Friday, May 18, 2018

Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

Noemi Vidal has volunteered to die for her planet Genesis, which is focused on religious freedom, conservation of resources, and living life with as little technology as possible. Abel is an android with advanced programming to make him evolve into something close to human. He works only to protect his creator, who also created the hordes of AI that work for and fight for Earth. Earth is ideologically opposite of Genesis and at war with them. When Noemi stumbles across Abel and he isn't able to contact his creator, Abel follows Noemi absolutely and is forced to help her crusade despite being on the opposite side. Being so ideologically opposite and isolated, both start to question what they've been taught when exposed to other ideas.

Defy the Stars is a human/AI romance amidst two planets at war. It's a typical romance trope to throw two people together who hate each other only to have them grow to love each other, but I very much enjoyed it. The story is told in alternating chapters from Abel and Noemi's point of view. Abel is the most interesting character by far because he is self reflective and constantly questioning things about the world and himself. His picture of it broadens as he learns more and more about the world and his place in it. Noemi is more focused on her faith, souls, the will of her god, and questioning the holes in the answers her faith provides. They both started out extreme, raised in their respective planets, and slowly come together in the middle by being exposed to the others ideas. I personally don't like Genesis as a planet that suppresses technology and sacrifices its people for no real reason, but Earth isn't much better consuming planets by polluting them beyond repair and moving on to the next.

Their story had me interested up until one point that isn't even very important to the main story, but made me incredibly angry. When Noemi and Abel become separated, both have the same idea of breaking out a unrepentent terrorist named Riko from prison who bombed a popular music concert and killed hundreds. If that's not enough, after getting her out, the narration muses if Riko can compromise with someone who shares her values but abhors violence. Wow. How is this even a question? Why did both main characters think she didn't belong in jail? Releasing her is the action of a villain, not a hero. In the real world, it would be like breaking out someone who shot up a rock concert or a school or bombed a crowd of people and saying if only we could compromise. That implies that their terrorism has any sort of validity, which completely disgusts me. You don't get second chances after acts like this no matter what your values are. I don't know why this was included, especially in this time where incidences such as this have become much more common.

Defy the Stars has good world building, compelling characters, and enjoyable narration. This one detail really angered me and almost had me not finish the book. It occured so close to the end that I just finished it, but it marred my entire experience with the book. I'm really surprised that no other reviews I've read have mentioned this at all. I will not be reading the rest of this series and I am seriously thinking about chucking the rest of Claudia Gray's books in the trash.

My rating: 1/5 stars

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry

You may think you know the true story of Peter Pan, but you must remember that above all, he lies. Peter Pan, the eternally young boy, didn't always have lost boys to play with. Jamie is Peter's favorite lost boy and the very first that he spirits away from the Other Place. As time goes on, Peter lures more and more boys to Neverland with promises of no rules, plentiful food, and fun. The reality isn't as nice with monsters lurking in the dark, lethal pirates, and disease. Jamie starts to realize the truth about Peter Pan after years of blindly following him.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook is a reimagining of the Peter Pan tale with a harsh edge of reality. Peter Pan is the funloving eternally young boy, but he also has the negative aspects of a child as well. He lies to garner support and cover his horrible actions, not really caring who he hurts. He embodies the callousn and selfish nature of children who simply can't understand another's experience. For instance, lost boys die occasionally and Peter simply goes to the Other Place to get another without a second thought. This is one of a great many examples and it feels accurate on a bigger scale. The island itself is full of dangers. Creatures called the many eyed keep expanding their territory and eat children they encounter. Crocodiles or mermaids or pirates can lead to a swift death. Even disease can cause death. Multiple children have died from infection or some sort of contagion with no medical supplies or treatment available. Neverland is a lot less idyllic here.

