The Reader: Sea of Ink and Gold, Book 1

The Reader: Sea of Ink and Gold, Book 1

Cover image for The Reader
Cover image for The Reader

This is perhaps one of the most unique adventure stories I’ve read it a long time. I really admire how authors can still come up with interesting and different frameworks for the same themes and tropes. Though we seem to read the same story a thousand times, creative and talented writers make it so we never notice that’s what’s happening. Traci Chee is one of those authors.

“Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her Aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book–a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed–and punish the people responsible.” —Indiebound

Books in which literacy is not common, or in which it’s repressed and discouraged, or in which books are banned–these are common things. A book in which books, or even written language as we know it, do not exist? That’s something new. One imagines you’d have to completely recreate the fabric (dare I say meaning?) of your fictional society to make it work. Of course, in this novel, books and reading do exist, but in secret. There is only one place in the whole world (that we know of so far), where books exist and people know how to read. And then, there are only a few people who know how to read (under ten, as far as I can tell). I love this premise, especially because it makes books the focal point of the story, and emphasizes their value.

The book that Sefia carries is a very special book–one that people are willing to go to great lengths to get their hands on. As the novel progresses, the readers themselves begin to realize what the book contains and how very precious it is. There are several different storylines that occur in the novel, and all of them slowly come together for a couple of very cool moments in which the reader realizes just how skillfully a web is woven with the different threads of plot.

SONY DSC

This novel is full of a lot of really fun characters that I enjoyed getting to know. I wish Sefia weren’t so sad, but she’s had a hard life, and her reluctance to trust and allow herself to love are both understandable. She’s tough, but she’s scared. Everyone she’s ever loved has been taken from her, and that plays big in how she interacts with other people. Archer, if possible, is even more messed up than Sefia. His life not only includes loss but also abduction and being forced to commit violent acts. When they meet and for several weeks after, Archer cannot speak at all. Sefia and Archer develop a bond that goes beyond spoken language, communicating with signs, eye contact, and more. Their friendship is one that develops out of necessity but is not less enviable for it.

This book takes place on both land and sea, and I love all of the adventures of Captain Reed and his crew related in the Book. They venture to the western edge of the world and encounter numerous trials along the way. At first, their story seems completely out of context with Sefia and Archer’s journey, but once again the Book proves to be more than it seems. These guys were my personal favorite part of the book. Who doesn’t love a good piratey adventure?

StockSnap_IVGOG68BOF

This is a great work of YA fiction for fans of adventure stories and fantasy. Chee’s world-building and character development are world-class, and I really look forward to the next installment of this series.

 

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.

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!

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything

Cover image for Everything, Everything
Cover image for Everything, Everything

With all the buzz surrounding this book, I expected a good novel, but just how good was entirely out of the realm of expectation.

“My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black–black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.
Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.” —Indiebound.org

First of all, I love Madeline. She is an incredible protagonist. She’s a positive and vibrant kid, despite all the adversity that she’s faced, and she makes a little joy go a long way. So when the pretty teenager next door moves in, this reader, at least, had a lot of feelings. Excitement, because yay, maybe she’ll finally have a little extra dash of joy in her life. And apprehension, because knowing how sick she is, and knowing how difficult love is and how difficult it is to be a teenager, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the whole thing.

Olly is a wonderful character, too. Both of these kids have their share of heavy burdens that seem too difficult for kids to bear. Unfortunately, sick and abused kids are all too common in our messed up world. It’s no wonder that they are drawn to, love, and support each other. I thought, perhaps, that I could predict exactly where this love story was going, but I was wrong.

Perhaps that’s what I loved most about it. It seems as if it’s going to go in one direction, but despite Madeline being trapped in her own house for literally her whole life, this novel still manages to be full of adventure, suspense, and excitement. I would argue that there is a villain, and that villain is found in the most unexpected place.

The relationships between characters are perhaps the most moving part of the novel. Obviously, the reader is simply smitten with Olly and Madeline, but the relationship between Madeline and her mother, or Madeline and her nurse are equally, if not more, moving than Madeline’s romance with the boy next door. I found myself really wanting to play Phonetik Scrabble because it sounds like a lot more fun than regular Scrabble.

This has to be one of the best YA books I’ve read in a really long time. It’s full of heart, full of adventure, lots of soaring highs and devastating lows. There’s probably more emotion packed into these 300 pages than many entire series have in them. I highly recommend it, for those few people who haven’t read it yet!

Shadow Run

Shadow Run

Cover image for Shadow Run
Cover image for Shadow Run

Please excuse me if this blog post is formatted strangely. I’m writing it on my phone because the wifi at my house isn’t working and the landlady hasn’t gotten around to fixing it yet, so no computer for me.

I finished Shadow Run last night and was reasonably impressed. Typically, when it comes to books I’ve never heard of, I’m a little skeptical (I know, I know, but so much of YA is hit or miss). I got this one in LitJoyCrate, and sadly, the last book I read from a LJC was a dreadful disappointment (The Edge of Everything–just no).

Shadow Run is seemingly set, to quote a really obscure film that I’m sure no one has ever heard of, “in a galaxy far, far away.”  The names of planets do not resemble those found in our galaxy, but it could be that it’s set so far in the future that it IS our galaxy, but our arcane names for things have been long forgotten. In any case, I always assumed that would be the most fun part of being a sci-fi/fantasy writer–to imagine a universe where physics work the same way but everything else is different. Perhaps it IS a different universe and a different galaxy because what the heck is Shadow?? Besides beautiful and dangerous, that is.

