December Wrap-Up

My first post of 2016! (Though I’ll probably still be talking about last year – and isn’t that odd to say? – for a little while longer.) I read nine books in December, which wasn’t my best reading month in 2015, but what it lacked in quantity, it definitely made up for in quality! 😀 And my reading was also pretty sci-fi-heavy, which isn’t something that’s ever happened to me before… But anyway, on to the books:

Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff//IlluminaeIlluminae by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff. A sci-fi thriller that follows two teenagers who – after being evacuated from an illegal mining planet that was under attack – are attempting to reach safety with a group of damaged ships, and pursued by their attackers, whose ship is in significantly better shape than theirs. Interestingly, this story is told almost entirely in the form of data files and IM transcripts, and the such, which I was initially worried that I would find off-putting, but somehow it didn’t make me feel distant from the characters at all (and actually, since the files had personal details of everyone on board, I think it actually made the characters seem more real to me, not less). In terms of the story itself, it was fantastic, and tense, and full of surprises, and incredibly powerfully written. I would definitely recommend this, even for people like me who aren’t generally fans of sci-fi.5+ starsChristine Pope//Blood Will TellBlood Will Tell by Christine Pope. The second book in the Gaian Consortium series, which follows the hacker Miala Fels, who’s in the middle of trying to break into the bank accounts of her father’s murderer (the crime lord Mast), when he and his entire gang are killed in a shoot-out – except for the mercenary Eryk Thorn, who Miala saves in exchange for his help getting off-planet. I’ve always found Christine Pope’s writing rather hit-or-miss, but this is definitely one of the better ones! I really loved both Miala and Thorn, and their relationship dynamic was great. The plot was also pretty fun (especially in the first half of the book), though nothing special in itself – the romance is definitely the selling point for this series.4 starsLauren Oliver//Before I FallBefore I Fall by Lauren Oliver. A contemporary novel that I’ve been meaning to read for the longest time… It’s about a teenage girl called Sam, who dies in a car accident on her way home from a party one night – and then wakes up again (and again, and again), the morning before it happened. Time loops have, of course, been done to death in literature, but I found that I really liked Oliver’s take on it: Every time Sam relives her last day, she does things a little differently, and learns new things about herself, and the people around her, and this allowed for some really incredible character development. The characters themselves were brilliant – they were very realistically portrayed, and I found that I actually really liked all of them, even though most of Sam’s friends (and even Sam herself) aren’t always the most likeable people. I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending (not because it was bad, but because it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to), but overall, it was an interesting and enjoyable read. I’ve written a full review of this book, which you can read by following this link.4 stars

Christine Pope//The Mandala ManeuverThe Mandala Maneuver by Christine Pope. The fourth book in the Gaian Consortium series (which is a companion series, and doesn’t need to be read chronologically), following a human diplomat called Alexa, whose shuttle is attacked, stranding her on the strange, inhospitable planet of Mandala with Lirzhan, the Zhore ambassador – but very soon they discover that not all is as it seems on Mandala. This was one of the less interesting books in the series, though the plot initially seemed to have some promise. Unfortunately Alexa and Lirzhan were both rather bland, which rather killed the story for me. :/ I might have enjoyed this more, however, if I’d read it before I read Breath of Life (the first book in the series, which is also about a human-Zhore couple), but the characters and relationship in The Mandala Maneuver felt very similar to in Breath of Life.2 starsMarissa Meyer//FairestFairest by Marissa Meyer. The prequel to the Lunar Chronicles novels, which tells the story of Queen Levana, the series’ main antagonist. I was initially a bit nervous about reading this, as I’d heard a lot of mixed reviews, but – much to my surprise – I ended up really liking it! 😀 It was also my Library Scavenger Hunt pick for December, so I’ve written a mini-review which you can read here. 🙂5 starsMelina Marchetta//Finnikin of the RockFinnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta. The first book in the Lumatere Chronicles, which follows Finnikin, a Lumateran boy who’s searching for a way to help his people return to their homeland, which has been taken over by a tyrant, and is surrounded by a magical barrier that kills anyone who tries to cross it – and then one day he meets a girl called Evanjalin, who swears that the rightful heir to the throne is still alive. I struggled to get into this book at first: The narrative took some getting used to, and Marchetta seemed quite fond of switching perspectives without warning, which could be confusing at times. The story itself is wonderful, however, and I really, really loved the main characters, Finnikin and Evanjalin, and although the big reveal near the end of the story didn’t exactly take me by surprise, it was so well-executed that I found that I didn’t really mind. Even Froi grew on me, which is fortunate, since he’s apparently the main character in the second book… ^^’ And, as with many slow-burn fantasy books, I got a lot more invested as the story went on – for the last 200 pages or so, I had real difficulty putting it down!5 starsTakashi Hiraide//The Guest CatThe Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide. A short novel about a couple who befriend their neighbours’ cat, Chibi, and how she changes their lives and way of thinking. An enjoyable story, though I’m not really sure how to explain it… It was slow-paced, meandering and quite whimsical, but I found myself liking all the characters a lot. This isn’t the kind of book I’d usually read, but was still definitely worth reading, and I’d recommend it for fans of literary fiction.3 starsMarissa Meyer//WinterWinter by Marissa Meyer. The fourth and final book in the Lunar Chronicles series, and the first book I completed for the Holiday Booktubeathon (for which I didn’t write a dedicated wrap-up because I was too pressed for time…). Obviously, anything I could say about the plot would make this place spoiler central, so I won’t, but I can talk about the characters, who were all wonderful. Scarlet and Wolf, in particular, really shone through in this book, which was something of a surprise to me, as they have, until now, been my least-favourite (main) characters in the series – and I also really liked the friendship between Scarlet and Winter. Winter herself wasn’t quite as awe-inspiringly crazy as she appeared to be at the end of Cress, but I still absolutely loved her. 😀 Getting to know Jacin a bit better was also wonderful, as were all the returning characters… My only real complaint about this book is that I wish it had been longer (and since it was already over 800 pages, that complaint seems a little unreasonable), so I’m definitely going to be getting the novella bind-up, Stars Above, when it’s out, as it apparently contains an epilogue-type story (amongst others, of course).5 stars

