2016 Reading Review

Another great year of books is behind us.  As usual, I read a lot of YA fantasy, but I also read a good mix of other stuff, too (partly thanks to the bimonthly GeekyNerdy Book Club).

This year I read 35 books and graphic novels (not counting re-reads).  Here are some of my favorites:

YA fantasy/sci-fi:

Indie fantasy:

Non-fiction:

There are also a few other genre books that really stood out, but I haven’t gotten around to reviewing them yet, so I’m making some space for them here.

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology

Related imageThis was hands-down my favorite series of 2016.  I wrote previously about the first book, Six of Crows, and I’m now here to tell you that the sequel, Crooked Kingdom, is an immensely satisfying conclusion.  The characters are still amazing, and continue to be challenged in new, different ways.  The fantasy aspects also continue to be developed.

It’s not an entirely happy ending, but there was never going to be a perfectly happy ending to this story, and honestly it was happier than I was expecting.  I’m even considering buying the hardcover set, which I never do, because the books themselves have the pages edged in color: black for the first and red for the second.

If you like YA fantasy, grey characters, and complex plots, this one is for you.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

There has been so much buzz around this book since22544764 it was published last year (it was nominated for a Hugo and won the Nebula), and I was not disappointed at all.  The story is a kind of original fairy tale, eastern-European inspired, and walks the line between YA and regular adult fantasy.  The main character Agnieszka is “taken” by the local lord, called the Dragon, and is eventually trained by him as a magical apprentice to help defeat the evil Wood.

There’s plenty of magic, and although the magic system is not well-defined, the book does give us an interesting sense of the different methods of working it (the Dragon is more precise and scientific, while Agnieszka works more based on feel and intuition).  There’s also a great female friendship at the core of the story, and some romance—it wasn’t my favorite ever, but I thought it was done well for the story.

The Wood is a surprisingly good villain, and the story’s resolution seemed very fitting.  Even after everything that’s happened, Agnieska can still empathize with the Wood and tries to work out a solution for everyone’s benefit (it’s very Wonder Woman ^_^).

Also, I pictured the Dragon as looking like Rumpelstiltskin from OUAT, so there’s that.

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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

25372801I’ve been reading CJA for years, as one of the founders of the website io9.com; her movie reviews are the most entertaining I’ve ever read (some of my favorites are Transformers: ROTF, Gods of EgyptThe Force Awakens, The Martian, and The Huntsman: Winter’s War).

I also loved her short story (and Naomi Novik’s) in our recent GeekyNerdy Book Club selection, The Starlit Wood.  So it’s safe to assume that I love her writing style, and it definitely carried me through this story, which was wonderful and memorable, though perhaps not perfect.

A witch girl and a tech-genius boy grow up together as school outcasts, grow apart, then meet again as adults, which is convenient because one or possibly both of them need to save the world from near-imminent destruction. I loved that there is both fantasy and science fiction mashed up here.  It was fascinating to me that the witches would have destroyed humanity to save the planet, while the scientists were willing to risk destroying the planet to save humans.  It was nice to see scientists wrestling with ethical questions, too.

Overall, this book is a little weird, which is why I loved it.  The narrative is a bit uneven, but you just kinda have to go along for the ride.

Here’s to more great books in the new year.  What books did you enjoy most in 2016?

Cinder and the Lunar Chronicles (Review)

Being such a huge fan of fairy tale re-tellings, how could I have waited so long to read Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter?  I really don’t know!  The only advantage is that now I got to read them all straight through!  Rating: 5/5 stars

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Each book works really well as an individual fairy tale while building on the previous books for an overarching plotline.  (In case it wasn’t obvious: Cinder→ Cinderella, Scarlet→ Little Red Riding Hood, Cress→ Rapunzel, Winter→ Snow White)

Cinder is a very strong start to the series.  I knew Cinder was a sci-fi take on Cinderella, even a little future-tech with cyborgs, etc.  But I didn’t know that it also draws heavily from Sailor Moon!

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More on the Sailor Moon aspects in a later post, but let’s just say I was excited like Usagi here when I noticed the connection.

Cinder hit a lot of the same beats as my WIP Ash and Team, which is also a Cinderella-type story, but I wasn’t disheartened by that fact.  I was completely inspired, my mind opened to what my story could be.  I actually dreamed up a new scene for my story the day after reading Cinder.  (Even more inspiring: Cinder, Scarlet and Cress all began their lives as NaNoWriMo projects!  I’ll try to keep that in mind as I’m writing this month.)

I really liked that the ending of Cinder wasn’t saccharine; it actually ends on kind of a down note as it leads into the rest of the series.  Scarlet picks up right where Cinder leaves off; it can be tricky to switch to new main characters in the middle of a series, but each successive book does a great job splitting the focus between new and old characters (although Winter in particular gets a little bloated as a result).  And being a redhead myself, I was glad to see Scarlet as such a great embodiment of the “fiery redhead” trope (even though I am nothing like this!).

This wouldn’t be a true Jedi by Knight review unless I critique the biological concepts in these books–but don’t worry, these get pretty good marks for YA sci-fi.  For some reason, plagues are all the rage in YA dystopias right now (Matched, Maze Runner, Legend, etc.), and the Lunar Chronicles follows suit with the virulent disease letumosis (and a lot of unethical scientists to boot).  This plague has some interesting symptoms (rashes, blue fingertips) and does mutate over the course of the books.

Overall I didn’t have much issue with the biology except for a bit of confusion in Winter on the difference between vaccines (a preventative measure, typically for viruses) and antidotes (a cure for either symptoms or the underlying pathogen of a disease).  The vials of antidote that Cinder finds are incorrectly labeled as “vaccines,” and additionally they are stored at room temperature while vaccines are typically refrigerated or frozen.

One particular concept from Cress that I really liked was the isolation of hematopoietic stem cells from bone marrow for use in regenerative therapy.  This is actually something we do regularly in my lab!  (We’re focused on cardiac disease, though.)  Though it might not really be the first choice for treatment in this case, I thought it was a really creative way to make some actual science work with the fairy tale story line.  It’s not every day YA sci-fi correctly drops words like “hematopoietic!”

In short, these books really succeed at all aspects of sci-fi, fairy tales, and light YA romance.  Even the ending was a nice surprise for me because it didn’t quite end like I expected.  I’m currently working through Stars Above, a collection of short stories from this universe, and Fairest, the story of the Evil Queen Levana which is kind of Book 3.5 in the series.

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Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

This book is one that I heard mentioned a lot this year, and was up for several awards (including the Arthur C. Clarke Award).  It didn’t turn out to be what I was expecting, but it was definitely still an entertaining read that will stick with me.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is very character-driven book and actually reads more like a series of vignettes.  I was reading for a while, waiting for the plot to really kick in, until I realized it was never going to.  There is an overarching plot, and it is interesting enough, but it’s not what’s driving this story.

That would be the characters, and I absolutely fell in love with all of them.  I would be hard pressed to say which one is my favorite (okay, I lied: it’s Kizzy).

There’s Rosemary, the newcomer to the ship; through her eyes we are introduced to the exciting and sometimes dangerous life of a space-tunneling ship crew member.  There’s Ashby, the stalwart captain with a semi-secret love affair.

There’s Kizzy and Jenks, the crazy techs who remind me of Abby from NCIS, and Corbin the anti-social algae scientist who reminds me distinctly of a guy I work with.

There’s Dr. Chef, whose position is self-explanatory because his real name is unpronounceable, and the pilot Sissix, whom I pictured in my head as an overly grabby version of the Barabel Jedi Saba Sebatyne.

There’s Ohan, the ship’s mysterious Navigator pair, and even the ship herself, an AI named Lovelace (Lovey for short).

Each and every one of these characters gets some time to shine, and some room to grow.  I really enjoyed the diversity of the cast, both in terms of personality and biology.  I really liked all the different alien species introduced (even if it meant the biologist in me spent more time thinking about alien sex that I would have liked).

Though this hasn’t been my favorite sci-fi read this year, it was definitely fun and memorable.  A companion book, A Closed and Common Orbit, that continues some of the open plot threads has just recently been published, and I’m looking forward to reading that as well.

Many people have compared this to the short-lived-but-much-loved TV show Firefly, but I didn’t really get that vibe, though I’m sure the audiences would overlap.  I thought the Mass Effect comparisons were stronger.  Either way, it’s a great little space opera, and the focus on small character arcs makes it really easy to read in small chunks.

Tl;dr   Character-driven, “feel good” space sci-fi, 4/5 stars

GeekyNerdy Book Club: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

91ikktkw7xl-_sl1500_Welcome back to GNBC, a bimonthly virtual book club hosted by Geeky Musings from a Nerdy Girl.

Our selection for June/July (ok, I’m a little late) is Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series by a pair of authors writing as James S.A. Corey.  This book was a re-read for me, but I didn’t care at all because this book (and in fact the whole series) is great.

I also got my husband to read it with me, which was cool because I think this is the first time we’ve ever read the same book at the same time!

Leviathan Wakes imagines a future in which humans have taken flight into the solar system, setting up colonies on Mars as well as various moons and asteroids.  (Incidentally, I don’t see myself being one of these pioneering humans.  Space travel sounds cool, but I’m not sure I could handle it physically or mentally.  I think I’ll keep my feet planted in Earth’s gravity.)

But this future is no utopia; there are still economic stresses, prejudices, and politics, with tentative relations between Earth, Mars, and “the Belt.”   Plus there’s a conspiracy brewing that could break these fragile bonds, and Jim Holden, XO of the ice hauler Canterbury, and his crew as well as Joe Miller, a detective on Ceres, get caught up in the middle of it.  In fact, they’re on the trail of a new discovery that could make or break the future of humanity.

One great thing about Leviathan Wakes is how it mixes genres (much like one of our previous books, The Water Knife).  The backbone of the books is a nice space opera, with plenty of action and a hint of romance, but it also throws in some politics, detective noir, and horror; it reads a lot like a thriller.

Holden and Miller are good foils for each other, and their differences of opinion help frame the book’s themes. Each character written by a different author (Holden by Ty Franck and Miller by Daniel Abraham), but while they each bring a different perspective and attitude, the transition between them is pretty seamless.

Holden is an idealist, Miller a cynic. Holden believes in freedom of information (he would love Wikileaks…), while Miller understands that information equals power, and you need to tell people what the raw data mean and not just throw it out there.  He doesn’t trust people to form the correct conclusions and has seen the danger that can result from that situation.  I probably come down more on Miller’s side, but when I’m reading Holden’s perspective I always feel like he’s exactly right in what he’s doing; I want to believe in the intelligence and goodness of mankind like he does.  So I guess that’s the sign of a good book!  

The supporting cast of the book is really excellent, and the camaraderie of Holden’s crew is awesome–my favorite scene is actually just of them eating dinner together on their ship.  I knew my husband had reached this scene when he started laughing out loud.

I’ve already read the 2nd and 3rd books in the series.  Caliban’s War, the 2nd book, is my favorite of the bunch so far.  It has great POV characters and a pretty happy ending; one of the plot points revolves around crowdfunding!

Abaddon’s Gate, the 3rd book, gets very slow in the middle and the POV characters are not as compelling; it also introduces some more sci-fi elements that increase the scope of the series. I definitely plan to continue reading the series (I’ve got some catching up to do–the 6th book will be out soon)

I got my husband to read the books because we’ve been watching (and loving) the Syfy TV adaptation, called The Expanse. We agreed that it’s probably the best adaptation possible, with great casting (though I’m not sold on Holden’s actor), and the addition of Avasarala from the 2nd book gives us a perspective from Earth and more political intrigue sooner.  We also agreed that the character development is still way better in the book (as usual).  The first season of the show (which covers about the first half of Leviathan Wakes) can be found in rotation on Syfy’s website.

Phew, that was a long post, but I’m happy to talk more in the comments.

For September, we’ll be reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.  See you then!

Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters: Entertaining, Forward-looking Sci-Fi Movies

Continuing our summer tradition, B and I saw a double feature at our local drive-in this weekend: Star Trek Beyond followed by Ghostbusters.  I am not a hardcore fan of either of these franchises; I’ve never seen the original Star Trek series (and I actually enjoyed Into Darkness!), and though I’ve seen the original Ghostbusters, it was a long time ago and I couldn’t tell you much about it.

So that’s to say I didn’t have high expectations for either of these two reboot movies, but they both turned out to be entertaining in a good summer movie kind of way.

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Star Trek Beyond had nothing that was super original in terms of plot; there was a little bit of suspense, but the villain was not particularly compelling.  But the characters were good, and by breaking them into pairs and small groups for most of the movie they were able to play them off each other well.  In particular, I appreciated that Uhura and Spock’s relationship was present but understated, with no unnecessary drama.

The music and visuals were also nice, though the attack on the Yorktown outpost reminded me strongly of Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy.

ghostbustersThe Ghostbusters movie was even more predictable in terms of plot, but the pacing was lively and the effects sharp.  The vast majority of humor in the movie derives from the characters being awkward, and lot of it I didn’t find particularly funny, but I appreciated that it didn’t take itself too seriously.  Many reviews have praised McKinnon’s all-in craziness, but I preferred Jones’s everyman routine as Patty and Chris Hemsworth’s dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks Kevin.

The cameos from the original cast were nice and definitely got a laugh, but they also pulled you out of the movie.  The Fallout Boy/Missy Elliot cover of the theme song, which inspired much derision on the Internet, was actually well-used in the film.  The end credits are also really great!

But what I was really struck by at the end of the night was that I had seen two tech-positive, entertaining movies with coherent plots that featured a variety of competent female characters with no gratuitous sexuality.  Chew on that for a minute.  The movies were not perfect, but they continued the trend for female leads in sci-fi movies that was so well exemplified last year by Furiosa and Rey.  And that’s something I (and my money) can get behind.