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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dark Star, Sinner, Coda, and Jackaby Mini-Reviews

Dark Star (Dark Star #1) by Bethany Frenette
Audrey Whitticomb has nothing to fear. Her mother is the superhero Morning Star, the most deadly crime-fighter in the Twin Cities, so it's hard for Audrey not to feel safe. That is, until she's lured into the sweet night air by something human and not human--something with talons and teeth, and a wide, scarlet smile.

Now Audrey knows the truth: her mom doesn't fight crime at night. She fights Harrowers--livid, merciless beings who were trapped Beneath eons ago. Yet some have managed to escape. And they want Audrey dead, just because of who she is: one of the Kin.

To survive, Audrey will need to sharpen the powers she has always had. When she gets close to someone, dark corners of the person's memories become her own, and she sometimes even glimpses the future. If Audrey could only get close to Patrick Tigue, a powerful Harrower masquerading as human, she could use her Knowing to discover the Harrowers' next move. But Leon, her mother's bossy, infuriatingly attractive sidekick, has other ideas. Lately, he won't let Audrey out of his sight.

When an unthinkable betrayal puts Minneapolis in terrible danger, Audrey discovers a wild, untamed power within herself. It may be the key to saving her herself, her family, and her city. Or it may be the force that destroys everything--and everyone--she loves.

Released: October 23rd 2012     Pages: 368
Publisher: Disney Hyperion       Source: Library

Before I started this, I was prepared to nitpick.  This is set in my home state, so I would know if Bethany Frenette got any facts wrong (and I thoroughly enjoyed nitpicking Shiver and Linger).  Dark Star pleasantly surprised me in this way; I have no MN-related criticism.  It did bug me that a few characters complain often about the cold, but I'll let it slide.  Overall, it seems like an authentic version of Minneapolis.

I expected Dark Star to read like a Marvel movie.  It presents itself as a superhero story, but in reality, it's more like Hex Hall than anything else.  The paranormal aspect--the Harrowers, which are kind of demons but kind of people--feels awkward and poorly explained.  It never seems to fit with the story, somehow, as if it was crammed in as an afterthought, which is concerning since it's the main plot of the story.

Audrey is not an interesting protagonist.  She's likable enough, but there's nothing that makes her compelling.  Her relationship with Leon develops too quickly.  And isn't Leon twenty-something?  And she's around sixteen?  That's not cute--that's creepy.  Audrey's best friend (another example of the overly-cheerful best friend trope that I mentioned in my review of Antigoddess), Tink, did nothing but annoy me with her shallowness and occasional degrading comments.

Overall, this just didn't come together for me.  The plot brings nothing new to the paranormal/supernatural genre, the characters are uninteresting, and the aspect of the Harrowers doesn't feel as natural as it should.  I don't plan on reading the sequel.

Similar Books: It reminds me of Antigoddess, Ink, and The City's Son.

Sinner (The Wolves of Mercy Falls #3.5) by Maggie Stiefvater
Sinner follows Cole St. Clair, a pivotal character from the #1 New York Times bestselling Shiver Trilogy. Everybody thinks they know Cole's story. Stardom. Addiction. Downfall. Disappearance. But only a few people know Cole's darkest secret -- his ability to shift into a wolf. One of these people is Isabel. At one point, they may have even loved each other. But that feels like a lifetime ago. Now Cole is back. Back in the spotlight. Back in the danger zone. Back in Isabel's life. Can this sinner be saved?

Released: July 1st 2014         Pages: 368
Publisher: Scholastic Press   Source: Library

It hardly ever happens that an author takes your favorite character from an already-finished series and says, "Hey, you know what?  Let's write another book about him.  Because why not?"  Cole St. Clair is my favorite character from this series, so I was thrilled when I heard about Sinner.

Cole St. Clair is not a nice person.  He is not healthy, not kind, not even wholly human.  And yet, he's one of the most fascinating characters I've come across in a long time.  He's a complete mess, but Maggie Stiefvater writes him in such an honest, raw way that makes him seem real.  I consider that the mark of skilled character creation--to take a flawed, "unlikable" person, and make me care despite their problems.  Isabel had this, as well, but to a lesser extent.

I'm not sure what I expected from Sinner, plot-wise, but this wasn't it.  It focused less on the werewolf aspect of the series, and more on the character development of Cole and Isabel.  It surprised me, actually, how small a role the werewolf part of it played, compared to the other three books.  I'm not usually one to go for realistic fiction like this, especially a novel that's so incredibly angst-ridden, but it worked.  Again, probably due to the fantastic character study.

I spent most of this novel wishing I could hear a NARKOTIKA (Cole's band) song, somehow.  Since I can't do that, I imagined they would sound something like Thirty Seconds to Mars (like this) meets Green Day (like this) meets Adam Lambert (like this).  Another reader was also wanting to hear the band, and asked about it on Tumblr, to which Maggie Stiefvater replied with this list of similar-sounding bands.  I'm not familiar with any of these, so I have no way of knowing how close my guess was.

Sinner is a complete mess of anger, bitterness, and general angst, but it's also very real, and surprisingly full of feels, especially for Cole fans.  Highly recommended.  I just wish it had a bit more werewolf action.

Similar Books:
It's a contemporary paranormal novel, with more emphasis on the contemporary than paranormal, like Invisibility.  Its dark sense of humor reminds me of Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and its level of sheer angst could give Charm & Strange a run for its money (and also, there are werewolves, maybe).

Coda (Coda #1) by Emma Trevayne
Ever since he was a young boy, music has coursed through the veins of eighteen-year-old Anthem—the Corp has certainly seen to that. By encoding music with addictive and mind-altering elements, the Corp holds control over all citizens, particularly conduits like Anthem, whose life energy feeds the main power in the Grid.

