Books, Reviews

ARC Book Review: The Bone Witch

The Bone Witch

Author: Rin Chupeco

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Published: March 7, 2017

Rating: 3.5 / 5 Stars

*This is a spoiler-free review.

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For Those Who Enjoyed: Uprooted, The Grisha, Six of Crows, Lord of the Rings, Sabriel, Interview with a Vampire, Memoirs of a Geisha

I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I feel a little bit like I’ve been robbed of a five-star experience. Everything about this on the surface screams like a book I would love. It’s got a great title, a beautiful cover, a cool dark premise, and gorgeous aesthetics. It’s one of those stories that could have been the perfect book if there was more action. Since it doesn’t, it reads like many first novels in a series do: it introduces the world building and characters. I’m prepared to tentatively let it slide when I know first novels aren’t always the best novels when it comes to series. If the next book gets more into the nitty gritty battle sequences, I’m on board. We’ll just have to wait and see…

What this book does do really well, however, is give you an immersive, ornately curated experience. It’s like walking through a beautifully curated museum exhibit, full of intricate details that draw out hints of the past and tell a story about the wealth of a culture. There’s this very carefully put together array of Japanese-inspired wardrobes and culture and I feel very much like I’m opening a window into the history of this magical, mythical place. Every robe is intricately detailed and every tradition entwined in becoming a bone witch is extremely rich.Yet ultimately it’s too detached from what truly happened with time that we just don’t get the meat of the story. There’s no knitty-gritty action or juicy details. It is beautiful and full of life, but because it’s nothing but an exhibit behind glass, you don’t get the full story of what made these people tick. Everything’s already been long lost to legends of the past.

Without a doubt, this book is beautifully written. If anything, Chupeco prioritises aesthetic over plot and in this way, it succeeds far more as a work of art than as a novel. And maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe The Bone Witch is ushering in a new definition of what a novel can be.

All I know is, I had a really nice time at the museum.

 

Reviews, Sneak Peek Weekends

January Sneak Peek Weekends #3

Today I’ve got a handful of fantasies following a suspiciously similar trope…

Flicker and Mist

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Having the ability should have been fun. In another world, a child who could become invisible might play pranks on her parents, might sneak around with friends, might go ride the beasts in the dead of night. In another world, the Ability might have brought freedom and joy. But I was not born in another world, I was born in the Upland, where the Ability was used as a weapon of war.

Author: Mary G. Thompson

Publisher: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Published: January 3, 2017

For People Who Liked: Scorpio Races, Half Bad, The Grisha, X-Men, The Incredibles

Target Audience: Fantasy readers, fans of characters with superpowers and/or magical abilities.

If I were an agent/acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

If this were the first fantasy manuscript involving a protagonist oppressed or hunted for having a magical power that set her apart from everyone else, I might give it a tentative pass. Or at least put it in a pile for later considerations.  Which might be what I’ll say for any book on today’s list. But being a regular reader of fantasy, and YA fantasy at that, I know the tropes. I’ve seen these tropes over and over again.

I get it. We’re still chasing after the next Harry Potter. It’s been 20 years. Let’s put the magical Chosen One/weapon convention to rest. I want a new fantasy novel to grab me and do something new with the genre!

The publishers want this one to follow in the footsteps of Half Bad. I can tell. It’s got that exact same vibe as Sally Green’s series. Except Half Bad is also not doing anything unique with the genre, nor does it have a particularly great reputation in terms of diverse representation. Granted, Flicker and Mist already hints at better writing than Half Bad, so maybe, just maybe the same ol’ conventions might be taken in a new direction.

Frost Blood

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I offered my hand to the fire. Sparks leapt from the hearth and settled onto my fingers, heat drawn to heat, and glittered like molten gems against my skin.

Author: Elly Blake

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers 

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Half Bad, Frozen, Lord of the Rings, Red Queen, Throne of Glass, X-Men, The Incredibles, Flicker and Mist.

Target Audience: High fantasy readers. The same people who might pick up Flicker and Mist; they can take them home as a package deal.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

I picked this one up immediately after Flicker and Mist. If these two crossed my desk at the same time, and this one happened to be lower on the pile, I’d put it down immediately. This isn’t to say that this book is terrible and shouldn’t be read. But rather, agents aren’t wanting to see exactly the same plot in every submission they see.

If I were an agent, my personal focus would be on fantasy and sci-fi, and as I said, I’d be looking for that unique hook that sets a manuscript apart from other novels in the canon. The trouble is, there’s that trope again and I’m not going to wait around to see if this is putting a twist on the convention. This is especially why I chose to do these sneak peeks. Opening chapters aren’t going to give you nearly enough to tell you whether the story’s going to be amazing or not. But that’s exactly what most agents are using to pass judgement on whether it’s good enough for publication.

That being said, there’s nothing particularly new going on with Frost Blood either. Though it does help that it can easily slot into an already existing subgenre alongside so many other stories in a similar vein. And that’s exactly why it was published in the first place…

Lost Girls

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I remember last night perfectly. I know what we ate for dinner. I know my little brother didn’t do his homework. I know Dad drove me to my ballet lessons, then waited for me in the Starbucks across the street.

