Hey all! I’ll be building up this list of books and quick reviews throughout the year as I read them. The first half is fiction, the second half is writing craft books. Enjoy!
>> Wilder Girls by Rory Power
This book was great! I was looking for something a little creepy or weird for some Halloween vibes and this fit the bill (although I’d recommend it other times of the year too).
I read it in a week (which is practically unheard of for me) and it felt like such a palate cleanser. I love books like this where you can just consume them in brief sittings. The author did an interesting thing with her character’s Voice where she didn’t have a lot of coordinating conjunctions. Sentences would be strung together without them. It took me about a chapter or two to get used to it, but then I stopped noticing.
I found the Tox infiltrating the girl’s school on their isolated island gripping and how they dealt with the CDC and their food rations incredibly stimulating. There was only one dropped plot thread that truly bothered me and the strange “reveal” at the end of the second-to-last chapter had me rolling my eyes. Plus the end wasn’t completely tied up nice and neat (probably to leave room for a second novel, but I wish it had just ended as a solid standalone.) But in the end I think it was a thought-provoking literary experiment on an isolated micro-society.
>> Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston – DNF
So, I think I’m officially saying it. I’m DNFing (Did Not Finish) Heart of Iron by Ashley Poston. At least for now. I was really excited for this space opera and it sounds like it’s full of adventure and heart. However…
I didn’t think Poston set up the beginning well – the reader is thrown into the action immediately and we never have time to care for the characters or their goals. Because of that I found more and more time in between reading sessions and realized I just didn’t care enough to keep going. Additionally, there were strange little details that reminded me of things in my own manuscript and they weren’t done as well (not to toot my own horn! Lol) but seeing something that could be BETTER is really frustrating. PLUS there were *sooo* many typos. It drove me nuts. Someday I hope to go back to it because it is such a wildly popular space opera, but right now isn’t the right time.
>> Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Whenever anyone asks for recommendations on YA fantasy, this book comes up. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I was worried because, I’ll be honest, I didn’t love her first series Shadow and Bone like everyone else did. In fact, I read half the first book, skimmed the rest, and looked for summaries online for the other two. Needless to say, I was wary.
Six of Crows was different. You don’t often see heist stories in fantasy. This rag-tag cast of characters are the underdogs of their criminal world and they’ve just landed a huge payoff opportunity – breaking into the world’s toughest prison to steal the most dangerous man inside.
It was a great read, full of action, magic, and heart. I thoroughly loved rooting for the bad guys. (I mean, really, there wasn’t a good guy to be seen. And I am here for all that delightful gray area!)
>> Finale by Stephanie Garber
I reviewed Legendary, the second book in the Caraval series earlier (see below!). I held it in fairly high regard and needed to read Finale, the third installment, immediately after. I was excited to find that both sisters, Scarlett and Tella, had POV chapters here, which was a nice touch, and I loved the entire idea and inclusion of the Deck of Destiny. However, I felt the plot was disjointed and it subverted expectation in all the wrong ways. Happy to see the end tied up, but a bit of a shrug and a sigh, I’d say.
The following (below the photo) is NOT HEAVILY SPOILERY, but be warned if you plan to read the series, that I have some vague nods to plot elements below.
From the beginning the book’s plot elements felt widely
disjointed. Characters would commonly “come across” situations and deal with
them. Although those situations *did* connect to the overall plot, they didn’t
have any sort of causal effect. Instead, every situation was treated solely as
more information for the character. For a while, I believed Garber had set it
up this way to install a Back in Time element, and would utilize the disjointed
scenes for that purpose, but it wasn’t the case.
I also spent a lot of the beginning waiting for the main plot point or catalyst, but then as the story continued I realized it already happened and didn’t pack as much of a punch as I thought it would. Instead the characters spent a lot of time doing vapid things that had very little to do with the story and generally muddied the plot. This included a character that didn’t even need to be in the book.
Speaking of poor plot points, there was one major plot element that led up to the middle of the book that felt like Garber was tricking her MC with gifts from one character and leading the audience to believe it was another. They were cleverly added details, but ultimately didn’t do anything. They were almost like failed red herrings, or dropped plot threads. I’m convinced this book was meant to be something else and was heavily edited to go a separate, and way more disappointing, route. It seemed like a lot was going on, one mystery plot to the next, without confirming anything or properly leading the characters to the next thing. It’s a really solid example of not using the But/Therefore rule.
Garber usually spends a lot of time with character interiority as the girls think things through, to the point that I’d struggled with the first two books for her to “get on with it.” So imagine my surprise to find that there wasn’t enough in book three. In fact, multiple times the MC’s came to a scenario and not thought about what it could mean. Entire plot points went by the wayside as something that just “happened” and no one tried to figure out who or why it was done. I suspect that this was because the multiple POVs may have thrown off Garber’s heavy hand with character thoughts.
Lastly, this book didn’t include nearly as much of her delicious magical writing that always made intangible thoughts feel tactile. I feel she reserved this language for the magic of Caraval, but I missed it in book three. In fact, I really would have liked to see one final Caraval game played in the third book, and even that was completely missing.
Overall, a huge plot letdown. Would recommend the series for casual reading, but would not recommend the third book on its own.
>> Legendary by Stephanie Garber
I flew through this book. I love that her writing is so delicious. By the end of the book you feel like it’s coated in honeymead and confectioner’s sugar. You know what stars feel like and what magic tastes like. It’s beautiful and unusual.
This book follows Tella, the sister of Caraval’s main character Scarlett, through a special Caraval. I love Tella far more than I liked Scarlett. She’s bold and unafraid which made her a great character to route for. I actually liked Legendary more than Caraval, in general. The first book always felt like the author had a dream and tried to turn all the weird dreamy nuances into a fully-fledged book, but Legendary didn’t feel like that. It felt plotted and heavily considered. The only things I missed were Scarlett’s ever-changing dress and her ability to see emotions as colors. I think the story was a little on the simple side (don’t tell Stephanie Garber though, I know how hard a novel is to make it feel simple!) and I think Tella did more interiority than necessary, but I read this book SO fast and immediately bought Finale to continue their journey. Overall, a definite Would Recommend.
>> The Disasters by M.K. England
The Disasters took me ages to read and it shouldn’t have. It’s a short, action-packed sci-fi with a witty main character… so why did it take so long to push through it?
I’m not a villainous book reviewer, I promise, and M.K. England has skill with voice and action scenes, but I wanted so much more from this book!
My biggest gripe is that I never cared for the plot or the situations the characters were in. It seemed like action for the sake of action. The main character had nothing riding on it, and never seemed fully invested in the problem. Because the problem was SO HUGE. The best way to connect a character to a “save the world” scenario is to show something on the minute scale. He mentioned that his parents lived on earth, which was in trouble, but they had to go to all these others planets first and he didn’t really know anyone there. It never felt personal. And because it didn’t feel personal to the MC, I didn’t care as much. There were moments that I preferred another character’s personal stakes in the matter and would have rather seen the book from her POV. The first plot point involved a space station, but the only connection we had to the people that were there during the disaster was the bully that the MC didn’t like so that didn’t feel personal either. The stakes were high for the plot, but not the character, and therefore I didn’t care as much. Like, why should I care that the planet survives? I’m not going to care for caring’s sake, you know?
Another thing that REALLY bugged me was how the MC at the beginning didn’t know any of his crew but he developed a crush on one girl, then he kept TOUCHING her. He would graze her shoulder or rub her knuckles or brush her cheek. And I’m here like BRUH these are usually UNWANTED gestures. She doesn’t know you! This girl didn’t ever brush him off, but she also NEVER did anything back. So I thought that was super gross.
Then there was this weird bi-love-triangle. I’m all for lgbtq characters, but considering the stakes at hand, I’m not sure the romance was super warranted. Then when the MC sort of “chooses” one from the triangle, the other one is just FINE with it. Like… that could have added so much good tension! And they’re just like *shrug* okay. Which I understand is the healthy way to deal with that situation but this is a book for crap’s sake, GIVE ME THE TENSION.
One thing I liked was the main character, Nax, had a witty, realistic voice so you definitely felt in his head. However, the other initial characters felt like cardboard cutouts. It seemed like England said “I want this one to be a sporty medic and this one is a smart navigator” and that’s ALL they were. That was their entire personality. It happened with each of their crew until they met Asra who felt slightly more well-rounded. That cardboard cutout feeling never completely ended either, you just got used to what the characters were supposed to be and accepted it.
Speaking of Asra, I felt like she was a little conveniently placed. She happened to find them and they decided to help her with this huge planet-peril problem that she happened to know EVERYTHING about. It was weird.
**This particular paragraph contains spoilers** There was a point early on when the navigator, Case, split from the group to go do what she believed felt “right” and they went through a whole action-filled situation then landed RIGHT back where they started in the same house with the same problem. Nothing ever came of it. There was no twist at the end to justify having all this happen. She didn’t turn out to have an ulterior motive or be secretly working for the bad guys or learn anything of value. Nothing. It was really obnoxious. I felt that whole scene could be cut. In fact, there was NEVER a twist. Everything just sort of kept going straightforward for the characters. They never got caught, even though they had no training or real weapons. Then they ended the big climax with something silly. It all felt very nice. Very tidy and kind. But niceties and kindness rarely makes a good book.
>> Still Me by Jojo Moyes
This is the third book in the series by Jojo Moyes that starts with Me Before You followed by After You. It was a really cute story and overall I enjoyed the series, but the latter two books were, admittedly, a little lackluster compared to the first.
Me Before You had SO much impact because it dealt with heavy life and death issues, revealed darkness from the main character’s background that she had to overcome, and in the end left her a completely different person than she was in the beginning. Still Me didn’t have those powerful life questions, and the theme of figuring out who she was, not who others wanted her to be, was very low-key. I love the way Moyes always uses specific details in her writing, which kept me reading. She doesn’t just say a character is wearing a pink dress – it’s a rose 1930s ruffled chiffon. In the end, I’m glad to have read the series, but the first book was the real whammy.
>>Vicious by V.E. Schwab
I followed VE Schwab on Instagram LONG before I’d read any of her work. I absolutely love how real she is about life as an author and gives the best writing advice. Because I liked who she was as a person, I picked up her book Vicious.
I would call this an understated superhero book. Haha. Her writing is literary and she feeds the reader tiny, subdued nuggets of information. I think it was her character work that kept me reading. They felt like real people and their ExtraOrdinary abilities (achieved after having a near death experience) were brilliantly sewn into a thesis-turned-science-experiment that had me hooked. Plus it helps that her chapters are all cut into small sections that made it easy to read a tiny bit at a time – always helpful when you’re busy at life!
>> Scythe by Neal Shusterman
This was supposed to be this month’s main read. I decided against travelling back into space (seen on an earlier Instagram story) because it felt too close to Gumpford so I went with Scythe. The concept is SO cool and the first chapter was a huge hook for me. However, I got HALFWAY through this and I had to set it down. Although the world and concept is interesting, the two main characters got chosen for a job they didn’t want. They spent a quarter of the book floating somewhere between sort-of-mostly-not wanting the job and feeling morally obligated because it’s considered an honor. They never did anything, and they never solidified *wanting* anything. Guys, it is SO important that your characters have a definitive GOAL. Every single day you have a goal. Maybe it’s a big achieve-my-dreams goal, or maybe the goal is just getting pizza for lunch, but you WANT things. These characters didn’t. I don’t have time for that. In fact, it wasn’t until the halfway-point chapter that a character finally did start to want something, but by then I didn’t care anymore.
Have any of you read this? Should I continue? Is it worth it in the end? Let me know!
>>The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James – My first read in 2019! This was such a quick, excellent read about a teenage girl named Romy Silvers who was born in space while her parents were on a mission to a new inhabitable planet and, after their tragic deaths, became the only one alive on board.
I love books like this that explore the human condition in high stress or lonely circumstances and determine how one might act in different situations.
I’ll admit the first chapter didn’t grab me. I worried that, in trying to put a wall up between reader and Romy, and therefore forcing us to feel her loneliness immediately, we would never connect with her. However, Lauren James did a good job creating empathy with Romy’s NASA Earth penpal, Molly, and showed that someone deeply cared for her.
Books about lone characters have the potential to be boring, but this was great. It bounced between fanfics the MC writes, letters and audio clips from Earth or the newly arriving spaceship, and Romy’s own personal needs and attentions of the ship – all of which kept me hooked.
After spending so long with Romy in her isolation, the climax felt jarring, which I’m sure is how Romy felt so in a way it worked, but as a reader I was expecting something quiet and it took a turn into action. Additionally, the revelations felt a little forced, the end involved a causal relationship between faults and accidents that didn’t quite line up, and everything felt wrapped up a little too quickly. But overall I really enjoyed the read! Check it out here.
The list has yet to be finished! The year isn’t over yet. Keep checking back for more 😉
Writing Craft Books
>>Wired for Story by Lisa Cron –
Now, if you need a writing craft book that will knock your brain’s socks off (omg wouldn’t a brain wearing socks be adorable?) then you need THIS. I absolutely love Lisa Cron. She is phenomenal and brilliant. It took me ages to finish this book because I didn’t want it to end. This is all about the psychology behind what readers love and why.
Her chapters are all based around cognitive secrets and how those help with the story. For example:
Chapter 9 “What Can Go Wrong, Must Go Wrong – and Then Some”
Cognitive secret: The brain uses stories to stimulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future
Story Secret: A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she doesn’t think she can pass. Do you feel inspired by that? Because I do. And all of that is written in the Table of Contents! Can you imagine all of the amazing secrets that are packed in the chapter itself?? Here’s just one notable thing I marked: In that same chapter there is an awesome list of Eleven Do’s and Don’t’s for Undermining Your Characters’ Best-Laid Plans. The very first point is “Don’t let your characters admit anything they aren’t forced to, even to themselves.” It goes on to explain this a bit more, of course, but what a brilliant reminder that as humans, we will stubbornly refuse to let others access information and will actively avoid certain aspects of ourselves and what has happened to us.
>> Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James – This has to be one of the most unique editing/revising books I have yet to read and it was phenomenal. James’ idea was that if you needed help on something specific, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong, or once you got notes back from your beta reader or editor who said “work on _____”, you could jump to that section of his book to better understand what that person meant.
The craft book includes 80 different topics including causality, tension, flashbacks, twists, timing, and the big V (voice).
Everything is neatly separated into five parts including story progression, reader engagement, and narrative techniques.
And every chapter includes brief, easy to read, no-frills sections that include quick fixes and fine-tuning the manuscript.
I can’t even begin to explain how highlighted and tabbed up this book is. It was brilliant. He includes excellent advice, examples, and suggestions, all of which are concise with levels of brevity that are nearly unheard of. I’ll give a couple random examples of things I loved, but there’s SO much more!
In chapter 41, Beliefs: “If your protagonist claims that he believes something, but his actions contradict that, readers will be more apt to trust what he does than what he claims.” […] “The actions he takes in [the aftermath of his temptations] will reveal his highest priorities.”
In chapter 9, Scenes: “If a scene isn’t working, it’s probably because (1) nothing was altered, (2) you rendered what hsould have been summarized or summarized what should have been rendered, or (3) the character’s desire wasn’t clear to readers.
Believe me, you 100% need this. Get it here.