Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Everyone loves a good fairytale. What's not to love? Sweep-you-off-your-feet romances, titillating magic and undeniable adventures (will she get back by midnight?!) are all inextricable elements to any classic fairytale--in fact, they've even found their way into books of other genres as well. When I picked up Rosamund Hodge's "Cruel Beauty" and saw that it was a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast," I have to admit I was pretty darn excited. Good retellings require a vast amount of creativity and imagination, and I'm always curious to see how authors add their own spin to classic tales--though whether they're fresh and exciting is whole other story (pun totally intended).

Ever since she was born, Nyx has grown up certain about one thing: the sole purpose of her existence is to marry the demonic Gentle Lord, and kill him. After seventeen years of watching her sister be coddled and of being set at a distance by her own father, Nyx finally leaves her home to live in the castle of the all-powerful, evil Ignifex. Nyx understands that she is the only hope for breaking the nine-hundred-year-old curse on the people of Arcadia, but she can't help the resentment she feels for her fate and her family. But Ignifex is not what she expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle--a shifting maze with enchanting rooms--enthralls her. With time running out, Nyx is forced to face a decision with potentially disastrous consequences: to save her kingdom, or to save the man she was never supposed to love.

When I read the synopsis for "Cruel Beauty," I was instantly intrigued. "Beauty and the Beast" was one of my favourite fairytales growing up, and I could only imagine how much more exciting it would be with a butt-kicking heroine. The storyline of the novel presents a fresh take on the classic fairytale, and it was interesting to see how Ms. Hodge wove in her own ideas into the existing story. There's some pretty great world-building going on in the book--just imagine a town with a dark, towering castle, all of which is encased in a sky made out of parchment. No stars, no sky. Talk about a crappy curse, huh? What I also found exciting was the whole concept of the Resurgandi, a group of learned alchemists who are able to manipulate the elements, as it brought a whole new layer of magic to the story.

Having said this, I do think that there were quite a few things about the novel that just didn't quite work for me. One of the first things that come to mind is the whole Greek mythology strand to the plot. While I appreciate what Ms. Hodge was trying to do by merging fairytale and myth into one story, I felt like it was a little too forced at times. For example, there would be sudden mentions of statues of Apollo and Daphne and so on, and it was like it was kind of shoved in there to make the story more ingenious. I do see the connection between these myths and Nyx's whole situation of forced marriage and the like, but I felt like the execution itself wasn't very smooth. Moreover, I didn't feel the tension so much throughout the plot. Sure, there were the multiple tensions between Nyx and her family, Ignifex and her fate, but it just fell a little flat with all of her running around in the castle and kissing two men at once and all that.

Which, naturally, brings me to the characters of "Cruel Beauty." Nyx, as the heroine of the novel, is undoubtedly strong and determined. Quite the feisty lady. But I never felt like her character developed much as the story progressed, and she changed her mind way too quickly about some pretty important things. And what I especially didn't like so much was the almost insta-love going on between her and Shade, and her and Ignifex. Sure, she expresses remorse and some concern about smooching two men at once, but she continues to do so anyway. No biggie. Ms. Hodge does attempt to smooth this whole issue out with the twist in the end, but I felt like it was a little too late, since, by that time, I feel like I lost respect for the heroine of the novel. Ignifex was a pretty alright character--you get your typical bad-guy-but-actually-sincere-on-the-inside business with him, so, yeah. As for Nyx's family, boy oh boy I just hated all of them. A stoic father who doesn't care for his own daughter, an annoying aunt, and a whiny, two-faced sister? No wonder Nyx didn't mind leaving the house so much.

All in all, "Cruel Beauty" is just an okay retelling of a fairytale, with a fairly interesting spin on "Beauty and the Beast." But what really bummed me out was the lack of a truly compelling plot in the novel, as well as subpar characters I never became invested in. I'd say check it out if you're really interested, since this all my opinion, but don't expect a jaw-dropping, heart-racing adventure.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

I'm still reeling. After an hour of reaching the final page of this book, I'm still feeling the remnants of the sensation of being completely blown away. I swear, I've just been sitting here dumbstruck by what I just read. My heart is still palpitating, and my mind has been firmly immersed in Sector 45 for the past hour. Reading "Ignite Me," the heart-stopping finale to Tahereh Mafi's "Shatter Me" trilogy, was like riding a roller coaster while wrestling a boa constrictor...on fire. It was that absurdly thrilling. Ignite me? Heck yeah, it did.