Author: Merrie Destefano

Publisher: Entangled Publishing

Published: January 3, 2017

For People Who Liked: The One Memory of Flora Banks, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

Target Audience: Readers who like gritty mysteries, amnesia plots, or paranormal/urban fantasies.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

No. The entire first page is word for word the back cover blurb. Which I know isn’t the author’s fault, but as far as novel openers go, as an agent, I’ve already read the blurb, and would be looking for something in the manuscript sample to tell me something I don’t already know about the novel. So often, I find myself 50 pages into a novel, turn to the back cover and go “oh, that’s what this novel’s about?” and it’s a feeling I thoroughly enjoy, because it means the author’s keeping me guessing. That’s not what’s happening here and it’s just very lazy on the publisher’s part. My interest just isn’t piqued and it isn’t helped by the juvenile writing style.

Also, you can’t tell from anything in the marketing of this book, but she’s got hints of possibly having some special magical power and I’m already bored.

If you want something a little more original and engaging, try:

You Don’t Know My Name

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The numbers on my phone stare back at me. Thirty more minutes of target practice before I can start my homework. I take a breath and run the back of my hand across my forehead. It’s still damp with sweat from my run and the hour of Krav Maga with Mom.

Author: Kristen Orlando

Publisher: Swoon Reads (Macmillan)

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Catch Me if You Can, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, James Bond, The Bourne Identity, A Series of Unfortunate Events

Target Audience: Readers who like spy or undercover plots

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

I will admit, I had a lot of fun reading the prologue of this novel, which is shocking, because despite what a prologue is supposed to do, it’s rarely the most engaging part of a novel. It feels exactly how I felt watching Netflix’s new A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s surprising, it’s action packed, it’s doing something you don’t ordinarily see in YA. I’m excited by the My Parents are Spies! angle.

This is the exact type of book as an agent, I’d request the full manuscript. The opening narrative is strong and pulls you in. With this in mind, if I were to then receive that full manuscript, I’d have to give it a pass because it quickly devolves into a silly high school plot where the author tries too hard to make cool teen lingo happen. But I was excited for that hot second and I encourage people to give it a shot just in case it is the fun spy plot it says it is.

Poison’s Kiss

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I’m not a bad person. At least that’s what I tell myself over and over as I wend my way through the marketplace, past the vendors selling spiced meats and bright fabric, incense and rare birds.

Author: Breeana Shields

Publisher: RandomHouse

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Wrath and the Dawn, Rebel of the Sands, Six of Crows, The Raven Cycle, The Sineater’s Daughter

Target Audience: People who like more lyrical prose, fans of the deadly kiss trope, fantasy lovers.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

After about five hours of poring over books, I was more than a little weary of reading the same plot over and over again. And so it was with such delight and relief that I stumbled across this beauty. This one was unquestionably the easiest yes I could give to any of the 11 books I flicked through on this particular day. It’s got this vivid, beautifully written, colourful world building that feels very much like Alwyn Hamilton or Leigh Bardugo’s handiwork.

I’ve harped on this entire post about taking the usual and making it unusual and this is the perfect example of how an author can do that successfully. For some reason completely unknown to me, I love the doomed lovers convention where if they kiss, one of them will die. It’s one of those things that is likely done to death in a million horribly written ways, and yet I’ve read a handful of really well-written twists on the theme. This being one of them. I’d love to see this one get more attention as time goes on!

Reviews

Book Review: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

Author: Eric Lindstrom

Publisher: Poppy (Hachette)

Published: February 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: All the Bright Places, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Mean Girls

Rating: 3 / 5 Stars

*This is a spoiler-free review!

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In my grand list of new February releases to check out, this one wasn’t a particularly high priority. But after RoseBlood, I needed a quick palate-cleanser and A Tragic Kind of Wonderful happened to be instantly available at the library.

I will say right away, I’m always so excited to see contemporary YA authors confronting mental illness in a raw, honest, and meaningful way. And although bipolar disorder seems to be a hot topic in contemporary YA over the last few years, I feel like I definitely learned more about the disorder reading this than I expected. It doesn’t feel nearly as lovingly written as All the Bright Places was, given how short it is, but it’s undoubtedly well-researched. And because it was so well-researched, all the coping strategies put in place felt very true to life. As someone who’s gone to therapy for mental illness, I saw my own experience in main character, Mel’s interaction with her own therapist and how she puts her coping mechanisms in place. What’s more, she has a stable, productive, and positive relationship with her therapist, something that isn’t always portrayed in YA, depending on what aspect of the struggle with mental illness any given author is trying to address. (Jennifer Niven, for instance, looks to highlight how adults tend to shrug off mental illness as irrelevant.) So I think it’s nice that even though it’s mentioned that Mel’s been through a handful of therapist she hasn’t liked, at the point the novel takes place, she’s finding a routine with this therapist that does work for her. Even nicer still, the novel opens with Mel already aware of her bipolar disorder, and with her coping mechanisms in place. It’s that day to day dealing with mental illness as part of a narrative that I enjoy. I know my experience and many others’ is being represented. And that’s a great feeling.

All the subplots in comparison feel very secondary to the mental illness. There are several plots and twists being woven into this short narrative (it’s less than 300 pages long) and in the end, none of them really feel like they matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s as if Lindstrom wanted to write a novel about bipolar disorder, with bipolar disorder as the main character. Everything’s kind of frazzled and all over the place and nothing quite fits together until the end. None of the characters quite feel fully realised and I didn’t quite care about them as a result.

Given that, the more I think about it, the more I feel like this story would be more interesting and groundbreaking if the protagonist were a trans boy. Throughout the novel, I kept reading Mel as a boy (and often forgot her name entirely). The only real thing that differentiates her as a girl is the fact that she’s on her period throughout the novel. But who says she can’t be a boy struggling with this same issue? There is certainly a lack of trans protagonists in literature in general and menstruation as a genuine issue for trans boys is an even rarer discussion in the media. Men rarely write in such detail about women and menstruation in fiction, and it’s already shocking that Lindstrom’s doing it here, and making an important plot point out of it. He’s not making any statements about how periods control girls’ behaviour. Instead, he’s addressing a very real fact that menstrual hormones cause imbalances when paired with bipolar medications. While I think it’s great that he’s going there with a female protagonist, I would’ve liked to see him go one step further.

That’s not to say the whole menstruation plot is the only reason why I’d cast a trans boy as the protagonist. There’s also a lot of discussion about sexual identity in this novel. There’s talk about being gay and out to your friends, and bisexuality, and how this is a valid way to identify. And again, it’s doing fine as is. It’s already going a lot further than many narratives go in terms of that discussion. But there’s a Mean Girls-type subplot, which is almost overdone at this point. Granted, the queen bee who drops her best friends because they’re not cool enough for her anymore is a very real social issue that happens again and again and again in high schools. It’s happened to me and it’s happened to other girls in my life. I personally think writing Mel in as a trans boy would’ve slotted well into that bullying plot, and done something new with it. I like to hope trans kids have at least some people in their lives to support them, but there is always going to be that one person who refuses to accept who they are, and would cast them aside for not being something they can control in their lives.

I just wanted this story to be bigger, and saying larger things.

I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading this novel. In fact, if you’re someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, or knows someone who suffers from it, I’d say give it a go. It offers an interesting insight into the everyday experience of living with a mental disorder. Who knows? You might learn something from it.

Books, Uncategorized

Book Review: RoseBlood

RoseBlood

Author: A.G. Howard

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

Published: January 10, 2017

Rating: 1 / 5

For People Who Liked: Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

*This is not a spoiler-free review! (A spoiler-free review can be found on Goodreads!)

roseblood

Wow… This author sure is doing… a lot. I wish I could say it’s in a way I enjoy, but it’s not. I first stumbled upon RoseBlood at YALC back in July. I can’t tell you why this book of all upcoming releases promoted at the YA convention was the one I was going to spend months watching out for, but it was. It was the retelling of Phantom of the Opera that got me. I love a good retelling, and gothics only clinch it for me.

I guess the one thing I can say about A.G. Howard is that she knows her shtick. Not that it’s a very good shtick. Just that she knows what she likes and she does it her way. It just so happens that she does it badly. In terms of retellings, there’s nothing remotely original about this story. The way I would define a retelling is taking an old classic and spinning it into a new adventure.

That’s not what Howard’s doing here.

Instead, what we get is a bizarre information dump of every single piece of research the author’s done on Phantom of the Opera (which, according to her website and author’s notes doesn’t actually culminate to a lot). Not only do some of the original characters show up in this story, but so does the book itself. So I have to ask: is it a retelling if the characters are canonically aware of the original text? If the protagonist is obsessed with Phantom of the Opera and then happens to find herself ensnared by the phantom himself?

As a standalone completely separate from the original text, I would say maybe it’s a little more interesting? That’s being far too generous to the terrible writing though. There are aspects I would say in a far better written story, I’d really like. The story is set in this gothic abandoned opera house in France… Vampires are (sort of???) involved… There are graveyards… Mad scientist things keep happening… It could’ve been so good…

Instead, what we get is this terribly cringe-worthy narration with one dimensional characters and weird quirks that are just there… to be weird. Every single character gets a painstakingly detailed physical description from the colour of their hair to their clothes. Which isn’t that unusual as far as description goes. But Howard pairs that with their so totally weird hobbies they  do in their spare time and… that’s it. That’s her character development, done. It’s as if she’s interpreted modern day gothic literature to be the golden age of emo from 2007. All the characters sound like they shop at Hot Topic and do all the things they do just to be extra. In an opera school, which presumably teaches opera, we get a handful of weird teachers who do weird things in their spare time including: mad science experiments, having tea parties with mannequins, taxidermy, and graveyard fanaticism. This would be really cool, if it meant anything to the plot whatsoever. And guess what?

It doesn’t.

I kept waiting for there to be a big reveal at the end where they all come together to reveal “ha HA! We were in on it all along!” and they pulled together their weird expertise to culminate to something insane.

That’s not what happened.

…and I haven’t even gotten to the main plot. The premise of the story is that Rune is being shipped off to this prestigious opera school outside of Paris, which apparently only accepts American students, because she did something horrible in her hometown. But her big, quirky thing is that she has some sort of musical Tourettes. In that she sings… uncontrollably. …and apparently this is so severe, it could kill people. Oh, but it’s only ever triggered by opera. So her mother… sends her off to a school, where there is nothing but opera singers? Everywhere? All the time? Seemingly the logic here is so she can learn to control her musical struggles. This would make more sense, if there was a single hint that this school actually bothers to teach any form of music. Instead, all there is is an opera performance, which needs to find its leading lady. You would think in any other variation of this story, the protagonist would be going for that role and fight for it.

Nope.

She avoids it like the plague, even though she’s clearly the best singer there, and when she gets the part, makes an excuse and gives it to her friend. Again, this would be a nice twist, if Howard bothered to even have this friend of hers show up for longer than one or two scenes. None of these characters matter, and in extension, nothing Rune does matters. She spends an exorbitant amount of time trying to figure out what causes her uncontrollable singing and has zero self-preservation skills. She’s got no agency, and even less clue.

