Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Favorite Books of 2016

As of December 30, I've completed 177 books in 2016. Most of those were comic books and graphic novels, but I did read a full 58 novels and listened to 23 audiobooks. As always, I like to share my favorite reads from the year. Out of fairness, I'm only going to mention books that were published in 2016, otherwise my favorites list would probably be three times as long. (In addition, the book titles link to my reviews on Goodreads or on The Dancing Lawn.) There are in order of how I read them, not how I rate them.

Three Wishes by Lisa T. Bergren
I had the privilege of beta-reading Three Wishes for one of my favorite authors. Three Wishes is a new River of Time book set in a new time period and in a new location: California during the 1840s. I love historical (or time-travel) stories, so I was swept away by Three Wishes. Zara is a fantastic character. It's not my favorite book, but it was wonderful to read.

Stars Above by Marissa Meyer
Stars Above holds a special place in my bookish heart for two reasons. The first is that it brings more stories about my favorite characters from The Lunar Chronicles (so I didn't have to say goodbye so soon) and also gave a nice, happy, feels-worthy epilogue to the series. In addition, I bought this book when I went to meet Marissa Meyer, so of course it's special and magical (and signed).

Siren's Song by Mary Weber
There aren't a lot of books that can make me sob. Yes, there are a few, but mostly because tragic things occurred in the stories. (Bridge to Terabithia, anyone? Where the Red Fern Grows?) Mary Weber's Storm Siren trilogy swept me away two whole years ago with the first book. Thus, I was eager to read the final book, and it made me cry--but they were happy, glorious tears. The ending was so worth the wait, and I adore this series for everything it is. Give me more!

Season of Glory by Lisa T. Bergren
Season of Glory wrapped up the Remnants trilogy by Lisa T. Bergren. It was a heart-pounding, nail-biting book that left me satisfied and content. Until I finished the book, I didn't realize how much I adored the characters and the story. Season of Glory contains a powerful message and a lot of hope that I am grateful to have experienced.

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan
Ever since I read Percy Jackson and the Olympians, I've been dragging my feet to say goodbye to the beloved characters and world of the series. I was granted a second series, The Heroes of Olympus, and thought it couldn't get better. But now, Trials of Apollo has come, and I get to experience the Percy Jackson world once more. Yes, Percy isn't around that often in this book. But other characters come and go, the concept of Greek and Roman gods grows larger, and Apollo is hilarious as a human. How can I not love this book?

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
An Ember in the Ashes ruined me. Ruined. Me. And I thought I could handle A Torch Against the Night. I was wrong. This book ruined me just as much if not more. It continues the story of Elias, Laia, and Helene in this cruel world, but it opens up a lot more than the previous book. It was a bit unexpected, which was off-putting at first, but by the end, I was sobbing and absolutely ruined. I can't wait until 2018 for the next book!

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Like Stars Above, Crooked Kingdom has a special place in my 2016 list for two reasons. It finished the Six of Crows duology, bringing me back to my favorite characters and amazing world-building and just a fantastic story. But I also had the privilege of meeting Leigh Bardugo during her tour for this book. It was amazing; she's amazing. And Crooked Kingdom exceeded all my expectations and swept me away. Plus, waffles.

The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan
This book was great. No, fantastic. No, magical. It had the Rick Riordan charm and humor while educating me about Norse mythology. It was so fun! Everything about it is just wonderful. But that ending, THAT ENDING, was too much. I can't wait for the next book, and I'm not crying (okay, I'm definitely crying) and it's just going to be great. Thank you, Uncle Rick. Thank you.

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet
This was my unexpected favorite of 2016. I didn't even know it existed until my mom brought it home, and I didn't know I would care so much until I had finished it (in two sittings). It's a biography about E.B. White, but it's formatted like a crazy art journal/scrapbook with beautifully designed pages, cute notes from White himself, and many pictures of his life. I was swept away by the design and by the firm message about writing throughout the book. This book surprised me, and I think that's magical.

Heartless by Marissa Meyer
You aren't going to believe me when I say I met Marissa Meyer twice in one year, are you? But it's true! I did. I had a chance to hear her speak and meet her for her Heartless tour, and both the meeting and the book were enchanting. This book was hard to read because it's about the Queen of Hearts from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--so obviously it won't end well. But boy, did it end! The story was great, the characters were swoon-worthy, and the ending was perfect. It's not my favorite book of hers, but it adds to her collection of masterpieces.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
Okay, so this series. Is. Amazing. I adore all the characters. I adore the world-building. I adore the plot. While the first one kind of left me a little bitter and disappointed (so much potential that just ended!), this one amplified the entire story. It was fun and exciting and clever. I loved meeting new characters and being reunited with the old. I loved the twists and turns and the suspense. And I loved the magic and the Elemental Games. And oh my gosh, I'm ruined. Again. And I need A Conjuring of Light right now. Give it to me!!!

Lumberjanes by Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, and Allen
There are several volumes of Lumberjanes that came out in previous years, but volume three came out this year, so I'm counting it. I love the Lumberjanes series. It's fun, adventurous, and magical. The characters are lovely and diverse. The adventures are hilarious and so freaking ridiculous I can't help but love it all. Basically: it's the best.

Gotham Academy by Cloonan, Fletcher, and Kerschl
The first volume of Gotham Academy left me feeling a bit confused and a little unsure, but volume two made me fall in love with the series and the characters. The story arc and the characters are becoming more and more interesting as the comic progresses, and I just love the little details and the dialogue. It's awesome.

