& Review: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker Publisher: Random House January 2017

The Book Itself: A terrific blend of comic and reality. The bold color stripes melting down are one of the things that first drew me to this title, and even the title font seems hand-drawn.

My Review:

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

On the face of it, this book is about two female artists and how they deal with and help each other through some of life’s more brutal moments. Deeper than that, this story is about the things that break people and the things that repair people at the same time, and about love: love between friends, sisters, the fractured love of some families, and the crazy, teetering feeling of new love. Excuse the momentary foray into melodramatic sentimentality: this book is gorgeous, full of absolute devastation and wonderfully written, incandescent periods of bliss. In still some other words, it is a brilliant portrayal of life.

I didn’t really expect this book to scrape me so raw (does anyone really expect that really, when they pick up a book?) just as I didn’t really expect to find myself in so many character moments. I am not an artist – although one of my childhood ambitions was to become a cartoonist, my margin doodles these days would not inspire anyone – nor did I have the haunting background of either Mel or Sharon. But there were times when Sharon would say, describe something, or act – especially in the throes of a new relationship, or looking back on said relationship – where I had to sit back, where I had to physically stop reading the sentence, go back and re-read what had just struck me so hard. That’s me. I think/thought that way. I’ve done that before! were things I frequently thought. And more often I thought this during Sharon’s weak moments, during a cringe-worthy action or reaction. I saw myself in the flaws of another character.

And it was awesome.

The story is bookended by two major upsets in the character’s lives. I won’t spoil either of them, as you can’t even guess them from the book’s blurbs or synopsis. The plot is an emotional rollercoaster: there are screwed up families, twisted cartoons, drugs, sex, perversion, and great, monumental tragedy.

It is rather hard to describe and have an audience get what a cartoon or animation actually looks like. I can never be sure I pictured Mel and Sharon’s work accurately or even semi-accurately. I had to do a quick Google search sometimes for work they referenced just to get an idea of their inspirations (which was actually kind of cool). But I still felt like I could appreciate what they were doing as artists regardless.

The writing and the story it depicts is gritty and very raw sometimes: this is not a story for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not a lighthearted tale. But the story treats both the characters triumphant highs and bottom-scraping lows with the same deft touch. It’s really a beautiful, hard-to-watch-sometimes story. I can’t wait to see what else Kayla Rae Whitaker will come up with. She has another loyal reader with me

My Rating: 5 out of 5 graphite pencils

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& Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid Publisher: Atria Books, June 2017

The Book Itself: Very atmospheric of the story concept: a swoon-y ingenue figure all in satin. The font of the title seems serious and dramatic, hinting at the darker themes inside.

My Review:

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

Sometimes “fluffy beach reads” surprise me.

You know the genre. Candy-colored covers about working women finding love, about quirky families at weddings, about scandals where every character comes out okay in the end. They’re meant to go in your beach bag, to go along with you for the long weekend, and they have relatively straightforward storylines where you don’t have to parse through multiple meanings in the plot.

This ain’t your typical beach read. At least not for me. It has a few of the token elements: pretty woman on the cover, a scandalous yet mysterious main character who is a mash-up between Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor (with some Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn thrown in for good measure), a lovely love story (although not with who you think), and scandal after scandal (where not everyone gets through unscathed).

But it is so much more beautiful than that, and more complicated. I don’t know why this one drew me in from all the other options in June’s Book of the Month selection. Maybe I thought it would be light and fluffy to its core and something about summer makes me want to read breezy books. But I tore through this book and was profoundly touched by the events and the characters inside.

Evelyn Hugo herself is written wonderfully. She’s flawed – boy, does she do some stupid, cruel, and ugly things – but you still find yourself rooting for her because she is also generous, talented, kind, and loving to people throughout her life. She is very believable as an Old Hollywood celebrity, and the setting around her comes alive as well. Her real love story is haunting and beautiful and different from the forbidden/doomed/heartbreaking love stories I’ve read before.

Hugo tells her story to an unknown journalist – Monique Grant – so it’s no spoiler that there is a reason this reporter is sitting with this celebrity to hear this story. I found the portions of the book told from Monique’s perspective outside of Evelyn’s reminiscences to be weaker than the rest of the story. The story is narrated from a point after Monique has already heard everything Evelyn has to say. She refers a few too many times to how angry she is with Hugo, and how this big secret changes everything. It is an attempt to drum up tension for the big reveal on How These Two Women Are Connected, but it feels a little forced after several repetitions. I am already eager to find out why Evelyn chose Monique out of any journalist she could get for this project. I don’t need to be wound up again and again: the story itself already does that.