Jamie, the very first lost boy, is a pillar of his community, reasonable, sensitive, and loyal. For years, he has seen others come and go. He knows Peter's moods, rules, and manipulations. Through it all, he's the one who takes care of the lost boys, whether it's cheering them up, tending their wounds, stopping fights, teaching them how to survive, and burying their bodies if they don't. Magically lengthy youth doesn't mean immortality for all. Peter is too busy having fun to do any of this and doesn't really care what happens to them. At first, Jamie admires Peter and feels special to be chosen. Over time, he becomes disillusioned and realizes how monstrous Peter can be. I felt Jamie's frustration at Peter's selfish behavior and disregard for consequences, especially regarding a new lost boy who just wanted to bully others and the boy he took too young to take care of himself. The inevitable ending is tragic and went a different way than I expected.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook is a takes a dark fantasy version of Peter Pan. I had a couple problems with it. The only girl in the novel dies to give Jamie further angst. If this was supposed to be a horror reimagining, I expected a little more darkness and blood. I also didn't really like the many eyed creatures and found that it didn't really mesh with the rest of Neverland. Other than that, this is a decent retelling with some fun twists and turns.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, May 12, 2018

City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

Tina doesn't really exist. She lives on the streets of Sangui City after her mother was murdered while her sister lives at a Catholic school on a scholarship. Every one of her actions is motivated by vengeance. After joining with a gang, she learned how to steal undetected and how to survive in her precarious situation. When she's stealing information to start her revenge, Tina is unexpectedly caught by a childhood friend. She's forced to make a deal with him to confirm the identity of her mother's killer without a doubt. This triggers a series events that reveals the truth about their past and makes her realize she didn't know her mother as well as she thought.

City of Saints and Thieves is a thriller with twists and turns, well drawn characters, and a meaningful journey. Tina is instantly relatable. She puts her sister above everything, making sure she has what she needs and safety. Reading her rules and the way she keeps herself safe on the streets is an amped up version of what women do every day to escape negative attention or worse. Tina is an even more disadvantaged position as a thief who operates within an entirely male gang and chooses to live by herself in order to protect herself. All of her decisions are understandable and I was on her side the entire way. She stayed with her plan even when faced with an childhood friend/crush who could potentially be hurt by releasing information on her mother's murderer. Tina's mind is always looking for the best way to tackle a situation. She never lets anyone have all the information and constantly makes secret plans to keep moving forward.

My favorite part of this story is when Tina goes back to her Congolese hometown to find out what exactly happened there. She has few memories, but her mother had a best friend and a whole life Tina never knew about. This exposes both parts of the Congo: the people and nature in comparison with the expoitative aspects. The people are incredibly resilient and brave, trying to do what they can to help the people and make the place better in an understaffed and underfunded hospital. The landscape is absolutely gorgeous and a stark contrast to the atrocities committed on it. The brutality of war is shown as well as the resulting violence, injury (both mental and physical), and death. All parts of this place are shown just as Tina finds out wonderful and awful things about her mother that were kept from her. Knowing what her mother experienced and how she survived put things into perspective for Tina.

City of Saints and Thieves is an exciting thriller that I could never predict. The only thing I found lacking was in Michael, Tina's childhood friend. I found him nosy, presumptuous, and too willing to underestimate her. However, their romance was relegated to the background and didn't take over the major story. I really liked Tina, her determination, and her story. At its core, this book is about a girl trying to understand her roots and herself.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Dracula vs. Hitler by Patrick Sheane Duncan

After the events covered in the novel Dracula, Professor Van Helsing chooses to bury Dracula rather than kill him. Years later during World War II, the Nazis are committing atrocities in Romania and running rampant where Van Helsing and his daughter fight for the resistance. He chooses to resurrect Dracula to fight the Nazis when conventional attempts to beat them have failed.

I didn't finish Dracula vs. Hitler. I didn't even make it to Dracula's resurrection. I had so many problems with the first 60 pages of this massive book. My main problems are with the uneven tone, the poor logic, the bad fan fiction elements. This book isn't as fun as it sounds. It focuses heavily on war tactics and action scenes. Horror and vampire fans will go away disappointed. However, even with this more serious tone, one particular death was so over the top it could have come out of a Saw film.

There are so many things that don't make sense. Why would Van Helsing spare Dracula? He claims it's because the vampire is a unique creature, but his whole team almost died just putting him in the ground. Apparently, Van Helsing was in his 30s during the novel to make this weird thing work which doesn't really work, especially bringing in other Dracula characters in. Jonathan Harker conveniently shows up later as an English spy and doesn't remember Van Helsing at all. I would think that whole experience would be pretty memorable and I don't get why he wouldn't remember the man who saved his wife (who is apparently not appearing in this book or he's just a huge scumbag).

