& Fridays: Ampersand Read’s Best Books of the Year

Ah, we’ve come to the end of another year (yeah….WHAT?!) and thus, the very important Third Annual Ampersand Read Best Books of the Year Awards! Or TAARBBOTYA if you want a title that requires an obnoxiously long acronym (here’s looking at you, A Court of Mist and Fury, or should I say ACOMAF?!) HUZZAH! HOORAY! AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!

It’s been a pretty damn good year of reading. Not that I’ve had many bad years, really. I found that I’ve read an incredible number of good sequels this year. It was quite hard to narrow it down. Without further ago (because I added some categories this time so it’s a long awards ceremony now):

Most Surprising

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens, May 2016

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas.

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

I almost crowned this book in “Best Sequel” and THEN I thought it might be “Best Twist,” because this book, second in a series, feels like such a different book than the first. It has stronger characters, and this huge, sweeping plot that sets up so much for the books to come. My jaw dropped multiple times at how much I loved this book. I liked A Court of Thorns and Roses. I LOVED A Court of Mist and Fury. There is so much to fangirl about, and I became so invested in the world and the characters. Most of all, I wasn’t expecting these changes and by the end, I couldn’t see how the story could be any other way.

 

Most Beautiful

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

I’ve got a thing for beautiful stories. Stories that maybe aren’t the most action packed, maybe aren’t the most succinct or as brief as they could be, but damn do they know how to place and write a sentence. McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway does a lot in a small space. At just over 150 pages, it’s rather short for a novel. It takes a lot to set up the world of a book, let alone a book where children fall into other worlds: you must set up dozens of other little stories (the worlds the children fall into) in the one big story (a safe haven for them to meet others like them). But the language evokes such feeling in this novel; it is small but talks about very big things.

Best Start of a Series

nevernight

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

The sequel to Nevernight does not even have a name yet, and it is already on my calendar to be ready to buy it. The writing style/language is polarizing: you either jump in with both feet and love it, or you fight the book the whole way. I ate it all up with a spoon, and now I want more. The premise of the story – a Hogwarts-style school for assassins where someone starts killing off the students – is just the tip of the iceberg. It is funny and beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Can August 2017 get here sooner?!

Best Sequel

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

I was kind of hoping the sequel to last year’s brilliant City of Stairs would be from the perspective of Sigrud – the ass-kicking muscle to Shara’s quiet politician. But war general Turyin Mulaghesh does just fine, expanding the already vividly complex world Stairs began, and turning it a bit on its head. Second books in a series often slump, and are just a bridge to the final act. This sequel turns everything up to eleven, and I can’t wait for City of Miracles, out in April.

Honorable Mentions

So. Many. Other. Contenders. Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo’s sequel to last year’s stupendous Six of Crows was just as good as its predecessor, shipping all the best ships and hiding all the right secrets from readers until just the right moment to shock and awe us.

And Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman was crazy great as well. But I’m in love with the series, so I went into reading the sequel a little biased.

Best Cover

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman,.

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman,.

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

I just….so much work goes into these books! There’s art, there’s story, there’s graphics and diagrams and just so so SO many hours of genius. You only get an inkling of how involved the creation of these books are when you look at the covers, but it’s a good inkling. The transparent, watercolored dustjacket, the censored sections of files, revealed only in bits and pieces, the layout of it all: AMAZING.

Honorable Mentions

Smoke by Dan Vyleta features a beautiful painting by Claude Monet that is so atmospherically PERFECT for the novel and place in time. Plus, the colors are just plain pretty. We Could be Beautiful by Swan Huntley is highly reflective – a stray sunbeam and you could blind passerby if you were reading in public. But its subtle play on an out-of-focus yet still beautiful subject, and suggestion of a mirror is the perfect choice for a book that deals a lot with image and impressions.

Best Character

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Jesper from Crooked Kingdom (and Six of Crows)

Ooh a toughy. Not only do I have to narrow a choice down to a book I read this year, but to a single character that I liked “best.” Which is essentially impossible, because there were so many good guys and gals and monsters to choose from. And everyone in Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom is amazing. But I came to find Jesper to be one of my favorites. He’s the witty banter-er of the group, the comic relief. But he also has a complex backstory, and I feel like he could have a spinoff series of his own (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!). Plus he and Wylan are adorable.