And there simply isn’t enough with Monique. Although we get a little bit about her struggling with her heritage, with her failing marriage, and a few scenes about her getting up the courage to ask her boss for a raise, it seems to pale in comparison to Evelyn’s story. We don’t spend as much time with her, despite the fact that she’s the one telling us hers and Evelyn’s stories. And the time we do spend with her seems more superficial.

Despite my minor gripes with Monique, I found this story beautifully moving. It deals a lot with secrets and lies and the faces we put on to look better in front of other people. The big secret between Evelyn and Monique did catch me by surprise, and I had an emotional response at the end of the story. Read it for the fluff, stay for the realness.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 tabloid headlines

& Review: The Song of the Orphans by Daniel Price

The Song of the Orphans by Daniel Price Publisher: Blue Rider Press, July 2017

The Book Itself: Simple and graphic. Truth be told, I like the cover of Flight of the Silvers a wee bit better, but this story speaks louder than this cover.

My Review:

After their world collapsed in a sheet of white light, everything and everyone were gone—except for Hannah and Amanda Given. Saved from destruction by three fearsome and powerful beings, the Given sisters found themselves on a strange new Earth where restaurants move through the air like flying saucers and the fabric of time is manipulated by common household appliances. There, they were joined by four other survivors: a sarcastic cartoonist, a shy teenage girl, a brilliant young Australian, and a troubled ex-prodigy. Hunted by enemies they never knew they had, and afflicted with temporal abilities they never wanted, the sisters and their companions began a cross-country journey to find the one man who could save them.

Now, only months after being pursued across the country by government forces and the Gothams—a renegade group with similar powers—the Silvers discover that their purpose on this unfamiliar earth may be to prevent its complete annihilation. With continually shifting alliances and the future in jeopardy, the Silvers realize that their only hope for survival is to locate the other refugees—whether they can be trusted or not.

I hope all of you get the pleasure of waiting a long time for the sequel to a book you really loved, only to see it in person and realize it is an absolutely massive brick of a novel, and you can’t wait to dive in. It’s the best feeling.

Fair warning: this book is brain-numbingly complex and A LOT OF STUFF HAPPENS. Plus, I wrote this review a month or two after reading it, so bear with me here.

I read The Flight of the Silvers again in preparation for the sequel. I remembered that book being quite complex, with lots of players, and I wanted to come into this book fresh from the world the author first introduced me to. A lot of the nemeses and parties involved are the same as the first book. In a super quick, condensed recap, we have:

1. The Silvers, our heroes: Hannah, Amanda, Zack, Theo, Mia, and David. They have now also joined up with Peter Pendergen, a sensei of sorts for these poor six kids who found themselves plopped into an alternate America after their own world ended, only to ALSO discover that they have superhuman abilities now.

2. The Pelletiers: mysterious, all-powerful beings who “saved” each one of the Silvers…and also several other groups of people from the original Earth. For reasons yet unknown at the start of this second story.

3. Weasily little Evan Rander: a former member of the Silvers who repeats the five years between apocalypses because his ability to jump back in time at will makes him think he can just bully the Silvers sadistically and relentlessly forever. He took it a step too far in The Flight of the Silvers and the Pelletiers took him away somewhere…

4. The Gothams: a large group of people with superhuman abilities who live under the radar in AltAmerica. A small group of them are out to get the Silvers because they believe that our misfit heroes will bring about their world’s apocalypse.

5. The government: alllllways with the government, am I right?! DP-9 was one of the Silver’s antagonists last book, because you don’t really want a bunch of kids running around showing off their freaky abilities causing havoc in public. One of their members, Melissa Masaad, has left DP-9 now and is working for the mysterious Integrity unit, a group who seems to be on the side of the Silvers now…

All of that pretty lamely sums up the characters in play. It’s no wonder Song of the Orphans is over 750 pages long, because you need at least that to sort out this tangled mess of people! (I mean that in the best way)

I’m not even quite sure where to start with this review. You should know that if you read The Flight of the Silvers, loved it (and why would you be going onto the sequel if you didn’t at least like the first one, right?!) and are tackling this new one: just get ready. And if you can swing it, read it while convalescing after surgery like I did, so the book can have your constant, undivided attention for when one of its many crazy fight scenes grabs you and doesn’t let go.

