ARC Review: The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

Title: The Last 8
Author: Laura Pohl
Series: The Last 8, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: March 5th 2019
**I received an eARC of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Clover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it.
      When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth.
      Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe…or who to trust.”

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Laura Pohl’s debut, The Last 8, is an edge-of-your-seat, sci-fi adventure that will delight readers with its likable cast. Clover Martinez was dreaming about MIT and working for NASA the day the aliens arrived on earth. It takes less than a week for the aliens to decimate her town, leaving Clover as the only survivor. With no way to contact other survivors, Clover embarks on a cross-country road trip. But with each passing day, Clover begins to believe she might be the only one left on earth and it gets harder and harder to keep going. Then everything changes when she hears a voice on the radio, calling for anyone who might still be alive to come join them. Clover is not alone. When she makes it to Area 51, she find a group of teens hiding out, oblivious to just how dire their circumstances are. Clover isn’t one to just give up and so she makes it her mission to convince them to fight back. When the group discovers what the aliens are really after, they have a chance to stop the destruction of their planet but at a great cost to the tight-knit family they’ve created for themselves. No matter what they decides to do, nothing will ever go back to normal.

Clover is my kind of protagonist. When disaster strikes, she’s calm and calculating. She doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her and I loved that despite the losses she suffers, there’s that part of her that still wants a chance to live and thrive. Clover is also one of the few aromantic lead characters I’ve come across. There is a really important secondary storyline where Clover talks about learning that she isn’t romantically attracted to anyone. I loved that an aro character got to be MC in a science-fiction novel as most aro and/or ace characters appear in contemporary novels. Though Clover is a self-sufficient kind of character, the kind I’m immediately drawn to, I loved seeing her discover that the bonds she makes with the other survivors are also important when it comes to facing the end of the world. She goes from “I don’t need anyone” (which is probably true) to “I don’t need anyone, but these people have become my friends and I’d rather face the apocalypse with them by my side.”

The supporting cast of The Last 8 is one of the highlights of the novel and my only criticism is that we don’t get a chance to spend more time with them. Brooklyn runs the Apocalypse Radio Station and is an absolute ray of sunshine. She brings a level of humor that is vital in any end of the world scenario. I really wanted to see more of her relationship with Avani, the group’s genius scientist. There is a lot of romantic tension between the two and I really wanted to know what happened or didn’t happen between them in the past. Flint is incredibly nerdy and would have loved more scenes with him. Rayen is the epitome of badass and is probably the one character besides Clover that I’d want on my apocalypse team. Adam reminds Clover of her ex-boyfriend and is the first person she opens up to when she arrives. Violet is the official leader of the group. She’s hard and defensive because she believes she has to be in order to keep this group alive. I really liked her interactions with Clover as the two are really mirror images of one another. Andy has been by Violet’s side from the beginning and her hacker skills have come in handy with all the information Area 51 carries.

The Last 8 is at its core a novel about friendship and how strong these bonds can be. It’s about teens making mistakes and just trying to survive in a world that counted them out. If you like fun, end-of-the-world kind of stories, Laura Pohl’s debut needs to be on your radar. TW: suicidal thoughts, suicide.

★★★★
(4/5)

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Title: Her Body and Other Parties
Author: Carmen Maria Machado
Series: N/A
Pages: 248
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Release Date: October 3rd 2017

      “”In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
      A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.
      Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious,
Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.”

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“On either side of the road, the white trunks of the trees were illuminated to a degree, the kind of brief visibility provided by a camera’s flash at midnight. I saw a layer or two of trees, and beyond that an opaque blackness that was disturbing to me. Autumn was the worst time to go into the mountains, I thought to myself. To drive into the wilderness when it writhed and gasped for air seemed foolish.”

Carmen Maria Machado takes readers on a strange, yet thought-provoking ride in her short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. Each story features a different nameless female narrator, with one exception, surrounding the theme of female autonomy and both the subtle and conspicuous ways women are stripped of control. Though it is difficult to give a label to these stories, much of them are infused with horror and science-fiction elements. Each of the eight stories were compelling in their own way, but I was taken with how introspective each of Machado’s narrators were. A couple of stories had me scratching my head, trying to understand exactly what the purpose was, but I kept turning the pages regardless, wanting to know the end even if I understood very little.

There are two stories that stand out to me the most in this collection. The first being The Husband Stitch, the opening story and inspiration for the cover art. It tells of a young woman’s sexual awakening, her marriage and the difficult birth of her one and one child. She gives everything of herself to both her husband and son, while trying to protect this one small part of herself. This is physically manifested as a ribbon tied around her neck. Some may recognize this story from In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz, but I assure you, Machado brings her unique voice to the tale. The narrator’s husband becomes fixated on her green ribbon, not because it is in itself a mystery demanding to be unlocked, but because it belongs to this woman and her husband cannot fathom why she should not want to share it with him. Even her son, small as he is, must eventually be warned away from the ribbon. One of my favorite elements of this story is Machado’s inclusion of these interactive annotations at the end of key scenes. For example, this excerpt comes after she is forced to startle her child with a can full of pennies in order to stop him from pulling her ribbon. She ends the scene by saying something has shifted between them and their relationship is never the same.

