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!
>> Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
This is the second book in the duology following the ever-popular and amazing Six of Crows. I loved Six of Crows, I thought it was gorgeously rendered – the plot, characters, the world. If you liked Six of Crows, you 100% should read Crooked Kingdom, don’t skip out on it. But it didn’t feel as strongly about it. Here’s a spoiler-free review.
We are back with our same team of misfits, outcasts, and criminals. This time, their goal is to free the lives of indentured Grisha, including someone important from the first book, and take down the rich merchants that have wronged and betrayed them.
Six of Crows had a gorgeously depicted heist where we followed characters through a series of drawbacks to a final goal that correlated to something they all desperately wanted. Crooked Kingdom wasn’t the same type of book. There were still heist-moments and plans that were thwarted, but the end goal wasn’t as clear. What the characters wanted wasn’t as precise, and the way to attain it wasn’t laid out in a full-book-arc plan. Nor could it be, because the characters weren’t aching for a *thing*, but an *idea*. Taking down a merchant’s life work involves so many deceptions and strings to be cut, it involves working from the inside out, instead of a cut-and-dry goal of “break in, get the thing, get out”. In the end, I think this is why the book didn’t feel as strong and seem to have that special something, but that was just the nature of the story Bardugo was telling.
Outside of that, I felt like the description was a bit overwritten, especially in the beginning, even during conversations. And there was a LOT of backstory throughout. I love hearing about characters and some is obviously plot-related and necessary, but there were times I just wanted to get on with it.
Additionally, there were moments when a plan kicked off and just started getting good that we would switch POVs and backtrack to the very beginning of the plan instead of continuing on from that moment, but in a new POVs headspace. That backtrack of having to relive a scene made the story lose momentum and it’s hard to get that back.
One thing I LOVE about Bardugo’s writing in this series, though, is her amazing way with dialogue. She has mastered the ability to have characters in one full conversation, then have a side conversation within it or insert some hilarious witty chit-chat, and then get back on track to the overall point. There was a point when Nina and Matthias were talking about another story within the story and I suddenly was hooked into the plot of her story. It felt like I was walking down the street and my friends were telling me about a book they’d read. It was wild! She has a supreme talent with dialogue, that’s for sure! In the end, Crooked Kingdom was a great read and the end sets up plot threads for Kingdom of Scars, which is really well done. It’s definitely worth a read if liked the first one, but know the plot is laid out differently and it’s not a full-heist, but a book made of small heists in a game of societal deception.
>> Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
First off, what a time to skim the back of a book only to realize while reading it that it deals with a deadly plague O_O. It’s about a group of refugees, two lovebirds in specific (well, they broke up before all this happened, but there’s still pining), that are racing across the universe to get to a jump point while an enemy warship pursues them – although their biggest threat may be the fleet’s damaged AI that was supposed to be protecting them.
The story is told through a collected dossier of hacked documents including emails, schematics, IMs, interviews, medical reports, and journal entries. This, along with some unusual typographic displays from the AI, makes for a wild ride through unconventional layout and formatting THAT I LOVED.
I’m a massive fan of House of Leaves (by Mark Z. Danielewski) who’s book is like a formatting tornado and it’s all done for REASONS – that’s the best part, that everything he did was for a reason paralleled in the story and AH this isn’t a review of that, but I knew that I would love the strange layout before I started this book. And I did. I will ALWAYS love when an author takes on (and especially succeeds) in taking on a literary challenge. In this, there’s no narrative that isn’t told through dialogue of some sort. The tension and description of scenes are written from the mouth of characters – whether they’re reliving an event during an interview or a verbal transcription from someone watching surveillance footage. That means they never fully describe the room, not really, so every scene has to be specially handled so that the reader can still SEE the space. And that’s so f*cking cool. There’s another book this technique reminds me of by Dave Eggers called “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?” that’s about a hostage situation written completely through dialogue. And it has to be done carefully enough that the readers can still see everything. It’s beautiful. I live for this kind of literary treatment of story, honestly.
SO THEN why did it take me so long to read this? I think… I think it had a lot to do with it feeling daunting. First off, despite the pages not being jam-packed with text, the tome is still a 600-page beast. Plus everyone recommends it. People love this book. So I was wary that I wouldn’t like it. Sometimes I get weirdly put-off of things when everyone is screaming their love from balconies. I don’t know why I’m like that. I’m learning to be better.
Anyway, so I crack open this guy and… I hate the first page. I almost put the book back after reading it. It felt like… a LOT. There was so much info and you really have to pay attention right off the bat. I actually ended up skimming it and telling myself after a few more pages if I still hated it, I’d save it for later. But then I finished the first debriefing of the evacuation (17 pages that still, in honesty, maybe aren’t perfect with the weird back-and-forth interview scenario BUT it didn’t matter. The plot had hooked me.) I went back to the first page to reread it, powered through the weird one-time-only Wikipedia info dump and after that, it was go time. I read 100-200 pages a day, easy. There are a lot of rises in action and tension where you’re worried for the characters, right up to the end. And the AI, with its chaos, trickery, and existential breakdowns, was beautifully rendered as a real character. There are definitely moments in that don’t feel believable for a dossier, but are left to create tension (like when one character says in an IM “okay tell me the plan” then it cuts to the surveillance footage of the plan unfolding – a real dossier would have included the messages talking it through.) But I’m giving them creative freedom on teeny points like this because come on, it was great!
>> One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
I read this book in four days, it was crazy. I couldn’t put it down. It’s multi-POV, present tense (which I’d gotten used to thanks to The Night Circus), written linearly with no time overlaps. And IT FLOWED SO BEAUTIFULLY. One POV right into the next. The Voice is what really hooked me, I think.