Which brings me to the love interest. Thorn (yes, his name is Thorn, because that was the name the Phantom gave him…) casually stalks Rune her entire life. Now, I get this is taking a page out of Phantom of the Opera itself. Christine Daae grew up with the Angel of Music watching over her, which turns out to be the Phantom, terrorizing her for his own ends. That’s dark and creepy and he gets his just desserts at the end. Cool. Except here, Thorn and Rune have this psychic connection they’ve had all their lives, so by the time he physically stalks her and watches her in her bedroom, she’s apparently fine with it? He pulls together this convoluted plan to bring her to the Phantom by giving her this bleeding rose. Bleeding. Rose. RoseBlood. See what she did there? This is a motif that shows up again and again and again as if bleeding roses are a thing that actually exist and show up on a regular basis in gothic literature? Do they? I’ve read a pretty fair amount of gothic literature and I don’t… I don’t think that’s a thing.

It’s not a thing.

After a drawn out series of creepy steps to get her to meet him for the first time, Rune shows up and is instantly enamoured with him. …even though he’s literally stalking her and intruding on her thoughts. She later sneaks out to a rave club to see him again, where he and the Phantom psychologically date rape the entire club. As in they lure people into the club, sap them of their energies and then drug them to conveniently forget? And apparently because they’ve drugged everyone, it makes it okay? There is far too much talk of “oh, but it’s okay, because they’ve just been drugged.” Um…?

When is that ever okay?

Not even if you are a “psychic” vampire is it okay. Not just vampires. Psychic. Vampires. If this were a real, legit vampire story, I want some good, old fashioned consequences to their actions. The thing with vampires is, they know what they’re doing is messed up, as does the author. That’s what makes them so horrifying. They’re predators. This is precisely why vampires shouldn’t be glamorised or romanticised! If there was a single ounce of “my god, they’re drugging the whole club and draining their souls, we should stop them!” I’d be into it.

But this is not. How you write vampires!

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One final thing that just puts the nail in the coffin for me (heh) is this mad scientist subplot (if you can even call it that), which finally comes full circle by the end of the novel. One of the other totally super weird things that happens in this novel is there are animals in the woods surrounding the opera house that make noises other animals would make. Crows meowing, swans, croaking… it’s a cacophony of weird! It turns out that Thorn’s totally super weird quirk is that he surgically experiments on animals who are hurt. Which apparently involves swapping their vocal cords. Now, I’m not an expert in anatomy, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how vocals work. Especially when it later comes to swapping other people’s vocal cords? It’s like that weird b-movie trope that if you swap someone’s brain or heart with a serial killer’s you’ll get a Jekyll and Hyde situation. That’s not a scientifically accurate thing… Maybe that’s what Howard was going for, but if she was, throw some supernatural potion in or something to make it a little more believable.

This is a cult classic d-movie in the making if ever there was one. It’s the kind of thing little emo 16 year old me and her friends would’ve read or watched and laughed at hysterically during a sleepover or something. Except there’s not a chance this would ever get filmed by anyone in their right mind. So if you’re interested in reading it, maybe… don’t. And read Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde instead… Even the original Phantom of the Opera itself. Literally any other gothic classic but this one. And if you want some campy, gothic crack, go watch Rocky Horror. (No, seriously. Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be a far better use of your time, by far.) Hell. You could read the infamous worst Harry Potter fanfiction ever written, My Immortal and have a richer reading experience.

There are so many way better gothic stories out there. Go read or watch them instead.

 

Sneak Peek Weekends

January Sneak Peek Weekends #1

 

Welcome to the first ever Sneak Peek Weekend! I thought I’d do a quick little explanation why I decided to do sneak peeks for some books, and full reviews for others. It turns out, Canada’s a challenge when it comes to acquiring new releases. Although my hometown’s public library system is amazing, there is always a chance I’ll get stuck in a 50-person long waitlist for books, especially new releases. And the bookstore system isn’t much better. It’s not exactly a case of stopping in at Waterstones and picking up a £5 paperback on a whim as it is in the UK. Here, new releases are only sold in hardcover, and go for anywhere between $20 to $35 a pop and I don’t know how many people are willing to throw down that much money for books they’re going to take less than a week to read… I personally wouldn’t.

Herein lies my fun compromise: every month I stop into a bookshop to browse the past month’s new releases to bring you my first impressions! I’ll be posting two or three books at a time with my expert marketing and editorial opinion to showcase the type of notes a manuscript might get within a publishing house.

Today, I have two stellar contemporaries, one in prose, one in verse!

A List of Cages

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There is a room in this school no one knows about but me. If I could teleport, I’d be there now.

Author: Robin Roe

Publisher: Disney Hyperion

Published: January 10, 2017

For People Who Liked: Perks of Being a Wallflower, All the Bright Places, We Are the Ants, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Target Audience: Teens or family members of teens with mental illness (specifically ADHD), LGBT readers, teenage boys.

If I were an agent/acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?*:

I think I would! For a debut author, the writing is solid, with some nice, well-thought out descriptive language while still maintaining a realistic narration for a high school setting. The protagonist is sympathetic, going through very real high school situations. You immediately feel for and relate to him. Obviously bullying is not a new concept for teen stories, but it’s one that should continue to be portrayed as accurately as possible, because it still is a persistent issue in schools that probably won’t ever go away so long as kids don’t get along.

I don’t know where it’s going based on the opening chapter alone, but the synopsis is definitely intriguing. I’d pick it up to finish in the future and recommend it to teenagers going through similar ordeals.

