Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Title: Unsticky

Author: Sarra Manning

Rating: 5 Stars

It's not often that a book takes me completely by surprise. When I cracked open the spine of Unsticky, I knew what I was getting into - a modern-day "Pretty Woman" if you will. And yet, despite knowing what was to come, I was continuously blown away by this novel; by its charm, by its wit, by its complex characters, by its intriguing dialogue...everything, from the first word to the last period enthralled me. In fact, it's safe to say that Sarra Manning had me completely be-spelled. Manning's novels are always un-put-down-able, but this story had an ethereal quality all of its own. I dare you not to fall in love with this book; it's one challenge you won't even want to attempt.

I won't lie: the premises of Unsticky is, well, sticky. Grace, the protagonist of our tale, is massively in debt, working for the fashion-world (and being massively underpaid), and simply cannot keep a relationship going longer than three months. After being dumped - yet again - on her birthday, Grace is dragged off by Vaughn, a rich older man who tries to make her day a little brighter. It's not the last she'll see of Vaughn, though. In fact, the smooth-talking stranger (who is loaded with money), has a proposition for Grace: to become his girlfriend for six months, accompanying him on ventures to sell art. Grace, initially aghast at the lowly prospect of being paid to both spend her time with and have sex with this man, slowly begins to change her mind on the issue. After all, with her life stuck in a rut and her bills only piling higher, what does she have to lose? And, just as Grace hopes, Vaughn's proposition does change her life around. For better or for worse, she's still not entirely sure...

I'm going to get straight down to it: Sarra Manning takes a seemingly taboo topic and makes it work. And I don't even mean the characters. For me, what makes this situation so startlingly relate-able and downright thoughtful is the fact that Manning leaves no stone unturned on her journey to create this tale. Obviously, the most glaringly evident issue that this situation presents is the monetary aspect of it. Grace is being paid to spend time with, organize events for, and sleep with a man eighteen years older to her. "Ick!" is what we should all be saying, but truly, Vaughn makes you swoon. And even if he does, Manning brings up the ethical question of whether or not this situation is really okay, or even all that fair. Vaughn, as the One With The Money and the One With The Legal Contract clearly has the upper-hand in the relationship. It's a doomed union from the start, only because of this imbalance of power. And yet, how utterly fascinating is it? After all, these types of relationships are only all-too-common in the media today, but I love that Manning is able to take such a controversial topic, reveal how love can be found within it, and never brush aside the messy realities this situation brings.

Manning continues to bring up the importance of money - only because Vaughn has so much of it while Grace doesn't - throughout the novel. For me, seeing the subtle changes in Grace's life as money comes and goes played huge roles in defining her character. Grace, like most chick-lit heroines, is utterly endearing; refusing to pay her bills, brought up by her grandparents, besotted with the fashion industry, and struck by a terminal illness of binge shopping. Although she seems to be relatively shallow from the surface, her intelligence bleeds through the page, coming across in her sharp wit and her fierce determination to win ground when it comes to Vaughn. While Grace is - naturally - intimidated by the opulent lifestyle she now finds herself a part of, she meets each challenge with courage, slowly overcoming her own fears as her relationship with Vaughn progresses. Additionally, while she and Vaughn butt heads more than once - after all, Vaughn demands that his every command is fulfilled - theirs is an arc that continues to delight as the story progresses, journeying from stiff acquaintances to comfortable friends. It's a slow, but rewarding, adventure, filled with many memorable arguments, inexcusable words, and tender moments. Ultimately, Manning truly hits the nail on the head in capturing the complexity of their relationship, from its strange start to its unlikely meaning. 

And what about Vaughn? Where do I possibly begin with this exasperating, enthralling man? Vaughn is, I suppose, an alpha-male in nearly every regard. And yet, I hesitate to slap that label upon him. Instead, I find him to be much more of a perfectionist, detail-oriented and a stickler for schedules. Vaughn merely has so many layers to him. As we get to know him better, we see sides to him that we've never seen before, but that never discounts the original angles we met him at either. Manning ensures that we are aware, constantly, of Vaughn's mixed nature: of his demands, but his charm; of his distance, but his insight. Easily one of the most intriguing aspects to Vaughn is his utter belief in Grace. Grace, whose parent-less upbringing has left her a mess; Grace, who lacks the backbone to stand up for herself; Grace, whose confidence level is at its lowest point. And, somehow, despite the difficulty of living with Vaughn, Grace begins to change, discover, and believe in the newer, better version of herself that Vaughn demands she put forward. Although their interactions are prickly at best, it works. Vaughn, too, is slowly changed by Grace, the man he hides underneath his layers slowly emerging. While Unsticky seems to contain that classic route of a significant other changing their partner, in reality, all the growth that these characters experience comes from within. It is never an easy or even a neat path. Often, the journey is plain difficult to watch unfold, but it's that brutal honesty that I can count on with Manning and that I come back for, every time.

Even if Unsticky weren't a love story, I would have loved it. Of course, the budding romance between Grace and Vaughn is tragically beautiful; sticky, sexy, and sweet. Yet, it is the individual growth - it is the people that these characters grow into after they walk away from each other - that makes this such a remarkable novel. I find that there is no dearth of "troubled" pasts in literature today, but Manning throws two seemingly normal people into an outlandish scenario and spins their tale magnificently. Moreover, I appreciated that the "secrets" hiding in Vaughn and Grace's closets were not so out-there as to be depressing. I cannot count the number of times I've seen messy pasts revealed to be drugs, rape, cancer, or some other form of emotional scarring. It's not that Manning's characters aren't emotionally broken - because they are - it's only that their pasts aren't as shady or different. If anything, Manning perfectly portrays that even the smallest of instances - a mother in another country, for instance - can grow and change a person's psyche incredibly.

If you're a fan of real character depth, messy relationships, or even unlikely affection, then Unsticky is not to be missed. While all her stories are compulsively readable, impossible to drag out as they consume your life so completely, this one was utterly flawless. In fact, I just want to take the day off tomorrow, snuggle under the blankets, and re-read this from cover to cover. It's that good. I just don't know how I'm going to possibly get over my book hangover from this one now...

