Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

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Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publisher: Orion Children’s Books
Publication Date: September 27th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Suffering is like anything else. Live with it long enough, you learn to like the taste.”

After completing the most complex heist in history Kaz and his gang are double crossed. With his spider kidnapped and out thirty million kruge he has to find a way to change the game. New enemies keep appearing and the stakes are higher than ever. Will a bunch of criminals be able to weather the storm?

Bardugo has created a fantastic cast of characters with dubious morals that leads to a far more exciting story than good guy wins again. Using the groundwork set up in her original trilogy the world is already well-developed and complex, but Ketterdam is a creature all it’s own. It’s nice to see a small peace of world come so vibrantly to life.

Crooked Kingdom is slightly more of slow boil than it’s predecessor, one long con working up to a grand finale but all the action is still there. Each scheme is more interesting than the last and it is immensely satisfying to watch things unfold in terror before figuring out Kaz has everything in control.

Despite the objective brilliance of her world and plot, Bardugo’s characters outshine everything. The glimpses into their past are both intriguing and incredibly important for understanding why they are who they are. The dialogue is funny, deep and natural. Kaz is a monster, but one that readers will root for with all their hearts despite his awful deeds. Bardugo’s cast is diverse, interesting and all equally well-developed with their own point of view chapters.

I think, most of all, Bardugo’s portrayal of damaged but flourishing people is what really makes this book a masterpiece. A cripple with awful PTSD. A multiple rape survivor. Two addicts struggling to stay clean. A person raised in hate learning to be better than before. A boy who can’t read struggling with self-image. Their various issues are made clear – but they are not their sickness. Bardugo has made them strong, funny, and real. They are not caricatures to be pitied.

Funny, heartbreaking, exciting and well written. Bardugo has hit the nail on the head again and I cannot remember the last time I devoured a story that tasted so sweet.

For Fans Of: The Name of the Wind

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

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Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT+
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: May 24th 2011

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Because ‘You’re perfect just the way you are,’ is what your guidance counsellor says. And she’s an alcoholic.”

A plane full of beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a deserted island. The girls must find a way to survive while keeping up their pageant training for when they are rescued. After all, there can only be one Miss Teen Dream!

The beginning of this novel is a fascinating satire, full of misogynistic tropes, fake brands, fake ads, and fun fact sheets about the girls. The Corporation informs the reader about the world the novel is set in, about what a good girl is like and what products they have to use to stay desirable. It’s a set-up for a very interesting story that parodies our world – but it loses itself along the way.

There was a cheesy action movie subplot that was more than the book needed. At some point, the book stops being about girls finding themselves, humour and feminism and turns into a very bad action movie. The book becomes TOO ridiculous in its attempts to be silly satire it just becomes over-the-top and more boring because of it. Evil lairs, ridiculous dictators and a ship full of hot boys all clash together in a huge mess.

The ending is a huge mess of an action scene, several convenient coincidences and just unsatisfying. The book tells the girl’s futures…which don’t seem much changed after a harrowing experience for the most part and bam happy ending even though the world isn’t changed for the better.

That’s not to say I disliked the book entirely. The premise is strong, and it does feature some good representation.Bray did make her main cast a little too large for her to handle, and the main ones were a fairly stereotypical (gun-loving Texan, dumb blondes etc.) but the thought was there. The fault is that this book just has no idea what it is or where it was going. It has elements of several potentially successful stories and tries to shove them all down the reader’s throat at once.

The highlights of this book are the “commercial breaks” and footnotes that build the world these girls live in. Period Pets, Lady Stache Off and other fun brands pepper the pages with good humour and great satire. I only wish these elements had been better explored instead devolving into a cheesy spy novel.

For Fans Of: Only Ever Yours

Who Killed Christopher Goodman by Allan Wolf

Genres: Young Adult
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: March 14th 2017

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that Christopher Goodman is kind. Who would ever want to hurt him? The events leading up to his murder leave everyone in town feeling at least a little guilty. Told through vignettes and different points of view the story explores the lives Christopher was involved in and the moment when he was ripped out of them.

