Review: ‘Leviathan’ by Scott Westerfeld

Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.

I can’t remember how Leviathan crossed my path. I think it might have been a sale on Audible? Regardless, I read some of the reviews and decided — despite my usual distaste for war fiction — to give Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk YA alternative history a go. The audiobook is narrated by Scottish actor Alan Cumming, whose accent gives the perfect voice to Deryn, an awesomely competent young adult heroine who shines as a new recruit in the British Air Service. But he also does an excellent Austrian accent for Alek, and his various British accents are also great.

Before I more talk about the characters, I have to mention Westerfield’s alternative world. Germany and Austria are “clankers”, countries that have embraced steampunk-type technology: oil-guzzling, smoke-blowing machines of various fantastical designs. Great Britain, Russia and a few other countries that are mentioned in passing are “Darwinists” who, instead of using technology, use genetically modified “fabricated” creatures in the same sorts of roles. (PETA would not approve of any of the Darwinist creations, and perhaps especially the Leviathan air ship, which is a huge whale modified to host bacteria that produce hydrogen so it can float, carrying humans underneath and within it. I shared Alek’s grossed out reaction to that last part.)

The Leviathan

Anyway, moving on: when Deryn gets whisked away on a rogue Huxley (a hydrogen-breathing floating squid — I’ll let that sink in) and is rescued by the Leviathan, she is drawn into a government diplomatic mission to Istanbul (not Constantinople *snigger*), to try and stop the Ottoman Empire from taking sides in the war.

The fact that Deryn is secretly a girl isn’t the focus of the story, by any means, which was a relief. For the most part, she is a member of the crew, invested in her ship’s wellbeing and surviving one disaster after the next. Because this is young adult and it’d be a rare book indeed that didn’t have some romance, she also slowly develops a crush on Alek that she doesn’t know what to do with.

I also enjoyed Alek’s point of view chapters. He spends the first little while being incredibly naive and somewhat foolish, but under the circumstances that was entirely believable and relatable. Over the course of the story, with the guidance of his cunning fencing master, Count Volger, and patient master mechanic, Master Clopp, Alek comes out of his over-protected shell and starts to make his own decisions — often ones that Volger doesn’t like.

There is a lot of action in this book, but the large-scale action sequences that I find boring in most war books aren’t present here. The chapters stay very tightly focused on either Deryn or Alek, so while there might be other things going on in a battle, we only see what they see. This approach — and the novelty of conducting a war using modified hawks and bats instead of small planes — kept me engrossed where other war fiction loses me.

My only real gripe with the story is that the ending seemed rather abrupt. But luckily, I bought the first two books in the trilogy at the same time, so as I write this I’m already halfway through the sequel. Yay!

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Review: ‘Gemina’ by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.

Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

Gemina is over 600 pages. I devoured it in two sessions, despite being a single mother who works full time. That should demonstrate that you should read it.

*waits*

Okay, you want more? Well, first off, know that this is the sequel to the magnificent Illuminae, which was one of my favourite 2015 reads — if not my favourite. I gave it five stars on a one to five scale.

Gemina is better.

The genre is, broadly, a young adult, fast-paced, alternate-format sci-fi series. The key adjective there is “alternate format” — both books are presented in a “found footage” way: instant message and radio transcripts, emails and security camera footage (transcribed by a character known only by his analyst code, and also — in this book — by my favourite crazy-ass computer). There’s another difference in Gemina, in that Hanna, our leading lady, has a journal and is an artist. This means we get character sketches, a rough map of the space station, and a creeping sense of dread at the bloodstain slowly spreading in each new page we see.

If Illuminae is space zombies meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gemina is a mash-up of space terrorists and space, um, aliens. Like, aliens from the movie Aliens. (This isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the blurb, btw.) While the latter combination is definitely creepy, Illuminae gave me more chills — although that has a lot to do with my near-phobia of invisible killers such as plagues, I suspect.

I’d find it hard to choose between the leading ladies of Illuminae and Gemina — both are kick-butt in their own ways, though Hanna is in the literal sense that she’s a black-belt with military training, courtesy of ol’ Dad. Definitely a handy lady to have on your side in a terrorist-alien situation.

As for the blokes, I was fond of Ezra but would pick Nik any day of of the week. (Sorry, Ezra.)

We do get to see a handful of characters from the previous book — those that survived, at any rate. There’s a third book to come in the series, where hopefully Kady and Hanna (and the others, I guess, but mainly Kady and Hanna!) will team up and kick BeiTech face first through a black hole. I’ll be cheering for them from over here!

