Book Review: The Passengers

Finished Reading: The Passengers
by John Marrs

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Sci-fi thriller

Cilka's Journey: A Novel

In a future where self-driving cars are becoming the norm, a mysterious Hacker takes control of 8 different vehicles, each with Passengers inside. These eight people are told that they will likely be dead in just over two hours. The Hacker than forces a jury of 5, alongside the entire world watching from their electronic devices, to decide which one of the eight should be saved.

I was really into this book for for the first 80%, which were parts 1 and 2. If I gave a rating just on that much of the book, it would be a solid 4 stars. Then part 3 came along, and everything just fell apart for me. The writing was good, for the most part, and some of the characters were interesting. Some were major stereotypes, but to be honest, with that many characters, it doesn’t surprise me. But the thriller aspect just died in the last 20%, even with a push to bring it back.

To be honest, the hacking done on the cars might have been wholly unrealistic, but I don’t really care. I’m blessed to be someone who can just enjoy it for what it is, because I don’t really know a lot about software, AI, or electronics in general. It was pretty clear that some of the Passengers were only in the book so that the Hacker could show how serious he was, as the number quickly dwindled from 8 to 5. Each of those 5 Passengers has their secrets, which are unveiled as the Hacker hurtles them to their doom.

While this is happening, the protagonist, a woman named Libby, is one of the 5 on the jury that is being forced to decide these people’s fate. While there were some things that she did that really bugged me, it was a good perspective to watch the events from. The very end of part 2 was a bit confusing to me, and unfortunately, in the mess that was parts 3 & 4, the book didn’t really give a satisfying reason for what happened.

Parts 3 & 4 are messy and mostly unnecessary. They felt like a tack-on, and frankly, soured the mysterious nature of the Hacker. I felt like there were too many attempted twists, and I quickly got to a point where I just didn’t believe anything, which makes it difficult to enjoy a book.

In the end, I am glad I read this book. Enough of it was enjoyable that I would recommend it for fans of sci-fi, especially people who enjoy books that show horror stories about the direction our technology is heading. Because of the many higher ratings this book has gotten, definitely check it out if you think you might enjoy it.

**Side note: One of the characters in this futuristic story mentioned that Facebook peaked in 2020. The idea of this was really funny to me.

Thank you to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me a copy of this book to review.  

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Book Review: The Martian

Finished Reading: The Martian
by Andy Weir

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Sci-fi drama, suspense

Martian

Following a dust storm that forced an evacuation from the surface of Mars, astronaut Mark Whatney is left behind, presumed dead. But he’s very much alive, and must now figure out how to survive alone on Mars while back on Earth, they work on how to bring him home.

I watched this movie a few years ago (as research for a mini escape room I helped build), and I really liked it. The book is even better! Whatney is resourceful and determined. The repertoire between him and the rest of his team is fun and touching. The determination of those back on Earth to do whatever they can to help him survive is really interesting too.

The book has a lot of explanation about the different sides of what Whatney needs to survive. Ideas are thrown out and dismissed for better ones. It has such a real feel to it, as if it were any other modern space mission that went wrong. The genre is sci-fi, and it’s obviously a bit in the future, but the science isn’t far out there. It’s just a bit past what we have now.

The format of the book was interesting. Much of the narration comes from journal entries by Whatney, so it basically reads like 1st person. Then there is the 3rd person narration of what happens back on Earth. There are other formats, but explaining that would be a bit spoilery. I enjoyed feeling like Whatney was sharing his experience directly with us.

I watched the movie again a few days after finishing the book. I still think the movie is good, but like with many adaptations, they weren’t able to reach the depth of characterization that the book did. Plus, some harrowing moments and difficulties that Whatney faced were completely written out for the movie. Still, a good movie, and a great book!

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October in Review

I read even less books this month than last month, but I’m not really surprised. Between homeschooling and working a part-time job with sporadic hours, plus spending a lot of my free time working on getting my own book ready for publication, I’m glad to have read what I did. Next month will probably be even lower, due to NaNoWriMo.

Here are the books I read in October:
Smoke Screen by Terri Blackstock (4 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (4 / 5)
Mother Knows Best by Kira Peikoff (3 / 5)
The Battlemage by Taran Matharu (4 / 5)
The Dinner Party by R.J. Parker (2 / 5)
Priceless by Joel & Luke Smallbone (4.5 / 5)
The Butterfly Recluse by Therese Heckenkamp (3 / 5)

This list includes 4 ARCs and 0 re-reads. My favorite book from August was Priceless. I finished 1 series (a trilogy), continued 1 series, and started 0 series. My ever-changing list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads, if anyone is interested in that. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.

