Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cover Reveal & Giveaway: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

As you know, I'm not in the habit of doing too many promotional posts. When I began blogging, I would join cover reveals and accept the requests of every other who contacted me, simply because I didn't know any better. Now, though, I endeavor to only participate in blog tours I actually think are worthwhile and in promotional posts that I can honestly admit to wanting to promote; today's is one of those.

Frances Hardinge is an author I read the moment her debut came out, quite a long time ago. I don't remember much of Fly By Night except the actual feelings that its cover evokes within me - excitement, awe, and surprise. After having gone through a phase in my life where I staunchly refused to read Middle Grade because I was so much more "mature" than that, I recently went back to Frances Hardinge and picked up what is probably her most famous novel, A Face Like Glass.

I use the word 'famous' very lightly for, despite her obvious talent, Frances Hardinge is not very well-known. Which is a shame. If there is any author the world deserves to know about, it is her. Not only can she write rich and imaginative fantasy worlds that any reader can get lost in, but her stories transcend time and age. As a young teenager, first reading her work, I was struck by her imagination and writing technique, but now, much older, I am struck by her sheer genius. Hardinge is a masterful weaver of plot twists, her characters are three-dimensional and full of depth, and, best of all, her story lines contain hidden depths that younger readers may not be able to see. Thus, although older readers are, technically, reading a middle grade novel, they are able to gain an unexpected amount of knowledge from it as Hardinge cleverly incorporates darker themes and politics into a seemingly fun-filled fantasy realm.

And, today, I am extremely pleased and delighted to reveal the UK Cover of A Face Like Glass. If you're read my review of A Face Like Glass (You can read it HERE), you've undoubtedly seen the gorgeous American cover of it. As is expected, though, the UK Cover is gorgeous in its own right. I am so excited to be sharing it with you all today, along with an opportunity to win a copy of this book! :)
In Caverna, lies are an art - and everyone's an artist... In the underground city of Caverna the world's most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare - wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer, even as they slit your throat. The people of Caverna are more ordinary, but for one thing: their faces are as blank as untouched snow. Expressions must be learned, and only the famous Facesmiths can teach a person to show (or fake) joy, despair or fear - at a price. Into this dark and distrustful world comes Neverfell, a little girl with no memory of her past and a face so terrifying to those around her that she must wear a mask at all times. For Neverfell's emotions are as obvious on her face as those of the most skilled Facesmiths, though entirely genuine. And that makes her very dangerous indeed...

Frances Hardinge grew up in a huge old house that inspired her to write stories from an early age. She read English at Oxford University before a persistent friend encouraged her to send a few chapters of her book, Fly By Night, to a publisher. Macmillan made her an immediate offer and the book went on to be published to huge critical acclaim, winning the Branford Boase First Novel award. A Face Like Glass is Frances’ fifth novel which has elicited widespread praise. Talking about where the idea for the book came from Frances had the following to say, “The core concept of A Face Like Glass has been nestling in my mind for a long time - a girl whose thoughts show in her face, and who thus becomes the ultimate luxury item in a decadent realm of perfect liars.” 
International Giveaway! 
One winner will win a paperback copy of the new UK edition of A Face Like Glass.

To Enter: 
Fill out Rafflecopter below
Must be 13 years or older
Giveaway ends March 7th, 2013
Open Internationally
a Rafflecopter giveaway
While you wait to win the giveaway, do check out an exclusive excerpt of the first chapter that can be found HERE. Also, to find out more about the novel, just read my review of it HERE. :)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Just Another...Book Crush (#1): The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

I am so excited to be finally revealing the brand-new feature I've been working on for the past few weeks! It's my first original feature on my blog, so I hope you all love it as much as I do! :) 

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. 

I've invited Kay Honeyman, author of The Fire Horse Girl, which I read, REVIEWed, and fell in love with earlier this month, to kick-off this feature for me today! 

Jade Moon is a Fire Horse -- the worst sign in the Chinese zodiac for girls, said to make them stubborn, willful, and far too imaginative. But while her family despairs of marrying her off, she has a passionate heart and powerful dreams, and wants only to find a way to make them come true. Then a young man named Sterling Promise comes to their village to offer Jade Moon and her father a chance to go to America. While Sterling Promise's smooth manners couldn't be more different from her own impulsive nature, Jade Moon falls in love with him on the long voyage. But America in 1923 doesn't want to admit many Chinese, and when they are detained at Angel Island, the "Ellis Island of the West," she discovers a betrayal that destroys all her dreams. To get into America, much less survive there, Jade Moon will have to use all her stubbornness and will to break a new path . . .one as brave and dangerous as only a Fire Horse girl can imagine.

I work in a middle school.

I once told this to a man at the airport wearing desert fatigues and travelling the last leg of his journey home from Afghanistan. His eyes widened. “I could never teach middle school.”

“You were just in a combat zone,” I pointed out. “You could teach middle school.”

He shook his head. Emphatically. “Middle school is terrifying.”

It wasn’t the first time that I had heard open horror at the idea of spending long stretches of time with teenagers.

The truth is I love teaching middle school. Sure, there are storms of drama, tornados of emotion, and more than a few icebergs of attitude to navigate. But teenagers are real. They construct tissue paper personas to protect the new skin of their identity that is starting to form. Contradictory elements of who they are bump against one another. It is a mess. A mess that they try desperately to hide. But I think that I am lucky that I get to see glimpses of these chaotic brushstrokes blending into a painting of what they will become.

Since I spend so much time in the world of adolescents, it is not surprise that Jade Moon is struggling with her own identity in The Fire Horse Girl.  Jade Moon was bold and stubborn before my research let me to the label “Fire Horse girl.” It was a perfect match for her strength because now she would have to battle the world for the right to have that strength.

And that is what I want my students to understand, identity isn’t just being who you are, it is also owning it and discovering its possibilities rather than letting others tell you its limits. Jade Moon’s identity as a Fire Horse girl is frustrating – to her, to her family, to her village. It doesn’t conform to society’s neat labels. But it is also full of possibility. Just like the identities in all of us.

So the soldier I met in the airport was right. Middle school can be terrifying. They can’t tidy up their identities yet. They force us to see the capacity of human beings, and how widely we will have to spread our arms if we want to catch hold of it.

Just Another...Book Crush!

I loved this idea! I have had a lot of book crushes, and it made me think about all the different forms of love that I feel for books. There are books that I want to hold close, books that I want to tell the world about, books that break my heart but which I love anyway. And it is probably no surprise that all my book crushes deal with identity and characters who find the strength to define themselves rather than let their societies define them.

Gigi, Bea, and Neerja are best friends and the smartest people in their sophomore class. They plan to pay their dues in high school before life really begins in the Ivy Leagues. Finding an unsigned yearbook under Nejeera’s sister’s bed forces them to take on challenges of a non-academic nature which will teach them a lesson they haven’t learned in class – people are not always what they seem on the surface. This book challenges a lot of the stereotypes that exists in high school. I also have a crush on Strohmeyer’s new book - Zoe Makes her Dreams Come True (available April 2013).

This is my most recent crush, and it is one of those heart-wrenching crushes where you know you will get hurt, but I fell and fell hard for it. Arn Chorn-Pond was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia and began a brutal reign. The book is structured as a piece of fiction, but it is based on the recollections of Arn who is a real survivor. The story is heartbreaking, beautifully written, and tragic. It showed me how tragedy can bring out the darkest parts of human nature along with the divine. I loved McCormick’s earlier book Sold, about a girl sold into sexual slavery in Nepal, and have always admired her unblinking gaze as she takes readers through difficult topics with grace and empathy.

