Prepublication Reviews and Expertly Selected Title Lists


Illuminae (The Illuminae Files, #1) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

IlluminaeSpace and Sci-Fi fans will rejoice after reading this wonderfully unique, action-packed 600-page epic. First of all, the format of the book is quite unusual. Rather than unfolding as a typical narrative, it’s presented as a broad collection of documents such as interviews, emails, reports, transcripts, and chat logs, etc. All of these documents have been assembled by the Illuminae group that is attempting to piece together the events that occurred after the fact.

The setting for the book begins on a planet called Kerenza in the year 2575. We quickly learn that the planet has just been invaded by BeiTech, a mega-corporation that has been illegally exploiting resources from Kerenza. Thousands are dead in the initial attack and those that survive flee from the invaders aboard four spaceships. Two of the main characters in the book are seventeen-year-olds Kady and Ezra, who were romantically involved but had just broken up prior to the attack. Fleeing for their lives, they fight their way on to separate ships to make their escape.

If things weren’t bad enough, the Artificial Intelligence (known as Aidan) on one of the spaceships has detected a new threat. Unbeknownst to the survivors, BeiTech had released a deadly bio-plague as part of their assault and now those trying to escape also have to deal with the effects of a fast-spreading disease that causes insanity. Aidan (who factors heavily in the book) determines this to be a danger to the remaining fleet and launches missiles at the infected ship and destroys it, killing thousands more. Kady and Ezra survive but must find a way to work together if they’re going to save themselves and everyone else they care about.

So as you can tell, there’s a lot going on here. Anyone who enjoys science fiction, space tech or even space operas should like this book and despite the length, it’s a fairly quick read due to the format.

– Mark

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Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson

Placebo JunkiesHave you ever wondered how pharmaceutical companies figure out how their medicines might affect the people taking them? After extensive laboratory research and testing, data is sent to the FDA for approval to continue the process and eventually they begin testing on humans. This phase of development is known as the “Clinical Trials” which are used to help determine whether treatments are safe and effective for a particular disorder. The subjects of these trials sometimes go by some interesting monikers such as “test subjects”, “lab rats”, and “guinea pigs”.

Placebo Junkies centers on an eighteen-year-old girl named Audie and she is one of those “guinea pigs”.

Actually, Audie is somewhat of a professional guinea pig as she uses this odd line of work as her sole source of income. We’re not given much information on Audie’s home life or family and sadly, it can be surmised that she has neither. She does have a circle of friends though and they’re all doing the same ‘pills for bills’ routine. Together they make up an eclectic bunch – a bit of a drug-seeking sub-culture buried deep within the medical and pharmaceutical communities.

This book is somewhat dark and at a certain point, the reader may begin to wonder what is real and what is not. Not everyone is who they appear to be and even Audie’s psychological stability may be in question. Is she losing her mind because of all the drug testing or is she involved with the drug testing because she’s losing her mind? You’ll need to pick up this tale and see if you can figure it all out.

– Mark

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The Toymaker’s Apprentice by Sherri Smith

The Toymakers Apprentice by Sherri SmithThis tale begins in early-19th-century Nuremberg, where Stefan Drosselmeyer’s beloved mother has just passed away from scarlet fever. In the midst of his grieving, Stefan is about to run away from home.  He recently completed an apprenticeship with his master-toymaker father but wants to spend his journeymen years with someone who is more forward-thinking. His desire is to learn how to work with the new “automatons” that are becoming popular with clockmakers in Europe.

Before Stefan has a chance to leave, he and his father receive a surprise visit from a mysterious cousin who’s been away for many years. It turns out that the visitor, Christian Drosselmeyer, is the master clockmaker for the island kingdom of Boldavia and he is on a perilous quest. He takes on Stefan as his journeyman and also enlists his aid in the search for a mythical nut called the krakatook. They need this nut to save young Princess Pirlipat of Boldavia who’s been turned into a wooden doll after being bitten by the vengeful Mouse Queen.

