Review: Signs Point to Yes

Signs Point to Yes
Signs Point to Yes by Sandy Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review**

I adored Sandy Hall’s debut A LITTLE SOMETHING DIFFERENT when I read it last year. It was a sweet romance and clever in that it told its story from every perspective save the romantic couple’s — I actually think that’s a pretty gutsy move, given you’ve got to work all the harder to make the reader care about the romance. Not only that, but how many authors decide to tell the perspective of a campus bench, or the squirrel fed granola bar pieces by the female “protagonist”? Again, clever and, in the end, lovely.

SIGNS POINT TO YES, in comparison, is more straightforward in its narrative style. We follow the perspectives of the two primary romantic players, neighbours Jane and Teo, as well as that of Jane’s sister, Margo. They are all clear, well-defined internal voices and the switches in POV are balanced and easy to follow. My only criticism would be that Margo’s inclusion felt almost forced at times, which was a shame because I really appreciated her more-grounded and level-headed perspective. She balances out the tumult of Jane and Teo’s story, but it’s awkward and clunky at times.

Jane is a fun personality and is the kind of character that will appeal to many a reader — so many of us are involved in one fandom or another, so her various fictional loves will feel familiar. In my case, that was my empathetic grounding point with Jane because, while I couldn’t necessarily empathize with her overhanging fears — though I could sympathize — I could definitely connect with her relationship with her various fandoms. It was charming and it felt natural.

I found Teo, of all the POV’s, the most successful. His frustration with his stepfather and his mother, all the while searching for his birth father in a quest for closure, is heartfelt and poignant. He expresses all the teenage angst that comes from this situation in the way that I’m sure many teenagers would: he’s basically terrible at verbally expressing it. Instead, he represses it; he keeps it all very secret. He feels he cannot talk openly with his mother about this, and while I did find that sad, I also understood why he felt that way. His mother isn’t a villain and she loves him very much, but it’s also clear that Teo has been harbouring some serious hurt that he hasn’t verbalized for so long that now he’s not even sure how to do so.

One of Teo’s greatest moments, for me, comes after he has a blow-up at Jane. Without giving away any spoilers, he manages to not only man up and apologize, but admit that while he was angry with Jane, most of his (very) bad reaction was angry hurt at his birth father that he projected onto Jane. It’s hard for him to admit, but he’s mature about it. A similar scene with his mother, also filled with some hard truths and emotional confessions, was another emotion highlight of this novel.

If I have one major criticism of the novel it’s the side-characters, namely Ravi, Teo’s best friend who also happens to hate Jane with a virulent passion. He’s rude and downright cruel to the point of being insufferable, and when we learn his reasons for disliking Jane, instead of softening towards him, I disliked him even more. I’m sure there are readers who may like him, but I found him incredibly selfish and just downright shallow. I could have done without him, or at least with him being more fleshed out.

But that’s it because, frankly, this is just a sweet romance. It’s quick, cute, and just a lovely little bit of reading that put a smile on my face.

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Review: Another Day

Another Day
Another Day by David Levithan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you to Random House Children’s for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review**

David Levithan has this aura about him in the YA community — and it’s well-earned. Over the past 10+ years he’s published a slew of darn good novels. Whether you like the stories or not, it’s impossible to deny that they’re raw and impassioned looks at teens who’re always on the edge of the societal norm.

I, myself, had only ever read EVERY DAY, the companion/precursor to this novel. It was one of my favourite books I read in 2013, and I thought it not only executed its clever premise — a being, “A”, wakes up every day in a different body — very well, but told a heart-wrenching tale of love and identity. Levithan held up a mirror to the reader and asked, “Who are you?”

ANOTHER DAY is a lovely companion novel for its predecessor. Focusing, instead, on the object of A’s affections, Rhiannon, Levithan manages to hold up the same mirror, this time asking someone so sure of who they are and what they deserve, “Who are you?”

This is a young adult we all know well, some of us may have even been her: Rhiannon is vanishing within her own life. Justin, her troubled boyfriend, causes her simultaneous happiness and frustration, but no real joy. In the day that A spends inhabiting Justin’s body, Rhiannon experiences that one day of bliss and genuine happiness.

