Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: Bronze Gods by A. A. Aguirre

Title: Bronze Gods

Author: A.A. Aguirre

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I honestly cannot re-call a time when I have sat down at my computer, poised to type out a review, and felt the urge to regurgitate word vomit. Until, that is, now. When it comes to Bronze Gods, my love can only be expressed in mere words; phrases strung together to make coherent sense will fail dramatically, I fear. (And yet, in the threat of being seen as an absolutely insane blogger, I will attempt to regurgitate type out something that makes sense. Remotely.)

At first glance, Bronze Gods seems to promise a thrilling murder mystery, all against the backdrop of a steampunk/fantasy realm, heavy in faerie mythology and shrouded in authentic criminology. In reality, though, this novel offers so much more. A.A. Aguirre’s first work is an extremely well-written and authentic murder mystery, full of perfectly-timed clues, thorough investigations, and a surprise reveal that managed to shock even this Sherlock-Holmes-and-Nancy-Drew-fanatic reader. Now, add to that a world that feels strikingly real – despite the steampunk machinations, fey qualities, and magic prevalent in the air – and Aguirre succeeds in transporting us to another realm entirely; one we don’t exactly want to leave. And yet, the icing on top of this cake isn’t the rich world-building or the intense murder mystery on hand. No, the delectable icing atop this cake is the very characters themselves, all with a rich cherry of sexual tension to enhance the sweetness.

Mikani and Ritsuko are the type of kick-ass, fearless, and yet utterly flawed characters that you only dream of discovering within the pages of a book. From the beginning itself, I loved both of them; Mikani with his roguish charm, fey capabilities, and wit; Ritsuko with her unexpected humor, diligence, and practicality. Aguirre’s world is complicated, but as a realm that started out with a marriage compromise between the fey and humans, there are very few – if any – pure-blooded fey left. Instead, humans that possess a few fey capabilities are common, Mikani among them. Ritsuko is also an anomaly, but less because of her talents and more so for her gender. As the sole woman investigator in her firm, she is constantly justifying her position and refuses to back down from what she has earned with hard work and effort. And yet, while both of them are charming in their own right, full of flaws and unlucky with their relationships, it is when put together that these two truly shine. Mikani and Ritsuko are a formidable team. Not only do they share wordless conversations, but their respect for one another seems to slowly morph into something more…romantic. For the first time, both of these sharp-minded individuals are single and the sparks between them simply fly. One of my favorite aspects of Bronze Gods, though, was that even the simplest actions and emotions between these two felt so utterly romantic. In my eyes, this is the beauty of a relationship – the unexpected feelings found in even the most mundane of actions.

As a team, this is where A. A. Aguirre truly succeeds – in writing the distinct voices of Mikani, Ritsuko, and other central characters as well. Bronze Gods is a solidly mystery-oriented novel with the romance arriving in snippets, delightful wisps of what-could-be that leave us anxious and sexually frustrated. (I don’t even want to count the number of times I yelled, “JUST KISS ALREADY!” at the book.) And yet, while the highlight of this novel was the characters, everything about it, from its steadily built mystery to its world enraptured me. It did, admittedly, take me awhile to become entirely adjusted to the writing style, but before long, I was well and truly invested. If anything is certain, it is that A. A. Aguirre has just gained a new – and enthusiastic – fan. One who will likely forgo chocolate for a year if it means more Mikani and Ritsuko. (Okay, a year is excessive. Hmm…maybe a week? A month is bearable…I guess…) If you’re still reading this, then you clearly aren’t at a bookstore, in a line, holding this book in your hands. And, evidently, that’s what you should be doing because if reading this book isn’t on your must-do-now list, then you’re the one missing out. While I get more Mikani. (Mwahaha! *cue more realistic evil laugh*)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Just Another...Book Crush (#4): Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

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. 

Wild Awake is one of this years most highly anticipated debuts - and rightly so. I've grown to expect more from the Young Adult genre lately; more self-discovery, more poignancy, more truth. And in all those fronts, Wild Awake delivered fantastically. It's a novel unlike you've ever read before and I absolutely loved it. Which is why I am so excited to have Hilary T. Smith on the blog today to talk about her debut! :)
Things you earnestly believe will happen while your parents are away:          1. You will remember to water the azaleas.                                          2. You will take detailed, accurate messages.                         3. You will call your older brother, Denny, if even the slightest thing goes wrong.           4. You and your best friend/bandmate Lukas will win Battle of the Bands.                               5. Amid the thrill of victory, Lukas will finally realize you are the girl of his dreams.                      Things that actually happen:                                               1. A stranger calls who says he knew your sister.                                                                                               2. He says he has her stuff.                                                                           3. What stuff? Her stuff.                                                                                 4. You tell him your parents won’t be able to—                                       5. Sukey died five years ago; can’t he—                                                   6. You pick up a pen.                                                                                     7. You scribble down the address.                                                           8. You get on your bike and go.                                                                       9. Things . . . get a little crazy after that.*                                                   *also, you fall in love, but not with Lukas.                                               Both exhilarating and wrenching, Hilary T. Smith’s debut novel captures the messy glory of being alive, as seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd discovers love, loss, chaos, and murder woven into a summer of music, madness, piercing heartbreak, and intoxicating joy.
With every push of my pedals, I can feel the map getting bigger, new squares and lines and landmarks appearing like new levels in a video game. ~Wild Awake

YA fiction often involves some kind of widening of the map. Harry Potter discovers Hogwarts. Katniss leaves her home in District 12 for the Capitol. Cam and Gonzo leave Texas to search for Dr. X. In WILD AWAKE, Kiri re-discovers her city, her family, and herself over the course of a modern-day underworld journey.

One of the hallmarks of leaving home for the first time—whether literally or metaphorically—is the vertiginous sensation of your world getting bigger. It's a dizzying feeling, a peculiar mix of intoxication and heartbreak: "You mean this was there the whole time?" Hidden within the rush of freedom is a peculiar ache of loss for the person you will never be again, the home that will never look the same now that you're seeing it in this bigger context.

For Kiri, this process takes place on her bicycle. For me, it happened on foot. I was fourteen when I started taking monster walks through the forest near by house, testing just how far my legs could take me. When I was eighteen, I hitchhiked around New Zealand alone. I went on long solo hikes in the wilderness and spent a week bartending in a coal mining town. I wasn't a very sophisticated teen in other ways—I rarely drank, didn't have a driver's license, and had never smoked pot—but I believed utterly in the power of my feet and my thumbs to push back the edges of my world.

For me, writing is a little like hitchhiking—the same mix of uncertainty and confidence, hunger and exhilaration. When you write a novel, you stumble on places inside yourself you didn't know existed. You slog through rain and mud and snow. But at the end of it all, your map of the world is that much richer, and you can never look at it in quite the same way again.

Just Another...Book Crush!

1. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This book just floored me. I read it in one sitting, staying up until almost five in the morning. Every detail felt so real and so right—it's rare to find a book that is so believable.

2. All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry
This book doesn't come out until July, but it is going to be huge. Sarah McCarry is a dazzling writer. I don't even know what to tell you about All Our Pretty Songs, except that it involves music and underworld journeys and witchy floorboards and masked balls. Luscious!

3. The Way Of Zen by Alan Watts
I have a huge Alan Watts crush right now. He writes about Zen in a way that makes you put the book down and say Oh. Whoa. And he is full of mind-bending insights like this one: “You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.” Alan Watts would probably be my desert-island selection right now.

I really couldn't have said it better myself. For me, Wild Awake is such a powerful novel because of this widening of the map, both literally and psychologically for Kiri. Not only does she explore more places, but she discovers more about herself than she ever imagined, which makes this such a heart-felt story. Hilary, thank you so much for stopping by; I am so thrilled that Wild Awake is now out for other readers to discover and fall in love with.

