Review of Dare to Know, by James Kennedy

Dare to Know

by James Kennedy

Quirk Books, September 14, 2021. 294 pages.
Review written September 28, 2021, from an advance reader copy sent to the library.

If you like exceedingly clever and also bizarre books – think Douglas Adams as an example – then you should try James Kennedy’s novels.

His first book, written for young adults, The Order of Odd-fish, inspired my entire Sonderling Sunday blog series, because if ever there was a book with interesting language, that was it.

In this new book, written for adults, our story opens with a washed-up but once prosperous salesman desperate to make a sale, trying to close that sale in a Starbucks. His product is unusual: Dare to Know tells people the day and time of their death.

Our narrator, whose name we never learn, was in at the beginning of Dare to Know and had studied thanatons in college – a newly discovered particle intimately wrapped up in human death.

At that time, the company was called Sapere Aude – the Latin translation of “Dare to Know” and (as I just discovered via Google) a famous quotation from Kant. Our narrator was a physics and philosophy major – as was the author, according to his bio. There’s lots of philosophy in this book, with a glaze of plausible physics theory of thanatons and a new field of “subjective mathematics” which is required to work with this theory.

The math and physics in this book doesn’t actually make any sense, but we’re told the information with such confidence and plausibility that even my strong implausibility detector didn’t pull me out of the story. But as I said, you should enjoy bizarre stories to best appreciate this book.

At the end of his bad day that opens this book, our narrator calculates his own death time and learns that it happened twenty-three minutes in the past. And yet he seems to be alive. But if the calculations were incorrect, this is the very first time Dare to Know has been wrong. Their accuracy is 100%.

This begins our hero’s journey to figure out if he’s dead or not. He goes on a quest to visit Julia, his girlfriend back when they started together in the company, who calculated his death date long ago and kept it in a blue envelope. If she still has the envelope, will it match his calculations? Is he, in fact, dead?

Along the way, many surprising memories come forward which at first seem unimportant, but if his death date is wrong, then is something wrong with Dare to Know?

I’m afraid that while I did enjoy the book, it went a little too far toward the bizarre for my taste. It did remind me of the author’s other book, The Order of Odd-fish, which also heads toward the outlandish and also doesn’t shy away from a main character who seems to be in danger of causing the end of the universe.

Read this book if you dare!

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Review of Dreadnought, by April Daniels

Dreadnought

Nemesis, Book One

by April Daniels

Diversion Books, 2017. 279 pages.
Review written April 8, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I picked up Dreadnought because of a recommendation by a transgender woman I follow on Twitter, and was so glad I did.

The set-up for this book is maybe a little typical: A fifteen-year-old is present when a superhero dies, so the mantle is passed to her and she gains all the powers of the superhero, to be the next one with that persona.

But in this case, there’s an extra twist. Danny, the person who received the mantle and the superpowers, is a transgender girl, who wasn’t out to anyone but herself. But part of the superpowers includes Danny receiving her ideal body – and in Danny’s case, that’s the body of a woman. She now looks like the girl she’s long known she is.

So besides figuring out what to do with her new superpowers and whether to let the world even know she has them, Danny also has to navigate suddenly looking female.

Danny’s abusive father does not take it well. He insists on bringing Danny to doctors and trying to set up testosterone therapy. Danny’s former best friend thinks he’s doing Danny a favor when he says he’s willing to date her. And the local Legion of superheroes doesn’t allow underage “white capes,” and not everyone currently in the Legion is okay with being joined by someone who’s transgender.

Meanwhile, Utopia, the supervillain who killed the last Dreadnought, is still out there. Danny does make a friend in Sarah, who has her own super abilities and acts as a “gray cape,” not affiliated with the Legion. Sarah convinces Danny that they need to deal with Utopia, and Danny thinks she owes it to Dreadnought for the wonderful gift of a female body.

The story that follows is intense. First, Danny’s father greatly increases his abuse, and then Utopia threatens the Legion itself as well as the world. And she hints that there’s something even more dangerous coming, something called Nemesis. Since right on the cover, we see Nemesis – Book One, I’m looking forward to reading more.

This book is beautiful with all the things any superhero book might have about grappling with new powers and whether great power really does bring great responsibility. But layered on top of that, Danny grapples with what it means to finally have a body that reflects the person she’s always been, and how people react to her. Danny has a very hard time with her father’s abusive words, and I appreciate that no simplistic answers are given to that. Even with superpowers, it’s hard to stand up to abuse.

