May Wrap-Up

Eight books in May! I was feeling the beginnings of a reading slump towards the end of the month (after a couple of disappointing reads), but I’m glad I managed to shake it off so quickly! 😄 And apart from those few disappointments, the majority of the month has been filled with some really excellent books! Here they all are:

Darken the Stars by Amy A. Bartol. The final (I hope) book in the Kricket series, which follows a teenage girl who’s taken to another world and told that it’s actually her homeland. The last couple of books were fun, if somewhat grating, but this last book was seriously problematic. I wrote a review of the full series near the beginning of the month, but it’s mostly just a rant about Darken the Stars. 😡The Firework-Maker’s Daughter by Philip Pullman. A sweet story about a girl who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a firework-maker, and so sets out on a journey to prove herself. This was a really cute book; a bit shorter than I would have preferred, but I loved the characters (particularly Hamlet the talking elephant) and the secret behind the Royal Sulphur…I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman. The story of a rat who is turned into a boy, and the elderly couple who take him in. I first read this book many, many years ago, so I was rather surprised by how vividly I was able to remember it… and by it being just as wonderful a read as it was the first time around. I’ve written a proper review of this book, which you can find here.Clockwork by Philip Pullman. Two dark, haunting tales told parallel to one another, about two men who both make deals with the sinister Dr. Kalmenius, who has a peculiar talent for clockwork. An excellent story, and genuinely chilling, even for someone who’s significantly older than the target audience… Of the two simultaneous story threads, I preferred the one about the clockwork prince, but the way they both came together in the end was wonderful. ☺️The Scarecrow & His Servant by Philip Pullman. A lighthearted tale about a scarecrow who is struck by lightning and brought to life, and the young (rather more grounded) boy he decides to hire as his servant. It was a fun read, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it when I was (a lot) younger. At 27, there are still things about it that I can appreciate, but as a whole it was just a bit too silly… My review can be found here.Four Tales by Philip Pullman. This was a compilation of the four tales I’ve just mentioned, and as a collection it was very impressive (and beautiful, which a book really ought to be if possible); the stories are great, and fit together very well thematically… My favourite was probably Clockwork  something that surprised me, as I was definitely expecting it to be I Was a Rat! (if only for nostalgia’s sake) – but they’re all good fun, and excellently written.The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten. A story about a boy with OCD, who meets a girl at his support group and falls madly in love with her, triggering a rapid downward spiral in his recovery… I ended up being pretty disappointed with this book, unfortunately, but since it was my May Library Scavenger Hunt pick, I’ve written a full review of it already; you can find it here. 😑Geekerella by Ashley Poston. An adorable modern re-interpretation of Cinderella, where Cinderella (i.e. Elle) is a huge fan of the sci-fi series Starfield, as well as the daughter of the founder of ExcelsiCon, a massive Starfield convention, and Prince Charming (i.e. Darien) is a young heartthrob actor and secret nerd, who’s just been cast for the lead role in the new Starfield reboot. It’s not exactly love at first sight, but they get there in the end. I absolutely loved this book! It’s super-cute, with great characters (even the minor ones), and a few surprising twists to the traditional Cinderella-retelling mould… I will hopefully be posting a full review of this in the next couple of weeks. 😄What’s a Soulmate? by Lindsey Ouimet. A surprisingly complex look at the soulmate-identifying-marks trope, in which a teenage girl called Libby meets her soulmate at the juvenile detention centre where her father works, only to find that he’s been brought there for committing a horrific assault. I’ve been seeing this trope in various different forms (including the one Ouimet uses) all over the place lately, and I’ll confess that I’m something of a sucker for it, but I really feel that Ouimet was able to do something unexpected with it. I won’t say too much else here, because this is another book that I’d like to write a more detailed review of, but the characters were all great, and the plot and the romance were both exciting and realistically portrayed… 👍

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Series Review: The Kricket Series by Amy A. Bartol (Spoiler-Free)

Having been on the run from Social Services for several years now, Kricket Hollowell is no stranger to being pursued… but this latest group of people searching for her don’t seem to be the usual sort, interested in returning her to the “loving” care of her foster family. Instead, they claim to come from another world called Ethar, and  – stranger still – they claim that Kricket comes from Ethar, too. Now Kricket must learn how to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile world, with an ancient prophecy hanging over her head that will decide the fate of her newly-discovered homeland.

