If you buy one book this week…

…buy this one!

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 608 pp.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 608 pp.

Illuminae was being heavily promoted at BEA and BookCon this past May. And when I say heavily, I mean HEAVILY. (It was the book featured on the stairs, if you know what I mean. Sadly, I didn’t get a picture. I always feel weird taking shots of strangers, and there were always multiple people on that staircase.) I saw a stack of ARCs against a wall at the Penguin Random House booth, asked if it was okay to take one, and immediately fell in love with the cover and its slew of redactions. (Also, it was a hardcover ARC. I’d never seen that before.)

It was one of the first books I read when I got home, and I could not put it down. It’s about six hundred pages, but it never feels long or boring. Everything in this book is necessary; there’s nothing in this doorstop of a novel that doesn’t need to be there, that doesn’t contribute to its sweeping space-travel-love-story-biochemical-warfare-starforce-battle bundle of awesome.

The format is brilliant: the book is presented as a dossier of evidence compiled after a large corporation attacks (and annihilates) a small space colony. There are chat transcripts, spaceship schematics, staff memos, personal journals, and many other methods of presenting information. And they work together brilliantly. The world-building is invisible, seamless, and perfect. Futuristic slang and ways of life are just absorbed and never explained; these authors are magicians, and I can never catch them working behind the scenes.

Illuminae is unlike anything I’ve read before, and I mean that in the best possible way. Every time I thought I knew where things were headed, the plot twisted in a new direction. It kept me guessing — and invested — and awake — for hours on end, and I loved it. The characters are great; I loved Kady, Ezra, James, and Byron, and AIDAN terrified me. The psychotic, power-tripping AI made me wonder if I could continue to trust Siri to navigate me in new neighborhoods. (An overreaction, I know, but when you see what AIDAN does, you might understand where I’m coming from.) The dialogue is crisp, funny, and heartbreaking. And the pages of photos after the incident on the Copernicus…a breathtaking choice that stopped me in my tracks both times I read the book.

In case you’re not getting the picture yet, I adored this book. It was just as good the second time around as it was the first. And, although I’ve already made good use of my advance copy, I plan to buy the finished copy as well. This is the kind of book I want to see in the world; it’s entertaining and smart, and I just…SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! [Basically, although I’m on a limited book-buying budget and I technically already have a copy of this book, I think it’s important to support the sorts of projects you want to see more of. And I want to see more things like this.]

All in all: I heavily recommend this book. It made me laugh, tear up, hold my breath, and get goosebumps. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the trilogy is headed.

Review: When by Victoria Laurie

When by Victoria Laurie. Disney-Hyperion. 336 pp.

When by Victoria Laurie. Disney-Hyperion. 336 pp.

Maddie Fynn is a shy high school junior, cursed with an eerie intuitive ability: she sees a series of unique digits hovering above the foreheads of each person she encounters. Her earliest memories are marked by these numbers, but it takes her father’s premature death for Maddie and her family to realize that these mysterious digits are actually death dates, and just like birthdays, everyone has one.

Forced by her alcoholic mother to use her ability to make extra money, Maddie identifies the quickly approaching death date of one client’s young son, but because her ability only allows her to see thewhen and not the how, she’s unable to offer any more insight. When the boy goes missing on that exact date, law enforcement turns to Maddie.

Soon, Maddie is entangled in a homicide investigation, and more young people disappear and are later found murdered. A suspect for the investigation, a target for the murderer, and attracting the attentions of a mysterious young admirer who may be connected to it all, Maddie’s whole existence is about to be turned upside down. Can she right things before it’s too late? 

Here’s the crazy thing about this book: the description, although solid, doesn’t do it justice. It’s even better than it sounds. It’s full of heart and pathos while still managing to incorporate some action and romance; there’s something for everyone. My heart broke for Maddie as she struggled to come to terms with her mom’s alcoholism; it raced as she strove to help the FBI find the murderer in time; and it soared in the final scene as she finally revealed her own deathdate and its significance.

I flew through this book. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t read it sooner, especially since I’ve loved every title by Hyperion that I’ve picked up. I never thought I’d have a favorite publisher, but I think I’ve found mine! I guess I should have known. I mean, I love Disney, right? So why wouldn’t I love stuff put out there by Disney Books Group?

The only criticism I can find for this book (other than that the main character calls her mother “Ma,” which always makes me think of Danny Castellano) is that it might be a little too happily-ever-after for some readers. I didn’t mind it, though; in fact, I think the book ended in such a sweet, satisfying way that for once a happy ending didn’t feel contrived.

All in all: Innovative and engaging. As far as this book is concerned, my only regret is that I didn’t pick it up sooner.

Review: This Shattered World

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner. Disney-Hyperion. 390 pp.

