I don’t remember her ever gaining those memories?

I think that mostly sums it up. But like I said, it was kind of disappointing to see Barry solve the problem, especially when Slade tells us that Helena originally figured it out and then he reset her memories (which also doesn’t make sense, she would have got those memories back n’est pas?) Or did she not get the memories back because Slade went back to a dead timeline? That would make sense actually, maybe that is the answer to why she never remembers Slade killing her either? I guess I will go with the answer that previous memories don’t catch up with you in a dead timeline, which would explain a lot of my confusion and questions 3-5, but still raises the question of how you travel to a dead timeline?

Anyways, this helped me sort through my thoughts, but still doesn’t change my rating. Crazy action doesn’t always make your story compelling and I just didn’t find the last third of this book compelling. But I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on the ending and all the plot twists! Am I right about the dead memories thing? Do you have the answer to any of my other questions? Would love to know what everyone else thought!