Sunday 30 December 2018

Six Best Reads of 2018

The more things that you read, the more things you will know. The more things you know, the more places you’ll go.
-        - Dr Seuss

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I was an absolute shocker for maintaining my blog this year but I did manage to keep one of my 2018 resolutions – Goodreads tells me I read 22 of my pledged 16 books. My reading choices fell into three categories: non-fiction fandom research for my study, indie paranormal, and my usual mix of young-adult fantasy and actiony science fiction. I finally got around to some modern classic authors of these genres who I’d never read before, like Isobelle Carmody, Matthew Reilly and Holly Black; I read some debuts, like Stephanie Garber’s Caraval and Scott Baker’s Rule of Knowledge; and found a few authors I’d never heard of before this year. But six books stood out as the most memorable reads of the year. 


Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine 

Book one of a five-part series. This sat on my shelf for well over a year, and whenever I looked at its spine amidst the other pretties, I honestly could not remember why I bought it. When my book jar decreed I would be reading this book next, I read the blurb and it all came back: my trusty bookstore insider prompting me to add this to my purchase. I'm glad I listened!

Ink and Bone is an original and engaging YA steampunk/fantasy read following Jess, a book smuggler's son, in an alternate timeline in which the Great Library of Alexandria was never burnt down. Progress and innovation have taken very different paths with the cache of knowledge kept alive inside that Library, but the most fundamental difference is the control of words and power – the printing press was never allowed off the ground, for fears of its ability to spread misinformation and remove control of knowledge from the Library. Original handwritten books belong to the Library where they are safe, and those caught running them or hoarding them do so at the risk of death. I really loved the originality of this concept, and the character diversity was endearing, too.

Probably the most beautiful element of this book is the book love. The world Jess inhabits is flawed and dangerous but it is a world built on a worship of the written word. Penmanship, pages, binding, knowledge, memoirs, journaling, vocabulary, ink... it's all aptly revered throughout this book, and I think any bibliophile will feel the love. Highly recommended for bookish YA readers, particularly fantasy lovers.


Valentine, by Jodi McAlister 

Okay, so I read this in a day. IT WAS AWESOME! I received this as part of my subscription to the Never Never Book Box, an Aussie spec-fic bi-monthly book-and-loot box. A modern Australian fairytale set in small-town New South Wales populated with wholesome, believable and relatable young characters swept up in a gritty, sometimes gruesome fairy mystery, this now has two sequels, both of which are on my 2019 TBR list. 

The premise: Pearl, Finn, Cardy and Marie were all coincidentally born on the same day in the same small town. Pearl and Marie are friends, Pearl has a crush on Cardy, but Pearl HATES Finn, class clown and nemesis. She can't stand him. Or is completely hot for him. Either way, she thinks about him all the time. Very YA, but that's okay, because it's a YA book about Year 11 students, and... I remember it being like that. 

I found this book refreshing. Teen characters pointing out "But I'm seventeen. What do I know about XYZ?" and having to ask their guardians for permission to do things like actual kids, and getting online to research their supernatural problems only to come up with 8 billion unhelpful search results, were like little winks from the author, poking holes in usual Young Adult tropes. I think this is a great YA read for lovers of paranormal/fairy romance, but especially for Australian readers who otherwise might believe, as other such books would have you believe, magic only happens in nondescript small-town America or England. 


Geekerella, by Ashley Poston 

I loved this book! I bought it without knowing much about it - someone had recommended Poston's newer title 'Heart of Iron' to me and said it was a favourite, and in the wait for its release I grabbed this to confirm that I liked Poston's writing style. I really, really did. I enjoyed myself thoroughly from chapter one to the very end, sitting up in bed til pumpkin hour some nights unable to put it down.  

Elle Wittimer is a closet fangirl living with her evil stepmother and stepsisters, trapped between her grim downtrodden reality and the fantasy world of her beloved cult television show Starfield, which she used to watch with her late Big Name Fan dad and which is about to rebooted as a blockbuster movie. When she discovers the classic, brave hero Prince Carmindor (her all-time favourite character) is being portrayed by teen heartthrob soapie actor Darien Freeman, better known for his abs and great smile than his understanding of this deeply reverent fandom, Elle is disgusted, and uses her blog to pour out her frustrations with the poor casting choice. Darien, we discover through alternating POV chapters, is a closet nerd himself, trapped between his overbearing father/manager's plans for his career and his desire to be taken seriously as the Starfield fan he is. Like Elle he is virtually friendless, and rendered almost helpless in directing his own life.

The nerdiness of this book had me completely charmed the whole way through. As a genre fan, I felt while reading like this book was written for me, and knowing it wasn't, yet also in some way was, written for fans all over who feel about their fandom and their shows and their fictional loves the same way I do, reinforces what Poston was saying all throughout the book about the power of fandom: the magic of not being alone, and of finding like minds to connect with over impossible distances to form real friendships and communities. I recommend this light, sweet fairytale retelling to geek-girl YA readers and lovers of fandom.


Wintersong, by S. Jae-Jones

Charming, sensual, bittersweet and with beautifully written prose, I wanted this book from the outset because of the cover. The Bavarian setting and Victorian (?) time period gave this story a plush, shadowy sort of beauty, nestling the story and the characters into this gothy, gloomy imagery of true winter. From these shadows, it's all too believable that Liesl's childhood fairytales might creep to life. And they do. 

There was a lot wrong with this book - I will be upfront. There's a Labyrinth film retelling feel for the first half. But wonky pacing, uncertain character motives and the murky Stockholm Syndrome romance aren't elements I reflected on much during my first speedy read. The actual writing is gorgeous. Every sentence is artfully constructed, poetry in its pages. Mostly, I *loved* the visual way this book approached music and composition. I felt like I could see and feel the music Liesl made in the way the author wove the shape and emotion of music into the narrative. Liesl is made of music - she thinks in musical terms, and itches to compose, and she sees it in everything and everyone. I liked her plenty as a lead character for her practicality and determination, but the music made her real, and gave perspective to all she did and achieved. 

Intended as a standalone, there is now a sequel, but it's got nothing on this beautiful debut.  


The Winner's Curse, by Marie Rutkoski 

Like The Winner's Curse, there also exists an Impulse Cover Buyer's Curse, in which a person silly enough to purchase a book purely for its gorgeous cover is betrayed and subjected to an awful read as punishment for their foolishness. This, I am delighted and relieved and pleasantly surprised to be able to tell you, was not one of those times! 

Book one in a trilogy of YA fantasy romance set in a refreshing other world. Kestrel is the daughter of a general famed for his takeover of the city in which they reside over a population of slaves. She's not the best at anything, but struggles against her father's rule that she will either marry or join the army when she hits adulthood, as both options stop her from doing what she really wants: to become a military strategist. Accidentally, as these things go, she buys a slave and has to take responsibility for him, and over the course of the book they gain insight into each other's lives. Kestrel comes to realise that her whole life of luxury is built on the shattered remnants of Arin's people's peaceful way of life here before her father's army tore it all down; rebel leader Arin learns that even among the oppressive there are innocents, descendants of war who have never known any different but maybe can be shown another way. 

The ethical, racial and historical issues this book dealt with made it a winner for me, delving deep into the grit of the world in which the story was set. I normally don't do romance because it's rarely compelling enough for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book - Kestrel, Arin, their chemistry, their motives, their world, all of it - and I will definitely be seeking out the sequels.

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff 

I am SO GLAD I finally read this. There are now two sequels I am yet to obtain, but I'm of the understanding they follow different characters. 

For those who like something unique in their YA science fiction, this book is for you. The Illuminae Files is a dossier-style collection of documents surrounding the story of Ezra and Kady, refugees of a space attack on their home mining planet. Months after their escape, this file has been put together from interview transcripts, transcribed video surveillance, news articles, email communications, political propaganda, AI updates and mission reports, and it's a damn fun read. Swears in personal exchanges and 'sensitive information' in military documents are blacked out. The AI thinks in swirls, shapes and exotic fonts. There are space battles! It's a huge book but with heaps of white space, so I flew through it. 

To top it off, Kaufman and Kristoff are Australians, and I'm so pleased that they pulled off this ambitious and clever book to add to the growing collection of Australian science fiction. Highly recommended read.