Book Review: The Butterfly Recluse

Finished Reading: The Butterfly Recluse
by Therese Heckenkamp

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Christian romance (YA?)

Butterfly

Lila lives alone in a secluded location and hasn’t leave her property for pretty much anything for years. She raises butterflies and is happy to just be alone with them. Until her life is disrupted by a man who wants her to sell him some butterflies for a butterfly release at her sister’s wedding. Harvey’s presence and persistence chip away at the fortress she’s built around herself and make her question if she’s really happy with her life the way it is.

On the surface, The Butterfly Recluse is a sweet, clean romance with some simple faith thrown in. There is a twist near the end and an action-filled climax. For me, it was a middle-of-the-road read. Harvey’s persistence annoyed me, and it was difficult for me to like him for a while.

Lila’s reclusiveness was what first interested me in the book. I am an extreme everything social (shy introvert with extreme social anxieties and even anti-social at times) that could easily lead to becoming a recluse in the right circumstances. In the end, though, her reasons for becoming a recluse weren’t related to her personality so much as caused by PTSD from a traumatic event in the past. Even still, she seemed to overcome her near-agoraphobia a little too easily from my perspective. And as far as her PTSD goes, I could see where the author was bring it out, but I felt it was swept away too easily in some areas. Meanwhile, at one point, she really overreacts to what I assumed was an innocent statement (we never really know for sure) related to her past trauma, for the sake of the plot.

The romance was sweet, but also very cliche and filled with tropes. The way the two characters flirted early on, when they’d barely met, seemed like something out of a TV show for kids/teens. Of course, I didn’t realize it was a YA novel until now, because it wasn’t listed that way on site I read it through, and the main characters are adults. For that reason, the romance may be spot-on, though still not for me.

I had some inklings about the plot twist, but still didn’t actually see it coming when it happened. The climax was a little overdone for me, but I think it would still appeal to many. I would say people who enjoy clean, YA romance would very possibly enjoy this book, and for others, it’s worth checking out other reviews to decide if you want to read it or not.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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Book Review: Priceless

Finished Reading: Priceless: She’s Worth Fighting For
by Joel & Luke Smallbone

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Christian fiction

Priceless.png

“…you are a pearl of great price. Do not cheapen your own treasure.”

After a terrible accident claimed his wife, and bad choices result in the loss of custody of his daughter, James is desperate to get back on his feet so he can be with his daughter again. With reservation, he takes a cash job driving a truck for a delivery, but before he reaches his destination, he discovers that the cargo is human–two young, Mexican women. He follows through on the delivery, believe he is simply transporting illegal aliens, but at the end of the trip, there is no doubt that these young women are destined for something that no woman should have to be part of. He can’t just return home and leave them to their fate.

While the beginning of the book was a little difficult to get through, and it took some time for me to warm up to James, the overall story, and the message of this book, are well worth the read. I knew the basic story here, having seen the movie when it first came out 3 years ago, but didn’t remember the details, and found myself caught up in it as the story unfolded.

The book starts with the death of James’s wife, and then with his stupid decision to traffic drugs, which promptly lands him in jail. It’s depressing and a little painful to read. I assume it was specifically that way to get James to the point where he’d do almost anything to make some money, especially with the threat of losing custody of his daughter completely, once he’s out of jail. But it still took some time and deliberate plodding through to get to the beginning of the real story–when he discovers the women in the truck. Again I say, it’s worth it.

The writing could be better, but to be honest, I didn’t care. I can live with some weak sentences and a slightly confusing line now and then for something so important. The heart of this story was to shed light on the sex trafficking that is far too prevalent in the shadows in our world. Seeing what these women go through in various stages of being forced into prostitution is heartbreaking and really makes you root for James and his new friend Dale.

Speaking of Dale–he’s my favorite character in the book, but to be honest, I don’t know if I would have loved him quite so much if I didn’t remember him from the movie, played so well by David Koechner. Still, he is a great friend and helper to James, and it is mainly Dale who infuses the spark of faith in God back into James. While the Christianity presented in the book isn’t very strong, I think it comes across clearly enough, especially near the end.

I am not the most emotional person, but during the last 2 chapters, I think I cried more than I ever have over a book before. The message of the book can be summed up with this quote: “…there’s a God who knows exactly what you’re worth…” It was basically everything I would have wanted for an ending to this story. Sadly, it doesn’t end this way for most women in similar situations to this.