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ARC Mini-Reviews: Ink is Thicker Than Water by Amy Spalding & Love the One You're With by Lauren Layne

Title: Ink is Thicker Than Water

Author: Amy Spalding 

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: December 3rd, 2013

Amy Spalding tore down any preconceived notions I may have had about the content of her novels with her debut, The Reece Malcolm List, which stunned me with its honest voice, unexpected depth, and realistic portrayal of family. With Ink is Thicker Than Water, Spalding weaves an even more complex family dynamic with yet another narrator whose voice is spot-on. It isn't nearly as much fun as her debut is, full of its musical cast, but its messages are just as - if not more - important.

Kellie Brooks has never had a nuclear family or, for that matter, a normal life. Sarah, her older sister who has both beauty and brains, is adopted and her hippie mother and step-dad own a tattoo parlor. When Sarah turns eighteen, however, Kellie's "normal" begins to change. Not only is her sister meeting with her biological parents, discovering just how crazy her adopted family really is, but Kellie's best friend has abandoned her for a popular crowd and her father's disappointment weighs her down like lead. Moreover, Kellie is experiencing her own kind of change, complete with a college boyfriend and a new spot as a writer for the school newspaper. As Kellie navigates the turbulent waters that is her life, she'll soon realize that "normal" isn't what society dictates, but rather what you make of it yourself.

Ink is Thicker Than Water is a messy story, often with too many story arcs, but Spalding gives each ample attention. Whether it be Kellie's complicated relationship with Oliver, which is realistically drawn with these two setting boundaries and finding the courage to discuss their relationship or Kellie's relationship with her sister as the two must re-learn how to become a family when both are undergoing drastic changes in their lives, Spalding keeps her characters flawed, but her resolutions realistic. Moreover, I particularly love that Kellie discovers that it is okay to change. As a junior newly joining the school newspaper, previously underachiever Kellie finds that she harbors passions and ambitions and actual dreams for the future and, moreover, that she no longer wants to be the girl she always was; she wants to be someone different. For me, witnessing Kellie, alongside her sister and mother slowly uncover new truths about themselves and the lives they lead was a shockingly well-written growth arc. Additionally, a family with tattooists and adopted siblings isn't common, but Spalding writes them in such a friendly, relate-able manner that it is impossible not to see them as the new "normal" as well. With her sophomore novel, Spalding re-defines what it is to be normal, such an integral theme as teenagers rarely think their lives are going as planned or are as normal as they should be. With Spalding's story being pushed out into the void, however, there is no doubt in my mind that this is one tale that will connect with every reader, regardless of age and, moreover, regardless of family.
Title: Love the One You're With (Love, Sex, & Stiletto, #2) 

Author: Lauren Layne

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: December 9th, 2013

I've been trying to figure out what exactly it is that makes Lauren Layne's novels work so well for me. I do think her romantic plot lines are a little too familiar, and yet, aren't all of them? For me, what puts Layne on par with other contemporary romance writers I've enjoyed, such as Julie James, is the fact that she writes about women who are finding their way in life, either by re-creating themselves or putting themselves out there in new and terrifying settings. Grace, in Love the One You're With, is turning over a new leaf after she finds her boyfriend of nine years cheating on her. But, as Grace swiftly realizes, molding herself into a new version - Grace 2.0 - who is strong and sassy instead of kind and meek, is not as easy as it seems. What I love about Love the One You're With is the fact that Grace discovers, over the course of the novel, that who she is isn't defined by mere adjectives; she isn't just Grace 1.0 or Grace 2.0, she's really everything in-between too. For me, the fact that Layne writes strong, independent women who don't live their lives in boxes or around the schedules of men make her books feminist, enlightening, and simply kick-ass.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel, however, was the fact that Grace was forced to deal with a new inclusion into her friend circle. It has always been Julie, Grace, and Riley, the three ladies and their romance articles, but on a short leave from work, Emma joins their group and the confusion this throws into Grace's life is perfectly depicted. For perhaps the first time, Grace realizes that even the friend circles she assumed her molded in place can change - and do change even as these women change throughout their lives. It is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of friendship - tight, loyal, but messy too.

When it comes to the romance, though, what draws me in the most is the fact that these are wealthy, successful women with ambitions which levels out the playing field so that there is no economic dependence whatsoever. Moreover, the healthiness of these relationships shines through in their mutual respect for one another. Jake and Grace hold each other in high regard, which propels them to start off with friendship before taking their relationship any farther. It makes for tantalizing tension, but the pay-off is worth it (though perhaps the cheesy ending isn't). Ultimately, however, while I adore the romances Layne writes, all contemporary adult novels begin to blend together after awhile. Nearly all the characters are similar, as are their romances, which makes the notable differences Layne inserts into her stories all the more integral. Needless to say, I cannot wait to read whatever Layne up her sleeve next!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Come See About Me by C. K. Kelly Martin

Title: Come See About Me

Author: C. K. Kelly Martin

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I've taken to fleeing inside a closet whenever I hear the term "New Adult." It's a shame as I believe the genre has a great deal of potential, particularly because of the age group it's confined to. Thanks to hordes of mis-marketing when the term was first coined, however, New Adult will forever be associated with vapid heroines, hunky heroes, and dramatic situations. Not only does the genre manage to completely gloss over the complexity of the first adult years, but it also becomes increasingly predictable, the final pages of a book more cloying than satisfying.

Come See About Me, on the other hand, is a far cry from the dozens of novels hitting shelves these days. From beginning to end, this book drowns you in a sea of complex emotions, its prose evocative and strangely compelling, despite its subject matter. Moreover, while Martin's stark realism can be difficult to swallow at times, it is a much appreciated slap into reality. 
Come See About Me won't be a book for everyone, but as a reader who actively seeks gritty novels that are deserving of their "realistic" tag line, this novel was a godsend.

Martin's first foray into adult literature is not a simple piece to get into. Within the first few chapters of this novel, we are introduced to our narrator, Leah, and the heart-wrenching realities she must face every day. Bastian, Leah's long-time boyfriend, has only recently been killed and, unable to cope with his sudden death, Leah has moved to a small town on the outskirts of Toronto known as Oakville. I wouldn't be surprised if many readers were turned off by a sample of this novel, merely because these first pages are hard to read. Martin's writing pulls you into Leah's head, which is a dark and depressing place. And while Leah is drowning in emotion, caught up in her grief and pushing the rest of the world aside, her feelings seep into your skin.

For me, this is a testament of Martin's writing skills. Although I can't say I enjoyed the beginning of this novel, it was powerful, ensuring I was wholly invested in Leah's tale. And, don't you doubt it, 
Come See About Me is Leah's story, through-and-through. While the synopsis for this novel relies heavily on the romantic components, in reality, the romance is an after-thought. Martin's novel instead explores Leah's gradual healing process as she learns to cope with her grief and move on into the future - on her own.

I feel as if I cannot emphasize this point enough. I'm so used to seeing couples in books heal one another that it was such a pleasant surprise to see good-old time and thought heal Leah. Following Bastian's death, Leah is unable to move forward and the worry of her close family and friends - their expectations, really, that she get on with life and not allow this event to derail her future - is suffocating. Instead of complying with their wishes, Leah moves away to be alone and though her apathy to the world still exists, it slowly begins to wear away. Martin paces Leah's growth impeccably and, moreover, I particularly love the small decisions Leah begins to consciously make, whether it be reviving a friendship she has neglected or just forcing herself to eat dinner with her neighbors. Though Leah doesn't want to let go of Bastian or his memory, she does - however subconsciously - want to live again and the slow manner in which she re-discovers pieces of herself is beautiful.

Come See About Me also offers a surprisingly diverse cast: old lesbian neighbors, a Korean best friend whose younger sister breaks under the expectations of an immigrant household, an African American family who is wealthy and educated unlike the typical stereotype. Best of all, though, these inclusions never feel forced. Whether it be a traumatic plot thread or these atypical characters, their presence throughout the novel never jolts the arc of the story and only enriches it. Moreover, they contribute greatly to Leah's own growth and acceptance of her life after Bastian's death and the friendships that Leah sustains are real; messy, often difficult to maintain, but true in their affection.

Nevertheless, what I love most about this novel is that there are no heroes in it; just normal people doing their best to live with what's been given to them. Leah never romanticizes Bastian and though the two had a healthy and sustainable relationship, she acknowledges his flaws and the fact that her grief is, in large part, for the future they would never have the opportunity to share. Moreover, the relationship she strikes up with Liam, an Irish TV actor hiding away in tiny Oakville to escape problems of his own back in Dublin, is shockingly unromantic. Both Leah and Liam are at difficult stages of their life, but the purely physical companionship they find in one another quickly spirals out of control. Although neither of them want another relationship - and reiterate that their interactions are strictly temporary - they nevertheless feel very real, especially as what was meant to be un-complicated becomes increasingly complex over time.

Martin, however, never compromises Leah or Liam's troubles for the sake of the other. Neither is able to provide the comfort or support the other needs, emotionally or mentally, which makes what they share so much rawer and difficult to place a label upon. It isn't a classic tale of a broken hero and heroine who find it in themselves to reach out and heal one another. Instead, the relationship between Liam and Leah remains one of friendship and intimacy, but of a distant kind as neither is ready for something more "real". While the novel is narrated from Leah's perspective, though, it is impossible not to feel strangely close to Liam. Granted, these two lack the familiarity of sharing a bathroom cabinet or knowing how the other feels from their tone of voice, but the glimpses of hurt and pain they release to one another are all the more revealing. And despite the fact that Liam is upfront about his personality, honest that he isn't the nicest of guys, his charm and troubles never fail to work in his favor (which really just means that yes, his accent is alluring, and yes, his looks are even more killer).

Come See About Me has, surprisingly, filled the long-time hole inside of me that has been craving for something more. I've been feeling unfulfilled as a reader off-late, but this novel depicts life, friendships, relationships, and growth in a light that isn't always neat or clean or easy, but rather one that is far less pretentious and rewarding. Moreover, I adore its ending; open, but with just enough temporary closure to satisfy readers who shy away from non-endings. Although this is only my first Martin novel, her richly depicted characterizations and beautiful prose will keep me coming back for more. For anyone who doesn't love a book placed in a tidy box and tied up with a fancy ribbon, this one is for you.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson

Title: Blackmoore: A Proper Romance

Author: Julianne Donaldson

Rating: 4.5 Stars

All Kate has ever wanted is to visit Blackmoore, the stunning mansion by the sea where her best friends, Sylvia and Henry, spend their summers. Filled with secret passages, a quaint village nearby, and rumors of smugglers, Blackmoore is every bit the adventure that bookworm Kate desires. Thus, when she is finally invited to visit, she expects her trip to be everything she imagined - and more. Sadly, reality is rarely ever as wonderful and Kate, hoping Blackmoore will be an escape from the cage she finds herself trapped in at home, realizes that her cage has followed her, molding around her once again in Blackmoore, only with a slightly different shape. Proud, stubborn Kate who has refused to marry, planning to travel to India instead, soon finds herself - and her heart - at mercy in Blackmoore which will, undoubtedly, change her life.

With a title like Blackmoore: A Proper Romance, the love story in this novel is, naturally, of central focus. Kate and Henry have known each other since childhood and, as the years have gone by, their friendly affection has deepened considerably. With Henry set-up to marry the elegant and beautiful Juliet St. Claire, however, and with Kate's burden of family scandal, their match is anything but acceptable. Although I truly enjoyed this forbidden aspect to their romance arc - the constant obviousness of feeling on both sides but the tension built-up through constant denial - the true beauty in their relationship stems from their deep friendship.

What I love most about the romance between Kate and Henry is that it relies on a foundation of deep respect. Although Henry desires for Kate to stay close to him, at least to remain as a friend, he understands her ambitions of traveling, seeking a life of adventure, and escaping the gilded cage she has grown up in. Unlike most arrogant heroes, Henry never uses his money or power to coerce Kate into sacrificing her dreams for his. Donaldson manages to create an addicting, steamy romance in which the relationship dynamics are respectful of boundaries, understanding of happiness, and selfless in their love. It's a lovely arc to read, primarily because of these qualities. Just the friendship between these two will have you sighing blissfully, even when romance is far out of the picture, which in my eyes speaks far more to the strength of the bond these two characters share than anything else.