Juliette's been shot in the chest. Anderson, the cold, calculating leader of the Reestablishment, is still alive. And, even worse, Omega Point--and all of her friends, as far as she knows--has been destroyed. But Juliette won't be stopped. Now she knows that she may be the only one who can stop the Reestablishment, even if it means turning to the one person she never thought she could trust: Warner. And as they work together, Juliette will discover that everything she thought she knew--about Warner, her abilities, and even Adam--were wrong.

One of my favourite aspects of the entire "Shatter Me" trilogy is Ms. Mafi's phenomenally evocative writing style. Every single word and phrase and sentence are used with meaning, packing deliberate punches both emotionally and physically to the reader. It's clear that Ms. Mafi is incredibly tuned to her reader's potential reactions, using her writing to play to those emotions and really capture his or her attention in a personal manner. And what's all the more astonishing about this is that all that intense, emotionally-charged writing never, ever feels over the top. In fact, it fuses seamlessly with Juliette's character and the events of the story, and enhances the plot rather than bogs it down. And because I have just fallen completely head over heels in love with the writing and want so desperately for you to understand what I'm blathering on about, I'll give you one of my favourite quotes from the novel:

And we are quotation marks, inverted and upside down, clinging to one another at the end of this life sentence. Trapped by lives we did not choose.
It's time, I think, to break free.

There's nothing overtly fancy about the language, but the images and the language used are so, so powerful, conjuring up the bittersweet, tragic, yet liberating undertone to the story.

The characters of "Ignite Me" are just as equally spectacular, and I guess the best place to start would be with, of course, Juliette. The transformation that she undergoes throughout this final book in the series is done remarkably and realistically, and to see her character develop into a strong, courageous and, above all, self-aware heroine was a thriller in and of itself. And let me tell you, she's one butt-kicking protagonist. What really had me squealing, though, was her relationship with Warner. Call the fire engines. Seriously. The tension between the two was so palpable and so freaking sexy in so many ways, I just wanted to crawl into the book and never come back out. What makes their relationship so real lies in the fact that you don't just get volatile passion, but also unbearably sweet and sincere moments that solidify their intense romance as more than physical attraction. On a side note: if you love Warner just as much as I do, you must read the novella "Destroy Me," which was told from his point of view. That was the moment I fell in love with him. Uh huh. 

Of course, the other characters in "Ignite Me" cannot go unmentioned. Kenji, the flirty smartass who is also Juliette's best friend, was, as always, so lovable. The banter between him and Juliette, as well as his one-liners, lent so much humour to the entire story, balancing out the intensity that permeates the novel. We also see a more vulnerable side to Kenji, one that's hidden behind a jocular, devil-may-care mask, and this is what makes him such a three-dimensional and believable character. Adam, too, is more complex than I thought him to be in the first two books of the trilogy. The change in his character was done very cleverly, and allowed Ms. Mafi to stray away from the cliches and conventions of YA love triangles, which I love, love, love!

And, finally, for the plot. As I mentioned endlessly before, the storyline of "Ignite Me" is so intense and charged that I could not put it down. The tension remains up and running throughout the entire novel, creating a fast pace that had me flipping through the pages in a speed that would make the Road Runner jealous. As the conclusion to the trilogy, the novel also wraps things up in a way that leaves the readers more than satisfied, leaving us with that inexplicable sensation of hope and contentment. One small criticism that I have with the plot, however, is that the climax was a little too short, too easy. The final confrontation with Anderson, the villain of the entire trilogy, ended just a bit too quickly, though this might be because I was reading that rapidly since I was so caught up in everything. Nonetheless, I think if we saw more of Anderson in the novel, it would've given the climax and the ending a lot more oomph, but, other than that, I've no complaints.

Overall, "Ignite Me" is the breathtaking finale to a riveting trilogy, one that is complete with beautifully evocative writing, an amazing cast of characters, intense romance that'll have your heart palpitating, and a fast-paced plot that won't let you go. I highly, highly recommend the "Shatter Me" trilogy to every single reader--it's seriously an adventure you do not want to miss.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

You know that feeling of being stuck on the outside, looking in? Like you're there, but not quite, caught between the bounds of half-knowing and exclusion. That's how I felt when I was reading "The Lies of Locke Lamora," the first installment in Scott Lynch's "Gentleman Bastard" series, at least at first. But, like every story, I'll start from the beginning. I picked up this novel after seeing review after review of fanatic readers raving about it, and I naturally just couldn't resist. There's something undeniably magical about fantasy novels, something that weaves an encompassing world around you until you find yourself enraptured. Unfortunately for me, it took me a little while with the world of Camorr--but better late than never!