Anthem finds hope and comfort in the twin siblings he cares for, even as he watches the life drain slowly and painfully from his father. Escape is found in his underground rock band, where music sounds free, clear, and unencoded deep in an abandoned basement. But when a band member dies suspiciously from a tracking overdose, Anthem knows that his time has suddenly become limited. Revolution all but sings in the air, and Anthem cannot help but answer the call with the chords of choice and free will. But will the girl he loves help or hinder him?

Released: May 7th 2013             Pages: 320
Publisher: Running Press Kids   Source: Library

In my experience, there are two types of people who claim to love music.  There's the first kind, the kind that says "I love music", but their collection of songs resembles the iTunes popularity charts rather than any type of personal taste, and they are mostly unaware of the finer points of a song, such as harmony, key changes, and whatnot.  Then, there are the type of music lovers that really love music.  The people who branch out beyond what the radio plays.  The type that will listen to the same song on repeat all day long, who know every chord change in their favorites.  Coda is the dystopian novel for that second type of music lover.

The best part of Coda is the worldbuilding.  Emma Trevayne has created a completely unique, yet still believable dystopian future.  It's incredibly cool, but also haunting.  It would've been so easy for this setting to make no sense, but everything is so thought-out that I never had that problem.  People often liken music to drugs, but what if that was real?  What if you didn't have a choice in the matter?  This is the type of setting that really makes you think.

I loved the characters, as well.  Anthem is likable, flawed, and easy to connect with (unlike the last character I read about with the same name).  I felt for him, and I never lost touch with him throughout his struggles.  Other side characters are interesting, as well--Scope, the twins, Haven, etc.  Each side character has a distinct personality and role to play, rather than simply being cardboard cutouts to populate Anthem's world.  They surprise you in the best ways possible.

Coda is a compelling, fascinating look at a possible dystopian future.  In this wave of post-Hunger Games dystopian novels that still hasn't stopped for some reason even though we're more than ready to move on, it's unique and refreshing.  Highly recommended.

Similar Books: The high-tech, futuristic setting reminds me of Proxy and Ready Player One.  It also reminds me of Legend.

Jackaby by William Ritter
Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

Released: September 16th 2014          Pages: 304
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers    
Source: Goodreads First Reads giveaway

This book had me right away with "Doctor Who meets Sherlock".  And with a character who can see supernatural creatures.  Because SuperWhoLock.  While this book does not resemble what I assume SuperWhoLock would look like, if it were to actually exist*, it still grabbed my attention.

While the main character, Abigail, isn't as complex as I would have liked, she's spunky, smart, and likable.  She has attitude that makes her interesting, but she lacks emotional depth.  She goes along with strange, supernatural events more easily than is realistic, but at times, that's the way to approach this book: just go with it.

The title character, Jackaby, is an enigma, in a good way.  He was modeled after Sherlock Holmes, which gives him all the eccentricities and strange genius of the character, while still managing to be unique.  He lacks the complete social cluelessness of Sherlock (the BBC and RDJ versions, at least), and instead of an unusual gift for deduction, he has the ability to see supernatural creatures hidden to the rest of us.  He's still quirky, but in a different way.  And he's still likable.

Like Abigail, the plot doesn't have as much depth or complexity as I like, but it was still just plain fun.  It can get a bit predictable, but it's also a funny, plucky, and sometimes strange.  The narration is lovely, with authentic-sounding period prose.  As a whole, it isn't perfect, by any means, but it is immensely enjoyable.

*If it ever happened, I assume it would look something like this or this.

Similar Books:
It takes place in Victorian New England and features supernatural creatures, like The Monstrumologist.  It also has a lot in common with the Matt Cruse series, This Dark Endeavor, and Darker Still.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Antigoddess (Goddess War #1) by Kendare Blake

Old gods never die…

Or so Athena thought. But then the feathers started sprouting beneath her skin, invading her lungs like a strange cancer, and Hermes showed up with a fever eating away his flesh. So much for living a quiet eternity in perpetual health.

Desperately seeking the cause of their slow, miserable deaths, Athena and Hermes travel the world, gathering allies and discovering enemies both new and old. Their search leads them to Cassandra—an ordinary girl who was once an extraordinary prophetess, protected and loved by a god.

These days, Cassandra doesn’t involve herself in the business of gods—in fact, she doesn’t even know they exist. But she could be the key in a war that is only just beginning.

Because Hera, the queen of the gods, has aligned herself with other of the ancient Olympians, who are killing off rivals in an attempt to prolong their own lives. But these anti-gods have become corrupted in their desperation to survive, horrific caricatures of their former glory. Athena will need every advantage she can get, because immortals don’t just flicker out.

Every one of them dies in their own way. Some choke on feathers. Others become monsters. All of them rage against their last breath.

The Goddess War is about to begin.

Released: Tor Teen                       Pages: 333
Publisher: September 10th 2013    Source: Library

First Look: ****Greek mythology?  Athena and Hermes?  Random feathers?  Sure, why not?  

Setting: ***** 
The setting didn't play a huge role in this book, but a fair amount of it took place in an overly-stereotypical high school.  Yes, high schools don't differ all that much, but I just wished it had a bit more attitude, something to make it seem real.  Other than that, I have no comments.

Characters: ***** Cassandra is an uninteresting protagonist.  She hardly does anything--she just lets the action happen around her.  When her boyfriend, Aidan, reveals his true identity, she doesn't react like a real person.  (spoiler)  Oh, my boyfriend is actually a Greek god?  Sure, why not?  Give me a break.  No one would buy it that easily, and even if they did, they certainly wouldn't be as okay with it as Cassandra is.  She still trusts him, still has the same type of relationship with him as before.  Even though there's a millenia-wide age gap.  And then, when she....erm....comes into her power, it's the same thing.  It has seemingly no effect on her.  She still acts like the exact same person, even though she clearly isn't.