Spider-Gwen by Latour, Rodriguez, and Visions
Spider-Gwen has quickly become a favorite comic book of mine. I love the concept of Gwen with Spider-man's powers. She's funny and relateable. I adore everything about these comics--crazy Matt Murdock, father-daughter relationship, the spider-verse, and more. Honestly, I wish they could just make Spider-Gwen into a movie or TV show and skip rebooting Peter Parker again. *sigh*

Ms. Marvel by Wilson, Miyazawa, Alphona, and Leon
I will never be tired of Ms. Marvel or Kamala Khan. She's great, and the latest volume in her series proves that. I enjoyed every moment of Kamala trying to juggle her life as she officially became an Avenger! She is a true gem to the comic book world.

Groot by Loveness and Kesinger
If I had to pick one comic book that I enjoyed the most this year, I would pick Groot. It was unexpected and magical and just amazing. There were jokes and outer space and friendship. And despite the main character only saying one thing over and over again, this comic book said a lot. I loved it.

Other bookish accomplishments
I completed 177 books.
I met two authors.
I read through the entirety of Les Miserables.
I read several Star Wars books (and they were all terrible).
I started listening to audiobooks and changed my life.
I re-read/listened to the entire A Series of Unfortunate Events.
I finished Library Wars manga series (and cried a lot). 
I hit the 100 mark for books I've reviewed on my blog.
I started reading the Sherlock Holmes books/stories/collection.

You can see my entire year in books from 2016 over on Goodreads

What are your favorite 2016 books?

Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

As you may know, I like to write fantasy. Every time I try to write a contemporary story or that science-fiction novel dancing in my head, it doesn't happen. I always default to fantasy. Some people might say that's a bad thing and I should widen my horizon, but honestly, fantasy is my favorite and I'm sticking to it. Thus, I also love to read fantasy. The worlds, the characters, the magic--it's all fantastic. And recently, I've been introduced to fantasy that goes beyond the same-old story, the same-old world-building of medieval Europe setting, and the same-old magic systems.

Leigh Bardugo, a YA high fantasy author, knows how to do fantasy, and I love it. Her first series, The Grisha trilogy, swept me away. I loved the world, most of the characters, and the entire magic system. I was eager for more, so I was stoked to hear she was writing a second series (a fabulous duology) set in the same world but with different characters. I needed it immediately.

Fast forward to this year, and the second book was released. If I had to choose one book to my favorite 2016 release, I would choose Crooked Kingdom (though it would be hard, so many books). I loved the Six of Crows duology even more than The Grisha trilogy.

What was it about Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom that not only gave me a grand adventure to enjoy with fantastic characters but has inspired my own writing to reach beyond the same-old fantasy? Let me tell you.

1. The characters

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom follows six unlikely heroes--actually they're thieves, assassins, and criminals--as they take on an impossible heist to not only become rich but possibly save lives. As I read Six of Crows, I couldn't find a favorite character. All six of the characters were wonderful. They had rich backstories, striking personalities, and swoon-worthy abilities. Every time I thought "This is it, this is the one I will love the most," I found myself enjoying another character just as much. I don't know if I've ever experienced a series where I loved each character equally and couldn't choose a favorite. I cared for all of them, and I wanted all of them to succeed.

2. Backstory
Speaking of characters and backstory, the way Leigh Bardugo wove the plot with the characters' backstories was truly magical. It never felt dull or awkward to be thrust suddenly into a flashback or a glimpse of something from their past. It all came together, perfectly crafted. I'm still amazed at how well she did that.

3. World-building

The Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows duology are set in a fictional world based on Russia instead of Western Europe. And I loved that it was different. The world-building is phenomenal. There is a lot of diversity and detail to every place the characters go and every country involved in the story. The Grisha trilogy had fantastic world-building as well, but I feel that Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom was a step up. It's almost as if you can tell that Leigh Bardugo has grown in her story-telling craft.

4. Diversity
Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom is chock-full of diversity across the board. But it's never done in a trite or stereotypical way. Yes, race and beliefs come into play, but it's not the focus or a plot device. It's just part of who the characters are and what this world is made of. And it's fabulous. I'm tired of diverse themes being thrown into the story to create conflict or raise the stakes; I just want characters to be diverse because that is how the world truly is. Leigh Bardugo pulls that off splendidly.

5. Plot

The plot of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom is wild. Leigh Bardugo basically described it as "Ocean's Eleven with magic," but I think it's better than that. It's a heist story filled with the bottom-of-the-barrel (pun definitely intended) characters that suddenly becomes so much more. While The Grisha trilogy was about saving the world, this is toned down a bit--sort of. It's not so big picture, but it's about saving your own skin and maybe your city from internal destruction. And I just love that. So many stories are about saving the world or the galaxy or whatever, but sometimes, I want a story that isn't so cataclysmic. And the Six of Crows duology is that. Yes, the stakes are raised. Yes, they still have to save a large population. But it just comes across different, I guess. Plus, every element of the plot is woven together in a fantastic way that kept me guessing and kept me interested. It was amazing. I admire Leigh Bardugo's writing so much.

6. Waffles
Okay, so this isn't a serious point, obviously, but I loved it nonetheless. In Crooked Kingdom, there are several (almost a dozen) instances where the characters mention waffles or are eating waffles. And it was hilarious. Despite the more-serious tone of the books or the darker themes, there was still room for humor and fun and just good-old bonding over waffles. It made me realize that I can write stories that are serious, that point to real-life situations and problems, but that also have a ray of hope and light amidst the darkness. Whether that hope is through humorous waffle scenes or characters that care for one another, I want to write stories that resound with the same feelings Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom evoked within me.

As always, I'm sure there can be flaws nitpicked from these books. Nothing is ever perfect. But nevertheless, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom stole a piece of my book-loving heart and gave me a grand adventure that I was able to enjoy and also learn from. That, in my opinion, makes for a wonderful story. I look forward to more by Leigh Bardugo.

No mourners. No funerals.

Why yes, I did meet Leigh Bardugo. You can read about it on The Fangirl Initiative.

What books have inspired you to make your writing better? 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review: Red Death by Jeff Altabef

Welcome to a Novel Publicity Tour! Today, I'm helping Jeff Altabef launch his new book Red Death!

Novel Publicity has been with Jeff from the start, and they love helping him launch his latest titles. He and his daughter just finished launching the last of The Chosen series, Scorched Souls, and now it's time for something new!

To celebrate, there are prizes, an exclusive interview, an excerpt, and more! Check it all out below.

About Red Death
What happens when everything you believed turns out to be a lie?

Every child of Eden fears the Red Death. All those afflicted with the plague die young, their souls stripped away as punishment for ancient sins long forgotten. For centuries, Guardians have protected Eden from the Red Death by killing outsiders who stray too close.

Seventeen-year-old Aaliss is a highly-trained Guardian, but when her rather odd thirteen-year-old brother, Wilky, discovers a cure to the plague, her world turns upside down. Branded as traitors by the corrupt High Priest, Aaliss and Wilky are forced to seek refuge in the last place Aaliss thought she'd ever go—beyond the boundaries of Eden and into the land of the Soulless. Here they must navigate a medieval world filled with witches, magic, and warrior kingdoms run by Elders only a few years older than her.

Aaliss yearns to return home, but when her heart tugs her deeper into the world of the Soulless, she questions everything she once believed. Has her soul been taken? Will she and Wilky fall victim to the Red Death, or might they die sooner in the center of a battle that threatens to tear apart the Soulless world? Or... might Aaliss finally find, against all odds, what her heart has yearned for all along?

About the Author
Jeff Altabef is an award-winning author who lives in New York with his wife, two daughters, and Charlie the dog. He spends time volunteering at the writing center in the local community college. After years of being accused of “telling stories,” he thought he would make it official. He writes in both the thriller and young adult genres.

In the young adult genre, Jeff co-authored The Chosen Trilogy with his teenage daughter, Erynn. The Chosen Series has won multiple awards including the 2015 Readers' Favorite Gold Medal for Best Coming of Age Novel, the 2015 Beverly Hills Book Award for Best YA Fiction, and a Mom's Choice Award. 

As an avid Knicks fan, Jeff is prone to long periods of melancholy during hoops season. Jeff has a column on The Examiner focused on writing and a blog designed to encourage writing by those who like telling stories.

You can connect with Jeff on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

My Review
For me, Red Death is a mixed bag. There wasn't anything significantly wrong with it, but it didn't hold my attention like I wanted. As I read, I enjoyed most of the story, but there was a lot packed into such a short span of pages and I wasn't left satisfied.

First, there are a lot of characters. Too many characters. I couldn't keep everybody straight. Chapters flip back and forth between all of the different point of views, even unimportant, minor-minor characters. It was messy and confusing. Some of it was unnecessary. I also had a hard time connecting to any of the characters. There were moments when the characters did great things or possessed great qualities, but it never felt consistent.

Second, the plot is complicated. Like I said earlier, there is a lot packed into this novel. It's complex with a lot of ideas woven together and interconnected, which is great. But the execution of the ideas fell flat. I couldn't keep all the different tribes and groups straight. There was a lot of moving from one place to another, trying to weave these characters' lives together, and it was hard to enjoy.

Third, the world-building was mediocre. I could see the potential of this world and the setting and the intricacies of the people and places, but it didn't pan out. I didn't care about the main characters' quest when I couldn't focus on where I was or what this world meant. It was hard to tell if this was supposed to be a future earth stuck in a dystopian-esque world or if it's a fictional world with a dystopian society. It felt as if it was trying to be both at the same time. I wish the author would have slowed down to let the world (and plot) flourish. I wanted to know more about the firefoxes or the weird killer ant things. I wanted to know more about the tribes and their practices, about Eden and the leaders and how it all came to be. (Also, what was with the ostrich suits? That's a super weird option for material and where do they even get the ostriches? Yeah, this detail isn't pivotal for the story, but it makes me wonder and I want to know the answer.)

However, Red Death did do some things right also. For one, it wasn't your typical dystopian story. It didn't have the same exact plot as every YA dystopian since The Hunger Games. It was different, unique, intriguing. It also created this entire new world that has a lot of potential for future books. Maybe in this one it didn't explore as deeply as I would have liked, but that doesn't mean it can't later. There is definitely more to this story. And finally, it kept me guessing. Some things may have been predictable or cliche, but there was a lot that happened that I wasn't expecting. There were moments I though "That won't happen." or "He'll be okay." But I was wrong. The author was willing to take risks and shake the story up to keep the readers guessing. I admire that.

Overall, Red Death wasn't the book for me. But that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed. If you're looking for a quick, simple, and clean read with a interwoven plot and a different kind of dystopian world, give Red Death a chance. You might be surprised by how it all turns out.

Exclusive Interview
Novel Publicity asked author Jeff Altabef three questions that you won’t see anywhere else besides this tour. Read below!

NP: Thanks for offering some extra questions for our bloggers Jeff! First, what’s your favorite meal and drink?

JA: Coffee and chocolate! I'm not sure what that says about me. My favorite time to write is in the morning so coffee is a no-brainer. My mind can't start to function without my first cup of Joe. I also like to write in coffeehouses from time to time when I need a little more energy and can feed off of those around me. So when in Rome!

I have a pumpkin stuffed with tootsie rolls on my desk. It's a terrible habit that I quit from time to time, but it keeps coming back.  I just grabbed another one!  I'd like to say my favorite writing food is something healthy like kale, but I won't lie, and I hate kale!

NP: Some of our staff have a love hate relationship with chocolate and coffee too! I bet that’s pretty common with our bloggers too. Now, the next question is tough, but do your best! Who was your favorite character to write in Red Death?

