I’m convinced that I am the slowest reviewer ever, and no, I won’t be taking any arguments. It takes me at least a day or two to finish a ready-to-publish book review — and that’s me being very generous to myself and my brain cells. Although formatting takes a significant bulk of my time, sometimes the problem is simply that… I don’t have a lot to say about a book that I’ve read.
Hence, Books in Bullets is essentially a series of mini-reviews with a twist. I throw together a few books that share a similarity and evaluate them using bullet-point lists of their respective strengths and shortcomings. For this post, I am reviewing three science fiction novels that I highly anticipated, only to be disappointed or let down due to personal preferences and mismatched expectations:
- Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
- A Conspiracy of Stars by Olivia A. Cole
- The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah
by Mike Chen
read the content and trigger warnings.Violence (brief); loss of a loved one; depiction of grief; death; PTSD
read the full synopsis.
To save his daughter, he’ll go anywhere—and any-when…
Kin Stewart is an everyday family man: working in I.T., trying to keep the spark in his marriage, and struggling to connect with his teenage daughter, Miranda. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career as a time-traveling secret agent from 2142.
Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s after a botched mission, Kin has kept his past hidden from everyone around him, despite the increasing blackouts and memory loss affecting his time-traveler’s brain. Until one afternoon, his “rescue” team arrives—eighteen years too late.
Their mission: return Kin to 2142 where he’s only been gone weeks, not years, and where another family is waiting for him. A family he can’t remember.
Torn between two lives, Kin is desperate for a way to stay connected to both. But when his best efforts threaten to destroy the agency and even history itself, his daughter’s very existence is at risk. It’ll take one final trip across time to save Miranda—even if it means breaking all the rules of time travel in the process.
A uniquely emotional genre-bending debut, Here and Now and Then captures the perfect balance of heart, playfulness, and imagination, offering an intimate glimpse into the crevices of a father’s heart, and its capacity to stretch across both space and time to protect the people that mean the most.
STRONG POINTS & HIGHLIGHTS
? Strong family themes and impossible choices. Kin mainly grapples with an internal conflict: choosing between his life in the past (with his daughter Miranda) and his life in the future (with his fiancée Penny). A lot of weight is placed on the idea of family and togetherness, which I really liked. Kin is quite literally caught between holding on and letting go, and his feelings of confusion and helplessness are easy to empathize with.
? Contemporary story with sci-fi elements. Here and Now and Then revolves around the relationships that are important to Kin. The story itself is relationship-driven rather than plot-driven. Although this debut novel is sci-fi in genre, its writing and focus reveal that it is very much contemporary at heart.
? Fascinating, racially diverse world. The future is portrayed as a racially diverse world where fast food is banned and all people are obsessed with being health-conscious, which I found to be very interesting. It’s worth noting that a similar trend (i.e. health and fitness) is gaining popularity in the present reality that we live in.
? Simple, accessible writing style. Mike Chen’s writing style leans toward the simple and effective. The writing flows very smoothly, and there aren’t many confusing jargons to keep track of, which is a small surprise for a story involving a complex concept like time travel.
BUT ON THE DOWNSIDE
? Expectations vs. reality struggles. When I read the book’s synopsis, I was expecting a story that is fast-paced, hard-hitting, action-packed, and heavy on sci-fi elements. Instead, I got the opposite: leisurely paced, driven by relationships (note: relationships, not characters), and vague sci-fi elements. In many ways, these are good, if not excellent, qualities for a story to have, but my unmatched expectations caused my reading experience to suffer.
? Not enough emphasis on the world-building. My absolute favorite thing about SFF, in general, is feeling like I’m somewhere else – somewhere new, exciting, and well-built. Unfortunately, in the case of Here and Now and Then, it was easy to forget that this is supposed to be a sci-fi, time-traveling story simply because the world-building is never fully explored.
? Pop culture references I didn’t care for. Honestly, I don’t even watch Doctor Who or Star Trek. This book is generously sprinkled with pop culture references, and I could not appreciate any of them.
? A story about the life of a time traveler, not a story about time-traveling. Again, much like most of my points in this section, this isn’t strictly a bad thing. It all boils down to expectations and personal preferences. In my case, I would have appreciated a more macro exploration of time-traveling, instead of a micro-focus on what it’s like to be a time traveler (and what is sacrificed in the process).
She was smaller than he thought she’d be. At seven pounds, two ounces, she didn’t arrive underweight or sickly. Yet holding her little body, the sheer fragility of the universe sank in.
Though Kin had jumped through time, saved and taken lives, nothing quite prepared him for it.
All things considered, Here and Now and Then is not a terrible book, but it is clear to me that I’m not the intended target audience for it. Nonetheless, even though I myself did not particularly enjoy this novel, I would still recommend Here and Now and Then to some readers (which explains why my concluding verdict is recommended but with an asterisk).
In my opinion, the technical nitty-gritty frequently found in sci-fi stories, including time travel fiction, can be intimidating, if not daunting, to people who don’t habitually read or are particularly fond of science fiction. Centered on family dynamics and internal conflict instead of strict technicalities and complicated jargon, Mike Chen’s Here and Now and Then makes for an excellent springboard for readers who are curious about the sci-fi genre or have the desire to explore it.
* I received a digital galley of Here and Now and Then from Mira Books in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes used in this review are subject to changes in the published copy.
by Olivia A. Cole
read the content and trigger warnings.Violence; death; loss of loved ones; depiction of grief; animal cruelty and animal death
read the full synopsis.
Octavia has only ever had one goal: to follow in the footsteps of her parents and become a prestigious whitecoat, one of the scientists who study the natural wonders of Faloiv. The secrets of the jungle’s exotic plants and animals are protected fiercely in the labs by the Council of N’Terra, so when the rules suddenly change, allowing students inside, Octavia should be overjoyed.
But something isn’t right. The newly elected leader of the Council has some extremist views about the way he believes N’Terra should be run, and he’s influencing others to follow him. When Octavia witnesses one of the Faloii—the indigenous people of Faloiv—attacked in front of her in the dark of night, she knows the Council is hiding something. They are living in separate worlds on a shared planet, and their fragile peace may soon turn into an all-out war.
With the help of Rondo, a quiet boy in class with a skill for hacking, and her inquisitive best friend, Alma, Octavia is set on a collision course to discover the secrets behind the history she’s been taught, the science she’s lived by, and the truth about her family.
STRONG POINTS & HIGHLIGHTS
? Science, research, and women in STEM. I am a research major myself, and although my area falls under the larger umbrella of social sciences, I was still incredibly excited about the prospect of a sci-fi story that revolves around research and women in STEM, especially women of color in STEM (the characters are POC-coded, while the heroine is Black). The value of scientific research plays such a key role in this story, which I very much appreciated and hope to see more in other YA literature!
? Knowledge is power, and science is political. A Conspiracy of Stars valiantly tackles numerous timely and hard-hitting issues, such as imperialism and animal cruelty in research. At the forefront, however, this book explores the complex relationships among scientific research, power, and politics with an emphasis on how scientific discoveries can be manipulated to gain power and/or to forward political agenda. At the same time, the author also successfully highlights the responsibility that comes with pursuing research, as well as the importance of research ethics. Be still, my academic heart.
? Vividly described setting and perfectly fitting ambiance. One of the major selling points of A Conspiracy of Stars is its setting: an alien world that is rich with fascinating fauna and flora that carry the potential to help mankind better adapt to the planet’s environment. From the sterile laboratory rooms to the vivacious jungles, the writing effectively captures the atmospheric shifts within the story.
? Mysteries, conspiracies, and the unveiling of secrets. As the title suggests, there are conspiracies and questions brewing that Octavia, together with the help of trusted companions, hopes to shed some light on. While several plot points aren’t totally surprising, the author nonetheless manages to keep readers on their toes and doubt their initial guesses.
? Family relationships and friendship dynamics. I found Octavia’s relationship with her parents to be an interesting element in this story. I also appreciated the strong presence of healthy female friendships.