Athena and Hermes are more interesting.  I love the dynamic between the two, getting a small glimpse into an ancient and complex relationship.  Their interaction with all the other ancient, mythological beings is also much more interesting than any of the human characters.  Also, it doesn't work well to have two prominent characters named Aidan and Andie.  Think about it.  They almost even use the same letters, save one.  Andie got on my nerves, anyway.  She's too shallow to seem real.  She's really only there for comic relief, but she's annoying rather than funny.  Can we please stop the level-headed-protagonist-has-to-have-annoyingly-cheerful-and-peppy-best-friend trope please?  

Plot: ***** I never loved the plot, but I didn't hate it, either.  It moves along at a decent pace, but it never truly grabbed my interest, either.  There's a lot of road-tripping and high school party shenanigans.  (When will people in books learn to never, ever go to the Halloween parties?  If someone's going to get killed or otherwise hurt, that's where it'll happen.)  The whole things feels more like a prologue--like it's leading up to something that never comes.  It feels a bit repetitive, but the main reason why I was never invested in the plot itself was that I didn't care about the characters.

Uniqueness: ****It's an interesting and modern take on Greek mythology.

Writing: ***** I feel the same about the writing as I do about the plot.  Maybe some of this is due to the fact that this review has been delayed, so it's been longer than usual since I read the book.  Still, though, I never felt any of Cassandra's feelings through the narration.  The book alternates points of view, with Cassandra and Athena switching off every chapter.  Athena's half of the story interested me more, but her voice hardly differs with Cassandra's.  Wouldn't an ancient goddess tell a story differently than a teenage girl?  Yes.  The narration, however, doesn't reflect these differences.

Likes: N/A

Not-so-great: Why is it called Antigoddess?  The term anti-god is used once in the book's description, but that's the only time it shows up.

Overall: This book had so much potential, but it made me more bored than anything else.  Athena and Hermes have an interesting half of the story and are somewhat fleshed-out characters.  I can't say the same for Cassandra, Aidan, and anybody else.  The plot might've been better with more compelling characters.  The writing style made no distinction between the narration of a teenage girl and an ancient goddess.  Overall, I didn't dislike this, but I doubt I'll read the sequel.

Similar Books: It weaves together mythology and modern life, like Mist, the Percy Jackson series (and their spinoff series), The Red Pyramid, or Loki's Wolves, though those last three are more MG than YA.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Myth About Terrible First Drafts

You've all heard the advice stating that your first draft can and will be terrible.  That it's okay to just spit words onto the page, as long as you're getting something down.  That you don't need to worry about quality at this point, just working your way through a draft.  You can edit it all later, right?  Go ahead and spill your inner madness onto your screen.

This advice is, actually, true.  To a point.  It's necessary that you let yourself be freer with your rough draft than you'd be with a final one.  Don't censor yourself, and let those words flow.  Follow plot threads on a whim.  Let your characters make some decisions.  A first draft is, in a way, an exploration of your own story, your own ideas.  What enables this freedom is the fact that writing can always be edited.  Your work is SO changeable.

But this common advice isn't as true as people like to think.  If you want to avoid doing possibly dozens of rounds of revisions, you can't just spew out a first draft like it doesn't matter.  It can't just be senseless ramblings vaguely connected to your story that you might be able to morph into a cohesive plot later.  A first draft is not a bunch of confetti ideas to be strung together during revision--it's a foundation on which you can build a polished story.

Think of it this way: say you're looking at fixer-upper houses.  The first hardly has any paint left.  The back wall is all but fallen down, and you suspect that the foundation itself isn't in much better condition.  The roof is ridden with holes, and the neighbors have reported ghostly noises coming from the basement.  The second isn't pretty to look at, either, but at least you aren't afraid it will collapse onto your head.  It's shabby, but you know the foundation is solid.  It's a bit more expensive to start out with than the first, but it will cost you less in the long-run to fix it up.

You'd pick the second house, right?  Of course--it's the more efficient choice.

First drafts work the same way.

You want to be efficient in your writing, saving time without sacrificing quality.  If you barrel through your first draft like nothing matters but getting to "the end" by any means possible, it's like the first house.  Sure, it's a story by definition.  It has a structure.  It's complete, if complete is having a beginning, middle and end, in the same way you could technically call the house complete if it has four walls and a roof.  It's "finished",'s terrible.

You could salvage it, sure.  But it would take a lot of time and effort you don't necessarily want to expend.  You haven't given yourself firm ground on which to revise your story.  You're basically rewriting the entire thing.  In that case, what's the point?

If your first draft is like the second house, though, you're in much better shape.  It may be shabby, but it's workable.  You won't have to destroy it in order to start fresh.  You have a starting point, at least.  Being a little more careful with your first draft will now pay off in the revision stages.

By all means, give yourself freedom on your first draft--that's what it's for.  But keep in mind that any plot, structure, and character problems have the tendency to snowball.  An issue with your writing might start small, but if your first draft runs amok, completely unchecked, these problems can quickly become huge issues that make the draft unworkable.  Use some discretion in your first draft in order to avoid this.  Outlining or otherwise planning ahead of time makes it even easier.

Be careful with your first drafts.  When characters get too out of hand, rein them in.  Know where you're going.  If you know there's a problem, don't let it get bigger.  Don't write something you dislike in order to reach a word count.  Be free with your writing, and allow yourself to try new directions, but give yourself reasonable parameters.  Nobody wants to do dozens of rounds of revisions.

Even so, your first draft will probably be awful.  That's okay.  Nobody has to write a perfect first draft, and that is, indeed, what revision is for.  Still, it will be salvageable.  That's the key--not to write a perfect first draft, but to write a first draft that you'll be able to polish.

