The Illuminae Files

The Illuminae Files

The Illuminae Files is not the sort of series I normally go for, by any means. I really don’t like books like this because I think they’re gimmicky. This one, though, is really worth looking past that, if you’re like me and hesitate to pick up a book like this.

Cover image for Illuminae
Cover image for Illuminae

“This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.
The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than a speck at the edge of the universe. Now with enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra–who are barely even talking to each other–are forced to evacuate with a hostile warship in hot pursuit.
But their problems are just getting started. A plague has broken out and is mutating with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI may actually be their enemy, and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a web of data to find the truth, it’s clear the only person who can help her is the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.
Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents–including emails, maps, files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more–Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.”–Indiebound

Cover image for Gemina
Cover image for Gemina

“Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.
The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.
Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair is struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.
When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia–and possibly the known universe–is in their hands.
But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.
Once again told through a compelling dossier of emails, IMs, classified files, transcripts, and schematics, Gemina raises the stakes of the Illuminae Files, hurling readers into an enthralling new story that will leave them breathless.” —Indiebound

These books are fast-paced and exciting. They’re huge, but reading them doesn’t take long at all because the books are difficult to put down, and the illustrations, documents, and other unique formatting make for easy reading. It’s difficult for me to draw a line between unique and gimmicky, but the format of this novel didn’t bother me as much as I expected. Sometimes it didn’t feel like “real reading,” but once I got past my mental block and accepted it for what it was, I just had fun with it.

These books are very plot-driven, obviously. There’s a little characterization that can happen when most of what’s happening is narrated in chat windows and video transcripts. Mostly, the guys are love-sick and the girls are tough and rebellious. I didn’t really mind this, though. Sometimes you just know what you’re getting into. I like that the girls really get a chance to shine in these novels though. I especially really liked Hanna, who should have a spoiled princess mindset, but who is actually gritty, physically strong, and has the ability to make really hard choices, often at the expense of what she personally wants.

My favorite part of this series, though, is Aidan, the AI who goes crazy and causes lots of problems (definitely not the only problems though–evil, corrupt corporations and zombie viruses and broken wormholes cause problems, too). In addition to being the most interesting plot device (character?) of the entire series, he’s also just kind of….funny. The concept of a homicidal computer is amusing to me, in a really dark way, but that’s old news–lots of films and books have used it though. His personality, though, often made me laugh out loud, as did the interactions of the human characters with him. His confusion and inability to understand the ways humans behave provide much-needed comic relief.

I know that not everyone enjoyed these books, but I recommend the series. They’re fun, fast, and funny. Lovers of YA, even if you think that this sort of book is silly, or perhaps “not real” reading, try to put aside your biases and just enjoy the books for what they are.

Cruel Winter

Cruel Winter

Cover image for Cruel Winter
Cover image for Cruel Winter

I hesitated to read this book (despite it being shoved into my hands by someone I like a whole heck of a lot) because I’m a wimp, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yet, despite its horror designation, it reads more like a kid’s adventure movie from the 80s, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not scared at all (okay, except for like, one part).

“Jack Harding and his friends feel sorry for the new kid in town. His name is Ronnie Winter, and he’s a bit of a weirdo. So when the local bullies try to beat him up, Jack and his friends step in to protect Ronnie — and that’s their first mistake. Because Ronnie Winter is not like any other kid they’ve ever known. He lives at the old Steadman place, in the big creepy mansion that used to be a mental hospital. And his young, beautiful mother has a strange way of making Jack promise to be Ronnie’s friend…forever.

The closer Jack and his friends get to Ronnie, the colder it gets. The town is plunged into a wave of brutal snowstorms — and plagued by a series of gruesome murders. And as the grisly death toll mounts, Jack realizes that Ronnie is surrounded by something far more powerful than a mother’s love — he’s guarded by a force of unspeakable evil that will torture and destroy everything in its path…” —Goodreads

This book is pulpy in a big way. It’s mostly cheese, with a little suspense and some decent character development thrown in. It’s pleasant in the way reading sometimes should be: it allows you to switch your brain off and just become engrossed in a silly story. I was told that the book’s intended audience is young adults, but nothing I’ve found online suggests that. I think it’s just a not-very-scary first attempt at horror. Mostly it reminds me of every episode of Scooby-Doo: about things that are scary in theory, but this particular execution is not.

Do you know that trick that authors have of giving a juvenile voice to a third person narrator? We see that in this novel, and I wonder if that’s what renders this less scary than it might be otherwise. The novel is about children, and for most of the novel, the narrator describes the thoughts and actions of children. They’re not very imaginative kids, and the novel is set in a time that seems quaint compared to what we’re living now. Some of the expletives the kids use made me laugh out loud, and it’s cute because they think they’re really tough. That bully though…he’s something else.