The Kricket series is comprised of three books – Under Different Stars, Sea of Stars and Darken the Stars – which were self-published by Bartol from 2013 to 2015. At the time of writing, the series as a whole has an average rating of 4.2 stars (out of 5) on Goodreads, with the lowest individual rating being 4.07 (for Darken the Stars), and each book having been rated by at least 5000 people. I’m telling you this, by the way, because I find it completely baffling. This series is terrible, and the hours I spent reading it are hours that I want back! 😡

To be fair, it didn’t start out too horribly, and I actually thought that the first book seemed quite promising. I took a considerable break between reading Sea of Stars and Darken the Stars, so I remember my impressions of the first two books much more clearly than the books themselves, but I did enjoy reading Under Different Stars: Its premise was interesting, Kricket was a little irritating but not so much as to put me off the series altogether, the writing was pretty solid, and I was finding the developing romance between Kricket and one of her abductor-protectors kind of sweet. It read more like a romance than a sci-fi adventure, but I’d been expecting that; it was why I’d picked the book up in the first place – for a little brainless romance in-between bouts of reading the emotionally-draining The Painted Man (by Peter V. Brett).

Sea of Stars only offered more of the same, and it was at this point that I began to get bored. I still liked it, but the problems I’d had with the first book only seemed to be worsening, and the monotonous plod of the plot was becoming quite tedious… I finished the book reasonably quickly, but decided to take a break before moving onto book three, in hopes that I’d be feeling less critical of the series if I came back to it after reading something completely different. Or several things, it turned out, as my “short break” ended up lasting over a year… 😓 (Thinking back, the reluctance I felt to pick up Darken the Stars should probably have clued me into the fact that I wasn’t going to enjoy it.)

Darken the Stars, if you hadn’t already guessed, is the truly awful entry in the series (and is what’s pushed my overall rating down from the 2-stars it would have been if I was only averaging out my ratings for each individual book): There’s a sudden, inexplicable change of love interest; love interest #1 seems to be barely an afterthought to Kricket except on the rare occasions that he’s actually present, despite their supposed “great love” in the first books; he also seems to have undergone a personality transplant, possibly in hopes that it will make love interest #2 (one of the most vile characters I’ve ever come across) seem more palatable (spoiler: it doesn’t); another afterthought is the plot, which makes a brief appearance in the last three (maybe four) chapters, wherein Kricket rapidly comes up with a plan, executes it perfectly, and then deals with all the consequences before the book ends – something that we’re supposed to believe an entire civilisation has been struggling to do for years before Kricket was even born…

Some specific issues I had (in order of severity, from least to most):

Slang: The world of Ethar is rife with made-up slang words, which wouldn’t be a problem in itself (it’s not difficult to understand) if not for Kricket’s constant use of it. I can buy her calling people knob-knockers when they annoy her, in order to show off this shiny new insult she’s learned, but the speed at which she internalises the new language is incredibly distracting. There’s a scene in book three where she’s looking at some Etharian children (who are, as far as I can tell, completely human in appearance) and internally estimates their ages as “about twelve or thirteen floans”, even though she’s been using the word “year” for her whole life, and it has almost the exact same meaning.

Kricket: Kricket is not a relatable character in the slightest. She is, in fact, the quintessential Mary-Sue; beautiful, good at everything, with super-special magical powers, and the whole of Ethar seemingly treating her as if she’s the centre of the universe. In the second book in particular, Bartol really tries to push the idea that Kricket’s great flaw is that she can’t swim, and maybe if she was supposed to be becoming a sailor (or something else water-related) then this would be a character-building trait, but swimming really has very little importance in the Kricket series…

Romanticisation of domestic abuse: The series’ worst offence, and also one that is book-three-specific, as this is when love interest #2 (who will henceforth be known as Mr. Disgusting for the benefit of the hypothetical person who reads this review and thinks, “Oh, that sounds like a series I’d like!”) comes onto the scene in a romantic sense. Kricket is his captive for the entire book, and whenever she tries to escape, or to defy him, he hurts her. He tells her what to wear, what to do, how to behave; there’s a scene where he holds her head underwater until she almost drowns; there’s a scene where he talks about how much he’d like to rape her… and we’re supposed to believe that this is making Kricket fall in love with him?

And this would all be fine (in a purely narrative sense, of course) if Bartol was trying to tell a story about a woman’s struggle with domestic abuse, but Kricket treats it all like it’s completely normal – or worse, some kind of weird flirty ritual. Even during the early parts of the book when she still claims to be fighting against him, there’s this strange disconnect between how Bartol tells us she’s behaving (i.e. trying to escape/survive), and how she’s actually behaving (i.e. not seeming all that bothered by having to do whatever Mr. Disgusting says)… Remember when I got so enraged by the way Ruth was behaving around her awful boyfriend in Fiesta? This is like that, only about a hundred times worse, and drawn out over a whole book.

Ugh. 😑