BUT ON THE DOWNSIDE
? Disconnect with the characters and lukewarm feelings towards the romance. None of the characters stood out to me, and I can’t recall rooting for anyone in particular. Moreover, although the romance does not overpower the plot, I still thought it was unnecessary, lacked chemistry, and ultimately, was poorly done. Definitely the weakest point of this book.
? Sluggishly paced story that ends on a well-written cliffhanger. The story moves at a very glacial pace and only begins to pick up speed towards the end (note: I’ve noticed that the book’s pacing is a common area of complaint among readers and reviewers). I have very mixed feelings about the ending. On one hand, it is a very well-executed, well-timed cliffhanger and I’m very curious to discover what happens next. On the other hand, however, the abruptness of the ending is probably 70% why I would consider picking up the sequel – and in my opinion, books that have to rely on a cliffhanger ending aren’t strong enough to stand on their own.
? Spectacular premise but unimpressive execution. I was very eager to gobble up A Conspiracy of Stars after I read Kate’s positively glowing review. I think the book’s premise is extremely promising and is one that we rarely encounter in YA literature, but unfortunately, I was not satisfied by its execution. I think this mainly stems from mismatched expectations and personal preferences, rather than a reflection of the author’s writing ability.
? Questionable use or portrayal of Indigenous culture. This book is told in the eyes of the colonizer, with the Faloii as the indigenous inhabitants of Faloiv. I have seen a handful reviews floating around that briefly criticize the portrayal of Indigenous people and culture in A Conspiracy of Stars (sadly, I haven’t found one that really delves into detail – but for starters, check out this review from American Indians in Children’s Literature).
My father and I live under different suns. In reality, it is the same: red and hungry, an intense crimson eye that sends sweat fleeing from my skin. It’s as beautiful as it is harsh, but my father sees none of the beauty. The past has dulled his wonder, and so the light of this planet shines differently on each of us. For me, it is part of home. For him, it is a beacon over a prison. Like others in N’Terra, he had his heart set on another sun. This one is a poor replacement.
RECOMMENDED WITH CAUTION*
A Conspiracy of Stars is a fascinating sci-fi story steeped with political tension, nods to imperialism, and inescapable moral questions that come with scientific discovery and the desire for societal progress. Admittedly, I have plenty of mixed feelings and reservations (hence, the asterisk in my final verdict). However, although this book might not be universally liked, I do think that it has some merits to offer and that its story would greatly appeal to a very niche audience: soft and hardcore fans of this specific genre of science fiction. Nevertheless, whether you decide to give this one a try or not, I suggest examining its content – particularly its treatment and portrayal of indigenous people – with a grain of salt.
by London Shah
read the content and trigger warnings.Violence; death of a parent; loss of a parent; depictions of grief; mention of suicide (not explicit); animal violence; blood; underwater explosions
read the full synopsis.
Hope had abandoned them to the wrath of all the waters.
At the end of the twenty-first century, the world has changed dramatically, but life continues one thousand feet below the ocean’s surface. In Great Britain, sea creatures swim among the ruins of Big Ben and the Tower of London, and citizens waver between fear and hope; fear of what lurks in the abyss, and hope that humanity will soon discover a way to reclaim the Earth.
Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Leyla McQueen has her own problems to deal with. Her father’s been arrested, accused of taking advantage of victims of the Seasickness-a debilitating malaise that consumes people, often claiming their lives. But Leyla knows he’s innocent, and all she’s interested in is getting him back so that their lives can return to normal.
When she’s picked to race in the action-packed London Submersible Marathon, Leyla gets the chance to secure his freedom; the Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. The race takes an unexpected turn, though, and presents her with an opportunity she never wanted: Leyla must venture outside of London for the first time in her life, to find and rescue her father herself.
Now, she’ll have to brave the unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a secretive, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If she fails, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture–and her father might be lost forever.
STRONG POINTS & HIGHLIGHTS
? Most memorable prologue of the year. Not to be a person of bad puns, but the prologue of The Light at the Bottom of the World had me hook, line, and sinker. It was truly the perfect introduction to the author’s writing style, as well as to the immersive underwater world that the book promises its readers.
