Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Shadowy Horses

Author: Susanna Kearsley 

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: I found it difficult to write my review of The Shadowy Horses without comparing it to the first novel I read by Kearsley, The Winter Sea. As a result, though both these novels are stand-alones, I discuss minor aspects of The Winter Sea in order to paint a better picture of The Shadowy Horses as a separate entity. Thus, just to confirm, this review contains no spoilers for The Winter Sea, though you can read my review for it HERE if you'd like.

The Shadowy Horses, oddly enough, threw my preconceived notions regarding Kearsley's work right out of the window. After having read The Winter Sea, I expected Kearsley's prose, plot, and characterization to follow a similar pattern, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. While her writing style does, once again, transport readers into a rich, ethereal atmosphere, little else about The Shadowy Horses was similar to The Winter Sea. Yet, despite the fact that Kearsley lacks a formulaic approach, the way most authors with a large back log tend to have, I fell in love with The Shadowy Horses just as much as I did with The Winter Sea, albeit in a slightly different way. 

Verity, the protagonist of The Shadowy Horses, is a far cry from the gentle personalities shared by both Carrie and Sophie of The Winter Sea. Instead, I find her to be a much more modern, ambitious woman, driven by her passion for her history and her belief in the impossible. When she arrives in the Scottish Borderlands on an excavation, she knows nearly nothing about her mission. It isn't too long, however, before she realizes that this dig isn't for just a mere artifact or two, but rather for the lost Ninth Roman Legion. And, the only evidence substantiating that the army is, in fact, on this property? Merely the word of a young boy, Robbie, who claims to have seen the ghost of a Roman Sentinel roaming the grounds. Before Verity can dismiss the excavation as a fraud, however, and simply walk away, the ghosts around her force her to question not only her sanity, but everything she has ever believed to be true. 

Oddly enough, I found the presence of the plot to be diminished in The Shadowy Horses. Although its premises is intriguing, as is the mystery contained within these pages, The Winter Sea seemed far more focused on a direct plot line than this novel did. Yet, that isn't a detriment in the least. The Shadowy Horses focuses on Verity and, moreover, her interactions with those around her. As Verity becomes part of the lifestyle at this excavation, forming relationships with those at the dig, she finds it harder and harder not to care and simply walk away. In fact, she eventually doesn't want to at all for she finds herself believing Robbie too. 

What's more, the enigmatic presence of Davy, another archaeologist on site whose family ties him to the Scottish Borderland, is a little too distracting to turn away from. Despite the fact that The Winter Sea contained not one, but two, romances, The Shadowy Horses is the more romantic of these two novels, perhaps because the romance is not quite so understated or perhaps, simply, because there is space to focus largely on the development of one sole romance. Whatever the reason may be, I enjoyed the love story that played out between Davy and Verity far more than I did either of the romances in The Winter Sea - and I really adored those romances when I read them. Needless to say, there was something tangible about the relationship between Davy and Verity, something about the chemistry sizzling in the air between them, that made me fall head-over-heels for their slow-burn love. Or, perhaps, it is simply the fact that I enjoy Verity far more as a protagonist than I did Carrie or Sophie of The Winter Sea.

With The Winter Sea, Kearsley's driving purpose is to finish the story: finish the story Carrie is writing about Sophie, finish the story she herself is writing about these two heroines to give them an ending worthy of their distinct personalities. With The Shadowy Horses, however, the historical aspects are not so much the main focal point as much as the general atmosphere of the novel is. Verity becomes entrenched into this small town, complete with its belief in Robbie's "second sight" as they like to call it. For a practical, intelligent woman to succumb to local legend, all while falling for a born-and-bred Scot in the process, somehow appealed to my senses just a tiiiny bit more. It helps, too, that she fights off exes with ease, truly harboring no lingering feelings for them to the point where she can work comfortable alongside them to further her career. All the little aspects to Verity's personality molded together into a protagonist I truly did love and hold dear to my heart. 

Nevertheless, it seems that with Kearsley one aspect of the story or another seems to be sacrificed along the way. As I mentioned, the historical aspects to The Shadowy Horses weren't as strong as they were in The Winter Sea, a disappointment due to the fact that I became intensely involved in the Jacobite Revolution while reading the former in a way I never became while reading the latter, concerning the Ninth Roman Legion at any rate. Still, both these novels are incredible works of historical fiction - beautifully written, richly crafted, and widely researched. In my eyes, no one book is better than the other, the positives and negatives of both neatly balancing one another. If it isn't already clear, Susanna Kearsley is a must-read for fans of historical fiction. (And, trust me, if you enjoy romance in any capacity you'll want to meet Davy...for sure!) 

Monday, April 21, 2014

ARC Review: The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

Title: The Art of Lainey

Author: Paula Stokes

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: May 20th, 2014

After varsity soccer play Lainey Mitchell gets dumped by her popular boyfriend, Jason, in front of her co-workers no less, Lainey resolves to get him back, no matter the cost. With the help of her best friend Bianca, the two scout the internet for tips - to no avail. The Art of War, however, an ancient Chinese text referred to when fighting battles, seems to perfectly suit their needs. And thus, Lainey launches an all-out war to win back her ex-boyfriend, employing Micah, one of her co-workers, to help her out. As Micah recently broke up with his girlfriend, the tattooed teen agrees to fake-date Lainey in an effort for them both to win back their respective significant others. As their charade heightens, however, Lainey begins to realize that she has always wanted may not necessarily be what she really needs...

The Art of Lainey, from the get-go itself, is a refreshingly feminist novel. Ever since Lainey fell into the popular crowd in high school, she has stopped being tomboy Lainey and started being the girlfriend of Jason, her best friend's older brother. In fact, the two have been dating for so long that Lainey can't even imagine life without him by her side. In short, from the time span between middle school and high school, Lainey has been living as Cinderella; the girl who went from nothing to something. After her unexpected break-up with Jason, however, Lainey is more concerned with facing her day-to-day life than her reputation. Like any teen, Lainey is loathe to embrace change and break-ups are difficult, drawn-out affairs that force individuals to realize that not only do they crave the simplicity of their lives prior to the break-up, but they also are simply unprepared for the possibilities that change brings. Instead of running back to Jason, though, or moping in silence, Lainey forces herself to get up, get out, and get her man.
For a second, I imagine going back as someone other than Jason Chase's girlfriend. My heart starts to race. Who would that girl even be?                                                                          I don't want to find out. 
While I'm not a fan of the fake boyfriend/girlfriend trope, I really appreciated the fact that Lainey is portrayed as an aggressive heroine. Not only is she extremely tall and muscular, to the point where she can be considered "buff", but her tumultuous feelings - anger, disappointment, shock, fear - are never suppressed. Instead, Stokes writes Lainey for the confused and complicated young woman she is and, by doing so, has unapologetically created the type of protagonist I scourge the pages of books trying to find. First and foremost, it is practically impossible to stick Lainey into any type of preconceived box. If we weren't given a description of her appearance, her narration would read just like any other popular student. Instead, however, her physical description forces her to stand out from the Mean Girl-esque Barbie dolls that plague our mind when we think of popularity in high school. Additionally, her close friendship with Bianca, a curvy young girl who has been Lainey's friend since childhood, is a far cry from the majority of childhood friendships which seem to fizzle out after high school is hit. Yet, perhaps most importantly, Lainey's aggressive stance regarding her boyfriend's behavior is never chided or looked down upon. In fact, everyone from her friends to her co-workers support her in her endeavor, despite its unconventionality. For me, the fact that Stokes gives her heroine free rein over her life, no matter the results or the morality of the situation or just the unprecedented nature of the event, is a large stepping stone in presenting a sensible, rational, but independent type of modern-day teenager.

Admittedly, Lainey's narration starts off rather shallow. After having been with only one clique for the majority of her teen years, she comes in with a slew of preconceived notions about Micah whose mohawk, tattoos, and jail sentences spell him out as the complete opposite of Jason. Gradually, though, as the story wears on, Lainey begins to change. Stokes times this impeccably, giving Lainey an ample amount of time to see the world around her in a new light, argue her own perspectives, and then come to understand and appreciate the views of others around her. In fact, the evolution of values that Lainey holds dear change so slowly that she herself doesn't even realize the extent to which she has altered as a person until she attempts to ingratiate herself back into her old lifestyle. As Lainey embarks on her "war" to win back Jason, though, she also allows herself to open up to new experiences she hadn't considered before and, as a result, is a far cry from the fearful teenager she starts out as, unwilling to let go of her past.

Micah, too, grows and changes from his friendship with Lainey, their relationship affecting them both in different ways. Once again, the build-up of emotion between these two is subtle and quite minimal, in fact, as they are both rather determined to win back their exes, but their relationship is a strong one precisely because they challenge one another. Instead of forcing Lainey to accept his lifestyle or vice versa, Lainey and Micah introduce each other to different aspects of their respective lives. And perhaps best of all, Micah isn't intimidated by Lainey, willing to dish it right back to her when she is too stubborn or simply acting too shallow to notice obvious facts staring her in the face. Thus, Stokes does away with so much unnecessary drama and angst, instead introducing both Lainey and Micah to an equal footing in their strange - and undefined - relationship.

What else does Stokes perfect? Friendships. I've already mentioned how Bianca and Lainey's continued support of one another from childhood to the teenage years isn't a relationship that is seen too often in Contemporary YA, but it truly only gets better from there. For one, Bianca and Lainey are already considering their future-lives after high school. Bianca, for instance, dreams of attending medical school while Lainey hopes to be scouted and later recruited to play soccer for the university she attends. It is all too common to hear of athletic guys contemplating their college choices or nerdy guys figuring out which Ivy League to attend, but the exploration of the college process for young females is sadly absent from literature (excluding the Dairy Queen Series, but then again, those books break a lot of classic molds). As such, the realistic conversations between these two were a pleasant surprise. Moreover, Bianca and Lainey have each others' backs in a way only true friends do. While Lainey often feels lonely because Bianca is busy and she no longer has a boyfriend to hang out with, I felt that the separation between these two girls was also a realistic issue, as is the strength of their friendship despite not spending every waking moment together.
"Do you want him back?"                                                                        I lower my voice. "I do. Is that terrible? We've spent the last two and a half years together, Bianca. I don't even know who I would be without him."                                                     "You would be my amazing friend, Lainey," Bee says vehemently. "The same person you've been since second grade. Seriously. You don't need Jason to define you."
The Art of Lainey combines a lot of classic elements - slow-burn/opposites attract romance, fake boyfriend/girlfriend trope, growth of a "popular" heroine - with a lot of not-so-classic ones such an aggressive heroine who isn't portrayed as bitter, strong sustainable friendships, and a love story whose foundation is based upon equality. And yet, it's the smaller instances that make this novel such a memorable one from the involvement of Lainey's parents in her life - minimal, but still there - to the three-dimensional quality of all the characters in this book, even Jason. Best of all, for me at least, is the fact that not all of Lainey's difficulties are solved in this volume. Granted, the main story line is satisfied, but niggling issues such as her friendship with Jason's sister or even Jason himself are kept unfinished. For me, this isn't so much a negligence of a plot thread but rather a subtle acknowledgement of the fact that relationships mend themselves and change over time. Just as Lainey's whirlwind romance with Jason was once a romantic tale, so is this one right now and perhaps a different one in the future, so these minor loose threads give this novel a sense of timelessness, not finality, which I appreciate. The Lainey we encounter by the end of this book isn't the same as the Lainey in the beginning and nor will she be the same as the Lainey ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the line.

It is for this reason, really - this subtle acknowledgement of time and growth and change - that The Art of Lainey is such an incredible novel. Not only is it realistic to a flaw, but it isn't afraid to portray teenage girls as complicated, emotional beings. While being a "teenage girl" always carries with it an unfortunate negative connotation, as does the statement "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," Stokes combines both of these age-old adages and destroys them with her debut novel for Lainey is no weak, silly, or angsty teenage girl and neither is she an embittered and vengeful girlfriend. Instead, she is smart, talented, and best of all, determined. And it is Lainey's determination - her drive to achieve her goals, no matter the obstacles that stand in her way - that make this novel remarkable feminist, inspirational, and, truly, timeless.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Audiobook Review: Night Broken by Patricia Briggs

Title: Night Broken (Mercy Thompson, #8) 

Author: Patricia Briggs

Narrated By: Lorelei King

Rating: 4 Stars

On Spoilers: While I reference objects or characters from previous installments in this series, there are no spoilers in terms of plot twists or reveals.

Frankly speaking, my enjoyment of Night Broken comes as a surprise. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the Mercy Thompson Series, from Moon Called to Frost Burned, the sudden arrival of Christy, Adam's ex-wife, threatened to ruin my all-time favorite Urban Fantasy Series for good. It happened with Magic Rises, the latest in the Kate Daniels Series which included a (rather unnecessary) jealousy factor into the romantic equation, presumably to fan its flame even later into the series. Jenn Bennett did it with Binding the Shadows, but ironically enough, her inclusion of an ex-wife only made the novel stronger, not weaker. Seeing as Mercy Thompson and Kate Daniels are far more closely aligned than Arcadia Bell, however, I expected the worst from Night Broken. Even the legions of reviewers who promised that Briggs had not compromised the relationship between Adam and Mercy in the least were unable to convince me to pick up my shiny pre-ordered hardcover.

...just goes to show how much I know, eh?

It took the audio book, sitting brightly packaged when I opened the door to my library, to convince me to finally read the latest Mercy Thompson installment. Being a quick reader, audio books have always bugged me - ever-so-slightly - with their slow pace. Yet, the acclaim surrounding the Mercy Thompson audio books over the years have ignited my curiosity and, admittedly, though Night Broken was a novel whose (predicted) train wreck I wanted to fly through, what I truly needed was a slow, solid digestion of this tale. Lorelei King, the narrator of this audio book, effortlessly switched voices, enabling the world of Mercy Thompson to come to life through her voice, that despite feeling irritated by Christy's presence, I found myself creating mindless tasks for myself in order to keep returning to this audio book, to King's voice, and, even, to the story itself.

In this newest installment of the Mercy Thompson Series, Adam's ex-wife Christy has come to the Tri-Cities, seeking the protection of the pack in order to escape a dangerous stalker. With her husband's ex-wife in her home, re-creating the days prior to Mercy's initiation into the pack, it hasn't been the best of weeks for Mercy. Add to Christy's arrival the fact that the fae want the walking stick back - the walking stick which Mercy conveniently gave Coyote - and Mercy is once again racing against the clock, desperately trying to find a way to contact her father while keeping her family - and her sanity! - together.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of Night Broken is the fact that characters and minor details from past novels come together in this installment. Even if they are only mentioned in passing or feature a fraction of the screen time, the entire cast of the Mercy Thompson Universe truly does get a mention, at one point or another. Now, at the eight book in this series, the driving arc tying these books together isn't the romance or, even, the inner-growth that Mercy herself experiences. Instead, its focus has shifted to bigger themes such as family, friendships, and sacrifice, not to mention the larger political sphere of this world involving human and paranormal interactions. While aspects of this novel are trying - everything from the slow start to literally every word which falls out of Christy's mouth - it is a worthwhile installment to this series, continuing to take it towards the climax we have been anticipating from Briggs.

And yet, where Patricia Briggs outdoes herself is in the romantic department. We've seen Adam and Mercy share their fair amount of post-marital bliss. For the past two novels, they have presented a strong, united front as a couple and, even prior to that, their relationship has suffered only from internal issues, never external ones. With Chrisy pushing herself back into her old life - a life where she was Adam's wife, not Mercy - the potential to create a drama-filled love triangle is enormous. Yet, Briggs brings out the best in Mercy with Night Broken, molding her into a mature adult, one who picks her own battles and handles the presence of a rival in her household with poise. Though the pack is staunchly Team Christy, loving the chance to care for the helpless human woman, Adam's love for Mercy never wavers and he is constantly by her side. Even when Adam falls prey to Christy's charm, he is quick to catch himself and, surprisingly, the short romantic moments that Adam and Mercy share feel delightfully special, even after all this time.

Ultimately, I am ashamed to admit I underestimated the Mercy Thompson Series and, especially, Patricia Briggs. Night Broken may not be my favorite Mercy Thompson novel out there, but it's one of the better ones; truly. And, as always, I will be going back to re-read (or re-listen) to all my favorite Adam bits. After all, who can ever get enough of that man? ;)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Reading Slumps & College Visits

Over the past month, I feel as if I've been more absent from the blogosphere than present.


In all honesty, I've been in an odd form of a reading slump. Granted, I haven't been reading the best of books, but even when I do pick up a great book and give it a high rating, I don't feel fulfilled by the novel in the least. I feel as if I'm still searching for the perfect book to get me out of my strange moods and unhappy reading funks, but I can't seem to find it yet. I feel as if my inability to become wholly immersed in a story is due to my own mental and emotional turmoil. Usually I can distance myself from the issues of my day-to-day life by reading; I can devote myself completely to a new world and unique characters and different dilemmas. Usually. 

Ever since I got back from Disney World in late March, I've been receiving acceptances and rejections from colleges which, obviously, has been hard. I didn't get into my top choice school. None of my friends got into their top choice schools. In fact, my very best friend and I - who have been neighbors for the past decade and inseparable friends for at least the past five years - aren't even going to the same college. On some level, I knew we would all wind up on our own separate paths, but it suddenly feels so real. I have six Mondays left in the school year. Six. And then I'm done with high school. 


Anyway, the point of this post is this: I am taking a short break to visit colleges in Boston, so I will be back with (hopefully!) more frequent posts on Thursday. I did, luckily, get into my second choice school, so after a quick visit I have a feeling I'll be ready to put down my deposit and commit. Even though I didn't get into my top choice school, I have a feeling I'm going to be a LOT happier at the school I did receive admittance into and I'm really very excited about visiting. I'm even staying overnight with a friend of mine at her dorm, so it should be a great trip. :)

I hope you all had a fantastic weekend filled with plenty of coffee, sunshine, and books. And I hope the start of this new week is just as wonderful and exciting for you as it will be for me. 

See on Thursday, dear readers!

Friday, April 11, 2014

ARC Mini-Review: High and Dry by Sarah Skilton

Title: High and Dry 

Author: Sarah Skilton

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: April 15th, 2014

Following the success of her debut novel, Bruised, Sarah Skilton's sophomore effort, High and Dry left much to be desired. Quite simply put, High and Dry contains one too many plot threads to function efficiently as a cohesive novel. Where Bruised was direct, providing focused insight on the trauma surrounding a young teenage girl, High and Dry follows high school senior Charlie as he tries to win back his ex-girlfriend Ellie, help his other ex-girlfriend find her stolen flash drive, and thwart the authorities who insist on pegging him responsible for causing a classmate to overdose. Although aspects of High and Dry certainly shined, the overall effect of this story was not say the least.

As she did with her debut, Skilton proves - once again - to be adept at navigating the tumultuous waters of the teenage mind. Writing from the perspective of a male narrator, she still manages to keep Charlie's voice realistic, witty, and engaging. It's incredible easy to become sucked into Charlie's tale - a definite plus point - and his inner struggles were perfectly portrayed. At the forefront of this novel is the fact that Charlie is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, Ellie, and he's quite sure she's still in love with him too. In the fall, however, Charlie will be attending a nearby university while Ellie is still uncertain about her future. Every moment of their relationship, then, is spent as a ticking time bomb with Charlie firmly believing that Ellie is too good for him and their relationship won't last. Ellie, unable to put up with Charlie's attitude, breaks it off with him only to find him following her diligently, desperately hoping she'll take him back. From my perspective, the entire romantic set-up of High and Dry is original. A male protagonist who feels grounded - anchored, if you will - by his girlfriend, but not to an obsessive or unhealthy extent. Charlie's own insecurities are put to rest due to the knowledge that Ellie picked him. Without Ellie, however, Charlie hardly knows who he is and finds himself struggling to reaffirm his own worth without her approval.

It makes for an intriguing dilemma, to be sure, but one that isn't expanded upon as much as it should be. I found myself wishing that Skilton had chosen to delve deeper into Charlie's psych opposed to his day-to-day actions and interactions; everything inside Charlie's head was far more compelling than anything out of it. Instead, the pace of High and Dry moves quickly, highlighting the multiple action-filled plot threads. While these aspects of the story do come together by the end - with a few surprising plot twists too! - I didn't feel entirely engaged or connected to the Charlie who went out of his way to track down a flash drive. Skilton expertly showcases the multiple facets of Charlie's personality through her complex plot and, by the end of this novel, his growth is truly admirable. Moreover, I absolutely love the slightly open conclusion to this stand-alone, tying together the loose pieces nicely while still leaving room - and hope! - for Charlie's future. Yet, my inability to become entrenched within the fast-moving pace of the bulk of this story made for slow and disappointing reading. While Skilton makes an important statement about teens during this transitional period between childhood (high school) and adulthood (college), High and Dry needed better execution - desperately. Although I certainly wouldn't dissuade readers from giving this one a shot, only because Sarah Skilton wrote it and her characterizations are spot-on, I'd encourage readers new to her work to pick up Bruised first. It doesn't disappoint in the least; trust me.