As with any writing advice, it's important to remember that everyone is different.  No two people have the same process.  Maybe you're better with first drafts than someone else, or maybe you're worse.  The goal should be to find a process that works for you.  I'm not saying this to discount my own advice, because I still think it applies--but please always keep this in mind.

How do you keep your first drafts "salvageable"?
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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Enchanter Heir (The Heir Chronicles #4) by Cinda Williams Chima

They called it the Thorn Hill Massacre—the brutal attack on a once-thriving Weir community. Though Jonah Kinlock lived through it, he did not emerge unscathed: like the other survivors, Jonah possesses unique magical gifts that set him apart from members of the mainline guilds. At seventeen, Jonah has become the deadliest assassin in Nightshade, a global network that hunts the undead. He is being groomed to succeed Gabriel Mandrake, the sorcerer, philanthropist, and ruthless music promoter who established the Thorn Hill Foundation, the public face of Nightshade. More and more, Jonah’s at odds with Gabriel’s tactics and choice of targets. Desperate to help his dying brother Kenzie, Jonah opens doors that Gabriel prefers to keep closed.

Emma Claire Greenwood grew up worlds away, raised by a grandfather who taught her music rather than magic. An unschooled wild child, she runs the streets until the night she finds her grandfather dying, gripping a note warning Emma that she might be in danger. The clue he leaves behind leads Emma into Jonah’s life—and a shared legacy of secrets and lingering questions.

Was Thorn Hill really a peaceful commune? Or was it, as the Wizard Guild claims, a hotbed of underguild terrorists? The Wizards’ suspicions grow when members of the mainline guilds start turning up dead. They blame Madison Moss and the Interguild Council, threatening the fragile peace brokered at Trinity.

Racing against time, Jonah and Emma work to uncover the truth about Thorn Hill, amid growing suspicion that whoever planned the Thorn Hill Massacre might strike again.

Released: October 1st 2013    Pages: 458
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion     Source: Library

It's safe to say that I'm a fan of Cinda Williams Chima's books.  I've read every book she has published to date, and I've loved all but this one.  I adored the Heir Chronicles series in late elementary and early middle school, when I was that kid who read way above her level, all the time.  (But what kid was ever harmed by reading above her level?  Nobody.  Go at those YA books, kids, and become more awesome.)  More recently, I read her Seven Realms series, which I loved even more.  When I heard that there were two more Heir books coming out, I was excited.  And confused.  It was like hearing about the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  I was thrilled, because, well, PotC.  I was also suspicious, though, because the trilogy had finished.  Everything was wrapped up, so why were they making a fourth?  I felt the same hearing about the fourth and fifth Heir books.  

While The Enchanter Heir has its moments, I'm thinking that the Heir series should've stayed a trilogy.  It brings back familiar characters like Jack Swift and Ellen Stephenson, Madison Moss, and others.  I appreciated how easy it was to get back into this series after being away from it for so long.  Most already-established characters make only minor appearances, though, and it introduces a new cast.  It alternates between the points of view of Jonah and Emma, neither of whom are characters that feel three-dimensional.  I kept wanting more from them, but it never came.  I wanted more depth, more exploration of their characterization, more complexity, but I never got far below the surface.  Their romance develops quickly and awkwardly, with little apparent chemistry.  Both of them spend more time brooding and/or moping than actually doing anything, and are more reactionary than catalysts of their own story.

The plot itself takes a long time to develop.  Either the entire first half is setup, or it just feels like it.  I waited longer than I wanted for things to truly start happening.  After that, the plot gets more interesting, but it keeps changing focus.  First it's all about killing (or reaching a truce with) the undead/spirits.  (Is nobody going to talk about the fact that the undead's ringleader is named Lilith?)  Then it's about politics between the wizards and the underguilds.  Then it's about Jonah and his band.  Then it focuses on the relationship between Jonah and Emma.

Because of this, it was hard to care about the plot.  It was interesting, in places, but I couldn't figure out where it was going, which made it hard to be invested.  Besides, some aspects felt unnecessary, and this book could've easily been much shorter without losing anything vital.  Did we really have to include so many chapters about the drama within Jonah's band?  Probably not.

My review is full of criticism, but really, I didn't dislike the book.  I didn't necessarily like it, as a whole--it's somewhere in the middle.  Parts are genuinely interesting, but other parts just left me bored.  I'm most likely being a bit harsh on it since I had such high expectations.  Still, it's not a bad book, and it's always possible that my tastes have changed enough that I'd no longer love the rest of the Heir series if I reread it.  If you loved the Heir Chronicles, it's worth a read, but you miss nothing, story-wise, if you stop after The Dragon Heir.  Overall, my opinion balances out to three stars.

Similar Books: It's a fantasy novel set in modern times with a plot that focuses on magical politics, like the Bartimaeus series.  It will appeal to fans of Chima's other series, the Seven Realms series.  It also reminds me of the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series (though I'm not really sure why).

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Ruin and Rising (The Grisha #3) by Leigh Bardugo

The capital has fallen.

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.

Now the nation's fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova's amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling's secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

Released: June 17th 2014           Pages: 417
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.     Source: Library

I'm going to take a moment to compare Shadow and Bone to Stormdancer.  Both came out around the summer of 2012.  The hype around both of them was nearly overwhelming.  They both were praised for having unusual, unique, amazing settings and feisty female protagonists.  Both were received with lots of cheering and applause.  And yet, the Grisha series works, while The Lotus War fails in its second installment

Here's why: the Grisha series is more than its setting.  I find The Lotus War lacking in every aspect except setting.  Sure, Japanese steampunk is cool, but what else?  The Grisha series, on the other hand, has awesome characters, a compelling plot, and solid writing, all in addition to the fascinating setting.  And that's why it succeeds where many other fantasy series fail.