Honorable Mentions

Too many to count. General Turyin Mulaghesh from City of Stairs, Rhysand from A Court of Mist and Fury, Darrow from Morning Star, and Nancy from Every Heart a Doorway to name just a very few.

Book I Most Want to See on Screen

Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

AGAIN. Can you imagine this movie? I can. It would be AWESOME. I am a sucker for clever characters whose plots are one step ahead of me, and I love that in the movies that I watch, too. Scenes in these books seem to play out very cinematically. Now who wants to direct?

Best Book I Read All Year

I couldn’t actually pinpoint just one (although I will in a moment for the sake of the awards. THE SHOW MUST GO ON!). I read so many books this year that I really liked, that it feels almost dishonest to say “I liked THIS one the best at the time of year/the week/the mood I was in that I read it.” Morning Star by Pierce Brown capped off the Red Rising trilogy so, so well. City of Blades and Gemina were superb sequels to series that I drool over. Nevernight was a fantastic start to what is probably going to be a beautiful friendship between me and Jay Kristoff’s new series.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire was just straight up amazing, and for how short it is, I know the book will stay with me a long time. The characters, the themes, the unbelievable potential for more stories: fantastic

& Review: Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers October 2016

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers October 2016

The Book Itself: Well, they’ve done it again: another incredible cover, full of intricate detail and hints at the story within. I cannot imagine NOT having physical copies of these beautiful books. The question now is: what color will the third installment be? I’m thinking purple…or maybe green.

My Review: 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 are 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.

I don’t know if you remember, but I read a little book called Illuminae last year and then I gushed profusely in my review and never stopped talking about it. It was also one of the best books I read last year.

So I had Gemina’s release date in my calendar for A WHILE. And come October I was getting stoked. A few days before its release, I retrieved my copy of Illuminae from a friend I had lent it to and I re-read it and loved it exactly as I had the first time. It was just as impressive, just as beautiful and complex even when I knew the characters, the plot, and the twists. Please, please please, let Gemina be just as amazing, I thought.

Good news. It too is amazing. The hardcover has the same detailed panels of the plot, censored as if the government is shielding you from the truth. The translucent dust jacket is a gorgeous blue. I just want to keep it on a shelf and stare at it all day long. But the temptation to re-read it would be too strong.

Gemina takes place minutes after the events in Illuminae, from the perspective of jump station Heimdall, the goal our ragged fleet of ships was striving toward in the first book. There is already a dark cloud surrounding Heimdall, as they never answered our survivor’s distress calls, and rumors flew that BeiTech had already destroyed or taken over the place.

Our couple this time is Hanna, the captain’s daughter, and Nik, a bad boy drug dealer who belongs to a Russian-mob-type family (ooh, edgy). They will, of course, be love interests. But our girl isn’t a snarky hacker with pink hair this time. No, she’s a rather spoiled party girl who just happens to be well-versed in several types of martial arts. Our boy isn’t the quarterback of a space-football team. He’s a prison-tattooed, capital M Misunderstood tough guy. But to be honest, the rest of the book’s premise is similar.

In Illuminae, we had three major adversaries: a fleet coming to destroy any witness to BeiTech’s attack on Kerenza, an artificial intelligence system that seemed to be going haywire, and a zombie-like virus that drove its hosts into a murderous frenzy (never will I hear or read the phrase “Don’t look at me” again and not shudder). Here are Gemina’s Big Three: a fleet coming to take over jump station Heimdall to use it for their own nefarious purposes, a large group of highly trained thugs-for-hire onboard who are there to subdue the populace so BeiTech’s fleet can succeed, and alien parasites resembling those face huggers from Alien.

See any similarities? Three crazy obstacles: check.

Two crazy teenagers who, against all odds and with the help of threat of imminent death manage to come together and fall in lurve: check.

Countdowns to imminent doom every dozen pages or so: check.

Twists abound: check.