The biggest problem I had with the novel was the bad fan fiction elements. Van Helsing has a daughter (of course), who just so happens to be incredibly beautiful and a fierce freedom fighter (even though she's shown to make numerous mistakes to expose them to the enemy). She is so emotionally strong that she won't even shed a tear for the boyfriend murdered brutally right in front of her. When Jonathan Harker sees her, he falls madly in love with her right away. This was the point I wanted to throw the book across the room and stopped reading. I can't invest time into a book with the flattest characters who are so awesome at what they do despite all evidence to the contrary. With Dracula vs. Hitler, I really wanted to a bloody, fun, over the top story which was not delivered.

My rating: 1/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Providence by Caroline Kepnes

In a small New Hampshire town, Jon and Chloe were best friends in high school, on the way for their relationship to become something more. Then, Jon was kidnapped by a substitute teacher when he was taking a shortcut through the woods to school. Chloe is frantic and eventually rebels when no one seems to care. Eventually, she returns to her popular friends and acts like everything is normal. Four years later, Jon wakes up in a mall basement with no memory at all of the time elapsed. He finds that he somehow hurts people by being near them and runs away until he can get a handle on the power after he kills someone. Chloe goes on to be a successful artist and a detective named Eggs starts to follow mysterious heart attack deaths with interest. Will Jon ever have a normal life or will his crimes catch up with him before that can happen?

Providence is a  much different book than Kepnes' previous two book, You and Hidden Bodies. Some fans of those books are going to be disappointed with a Lovecraftian, supernatural story. However, the mutual obsession between Jon and Chloe brings in that intense point of view that she did so well. I love supernatural books, so this wasn't an issue for me. The plot has a lot of positive elements. I can't help but feel for Jon, abused by others as a child, kidnapped, robbed of four years of his life, and saddled with toxic powers to those around him. The Lovecraftian elements are well done and friendly to those not familiar with his work. Passages from The Dunwich Horror are provided for context and integrated into the story as Jon's obsession because it was the only thing left by his captor. His actual powers are mysterious for much of the book, but make sense and something I haven't seen before. I also enjoyed how unhinged Jon became nearing the end of the book.

Unfortunately, I had numerous problems with the book as well. First, the book plods along and my interest phased in and out as it went. Second, Chloe is always defined by Jon and never really moves on unless it's to a toxic ex from high school. She never seems to know how to survive alone or find someone completely outside of her hometown and her trauma. It was incredibly frustrating to witness because of her potential and talent for art. Third, the way Chloe treated Jon when they were teens was pretty awful. She would hang out with him and treat him nice alone and then act like she didn't know him in front of popular people. She would never call anyone out for teasing or bullying him and seemed to just be using him. Fourth, so much would have been solved with a simple phone call, text, or email from Jon to Chloe.

Providence is an interesting novel that combines Lovecraftian horror with a mystery thriller. It's a bit out of the box for Kepnes and I enjoyed it about as much as her You series. Even though I have mixed feelings about most of her books, I enjoy the unique ideas she brings to her novels. I would still be curious to read whatever new releases she comes out with, particularly if it has a more fantasy or horror angle.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bright We Burn by Kiersten White

Lada and Radu are still at odds. Radu is reeling over the horror he saw in Constantinople and continues to see through Mehmed's manipulations. He's constantly stuck between Lada and Mehmed as they wage their wars. Lada is ruling as she sees fit, harshly punishing all crimes no matter how noble the criminal. Her people, especially the poor, support her unconditionally because she follows through with her promises, redistributes land to the poor, and has basically abolished crime. However, those that follow her don't feel right bucking tradition or no longer wish to follow her rule. Lada has to ask herself if her actions are for Wallachia and how far she is willing to go to rule the country she wants.