Imagine that then being completely ripped away.

Rhiannon struggles with self-worth honestly, in a very raw and human way. She can acknowledge that she feels herself slipping away and just becoming some kind of machine that goes through the motions of life, but doesn’t know how to break free of this cycle. She doesn’t know predominantly because she doesn’t think she’s worthy of something better. I think of a line from Stephen Chbosky’s THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER:

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

That is the core of Rhiannon and, unfortunately, she lets this way of thinking begin to seep into her life as a whole.

That’s part of the beauty of A’s introduction and the way that the utterly improbable basis of his existence awakens something within Rhiannon. Curiosity and the focus on something non-ordinary in what has become a routine existence eventually becomes a journey of self-discovery. In discovering more about A, Rhiannon becomes fully self-actualized.

Like its companion, ANOTHER DAY requires a serious suspension of disbelief — if you can’t do that, you’re not going to enjoy this novel — but the payoff is worth it. These novels are about the emotion responses they elicit and the ideas they present. I was willing to do this and felt very rewarded at the end of the reading experience.

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Review: Illuminae

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I currently need to go recover the scattered pieces of my completely blown mind. Then I’ll write my full review. Just…damn…

**An innumerable level of thanks to Random House Children’s for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via NetGalley for the purposes of review**

I should have known that when Jay Kristoff said ILLUMINAE was “without a doubt the coolest book [he’d] ever written” and that he was “pretty sure you’ve never read a book like [ILLUMINAE]”, it was going to be good.

I underestimated the level of epic — oh did I ever underestimate the level of epic adventure and excitement and sheer terror this book would bring. I mean, yeah, it’s been one of my top five most anticipated releases of the year and shot up into my top 3 after I powered through Kristoff’s LOTUS WAR trilogy, but still…

I think I’m in shock.

The “why-wasn’t-this-book-in-my-life-until-now?!?” kind of shock.

I’ll be honest: I’m both one of the best and worst audiences on the planet. If you hook me, you basically have me for life. I’ll want you to wring out my emotions, to shoot me out of an airlock into the cold, dark vacuum of space and squish my heart into pieces; or, you know, make me feel a bright and fluffy like a freshly-laundered teddy bear. Either way: I’m yours.

The flip side is that if you can’t hook me, or hook me and then fail to deliver on that hook, I’m probably going to be a very negative critic.

ILLUMINAE not only hooked me at the start with its rather unconventional but insanely clever top-secret dossier-style presentation — massive kudos to the internal art/design team at Random House Children’s because it really is stunning — but reeled me in with its weird and urgent, tension-ridden, and horrifically violent plot; before adding in the cherry on top of dynamic, complex, and realistic characters about whom I cared…deeply.

I could warn that this is not everyone’s book. As I said: it’s unconventional and it truly is horrific with its violence and gore. But the base ingredients for just about any addicting and memorable novel — emotions, internal conflict, urgency, tension, action, etc. — are all there in spades. Like I said: I love getting my emotions toyed with. This book did more than just toy with them. Reading “last emails” from people to their loved ones? Sobbing. Captains basically declaring war on each other over one’s actions? Hyperventilating. A dogfight in space between a vastly outnumbered force? Blood racing. Having to read the “After Incident” report? Cold dread and sweats.

Hooked. Completely. The plot is so intricate, woven so beautifully, that you can’t help but start swearing as you read. It’s going to elicit an emotional response from any reader.

Our driving protagonists — the two with whom we spend the most focus time — are Kady and Ezra. Frankly, they’re dynamite in every scene. They speak like real teenagers — I swear, I’ve heard every single dirty joke Ezra cracks from the lips of my own brothers — who are forced into more than one situation that on two ships floating thousands of kilometers apart in the vast emptiness of space. Their emotional connection is that: emotional. Unlike most YA pairings, these two characters aren’t together because of what ultimately boils down to physical (or sexual) attraction. Considering they’re apart the entirety of the novel, that would certainly make their relationship impossible to sustain. But these two have a history, one that ultimately needs to be sorted out. Whether or not they do is up to the reader to find out, but you can’t help but root for these two kids who have so much gumption, so much courage under fire. I loved them apart, but I also loved their chemistry and banter together. Trust me, they’re just one of many characters with whom you’ll fall in love.

I mean, heck, I even cared for AIDAN:, the completely insane computer — and I mean insane in an “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” kind of way. Yet somehow AIDAN becomes out philosophical epicentre of ILLUMINAE and steals almost every scene he is in. I’ve often found artificial intelligence, and its portrayal in science fiction as a kind of double-edged sword: you either go for it developing emotions or not. Consciousness is one thing, emotions are another. But they often go so hand-in-hand that they intertwine. Kristoff and Kauffman use AIDAN to ask some phenomenal questions, to make the reader think about life and the innumerable perspectives of it — and not just the individual, but of its relationship to the universe. Talk about feeling utterly insignificant.

Side note: I forever imagine Joaquin Phoenix voicing AIDAN because, “AM I NOT MERCIFUL?”

If you’ve read the book, that line should be making you weep right now.

I can only imagine both how fun and how difficult author collaborations must be. As a reader, I wonder what it is I’m going to be getting: will I be able to easily spot which author supplied with part or will the entire piece blend seamlessly? It’s the latter in this case, if you haven’t guessed. As a fan of both Amie Kauffman’s STARBOUND trilogy — which she also cowrites with another author, Megan Spooner — and Jay Kristoff’s LOTUS WAR trilogy, I read ILLUMINAE and could not tell you which author wrote which part. I didn’t know what hit me, because this novel is nothing like what either of these authors have written before.

Actually, this novel was truly unlike anything I’d ever read before; it was fresh and clever and downright spectacular. Sure, some of the elements are going to seem familiar, like a cobbling together of tons of different science fiction scenarios — but they shouldn’t work together, and certainly not this well. Somehow, Kristoff and Kauffman managed the impossible. They brought something so new that it’s left me completely amazed.

Long story short: this book is glorious.

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Review: A Crown for Cold Silver

A Crown for Cold Silver
A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**Thank you so much to Orbit Books via NetGalley for providing me a digital ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review**

I’d heard a lot of very different opinions of A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER before reading it. So while I didn’t go into it carte blanche, I didn’t exactly go into it with a clear vision either. Everything that I’d heard boiled down to the following statement: “You’re either going to love it, or you’re going to hate it.”
It’s a wonderful and rare opportunity when books this divisive appear on the market, especially in the fantasy genre.

And the verdict?

I liked it. I didn’t love it, but I certainly didn’t hate it.

A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER is a mercenary-fantasy novel that manages to not take itself too serious, despite its decidedly grim plot and world. So why did I find it so noticeably slow to slog through? I think the ultimate issue that there is a lot tackled in this novel — no, really, it’s a lot. Our mysterious pseudonymous author spares no detail about his/her rich world to the point that it becomes overwhelming. I would feel my brain start to slide away, at which point I had to force myself to focus back on the novel. Yes, this is a book that demands you pay attention; it demands you think.

The two major reasons for this are: 1) the phenomenal use of trope-inversion, and 2) a book/world that operates under a presumption of total gender equality. This is not something new to fiction (or fantasy) but I know I’ve never seen it so deliberately at the forefront of a novel — almost like A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER was a kind of literary experiment.

Trope-inversion is something I believe to have really started developing and maturing out of the back half of the 20th-century. I’ll spare everyone a mini-dissertation of my thoughts on that topic but note that trope-inversion is part of the core of one of the most famous fantasy stories around right now: A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. So, again, A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER attacks something that isn’t necessarily new, but definitely tries to make it very deliberate that it is doing so.

Unfortunately, for me, that’s part of the area of the novel I didn’t necessarily enjoy.