I have had a crush on this book for years. This is not a recently released book, but Justina Chen’s new novel is out, Return to Me, and since it is sitting beside my bed, waiting to be read, I’ve been thinking a lot about this old flame. Terra is beautiful. She has the figure, she has the features, she even has the hot boyfriend, but she also has a port wine stain on her face. She tries to hide it with makeup. But it isn’t until she meets Jacob (goth Chinese boy, every good story needs one) that she starts to wonder if she deserves to be more than just a pretty face. It is a dense story, and I admire Chen’s ability to get layer after layer from the characters and events. 

Kay, thank you so much for stopping by and helping to kick-off my new blog feature! One of my favorite aspects of The Fire Horse Girl is the journey of identity that Jade Moon embarks on and I'm so glad you chose to discuss it! (You can read my review for The Fire Horse Girl HERE.) 

Also, North of Beautiful is one of my favorite novels ever! I've heard of both Smart Girls Get What They Want and Never Fall Down but have yet to read them, but I'll be bumping them up on my to-be-read shelves at once! Once again, thank you so much for stopping by! :) 

Well...what did you think? Do you like the feature? Have you read any of Kay's recent book crush novels? How about mine? Will you be reading The Fire Horse Girl anytime soon? 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Out of the Easy 

Author: Ruta Sepetys 

Rating: 4 Stars

Ruta Sepetys has made a fan out of me – at last. Although Sepetys has received much world-wide acclaim for her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, I found that her debut was less fiction and more history, leaving an impact on the reader merely because of the facts it was based upon. Out of the Easy, however, is a fictional tale with historical elements that simply add to the flavor of the tale. I may have given my tears to Between Shades of Gray, but I gave my heart and soul to Out of the Easy and am quite happy to leave them there.

As with any novel I usually love, Out of the Easy is a character-driven tale. It follows the journey of Josie Moraine, the daughter of a prostitute, living in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950. Unlike her mother, Josie is an educated young woman, aspiring to leave the prejudices of her station and pursue a better life. As with most teenagers, the only option of leaving comes through the opportunities provided by college. Thus, Josie sets her sights on attending Smith, a posh college in Massachusetts that a new – but close – acquaintance of hers, Charlotte, encourages her to apply to. With Josie’s mother off in California, it seems as if nothing can get in the way of Josie’s dreams. Until, that is, Forrest Hearne, a well-to-do gentleman who bonds with Josie over David Copperfield in the bookshop she works in, turns up dead on New Year’s Day. Josie, before even coming close to leaving the Big Easy, must first embrace the city she despises in a way she never had to before.

Out of the Easy is the type of novel that slowly works its way into your heart, imbedding its characters and setting deep inside of you until you wonder how you’ll breathe without them. Josie is a resourceful heroine: book-smart, street-smart, and gun-wielding – a package you don’t want to cross even on a good day. Although she’s grown up dreaming of the father she never knew and stuck with a mother who was more selfish than compassionate, Josie still has people in her life who care for her deeply. On one hand there is Willie, the cunning businesswoman who runs the brothel where Josie’s mother works and on the other hand is Charlie, the bookstore owner who allows Josie to live at his store in exchange for help around the shop. Josie also has Cokie, the driver who works for Willie and Patrick, Charlie’s son and one of her only friends.

What I love about Out of the Easy is that it paints a realistic and balanced picture of the French Quarter. Josie is a girl who is often judged for her circumstances, but these images are not all black and white. Although her life is no picnic, she has what a lot of people lack in this world – love. With that love - the love of a family that isn't necessarily related to her by blood - Josie is able to survive some of the most unusual, debilitating, and difficult situations. Furthermore, the people in Josie’s life do not fit into the boxes that society labels for them. Not all prostitutes are lusty women yearning for sex and nor are all men sexist creeps. Rather, Sepetys shows us the dual nature to everyone in the Big Easy – the faces they must wear to exist and the faces that show who they really are.

Even Josie, for all her pride at being above her mother’s station, wears these same masks, forced to keep secrets and lie for what she believes is the well-being of herself and others. It is this slow accumulation of lies, of hidden truths that Josie keeps within herself, that provides such an interesting plot line for this novel. It is part murder mystery, part self-discovery, and part historical recounting. Yet, although it tackles on a multitude of events and expanses over the lives of dozens of characters, painting them all in great depth, it never loses its focus. Moreover, it approaches everything – from college to parenting to romantic relationships – with a realistic eye. Josie may be smarter than those around her, but she is just as flawed.

I will admit, though, that Out of the Easy lacked that much-needed impact to propel it into a 5-Star read. For me, Sepetys always seems to fall short of this, even though I did certainly enjoy her sophomore novel more than her debut. It must be admitted, though, that Out of the Easy could have done with a tighter plot line. At many instances, information was revealed at moments when it would have been more prudent to mention them earlier, providing for a slightly choppy script. Moreover, a few of the circumstances did seem a tad bit too convenient, but I had such a strong understanding of Josie and the events that unfolded in her life that it was easy for me to overlook these minor qualms. Ultimately, Out of the Easy lived up to my expectations and delivered even beyond that. Josie is a character you don’t want to miss out on and her life is stunning and inspiring beyond anything else you are likely to pick up this year. I seem to be unable to get enough of historical fiction, lately, so I clearly need Sepetys’s next novel. Yesterday.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: The City's Son by Tom Pollock

Title: The City's Son (The Skyscraper Throne, #1)

Author: Tom Pollock 

Rating: 2 Stars/DNF

You need to know one thing before you delve into this review: I am making a conscious effort to not continue books I don't feel much for. Ever since I joined GoodReads last year, I've felt incredible guilty about DNFing novels, but on every account, I've either finished a bad book and given it a bad rating or finished a good book that just didn't work for me and given it an indifferent rating. Either way, by reading just over half the novel, I am able to discern whether the book is worth my time or not and usually, it isn't. Thus, I told myself this year that it really is okay to put down books unfinished and use that time to read another book, one that I will preferably love. Well, with The City's Son, this is the situation. Pollock's debut is a good novel, certainly, but it just isn't one for me and the flaws I found within it were too egregious for me to ignore and enjoy this story.

The City's Son, being a YA Urban Fantasy read, seems like something right up my alley - and it is. Where this novel falls flat, though, is in a lot of small aspects that, when combined, totally lost my attention. First and foremost, the story is told from the dual perspectives of Fil and Beth. Beth is a graffiti artist, a normal girl like any of us, only tougher for the death of her mother and subsequent grief of her father has made her fend for herself. Fil, on the other hand, is the son of the goddess of the London streets where this story takes place. From the very beginning itself, Pollock thoroughly immerses the reader in the world he has created - only, without much of a rope to hold on to, leaving them flailing about in the dark, drowning waters.

You see, Fil's perspective is littered full of strange names and weird remarks which begin to make a little more sense as the story wears on, but is initially extremely confusing. Furthermore, the manner in which his story arc crosses with that of Beth's is rather unbelievable. Beth, who has been betrayed by her best friend who ratted her out and now suspended from her school, has her life saved by Fil and then proceeds to join him on his quest to defeat the Crane King, the powerful lord trying to kill him. What I found strange about this was the fact that Beth never stopped to question or wonder why a Wraith, a mystical creature, was attacking her and she accepted the reality of Fil's magical life with ease. In addition, beyond a few initial doubts about Beth, Fil quickly takes her on as a partner, despite the fact that she is a liability to him.

Thus, the set-up of this story itself is very strange and was difficult for me to grasp. Over and above that, though, I found the dialogue to be awkward and the writing wasn't all that remarkable either. I will give Pollock credit for a rich and imaginative world, but with such little foundation of world-building - or simply world-building that emerges too late - I was unable to enjoy his unique take on London. Nevertheless, there are redeeming characteristics. For one, I just adored Beth's best friend, Pen. Pen is a Muslim and is constantly picked on by her maths teacher (not because of her nationality though - the true reason is far worse), which is why Beth is constantly sticking up for her. We are witness to a few scenes from Pen's PoV and these I simply loved! Pen is a strong, resilient character who has been through a lot in life. She looks up to Beth and tries her best to be just as powerful as Beth is, although she lacks the exterior aura. Unlike Beth, whose method of coping is to ignore them and shove them to the back of her mind where they fail to interfere with her adventures, Pen is much more damaged and nuanced.

Although I do really like Beth, I didn't find that she brought anything wholly new to the realm of kick-ass heroines. Fil, in my eyes, was forgettable as well. In addition to Pen, though, we see a few scenes told from Beth's father and his guilt, remorse, and worry for his daughter was very moving. After the death of his wife, Beth's father became a mere shell of himself and although he tried to be there for Beth, he simply couldn't. It is clear, though, that he cares very much for his daughter and is extremely proud of her artistic accomplishments. I loved how his story arc, Pen's story arc, Fil's story arc, and Beth's all came together, making for a very intriguing plot.

So, really, The City's Son has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, I didn't feel much for its two main characters and the world-building was truly lost on me, making this the type of book I kept feeling as if I needed to go back and re-read, just because I was so confused. Nevertheless, Pollock's debut has a lot to offer for fans of UF, so I'd urge readers to check it out - despite my low rating.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Audio Book and Movie Review: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Title: Howl's Moving Castle 

Author: Diana Wynne Jones

Rating: 4 Stars

At least no one can accuse me of not having read this book now. Howl's Moving Castle is probably the single most popular piece of children's fantasy, right after Harry Potter of course. I've heard endless praise for this series ever since it was first released but, for some reason or the other, I was never drawn to it. It seemed charming, but not much else. Well, as I expected, Jones's story is a charming, cute, and fun adventure novel with just the right amount of depth to be considered prevalent, but also subtle. All in all, it both was and wasn't what I was expecting, but although I enjoyed it, I know for a fact that I won't be calling myself a fan of Diana Wynne Jones - or this series - any time soon.

One of the best things about Howl's Moving Castle is, hands-down, its protagonist. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, left to work in her father's hat store after he passes away. Unlike the usual step-mothers we are used to, hers is kind, treating her three daughter equally, despite the fact that only one is hers by blood. While Sophie slaves away in a hat store, her two younger sisters depart on their own, one to be the apprentice of a witch and another to make an advantageous marriage. Quite unexpectedly, though, the Witch of the Waste, a wicked witch that the people of Sophie's town fear, even more than the mysterious Wizard Howl who eats the souls of young girls, arrives in Sophie's shop and turns her into an old woman. Now, desperate to turn herself back into the young girl she is, Sophie leaves her hat shop, only to stumble upon the moving castle of Wizard Howl himself and strike up a bargain with his fire demon, one that will change her life forever.

Needless to say, Howl's Moving Castle is a richly imagined fantasy story. Jones has created a world that is a-plenty both in politics and magic, making for a riveting read. Furthermore, the majority of the novel takes place in the moving castle of Wizard Howl himself. Howl is, quite possibly, my favorite character of the tale. As with all realistic characters, he is deeply flawed, proving to be vain, immature, and often irritating. Yet, beneath all that, he is clever, witty, and has a kind heart. Sophie, as a strong-willed heroine, knows exactly what buttons to push to get Howl riled and vice versa. Although their dynamic is unique due to the fact that Sophie is an old woman, their interactions are no less amusing or intelligent for it.

In addition to Howl and Sophie, though, the cast of secondary characters in this story plays an important role as well. Jones weaves together multiple plot lines, alluding to them in the beginning and slowly bringing them all together. At times, the plot can be hard to follow with so much going on, but it keeps you flipping the pages constantly. As an audio book, Howl's Moving Castle is one of the better ones. Although I will fault the narrator for making Howl's voice a bit too much like her own at times, she brilliantly read through this book, making me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. I did switch to an actual copy of the novel during the middle, simply because the middle does tend to drag a little and with the book, I could both read faster and skim when necessary, but either than that, the audio book was a perfect way to read this.

For all its positive points, though, I must admit to not understanding why Howl's Moving Castle receives the hype it does. Granted, it's a very well-written novel that is a great deal of fun, but it hardly warrants the numerous gushing reviews it receives. Jones does a splendid job of exploring the theme of illusion and personality; of seeing whether Sophie's appearance deters from her vivacious personality, but many other books do this as well. (Just take Frances Hardinge's A Face Like Glass for example, which is additionally MG but seems to tackle this theme with more creativity, talent, and depth). Howl's Moving Castle is a fantasy adventure I would not hesitate to recommend to any lover of good fiction, just don't go into it expected to be as blown away as the hype suggests you should be. Perhaps the movie is what gives this series the large fan following it has. I'll watch it and let you know.

Title: Howl's Moving Castle 

Director: Hayao Miyazaki 

Rating: 5 Stars

Now that's more like it! As a film, Howl's Moving Castle is everything its hype said it would be...and more! One of the main reasons I always find book-to-movie adaptations to be lacking, or inferior to their book halves, is because directors make it a point to follow the book word-for-word, plot-for-plot and then they skip an incident and the entire movie is ruined. Howl's Moving Castle the film couldn't be more different from the book if it tried, though.

Although both plot lines have the same idea of a girl, Sophie, who gets turned into an old woman, Miyazaki's rendition of the tale is infinitely darker. Jones has written a story that can only be described as charming. It's funny, witty, and great to spend a few leisure hours of time with. Yet, it can also be boring, its villain rather two-dimensional, and it never veers off the border of light/fluffy fun. Miyazaki's film version, however, casts its villain in a more three-dimensional light, putting more emphasis on both the romance element and the darker aspects of this story, which, in my eyes, only improved an already excellent idea and plot line.

In Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, the country that Sophie lives in is in the midst of a war. As such, instead of a frantic scrambling to undo wicked charms that have been set upon a variety of characters, there is a more serious matter of preventing war. Howl, too, is less of the bumbling, vain fool we've come to love in the books but rather an enigmatic mystery with a curse and dark secret of his own. Although Miyazaki's film rendition lost the original - and subtle - love story that Jones created, opting for a more typical "Beauty and the Beast" type of tale, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
All in all, even if you don't plan to read Jones's acclaimed novel, DO invest in the two hours that this film takes. It is beautifully drawn, marvelously scripted, and has made me realize the true hype surrounding this tale. Granted, I did miss a few elements from the novel in the movie - and both are VERY different, with only a handful of similarities - but I think it's safe to say that I'm in love with the movie far more than I am with the book. Do take note of this - it's probably the first and only time I'll find a movie to be superior to the novel. Needless to say, I need to check out Miyazaki's other films at once!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Between Shades of Gray

Author: Ruta Sepetys 

Rating: 4 Stars

Between Shades of Gray is the type of novel you need to mentally prepare yourself to read. If you don't, you'll probably find yourself like me, choking up within the first few pages itself. Yet, as the story wears on, you learn to breathe again and slowly, gently, carefully, Sepetys weaves this heart-breaking tale of loss, love, and hope.