This book is not so much about a crime or the murder, but about the events leading up to it. About how everyone deals with guilt and grief and imagines if things had only gone slightly differently. However, even in that aspect, it uses too many of its pages on the build-up and not enough on the effect.

Who Killed Christopher Goodman? is too short to really accomplish what it sets out to. The six different points of view are too many for so few pages and none of the characters receive proper development. It’s hard to get attached to so many characters in so few pages, and with a book like this one attachment to the characters is paramount.

The characters are reduced to a few tropes. Pretty girl who is shy. Farm girl who is bold. Classic coming of age boy character who is awkward. Weird kid. Redneck. Troublemaker. The attempts to give them depth are there but they ultimately feel forced and we’re left with cast of characters that we’re not really invested in.

I don’t feel there is a sense of mystery leading up to Christopher’s death – it’s clear from the opening who killed him. The focus is more on how they all feel as though they killed Christopher in a million small ways. How maybe if they had said this or done that he would be alive.

Inspired by a true crime the story is still mostly fictitious, it had a strong concept and the theme could be powerful but with too many characters for its page count, it falls a little flat.

For Fans of: The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett

Heartless by Marissa Meyer

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Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Fantasy
Publisher: by Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: November 8th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“One to be a murderer. One to be a Martyr. One to be a Monarch. One to go Mad”

Catherine Pinkerton dreams of becoming a baker, but as a noblewoman in the kingdom of Hearts much more is expected of her. In fact, it seems like the King wants to ask for her hand in marriage! Catherine has no desire to be royalty, even less when she starts falling for the handsome court joker. Cath is determined to follow her dreams and find happiness, no matter what society or her parents want.

Some of the best stories are the ones where we already know the ending. I knew Meyer had set out to write an origin story for the Queen of Hearts and yet I was still so twisted up in the book that I began to believe in impossible endings just as much as every character did.

Unlike some retellings or in this case a pretelling, Heartless perfectly captures the whimsical world Caroll originally wrote. There is such care put into developing all the characters who would chronologically later be involved in Alice’s story from the mock turtle to the duchess. Meyer also manages to incorporate another famous rhyme fitting it in nearly seamlessly.

The world and characters are so masterfully crafted that it is easy to forget the inevitable end. Although there were a few loose strings, none of them were enough to really affect the pleasant reading experience. It’s also true that the romance is a little fast and the plot a little meandering at points. No book is truly perfect but I have fallen in love faster than the main characters.

Meyer’s choice to make a standalone bittersweet tragedy is wonderful. This could have definitely been a successful series should she have chosen to pursue it – but it’s more poignant when it comes to the end we are all waiting for. Meyer is unmatched when it comes to retelling fairytales, and though she chose to stay closer to the original source material with this particular book it was still incredibly successful.

A perfect prequel to a well-loved classic. This is not a book that will win every reader’s heart, but it’s quite possible you’ll be absolutely mad for it.

For Fans Of: The Looking Glass Wars

Rebel Bully Geek Pariah by Erin Jade Lange

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Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: February 16th 2016

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“All of us, or none of us.”

There is no reason these four teens should ever be together. Andi, York, Boston and Sam belong together like dogs and vacuum cleaners – but when an accidental crime forces to band together they become closer than any friends they had before. They have to sort this whole mess out, and while they do they discover that none of them are exactly what they seem.

Rebel Bully Geek Pariah is a fast-paced thrill ride from start to finish. The opening barely stalls a second before leaping into the exciting action-packed plotline. This is a book that is incredibly easy to tear through in one sitting. The timeline is a little less than twenty-four hours so all the events happen incredibly fast and nothing ever feels dragged out.

