Fiction Review · Review

Review! Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Started: 8th January 2018

Finished: 12th January 2018

Rating: 5/5 Stars

I first read Illuminae around this time last year and frankly I was a bit sceptical at the time. I was only vaguely familiar with the two authors behind it, having read Amie Kaufman’s – and Meagan Spooner’s! – These Broken Stars, which I enjoyed and Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight, which didn’t click with me (If I’m honest, I think I was just in a grumpy mood when I read it. It warrants a reread). It ended up being one of the best books I read in 2017. Like, honestly, this book is on HOLY SHIT levels of writing.

Illuminae is an utterly unique book. If I had to liken it to anything, I’d say it’s perfect for fans of Homestuck or John Dies at the End and if you’re already an Illuminae fan you might enjoy those in turn. The book starts out in the fallout of the epic breakup of highschool sweethearts Kady Grant and Ezra Mason. Then their planet is blown up.

As refugees aboard two different ships, they get in touch with each other as the final lifelines to their old lives. They also find themselves quickly thrown in to their new roles aboard their respective ships – Ezra gets drafted as a military pilot and Kady is wise enough to keep her skills as a hacker secret. It’s with these skills that she unearths the horrible truths the ships governing body are trying to cover up.

Imagine a zombie flick set in, essentially, a series of tin cans floating through deep space. Add an overly-powerful AI to the mix and now you have a rough idea of what to expect out of Illuminae. What makes Illuminae so utterly different to other sci-fi, however, is it’s incredible use of page layout. Most the conversations between characters take place over instant messaging, other parts are written as though someone is watching and summarising found footage. Several pages of the book are in ascii and other pages, particularly later in the book, are nothing short of art. The author’s also use this style of writing to build suspense in an utterly unique way that’s sure to keep you on the edge of your seat – or, if you’re like me, messaging your friends illegible keyboard smashes at 3 in the morning because something WONDERFUL and TERRIBLE just happened.

A reread was due in light of the finale, Obsidio, coming out in March – oh guys, I’m hype as hell. Illuminae is an a jawdropping book full of some of the most heartstopping plot twists and held together with one hell of a cast of characters. Of course with it being a reread, I knew the plot twists were coming but catching the little hints about them throughout the narrative that I missed the first time was a total pleasure in itself. A 5 star rating doesn’t feel like enough – Illuminae deserves ‘every star in the galaxy.’

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Comic Review · Review

January Comic Binge! Fullmetal Alchemist, The Mortal Instruments and Lazarus

Hi there! Welcome to a new segment on Bitchin’ Fiction – comic weekends. Because I have a shameful lot of comics and graphic novels on my shelf on the first weekend of every month I’ll try to binge read as many as I can.

Because comics are quick to read and I probably cannot keep up with 4-5 extra full size reviews every month, I’m going to put all the comics I read into one post with a mini review of sorts. This month I read the first two omnibuses of Full Metal Alchemist, the first The Mortal Instruments graphic novel and the first trade paperback of Lazarus.

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Fullmetal Alchemist 3-in-1 Edition, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by Hiromu Arakawa – Rating: 5/5 Stars to both volumes –  Sorry there’s 3 volumes in this photo! I planned to read 3 but I only managed 2 – busy weekend! Fullmetal Alchemist is perhaps one of the best acclaimed manga series of all time. It follows the story of the Elric brothers who, when they were young, attempted to resurrect their mother through the magical-but-actually-it’s-just-science art of alchemy. Their early dive into necromancy did not go well because alchemy works by equivalent exchange and, while it is possible to get all the physical materials to build a human body, there is nothing that can be traded for a soul. In this botched attempt, Edward and Alphonse Elric lost parts of their bodies. Their story is their quest to find a way to get them back.

The first volume sets much of the ground work for the series. It establishes the important characters, the history of the world, the protagonist’s goals and the moral quandaries that come with practicing alchemy. The first half is fairly episodically written as we get to know Edward and Alphonse, but it starts building into it’s overarching plot by the latter half. The second volume puts more of a focus on the brother’s past and the people who’ve helped them get to where they are.