JA: This is such a hard question to answer. I really feel such a close connection to all of these characters, that choosing one is a bit of a "Sophie's Choice." I loved to write Piers. I thought he was such a deep character and certainly Aaliss was a lot of fun. She's a really strong character that most people love. The Viper and the High Priest were also a lot of fun. I always love dwelling on the nasty characters, but my favorite character to write was probably Wilky. I did a bunch of research before starting to make sure I captured someone with his condition just right. In many ways, he's the real hero of the series. Now I feel bad that I didn't mention Eamon or P'mina. Argh!

NP For such a tough question you did a really good job of explaining why so many characters in Red Death are loveable. Last but not least, and it may be another head-banger...who are your favorite authors?

JA: This is a tough question too! I love a wide variety of genres. Really everything from thrillers (Dean Koontz), to historical fiction (Bernard Cornwell), to mysteries (Jonathan Kellerman) and even horror  (Steven King). In the young adult genre I really like the characters Sarah J. Maas writes in the Glass Throne series. They come across as strong and memorable. I absolutely loved the End of Days series by Susan Ee. Her dystopian world and the use of angels was totally brilliant. I love the first person voice Joelle Charbonneau writes in the Testing Trilogy. She was a huge help when writing the Chosen Trilogy. Still, if I had one writing wish and could write like anyone, I'd choose Christopher Moore. He makes writing funny characters and situations seem effortless. I love his books!

Wow, those are some really interesting authors, and definitely diverse. I bet you’ve introduced our readers to some great new authors! Thanks again for doing our interview Jeff!

You can sign up to Jeff Altabef’s newsletter and get a FREE short story.

Excerpt from Red Death

Chapter 5 – Eamon
Eamon studied the faces around the campfire, worry etched on his own as he wondered whether this would be the last time they would all gather together. He sat between his two older brothers, King Dermot and Prince Fintan. Dermot had lived six winters more than Eamon had, and Fintan one, yet he was the planner and worrier. Often he wished he could be more like them, but he never stopped fretting about tomorrow, the next season, the next winter. All the council members, twelve in total, joined them this night, forming a loose circle around a campfire that had started to lose its intensity. They met in the Courtyard, in the middle of the Stronghold, a small city protected by a sturdy stone wall. The Stronghold stood in the center of Dermot’s kingdom between the Outpost to the north and the Settlement to the south.

When Eamon realized everyone had stopped talking and were looking at him, he remembered what they had been discussing. “We’ll have to slaughter more cattle this year. The tribe’s grown since last winter.” The answer was obvious to him.

“The herd’s also added numbers this year, my Lord,” added Keenan, the Cattle Master. Built broad and strong like a steer, he had been Cattle Master for three years, and Dermot trusted him. “I reckon we could cull the herd by another twenty over last year and still maintain the size.”

All eyes turned toward Dermot. His reign had already lasted six years, almost an eternity. The Sword of Power lay across his lap, a long sword so heavy that it required two hands to wield it in battle. Its blade gleamed in the firelight, and the many rubies in the gold and silver hilt sparkled brilliantly. An inscription, written in a language no one understood, ran down both sides of the blade and glimmered in the firelight. The smithies could no longer make a weapon like the Sword of Power. That knowledge had been lost. They made other swords, fine ones, victorious ones, but none so grand. Only the King could wield the Sword of Power, the tribe’s finest.

Giveaway and More
Check out these great prizes from author Jeff Altabef, including a six month Kindle Unlimited Subscription! Did you know we offer exclusive reviewer prizes for tours just like this one? Want in on it? Sign up to Novel Publicity's Newsletter for more great review opportunities!

Advanced Praise for Red Death
Not sure if Red Death is for you? Take a look at this advanced praise from MidWest Book Reviews and The US Review.

“Red Death will appeal to a wide audience since it has something for everyone. It's action-packed, with plenty of chases and fights for those who enjoy adventures and drama. There are enough twists to surprise those who are intrigued by political intrigue, suspense, and cliffhangers. Amid kingdoms to unite, princes to save, and lives on the line, there is also a playful romance sprinkled throughout for those who desire some lightheartedness.” Maria A. Hughes, The US Review

"...[A] thought-provoking saga about belief systems and religion, courage, adaptability, greed and goals of ruling humanity, and a seemingly juggernaut of change that rolls over everyone in its path....[P]erfect for readers who appreciate the complex worlds and feisty protagonists of The Hunger Games and similar novels."  Pick of the Month for November, Midwest Book Review

You can add Red Death to Goodreads and buy a copy on Amazon.

~I was given a free copy of Red Death through Novel Publicity in exchange for an honest review.~

Friday, December 9, 2016

Comic Book Conglomeration #7

After Nanowrimo ended and I finally finished reading a book I've been waiting ages for (Okay, it was only a year), I checked out about four comic books from the library. And then a few more. I haven't read through the entire stack, but I've finished a couple. Here's what I thought.

Lumberjanes Vol.3: A Terrible Plan by Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters

Have I told you how much I love the Lumberjanes series? There are so many reasons this series rocks, and I've only just begun. The characters, the adventure, the magic, the intrigue--I love it all. It's so fun! And hilarious. And ridiculous.

(I mean, there are dinosaurs and a shape-shifting bear lady and oh my goodness, real and genuine female friendship. *gasp*)

The adventures are exciting, the characters are lovable, and the concept is endearing. Please, just go read these graphic novels.

Attack on Titan: Before the Fall Vol. 8 by Hajime Isayama

My biggest problem with manga is that it takes forever for the serialized volumes to be released in America. Thus if I'm actually caught up with a series (at least caught up in the sense of legal publications), I wait a long time to read the next chapters and I forget anything important that happened. With Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, I forgot so much what happened I started reading volume 6 and then 7 before I realized I had already read them.

This manga isn't bad, but it's not good. I like the characters and watching bits of Attack on Titan lore unfold, but I can't keep track of what is happening and what people are doing. I probably should just wait until the entire series is finished (When?!) and read them all at once like I did with Fullmetal Alchemist last year (*sniffles*). But until then, I will probably continue to read, hope I remember what happens, and just fawn over Kuklo's face. He's glorious.

Young Avengers Vol. 1: Style > Substance by Kieron Gillen

I think this comic was recommended to me by a friend (or the back of another comic book)It's been a while since I added it to my "to-read" list, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I read it. I know I've read at least one Young Avengers comic previously, probably for Civil War, but I can't recall exactly which of the heroes were there and which weren't. (Some of them were familiar). By the end of the volume though, I was pretty excited.

First off, the Young Avengers are a ragtag group of kids trying to save the world. That's one of my favorite kinds of groups. Second, there is a lot of diversity and history with these characters that flesh out the story and give the plot interesting twists. I enjoyed watching it all unfold, even though it was kind of bizarre. Plus, you've got Kate Bishop. Kate Bishop is the best. You can't go wrong with her. And you get Baby!Loki (Okay, he's Teenager!Loki) from the Agent of Asgard comics. I love him. He's great. His jokes and internal dialogue and everything is great. And there's Billy... mhmm... Billy.

Anyways, it was a fun comic, and I already have volume two in my stack to read. I'm excited to dive deeper into the Young Avengers story arc. And can I please order a Netflix show while I'm at it? Please?

What comics have you read recently?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review: The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

I'm not a contemporary YA reader, especially if that story is romance-centered. I prefer my dragons and magic and all sorts of weird things. But every once and a while I do read a contemporary YA book, and even rarer, I find one that is not only great but important to read. Such is the case with Nicola Yoon's The Sun Is Also a Star.

The book follows two teens who lead different lives that encounter each other and are changed forever by that moment. Natasha is an illegal immigrant about to be deported to Jamaica. Daniel is a Korean American trying to please his parents' high expectations. One believes in science, while the other is swept up in dreaming. When they collide, everything shifts.

The premise of the story sounds a bit fluffy. Two strangers happen to meet and fall in love in a single day. It's the classic case of "boy meets girl," "insta-love," and "love at first sight." Sort of. You see, deep inside of this "fluff" book, there are hidden truths about our world. It dives into the lives of two people of color in America--one Jamaican, one Korean American. It shows the intricate details of their lives, including obstacles but also the good memories. It helped me understand their struggles, their lives, and their hopes and dreams. It's something vital for not only our world, but our country.

The plot is what helps move these characters together. It was adorable and interesting. Most of the story is told through first person perspective of Natasha and Daniel. But we also get other third person snippets, random people who are involved in their day and help move their lives together, such as a security guard, an attorney, the driver of a car that almost hits Natasha, and Natasha's father. I love how the book is set up, how it all takes place in a single day, and how magical it feels. While it seems like a fluffy concept, there are deep truths and science at the heart of the book as well.

As I said, I don't know normally read or enjoy contemporary YA or contemporary romance, but I am highly recommending this book to all. If you're an advocate for diverse books, read this book. If you want to gain a new perspective on immigration and people of color in America, read this book. If you just want a cute, fluffy story about love, read this book. If you believe in love at first sight or that a single moment can change your life, read this book. Ignore the fluff and read this book!

It is absolutely stunning, and something I think our world needs more of. As a warning, there are some mature themes within the story, such as harsh language and a few heavy kissing scenes. I would recommend anyone fifteen and older to read this book--no matter what you normally enjoy reading.

Plus, that cover is just gorgeous.

What makes you read a book outside of your preferred genre? Are there other YA contemporaries I should give a chance?

I chose to check this book out from my local library and review it of my own free will. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Comic Book Conglomeration #6

Sometimes in the midst of Nanowrimo and other November events, it's nice to take a moment to read a comic book and relax my mind. Here are three graphic novels I've read recently.

Runaways, Vol. 1: Pride and Joy by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

Last spring, I read a comic about the Runaways--a ragtag group of kids with superpowers and a velociraptor. It was fun, but I realized that comic wasn't the first so I was a little confused on all the characters. So I decided to read Vol. 1 to figure everything out.

The story line itself wasn't what I was expecting, though I didn't really know what to expect since I hadn't read much about them. Still, it was fun. It was definitely an adventure, and every single one of the kids was an absolute joy to meet. The six kids accidentally discover their parents committing murder and determine their parents are supervillains! This starts them off on a runaway expedition to uncover the truth, which leads to a pet Raptor, "tinkerbell" powers, and a whole lot of hilarious jokes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of this superhero group. I loved the sly references to DC Comics, like Batman and Kryptonite. (Smooth, Marvel, smooth.) It was entertaining, and I will definitely read more. If you like an adventure story with jokes, craziness, and a group of teens ready to save the world, pick up this comic. You won't be disappointed.

Attack on Titan: Lost Girls, Vol. 1 by Hajime Isayama

Lost Girls Vol. 1 follows Annie Leonhart (from Attack on Titan) in the days leading up to the 57th Expedition Outside the Walls (highlight for AoT spoiler: when she turns into the female titan to try to seize Eren). Overall, I thought this manga was okay. It wasn't necessarily great, but it was interesting. I was hoping that the entire series was going to be about Annie and her backstory, but it's not. Instead, each volume will highlight a different female character from Attack on Titan.

That being said, the manga itself wasn't bad; it just wasn't what I was expecting or wanted. Annie is still pretty cool. She kicks butt, and we get to see inside her head for a while (even getting glimpses of her childhood and training). This manga revealed a side of Annie we don't see in the main manga.

I think if you're a fan of Attack on Titan, you would enjoy reading this and seeing an expansion of the world you already know. I love the idea of a manga that highlights the female characters, so I'm definitely going to read the next one (which is about Mikasa!!!). I just wish there was more on Annie here. Perhaps they will return to her later in the series.

Manga Classics: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Stacy King, and Poe Tse

It's difficult to rate a manga that is an adaptation of a story I already know. Mainly because the story line is exactly like the original book. I adore Jane Austen's novels, however, so I was interested to read the manga adaptation. While it follows the same story line as the original novel, the artwork was absolutely gorgeous.