Despite the short timeline the characters get some fairly decent fleshing out with the exception of Boston. York, Andi and Sam all get complex backstories with at least one terrible tragedy each (which is a little ridiculous but makes for riveting reading). As the plot twists and turns, and as circumstances change we still manage to learn about and connect with this ragtag group of teens.

Sam’s relationship with her four-years-sober druggie mother is an interesting touch. The exploration of their relationship through Sam’s memories and the flash-forewards of Sam telling her the story are fascinating. The sort of love-hate relationship is what drives the heart of Sam’s character and her willingness to do almost anything for a certain fiddle.

Unfortunately, the ending was a bit of a disappointment. It feels rushed, and it lacks the weight that the rest of the novel had and seemed to be building up to. It feels like a story suddenly cut off when there could have been more. The character arcs in the last few pages are messy and don’t make a lot of sense.

The book is a little over-dramatic, and the smidgeon of romance included was VERY unnecessary but this book is above all thrilling. There’s not a single slow moment. If it’s not a car chase then it’s diving into a character’s painful past.The characters make incredibly questionable decisions but the book never stops being fun.

For Fans Of: This is Where it Ends

Secrets of a Reluctant Princess by Caset Griffin

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance
Publisher: Entangled: Teen
Publication Date: March 7th 2017

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Adrianna Bottom was always the butt of everyone’s jokes in Seattle. With her geeky personality and a dad who runs a bathroom business she never stood a chance. L.A. is a chance to reinvent herself, as well as star in a reality TV show. As Adrianna focuses on being popular she realizes she might be losing her only chance at a boy she actually likes. Worse, she might be losing herself.

Live action role-playing is an interesting twist in the young adult romance category. Books involving this hobby are pretty rare – and so it’s interesting to see it represented. However, Secrets of a Reluctant Princess isn’t breaking any other new ground. The romance at first interaction is dull. The trail of stupid misunderstandings is tired. There’s nothing worse than watching characters whine about something that could be solved with a simple conversation. Worst of all, the popular kids vs. “geeks” is outdated.

The idea that people who like geeky things are outcasts is tired. Hollywood is sustained by superheroes now, no one will tease you because you like Wonder Woman. Being a “geek” is not longer taboo. Jocks and prissy popular girls are hilarious stereotypes that rarely exist. Four-fifths of the popular crowd have no personality other than dumb or mean and even the main girl is just “friendly”. Popular kids have interests too.

There was also perhaps too much time spent defining the LARPing sessions rather than focusing on the relationship between Adrianna, her friends, her parents and her crush. The reality show was a good plot on its own. LARPing was a good plot on its own. Together they feel like too much, like the book didn’t know what it wanted to be.

The ending is also particularly unsatisfying. Sexual harassment is excused as a “mistake” (a repeated aggressively) mistake by a dumb teen. Parents using their child for fame and exposure who get upset when their child poorly affects their business were “well-meaning”. A shady reality show producer (who shows a seventeen-year old’s underwear on television) is mildly punished and let go.

For all it’s faults, it’s still a fun read if you don’t take it too seriously. There are several major occurrences of second-hand embarrassment, and you’ll be frustrated by dozens of misunderstandings but it’s cute. The main guy is handsome and kind, maybe a little too perfect but lovable. Adrianna isn’t the brightest bulb but she’s sort of relatable.

If you like mildly geeky things and romance this book will definitely satisfy, if not impress you.

For Fans Of: The Only Thing Worse than Me is You

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publisher: Del Ray
Publication Date: May 19th 2015

3 OUT OF 5 STARS

“Magic was singing in me, through me; I felt the murmur of his power singing back that same song.”

Every ten years The Dragon takes a girl from the valley. Everyone knows that he will take Kasia. Agnieszka doesn’t want to lose her best friend, she prepares for years knowing that the loss will happen. The people have to give up a girl so that The Dragon will protect them from the evil wood. But when The Dragon comes it turns out he doesn’t want Kasia after all…

It’s very rare that standalone fantasies exist, and perhaps there is a reason for that. It’s very limiting to build a world and characters in such a short span of time but that is something the book succeeds at. The fault here is the plot, the characters and perhaps the writing style itself.