? Post-apocalyptic underwater world tethered to old-world nostalgia. The biggest strength of this debut lies in its unique setting and the hauntingly dangerous atmosphere it creates. More interestingly, the setting offers many parallels to the current state of our world. What with all the quarantines and lockdowns and all. Under these circumstances, I think that a lot of readers can deeply relate to the yearning for what once was. In addition to this, the book also provides thought-provoking commentary on how we unknowingly romanticize the past and on how those in power actively revise history to suit their self-serving agendas.
? Authentic younger teen voice. As I read, I truly felt like I was inside the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl who just wants to get her father back. Leyla wears her heart on her sleeve, and that aspect of her personality really shines through in the writing.
? Cute father-daughter relationship. Throughout the story, I caught glimpses of Leyla’s relationship with her father. Flashbacks were written and inserted quite masterfully. Despite Leyla’s father being off-page for the bulk of the book, I was still able to invest in his character, his relationship with Leyla, and of course, Leyla’s mission to save him.
BUT ON THE DOWNSIDE
? Unimpressive book cover. The Light at the Bottom of the World had the most disappointing cover reveal in 2019, in my very humble opinion. I think that the cover is meant to come across as eerie and dangerous. But honestly? I hate the color palette so much.
? Difficulty to connect with the main character. Although I could empathize with Leyla, I was often frustrated with her character’s childishness and irrational decision-making. I do recognize that this is probably a “me” issue rather than a book/writing issue, because at the young age of sixteen, I was already a freshman in college. As a result, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around her actions and behavior.
? Struggles with imagining the world & other sources of confusion. This book started off as incredibly atmospheric. However, it quickly lost its luster as the story progressed. I wish there were more vivid and concrete descriptions because I had a lot of trouble with visualizing. For the most part, I pictured everyone just floating aimlessly and drifting. Aside from this, I had difficulty keeping track of Leyla’s underwater journeying. I was buddy reading this with Kaleena, and I occasionally asked questions like “Wait, are they near the surface?” or “Are they traveling upward or downward?”
? Mixed feelings about the writing style. The starting chapters were so excellently written and definitely made a great first impression on me. However, and unfortunately, the writing style seemed to dip in quality after the London Submersible Marathon. A lot of the dialogue felt clunky and inorganic. Some important pieces of information were handled quite loosely or were not delivered well. Overall, the story just wasn’t as tightly written as it should be, which can easily be overlooked since this is the author’s debut.
? Questionable plot points & inconsistent pacing. My biggest issues with The Light at the Bottom of the World are its dreadful pacing and its constant use of the miscommunication trope. Right from the book’s synopsis, we are told that Leyla “must venture outside of London for the first time in her life, to find and rescue her father herself.” And listen. I was already halfway through the story, and Leyla didn’t even cross the border yet! And of course, to compensate for the sluggishness of the book’s first half, the last quarter of the book was clumsy and heavy-handed. Moreover, some scenes (e.g. the one involving hippies) seemed very inconsequential to me. More importantly, towards the end of the book, there were several character decisions that only worsened my experience.
The water can’t halt human connections. The desire—the sheer will, to reach out, to anchor one another, is too stellar. People will always find a way to keep from losing one another—from losing themselves. The human spirit didn’t drown. It was swept up and carried along; it flows still, the stream coursing its way through everyone’s lives.
The Light at the Bottom of the World is London Shah’s debut novel, and unfortunately, it really shows in the writing, the plot development, and the characterization. Readers may enjoy Leyla’s connection to her Muslim faith, the exploration of themes like historical revisionism and mental illnesses, and the quietly dangerous underwater setting. However, I do think that the book’s shortcomings outnumber and outweigh its strengths. Hence, I cannot confidently recommend it to anyone.
* I received a secondhand ARC of The Light at the Bottom of the World that was passed along to me by my friend, Lili. Any quotes used in this review are subject to changes in the published copy.
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I’d love to hear from you!
? Have you read any of these sci-fi novels? Will you be adding any of them to your TBR?
? Have you ever encountered a book that you personally disliked but would still recommend to other people? How does that influence your book review?
? When was the last time you experienced an ‘expectations vs. reality’ situation with a book that you were highly anticipating? By that I mean, a book that disappointed you because it didn’t meet your expectations?