After an extended summer break, Between the Bookends returns with three month’s worth of book reviews from Sophie, Amy, Robin, Rebecca, and Anika. We hope you’ll find something great to curl up with now that the nights are drawing in once again. Please note: This post contains affiliate links.
The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg
Sophie’s first book of the month ended up being her favorite as well. The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg is a YA sci-fi novel set in the near future at a truly immersive theme park where extinct creatures roam, the world’s best rides tower into the sky, and every dream you can imagine can be lived.
Ana is one of twelve Fantasists, half-human half-android princesses who live in The Kingdom and are programmed to make every wish of their guests come true. Only now, Ana has been accused of murder and her very humanity is on trial because she has begun to experience emotions and romantic feelings—things she was never programmed for.
The Kingdom is told through a mixture of court testimony, interrogation records, and flashbacks from Ana’s perspective as we see her world the way she did. Is The Firewall, the edge of the virtual space Ana and her Fantasist sisters are permitted to explore, really there for her safety or is it there to control her? Are her romantic feelings real or only a glitch in her programming and, given that all human emotions are merely electrical signals in our brains, what is the difference?
As a huge theme park enthusiast, Sophie really enjoyed the exploration of what these places that already toe the line between reality and fantasy could become as technology continues to improve and the dangers and moral dilemmas that technology could pose. The Kingdom is an easy read but a thought-provoking one that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. This is a book that poses many questions worth careful consideration as, given the pace that technology is racing forward, the issues raised here might not be as unimaginable as they seem.
Sophie absolutely loved The Kingdom and is already hoping for a sequel. For more on this book, check out Robin’s review over on GeekDad.
American Royals by Katherine McGee
Another book Sophie loved over summer was YA novel American Royals by Katherine McGee. In this alternate history version of America, when George Washington was supposedly offered the role of king after the Battle of Yorktown, he decided to say yes and over 200 years later, the Washington family still rule America atop an expansive court of nobles and aristocracy. Seemingly, most other things are the same. The teens all still use social media, attend frat parties, and deal with hurtful gossip, but there are some occasional references to alternate history elsewhere in the world.
The book alternates between the POV of four women. First is Beatrice, Princess Royal and heir to the throne, then her younger sister Samantha, the “spare” and the twin sister of Jeff, the first male heir not to usurp his older sisters in the order of succession. The third POV is Nina, Samantha’s best friend and the daughter of the Minister of the Treasury, and finally, there’s Daphne, a minor aristocrat and Jeff’s ex-girlfriend who has built her entire life around eventually marrying the prince.
All the characters in American Royals are balancing duty versus personal feelings and trying to toe that line when the two come into conflict, which they frequently do. It was interesting to see how each character had their own problems, but all were interlinked so decisions made by one person had immediate repercussions for everyone else. Sophie was also particularly impressed with how much character development took place during the book, particularly regarding Samantha, who was probably Sophie’s favorite of the four.
Fans of The Crown will no doubt see strong similarities between Elizabeth/Margaret and Beatrice/Samantha, although these characters have a new and modern feel of their own. Still, fans of that show and novel series like The Selection will devour this and Sophie is already looking forward to the sequel.
Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers by Mark Westmoquette
On an entirely different subject, Sophie also picked up Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers by Mark Westmoquette. This little book introduces techniques for calming the mind themed around astrophysics and astronomy. While those subjects might not immediately feel as if they work together, the mind-boggling nature of the universe is actually a perfect gateway to expanding your mind.
Sophie loved the way the author used the night sky to bring about methods of grounding the self and connecting to the world and others throughout time. Astronomy requires patience and a willingness to accept things as they are presented to you—no one can make the clouds go away or persuade the moon to move to a more convenient position—and this is used to help introduce methods to help increase acceptance and gratitude.
The book avoids becoming overly spiritual or religious, although there are teachings from the Buddha. The majority of Mindful Thoughts for Stargazers is based around growing awareness of your surroundings and becoming more in tune with your body and the environment in order to live a more relaxed and harmonious life. Sophie appreciated that the book steered clear of the more New Age spiritualism that often comes with books on mindfulness and concentrated instead on practical techniques that will be helpful to anyone, regardless of belief.
Although the book feels a little disjointed at times, this was a fun read that offered some useful ideas that Sophie will be trying to incorporate into her daily life. One of an ongoing series, there are also books focusing on mindfulness for gardeners and makers.
The Warehouse by Rob Hart
Sophie’s next book was The Warehouse by Rob Hart. Set in an undefined but seemingly not-too-distant future where global warming has made large swathes of the planet uninhabitable, The Warehouse imagines life if a single company took over around 99% of all global retail and its CEO became effectively deified.