This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner. Disney-Hyperion. 390 pp.

I enjoyed These Broken Stars quite a bit, so I was quick to request This Shattered World when I saw it on NetGalley. I was a little (okay, a lot) disappointed when I saw that the second book in the series wasn’t going to be about Lilac and Tarver (great names, right?!). I mean, I wanted to know what was going to happen to them and how their journey would turn out. So I picked up the second installation, sadly expecting it to be inferior to the first. And boy, am I glad that I was wrong!

This Shattered World is set on Avon, a planet that’s supposed to be undergoing renovations to make it more habitable and commercially profitable. However, the interventions aren’t going as planned, and that’s not just because of a group of native rebels calling themselves the Fianna. The planet itself seems to be fighting all efforts to improve it, and the military group stationed there to ensure the transition goes smoothly is starting to grow concerned.

Jubilee Chase, a captain of the military force on Avon, is kidnapped by Flynn, a rebel leader who hopes to save his home in the most peaceful manner possible. Many of the Fianna are thirsty for blood, however, and Flynn helps Jubilee to escape shortly after bringing her to his people’s headquarters. Our two main characters find themselves in a tricky situation, each wanting to do what’s best for everyone involved, and (of course) they ultimately decide to work together for the good of everyone involved.

The world-building is good in this one, done without too many asides, and the characters are well-fleshed-out, which made me happy. (I hate it when the plot’s interesting but the characters do absolutely nothing for me.) I loved Jubilee’s dream sequences; I thought they were beautifully symbolic without being too heavy-handed. I probably could have done without the romance, just because I don’t think every story needs a love element, but I appreciated that the characters fell for one another over time, and after observing each other in action, rather than immediately. Also, let’s just say that I was thrilled to catch a glimpse of some characters from the first book. I totally didn’t see them coming and literally gasped when they were mentioned.

All in all: A great sequel, something that’s increasingly rare. Worth reading, but read the first book first to better appreciate it.

(Im)Partial Reviews: Second Installment

It’s that time again: time for me to tell you a bit about the books that I just couldn’t slog through. I tried, I really did, but I love reading and refuse to ruin my favorite pastime with books that just aren’t doing it for me. Here goes!

High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates. Mysterious Press. 224 pp.

High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates. Mysterious Press. 224 pp.

Let me start by saying that I usually enjoy Joyce Carol Oates. I haven’t read a ton of her work, but I’ve enjoyed the stuff of hers that I’ve read…until now. My first exposure to Oates was as a college freshman; we were assigned “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I found it chilling then, and thinking back on it still terrifies me. The other work of hers that stands out in my mind is “ID,” featured in The Best American Short Stories 2011, which I also enjoyed.  When I saw High Crime Area was an offering on Edelweiss, I thought I’d finally pick up a collection of short work solely by Oates. And I just…couldn’t stay interested. I got about halfway, and although a couple of the stories were somewhat chilling, none of them grabbed me or made a lasting impression. I still think Joyce Carol Oates is a talented writer, but the stories in this collection just weren’t for me. I can’t read well-crafted sentences if they don’t say anything interesting.

Carniepunk. Gallery Books. 433 pp.

Carniepunk. Gallery Books. 433 pp.

This was billed as an “urban fantasy anthology” in which every story took place at a circus. I think there’s a lot that can be done with a circus setting (if you read my review of The Night Circus, you know I’m dying to visit that fictional venue), but these stories fell flat for me. Many of them were based on characters from series that I hadn’t read, but none of them interested me enough to make me want to check out the related novels. After a few attempts, I let this one fall by the wayside.

Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline. St. Martin's Press. 352 pp.

Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline. St. Martin’s Press. 352 pp.

Okay. Last one (for now). I got a review copy of this one at BookCon, read the first fifty pages, and jumped ship. The writing is overly simplistic and inconsistent; the main character sounds like a lawyer at times (which she is) but at other times her thoughts and words are those of a precocious middle schooler. The “mystery” was just getting started when I gave up, and I considered sticking around to give the plot a chance, but I hated the writing too much to continue.

Aaand that’s my latest list of books you should probably leave unopened. Until next time!

Summer Reading List: YA

Next installation in my Summer Reading List: Young Adult! I usually enjoy YA, but this batch of books left me feeling underwhelmed. Hopefully I’ll find a new book to love soon; I need my faith in Really Good Books to be renewed.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Delacorte. 227 pp.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Delacorte. 227 pp.

This was heavily promoted at BookCon, with chapter samples handed out and a huge board which guests were encouraged to graffiti with their own lies. There was a blurb from John Green, which also caught my eye, and, well…it seemed promising.