What makes Between Shades of Gray such a phenomenal read is the mere fact that it is based off of truth. Sepetys has put an immense amount of research into her historical fiction debut and the passion she feels for these victims of Stalin's rule is palpable on every page. In fact, I was rendered speechless by my lack of knowledge of these events. When we think back on WWII, we immediately think to Hitler and the mass genocide of Jews that him and his Nazis conducted. Yet, just as important, were the thousands - no, millions - of people who died at the hands of Stalin and his men. Unfortunately, their ordeal is glossed over in history textbooks, but Sepetys has ensured that it will always be remembered.

Between Shades of Gray reminded me quite often of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Both novels were written with short, concise sentences, clearly conveying the cold, hard facts of the situation of the Lithuanians, but at the same time, they managed to be evocative and compelling. It is a unique writing style, one I appreciated and soaked up. With her debut, Sepetys introduces us to the family of Lina, a teenage artist who is taken with her mother and younger brother to a work camp in Siberia. Now, separated from her father, Lina resolves to document her experiences within her art, hoping against hope that they will somehow make their way to her father and he, in turn, will make his way back to her family.

Needless to say, Between Shades of Gray touches upon a delicate and depressing subject matter, but this is, first and foremost, a story of hope and incredible strength. Sepetys writes characters who are shockingly realistic and easy to empathize with, yet, despite their anger, frustration, and fear, they are kind, forgiving, and understanding. Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and her mother Elena are put with a group of people of all ages and gender. With them is a seventeen-year-old boy, Andrius, who has pretended to be slow so he can stay with his mother, a grouchy old bald man, and a newborn infant and her mother, amongst others.

With such a wide hose of characters, Sepetys manages to make each one shine. Elena manages to bring hope to their dismal group, never allowing them to give up and constantly bolstering their spirits. Slowly, we begin to realize that despite the tragedy that has befallen them, the Lithuanians are strong, resisting Stalin till the very end, stealing any food they can find and, best of all, sharing it. Between Shades of Gray may be a historical documentary of the unfolding events of Stalin's rule in Russia, but it is also the hidden tale of deep friendships, loyal companions, and surviving humanity. Truly, as the novel wears on, the beauty of this is all the more evident as we see this starving, death-ridden community come together for the sake of keeping just one more person alive, of getting word from just one other person deported elsewhere.

In the midst of all this is a small, short, but powerful love story. Lina and Andrius have only sentences in this novel dedicated to their romance, but their blooming friendship, gradual understanding of each other, and the everlasting hope they give one another is what stands out. Lina, too, is a remarkable heroine. Although she has her flaws, egregious ones that get her in trouble, and the inability to contain her anger and frustration, she is a strong protagonist, never giving up. Furthermore, her ability to see the world through the eyes of an artist is so sharply felt in this story. Lina draws and documents nearly every person and every location that she comes across and the solace, calm, and comfort this gives her builds her character. In addition, her story is littered with short flashbacks, of memories that she is reminded of during her travels, and these only further build the divide between her previous life and her current one.

All in all, Ruta Sepetys has written a deep, evocative, and powerful tale with her debut. Yet, although it remains to be engaging, satisfying, and utterly eye-opening, I was expecting a little more of a punch in the end. Ultimately, it felt as though this novel could have continued or at least ended on a more gut-wrenching note, perhaps like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Of course that ending was earth-shattering and still leaves me feeling hollow when I think about it, but it made an impact. Unfortunately, Between Shades of Gray lacked this, ever-so-slightly. Nevertheless, this is a novel that simply has to be read. Even if you don't like historical fiction, even if you don't like young adult, you need to read this. We all, as humans, owe it to humanity and the people who died, survived, and made peace under Stalin's rule to read this book. We really, really do.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: On the Edge by Ilona Andrews

Title: On the Edge (Edge, #1) 

Author: Ilona Andrews

Rating: 4.5 Stars

You know, in life there are moments when you think your emotion towards someone or something cannot possibly increase more than what it already is, but then they do or write something that makes you eat your previous words. With Ilona Andrews, I feel as if I am constantly in a state of, “I love them; this is their best book yet…it can’t get any better than this!” and then it does. I’ll tell you right now, it’s a terrific feeling. If there’s one duo I can count on to make me laugh, swoon, or get me out of a bad day, it is Ilona Andrews and, believe me, you want these two on your side. (Or, you know, locked up in a basement writing more books for you to devour!)

On the Edge is the first book in the Edge Chronicles, a series of Urban Fantasy stand-alones that take place in a realm called – you guessed it! – the Edge. Unlike the Kate Daniels Series, where the world-building takes its own sweet time to become properly defined and realized, the world-building in the Edge Chronicles is shockingly clear and concise, proving to be ever bit as original and captivating as it sounds. We have the Broken, or the human world, the Weird, a world fueled by magic and ruled by aristocrats, and the Edge, right in between them both. It is in the Edge that our protagonist, Rose, lives with her two younger brothers, struggling to make ends meet with a low-wage-earning job in the Broken. With her mother dead and father gone, the sole responsibility for her two younger brothers rests on Rose’s young shoulders.

Enter: Declan. Declan is a blueblood aristocrat from the Weird, searching for a bride with strong magical abilities – like Rose. Although Declan resolves to woo her by fulfilled any three tasks she so wishes to set upon him, Rose has bigger threats to worry about – especially with a strange new beast in the Edge. It is clear from this set-up itself that Ilona Andrews has a bit of a formulaic set-up here: a loyal kick-ass heroine who is relatively alone in the world, an alpha male (and very rich!) hero who wants her, and mystical threats for them to combat together. Yet, despite this recipe, Ilona Andrews always manages to make it work and add a few twists into it as the same time.

Rose is a heroine I instantly liked, connecting with her strong nature, fierce protection of her younger brothers, and need to be perfect all on her own. As the novel progresses, we slowly uncover her past; the destruction of any family life she’s ever known and her mistrust of men, love, and bluebloods from the Weird. For them, strong magical bloodlines are all that matters and Rose is convinced that Declan wants her for her potent abilities, not who she really is. Furthermore, Rose is a struggling woman in a world with other struggling people. It is her who is forced to make tough decisions, such as to buy new shoes for one brother while forgoing a gift for the other. In addition, her brothers have their own magical abilities, one as a necromancer and the other as a shapeshifter. Yet, despite her obvious difficulties in taking care of her siblings, the bond between the three is strong and unbreakable. Rose is, to her brother, a figure they can lean on and trust. In fact, the only problem is that Rose has no one to lean on herself.

It is Declan, though, who slowly makes his way into her heart and life. With the trials she sets for him, he becomes closer and closer to her family, the most important part of her existence, and subsequently, her as well. No one writes Adult Urban Fantasy Romance like Ilona Andrews – no one – and that much is evident from this story. Declan and Rose’s romance, although not as long and drawn out as Kate and Curran’s (which spans over four novels before they finally get together), is just as rewarding, meaningful, and heartfelt. Ilona Andrews keeps everything real – or as real as it can be with magic around – and the true-to-life struggles that these two faced in their relationship made it come alive for me.

All in all, On the Edge is not a book to be missed, both for fans and newcomers to the writings of Ilona Andrews. In many ways, I find that this series is more accessible than Kate Daniels, simply because its beginning starts out so strong. Yet, whatever it is readers pick up by this duo, it is certain that they won’t be disappointed, whether by the romance or the action-filled plot line itself, full of mythology and heavy lore. Furthermore, the world Ilona Andrews has created, one with shapeshifters, necromancers, and magic co-existing in a secret world next to our own, is just as memorable as their futuristic Atlanta with vampires, shapeshifters, and mercenaries. Honestly, I just don’t think “disappointment” is a word in the repertoire of this fantastic duo.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mini-Reviews: The Nightmare Affair and Perfect Scoundrels

Title: The Nightmare Affair

Author: Mindee Arnett

Rating: 2 Stars/DNF 

Release Date: March 5th, 2013

From first glance, Arnett's debut seems to have a lot going for it. An eye-catching cover? Check. Gorgeous title fonts and imagery? Check. A fascinating new idea? Check. Unfortunately, however, The Nightmare Affair is - no pun intended - a nightmare to read. While it starts off promising enough with a unique premises, it soon deteriorates into nothing more than a stereotypical paranormal mystery, riddled with a Hogwarts-eque boarding school and topped off with silly, unrealistic dialogue and characterization.

The Nightmare Affair starts out well enough, grabbing the reader in from the first chapter itself as we are introduced to our protagonist, Dusty, and her nighttime duty of gracing humans with nightmares. On this particular night, she happens to be in the home of Eli, an extremely good-looking guy from her former high school. Usually, kneeling over a hot, shirtless guy while he sleeps to give him a nightmare wouldn't be a problem, but tonight, everything goes wrong. For one, Eli's nightmare takes place on the grounds of Dusty's current school, a place for those with paranormal powers - such as werewolves, faeries, and nightmares - to hone their powers and, also, a place that Eli should know nothing about. Yet, to make matters worse, when Eli wakes up, Dusty's  magic refuses to work on him and the girl they've both seen dead in his nightmare is found to be murdered just hours later.

Needless to say, with such an engrossing beginning, I had high hopes for this one. Yet, to my immense disappointment, Chapter 1 is as good as it gets. Dusty is whisked away, back to her boarding school and from there, everything just gets worse. One of my biggest issues with this debut is the dialogue. It is obvious that Mindee Arnett doesn't really know - or understand - teenagers. Not only are the conversations in this story riddled with cliches, but the interactions with adults seemed too stereotypical and unreal to truly seem plausible. Dusty's mother, Moira, is cast in an utterly ridiculous light, failing to provide a foundation for a strong mother-daughter bond and Dusty's rivals in her school are just as predictable as your run-of-the-mill blonde cheerleader, from their expressions to the next words that come out of their mouth.

If all this wasn't bad enough, the romance set-up between Eli and Dusty is obvious - and far too boring - from the very beginning. As characters, Eli and Dusty bring nothing new to what we've already seen done time-and-time again and as a reader who went into this book looking for originality, I came across only the same old bland story lines, characters, and settings. From what I've heard from my trusted friends, it turns out that Arnett's debut has a love triangle to top this all off, one that seems wholly unnecessary since even I can already tell you who Dusty will chose, despite not having met the second guy yet.

Honestly, this book is just too simplistic, poorly executed, and unoriginal to be worth my time. I gave it nearly a hundred pages before giving up and simply have to arrive at the conclusion that it is not for me. I know plenty of readers who have found to be a fun and enjoyable piece, but I am unfortunately not one of them. If you don't mind a rather typical, but entertaining, paranormal mystery, The Nightmare Affair will most likely be your cup of tea, but if, like me, you were drawn to this novel because of its potential uniqueness in an overdone genre, look elsewhere.

Title: Perfect Scoundrels (Heist Society, #3) 

Author: Ally Carter

Rating: 4 Stars

Obviously, Ally Carter and I need to have a chat. A long one. Preferably ending with her releasing her books all in the summer so I don't waste my day reading instead of studying for my tests or doing my physics homework, all which I have to do now at around 10 PM. Still, I have to admit, this was worth it.

Perfect Scoundrels is hands down the best HS novel so far and I hope they just continue to get better from her on out. Unlike the last two novels which focus solely on heists, Perfect Scoundrels is about stealing back Hale. Nope, he hasn't been kidnapped, but ever since the death of his grandmother, he hasn't been the same. Now, Kat has to do everything in her power to make it okay and bring back the Hale she knows, even if it means finding his grandmother's real will and taking on a criminal who may just be as clever as she is.

What makes Perfect Scoundrels such a phenomenal novel is the mere fact that Carter has written three-dimensional characters. Finally. While her previous novels were fun, engaging, and compelling, Perfect Scoundrels blows them all away by exposing the more vulnerable side of Hale, showing us the deep ravine that actually separates the worlds that Hale and Kat live in, and ultimately forging stronger relationships. We get to see a different side of Hale, but also of Kat, especially since family plays a huge role in this book. Not just the family you're born into, but the family of friends you decide to trust and who remain loyal to you, no matter what.

For me, though, Perfect Scoundrels came alive because of all the raw emotion in it. Carter still retains her classic style of writing, fast-paced plot lines, intelligent con plans, and she throws in a fair share of heists too, but there's so much more of everything in this novel. It is more, more than what we've come to expect from Carter and in the best possible way. I can now only keep my fingers crossed that this series will continue to improve and its characters will retain the depth we've been lucky enough to glimpse in this installment.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman

Title: The Fire Horse Girl 

Author: Kay Honeyman 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

When it comes to debut novels, I’ve begun to shy away from books. Without naming any names, debut novels more often than not prove to be massive disappointments for me. Of course, they all have gorgeous covers and thrilling synopses, but the ultimate execution of their plots falls disastrously flat. The Fire Horse Girl, however, is one of those few debuts that truly puts every other debut novel to shame. Although I constantly complain that there is a dearth of good historical fiction out there for young adults, if that means that gems like this novel and Code Name Verity crop up every so often, then I won’t be complaining any longer.

Jade Moon, the kick-ass protagonist of this tale, is the type of heroine I want to put on a poster and worship. Seriously. When her story begins in China, she is seen as a detriment to her family. As a girl born under the sign of the fire horse, her stubborn nature makes her ill-suited to the quiet role she is forced to play as a woman in China. When Sterling Promise, a stranger claiming to have a way to transport Jade Moon and her father to America, the land of opportunity, arrives in their quaint farm in China, Jade Moon’s life is turned upside down. Now, she must brave the questioning officials in Angel Island and somehow make it to America to fulfill her dreams and escape the constricting laws that bind her in China to a life of household work and silence, even if it means forsaking the only life – and love – she has ever known.

What makes The Fire Horse Girl such a remarkable novel is, first and foremost, the amount of research that has gone into crafting it. As a history-buff, I was thrilled to find that the portrayal of Chinese immigration into America was both accurate and authentic. It never ceased to amaze me with what description Honeyman could depict the situations of these hopeful immigrants and the stark contrast between their dreams and reality was sharply felt through the adventures of Jade Moon.

Furthermore, although it is a sad fact of history that women were treated inferior to men, the men in The Fire Horse Girl embody this ideal perfectly without losing their depth. Instead, Honeyman enables us to clearly understand the rigid laws of Chinese culture that have been prevalent for centuries and contrast them with the only ideals that men, even in America, know how to live by. As a woman, and even a little bit of a feminist myself, I was very impressed with the care taken to contrast the role of gender realistically, both in China and America. If you enjoyed novels such as Eon by Alison Goodman, then here is yet another story that is bound to make you contemplate and reflect upon the role of gender, even in the society we live in today.  
The actual story of The Fire Horse Girl itself is told masterfully. It is nearly impossible to set down once you’ve picked it up and the writing will transport you from China, to a difficult journey overseas and finally to the bustling Chinatown of California. As a character, Jade Moon is both defiant and vulnerable, proving to be a protagonist that is easy to root for, but also easy to understand and sympathize with. I loved following her on her journey to self-realization and while the adventures she got herself into may have been a little too conveniently resolved, they served their ultimate purpose. Moreover, with each part of Jade Moon’s ordeal to reach her dreams in America, she uncovers something new about herself. I found the pacing of this to be perfectly timed and the seamless manner in which her depth was incorporated into the novel, without ever slowing down the plot or taking away from the rich cast of secondary characters, was simply fantastic.

Jade Moon aside, the other major player we have in this story is Sterling Promise. I appreciate the difficulty that went into crafting a character like Promise, merely because it was difficult for both Jade Moon and the reader to have a full grasp on his true intentions. It is clear from the very beginning that Sterling Promise and Jade Moon don’t get along – even from their signs of a fire horse and a snake, they are doomed to clash. Yet, as Jade Moon gets to know Sterling Promise more, she uncovers that despite their difference in society, primarily because of their gender, they both have more in similar than they think.

Although their romance is a bit unconventional, I found that I fell for it rather quickly. China, much like India, is a country of arranged marriages and, as such, while love doesn’t happen quickly, a strong attachment can. It is this that Honeyman conveys so perfectly with her two main characters in this story and I loved that despite the romance prevalent throughout the story, it was muted in favor of Jade Moon’s journey to self-realization in a foreign country and, furthermore, it never clouded Jade Moon’s motivations or goals. Instead, the romance is merely a contributing factor to the fluidity of this tale and adds to both the personalities of Jade Moon as well as Sterling Promise.

All in all, The Fire Horse Girl is a novel I cannot recommend enough. Not only will it transport you into another time period, era, and culture, but it will gift you with incredible friends in its characters – ones that are utterly unforgettable. Furthermore, the subtle plot twists will keep you guessing till the end, the secondary characters will make you wish they had stories of their own, and the ending will leave you smiling, wanting nothing more than to travel to Chinatown and re-immerse yourself in this world. It really is just that good. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Title: Lola and the Boy Next Door 

Author: Stephanie Perkins 

Rating: 4 Stars

I'll admit it: I was terrified to read this book. Yes, terrified. You see, before I joined GoodReads, I avoided reading any contemporary novels, merely because they had all disappointed me, with the exception of one. Well, that one good contemporary that I happened to love beyond all reason was Anna and the French Kiss. It seemed to have been a book written just for me because, seriously, Anna and I? We're one and the same. Lola and I, on the other hand, are polar opposites. If anything, Cricket Bell and I are more alike, so the moment this book came out, I steadfastly refused to read it. I refused to tarnish my impression of Stephanie Perkins, I refused to read a contemporary novel with a narrator I couldn't relate to, and I refused to acknowledge that it was fear that kept me away from this novel. Well, needless to say, I finally picked up Lola and the Boy Next Door and while I may not have loved it as much as I did Anna and the French Kiss, it exceeded my expectations by far.

Stephanie Perkins is one of those authors that you forget is kind of new. You read her books and can't help but jump up and down because she gets you and her writing is beautiful and realistic in a way no other author's is. Of course, then you go to her blog and realize she's only written two books and then you cry your eyes out, but the point is, I would walk to the ends of the earth to read this lady's books. I love them. Lola and the Boy Next Door is, I think, what I wanted My Life Next Door to be like. Lola, despite being a protagonist who dresses up, has two gay fathers and a best friend who wants to be a detective is somehow utterly relate-able. Although her voice is distinctly different from Anna's, it still contains an undercurrent of vulnerability, teenage yearning, and confusion that everyone has felt at some point or the other.

When our story begins, Lola is happily dating Max, a musician five years older than her. It is then that the Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, move back to their house right next to hers. Cricket and Lola have had an interesting past, to say the least, and when Cricket returns, Lola is distraught and unhappy. On one hand, she's in love with Max, but on the other, she used to be in love with Cricket and definitely still likes him. With Lola and the Boy Next Door, Perkins flips the sides and we get to witness a perspective similar to what Etienne St. Clair went through in Anna and the French Kiss. What makes Lola and the Boy Next Door such an endearing novel, in my opinion, is how honest a portrayal it is of teenage situations. Cricket, although not drop-dead gorgeous like St. Clair, has his own quirks that make him a swoon-worthy hero.

Perhaps best of all, though, is that Lola and the Boy Next Door teaches girls how to be treated right. Sure, Lola is in a happy relationship with a guy five years older than her, but there are cracks in their relationship that she doesn't even recognize until a nice guy like Cricket Bell comes along and treats her right. In a society where YA Literature is constantly being debated, along with positive relationships, Stephanie Perkins knows her stuff. Furthermore, unlike Anna and the French Kiss, this sophomore novel never feels overly dramatic. Lola and Cricket sort through their misunderstandings early on in the novel and then it is simply a wait for Lola to realize what she wants, who she is, and find a path to happiness.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable to compare Anna and the French Kiss with this novel and, in that respect, Perkins's debut is stronger. Lola and the Boy Next Door is just a tad bit unbelievable, with Lola's strange manner of expression in her costumes that often feels childish or seems like a cover-up for a truer personality, when in reality, it isn't. Once you get past this hurdle, though, the only major complaint I had was Lola’s boyfriend, Max. I found Max’s sudden change into Mr. Bad Guy to be completely unnecessary in order for Lola and Cricket to wind up together. I’m not denying that Max had his flaws, but while he may not have been the perfect boyfriend, he was quite a decent one and the fact that Lola and Max couldn’t just break up because of reality, because sometimes people realize that they’re not right for each other, was a bit of a disappointment. In addition, I found that although St. Clair and Anna appeared quite early on in the story, they disappeared, only to reappear again in the end, as did Lola’s best friend. While Anna and the French Kiss had extremely well-fleshed-out secondary character, this novel lacked that in plenty. Thus, I can't say Lola is a perfect novel the way I can say Anna is, but I can claim, with full certainty, that both novels get their point across perfectly.

Lola and the Boy Next Door explores slightly different themes than Anna and the French Kiss did, and I loved it all the more for that. It's still a quirky, fun, emotional journey of whirlwind teenage hormones, but it's also a deeper tale of finding yourself, expressing yourself, and being comfortable with who you are, despite your family and circumstances. Thus, for those of you still on the fence about reading Lola and the Boy Next Door: don't be. You won't realize how much you missed Stephanie Perkins until you pick this up and it will undoubtedly make the wait for Isla all the more painful, but it is so, so worth it. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Blog Tour: Wish I Could Have Said Goodbye by Shari A. Brady (Review & Giveaway)

I am so thrilled to be on the blog tour for Shari A. Brady's Wish I Could Have Said Goodbye. A huge thank you to Candace from Candace's Book Blog for allowing me to be a part of this tour! :) On today's stop, I am sharing my review for this novel along with a giveaway for both US and International Readers, so be sure to enter. Good Luck! 

You can check out the other tour stops HERE

Title: Wish I Could Have Said Goodbye 

Author: Shari A. Brady

Rating: 3 Stars

Usually, when I give a book three stars, it tends to mirror my indifference towards the novel. In fact, even when I see three stars given out to a book, I avoid it since, to me, three stars is a relatively poor rating. When it comes to Wish I Could Say Goodbye, however, I cannot stress enough that truly, I think this book has something to offer that most other books don’t and, contrary to skipping it, you really should pick it up.

