Monday, December 28, 2015

Top, er, 22...ish books of 2015

It's almost 2016, so that must mean it's time for me to decide which books are my favorites of 2015. As usual, these are books I read that were published in 2015. There are books published in 2015 that I have not read, and there are books I read this year that were not published in 2015—those are not included in this list. 

That said, I HAVE TWENTY-TWO FAVORITES AND YOU CAN'T MAKE ME CUT ANY.
HERE WE GO.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas [SPOILERS]

★★★☆☆

I have seen two batches of reviews for this book:

  1. The reviews that are all "PERFECTION" and "BEST BOOK I'VE EVER READ" and "BEST IN THE SERIES" and so forth.
  2. The reviews that are all "I feel like I just read 650 pages of fanfiction" and "WHAT HAPPENED TO CROWN OF MIDNIGHT?????"
If I were basing my review solely on the second half of Queen of Shadows, I would probably be leaning closer to the former batch.
Unfortunately, there are about 320 pages in this book that are not the second half. And I understand all too well what those latter-batch people are talking about.

If you recall my review of Crown of Midnight, I was a mess after reading that book. I stayed up extra late to finish it, and even though it was a shorter book than the rest of the series, it blew my mind. I liked the direction the series was going in, I liked the complicated relationships between the characters, I loved the plot twists. I loved those big power moments when characters would swoop in, unafraid, and be totally badass. Sarah J. Maas's writing was just starting to develop those sentences that just kicked you in the gut or filled you with pride or made you want to blow up buildings, and I ate up every bit of it.

Heir of Fire, on the other hand, I did not like much. I gave it 4 stars out of obligation, because everyone was loving it and I felt like I was missing something, and it was a good book—once again, the ending was the best part—but to be honest, it took me a month to finish it because I was bored out of my mind. I wasn't interested in Rowan, had minor interest in Sorscha, and did not know where in Hellas' dominion Manon came from or how she was relevant to anything. My favorite part was Chaol's character development at the end, and Dorian. Always Dorian.

Which brings me to: the first half of Queen of Shadows
Where all of that character development, all of that love that had been painstakingly cultivated for each character, vanished. Chaol and Aelin in particular went back to how they acted right after Nehemia's death. And Dorian was reduced to a plot element, a source of tension between Aelin and Chaol.
Here are the problems I had with every character in this book:

Aelin: She literally blames Chaol for everything in the first portion of the book. She marches in with the arrogance I thought she had outgrown and accuses him of abandoning Dorian [CHECK YOURSELF IN THE GD MIRROR, GIRLFRIEND.], of still being loyal to the King, of hating everything she stands for. For some reason Chaol has become a symbol of everything wrong with Adarlan, even though she told him in Crown of Midnight that he reminded her of what the world ought to be. And it doesn't feel like she just changed her mind or saw some truth about him that she hadn't seen before; her attitude toward him is like he's beneath her now because she is a queen and he had the audacity to make a mistake that hurt her. It feels like the author changed her mind about him, and so the protagonist had to as well.
Additionally, she is ruthless and selfish in the beginning of the novel. The kind of ruthless and selfish she was in The Assassin's Blade and Throne of Glass. One of my main issues with her character has always been that she gives up on people far too easily, even people she claims to love, and there has been zero development in that area so far. I realize that she's bent on vengeance for the crappiness of her entire life, but at a certain point it just starts to seem like a childish way to approach the world.

Chaol: Before I start, let me say this: I am a Chaol stan. I love him, I think he's flawed and realistic and misunderstood, but I think all of that pales in comparison to his quiet strength and loyalty. When Celaena hated him and he'd broken his own heart with the mistakes he had made, he still took care of her. He put her on that ship to Wendlyn and stayed behind to give her the space she needed away from him. He stepped back when she required it, and his anger and resentment toward her were just as valid as hers toward him. They both still thought they had a chance with each other.
Enter: QoS Part I Chaol. Anger and resentment are apparently all he knows. He blames Aelin for Dorian's fate (the difference between them being that she refuses to acknowledge her role in it, while he's been beating himself up with guilt ever since he ran out of the throne room that day). He judges her and calls her a monster even though he had clearly begun to accept who she was in Heir of Fire. It was his main character arc. And by the time QoS starts, it's somehow been forgotten.

What I'm saying is that this book does a lot of takesies-backsies with these two characters. I don't want to make assumptions, but it feels like SJM ended CoM intending for Chaolaena to be endgame, and then she invented Rowan and blew those plans into smithereens. 
There's a part in QoS where it even feels like Aelin is acknowledging this: she tells Chaol something like "I hope I didn't give you false hope, with what I said that day. That I'd pick you." The thing is, Why did she even say it, if their demise has been planned all along??? I can appreciate that she was given the freedom to move on and find someone new to love, but I don't think this series needed to go that way; it doesn't ring true to me, especially given Rowan—which I'll get to in a moment.
Go ahead and tell me that Chaol supposedly loved Celaena and not Aelin, but that's a cop-out, if you ask me. She was Aelin the whole damn time—that's the point. He loved Aelin, even if he didn't know it. You can't just shut off who you are.

I almost don't even want to write about the other male characters, because I really, honestly can't stand them. I mean, they're all good and fine, but not my taste at all. Testosterone and pissing contests: somehow both annoying and boring at the same time.

Rowan: Aelin's carranam. Her "friend" who was strictly her "friend" in HoF and suddenly they spend a few weeks apart and now it's romantic between them, no matter how much they denied it in the last book. I would still like to deny it. 
  • Possessiveness? Not romantic.
  • Hero worship? Not romantic.
  • Animosity toward any other male who comes close to her? Not romantic.
  • Thoughts about getting your scent all over her? NOT ROMANTIC.
  • Oh and he *hates* Celaena Sardothien? Remember when Chaol received that "You can't pick and choose which parts of her to love" speech from Dorian? Judging her for the identity she was forced to take on = NOT ROMANTIC.
Oh but he's a big strong Fae prince, the most powerful in the land of course, and he's spent hundreds of years JUST LOOKING FOR HER! SWOONITY SWOON
not
I basically just dislike how he's more concerned with making her his than he is with being her person. Their romantic relationship developed too quickly and it was too high-stakes for me to believe it (there were no small acts of friendship or love, it was all "you are my queen and I will die to protect you" and wanting to rip her clothes off and Aelin acting like he was more important to her than her own life). Remember when Chaol got her chocolate cake?

Aedion: I wish that he could have been more of a comic-relief character, especially with Dorian not himself in this book. He was basically the same person as Rowan, except less powerful, and related to her so not romantically interested [the first male character in the series who hasn't been, because SHE IS JUST SO AMAZING, AMIRITE?]. They picked up where they left off far too easily after 10 years apart, and he was blind to every single one of her flaws: that she makes rash decisions, that she has little concern for people unless she can see herself in them, that she'll blame anyone but herself for her problems. They bickered, but it was always about Aedion doing something wrong, never her.

Now, on to the good.
Lysandra.
Manon (eventually).
Elide.
Nesryn.
Asterin.
second-half Chaol
last-third Aelin
Kaltain.
Rowan at two moments in particular (the healing and that thing he did with the wind)
That one person toward the end who shouted, "All hail Dorian Havilliard!" (and Chaol pumped his fist in solidarity, wearing his #1 Dorian Fanboy t-shirt)
and
of course
the one and only
my precious baby prince boy
beautiful cinnamon roll
too good 
too pure

Dorian Havilliard.