Both volumes well deserved 5 stars. The story is stupendous, the characters wonderfully fleshed out and loveable – so much so, you’re left even rather liking the villains – and the balance between comedy and absolute heartbreaking tragedy is flawlessly on point. The art, too, is wonderful. I confess I can be a bit of a snob regarding manga because I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the art styles and not liking an art style can completely kill a comic for me, but Hiromu Arakawa’s art style is wonderful. It doesn’t suffer the troublesome same-face-syndrome (though women could, perhaps, be a bit more varied! Not sure why men get to look completely different but women all conform to similar standards…) and I just really like how… chunky everyone looks. In a market dominated, frankly, by either spindly-looking anatomy or muscles not far off an old Rob Liefeld comic, something about the shape of bodies in Full Metal Alchemist is really appealing.

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Lazarus, Vol. 1: Family by Greg Rucka – Rating: 3/5 Stars – I was recommend this one by, erm, either Chris or Laura. I forget. Either way it was insisted I’d love it. Yeah, sorry whoever said I would – I didn’t. It was okay, I guess? In the world of Lazarus, ‘A Lazarus’ is the protector and defender of a family. In this world, there’s a few ‘families’ who pretty much govern the entire country/world/honestly I don’t know I’ve had to look up the Goodreads description to even figure out how to explain the story thusfar. This particular story is about a Lazarus called Forever, protector of the Carlyle Family.

The art doesn’t work for me at all. It’s kind of vaguely messy and I found it hard, at points, to differentiate characters. I can see how it might appeal to fans of that edgy comic-noir look, but I’m simple and I like colourful things.

The story seemed like it might get interesting, but I found it kind of confusing and the trade didn’t cover enough to get me engrossed in the world before it ended. Might be better as a longer hardback, but I’m not really willing to fork over the money to find out.

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The Mortal Instruments: The Graphic Novel, Vol. 1 by Cassandra Clare – Rating: 3/5 Stars – I started reading The Mortal Instruments books last year because I sort of liked the show, and in doing so I discovered the art of Cassandra Jean and totally fell in love. As such, I was pretty excited for the graphic novel fully illustrated by her and, come on, that cover is pretty beautiful. The Mortal Instruments books are the story of Clary Fray, a normal girl who gets mixed up in a world of demon hunters on her quest to save her kidnapped mum.

The art in the book, though including some really gorgeous title pages, was a bit hit and miss within the comic itself. The earlier panels are mostly pretty decent but certain panels really deteriorate – quite large panels, too – and some I was surprised got away with being published.

So yeah, it’s okay, but I wouldn’t say it’s an essential addition to your Shadowhunters collection unless you’re a really die hard fan.

Fiction Review · Review

Review! Clean by Juno Dawson

Started: 4th January 2018

Finished: 5th January 2018

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Release Date: 05/04/2018 (My birthday, y’all! 😉)

Cue screeching when I saw an ARC of this one up for grabs.

Clean is the first book I’ve read by Juno Dawson – her name and titles kept cropping up and catching my attention, but Clean was the first one that I simply HAD to read. It’s a contemporary YA about a billionaire socialite and hotel chain heiress called Lexi who, after nearly overdosing on heroin, is committed to a rehabilitation facility for young people by her worried brother. There she meets other people facing their own addictions and mental health issues and reluctantly starts to take part in the 10 step recovery process.

In terms of pacing and writing and the overall story it told, I thought Clean was fantastic. The cast can be difficult to like at points – especially Lexi herself, who’s kind of a grade-a bitch at least 80% of the time – but that works to make the book memorable and the perseverance to get to know the characters fully more satisfying.

It only loses a star partly (maybe more like half a star, but y’all know I don’t really like doing half-stars) for thing right at the end that I can’t totally explain without spoilers but felt a bit in the realms of ‘fairytale improbability’ given the otherwise grittiness of the novel, though it was sweet so I can’t fault it too hard. The other reason was, while I understood why so much of Lexi’s character was name dropping designer brands, my God did it get on my tits fast. Every article of clothing has to be specified to be All Saints or Louboutin or whatever. I get it, girl, you’re rich. I get it.

