YA Fantasy, YA Sci Fi

My Review: Aurora Rising (The Aurora Cycle #1): by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Publish Date: May 7th, 2019
Number of Pages: 473 Pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Sci-Fi, YA Fantasy

To see my Fancast/Dreamcast of this series – Click HERE

Total Star Rating: 4 Stars

Do moons choose the planets they orbit? Do planets choose their stars? Who am I to deny gravity, Aurora? When you shine brighter than an constellation in the sky?”

— Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff, “Aurora Rising”

Think “Guardians of the Galaxy” + “The Breakfast Club” + “Ocean’s Eleven” + a single character who’s no longer in Kansas, and you’ve got a basic idea of the vibes of this YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel thats by the dynamic duo who’ve also written the popular Illuminae Files series. I personally have not read them myself, but the hardcover designs are simply gorgeous, and I’ve heard only great things from those who have read them!

I think not having read the previous series actually allowed me to enjoy this book more, as from what I’ve read from other reviewers on Goodreads, a lot of them who’ve read the Illuminae Files were actually pretty disappointed with this book. The most complaints I saw were about how the characters didn’t feel fully developed, how they were too cliché, or how the plot and conflict wasn’t exciting enough. What I can argue with all that is how we need to remember that this is only the first book in a new trilogy, and like the curse that a lot of other more well known Sci-Fi/Fantasy trilogies/series have is how the first book is like the tip of the iceberg: you glimpse the top of it that’s above the surface, but underneath is SOOOO much more waiting to be found! Can we all agree that we shouldn’t judge a series based off just the first book? I can name several books/series off the top of my head that suffer the first book being the weakest, but then it massively improves: The Hunger Games trilogy, the Harry Potter series, the Throne of Glass series, A Court of Thorns and Roses series, The Folk of the Air trilogy, and even the Captive Prince Trilogy.

I will say this book had a magnificent beginning and end, but the middle was slower than I’d hoped for. I feel like maybe there weren’t a whole lot of twists after the call to action with the main character joining the rest of the crew, and then not really until the last small chunk of the book as well. Sure, you get to know the characters a little more and get to hear from all their point of views—some more than others—but you do start to enjoy them and their dynamic like any other “found family” aesthetic that was what drew me into the story in the first place.

I’d say the main highlight for me was the main characters and their group dynamic. Sure, they’re all kind of cliché and nothing too original, but that was what both the authors intended for in the story, and it’s not like they don’t develop and start to veer away from their original stereotypical character arcs. They all had some sort of development throughout the story, and learn that just because they’re a group of misfits and outcasts, doesn’t mean they aren’t a ride or die crew that would fight for each other until the very end! There also wasn’t as much background info/backstory on all of them revealed, but let’s be honest… if the authors did include all that right away, I’m sure people would’ve complained and said it was all info-dumps. I say, there’s two more books that are supposed to follow for this series, let’s space out this information because we don’t need all this revealed to us at once, and it’s not like the characters won’t continue to grow and change as these books go on.

Overall, this book was definitely one of the more fun books to read in the genre; the two authors obviously work well together to create a captivating story, and I really wish I knew what their process was like. Who wrote what exactly, or what part did either of them play in the development of this story? If anyone knows the answers, or has a link to help, please feel free to send it my way! I’m always curious to see what prominent authors’s writing processes are like.

What It’s About:

The year is 2380, and the graduating cadets of Aurora Academy are being assigned their first missions. Star pupil Tyler Jones is ready to recruit the squad of his dreams, but his own boneheaded heroism sees him stuck with the dregs nobody else in the Academy would touch…

Image courtesy of Instagram artist: @kiranight_art

A cocky diplomat named Scarlett with a black belt in sarcasm…
A sociopath scientist named Zila with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates…
A smart-ass techwiz named Fin with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder…
An alien warrior named Kal with anger management issues…
A tomboy pilot named Cat who’s totally not into him, in case you were wondering…

And Ty’s squad isn’t even his biggest problem—that’d be Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, the girl he’s just rescued from interdimensional space. Trapped in cryo-sleep for two centuries, Auri is a girl out of time and out of her depth. But she could be the catalyst that starts a war millions of years in the making, and Tyler’s squad of losers, discipline-cases and misfits might just be the last hope for the entire galaxy.

They’re not the heroes we deserve, they’re just the ones we could find… Nobody panic.

Believe me, handsome, one of me is way more than you can handle.

‘I think… I’m gonna be sick,’ Lachlan declares.

‘I know the feeling,’ Cat sighs.

