Review: Winger by Andrew Smith

A few weeks ago, all my local writing friends started gushing over a book on Twitter. A book I’d never heard of, but they swore up and down and left and right was spectacular. Winger by Andrew Smith. I knew nothing about it except that they were hashtagging all their tweets #Iamsuchaloser and that was intriguing. So I threw out a request to the Twittersphere, “Who’s going to lend me a copy of WINGER?” Within minutes, I had a volunteer. And within days, I had a copy in my hands.

It took me a few days to start reading. Again, I literally knew nothing about this book. Except that somehow, being a loser came into play, and somehow, that was…good?

I wasn’t so sure how I felt about the cover. I mean, there’s a guy with a bloody nose on the cover. Gross.

But after a few days, I picked it up and cracked it open. And then. Then.

Oh. My. Word.

The best way I can think to describe it is Dead Poets Society, but funny. But really that’s not it at all, because this book doesn’t focus around a student-teacher relationship, and instead of poetry there is rugby, and also there are girls. And yet that is the closest comparison I can come up with to convey the spirit of Winger…without actually making a good comparison.

*sigh* I suppose I should just get to it, eh?

The Plot (From Goodreads): 

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

Filled with hand-drawn info-graphics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.

My Thoughts:

Disclaimer: This review will be slightly spoilery, but only inasmuch as the back cover copy is spoilery. I won’t spoil anything I did not deduce from reading the back cover of the book.

It’s been a long, long time since I read a book that made me laugh out loud more than once or twice. It’s been even longer since I read a book that made me laugh so hard, I had to stop reading and put down the book in order to compose myself enough to breathe. But with WINGER, I was tears-streaming, snot-flowing, short-of-breath chortling every few pages. Ryan Dean West’s self-deprecating (as evidenced by his “I am such a loser” mantra), utterly irreverent and so amazingly fourteen-year-old-boy inner monologue was one of the most refreshing, honest, and hilarious narrations I’ve ever read.

WINGER is light on plot, heavy on character. Ryan Dean (two words, one name. His middle name is revealed late in the game, and a source of his perpetual shame.) stumbles from one encounter to the next, from a midnight poker game featuring ill-advised drinking, to stolen kisses with a girl who is entirely off-limits, to unexpected friendship and awkward first love. He punctuates his narrative with hand-drawn cartoons and graphs to illustrate life as he knows it, which give even the darker moments a glimmer of light.

When the book eventually does take a turn in tone, as hinted at in the back-cover copy, it is, as promised, heartbreaking. I read the whole book waiting for the heartbreaking part, and was honestly a little concerned that it wouldn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the book. I should have had more faith, given Smith’s stellar execution of his story.

Much like in life, tragedy is often hard to anticipate. Ryan Dean drifts along assuming his life is most often a farce, occasionally a romantic comedy, intermittently a coming-of-age-drama. Then suddenly, it is none of those things, and he reacts in an utterly real and — yes, heartbreaking — fashion. There is a tone shift, but it works, and it heightens the feeling that we are experiencing a very real year in the very real life of a very real teen. It is unpredictable but authentic, raw yet beautiful. 

WINGER isn’t going to be for everyone. Ryan Dean is frequently foulmouthed (but only in his head) and crude, he objectifies every female he sees, and makes some truly terrible choices, some of which have far-reaching consequences. But if you can handle the sometimes-brutal honesty of Ryan Dean West, and if you enjoy laughing until coffee squirts out your nose over things that are likely inappropriate, and if you like stories that are hard to put into a box because life is hard to put into a box, then I cannot recommend this book enough. Hands down, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Go forth, losers, and read.

 

Review: Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

When Diana Peterfreund came out with her futuristic re-imagining of Jane Austen’s Persuasion last year, For Darkness Shows the Stars, I highly enjoyed it. I was swept up in Eliot and Kai’s star-crossed love story, and it made me giddy and squishy in the way only Austen can.