Nevertheless, while I admit candidly that the romantic tension in this novel reached out into my chest and twisted my heart rather painfully, what made this novel such a gem was the complex growth Kate experiences. As a woman in the 1900s, with societal expectations of marriage, it is difficult enough to forge a path veering off the typical course. As a woman with few prospects, a despicable upbringing, and a truly scandalous family, it is practically impossible. Kate resorts to extreme decisions to escape the cage she finds herself in as she desperately tries to convince her mother to let her travel to India with her spinster Aunt Charlotte. Kate's predicament truly hits home as we see her attempt to fulfill ridiculous bargains, despite the fact that she is well-educated, reasonable, and clever. As Kate struggles to find what she wants - from both herself and her future - the possibilities seem both endless and limiting. Kate undergoes many subtle epiphanies throughout her growth arc, from the realization that her expectations have never lived up to reality to the fact that much of what she thought was true is, in fact, incorrect. Yet, there is in inner layer to the cage that traps Kate and while she struggles to let loose the outer shells of society, family, and duty, the inner-most layer that she has self-imposed is the hardest to break out of.

While Blackmoore is an excellent novel, through-and-through, a reasonable amount of flaws stood out to me throughout the narrative. Most glaring is the fact that Kate's mother is incredibly vapid and cruel, a married woman who flirts with younger men constantly and encourages her daughters to secure marriages by compromising their virtues. Although I do not doubt the existence of such a mother, I found it difficult to believe that she was quite as evil as she was painted to be. If we had been offered a peek into her past or at least insight into her other personas, perhaps I would have felt more comfortable with her stark black-and-white portrayal but, alas, I was not. Additionally, I feel as if Donaldson ends this novel - almost - a little too soon. It is such a quick and convenient ending, avoiding the messiness of the situation Kate finds herself in. Moreover, it glosses over the immense growth arc Henry experiences, which I found to be fascinating. I would have loved for greater insight into the next chapter in Henry and Kate's life - just a glimpse, that's all.

Needless to say, I loved Blackmoore despite its flaws. Donaldson's prose paints a stunning gothic mansion as the setting of this romantic tale, alive with complex relationships, intriguing guests, and hidden secrets. It's no Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but it isn't meant to be. No, Blackmoore is the type of novel for which a few uninterrupted hours need to be scheduled. It demands to be read in a single-sitting, eating up time with its page-count and stress with its tension levels. While Donaldson's debut still doesn't appeal to me - it seems far too tame in comparison to the dark quality of this piece - I will certainly be looking out for any and all of her future works. Any author for whom I'd ignore piles of homework for on a busy weekday night is automatically worth it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: Spark by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Title: Spark (Sky Chasers, #2) 

Author: Amy Kathleen Ryan 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

After Glow ripped my heart out, leaving me an emotional wreck, you’d think I’d have been a little more hesitant to crack open the spine of Spark. Not at all. I dove into this novel the first chance I had and refused to emerge until it was over, its last page taunting me with its promise of the “thrilling conclusion” to come Summer 2013. (Needless to say, that last page is a liar as Flame releases January 7th, 2014. I still cannot believe it had the audacity to throw into my face the fact that I still need to wait two months to find out what happens to these characters…two months!) Despite the stunning non-ending of Spark, leaving us on the precipice of immense change for the characters we’ve grown to hate and love, this vicious cliffhanger did, in no way, diminish my love for the novel as a whole. Avoiding Middle Book Syndrome spectacularly, Spark proves to be even more of a mind-fuck than its predecessor ever was.

A month after the events of Glow, Seth still remains a prisoner in the brigs, Kieran the unlawful and un-elected Captain of the Empyrean, and Waverly the girl who left the adults behind on the New Horizon. Although the girls are finally back on the Empyrean, the tension has only escalated, causing Kieran to accelerate the rate of the ship and make frantic contact with Anne Mather to negotiate for the release of their parents. Then, a strange explosion occurs on the Empyrean, freeing Seth from his prison and making him the most obvious suspect. As the crew members soon discover, though, there is a New Horizon terrorist aboard the Empyrean. If that weren’t terrifying enough, Kieran has become consumed by his hunger for control, assuming the role of a dictator Waverly despises and vehemently opposes. As the Empyrean slowly tears itself apart from the inside, will they ever get the adults back? Or are they doomed to fall to the New Horizon…again?

While the events of Spark never take place on the New Horizon, it is a scarier novel for it. Waverly, expecting to be safely back home on the Empyrean, finds her fiancée a changed man and the girls she worked to rescue an ungrateful lot. Thus, suffering under the trauma of her experiences on the New Horizon, the psychological damage slowly begins to grate. While Waverly attempts to create a democratic system of government aboard the Empyrean, lashing out at Kieran’s dictator behavior and vouching for the innocence of Seth, the vessel of the Empyrean becomes a battleground to win supporters. Team Waverly or Team Kieran?

In many ways, this is a political struggle. It is evident to the crew that there will no longer be a wedding between Waverly and Kieran, but choosing between both stubborn individuals is a trial as well. And in politics, nothing is quite fair, just as corruption – of morals, of policies, of people – is at large. Moreover, the savageness of these children comes to light as they slowly destroy one another, their “leaders”, and their hope of survival. It is a brutal, horrible mess, reminding me of what the Hunger Games would have been like if, instead of arrows and knives, the weapons were vitriol and sarcasm. Ryan never bothers to shield her younger audience from these atrocities – which is refreshing. All too often, the plot or scope of a novel will demand difficult decisions that are withheld for the sake of the genre or marketing schemes, but Ryan never hesitates to unearth these realities.

While Waverly is fighting her own inner – and outer – battle, struggling to take some control of a ship where Kieran rules, all while trying not to break down and lose her sanity, Kieran becomes increasingly unstable. Although he is still quick-thinking and intelligent, the religion he raises and his biased policies make him our new “villain.” Of course, there still remains so much gray matter when it comes to Kieran. We know what he’s been through and in an effort to contain hundreds of people – and meet their expectations – he resorts to cruelty. None of the situations these teens are placed in are easy, which make the tough decisions they take all the more plausible – and even forgiving. It is a double-edged sword, one that is difficult to think through. Are there even any villains on these ships anymore? I don’t know, which is both a scary thought and an intriguing one.