“Nev has just joined the crew of the starship Kaitan Heritage as the cargo loader. His captain, Qole, is the youngest-ever person to command her own ship, but she brooks no argument from her crew of orphans, fugitives, and con men. Nev can’t resist her, even if her ship is an antique.
As for Nev, he’s a prince, in hiding on the ship. He believes Qole holds the key to changing galactic civilization, and when her cooperation proves difficult to obtain, Nev resolves to get her to his home planet by any means necessary.
But before they know it, a rival royal family is after Qole too, and they’re more interested in stealing her abilities than in keeping her alive.
Nev’s mission to manipulate Qole becomes one to save her, and to survive, she’ll have to trust her would-be kidnapper. He may be royalty, but Qole is discovering a deep reservoir of power–and stars have mercy on whoever tries to hurt her ship or her crew.” —Indiebound.org

Despite being in a rather gloomy mood lately and not feeling like reading much at all, this novel held my interest well. The characters were enjoyable, though I thought the crew members could have been a little more in-depth. It was going for that feeling you get from gangs like The Dregs or Manon Blackbeak’s Thirteen, but it fell a little short of the mark. Nev and Qole were excellent protagonists, though I hate that it seems like female characters have to be temperamental to be strong in a lot of books, including this one. I enjoyed that it didn’t feel like either one was more important than the other. They were equals, and they saved each other (thank you for not making Qole a damsel in distress despite her Captain’s status!).

Plot felt a little ponderous at first, though it quickly picked up. By the end it was one of those you can’t put down so you can sleep. It is definitely a stay-up-late-and-finish book. I thought the denouement was great, even if I did sort of predict how the crew would solve its main problem at the end.

I was also really impressed with how casually inclusive this novel is in regards to race and also gender.  One of the characters in Qole’s crew is gender fluid (though identifies for much of this novel as male), and each of his crew members accepts how he chooses to identify at any given time and change their use of pronouns accordingly. They also accept and nurture his burgeoning relationship with another male member of the crew. It’s not a major plot point–it’s just the way that character is written. It’s nice to see themes of acceptance in a book for kids.

Of course, at its ending, it is obvious that the immediate problem of the novel is solved, but the galaxy is still massively messed up, thereby leaving room for a second novel, at least. Thankfully, there’s no love triangle–a trend it seems that smart YA authors are trying to phase out.

This is a great space sci-fi for readers of this genre. Lots of action and adventure, and they don’t shy away from the violence necessary to a war in space. Characters are likable and some are complex, making them sympathetic and readable. I’d definitely read a follow up, if one came out.

Two YA books: One Good, One Terrible

Two YA books: One Good, One Terrible

One Good:

Crown Duel
Crown Duel

This novel, which is actually two shorter novels in one thick volume (Crown Duel and Court Duel), was one of my favorite books in high school. I remember being really influenced by these stories in my creative writing class in college, and in my romantic expectations.

“Young Countess Meliara swears to her dying father that she and her brother will defend their people from the growing greed of the king. That promise leads them into a war for which they are ill-prepared, which threatens the very people they are trying to protect. But war is simple compared to what follows, in peacetime. Meliara is summoned to live at the royal palace, where friends and enemies look alike, and intrigue fills the dance halls and the drawing rooms. If she is to survive, Meliara must learn a whole new way of fighting–with wits and words and secret alliances. In war, at least, she knew in whom she could trust. Now she can trust no one.”–Indiebound

First of all, Meliara is great. She is probably one of the first badass girls I ever encountered within a novel (Alanna was probably the first). I’m pretty sure she’s a precursor to all of these “strong female characters” that people love to talk about. For a story that comes pretty close to a fairy tale, its protagonist blows through all of the expectations of what a royal woman is supposed to do. She was fighting in wars and saving the kingdom before everyone was doing it: the hipster countess.

I digress. The writing is rougher than I remember it being, but I still enjoyed it greatly. I love the characters, both good and bad, although the villains could be fleshed out a little better, I think. The story is gripping and engaging, and I think I devoured this sizable volume in just a day or two. The only thing that ruined it for me was the short story that’s included at the end. I felt like Mel is a completely different character in it than she is in the novels themselves. Where she’s fierce and confident in the novels, she seems cowed, insecure, and way more into girly stuff than usual in the story. I wasn’t a fan. If you read the novels, skip the story if you can resist.

One Terrible:

Magonia
Magonia

Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. I hated this book. I’m really surprised that I even finished. I was excited to read it because it’s physically beautiful (never judge a book by its cover) and Neil Gaiman endorsed it (thanks for letting me down, Neil). This story was terrible from start to finish.

“Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring YA debut is a fiercely intelligent, multilayered fantasy where Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in a story about a girl caught between two worlds . . . two races . . . and two destinies. Aza Ray Boyle is drowning in thin air. Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak, to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name. Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world and found, by another. Magonia. Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power, but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies fate of the whole of humanity including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?” Indiebound

Another comparison to big names like Gaiman and Green just to sell a title, but it’s lies, lies, lies. It comes nowhere close to either of the stories told by those masters. It’s murky and difficult to understand in the beginning. Aza’s illness is weird and unexplainable. It seems like it’s going to be another story about a disagreeable teenager with a terminal illness, like Side Effects May Vary. But then out of nowhere it becomes this really, REALLY strange fantasy novel. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to know how to effectively blend a realistic story with fantasy, and the result is pathetic and brackish.

The element of fantasy in this world had the potential to be interesting, but this world of sky ships is populated by…wait for it…..anthropomorphic bird people. Shut up. Literally, the whole time I was reading it I was picturing this:

anthropomorphic bird people
anthropomorphic bird people

…and it was awful.

Please don’t read this book. The world is full of really great books. Skip this one and spend your time on one that’s worth it.