When Carmella’s older sister Francesca overdoses and dies, her world crumbles around her. Carmella is filled with guilt, knowing that her sister drank and used drugs but never telling their parents or doing anything to stop it. As time wears on, she begins to turn against her parents too who seek refuse within God and their religious societies – groups that fail to bring Carmella the peace she seeks. In the midst of this, Carmella’s best friend, is intent on double dating and when the two friends meet two guys from different schools, Howie and Jeremy, she has her wish. Carmella, although opposed to the idea of dating, especially when her mind is in so much turmoil, slowly comes to enjoy Howie’s presence and unique sense of humor. If only dealing with her sister’s death were as easy, though…

Wish I Could Say Goodbye is a poignant, heart-breaking tale. Surprisingly enough, my favorite aspect of it was the romance. Generally, romance is always something that embellishes a story for me, never the main part I choose to focus on, but the romance in this novel was just too good. Howie is completely and utterly swoon-worthy. Not only is he handsome, but he’s incredibly sweet and understanding of Carmella, loving the quirks about her and never giving up on her, even when she refuses to date him. Carmella, similarly, slowly grows to find Howie as someone more than just a friend and their developing love story was a beautiful – if minor – story arc.

Of course, the leading plot in this tale is Carmella’s relationship with her sister, Francesca. Although Francesca has died, we see glimpses of her through Carmella’s memories, but, in my opinion, not enough. What was well done, however, was how Carmella’s growth and emergence from her grief was linked to that of Francesca’s boyfriend, Danny. In Danny, Carmella sees an opportunity to correct the wrongs she did and help him stay off of drugs and alcohol and become a better person. I found their volatile relationship to be surprisingly tender and their friendship to be a monumental pivot point for them both.

Unfortunately, though, I found many other little flaws with this tale that prevented me from truly falling in love with it. For one, Carmella lies to others, especially Howie, from the very beginning of the novel. At first, they are small white lies, but soon enough, she’s making up having a fake boyfriend so she can refuse to go on a date with Howie – a date she wants to go on but can’t because she thinks her parents will disapprove and give her a hard time, like they did with Francesca. As you can expect, the accumulation of these lies makes for some drama, but my issue was that Carmella’s lying was a plot device solely to add drama and did nothing for her character.

Just to add to that, I was confused why Carmella lied in the first place. Francesca was a completely different person from Carmella and she dated different people too, making her parents reactions to her sister different from their reactions to her. Yet, she refused to listen to this voice of reason or even attempt to communicate with her parents, despite the advice of her best friend. Although I will admit that Carmella’s parents had their rough moments, on the whole, I found they were a very realistic and accurate representation of parents dealing with grief. Carmella’s father, ashamed of the manner in which his daughter died, tries to hush up the issue and move on while her mother desperately seeks peace from God, devoting herself to religion. Not only is the strained relationship between these parents evident, but so is their inability to communicate with her daughter. Carmella, on the other hand, simply jumps to conclusions about her parents, refuses to make an effort to connect with them, and all-round is the type of daughter who isn’t bad, but just thinks unreasonably. It was confusing, actually, to see her reactions to her parents and I thought their relationship in general was very disjointed. Perhaps it was purposeful, but it didn’t completely feel that way.

Nevertheless, I do think Wish I Could Have Said Goodbye is a must-read for fans of contemporary or grief novels. For me, the gentle manner in which Howie and Carmella connected is more than enough to give this a shot and despite taking on a serious issue, Brady never lets the depression oppress us, as the reader. Even better, her talk of religion never becomes preachy and barely intrudes on the story line at all. Instead, it is a simple means to represent one woman’s method of coping with grief. All in all, a very touching tale. 

Shari A. Brady is a native Chicagoan and previously had so many careers she’s lost count. A graduate of Loyola University’s Business School and University of Chicago’s Creative Writing program, she’s finally a full-time writer, a dream she’s carried with her since she was twelve. She lives in suburban Chicago with two of the best kids ever and their shelter dog, Betty Queen Elizabeth. This is her first novel and her last career.
Visit Shari at: Website / Twitter / Facebook 

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Practice Makes Perfect & Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James

Title: Practice Makes Perfect
Author: Julie James 
Rating: 5 Stars 
Payton Kendall and J.D. Jameson are lawyers who know the meaning of objection. A feminist to the bone, Payton has fought hard to succeed in a profession dominated by men. Born wealthy, privileged, and cocky, J.D. has fought hard to ignore her. Face-to-face, they're perfectly civil. They have to be. For eight years they have kept a safe distance and tolerated each other as coworkers for one reason: to make partner at the firm. But all bets are off when they're asked to join forces on a major case. Though apprehensive at first, they begin to appreciate each other's dedication to the law—and the sparks between them quickly turn into attraction. But the increasingly hot connection does not last long when they discover that only one of them will be named partner. Now it's an all-out war. And the battle between the sexes is bound to make these lawyers hot under the collar. 
Practice Makes Perfect is my favorite of all Julie James's novels - and I've read all of them. Seriously, this is just perfect. Perfect. I can't remember the last time I gave an Adult Contemporary Romance novel a solid 5 Stars, but this story was just too good. It starts out as an office rivalry between Payton and J.D., both highly successful lawyers for whom there is only one promotion spot. Yet, what neither of these two expect is to start to fall for each other and from then on, its a battle to push aside their feelings and simply survive their war. Both J.D. and Payton are incredibly well-developed and realistic characters, both of whom have excellent reasons for being as ambitious as they are. At the same time, however, they get along splendidly and harbor a secret admiration for each other which slowly comes to light as they get to know each other better.

I love that the romance in this story is the perfect slow-burn type, with J.D. and Payton truly getting to know each other, their families, and their lives before finally committing. Furthermore, they have their own hurdles on their path to romance, more than just their professional lives, so when they do admit their feelings for each other, it is more than a little rewarding. Especially since their chemistry is simply sizzling. J.D. too is my favorite of all the men that James has written about. I honestly can't find any flaws with him, despite his flawed and realistic persona. In fact, I can't find any faults with this novel as a whole. It was extremely funny - possibly James' most amusing novel, it was extremely romantic in a very sweet and sexy manner, and it was extremely well-written and engaging.

I can't recommend this novel enough. If you decide to pick up exactly one Julie James novel, let it be this one. It has one of the most satisfying endings ever and I can already see myself re-reading this time and time again, swooning over J.D. every time! ;)

Title: Just the Sexiest Man Alive 
Author: Julie James 
Rating: 3.5 Stars 
Nothing fazes Taylor Donovan. In the courtroom she never lets the opposition see her sweat. In her personal life, she never lets any man rattle her—not even her cheating ex-fiancé. So when she's assigned to coach People's "Sexiest Man Alive" for his role in his next big legal thriller, she refuses to fall for the Hollywood heartthrob's charms. Even if he is the Jason Andrews. Jason Andrews is used to having women fall at his feet. When Taylor Donovan gives him the cold shoulder, he's thrown for a loop. She's unlike any other woman he's ever met: uninterested in the limelight, seemingly immune to his advances, and shockingly capable of saying no to him. She's the perfect challenge. And the more she rejects him, the more he begins to realize she may just be his perfect match.
Just the Sexiest Man Alive is one of the most un-put-down-able novels I've read in a really long time. I simply could not stop reading it and the romance was simply adorable. As with most Julie James novels, the strength of this novel lay with its characters. Taylor was a woman I instantly connected with for she was ambitious, focused, and determined to let nothing stand in her way. After she caught her fiance cheating on her, she's closed herself off to men, which is precisely why Jason, literally the Sexiest Man in the World doesn't even begin to faze her. Okay, maybe a little. It was incredibly amusing to see Jason attempt to win Taylor over and their love story was so sweet.

