Friday, October 2, 2015

September 2015 Wrap-Up

I'm going to be honest, now that I no longer have school, September flew by so quickly I'm convinced it never happened...well except for the fact that I read quite a number of books during that time. So welcome back readers to another monthly wrap-up where I provide you with mini reviews of all the books I've read during the month of September. Without further ado here they are.
  • The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

The Goddess Test is one in a long line of books that deal with the Hades/Persephone myth, a number of which I've come across recently. A couple of months ago I read Meg Cabot's very similar ya version of the myth and I wasn't a huge fan of it, so I was kind of apprehensive going into this new series. As you can tell from my rating, my initial reaction was correct unfortunately. The story focuses on Kate, your average high school student, except for the fact that she is dealing with her mother's declining health due to cancer. Everything changes when she meets Henry, aka Hades, and he offers her a deal in exchange for her agreement to live in the underworld with him. The goddess test is something Kate must pass in order to remain in the underworld, that is if she really wants to stay.

 The problem I had with this book is the fact that everything felt way too rushed and the mythical characters were completely unrecognizable. I find it hard to believe Kate would trade her freedom to save someone who kind of bullied her during her first days of school and then claim that she is Kate's dearest friend. It also probably wouldn't shock anyone to find out that this has hard core insta-love. Even worse than that is the characterization of Hades in this book. Hades is the fearsome, unrelenting god of the underworld, who takes what he wants and really doesn't freely give life back to the dead. In his place we have this bland, white bread love interest that is supposed to be tender, understanding, and everything young girls swoon over. Ehhhhhhhhhh. This series doesn't really do anything to distinguish itself from the rest of the ya genre, so I won't be continuing on with the series and I don't quite know if I'd recommend it.
  • Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

Rebel Belle: The quintessential over-hyped book. I could end my review there and you would know what all of my thoughts about this book boil down to. Every ya cliche is here just as you would expect. The special snowflake heroine who discovers she has special powers that make her super special.

There is the requite bland best friend who is there to bolster the main character's ego and of course let's not forget the love triangle which includes the sensitive boy and the popular one that everybody loves. Could I tell you what this book is actually about? Yes, yes I could, but in all honesty the plot is insignificant...well except for the fact that the main character Harper is a Paladin, which always reminds me of Dungeons and Dragons. If only the author had watched a game or two so she could better portray Paladin characters. Anyway, the plot is just a prop for the love triangle. If you see this book in a bookstore, just ignore it because unlike the main character, this book is nothing special.
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

I took a trip to the land of over-hyped books again when I decided to finally read Red Queen and it didn't turn out terribly. Granted this wasn't that great of a book either. This book again has the requisite ya special snowflake with a hidden power and a mission to save the world. This society is split up between those that have red and silver blood. The red bloods are considered common and make up the poor working class as well as conscripted soldiers in an endless war. The silvers are the noble, ruling class and maintain their leadership because each noble family has special powers. All of this changes when the reds start building a resistance. Mare is the main character in the story and she is unique because she has red blood, but the powers of a silver. To hide this abnormality the queen declares Mare a long lost daughter of a silver and engages her to her son, second in line to the throne. Of course this book wouldn't be complete without a love triangle that begins to overshadow the plot. I feel like this book had some pretty fantastic potential, but was sadly weighed down by all the ya cliches. I've also read a lot of other reviews mentioning the similarities between this book and other recently released ya novels. Something to keep in mind.
  • Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

You know those books that are so completely unlike any other book? You know those books that are actually nothing like their synopsis makes them out to be? Well that's Magonia. Sadly, that unique factor doesn't make it a great book, at least not for me anyway. Magonia starts out kind of normally. Aza is a teenage girl that suffers from a strange lung disease that makes it hard for her to breathe. All she is trying to do is live a normal life with her best friend/potential love interest, Jason. That is until she dies and becomes a bird person. Yep, you read that right. Aza becomes this weird bird person, but her body has this opening in her chest where a real bird lives and they sing together or something. I feels awkward trying to explain this book to you because it barely explains itself. There isn't any world building to speak of. It just blatantly says "Hey, there are these bird creatures that live in ships in the sky, but they also have bird servants/companions that live in their chests. Oh and they have this weird one sided relationship with people on Earth and the food/environmental destruction they cause. I know I said that I wanted original concepts in ya fiction, but this book was just out of control. Let's just say this will be you if you consciously choose to read this book.
  • The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

I completely disliked this book and it appears I'm in the minority. Everybody loves The Winner's Curse and that's why I picked it up in the first place despite my knee-jerk reaction at the synopsis. Normally I steer far away from any love stories that have to do with slaves and masters because they are always a mess to deal with. This book is no exception. Essentially the story takes place in an alternate world where there are two types of people: the Herrani and the Valorians. The Herrani are conquered by the Valorians and become their slaves. The story is basically the romance between a wealthy Valorian, Kestral, and a Herrani slave, Arin.