Sense and Sensibility isn't my favorite Austen novel, but I think this manga adaptation did a fantastic job bringing the story to life with a new artistic approach. It has the spirit of the original novel but includes breathtaking panels and spread. (I appreciate how the two sisters were designed.)

If you like Sense and Sensibility or you're looking to read it but aren't a fan of classic novels, I would encourage you to read this adaptation. It's thicker than most manga, but it's still an easy, fast read. I would honestly read any classics these artists would adapt into manga. Where are my Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Frankenstein manga?

What comics have you read lately? What's your favorite adaptation of a classic novel?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Beautiful Books: November 2016

November has proven to be a busy month. I started a new project with a few friends: a high fantasy serial story called Thieves of Bakkaj. Basically, the four of us will switch off writing chapters to tell a story about a handful of heroic thieves. And it's going to be epic. The first four chapters are already available to read, and we'll be releasing a new chapter every week. Check it out and let me know what you think! (Also, I'm super stoked for you to read because this is the project Ryker and Wren are from!)

In addition, I've been rewriting and editing A Girl and Her Dragon for Nanowrimo. How is it going? Well, I'm glad you asked. This month's Beautiful Books link-up is all about mid-Nano progress! Here are the questions. Huzzah!

Overall, how is your mental state, and how is your novel going?
Surprisingly, my mental state is fine. Nanowriomo is actually the calm part of my mental state right now. Overall, it's going splendid, which is not a word I ever thought I'd use to describe the editing and rewriting process. But I'm making progress and ideas are coming together. I'm impressed with myself.

What’s your first sentence (or paragraph)?
Since I'm editing/rewriting the middle of the draft, I don't have a "first sentence." Instead, I'm going to share a favorite line:

"But here, the books lived and breathed. Here the spines squabbled for space. Here the ink lifted right off the page and danced before Brielle’s eyes."

Who’s your current favourite character in your novel?
Making me pick a favorite character is like picking a favorite pet or a favorite food. It's hard. And I can't choose. Nope, no. I can't. I love them all.

The whole gang

What do you love about your novel so far?
The characters are the heart of the novel. They are guiding this story (which is great except the plot kind of just gets sidetracked at times). I just love that each character is so distinct and their own person without even being real.

Have you made any hilarious typos or other mistakes?
I'm sure I have, but nothing significant comes to mind. Since I'm editing/rewriting, I've been looking over my "baby" draft of this novel, and oh, boy, there are tons of awkward taco scenes that should never, ever, ever see the light of day again. I'll just burn them. It's fine.

This kind of happened also.

What is your favourite to write: beginning, middle, or end — and why?
Usually, I like to write beginnings--the thrill of a new story sweeping me away is what I live for. But since I'm rewriting, I'm actually focused on the middle of the story. And surprisingly, I'm enjoying the journey. I like putting in the conflict points and watching the story unfold as the characters grow and learn. It's amazing.

What are your writing habits? Is there a specific snack you eat? Do you listen to music? What time of day do you write best? Feel free to show us a picture of your writing space!
My writing habits consist of thinking of great ideas at inopportune times when I can't sit down to write, spending too much time working myself up to writing, and also writing late into the night so I'm dead tired the next morning. I don't have a specific snack to eat, but I've learned keeping water nearby is definitely good. (Who knew writing made one so thirsty?)

I've been listening mainly to the soundtrack for Stranger Things, which has been oddly motivating and conducive to focusing. My novel doesn't relate at all to the 80s-style synth music of Strange Things, but it works.

My writing space is pretty much anywhere I can sit down and write.

How private are you about your novel while you’re writing? Do you need a cheer squad or do you work alone (like, ahem, Batman)?
It depends on the person. I've been telling a few close friends about my progress, but otherwise, I'm find just barreling through this thing by myself. So maybe more like the Flash then Batman?

What keeps you writing even when it’s hard?
I guess I keep writing because I want to see how the story comes together. I want that sense of accomplishment when I finish off the draft and know I did the thing. It's also helpful to have people begging to read your story, so you're motivated to do good and not give them a messy pile of writing vomit.

What are your top 3 pieces of writing advice?
1. Carve out time every day. Even if it's not necessarily writing toward a specific work or if it's only ten minutes, writing every day gets you into a habit. Habits help get things accomplished. When I don't write, I tend to slack off and then suddenly it's a month and I haven't written anything. Bad.

2. Find time to read. We all know that to be a writer you have to write a lot and read a lot. So make sure you have time to read. Sometimes we need a break from writing--it's okay to do that. Just don't binge-read an entire book series in one sitting instead of writing. Balance is key.

3. Have fun. I know, cheesy. But if you're not having fun while writing, why should you continue? Why should you write? If a story isn't working for you--if you're not having fun writing it--put it aside or toss it completely. It's okay to write something fun, that's the whole point of writing.

Tell me about your NaNoWriMo month below!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

"Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe." -E.B. White

Sometimes I find myself so overwhelmed with a pile of books that I completely ignore the entire pile and go find something else to read. That's what happened when I read Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet.

I had plenty of other books to read, but my mom told me I should at least look at this book and put it on my list to read some day. Instead, I sat down, opened the book, and read through it all in two sittings. It was definitely worth it.

Surprisingly, I didn't know a whole lot about E.B. White's life. I knew he wrote Charlotte's Web, but I honestly didn't even know if he was a man or a woman. I had no clue he wrote Stuart Little or that it was banned from several libraries when it was released in 1945. Or that he wrote for The New Yorker and had a snarky personality or contributed to The Elements of Style (which I have either read or heard of frequently in college). I didn't know when he was born or when he died or what his life was like. The only thing I knew was that his name was printed on the cover of a book about a pig and a spider that I must have read at some point in my childhood.