Novik manages to craft a complex world, with a magic system and politics in a little over four-hundred pages. Something it takes many writers several books to do. There’s a wide variety of characters but they all sort of feel the same. People in the villages are all interchangeable. Agnieszka’s main trait is being impressively powerful and dirty. The Dragon is a jerk. Kasia is wooden and one-note. Characters all have a single motivation and build their bland personalities around that.

There are some faults of course. I went in expecting to wholly love every inch of this book, so maybe I set myself up for disappointment. I didn’t like the romance. It felt out of place, underdeveloped and unnecessary. Not every book needs a romantic thread and this one certainly didn’t. The age gap is weird, their relationship is weird – it just feels like the book would have been better off without it.

The plot does feel a little dragged out but, for the most part, it’s fast paced and interesting. There’s very little focus on the political side of Novik’s world which I feel was a misstep but the main points still get across. The ending was…strange and left some questions unanswered but it was satisfying in a way. It was never properly foreshadowed so it felt pulled from thin air. It also robbed the Wood of being a unique villain to a pretty standard fairy tale one.

It is difficult for me to put my finger on exactly where this book went wrong, why exactly it isn’t the five-star dreamboat I’d hoped it would be. It felt sort of bland. The main character is stronger than anyone ever in history and learns special secrets and it just feels unfair. Deaths are common in this book, but not a single character we care for dies. It’s a safe, standard fantasy in the end. Novik built a wonderful world – but it’s not that different from many others.

I wanted to love this book, but it felt tedious to read and aside from the “shocking” ending it was all standard fair.

For Fans Of: The Bone Witch

If I Stay by Gayle Foreman

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Genres: Young Adults, Contemporary, Romance
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 6th 2010

4 OUT OF 5 STARS

“I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard.”

Mia is a cellist from a family of rock and roll lovers. Even her boyfriend is in a rock band, but despite their difference in musical preference Mia couldn’t love the people around her more. When she experiences a fatal car crash that robs her of her immediate family Mia has to make a choice. She has to decide if she wants to stay after so much has been lost.

The opening scene is one of the best-written accidents I have every read and while it was graphic it was also profoundly tragic despite the reader not having gotten to know the characters yet.

The contrast of present day while Mia decides to live or not and flashbacks of her life is interesting. It allows the reader to get to know the characters throughout the book while also immediately dealing with the tragedy. This lets the book stay fast paced with a sense of urgency while still developing Mia’s relationship with her family and her boyfriend.

I did feel the romance aspect was a little weak. Mia and Adam don’t really feel terribly in love to me and I hate that after about a year of dating he’s more moving to her than her family or her best friend. The story would have been much more powerful if she’d been moved by a family member or one of her mother’s friends who helped raise her. Romantic love is important but it shouldn’t be the defining thing in your life when it’s only been around for such a short time. There was some effort to make Mia seem like she considered everything but the ending could have been done a lot better.

The characters were also all a little too perfect. I can’t think of a single flaw any of them had. The thing about If I Stay is that it’s short. It ends before you can get tired of the perfect characters who feel a little less than real. It ends before the romance gets too ridiculous. It focuses on less than twenty-four hours of time and the memories Mia has of her life and then it ends.

It didn’t make me cry, but books rarely do. If I Stay knew what it was and didn’t overstay its welcome. It ended right where it should have and told a story with an interesting concept in between.

