Welcome to 2020! Below I’ll be keeping track of all the books I read this year and leaving short reviews about each. My goal this year is 12 books (one a month – I have a busy life, give me a break! Haha) and at least TWO writing craft books. Let’s see how we do!
>> Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw
This was a beautiful, atmospheric book about a girl who discovers that one boy has gone missing from the local camp and another boy is dead. Every page is laced with creepy woodsy vibes and old magic. The main character, Nora, is the end of a long line of witches who hasn’t discovered (and fears she may not have) her “nightshade”, or the thing that makes her special and magical. I think the witch vibes were handled in a unique way, in the sense that it wasn’t a hard magic system, but an ancient, natural bloodline magic that didn’t stand out over the plot. In fact, Ernshaw did a good job making sure the reader knew the woods had the biggest presence over everything. You couldn’t escape it, the weight of it was always there on every page. By the end you truly begin to understand how Nora feels like she is part of the woods, even though it’s been there from the beginning.
One thing, just literarily speaking, the magical elements can easily be relegated to a youthful imagination which I think is something that made the book feel even more powerful. That question of whether or not you can truly trust the narrator, even after the book is over, sticks with you.
>> Starflight by Melissa Landers
This book is about an orphan mechanic with felony tattoos who is looking for a new life, indentures herself to a rich quarterback, and they both wind up on some cruddy ship with a family of outlaws chasing down some mysterious coordinates deep in space.
It was a dual point of view between the mechanic, a girl named Solara, and the quarterback, Doran. And it was a surprisingly short book considering it was SciFi.
What I liked? There were certain plot elements I really enjoyed, particularly the pirates – I mean, pirates in space are going to win every time, honestly – and the concepts behind the temporal-lobe-limited Daeva bounty hunters. Actually, I liked how there were three different groups chasing the crew for various reasons (and through the plot they only added groups chasing after them). It added tension and interest and even some comedy.
But there were five things I had trouble with.
- Solara is a dick. Sure, Doran is a privileged ass, bullied her throughout her life, and tries to abandon her on some refueling station. I get it. But when Solara has the opportunity to stun him and he loses all memory of who he is, she takes advantage of his memory loss and begins BEING AN ASS TO HIM. It’s this smug revenge that made me dislike her from the very beginning. How you treat people in vulnerable situations says a lot more about YOU, than it does about them. (Maybe some people like this flip, but his bullying wasn’t fully developed enough in the backstory for me to route for this). So I’m following a story about a privileged bully and a cruel girl, and not cruel in a good way, which means I started the book disliking BOTH characters with ne’er a “save the cat” moment in sight.
- Amnesia. I’m beginning to think I don’t like the amnesia trope. It needs to be handled gently, or at least differently. It’s too convenient a plot device. This is personal, obviously. But because it *is* a trope, the opening of this book felt like a fanfiction… That “two characters that hate each other, one gets amnesia, they fall in love, they have passionate space sex, amnesia-boy remembers who she really is and gets upset, but they have to work together to get out of whatever plot issue they landed in” thing. I won’t tell you if I was right or wrong, because spoilers, but… yeah.
- Bully Redemption Romance. We’re constantly getting dragged away from the plot to return to the romance between the main characters as they realize they like each other, but don’t want to. It has that “space-jock bullied her but now he’s redeeming himself” trope and it’s… frustrating. I noticed that the author has a background in romance writing which is probably where that stems from, but the rich jock picking on the poor girl, him feeling bad, and them falling in love is a trope I don’t often appreciate.
- Lack in Worldbuilding. I could have guessed this when I saw how short the book was compared to the ambitious plot. Some people might see this as a good thing, a very attainable SciFi for any reader without all that techy verbage and heavy setting detail getting in the way (a common reason people don’t always love this genre). But I felt like it went too far in that direction. It lacks in creative names for spacey items and there’s almost never information on the setting. It’s really basic, there’s earth and moons, and rings built out across the galaxy. She’s in a bunk or an engine room or on a planet with a sun. It’s not *necessary* exactly, but it felt lacking to me, like I wanted a little bit more. There’s no mention of near or distant future or how long it took them to get where they are either. Often they’ll throw in common things – like a mention of Texas – and it would totally throw me when they’re deep in space travel.
- Oh, the Telling. I was about a quarter of the way in when I realized this and now I can’t unsee it. The book is riddled with stock gestures and Telling not Showing. My favorite stock gesture was “she turned her neck to face him”. It’s SO unnecessarily wordy. Often, too, Landers will begin doing a decent job Showing the reader what’s happening, then blantantly Tell them what they should be seeing. She’ll describe all the items in a room so it’s obvious what the room is (like there’s a fridge, an oven, etc) then say “it didn’t take long to figure out this room was a kitchen.” I get it. I knew it was a kitchen. You described it. I was there. It just felt like a punch, like she either didn’t trust the reader to understand her description, or she didn’t trust herself conveying it. (The kitchen was an example I made up, but she did it with other spaces).