But…no. When will I learn that the Next Big Thing isn’t usually my thing? When will I remember that I like John Green infinitely more as a YouTube personality than as a writer? (Note: I still find him very readable, but he’s not in my list of favorites.) Maybe I set myself up for failure with this one. The characters weren’t all that likable or interesting, the romance fell flat, and the “huge plot twist,” although a little surprising, wasn’t mind-blowing. I think this might be one of those YAs that lacks cross-generational appeal.

Feuds by Avery Hastings. St. Martin's Griffin. 272 pp.

Feuds by Avery Hastings. St. Martin’s Griffin. 272 pp.

Confession time: I didn’t read Romeo and Juliet until a year or two ago. I have both undergrad and graduate degrees in English literature, but I guess everyone assumed we’d read it in high school (I hadn’t) and didn’t assign it. I was in no hurry to read it myself because I figured I’d just be annoyed by the main characters…and I was right, although there’s also some great writing, of course.

So if a tale by the Bard couldn’t do it for me, you can imagine how I felt about a dull, sloppily-told remake. Love at first sight needs to be done ridiculously well in order to be believable; this wasn’t. The scenes of dramatic tension were ineffective, and by the end of the book, I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. I feel that the concept of this one has promise, but it needs to be stronger to work.

Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper. Little, Brown. 398 pp.

Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper. Little, Brown. 398 pp.

Another freebie from BookCon, this one is based on an interesting premise: a family of witches protects the interests of a small whaling island until one woman decides not to step into her role, refusing also to allow her daughter, Avery, to become the witch. Obviously, the islanders are none too thrilled about this — and neither is Avery, for that matter, who has been eagerly awaiting the day that she could take her grandmother’s place. The writing is clean enough and easy to read, and I enjoyed the story.

But (yes, there’s a but) it reminded me of a sort of B-level Gemma Doyle story. (How much did I enjoy the Gemma Doyle trilogy? Find out here.) There’s a family history of magic, a mother who’s determined to keep her magical-powers-budding daughter safe, an exotic and magical romantic interest, a protagonist who’s just not ladylike enough for the time into which she was born…too similar for my tastes. It’s not a bad book by any means, but I think Libba Bray did better with the subject matter — and she did it first.

Are We There Yet? by David Levithan. Alfred A. Knopf. 215 pp.

Are We There Yet? by David Levithan. Alfred A. Knopf. 215 pp.

A pair of brothers, one in high school and one in his early twenties, are tricked by their parents into taking an Italian vacation together. Elijah and Danny couldn’t be any more different, and it’s not just because there are seven years between them. Elijah, a dreamer who lives solely in the moment, is baffled by Danny, a straitlaced ad executive. As their travels progress, though, they are able to find a bit of common ground and end their trip accepting of their differences.

If you’re new here — or if you forgot — I love David Levithan. Love. Him. It’s not about the plot, or even about the characters…it’s about the language. I can’t seem to get enough of his poetic prose and find myself re-reading most of his books at least once. (The only exception so far is Love Is the Higher Law, which I found to be just average.) This wasn’t one of my favorites by him, but it’s still a beautiful, above-average YA novel. I’d say it’s worth checking out.

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld. Simon Pulse. 608 pp.

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld. Simon Pulse. 608 pp.

I think the best word to describe Afterworlds is “ambitious.” It’s the story of Darcy Patel, a debut author who scored a ridiculously-high advance just out of high school. As she spends her first year on her own, writing in New York, Darcy learns and grows and all that jazz. In alternating chapters, though, the reader also gets to read Darcy’s novel. So basically you spend a chapter following Darcy around New York, then you spend a chapter following Lizzie, Darcy’s protagonist, as she learns to navigate the Underworld. You get used to the story changes after a while, and it’s a really interesting concept, though at 600 pages the two-books-in-one thing gets a bit lengthy.

I was more impressed by the concept of this book than I was by the execution. Bouncing back and forth between two stories makes it difficult to get to know any of the characters…or maybe they were just sort of flat. Nisha, Darcy’s younger sister, was by far my favorite. She’s spunky and has her own voice and I would totally read a book featuring her. Everyone else, though, started to sound the same after a while, and there was a time or two when I couldn’t tell whether I was reading a Darcy chapter or a Lizzie chapter because the writing was so similar. (To be fair, the narrative point of view is different for each girl, but they still manage to sound the same.) If you don’t mind the page count and are hooked by the concept of the book, check it out. If you want a moving storyline or engaging characters, you may feel like you wasted your time. I’m finding myself somewhere between the two.

Keeping It Brief!