The second half of this book would receive a solid 4 stars from me, as opposed to the first half's 2 stars. I'm still dropping one because of Rowan/Aelin and because some of the writing got too heavy-handed (we get it, everyone kicks ass), but the plot was much more intricate, the characters had more believable interactions, and just generally it felt more like the Throne of Glass series.
Mostly because the focus came back to Dorian, finally. We got little glimpses of him around Manon, because the demon was afraid of her (nice, Manon), and I actually hurt myself from flailing too hard, but of course it wasn't until the very end that we finally got Dorian back.

Dorian: So worth slogging through this book to make sure he got saved. He's the same old Dorian, but with haunted eyes and a new title: Precious Baby King Boy.
Lysandra: Girlfriend rocked this book. You don't understand how happy I was that she and Aelin realized they had been judging each other when they could've been friends, and that Lysandra proved to be more than Aelin assumed her to be, and that she got a chance to SAVE THOSE BIG STRONG MALES WHO WERE ABOUT TO GET THEIR ASSES HANDED TO THEM HA HA HA
Manon: You know, I still didn't care for her through most of this book. She was too ruthless, too insensitive, too oblivious to her own cruelty. And then she brought out the Dorian inside Dorian and I forgave her because that was literally all I wanted. And then Aelin taught her a lesson in mercy, and Manon did the honorable thing and returned the favor. BY STOPPING HER FROM KILLING DORIAN.
You see what's really important to me, don't you.
Oh, and then she saved her witches and Elide I swear to god if SJM reneges on this character development in the next book I'll quit the whole series
just kidding no I won't because Dorian
Elide: The cowering and shaking grated on me because I'm so used to all the female characters in this series doing things, but eventually I grew to love her.
Nesryn: I like her. I want more of her, because I refuse to accept that she's just another kickass girl with a crush on Chaol, who's pretty much just like "okay cool"
etc. etc.

Anyway.
What I took away from this book is that I am no longer going to view this series the way I once did—as a story about a hidden queen coming back into her power and finding someone to stand by her side along the way. She did that, and it wasn't satisfying to me.
I'm going to view this series as a story about a queen, hidden because of tragedy, forced to become a weapon before she could take back her kingdom, who learns about friendship from two boys whose bond is stronger than any magic. Because that, for me, is what this book ended up being about. Dorian and Chaol. Heir of Fire was painful because there was a crack in their foundation; they didn't know if they could breach the distance between them. Queen of Shadows was rewarding because they did. In HoF, Dorian sacrificed himself for Chaol. In QoS, Chaol sacrificed himself for Dorian—and only made it out alive because of Aelin.
This book may not have been what I wanted, but the ending alone made it enough.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin

24807186
source: ARC from Hachette
publication: October 20, 2015, Little, Brown

This is one of the few books I've read recently whose synopsis actually gives you a sense of what the book is about. Wolf By Wolf is about Yael, a girl who survived a World War II death camp only because she was chosen as a science experiment: mysterious injections gave her the ability to change her face at will. Now, she's impersonating Adele Wolf, the victor of a cross-continental motorcycle race, so that she can enter the race, get invited to the ball, and kill Hitler. Meanwhile, she's got to keep everyone thinking she is Adele, including Adele's twin brother and another competitor, Luka, with whom Adele has a hush-hush romantic history.

I really liked this book. It was fast and interesting and didn't recall for me any other YA novels I've read (or movies I've seen, for that matter). I think what I love most is that Yael truly does question her own ruthlessness time and time again—there is a line that she never wants to cross: killing, or causing the deaths of, innocent people. Crossing that line would go against everything she is fighting for, and I think it's really important that this was a concern of hers, because a lot of times characters will feel bad for killing someone but insist that it's in the name of some greater good. Yael knows that that would be a lie, that "greater good" is the kind of justification that can go too far—just look at Hitler.

This is the second Ryan Graudin book I've read (the first being The Walled City) and I am noticing that she is not afraid to give her stories a lot of different elements. In this one, you've got the motorcycle race, the death camp flashbacks, Yael's training, her mission, her relationships with Felix and Luka, and the mystery of what happened at last year's race. Graudin pulls all of these off well; it never feels like too much is going on.

At the same time, though, with this much going on it does detract from the character development a bit. Yael is a complex character with a metric ton of history, so my issue wasn't so much with her as with Felix and Luka. I liked them just fine, but they never felt fully fleshed-out for me—and I wish that Yael had been given a chance to have deeper connections with them (or even just one of them). There weren't really any relationships driving this story: it was all about Yael and the world she lives in, and her mission to make it better. If you're someone who likes plot-driven stories, this won't be so much of a problem for you, but if you subscribe as I do to the mantra that character is king, you might be slightly disappointed.

I am split down the middle when it comes to the prose. It's very innovative and evocative, but sometimes language is just piled on so heavily that it can be distracting. Some sentences are stop-you-in-your-tracks powerful, while others are sort of cringeworthy and had me asking, Why can't you just use adjectives as adjectives??? (Graudin has this habit of using adjectives and verbs as nouns, which I also noticed in The Walled City, and it rarely works for me). But then again, there were so many quotes in the last chapter or two that had me going "Daaaaang," I can't say the writing style wasn't also one of the best things about this book. It was.

Now, Yael's ability to "skinshift"—a word that's not used until the end of the novel—is not entirely explained. I imagine that's because Yael doesn't know how it works, she doesn't know what was in those injections, but I do wish it had been explained somehow. I mean, it would be one thing if she were casting an illusion, but she is literally changing the structure of her face, as well as her eye and hair colors. It seems that her body, however, does not change when she shifts. Which is another anomaly altogether. Suspension of disbelief does not come easily, is all I'm saying.

But! This is a series! There's more room for the things I found lacking in book 1! I look forward to finding out where Yael goes next.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

★★★★★
source: e-galley from Macmillan
publication: October 6, 2015, Henry Holt
**all quotes are from uncorrected proof**

HERE IS A REVIEW WITH, LIKE, ACTUAL WORDS, I GUESS. [spoiler-free]

Here's something you should know about me: the number of playlists I have for a book is directly related to how much I loved that book. My favorite book, which I read for the first time more than two and a half years ago, has since claimed 182 songs and 15 playlists in my iTunes library. I should mention that some of those playlists and songs go with the sequels, because that is relevant to what I'm about to tell you.

Six of Crows does not have a sequel yet*. I did not read Six of Crows two and a half years ago; I finished it four days ago.

It already has 9 playlists and 57 songs.


If that does not tell you enough, here are some additional thoughts:

Six of Crows is an edgy whirlwind heartbreaker of a book. It's a fantastical, gritty, emotional story about not one, not two, but six three-dimensional characters, every one of whom feels like a real person. It's a heist story, a resilience story, and a story about the vanishing line between human and monster. (I can already tell you that one of the most popular quotes of the book will be "We're all somebody's monster.")
"When everyone knows you're a monster, you needn't waste time doing every monstrous thing."
The characters and their relationships were my favorite thing about this novel, but I don't want to say too much about them because I think the experience of getting to know them made me all the more attached. I will say that they're a bunch of Weebles, you guys. They've spent most of their lives wobbling in one way or another, but they refuse to fall down. Two of them are dealing with a betrayal that cost them everything. One of them is hiding severe PTSD after a traumatic and heartbreaking experience. One is tired of always being someone else's property. One is a gambler whose loose lips get him in trouble, and the last is a runaway from a life of privilege and secret pain.
There was no part of him that was not broken, that had not healed wrong, and there was no part of him that was not stronger for having been broken.
And they have not stopped fighting for what they want, whether it's revenge, freedom, love, or acceptance. It turns out that Weebles make for really gripping characters.