For all those wondering, this book illustrates the worst case scenario of what happens when you don't put any effort into world building. Those few basic facts I told you above...that's the world building. Yep. The problem with this lack of world building is that there is no longer any constructed fiction preventing readers from making the natural connection to the real world history of slavery, which is even worse considering this book makes no effort to breakdown the inhumanity of slavery, because this ya book is only concerned with the romance of course, It's really hard to express the amount of deep frustration I have towards this book. The en-slavers are painted as innocent high society types while the slaves are the villains. Oh how dare they rebel against their oppressors. How dare the heroine experience the same sort of everyday oppression that she inflicted on her own slaves without a second thought. Don't even get me started on the romance that so many readers swoon over. A healthy relationship is one where the balance of power is equal. Each person has their own individual freedoms and respect each another. Terrible, unhealthy relationships happen when that power balance is disrupted. That's why master/slave relationships in fiction make me uncomfortable. That's why master/slave relationships are routinely discussed in intellectual or educational settings, particularity when the historical reality is that slaves were often raped and abused by their white masters. There is no romance involved when white male masters got multiple slaves pregnant, sired illegitimate children, who then became valuable slaves, which added to the white master's wealth. That's why I can't like this book for even a second. Rather than recommend this book, do you know what I would recommend? If you ever get the chance, take an African American Literature course. Take a step back from this kind of ya drivel and the old white male literary canon and expand your horizons. It will do you a world of good.
  • To All The Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

After finishing all of those mediocre/terrible ya dystopias I needed a literary palate cleanser and of course I turned to ya contemporary romance for all the light, fluffy reading I'm hoping for. To All The Boys I've Loved Before was the perfect book for that. The story focuses on Lara Jean and her relationship with her sisters, Margo and Kitty, as well as her romantic relationships...or lack thereof. After Margo leaves for college in Scotland and breaks up with her boyfriend, Josh, Lara Jean is struggling to adjust to this change in routine. She also has this habit where in order to get over a crush she has on a boy, she writes out all of her feelings in a love letter addressed to them and then she saves it in one of her mother's hat boxes. One of those letters is addressed to her sister's ex-boyfriend. Everything in her life starts to get more complicated when those letters get mailed to all of the boys. While the majority of this book is just a love triangle, I didn't mind because none of the romantic relationships came off as insta-love and most of the characters were so well developed. I do have to say that my favorite character is Kitty and not Lara Jean. She is so hilarious and quirky that I kind of wish she was my little sister. I came into the reading experience expecting something fluffy and easy to read and that's what I got.
  • P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

While I love a good ya contemporary romance, they really aren't meant to have sequels. A great contemporary romance can be ruined by a lack luster sequel and sadly that is what happened. To All The Boys I've Loved Before really shouldn't have ended on a cliffhanger. If you'd just tacked on the first two chapters of this book on the end, it would have been a complete novel. Instead we get another book with a less tolerable love triangle and an even less mature heroine. Rather than deal with Lara Jean's personal growth, this is just a book of Lara Jean breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend, while also asking herself, "Do I love this boy, or this boy? Oh the difficult choices." It was bland and it was boring. Let's move on!

  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

I decided to return to the ya dystopian genre again to tackle another recently over-hyped book. I think I'm running out of ways to say I was disappointed. Finding a good book in the genre is like finding a small needle in a giant haystack. Here's what the book is about (imagine an epic movie voice saying this): In a martial empire which lacks any decent amount of world building, there are scholars and soldiers. Obviously the soldiers control everything, but in this nondescript world we don't use the word soldiers, we say "masks" because they wear masks. Meet Laia, she is one of the scholar class, despite lacking any discernible intellect or common sense, and is forced to become a slave to the commandant to help the resistance and rescue her captured brother. In a not so surprising turn of events there is some insta-love and not just a love triangle, but a love square. Tune in for another cliche filled and boring ya dystopian book.