Emma Mills//First & ThenFirst & Then by Emma Mills. A contemporary romance that’s half Pride & Prejudice, and half Friday Night Lights: It follows a girl called Devon in her last year of high school, as she copes with: college applications; her younger cousin, Foster, coming to live with her; an embarrassing, long-time crush on her best friend Cas; and her developing feelings for Ezra, the captain and star of the school football team. I’ve never been a huge fan of American football, and since I’d heard this book compared to Friday Night Lights, I suspected that it’d be fairly central to the plot, but although it was undoubtedly important to the story, I found that it felt more like a backdrop to everything else that was going on, which I liked; I definitely wouldn’t recommend that anyone read this book purely for the football aspect. As for the aforementioned “everything else”, it was all really great. I loved Devon, and really identified with her; Foster was adorable, and their relationship progression was both realistic and incredibly sweet; Ezra – the Mr. Darcy of the story – was a wonderful combination of swoon-worthy and socially-awkward (my favourite kind of love interest! 😉 ). It was a shame that the book wasn’t longer (my copy is 267 pages long), however, as I would’ve liked to have seen more of Emir – a character who showed up at the beginning, then disappeared until near the end, when he became surprisingly important to the plot – and also of Ezra and Devon as a couple.5 stars

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Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (Spoiler-Free)

BEFORE I FALL4 stars

Lauren Oliver//Before I FallSUMMARY

Sam Kingston has a pretty great life: She has great friends, she’s part of the popular crowd, and she’s finally dating the guy she’s been pining after since the days when she wasn’t popular enough for him to notice her… The biggest problem she has is getting her little sister to stop touching her things with her sticky fingers. But one night, on the way back from a party, Sam and her friends are involved in a car accident, and Sam dies – only to wake up again, back at the beginning of the same day.

Now, stuck in a time loop, she spends her day(s) trying to fix everything in it, hoping to find some way to save herself, and to make things right with the people that she loves.

Before I Fall was Lauren Oliver’s debut novel, and was originally published in 2010.

STORY [4/5]

Time loops are hardly a new idea, but the execution of it on this book was masterful. Even though we’re essentially reading about the same day, over and over again, the small changes that come about as a result of Sam’s actions are shown in such a way that, each time she re-lives it, more things are revealed about the story and characters.

The story’s major theme – bullying – is also dealt with really maturely. Sam and her friends are all bullies, and while in many books this would make them the villains, Lauren Oliver did a great job at driving home the point that nobody is just one thing, and that everyone has experiences that have shaped them – and she manages to do this without trying to justify or trivialise their actions.

I’ve knocked a star off in this category simply because when I finished the book, I felt quite strongly that there should have been something more. It did end very well, but there were certain threads of the story that should have been expanded on – in particular, Kent’s part in the book ended on a very bittersweet note, and I also would have liked to have seen more of the “Pugs”, who are front-and-centre on Day 3, but never mentioned afterwards.

CHARACTERS [5/5]

Before I Fall is a very character-driven story, and (appropriately) all the major characters are very well fleshed-out, and always felt very much like real people. Sam herself is an excellent lead character. She’s a bully, and while this ought to make her unsympathetic, it actually made it really interesting to read from her perspective… and it also allowed for some really incredible character development, as she gradually learns about the effect her and her friends’ actions have had on the people around them, and tries to correct it.