I can think of three huge action scenes in the book that really tear you apart. They wound you for several reasons, sometimes all at once. They usually involve 1.) learning an earth-shattering answer to one of the Silvers many questions about their existence, and/or 2.) a character you love dies, almost dies, or is critically wounded. Also, it looks like this review will be full of lists. Buckle up. Price also introduces us to several other characters to fall in love with and subsequently get gutted by. With the introduction of the other color groups in the last book (Silvers, Golds, Coppers, etc), you know our big cast of characters is just going to get bigger. And it looks poised to expand even more drastically with the last book.

Every action scene is brilliantly written, in an edge-of-your-seat, frantically-whipping-through-pages kind of action. The backstory of this world and its characters is being slowly but methodically filled in. By this book’s end, we have a lot, but not all of the answers. And I’m okay with that. We get to know the Pelletier’s ultimate reason for selecting the Silvers, and I still have some questions about it (okay, I basically don’t really get it quite yet, but maybe I’m just thick in the head), but the stage is still set for the third book: we still have an apocalypse to worry about. We learn A LOT more about the Gothams (and meet several hundred more of them…), and even more about the nuances of the Silver’s abilities. More than one of them finds new ways to use their freaky powers for the good of the team. And new characters introduce new powers to the field of play.

There is a big character twist revealed in this book, which I frankly saw coming. This might be because I came into this book fresh off a re-read of the first. But Price drops huge, unbelievable hints in both books, you guys. Here’s how it went for me (all names changed to avoid Spoiler Land):

Book: Oooooh, someone here isn’t who they say they are!

Me: Oh, it’s probably Cameron.

Book: But look, Jane is acting really suspicious!

Me: No, it’s most definitely Cameron. You said a bunch of sketchy things about them in book 1.

Book: Hang on, now Bob did something that definitely makes them seem like a double-crosser.

Me: Nope. It’s still Cameron.

Book: AHHHH!!! IT WAS CAMERON ALL ALONG! AREN’T YOU SURPRISED?

(Please note that Cameron is a unisex name. So I haven’t even spoiled anything there. Ha.)

So….not that surprised at all. I recognized the red herring hints trying to steer me to different people and stuck to my guns on this “Cameron” lady or fellow. It was still an emotional moment, and the characters acted appropriately betrayed (although really, I would think at least one of them would piece it together at that point), but it wasn’t as shocking to me as it could have been.

I also just want to say that there is a really beautiful scene having to do with the book title and a song and reaching out to the other groups of original Earth-ers. Not even kidding when I said I teared up. I’m such a softy.

I should wrap this up, otherwise you all will be drowning in lists and quippy imagined conversations between me and inanimate objects for days. Song of the Orphans is a superb sequel. Yes, it expands the already gigantic world and cast from The Flight of the Silvers, and I’m still scratching my head on certain things already explained or yet to be fleshed out (who the flipping hell is Ioni and WHAT IS HER MOTIVATION?!) but I have a sneaking suspicion that all will be revealed in the knockdown, drag out fight that will be the third book. Sometimes sequels seem like mere bridges to the final installment in a trilogy and not a lot happens, but boy, do things happen in Song of the Orphans. I am so here for the ride.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 silver bracelets

& Review: Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff

Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff Publisher: St Martin’s Press, September 2017

The Book Itself: Uggghhhh these covers are so cooool! The dark, masked moodiness, the gray-toned background, even the font of the title….gimme!

My Review:

Assassin Mia Corvere has found her place among the Blades of Our Lady of Blessed Murder, but many in the Red Church ministry think she’s far from earned it. Plying her bloody trade in a backwater of the Republic, she’s no closer to ending Consul Scaeva and Cardinal Duomo, or avenging her familia. And after a deadly confrontation with an old enemy, Mia begins to suspect the motives of the Red Church itself.

When it’s announced that Scaeva and Duomo will be making a rare public appearance at the conclusion of the grand games in Godsgrave, Mia defies the Church and sells herself to a gladiatorial collegium for a chance to finally end them. Upon the sands of the arena, Mia finds new allies, bitter rivals, and more questions about her strange affinity for the shadows. But as conspiracies unfold within the collegium walls, and the body count rises, Mia will be forced to choose between loyalty and revenge, and uncover a secret that could change the very face of her world.

I don’t know if you remember how ga-ga I was over Kristoff’s first book in the Nevernight series. If you don’t remember, I’ll post a link to it here. I’ll wait.

Okay, so I really liked it, right?! In a nutshell, I called it “Hogwarts for assassins” but full of twisty nuances and a really atmospheric plot peppered with endearing yet deadly characters. I’m a sucker for a good magical school story. And while Godsgrave all but kisses its magical school goodbye, it still had me zooming through pages to see what would happen next to my favorite characters.

If you haven’t yet read Nevernight, a.) go do so, RIGHT NOW, or b.) put your fingers in your ears and start humming a tune to yourself while I spoil the hell out of it here (not sure how humming and plugging your ears will inhibit your reading ability, but there you go). Godsgrave plops you straight into the action, much like Nevernight did, in the thick of a plot Mia has been planning for months. For the first third of the book or so, Kristoff switches off between the present day and a few months prior, when Mia is working for the Red Church, eventually planning the current murder job. This does get a bit distracting, as just as the tension in one plotline builds to a peak, we fade into the other plotline. But soon the two sync up and we’re all hands on deck with Mia for a different kind of murder education.

GLADIATOR GAMES. At first I was a little hurt that Mia wouldn’t just stay in magical murder school forever, but I eventually caught on. Posing as a slave in order to compete as a gladiatii (aka a straight up Roman-style gladiator) to achieve her goals, Mia gets more embroiled in the politics of her fellow man. There are new revelations about her past (we FINALLY get to hear more about her mysterious, god-like parents), about her abilities as a darkin, and the structure of the world around her. You get to know her fellow slaves/gladiators, and, just like Mia, you don’t want to like them because getting close to people who will most likely die turns out badly for everyone.

The gladiator games are a roulette wheel of ways to die. In this book, Kristoff covers the gamut: fighter against fighter, fighter against multiple other fighters, fighter(s) against giant, seemingly unbeatable beast(s), murderous chariot races, and teams of fighters in massive spectacles of architecture and historical battle recreation.

It’s all awesome.

Mia makes a lot of questionable decisions in this book. Which in hindsight, is good – she’s a devious little assassin we all want to win, but she’s still ruled by her heart, her hormones, and/or her stubbornness sometimes. This puts a lot of people in danger. This leads to some really stupid decisions. I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the merits of some of her decisions. But maybe all will be revealed in the next book. WHICH IS COMING OUT SOON, RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!

And that ending. Come. On. If you want the mother of all cliffhangers, if you want to hate and at the same time love an author with a tiny, vicious sliver of your humanity, look no further, my friends. There are a couple of big, enormous whammies in those last few pages. From the start of the last round of the gladiator games (heartbreaking. I think I kept letting out tiny little whimpers of “No…NO!” every few sentences), to Mia’s fade to black, it is EXACTLY how I would expect an installment of Nevernight to end, and yet I didn’t see it coming at all.

Just read this series. Please.

My Rating: 4.5 gladiatii helmets out of 5

& Review: Warcross by Marie Lu

Warcross by Marie Lu Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd, September 2017

The Book Itself: A simple, colorful graphic on a plain white background make this cover stand out. I like that the word “Warcross” looks cross-hatched, almost like a maze, and that it has a chrome-like finish. Perfect for a futuristic video game story.

My Review:

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire

I read this ostensibly for my brother, who is not a big reader, but who gobbled up Ready Player One like it was candy. The description reads like a YA version of Cline’s 80’s-infused virtual reality wonderland: most of the world’s population participates in escapism virtual reality, using glasses invented by a mysterious celebrity wunderkind. It has a little bit of Smash-Bros-meets-World-of-Warcraft gameplay in it too: many people play a stylized game of Capture the Flag called Warcross, where teams compete to steal the other team’s “Artifact” – a digitized, glittering jewel that hangs over player’s heads à la the Sims. The terrain these games are played on changes: cityscape, ruined jungle, outer space, etc.

It was a fast read for me. I unfortunately haven’t read any of Lu’s other work (her “Legend” series is resting comfortably on my vast to-read shelf) but at least in this book she is very good at leaving you on a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter so you just need…to…read…one…more. The gameplay scenes are well-written: fast-paced and tension-filled, with just enough detail that your mind can fill in what the scene doesn’t spell out. There’s a good dose of steamy romance for good measure, too.

Two gripes: I felt the plot made strange, unnecessary jumps through the story, and I found the twists to be quite predictable.

Our protagonist, Emika, glitches herself into a championship Warcross game. The creator of the game (aforementioned celebrity wunderkind) then places her in the championship in order to find out who else has been hacking into the system. The story is poised to go through fairly smoothly and formulaically: Emika participates in tournament games, gets to know her teammates, trains in different game scenarios, all the while trying to catch a hacker on the side. But the book zooms through what could be some great scenes: whole games in the tournament are summarized in a paragraph, including some games our hero is involved in. Weeks go by in a sentence, backstories are summarized in a few lines. The book could have easily been 100 pages or so longer, and I believe people would have read it. The premise was interesting, but the execution made me feel that the story was rushed.

And maybe this is just because I’m a huge bookworm and I read a lot of YA, but there are two plot twists planted at the end of the story, and I saw both of them coming a mile away. And just because I saw them coming doesn’t mean I want to spoil them for any of you. But the story lost a little of its tension and mystery for me when I pinpointed who I thought the hacker antagonist was, and what another character’s true intentions were. When I closed the book, I was filled with more of a “Huh…well I guess I was right,” reaction, other than a “WHAT?! WHERE’S THE NEXT BOOK I NEED MY HANDS ON IT NOW SO THAT I CAN SEE THE AFTERMATH OF THAT UPSET!” feeling.

It’s a good story. I really wish the secondary characters were fleshed out more (Emika’s teammates and Hideo’s parents, specifically), and that there was just more of it. I hope the sequel is meatier: full of more gameplay and nerdy character backstory and surprises.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 joysticks

& Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue. Publisher: Picador October 2014

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue. Publisher: Picador October 2014

The Book Itself: Definitely looks like a mystery/thriller: stark black backdrop moonlight reflecting off the water, and ghostly letters for the title. No drawings of monsters, but their absence is just as creepy.

My Review: Ever since he nearly drowned in the ocean three years earlier, ten-year-old Jack Peter Keenan has been deathly afraid to venture outdoors. Refusing to leave his home in a small coastal town in Maine, Jack Peter spends his time drawing monsters. When those drawings take on a life of their own, no one is safe from the terror they inspire. His mother, Holly, begins to hear strange sounds in the night coming from the ocean, and she seeks answers from the local Catholic priest and his Japanese housekeeper, who fill her head with stories of shipwrecks and ghosts. His father, Tim, wanders the beach, frantically searching for a strange apparition running wild in the dunes. And the boy’s only friend, Nick, becomes helplessly entangled in the eerie power of the drawings. While those around Jack Peter are haunted by what they think they see, only he knows the truth behind the frightful occurrences as the outside world encroaches upon them all.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters seems to be about a young, rather disturbed boy who draws monsters and the slow, psychological horror his family and best friend sink into when they too start seeing those monsters. What it’s really about is people’s stubborn refusal to accept what is right in front of their face.

J.P. (Jack Peter) is a young boy who, after a near-drowning accident years ago, has withdrawn completely. The simple act of walking from the front door to the car terrifies him. He draws obsessively and seems to barely tolerate the presence of both his parents and his friend, Nick. Gradually both his parents and Nick witness monsters similar to J.P.’s scribbles. His father frequently encounters what seems like an emaciated man running on all fours in the snow and fog. His mother hears voices and becomes convinced they have something to do with an old shipwreck that happened near the beach just outside their house.

What frustrated me most about this book was that everyone played ignorant, or truly was ignorant to J.P.’s correlation to the supernatural threats. It seemed strange that while his father claimed to see a monster, and his mother claimed to hear them, that neither one of them believed each other. Even after seeing J.P.’s drawings, even after asking him about them, no character dawns on the completely obvious fact that J.P. draws these things and then they become real. Not even after J.P. draws monsters, and Nick is woken and horrified by those very same monsters do people put two and two together. It made sense to a point – the book was trying to say something about people’s refusal to accept something that at first seems illogical. But after a while it was just plain obnoxious.

The book also seemed to chase its own tail. Monster encounter after monster encounter occurred with no real headway as to why it was happening. No character dug too deeply trying to figure out what was going on. By the close of the book, when someone actually confronts J.P. about it, you just want to scream, “FINALLY! WHY WEREN’T YOU ALL DOING THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?!”

I will say that the ending, and by ending, I mean literally the last two pages are bone-chilling. I wouldn’t dare spoil it, but it’s a terrific twist, and one I did not see coming. It was the thrill down my spine I had been expecting all book long, and never really got. But the entire rest of the book didn’t work hard enough. There weren’t enough clues or character motivation to properly ramp up suspense. I was just annoyed with everyone and expecting the book to end disappointingly when I was caught by surprise. The ending gets four stars. The rest of the book gets two.

There are some mild thrills for those who like atmospheric novels with occasionally chilling scenes. But I kept wanting the characters to do more, and I desperately wanted the whole book to be more like that ending.

My Grade: C-

& Review: A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Publisher: Razorbill August 2016

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Publisher: Razorbill August 2016

The Book Itself: Simple, with the title dominating the cover. Two people (Elias and Laia, presumably) fleeing through a tunnel. Not a standout cover, but no slouch either.

My Review: Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.

But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own—one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.

Note: If you haven’t yet read An Ember in the Ashes, the first book in this series, I reveal a few plot points from that first installment that you might not want spoiled in this review. Proceed at your own risk 🙂

I really like and admire Tahir for writing a sequel that is very different in plot and motivation than the first book. Some series tend to use a plot event or device again and again in later books. In The Hunger Games, the games themselves happened again in Catching Fire, and in a way, yet again in Mockingjay. Plotting and heists feature prominently in both (terrific) installments of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. In A Torch Against the Night, the stakes are higher and the adventure more encompassing of the book’s world: characters physically travel and accomplish more.

Case and point: the story is now told from three perspectives, from three difference characters sometimes going in three different directions. The book is divided into short chapters from Laia’s point of view, Elias’, and Helene’s. This might have to do with the incredible amount of love that Helene’s character drew from readers after the first book. But it does become a lot of voices and storylines in one book. I remember struggling with the two point of views in the first book: I found Elias’ storyline to much more compelling that Laia’s.

Luckily, all three storylines have high stakes and are written very well in this book. It still feels like a lot is happening, and Tahir is very good (or very bad) at leaving each short chapter on a cliffhanger so that you have to read through the other two characters’ chapters before you find a resolution to the one you’re freaking out about. The chapters were often very short – sometimes only a couple of pages long. This could get frustrating, as you got in deep to one storyline only to be yanked away too soon. But it also kept the pace and tension racing high. I could say that I would have preferred just two points of view, but I’m not sure which point of view I would have cut.

Helene’s POV storyline is heartbreaking, as she is sent after Elias, a man she loves, upon threat of violence against her family and appeasing the Emperor she now works for. The book title is actually in reference to her this time around, and at times her story is emotionally hard to read.

Elias took a turn for me in this book. In the first book, he had been turned into a killing machine for the Empire. He was haunted, complex. Here, he seems almost too good. He is almost too generous and misunderstood and wounded. Tahir tugs at the heartstrings, introducing us to his adopted family, showing how good he is with kids, and how he clearly loves Laia to a fault. On the one hand, who doesn’t want their hero/love interest to have a tough exterior but a heart of gold, but it felt a little too good to be true.

Laia is a very interesting character to me. She’s not your typical badass female heroine. She’s not brave and physically strong or crafty like a lot of authors are trying to make their female protagonists. She’s deeply flawed, and she makes a lot of mistakes. Sometimes this is to the point of annoyance, and she messes up a lot of stuff for a lot of characters. But I identify with her. I feel like she would be me, were I in these situations. I would break down emotionally, lash out, and make rash decisions in the face of such stress. I think she reacts more realistically than most fantasy characters do.

In addition to the added POV, there are also more adversaries this time around. In book one, the Commandant was the Big Bad, harming Laia, her slave, and revealing the kind of apathy and cruelty for her son that only the deepest psychopath would display. Marcus was a close second, being the one contestant you didn’t want to win the bloody contest to become the new Emperor.

And then, of course, he won. So he’s Big Bad #2 in this book. He and the Commandant show almost equal amounts of twisted, evil intent. But those two aren’t enough, apparently. Now we have the Nightbringer, the mythical being merely whispered about in the first book (and whose true identity and promise of a new storyline I didn’t particularly care for). And we have the Warden, a demented torturer of children at the prison where Laia’s brother is kept. It’s a lot of bad against our three good guys. It’s one of those insurmountable odds tales that I am always flipping pages manically to see how it ends. With so many corners backed into, how can they possibly get out again and again?!

It’s a busy book, but a quick and intense read if you were invested in the characters from the first book. I will say that I was just as frustrated with the “love rhombus” (like a love triangle, but with four characters) in this book as I was with the first. I haven’t read a whole lot of love triangles where I could see an equal chance for both pairings. They are so obviously biased towards one couple getting together, with the third person just in there for spice. Add two people for the sole purpose of trying to complicate things, and it just feels forced. I have never felt that Laia and Keenan have real chemistry. While I sympathize and like Helene, I can’t see her character’s personality in a romantic situation with Elias. The secondary relationships aren’t interesting or complex, and therein lies my annoyance with trying to maintain plausibility in a love triangle/rhombus.

But this is a terrific sequel, when all is said and done. I will read future installments and wait for them with bated breath!

My Grade: B

& 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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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

& Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Book Itself: It’s a rather generic cover: thin woman, who we can assume is beautiful although we only see her in silhouette, wearing only a button down that is conveniently see-though so we can see she’s thin, leaning in a doorway. It might be trying to be sexy and mysterious, but it just looked like a cheap mystery novel on first glance. I’d read good things about The Kind Worth Killing before its release in paperback, so I knew I wanted to read it before I saw this cover. Otherwise, I don’t think this would have drawn me in.

My Review: On a flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning Lily Kintner. Over martinis, the strangers play a game in which they reveal intimate details about themselves. But what begins as playful banter between Ted and Lily takes a turn when Ted claims, half-seriously, that he would like to kill his wife. Then Lily surprises him by saying that she’d like to help.

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily forge an unusual bond and talk about the ways Ted can get out of his marriage. But Lily has her own dark history she’s not sharing with Ted. As Ted begins to fall in love with Lily, he grows anxious about any holes in their scheme that could give them away. And suddenly the two are pulled into a very lethal game of cat and mouse, one in which both are not likely to survive when all is said and done.

There’s something about a crime show condensed into a book that is just pure guilty-pleasure for me.

This book is a re-telling/re-configuring of the classic Strangers on a Train situation: two people meet, both people have enemies in their lives that just happen to be their spouses, and they agree to kill each other’s spouse in order to not arouse suspicion. It’s that “perfect crime” lie that can become masterfully suspenseful and interesting to watch unravel.

This time, only our female protagonist agrees to do the killing. Ted Severson witnesses his wife cheating on him. He meets Lily, who says all the right things and sympathizes in just the right way. Then she suggests that she help Ted kill his wife.

Now…if I were pouring out my woes and a stranger I had just met immediately jumped to “let me help you kill someone,” I would maaaaybe lean towards not trusting them or spending so much time with them. But Ted…oh Ted. Ted does not do that. Ted actually falls a little bit in love with Lily. Things do not end well for Ted.

The story slowly becomes more about Lily, who we learn – surprise, surprise – has a past. Her past – surprise, surprise – includes killing someone. Perhaps more than one someone. The story bounces back and forth between present day action and Lily’s past transgressions. We get to see the monster being made. As a sociopath, the way she views things and reacts to people is different, and it makes for an interesting read. It’s also refreshing that she’s not the clichéd Woman with a Torturous Past, meaning that the author didn’t rely on tropes that I’ve seen other authors use: she was abused physically or mentally, she suffers from depression/anxiety/PTSD/schizophrenia, she was raped, etc. Other authors can write this well and make devastatingly good books, but here we have a woman who is just plain sociopathic. She acts on animal instincts alone, and her narrative voice is chilling.

There are a couple of well-timed twists in the book, but I think the best one is the book’s ending. I’m talking the very last couple of lines. As I neared the end of the book, I began to get skeptical – how were we going to get a resolution here?! Is Lily really going to be released on a technicality? Will there be one last surge of evidence, and will they discover all of the killing she’s done? Am I getting a “happy” ending, or a chilling one?

No spoilers, but the last line puts a decidedly ambiguous spin on that decision. I honestly don’t know if Lily gets caught or not. While this might be lackluster or too indecisive for some readers, when I reached the end, I got a little thrill down my spine. I could read it and picture the conclusion either way, and somehow that worked for me.

Overall, it’s a decent crime novel, great for mystery or crime junkies. Lily is a cold hearted killer and one twisted lady. But if you’re not into reading that kind of thing, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

My Grade: C