I definitely recommend this book for Christians to read, but really, for anyone who has a daughter, sister, or any female friends or relatives…or is a female herself. It really carries past the sex trade and into our everyday lives, affecting how we see ourselves, and how we value ourselves and feel we should be valued.

Find out more about Priceless and Joel & Luke (for King and Country)
Listen to “Priceless,” the song (it’s a shortened version and the video is a little spoilery, but the best one I could find on YouTube)

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Book Review: The Dinner Party

Finished Reading: The Dinner Party
by R.J. Parker

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Thriller

Cilka's Journey: A Novel

Four couples attend a dinner party as friends, but dark secrets are boiling just beneath the surface. A trust game pits husband and wife against each other, and the next day, two of the guests are dead, while the other guests are left to figure out why.

For a book that is meant to be “an addictive and twisty psychological thriller,” it didn’t provide many thrills. If the book had not started with the main character, Ted, fighting for his life, I don’t know if I would have gotten through it nearly as quickly as I did. As it was, I did want to know how it got to that point, but it was quite a chore to get there. And more than once, I got to the end of a chapter and had no real compulsion to continue immediately, like I’d expect to have in a good book, especially a good thriller.

All four of the couples came across dull and lifeless to me–not necessarily as individual people, but in their relationships. Ted and his wife probably showed the biggest spark of life, but that was likely just because he was the main character. As such, I had a difficult time connecting with anyone in the book.

After the first murder victim appeared, most of the suspense seemed to be attempted through Ted questioning things repetitively–like why the victim had died, if the person they’d suspected to be the murderer had really done it, and if “the game” was responsible.

And that brings me to one of my biggest gripes. This trust game that they played was silly at best, yet became far too pivotal in the book. Everyone but Ted basically decided that the police shouldn’t know about it, or they’d all be blamed for the death…I mean, just far too much emphasis was put on this party game. And worse yet, it turned out to be a big part of the underlying cause for everything.

In the end, the reason behind each death was weak and, frankly, boring. I had theories of twisty goodness that would be revealed at the end, but when it ended, and no exciting twists had occurred, I basically was left with my mouth hanging open, and not in a good way. No, I didn’t guess at the motive behind the killings, but that didn’t make it good. A few surprises and betrayals did come up in the second half, especially relating to Ted’s wife, but none of them delivered on the punch they set up.

For those who want to know about how clean a book is before reading–there are no sexual situations and no language whatsoever that I can recall. The violence and bloodshed does get a bit much near the end, but nothing more than I could handle (and my threshold is fairly low).

I really wanted this book to deliver on its twisty promises, but it was unimpressive. It wasn’t terrible, though, and I think there are those who will enjoy it. It just really wasn’t for me.

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter for providing me a copy of this book to review.  

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Book Review: The Battlemage

Finished Reading: The Battlemage
Summoner
Trilogy #3
by Taran Matharu

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA Fantasy

Battlemage

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the trilogy, The Novice and The Inquisition.

The Battlemage picks up immediately after the previous story’s end, with the main character, Fletcher, and what’s left of his unit jumping into the otherworldy ether to escape the enemy. They must find a way to return home, and then deal with the aftermath of their mission in the jungle, which ended in treachery and betrayal. Meanwhile, the orcs are poised to invade Fletcher’s country with an army that might be too large to overcome.

This book did a great job of wrapping up the entire trilogy, while being a fully story on its own. I was a lot more excited going into this one than into the 2nd one, based on the cliffhanger at the end of the previous books, and the ether didn’t disappoint. The book was more distinctly 3 separate acts than any book I’ve really ever read, and the second act was also a lot of fun to read. By the third act, I knew what was coming, and it did end up being my least favorite part of the book. But that is purely personal preference, as I’ll explain further below.

It was great to see back some of the characters from the first book, and a little from the second. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see much more of Arcturus, and overall, he wasn’t in the trilogy as much as I would have hoped and expected, especially considering that the prequel is about his history.

I enjoyed the middle act, where we really get to see Fletcher grow as a leader, and where the race warfare throughout the trilogy comes to a head, a lot more than I would have thought I would.  But I knew what was looming–the big war with the orcs. I don’t personally care for large-scale, devastating wars in books, so that’s why the third act my least favorite. It was made better by getting to see Fletcher’s ingenuity though, plus I like the addition of the demons during the fighting.

The ending of the book had some moments I was really happy to see, but also failed to wrap up some storylines in a way I would have preferred. However, I wasn’t left with the feeling that anything was completely neglected, so I can’t really complain. For some reason, I was just left with this feeling of it being anti-climactic, but I can’t explain why. I think it’s just because I would have liked more in the series in general. Overall, this entire trilogy was a solid 4 stars for me.