 

The You I’ve Never Known

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Home

Four letters,

one silent.

A single syllable

pregnant with meaning.

Author: Ellen Hopkins

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Published: January 24, 2017

For People Who Liked: Sarah Crossan, All the Bright Places, Perks of Being a Wallflower

Target Audience: fans of poetry and novels in verse, LGBT teens, readers looking for ethnic diversity in YA.

Would I select this for publication based on the opening chapter?:

Absolutely without hesitation. I’m not a fan of reading poetry often, but this grabbed me right away. It’s got personality. It’s not a huge info dump, nor is it saying anything too new, but it’s doing it in a unique format. Within the first twenty pages, we get a good sense of diversity, discussions of sexuality, and hints of the protagonist’s broken home. It sounds like a lot, but Hopkins drops these little seeds of shocking details in such subtle ways. If you’re not used to reading poetry, Hopkins presents it in an accessible way, so don’t let that intimidate you!

 

*Agents and publishers will ask for different things when accepting submissions. Some will accept 15 pages, some, 50. I’ve chosen to read the first 10-20 pages of each novel to get a sense of just how quickly publishers will pass judgement on manuscripts.

Books

Book Review: The Diabolic

The Diabolic

Author: S.J. Kincaid

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Published: November 2016

For People Who Liked: The Hunger Games, The Lunar Chronicles, Throne of Glass, Bone Season, Divergent, Star Wars, Stardust, Jupiter Ascending, Vampire Academy

Rating: 4 / 5 Stars

This is a spoiler-free review!

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As I’m sure many of us are, I’ve been reluctant in the past few years to read dystopians, considering how much closer to home they’re getting every day. I can’t go anywhere without hearing someone reference 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale. But one thing dystopians clearly do very well when done right, is demonstrate just how corrupt modern society really is. And I think, whether intentional or not, that’s what this novel is doing.

By all accounts, The Diabolic is your pretty typical YA dystopian novel. It’s as brutal and damning toward superficial capitalism as The Hunger Games and as faction-divided as Divergent. Yet it’s doing so many other things. This particular dystopian is set in space, where genetically altered human beings are created to protect their upper class charges. Nemesis is one such diabolic who is charged to protect the senator’s daughter, Sidonia. When the family is disgraced, she’s sent in Sidonia’s place to live within the Emperor’s faction. All forms of human knowledge and exploration has fallen away to appease vapid upper class amusements and keep the lower classes in their place. All forms of science, technological advancement, and literature have been banned. I think had I read this prior to Trump’s America, I would’ve thought this is a cool spin on the dystopian genre.  Having read it right as Trump denounced environmentalism and climate change, this suddenly feels very real. I don’t know what Kincaid plans for future additions to the series, but I feel she could really use her world as a mouthpiece for this generation’s worldly struggles. I truly think she could do some amazing, on point things with it. And I’m interested to see more!

In terms of the character developments, I had a ton of fun seeing Nemesis grow into herself and figure out who she is without her charge. But before she gets there, there is so much Throne of Glass style murder sprees, which were fabulous. This novel is everything I wanted Celaena Sardothian to be. She’s gritty and unabashed in her job as an assassin. It’s what she was raised to do, so she goes and does it, because that’s all she knows. There’s no whining and being lulled into security against all her training… She’s just wary and take no prisoners and I loved it. She’s got a foil/love interest in Tyrus, the Emperor’s nephew, who is written as this crazed madman and he reads very vividly like Finn Wittrock in American Horror Story: Freak Show. The whole way through the story, you don’t know if he’s good or bad; you’re just along for the ride and that’s a lot of fun too. He’s in the midst of this complicated political intrigue and his family is full of cut throat, genocidal megalomaniacs. It’s a nice, solid balance of Star Wars, Stardust, Lunar Chronicles, and Jupiter Ascending. Everyone’s corrupt and fighting for power… in space!

I will say the one thing I find disappointing about The Diabolic is how Nemesis’ relationship with Sidonia was played out. If there’s one trope I’m sick of, it’s the eternally devoted female protector to the weak, fragile best friend. They can be lesbians. That’s totally okay. It’s 2017. If there’s anything teen readers can handle, it’s lesbian romances in their sci-fi fantasy. Just go there. It’s time.

So I would say, if you’re still into dystopias in this day and age, and you can stomach some blood and guts, absolutely give this a go. It’s a fast paced space romp with political intrigue and genetically engineered assassins!

Books

Book Review: All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Released: 2015

For People Who Liked: Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You, PS: I Love You, Harold and Maude

Rating: 4 / 5  Stars

This is not a spoiler-free review! (You can find a spoiler free version on Goodreads.)

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I tentatively put this on my To Be Read list around the time it first came out and went back and forth about reading it for a while. It looked like another Fault in Our Stars, (in fact, it’s marketed as such), which had me worried. But while I was doing my dissertation on YA marketing, I was attending a whole slew of literary conferences on the topic and Jennifer Niven spoke about All the Bright Places on a mental illness panel.

And I will say this: she seems like an extremely lovely lady.  Someone well-intentioned and a person who would be a really supportive, patient, understanding teen or mentor to teens. Everything she said about her reasoning for writing the novel boiled down to “you are loved, you are not alone,” which is why her portrayal of protagonists Violet and Finch felt so genuine to me. Her tackling the subject  felt incredibly sincere, like someone who’s been through the motions one too many times herself and she just wanted to share her experience with an audience who needed to hear it. And she does, in fact, say in her author’s note that she lost loved ones to suicide and she struggled to understand why they would do it and how something like that could happen. She also includes a comprehensive international suicide hotline listing, which I think speaks a lot to just how sincere she is in her intentions in writing this book.