So when I discovered there was to be a companion novel — not a sequel, but another story set in the same world, this time to the tune of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I was anxious to read it. And fortunately, a friend graciously offered to let me borrow her ARC (which…I have not yet returned. She had life things and then had life things and what I’m saying is, Friend, if you want your ARC back, let’s do coffee).

Across a Star-Swept Sea does not pick up where the first book leaves off, and you don’t have to have read FDStS to enjoy it…but I’d still recommend first things first. It’ll be better that way.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Centuries after wars nearly destroyed civilization, the two islands of New Pacifica stand alone, a terraformed paradise where even the Reduction—the devastating brain disorder that sparked the wars—is a distant memory. Yet on the isle of Galatea, an uprising against the ruling aristocrats has turned deadly. The revolutionaries’ weapon is a drug that damages their enemies’ brains, and the only hope is rescue by a mysterious spy known as the Wild Poppy.

On the neighboring island of Albion, no one suspects that the Wild Poppy is actually famously frivolous aristocrat Persis Blake. The teenager uses her shallow, socialite trappings to hide her true purpose: her gossipy flutternotes are encrypted plans, her pampered sea mink is genetically engineered for spying, and her well-publicized new romance with handsome Galatean medic Justen Helo… is her most dangerous mission ever.

Though Persis is falling for Justen, she can’t risk showing him her true self, especially once she learns he’s hiding far more than simply his disenchantment with his country’s revolution and his undeniable attraction to the silly socialite he’s pretending to love. His darkest secret could plunge both islands into a new dark age, and Persis realizes that when it comes to Justen Helo, she’s not only risking her heart, she’s risking the world she’s sworn to protect.

In this thrilling adventure inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, Diana Peterfreund creates an exquisitely rendered world where nothing is as it seems and two teens with very different pasts fight for a future only they dare to imagine.

My Thoughts:

The setting for Across a Star-Swept Sea is far removed from the Luddite estate of For Darkness Shows the Stars. The citizens of Albion and Galatea believe they alone survived the Reduction, but the two islands have very different ideas of how to move forward afterward, and each character in the story believes their way is the right one.

There are two main points of view, Justen and Persis, but several secondary characters get a bit of time in the POV spotlight as well, giving us every side of the conflict. The book plunges headlong into the science and politics that propel the revolution in New Pacifica, and the rebellion led by the Wild Poppy. The plot is smart and doesn’t coddle — there’s a lot of world-building and political set-up in the opening chapters, and that complex wider conflict sets the stage for the more intimate, personal conflict of the characters.

Though Justen and Persis team up almost right off the bat, Justen has no idea who she is — not as a spy, and not as a person — and spends the vast majority of the book believing she’s as vapid and shallow as she appears. Meanwhile, Persis has more than a few misconceptions about Justen as well. The false impressions carry us most of the way through the story, which normally I would find galling, but when you are reading a book based on The Scarlet Pimpernel, it’s kind of what you signed up for.

I enjoyed the characters in this story, maybe Justen a bit more than Persis simply because her Persis Flake act started to grate after a while. It was the point (and Persis was sick of it, too), but gave Justen a slight edge. As for the supporting cast, I enjoyed most of them, and was glad that we got to see perspectives of people on both sides of the conflict and from all the different social classes. It gave the story a good bit of variety and texture. I have to admit, though, I became the most invested when some familiar faces from For Darkness Shows the Stars showed up midway through the book. It was nice to revisit the characters I’d grown attached to in the first book and see how they interacted with the new characters in this unfamiliar setting.

Across a Star-Swept Sea isn’t as heavy on the romance as For Darkness Shows the Stars, though it certainly has its moments. Its plot relies more on intrigue and scheming, and so I found myself invested more in the fate of the people of New Pacifica, and Persis’ secret identity as the Wild Poppy, than the will-they-or-won’t-they between Justen and Persis. And really, that was enough, because that plot was interesting enough on its own. And I thought that was fitting, because it put my priorities in line with the characters, most of whom put the Revolution ahead of themselves. So the romance became a sweet dollop of icing on an already tasty cake.