This is a wonderful book, and I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up. (As soon as I can get to the library.)

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Review of Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry

by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Simon & Schuster, 2018. 390 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 8, 2018, from a library book
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Teen Speculative Fiction

Dry is frighteningly easy to imagine happening. The book tells the story of what happens when all the taps in Southern California are suddenly out of water in the middle of a drought.

It starts when Arizona and Nevada back out of a reservoir relief deal and shut the floodgates on all the dams, keeping the water for themselves.

For a long time, people haven’t been allowed to fill swimming pools, so there aren’t any of those sitting around full of water. The government brings desalinization machines to the beach, but there isn’t enough for all the people who come, and a riot develops and the machines get destroyed.

Fortunately, Alyssa, the main character in our story lives next door to a Survivalist family with their own water tank – and a teenage son who has a crush on her. But Alyssa also has a younger brother to care for who is autistic. When their parents go missing after trying to get water at the beach, she turns to the neighbor boy. But the neighborhood knows they have water….

One thing leads to another, and we end up having a story of a bunch of teens trying to flee to safety when society has descended into chaos.

Since I lived in Southern California many years, it was easy to picture the story all the way along, including when they drove in the dry aqueducts. Unfortunately, it was all too easy to imagine this happening — from the water drying up to the completely inadequate response to the water zombies who cared about nothing but getting water.

Riveting and frightening, here’s a near-future thriller for teens. Don’t be surprised if they start hoarding water after they read it, though.

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Review of The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2019. 419 pages.
Review written February 26, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2019 Booker Prize Winner

The Testaments is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve actually never read. (Though I remember it was a Book of the Month Club selection long ago when I was a member. At the time, I didn’t like books where religious people were the villains.) I have watched the TV series, though, on library DVDs. Normally, I wouldn’t let that substitute for reading a book, but while the series was riveting, it’s an extremely unpleasant story, and I didn’t actually want to absorb myself in it again. I did have enough information to completely understand what was going on in this sequel. This book will be more enjoyable if you’ve read the original book or watched the series, though.

This book is told from three perspectives, all three writing about what happened in the past (which is why it’s called The Testaments). One perspective is that of Aunt Lydia, an important person in the administration of Gilead, in charge of women’s matters. Along the way, we learn about Aunt Lydia’s background and how she came to power.

The other two perspectives are the daughters of Jude, the Handmaid who tells the story in the first book. (They don’t tell you that right away, but it’s not difficult to figure out.) One of them was smuggled out of Gilead as a baby. She only finds out about her background when the couple she thought were her parents were killed by a bomb. The other was the little girl taken from Jude when she was first captured while fleeing Gilead. She, too, must learn that those she thinks are her parents are not really her parents. In fact, when her “mother” dies and her “father” takes a new wife, the stepmother wants her out of the house, so plans to marry her off at thirteen.

I do have some arguments with the idea that Gilead would have gotten enough people behind it to pull off a new country and a new repressive government. But that’s simply the assumption here. In this book, the girls grow to be young adults, and the reader learns both what it’s like to grow up in Gilead and what happened to the characters after The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood’s prose is riveting. I began reading this book on a sick day. I did two things that day – slept and read. And I didn’t go to sleep for the night until I’d finished the book. Even with three perspectives, the plot doesn’t lag at any point. Highly recommended.

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Review of The Toll, by Neal Shusterman

The Toll

Arc of a Scythe, Book 3

by Neal Shusterman

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019. 625 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 5, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 in Teen Fiction

I should not have checked this book out and taken it home when I was supposed to be reading Middle Grade Speculative Fiction for the Cybils Awards. But how could I possibly resist? Still… 625 pages! I could have read three middle grade books in the time it took to read this.

And I didn’t read it all at once. I used a couple of chapters of this book as a reward for doing my other reading, which actually worked surprisingly well – by this time in the series, the author had several threads going at once, so there were logical places to pause my reading.

Yes, you need to read this trilogy in order. Definitely. And I don’t want to give much away about the earth-shaking way Book 2 ended.

Amazingly, Neal Shusterman brought all the threads and all the characters to a satisfying conclusion. I was surprised how well he pulled it off.

This third book’s title character is the Toll – a prophet who’s arisen among the Tonist religion, the only one the Thunderhead will talk to, because the whole world is Unsavory. But there’s a lot going on beyond that – power has been seized by ruthless people. Scythes are supposed to kill a small percentage of people to keep the earth from becoming overpopulated. But they aren’t supposed to enjoy it.

Can the surviving main characters we’ve come to care about in this series do anything about the seizure of power by those who are evil? Can the Thunderhead do anything, despite the separation of scythe and state?

I am still amazed that Neal Shusterman was able to come up with satisfying affirmative answers to those questions.

This series makes you look at life and mortality and the human race with new eyes.

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Review of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez

Disney Hyperion, 2019. 390 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 4, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 in Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Finalist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

This is the first one of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint that I’ve read that doesn’t feel like Rick Riordan could have written it if he belonged to that culture. Yes, it’s an “Own Voices” book from Cuban-American culture. But it doesn’t follow the formula of kid-finds-out-mythological-characters-are-real-and-they-are-part-of-it. Instead, this is science fiction involving parallel universes, a kid who is able to open windows between universes, and his father who studies “calamity physics.”

Now, I have to say that I think the “science” in this book is silly and bogus. There’s hand-waving that goes on about how Sal is able to open windows between universes and pseudoscience about “calamitrons” that result. Also, the thing that happened at the end didn’t make sense to me.

I’ve said before that if a novel makes too much of alternate universes, we start asking, why then are we hearing the story of this particular universe, when a story exists where the characters make different choices? To me, it cheapens the importance of those choices.

However, that said, I loved this book! The characters, especially Sal and Gabi, are completely delightful. I love that Sal, who can open windows between universes and bring things through, is a showman and a magician. What a great trick – to bring a dead chicken from an alternate universe and then make it disappear without a trace!

Right at the start, Sal stands up to a bully by putting a dead chicken in his locker. He does it with flare, and later the evidence disappears. Gabi’s a friend of the bully, and we soon learn that she’s not the sort of person who’s going to let a mystery like that stand.

Sal and Gabi attend an Arts Magnet School – and it makes me wish such a school existed. The teachers and principal are reasonable and try to be fair. Sal’s also got diabetes, and dealing with that is a nice underlying realistic piece of the plot.

There’s a spot where Sal scares Gabi much more thoroughly than he meant to – and he apologizes beautifully. That’s where I thought, What a wonderful kid! But then later in the book, we see an alternate reality Sal whose mother never died of diabetes, and that Sal isn’t nearly so thoughtful. I like that nod to the way difficult experiences make us grow. I could believe that Sal was so aware of others’ feelings because of what he’d been through.

And let’s face it, the interaction between universes was so much fun, I was willing to suspend my disbelief. A chicken in a bully’s locker. Sal’s dead mother coming from another universe and thinking she’s still married to his Papi. A Calamitron-scanner with artificial intelligence and a personality. A lie detector using brain science that Sal turns into a performance.

So maybe the “science” is very hand-wavy. But as a novel about people – people interacting with grace, performing, and dealing with the hard parts of life – this novel shines. I agree with the blurb on the back by William Alexander, “filled to the brim with a fiercely unstoppable joy.”

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Review of Cog, by Greg van Eekhout

Cog

by Greg van Eekhout

Harper, 2019. 196 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 20, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 in Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Award Finalist

This book is utterly delightful. It’s true that I’ve got a strong prejudice against books that claim robots have emotion or that assign basically magical abilities to robots, so I did have a tiny bit of trouble with suspension of disbelief. But I loved the characters so much, and they were so quirky and creative, I didn’t really care.

Here’s how Cog introduces himself:

My name is Cog. Cog is short for “cognitive development.” Cognitive development is the process of learning how to think and understand.

In appearance, I am a twelve-year-old boy of average height and weight. This means I’m fifty-eight inches tall and weigh about ninety pounds and seven ounces. In actuality, I am seven months old.

Now I will tell you some facts I have learned about platypuses.

Cog tells us about his home and his bedroom and about Gina, who lives with him and makes repairs and adjustments when he needs them.

Gina is a scientist for uniMIND. She has brown eyes like my visual sensors and brown skin like my synthetic dermal layer. Her hair is black and shiny, like the feathers of birds in the corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. When she smiles, which is often, a small gap is evident between her two front teeth. My teeth, which are oral mastication plates, have no gap, but I enjoy practicing smiling with Gina.

Cog is programmed to learn, to increase his cognitive development. As the book begins, Gina takes him to Giganto Food Super Mart to learn about shopping. She gives him a list and asks him to get the items unsupervised.

Cheese is the first item. Cog discovers many kinds of cheese that he hadn’t known existed before. He fills the cart with them. When he gets back to Gina, she tells him that for a first attempt he did a very good job.

“But we actually don’t need all this cheese,” she continues. “Nor do we need seven dozen apples or eight different kinds of orange juice or twelve different varieties of dish soap. So let’s start putting most of this back.”

I learn that unshopping takes longer than shopping.

As we return items to shelves, Gina explains to me where my judgment was faulty and led me astray.

“Is my judgment the result of a bug?” I ask her. “Can you fix it?”

“No,” she says, hanging seven bags of shredded cheese back on their hooks. “It’s just something you have to learn. It’s like my old professor used to tell me: ‘Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.’ That means we learn by making mistakes.”

I process this for a while.

“How long did it take you to learn good judgment?”

“Oh, I’m still learning it, buddy. I’m learning it all the time.”

Since Cog’s mission is to learn, he makes a resolution. The next morning, he sneaks out of the house.

Leaving the house without Gina’s permission is a mistake. this pleases me, because a mistake is an act of bad judgment, and I expect my act of bad judgment to increase my cognitive development.

Unfortunately, out in the yard, Cog sees a Chihuahua about to be hit by a truck. He saves the Chihuahua – and gets hit by the truck.

When Cog wakes up, he is in bed and hooked up to data ports beneath his flipped-up fingernails, but something is not right. He is not in his bedroom at home, and Gina is not there.

It turns out that since she allowed Cog to be hit by a truck, she’s been taken off the project. Cog is at UniMIND headquarters and told it’s his new home.

When he finds out they want to open up his brain and take out the X-Module (whatever that is), Cog resolves to run away and find Gina.

And so we end up with a delightful road trip story. Cog travels with four other robots – ADA, an Advanced Destructive Apparatus who looks like a twelve-year-old girl, a Trashbot that asks everyone if they have waste, a robotic dog, and a talking Car. The Car asks if he will accept liability before it agrees to set out with them.

The adventure is wild – okay, perhaps quite a bit unlikely – but oh, so much fun. Each one of the robots has a distinct and consistent personality, and I love Cog’s voice narrating the whole thing. In fact, I will end this review with some words of wisdom from Cog:

Since leaving the UniMIND campus, I have had several bad experiences, and one thing I have learned is that friends and sandwiches make even the worst of situations more tolerable.

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Review of The Stars We Steal, by Alexa Donne

The Stars We Steal

by Alexa Donne

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2020. 389 pages.
Review written July 12, 2019, from an advance reader copy picked up at ALA Annual Conference

The Stars We Steal is a science fiction retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Because I love Persuasion so much, and because I love Diana Peterfreund’s science fiction retelling of it, For Darkness Shows the Stars, and because I loved Alexa Donne’s science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, Brightly Burning, I picked this one up eagerly after I got the advance reader copy at ALA Annual Conference.

I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. It’s still a fun romance, with an interesting science fiction setting, but it’s not a terribly faithful retelling and doesn’t have the poignancy of the original.

Right off the bat, the difference in the age of the heroines made me less sympathetic. Anne Elliot in Persuasion, was nineteen years old when she was in love with Frederick Wentworth and was persuaded to reject him. The story takes place seven years later. She is twenty-six years old and has no prospects for marriage. In The Stars We Steal, Princess Leo Kolburg is nineteen years old. She was briefly engaged to Elliot Wentworth when she was sixteen, but her father and aunt opposed the engagement. I probably shouldn’t be less sympathetic to younger love, but Leo seems to have much more chance for finding someone new than Anne Elliot did.

Anyway, that aside, Leo is a princess living in a society centered in space – humans have taken to space while waiting for earth to warm up from a human-induced ice age. She’s a princess, and lives with her father and sister – but they are running out of money, so Leo has rented out their ship while they stay with their aunt on the Scandinavian and participate in the big once-every-five-years match event where all the eligible young royals and nobility get together to find matches.

Now, Leo needs to find a match with money to save her family’s ship. But she would rather get the money with her water filtration invention. Meanwhile, Elliot is now wealthy, captaining a ship of his own, and ready to find a match. He doesn’t seem to mind Leo becoming fully aware of what she lost.

I want to mention, without giving anything away, that this book has the first mention I’ve seen in a YA novel of an asexual character. It’s a nice answer to a marriage of convenience.

The plot itself is somewhat convoluted. I didn’t really believe some of the interactions and motivations.

However, that said, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book. It may not be my new favorite, but it was a whole lot of fun, and I hope Alexa Donne has more retellings in store for readers in the future, with more insight into this future society in the stars where the glittering wealthy try to forget about those who are struggling for space and food and teens figure out their response to that.

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Review of Brightly Burning, by Alexa Donne

Brightly Burning

by Alexa Donne

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 394 pages.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Teen Speculative Fiction

This book is a science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, and is tremendously good. It reminded me of For Darkness Shows the Stars, a science fiction retelling of Persuasion, which I also loved.

However, the last time I reread Jane Eyre I was disappointed that now I can see a whole lot of things wrong with the relationship, so reading this book, I was somewhat upset with myself for finding it very romantic.

Now, they did clean up some of the more unsavory details. The ward of Captain Fairfax, in this book, is not his illegitimate daughter from a youthful indiscretion, and he doesn’t actually have an insane wife shut up in the attic. Nor is he many years older than our heroine.

However, he is Stella’s employer. She’s in a subordinate relationship to him, and he orders her to spend some time with him each evening, enjoying his library of actual paper books. And, similar to Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre, he tries to make her jealous, and succeeds abominably. He brings a woman to their spaceship along with her family, and Stella learns that the families have long planned to one day combine resources with a marriage. To make matters worse, Captain Fairfax (of the ship Rochester) requires Stella to be present when the groups socialize in the evenings – just as Mr. Rochester did to Jane Eyre.

The end of the book does have things play out somewhat differently than what happens in Jane Eyre – though the gist is quite similar.

Once again, I don’t really see why I want our heroine to end up with this guy. And yet I do find the story romantic.

Maybe it rings too true when I remember the pain of unrequited love as a teenager having crushes? Only in our book, it turns out the love is not unrequited.

Or maybe it’s seeing someone who thinks herself small and insignificant being noticed for her shining character? In this book, Stella won’t let things progress between them until Captain Fairfax acknowledges her as an equal. (I’m glad that point was made, but it doesn’t quite make up for the disparity in power between them.) The truth is that in this book, Stella is the only one who seems willing to stand up for what’s right. So I’m not sure she should have fallen for him. But it is lovely that he found her, despite the fact that she wasn’t seeking his attention.

All that aside, as a science fiction retelling, this is cleverly executed with much obvious love for the original. The story is wonderful.

Parents, you might want to read both Jane Eyre and this book before you hand them to your teenage daughter – but I promise you’ll have a whole lot of fun if you do that. As well as having lots to discuss.

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Review of We’re Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey

We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey

Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019. 250 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 19, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a tremendously fun and creative science fiction book for kids, with plenty to seriously think about as well.

Set in the future, the book begins with Lan and his friends on Mars, talking about rumors that the colony has found a new planet where humans can live.

Humans made earth uninhabitable a year before, but many escaped to a colony on Mars. However, the air processors were wearing down, people’s clothing was ragged and stinky, and the only food they had to eat was something called Chow manufactured by the Nutrition department. So humans needed a new place to live.

They found a planet called Choom with an atmosphere that will support human life. What’s more, Choom had taken in alien refugees before. There were already four species of aliens on Choom, three of which originally came from different planets. The main species, the Zhuri, look like giant mosquitoes. After some negotiating, they get an invitation to come to Choom as refugees. They go into bio-suspension for twenty years to make the trip. But when they wake up, the government of Choom has changed, and humans are no longer welcome.

In orbit around Choom, the humans who are left do not have enough fuel to go anywhere else. If Choom doesn’t take them, they’ll die. But the Zhuri now believe that humans are too warlike. After much negotiating, since they did invite the humans to Choom, the Zhuri agree to take one human family. If they can live in peace, all the humans can come, but if there are any incidents, the whole human race will have nowhere to go.

Lan, his sister, and their parents are the family chosen to represent humans. Lan and his sister must navigate going to school on an alien planet and trying not to cause any trouble – without knowing how anything works.

And they soon realize they have been set up to fail. Movies about World War II (from earth transmissions) have been playing on Choom television, showing how violent humans are. The Zhuri swarm in protest. Do Lan and his family even have a chance of saving the human race?

That makes the story sound grim, but it’s full of humor – because natural misunderstandings have plenty of food for humor. In fact, humor may be the key to saving the day.

This one takes the new-kid-at-school story and makes it intergalactic.

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