Bright We Burn skates an interesting line that has me rooting for both Radu and Lada even though they are more at odds in this book than any other. Lada is my absolute favorite. She becomes a little more self reflective in this installment. Her rash actions come from selfishness and pride rather than for the good of Wallachia and she eventually recognizes it. Many of her actions are successful like completely blazing her own way regardless of tradition. Power flows from her down instead of always being held by boyars who stay prince after prince. Her rigidity in regards to justice and rewarding loyalty make the people fiercely loyal in turn, almost to a fanatical degree. She never underestimates anyone and makes use of all of her resources that others would overlook or find distasteful. Many might find Lada's actions questionable or pushing too far, but she does what's necessary to protect her people and keep her country from falling into the wrong hands.

Radu, on the other hand, is quite changed from the last book. The horrors of Constantinople weigh on him and he still doesn't know if his lover and wife are even alive. He's caught in the same triangle between Mehmed and Lada's conflict as he always has. Mehmed's patterns of manipulation are much more transparent to him and Radu finds himself falling out of love with him. Being in constant conflict isn't for him and he wants peace sometime in his life. He's tired of the same old power plays in court even though he still deftly navigates them. I feel for him and his frustration, but I still feel he's on the wrong side as he plots against Lada. He doesn't wish to hurt her, but sees her takeover of Wallachia as a dangerous folly. I wish he would recognize her amazing qualities instead of trying to save her from herself. 

Bright We Burn is an amazing novel that ties up the story beautifully. The final ending seemed to deviate from the rest of the series and was slightly disappointing in its view of Lada. Literally everything else was amazing. The most wonderful thing was to see so many women in all sorts of roles doing whatever they could to exert their power and influence in such an oppressively patriarchal system. It shows that while Lada is an outlier in some ways, so many women are just as capable and powerful. I never thought I would get into this series, but I read each installment the minute I got it. Kiersten White infuses her characters with such humanity and emotion that even the war stuff, which usually bores me, had me at the edge of my seat. I highly recommend this whole series.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green

Four teenagers don't know it, but their paths will cross. Tash is a smoke thief, running from demons as bait and helping to trap and kill them for their intoxicating smoke. Catherine is a princess set to marry a prince she's never met and holds affections for her guard, Ambrose. Ambrose is loyal to a fault, reciprocates Catherine's feelings, and becomes the target of her cruel family so her match won't be ruined. Lastly, March is one of the last of the Abask people, obliterated in a war between two kingdoms, Brigant and Calidor. He serves Prince Thelonius of Calidor until he quits to make him pay for refusing to help his people in their time of need. They all find themselves in danger and face hard decisions that decide the fate of Brigant and Calidor.

The Smoke Thieves is a lengthy fantasy novel with a large cast of characters. Once the story gets going, I was drawn in, but it took a while to get there. The four main characters are all interesting and have different perspectives. Tasha is by far my favorite and I felt like she was shown the least. She's younger than the rest and has a fiery personality and love for gorgeous footwear. Her relationship with Gravell cracks me up. He's kind of a gruff, reluctant father to her while she can be a bit annoying when she doesn't get her way. March has the biggest journey throughout the book and starts out from an understandably hateful place. His whole world has been destroyed and people ooh and ahh at him like a circus animal. He's the only character that brings in the negative side of Calidor as a nation that stood by while the Abask people suffered because of their rivalry. Unfortunately, these two characters were not as focused on as the other two characters.

Some aspects of the book took away from the experience for me. Catherine has to marry someone she doesn't love and Ambrose is hunted for loving her. The drama between Catherine and Ambrose take up most of the book. I liked them and their romance, but there's only so many times I can read that they looked meaningfully at each other or thought about each other. Plus Catherine's plight as a very privileged woman pales in comparison to Tash or March. The misogyny of Brigant society was laid on thick and I felt for her, but other characters were much more interesting. Ambrose read as flatly good and rather uninteresting. I would have personally loved to see more depth in the relationship between March and Edyon. This style of story telling that splits the book into 5 different perspectives takes a long time for anything to come together. I also found some plot developments stretching my sense of disbelief.

The Smoke Thieves is an enjoyable novel that could have been more so in a more straight forward format. It took me quite a while to read and I grew impatient with the story. I would probably read the next book to see what happens. The ending is a mix of happy and frustrating that's perfect to set up for the second installment. If you like high fantasy and don't mind a lengthy book and a long list of characters, I would recommend this.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins