Saturday, October 18, 2014

ARC Review: Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay


Title: Princess of Thorns

Author: Stacey Jay

Rating: 2 Stars

Release Date: December 9th, 2014

I picked up Princess of Thorns expecting a fairy tale re-telling on the scale of Jay's Of Beast and Beauty.

Don't do that.

Princess of Thorns is nothing like Of Beast and Beauty, which is, frankly, a disappointment. Of Beast and Beauty burst upon my bookshelf last year with a fresh, innovative take on the age-old tale of "Beauty and the Beast." It wasn't solely Jay's creativity that set it apart as one of the finest re-tellings of "Beauty and the Beast" to be told, it was also her willingness to explore all-too-human themes in a fantastical settings, her risk-taking with a truly evil villain on hand, and her impeccable pacing that introduced plot twists when the reader least expected it. What's more, at its core Of Beast and Beauty is a love story; a beautiful one. It's impossible to pick up Jay's former novel and not become lost in the swirls of tension, passion, and love that emanate from these characters. Sadly, Princess of Thorns contains none of that.

For one, it should be noted that Princess of Thorns is not a re-telling of "Sleeping Beauty." Instead, it continues the original French story, only instead of ending completely in death and demise, Princess Aurora's two children live and are raised by the fey to eventually fight their evil ogre family. Princess of Thorns begins promisingly enough, what with a prophecy being foretold and Ror, our protagonist, becoming a fierce and determined leader. Certainly, from the first few pages, Jay's latest seemed to possess the qualities needed to make Princess of Thorns as big a success as Of Beast and Beauty but, alas, it was not to be so.

My main issue with Princess of Thorns is, quite simply, that it is boring. Aurora is on a quest to win over an army and save her younger brother, Jor, from his current imprisonment with the Ogre Queen who wishes both Ror and her brother dead. With her is Niklaas, the eleventh son of an immortal king who has cursed his heirs to turn into swans on their eighteenth birthday so that his kingdom may never be turned over to them. (Also, can I just inject here that this entire plot thread is ridiculously weak? Is this meant to be another re-telling similar to Marillier's Daughter of the Forest randomly interjected with "Sleeping Beauty"?) Niklaas finds Ror and, presuming that Aurora is her younger brother, Jor, agrees to help her on her quest if Jor will introduce Niklaas to his elder sister so Niklaas may propose marriage to Aurora. Niklaas needs to marry in order to escape his curse but Aurora's fairy blessings prevent her from even kissing another and, parading around as her younger brother Jor, their relationship forms into a tight friendship after their initial revulsion passes. Though their journey could have been intriguing, with "Jor" diplomatically fighting to win over an army or find one (*ahem* Aragorn in Return of the King when he rallies the ghost army to fight for him!), this novel passes by with Aurora and Niklaas merely walking, sleeping, talking.

What's worse, there's barely a hint of chemistry between Niklaas and Aurora. I enjoyed the manner in which their relationship developed but I wasn't wholly involved with it. Plus, Niklaas is the type of male protagonist who enjoys boasting of the broken hearts and cold beds he leaves behind and while Aurora is strong, capable, and a perfect match for him, I found Niklaas's subtle misogyny to be...unpleasant. Of course, Jay allows her characters to grow and change over the course of the novel and the ending is satisfying, though anticlimactic. It isn't the epic battle we expect it to be and, on that count, it's disappointing. Jay doesn't pull out all the stops when it comes to her villain this time around either--yet another upsetting factor--but the last few pages ensure that readers finish Princess of Thorns with a smile if nothing else.

Unlike Of Beast and Beauty, this novel is not introspective, reflective, or thought-provoking in the least. The relationship dynamics are all present--and I really enjoyed the glimpses of Ror and Jor's sibling relationship--but ultimately, this isn't a novel to boast about. Its gorgeous cover aside, I wouldn't recommend it and frankly feel as if readers who expect the same caliber of Of Beast and Beauty will be happier skipping out on this one. Sorry Princess of Thorns, but you leave much wanting.

You can read my review for Of Beast & Beauty (which I highly recommend!) HERE

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson


Title: I'll Give You the Sun 

Author: Jandy Nelson

Rating: 5 Stars

I often didn't want to read I'll Give You the Sun. Nelson's debut, The Sky is Everywhere, sits pristinely on my shelf despite numerous re-reads as I flip through my favorite passages, the poems most beloved to my heart, and swoon again and again and again because Joe Fontaine. I couldn't, for the life of me, imagine that I'll Give You the Sun would be able to compare. After all, I couldn't relate to a novel about twins. About art. About grief. A novel told from two different perspectives, two different genders, two different time lines. I'll Give You the Sun arrived on my doorstep as a pre-packaged risk--one I wasn't sure I was ready to take. Until, of course, I cracked open the spine and Nelson rendered me speechless, useless, and nearly heartless. Again.

I'll Give You the Sun is a vastly different novel from The Sky is Everywhere but the atmosphere created by Nelson--the distinct flavor of her--is still present. While Nelson's debut dealt, from the onset, with grief, with moving on, with battling the inner demons and wrestling the outer ones, I'll Give You the Sun is a far more subtle discussion of similar topics. It is told from the perspectives of Noah and Jude, twin brother and sister whose lives have been intertwined from womb to birth and beyond. Noah, at thirteen years old, begins the novel and his narration is a burst of color on the page. Noah is an artist. Not only does he see the world around him in the shades of his paintbrush and the strokes of his hand, but he's constantly cramped over a drawing pad. For Noah, art isn't a lifestyle; it's his life. At thirteen, Noah is shy, quiet, and often alone. Jude, by contrast, is popular. A complete dare-devil, she seems to have inherited the strong, "masculine" traits that their father always pushes Noah to attain. But Noah, thirteen years old, in love with his talent, often bullied, and burdened by the knowledge that he is attracted to the men, is a narrative voice I cannot forget. Once heard, it will stay with me; constantly. Every other chapter we hear Noah speak; first thirteen, then thirteen and a half, slowly pushing fourteen, until fourteen hits. Over the course of a mere year Noah will fall in love, he will destroy his relationship with his sister, he will grow green with envy, he will yearn to achieve his dream of gaining entrance into art school, and he will lose his true love.

Jude, whose narration picks up two years later at sixteen, is a changed individual from the flighty, fun, and flirty teen she used to be through Noah's eyes just three years ago. Now, Jude attends the prestigious art school Noah dreamed of attending. She wears conservative clothes, speaks to the ghost of her dead grandmother, is estranged from Noah, and blames herself for her mother's death. It's a shocking juxtaposition, at first, to read Noah's tender, innocent, and all too child-like perspective where he draws, dreams, and is constantly able to rely on his twin sister and then, suddenly, to be yanked into Jude's head, two years later, where she and Noah barely speak to one another; where she has lost her love for life; where, somehow, she is living her brother's dream while he lives the life of the popular high school jock. What happened? It's the question that plagues us, constantly, as we frantically flip the pages while simultaneously smoothing them down to make the words last longer, the sensations linger deeper, to soak in the full impact of the tale at hand.

I'll Give You the Sun is gut-wrenching, certainly, but only because Nelson makes you feel so deeply for her characters that their grief becomes our grief. It's beautifully written, descriptions of art grazing the pages opposed to the poetry of The Sky is Everywhere but, unsurprisingly, under Nelson's prose it is just as evocative and powerful. Moreover, I love the love stories Nelson creates. Like Gayle Forman and Stephanie Perkins, Nelson writes true love; love forged by fate, intertwined by destiny, and brought together by multiple life paths, not just one. It's the type of romance I simply cannot rip myself away from. I'm a sucker for these love stories, though countless readers likely point out their improbability, and Nelson made me fall hard not just for one or even two of the love stories told, but for all three within these pages. I have absolutely no qualms in admitting that the swoon Nelson writes in I'll Give You the Sun rivals the swoon of The Sky is Everywhere--and then some.

Yet, at its core, I'll Give You the Sun is a story of family. Of truths and deceptions. Of what love truly means. It leaves us thinking, by the end, after all the revelations are through, and the lingering unanswered questions of death remain, as in real life, the most bittersweet remembrances. Perhaps, though, what I love most about it is that the growth within it is not limited to age. Granted, both Jude and Noah grow and change immensely from Noah's perspectives to Jude's, two-three years in the future, but the adults around them are also, constantly, changing and being changed by the circumstances life throws at them. In The Sky is Everywhere the adult presence felt starkly adult; knowledgeable, reliable. A pillar, in other words. In I'll Give You the Sun, that isn't quite the case. Though it seems, to thirteen year old Noah, that his scientist father has it all figured out, to sixteen year old Jude it is evident that her father isn't himself. And though, to sixteen year old Jude, to seemed as though her mother knew it all, had all the right answers now, looking back, for fourteen year old Noah that wasn't the situation at all. For me, the lines blurring between by teenage-hood and adult-hood, these explorations of life, love, and longing at all stages truly spoke to me. Moreover, I loved seeing the beauty of existence shown through multiple generations in a manner only Nelson can possibly achieve.

For me, I'll Give You the Sun is a significantly more complex novel than The Sky is Everywhere. I love it because the intensity of its emotions is not linked solely to grief. I was able to understand, on so many levels, the complexity between Noah and Jude's relationship. From the stage where they fought for each parent's time and approval to the stage where they became jealous of one another and even beyond, so much of it rang true even without the added component of grief--which I, personally, enjoyed. Ultimately, I believe this novel will speak to every reader in some way or the other. It's just one of those novels. Pain demands to be felt; I'll Give You the Sun does too.

You can read my review of Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere HERE

Friday, October 10, 2014

Anthology Review: Shifting Shadows: Stories from the World of Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs


Title: Shifting Shadows: Stories from the World of Mercy Thompson

Author: Patricia Briggs

Rating: 4 Stars

Shifting Shadows is a definite must for fans of Mercy Thompson--no doubt about it. It opens with a relatively long tale--nearly novella length--which covers the initial meeting between Sam and Ariana. While it is often difficult for readers (at least myself) to tear away from the perfection that is Adam Hauptman, I truly adored the fact that this collection dares to give us the back stories of characters we've been curious about. Sam and Ariana's tale, though not one I'll likely ever find myself re-reading, is a powerful story with unexpected depth. Much later in the anthology, we re-visit this couple and understanding their past gives their present a rich undertone.

With the exception of "Silver", the majority of my favorite short stories from this novel are ones that have been published elsewhere. "Alpha & Omega" is stunning, as always, especially upon re-read. Tom's story with the blind witch (whose name I'm blanking on at the moment, sorry!) is just as compelling in its subtleties as I remembered. Of course, Kyle and Warren's story is unforgettable (that cowboy line though!). The last three short stories surround Mercy herself. Shortly following Night Broken she finds herself on a mission to dispel a ghost--and what a creepy ghost it is! I didn't expect to enjoy this tale as much as I did but, naturally, even the short presence of Adam Hauptman made my day.

Speaking of our resident werewolf, Adam's appearance in the last two tales--outtakes from Silver Borne and Night Broken--were utterly rewarding. It's often difficult to situate a reader in an isolated outtake, especially as I've read the majority of this series quite awhile ago, but Briggs manages to involve her reader completely in the world, time period, and situation she creates. Moreover, it would be remiss of me to ignore the brilliant and to-the-point synopses Briggs provides readers in the beginning of each short story. Not only does she inform us of where in the Mercy-verse each story falls, but she also gives us insider information on the creation of the novellas, which I always enjoy.

Shifting Shadows would not be the strong volume it is without the presence of Asil thrown cleverly into the middle of the anthology. While I'd have cherished a tale of Asil's mate, I grew to thoroughly enjoy the tale Briggs weaved for him and found myself missing it when it finished. Ultimately, this collection is full of depth, character growth, and back stories that only enrich our understanding of the world Briggs has built. If nothing else, it enables us to see that the extent of Briggs's imagination has only briefly been touched and that, as readers, we are still in for such a treat regarding future Mercy installments. I, for one, cannot wait. (I already need more Adam Hauptman in my life!)

Monday, October 6, 2014

ARC Review: Whatever Life Throws at You by Julie Cross


Title: Whatever Life Throws at You

Author: Julie Cross

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: October 7th, 2014

When it comes to authors, like Julie Cross, whose past work has received a variety of mixed reviews, I hardly know whether or not to invest in their trilogies. Is it worth my time to dive into those three books? Or am I doomed to emerge unhappy like countless readers before me? When Whatever Life Throws at You landed on my doorstep, though, I figured I had the perfect opportunity. Not only could I sample Cross's prose, but it was a contemporary stand-alone and bound to bring a heady dose of swoon into my life.

I found a lot to love within the pages of Whatever Life Throws at You. Cross's latest centers around seventeen-year-old Annie Lucas, a hard-core runner whose dream is to land a scholarship for track. Her father, once a major league baseball player who retired prematurely while battling cancer, has just been offered the job opportunity of a lifetime to return to baseball, this time as a coach, and Annie refuses to allow her father to give up this chance. All she wants is to see him happy and if that means moving across the country to an all-girls high school, it's a small price to pay. In Missouri, though, Annie doesn't expect to run into the Royal's new--and very attractive--pitcher. Nor does she expect to fall for him as hard as she does. Brody and Annie start out as mere friends but is Annie truly a match for a nineteen-year-old on the verge of stardom? And even if Brody finally sees Annie as more than a little-sister figure, there are always consequences for every action...

At the center of Whatever Life Throws at You is a strong father-daughter relationship which I fell head-over-heels for. When it comes to familial relationships, sibling bonds or parental struggles are often emphasized in YA so I appreciated the breath of fresh air Cross brought with Annie's relationship concerning her father. Annie and her father are best friends, practically. He's supported her all her life, especially with her mother breezing in and out of the house, and Annie both looks up to and respects him immensely. I really felt the strength of their bond, even early in the novel, and their growth arc throughout the novel is incredibly real-to-life. Moreover, I enjoyed how Cross juxtaposed the ease of Annie's relationship with her father to the turmoil of other parent-child relationships in the novel. Annie may not have a steadfast mother or a whole lot of wealth, but her father makes up for all of it.

Annie's relationship with Brody is additionally at the forefront of this novel. Brody is nineteen-years-old, out of high school, and about to become a star baseball pitcher. Annie doesn't expect him to like her, let alone care for her in any capacity, but as they spend more and more time together she can't help but begin to fall for him. What I love about their relationship is that it begins firmly as a friendship and their understanding of each other, their trust in one another, and the affection they share is a cornerstone of their bond. Brody has so many hidden layers to him beyond his ability to pitch and as Annie peels those back, slowly, the entire novel opens up in new and unexpected ways. What's more, I love Cross's decision to explore the sexual aspect of Brody and Annie's relationship. Cross doesn't romanticize sex, for one, which is a relief. What's more, instead of simply jumping from making out to outright sex, Cross fills in the gaps, proving there are more ways than one to grow physically closer to a partner. More often than not, these ideals are glossed over in YA and I give Cross props for approaching sex in YA in a new and improved light.