The book should also come with a trigger warning for, well… just about everything, actually. If you have a relatively common trigger you think you might find in a contemporary novel, it’s probably in Clean so I’d recommend staying away from it (If you want to know for certain, feel free to ask me privately on Twitter (@hearthstone_d) or something and I’ll confirm or deny, but honestly it really is pretty much most things). That said, if you’re confident nothing like that will be detrimental to you reading a book, then this one is definitely worth picking up.

Fiction Review · Non-Fiction Review · Review

Review! Brooding YA Hero: Becoming a Main Character (Almost) As Awesome as Me by Carrie DiRisio

Started: 5th December 2017

Finished: 6th December 2017

Rating: 4/5 Stars

I seriously need to stop reviewing writing guides. How do you review a guide for writing? This is ridiculous. I always like them but they’re always so bloody hard to talk about.

Anyway, Brooding YA hero is a fun writing guide because it *isn’t* a writing guide. It’s a satire of a writing guide, sort of telling you how not to write by pretending that’s exactly how you should write, except occasionally it does give you good tips and also it has a plot. And it’s kind of a huge pep talk to the reader. And it has quizzes. Who doesn’t love quizzes?

Broody McHottiepants is the twitter sensation brainchild of Carrie Ann DiRisio. The gimmick behind it is short tweets throwing shade at some of the utterly silly tropes that keep occurring in YA (and, frankly, other demographic-based) fiction. I was a little sceptical how well it could translate to a whole novel but the tweets do make me giggle and it is illustrated by the awesome Linnea (If you haven’t read her wonderful webcomic comic Dissent yet, you simply must. It’s utterly fantastic!) so I took a punt on it. So how did it fare up?

Pretty good, overall!

It’s a 352 page book but honestly, the font size used is pretty big and it’s full of illustrations and the aforementioned quizzes so in terms of wordcount it’s a very quick read. There’s an overarching story to it too, though a fairly simple one. Broody McHottiepants has found himself with a bit of free time on his hands because, for some bizarre reason, Authors aren’t employing him. So he decides to become an author himself and write his own book – a guide to help all other characters become awesome main characters like him. However, standing in his way is his evil ex, Blondie McMeanie. And by standing in his way, I mean making reasonably calling him out for flaws in his writing and trying to help, but she’s his ex and she’s blonde and she wears makeup and heels so of course she’s evil and only exists to antagonise.

It’s a really fun book if you’re a writer or just a book nerd that isn’t opposed to poking fun at your favourite books, though I probably wouldn’t recommend you gift it to any of your author friends. They might get a little offended.

Fiction Review · Review

Review! The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross

Started: 1st Jan 2018

Finished: 3rd  Jan 2018

Rating: 2/5 – and I’m being generous.

Release Date: 3rd May 2018

Ok, because my lovely friend Marta is sitting on my desk flicking through museum pamphlets and telling me I should start my review on a positive to soften the blow, I’ll say that the writing in The Beast’s Heart was pretty good. Leife has a lovely style of prose, there’s no doubt about that. It’s just a shame about the content.

So The Beast’s Heart is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast as told from the perspective of the Beast. This makes for a difficult story to tell, admittedly, since in the original tale the Beast spends a lot of time presenting as the villain of the story. Finding that balance between staying true to the original story and making the Beast a likeable, compelling character isn’t easy. Yeah, erm, The Beast’s Heart does not succeed.

The story is close to the original in terms of plot – sadly, because there were points that read so much like the rapid descent into a horror novel, such as the points when the Beast smashed his house up because the love interest had the audacity to have any agency or call him her ‘friend’, I thought that turning it into a horror story might be it’s saving grace right at the end. The Beauty, who in this book is called Isabeau, is coerced into staying in the Beast’s derelict castle for a year. Because she is so sweet and perfect and lovely and just a little bit mischievous and very occasionally clumsy – but only to the degree that’s it utterly darling and not actually a character trait let alone a character flaw – the Beast’s cobweb and moth ridden home starts to magically improve, which sets you up well for understanding that the magic system in this book is based entirely on convenience to the plot, as needed. The Beast starts to fall in love with her but oh no, he’s a Beast, she’ll never want him! Frankly, his appearance isn’t the problem imo.