So Some Writer! was a pleasant surprise for a number of reasons. The dedication to documenting this beloved children's author was astounding. There were pictures from when E.B.--known as Andy--was a baby until the last years of his life. There were letters and drawings and manuscripts of his work collected in this book. It was fascinating to see it all collected together.

In addition, the book was set up differently than most biographies. It was kind of like Melissa Sweet did an art journal of his life instead of just regular chapters and paragraphs. So there was cool backgrounds and art collages and all sorts of knick-knacks thrown across each spread. The detail of what Melissa Sweet did to bring E.B. White's history, writing, and imagination to life was touching. There were moments I paused to admire the small, intricate details she perfectly placed on the pages. (Can I please be paid to do this for an author? Because it's so cool.)

The actual narration/story of E.B. White was interesting. It, obviously, focused on the writing aspect of his life, but it also revealed details of how and where the stories came from. It was interesting to read, and I found myself easily relating to this man who was born in 1899 and died years before I was born.

It's not often that I enjoy non-fiction, but Some Writer! swept me away. It was an interesting take for a biography, especially of a man that had so much to offer the world. I want more biographies like this. And now I want to read all his children's books just like the book suggested.

Have you read anything by E.B. White? What is your favorite biography?

Friday, November 11, 2016

Audiobook Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster

Ever since Star Wars: The Force Awakens released in theaters, I've thought about reading Star Wars books again. I did a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away?) when I was young. I demolished all the Jedi Knight and Jedi Quest books. I read tons and tons of the children's Star Wars books. But there are so many. So a few months ago, I started at the beginning--the chronological beginning--and told myself I wanted to read all the books under the "Legends" heading in chronological order. It was a terrible decision, but I'm going to keep trying.

But I took a break from that list--that forever long list--and decided to read the novelization of The Force Awakens. I've been told it contains a lot of interesting scenes and bits of dialogue that weren't in the movie. (*peers around suspiciously*) But sometimes I have too many books to read. So, I checked out the audiobook from my library.

I've listened to quite a few audiobooks in the last year, and almost none of them have music of special effects. (No, the weirdo songs in A Series of Unfortunate of Events does not count!) So it was delightful to pop in the first CD and hear not only familiar Star Wars music, but special effects from the film such as BB-8 beeping or ships flying or lightsabers humming. It was brilliant. Maybe all Star Wars audiobooks are all like this and I'm just missing out.

While the writing isn't the most stellar, it was still fun to listen to (especially on an eight-hour drive). The narrator, Marc Thompson, was great. He did iconic voices fairly well but also had his own voice for the narration parts. I enjoyed his voice-acting ability.

There was a lot of moments--dialogue, scenes, etc.--that made me stop and clutch my car's steering wheel with excitement. There are things that are enlightening about this book and the theories fluttering around the Internet. I am considering reading the print version just so I can see these moments with my eyes. (And maybe take pictures or make notes or do research or something. You know, nothing huge. Or crazy. Nope. No.)

Overall, the audiobook of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an exciting, enjoyable ride. It follows the movie, obviously, but also reveals a few other tidbits as well. I think it's worth your time if you like Star Wars as much as I do. (Which is a lot.)

Also, from here on out, I should just listen to Star Wars audiobooks instead of read them. It's much more thrilling.

Which Star Wars books are you favorite? Do you like to listen to audiobooks?

Friday, November 4, 2016

Book Review: Lavishly Illustrated with Interactive Elements Edition of The Jungle Book by Ruyard Kipling

Due to my adoration for Minalima's gorgeous edition of Peter Pan, I told myself I wanted to buy every version of a classic the company illustrates. So I bought The Jungle Book by Ruyard Kipling. I hadn't read The Jungle Book before, but I knew the illustrations would be brilliant as well. And they were, however I didn't enjoy the story as much as I had hoped.

The only thing I really knew about The Jungle Book before reading was what I had seen in the 1967 animated film by Disney. Which is nothing like the book at all. There are similar characters like Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan, but the similarities end there. It still takes place in the jungles of India, and there are moments where things are the same (like the monkeys kidnapping Mowgli, though for an entirely different reason, or that Shere Khan hunts Mowgli or that Mowgli is part of a wolf pack). But overall, the book was very different. And I didn't enjoy it.

About half the book follows the adventures of Mowgli--who is a complete brat and irked me during most of it. He never listens, and he acts like he knows everything. He even spends time in a human village to learn their ways and then flaunt back to the the jungle because, well, he can. In addition, he kills Shere Khan. Which is sad because Shere Khan is the best. Baloo wasn't around a lot in the book either, which was sad. Most of the things I actually like about the film weren't present in the book.

My camera isn't that great, so I found images online this time. (source)

The other half of the book is made up of random, unconnected stories. Some still take place in the jungles of India, and some don't. There's a story about a white seal, the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a story about elephants sneaking off at night to "dance" or something, and an odd tale about animals discussing their obedience training. It was strange and not at all what I was expecting.

The illustrations were gorgeous. I love the design and details. Each chapter ends with a fantastic page spread that includes song lyrics or poems. I love all the interactive elements too. There are maps and fold-out monkeys and spinning discs and much more.

I think Minalima did a splendid job with lavishly illustrating The Jungle Book. I just didn't enjoy the story. I'm not a huge fan of the animated film either, so perhaps it's just me. I don't regret buying the book because it is beautiful, and I think if I were to buy classic books in a fancy form, I would choose these designs every time. The two books look nice together, and I'm glad I finally read it.

Have you ever read The Jungle Book? What other children's classics do you enjoy?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Beautiful Books: October 2016

It's taken me a while to figure out what my plan for this year's National Novel Writing Month. As a "pantser" (or if you prefer the term "gardener"), I don't plan a whole lot. I have a bunch of ideas in my head that come together and find a way to make it work together with a plot. Writing a novel for me is a long journey of discovery. Thus Nanowrimo is both good and bad. Good because it's all about writing the sloppy, first draft where I can chase rabbit trails and add new characters halfway through the story. Bad because I never know what's going to happen, which can sometimes lead to a disaster.

