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


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.


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??!?!?
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.