For Fans Of: Before I Fall

Follow Me Back by A.V. Geiger

Genres: Young Adult, Romance, Mystery
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: June 1st 2017

3  OUT OF 5 STARS

Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was received through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Trapped inside her house with agoraphobia, Tessa Hart doesn’t have much to do all day other than tweet. When she starts the #EricThornObsessed hashtag she has no idea how it will change her life. Eric Thorn is at the top of the charts, but he’s grown hateful and even fearful of his fans after a fellow popstar’s murder. When he’s commanded to follow one of them he does – from a secret second account @EricThornSucks. As Eric and Tessa continue to interact they start to form a relationship but when Eric arranges them to meet IRL he has no idea what’s about to happen.

Following the trends of many other social media books Follow Me Back is told through tweets, DMs and from two points of view. We get to know about both Eric and Tessa and watch the romance grow from both sides. Unfortunately, this works well for Eric but leaves Tessa feeling sort of hollow. Her anxiety is her only real personality trait and too many secrets are kept from the reader for too long for anyone to be attached to her. It also makes the ending rather confusing, there’s a difference between an unreliable narrator and just suddenly becoming out of character.

The book on a whole is very standard feeling. The romance is fluffy and has ups and downs but never anything spectacular. One antagonist is left with their story relatively unfinished while the other seems shoved in and dealt with too quickly. The ending really tips the book into a new territory. Spoiling the twist would be a terrible crime but the last few pages really change the game and leave the doors open for a sequel.

The reason this book is stuck at three stars is because it didn’t know what it wanted to be. It focused intermittently on both romance and the mystery/thriller elements and suffered for it. The romance feels cookie cutter while the mystery/thriller portion feels rushed and not well foreshadowed or incorporated into the other sections of the book. There are a few extra chapters on wattpad that apparently help but they are not in the book so my review will not consider them.

It’s an easy read that’s sure to suck you in, but in the end it’s nothing special. The whole story told from just Eric’s point of view might have been better as it would let Tessa keep her secrets and let us further connect with the better-written character. The ending was a shock, but because of Tessa’s writing and the neglect of foreshadowing it feels cheap rather than satisfying.

I enjoyed Follow Me Back and I read it quickly, but it’s definitely more of one-night stand than a soulmate.

For Fans of: Gena/Finn

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: October 18th 2016

5 OUT OF 5 STARS

“It may comfort you to know that your death, while astonishingly violent, will likely be mercifully swift.”

Hanna is the, somewhat spoiled, daughter of the station captain. Nik is the son of a criminal and is currently providing Hanna with dust. Aside from drug dealing their relationship is minimal – until BeiTech attacks their station – Heimdall. Hanna and Nik are forced together to try and survive and save Heimdall from being destroyed.

Like Illuminae, Gemina is a one of a kind masterpiece. Set up as files presented to a court there are video transcriptions, documents, journal pages and pictures combined into a beautiful multimedia book that’s fun and easy to read. Although there are a few sections that go on too long it’s almost impossible to be bored when Gemina is constantly changing its format.

The typography is just as beautiful as before, and the addition of journal pages gives the book an opportunity to have some really lovely art. A clever reader might be able to find some easter eggs in some of the more abstract pages. There are a few more video transcriptions than Illuminae had and this proves to be a double-edged sword. It makes the plot very easy to follow but it makes much of the book more traditional instead of focusing on text chats and documents.

This is a fast paced high-risk plot that focuses on three new but extremely lovable characters (particularly Ella). Readers can also expect the return of their beloved protagonists from the first novel. Gemina picks up where Illuminae left off. It showcases the present day court case while giving the reader glimpses into Kady and Ezra’s fate after boarding the Hypatia. It is full of plot twists, some more surprising than other. Romance just as fluffy and fun as it’s predecessor and most importantly it is full of badass action and violence.

Aside from the parasite plotline which I think felt a bit tacked on and dropped off this book was perfect.

This series is absolutely unparalleled. There are no other books like Illuminae and Gemina. They are pieces of art with stories to tell. Pictures and text twined together in a way I had not seen before and have yet to see outside the series. In case I haven’t said it enough this book is stunning. If you aren’t reading The Illuminae Files then what are you doing? Read it!

For Fans Of: Cinder