So, what brings this eclectic cast of people together? Well, Kaz Brekker, of course. He's assembled this talented crew for business purposes: a man came to see him about an impossible heist that will either get them killed or win them a life-changing sum of money, and who is Kaz Brekker to turn down a deal like that?

The heist has something to do with Grisha and brings about moral debates between some of our characters, but I won't go into detail because the synopsis is similarly vague. I will say it's a new side of the Grishaverse, because now we're in a part of the world where Grisha are something to be used, not revered or respected. The novel then takes us to another part of the world that believes they are monstrosities, that their existence is wrong and must be corrected. This is the central conflict between two of the protagonists, one of whom is a Grisha and one of whom was conditioned to believe all Grisha are evil, and it's a beautiful Jongritte-esque situation if I ever saw one.

There's not quite as much magic in this one as there was in any of the original Grisha books, but that's okay because when it is used, it's used perfectly. Alina Starkov's journey was, in a way, defined by magic: when she found her magic, she found her power, but losing her magic was ultimately how she kept her power**. In Crows, magic and power are inversely linked; characters who have magic must choose how to be powerful despite it, which is a really interesting flip of the dynamic, and I actually think the unconventional approach made for more nuanced character development.

Another thing I loved about this book (okay, I loved everything, shut up) was the strategy behind everything that happened. Kaz is like a male, criminal, slightly more underhanded version of Kestrel from The Winner's Curse, so he's always ten steps ahead of everyone else and he uses any information he can get (thanks to Inej) against someone if he has reason to. He can usually think of a reason to.
Kaz cocked his head to one side, his eyes focused on something distant. 
"Scheming face," Jesper whispered to Inej. 
God, I love him. Kaz is the antihero I think everyone wanted the Darkling to be (or is still pretending the Darkling was). I could talk to you about Kaz Brekker for days without interruption. But while he may be the one I feel strongest about, he is by no means the only one who had me basically writhing with emotions. Hence, the playlists. 57 songs in 4 days. You do the math.

When I finished the book, I was all
and Leigh Bardugo was all


So congratulations, Bardugo, you have ruined me. In the best way possible.



*at least not one I have read because, hi, this book isn't even out for another 5 months.
**by which I mean, her power over her own life, which is the only kind of power Alina actually wanted and the only kind that's relevant to the main six in Crows.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review: The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick

★★★½
source: galley from Penguin
publication: August 18, 2015, Dial Books

This is going to be a very vague review because if I get into details, major spoilers will happen. Spoilers that are central to the plot and yet are not explicitly named in the synopsis, so I would feel bad about putting them out there.

As far as characters go, I think this is Huntley Fitzpatrick's strongest book yet. Tim Mason's problems may be a little far-fetched for some of us—he is, for all intents and purposes, a responsible guy, and yet somehow he is an alcoholic drug addict with a penchant for one-night stands. Everything that he could screw up in his life, he does. At the start of this book, he's been clean for a few months and attending AA meetings... and he's only seventeen years old.

So, yeah. A little bit out there. The teenage alcoholic thing doesn't always work. But with Tim, for good reason, it does. Disbelief goes out the window when you read about Tim's relationship with his father. His father has no concept of how to be a supportive parent and his mother hides from conflict, so it's no wonder their kids don't respect themselves when their parents don't respect them either. The thing about Tim is that he feels responsible for everyone but himself, because he's been told so many times by his father that his mistakes have erased everything about him worth saving.

Alice also feels responsible for everyone but herself, but that's because she has no time for herself. She's been taking care of her six younger siblings since the car accident in My Life Next Door and no one's made her a life raft to keep herself afloat. She goes out with boys who don't matter because she cannot let another person into her life who does.

Except, of course, that Tim Mason now lives in her family's garage apartment, and even though he's The Boy Most Likely to Have Even More Problems than Alice, their relationship works. I liked them together a lot better than I remember liking Samantha and Jase, just because they're both so imperfect and it's not effortless, but at the same time it's the easiest thing in either of their lives.

Now, all of that said, I did have issues. Certain scenes seemed out of place—maybe that will get fixed in editing, as I read an extremely early copy—and certain things I just felt didn't need to happen. There's a moment where Alice has a panic attack and had apparently had a previous one during the course of the book that we didn't see, so it felt a little jarring. I did not notice any indication that she had an anxiety disorder, so it was kind of "extra" in my opinion. There was also too much focus on... let's just say biological things. Without spoilers, certain aspects felt extremely tangential to the story, and one part in particular had me screaming "TOO MUCH INFORMATION."

Fitzpatrick also has this habit of writing incomplete sentences that grated on me after a while (I remembered this from her previous books as well). Narrators will drop the "The" or the "I" from the beginning of an expository sentence as if they're chatting with someone, and it just feels wrong to me outside of dialogue. I'm sure a lot of people won't notice this, but I was ready to start wielding a red pen.

So yeah. I loved Tim and Alice as characters, didn't love the pacing or all the plot points, and could have used more complete sentences. But it was a satisfying read and I'll be looking forward to her next book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Review: Ice Like Fire by Sara Raasch

these covers are so beautiful
★★★☆☆
source: ARC from HarperCollins
publication: October 13, 2015, Balzer + Bray
**all quotes are from the uncorrected proof**

I gave both Snow Like Ashes and Ice Like Fire 3 stars, but I gave them each 3 stars for different reasons. The reasons for book 1 can be found here, but basically it was 1. The book was too surface level, 2. It was predictable, and 3. I didn't love the love interests.

Somehow, I didn't have these problems with Ice Like Fire. I still didn't love either Theron or Mather, but we get chapters from one of their POVs in this one (would it be a spoiler to say who? I'll refrain) and it made me like him much, much more. He wasn't a Peeta or a Will, but he was kind of a Mal (Mal haters to the left ok he's fantastic and you're wrong) or a Dorian (my preciousss). I picked a side in this love triangle, and sorry to those who like the other guy but that pretty much means she's going to end up with him. I always pick the right one—it's a special skill. *shrugs*

BUT ANYWAY. That's not to say this book didn't make me want to smash my head against something hard, because it did. Probably even more so than the first book. Namely, Meira: she was insufferable, and I don't make blanket negative statements about female characters unless I've thought it through. A lot. I loved Meira in book one. Girlfriend got stuff done and didn't care what anyone told her to do. But in Ice Like Fire, she's invented all this pressure on herself to be a Queen with a capital Q, the type of Queen all other Queens have been in the past, which is to say: nothing like Meira, the orphan. She still wants to be herself and is struggling to balance the two, but the struggle comes off more as incessant whining about not being allowed to be herself. Newsflash, Meira, YOU ARE THE QUEEN. NO ONE OUTRANKS YOU. YOU CAN BE WHOMEVER YOU DARN WELL PLEASE. You can be the queen who carries a chakram, or scales walls, or refuses to ally with morally reprehensible people. You can be the queen who changes people's conception of what a queen should be. Say it with me: I. AM. THE. QUEEN.

Now, let's talk about the plot. Meira is sent off with Theron to do something or other, and along the way she decides to make allies with the other kingdoms. Now, I get why she wants to do this, but I don't think I needed to read about it. It could have been something that happened between the books and was summarized at the beginning of book 2, for all I cared about how she made her allies. It's not like she's preparing for war and facing enemies left and right; she's just looking for people to support her in making Winter independent. The whole process was super boring. Don't even talk to be about the magic, because if we start talking about the magic I'll start thinking about how convoluted it is and then I'll start thinking about how there are too many kingdoms to keep track of and do they all have magic or is it just some of them and why doesn't Meira just use her magic against her enemies like what is even the point of having it if you're just going to sit around wishing there was no such thing as magic and could we just cut out like half of the things that are going on in these books or

Ahem. So, my next gripe is with the clunky writing. There are so many extra words in every paragraph, I could probably go through it with a red pen and make the book at least 20% shorter. Gems like "he lays his lips across mine" could be shortened to something like "he kisses me" because honestly everyone freaking knows what kissing is you don't need to spell it out like that (it kind of takes the romance out of it, too, when you make it sound like something he could have done accidentally). There are a lot of words that feel like they were taken from a thesaurus to sound prettier but they end up just sounding wrong. There's too much description of what things look like and not enough of how they make the characters feel. Half of the book feels like it's Meira seeing stuff and discovering stuff and experiencing stuff but not actually doing stuff.

To end on a positive note, I will say that I loved the Other Character's POV chapters (it was weird that they were in 3rd person past tense when Meira's are in 1st person present tense, but whatever). I liked what he was doing and how it showed his character. I liked the ending of this book, because finally we got a little lasting conflict between the characters instead of the kingdoms. There was an emotional bit toward the end that actually made me feel things, which never happened in Snow Like Ashes. Should I be hopeful that the third book will have more stuff like this, since it came at the end of the second? Who knows. But I might as well read it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

★★★★☆
source: galley from Random House
publication: May 19, 2015, Del Rey

I'm just going to do a mini-review of this one because there's not really much I can add to the myriad of fantasy authors who have already put their stamp of approval on this book.

Firstly, I think getting as many fantasy authors as they did to blurb this book was a bit of overkill. It ramped up my expectations too much—which, maybe, was my fault for being an easy mark, but still. None of this is to say I didn't like the book, because I did, but it dragged a bit for me, especially toward the end.

I absolutely loved the first half of Uprooted. I loved the character development and being able to see where Agnieszka might go in terms of her character and her power. I loved her friendship with Kasia and that comedically tense relationship she had with the Dragon at first. I loved that that relationship changed in nature but stayed the same, how the two of them grew to respect each other but still bickered, her stubbornness and smiles coming up against his obstinance and scowls. One reviewer on here complained about the Dragon's personality, but I found him entertaining and endearing (and their relationship is definitely not unhealthy. *eyeroll*). He is my kind of character, especially when paired with someone as indefatigable as Agnieszka.

All of this said, the second half of the book became a bit of a chore for me. I would put it down after a chapter and not pick it up again for a week. I can't tell you how many other books I finished while I was trying to get through the second half of this one. Maybe it's personal preference, but the secondary characters made this novel less enjoyable for me, and distracted me to the point where I didn't really know what was going on anymore. I would read entire pages and then have to read them again because I felt like my eyes had glazed over them without comprehending. Possibly the most frustrating part was that I knew how the book was going to end, and I almost didn't feel the need to find out how it would get there.

I really liked the magic in this story, how it felt so very tied to the land and the people. It almost seemed more like magical realism than high fantasy for me, which is why I feel like the political things got in the way—especially since I didn't care about the characters involved in the politics. Heavy political elements usually work in high fantasy novels, and I am all about it when characters I adore get swept up into such games, but I'm not so interested when it's about a prince who almost raped the main character. I don't care about who is king when, no matter what, he's going to be the kind of idiot who argues with an ancient wizard about the ancient magic that's coming to destroy his kingdom.

That's not to say they ruined the story; they just didn't help me connect with it. Which was fine, I guess, because I had no problem connecting with the other aspects of it. The writing is fantastic: beautiful and accessible at the same time, and again, Agnieszka is an awesome protagonist. The Dragon and Kasia—oh, Kasia, how do I love thee? let me count the ways—are just the kind of people a story like this needs.

Overall I would say this novel definitely recalls a more classic fantasy style, and if you're into any of the authors whose blurbs surely can't all fit on the cover, you'll love it. Come for the magic, stay for the main characters.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Review: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

★★★★½

source: galley from Random House
publication: August 4, 2015, Knopf
**all quotes are from the uncorrected proof**

Told via a dossier of files documenting three central intergalactic events—the destruction of the planet Kerenza, the takedown of space freighter Copernicus, and a...nother incident that happens at the end that I won't spoil—Illuminae is essentially the story of Kady Grant and Ezra Mason, teenage exes on separate ships who are trying to figure out what the heck is going on. At 600 pages, this is an expansive, imaginative, and at times heartbreaking tale filled with characters you can't help but feel for. Even the would-be villains will capture your heart in these documents. It's real weird, chum.

I hadn't really planned to read this book when I did. I was between books and picked it up, expecting the format to make it easy to put it down and pick up something else. I thought there was no way I'd be able to get into all the different types of documents and that I'd end up skimming some of them, thereby making myself confused about what was going on. This was a miscalculation; every single page of this book is interesting and necessary, either for the characters' personal stories or for the larger story of, like, spaceships and war and disease. You know. Because just one of those things was not enough.

The characters in this book are my new best friends, you guys. I love them. I want to hang out with them and be their lookout when they're doing illegal things. Even though they do pretty well without me, I think it would work out. Kady is sofrickinawesome. She hacks systems and sasses authority figures and saves, like, hundreds of people, all while she's basically an emotional wreck because she thinks she only has one person left in the entire universe. Her journal entries are heart-wrenching; her conversations with people will put a satisfied smirk on your face; and the surveillance video reports on her show you what a badass she is. The best part might be that she lets everyone underestimate her, because if they didn't underestimate her she could never get any of it done. All of the awesome crap that she does depends on people not knowing she can do it, not paying attention to her because she's small and a girl and seventeen years old. Not only does she refuse to let being a tiny young female stop her, but she uses it to her advantage. Kady Grant is a master manipulator; just watch and learn, grasshopper. It's marvelous.
They don't need this girl in neurogramming, they need her in psych-ops, eyeball-to-eyeball with the guys who need to see things a little differently. Just saying. What she says must be an excuse, and it works. [...] As the door hums shut, subject is visible pivoting and blowing a kiss back toward the server room. I don't blame her. She just plundered that thing. 
It took twelve ------- minutes. And she's just strolling away.
And then there's Ezra. He is, for all intents and purposes, your average teenage boy. Maybe a little smarter. He doesn't take anything too seriously, he's loyal to his friends, and he loves Kady (because, let's be real, who wouldn't love her... except maybe authority figures). I was completely sold on him by page 41, wherein Ezra writes a wonderfully drunken email to her (and thank you, Jay Kristoff, for being method enough to actually roll your face across the keyboard). But let me tell you one thing, I have rarely, if ever, been so entertained reading from the perspective of a teenage boy before. His dialogue just makes him so lovable and in addition to that, he's competent. That's ultimately what makes his relationship with Kady believable; ain't no way she would be with someone she had to carry all the time. They are each good at different things and we get to see them shine at those things independently since they're apart for the entire book, but it never really feels like they're on their own. Their relationship keeps them going when planets explode and ships crash and disease takes over and everything else seems hopeless.

The secondary characters somehow manage to catch my attention as well, which is a feat considering, again, this book is a dossier of files. I cried over their deaths and then wondered if the fictional corporation the dossier was meant for cried over them, too. Probably not, those coldhearted -------s. Go die in a black hole, BeiTech.