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Around the time this novel was published, a close childhood friend of my family’s was lost to suicide and the emotional turmoil and shock of it took me completely by surprise. And Niven articulately addresses just what that experience is like, not only from the point of view of the loved ones and bystanders, but of the victim themselves. There’s a certain amount of Finch’s character development that feels very needlessly eccentric. At times, he just reads like a quirky YA male love interest, when in fact, he’s this very broken teen who doesn’t know who he is, who he’s supposed to be, and who he wants to be. And all the other noise surrounding his character is his way of blocking out that pain of existential crisis that eats away at him. His fixations on death were played out similar to Harold and Maude, like oh, this is kind of a cute game, and yeah, that’s just what he does, but it escalates in a very subtle way that doesn’t make you think where his mental state is, but at the same time, doesn’t romanticise it. I found this particular nuance of his character incredibly true to form because yeah, people with suicidal tendencies do fixate on drowning or stepping off a ledge. And I’m probably going to be forever haunted, knowing that someone I once knew contemplated painstakingly detailed ways to drown themselves before their eventual death. That wasn’t ultimately how they died, but the fact that Niven’s protagonist does in that way still resonates with me all the same.

On the surface though, this story isn’t just about suicide. On a broader scale, it’s about mental illness in general. And I like that Niven isn’t afraid to take on the glib way people treat mental illness. For so many people in Finch’s life to know full well that he’s threatened or attempted to kill himself and simply brush it off as a joke, or not their problem really elevates just how horrific this issue is. His own  therapist tells him not to jump off the roof on school property not out of concern for his wellbeing, but to prevent a lawsuit against the school. His divorced parents on the one hand abuse him, and on the other, neglect him, further aggravating the situation. He clearly does not have a support system in place, and when Violet shows up in his life, it’s clear he doesn’t know what to do with one when it’s handed to him. Ironically enough, he makes it his mission to become her support system when she’s grieving the loss of her sister. Yet he doesn’t realise that he deserves the same care from her. In a nice juxtaposition and foil for Finch and his toxic family life, we find out that Violet actually does have a solid support system already in place for herself. Her parents are loving and attentive and when she’s going through her grief, her mother is there to actively encourage her to get back into writing again in a new way that reflects this new stage in her life without her sister. The most telling is just how angry her parents are when they find out Finch’s own parents refuse to completely acknowledge and accept the possibility of their son’s death when faced with the opportunity to find him. This prominent feature of healthy parent-teenager relationships is something very rarely found in YA and I’m so relieved to see it in action here.

Another thing I loved about this story was Violet’s character development. She’s a smart, ambitious writer, and of course, I get her. Because she’s me. After her sister’s death, she goes through a very long dry spell where she can’t bring herself to write anymore. But as the plot goes on, she finds a new way to approach writing in an even more meaningful way. And that’s really representative of many healthy ways she copes with her depression. She starts brainstorming topics of interest, and how she wants to make her mark on the world in a way that matters to other people. She drops all her vapid mean girl friends and starts hanging out with a really cool new friend group that actually gets her. She comes to her parents and opens up about her feelings. She moves forward with her life. And that’s as real a portrayal of how to cope with mental illness as Finch’s maladaptations are. Getting both sides of the coin like that was  really refreshing. And the fact that Violet and Finch were romantically involved didn’t make either of their mental issues magically go away. Just because Finch was happy didn’t make him any less unstable. Because things like that don’t just go away when you’re loved. It’s about accepting that you have someone there to help you live with it that matters most. And some people can’t accept themselves and can’t accept help when it’s handed to them. And it’s sad, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

So for all of this complex, raw exploration of mental illness, I loved this novel. It’s honest and unafraid to approach topics that are otherwise neglected as a taboo in public institutions. This novel is exactly what I wanted Perks of Being a Wallflower to be. It was eloquently written with real teens doing real teen things. Their adventures were realistic and plausible. It wasn’t Violet and Finch making out in the middle of the Anne Frank museum to a round of applause a la Faults in Our Stars. It wasn’t that.  These kids did real, obtainable, possible things. It felt very real to me and I related. And I think a lot  of actual teens with and do too.

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It’s books like these that remind me just how on the ball YA has become (and is still in the process of becoming) in terms of addressing real, relatable teen issues. And I think we need much more of this.

Books, Uncategorized

2016 Year in Review

This year was a fantastic year for YA, thanks to months of dissertation research and the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) in London, which I attended in July. I read a lot of really fun and beautifully written fantasy and a lot of really painfully written fantasy. You might say I spent the entirety of 2016 returning to my roots and reading nothing but fantasy novels. You can find my roundup for the best and the worst reads of the year below!

The Good

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The Raven King – Maggie Stiefvater

I spent the past year obsessing over this series. Maggie Stiefvater is the first author since J.K. Rowling who has inspired and irrevocably changed my writing style for the better. Needless to say, she’s kind of a big deal. After spending the better part of a year taunting her readers on social media about the highly likely death of her protagonist, I was looking forward to finally seeing Stiefvater make good on that promise and do what few writers dare. While this book was a thrilling, emotional ride, having had months to evaluate it, as a series finale, it falls short in several places. A lot of key players that make or break the final sequence that holds the entire plot together show up way too late in the series for me to truly connect with their presence in the latter half of the book. I will say, plenty of my wildest theories came true and then some, which was pretty satisfying and almost makes up for the aforementioned issues. I look forward to reading more of her books in the future, as I know all too well she’s gonna continue writing stuff that speaks to my own work.

A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schawb

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A Darker Shade of Magic was the first of many books I read in prep for YALC and it was a perfect place to start. Schawb imagines a world where there are multiple alternate reality versions of London and there’s only one person left who can travel between them. Her concepts are extremely original and she’s not afraid to get dark. She was also the first author I met at YALC and we had a nerdy little bonding session over writing lady pirates, which the world undoubtedly needs more of. She’s another author who’s pretty present on social media and she’s very keen on sharing her writing struggles in a big way, which I appreciate.

Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo rounds out the trifecta of stellar YA fantasy writers that could not be beat no matter what else I read. Bardugo, Schawb, and Stiefvater set the bar for me and they set it high. Their world building is so rich and different. Similar to The Raven Cycle, Six of Crows follows a ragtag group of six criminals who plan a giant heist which inevitably goes awry. Her world is colourful and full of extremely well-developed languages and races with winks to European cultures. All the female characters have agency, they do what they want and they’re not afraid to go out and get it. She strikes a solid balance between gritty tomboy, Inej and girly Nina, (a description which doesn’t do either of the girls justice; they are truly fantastic). The characters are great, they have intense, sometimes horrifying backstories, and it’s a lot of fun seeing them bounce off each other.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter – Melinda Salisbury

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I feel like if I read this at any other time in my life, I might’ve hated it, but I was along for the ride. The cover is beautiful, in fact, quite possibly the most beautiful cover design I’ve ever seen. And I think that set the precedent for what I wanted the novel to be. It also helps that the author is an unabashed sweetheart. I just can’t fault her for any missteps in the novel when she’s just writing what she loves and having a geeky time about it. (She’s also a delight on social media.) The story’s got a really cool premise: a girl who kills with a single touch is brought up to be the queen’s executioner. The entire novel revolves around her finding her identity outside of that. And I can’t be mad at the love triangle when she’s got agency for the first time in her life, and she’s making her own choices. It’s what I wish Shatter Me would’ve been. It’s not about the romance, it’s about her finding her way in a fantastical medieval world ruled by hints of Scandinavian mythology. And I love that.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik

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Another Scandinavian-based fantasy world. I think had I read Uprooted before Six of Crows, I would’ve given it at least 4 stars. This seems to be a theme in high fantasy novels lately, yet somehow, I’m thoroughly into it every time. Maybe that’s because I’ve got a Ukrainian-Polish background and I like being represented even with subtle nods in fiction. There’s not enough appreciation in the world of the vast differences in European cultures and I like that fantasy writers are at least the ones going there. There are hints of a potential girl on girl romance, which I wish she would’ve developed, though the romance we get between the female and male leads is still more intense than the majority of YA romances out there. But I think something needs to be said for developing soul mate bonds between platonic friends. (A notion also prominently explored in The Raven Cycle.) I think what bogged the story down for me was the repetitiveness of the spells she uses and the never ending battle scenes. It certainly doesn’t stop Uprooted from being a gorgeously written story…

The Bad

Half Bad – Sally Green

Yikes. There is one narrative choice I hate in books more than others, and it’s when stories are narrated by emotionally and psychologically damaged kids. You see it in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and to a certain extent, Room (I know, I’m sorry- I said it.) It makes me incredibly uncomfortable when the writing style is choppy and naïve to reflect that mindset. Half Bad in particular reads like a story narrated by a six year old, instead of a teenager. Being that this novel is a debut, it’s very hard to tell whether this particular style is intentional or if Sally Green’s a legitimately terrible writer. Either way, there’s no emotional depth as a result. Green also happened to speak at YALC and the fact that she had to preface everything she said about her writing process with an apology and “I must be doing it wrong” says an awful lot. Do not read this book. It’s a tutorial on how not to write.

 Heir of Fire and A Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J Maas

Teen readers seem to love Sarah J. Maas, which I find baffling. The Throne of Glass series is like a more action-packed, yet equally poorly written answer to the Twilight series. Throne of Glass follows girly girl, Celaena who is apparently the most fearsome assassin in the kingdom, but it seems she’d rather spend her time wearing pretty dresses, flirting with boys, and eating cake than anything else. Which could be really cool, if we got to see her kicking ass a lot more and reveling in it. A Court of Thorns and Roses follows a similar issue, in that huntress, Feyre loses all agency not even a third of the way into the book. All Maas’ character names are ridiculous and bogged down by unnecessary vowels, which I hate. Throne of Glass lacks a rich world full of different races beyond straight, white people (unless they wanna die horribly…), while A Court of Thorns of Roses suffers from an extremely rapey plot and male characters who seemingly do what they want in terms of sexualizing the protagonist and she doesn’t seem to care? I will admit, Maas is my trashy airplane go-to, which is the only way you can get me to read her novels…

The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon

I should probably give Samantha Shannon some credit because this was another debut novel and unlike Sally Green (who is a full-fledged 30-something adult who should know better by now), she was something like nineteen when she wrote it. This book has a lot of promise which gets watered down by the unnecessary romance. It honestly would’ve been a hundred percent better without the romance. Another reimagining of London, this one’s set in the future, where protagonist, Paige gets captured and put into a magical slave trade and sold off to her love interest. The rest of the novel is her building up a slave uprising, which again, would’ve been great without the problematic romance. The action scenes are so fantastic, they were mentioned multiple times during the panel Shannon was in at YALC. I’m gonna give her the benefit of the doubt and try the sequel before casting any official stones. She’s my age with at least three novels under her belt, so to a certain extent, I both empathise, and am bitterly jealous. I hope the second book is better…

 Voyager – Diana Gabaldon

I always read the Outlander series with a grain of salt. Above all else, this series is silly, but it reads like Gabaldon wants you to take her seriously. Which is hard to do when the height of her action always culminates to a rape scene. Always. I think this is the first novel in the series where I properly could not handle the ridiculousness. I thought Outlander was fun and Dragonfly in Amber was the same fun, only this time, in France. This one is twenty years later and Jamie’s still a stubborn asshole (whom I hate with a fiery passion), whom Claire just swoons over anyway no matter how much he abuses, or emotionally manipulates her. That’s pretty much the usual, only this time, Gabaldon outdoes herself with extremely racist stereotyping of Chinese and African slaves. Wow. This is another raving fandom I don’t understand, except the middle-aged housewife edition. If you’re considering getting into the series, stop after book two, because this is an uncomfortable, cringy mess. (But hey, at least there are pirates?)

Rivers of London– Ben Aaronovitch

Another reimagining of London, this time, a magical police procedural. (Aaronovitch, Shannon, and Schwab were on a panel discussing different magical interpretations of London, thus the running theme.) This one also has a ton of glowing reviews, including from friends of mine. I’m very wary of reading male authors and Aaronovitch is a perfect example of why. All his female characters are developed according to how physically attractive they are to the protagonist. Ew. Throughout the entire novel, I got a graphic explanation of what every single one of the female characters’ breasts looked like. I didn’t need that and I nearly put the book down halfway through for this very reason. No, I’m not interested in reading stories through the point of view of a sexist dudebro. And the fact that this particular police procedural happens to have magic in it isn’t enough to separate it from every other male-helmed police procedural. I don’t need another one of these in my life, thanks.

Honorary Mentions

Pantomime – Laura Lam

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This is a book I most likely would’ve panned alongside Sarah J. Maas had I read this in 2014. Instead, I think this is the book that really changed my opinion on what makes a “good” story. 2014 Sophie strongly believed a bad book is a bad book if it’s poorly written, no matter what the subject matter. However, despite the cringy, unrealistic dialogue, Lam is undoubtedly well-intentioned. I was really shocked to find that Pan Macmillan pushed to have Pantomime displayed prominently on the main tables in Waterstones instead of simply on the shelves, given its unorthodox protagonist. Micah Grey is a bisexual intersex, gender fluid character, which is several levels beyond the conventional straight white girl protagonist of traditional YA novels. Although there are some problems with depicting intersex people as magical creatures, I’m willing to overlook it, because as far as I know, this is the first high-profile YA novel of its kind. And I respect that and I want more of it.

 

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime – Judith Flanders

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This might seem like a completely random inclusion on my list, but it’s actually my usual jam. My next writing project is a Victorian crime novel, so I’ve been gearing up my novel research accordingly. I don’t usually read non-fiction, but this was a really fun look at so many different high-profile murder cases and the over the top way the Victorian public reacted to them. The Victorians liked a good scandal and it definitely showed. There’s a nice wide, wide breadth of examples throughout the 19th century, which I really appreciated.

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

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Again, had I read this before Six of Crows, I would’ve appreciated it more. Frances Hardinge was also at YALC and was fabulous in every sense of the word. She wore this wild, wild west outfit with boots and a bolo tie and hat and waxed poetic about dark Victorian era plots. I loved her to the point where I was too intimidated to compliment her while we were both in line for the bathroom. (Probably for the best…) Given just how much I love (and I mean, love) everything Victorian, I knew immediately after seeing her speak, I had to read one of her novels. The Lie Tree is about a young 19th century girl who wants to be a scientist. Her father’s involved in some hinky dealings involving a rare breed of plant and she gets swept up in the adventure and scandal. It’s pretty great, and the beautiful writing is evidence enough why she won the Costa Book of the Year award. But something about the slow pacing kept me from properly engaging with it in the same way Uprooted did. I wanted a little bit more from her, but she is undoubtedly amazing regardless.

Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

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I find it hard to believe this novel was written by a 20-something white girl. I’m very impressed with the subject matter in this one. It’s set in a fantastical Arabian city, filled with characters of colour. It’s got a very Scheherazade feel to it, except with a lot more female characters kicking ass. It’s got a lead couple you can root for (because in my opinion, a couple who kicks ass together, stays together) and their kind of snarky back and forth really works. It’s a fun gun-slinging Arabian knights romp! Alwyn Hamilton really knows what she’s doing. Kudos to her…

 

Heir to the Empire – Timothy Zahn

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I’m adding this in because it’s a prelude to my January 2017 reads. Heir to the Empire is the first book of one of the many series within the Star Wars, Legends world. I read this one almost immediately after seeing The Force Awakens for the first time. Needless to say, I was brought up as a huge Star Wars fan and felt it was my duty as a fan to get into the novel universe. I was wary going in, but I shouldn’t have been, because this is clean, cheesy fun. It’s a lot of melodrama, it’s a lot of the old gang doing what they do best, which is getting into crazy escapades and getting captured and fighting against the Empire. Leia gets a lightsaber (yay!), Luke gets a bad ass bounty hunter rogue Jedi lady friend (also yay!)… It’s all in all a great time. Look out for more Star Wars reviews this month! (I’ll have many.)