That company is Cloud and is not at all based on a popular store named after a South American river… Cloud is so huge that it operates out of enormous Mother Cloud complexes which include housing, transport, hospitals, retail, and leisure for the thousands of workers living there. Paxton and Zinnia are two new recruits at an unidentified Mother Cloud facility. Paxton is the former CEO of a small company that sold his own invention but was put out of business by Cloud. Zinnia wants everyone to think she’s just an ordinary young woman working on the picking floor when she’s really anything but. With Paxton assigned a job in security, Zinnia spots an opportunity, but as she begins to develop real feelings for him, Paxton is having his own doubts about Cloud’s methods.
Interspersed between Paxton and Zinnia’s increasingly overlapping stories are blog posts from dying Cloud CEO Gibson Wells and transcripts from Cloud commercials and corporate videos (many of these reminded Sophie of the Cyberdyne Systems video that ran in the pre-show before the Terminator ride at Universal Studios). While the book was fairly predictable in terms of big corporate entity = bad, using the CEO’s perspective to show the good Cloud are doing helps blur the boundaries between good and bad. Are Cloud’s practices truly terrible if they result in some positive repercussions?
The Warehouse leaves behind a lot of questions (both in terms of the plot and things to think about) and Sophie would recommend it to anyone concerned about the growth of mega-corporations, and especially to those who aren’t concerned at all.
Succulents in a Book by Molly Hatch
In Sophie’s opinion, her final book of the summer, Succulents in a Book by Molly Hatch, could be subtitled, “the ideal book for the millennial in your life.” This simple, 20-page board book introduces eight different succulents with information about where they come from and their discovery by the Western world, how to identify them, and their meaning and cultural significance along with some brief information on how to care for them.
However, the text is only a small part of this book’s appeal. After removing the dust jacket, you will see that the cover of the book resembles a plant pot. On turning each page, you will discover a watercolor style painting of each succulent that can be rotated so it sticks up from the top of the book. After rotating all eight, you will be left with a plant pot filled with greenery and, as these succulents are made only from paper, they need watering even less than their real counterparts! Under each plant picture, there is also a positive message to uncover.
This book would make an ideal gift for someone moving into a dorm room or other small living space where having real plants would be difficult. There’s not much to the text, sure, but that’s really not the point of this book and Sophie is already looking forward to checking out a Christmas title from the same series later this year.
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe and also break the pattern of Rick Riordan Presents books by being science fiction rather than mythological, with a heavy helping of Cuban-American cultural seasoning. Amy and kids (12 and 10) could barely put it down, even getting up early to finish reading before the older one had to leave for a week of camp, and even then, Amy and the 10-year-old had to read on without him.
Sal is a 7th-grade diabetic magician who’s already managed to cause a scene after three days at his new middle school for the arts. Gabi is his fierce and overachieving class president who’s determined to expose him. They are posed to be rivals, but instead hit it off so hard that Sal trusts Gabi with his strangest, most dangerous secret: he can see into parallel universes and even bring what he finds there back with him. Maybe she can help him work out the kinks: all his attempts to bring back parallel versions of his late mother have ended in disaster, and now his physicist father, specializing in “calamity science,” fears he’s breaking the very fabric of existence.
All that on top of ordinary school and family drama. Will messing with the multiverse make everything worse, or can Sal and Gabi find a way to make it fix things instead? The book manages to be hilarious and heartwrenching, strong in voice and full of unexpected quirks, and is on track to be Amy’s favorite book of the year.
Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers
A quintessential English political novel about the state of the nation, Perfidious Albion is a Brexit novel written by a liberal author. It charts the rise of a Farage-like figure and shows how easily the desperate can be manipulated
Alongside a portrait of a darker side of British politics, there is an interesting examination of the modern workplace that takes “zero hours” contracts as a jumping-off point and describes a nightmarish vision where work is a series of micro-transactions that starts to feel rather like micro-aggressions. Part of the novel is set in a Google-like tech company with an insidious plan to take control.
The surveillance state, the parlous state of journalism, and toxic office culture are also covered in this thought-provoking novel about the desperate state of modern Britain. Robin knows one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but Perfidious Albion is worth picking up for its cover art alone. “Babel Britain (after Verhaecht)” by Emily Allchurch is really quite brilliant and sums up the situation the UK finds itself in.
Perfidious Albion is a left-leaning satirical novel that skewers the current political climate. As Brexit enters its final stages and satire itself seems to have elected the UK’s Prime Minister, there probably has never been a better time to read this book. It’s going to taste all the more bitter-sweet.