If you're wondering whether this format will confuse you, like I did, just don't even worry about it. Trust me, I'm not big on space books or generally anything with "high-octane" in the synopsis because I find them ridiculous or confusing or just uninteresting, but Illuminae is none of the above. You might feel like you don't know exactly what's going on or what everyone's motivations are at first, but it becomes clear by the end of the book—certain information is purposefully withheld. It makes the reveal more intense and satisfying. The last 25% or so of this book was nothing short of mindblowing. The most beautifully written passages are—get this—from the point of view of the battlecarrier Alexander's artificial intelligence system AIDAN, who which had previously killed hundreds of people and tried to kill hundreds more. But they're thought-provoking and poetic and unbelievably powerful:
I cut the feeds to spare him the sounds his people make as they die. Am I not merciful? 
At the apex of callousness, she finds only ones and zeros. And with no hope to hold it in check, grief finally steps out to take its place on the stage.
Why did they give me this sense of self? Why allow me the intellect by which to measure this complete inadequacy? I would rather be numb than stand here in the light of a sun that can never chase the chill away.
I still cannot fathom her pattern. My brain the size of a city, and still she is beyond me. They are beyond me. These humans. With their brief lives and their tiny dreams and their hopes that seem fragile as glass. Until you see them by starlight, that is. 
Oh, AIDAN. You smooth talker.

AND THEN THAT PLOT TWIST AT THE END HELLO YES EXCELLENT now run

Anyway. It's become pretty clear to me that books blurbed by Marie Lu are usually a solid bet, and this one is no exception. I cannot wait to get my hands on a finished copy*... and also book 2.


*don't even THINK about getting this on your e-readers, guys. Buy the hardcover. For reals.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: the Summer series by Jenny Han

I just read this entire series over the past 48 hours because it's the end of February and I'm so tired of cold and ice and snow that I needed summer.
Which is funny, because I had been saving this series for when it was actually summer so that I wouldn't die from longing.

I'm gonna break this review down by each book, since I didn't give any two of them the same rating. You'll notice that overall, the series kind of fizzled out for me.

The Summer I Turned Pretty ★★★★★

I really loved this book, you guys. It was perfectly light and fun and cute, but it also had a lot of heart that I don't think very many books like this get enough credit for. Belly is a perfectly relatable character, and honestly I wasn't even expecting to like her. The main reason I decided to buy this series in the first place was because so many reviews on Goodreads had called her annoying and insufferable—which are not the kind of words that compel most people to read a book, but I love buying books to spite reviewers who call the female protagonists "annoying." Annoying is not a meaningful criticism, and it's used toward girls almost exclusively; I can only think of one book I've seen whose male protagonist has been called "annoying" in a review. (It is so rare, in fact, for a male character to be referred to this way that I actually remember the exact book: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss)
So anyway, I went into this book expecting Belly to be, much as I hate the word, annoying. I expected whiny and selfish and indecisive, but what I got instead was a normal teenage girl. Belly felt so real to me; I was nothing like her in high school, really (she is much more of a wide-eyed idealist than sarcastic, analytic me ever was), but I related to her as a girl whose family was important to her. I related to her as a girl who didn't like that growing up meant things had to change, and as a girl who both wanted people to see her differently and dreaded it at the same time.
Plus, there's the setting. My god, did I want Belly's life. The beach house, the traditions, the way it all felt like it could have been part of my own childhood even though I spent my summers nowhere near a beach, and the boys. I was fascinated by Belly's relationships with all three of the boys—Conrad, Jeremiah, and her brother Steven. And to be clear, she could never have had those relationships with them if she had been any different, if she had been less "annoying." Because being "annoying" to the boys was how she got to know them so well. It was how they developed their actual relationships instead of just having crushes on each other. If she had been quiet or aloof all those years, Conrad and Jeremiah would have had crushes on her the whole time, and it would have been over before it started.
Which brings me to my last point: the romance. Not romanceS. It's pretty clear in this book that Belly has eyes for only one boy, no matter how much she tries to convince herself she's into someone else. And I'm usually pretty good at picking the boy that the girl will end up with, but the little details about Conrad were so well-done that I totally believed in Belly's love for him even if I didn't understand him at all:
Conrad got up early to make a special belated Father's Day breakfast, only Mr. Fisher hadn't been able to come down the night before. He wasn't there the next morning the way he was supposed to be. Conrad cooked anyway, and he was thirteen and a terrible cook, but we all ate it. Watching him serving rubbery eggs and pretending not to be sad, I thought to myself, I will love this boy forever.
I mean, the boy is super closed-off and quiet and Belly might not be able to tell what's going on in his mind, but she notices things about him that completely justify her endless, occasionally hopeless crush. She kind of has a knack for seeing the good in everyone, honestly, but especially Conrad.
And let me just mention that in this book, it was clear that Conrad was the one who had always looked out for her, treated her like an actual person instead of just a little sister. Jeremiah didn't, no matter how much he'll pretend he did in the following books.
It's just. Ugh. This book—actually, the whole series—is so full of those moments, you know? The ones that make you go, Yes. This.
The ending of the book was perfect and probably could have stood alone.

It's Not Summer Without You ★★★★☆


I was disappointed to find out that her relationship with Conrad had slowly imploded, but then I thought, Well, Jenny Han is the master of the teenage crush. Maybe that's her thing. I was sucked back into Belly's feelings for Conrad independent of their failed relationship, and no matter how much of a jerk Conrad was being. Which, ahem: colossal jerk. *glares at Conrad*
And in comes Jeremiah, who we know has feelings for Belly now that she's pretty (harsh? oops), but who doesn't do anything about it until the book is almost over because he knows, he knows that she'll always choose Conrad. When he finally did act on his feelings, I was kind of like, Well, aren't you a glutton for punishment. Because, like I said, he KNOWS SHE WILL ALWAYS CHOOSE CONRAD.
I lost a bit of the respect I had for Jeremiah in this book because, while he spent most of the book acting the way one should when one is rejected, he eventually went back to trying to avoid the friendzone at all costs. Which, no.
I still loved this as the second book in the series; it kept me interested in the characters and where they were going, but I felt like it didn't answer quite enough questions, especially about Conrad. I assumed he acted the way he did because of Susannah dying, but I think the book needed his point of view more than it needed Jeremiah's. I got tired of reading about Conrad from everyone's perspective but his own, especially when they didn't understand him either.
Throw in Belly's apparent lack of romantic interest in Jeremiah until the very moment he kisses her and not only did I feel out of the loop, but I felt uncomfortable too.
Buuuuut a few things saved the book from a 3-star rating: Belly's missing Susannah (the part where she wanted to talk about the boys but not with her mom, and all she wanted was Susannah, ugh); the moments when Belly and Conrad were together and being nice to each other; and Belly's mom totally pwning Mr. Fisher.

We'll Always Have Summer ★★★☆☆


3 stars, for me, usually means "It was okay," or "I didn't really like it." Honestly, this book just confirmed my suspicion that The Summer I Turned Pretty didn't need sequels. It felt a little superfluous and a lot ridiculous.
Because Belly and Jeremiah have been in a relationship for 2 years, and then she finds out that he cheated on her (kind of), and then to make it up to her, he proposes??!?!?
AND SHE SAYS YES????!!!!
Like, what the actual f. I'm sorry, but this makes no sense. Is she really so desperate to become a Fisher that she'd marry the wrong brother (she knows he's the wrong one, let's be real), who she knows cheated on her, and whose faults she's been picking at incessantly? He orders the most expensive dinner. He snores when he's drunk, which is too often. He doesn't take his life seriously enough. Etc. etc.
Belly did not actually, legitimately annoy me until this book, but what annoyed me more was that the entire plot revolved around wedding planning. Which is not interesting to anyone except the people actually doing the planning—honestly, this is what I'm the most angry about. Too much of this book centered on caterers and invitations and the fricking carrot/chocolate raspberry cake, I almost went out of my mind.
And then there's Conrad, who's no longer being a total jerk and it's clear that Belly still has feelings for him, and yet she keeps stringing Jeremiah along and Jeremiah knows it, and nobody is doing anything about anything. Conrad is the only person in this book who did the right thing, and he ends up being depicted as the bad guy because the truth happened to break up the wedding???
There should have been more Conrad chapters because I was just so fed up with everyone else. Maybe then we could have seen more of his life in the past two years and why he never stopped loving Belly and how hard it was for him to be away while Jeremiah and Belly saw each other every day. We could have found out sooner why he pushed her away.
Anyway, the book was still written by Jenny Han so it was still good—like, the characters stayed true to themselves (mostly. I feel like Jeremiah acted a little out of character sometimes—petty toward Conrad and dismissive toward Belly), and I'm still in love with the insights and the setting and all that. I loved when Conrad talked to Laurel for Belly because it was one of those Yes, this moments, and I loved that Belly and Taylor were so close in this one.
But. Jeremiah deserved to be kicked where it hurts, Belly needed to be slapped upside the head, and that epilogue needed more build-up. If you ask me, the first half of the book should've been the almost-wedding, and then there should've been more of Belly and Conrad's relationship leading up to their actual wedding. It's not that it was too vague; it's that I didn't get to see any of the good stuff.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

I don't even need to add a caption about how beautiful that cover is.
You see it. You know its beauty.
★★★☆☆
source: galley from HarperCollins
publication: February 10, 2015, HarperTeen

I'm struggling with a solid rating on this one because, while there were elements of the book that I hated and almost couldn't tolerate, I liked it overall. I will read the next one. I will probably buy the book in hardcover because a) my ARC is a bit beat-up, and b) The hardcover is shiny. We all know how I love a shiny cover.

But. Here we go.
I've seen a lot of people on Goodreads talking about how similar the plot synopsis of Red Queen sounds to Red Rising. I haven't read Red Rising yet, so I can't speak to that, but I can speak to a similarity that I did notice that no one else has mentioned:
The bones of this book, a lot of the elements that kept the plot moving forward, are straight from The Hunger Games. At first I thought, "Okay, maybe it just starts out sounding like District 12, and then the main character leaves and it turns into something else." But no. The parallels became so consistent and obvious that I started a list of them in my phone:
We start out with main character Mare, who earns for her family by doing something illegal, much the way Katniss earns for hers by hunting illegally. Mare's method of choice is thievery, and her partner in crime is her best friend Kilorn, who she also seems to kind of hate at first. She thinks he's useless or something. There's even a Greasy Sae character, Will, who buys the things she steals in exchange for things her family actually needs.
Mare is jealous of her sister, Gisa, the less prickly sister, but would also do anything to protect her. There we have our Prim character, who's mostly just in the beginning of the story, of course. There's also a conscription that serves as a kind of Reaping, because it takes teenagers from their families to go fight for the government, and arenas where Silvers (upper class people with silver blood and powers) fight /almost/ to the death, but luckily they have people who can heal them. 
Mare gets plucked out of her impoverished life to live with the royal family and, when it's discovered that she has powers even though she's a Red, she is betrothed to the younger prince and forced to pretend that she wants it. Enter, fake romance to please the masses. We've got the rebels who tell Mare that they need her, that she is their only hope, and they even use the words "face of the revolution." They tell her she doesn't understand what she could do with them, much like how Peeta says that Katniss "has no idea, the effect she can have," and they use the metaphor of a drop that breaks the dam instead of a spark that starts the inferno. Change the metaphor all you want, but it's still the same.
Moving along, we have someone telling Mare that she is a pawn in someone else's game, which is a similarity that I probably don't even need to explain. We've got Mare's etiquette coach who doesn't get a lot of screen time but is clearly the Effie Trinket in this scenario, and her trainer, Julian, also known as Haymitch Abernathy. When the royal family leaves court to return home, they gather crowds and force them to listen to speeches, while Peacekeepers—I mean officers—beat anyone who steps out of line or causes a disruption. Victory tour, anyone?
Later, we are tricked into thinking that the rebels brought Mare and Maven to die in a radiation-soaked, abandoned area, only to find out—surprise! It's not dangerous or abandoned at all. It's rebel headquarters, and they've been manipulating the technology to make it look too dangerous to inhabit. This is presumably where the next book, Red Mockingjay, will take place, while the rebels tell Mare what to do and she begins to question their scruples.
And for one last nugget, someone takes a suicide pill on page 320. Because making it a poisonous berry would have been too obvious.

Listen. I didn't go into this book looking to find these parallels. I hadn't seen anyone else compare the book to The Hunger Games and I still haven't. I wish I could have stopped seeing it, but to do that, I would've had to stop reading.
I'm not saying that any of this was done on purpose, but I am saying that it is bad writing. It's bad writing to be unaware that you're ripping off one of the most popular series in the same age bracket as the book you're writing. It's almost worse than being aware that you're doing it, because it shows carelessness.

In fact, the writing is careless all around. It's heavy-handed and full of metaphors that don't work, descriptions that go on too long without managing to paint a vivid picture (because they're so chock full of metaphors that don't work), and hollow emotion. I remember one time specifically when Mare broke down crying for the first time, and I can't even remember what had happened or where in the book it was because I didn't believe the emotion behind it. A lot of Mare's reactions to things seemed to contradict her actual personality and beliefs, so much so that she seemed more indecisive than anything else. It became difficult to keep track of what she actually cares about; one minute she'll do anything to protect Gisa, then she's petty and jealous. One minute she's totally into Cal, then she hates him and Maven's her guy. She wants the Silvers to stop oppressing the Reds, sure, but she hesitates to do anything to make that happen if it means she has to hurt someone—even a Silver, all of whom she claims to despise. 

A few examples of this are: Mare decides she's willing to trade the Colonel's life for Cal's; Mare decides she's going to kill Cal herself; Mare doesn't trust Maven at first; Maven shows up at the Scarlet Guard meeting and Mare doesn't think maybe he's there as a spy for his mother?; Mare knows that the tax collector has to die for the cause and she's fine with it, but then she's sad that his hands will never touch hers again? Even though she's never met him before, doesn't know him, and has never touched his hands until now? And so on. She's so inconsistent with her feelings and her strategy that I did not understand what she was doing half the time.

Finally, my other issue with Mare is that she has no skills. Or at least, her skills are never utilized to their full potential. She discovers her lightning power and rather quickly masters it, but this power is not specific to her life the way Katniss's hunting skills are specific to hers. I wish that Mare would have used her thieving skills in combat somehow, tied her backstory up with the person she becomes, but instead she ends up dependent on her lightning and nothing else. Adapting her District 12 survival skills into arena survival skills is part of what makes Katniss such a well-developed character—not doing the same for Mare is a glaring missed opportunity.

Aveyard tries too hard to make her writing pretty, constantly repeating lines like "red as the dawn" and "the shadow to the flame" without realizing that half of them don't make sense. [Flames don't have shadows, they have reflections. They have light. You need something else, something blocking the flame, to create a shadow.] Some of the descriptive, figurative language works, but most of it feels weak and slippery; making sense of it is like trying to hold water in your hands: You think you've got it, but in the end it falls through your fingers. Most of the one-liners that are supposed to leave an impact would be effective if they did not get dragged out or if the author stopped trying to explain them so much. She doesn't leave a whole lot to the reader to figure out.
"The world is Silver, but it is also gray. There is no black-and-white."
Okay, fine. But... can I try something?
"The world is Silver, but it is also gray."
BAM. You don't need to tell me that the world being gray means there is no black-and-white, because a) Nobody ever said there was black-and-white, and b) I get it. Gray is gray. Gray is not black or white. Just the word "gray" carries with it the moral ambiguity that you're trying to get across. Leave the readers to work with connotations on their own! I picked this example by flipping to a random page, but it is by no means the only one—most of the figurative language, in fact, is written this way.