Of her circle of friends, the most prominent is Lindsay, the leader of their group, and the most aggressively antagonistic (the Regina George of the group, so to speak) – but at the same time, she also comes across as a good friend when she’s around Sam. Although she doesn’t have all that much character development over the course of the book (since she’s not living in a time loop, and therefore never remembers the events of the “previous” day), we do find out a lot about her background, which makes her a bit more understandable, though still not entirely sympathetic. And, just like Sam, she felt incredibly real.

Kent is the third character who really needs mentioning. He’s a childhood friend of Sam’s, who she’s become distant from – and whom she openly disdains – yet he’s also the only character in the book who always seems to believe that Sam is better than the person she seems to be, even when she doesn’t believe it herself. He sometimes came across as a little idealised, but he was sweet enough that I never really minded.

Other important characters include: Ally and Elody, Sam and Lindsay’s other two friends; Juliet “Psycho” Sykes, a girl that they’ve been bullying for years; Anna Cartullo, a social outcast at their school; and Rob, Sam’s disgusting boyfriend.

ROMANCE & RELATIONSHIPS [5/5]

There were two really important relationship dynamics in this book, the first of which was the friendship between Sam, Ally, Elody, and particularly Lindsay. They’re very clannish: Lindsay is the most outgoing, and (at least in public) the rest of them all follow her lead – and they look out for each other, even when they’re not getting along. Their relationship was far from ideal, but despite (or perhaps because of) this, it still felt very believable, and I really loved seeing them eventually face – and try to work through – their differences.

The romance is less important, but still present, and centres on Sam’s relationships with Rob – the boy she pined after for years, but who isn’t quite living up to her fantasies now that they’re actually together – and with Kent – the boy who she believes is in love with her, but whom she’s always done her best to avoid. I personally found Rob disgusting (as I believe we were supposed to), so it was quite satisfying to watch their relationship fall apart, while still understanding Sam’s unhappiness over it; and at the same time, it was also incredibly sweet watching her relationship with Kent begin to change as she saw him from different perspectives than her usual one.

WRITING [4/5]

The writing was also excellent, on the whole – fast paced, and very engaging. I liked how, instead of having chapters, the book was separated into days, but otherwise there was nothing in particular about the style that jumped out at me… And I wasn’t a huge fan of the summary-style prologue and epilogue, which is why I’ve only given this section a four.

OVERALL IMPRESSION [4/5]

A touching and very true-to-life look at a group of characters who are not always (in fact, usually not) the best of people, but still somehow manage to be both sympathetic and relatable. And while “real” isn’t a word that I’d usually use to describe a story that’s about repeating the same day over and over again, the characters and situations, and Sam’s reactions to the events of the story were all incredibly genuine. Overall, an enjoyable and interesting story.

RECOMMENDED FOR…

Fans of the social commentary in Mean Girls (the film), and the emotion in books like A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Those who enjoyed Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why will probably also be interested by the similar themes in this book – and particularly in Oliver’s depiction of the butterfly effect.

#AntiBullyReads: Info & TBR!

Anti-Bullying Week will shortly be upon us, which means that it’s time for the Anti-Bullying Readathon: A now-yearly event hosted by Sarah Churchill, in which the goal is to read as many books that contain bullying (in any way, and with any level of severity) as possible – which, to be fair, is pretty much every YA book ever ^^’ – in order to raise awareness. Here are some informational links for your perusal:

For me, since I don’t really want to re-read anything at the moment (with one exception that you’ll see shortly), putting together a TBR meant trawling through that list for anything that looked remotely interesting / that I’d heard good things about, and – with respect to, well, what I actually have access to, and to what I’m in the mood for at the moment – I eventually managed to put together this tentative list:

J.K. Rowling//Harry Potter & the Philosopher's Stone illustrated1) Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (illustrated edition) by J.K. Rowling. The aforementioned re-read, though I’ve never read this edition before, so it’s quite a different experience. I’m already about halfway through this, and taking the time to savour its awesomeness, but hopefully I’ll be reading some more over the course of the readathon.

Robin Hobb//Assassin's Apprentice2) Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. All I know about this book is that it’s a fantasy, and it apparently contains assassins. It was on the list, though, so presumably there’s some bullying in there, too! Fantasy is pretty much all I’ve wanted to read recently, as well, and this is conveniently a book that I already own, and hadn’t got round to reading yet. 😀

And after these two, I’m not so sure. I’ve reserved three more books at my local library to give myself some options, but a couple of them have to be ordered in, so I’m not sure if they’ll arrive in time, but hopefully I’ll be able to get to one or two of them before the week’s up… They are:

Lauren Oliver//Before I Fall Jandy Nelson//I'll Give You the Sun Malorie Blackman//Pig-Heart Boy