>> Saga: Book One written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples
It’s nice to step away from novels sometimes, to be able to take in a story in a medium you don’t often partake in, and Saga captured me.
It follows the star-crossed parents of a newborn (the latter of which is the narrator) and their adventures while running from bounty hunters and beasts through the galaxy.
I think the thing I felt most attracted to about this story is the certain unique hooks the author uses to draw the reader into the next chapter like strangely shaped aliens or giant gorilla illusions. I did a review on Volume One (before continuing the saga) where I note home much I love the interesting characters like the half-bodied ghost babysitter and the giant cat that can detect (and will announce) when you’re lying. Following my favorite characters hasn’t let me down, I love how Vaughan uses them and their abilities in different ways.
There is one thing I’m not sure I love about the story yet. It’s that our main family has nothing but a negative goal – they’re running away from things instead of toward something they want. Near the end of Book One they begin talking about what could be next, but I’m wary that the story is going to be predominantly a negative goal, which I fear won’t hold my attention for an entire saga.
I’ll give it some time to see if I’m still entranced (or maybe I just miss Liar Cat enough) to be drawn back into the world for Book Two.
>> A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
I love VE Schwab’s prose. It’s lyrical, specific, and paints vibrant yet tightly spotlighted scenes. I randomly picked up this book while reading another, devoured the first chapter, and then sort of stumbled into the realization that I was properly reading the book. In the most hipsterish sentence I’ve written about myself, I bought this book from B&N’s new-releases shelf ages ago because I liked the cover, you know, before liking V.E. Schwab was cool. Of course it took me until now to read it, completely invalidating whatever hipster vibes I thought I had.
The story follows Kell who is one of the few magically-capable lads able to cross into the alternate Londons in different universes. He’s developed a rather bad habit of illegally trading items from the different Londons and stowing his gained treasures in a little hovel above a bar, not unlike a squirrel with a complicated black market nut issue. Welp, no surprise, Kell ends up with a bad nut. A black stone packed full of raw magic has landed in his possession and he’s been tasked to return it to its owner in a different London. But it’s a trick, and the people who want to use this raw-magic-rock are using poor Kell as a proper drug mule. Oh, and maybe worse yet, every time Kell uses the stone’s magic it digs roots deeper into his veins. It’s up to him and a plucky, adventurous girl named Lila (easily my favorite character) to keep it out of the bad guy’s hands and return it to the dark, dangerous London in which it belongs.
This is going to sound a bit crass, and I apologize ahead of time, but Schwab’s books often feel, to me, like edging. You know, when you get closer to getting your ticket stamped at the end of your personal bedtime routine, but you haven’t yet and you’re ALMOST there. Her writing always feeds you juicy information, getting you closer, then pulls back into the narrative. When the climax (of her books, you dirty bird) finally comes, it’s never as over the top as I expect it to be AND YET I’m always left wanting more of her stories, characters, and writing. I want to be fully entrenched in her worlds, knowing every detail and bit of magic ability, but I feel like I’m only wading through them – which keeps me coming back for more details.
Sometimes when I feel like a book has been reviewed a thousand times and mine is a drop in the hat, I’ll write a more amusing review instead of a serious one. This is one of those times. Am I sorry that I compared a gorgeously rendered character like Kell to a squirrel? No, no I am not. Do I recommend said book for your reading ventures? Yes, yes I do. It was lovely.
>> Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jar Kristoff
This story is about a captain who saved a girl trapped in a cryo sleep pod in the dead of space which caused him to miss a crew-choosing ceremony and landed him with the dregs of students not chosen for specific reasons – all of which leaned into themes of acceptance and trust. The girl, Aurora, has special rather explosive powers that cause them to quickly become on the run from law enforcement and tasked to save her from enforcers that would prefer her destroyed. The book was packed full of action, interesting story points, and an interesting cast of characters. If that’s your jam, then this book is for you. I only had one… rather large issue…
The biggest issue I had was the use of multi-POV. *Every* character had a POV. All seven of them.
And it. Was. A. Lot.
I could never quite pinpoint why we needed to be in a certain character’s head at a certain time. It often felt like “here’s a new scene, guess we should head-swivel to someone else now”. And some characters that I thought would end up having big roles (because they should all have big roles if they have their own POV, right?) just… didn’t. It would flitter out with a relatively satisfactory character arc, but didn’t feel worthy of their own POV. Even the main character, noted as main because he received the first chapter’s POV, didn’t have as strong a role as he should have. Everyone was battling for stardom and I ended up just wanting the book from a few perspectives. This was one of the first books that I actually found myself wanting to skip over certain POVs (but you can’t because each moves the plot forward, and, honestly, I found that really annoying).
Additionally, the issue of Aurora’s lost family was big throughout the book and the reveal at the end wasn’t what I was hoping for. I think this is generally quite personal and other people might really love this ending, but I was definitely hoping for a different result.