An orphan's life is harsh--and often short--in the island city of Camorr. But luckily enough, Locke Lamora was blessed by the Thirteen Gods with quick wit and a gift for thieving, dodging both death and slavery. Under the tutelage of an eyeless priest named Chains, Locke flourishes into the Thorn of Camorr, notorious for pulling off the most outrageous of games. Along with his new, light-fingered brothers, the Gentleman Bastards, Locke has even the criminal underworld's most feared ruler, Capa Barvasi, into thinking that they're petty thieves. But when someone called the Grey King begins killing off the Capa's most trusted men--and using Locke in his plot to seize control of Camorr's underworld--a bloody coup is sparked. And as he finds everything and everyone that holds meaning in his mercenary life disappearing before his eyes, Locke vows to beat the Grey King at his own game--or die trying.

Arguably the most crucial part of any great fantasy novel is the main character, since, after all, you'll be following him or her across the great span of 500 pages or so. Locke Lamora is undeniably an intriguing protagonist, one with unparalleled cunning and a knack for theatrical thievery. I completely fell in love with his devil-may-care attitude and his thirst for the rush of adrenaline he gets from trickery--even till the very end--but what really made him a great hero was his unwavering loyalty toward his fellow Gentleman Bastards. His adoptive family means the world to him, and this compassionate side to him really gave him his driving force when things were forced to get down and dirty with the Grey King. Chains, Jean, Bug, Calo and Galdo, who make up the gang, are all such instrumental members in creating the dynamics in the Gentleman Bastards, and hearing their banter and seeing their close-knit camaraderie undoubtedly added to the story. The other characters, like Capa Barvasi, the Grey King and the Spider, were likewise well-developed and intriguing to read about, and I think Mr. Lynch has really created an exciting cast of characters in his debut novel.

Remember what I said about feeling like you're half-in, half-out? Well that's what I felt as I read the first few chapters of "The Lies of Locke Lamora." I don't know whether I'm explaining it right, but there was a sort of disconnect between myself as a reader and the book I held in my hands, like I just couldn't get into it. The more I read, however, the more I came to realize the reason behind this: the writing style. Don't get me wrong--Mr. Lynch's writing is great, which lends itself to the fantastic and intricate plot of the novel. What comes to mind are the amazing descriptions of the culinary concoctions of the aristocratic parties--imagine miniature palaces spun out of candied jellies and sweetbreads, and a fusion of cooked animals, with the head of a cow and the body of a fish. But there were times when there were just too many adjectives and adverbs lying around, cramping up the descriptions. It's no easy feat to create an entirely new world in any genre, especially fantasy, but I think if Mr. Lynch had toned down on some descriptions, things would've flown a lot more smoothly and sped things up a little. There were times when the sentences and paragraphs were too bogged down with auxiliary words, and I found myself skimming over lots of them as I tried to get to the actual meat of the story.

Which, of course, brings me to the plot. The storyline of "The Lies of Locke Lamora" was pretty interesting throughout, but, more than that, extremely clever. I loved seeing the way secrets and plans were revealed as the story progressed, along with the underlying unease that comes with the ever-present tension. Another thing I really appreciated and enjoyed was the way in which Mr. Lynch interspersed the chapters of the main storyline with interludes, jumping back and forth between the past and the present and giving his readers a more solid idea of both Locke's childhood and the world we are presented with. Like I discussed earlier at length, it did take me a little while to actually dive into the story, but it definitely does pick up a few long chapters in, leading up to the climactic ending of the novel!

Overall, "The Lies of Locke Lamora" is an intriguing fantasy novel, complete with a dynamic cast of characters, an undeniably clever hero, and an equally clever storyline. While it might not be my absolute favourite novel, it is definitely a solid fantasy story, one that you should definitely check out for yourselves!

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday, February 2, 2014

February '14 Releases!

Ahh February, the month of flowers, chocolates, over-stuffed teddy bears and all things love. It's the perfect time to indulge in your guilty pleasures, whether they're not-so-secret stashes of truffles or staring wistfully at that person in your math class (don't worry, I won't tell). For those of us who, unfortunately, don't have that special someone just yet, what better time than to spend it with your friends...or a book or two! Luckily for us, we have an enticing line-up of books for you to pick as your potential V-Day date--who knows, maybe you'll find The One!

"Cress" (The Lunar Chronicles #3) by Marissa Meyer
Release date: Feb. 4

"Ignite Me" (Shatter Me #3) by Tahereh Mafi
Release date: Feb. 4

"Landry Park" by Bethany Hagan
Release date: Feb. 4

"Alienated" by Melissa Landers
Release date: Feb. 4

"The Sound of Letting Go" by Stasia Ward Kehoe
Release date: Feb. 6

"Lady Thief" (Scarlet #2) by A.C. Gaughen
Release date: Feb. 11

"Tsarina" by J. Nelle Patrick
Release date: Feb. 27