As for the plot, it was pretty conventional and I saw both of the plot twists coming before I was halfway done with the book, but I have no complaints past that. It's well-paced and I didn't think it was too light or silly to be taken seriously. Curiosity got me through a lot of it.

I'm not pandering when I say that I did like this book. It was entertaining and I liked that the characters had a semblance of moral ambiguity (even though it came across as moral inconsistency), and I'm interested in where it will go. I liked Cal because, what can I say, I'm a sucker for the boys with king potential and a lot of weight on their shoulders. But comparing this book to The Winner's Curse does no one any favors; it does not even come close to that level of complexity and strategy and emotional depth. It takes features from The Hunger Games but, unlike that series, doesn't have anything to say. This is definitely closer to the Selection end of the dystopia/fantasy spectrum, which is fine, but sometimes YA readers expect more. That's all I'm saying.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: The Witch Hunter by Virginia Boecker

★★★☆☆
source: galley from Hachette
publication: June 2, 2015, Little, Brown

Summary: Elizabeth Grey is a witch hunter for the king—or rather, his uncle—until she is accused of witchcraft herself and sentenced to execution. When a rescuer comes to save her from the pyre and the jail fever that has taken hold of her, she discovers that he is none other than the most wanted wizard in the country. He brings her to his secret hideout, where she is thrown together with his band of rebels who want to see magic legalized, as it can be used for good, not just evil. Loyalties are questioned, secrets brought to light, and it's up to Elizabeth to save them all.

Review: I don't know if it's because I read too many fantasy/paranormal books in a row or if this one was actually as uninteresting as I thought it was, but I couldn't really get into it. It was fairly fast-paced and the concept intrigued me, but the execution fell flat.

First of all, it's set in the 1500s, which I was confused about until the date was finally mentioned toward the end of the book. I went into it assuming it was a medieval fantasy or set during the Salem Witch Trials, but the style of writing missed the mark for both of those. The author writes with modern language that clashes with the historical costumes, social constructs, and lack of electricity. Not to mention the specificity of the time period left me wondering whether the world was an alternate Europe or U.S. or if it's just completely made up? The mental images would not come.  Atmospheric, this book is not. And it should have been.

The main character, to me, was somewhat vanilla. For most of the plot, we have no idea why she is the one chosen to destroy the tablet and break Nicholas's curse, and it makes her seem like just another Special Snowflake YA protagonist. Nicholas might as well have told her, "You have to be the one to break the curse, because you're the main character."

Ultimately we learn why it was Elizabeth, but it was too little too late for me. Her romance with John was bland and undeveloped, and once again I felt like it was part of a formula for a marketable YA book. Don't get me wrong, I love and encourage YA romances when they're done right, but I'm beginning to tire of reading the ones that feel disingenuous or like they're part of a checklist to trick readers into getting emotionally invested. Like they're saying, "Look, readers! These characters care about each other so you should care about them, too!"
No.
I much prefer to care about the characters first and watch them grow into caring about each other.

I don't really have much else to say about this one. It was good enough. I gave it 3 stars. I'm not going to be raving about it on release week or expecting it to become the Next Big Thing, but it was an entertaining read when I managed to force myself to pick it up. The standalone factor might be my favorite thing about it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review: The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler

★★★★½
source: e-galley from Simon & Schuster
publication: June 2, 2015, Simon Pulse

Synopsis: Elyse d'Abreau was on the verge of stardom with her twin sister, Natalie, when a boating accident took her voice and sent Elyse fleeing her home of Tobago to live with her aunt and cousin in Atargatis Cove, Oregon. There she meets Christian Kane, infamous playboy and world-class charmer, who invites her to be first mate on his boat—which Elyse had been using as her hideout before he came back. He and his little brother, Sebastian, listen to Elyse more than anyone has since she lost her voice, and her relationship with Christian challenges her to get her voice back in whatever way she can.

Review: Okay, y'all, I'm gonna lay it down for you: this is Sarah Ockler's best book.
I don't know how I feel about that cover, frankly, because it doesn't do the book justice. Yes, this is a summer romance, but it is so much more than that. I appreciate that the cover did no whitewashing and that somehow it seems to reflect Elyse and Christian's silent communication, but when all is said and done it still looks like just another summer romance destined for the Pop Culture or Teen Romance section of your local Barnes & Noble.
And this book is way too important for that.
I've been a fan of Sarah Ockler for years; she is an auto-buy for me, but somehow I've never really read one of her books and thought, "This book is why I read contemporary." Twenty Boy Summer made me cry, sure, but I haven't picked it up since I finished reading it 3.5 years ago. Fixing Delilah was always my favorite of her books, but I still only gave it 4 stars. Bittersweet was the weakest for me, The Book of Broken Hearts didn't leave an impression, and #scandal was a solid comedic effort (not to sell it short, I laughed a lot reading that book, and swooned pretty hard too). 
The writing in The Summer of Chasing Mermaids so far surpasses any of the others that I found myself wondering where Ockler had been hiding it for so long. Poetic, lyrical, metaphorical, figurative: Lauren Oliver meets Deb Caletti meets freaking F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Yeah, I went there.

Elyse is a strong female character, but not in the Strong Female Character kind of way. She's vulnerable and weak and we find her in the midst of her greatest tragedy: losing her ability to sing. Not being able to sing has led Elyse to recede into herself, to stop being the Elyse she was before, to stop using her inner voice as well as the outer voice she's lost. The sea is part of her and the sea broke her, and she's left trying to reconcile those two facts in a way that will let her become whole again.
Aside from the writing, what I loved most about this book was the fact that a boy does not come along to make her whole again. Her relationship with him, it says right there in the book, isn't what saves her; it's what challenges her to save herself. She and she alone realizes that she's trapped herself by not letting go of the accident, by not even admitting to herself that she will never speak again. To paraphrase Queen Elsa, only once she lets it go can she rise like the break of dawn.
Er, you know. From the sea. Where she's been drowning.

The mythology in this book is so well crafted and well-researched and almost makes the book feel like magical realism, like maybe the Queen of Mermaids is real and she has taken Elyse's voice. Maybe she will take Elyse, too, and our heroine will become Christian's siren and it will all be very tragic and beautiful. Thankfully, no, it's just mythology, but I love that it made me think that way.

What makes this novel important? Not only does it sympathize with and empower people who have been silenced in general, but it addresses gender roles specifically. Elyse faces a lot of misogyny from powerful men about her being first mate on Christian's boat, but she does it anyway. Christian himself, bless him, makes a lovely joke about hitting his head on the way out of the time machine and not realizing he was back in the 1850s. His brother, Sebastian, loves mermaids and wants to walk in the mermaid festival, but those same powerful men tell him he can't because he's a boy. The patriarchy is good for no one, you guys. [ALSO, I've been saying for years that "What Would Tami Taylor Do?" should be everyone's life motto, so thank you, Sarah, for Vanessa's mom.]