If you’re a fan of both sci-fi and the classics, or if you read For Darkness Shows the Stars and want to revisit the post-Reduction world Diana Peterfreund created, or if you simply enjoy a smart futuristic tale populated with a variety of colorful characters, I’d recommend you pick up Across a Star Swept Sea.

 

Review: The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson

The Bitter Kingdom is the conclusion to Rae Carson’s epic fantasy trilogy that started with The Girl of Fire and Thorns and continued with The Crown of Embers. As you might remember, I enjoyed the first book in the series, but it was the second one that made me a die-hard fan. From the twisting plot to the fully realized magical world unlike anything I’ve ever read, it is everything I want in a fantasy. And it didn’t hurt that it features Hector, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. (Elisa, the main character, is no slouch herself).

So of course, The Bitter Kingdom was one of my most anticipated books of 2013. I couldn’t wait to hear how Elisa’s and Hector’s adventures would conclude, and if she would finally complete her act of service and fulfill her destiny as The Chosen One.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

The epic conclusion to Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny.

Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she’s never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most.

My Thoughts:

The Bitter Kingdom begins with one of my favorite epic fantasy conventions: The Long Journey Into Unknown Lands. In this case, Queen Elisa and her small band of allies are traveling to the hostile territory of Invierne to rescue Hector, the Captain of the Royal Guard, and also the man who holds Elisa’s heart, who was taken captive at the end of The Crown of Embers. Before they can get to Hector, Elisa and her companions must overcome both the harsh winter weather of Invierne and the mysterious, deadly magic wielded by the Inviernos. But in The Bitter Kingdom, we are treated to something we never got in the first two books: Hector’s point of view. So we are able to watch as he undermines and sabotages his captors, trying to delay their plans until Elisa comes for him.

I loved how Rae Carson turned the damsel in distress trope on its head by having Elisa be the one to go after Hector. Not only was it fun to watch the queen rescue the soldier, but it evidenced Elisa’s tremendous growth since the first book. She was no longer cautious and filled with self-doubt, but finally comfortable in asserting her power as Queen. But although Hector was tied up and weakened, he was not helpless either. It was fantastic to see the two of them work together to secure Hector’s freedom, even though neither of them knew what the other was doing. And as expected, I still loved Hector and Elisa. Adding Hector’s point of view was brilliant, and it was amazing to witness his cold strategizing coupled with his tender thoughts toward Elisa.

As far as Elisa goes, in The Bitter Kingdom we see her both at her most powerful and her most vulnerable. Just when I thought her character arc may be complete, going from a meek princess with a low self-esteem to a confident queen in control of inconceivable magic, she plummeted back down and had to claw her way up again. I thought it was a stroke of genius, because it not only kept the stakes high and her character vulnerable, but it really let us see how Elisa has grown as a person, even apart from the Godstone.

I also enjoyed the secondary characters. The cast is smaller in this book, and I missed spending time with some of my favorite characters from Crown of Embers (the most noteable being Tristán), but almost every character makes at least a cameo appearance in the second half of the book, where we get some insight into where they wind up. Meanwhile, a couple lovely new characters are added to the cast, and some familiar characters are developed further. My favorite was probably Storm, the Invierno-turned-Joyan that we meet in the second book. He evolves from someone truly unlikable when we first meet him to one of the most fascinating characters in the series. I could read an entire book (or series) just about him and his family and his conflicted loyalties.

After the Epic Journey concludes, it’s up to Elisa to stop a war, unite her people, get to the bottom of the magic the Inviernos are using to conquer anyone in their path, and discover her purpose as bearer of the Godstone. It’s a tall order, and Rae Carson handles it brilliantly, with lots of action and intrigue interspersed with Elisa’s own personal reflection as she struggles to be the person God needs her to be. By the end of the book, I had all of my big questions answered and felt satisfied with where the others were left.