I wanted to start a new story this year. I've been thinking about a particular story for a while now, even telling myself all year that I'd shelve it until November. But I don't think I'm going to write it this time. I don't think I'm ready--despite being a pantser. Instead, I'm going to be a "rebel" and use my November to continue editing and rewriting A Girl and Her Dragon. (Boring, right?)

Thus Beautiful Books this month feels... repetitive. I've talked about A Girl and Her Dragon numerous times. At this point, do I really need to explain how I got my idea or what it's aesthetics are? Probably not.

So instead of doing Beautiful Books for A Girl and Her Dragon, I'm going to do it for the story I wish I could write but know I'm not ready to. The novel I'm shelving once more in order to stick to editing and rewriting. It's affectionately dubbed The Superhero Novel. (I know, it's so original and creative.)

1. What inspired the idea for your novel, and how long have you had the idea?
A few things inspired this novel: my adoration for superheroes (comics and movies and television shows) and the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. I know what you're thinking: "Jaime, what does Percy Jackson and superheroes have to do with one another?"

Well, you see, the concept of the Percy Jackson books is this: what if demigods--children of the Greek gods--existed in our world today? Thus we get Percy Jackson and the rest of the Camp Half-Blood campers fighting monsters of mythology and completing quests like the ancient legends.

So what if the famous superheroes had children? What would those children do? Would they be heroes or villains? Would they get a choice? How would they feel about their parents being famous and in the public eye? How would they deal with their powers?

I know, you're probably thinking: "Wait! That's been done before. Disney had a film about the children of superheroes that went to a superhero school, Sky High!"

You're right. Disney did do that. But that's not what I'm doing. Disney made up superheroes for that. Will was the son of the Commander and Jetstream, two superheroes that only exist within that film. No, instead, I want to use the superheroes people know and love. I want to know what Bruce Wayne's daughter would be like or how Captain America's son would view the world. I want to use a conglomeration of comic book heroes and villains the world knows and loves.*

(*I realize this sounds a lot like fanfiction. Maybe it is. And maybe it's breaching several copyright laws. I'm a pantser, remember? Things often change while writing and editing.)

2. Describe what your novel is about!
J.J. [last name withheld until files are made public] learns she's the daughter of a famous superhero--superheroes that should only exist in comic books and the movies--after a security breach threatens the lives of several superhero children. She's taken to a secret base where she meets other superhero children and undergoes training for her non-existent powers. Someone, however, is targeting them from within the base--and J.J. doesn't know who to trust. Not even herself.

3. What is your book’s aesthetic? Use words or photos or whatever you like!

Pretty much.

4. Introduce us to each of your characters!
All Records compiled by [name withheld]
J.J. [last name withheld]
Age: 17
Powers: N/A
Other traits: quiet, loves to read, has an affinity for remembering historical events

Picture her with shorter hair. 

Kal Kent
Age: 17 by Earth's standards
Powers: flight, enhanced strength, super snark
Other traits: loves the ladies, likes to make jokes at inappropriate times, also likes dogs and pizza

Kal's resting face is a smirk 

Willa Cage
Age: 19
Powers: Unavailable
Other traits: her hair is amazing, she likes to sing

Willa with her half-brother.

Brett Wayne
Age: 17
Powers: None
Other traits: Martial Arts training, observes everything, she always looks angry? No, really, she's glaring at me as I type this up.

Brett likes to frequently change her hair color.

[name withheld]
Age: 23
Powers: None, though I'm a wizard at technology
Other traits: Yeah, right. I'm not telling you.

[picture withheld]

I have several other characters like a kid who thinks he's Loki but isn't (basically, a young, hipster Loki wandering around), the director of the secret group (shhh, secrets), and a league of super villains who are all females (except for their secretary who is a sassy guy named Stanley).

Number Three, Number Four, Number One, Number Two, and Stanley

5. How do you prepare to write? (Outline, research, stocking up on chocolate, howling, etc.?)
Howl. Stock up on chocolate and then immediately eat all of it. Mope around the house with a sore throat and upset stomach. Write down ideas that come beforehand so I don't lose them. More howling.

6. What are you most looking forward to about this novel?
Whenever I get around to writing this, I'm looking forward to how all the superhero children interact. They all come from different places with difference parents and different standards. It'll be interesting to see how they work together. I'm also stoked to flesh out the super villains. Because they're awesome, right? And to find out who the mole is. And who J.J. belongs to.

7. List 3 things about your novel’s setting.

8. What’s your character’s goal and who (or what) stands in the way?
At the beginning, J.J.'s goal is to just figure out what in the world is happening. Who is she? Who is her parent? Why is she there? But as the story progresses and she starts to learn who she is, her goal is to figure out where she belongs: with the heroes or the villains. She also wants to live up to the standards of being a superhero's child. Most of what stands in her way is herself, but her new teammates and the allure of the villains will create conflict as well.

9. How does your protagonist change by the end of the novel?
I think she becomes more confident in who she is--not necessarily just as the child of a superhero, but as the kind of person she is and wants to aspire to be. Since I haven't written it yet, it's hard to know, but I think she changes for the better.

10. What are your book’s themes? How do you want readers to feel when the story is over?
I think there will be a lot of themes of finding identity and this sense of belonging to a family/team throughout the novel. I want my readers to feel the same as they would after watching a Marvel movie--when the heroes have saved the day but also learned something about themselves, the world, or humanity. I want there to be hope and confidence and just an overall sense that the world can truly be a better place. We just have to be willing to save it.

(Wow, that got deep real fast.)

What are your plans for November? Did you participate in Beautiful Books?