The plot did what it was intended to do: kept me engrossed and entertained. I’ve trained myself out of the bad habit of trying to guess what’s going to happen next so I couldn’t tell you if you’ll be able to guess what comes. In all honesty, there don’t seem to be many plot twists. Just a series of events that follow one another. That’s not a criticism, however. We’ve become used to plot twists in recent years, but there was a time when we could read books without them. Try it! It’s not so bad.

A more practiced author, I think, would have given us a little more in the way of character development. Jack is the most fleshed-out, followed by Cassie. Ronnie and the rest of the gang seem a little flat, though they fulfill their purpose well. I enjoyed Emma as a character, and I would have liked to see more of her, though her storyline and ultimately heroic dénouement, despite being almost entirely separate from the rest of the story, was nonetheless entertaining.

This book belongs more in the category of speculative, urban fantasy, rather than horror. Regardless of where you shelve it, definitely save this title for a pool day or a day at the beach, when you need one eye on the page but you can save most of your brain for other activities. It’s a funny, quick read if you want something that doesn’t demand much more from you than simply allowing yourself to be entertained.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

WARNING*** This post could potentially be spoiler-y, depending how sensitive you are to that sort of thing. Proceed with caution. That said, I feel like most people already know what the deal is with this book, so read on.

Cover image for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
Cover image for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

I was hesitant to read this book due to its subject matter. I knew that it involved drugs and the love between a grown man and a young girl, and I worried that it would be tawdry and disturbing. I read Lolita earlier this year, and while I recognize its value as a contribution to the canon, it still bothered me on a deep level. This did not have the same effect on me at all.

“A beautiful and provocative love story between two unlikely people and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives.

As the daughter of a drug dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, she finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

By the time Wavy is a teenager, her relationship with Kellen is the only tender thing in a brutal world of addicts and debauchery. When tragedy rips Wavy’s family apart, a well-meaning aunt steps in, and what is beautiful to Wavy looks ugly under the scrutiny of the outside world.“–Indiebound.org

What sticks out to me most about this novel is the simple, matter-of-fact way that Greenwood tells her story. There are a lot of ugly themes in this novel, yet the author barrels into them head-on. For so many people, a life like Wavy’s is not unusual, and Greenwood doesn’t tell the story as if we should feel sorry for Wavy. She simply offers the story to her readers as is, for them to take or leave as they wish. Wavy is a beautiful character–a child scarred by her mother early in life, who never quite outgrows the fears that her mother instills in her at an extremely young age. She is fierce, though, and strong–so much stronger than her delicate, ethereal frame and features would suggest. Kellen is a lovable oaf, whose kindness belies his appearance. I don’t think I’ve found a character so endearing in a really long time.

Wavy and Kellen are a conundrum for me. On the one hand is the reaction that is pre-programmed into us, to know that sexual exploitation of a child is wrong. On the other, though, you have Wavy relying on and loving the only adult in her life who has ever accepted and loved her purely for herself. Kellen is the only person who has never tried to change her or coax her out of her ways. He simply loves her, and isn’t that what we all want? Someone who sees and loves us, and doesn’t try to change us? In the end, I accepted this story for what it was: one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read.

Was it disturbing? On a level, but one that was significantly less troublesome to my conscience than I expected. This is one of those “exception to the rule” situations that neither my heart nor my logical brain had trouble accepting.  So I was warned about this book, but I was not nearly as troubled by most of it as I expected to be.

I thought that this novel would be too much for me, which is why I passed it up when it was a Book of the Month Club selection. With its themes of heavy drug abuse, child neglect, and underage romantic interests, I was scared of it. When it won the BOTM Book of the Year award, I was, frankly, shocked that so many people could be moved by a story with such dark themes. If you, too, passed this up because you were afraid of it, I urge you to reconsider. Please read this book. It is unutterably lovely, and my poor words cannot do it justice.

 

The Sun Is Also A Star

The Sun Is Also A Star

Cover image of The Sun Is Also A Star
Cover image of The Sun Is Also A Star

Nicola Yoon has become one of those authors whose work I will automatically read whenever she releases a new title. Once again, I was completely swept away by her beautiful writing and her delightful characters.

Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.
Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store–for both of us.
The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?” —Indiebound.org

Natasha and Daniel are two wonderful kids facing pressures that no one should have to face, much less people so young. Daniel contends daily with a hateful brother and the weight of all his parents’ expectations and regrets. Natasha goes head-to-head with the US government in an attempt to save her family from deportation. One fateful day brings them together, and oh, what a day it is. She’s brilliant, logical, and fierce, while he is romantic, thoughtful, and passionate. It’s difficult not to get sucked into their love story and hope that they find a way to be together.

Though it’s a work of fiction, and authors can do whatever they want with fiction, it’s hard for the reader to not be sucked in and believe in the concept of fate bringing lovers together. In this novel, one almost believes that destiny and true love are real. Time and again, Natasha and Daniel seem thrown together by forces larger than themselves, even when it seems other, darker forces are trying to keep them apart. Yoon’s ability to reawaken the child-like, starry-eyed belief in true love is uncanny. I’m a grown woman with a lot of experience and heartbreak under my belt, and Yoon makes me feel like anything is possible.

However, in the words of Shakespeare, the course of true love never did run smooth, and in addition to reducing me to a squealing, romantic teenager again, Yoon’s writing also held me in the grip of suspense as I wondered what would happen to Daniel and Natasha. After all, their love was up against a lot of really tough stuff. This novel simultaneously filled me with hope and dread. I wanted to reach the end, and yet I was terrified to reach the end.

Another thing that adds depth to the novel is when the author takes a step back from the main characters of the novel and provides short snippets of insight into minor supporting characters: the backgrounds of Natasha and Daniel’s parents, the secret desires of her immigration lawyer and his secretary, the reason Daniel’s brother is the way he is, etc. I loved these glimpses into the lives of some of the people that make up the kaleidoscope of New York City. I know they are fictional, but it gets the reader thinking about the people around them–those humans who are minor characters in your story, but are the main characters in their own.

I highly recommend this novel by an author who understands exactly how to yank at her readers’ heartstrings. Character, setting, and plot come together to ensure an unforgettable reading experience. You should also read Everything, Everything because that, too, is amazing!

Going Clear

Going Clear

Cover image for Going Clear
Cover image for Going Clear

Honestly, after what I read in this book, I’m a bit afraid to even put this on the Internet. I will comfort myself in two ways: the first is that this blog doesn’t get read by that many people, so the likelihood anyone from the church launching a malicious campaign against me is low, and the second is that I probably won’t write much about this book anyway. I’ve long been fascinated by this subject, and I’ve wanted to read this book since its release event at BookPeople when I was working there in 2013.

“A clear-sighted revelation, a deep penetration into the world of Scientology by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, the now-classic study of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack. Based on more than two hundred personal interviews with current and former Scientologists–both famous and less well known–and years of archival research, Lawrence Wright uses his extraordinary investigative ability to uncover for us the inner workings of the Church of Scientology.
At the book’s center, two men whom Wright brings vividly to life, showing how they have made Scientology what it is today: The darkly brilliant science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, whose restless, expansive mind invented a new religion. And his successor, David Miscavige–tough and driven, with the unenviable task of preserving the church after the death of Hubbard.
We learn about Scientology’s complicated cosmology and special language. We see the ways in which the church pursues celebrities, such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and how such stars are used to advance the church’s goals. And we meet the young idealists who have joined the Sea Org, the church’s clergy, signing up with a billion-year contract.
In Going Clear, Wright examines what fundamentally makes a religion a religion, and whether Scientology is, in fact, deserving of this constitutional protection. Employing all his exceptional journalistic skills of observation, understanding, and shaping a story into a compelling narrative, Lawrence Wright has given us an evenhanded yet keenly incisive book that reveals the very essence of what makes Scientology the institution it is.” —Indieboung.org

It’s difficult, as an intelligent, independent-minded person to understand what draws people into cults like this, especially when it is so blatantly obvious the founder was a pathological liar and mentally unstable. Then again, it’s easy to know that when someone else has done the research for you, and nearly impossible to know it when the truth has been hidden from you. Wright is an award-winning author, and this book was incredibly detailed and researched.

The first third of the book or so is a heavily detailed biography of their founder, L. Ron Hubbard. His lying and make-believe and delusions began long before he started a religion. He was a prolific, and by all account, talented writer across a range of genres, from Western epics to Science Fiction. The problem with this talent, however, is that you probably don’t want a Science Fiction writer to write your religious texts. It calls all of his visions, his research, and enlightenment into question.

It doesn’t help that official records constantly refute the things he claims about himself: where he served in WWII, the injuries he sustained, his ability to heal himself. The fact that he claims he was psychologically evaluated and his mental health cleared when no record of this exists. Time and again Wright relies on his own research and that of those who’ve researched before him to discredit and prove false claims made by Hubbard and the church. Wright’s examination of the claims of both the founder and the church is extensive.

The most disturbing part of this book are the many accounts of human rights violations. Abuse, neglect, imprisonment, kidnapping, and what closely resembles slavery are among the accusations made by former members of the church. I had heard veiled references to the horrors inflicted on adherents to this religion, and I knew that it was difficult for people to leave, but I never imagined the extent to which the depravity goes. It’s my hope that the church embellishes the high numbers of membership they claim to have because it makes my heart knowing there are so many people looking for help in the arms of the church and instead only finding abuse and terror.

Shortly after finishing this book, I began watching Hulu’s The Path, and after reading this book I can definitely pick out which parts of the show’s cult are based on Scientology. It’s an interesting knowledge to have. I love learning new things, even when they’re incredibly disturbing. If you’re interested in this subject, I highly recommend reading this book. It’s difficult to put down, and difficult to believe that it’s actually non-fiction. Wright’s book reads like fiction. It’s intense, engaging, and full of anecdotes and dialogue that pull you as a reader into the story. I haven’t read many books on this subject, but it seems to me that this must be one of the better, more thorough ones.

I Am the Messenger

I Am the Messenger

Cover image for I Am the Messenger
Cover image for I Am the Messenger

I put a lot of effort into liking this book. The Book Thief is one of my favorite books, so I fully expected to be blown away by this other novel by the same author.

“Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.
That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?” —Indiebound.org

Have you ever had that reading experience that sort of feels like you’re out of your body? Your eyes are reading the text, and your brain recognizes that you should be connecting to the text and feeling things, but your heart just isn’t there? That’s how this book was for me. I’m not sure if it’s because I had trouble relating to Ed, the deliberate vagueness of the location (which annoyed me to an unreasonable degree), or if the events just weren’t written in a way that gripped me, but I finished this book very reluctantly.

Ed Kennedy is a character that really wishes he were cute and dimensional but is sort of flat and empty. He’s not nearly as amusing as he thinks he is, and even in his moments of introspection, connecting with him is difficult. None of the other characters were really interesting, either. In fact, the only one I felt anything for was a minor character somewhere in the middle who only lasted for a few pages.

The vagueness of the location frustrated me, too. I finally caught on that it was supposed to be Australia, but only because that’s where the author is from. The thing that gave it away was that Christmas happens in the middle of the summer, which was interesting to read about. As for specifics, he just refers to “the city” and “town.” We never get to know anything past that. I do not understand an author’s purpose for doing this, and it irritates me every time I encounter it in a novel. It feels like a glaring omission and makes the text feel dishonest. Is this irrational? Probably. But we can’t help what we like and don’t like.

The plot was odd, too. This go-nowhere kid gets playing cards with missions attached to them. He has to essentially be the guardian angel for the people who are the object of his mission. Sometimes this involves tough love and sometimes it’s an easy fix. What I didn’t understand is why this mysterious person giving him these missions–which are benevolent in nature–would use scare tactics and violence to force Ed to act. It’s incongruous with the nature of the endeavor, and it didn’t give me nearly as much of a warm, fuzzy feeling as if the unseen hand had found less malevolent ways to coerce Ed to do its will. Perhaps Zusak thought the fear and violence would add suspense to the novel, but it didn’t really work for this reader. And the end, though I know it was going for uniqueness and shock value, just felt like a cop-out. I was not impressed.

I know that several people have said they loved this book. I really, really wanted to love it too, but I didn’t. It was painful to read and difficult to finish. I’m going to recommend that, if you’ve never read Zusak, you read The Book Thief (and let it change your life) and just give this one a pass.

The Complete Persepolis

The Complete Persepolis

Cover image for Persepolis
Cover image for Persepolis

This post is not really a review. This book is so critically acclaimed that it does not really need my take on its pros and cons. The “pros” have already decided that this book is worthy of an award-winning film and being on the required reading list for schools all over the world. My purpose here is to encourage those of you who have not read it to please do so at your earliest convenience.

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.” —Indiebound.org

Persepolis challenged me in a way that very little of what I read does. It puts fear, heartache, and suffering in perspective, and hopefully awakens a powerful empathy in its readers. It is impossible to read this without feeling something for the people of Iran, for Marjane, and for her family.

This is not an easy book to read. Normally I can read graphic novels fairly quickly, even while spending extra time to appreciate their artistry and notice small details in the illustrations. Reading this, I had to stop every other chapter for a mental break–a chance to think over and process what I’d read. It’s difficult to read about such things–the horrors of war and the growing pains of a young woman coming of age in such a time.

This book should be required reading for everyone, not just students. It’s important, in our time, to understand that our thousands of years of warlike history are not going to serve us in the future. These comic strips, in simple black and white, tell the true tale of war as an instrument of suffering, and of greed, politics, and fundamentalism  It also tells a more recognizable story: one of family, love, and belonging. Sprinkled in among the things that I can never imagine experiencing, and count myself lucky to have never known, there are also things that touched my heart because they were so achingly familiar. There are also plenty of laugh out loud funny moments.

Persepolis is one of those books that can grant healing and change minds. The millions of people who died cannot be returned to those who lost them, but perhaps, with more hearts and minds opened through books like these, the world we create for future generations can ensure that others need never experience the grief, terror, and loss suffered by those in this conflict and countless others. Please, read this book and allow it to open your heart to those who are different from you.