I was off-put by the stereotyping vibe you get from the flap copy, but they make fun of it in the first chapter and then suddenly it’s not a big deal anymore. Expert decision, right there. Then the characters start to feel better-rounded and their stereotypes begin to just feel like personality types. It’s never in your face. Although there are still a lot of clichés, so I guess be warned about that.
There were a few things that bugged me… let’s see, how do I do this without a spoiler? Firstly, we go into this book knowing that a) the stereotyping is right there on the book flap and b) it deals with “juicy gossip” about high-profile classmates. So, there should be no surprise when certain key personality traits about the characters are weaponized for the gossip. Some of it, I think, can be triggering the way that the traits are used as plot devices and/or villainized. I think it’s something to be wary of going into this, but McManus never tries to hide that she’s having a cut-and-dry trope-tastic time. I won’t go further into this because of spoilers, but there are things that teens keep secret for a reason and this book is all about a character trying to dislodge those secrets. Even that character themselves (the one doing the dislodging) has a personality trait that is weaponized and not handled too gently.
The only other thing that bugged me the whole time is that this book was set in San Diego – my HOME TOWN (which means I knew all the places she referenced, and even guessed at places she slightly changed the names for) – but the high school was an INDOOR SCHOOL. All our high schools down there were outdoors. Buildings popped up from asphalt and grass like stocky square petunias. You walked from one class to the next in the blazing sun or pouring rain – kids huddled under overhangs or braved the elements. I know McManus mentions that it’s supposed to be farther east and maybe out by the desert there are schools that are indoors (there’s one up north called Westview that I’d wager this is modeled after because their school is called Bayview, which I think is indoors), but if these kids are familiar enough to drive around downtown, go to Petco stadium, or up the 15 to Joshua tree, then they’re close enough to the main city to have an outdoor school. IMO.
I’m probably just making things up, she probably did her research, everything’s probably fine.
As far as the mystery itself goes, McManus throws a lot of red herrings around that had me second-guessing my original theory, but I’m happy to report that at the end (and what a lovely roller coaster adventure to get there) I was thoroughly vindicated. And let me tell you, nothing feels better than going I KNEW IT at the end of a mystery. Solid YA mystery. I’d recommend this to someone who maybe doesn’t read a ton of mysteries and wants to get into them, as well as anyone who loves young adult books because the voice is pretty solid.
>> The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Lovely, lyrical, and magical. A beautifully rendered literary fantasy, something I would highly suggest to readers who enjoy more literary works and are looking for an introduction to fantasy.
I realized early on that this is a book to be patient with. Not only is it written in omniscient multi-POV, but it’s also in present tense. There’s a lot stylistically that takes getting used to. Additionally, it’s an epic that spans quite a large amount of time – about 30 years for the main characters and even branches out further with mention of the mentor’s ages and histories. It wasn’t going to be a book that built a lot of tension and momentum. It was something that needed appreciation for what was on the page at the time. In the end, they speak briefly on the concept of time, which I won’t write extensively about here, but looking back I find the need to appreciate each page and scene as rather poetic in connection to it.
I most enjoyed the two competitors slow tumble into love, as the magic they use in competition began to feel like love letters to each other. I was captivated knowing that only one would be left standing, wondering how it would turn out in the end, while also feeling mesmerized by the different magical tents in the circus and wondering what I would find around the next corner.
I’ve seen other reviewers say that the book isn’t about the romance, that it’s about a thing – the circus itself. But I didn’t feel like that was wholly true either. I felt it was more about the competition, what it means to have consequences to actions on a chess board of real people and what it means to fall in love with a competitor. I’m rapt with the metaphor of the black and white circus, a stark his and hers, yes and no, like a black and white chess board, but all the while run by a man in grey. The idea that even from the beginning, there was always a mixed point. There was always an addition of grey when it needed to be there. When him and her become they. When the rules change and the lines meet and bleed together. When the world isn’t perfectly one or the other. In the end, I don’t feel like I read this book. I feel like it lived inside me and I was finally reminded that it was there the whole time.
>> House of Salt and Sorrows
I had heard nothing but amazing things about this book and it didn’t disappoint.
What it’s about: The story is a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale. It’s about a girl named Annaleigh who lives in a manor with her sisters, father, and stepmother. But four of their older sisters have died. Annaleigh is disturbed by ghostly visions and feels that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, but who—or what—are they really dancing with? It’s a race to find out who is behind the deaths before it claims their next life.
Firstly, the flap copy and blurbs made it sound far scarier than it was. It certainly had creepy, ghostly, and gruesome moments (which were all beautifully rendered!), but the book wasn’t a constant onslaught of murder and ghosts. The first half of the book was spent mostly focused on the daughters going out dancing at balls around the kingdom. I honestly wasn’t fully prepared for how much time and description would be spent on sparkly dress fabrics, hair, and makeup. I spent most of that time clutching to the book’s first and ever-present question of “who killed the sister, and were the other three sisters murdered as well?” Craig deftly lays out clues for the reader to follow during the first half that kept me reading (mostly to see if I was right!). Up until the middle, honestly, I felt the book was just decent (well-written, clues laid out, etc) perhaps meant for people who like reading about pretty dresses and such, but at the halfway point everything took a turn into hard magic and just cascaded into brilliance. I couldn’t stop reading. All the clues slammed into place and she painted up some good twists so it didn’t play out quite like I anticipated. There were moments where I had to suspend my disbelief (and I can’t say where without feeling like it’s spoilery), and there were a couple times that a detail felt missed in editing or the character was making a weird decision, but those moments aren’t going to break this novel. It’s definitely worth a read, and I expect to become one of those people recommending to others. Haha.
>> 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.