You can't ignore the setting, though, despite all the series' other qualities.  It's unique and beautifully realized.  There was obviously extensive planning done for it, which results in an incredibly detailed and immersive world.  I could always picture it clearly in my mind--and the picture was gorgeous.  I want to visit Ravka.  Or move in.  It uses standard high fantasy elements, like a monarchical government, a magic system, and so on.  The Russian influence is a fresh twist, though, that makes it feel unlike anything I've ever read.  

I'm out.  See you all later.  Ravka needs me.

Ahem.  Where was I?  Characters--sure.  While Alina once again spends a good chunk of the first part of the book either moping or doing nothing, I gained respect for her as the plot progressed.  She's never been among my favorite protagonists, but I felt for her and genuinely cared about her.  I had problems with Mal in Siege and Storm, but he redeems himself here.  Despite his sometimes irritating perfection, he shows new sides of himself, and it made me care for him and connect with him on a deeper level than before.  And then there's Nikolai.  He's my favorite in this series, and is among my favorites from any series.  Yes, of course I track his Tumblr tags.  For the longest time, I felt that him and Alina was the most logical ship, the only one that seemed like it could end well.  I struggled with this, though, because--NIKOLAI.  You've probably come across it, that character that you have a hard time shipping with anyone.  Mostly because some part of you still holds onto the hope that someone will find a way to retrieve fictional from books (safely...yeah, Inkheart, I'm looking at you), and when if that ever happens, the ship will need to be open for you. 

We can't forget David, either.  David may not be my absolute favorite, but he's a close runner-up in this series.  He's open and straightforward in a way that few other characters are.  He's sweet, clever, and resourceful.  And has an understated sense of humor that I love:

“Everyone okay?" Mal asked.

"Never better," said Genya shakily.

David raised his hand. "I've been better.”

The plot is awesome, too, just like the characters.  It starts out a bit slow, but as soon as it picks up, it never stops.  It's more than your average fantasy good vs. evil story.  The "good guys" can be dark and make difficult, questionable decisions.  The "bad guy" doesn't always seem like a bad guy.  The Darkling is a fantastic example of how shades of gray are the most important quality of an antagonist.  It gets to the point where you're not even sure that he's the antagonist at all, which adds an extra layer of complexity to the book.  I'm not in love with the Darkling in a way that many fans are--they ship him and Alina, or they even want him to prevail, somehow.  While I love his complexity, his surprising softness, and the amazing skill with which Leigh Bardugo writes him, I can't root for him on this level.  (And that's coming from the girl who loves Loki.)  Still, though, he's a fascinating character.

I even managed to feel pain for him, at the end.  Granted, I was feeling a lot of pain about a lot of things at the end.  Mal, Alina, Nikolai, the Darkling--pretty much everyone got a share of my feels.  The story speeds along toward the end, and for a concerning amount of time, it makes you expect the worst.  I was afraid I was going to risk the loss of multiple favorite characters.  And then the ending comes, and it wasn't anywhere near what I was expecting, but it was epic and perfect.  The epilogue part caused so many feels, as well, but for entirely different reasons.  

I debated my rating on this for a long time--four or five stars?  It isn't a perfect book, or anywhere close.  Whenever I consider its flaws, though, these thoughts are overshadowed by remembering how this book made me feel.  I value emotional reactions to books so much, and I can't just overlook that.  Plus, there's the awesome setting.  In that case, I can't give it any less than five stars.  

Similar Books: It has a rich and detailed non-standard high fantasy setting like Eon: Dragoneye Reborn,The Girl of Fire and ThornsProphecyand Vessel.  It also reminds me of Throne of Glass and The Demon King.
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Monday, July 14, 2014

The Dragon's Path (The Dagger and the Coin #1) by Daniel Abraham

All paths lead to war.... 

Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps. 

Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the secret life of commerce like a second language, but the strategies of trade will not defend her from swords. 

Geder, sole scion of a noble house, has more interest in philosophy than in swordplay. A poor excuse for a soldier, he is a pawn in these games. No one can predict what he will become.

Falling pebbles can start a landslide. A spat between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne is spiraling out of control. A new player rises from the depths of history, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon's Path-the path to war.

Released: April 7th 2011   Pages: 555
Publisher: Orbit                 Source: Library

First Look: ****I didn't know much about this, but it looked like a high fantasy that's fairly standard, but also not.  And I'd seen it compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, so I figured, why not?  I've been starting to dabble in non-YA high fantasy, so it looked like it was worth a try.  (While I'm at it, any recommendations for me?)

Setting: ***** 
Meh.  It was there. That just about sums up my opinion. I never loved it, but never hated it.  It worked for the story, but there wasn't anything about it that stood out.  I never had any reason to care about the place, as a whole.

The aspect of the thirteen races was interesting, but it bothered me that it was never fully explained.  Apparently these beings were all humanoid, with minor variations, but it would've been nice to get some description instead of just term-dropping.    

Characters: ***** 
I feel the same way about the characters as I do about the setting.  The people were there, and they carried the storyline, but that was about it.  I wanted more from them--some sense of connection or emotion--but I didn't get it.  They were, at least, borderline interesting.  I enjoyed Cithrin's resourcefulness, Geder's need to make his mark on the world, and Marcus's sense of duty.  Their personalities were distinct, but it never got to the point where I personally cared about the characters.    

Plot: ***** 
I appreciated that the plot wasn't your standard fantasy-war story.  Instead of focusing on the kings and battles, it focuses more on smaller things: a city bank, one man's private fighting force, a minor noble.  Even though this gave it the chance to be deeply personal, I always felt disconnected from the plot, partly due to its slow pacing.  It takes a long time for things to get moving.  Once things started happening, I thought I'd get more into this, but then it slows down again, losing my interest.  It spent way too much time with unnecessary details of Cithrin's banking ventures.  Did I really need those min-lectures about economics?  No, not really. 