“(If you are reading this story out loud, prepare a soda can full of pennies. When you arrive at this moment, shake it loudly in the face of the people closest to you. Observe their expressions of startled fear, then betrayal. Notice how they never look at you exactly the same way for the rest of your days.)”

The Resident is another story that ended up being one of my favorites. The story opens with a woman driving to the mountains to take part in a type of retreat for various artists. The narrator makes the trip to a familiar area she used to visit as a Girl Scout. There are hints of a traumatic event that happened in the past and an building tension throughout the story. My favorite aspect of these stories was the horror component. For this story in particular, I loved how eerie the setting was, the dark and strange descriptions, and the foreboding atmosphere. The story, like many of the others, has more of an ambiguous conclusion. It’s a familiar horror trope that I didn’t mind because of how much I enjoyed the journey these stories took me on.

If you’re looking for a short story collection with captivating writing and don’t mind the odd story or two, Her Body and Other Parties is one you should definitely check out. Machado’s storytelling is addictive and I dove into each story with my eyes wide and ready to be taken on an unique ride.

4/5

★★★★

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

Title: Mirage
Author: Somaiya Daud
Series: Mirage, #1
Pages: 320
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Release Date: August 28th 2018

      “In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.
      But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.
      As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.”

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“The bones of our old ways of life were there, barely traceable, and I wanted them back. I wanted all of us to remember what we’d been, how strong we were. And endurance was strength, to be sure, but even a rock wore away to nothing if asked to endure enough rain.”

Somaiya Daud wows with her debut Mirage, a sci-fi novel that also functions as a commentary on the effects of colonialism. Amani’s majority day should be a time for celebration, as it marks her transition into adulthood. There are very few traditions Amani and her people are allowed to take part in since the Vath have conquered their home planet and surrounding moons. When droids interrupt the celebration, kidnapping Amani and whisking her off to the planet Andala where the Vathek have established themselves as rulers, she has no idea what’s in store for her. That is until she comes face-to-face with Maram, High Princess of the Vath, and implausibly her doppelgänger. Forced to be the princesses’s double, Amani is thrust into a world wholly unlike her own where any wrong move could cost her her life.

One of my favorite things about Mirage is how full-realized the world is. Daud has created a people whose history and culture feel very real. For Amani and her people, Vath rule has cost them more than their ability to govern themselves. It has meant a loss of their religion, their language, and their customs. Using the fear of rebellion as a front, the Vath have made it nearly impossible for the Andalaan people to keep their culture intact. Large gatherings are prohibited, their religious poetry is deemed illegal, and if caught aiding rebels, they are quickly exterminated. Though Amani cannot remember a time when the Vath were not their rulers, she understands the loss that her people have endured. She knows she’s been cheated out of experiencing the full scope and beauty that is her culture. The Vathek people for their part do not see Andalaans as equals. But a treaty between the two was necessary to stop a war that would have resulted in even more deaths. Mathis, the High King of the Vath, married an Andalaan woman, and their only child, Maram, has the only legitimate claim to the throne. But for some Vathek, this doesn’t sit well with them and there is always the threat that some may rise and take the throne by force.

Amani was content to live a quiet life, but circumstances have dropped her into a position to do more for her people. She has the ability to see goodness even in those that do her wrong, to feel pity even when someone doesn’t necessarily deserve it. Amani is tasked with taking on a persona that is often cruel and never generous, but Amani never loses her ability to be kind. My favorite relationship in the novel was Amani’s and Maram’s. Maram is used to getting her way, of basking in her own power, and never having to worry about the needs or wants of others. I never expected to like Maram, but seeing her through Amani’s eyes changed my opinion of her. She grew on me and I didn’t simply see her as a cruel princess, but as a person caught between two worlds and forced to embrace only one side of herself. Amani’s relationship with Maram’s fiancé, Idris, an Andalaan himself, will either thrill the reader or leave them wanting more. I fell somewhere in the middle. I do think their relationship should have taken a little more time to develop and wouldn’t have minded having to wait until the next book to see their relationship blossom. On the other hand, I loved their connection with one another. Idris is old enough to remember how his family was taken from him, but he is beholden to the Vath for keeping him alive; the peace treaty is also contingent on his marriage to Maram. Amani is taken with Idris almost immediately and in him she finds a safe haven from her precarious position. For Idris, Amani helps him reconnect with a part of himself that he lost thanks to the Vath.

Somaiya Daud’s Mirage won’t thrill you with its non-stop action, but its charm lies in the brilliance of its worldbuilding and the message that enduring hope can be found even in the bleakest of circumstances.