While Seth never had a voice in Glow, he does in Spark which is an essential – and smart – tactical decision. As each of these perspectives remains in the third-person, there is no trouble discerning them from one another and I found Seth’s musings to be most interesting. After all the mistakes Seth committed in Glow, I find he is perhaps the most sane and morally correct individual in Spark. Unlike Waverly, Kieran, or the masses of secondary characters, he doesn’t seek to undermine, overthrow, or regain power. Instead, his sole goal is to redeem himself in the eyes of the Empyrean crew and, in particular, Waverly. While the romance in this novel is contained – easily – within a handful of lines, the affection Seth feels for Waverly is palpable, especially as it is in stark contrast with Kieran’s feelings. Although the relationship between Seth and Waverly is subtle, practically non-existent to a large degree, their friendship and understanding goes a long way.

Spark is not a romance, but the small inclusion of true fondness hidden under all the savagery of these survivors was a pleasant glimmer of hope. Even the few tight friendships, the slow build-up of trust, and even the growth – psychological growth that led to a greater understanding of oneself – was written with feeling. While Spark is a more political, thought-provoking installment than its predecessor – and a stronger novel to be sure – this series as a whole is flawless, despite the flaws of its cast. I adore Ryan’s exploration of ambiguous morality throughout these books and for perhaps the first time, I truly cannot predict a single event in Flame. Will everyone continue to turn against one another, or will they finally band together? Who knows? After all, humanity has never been predictable. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

ARC Review: The Chocolate Heart by Laura Florand

Title: The Chocolate Heart (Amour et Chocolat, #5) 

Author: Laura Florand

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: November 26th, 2013

Usually, after the initial honeymoon period wears off – generally around the third or fourth book in a series – I begin to become wary. Whether it be Kate Daniels or Mercy Thompson, there always comes a time when my stomach churns, my mind imagines all the worst case scenarios, and I settle down to read a book with crossed fingers, toes, and hair strands. When it comes to Laura Florand, however, whose Amour et Chocolat series is made up of companion novels, my trust is never shaken. It’s a comfort to know that even if – by some strange chance of fate – I don’t fall head-over-heels for the love stories Florand writes, I always walk away besotted and impressed by her languid, graceful prose. Of course the setting of Paris, the chocolate-making heroes, and deeply complex heroines draw me in – but Florand’s writing always, always, clinches the deal.

At this point in the series, it is of no surprise to see that Florand’s heroes share many similarities, whether it is their insecurities, vulnerabilities, or just their backgrounds. And yet, this device only adds to the complexity of Florand’s characters for, despite the similarities, each of these heroes possesses distinct differences. Luc, a world-renown chocolatier whose culinary presence has helped make the hotel where he works a 5 Star establishment, cannot be mistaken for Dominque Richard or Sylvain Marquis, although all three have grown up in the outskirts of Paris. Florand’s dual perspectives work effortlessly in creating well-rounded characters who seek to fit in, in more ways than their profession. I find that the more I read her work, the more I recognize qualities to praise. After all, Luc is living the dream in Paris, making food for famous guests and running his own kitchen, but there still remains so much unsatisfaction in his life. 

Enter: Summer Corey. It isn’t so much that Summer is beautiful or that she is able to able to fill up the blank spaces in Luc’s life, but rather the fact that he can add color to her existence that makes him pursue her with such determination. From the beginning itself, their attraction is selfless, seeking to understand one another and create a better world for themselves – together. Of course, the journey is slow, arduous, wrought with misunderstandings and an almost irritating back-and-forth banter, equal in wit, charm, and action. The Chocolate Heart isn’t my favorite of Florand’s love stories – that’s a definite tie between The Chocolate Thief and The Chocolate Kiss - but it contains other qualities that make it such a worthwhile read. 

Summer, for one, is a heroine whose plight I sympathized with. Not only is her beauty a detriment, isolating her from female companionship, but it also dampens her self-esteem. While everyone sees a pretty face in Summer, not to mention wealth, status, and power thanks to her father, they rarely ever see her. Summer is constantly admonished by her family, downtrodden and put-down, made only to carry out the wishes of her parents and marry the richest hunk they throw at her. Thus, Summer takes off for years, living on an island with no technology, no communication to the outside, and living with the locals, teaching them English and making a happy, sunny community for herself. When Summer is forced back to Paris by her father, whose gift is the hotel where Luc works, it is Summer’s worst nightmare. For one, her parents – though constantly complaining about her absence – don’t stick around long enough to see her and for another, Summer is intensely unhappy. 

An unhappy protagonist isn’t exactly likeable, but I loved Summer. Florand writes Summer’s insecurities with genuine feeling. It doesn’t seem contrived in the least that Summer thinks so lowly of herself, her abilities, and what she’s accomplished in life. It takes others to see the beauty in her – past the physical perfection – and Summer’s self-growth is slow, but realistically paced. I particularly love that, despite the happily-ever-after we all know and expect, Florand treats this fragile love story with a healthy dose of realism. For the first time, Florand has written an epilogue, but it is an authentic one, highlighting the truth of the bond Summer and Luc share in a way that is both bittersweet and romantic. It becomes harder and harder to write about this series with time. It only gets better – deeper, more complicated, and far messier. And yet, it is such a wonderful capsule of life. Even in the most romantic city in the world, life and its troubles never cease or escape you. Instead, you just learn to handle them…all with a healthy dose of chocolate, morning, noon, and night.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Just Another...Book Crush (#10): Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow

Just Another...Book Crush! is a monthly feature where I invite an author whose book I've recently reviewed and loved to write a guest post and share their three latest book crushes. It's a feature I'm starting mostly because I'm often very shy to approach authors, especially ones I admire, and also because I love reading guest posts since, more often than not, they convince me to pick up a book even when the reviewer cannot. 

Sorrow's Knot left me speechless when I read an ARC of it early last month (REVIEW) and, unsurprisingly, has remained in my thoughts - constantly. It's such a thought-provoking novel, one which extends beyond the barriers of both the Young Adult genre and Fantasy label. Needless to say, I just had to get Erin Bow to stop by the blog to discuss her latest and, I have to admit, this is one of my favorite posts all year. It's just that good.
In the world of SORROW'S KNOT, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry, something deadly. Most of the people of this world live on the sunlit, treeless prairies. But a few carve out an uneasy living in the forest towns, keeping the dead at bay with wards made from magically knotted cords. The women who tie these knots are called binders. And Otter's mother, Willow, is one of the greatest binders her people have ever known.
But Willow does not wish for her daughter to lead the lonely, heavy life of a binder, so she chooses another as her apprentice. Otter is devastated by this choice, and what's more, it leaves her untrained when the village falls under attack. In a moment of desperation, Otter casts her first ward, and the results are disastrous. But now Otter may be her people's only hope against the shadows that threaten them. Will the challenge be too great for her? Or will she find a way to put the dead to rest once and for all?

Finding Sorrow’s Knot

I know all writers are supposed to be happy in public all the time, but I have a confession: I had a hard time writing Sorrow’s Knot.

To start with, the story wandered around for quite awhile before acquiring its setting, which turned out to make a huge difference to it. (I wrote about that here.) I had to throw out everything I’d done up to then, but still, finding the setting made it possible for me to write a solid draft of the book. I made that draft as good as I could make it — worked on it with my writer’s group, sat with it, edited it — and then sent it to my editor.

He sat with that draft for quite a while. I imagine he was trying to work up the courage to write to me, or perhaps merely trying to find something useful to say. He said many wise and useful things, but his insight boiled down to: “Oh, honey. You need to try again.”


So, the first step in that was to spend a long painful stuck spell where I had no idea how to fix my apparently broken book.

In the end I “fixed it” by throwing out that earlier draft entirely. I kept six characters, and about three beats of plot. There’s one chapter in the middle, where two characters are climbing a mountain, which I was able to reuse. They’re climbing the mountain for different reasons in the final version, but they still climb the mountain, so quite a bit of that prose carried over. And that’s it.

In all, between the wandering draft and the draft I initially submitted and then threw out, there are some 150,000 words that I wrote but that didn’t tell the story I wanted to tell.

There’s editing, and then there’s EDITING. I didn’t know it was possible to throw out the story to save the story, but it is. I record it here because it’s something I wish I’d known.

Anyway, I sent the new version of the book to my editor in August of 2012, and in early November of 2012 — somewhat delayed by Hurricane Sandy and the need to flee the darkened island of Manhattan to find a mailbox — he sent it back. The notes were much more manageable, which was good, because the publishing house now needed the book by December 1.

So I went off to a (literal) cabin in the woods to finish it. No family, no day job, no wi-fi. It took ten days of intensive effort.

I worked on the pacing — cutting 4,000 words from the first part, for instance.

I worked on the puzzle pieces. This is a story in which characters have to figure something out, and as always, the solution was far more obvious to me, as the writer, than it was to anyone else. I tried to put the right pieces in the right places, for the characters to work out at the right times. I wasn’t as concerned that the reader might get there ahead of the characters — it is a fairy tale, in a way, and we often know what’s going to happen in those before the characters do. Still, this was a tricky part, and perhaps it shows — some reviewers complain that it’s way too obvious, and others that it’s not clear enough.

Perhaps most importantly, I worked on the tone. This is a book about death that has “Sorrow” in the title, and it was never going to be a laugh a minute. But the three central characters have had a good life, and they are good friends. I wanted them to have some good times. So I added, at my editor’s suggestion, scenes where they are having fun. (“Avoid the urge to mention doom,” he wrote — he knows me.) So I added the opening scene where they’re all throwing mud at each other. The bit where Kestrel and Cricket pledge okishae. The bit where Otter and Kestrel catch a rock-stupid goose. A half-dozen more. People cook more in the final draft. They fuss over each other’s bedding. They are warmer, snugger, funnier. I like it.

This cabin-in-the-woods edit was fairly minor, as edits go. But the process of doing this edit felt different for another reason, too — through all this work on pacing and plot mechanics and tone, I didn’t touch the story. I COULDN’T touch the story.

And this is really what I want to say, the reason for all this rambling. I want to give you some idea of how different and surprising and miraculous it felt to find that somewhere in there, the story I’d written became the story, the only possible story.

I know better than anyone else that Sorrow’s Knot was once a very different tale. But still, I find it unimaginable. To me, the way the story settled into the “right” shape as if that shape had been waiting for it all along, confirmed something I have long believed: A story is not created, but found. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Title: Glow (Sky Chasers, #1)

Author: Amy Kathleen Ryan 

Rating: 4 Stars

I read Glow with my heart caught in my throat, flipping pages frantically and waiting for the sick feeling in my stomach to evaporate. Even after having finished this book, though, my heart hasn’t found its way back to my chest; I find it hard to breathe. For all the trouble it gave me, however, Glow has been one of the most satisfying novels I’ve come across this year. Amy Kathleen Ryan’s unapologetic prose and savage characters are the unpretentious realities I seek in a thought-provoking novel and, if nothing else is guaranteed, it is this: Glow will turn your mind inside-out and force you to re-think everything you thought you knew about humanity.

Waverly and Kieran are barely sixteen-years-old, but they’re already considering marriage. As the first generation of children born on the Empyrean, a spaceship that set off for New Earth decades ago, it is their duty to ensure the continuity of the human race. Kieran, already groomed to become the next Captain, is the perfect choice and, despite a few misgivings, Waverly is prepared to do her duty. When the New Horizon, however, the sister-spaceship that set off a year before the Empyrean, looms into view, Waverly and Kieran’s lives are changed forever. After all, the New Horizon should be millions – if not billions – of miles ahead of the Empyrean, so the fact that they have slowed down their vessel to help the Empyrean catch up spells trouble.

And trouble it is. When these two spaceships first set out from Earth, their chances of survival were the same. In fact, the only difference remained the religious beliefs of their crew members. Yet, while the Empyrean solved the fertility issue plaguing their crew, the New Horizon didn’t. Thus, with no children aboard their ship – and therefore no one to carry forth their legacy – the Empyrean falls under attack, one hundred and thirty girls rounded up and kidnapped while dozens of adults fall dead, struggling to defend them. Alone on a spaceship with boys of various ages, Kieran is lost. And alone on a strange vessel, with a dictator named Anne Mather, all Waverly knows is that she must escape – before they touch her.