Uniqueness: ****
I've give it credit in this area--it manages to fit nicely into the high fantasy genre while still maintaining its originality.  I can't say it's the most original fantasy I've ever read, but it differentiates itself enough to stand out from the crowd.  

Writing: ***** 
The book is split into three different points of view, one for each of the three main characters.  While this worked, for the most part, I occasionally lost track of who was narrating, especially when following Cithrin and Marcus's storyline.  Geder is off doing his own thing, but Cithrin and Marcus are interacting with one another for much of the book, and their narrative voices are virtually identical.  I would've liked more differentiation between the two.


Not-so-great: N/A

Overall: This book had the potential to be an interesting, unique fantasy novel, but I just feel "meh" about it.  I never got to the point where I truly cared about the characters, which made it hard to connect to any aspect of the book.  I liked how it focuses on individual people and their stories, while so many other high fantasies focus more on overarching battles and politics.  Still, it was a rather bland read for me.  It isn't bad, necessarily--I actually have very little opinion, one way or the other.

Similar Books: It's a politics-driven high fantasy, like A Song of Ice and Fire, Allies & Assassins, and Falling Kingdoms.  It also reminds me of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Young World (The Young World Trilogy #1) by Chris Weitz

After a mysterious Sickness wipes out the rest of the population, the young survivors assemble into tightly run tribes. Jefferson, the reluctant leader of the Washington Square tribe, and Donna, the girl he's secretly in love with, have carved out a precarious existence among the chaos. But when another tribe member discovers a clue that may hold the cure to the Sickness, five teens set out on a life-altering road trip to save humankind.

The tribe exchanges gunfire with enemy gangs, escapes cults and militias, braves the wilds of the subway and Central Park...and discovers truths they could never have imagined.

Released: July 29th 2014   
Pages: 384
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers   
Source: NetGalley

First Look: ****The adult-free, kid/teen-run society plot has been a subtle trend for a long time now.  It's never been the big thing, but these books just keep popping up.  And, for the most part, I'm into it--I love Gone and The Maze Runner, and then there's the classic Lord of the Flies (with which I have a weird relationship).  So, I figured, "Hey, let's give this a shot."  Now, though, I'm wondering if we need to give this trend a rest.

Setting: ***** 
I wish this setting made sense.  Sure, I'll accept that the creatively-named Sickness came along and killed everyone except the teenagers, for plot's sake.  Once the explanation of the Sickness comes, though, it loses its credibility.  (spoiler ahead)  Everyone except the teenagers was killed so the world could start fresh, basically.  Just...what?  Who came up with this flawless plan?  Yes, you've gotten rid of the people who started wars and contributed to pollution, etc.  But you've also gotten rid of the people who know how to do brain surgery, to run the internet, to be effective leaders.  Good going.

Characters: ***** Jefferson, one of the point-of-view characters, is your standard main character hero type.  He's a decent leader, a good fighter, has a lot of courage, and is generally respectable and moral.  And that's about it.  Nothing about him ever grabbed my interest.  It's hard to care about someone who is such a Gary Stu.  There is no depth to him--he's not a three-dimensional character, which doesn't make him feel like a real person.

I spent most of the time wanting to punch the other POV character, Donna.  Most of this has to do with her maddening narration, which I'll discuss later.  Her personality is slightly more interesting and unique than Jefferson's, but she also has an annoying habit of trying way too hard to be cool.  She uses so many unnecessary slang terms--and other terms that were probably meant to be slang, but I honestly have no idea what they are--and it grated on my nerves.  Also, she keeps referring to Kathy as "Tits McGee" long after she learns her real name.  Is there a particular reason Donna has to keep degrading her like this, or is it supposed to be funny?  Because it isn't.

Plot: ***** With better writing and characters, the plot could have made for an enjoyable book.  It moves along at a solid pace without ever getting boring.  I may have disliked the POV characters, but hey, at least there's action and suspense.

And the romance.  Once it gets started, every other aspect of the plot suddenly becomes less important.  It's overbearing and feels forced.  I couldn't sense any of the apparent chemistry between Jefferson and Donna.  It's more "Well, this is YA, so we have to include a romance otherwise everyone will hate it" than anything else.

Uniqueness: ***** I thought this had the potential to stand out from other books with a similar premise, but it brings nothing new to the table.  It just left me feeling like I had read this exact same thing before.

Writing: ***** The writing is the reason I almost didn't finish this book.  I don't know if narration has ever made me so mad.  It sounds like a written version of that "IDK, my BFF Jill" commercial.  It's cluttered with slang terms where slang terms are unnecessary.  There's a fine line between having an "authentic" narrative voice and trying too hard, and that line is crossed farther than I've ever seen before.  There are terms that are appropriate in a forum post or a tweet, maybe, but not in a novel.  Actually, some of these terms shouldn't be used for any purpose, ever.  Fun fact: whenever an author uses words like "vajayjay", "teh internetz", "gnarly", "mofo", "NILF" (like MILF, but...nerd), and, God forbid, "anyhooters", a baby panda cries.  Sadly, I'm not coming up with those out of nowhere--each of those words is in this book.

This book is also gloriously blessed with a narrator who apparently thinks it's okay to misuse "like" whenever she feels like it.  I understand that teenagers sometimes talk like that, but I don't read books in order to be reminded of how many people abuse the English language on an hourly basis.  Public Service Announcement: STOP USING "LIKE" THIS WAY IN BOOKS.

Here are a few more highlights:
"A lot of books you read, the author thinks it's cool to have an 'unreliable narrator'.  To keep you guessing and to acknowledge that there are no absolutes, and everything is relative, or whatever.  Which I think is kind of lame.  So--just so you know--I am going to be a reliable narrator.  Like, totally."