4/5

★★★★

Mini Reviews: A Dash of Trouble + Pitch Dark

MiniToday I have two immensely different mini-reviews for you, but both are by Latina authors, so it kind of makes sense that I’ve paired them together? Yeah, let’s go with that. Anna Meriano’s A Dash of Trouble was so charming that I already have plans to purchase it for my niece come Christmas and I enjoyed Courtney Alameda’s Pitch Dark so much, I might have to buy for myself soon. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: A Dash of Trouble
Author: Anna Meriano
Series: Love Sugar Magic, #1
Pages: 320
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Release Date: January 2nd 2018 

      “Leonora Logroño’s family owns the most beloved bakery in Rose Hill, Texas, spending their days conjuring delicious cookies and cakes for any occasion. And no occasion is more important than the annual Dia de los Muertos festival.
      Leo hopes that this might be the year that she gets to help prepare for the big celebration—but, once again, she is told she’s too young. Sneaking out of school and down to the bakery, she discovers that her mother, aunt, and four older sisters have in fact been keeping a big secret: they’re brujas—witches of Mexican ancestry—who pour a little bit of sweet magic into everything that they bake.

      Leo knows that she has magical ability as well and is more determined than ever to join the family business—even if she can’t let her mama and hermanas know about it yet.
      And when her best friend, Caroline, has a problem that needs solving, Leo has the perfect opportunity to try out her craft. It’s just one little spell, after all…what could possibly go wrong?”

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“They all had sticky smiles on their faces. Leo licked cinnamon sugar off her fingers and smiled too, but her thoughts kept wandering to the recipe book under her bed. She didn’t know what was worse, the guilty feeling of a secret or the impatience of wanting to try her next spell.”

Anna Meriano’s debut middle grade novel A Dash of Trouble is sweet, magical, and an utter delight. Eleven-year-old Leonora “Leo” Lograño just wants to be treated like her older sisters. But as the youngest of five daughters, Leo is often kept out of the loop. She also struggles to feel included when she grew up without speaking Spanish and everyone else in her family is either fluent or learning. As this year’s Día de Muertos celebration is approaching, Leo is determined more than ever to not be left out, but her curiosity leads her to a family secret that changes everything. The women on her mother’s side of the family are all brujas, witches with individual gifts from conjuring objects out of thin air to communicating with the dead. Leo is ecstatic, but she must keep her new knowledge a secret because like everything else, her family thinks she’s too young to learn about magic. In secret, Leo begins working spells to help her best friend Caroline, but it all starts to fall apart when her spells don’t go quite as planned. Now Leo must figure out how to fix her out of control magic without anyone in her family finding out. Leo is such an earnest character who I could not help but love. She wants more than anything to not be treated as a child and while her decisions aren’t always wise, her motivation comes from a good place. I loved all the different dynamics between Leo and her sisters and could picture each so clearly. Meriano includes real recipes in her novel (minus the magic) that are perfect for young readers to follow (with adult supervision) and hopefully helps bring this heartfelt and funny novel to life.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★


Title: Pitch Dark
Author: Courtney Alameda
Series: N/A
Pages: 384
Publisher: Feiwel Friends
Release Date: February 20th 2018

      “Tuck has been in stasis on the USS John Muir, a ship that houses Earth’s most valued artifacts—its natural resources. Parks and mountains are preserved in space.
      Laura belongs to a shipraiding family, who are funded by a group used to getting what they want. And they want what’s on the Muir.
      Tuck and Laura didn’t bargain on working together, or battling mutant aliens who use sound to kill. But their plan is the only hope for their crews, their families, and themselves.
      In space, nobody can hear you scream . . . but on the John Muir, the screams are the last thing you’ll hear.”

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“He groans, and the weight of his voice hits my temple, physical as a fist. Pain explodes from the crown of my head to my cheekbone. My nose cracks. Blood faucets from my left nostril, splattering over my mouth and chin.”

Courtney Alameda’s Pitch Dark takes the intricacies of science-fiction and combines it with all the thrills of a horror story in a novel that grabs readers from page one and doesn’t let go. Alameda’s two leads, Laura Cruz and Tuck Morgan, are both capable characters on their own, but they also make an excellent team and I loved the fact that they both had room to shine despite this fact. I was really impressed by the amount of detail that went into this novel from the descriptions of spaceships like the John Muir to the world-building. One of the novel’s drawbacks, however, is the time-frame. The events of the novel occur very quickly making the development of a connection between characters feel a little hasty. Still, it was hard not to fall in love with Pitch Dark‘s characters and feel the excitement of the story. I also loved the fact that Pitch Dark is a multi-layered novel that also addresses humane nature, racism, and the politics of written history. I also want to say that if you get a chance, read Alameda’s Author’s Note at the end as it really resonated with me.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★