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Image copyright J.N. Wiedle, Benito Cereno, and Kristin Kemper, can be found as part of their comic Critical Miss on http://www.paradoxspace.com. You should probably read that instead of this book.

 

The Beast, for his part, spends most of the story stalking… well, everyone really. Not only, through the aforementioned ‘Magic Powers of Convenience’, does he constantly know and follow where Isabeau roams in his abode, but he also owns a magic mirror that allows him to watch her family’s home life at his leisure. While this in itself is deeply problematic and creepy and gave me even more reason to hate the Beast with a furious passion, it was also kind of the saving grace of the book that just about pulled it out of a 1 star rating. Isabeau’s sisters, normally portrayed as selfish and vaguely antagonistic in retellings, are refreshingly by far the best things about the book. Unlike their honestly insipid sister, Marie and Claude have well developed and neatly completed character arcs that have them learning how to care for themselves without their sister’s help, and they get their own little romantic subplots that are a lot more enjoyable and a lot less yikes. I just rather wish the whole book had been about them, or at least had not been told in first person from the Beast’s perspective so the view of them wasn’t imbued with his opinions. If the book had solely been about them, I might have actually enjoyed it.

In the end, I found The Beast’s Heart deeply frustrating to read and downright worrying that it was framed as romantic. The Beast is manipulative and abusive and Isabeau is so unbelievably naïve and child-like that I felt uncomfortable reading it. I think, because Leife’s writing style is often beautiful in itself, she might go on to write some good things. That, however, will require a drastic change in subject matter.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone had a good one. What are your total book counts for 2017? Mine was 109. I was aiming for 120 and didn’t quite get that far, but I’m pleased I managed triple figures at least!

So what’s happening on Bitchin Fiction in 2018?

First of all – reviews are no longer going to be going out once every Friday. I’ve got a few left over from 2017 which will still had their Friday slots but otherwise I’ll post reviews as soon as I can after finishing books.

With the new year here comes a fun chart of thematic new reads! I’ll be recommending 3 books based on each of the fae courts from A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas (as if we don’t have enough SJM stuff in our lives, amirite? Also I just really like seasonal things. Also I’m a sell out. Cough).

For now, I’m planning to put the seasonal court ones just in advance of the season they apply to, so expect to see High Lord Tamlin with some Spring time fairy tales by the end of this month, recommendations from the Summer Court in April, our homeboy Lucien will have some Autumnal reads for you in July because we trust his taste more than Berrol’s and that’s that, and come October there’ll be a trio of frosty fiction to snuggle down with chosen by the High Lord of the Winter Court. As for the solar courts – honestly, I’m just going to throw them out into the wild when they’re ready.

All the books will be ones I’ve personally read and enjoyed and they will be books that might be kind of popular, but they won’t be any really huge, everyone’s read them, all-the-Etsy-shops-sell-themed-candles-for-them books so hopefully there’ll be at least one on each list you haven’t read yet!

My plan in terms of reading this year is to read series in their entirety, or at least catch up, so you should be seeing a lot more sequel reviews on the blog. I’ll also be doing comic weekends once a month where I power through a stack of comics over the course of that weekend because my god, the backlog I have of those is nuts.

I’ll be more on top of reviewing subscription boxes and bookish products if I possibly can.

And lastly, I’ve started a new book photo challenge for my Instagram (@hearthstonereads)! It’s called The Clow Book Challenge and it’s Card Captor Sakura themed – anyone remember that show? I used to love it so much growing up! Each week you’ll be prompted to take one photo for each of the 52 Clow Cards from the show so it’s not too many photos but it will last the whole year. Each Sunday (Sakura Sunday!) I’ll post a collage of my favourites of the week coupled with shout outs to the people who took them. Hopefully it’ll get lots of participation!

I think that’s about all the news worth mentioning. Hope you had a great New Year and aren’t hanging too badly.

Because I sure am.

Ughhhhhh….

