& 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

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& Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, August 2016

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, August 2016

The Book Itself: Was this font designed for Kristoff’s new book? Because I’m digging it: intricate and swirly and cool-looking (I’m great at adjectives). Kristoff was one of the co-authors of Illuminae, which I christened the best book I read all of last year. I was looking forward to his new book here regardless of the cover. But the cover is pretty badass: mysterious looming figure with a dagger dripping blood, shadowy wings spread behind her. This looks like it will not be a nice book. It will be a nasty one; bloody. Here there be monsters.

My Review: In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?

I get the question “So what are you reading right now?” several times a week. Either because I a.) currently have a book in hand, or b.) the questioner knows me, and knows that I read, and that I ALWAYS have a book on me at all times. When I got this question while reading Nevernight, I showed them the cover and then exclaimed “it’s like Hogwarts for assassins!”

And then that was either met with “Awesome!” or confused expressions of mixed worry and fear.

And while that sentence: “it’s like Hogwarts for assassins!” is pithy and piques the interest, what it really is is accurate yet superficial when it comes to what this story involves. Nevernight is complex, gritty, dark, suspenseful, and at the same time giddily exciting. That sounds like a weird combination, but bear with me.

The book did lag a bit in the beginning for me, as I got used to the writing style and plot pacing. But I had just come off of an incredible book high from a wonderful book that I’d just finished, and was dreading my next read paling in comparison. Mia Corvere is a sassy, tough-as-nails girl who just happens to want to be an assassin. This is because, you guessed it, she has a score to settle. A chip on her shoulder. A revenge fantasy. She is, of course, more than meets the eye. This is evidenced by the fact that a cat made of shadows follows her around and talks to her, literally feeding off of her fear.

We meet her after years of training under a tutor of sorts, seeking to enter what might be the equivalent of a Graduate School of Killing People – the Red Church. And once she gets there, holy crap, does the story take off. Not only are there classes: poison making, pickpocketing, weapons fighting, and seduction/people skills. But there are other would-be assassins as classmates. Deadly classmates who will do anything to become a Blade – one of the elite assassins of the Red Church.

The story has witty banter, murder mystery aspects, and clever characters who surprised even this reader with well-laid plans that began wayyy back in the story (our protagonist included). The writing style is not for everyone. It’s description-heavy, simile-ridden, and there are pithy footnotes that act as a world-building tool that I admit I found distracting at times. But I got sucked into the story and the setting, and I devoured chapter after chapter like I was getting paid for it (I’m not, I promise). The ending is so well-paced and tense that you’ll want to be able to sit somewhere and read straight through it.

Mia as a character becomes really well-rounded, even though at the end of the story, we really don’t fully understand what she really is or what she can do. I had an emotional response to events that happened to her in the story, and to the characters around her. She is a girl learning to be an assassin, and trying to cling to some humanity.

There is a lot of set up for furthering the series here. The book is bracketed by a prologue and epilogue of the person chronicling Mia’s story: she becomes legendary, and we’re here to witness her become so.

I could draw a lot of comparisons: Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy style, a Hogwarts setting, and characters and shady dealings a la Locke Lamora. But I really do think this story stands alone, and I loved it. I will be counting down the many months until the second installment.

My Grade: B+

& Fridays: Best Books of 2015

Welcome to the Second Annual Ampersand Read Best Books of the Year Award!

It seems so strange that I can say “second annual” on this blog – I’ve been doing this for almost two years? WHAT?

Okay, I’ve recovered. This is my end of the year coverage of some of the best books that I have read all year. They were not all published this year, and they are by no means the only good books I read all year, but I did read every single one of these between January 2015 and December 2015, and they all stuck with me. Many of the categories are similar to last year’s, with a couple new ones thrown in.

Without further ago, THE BEST BOOKS I READ THIS YEAR!!

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Fiction. Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

The Royal We

Most Surprising: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
I think I was definitely just expecting a fluffy, light read that I would read for fun and then be happily on my way. And while that was the case: it is a light, happy romance that basically rips a love story from real life and tweaks some of the details and names, I found that Ireally, really liked The Royal We. It was beautiful and wish-fulfilling and so much fun to read. I devoured it and pushed it onto all of my friends.

 

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Fiction. Publisher: Simon & Schuster, August 2015

A Window Opens

 

Close Second: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
This one was so surprising because its synopsis makes it sound so frivolous and obnoxiously chick lit-heavy. While it did have some of those tropes, it was also heartbreaking and real and a good read.

 

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Del Rey June 2006

The Lies of Locke Lamora 

Best Start of a Series I Read All Year: The Lies of Lock Lamora by Scott Lynch
I love a fantasy series that pulls you in to a complex, well drawn world and holds you there. I found it hard to put Lamora down because the setting was so intense, the characters so witty and fun to be around. The plot kept you guessing and the heists kept increasing in complexity. A good first book keeps a reader for the rest of the series. I intend to keep going with the Gentleman Bastard series (partly because that’s an awesome series name, too).

 

goldensonBest Sequel I Read All Year: Golden Son by Pierce Brown
Uggghhhhhhhh….remember how I hated this ending? A cliffhanger, Pierce Brown?! WHY?! Luckily, Morning Star, the third and final installment of this amazing series, comes out February 9th. Which is still two months too long. I might buckle down and re-read the first two (like I did when I first read Golden Son) just to get in the proper mindset. I also freaking love the books, so that’s just an excuse. If you can’t already tell, I want all of you to go read this series right now.

Poison by Sarah Pinborough. Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Publisher: Titan Books

Poison

Best Cover: Poison by Sarah Pinborough
This cover is probably best appreciated in person. The texture, embossed details of the title and graphics, and the simple feel of it in your hands is really, really well done. It’s so eye catching to me. I think this fairytale re-teller did an awesome job capturing a reader’s attention.

Close second (and third): Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff will win another award later one, but I certainly waxed poetic about the effort that went into this entire book, including the elaborate cover

And The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, whose dreamy watercolor painting cover of a girl in an ethereal gown and setting made me lunge for it on the shelf.

The Fold by Peter Clines. Science Fiction/Fantasy. Publisher: Crown.

The Fold

Best Twist: The Fold by Peter Clines
The whole premise of The Fold is a brainy consultant goes to investigate a mysterious machine, which claims to have mastered teleportation. What it really does is so much more dangerous and interesting, and the whole mystery is revealed very skillfully in this novel.

AND FINALLY (drumroll please)………..

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Published: October 2015

Illuminae

The Best Book I Read All Year 2015: Illuminae

Ah, Illuminae. I didn’t really know what to expect from this collaboration between one of the authors of the Starbound series, whose first installment I loved and whose second installment left me a bit disappointed, and another author I had never read, but Illuminae is fantastic. The sheer work and writing and designing that went into the book is so impressively mindboggling to me, but the story is great to boot. The two enemies: a zombie-like virus, and a smart and vindictive AI system that controls the whole ship, are amazingly balanced. The story and obstacles had me flipping pages rapidly, pausing only to admire the beautiful artwork and design choices the authors made. 600+ pages flew past in just a couple of days.

Close Second: Golden Son by Pierce Brown
I feel bad for the books I read close to the beginning of the year, because I don’t remember them as fresh as I do books at the end of the year for these awards. Perhaps if I read Golden Son and Illuminae back to back, I would give the edge to Golden Son. Who knows. Both are excellent. I am excited there is at least a little more in each series.

Honorable Mentions:
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
A fantasy novel that is surprisingly lovely, complex, and interesting. Another book I stayed up late flipping the pages for. Novik can expect a regular reader out of me.

In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen
I almost put this as a “Close Second,” in a couple of these categories. This common trope, of a group of people’s lives and relationships over the span of a few years, can be overdone. But this story brought something fresh to the table with really, really good writing and characters I wanted to hear more from.

So there you have it! What were some of the best books you read this year? What do I absolutely have to read that I haven’t yet?

Oh, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

 

& Reviews: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Published: October 2015

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Published: October 2015

The Book Itself: Picture’s don’t do this cover justice! The hardcover of the book itself is complex, with scribbled out, censored documents and schmatics. The jacket, a semi-see through plastic, only gives you peeks of this, the rest wrapped in a lovely space cloud in rosy hues. A lot of work went into it, as is the case with the rest of the book.

My ReviewThis morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do.

This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.

Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

From one of the authors writing the Starbound series (These Broken Stars and This Shattered World, with Their Fractured Light coming out this month!), I was hesitant but optimistic for this new series. I absolutely loved These Broken Stars (my review here), but was less than impressed with This Shattered World (review here). I will still be getting my copy of Their Fractured Light this month and devour it as I did the others…I’m just hoping it lives up to what I loved about the first installment.

But I digress.

Because Illuminae is a completely different kind of animal.

The book jacket (which is beautiful, by the way) tells you right off the bat that the whole thing is told in journal entries, interviews, transcribed records of video files, etc. This also made me cautious, as this can make a book really, really excellent, or lackluster, with flat characters and tepid storylines.

Thank goodness this was the former.

Illuminae is excellent. It is a brick, with over 600 pages, and it’s not about to fit in a small purse anytime soon, but I highly recommend a hard copy. First of all, that cover. Pictures don’t do it justice. The transparent, tinted dust jacket over the book cover, bedecked with censored file information and titles = amazing. And even though it’s huge, the storyline and format had me polish off the book in two days.

Just an example of the beautiful prose, told in the form of a space flight.

Just an example of the beautiful prose, told in the form of a space flight.

The amount of work that went into this book is staggering to me. The detail paid to make pages look like files, the actual artwork they do to illustrate battles in space, as well as tokens of love and appreciation between two people that cannot see each other because they are on different ships…it’s astounding. The book is a quick read, but I encourage you to take the time to appreciate all that effort. Kudos to Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff for making a book that not only holds a great story, but is gorgeous on the page as well. I could feature this as a coffee table book just as easily as I could review it as a regular book!

I’m gushing, and haven’t even really gotten to the story yet.

The Starbound series likes to connect to its young adult readers by featuring young, very accomplished military personnel at unfeasible ages (16-17). Kady and Ezra are the same, and at times I had to remind myself that these characters were supposed to be teenagers, and that what they were doing seemed way beyond their maturity level and physical ability. But I explained that away by reasoning that in these high pressure situations, they have to be faster, smarter, and stronger than their opponents or their circumstances. Theyhave to be mature beyond their years, not only for their job, but for the situation.

So angsty teenagers doing unfeasible things aside, wow was this done well. Twists and turns abound, and I turned pages until the wee hours of the morning, hooked on what was going to happen next. It’s a little bit of Walking Dead, with just enough gruesome to make you cringe, and some I, Robot (or insert book/movie/franchise in which robots rise up against humankind here). When you have a super advanced artificial intelligence AND and virus that causes aggression/violence/cannibalism in your fellow man working against you…you’re going to have a bad time. I think these two authors balanced these two “bad guys” well. And honestly, if one or the other were the sole antagonist in this story, I think it would have suffered. With both seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the stakes are ratcheted up incredibly high, and it makes for an intense but very gratifying read.

I can’t say enough good things about it, basically. I’m so glad it’s going to be a series, and I am getting the next installment the first day it is out on shelves (if I can’t get my hands on an advanced copy…although a digital version would lose a bit of the magic, I think).

Not only would I place this above the Starbound series in terms of readability and wow factor, but I would mark this as one of my favorite books I read all year…maybe even one of my favorites of all time.

My Grade: A