The Bitter Kingdom was everything I want in the conclusion to a trilogy: action, intrigue, smart plotting, fantastic character development, and a satisfying conclusion. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this series to fans of fantasy and adventure, or just someone looking for a masterfully crafted, well-told tale.

 

Review: Vicious by V.E. Schwab

I have been salivating over Vicious by V.E. Schwab since she first announced its existence on Twitter. I don’t think it’s any big secret that I love a well-written villain. So finding out that Victoria, whose writing I adore, had penned an entire novel about supervillains? Bliss. Pure, utter bliss. The only problem was that I had to actually wait for Vicious to release, and I suck at waiting.

BUT because I live in the best writing community in the entire world*, one that is home to one V.E. Schwab, I was actually able to get my hands on an early copy. Naturally, I devoured it almost the second I got my grimy** little fingers on it (not the exact second, as I had to drive home and that would’ve gotten messy). As expected, I loved every single twisted page.

Disclaimer: You’ve probably heard of V.E. Schwab’s alter ego, Victoria Schwab, author of The Near Witch and The Archived. Victoria is a YA author. V.E. is an Adult author. Vicious is an Adult book, with an adult voice and adult content. It’s still very much Victoria’s lovely writing, but it does not feel like her YA. It’s all grown up and dark and twisted and in need of therapy. So if you are a teen, or an adult who prefers YA, a word of caution before jumping on the Vicious bandwagon. It’s fantastic — but it’s not YA.

*I have not lived in every writing community in the world — just the one — but I’m pretty sure it’s the best.

**They were probably not actually grimy, but I can’t rule it out since I had tacos for dinner.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.

My Thoughts: 

I loved Vicious from the first few chilling pages. Vicious is a little grittier, a little bleaker than Victoria’s YA novels, but although the prose is more stark than in her other books, it lacks none of her characteristic lyricism. It’s obvious from the disturbing opening — where we meet two of our main characters as they dig up a grave — that the reader is in for a well-crafted tale spun by a mind that is twisted in the best possible way.

Let’s talk for a minute about characters. Vicious focuses around two central characters, Victor and Eli, once best friends, now mortal enemies. Each has his own small band of misfit allies, some with powers, some without. And the best part of every single one of these characters is that each of them chooses sides based on what they believe in their hearts to be right. Maybe not good, but right. The calls they make are difficult, their actions are not clean and the consequences are often messy, but each fully realized secondary character picks the side they think is best not just for them individually, but the world as a whole. Which makes every character think they are fighting for the side of light, when in reality, they all inhabit a world of gray.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Getting back to Eli and Victor, my favorite villains in fiction have always been the ones who were motivated by more than darkness, power, and a desire to watch the world burn. Sure, there’s a strange dark beauty in a villain who will stop at nothing to destroy the hero, simply because he stands on the side of good. The Jokers and the Voldemorts and the Moriartys. But an excellent villain is one who can make me root for him, in spite of the fact that he opposes our hero, because in his own mind, he is right. These are the Lokis, the Magnetos, the Dr. Horribles, the Javerts. They’re the villains I know need to be defeated, but I keep hoping they will redeem themselves, because they make me care for them. Sometimes even more than I care for the good guys.

Eli and Victor both fall into this second category. Vicious is a book about villains, except none of the characters see themselves as particularly villainous. Certainly neither starts off that way. Eli and Victor begin as college roommates and best friends, whose downward spiral into villainy begins as nothing more than a thesis project and a flight of fancy. This is not a case of characters destined to be evil masterminds. They’re simply two guys who were, quite literally, too clever for their own good.

Ironically, the character who is indisputably the more righteous of the pair is probably the closest thing to a pure villain, whereas the one who comes across as more heroic (although even he is far from a hero) sees himself as irredeemable. The character with the stronger moral compass drifts deep into the darkness, while the one with little empathy or remorse holds himself in check right where the light begins to fade into shadow. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, and brilliantly executed. Vicious doesn’t paint either protagonist in particularly rosy colors, and both characters make terrible decisions and, at one point or another, commit terrible acts of violence with motives that are far from noble. But in this world where nothing is as simple as black and white or good and evil, it’s fascinating to see who we root for. I finished the book thinking really, one character wasn’t so bad — surely he wasn’t a villain — until I thought back to what he actually did, and I realized yes, yes he was. He just wasn’t as much of a villain as the other character. And I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, because I liked him — even though in a black-and-white world, I really shouldn’t have liked him.

As for the plot itself, Vicious is an intricately woven tale of intrigue and deception, betrayal and revenge. The rules of the world are simple and clear, enough that you find yourself wondering if maybe it is possible to give yourself superpowers through thwarting death. The twists and turns aren’t predictable, yet everything makes sense. The action isn’t constant, but ebbs and flows in a natural rhythm that keeps the pages flying by. Victoria masterfully builds the tension leading to the final confrontation between Victor and Eli throughout the entire book, slowly ratcheting up anticipation until it’s almost unbearable. And when they finally do meet, the result is explosive, bloody, and deliciously satisfying. I was left wanting more, not because any threads were left dangling, but because this world and these characters were so painfully amazing that it hurt to be parted from them.

If you’re a fan of sympathetic villains and realistic superpowers and dark, twisty tales brimming with moral ambiguity, make haste to your nearest bookseller and pick up a copy of Vicious. Run, don’t walk. Or, if you can, fly.

 

In which I apologize for forgetting to blog. Again.

I’m in serious need of a Time Turner, people. Yet again, time has passed and I have not posted a blessed thing. And I’ve read so many lovely books I want to recommend to you. And I shall. But not today. Probably tomorrow. Be excited.

I’ve actually been spending most of my spare minutes (the ones not tied up in half-marathon training and reading and — let’s be honest — binge-watching Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad) furiously working on my second manuscript, trying to get it ready in time for the SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference, which was held this past weekend here in Nashville. A whole weekend spent with amazing friends and listening to amazing talks by amazing agents and editors and authors and having amazing ideas and in general basking in amazing amazingness.

Midsouthers LtR: Me, David Arnold, Ashley Schwartau, CJ Schooler, Courtney Stevens, Erica Rodgers, Sarah Brown.
I love these people so much. Remember their names. One day, their books (and albums!) will be on your shelves.

I sang songs. I met wonderful people. I hugged necks. I cheered for the accomplishments of my talented friends. I stayed up too late, woke up too early, and subsisted mainly on coffee. I was validated that my book concept does not, in fact, suck. I filled my brain with the (nearly overwhelming) wisdom being doled out by the awesome faculty.

And I decided to scrap my entire book (who needed those 200-plus pages anyway, right?) and start over.

So that’s where I am, back at square one, except it’s not square one because I have such a better understanding of the story I’m trying to tell now. I’m finally excited about it again, which is good. Writing these past couple months has just been me, angrily punching out words on my keyboard, muttering at the words on my screen, I hate you.

No words wasted. The wrong ones had to come out to get to the right ones. Yes, I wish there weren’t over fifty-one-thousand wrong words needed to find the story, but oh well. It could’ve been worse. I could’ve reached the end of the book and then thrown it out. I could’ve written the wrong book twice. (Who knows, maybe I will.) So put in that perspective, 51K into the trashcan isn’t a bad deal.

So anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing, and what I shall be doing. But in the meantime, I am still reading (always reading) and I genuinely do want to find that balance again of working in time to recommend the books I’ve enjoyed to you. So bear with me, friends. I’m not awesome at this whole time management thing, but there are lots of splendid stories sitting on bookstore and library shelves right now, and I want to tell you about them.

Speaking of which, tomorrow I have every intention of telling you about VICIOUS, the first adult book by V.E. Schwab. It’s about supervillains and scheming and it is brilliant. Prepare for some gushing.

And if you come here tomorrow and there’s no review up, I give you permission to get on Twitter and slap me with a fish.