‘No, seriously,’ he burps. ‘Where’s the… bathroom?

Inside said bathroom, the five of us exchange a brief, horrified glance.”

— Amie Kaufman, “Aurora Rising”

What I Liked:

  1. The Found Family Trope! Like many other books/series I’ve reviewed on my blog, this is a fiction trope that I never get tired of! I still love the stories with outcasts who’ve all had society overlook them, toss them together and they all develop a deep bond and form a chosen family aesthetic. I live for these stories.
  2. The Banter & Humor! It was a little immature at certain times, but the overall humor and banter that occurs in Aurora Rising does make it a more light and fun story amongst the many within the genre that try to take themselves too seriously. Fin is the biggest character that surrounds this, and he’s a fan favorite for sure!
  3. It’s Just Fun! Kind of going off the previous point made, I just liked the lighter tone and humor this book had to offer. There were just a few instances and one-liners that I couldn’t help but chuckle at, which honestly doesn’t happen as often as I’d like when reading. The book doesn’t take itself so seriously, and that’s totally fine! Not everything needs to be Grimmdark in order for it to be an affective story.
  4. Tyler Jones! The Captain of the crew who was so obviously inspired off of Steve Rogers—just try and convince me otherwise—and the main reason I’m including him on here is because I liked his development from doing everything by the books to ordering his crew to shoot at the officers sharp on their tails, and of course because of that one scene with our broody, muscle-bound tank, Kal. I honestly didn’t see it coming, but loved it all the same!

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. Too Many POV’s?…So, part of the reason I was drawn to this book was because I’m planning out my own Fantasy genre tale with a found family aesthetic told through multiple perspectives, and with how this book was more highly rated than a ton of other titles and for research purposes, I wanted to see how those aspects were executed. All I can really say is that while having seven POV’s in this story may have worked alright for the plot, it didn’t really allow the characters to develop as much as a lot of readers would’ve hoped for. Personally, I think 3 or 4 characters got a lot more attention in terms of the POV’s rotating around, while the others didn’t really get as much to make them stand out. Maybe that’ll change for the next books in the trilogy? I’ll admit, not all the characters need massive development all at the same time; space it out and give the weaker characters more attention in the later books!
  2. First Book Only Sets the Scene…Like I’d mentioned above, but this book suffers the “first book curse” as I’d like to call it. What I mean is how the plot seems too simple, not large enough, and the characters aren’t as developed, and all we get in the end is a mere hint of how big things will become. Essentially, the first book merely sets the scene for the whole rest of the series. This was especially apparent in the Throne of Glass series and The Hunger Games, where the plot really doesn’t thicken until at least the second book in, but not a whole lot a lot actually happens in the first. With that in mind, if this is going to be the weakest book of the set, that means the others could be absolutely amazing!

Conclusion:

Aurora Rising is a fun, adventurous, entertaining start to a new series in the YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre that infuses “The Breakfast Club” and “Guardians of The Galaxy” into its main frame. The characters are stereotypical arcs that we’re all familiar with, but there’s hope that they’ll continue to grow and veer away from the familiarity that was initially placed upon them. The plot was fast-paced, yet simple, but again there’s the hope that so much more is going to happen! We glimpsed the tip of this iceberg, but there’s so much more below the surface.

I recommend this title to anyone else who loves the found family trope I keep talking about, who enjoy humorous & immature banter with awkward situations, and those who especially enjoy “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

As I share this review, I know the second book, Aurora Burning, has just been released recently and features our favorite moody, broody space elf, Kal (who’s totally a carbon copy of Rowan Whitethorn from the Throne of Glass series, not that that’s a bad thing)! I can definitely say I will be seeking out a copy for myself soon enough to place it next to this book on my personal library shelf.

Thanks For Reading!

— Nick Goodsell

Horror, Mystery/Thriller, YA Contemporary Fiction

My Review: Project 17: by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Publish Date: December 18th, 2007
Number of Pages: 248 Pages
Publisher: Hyperion
Genre(s): Young Adult, Paranormal, Mystery, Horror

Total Star Rating: 3.25 Stars

Who hasn’t had the urge to break into an old building that’s probably haunted? Imagine talking this over with your friends:

Let’s go film a movie, make some creepy scenes, put the hot girl right in the main shot to get views, and maybe ignore those footsteps we keep hearing, the shadows that keep moving, or maybe the bloody graffiti that spelled “GET OUT” back there…nothing can go wrong, right?