Wasn't that just beautiful? Anyway, moving on. An Ember in the Ashes, despite being touted as an action packed novel is one of the most boring reading experiences you will ever have. The plot just sort of plods along without any excitement. Not to mention there is one really glaring problem that I have with this book and it is the blase way it treats rape. I'm the first one to admit that in a military regime full of human rights violations rape is a unfortunate reality, but this book treats rape like it's nothing, and even worse a cheap plot device. It's the same reason I refuse to watch the Game of Thrones series. I wish I'd just stopped reading this halfway through like I wanted to instead of forcing myself to read its terrible conclusion.   
  • The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

This book is the exception to the rule. This book is the reason why I continue to read over-hyped books in the ya dystopian genre because occasionally a gem comes along that makes you forget all of the crappy books you've read earlier. The Queen of the Tearling centers on Kelsea, a girl that has been raised in secret to become the next queen when she is of age. On her 19th birthday, the queen's guard arrives to take her to the tearling to stop her uncle, the corrupt regent, and take control of the throne. Her rise to power is further complicated by the Red Queen, the totalitarian ruler of Mortmesne. The Red Queen struck a deal with the previous queen where she agreed to not invade the kingdom again if human tributes are sent to Mortmesne regularly. Kelsea not only has to negotiate a kingdom divided between the uncaring nobles and the poor, abused citizens, but also has to prepare for the threat that the Red Queens poses to her.

This book does just about everything right in my eyes. Kelsea is a strong and motivated main character that does have her faults, but ultimately tries her best to be selfless for the good of her kingdom. Much of the plot does center on court intrigue and the politics of the kingdom, but all of it is action packed and exciting. Kelsea and all of the side characters are fully fleshed out and don't feel too one dimensional, with the exception of the Red Queen. She feels like a stereotypical villain, but I'm hoping she gets more depth in the later books. You know what else I love? The complete lack of an obnoxious love triangle or any overt romantic elements. You do get the sense that there will be some romance for Kelsea later in the series, but here it focuses on what's most important for her: ruling a troubled and broken down kingdom. Without a romance to distract the plot, the focus shifts to Kelsea's personal development, where she's forced to make decisions that could either drastically improve the kingdom's quality of life or kill them all. I'm going to be honest and say that I almost took a star away from this book because of the confusing world building. It talks about early settlers fleeing from their previous country, yet much of the story has a medieval flare to it that I can't place it's time period. Technically, this is dystopian, and it's a time in the future. Yet this is not an alternate realm since it mentions the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series. I just loved the story so much that I overlooked it now in the hopes that the sequel will resolve the world building problem. All I can say is that I'm definitely recommending The Queen of the Tearling. Put down that ya dystopian book you're currently reading and read this one.
  • Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid

Never Always Sometimes or the book whose entire premise is based on a single overworked cliche and tries to be unique by subverting that cliche in the end in the most uninteresting way possible. Dave and Julia, two best friends, decide before starting high school that they want to avoid doing all of the usual activities people do in high school, thereby seeing themselves as socially superior and unique. In order to do that they compile a list of "nevers" and agree to never do anything on that list. Everything changes before the end of their senior year, when the two of them decide to change their minds and do everything on that list before graduating. What makes this book a romantic ya contemporary is that one of the "nevers" on that list is to never fall in love with your best friend, something both Dave and Julia might have already done.

While this book is told half from the perspective of Dave and half from Julia, it definitely feels like this is primarily Dave's story. Julia reads like a watered down or half cousin to the manic pixie dream girl trope. Dave is the one who primarily grows as a person when he is exposed to all of the high school cliches that turn out to be great experiences. Julia seems to be along for the ride and in no way does she grow as a person. She tries to develop an inappropriate relationship with a teacher as a joke and there is a hint that maybe her home life isn't as great as it ought to be. The readers never get a chance to consider the relationship she has with her two fathers or the rather strained relationship she has with her absent mother. This is Dave's story and features Dave's romantic interests, Julia just happens to be one of the two. Additionally, Dave and Julia felt more like quirky caricatures than actual people. Imagine two John Green characters times ten. That's what you get here. My recommendation is that you skip over this book and find something better in the ya contemporary genre.
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Now on to the classic pick of the month where I've continued on my personal quest to read all of Austen's work. Before September, I'd already read Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey. Sense and Sensibility was the next book on the list. Austen's first published book focuses on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, as they cope with leaving Norland, their beloved home, and moving to a new area. Obviously this can't be an Austen novel without some romantic misadventures and social commentary about the relationship between marriage, love, and money. As you can tell from my fairly low rating, I really didn't enjoy this book as much as the other Austen books. The whole story and even the romantic relationships felt lifeless, which is a problem because the driving force of the plot is the romance. Aside from the fact that Elinor is supposed to represent sense and Marianne is the sensibility, their characters were kind of indistinguishable. The romantic interests were also kind of uninteresting. Rather than the final marriages feeling like triumphs, they kind of seemed like the characters were settling for each another. All I can say is if you want to become an Austen fan or look into her body of work, maybe you shouldn't start with this one.

Those are all of the books I read this September and it goes to show you that just because a book gets a lot of positive press, that doesn't necessarily mean it will always turn out to be a great book for you. While most of my reading experiences were negative this month, luckily I have another monthly TBR full of books to look forward to. I'd love to hear your thoughts about these books and what you're planning to read next month. Don't forget to stick around for my October TBR list, which should be out shortly!