In way, I think that the author actually attempted to do too much and overloaded the book. I’m sure that’s rich coming from me — given my love of the indulgent, opulent, and over-the-top — but here’s the thing: if you do try to tackle almost everything at once, you’re running the risk of losing your readers via disconnection to the story. Yes, it’s awe-inspiring to see the sea of cultures, languages, beliefs, et al…
…but after a while it’s just too much.

I like difficult books, especially in fantasy. But I also don’t like them to feel excessively long. I don’t like for them to hit me over the head with their — for lack of a better term — “gimmick.”
Yes, A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER is something unique. But it’s trying so, so hard to be unique that it just comes off as rather in your face.

For that reason, I can’t praise this book as the next big step in fantasy; I can’t call it the “next great thing.” But I can say that it is a(n at times) fun novel with witty dialogue and a pretty kickass older female protagonist.

Would I read a sequel? The jury’s still out.

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Review: Lair of Dreams

Lair of Dreams
Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

**A massive thank you to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers via NetGalley for providing me a digital ARC of this novel**

I won’t bemoan the wait for this novel — though it has, indeed, be quite long — for one very simple reason: it was so, so worth it.

Pos-i-tute-ly worth it.

When I read THE DIVINERS in 2013, I noted that Ms. Bray has mastered the linguistic art of writing dialogue filled with historical vernacular while simultaneously keeping from feeling dated and stale. There’s something about her writing that immediately immerses the reader into the period — here, back to the world of 1920’s New York City — and, for lack of a better term, sparkles right off the page.

Yes, the dialogue — and the characters speaking it — are what drew me in, it was the creepy and at times downright terrifying mystery that kept me flipping pages…or, you know, fearing to flip them. Our episodic villain from DIVINERS, Naughty John, has been replaced with a different kind of antagonist here in LAIR OF DREAMS; and this one finds a way to destroy its victims with their own dreams.

Pause a moment: this scares me more than Naughty John.

I won’t deny that Naughty John was a chilling antagonist in THE DIVINERS. But someone who can destroy you inside what should be the safety of your own mind? Your own dreams? That, to me, is far more terrifying. It’s why NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is one of the few horror films that ever actually kept me up at night: someone taking you at your (literally) most vulnerable. The rest and respite of sleep suddenly turns on the sleeper and, so, you can imagine what happens when all of the Big Apple makes all efforts to avoid what they dub the “Sleeping Sickness.”

Tension. Lots and lots of tension. An exhausted mind is a more frayed mind…imagine a city entirely on edge.

Through it all, our characters fight to solve this small mystery while continuing to investigate the mystery of Project Buffalo. No spoilers but, yeah, that’s some of the best parts of the novel. That overarching plot goes further into whatever dark, twisted finale Ms. Bray has lined up for us — trust me when I say that I’m not so sure I sense a happy conclusion at the end of this tunnel.

Whatever the case, this isn’t just a great sophomore entry into a fantastic series, it’s just a damn good book. Chilling, glitzy, and, well, pretty divine.

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Review: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between
Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To quote this book: Sometimes the hardest thing are the ones most worth doing.

Jennifer Smith has a penchant for writing relationships that involve, as the title suggests ‘hellos’, ‘goodbyes’, and (more often than not) the distance between the two love interests. She clearly loves not only travel — and for her characters to do so — but in examining the trials and tribulations of long-distance relationships and the emotion havoc it can wreak.

This time we see a young couple about to take the long-distance plunge…or not. Actually, they’ve already decided to break up due to their respective universities existing (literally) on opposite ends of the country. But, as we all know, relationships and the emotional threads which encompass their gnarled web are difficult to simply snip. And so we follow our couple around on their final night together. It’s a ride, to say the least.

Those of us who have had the fortune — or misfortune, in some cases — to embark on the journey of a long-distance relationship, or a breakup because of distance, can understand how Clare and Aidan feel. And we can, too, understand why their final night is so full of highs and lows. And, as the metaphorical trump, we can all connect with how hard the shifting of high school to college is for these two characters — the struggle in determining what “really matters” to them as individuals.

It’s sweet and wonderful and sure to make you smile.

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