As they prepare to embark, Stefan’s father is kidnapped by mice and now the quest becomes even more dire. Stefan must rescue his father, cure the princess and save Boldavia from the Mouse Queen and her seven-headed Mouse Prince, both of whom have sworn to destroy the Drosselmeyer family.  Suspense builds as the chapters alternate between human and rodent perspective in this multilayered, Napoleonic-era retelling of Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”.

– Mark
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The Abbey by James Martin

The Abbey by James MartinFamed author and second most popular Jesuit in the world (after Pope Francis), James Martin ventures into new territory by penning his first novel.

Those of you familiar with Father Martin’s works already know he has a knack for making Jesuit spirituality down-to-earth and user-friendly for everyone. The question is can he successfully make the transition to storytelling?

The fictitious Abbey of Saints Philip and James is the setting for three intersecting tales. This sacred place reveals itself as a touchstone for the lives of each character. Anne is a single mother grieving for her only child who died at a young age. Mark is the abbey’s handyman who rents his home from Anne and feels a growing restlessness. Father Paul, head abbot who befriends both Anne and Mark, ponders his decision to sequester himself from the world. Their lives crisscross in a profound way through their time shared at the abbey.

The story itself is very enjoyable but the details are heavy on Catholic dogma and ritual which may lessen the appeal for a broader audience. However, with Catholicism’s resurging popularity in recent years, this novel will be a welcome addition to collections in both the spiritual and public sector. With an ending that brings more questions than answers, readers will be clamoring for a sequel to shed light on how Anne, Mark, and Father Paul finally find peace for their souls.

– Susan

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The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle

The Bubble Wrap BoyThis is the story of Charlie Han, a boy who is short in stature but big in heart. Charlie is more than a little clumsy, which combined with his diminutive frame, has made him an easy target for the bullies of the world. Now add in his mother who takes being overprotective to the next level and you have a recipe for trouble which seems to have no problem finding Charlie.

Charlie’s best friend is Sinus, a boy with a super-big nose and an equally low ranking in the pecking order of high school. Sinus seems resigned to his (lack of) social status, but Charlie wants to find a way to stand out and get noticed. He decides that if he could develop a skill, something he’s really good at, then people will finally see him as an equal.

While out on a delivery for his father’s Chinese restaurant, Charlie sees a boy on a skateboard sail by doing amazing tricks. He quickly starts to obsess about becoming a top-notch skateboarder and sees this as his big chance to finally fit in. This isn’t going to be easy with Charlie’s mom in the picture. Even when she gives in to allowing him to do the food deliveries (on a three-wheeled bike), she makes him wear so much protective gear that he’s quickly the butt of more jokes and taunts. She has her reasons for the way she is though and that becomes clear with a shocking revelation later in the book.

Don’t hesitate to pick up this book as it is a great story of friendship, family, and overcoming obstacles to become something more than you thought you could.

– Mark

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Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

WTNV_Version BEST 2.27In a small desert town where nothing is as it seems, an old woman lives with angels (though, of course, we all know angels do not legally exist…shhh). A well-meaning community radio host helps citizens accept that nothing will ever make any sense as they hurtle toward the inevitable expiration date waiting for us all, well except perhaps for eternally-19-year-old Jackie Fierro, you know, she runs the pawn shop, whose doors she inexplicably detaches and buries come closing time.

Our story picks up when the man in a tan jacket, holding a deerskin suitcase, gives Jackie a slip of paper that never leaves her left hand. Oh, she tries to get rid of it, she tries to throw the paper away, yet there it is, back again in her hand.

A series of events teams Jackie with Diane Crayton, treasurer of the Night Vale Parent-Teacher Association, and her son Josh on a quest to find King City, the mysterious town written on that stubborn piece of paper. Josh, as a shapeshifter, hopes to find clues about his mysteriously absentee father.

This wonderfully weird read features the same humor and offbeat philosophy found in the podcast of the same name, yet with even more heart. This book reads like a humorous episode of The Twilight Zone, a travel guide, and mystery all in one. Readers get a further bonus as a transcript of a new Night Vale Community Radio broadcast runs throughout the book.

