Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Series Review: Sirantha Jax (#5-6) by Ann Aguirre

I did a series review of the first three books in this space opera last summer and, having finished the books at last, realized it was only fitting to review the last three novels as well. I couldn't find much to say about the fourth novel, Killbox--which was excellent with the exception of rather unnecessary relationship drama--but here are my thoughts on the conclusion to this series.

Note: The following reviews are spoiler free for the Sirantha Jax Series

Title: Aftermath (Sirantha Jax, #5) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 3 Stars

Aftermath got off to a promising start, what with Jax on trial against the Conglomerate, but it quickly became apparent that Book 5 of the Sirantha Jax Series was very much a--and I hate to use this word--filler novel. Essentially, nothing much happens. Jax isn't acting as a diplomat to a foreign planet, she isn't off fighting a war, and nor is she doing much jumping. Aftermath fills in the gaps that we've forgotten about since Doublebind burst onto the page and, as such, it isn't a favorite of mine.

Yet, by no means is it forgettable. If anything, the emotional growth Jax undergoes throughout this novel--not to mention the palpable strength of her bond with both Vel and March--push this story onward. It's the most introspective novel of the series, oddly enough, and though there is plenty of action, it isn't the most memorable aspect of this tale. Instead, combing through Vel's past, facing the harsh realities of March and Jax's relationship, and labeling the differences between the bonds Vel and March share with Sirantha cause Aftermath to stand out. It's an emotional journey, from beginning to end, and though it falters in part plot-wise, it's still a valuable addition to the series.

Aftermath may have lacked much of a climax, what with every issue Jax tackling resolving itself far too easily, but I'm still on board with this crew. With Endgame up next, I should be feeling nostalgic but I think I'm ready to see Jax off, once and for all. I just hope it's as explosive of a conclusion as I'm gearing up for.

Title: Endgame (Sirantha Jax, #6) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 4.5 Stars

I thought I was ready to say goodbye to Sirantha Jax after Aftermath, but Endgame is such a brilliantly plotted novel that I feel nostalgic, bittersweet, and ever-so-upset after all. Aguirre's Endgame weaves together everything I've loved about this series since Grimspace: excellent world-building, blooming character growth, and complex relationships.

Once again, Sirantha Jax is a solider, a fighter, a warrior. On La'heng now, she is determined to free an enslaved race of people--despite knowing the mission will keep her on ground for years to come. Endgame has no shortage of well-written battle scenes, devious schemes, and military plans ensuring its plot is set at a break-neck pace. Nevertheless, the strength of this novel stems from Sirantha herself; from the bond of friendship she sustains with Vel and the lengths she will go to aid him, from the relationship she shares with March and the difficulties they endure, from the new characters she meets and the sacrifices she makes even for them.

Endgame doesn't allow Sirantha to take the "easy" way out, charging in guns blazing and somehow saving the day. Instead, it pushes her to her limits testing her patience, her unselfish desires, and her loyalty to those around her. It compels her to both stay and to fight, though not always in combat. Where this novel suffers, in my eyes, is in the odd jumps of time. The war on La'heng takes years and for Sirantha to oddly mention that a year or six months have passed from the turn of a page is jarring, to say the least.

Yet, despite it all, I love her and her romance with March undergoes necessary strife in this novel. Unlike past novels where Sirantha and March have been thrown into dramatic situations, likely to prolong the story, in Endgame these two finally embrace the honesty of their relationship and unearth their hidden insecurities. It isn't always easy, between these two, but it's always strong and sure. Sirantha's relationship with Vel is of a different--and frankly easier--nature, but that in no way diminishes its strength. For me, this series is defined by the two men in Sirantha's life; both their respect for her and her respect for them. Aguirre never fails to create fascinating, equal-footed relationships and that isn't different even with this volume.

Endgame is, well and truly, the end. Aguirre has not left this world, thankfully, though Sirantha and her journeys are behind us now. Will I miss her? Yes, undoubtedly. Somewhere between all the psychological probing of Sirantha's mind, I fell in love with her, flaws and all. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end and, as always, Sirantha goes out with a memorable bang, never a whimper.

In case you missed my reviews of the first three novels in this series last summer or just want a refresher, you can read them HERE

Needless to say, I'd highly recommend this series to fans of science-fiction romance and space operas. I gave Grimspace 4 Stars, Wanderlust 3 Stars (generously), Doublebind 5 Stars, Killbox 4 Stars, Aftermath 3 Stars (well-earned), and Endgame 4.5 Stars. It hasn't been a perfect journey and there have certainly been ups-and-downs, but if you're willing to meet flawed characters and be entertained no matter what, this is certainly the series for you! :)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

Title: Free to Fall

Author: Lauren Miller

Rating: 4 Stars

I flew through Free to Fall in the space of an afternoon. Its beginning may take awhile to find its footing, but once Miller hits her stride this sophomore novel is a chore to set down. I've always believed that the best dystopians were the ones whose worlds were eerily similar to our own--and that's exactly what Free to Fall is: familiar. Unlike the societies of The Hunger Games or Divergent, Miller has molded a futuristic world much like our own, complete with large technological corporations which dominate the market and apps which dominate our minds. In Rory's present--our future--Lux is the "it" app to own. Using a complex algorithm, it manages to keep users up-to-date on appointments, take control of their time management skills, and help them make decisions such as what to eat, wear, and buy. In other words, Rory's world is devoid of much thought.

But, in a world so similar to our own, it's impossible not to imagine an app like Lux taking hold of citizens and working. We're constantly searching for ways to complete our tasks faster, become more efficient, and rely on technological advances to get our jobs done. Lux, with just a tap of our fingers, gets all that done--and more. It thinks for us. It isn't until Rory joins Theden Academy, an elite two-year "Ivy League"-esque school that her deceased mother attended, that she begins to question her dependency on Lux. North, the cute coffee-shop guy who works just outside the academy boundaries, forces Rory to leave her comfort zone of Lux and figure out for herself what she truly enjoys. Just as North reveals to Rory the marketing scheme that Lux truly is--intentionally showcasing popular brands, not all brands, and using the placebo effect to make users think they like what Lux recommends--Rory herself begins to uncover the truth about her mother's past. Rory's mother left Theden Academy shortly before she could complete her graduation and immediately following Rory's birth, she passed away. Rory and her father have always wondered what led her mother to abandon the school she seemed to love and now, creeping closer to the truth, Rory just may have stumbled upon a conspiracy bigger than anything she could have imagined...

Much like a classic dystopian, Free to Fall presents us with the veneer of a seemingly utopian society, only to reveal a dark underbelly of evil leaders whose control extends over the entire population. Yet, the manner in which Miller narrates her tale is extremely effective. Rory is an endearing heroine, one whose naivety can be slightly eye-roll inducing but whose growth is immediate and believable. What's more, as she uncovers layer after layer of the secrets shrouding her mother's strange dismissal from Theden Academy, she makes, breaks, and sustains a variety of different relationships along the way. What I appreciate most about this novel is not its originality in daring to publish a dystopian so different from the ones we've come to know, but rather in tackling contemporary issues alongside futuristic problems. Despite the grand scheme of issues Rory is up against, she's still just a sixteen-year-old girl and her friendships, relationships with teachers and other students, ties to her family, and bond with North are all still very much a part of her life. In fact, as a normal sixteen-year-old may grow and change from their relationships, Rory does as well only her growth comes alongside a revelation of secrets.

Free to Fall is the type of tale that builds; its momentum gets larger, its issues seem practically impossible, and the secrets seem to finally have come to an end. Only, the ending is still a pleasant shock, surprising readers out of the norm they may have imagined. Its well-paced plot aside, though, the aspect of Free to Fall which surprised me the most was the romance. In the beginning of the novel, shortly after Rory firsts meets North and begins to fall for him, the two have a slight misunderstanding. Yet, once it's solved their relationship is rock solid, one of utter support as Rory grows to trust and count on North's presence by her side. Moreover, his--rather secret--skills only aid Rory in her quest for the truth and the happiness these two find in one another is flawlessly written. I can actually believe that these two, despite being teens, love each other and that in and of itself is nothing short of miraculous.

Nevertheless, I must admit that I expected Free to Fall to be ever-so-slightly more. I'd heard so much about this novel before launching into it and though I fell completely for the corporate mystery this tale wound up becoming, aspects of its felt a little too unreal. Somehow, aspects of this novel rang untrue as the complete control these corporations held over individuals and data felt like a violation of too many of our laws such as freedom of speech and, what's more, Free to Fall is based on the assumption that a monopoly would be ruling our future, which I just can't see being allowed to happen. Thus, there is a certain suspension of belief required throughout this novel and while it's no different from the majority of other tales within the genre, I was unprepared for it. Nonetheless, that being said, Free to Fall is precisely the direction I hope to see dystopias heading in: realistic, standalone, utterly devoid of a love triangle, and able to formulate a meaningful message not only about a fictional futuristic society but today's society as well. If Miller's sophomore novel spells the future for this genre then I am certainly going to be free to fall right back in love with it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

2 Minute Reviews: Romance Edition

Yup, that's right: two minute reviews. I was having somewhat of a mental breakdown looking at the stack of books I'd read but hadn't reviewed, especially since the majority of the novels on that pile were there because I couldn't summon up overly strong feelings for any of them, so I figured I'd pile them all into one post and save myself the trouble. Plus, everyone is always complaining about how "long" my mini-reviews are, so this is how short I can really get! ;

Title: Only With You (The Best Mistake, #1) 
Author: Lauren Layne
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: July 29th, 2014

Only With You is a classic hate-to-love romance, complete with a couple whose initial meeting gives them the wrong impression of one another and their subsequent interactions chip away at that image until the reality is revealed. Gray is a modern Mr. Darcy, if you will, and though Sophie is nowhere near as clear-minded as Elizabeth Bennett is (or would be in today's world), I still fell for her charming persona. I definitely wanted the resolution to be a tiiny bit more hard-won, particularly because the sexual tension and build-up in this novel is killer, but I just couldn't put this one down. Plus, I just LOVE that Lauren Layne never fails to include pivotal scenes that contribute not to the plot or the romance, but rather to female independence as her protagonists continue to find and re-create who they are and what they want from their own lives, irrespective of what those around them believe. *fist pump* 

Title: Come Back to Me
Author: Mila Gray (a.k.a. Sarah Alderson)
Rating: 3.5 Stars

I've always thought Sarah Alderson would make a phenomenal New Adult author and I wasn't wrong. Come Back to Me may rely on romance cliches during its first-half, but the growth, depth, and realistic love story within these pages completely won me over. Seriously, a definite must-read for those looking for a solid New Adult package that explores sexual awakenings, dealing with different responsibilities, and finding your path in the future. Its cover may scream "Nicholas Sparks" but the content within is far superior for sure.

Title: If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend
Author: Alison Pace
Rating: 4 Stars
It became a ritual for me to scroll away from If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend. Somehow, the combination of its odd title, simplistic cover, and typical synopsis simply didn't appeal to me. Even when I finally picked it up, I did so with an immense amount of skepticism. Yet, If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend is a light, fun, immensely touching read about life, love, and the ups and downs we all cope with. Jane is the all-too-familiar protagonist who finds her boyfriend cheating and, in a state of broken-heart-ed-ness, finds herself traveling the world. While it's meant to be all business for Jane as she helps Ian, known as the art genius of their time, set up exhibits in major cities around the globe, it becomes an adventure in self-discovery and growth unlike any other. Everything I can possibly say about this novel is as typical and bland and familiar and cheesey as its cover and title and synopsis are, but, somehow, the words inside this book are not. Its authentic relationships--from friendships to family to work to love--are incredibly three-dimensional and oh-so-real. Just trust me on this one, reader: it's really, really good.

Title: A Girl Like You
Author: Gemma Burgess
Rating: 4 Stars

A Girl Like You is classic, unapologetic chick-lit--and I love it. Newly single Abigail is entering the dating world for the first time. Now, having broken up with her boyfriend of far too many years, Abigail is determined to find the right guy. Robert, her new flat-mate and a classic player, is the perfect candidate to coach her on the Art of Dating. From the beginning itself, Abigail's narration is honest, unassuming, and drop-dead hilarious. It's impossible not to become entirely embroiled in this romance, particularly as we witness Abigail stumble through bad dates, make the walk of shame, and finally become a Dating Guru. Within months, she has all the single guys of London eating out of her hand...but she still hasn't found the one. If you've seen or read even a half-dozen chick flicks, you already know by now who the love interest is but the journey from friendship to romance is long, charming, and oh-so-endearing. Seriously, this book will have you in peals of laughter one moment only to have you clutching your abdomen in tension the next but I can guarantee you this: you'll close this book with the most languid, lazy, and satisfied smile.

Title: A Lily Among Thorns
Author: Rose Lerner
Rating: 4 Stars

A Lily Among Thorns is an unconventional historical romance if there ever was one, but it's so, so good. Lady Serena, a prosperous woman in possession of her own inn, can never forget the life of prostitution she left behind to reach her current status. Nor can she forget Solomon, the drunken young gentleman who, instead of paying her for her services, simply gave her the means to start a new life. When Solomon knocks on Serena's door, seeking her help in retrieving a stolen heirloom, she doesn't hesitate to accept. Here, dear reader, is the start of a beautiful romance--only you nor the characters quite know it yet. Serena is tough-as-nails, having grown up fighting for not only her independence, but her own body as well, and as a result, getting past her barriers is practically impossible. Solomon, however, grieving his twin brothers death, content living the life of a mere merchant, and downright sweet, just may be the man to see the real Serena. Neither Serena nor Solomon is flawless, but their journey to love--battling through a sea of societal hatred for a former prostitute who is no longer putting out, a former friend who plans to claim Serena's inn for himself, and espionage--is unforgettable. I dare you not to fall in love with these characters yourself; just try.

Any more romance recommendations for me to try? ;)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Then Came You by Jill Shalvis

Title: Then Came You (Animal Magnetism, #5) 

Author: Jill Shalvis

Rating: 4 Stars

I'm not sure I can adequately express just how terrible this cover is. I mean, look at it.

Actually, no, sorry, don't; don't look at it.

I know this is a romance novel--I didn't need the horrible cover to confirm that--but with all the awkward photo-shopping going on with this one, it's particularly bad.

Thankfully, Jill Shalvis's novels are most definitely not bad. I haven't picked up her Animal Magnetism Series, mostly because I'm a bit of an anti-animal person myself (I'm scared of dogs and cats are just...creepy? Or at least the ones in my neighborhood are. I never seem to see the cute cats of tumblr in real life...) but the synopsis of this novel captured my attention completely and I just couldn't resist to sneak a romance read in-between the sci-fi/fantasy kick I've been on.

And, seriously, Then Came You was such a treat. I inhaled it in practically a single sitting, completely besotted with Emily, Wyatt, and their myriad of problems. Emily is The One With The Plan. We all know people like this; people so set in their ways and determined to stick to a certain path that they believe with guarantee them happiness that they are completely unnerved by any curve balls. When she winds up interning for a veterinary practice in Sunshine, Idaho though, Emily is far away from L.A., the city she planned to intern in. What's more, Wyatt--the sexy doctor she had a one-night stand with a few months ago--works in Sunshine. The sparks between Wyatt and Emily haven't died down one bit since their night together, but the real question here isn't whether or not their chemistry is still blazing--it's whether or not Wyatt can get Emily to forget her plans...

Then Came You is complete with Shalvis's trademark sense of humor, sass, and laughs. Emily finds it impossible to keep a filter on her thoughts around Wyatt and, though they try for professionalism, they fail quite spectacularly. While Emily and Wyatt's relationship is the main focus of the novel, I love that Shalvis almost always writes strong sibling relationships to accompany her characters. Wyatt, the middle child squeezed between two sisters, and Emily, with her lesbian sister, are both shaped by their family ties--which I love. Moreover, their journey to love is a slow-burn. Shalvis makes the sharp distinction between insta-lust and actual love so seamlessly in all her romances, which is likely why I keep coming back for more.

If you're an animal lover of any nature--dogs, cats, horses, turtles--Then Came You is going to bring out your soft side for sure. It's impossible not to feel the passion both Emily and Wyatt feel for their job and the animals they care for, which is an unexpected surprise in a love story. Needless to say, Then Came You hit all the right notes for a lazy-day summer read and, should the urge strike me again, I'll be visiting the handsome vets of Sunshine yet again.

Monday, July 14, 2014

ARC Review: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

Title: The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister, #4) 

Author: Courtney Milan

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: July 15th, 2014

I feel as if I've woken up every week craving a new Courtney Milan romance. Much like an addict, I've stalked her upcoming releases eagerly, refreshing the page in the fruitless hope that the release date will magically change and my pre-ordered copy will arrive, hot off the press, in just a matter of days instead of months. And though the clock has been ticking and July has creeped closer and closer, my impatience for her work has, in no way, diminished. Thus, to say I scrambled to download this ARC onto my Kindle would be the understatement of the year. I ran, my fingers flying over the keyboard in a frantic effort to click "Send to Kindle" now, now, now.

My poor Kindle. It suffered quite the barrage of abuse as I tapped my foot more and more impatiently, unable to wait much longer for the document to download. Once it did, I hardly spared a glance for the Table of Contents or the necessary preface about grammatical errors present in an ARC; I just read. Of course, I'd already read the first chapter on her website but I read it again and--truly--it was just as enchanting as I remembered. From the first sight of our romantic leads, the tragic Edward Clark and fierce Frederica Marshall, I knew theirs would be a Milan love story I secreted away in my heart, content to steal back to on the days I truly needed.

Frederica, the half-sister to beloved Ollie, graduated from an all-women's college to become a suffragist. Now successfully running a newspaper--for women, by women--she won't rest until women are given the right to vote. Edward Clark, originally born to an aristocratic family who abandoned him to die in a country about to be destroyed by war, never thought he'd be back in England--or, for that matter, back to meet his younger brother, James. Once again, however, James is creating trouble for Edward's childhood best friend, Stephen, and in order to stop him this time, Edward must return home. Though the peerage is rightfully his, he wants none of it, preferring to put behind the legacy of his traitorous family and allow James to claim what is rightfully Edward's. In targeting Stephen, though, James has also targeted Ms. Marshall whose newspaper Stephen writes for. Since an enemy of his enemy can only be a friend, Edward joins forces with Frederica, helping to save her newspaper from his younger brother's wild schemes to discredit her movement. Edward's motive is revenge against James and Frederica is merely meant to be a pawn in his game. Instead, the headstrong woman turns his world upside down, utterly enchanting him, and if it weren't the fact that he's a scoundrel of the worst kind--the kind that lies through their teeth--Edward would swear he's falling in love with her...

The Suffragette Scandal is a riot of wits from the first chapter itself. Edward arrives in Frederica's office determined to throw her off her game; he blackmails her, shows her his expert forgery skills, and then proceeds to tell her that she's merely a means to an end for him. In the face of these truths, however, Frederica is more than a match for him. Thus, a tenuous partnership is struck between the two and though Edward warns Frederica from the beginning itself never to trust him, his actions prove otherwise. Edward and Free's notable fascination with each other is charming. Through their alternating perspectives, Milan effortlessly builds their love story, complete with the dark secrets from Edward's past and his efforts to resist falling for Free. Perhaps it should be dramatic and angst-driven, but rather it all unfolds quite naturally, the love and regard these two hold for one another shining through against all odds.

For me, there is simply too much to love within this novel. Is it the blooming lesbian love story between Frederica's close friend and business associate and another woman she befriends? Is it the unending banter between Edward and Frederica, laced with intelligence, sexual desire, and wonder all at the same time? Or is it merely the manner in which Edward allows Frederica to be; be who she is without labels or expectations or more responsibilities than the ones she chooses to handle? The Suffragette Scandal, being a historical romance set during a time period of women awakening to both their political rights and sexual desires, is a wonderfully forward, feminist novel. Although it makes us appreciate the struggle women years before us have undergone--and the rights we reap as a result of that today--it also brings into sharp focus the truth of how much more is still left to be done today.

Yet, for all its political discussion on feminism, The Suffragette Scandal is primarily a love story and, on that front, it is written beautifully. Milan has always written empowering romances--tales where a woman discovers the power of her own sexual desire or joins the rankings of men in scientific discovery or merely creates a relationship of equal standing with her husband. Naturally, her latest is no different and perhaps what I love most about these romances are that Milan showcases men bowing down to and respecting the professions of the women they love, but in such a manner that their power or equality is never diminished either. I find it is all too easy to believe that in a marriage, one party or the other must hold the reigns. Either it is the man who controls his wife or the man who bows down to his wife. With Milan, however, her heroes and heroines never have to choose. Despite the struggles, they make it work and their love prevails--and, hopeless romantic that I am, I love that.

Granted, I am terribly biased against Courtney Milan, all-women's colleges (I'll be attending one this Fall!), suffragettes, and feminism in general (not to mention muscular men like Mr. Clark!), but even disregarding that, I am confident I'd have loved this novel through-and-through. I read it in a matter of hours, ignoring the World Cup for the delightful dialogue sparked between Edward and Free and, long after I'd finished my dinner, I couldn't quite stop grinning when I thought of them both and their lovely life together. I cannot wait to get my hands on Milan's upcoming novella, continuing to be set in this series, nor can I contain my excitement for an entire saga planned by her to begin releasing towards the end of this year. If it's not already clear, I'll confess it: I'll read whatever she writes.