After reading the first book, I described it as a mix between Harry Potter and Pokemon, even though at the time, I hadn’t read any Harry Potter. I have read the first 2 in the series now, and I stand by my assessment, but only of the first book. The second and third books could better be compared to Warcraft, or even LoTR somewhat. In general, though, I would recommend this trilogy to anyone who enjoys magical fantasy books.

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Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Finished Reading: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Book #2
by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: YA fantasy

HP2

Continuing with my first ever reading of the Harry Potter books, I’ve now read #2. As a reminder, my reviews will likely contain spoilers, as I’m not too worried about avoiding that, with as long as these have been out, and as well known as they are.

After the first book that set up the fantasy world and introduced us to Hogwarts, Harry’s 2nd year at the school was more comfortable and a smoother read. The plot was clearer and the danger more real. I also didn’t notice the grammar issues like I did in the first book, so either there were less of them, or I was engrossed enough not to notice (either way is a good thing).

There was a lack of characters that were established in the first book, though, which was a little disappointing. And some of the new characters were mostly just annoying. Colin was apparently just there to point suspicion at Harry. Lockhart was annoying, but at least there was a decent payoff. When he lost his memory, he became quite amusing to me. I was a little confused by Dobby. I guess he really did do everything he did of his own accord (rather than at the behest of his master, like they originally suspected), but his reasoning for it was weak.

My husband had warned me that there would be a possible spider-related issue for me in one of the books, but he couldn’t remember which one. I have fairly severe arachnophobia, so I’m going to have to be careful when watching the movie. At least I’ll know when to look away.

I’ve noticed that I seem to be in the minority of liking this book more than the first, but what can I say? It went in almost the opposite direction of my biggest gripes of the first one. And I liked the idea behind the antagonist being a memory, and even moreso, a memory of the big villain of the books. All in all, it was a fun read, and I’m looking forward to the next.

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Book Review: Mother Knows Best

Finished Reading: Mother Knows Best
by Kira Peikoff

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Drama, suspense

Cilka's Journey: A Novel

Eleven-year-old Abigail has a semi-normal life, except that her parents (especially her mom) are reclusive, she has absolutely no extended family, and she’s not allowed to have a smartphone or social media like her friends. She discovers through a DNA mapping site that she actually has a lot of distant relatives and even tries connecting with one, which she thinks will make her parents happy. It has the opposite effect. This sends her mom into an emotional tailspin, and before long, her life begins to unravel. Then she finds out that her parents are not who they claim to be, everything they’ve been hiding from is revealed, and it turns out that the danger is very real.

I had my ups and downs with this book, and wasn’t sure what to rate it, even while writing this review. The writing was clear and concise, and even the science presented in the book wasn’t difficult to follow. There were some specific moments in the last third of the book that I anticipated and enjoyed when they came to fruition. And there were a few small twists that I wasn’t fully expecting. Outside of that, though, the book was a bit of a miss for me.

I think a lot of what didn’t work for me about this book was personal preference, so keep that in mind as I continue. For starters, the book is told in 1st person, present-tense, which I thought was a strange choice, considering the POV changes, and that during the first half of the book, more than half of the story was showing what led up to the present time where the books starts. We see the story from 3 perspectives: Abigail, her mom Claire, and the antagonist Jillian, the threat from the past. The two time periods shown in the book are “present” time–Abigail is 11 and living with her mom and dad– and the past–the year or so before Abigail was born, right up until the point that she was born. It would have made a lot more sense to me if the book was at least past-tense during the past parts. And I don’t understand the reasoning behind 1st person if you want to head-hop as much as this book does. The only good thing I can say about it is that at least each time the perspective changes, it’s clearly labeled. But there were still times that, even with this, I would forget who the current “I” was and get confused.

My biggest disappointment was that I was unable to connect with any of the characters. I’m definitely a character reader and writer. An interesting, well-executed plot is important, but I am character-driven. I think the main character was meant to be Claire, but the story was told from Abigail’s perspective about as often, and I just couldn’t get into the right frame of mind to see things even a little bit from Claire’s perspective. Her single biggest driving point is the loss of her first son, due to a terrible genetic disorder, and her strong desire to have another child that is healthy, but her inability to do so, because of her genes. I have never experienced loss to this degree, and I’m not a terribly sentimental person, so I don’t think I would react remotely the same way as her if I did. Don’t get me wrong–I have 2 kids and I love them and would be devastated if either of them died! And perhaps I’d then discover that I would be the same as her. But in my current life, it’s difficult for me to connect with her reaction to her loss, and the fact that it drives literally everything she does. Also, she’s pretty terrible to her husband (Ethan), even calling him corrupt because of his ethical ideas about the genetic manipulation discussed in the story.