"I may not be all SAT-wordy like Wash and Jeff, but no way are they gonna lord it over me, knowing bonus words and sh*t."
I think I've just been insulted.

"A lot of girls don't get Star Wars..."

"He gives me sh*t for swearing too much and saying 'like' all the time.  Which, yeah?  But here's the thing.  Everybody thinks that 'like' is just a sort of junk word, empty calories or whatever?  But my theory is that it's totally unfairly maligned."

"But I'm sort of kind of a virgin.  Not, like, totally.  Not, like, Goody Two-Shoes or anything.  Like, I've done some stuff, but...yeah."

Also, I've been indirectly insulted again.

"I mean, that's just a metaphor, just another like."
That's not a metaphor.  If it uses "like", it's a simile.

Bonus simile:
"Grief cuts you open.  Our nerves are poking out of our flesh and twining around each other like fighting octopi."

And weird analogy:
"Somebody gets accepted into the big university in the sky every few weeks."

Likes: At one point, Donna mentions a few titles of some stories that Jefferson makes up to tell the younger kids.  One of them is "The Garage That Ate Bands".  I want in on that.

Not-so-great:  Jefferson is what, sixteen years old?  And he doesn't know what an EMP is.  Donna is the same age and doesn't know what bioweapons are.  Chris Weitz, you could at least give teenagers some credit.

 "The problem with all of this--the Princess Thing and the Jedi Thing--is that--and I can't put too fine a point on this--they are fictional.  They don't exist."

Overall: This book could have been so good.  Instead, its decent plot is weighed down by an illogical setting and flat, boring characters.  And the narration.  This is some of the worst narration I've ever read.  It's almost four hundred pages of "like", question marks at the end of statements, and other obnoxious slang terms.  I wanted to throw this book across the room on a regular basis.  I'm disappointed by this, and I do not recommend it to anyone.  It might just be the worst book I've read this year.  To quote Donna: "Uuuuuuggh.  Why?"
Similar Books: It's a dystopian/sci-fi novel with teens running their own society, like Gone, Variant, The Maze Runner, The 100, and Monument 14.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

How To Get Free Books

Sometimes, when big-deal book bloggers post pictures of the huge stack of books some random publisher mailed to them for review, small-time bloggers glare at the screen.  How does that even happen?  Why does nobody send me stacks of free books?  Is there witchcraft involved?

Publishers don't send me big boxes in the mail, but you've probably noticed that I get my hands on the occasional ARC.  Maybe you're wondering how you can get one, too.  It's not so much a matter of having 24601 followers--it's all in knowing where to look.  And learning the appropriate witchcraft.

Maybe you should take this guide with a grain of salt because I don't take book blogging anywhere near as seriously as a lot of big-time bloggers.  Which is probably why I'm not a big-time blogger yet, and probably never will be, which is totally fine with me.  Also, you guys seem to like the GIFs, and what serious book blogger uses so many GIFs? 

Here are eight methods of getting free books:

(Note: ARC stands for "advance reader's copy".  It's an early, not-for-sale edition of a book that publishers send to reviewers before the actual release date.  Usually, the only difference between an ARC and a finished copy is a few typos here and there.)
  1. NetGalley.  NetGalley is an online service that allows book bloggers and other reviewers to read e-copies of upcoming books.  Publishers list the book, and then reviewers can request access to this book.  Most publishers do prefer that bloggers are fairly established and have a decent following, but this varies from publisher to publisher and book to book.  It's easier to get approved for a lesser-known book, but I'd suggest requesting anything that looks interesting, because you never know what could happen.  Occasionally, they'll put out books that are open to anyone, approved or not.  The downside is that you have to have an ereader, unless you want to read on your computer or iPhone.  
  2. Goodreads First Reads giveaways.  Goodreads allows publishers/authors to list book giveaways that any Goodreads user can enter.  Sometimes they list ARCs, other times published books.  It's almost all physical copies, not ebooks.  Whether you win or not is mostly random, but site activity, genres of books on your shelves, and past reviews of First Reads books are also factors.  If you won a book through First Reads in the past, and reviewed it, you're automatically more likely to win another book.  You're not required to review it, of course, but why wouldn't you, if it means more free books?  Pro tip: Whenever you enter a giveaway on GR, it posts about it to your profile, meaning that everyone who follows you or is friends with you can see that you entered this giveaway.  Maybe this is cheating a little bit, but I always remove this story from my feed (you can do this by clicking the little x in the corner).  That way, news about the giveaway doesn't circulate as much, increasing your chances of winning.  
  3. Blogger Lift Goodreads group.  There's a group on GR for bloggers called Blogger Lift.  Anyone can join.  There's a "reviewing" section in the forum, and sometimes, authors will post in it, looking for reviewers for their books.  In exchange for a review, they'll give you a free copy of the book.  People will also post links to book giveaways that they're hosting on their blog.
  4. Z Street Team.  The Z Street Team is a mailing list that anyone can sign up for--blogger or not.  Once you register, they'll send you emails about upcoming YA books from Zondervan and related publishing imprints (all Christian), and sometimes let you request a free ARC.  
  5. Other giveaways.  If you go looking for them, book giveaways are everywhere.  They're on book blogs, author blogs,  or available if you follow a publishing house on Tumblr/Facebook/whatever.  Your chances of winning are usually pretty slim, but it's better than nothing.  
  6. Request an ARC.  Another option is directly emailing a publisher's marketing/publicity person and asking for an ARC.  This doesn't always work, and again, it depends on your blog following, and probably the current phase of the moon.  There's an introductory how-to post here and here, and the second one even contains a list of email addresses of various publishers, so you don't have to go digging around on their website for it.  Even if the publisher declines your request, they might put you onto a mailing list that will provide opportunities for blog tours or even available ARCs.
  7. Penguin Teen's blogger program.  I just found out about this, so I don't know much about it yet.  It seems to be pretty straightforward: you fill out the form with your reading preferences and some blog stats, and then they'll make ARCs available to you.  I'll let you know when I learn more.
  8. Cuddlebuggery's Little Blogger, Big Ambitions project.  The LBBA project is specifically aimed at new bloggers, or those without a large following.  To qualify, you have to have less than 600 followers, and receive less than 600 pageviews per day.  Once you register (and doing so is easy), you can enter yourself in giveaways for ARCs donated by other bloggers.  Yes, it's still a giveaway, which means the books aren't guaranteed to show up at your door, but your odds are still much, much better than most other giveaways.  (added 7/10/14)  
  9. When all else fails... 
For anything involving requesting an ARC, you'll need to provide blogging statistics, like number of unique visitors per month, unique pageviews, etc.  Get comfortable using Google Analytics.  It looks a little daunting and confusing at first, but the data is so much more reliable and in-depth than the simple stats you'll find on Blogger.  (Yes, there is a difference between Blogger's pageview numbers and "unique pageviews".)