I hear the audiobook is amazing, but I read the paperback. Whichever way you do it, get this series. Love it. Name your children after it.

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Five stars


Review: ‘Strike’ by Delilah S. Dawson

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The hit list was just the beginning.

Time to strike back.

After faking her own death to escape her term as an indentured assassin for Valor Savings Bank, Patsy is on the run with her boyfriend, Wyatt. All she wants to do is go home, but that’s never going to happen—not as long as Valor’s out to get her and the people she loves.

Left with no good choices, Patsy’s only option is to meet with a mysterious group that calls itself the Citizens for Freedom.

Led by the charismatic Leon Crane, the CFF seem like just what Patsy has been looking for. Leon promises that if she joins, she’ll finally get revenge on Valor for everything they’ve done to her—and for everything they’ve made her do.

But Patsy knows the CFF has a few secrets of their own. One thing is certain: they’ll do absolutely anything to complete their mission, no matter who’s standing in their way. Even if it’s Patsy herself.

Strike is book two in the Hit series; you can find my review of the first book here. The basic premise of the series is that an apparently evil big bank has bought up the US national debt and has very quietly taken over the country. Its first step was to enlist teenage assassins to thin the “dead weight” — people with huge debts to Valor and no prospect of paying them off. Patsy is one of those teen assassins, forced to do so by means of her mother’s own debt. (If she doesn’t, her mother becomes some of that dead weight.)

And all of this has been consented to, because who ever reads the full terms of service when applying for a credit card?

The premise does stretch the credibility a little bit, at least for me — though that might be because I don’t live in the US, with its sub-prime mortgage crisis as part of my personal experience. Still, if you can accept the premise, these books are lightning-paced and sooooo addictive; I gobbled Strike up in two days. (I did the same with Hit. I love Dawson’s writing style.)

In Strike, we pick the story up where Hit leaves off; Patsy and Wyatt are on the run with a trail of bodies behind them, unable to go home, out of cash and unwilling to use Wyatt’s credit card for obvious reasons. So they hook up with the local chapter of the Citizens for Freedom, an underground group seeking to resist Valor’s sneaky national takeover by fighting against the capitalist machine. Leon Crane is the head of the local chapter. His family owns a lot of the small businesses around town, and you’d think he’d be all for Valor and its focus on the almighty dollar, but he’s an anarchist and creepy cult leader at heart. He is especially fond of recruiting the ex-Valor teen assassins — who better to use as his field agents?

Of course, he and Patsy … don’t get on.

I really love how Patsy develops in this story. She’s clearly suffering from PTSD, but she’s also able to knuckle down when she has to. She discovers a new, non-lethal way to rebel, via graffiti tags — hence the awesome cover. Graffiti is much quicker and clearer in delivering a message than yarn-bombing; Patsy’s use of it becomes a bit of a psychological crutch, and like all good crutches gets her into strife.

Patsy is devoted to her mother and her labrador, Matty, and very concerned that she not turn into the detached killer that Leon and Valor both seem to want her to be. That’s not to say that she won’t pull the trigger when she has to, though. She’s had a lot of practice at it by this point.

Her relationship with Wyatt is something that on the one hand feels a little rushed, but on the other is entirely understandable given the place they’ve both been put in. I got a bit annoyed at Patsy at one point when she gets mad at Wyatt for something that was not his fault — given that in the first book he manages to forgive her in fairly short order for killing his father. (Even though he hated his father, that still took an impressive effort.) I’m not saying I don’t understand her desire to lash out at someone, but poor Wyatt didn’t really deserve it.

Fortunately for her, he has the patience of a saint and is willing to give her the space she needs to cool down. I think we all need a Wyatt in our lives. ❤

One of the reasons this book didn’t earn a full five stars from me was that I found the CFF’s methods and choice of targets a little strange. How does sending the owner of a store franchise broke via extreme acts of vandalism hurt a big bank/new government like Valor? Why not target Valor itself? Maybe I missed something? But we get to find out more about Patsy’s absentee father, see more of the connection between the bank and her family, and learn why her list of targets in Hit all bore some connection to her rather than being random.

I’m unsure whether the series is intended to be a trilogy or perhaps longer, but although there isn’t a cliffhanger ending there are still some plot threads left unresolved. I’m definitely keen for book three!

hitstrikeFour stars


theendbookendIn case you missed it, yesterday at Aussie Owned and Read I blogged about five bookish gifts for blokes (in belated honour of Father’s Day, and in anticipation of Christmas).


Review: ‘Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ by Louise Gornall

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I’m Norah, and my life happens within the walls of my house, where I live with my mom and this evil overlord called agoraphobia.

Everything’s under control. It’s not rosy — I’m not going to win any prizes for Most Exciting Life or anything, but at least I’m safe from the outside world, right?

Wrong. This new boy, Luke, just moved in next door, and suddenly staying safe isn’t enough. If I don’t take risks, how will I ever get out — or let anyone in?

This book, you guys. It’s the sort of Own Voices diverse book that I often hear about but don’t often seem to read, probably because of my obsession with urban fantasy novels. It is unflinching and in-your-face, told in the first person present tense — the style that gets the reader closest to the thoughts and actions of the protagonist.

Our protagonist is Norah. She has agoraphobia and OCD, suffering debilitating anxiety attacks when she has to leave the house or when things in her environment are out of order. She’s terrified of germs and overthinks things. Like, really overthinks them — and not just the things that most people worry about, but things that might seem tiny in the grand scheme of things but to Norah’s brain are critical. For example, there’s almost an entire page of dialogue where all of Norah’s increasingly anxious thoughts are about how the other person has a piece of hair stuck to their lip.

Norah’s conditions mean pretty much this entire book is set inside her house, and for a lot of that she is alone — but her mind is so busy all the time, and Gornall’s style is so engaging, that I didn’t really notice the lack of variety in the scenery. Occasionally we get glimpses of Norah’s sass, which made me laugh, but my favourite thing was Gornall’s cleverly descriptive use of comparisons, and the way she interweaves Norah’s symptoms (such as picking at scabs or chewing her nails) into the action seamlessly.

Take this example:

A vocal tic rolls up my chest, pushed by pressure, until it flops out of my mouth and I moan like Frankenstein’s monster.

Or this:

His smile sets my kitchen on fire.

I could go on for days with examples (I chose those two by opening the book random), but I want to talk about the “he” in question. Luke is Norah’s new neighbour, and he’s basically the sweetest thing. He decides Norah’s cute when he glimpses her through her bedroom window and soon realises she’s not what he expected — but curiosity, a good heart and an understanding of mental illness due to a family member having it mean that he persists in trying to get to know Norah when she’d probably prefer he didn’t.

Although Luke is possibly slightly too good to be true, I was pleased to see that he wasn’t your typical magic bullet trope. I won’t go into details of what I mean here, because I don’t want to get too spoiler-y, but Hollywood definitely has certain stereotypes about women being “saved”, shown the error of their ways by a man, and let’s just say that’s not what happens here. Yes, Luke does broaden Norah’s horizons (before she met him she really only had in-depth conversations with her mother and doctor). But she isn’t magically cured by virtue of his presence.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough, you guys — and also, before I finish up, take a moment to admire the pretty cover. There are three different-coloured versions of this cover, all in different shades of pink; I got the palest pink one and I love it!

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Five stars


Review: ‘Never Forgotten’ by Stacey Nash

Never Forgotten

Continuing on from Forget Me Not and Remember Me, this is the thrilling third novel in Stacey Nash’s unforgettable series.

Since the strike on Collective territory during Anamae’s rescue, things have taken a turn for the worse. Unprovoked attacks on innocent people have Anamae and her friends fighting day and night to minimize the damage. With hundreds of lives lost, morale amongst the resistance fighters has plummeted. But that’s the least of her worries.

Manvyke still has Anamae’s mom, Annie, secreted away somewhere and after the way they parted, Anamae worries it’s not at her mother’s bidding. Maybe Annie’s disappearance all those years ago wasn’t her choice. But with Manvyke scouring the world, there’s something far more pressing than the need to find Anamae’s mother …

It’s a fight against time to find the other keys before Manvyke. In his hands, the three relics could unlock enough power to reek a much worse havoc than the current issues at hand. If the councillor gets his hands on those keys, civilization will bow down.

THE RACE IS ON.

This book is the third of four in the young adult modern world/sci-fi Collective series, and gives us more details of the world and the hunt for the founders’ keys. If you haven’t read the first two books (Forget Me Not and Remember Me), I recommend that you go back and do so; this isn’t the sort of series that you can jump into partway through.

I loved the little glimpses of foreign locations as Jax hunts for the second of the three powerful relics, trying to get there before Manvyke and his batshit crazy son, Nik, can. Mae, in the meantime, is trying to figure out what Manvyke has done with her mother, working on the assumption that she’s a prisoner … or worse. Mae’s group also runs afoul of Nik at various points.

I keep mentioning Nik, because he was definitely the villain of the piece. Manvyke is largely off camera, whereas Nik appears frequently to taunt Jax, leer at Mae, and beat the snot out of all and sundry.

A lot of the story focuses on Mae’s dilemma in choosing between Jax and Will. I’m not usually a love triangle kind of person, so I admit this particular sub-plot slowed things down for me a little. Still, the angsty bits are interwoven with other events, which were enough to keep me reading.

As far as the love triangle dilemma itself goes, it was obvious from the start of the series (not just this book) that Mae loved Jax. I didn’t really understand why she chose to torture herself about the whole thing, except that Will is her best friend and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings by rejecting him out of hand, I suppose?

Out of the two boys I actually prefer Will — Jax is a little bit too angry and broken for me (and what’s with him actually believing a word that comes out of Nik’s mouth? I know they are brothers, but sheesh!). But by about halfway through I was cheering for Jax and Mae to get together just so they could both stop angsting all over everything. 😉

My favourite character is still Lilly, the sweet and sad friend of Mae’s who is determined to be an active part of the resistance despite her overprotective father.

Never Forgotten does a good job as a “middle book” in that it transitions us from the discovery stories in the first two books to the set-up for the finale in book four. The pace is zippy, there is a respectable amount of kissing, and the touch of sci-fi tech is still my favourite part about this world.

Four stars


Review: ‘The Intern’ by Gabrielle Tozer

The Intern

Josie Browning dreams of having it all.

A stellar academic record, an amazing career in journalism – and for her current crush to realise she actually exists. The only problem? Josie can’t get through twenty-four hours without embarrassing her sister Kat or her best friend Angel, let alone herself.

Josie’s luck changes though when she lands an internship at the glossy fashion magazine Sash. A coveted columnist job is up for grabs, but Josie’s got some tough competition in the form of two other interns. Battle lines are drawn and Josie quickly learns that the magazine industry is far from easy, especially under the reign of powerful editor, Rae Swanson.

From the lows of coffee-fetching and working 10-hour days, to the highs of mingling with celebrities, scoring endless free beauty products (plus falling for her cousin’s seriously gorgeous flatmate James) this is one year Josie will never forget.

The Intern was an enjoyable book by an Aussie writer who you can tell has worked in the fashion magazine industry before — she had all those little details right. Or at least she was able to fake it. I can’t exactly claim to be an expert, as I don’t actually read them. I think it was my lack of interest in fashion and gossip magazines that meant I found the story a little hard to get into at first…

But then Josie won me over, with her wonderful, quirky personality. She was nerdy, naive and clumsy — but not in a Bella Swan, not-really-clumsy-except-very-rarely kind of way. Josie was really clumsy (as someone with poor vision I can relate to that), and it often got her in trouble. She also had exactly no verbal filter, meaning that the first time she meets a cute boy she tells him all sorts of embarrassing stories, including about how that one time she pooed her pants…

Yeah, I cringed a little too.

Still, I loved her passion for writing and her desire to be a journalist. During the course of the story, she learns that she can actually find stories and write about things she cares about, even if she’s working for a “light” magazine like Sash. I really liked that about her — that she made the best of a less-than-ideal situation. (I guess by then she’d had a lot of practice!)

I loved some of the other characters, including her fellow intern, Steph; sister, Kat; and of course the cute boy in question, James (he was genuinely a nice guy, which is so great to see!). I was less sold on Josie’s best friend, Angel — she seemed to be rather selfish, to be honest, and I don’t think she was in the story enough to redeem herself or really win me over. Still, since one of the elements of the story was Josie and Angel (who were high school best friends) struggling to maintain their friendship after graduation, it did fit.

There aren’t any really “bad” characters in The Intern, except for a few bit characters who just pass through. Everyone who is looked at in any depth at all is revealed to just be a regular person, with good and bad aspects, including the stereotypical “cold boss”, Rae, and the “mean girl” intern, Ava. I kind of liked that, actually; it gave the book more of a happy vibe, when it could’ve been really catty and enraging.

I felt really awful for Josie’s mother, who is struggling after the recent failure of her marriage to the girls’ father. I hope that in the sequel we get to see her thrive. (If she reunites with her ex I will throw things through the wall.)

The Intern is a fun read that touches on some serious subjects but still manages to retain its lighter tone. Given Josie’s age you could consider it new adult, but it doesn’t have any of the traditional new adult subject matter (raunchy sex or drug use) and would be suitable for younger teens.

Four stars


Review: ‘Half-Blood’ by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Today over at Aussie Owned and Read, I’m reviewing “Half-Blood” by Jennifer L. Armentrout. I liked it, but didn’t love it — click here to find out why: Review: ‘Half-Blood’ by Jennifer L. Armentrout.