Abigail’s parts were generally my least favorite. For one thing, she didn’t come across as 11, but closer to 13 or more. Especially for someone who has been as sheltered as she has, she seems to understand and question a lot more than I’d expect. I get why she was written to be as curious and deceptive as she was, and without it, there would basically be no story, but again, my personal preference here, I didn’t like how she acted.

The antagonist is basically a big loon. I mean, Claire has some mental issues, but hers are understandable and addressed. Jillian is just delusional and psychotic, and I don’t know if that was on purpose, or if that was just how she had to come across in order to give the story suspense. Whichever the case, by the end, I just rolled my eyes at how stupid she had been.

For those who want to know about how clean a book is before reading–there are some sexual situations that are more detailed than I prefer, and a bit heavy on the language side (the f-word is used more than anything else, I’m pretty sure).

I don’t regret having read this book. It wasn’t terrible, it just didn’t hook me. Also, it is meant to be suspenseful, but I think that element is terribly done. The synopsis on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. gives away too much and I think the plot should have been structured differently to create more suspense. Too much of the backstory is told too soon, and the entire thing is just too predictable. I would recommend this book for those who enjoy drama and obsessive characters, but not for lovers of suspense novels.

Extra notes: If you prefer to read the book with a little more mystery going in, I suggest not looking for more information on this book before reading it. It really might have changed my opinion. Also, I thought this book was a bit sci-fi at first, then I did a little research. I found it interesting that the topic of this book has really happened, or at least is being seriously experimented with.

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. 

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Book Review: Smoke Screen

Finished Reading: Smoke Screen
by Terri Blackstock

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian suspense, romance

Cilka's Journey: A Novel

Brenna and Nate were high school sweethearts, a relationship that ended in heartache when Nate’s father was convicted of killing Brenna’s father. Soon after, Nate left town amid accusations that he’d burned down the local church. Fast forward almost 15 years, and Nate returns to town an injured hero, and Brenna is fighting a bitter custody battle for her two children. Nate’s father has been released from prison, but most people still believe he is guilty, including Nate. While Nate tries to reconnect with his father and Brenna tries to fight her own demons while also fighting her ex-husband, Nate and Brenna realize that their flame is still burning.

This book gave me all the feels…I got angry, I smiled, and I shed some tears. Nate was incredible, Brenna was all too real, and their relationships with God were presented in a very real, positive way. I am very glad that I read this book.

The book is listed on Netgalley as a mystery/thriller, but it really isn’t either of those. It’s more drama & suspense, with a heavy romance. Yes, the mystery of who killed Brenna’s father, as well as who burned down the local church, are addressed in the book, but they are some of the smallest plot threads, at least until near the end. One of the biggest arcs is Brenna’s battle with her horrid ex-husband. That was the part that had me angry. I won’t pretend that things like this can’t happen in real life, but the way it all went down was just…so aggravating. And because of this situation, Brenna was struggling with alcoholism, which was a heavy element in the book as well. But it was difficult to blame her, considering how she was being steamrolled into not being able to take care of her children properly.

The relationship between Nate and Brenna was one of the sweetest romances I’ve read in a long time. It was not about the physical, but purely about the emotional & historical connection between them. That Nate was able to look past the effects of her currently terrible circumstances to see the real woman, and gave her a lifeline when she needed one the most, while allowing her to build her own strength, rather than relying purely on him, all makes him one of my favorite male romantic protagonists ever.

The book was told in first-person perspective, but switched back and forth between Nate’s and Brenna’s points of view, which I found a little disorienting. Each time we switch, or even just when there’s a new chapter, we are clearly told who’s perspective we’re in, but I still had a difficult time with it. And I’m not sure there was really a good enough reason to do it this way.

I think that one of my biggest issues was with the predictability and contrivances that I noticed. One of the things that happened near the end I basically assumed had to happen, though weirdly, even when it did happen, it turned out to not be for the reason I thought it was necessary. And a few events were a little too coincidental, happening purely to make sure the plot went where it was supposed to.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I was surprised by how quick and easy of a read it was, and would recommend it to all fans of Christian drama, suspense, and romance.

I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. 

Find out more about Smoke Screen
Publication date: November 5, 2019

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