I don’t mind the similarities, really, I don’t. I loved Illuminae and its structure and the way it made the concepts fresh and exciting. But it kind of seemed like they were trying to make the same concepts fresh and exciting here. The Phobos virus in Illuminae scared the crap out of me. The alien parasites in Gemina had one creepy scene in the dark and then they were kind of pushed aside. People under the influence of Phobos haunted my dreams. The face huggers here seemed a bit like an afterthought.

I will put my biggest problem with the plotting of Gemina in a spoiler zone below. Overall, it did a lot of the same things Illuminae did, with a slightly different twist. I still ate it up with a freaking spoon, and I will countdown just as hard for the third installment, but I’m a little surprised it stuck with the same formula.

What Gemina did really well is made me care for a third main character: Nik’s cousin, Ella. Ella might be stuck in a chair, but boy is she an active character (and also everyone would be totally screwed without her). It also set up the main structure for the showdown to come in book three: namely, the ultimate takedown of BeiTech. This book is set up as evidence in a judicial trial against BeiTech, and the bigwigs at the company play a bigger role in this book. The cliffhanger ending makes me need the third book like, yesterday.

Overall, this book is again a work of art. It is still wonderfully complex and unpredictable. And again it blows my mind the amount of work that went into crafting this amazing story. I’m hoping the third book strays a bit from the formula the other two have set up, but I am still so, so, SO excited for it!!

Spoiler-gripe below (PLEASE DON’T STRAY IF YOU DO NOT WANT GEMINA SPOILED!)

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We good?

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They tried to make me believe the male love interest died, and it turned out he didn’t. In fact, they did this twice in Gemina. This is a case of fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Except this time I wasn’t really fooled. Wait a minute…I’ve seen this before, I thought, as the light faded from our bad boy’s eyes. Twice. It didn’t emotionally impact me the way it should have because I knew it wasn’t real. This time it wasn’t an AI lying to our female protagonist to get her to do its bidding, but I knew in some way Nik was going to end up being alive the whole time. If the third installment tries to do this again, I might be forced to roll my eyes.

Also, there’s a page where the names of a few dozen people are artfully arranged, representing a group of people who have died due to something horrible. Except that Kaufman and Kristoff used names of fellow authors for the victims. So instead of an emotional sucker punch, instead of feeling like innocent people, innocent characters, died, I just thought, Oh look, the author of the Grisha trilogy. The author of Beautiful Creatures. And that woman wrote Red Queen. It took a serious moment and almost poked fun at it.

My Grade: A

& Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2016

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2016

The Book Itself: The covers of this series have been so clever! The tattered wings of the crow form the spires of a city this time. And the edges of all the pages are dipped in a bright, vivid red. Atmospheric and just plain awesome.

My Review: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and left crippled by the kidnapping of a valuable team member, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of magic in the Grisha world.

I adore books and characters that are cleverer than me. I am drawn to crafty thief-types who have orchestrated something so complex, so diabolical, than just when they’re backed into a corner, and I’m frantically reading pages to find out how they get out of it, they pull something off that I never saw coming. It takes truly talented authors to do that. It makes me both envious as a writer and a very happy reader.

Six of Crows was one of the best examples of that that I read last year. The characters were haunting and witty and so, so clever. Kaz Brekker, the leader of the charming band of misfits, was the epitome of that (although he left most of the snark to Jesper, the sharpshooter).

But the first book let Kaz do the planning, and focused on bringing the disparate characters into a cohesive team. This book backs that team into corner after corner. But this time, they’re unified, closer to one another emotionally, and they hatch plans together instead of relying on Kaz alone.

And it’s not just one heist, either. The team is trying to get back at Van Eck for double-crossing them and stealing Inej in the first book. Kaz has his revenge fantasy against Pekka Rollins. Eventually the ENTIRE city seems against them (as in, there are wanted posters). This isn’t just breaking into the Ice Court. This is getting back at multiple people, simultaneously, all while trying to stay sane, friendly, and oh yeah, alive. The story dragged a bit for me when they started plotting their next moves. In the first book, Kaz did all of that, and he did all of that offstage. Not one person knew everything up his sleeve (which created some understandable tension). So we didn’t see the discarded ideas, the obstacles he had to puzzle through. We see more of that here in Crooked Kingdom. I think it was definitely necessary, and earned, but it took me a bit to adjust.

Leigh Bardugo is also just excellent at banter and dialogue. I wish I were half as verbosely clever as these characters in real life.

Crooked Kingdom was much more emotional, overall. I was rather surprised that all of them emerged relatively unscathed in Six of Crows. Uh-oh, I thought. That means someone’s going to bite the dust in the next one. There’s no way all of them are making it out alive. I would never go so far as to tell you if that’s true. But I will say that the character development throughout the novel, and the resolutions for each of them had me tearing up several times. Wylan, who I didn’t feel particularly attached to in the first book, gets a backstory in Crooked Kingdom. And it’s pretty heartbreaking. And you knew Inej had a terrible past, but now you get to hear more about it and cry the requisite tears. Bardugo had the unenviable task of making you care for, developing, and providing resolution for not one, not two, but three major relationships amidst this cast of characters. I was pulling for every one of them. And while maybe not all of them got the ending I was hoping for, I admire the way I was made to care for them (Jesper and Wylan FOR LIFE, by the way…).

I will say that I wish the ending had…more. There are major moves to wrap up each character’s story. But in the end I felt a little empty. I don’t know whether I truly felt that there were loose ends, or if I just really, really want more books featuring these characters. But you leave with everyone setting off to do some amazing things (MUST…NOT…SPOIL…), and in a way it felt too nicey-nice to me. I need the grit of this world and these characters back! Bring them all back together for one last heist! For FIVE MORE HEISTS! ALL THE HEISTS!!

At the reader’s panel I went to, where Leigh Bardugo was one of the authors, someone asked if her next book would include any these characters, or be in the same world. She, of course, couldn’t say yay or nay, probably because her publisher made her swear a blood oath not to. But she did say, “It’s a big map,” which basically means hold onto your hats, we’re heading back to Grisha land. But can we get everyone here back too? Pretty please?!

It’s a terrific sequel, and an amazing duology. Please, go read it.

My Grade: A

& Fridays: While I Was Out

Okay, so you know what they say about the best-laid plans? My plans for Ampersand Read have always been to have a steady stream of blog posts – at LEAST one review and one Friday book-themed post per week. And to have at least a month’s worth of posts scheduled in advance, just in case life gets busy (which it always does).

Well I’ve sucked at it, to put it lightly. I got two other Uppercase Boxes back at the end of summer, and never posted what I got! I have gone on not one, but TWO trips, and have said not a word about them! I participated in a 24-hour readathon, and never posted a follow up or review about it. I started AND FINISHED National Novel Writing Month AND DIDN’T TELL YOU ABOUT IT.

So I apologize for my procrastinating on writing posts and lack of planning in general. I feel I have neglected Ampersand Read a bit, and I want to make it a bigger priority, especially coming into the new year, as it is still something I very much like to do, and I think it could be much bigger and better than ever with a little more attention and love from me.

So hello! To new and old readers alike: there are a lot of posts coming your way in the next few days, so get excited! Some posts to look out for in 2017 include more Coffee Table posts (where I feature lovely coffee table books as well as coffee tables to put them on), gift giving guides for upcoming holidays throughout the year, Friday post series featuring writer’s tools, “Literary Lunches” (where I create a meal based on a scene or overall theme of a book), and “From Page to Screen” (where I cast real-life people into the roles of characters I am reading about).

WHAT HAPPENED WHILE I WAS OUT:

  • The craziest U.S. election known to man happened in the middle of National Novel Writing Month (and totally threw me off…or maybe I just used that as an excuse)
  • I nevertheless COMPLETED NANOWRIMO 2016! Making this the fourth year in a row I wrote a novel in just 30 short days! Who knows if even this one will see the light of day again (although I do like the concept more than most of my other NaNoWriMo stories in the past), but I did it!!
  • I went to EUROPE and toured dozens of beautiful Christmas markets while I was there!
  • I started preparing for my trip to LONDON in April, where a large chunk of time will be devoted to books and geeking out over Harry Potter!
  • I took a calligraphy class and thus started a new hobby! I’ll be trying to hand-letter some blog headings from here on in!