BONUS BOOK: A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

“‘Most people,’ Cain says, ‘are nothing but glimmers in the great darkness of time. But you, Helene Aquilla, are no swift-burning spark. You are a torch against the night – if you dare let yourself burn.'”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Dystopian, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire. Laia is determined to break into Kauf – the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison – to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom. But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene – Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s new Blood Shrike. Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own – one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape… and kill them both.”

Review: I ended up really enjoying A Torch Against the Night! While my primarily complaint in An Ember in the Ashes was that Laia wasn’t as strong of a character as Elias, I felt like she really came into her own in A Torch Against the Night. As she works on discovering and honing her newfound skills, she gains a confidence that she sorely lacked in An Ember in the Ashes; whereas Elias was the sole rescuer in the first book, now Laia emerges as a strong, capable, and intelligent heroine. As another plus, the love triangles that made me so angry in An Ember in the Ashes were mostly removed from this second novel, which facilitated a greater focus on other relationships in the story, including the friendship between Laia and Izzi. While the concept behind Tahir’s books doesn’t exactly scream uniqueness, I think her real gift as an author lies in storytelling. She is also an accomplished world-builder, which allows the reader to really immerse themselves in the story. The plot is extremely well-paced and this second novel benefited from the inclusion of Helene’s perspective. The plot twist wasn’t as much of a twist as I might have liked (there were almost too many clues and hints given along the way), but I didn’t find myself frustrated by it like I do in so many other books with supposed “twists.” All in all, I’m definitely glad I read this novel and am looking forward to the third and fourth installments.




BONUS BOOK: Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

“And that, at least, gave me some hope: that even under ordinary circumstances, I still might find a way to live an extraordinary life.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Mystery, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “The extraordinary journey that began in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children continues as Jacob Portman and his newfound friends journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. There, they hope to find a cure for their beloved headmistress, Miss Peregrine. But in this war-torn city, hideous surprises lurk around every corner. And before Jacob can deliver the peculiar children to safety, he must make an important decision about his love for Emma Bloom. Hollow City draws readers into a richly imagined world of telepathy and time loops, of sideshows and shape-shifters – a world populated with adult “peculiars,” murderous wights, and a bizarre menagerie of uncanny animals. Like its predecessor, this second novel in the Peculiar Children series blends thrilling fantasy with never-before-published vintage photography to create a one-of-a-kind reading experience.”

Review: I hadn’t really planned on giving the second book in the Peculiar Children series a chance. While I thought Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children had an excellent, unique mode of storytelling, the story itself didn’t captivate me. However, after reading the graphic novel version of the first book, I decided to give Hollow City a try. Once again, however, I found myself disappointed. I think it’s safe to say that I like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children better than Hollow City. Whereas the vintage photos in the first book felt like evidence for the story (as in the story itself had existed and the pictures were just proof), the photos in Hollow City felt much more disjointed. It seemed like, in this second book, certain events and characters in the story were added as an afterthought, completely inspired by the pictures themselves. It’s hard to explain, but ultimately I felt like Hollow City told a less authentic story and the pictures were not used as convincingly as they had been in the first book. Storytelling means aside, I also found myself getting tired of the characters, particularly grumpy, pessimistic Enoch. Within the first few chapters, everyone’s roles were established. Emma was the leader, Bronwyn was the peacekeeper, Enoch was the pessimist, Jacob was the confused sidekick, Millard was the intelligent but naive historian, and so on. And no one changed from those initial characterizations the entirety of the book! No one showed any real character development or did anything¬† remotely out of character/surprising. I also felt like the plot was constantly high energy, and could have benefited from some “breaks” in between the life-or-death scenarios. All of that being said, I am looking forward to reading the graphic novel version of Hollow City and I’ll probably finish the series, if only to see how everything ties together in the end.





BONUS BOOK: Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima

“If wishes were horses even beggars would ride.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Adrian sul’Han, known as Ash, is a trained healer with a powerful gift of magic – and a thirst for revenge. The son of the queen of the Fells, Ash is forced into hiding after a series of murders throws the queendom into chaos. Now Ash is closer than he’s ever been to killing the man responsible, the cruel king of Arden. As a healer, can Ash use his powers not to save a life, but to take it? Abandoned at birth, Jenna Bandelow was told the mysterious magemark on the back of her neck would one day make her a target. But when the King’s Guard launches a relentless search for a girl with a mark like hers, Jenna assumes that it has more to do with her role as a saboteur than any curse. Though Jenna doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, she knows that she can’t get caught. Thrown together by chance and joined by their hatred of the ruthless king, Ash and Jenna will come to rescue each other in ways they cannot yet imagine. Set in the world of the acclaimed Seven Realms series, a generation later, this is a thrilling story of dark magic, chilling threats, and two unforgettable characters walking a knife-sharp line between life and death.”

Review: Goodness gracious, Flamecaster was almost shockingly boring. The plot sounds interesting enough, but both Ash and Jenna (who are supposed to be “unforgettable characters”) are just plain dull. Ash especially! Jenna at least has some depth to her character, but Ash feels like a hollow caricature of what “boy who has lost his father and is now hellbent on revenge” can and should be. The best part of the novel took place within the last thirty pages, when Jenna finally meets the persistent voice inside her head, Flamecaster (spoiler alert: he’s a dragon). While this could bode well for the second book, I have no interested in returning to the “Shattered Realms” land just to be bored to death again. I also have never seen a more blatant example of instalove than Ash and Jenna, and I’m shocked that reviewers on Goodreads (where Flamecaster has a remarkable rating of 4.1) haven’t caused more of an uproar over this. And I find it hard to believe that if Ash and Jenna truly love each other as much as Chima implies, Ash would experience such little devastation at the presumed death of his beloved at the end of the novel. All in all, the characters (including supplementary ones) were forgettable and the plot was dull.



BONUS BOOK: Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan

“Captivity is always captivity, no matter how gentle the jailer.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “As a senior orca trainer for SeaWorld’s multi-billion-dollar company, John Hargrove has had elite access to some of the most dangerous killer whales in captivity. For over two decades, he worked with 20 different whales on two continents, building intense relationships with these mystical creatures. However, as his understanding of the whales deepened, Hargrove came to doubt that their needs could ever be met in captivity. And after the horrific deaths of two trainers by Sea World owned and trained orcas, he was certain that SeaWorld’s wildly popular programs were both detrimental to the whales and increasingly dangerous for trainers. Since leaving SeaWorld, Hargrove starred in the award-winning documentary Blackfish. The enormous success of the film and the advocacy movement in which Hargrove is involved has caused an outcry across the nation. Beneath the Surface explores the dark corners of orca captivity. Hargrove gives a heartbreaking account of the psychological and physical damage caused by captivity – and contrasts it with orcas’ lives in the wild. His journey is one that humanity has just begun to take – toward the realization that the relationship between the human and animal worlds must be radically rethought.”

Review: As a firm supporter of the marine mammal anti-captivity movement, I’ve been looking forward to reading Beneath the Surface since I saw Blackfish and read Death at SeaWorld.

“They may, with time and the effort of advocates, get a better life than they have now. But they will never experience what humans had no right to take from them in the first place.”

Unfortunately, I found Beneath the Surface to be a lackluster read that didn’t actually give the reader the advertised super-exclusive look behind the SeaWorld facade. I’ll preface this all by saying that I think Beneath the Surface is an inherently valuable and rare book, given that it comes from a disillusioned ex-trainer at a time when SeaWorld largely attempts to discredit the anti-cap movement by labeling everyone as a misinformed anarchist or extremist. But that didn’t make it easy to read about Hargrove’s experiences, largely because he doesn’t show the level of remorse I initially expected. He also frequently interprets the feelings of the whales he worked with, which I found to be grating. I also got sick of Hargrove’s constant reference to whales going over to “the dark side” when they acted aggressively.

“I enjoyed these moments and so did the whales.”

“Takara emitted sounds that told me how prepared she was to perform one of her favorite acts with me in the water at SeaWorld.”

“I was told by trainers in Florida that Tilikum exhibited what they described as mourning behavior after he killed Dawn.”

This was something I grappled with throughout reading, but ultimately I realized that my own biases were getting in the way of my respect for and interpretation of Beneath the Surface. I had to remind myself of something that I strongly believe: animal trainers are not the bad guys on the SeaWorld/marine mammal captivity spectrum. Hargrove’s account of his time at SeaWorld, and his retrospection now that he has left, is so important because it shows how a trainer who initially fully supports the SeaWorld mission can come around to the opposite side of the spectrum. This look at trainer mentality, and how trainers justify SeaWorld’s actions, was fascinating.

“I don’t blame anyone for sticking with the company line. I too was a loyal corporate citizen and felt I had to do my duty to defend SeaWorld against those who might hurt it-and the whales.”

“Then, they had Wendy record a video segment on their ‘Truth About Blackfish‘ page where she said that absolutely no whale was involved and that ‘[Hargrove] simply ran and dove into the concrete.'” **This is said by a trainer Hargrove had shared a 20 year friendship with, after he left SeaWorld and participated in Blackfish. Hargrove’s account of the incident in question almost certainly involved the whale Orkid.

My views on trainer mentality aside, I do not think that Beneath the Surface was particularly well-written. The ordering of topics throughout the book felt disjointed and despite the “promises” made by chapter titles, I never quite knew what I would end up reading each time I started a new chapter. All in all, I think Beneath the Surface was more an interesting look into the minds of trainers than a SeaWorld expose. I would still direct interested readers to Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby, which I found to be a more empirically-based, less emotional look at killer whales in captivity. I think Death at SeaWorld delivers on the promise of “the truth beyond Blackfish” much better than Beneath the Surface does.



BONUS BOOK: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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“And the certainty that if she does not take away everything he has left, he will take it from her instead.”

Genre: Adventure, Science Fiction, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do today. This afternoon, her planet was invaded. The year is 2575 and two rival mega-corporations – ____ and ____ – are at war over a plane that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, exes Kady and Ezra – who are barely even talking to each other – are forced to fight their way onto the evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit. But the warship is the least of their problems. A deadly ____ has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results. The fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what the ____ is going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again. Briefing note: Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents – including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more – Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.”

Review: At just barely shy of 600 pages, Illuminae is a real clunker of a book. While it initially looks daunting, however, the reader quickly learns that this novel has a very different and refreshing approach to storytelling. The entire book is made up of “classified” documents detailing an intergalactic space war reminiscent of Star Trek or Star Wars (Illuminae has been referred to as a “space opera” which seems fitting to me). Overall, I enjoyed the composition of this book and found that the variety of schematics, interviews, radio transcripts, and emails kept the reading pace up. I’ve never read such a uniquely styled book, and it was the Illuminae format itself that caused me to bump my rating up from two stars to three. I did feel like the book was very, very heavy when it came to jargon, which made for a lot of confusion early on, particularly concerning what Kady was doing as she hacked through the different ship security systems. The first two thirds of the book also seemed quite prolonged, but I really enjoyed the last third, primarily due to the bizarre relationship that forms between Kady and AIDAN (the Alexander’s misguided AI system). Illuminae didn’t quite live up to the hype for me but I am interested in reading the sequel, Gemina, which comes out this fall.



BONUS BOOK: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel by Ransom Riggs and Cassandra Jean

“Yet as we stood loading our boats in the breaking dawn, on a brand-new precipice of before and after, I realized that leaving wouldn’t be like I had imagined.”

Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Adventure, Mystery, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “When Jacob Portman was a boy, his grandfather regaled him with stories of his fantastic life at Miss Peregrine’s home during the Second World War, even sharing photos of the remarkable children with whom he resided. As Jacob grew up, though, he decided that these photos were obvious fakes, simple forgeries designed to stir his youthful imagination. Or were they…? Following his grandfather’s death – a scene Jacob literally couldn’t believe with his own eyes – the sixteen-year-old boy embarks on a mission to disentangle fact from fiction in his grandfather’s tall tales. But even his grandfather’s elaborate yarns couldn’t prepare Jacob for the eccentricities he will discover at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children! Artist Cassandra Jean, who rendered the graphic novel version of Beautiful Creatures, now turns her “peculiar’ eye to this fully illustrated adaptation of Ransom Rigg’s international bestseller!”

Review: Despite having somewhat neutral (to negative) feelings towards Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (see my earlier review here), I have been meaning to get my hands on the graphic novel version ever since I learned of its existence. And as my first ever graphic novel reading experience, I have to say that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel did not disappoint. The illustrations themselves were done in a very unique and distinctive fashion that kept me even more engaged than the original text had. I particularly loved how the pictures went from black and white to full color once Jacob entered the loop. I still think that the overall story has some flaws, which even the graphic novel couldn’t fully overcome, but all in all I enjoyed this read a lot more than I expected. Having loved this first Peregrine’s graphic novel, I’m really looking forward to Hollow City: The Graphic Novel. However, I was glad that I had read the full text version of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children before reading the graphic novel, so I think I’ll give the original Hollow City a try and then focus on the second graphic novel.



BONUS BOOK: Fairest by Marissa Meyer

“The sorrow belongs to us all, but I know you bear the weight more than anyone.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her ‘glamour’ to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told… until now. Marissa Meyer spins yet another unforgettable tale about love and war, deceit and death.”

Review: I have to admit, I wasn’t REALLY looking forward to Fairest. I put this book on my “To Read” list after finishing Winter, when I was trying to find someway to stall the end of the Lunar Chronicles. I think Levana is an excellent and captivating villain, but I honestly didn’t really care about her backstory. I was convinced that Fairest would be a story of how the young, innocent, kind princess turned into an evil queen after lost love or family tragedy. With that in mind, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the angle of Fairest. Meyer never lets her readers believe that Levana isn’t crazy or bad. Instead, she shows the reader how Levana evolved from a manipulative, lovesick teenager into a cruel villain. She is just as crazy in Fairest as she is in all of the other Lunar Chronicle books, but Fairest provides a more in-depth look at how different facets of her life contributed to her growing desire for total control and power. That being said, I didn’t find Fairest to be a very interesting read and it took me longer to finish this relatively short book than I anticipated. I think I might actually enjoy Stars Above, Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles short story collection, better than Fairest (even though I have a general aversion to novellas when they accompany a series). We’ll see!