If you review enough ARCs from a publisher, they might just start sending you books they think you'll like.  This would be awesome, but you can't count on it.  Until then, you'll have to stick to the above methods.  None are guaranteed except the library, but they're a good starting point.

Do you know of another way to get free books?  Let me know!
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Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Lord of Opium (Matteo Alacrán #2) by Nancy Farmer

Matt has always been nothing but a clone—grown from a strip of old El Patrón’s skin. Now, at age fourteen, he finds himself suddenly thrust into the position of ruling over his own country. The Land of Opium is the largest territory of the Dope Confederacy, which ranges on the map like an intestine from the ruins of San Diego to the ruins of Matamoros. But while Opium thrives, the rest of the world has been devastated by ecological disaster—and hidden in Opium is the cure.

And that isn’t all that awaits within the depths of Opium. Matt is haunted by the ubiquitous army of eejits, zombielike workers harnessed to the old El Patr
ón’s sinister system of drug growing—people stripped of the very qualities that once made them human.

Matt wants to use his newfound power to help, to stop the suffering, but he can’t even find a way to smuggle his childhood love, Maria, across the border and into Opium. Instead, his every move hits a roadblock, some from the enemies that surround him…and some from a voice within himself. For who is Matt really, but the clone of an evil, murderous dictator?

Released: September 3rd 2013                             Pages: 411
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers     Source: Library

I read The House of the Scorpion in fifth or sixth grade, and I loved it.  I have a vivid memory of being excited for standardized testing because it meant I had time to read (I liked standardized testing when I was younger because I've always been a fast test-taker, which meant at least half an hour of reading time for me).  I remember sitting in a desk that I'd shoved into a corner of the room, being absolutely enthralled by the book.

Now, I don't remember that much of it.  I remember how it made me think, and I remember vague plot points, but other details escape me.  Still, I've counted it as being among my favorite books for years.  So, naturally, I assumed I would also love The Lord of Opium.

If I went and reread The House of the Scorpion now, I don't think I would be as impressed by it.  The Lord of Opium won't leave the same impact on my mind.  Yes, it's thought-provoking, but these ideas are never fully explored, and it's too weighed down by other plot and narration issues.  My biggest problem was that the plot hardly goes anywhere.  It has a clear focus--Matt wantes to re-humanize the eejits and eliminate the opium farms altogether.  (Ambitious goals, but he's a socially isolated fourteen-year-old who has suddenly become a drug lord.  I'll give him a break.)  Still, things happen at an annoyingly slow rate.  Matt goes to visit people, talks to scientists and Cienfuegos, tries to connect with Mirasol (an eejit), mopes around.  Little of this is exciting, and it gets old pretty fast.

Even though Matt is fourteen years old, the narration reads like that of a twelve-year-old.  It's overly simplistic.  Sentences tend to be short, which makes everything seem choppy.  It doesn't fit with the tone of the book or the intended audience.  Again, I understand that Matt is socially and, in some ways, developmentally stunted, but his actions and words were more mature than the narration made him seem.  If the narration had matched this, the entire book would have flowed better.

Matt himself is an interesting character--I could see the struggle between his own thoughts and what he felt were the intrusion of El Patrón's. He has a fascinating yet sad backstory, and it gave him an interesting personality. The side characters, however, weren't anywhere near as interesting. Some of the kids (like Listen) acted too old for their age, some too young (like María). None of them ever grabbed my attention, and sometimes it felt like there were too many characters for the story.

All that being said, this book has some truly thought-provoking ideas, and asks some difficult and relevant questions. What is the relationship of a clone to the original? How much of a clone is their own--their body, their thoughts, their personality, their instincts? When does a human being stop being a person, if ever? None of these things are easy to answer. Nancy Farmer explores them through Matt's complicated relationship with El Patrón (before and after his death), his attempted connection with Mirasol, and his new role as drug lord. Like I mentioned earlier, these things weren't discussed quite thoroughly enough for my liking, but they helped slightly redeem the book, for me.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this. The premise and its ideas are fascinating, but the plot is slow. The narration is simplistic and choppy, and there are so many flat side characters. It's probably worth a read if you enjoyed The House of the Scorpion, but I'm a bit disappointed with it.

Similar Books: It deals with questions of personhood, for lack of a better term, like Unwind.  It presents a bleak dystopian future like Ship Breaker, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and Blood Red Road.

PS: just listed this blog as one of their top five must-read writer blogs.  I'm honored (and a bit taken aback) to have my blog listed on par with people like Nathan Bransford, Maggie Stiefvater, and Chuck Wendig.  So, yay!  I've been following three of the four other blogs mentioned for a long time, so this makes me really happy.  (Nathan Bransford's blog basically taught me how to write query letters.)

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