Unfortunately, it was also extremely cliche and predictable. While that never detracted from the plot, what did make me lower my rating for this novel was the lack of depth that Jason had. Taylor was a very well-fleshed out character and while Jason had his own share of depth, being a far more caring and loyal person than the tabloids gave him credit for, he was still rather flat as far as romantic interests went. Furthermore, there was way too much drama in this novel. In some stories, drama is necessary, but there were waaay too many misunderstandings in this novel to be realistic and the romance simply dragged. I simply wanted it to be over by the end and even the last chapter was a bit of a cop-out with the slightly abrupt ending.

Nevertheless, if you're looking for something fun and romantic, with just a touch of depth, Just the Sexiest Man Alive is the book for you. It is compulsively readable and is a novel you most certainly will not regret having spent hours glued to!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Title: Scarlet (Lunar Chronicles, #2) 

Author: Marissa Meyer

Rating: 3.75 Stars

Scarlet is easily one of the most anticipated novels of 2013, but it never made its way even to my to-read shelf. In fact, while the rest of the blogosphere was going crazy over the release of Meyer's sophomore novel, I was marveling at the fact that I had one less book to read this month than everyone else. Well, needless to say, Scarlet won me over, just as Cinder won over hundreds of readers when it was first released last year. While Cinder proved to be a frustrating read for me, easily irritating me with its lack of world-building, empty-headed protagonist, and obvious plot twists, Scarlet kept me on the edge of my seat, rooting for its kick-ass heroine and swooning every couple of pages, despite the subtle romance. All in all, I think I can say, quite confidently, that I have joined the throng of Marissa Meyer fans. For the few of you out there who, like me, were unimpressed by Cinder, I challenge you to give Scarlet a try. It will, undoubtedly, make you eat your former words about this series. Many times over. 

Scarlet is a much stronger novel than Cinder ever was primarily because of its protagonist. While I enjoyed Cinder's narration, her gentle disposition and intelligent nature, her cluelessness could often be highly frustrating. Scarlet, however, is cunning, bad-ass, and not the type of chick you want to mess with. Not only does she carry a gun in her back pocket, but she knows how to stand up for herself and her loyalty to her grandmother comes before all else. Our story opens up with Scarlet hunting for her missing grandmother who left and never re-appeared nearly three weeks ago. With the police giving up and claiming her grandmother simply ran away, Scarlet is alone in her quest - or so she thinks. Unexpectedly, Scarlet finds help in the form of Wolf, a deadly street-fighter who she is forced to put her trust in if she ever wants to see her grandmother again. In the midst of this hunt, though, Cinder is breaking out of jail, determined to escape and find the freedom she so desperately seeks. When Cinder leaves her prison cell with another criminal mastermind, Captain Thorne, however, Queen Levana and Emperor Kai are now both after her, but all Cinder is after are answers - answers that no one seems to have but Scarlet's grandmother who is missing. 

Although Meyer's sophomore novel is titled Scarlet, the book is quite neatly split in half between Scarlet's tale and that of Cinder's. Every few chapters, the PoV shifts, introducing us to Scarlet and her quest, all while back-pedaling to let us know how Cinder is faring or giving us a quick glimpse into the head of Emperor Kai. Cinder and Kai are two characters that are impossible to dislike - they are both kind, selfless, and constantly thinking of others. In so many ways, they are similar and perfect for one another, but Meyer gives them both greater depth in this novel. Kai, now no longer a prince, has the fate of an entire nation resting upon his shoulders. As such, he must deal with consequences and decisions he is in no way prepared for, all while battling with his feelings for Cinder, the mechanic he grew to admire, but who ultimately betrayed him. Kai, contrary to what Cinder originally thinks, isn't disgusted with her for being a cyborg. If anything, he is filled with a newfound curiosity to get to know her all over again, yet, he is deeply mistrustful of her, questioning how much of what he knew was the truth and how much were lies. Although we were only given a few short chapters of his perspective, it was enough to make this story all the more well-rounded and intriguing. 

One of the best qualities of this novel is its ability to shift from narrators to scenes to events to locations seamlessly. Meyer, it seems, really can write. Yet, despite her obvious talent, it seems as if this series is doomed to struggle onwards without world-building. We still have no idea how the Lunars came to exist on the moon, how their powers even began to manifest, or even how we went from the world we live in today to the world of Cinder and Scarlet. Surprisingly, though, this didn't detract from the plot. While it seemed to be a heavy hindrance in Meyer's debut, it was easily forgotten amongst the fast-paced plot of Scarlet. Still, I eagerly look forward to the day when we finally get some answers to our questions. With that minor blemish aside, the only other faults I found with this novel lay in Cinder herself. It cannot be denied that Cinder's story was the more boring of the two prevalent tales in this novel. It seemed to have been dragged during many instances, but, more than that, Cinder's growth was rather stunted. 

In Scarlet, Cinder must finally learn to use her powers as a Lunar and attempt to use them in such a way that she never violates strict moral codes that Queen Levana constantly breaks. It is an important struggle and while Cinder's inner battle was handled deftly, the physical actions and circumstances she was thrown in did little to help her achieve the growth she reaches by the end of the book. It is the obvious end mark for this novel, both in terms of plot and character development, but it felt like a little too big of a jump. I, for one, never felt like I grasped Cinder's character as well as I would have wanted to in this installment. Captain Thorne, on the other hand, was a pleasant addition of comedic relief, although I sincerely hope he plays a larger part in the series to come. In my eyes, he felt a little unnecessary at times. 

Regardless of the flaws this novel had, though, it was all made up for with Scarlet and Wolf. I've already mentioned my admiration for Scarlet, but Wolf is another character all together. In some ways, it is difficult to know what to make of him at first. While he seems to be nothing more than a ruthless, cold, and calculating street fighter, he is, in reality, shy, kind, and gentle. Together, Scarlet and Wolf are eerily similar, but also manage to balance each other out perfectly. I found their flirtatious dialogue refreshing and their romantic story arc, although rather rapid, fit the plot perfectly. Instead of falling back on the typical tropes of insta-love, Meyer manages to build two mature characters who are drawn to each other due to lust and sexual tension and, somehow, she manages to make it work since these two also have a bond of friendship and trust that exists between them. Furthermore, the plot twists surrounding these two were ones I never saw coming. I suspect that if you've read the two novellas, or rather the one directly preceding this novel, then the curveballs will be rather predictable, but as someone who has been studiously avoiding the writing of Marissa Meyer for the past year, I was pleasantly shocked, surprised, and left with my heart twisting rather painfully at times. 

I love being emotionally invested in a novel and with the tale of Scarlet and Wolf, this is precisely what Meyer did. Moreover, the higher stakes of the situation in this book also perfectly played into my growing attachment to this series. While it does have its flaws - egregious ones - and the story arc of Cinder was slightly compromised in favor of Scarlet's, I can't complain. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and am already itching for more of Scarlet and Wolf. Granted, the majority of my newfound involvement with this series stems from these characters, but with such a clear-cut resolution in sight, I am curious to embark on the journey these characters will take to get there. I can only hope, though, that in the future, the editing for these books will be a little more detailed and the story plots pulled in a little tighter. With just a little tweaking, this series could easily skyrocket to becoming one of my favorites. Especially with characters like Scarlet and Wolf.