So I will be honest, I have not read this book in quite some time. In fact, the last time I ever opened the pages was probably 2009-2010, and even then it was purely for nostalgia, because this book holds a special place in my heart. As cheesy as it sounds, it was a key that opened up a time of my life that I look back on rather fondly. You’re really interested and want to hear the story???

I know you don’t, but screw it, here it goes:

It’s 8th grade, and me and my classmates get into groups for a big english project in making a short film. There’s groups of 5-6 students, and one of my partners, Shelby, introduced this book to our group when we were still figuring out what to do. None of us had ever read it, but it inspired us to make our own version of it, which was basically a cheap, god-awful Blair Witch Project knockoff with no plot other than random kids walking a dark hallway and things pop out and scare the crap out of them. I can say though, we got creative and ripped a doll’s head off, hung it by a string and shined a strobe light on with a creepy recording of a girl saying “Baby Debbie come to play, Baby Debbie come to DIE,” the last word going demonically low, which got quite a few laughs from the classmates that watched it.

The point of this story is what it did, which was surround me with a group of girls: Vy, Jenna, Melodi, Shelby and Rachel; it had us hang out a lot outside of school, and helped make some great memories that made me feel like I’d found a small group of actual friends for the first time in my life. Unfortunately, I lost contact with pretty much all of them thanks to high school and then moving away for college, but It was still one of the best parts of my life! Thanks girls! I doubt you’ll ever read this, but from the bottom of my heart and to quote Fall Out Boy, Thanks for the memories!

I apologize to everyone else; there was just a lot of backstory with this book as it’s got a lot of sentimental value to me, but now onto this actual book itself!

What It’s About:

This story is about Danvers State Hospital, an abandoned insane asylum atop Hathorne Hill just off the edge of Boston. It was rumored that the lobotomy was created there, and hundreds of unmarked graves littered the grounds of those that perished away within the cold, hard walls; their spirits haunting the dark and ominous halls. The building is about to be torn down, and all the memories and restless souls lost forever.

This story is about six teenagers who make one last appearance before the building is demolished, and they all have their own reasons for being there:

Derik is the popular guy with the less-than-stellar reputation when it comes to girls, and has been an underachiever because he knows he’s pretty much trapped into taking over the family diner unless he makes something of himself past graduation. He falls upon a film competition with prize money; it may be his last chance at a better life.

Liza is the smart, gorgeous, unattainable overachiever who has perfect grades, her transcripts for college all spick and spam, shiny and perfect except for one thing…she never really did any extracurriculars. Colleges look to see how students get involved; it’s not just about good grades and test scores anymore; maybe a student film being made is her chance to beef up her resumé?

Mimi is a rebel, an outsider, someone who doesn’t belong, and has people look at her funny because she wears all black and has lots of makeup and piercings on her face. She tries to hide it, but she has a personal reason for wanting to get into Danvers before it’s demolition, and despite the company, she volunteers to join Derik’s project.

Chet is the class clown, can’t take anything seriously, and usually makes just about everything into a sexual innuendo, but if he has to go back to that house where his father hits him almost every night, he might just hit his breaking point…whats another night out of that house and away from his drunken father’s fists?

Greta and Tony are the theater nerds who don’t know the boundaries of PDA…They are looking for any chance to get their made-up crowns onscreen in some way, and this project that Derik has started may or may not be their ticket to fame…

They all come from different social circles, but they all come together and break into the abandoned hospital on the eve of its demolition and film their adventures. Maybe they’ll get a few souvenirs to bring home, make a fun movie, but things quickly take on a darker, twisted and more ominous tone as strange occurrences keep happening: cold spots in the basement, film and audio equipment malfunctioning, doors locking on themselves, and the feeling that they may not be alone…

Soon, they find themselves trapped in a deadly scavenger hunt as they unravel some of the terrible secrets this hospital had kept locked and hidden until now, and a mystery that surrounds a specific inmate and the importance of the number 17 that keeps showing up all over the place. Together, they will work together to try and help one lost soul hopefully find their way, and have the night change them all forever…

What I Liked:

  1. The Research Done About Danvers! So fun fact, but Danvers was actually a real place! It was an insane asylum that was fully constructed in 1874, opened in 1878, then eventually closed down in 1992. It was actually demolished like they talk about in the story, and was also the setting in the horror flick, Session 9, which filmed on the actual ruins of the building. I never watched it, and I hear it’s much more gruesome than this novel, but remains of the very few visual pieces that showcases the actual site of the hospital. The author really seemed to have done her research on the building and its tragic history, including its well…questionable methods of therapy, and implemented it incredibly well into her story. She touches on the horrific past of malpractice of the patients that were admitted to places like Danvers and plenty of others back in the day.
  2. “The Breakfast Club” Trope! Some could argue that it’s played out, boring, and overdone, but I always appreciate books that have a cast of characters that normally don’t interact with each other, but are somehow forced together by some sort of force or plot point, whether it be in after-school detention, or you know…illegally breaking into an abandoned asylum to make a short student film. The cast of characters are nothing original (The popular jock, the theater nerds, the clown, the princess, etc.) but they make for reading the book to be enjoyable while touching on the issues of rumors and reputation while trying to survive high school in a more modern setting than a John Hughes’ 80’s teen classic.
  3. The Mystery Around Christine! So while they explore the hospital (collecting files, souvenirs, graffiti from over the years, gathering footage, and even discover a bathtub with bars enclosed over the top), they discover the diary of one of the patients from many years ago, a young girl named Christine. Through the diary, the dark secrets of Danvers comes to light and the teens find themselves on a hunt through the whole hospital of finding out what happened to her and if they can possibly put her spirit to rest.
  4. It’s A Quick Read! This book is lighter in volume, so it’s a good choice for more beginner level readers, or someone who just needs a quick, fast read that’s somewhat entertaining. For the speedier readers, you may even be able to finish this book in one setting! The ending is also quite satisfying and ties everything together quite well, especially for Mimi.
Danvers State Hospital, circa 1893, image credit to owner

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. It’s Not Creepy Enough…If you’re looking for something to really scare the crap out of you, make you afraid to walk into any dark room or make you need to leave the light on while you sleep, this book is not for you…It’s pretty basic and safe in terms of violence, gore or any other sort of horror aspects. There are some creepy moments, sure, but nothing that really seems too shocking for someone who’d consider themselves a veteran of the horror genre.
  2. Too Much Plot Convenience…While I can excuse the cliché characters, one thing that irked me was how easy and convenient it was for the characters to find patient’s files, equipment, props, etc. especially when it was integral to the plot. Like, it felt so choreographed that important documents just happened to be lying around on the floor, conveniently waiting to be discovered by them when they popped into the room, and it had classified information towards the malpractice of the doctors and nurses… The building’s been closed for quite some time by the time they get there, shouldn’t the place be leached out by then? Or the Documents have been shredded or something?

Conclusion:

While it’s pretty basic in terms of horror and creepiness, it’s still a quick and fun read for someone who’s looking for something along the lines of creepy, paranormal fiction. The characters are nothing new or original, but they make for a familiar and funny little escape for those that’d open the pages and give this book a try. It’s a good starting point for those that hate to read, but still need something to read for whatever reason, like an easy book report. It’s not deep and meaningful, it’s just fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell

LGBT, Mystery/Thriller, YA Contemporary Fiction

My Review: One of Us Is Lying (One of Us Is Lying #1): by Karen McManus

Publish Date: May 30th 2017
Number of Pages: 361 Pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre(s): YA Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, LGBT

Total Star Rating: 4 Stars

It’s John Hughes meets Agatha Christie: The Breakfast Club meets And Then There Were None in this angsty, YA murder mystery debut novel from Karen McManus.

To be honest, I was intrigued to read this title as soon as I’d heard about it because it feels like the mystery genre has been untouched upon for the YA/Teen reading level over the years, and not many titles have been released for Young Adult/Teenage readers. I could totally be wrong on that, but if so, no other mystery titles have had the publicity this book received!

I’m always up for a good whodunnit-style murder mystery, and adding teenagers and modern technology of the 2010’s was something that I hadn’t read really before and wanted to see how it’d be portrayed. The only comparison I could think of that also did it in a really creative and fun way was MTV’s TV show version of the Scream franchise, but that’s more in the horror side, so there’s still a little bit of a gap there to be honest.

As I read this title, I was drawn into the whole mystery that drives the story and how the characters develop as secrets get revealed, unrequited feelings arise, and relationships of all kinds are tested as four students at Bayview High become the prime suspects in another student’s unexpected murder! Sure, the characters start off as the stereotypical character archetypes we’re all familiar with: the brainiac, the bad boy, the jock, and the prom queen. This is where the John Hughes inspiration stops however, because as you read on, the characters continue to prove they are so much more complicated than just the categorization we can’t help but compartmentalize them into.

I had to say that as the big reveal presented itself, I didn’t expect it coming! I truly didn’t know who was behind it the entire time I was reading this story; was it someone else, or was it one of the four main characters who were behind it? The unpredictability of the story was a major plus!