It addresses parental expectations and the very YA themes of living within the limits your parents have given you, even when they're telling you to grow up and be independent. It's that uncertain middle area when your life is still ultimately decided by the people who raised you but you're starting to break free of the mold they've created for you. Christian doesn't agree with or even like his parents, but at the same time he understands and respects them. His father tells him to prove himself and then takes away all the resources he needs to do so. It's one of the most direct approaches to this theme that I've ever read, but it works because it feels so real. A signature of being a young adult these days is that you're expected to leave home by a certain age but a college education doesn't guarantee you a job anymore, and it's nearly impossible to live on your own, and so many parents think that it's a reasonable expectation because they did it way back when. "Climb that mountain," the world demands, as it locks our climbing equipment behind a door whose key is at the top of the mountain.

My only issue with the book is that it may have dragged on a bit just before the regatta race; it felt like Elyse's hesitations and questions were starting to be so repeated that she herself should have been asking why she hadn't done something about it. I have felt this way about Ockler's books before, though, and it's really not a big deal in comparison to how much I loved this book overall.

Elyse might not have a singing voice anymore, but her poetry and her bond with the sea and her resilience were like music, a song that will speak to something in everyone.
"When one dream burns to ash, you don't crumble beneath it. You get on your hands and knees, and you sift through those ashes until you find the very last ember, the very last spark.
Then you breathe.
You fucking breathe."
God. I'm just gonna leave that there.

Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

★★★★½
source: ARC from HarperCollins
publication: April 7, 2015, Balzer + Bray

Gonna try to keep this short and sweet.

Simon is one of my favorite narrators I've ever encountered. I found him and his high school experience more relatable and realistic than any contemporary novels I've read lately, or maybe even ever. There were certain passages in this book that I read twice because I couldn't get over the fact that someone had actually said it. I couldn't get past how believable these characters were; who among us hasn't kept a secret for fear that it would change how people saw us? Who hasn't had that friend or been that friend who gets jealous when they aren't the first person to be told a secret, or when their friends hang out without them?

While steeped in the realities of suburban high school, the book also has a delightfully ridiculous element to it: the school blog, where students can post something anonymously and everyone will know its content the next day. This is what brings Simon and his secret pen pal, Blue, together, and it's what puts their relationship at risk the most. The mechanics of the Tumblr are not explained very well (probably my most severe criticism of this book), but I assume people could submit posts on anon and wait for them to be published by the admin? I wish the identity of the admin had been explored further, because honestly. Everyone at that school would no doubt be curious about it (like in Sarah Ockler's #scandal).

Albertalli doesn't stop at depicting a realistic setting with realistic characters; she also raises questions and addresses heteronormativity with Simon's mixture of romanticism and cynicism. Why don't straight people have to "come out"? Why will his "coming out" change the way people see him, when he's been gay all along? As Simon says (ha), there should be no default. And he says it so simply and beautifully.

The romance was adorable. I totally called who Blue was and found myself wishing that they'd met sooner and had that romantic tension in person rather than just via email, but I loved reading their correspondence. It was all light and fun and then heavy and emotional and yes. Ugh. Connection.

This is definitely going on my shelf of comfort books, to be reread when I finish books that destroy me just a little too much.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review: The Sin Eater's Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

Look. At that. Cover.
★★★½
Source: e-galley from edelweiss
Publication: February 24, 2015, Scholastic

I feel like I've been waiting forever to read this book. I first saw it on Scholastic's catalog last Spring when the cover was slightly different (but still very, very pretty) and my coworker and I read the synopsis and both of us were like, "That. Sounds. Awesome." So, since Scholastic rarely, for some reason, sends actual galleys to our store, I've been checking Edelweiss for the DRC regularly for the past — oh, 9 months? And then our rep, who hates fantasy, posted a glowing review, and my hands got even more grabby, but STILL NO GALLEY.
And then, finally, a month before the book is released, it was there.
And then my Nook stopped working.
And then I got scammed on eBay trying to buy a Kindle to replace it.
I did not get to read the book until I went to Best Buy on Super Bowl Sunday to buy a Kindle FULL PRICE (I am defeated and ashamed). I had to deal with a salesman for this book, you guys.

Was it worth it?
Yes, I would say that it was. Probably I could have waited until the book was out to read it, because I was always planning to buy it either way (dat cover), but I'm glad I read it early. Because now I can actually sell it.
Basically, what the book is about is this: Twylla is the Sin Eater's Daughter — her mother is a giant woman who eats food off of caskets to wash the dead of their sins. Twylla grew up knowing that this would be her fate eventually; when her mother died, she was to become the next Sin Eater. She did not want to be a Sin Eater.
Then, the royal family requests her mother's services and end up taking Twylla away to be Daunen Embodied. Without getting into the mythological details, that means that after drinking a concoction of poison and her own blood, her skin can poison other people with a single touch. She is to be the executioner for traitors until she marries the prince, Merek, and becomes queen.
[cue the twist] But then she meets Lief, her new guard who shows her that all is not as it seems, and she must decide her fate.
Bum bum BUUMMMMMM

My favorite thing about this book was the mythology and world-building. I'd never heard of Sin Eating before, and it does not sound pleasant, but I totally believed that it would be something certain religions or cultures would practice. I believed the myth of Daunen Embodied and the gods who created her. There is no other YA fantasy that achieves quite this level of myth-weaving and directly relates it to the main character. I mean, Twylla's relationship to her religion was kind of the driving factor of the whole plot, and it was done very well. The first-person narration allows the reader to suspend disbelief until the very moment Twylla stops doing it herself.
And there wasn't only mythology, either. There were fairy tales so entwined in reality that real people would die for mentioning them. As a sucker for symbolism and all that AP English stuff, I really appreciated the symbolism of all of this, the line between tale and reality, smashed in our faces like delicious pie when Twylla goes to a "House of Glass" (house of mirrors, fun house) with Merek and he thinks the mirrors show the exact truth at all times. She can see that he's wrong, because there is someone in the room whose position hides him from all the mirrors but the one behind Merek— so Merek can't see him, but Twylla can. In her life nobody has ever told her the whole truth, but now she's the one looking out for the lies.

The writing was enough to keep me reading, if not super heavy on style or lyricism. I expected more on that front, but it was unique enough to the story that it didn't feel anachronistic or tone deaf (like, say, Snow Like Ashes).

My main gripe about the book is that Twylla does not get to act much. She spends the whole book reacting to things other people tell her and do to her. Her relationship with Lief didn't convince me that it had to be; it seemed more of a convenience relationship than anything. She fell in love with him in much the same way that Juliette Ferrars fell in love with Adam Kent: because he was the first male around her age to ever be nice to her or take an interest in her. Maybe this was on purpose, because of Big Plot Twist At End, but it made a good portion of the book feel too melodramatic and overdone. If you don't buy into a love story, you can't relish its drama.
There was also the fact that Twylla's emotional stakes rested so much on this love story that she completely forgot about her original emotional stakes: her sister. She only agreed to everything the queen asked because her sister would pay if she didn't, but then she stopped thinking about her sister altogether once she fell in love with Lief (aside from telling him stories about her childhood). No me gusta.

That said, her relationship with Merek interested me a lot. It reminded me a bit of Celaena and Dorian from Throne of Glass, except that for a part of the book you're not sure about Merek's motives. He could be totally evil or totally good, and I liked that ambiguity while it lasted. You don't even have to give me a romance on this one, because I so enjoy dudes respecting ladies after they've been "friendzoned." Or even without any romantic context whatsoever.

Aside from a couple of things that were mentioned and then never addressed again (e.g. Twylla's brothers), I thought the plot was solid and built well into the next book, though I'm wondering if it's going to be more of a companion than a sequel. We'll see.

Overall a very different, compelling fantasy world with somewhat lackluster characters who have a lot of potential.