Yet, where Whatever Life Throws at You falters is in the dilemma built up over the course of the story. For one, it felt far too superficial and inauthentic for me to truly invest in and by the time all hell broke loose, I simply felt removed from the novel. What's more, it feels jarring against the backdrop of such a mature, realistic YA contemporary. Another aspect of the novel I felt could have used a dose of improvement were Annie's friendships outside of Brody. In her entire high school she makes exactly one friend and, even then, though their interactions were more frequent in the beginning of the novel, they almost entirely peter out by the end when the entire focus shifts to her romance with Brody.

So. Not. Cool. Yet, regardless of that, Whatever Life Throws at You is a sweet, swoon-worthy contemporary to curl up with for a few hours. I know next to nothing about baseball and still wound up enjoying it--there's just something about all the sports-related novels that are so much fun, what with all the fake tension about a game being lost--so I'd certainly recommend this to readers. Its positives outweigh its negatives by far and I'm looking forward to reading a voice as natural and authentic as Annie's from Cross soon.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips


Title: Heroes Are My Weakness

Author: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Rating: 3 Stars
The dead of winter.
An isolated island off the coast of Maine.
A man.
A woman.
A sinister house looming over the sea ...
He's a reclusive writer whose macabre imagination creates chilling horror novels. She's a down-on-her-luck actress reduced to staging kids' puppet shows. He knows a dozen ways to kill with his bare hands. She knows a dozen ways to kill with laughs.
But she's not laughing now. When she was a teenager, he terrified her. Now they're trapped together on a snowy island off the coast of Maine. Is he the villain she remembers or has he changed? Her head says no. Her heart says yes.
It's going to be a long, hot winter.
More often than not, Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author I turn to in desperate need of a pick-me-up. Not only do her characters draw me in, but her romances manage to contain depth while remaining light reads I can breeze through and simply enjoy. Heroes Are My  Weakness, however, proved a bit too odd for my liking. It isn't a bad novel, not in the least, but being a blend of many genres and time periods forces its narrative to stutter and though I became engrossed in the love story by the last third of this novel, it wasn't enough to redeem the entirety of the story in my eyes.

From the beginning of the novel itself, I struggled--stylistically--with Heroes Are My Weakness. Anne, our protagonist, is a ventriloquist and the presence of her puppets are integral to the storyline and, moreover, to her psyche. Thus, the fact that I wasn't a fan of their dialogue alongside Anne's thoughts made it difficult for me to immerse myself into this story. When the novel opens Anne is returning to the cottage owned by her mother on an isolated island off the coast of Maine. To her surprise, she bumps into Theo--the boy she loved as a teenager and grew to fear as their teenage romance took a dark turn. Now, Theo is an author with a wife who killed herself not too long ago and Anne is, still, both attracted and terrified of him.

It takes awhile for the entirety of Theo and Anne's past to come to light but the few glimpses we're given in the beginning all relate to Anne's fear of Theo. As kids, Theo often tormented Anne and now, looking back, she can't believe he once had such a sweet twin sister while he himself remains cold and aloof. Anne's descriptions of Theo travel back in time to draw parallels with Gothic romances. Everything from his old-era clothing to his impeccable manners and even to his Heathcliffe-like brooding. It's an odd juxtaposition of the old and the new and it didn't work for me for a very long time. Even more disturbing, though, Anne and Theo's romance is one I felt disconnected with from the start. After all, Anne doesn't like him. Theo made her childhood a misery, playing pranks on her and even putting her life in danger at times, so the weird fascination she has for him and her attraction to him read rather creepy.

Phillips does, eventually, manage to answer all unanswered questions and the story steers back to familiar romantic territory, full of classic mishaps and steamy scenes. Yet, Heroes Are My Weakness fails to stand out as a Susan Elizabeth Phillips romance. It lacks the humor I often associate with her novels and though the secondary characters are vividly cast, they remain forgettable. Ultimately, Theo and Anne don't have the type of spark--chemistry, if you will--that I've come to expect from SEP's leads. Looks like it's back to the Chicago Stars for me!