Glow brings forth a future vision that is both startling and eerie. Not only is Ryan’s world-building impeccable and intricately paced, but it is impossible to find a loop hole within the dystopian world she was built. Moreover, the story itself is nothing short of terrifying: a horror-story of human capabilities when pushed to the utmost degree of sanity. Anne Mather, the obvious “villain” of our tale is manipulative and charismatic – deadly traits to work against – but Ryan imbibes an entire back story to her existence that makes it impossible to view her in a stark black-and-white light.

What makes Glow such a remarkable piece, though, is the fact that Ryan is willing to create unlikeable characters. On the Empyrean, Kieran believes he must lead the remaining crew, particularly as he would someday become Captain. As he begins assuming power, though, he finds opposition in the form of Seth, an abused, but intelligent, teen who has remained jealous of Kieran’s position, status, and engagement to Waverly. As Seth rises to power, undermining Kieran and finding fault with his actions, Kieran fails to achieve what he set out to do. Yet, as the situation aboard the Empyrean becomes increasingly frantic, wrought with shifting allegiances between Seth and Kieran, the true nature of both teenagers becomes apparent. Our loyalties, too, move back-and-forth, sympathizing with one boy and then the next as more and more is revealed. Thus, by the end, it is impossible to discern who is better, who is worse, and who is justified in what they did. Ryan blurs these lines and her stark, direct prose only serves to muddle our brain. After all, without the author telling us who to root for – without her bias leaking through the words – are we siding with a villain or a hero?

Waverly’s case, though different, also has its share of similarities. Stuck on the New Horizon, she must team up to escape Anne Mather – and fast. After all, Mather has made no secret of the fact that the girls have been chosen for their gender; nothing more. It is a shocking situation, particularly as the crew of the New Horizon supports Mather and dares not look too closely at how she handles her power, as long as they finally get what they’ve wanted for so long: children. While Mather’s cruelty is apparent through Waverly’s struggles – many of which left me gasping in outrage – I admired the subtle messages Ryan was able to weave through the narrative. Waverly, as well as many of the other girls, have been subject to sexual harassment in the form of lingering looks or the equivalent of wolf whistles. While Glow isn’t necessarily a feminist piece, the trials and tribulations that women have had to suffer from the discomfort of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are outlined vividly, further blurring the lines between right and wrong as Ryan explores the decisions taken by these victims and the morality of those choices.

Ultimately, Glow is an intense, dark novel. Ryan’s characters may be teenagers, but the content of this novel is in no way adolescent. It is, solely, for mature readers who are looking for a story to make them think, reflect, and ponder. With just one book, Ryan has shot up to become a favorite author of mine; her writing is evocative, characters complex, and final message poignant. No stone is left unexplored in this psychological study of humanity, which I appreciate. Glow is proof that the Young Adult genre can transcend its artificial barriers of romance, delivering a novel that is worthy to be read, shared, and discussed with readers of all ages.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Series Review: October Daye (#1 - #3) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, #1) 
Author: Seanan McGuire
Rating: 3 Stars

Rosemary and Rue is a promising start to what I can already see shaping up to be one of my favorite UF Series. From the beginning itself, McGuire's novel starts out differently from most other UF Series - with our protagonist being turned into a fish for fourteen years. Thus, when the book really kicks off, Toby Daye, our changeling heroine in question, is determined to avoid her past as a faerie knight and PI. What I really love about this set-up is that it allows us, the reader, to be newly introduced into this world all while assimilating right in the middle of Toby's life. McGuire writes superbly, imbibing her characters with depth and covering the back story - full of well-crafted world-building - perfectly too.

I was particularly surprised, however, by how quickly I came to enjoy Toby's narration. Usually, it takes me awhile to warm up to a new UF narrator, but with Toby, I seemed to merely fall into the story. Not only is she kick-ass - as you'd expect - but her vulnerability bleeds through as well, making her sharp feelings and conflicted emotions deeply felt. Moreover, her interactions with the secondary characters are filled with a past - which I always love - and has made me eager to see how these friendships - and not-so-friendly-relationships - develop in the future. If there are any true downfalls with this installment, it is that the middle lags - considerably. Rosemary and Rue is slow, as can be expected from Grant, but it does knock off the pace of the story until it finally picks up by the end. Nevertheless, this first edition to the October Daye Series leaves readers thirsting for more, both of Toby and her world. And, really, what more can an avid UF lover ask for?

Title: A Local Habitation (October Daye, #2) 
Author: Seanan McGuire
Rating: 2.5 Stars

A Local Habitation is a disappointment after the promising start of Rosemary and Rue. While Toby is a changed woman from both books - her acceptance of her role in Faerie a relief - the plot of this novel is its ultimate downfall. While Rosemary and Rue could be slow, it kept me guessing till the end, quite unlike this installment. A Local Habitation is dragged out to the point where Toby simply looks stupid. Although she's a detective, she misses many obvious clues until the end. And sure, I didn't put together the entire mystery scheme, but she could have done it a lot sooner too. If there are any saving graces it is the relationships Toby establishes with Quentin, her sidekick, and the sizzling tension between herself and Tybalt. Also, Toby is no longer the bitter and upset woman she was in the previous installment, so finally seeing her self-sacrificing and kick-ass nature come out was a pleasant change. I haven't given up on this series yet - I'm too obsessed with Tybalt for that - but I doubt I'll be quite as excited for the next book.

Title: An Artificial Night (October Daye, #3) 
Author: Seanan McGuire
Rating: 2 Stars/DNF

I got through a little more than half of this novel before I realized, plain and simple, that I wasn't enjoying it. When it comes to the October Daye series, I go through a cycle, of sorts. First, there's the love phase, which is the first third of the book. McGuire sets up each novel perfectly, the mystery unique and intriguing, Toby's growth and relationships gripping...until the set-up is over and then comes the wait. McGuire has a tendency to drag out her stories, whether it be through a decreased pace or just an ignorance of in-your-face facts. During this phase of the books, Toby interacts with a variety of characters - none of whom I've come to feel much emotional attachment for - and the novel seems as if it will never end. Finally, during the last fifth of the book, the plot finally picks up, the story is wrapped up well, and Tybalt makes a final appearance.

It's Tybalt's appearance that screws me over every time. I feel the urge to pick up the next book and not give up on this series because of his presence, despite the fact that he is a rather underused character. I feel as if McGuire could develop so many more of these secondary characters, instead of keeping Toby the center - and only - true focus. More than that, however, the slow pacing of these books causes me to tune out, the repetitive settings and themes - particularly the fact that Toby isn't actually a hero - force me to grind my jaw in frustration and, ultimately, I don't have the patience to continue with this series anymore. I still believe it has a lot of potential and, I know for a fact, that many readers will really enjoy this. I prefer my Urban Fantasy fast-paced, emotional, and not quite a chore to read through, though. I know I'll be checking out McGuire's Indexing sometime soon, but my adventures with Toby (and sadly Tybalt too!) have come to an end.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

ARC Review: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman

Title: These Broken Stars (Starbound, #1) 

Author: Amie Kaufman 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Release Date: December 10th, 2013

These Broken Stars is an absolutely stunning debut. I read this in four hours, unable to even change the repeating playlist on my iPod as my fingers were too occupied, flipping page after page. Ever since reading Sara Creasy’s space-opera duology earlier this year, I’ve been keeping my fingers crossed that the science-fiction genre would take the plunge into terraforming planets. Thus, for me, These Broken Stars is both science-fiction and young adult at their finest. It brings forth a dangerous, mysterious, but thrilling new planet as its setting, all with a backdrop of teenage survivors.

I was besotted with this novel from the first chapter itself. These Broken Stars is told in alternating perspectives between Lilac, the rich daughter of the man who founded the galactic empire of our story, and Tarver, the self-made war hero who rose up from his middle-class status, only to still be considered the lowest of the low among the upper-class society he serves. When Lilac and Tarver meet unexpectedly aboard the Icarus, they think nothing of it; after all, on a ship so huge, what are the chances of them seeing each other again? Quite decent, it seems, for the two find themselves on an escape pod together when the Icarus malfunctions. Against all odds, they wash up on an unknown planet, alive with terraformed plants, but no human life. With only each other to rely on, the two must find a way to survive on the harsh new planet they’ve been placed on – or die trying.
Although its world-building isn’t the most intricate, the world of These Broken Stars is uncharted territory for YA – thankfully so. It sets up an intriguing universe, one with multiple planets and a strict hierarchy. We see this class order in its most brutal form when it comes to Lilac, who is forbidden from all contact with other men, not for any punishment she will receive, but rather for the death they will face. Thus, when Tarver meets Lilac for the first time, she is charmed at his genuine interest in her, though she must quickly push him away. When the two are stuck together on an escape pod, and then on a mysterious planet, their relationship is terse and frosty, with neither of them able to get along. Moreover, burdened by their stereotypes of one another, they are quick to judge and slow to trust.

It is this, I feel, that makes These Broken Stars such a spectacular YA novel. While Lilac feels most at control in her society balls, Tarver is in his skin in the dense forest they find themselves in. As a Major, he is used to scouting new and difficult terrain, having lived on many different planets, thus the reversal of power in this situation is interesting to watch. And the reason I mention that this situation is so perfect for the YA age group is because it automatically lends itself to so much growth. As Tarver and Lilac grow accustomed to one another, learning to live with, understand, and even like each other despite their bristly exteriors, they also discover parts of themselves. Lilac, most noticeably, embraces who she really is, underneath her layers of frills, rising to the challenge of surviving and turning into a hardened, but emboldened, young woman. For Tarver, his growth stems from the emotional attachments he finally allows himself to feel, tackling his past demons along with discovering his emotional vulnerabilities.

Alongside these immense routes of self-discovery, however, is the slow build-up of an equal relationship. Where both Tarver and Lilac are quick to assume the roles in which they are most skilled, they learn to balance the load and the stereotypical stigmas that cling to their economic status fade away with time. Furthermore, the slow-burn romance that gradually builds between these two is captivating. Although their relationship starts out with little trust and more than a few lost tempers, it shifts into a strong friendship and from there, the leap to that eventual first kiss is agonizing, but worth it. I was surprised by the depth of emotion I felt for these two strong characters, perseverant in their need to survive, but also in their love for one another. And, surprisingly, I don’t cringe at using the word “love” here – it’s hard-earned and worth it.

While These Broken Stars takes place on a different planet altogether, giving rise to its science-fiction genre labeling, it is, primarily, a survivalist story. Tarver and Lilac’s relationship is an entertaining forefront, certainly, but the situations these two find themselves in are written with poise and depth, managing to add layers to both the characters and the plot at the same time. Additionally, there are traces of the paranormal underlying this tale, as mysterious whispers follow Lilac wherever she travels. Yet, though it spans many genres and topics, Kaufman’s debut is tightly written, woven with a dual narration that is not only moving, but distinct.

If there are any flaws with this story, it is that one or two plot threads are wrapped up a little quickly towards the end. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the full explanations for them remain a little shabby, but to be frank, I wasn’t too bothered by this fact. After all, these same plot devices caused my heart to rupture, giving me more than a fair share of emotional turmoil while reading this book, so I was glad to be well-and-done with them after a certain point. Granted, there are a few issues I feel could have been fleshed-out a tiiiny bit better, but I have little to complain with a story so flawless. Thus, I feel as if the ending of this novel is, ultimately, adequate, and reads perfectly as a stand-alone, though sufficiently whetting the appetite for future companion novels from this world. Infused with depth, three-dimensional characters, and ground-breaking new ideas, These Broken Stars will likely leave you dazedly pleased and profoundly giddy. I know I still am.

A Note on the Cover: I seem to have gone from the mentality that pretty covers equate books I simply have to get my hands on to pretty covers equaling books I really need to run away from. Sadly, beautiful covers have tricked me too often in the past, but thankfully, the cover of These Broken Stars speaks no lies. And, best of all, the cover is totally relevant! Lilac wears an elaborate green dress when she is ship-wrecked and has bright red hair, while Tarver wears his usual gear during this novel. I'm still reeling from the fact that a YA cover managed to get it right, so let's hope this is a first for many more covers to come! (And by that, we all know I mean I'm hoping for some more ethnicities to emerge on these covers. Wouldn't that be a surprise?)