Fiction Review · Review

Review! Cloaked in Shadow (The Dragori #1) by Ben Alderson

Started: 9th December 2017

Finished: 11th December 2017

Rating: 5/5 Stars

I want to know who Ben Alderson sold his soul to for his ability to describe food.

Now I’ve got that overwhelmingly important statement (seriously, I was getting hella hunger pangs as a sneak-read at my desk), I’m going to crack on with an actual review.

Cloaked in Shadow is the first book in the Dragori series by Ben Alderson, his first series and second published thing according to Goodreads, the first being a contribution in Because You Love to Hate Me which, I’m ashamed to say, has been sitting on my shelf for months. I honestly picked up the book on a whim because it kept coming up on my Twitter feed and I really liked the cover, and the fallout of Rick Riordan’s Ship of the Dead had me wanting to read everything ELVES (Give me a spin off trilogy about Hearthstone and Blitzen, my dude, I beg you…) and because I wanted to qualify for free shipping on Amazon with a different book. Thank God I did!

The book is narrated in first person by its main character, Zacriah. Zacriah, along with every other young and able elf in the kingdom, has been invited to a feast at the King’s palace. Unfortunately, every other young and able elf in the kingdom includes Zacriah’s ex-boyfriend, Petrar. Not the most fun person to be in close quarters with.

At the feast, the King distinguishes those elves with no magic from those who are shapeshifters, asking the latter to join his army and prepare to fight in the impending war. The issue is, identifying Zacriah as a shapeshifter was a mistake on the King’s part because he is sure as hell not a shapeshifter. He does have some magic powers, but they’re so rare, elusive and utterly secretive that even he doesn’t know what he is.

Trying to escape from the palace is how Zacriah becomes initially acquainted with the king’s first and only son, Prince Hadrian. Unlike the ethereally and untouchably regal king, Hadrian is quite down to earth and immediately kind to Zacriah. It’s discovered shortly following that Zacriah is unable to shapeshift – though he continues to keep his real powers a secret – and Hadrian offers to personally tutor him.

Getting involved with Hadrian, even just as friends, leads Zacriah to discover all sorts of terrible secrets about the royal family and their kingdom, but it’s all so incredible and all over the place that putting the clues together takes Zacriah and friends most of the book.

So I’m not sure why, but I kind of went into this book expecting a romance with some semblance of a plot happening in the background, but that’s not it at all. If I’m honest, none of the plot twists really shocked me and it did do things I’ve seen in fantasy books before, but does that actually matter? As the saying goes, there are no new stories. What holds a book together is it’s setting and its characterisation and, of course, the execution of it all. Cloaked in Shadow absolutely flourishes on all accounts. Every single room, landscape, creature and character (and morsel of food. Cough) I felt like I was there and interacting with.

The narrator and protagonist, Zacriah, is funny, sweet and relatably exasperated for 90% of the book. Prince Hadrian is as charming and dreamy as you’d hope any prince to be (In personality he reminded me of somewhere between Nikolai from the Grisha books and Cal from Red Queen. Um, Swoonami!) And the secondary characters definitely don’t suffer for being secondary either – Zacriah’s ex, Petrer, is an asshole but still charming enough that you can see how Zacriah fell for him in the first place and Nyah, a friend Zacriah makes in the castle, was so utterly loveable I wanted her to be my best friend too. The antagonists are exciting and, as any good villain should, they totally dominate each scene they’re in. When the romance-y bits do come around it’s been paced so well prior with sweet flirtations and little affectionate scenes that you’re already completely in love with the couple before anything even happens.

I mentioned the world was fantastic too. It’s all castles and forest, pretty much what you’d expect in a high fantasy about royalty and elves I suppose, but it’s so wonderfully described and plays in to all the senses that it steals your heart perhaps even more than the characters that dwell in it.

I thought Cloaked in Shadow was going to be a decent book because a lot of authors and members of the book community that I admire were singing its praises, but it absolutely blew my expectations out of the water. I cannot wait to return to Zacriah’s story in the next book in Ben Alderson’s Dragori series – it’s already rocketed up to one of my most anticipated releases to come!