I’m reading more than I’m writing lately, and as a result my pile of read-and-waiting-to-be-reviewed books is getting a little overwhelming. When things get overwhelming, I procrastinate even more than usual, so this has become a bit of a no-win situation for me. Rather than putting it off any longer, I decided to write a handful of short-and-sweet reviews in order to cut down on my workload a bit. Here we go!

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes. Plume. 400 pp.

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes. Plume. 400 pp.

I entered to win The Mystery of Mercy Close from Goodreads’s First Reads program because every time I read a mystery I thoroughly enjoy myself and wonder why I don’t read mysteries more often…and then I don’t pick one up for another year or so. I was happy to win this one because it gave me a reason to dip my toes back into a genre I’d been away from for a while.

Helen Walsh is a main character unlike any other: she’s misanthropic and cynical, yet she loves and values the people closest to her. She fights tooth and nail against her depression while trying to keep it under wraps. Her rants made me laugh out loud, while her inner turmoil broke my heart a little bit.

The mystery itself is a slow burner; there are more interrogation scenes than action, and there wasn’t much (if any) suspense. Some mysteries keep me on the edge of my seat, and this one really didn’t. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. But reading this book was more like untying a knot: it took time, but the details were interesting.

All in all: Not the best mystery I’ve ever read, but still not bad.

17 First Kisses by Rachael Allen. HarperTeen. 319 pp.

17 First Kisses by Rachael Allen. HarperTeen. 319 pp.

This was a terribly generic YA novel. There was a little bit of everything: drinking, hooking up, boy drama, damaged reputations, family trauma, and feeling like nobody sees “the real you.” I don’t mean to trivialize any of those elements, because (as you know if you’ve ever read my reviews before) I really do enjoy the YA genre…*if* it’s done well. This book, however, felt kind of like a connect-the-dots instead of an actual painting. It was a quick, easy read, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking for a great YA work.

All in all: Might be enjoyable for teens, but I don’t think it has staying power.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares. Delacorte. 288 pp.

The Here and Now by Ann Brashares. Delacorte. 288 pp.

I read Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in high school and don’t really remember much about it except for the fact that it was a quick, fairly-light read. Oh! And the fact that four girls with significantly different body types all rocked the same pair of jeans. Seriously?! As someone who has to try on thirty pairs of jeans before finding one that fits (and that’s on a good day), I call shenanigans.

But back to Ann Brashares. I was intrigued by the idea that the author of such a girlie-girl classic was trying her hand at science fiction and was curious to see how it would go. And I was pleasantly surprised. I found Prenna’s personality to be lacking in the first half of the book, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or not. As she deviates from her “orders,” her personal desires emerge and she becomes much more interesting.

The time travel aspect was handled well, and I found the not-so-happy ending a refreshing change of pace. It was believable and yet it didn’t make me want to throw my book across the room. It made sense.

All in all: A solid effort and enjoyable read. Not the best YA I’ve read this year, but certainly not the worst, either.

Series Review: The Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. Delacorte. 403 pp.

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. Delacorte. 403 pp.

I bought the first book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy almost a decade ago but didn’t read it until last week. (How do you know a book has been sitting on your shelf, unread, for too long? When you bought it at Borders!) When I finally picked it up, I wanted to kick myself for not getting to it sooner.

I’m going to talk about the series as a whole instead of reviewing each book separately, partly to save time, but also because I found these books to be equally strong. Sometimes a series seems promising but withers away into a disappointingly-unrelated string of events. The Gemma Doyle books do no such thing. In fact, once the series had ended, my only complaint was that I wanted more. That’s saying something, because the final installment alone is over 800 pages.

These books are perfectly imperfect. The girls are friends one moment and driving each other crazy the next. The fantasy aspect is creative and fascinating. And the scary parts? I got goosebumps. Literally. One night, I was reading in bed after my husband had fallen asleep, and I refused to get up to pee (even though I had to) because I was afraid to venture into the dark hallway by myself. The only disappointment for me — and I won’t get into detail so you won’t be spoiled — is how the Kartik storyline ends. I understand the purpose of what happens, and I even appreciate it, but at the same time…grrrr!

There’s something else I want to talk about here, and that’s feminism. If you read this post, you know that Libba Bray makes me think a lot about what it means to be a girl. Here’s the thing about feminism: sometimes it’s so angry. And no, inequality is not a good thing, but being angry all the time isn’t going to solve anything. Libba Bray is my kind of feminist. Her books point out the differences in the way society treats  men and women, but they aren’t overly preachy. She makes me feel better about being a girl (not that I hate it, but I do hate the prejudices that come along with it) because I am in such strong company, and because we’re getting there, you know? And for that — and the sleepless nights that come with buying her books — I thank her.

All in all: Worth reading if you like YA or fantasy (especially gothic fantasy) or even if you like Victorian stuff. Basically, just read them.