Fans of the podcast will be thrilled to learn more about several popular characters. What new secrets will we learn about the man in the tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase? Carlos, the scientist, and Old Woman Josie, who lives on the edge of town, also play a part in the story. Readers will hold their breath as Jackie and Diane take a fateful trip to the Night Vale Public Library, which, as everyone knows, is run by deadly, feral librarians.

– Travis

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Drowning Is Inevitable by Shalanda Stanley

Drowning is InevitableThis is the heartbreaking tale of a 17-year-old girl named Olivia. Her teenage mother (Lillian) committed suicide just three days after giving birth by walking into the Mississippi River in the middle of the night. Olivia’s grandmother, who she lives with, suffers with dementia and thinks that Olivia is actually Lillian. Many of the townspeople draw similar comparisons between daughter and mother and it feels like they’re just waiting to see if Olivia will suffer the same fate as her mom when she turns 18.

Fortunately for Olivia, she has a strong group of friends who are more like family than her own kin. We’re introduced to a boy named Jamie, who is Olivia’s closest friend along with Maggie and Max. Each friend has their own share of life problems. Max is Olivia’s on-again, off-again boyfriend who struggles with alcohol issues. Maggie is a bit of a wild child who just wants to have a relationship with her absentee mother. Jamie has major struggles with his father who is a violent alcoholic.

Jamie has had enough of his uncontrollable father and upon a violent confrontation, the father is killed. This leads to Jamie and Olivia fleeing their small Louisiana town with help from Max and Maggie. They escape to New Orleans, where they seek to find a way out of their problems while hoping that no one recognizes them as wanted fugitives.

The writing in this book is excellent and is an interesting look at the complexity and richness of the relationships we have with one another.

– Mark

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Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak

Wonders of The InvisiableSome families have a few skeletons in their closets, but Aiden Lockwood’s family really takes this to another level. The book starts out with 17-year-old Aiden who is going through life in a bit of a haze. His childhood memories, in particular, are hard to recall until the return of a friend that he hadn’t seen in many years. With his friend’s help, Aiden starts to piece together memories from his past. Memories that lead to strange dreams and a mysterious voice that calls to him.

Aiden’s mother turns out to be a central figure in his memory block. As she gradually lifts the veil that has been clouding his mind, he learns of mystical powers inherited from a family of seers and psychics. He’ll need all of these special abilities once he discovers the source of the curse that was placed on his family long ago. A curse that insures the men of the Lockwood family will all meet death before their time.

Some elements of this story I enjoyed very much, and some I did not. For the most part, though, it was well written and the tangled web of family history with all its secrets and tragedy came together in a satisfying conclusion.

– Mark

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Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did you Ever Have a Family by Bill CleggLong-listed for the Man Booker prize before it is even published, Bill Clegg’s debut fiction describes a portrait of a family and one that is built in the wake of loss.

On the day June Reid was to celebrate her daughter’s marriage, a terrible accident occurs, killing her daughter, son-in-law-to-be, ex-husband, and her current boyfriend, Luke. As the only survivor, how can she move on after such a devastating loss?

Told from the varied perspectives of those around the tragedy, their voices give insight into the history of this small town and helps put the pieces into place that wouldn’t have connected otherwise.

Central to the story, is Luke’s mother, Lydia, whose poor life choices have always made her an outcast in the small Connecticut town where everyone knows your business. Although, Lydia and June were friends before the tragedy, Lydia doesn’t know how to be there for June whose loss is even greater than her own.

June, numb and empty with no reason to stay, takes a road trip across the country finally stopping at a motel her daughter once visited.

June and Lydia both had rocky relationships with their children and we are shown in glimpses the roads they travelled to repair those relationships and we feel the heartbreak in their realization that those repairs can never be complete.

Can these two women move past their mistakes, find forgiveness and healing, and build something resembling a family?

A heartbreaking, yet inspiring read that will be on everyone’s reading lists this fall.

– Amy

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