The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet by Martin Howard
There aren’t too many greater ways to recommend a children’s book than to say it left both parent and child helpless with laughter. The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet is a comic joy. It’s unadulterated silliness in book form. Robin is sure aficionados would disagree, but it felt a bit like Douglas Adams for kids. It’s about 30 years since he read any Douglas Adams, so don’t shoot him if this is wildly off the mark!
The premise is that the wonderful Alfie Fleet and his mum are flat broke. Alfie’s mum works every hour to make ends meet and to make her life a little bit better, while Alfie wants to earn enough money to buy his mum a foot-spa for her birthday. When he finds himself agonizingly short of money, he answers an advertisement in the paper for a day’s work that will see him right.
Cue the adventure! Alfie’s job is to help Professor Bowell-Mouvement (of which many great jokes are made), the last member of the Unusual Cartography Club. The job involves traveling through an interdimensional portal to chart another planet and update the titular “cosmic atlas.”
Unsurprisingly, the dimension-defying professor is more than a little eccentric, and the simple fact-finding mission goes awry. Alfie and the Professor meet an array of characters that help (and hinder) them on their quest to get back home and buy a foot-spa.
The Cosmic Atlas of Alfie Fleet is an imaginative riot from start to finish. It’s funny throughout and quite moving in places too. The characters are all fabulous. There are some great twists on familiar fantasy tropes, the vain elves being particularly entertaining, as is teenage savage “Derek,” a young girl whom Alfie finds himself inexplicably drawn to.
The novel’s central idea is a genius creation. It allows so much space for author Martin Howard to work in. The universe is literally his oyster for future books. It’s the combination of unfettered travel, cosmic travel guide, and acute real-world observations that makes the book feel like a successor to Douglas Adams.
The story is completed, yet left entirely open for future installments. Robin’s family had so much fun with this one, he sincerely hopes Alfie and Prof. Bowell-Mouvement get another outing soon. He can imagine he’ll still be reading these books for his own enjoyment long after the kids are too old to listen!
Defy the Stars (Constellation #1) by Claudia Gray
Defy the Stars is a science-fiction romance for YA and up. Rebecca Angel read it for her fantasy/sci-fi book club and fell completely in love with both main characters, Noemi and Abel. It was one of the rare books that everyone in the club enjoyed.
In Defy the Stars, Earth is a polluted and dying planet. Humans began looking for alternative homes in the universe and came across a small handful that were then connected by wormholes stabilized by “Gates” in space. Only one of the new planets, Genesis, is truly an oasis for people, but when the first colonists finally realize Earth will never change its ways and will simply overpopulate and pollute their new home as well, the humans of Genesis start a war to keep Earth’s people away and keep their planet safe.
Noemi is a 17-year-old fighter from Genesis on a suicide mission to help her planet. Abel is over 30 years old, but he is an AI, created by the most brilliant mind in this future vision of humanity, then left alone, floating in space for many years. Abel is a unique AI, able to go past his programming and feel empathy, question, and dream. But he is loyal to his creator from Earth. Forced together, they begin to trust one another and become their own creators in the story, to not only save each other but all of humanity as well.
Rebecca found this book to be the perfect example of the kind of romance she enjoys: one where the characters grow along with the romance and the romance is only part of a highly developed plot with a rich world and side characters. Highly recommended!
The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe
Anika loves every Jurassic Park-or-World film, even the one with Tea Leoni, and spent a lot of the summer of 2015 arguing that Claire Dearing is great, actually on social media. She was thrilled when Claire got a YA tie-novel, The Evolution of Claire, in the run-up to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and bought the hardcover right away in 2018. And then, as these things go, it stayed in her to-read pile for a year. But this summer she finally cracked it open.
As a book about dinosaur interns, she found it disappointing. But as a book about Claire, she found it delightful. Like the film it preceded, Sharpe’s novel walks a very fine line between wonder and absurdity, and to be honest, it stumbles a few times. But the wide-eyed love of monsters and magic makes up for it, and the novel really excels when the wonder hardens as Claire morphs into the cynical adult we meet in her first film. There is also a mystery and plenty of teen melodrama (if you like Riverdale, try this) and some exploration of the tension between wanting dinosaurs to be accessible and wanting them to be protected.
The novel’s weakness is the supporting cast of original characters, mainly love interest Justin, none of whom seem to speak like real college-age kids or even TV college-age kids. But for a Claire fanatic like Anika, it pushes a lot of buttons. There’s another Jurassic World sequel coming in 2021, recently announced to costar original heroes Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum, but in the meantime, The Evolution of Claire is available everywhere and while not groundbreaking is an easy read to help you get excited.
GeekMom received some titles in this post for review purposes.