What It’s About:

The story starts out like a familiar 80’s teen flick; five high school students are on their way to detention, but the story really starts when one of them never comes back out alive. The victim, Simon, ran a website of scandals that involved everyone who goes to their school, Bayview High (Yes…it’s very much like Gossip Girl, except everyone actually knows it’s him), and it turned out that the very four others he was in detention with were going to be the topics of his next post, revealing all their darkest secrets to the public. Sounds too good to be a coincidence, right? Well, the cops sure think so, and very quickly, all four of them become the prime suspects in this case. Who could it be?

Bronwyn: The scholar who’s never late and always has perfect grades, but is tired of the weight of the pressure to succeed?

Cooper: The star athlete who suddenly got a little extra swing into his batting average?

Nate: The rebel with an illegal side job, but it’s secretly for a noble cause?

Addie: The prom queen with a spot free reputation, but can barely hide the cracks that threaten to shatter everything?

What I liked:

  1. The Story Is Told From Multiple Perspectives! The story is told from each of the surviving four teenagers and their take on what happened. Each had their own distinct voice and personality that helped the reader get to know them and see them develop as the mystery moved forward. Yes, all of them have dark secrets that they hoped would never see the light of day, but honestly, who doesn’t? The secrets made each character have flaws that make them feel more well rounded and authentic, and anyone who wouldn’t like them because they made less than noble choices is seriously kidding themselves.
  2. There’s Stereotypes, But With a Twist! The author does rely on the stereotypical teen character tropes as a starting point for the book: the outsider, the brainiac, the jock, the criminal, and the princess, but makes them all do a big 180 spin and completely drops the cliché tropes like a trapdoor.
  3. The Mystery! It’s quite simple; I love a good whodunnit kind of mystery, and this one was an interesting addition.
  4. The Author’s Writing Style! Karen wrote in such a way that I know the younger generations that these characters fall under can understand and enjoy within the story; she really gets how their minds work, how they’d react, what they care about; she really understands her characters, their motivations and uses that knowledge to create a vivid and believable dynamic amongst them.
  5. The Romance! I don’t care what anyone says, I’m a sucker for romance! A relationship develops in the story, and it was indeed one of my favorite parts of the whole story. They say a good romance is when the characters shouldn’t have to kiss in order to prove that they have chemistry, and I think that was done exceptionally well. Their interactions were a big high point for me.

What I didn’t Like:

  1. Back to the Clichés…While I did enjoy the obvious stereotypical characters that completely change as the story progresses, I felt like falling back on those as a base for the characters and introducing them in that manner meant that the author could only go so far with their development, thus limiting herself to anything extremely extraordinary. Some could argue that she tries to stretch away from the stereotypes that towards a point, they seem to not even seem all that realistic of characters? Personally, I didn’t feel that way, but I can see how others could give this criticism.
  2. There’s Nothing Learned…While the book was entertaining to read, that just about the only thing that really drove the story: the entertainment factor. I didn’t feel any different after reading it, nor did I have a deep, meaningful lesson or theme that stuck after I finished other than the typical mystery theme of “everyone has secrets”. It’s almost a guilty pleasure in a way: it’s juicy, exciting and you keep reading to see what happens next, but if it doesn’t do any of that, it could start to feel like soda that’s gone flat compared to a freshly cracked open can. There might not be enough substance for more experienced readers to really consider it incredibly worthwhile.
  3. Cheaters…The author does seem to gloss over the fact that two characters, one of them a main character, are caught cheating on their significant other. Some could complain that it wasn’t called out enough to be considered a worry from the author’s standpoint, and I know that cheating girlfriends/boyfriends is a touchy subject.
  4. The Climax…Maybe I’m just too evolved of a reader for much of YA now, but honestly, the big reveal for the climax fell a little flat. Honestly, *mild spoiler alert*……………….but the reveal of a character turning out to be gay felt like a bigger twist.

Conclusion:

Personally, I did greatly enjoy the story, even as someone in the 18-24 age range when I read it. For me, the main cast of characters and their developing group dynamic was the main factor keeping me interested in reading on. I liked the characters immensely, and really became emotionally involved as I got to know them better, and how they came together in order to solve the mystery.

The only question is, how great can a murder mystery really be when it’s mainly character driven? I will leave this review with this: if you’re newer to reading or YA/Teen centric books, beginner level mysteries, or for anyone who was a big fan of TV shows like Pretty Little Liars or Riverdale, it’s probably a great choice but maybe wouldn’t be enjoyed as much for more advanced readers.

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell