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… 👍

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. 😑

February Wrap-Up

Another satisfying month of reading, and quite a few four-star books this time, particularly towards the end of the month… A lot of these were blind picks, too, so I’ve been pretty lucky! 😀 In total, I read 7 novels and 2 short stories in February; here’s what I thought of them:

Amy A. Bartol//Sea of StarsSea of Stars by Amy A. Bartol. The second book in the Kricket series, wherein Kricket and Trey find themselves (once again) on the run from the Alameeda clan. I liked this book, but the series is getting a bit same-y (which is probably not a good sign when I’m only on book two!), and Kricket’s overwhelming tendency to be good at everything, and incredibly beautiful, and somehow gain the undying love and loyalty of everyone she meets (okay, I’m exaggerating on that last one) garnered quite a few eye-rolls. Bartol seems to be pushing the fact that she can’t swim as her major character flaw, which does not a relatable heroine make. ^^’ Again, I am still enjoying this series, but I’ll probably leave off for a while before reading Darken the Stars (despite Sea of Stars‘ not-all-that-suspenseful cliffhanger ending).2 stars

Julie Berry//All the Truth that's in MeAll the Truth that’s in Me by Julie Berry. A short crime novel that follows a girl named Judith, who went missing as a teenager, only to reappear two years later with her tongue cut out so that she couldn’t say what had happened to her. This was my Library Scavenger Hunt pick for February, and as such I’ve already written a review – you can find it here.3 starsHimself in Anachron by Cordwainer Smith (from The Time Traveller’s Almanac). The story of a man who takes his wife with him on his search for something called the Knot of Time as their honeymoon. And, of course, things go horribly wrong. This story was more about the emotion of what was happening than the science of it, which I appreciated, and the story itself was both interesting and inventive. One of the better entries that I’ve read so far from this anthology.
3 stars

Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie (from Dangerous Women). A short story about a highway(wo)man who is on the run from her former associates, who have betrayed her. It had something of a Wild West feel to it, though there was a distinct lack of guns (the characters are all armed with swords, knives, and bows and arrows), so I’m not sure whether it was meant to, or if my imagination just ran away with the word “desperado”. Well-written, and I liked the main character (Shy) a lot, but it was a bit too bloody for my taste, unfortunately.3 starsNeil Gaiman//StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman. A romance between a man who is half faerie, and a woman who is actually a fallen star. Neil Gaiman’s prose is beautiful, and I particularly loved the way he portrayed the land of Faerie and its inhabitants. The beginning was a little bit slow-going, but everything that happened afterwards more than made up for that… The edition I was reading was also illustrated by Charles Vess, and his art suited the story perfectly – it really emphasised the simultaneous beauty and danger of Faerie; both enchanting and at times incredibly gruesome. I’ve written a full review of this book, which you can find here.5 starsMorgan Rhodes//Gathering DarknessGathering Darkness by Morgan Rhodes. The third book in the Falling Kingdoms series, in which things escalate, there is a great deal of duplicity, and my ship finally sails! 😀 What to say about this book without spoiling it? Hmm… Well, Magnus is rapidly becoming my favourite character in the series, and I’m really intrigued by the direction Lucia’s character seemed to be taking towards the end of the book. I still love Cleo, though the way she’s choosing to deal with her situation makes me supremely uncomfortable – as manipulation of one’s supposed friends tends to, so that’s not really all that much of a surprise. There were also some very interesting developments with Nic, though I still miss the happy-go-lucky Nic of the first book… 😦 Also, I take back everything I said (or at least felt) in my review of Rebel Spring about how Jonas was growing on me. He’s not. His plans are all ridiculous, and how anyone thinks he’s a serious threat is beyond me; the fact that girls in the book seem to be falling in love with him left and right is becoming extremely annoying. 😡 That said, this series is still getting better as it goes on, which is a trend that I hope will continue.4 starsPeter V. Brett//The Desert SpearThe Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett. The second book in the Demon Cycle, in which we continue to follow our heroes – Arlen, Leesha & Rojer – in their efforts to save the world from corelings. There was a new major protagonist in this book, too, who I remember despising in The Painted Man: Jardir! About the first third of the book is taken up with his perspective, which I didn’t initially like all that much; it was interesting, but also quite disturbing. So I wasn’t a huge fan of the first part of the book, but once Arlen & co. were brought back into the spotlight, things got seriously epic (and often hilarious), and the book ended on a definite high point. I’m looking forward to reading The Daylight War soon (i.e. for next month’s readalong).4 starsE.K. Johnston//A Thousand NightsA Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston. A new retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, in which an unnamed (and that’s an interesting theme in this book) protagonist tricks the demon king Lo-Melkhiin – who has killed all his previous wives – into picking her, when he comes to her village to choose a new bride, in an effort to save her sister. And then, much to her surprise, Lo-Melkhiin is not able to kill her. I’d heard mixed things about this book before picking it up, and although I liked it a lot, I can also see why others might not. There is almost no romance, which I didn’t expect; most of the book is taken up with the main character’s thoughts and memories, about her husband and her sister, whom she has visions about; and the plot is so slow-building that the story’s climax really sneaks up on you. These were all positive points for me – I loved learning about her family and culture, and the glimpses we got of Lo-Melkhiin were such that a stronger romantic sub-plot would have seemed out of place… And I do love a good slow-burn story, even though A Thousand Nights is actually quite a short book. And the writing was also beautiful, which certainly helped.4 starsLaura Dockrill//LoraliLorali by Laura Dockrill. A standalone paranormal novel, about Lorali – a young mermaid who makes herself human – and Rory, the teenage boy who finds her lying naked on the shore after her transformation. And pirates. Lots of pirates. 🙂 There’s definitely a visible The Little Mermaid influence, as well, but it’s certainly not a straight-up retelling. As for my thoughts on the story itself – it was wonderful. Rory and Lorali were wel-developed, likeable and sympathetic leads, and much of the story was also told from the perspective of the sea itself, which was interesting (and very well executed). I wasn’t initially sold on the pirates, but they definitely grew on me, and I really, really loved the portrayal of Rory’s friend Flynn and his grandfather Iris. The plot was also surprisingly action-packed (in the best possible way), and it was fascinating trying to piece together the mystery of Lorali’s past, and of all the Mer – which was revealed at the perfect pace. (This was also the first book I picked up for the Under-Hyped Readathon, and it definitely got me off to a great start!)4 stars

[EDIT (3/5/2017): Changed rating of Sea of Stars from 3/5 to 2/5 after finishing the last book in the trilogy & thinking on the series as a whole.]

January Wrap-Up

I got off to a pretty good start this year: 6 novels, 3 short stories, and 1 picture book. And my average rating was pretty high, too – most of the books I read this month I gave 4 stars; only the short stories fell a little short… Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up this momentum over the next few months! 😀

Coralie Bickford-Smith//The Fox & the StarThe Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith. An incredibly beautiful book about a lonely fox whose only friend is a distant star – which one day disappears, setting the fox off on a journey to find it again. This may be essentially a picture book, but I’d recommend it for anyone, regardless of age. The story is very touching, and when I first opened this book, the art literally took my breath away.5 stars

Morgan Rhodes//Falling KingdomsFalling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes. A high fantasy series that follows several different protagonists: Cleo, the second princess of Auranos, a spoilt but well-meaning teenager who’s hoping to escape from an arranged marriage to a boy she hates; Janos, the son of a poor Paelsian wine merchant, who is filled with rage at the injustices his people have suffered; and Magnus, the prince of Limeros, who mainly just wants to keep his sister safe. This one was a fun read, though I found it a little difficult to get into at first – it takes a while for anything to really happen plot-wise, and Morgan Rhodes’ writing style is not bad, but her phrasing is somewhat unconventional in places, which I found slightly jarring. The characters are rather hit-or-miss, but I feel like they’re the kind to grow on you as you read more. I didn’t really like any of them (except Theon) much at the beginning, but as the story went on, I found myself feeling more and more for Magnus, and even Jonas seemed to show some promise towards the end of the book. Cleo I got attached to a little earlier in the story, but at times I also found her frustratingly naive… I was, however, completely hooked by the time I reached the end of the book, and I’m looking forward to reading more.3 starsThe Threads of Time by C.J. Cherryh (from The Time Traveller’s Almanac). A short story about a man whose job is to fix the paradoxes that people have created by illegally travelling back in time. An interesting story, and less confusing than some of the others in this collection – but only slightly. ❓2 starsTriceratops Summer by Michael Swanwick (from The Time Traveller’s Almanac). Another short story, this time about a man who sees a herd of (presumably cloned) triceratops that have escaped from a lab, and – finding out from one of the scientists on the project that they’re planning on resetting time to fix their mistake – tries to find something exciting or meaningful to do before his timeline fades out of existence. This one was also pretty interesting, conceptually, but unfortunately (as is often the case with short stories) I didn’t feel any connection to the characters. :/2 starsMorgan Rhodes//Rebel SpringRebel Spring by Morgan Rhodes. The sequel to Falling Kingdoms, which I’m not going to be saying too much about, because there are a lot of things I could potentially spoil from the first book… However, the POV characters have changed a little in this book: Lucia has a much more prominent role, as do Alexius and Nic, and I was surprised when Rhodes also added King Gaius and Queen Althea to the short list of people whose perspectives we see. There’s also a brand new character called Lysandra who seems to be becoming very important to the story – I don’t always like her (she’s very pushy), but it is quite gratifying when she constantly calls Jonas out on his terrible plans (and they’re sometimes really, really terrible). As far as character development for the returning characters goes, Jonas and Cleo both seem to be maturing a lot, in the best possible way (though – as I touched on before – they both still make awful, unhelpful, obviously-doomed-to-failure decisions); Lucia’s back-and-forth between kindness and viciousness is kind of fascinating; and Magnus is quickly becoming my favourite character in the series. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Magnus/Cleo romance, too, though I’m  not sure how popular that opinion is with this series’ fans… ^^’4 starsMelvin Burgess//Nicholas DaneNicholas Dane by Melvin Burgess. The story of a teenage boy who – after his mother overdoses on heroin – is sent to a boys’ home, where he is horrifically abused, and how this abuse impacts his life, even after leaving. This was my Library Scavenger Hunt pick for the month, so I’ve written a mini-review of it – you can read it here.4 starsThe Most Important Thing in the World by Steve Bein (from The Time Traveller’s Almanac). A story about a taxi driver who finds a suitcase left in the back of his car by a customer – and containing a suit which borrows time from the future to be used in the present instead. The science of this story is (as always) a little over my head, but I found that the characters – Ernie the taxi driver; his wife Janice; and of course the scientist who created the suit – were all very compelling, and I ended up enjoying the story a lot more than I have many of the others in this collection. 🙂3 starsBecky Chambers//The Long Way to a Small, Angry PlanetThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. A standalone sci-fi novel that follows the a tunnelling crew (who drill holes in “subspace” in order to allow faster travel between planets) on a long journey, the goal of which is to create a path to a new planet. The story itself is quite episodic – there is an overarching plotline, but for the majority of the book it’s pushed aside in order to deal with obstacles in the way of the crew’s journey, and for more personal story-arcs – and the pacing is accordingly quick; each chapter is dated, but if they hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have realised that more than a year had passed over the course of the story… This is usually a negative point for me, but in this case I actually didn’t mind too much, as the mini-arcs themselves were all quite interesting, and the story as a whole actually turned out to be more character-driven. And, on that note, the (incredibly diverse) cast of characters were all wonderfully fleshed out. Lovey and Jenks were particular favourites of mine, but I really did love them all (even Corbin, eventually!). A sequel/companion novel is apparently scheduled for release in October this year, and I’m already looking forward to reading it. 😀 I’ve written a full review of this book, which you can read here, if you so desire.4 starsAmy A. Bartol//Under Different StarsUnder Different Stars by Amy A. Bartol. The first book in the Kricket series, which follows a teenage girl called Kricket, who’s hiding from Social Services when she’s abducted by a group of people from another planet (or possibly dimension), and finds out that she’s one of them. The writing in this book was witty and engaging, and I enjoyed the story and characters a lot, despite the fact that Kricket could seemingly do no wrong, and the way she reacted to everything that was happening to her was ridiculously unrealistic (she’s definitely more of an ultimate-wish-fulfillment character than a relatable one). I did find her continuous use of Etharian slang to be kind of irritating at times (and I regularly lost track of what each word actually meant), but that’s a pretty minor issue… I wouldn’t recommend this book for die-hard sci-fi fans, as it barely read like a sci-fi novel at all (it’s very romance-centric), but it was definitely an enjoyable read nonetheless.3 starsPeter V. Brett//The Painted ManThe Painted Man by Peter V. Brett. Three children – Arlen, Leesha and Rojer – grow up in a dangerous fantasy world, where the night is ruled by fearsome demons called corelings. I read this book as part of a readalong with Chloë, which probably added to my enjoyment quite a bit (it’s always nice to have someone to rant/rave at without having to worry about either spoiling them, or getting spoiled myself 😛 ), but even so, it was extraordinarily good. Fast-paced, exciting, and with really strong characterisation and a great plot! There was a romance towards the end of the book that I wasn’t too happy with (it developed way too quickly), and – also towards the end – I found myself a bit disappointed with the direction that Leesha’s storyline seemed to be taking, and with the huge time-skip in Arlen’s storyline, but otherwise, I really, really loved basically everything about it! And the ending was absolutely epic! XD4 stars

[EDIT (3/5/2017): Changed rating of Under Different Stars from 4/5 to 3/5 after finishing the last book in the trilogy & thinking on the series as a whole.]