In case you missed it, you can read my review of Wild Awake HERE. I generally dislike most of my reviews, even though I post them and know they're really not that bad, but this is one of the few I'm genuinely proud of.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Self-Discovery in Films: Mini-Reviews of Looking for Alibrandi & Center Stage

I typically don't post movie reviews since this is, after all, a book blog. Over the long weekend, though, I found myself watching the movie "Looking for Alibrandi," based off the book by Melina Marchetta and was blown away. I also saw a dance movie, "Center Stage," and couldn't help but think what a perfect New Adult novel it would make. While these aren't strictly reviews, and are more a collection of thoughts, I really wanted to share them, so I hope you enjoy. :)

Title: Looking for Alibrandi

Director: Kate Woods

Original Book By: Melina Marchetta 

Rating: 5 Stars

I am typically not the type of person who enjoys book-to-movie adaptations. Peter Jackson is, obviously, an exception but I can very easily find fault with even the "Harry Potter" movie franchise. With the "Jellicoe Road" movie coming up, though, I was curious to check this one out. Looking for Alibrandi is not my favorite Marchetta book, but that's like saying Hershey's is not my favorite chocolate. It's still chocolate, after all. Similarly, Looking for Alibrandi was still an incredible read, full of the poignancy and depth I've come to expect from Marchetta. And thankfully, that translated onto the screen perfectly. 

Now, in all honesty, I don't remember every detail of Looking for Alibrandi. I can't completely confirm that the movie stuck to every scene and included every line that had a punch. What I can tell you, though, is that "Looking for Alibrandi" managed to capture the essence of its book perfectly. It had all the important scenes and although I didn't know any of the actors, they all did a really good job. And yet, my favorite aspect of the film was the Italian culture, so tangible in Marchetta's novel, was now so very real in a film, full with a cast that speaks Italian. All the friendships, disputes, ups-and-downs that Marchetta conveyed with words were now conveyed with images. What I'm really trying to say is that the heart of Marchetta's novel was perfectly reflected in the movie. And I love that. Each of her characters, teenager and adult, experience a form of self-discovery and change in this book that is mirrored in the movie. I love that this film stayed true to the novel, but also managed to retain its own unique character apart from the book. I love that the voice of the narrator remains recognizable, that the actors - no matter how good or bad looking - managed to take on their respective personas, and I love that I finished this movie with a grin on my face, the same way I finished the book. 

Title: Center Stage

Director: Nicholas Hytner 

Rating: 5 Stars

I'll be honest: "Center Stage" does not have the best acting ever, but the dancing in it is pretty darn awesome. As a lover of movies that have to do with skating, music, or dance, this fit right up my alley and I settled down to watch it one afternoon. Surprisingly, though, I found that "Center Stage" is a perfect example of what I want the New Adult to resemble. "Center Stage" is about ballet and, in specific, it follows the stories of three girls who get admission into the prestigious American Ballet Academy. Out of the three, Jody is the least-promising, with weak technique, and yet dancing ballet is her dream. Eva is a cynic, skeptical of what the school can offer her but in love with ballet. And then there's Maureen, the best dancer in the academy whose mother pushes her to be even better than she is. For Maureen, though, dancing isn't a passion the way it is for Eva and Jody - it's a chore. ABA is intense, a complete no nonsense regime for serious students. Instead of college, there is dance. And with three such different girls who may - or may not - even know what they want from life, the room for self-discovery is limitless.

And that, plain and simple, is why I loved this movie so much. Sure, there are romantic entanglements and tight friendships and fantastic dance scenes, but mostly, there is that aspect of self-discovery. In the beginning of this movie, all three of these girls think they want something from life and through circumstance and growth, they begin to realize that plans change, passions change, and people change. I love this. While Maureen's story reminded me of Allyson from Just One Day since both have mothers who are fulfilling their dreams through their daughters, Jody and Eva went through very different transformations. In fact, Jody almost seemed as if her goals didn't change in the movie, but by the end, we see a profound difference in her self-confidence. At a ballet academy, these girls are told their bodies aren't perfect, they aren't perfect, that they have to become slimmer and slimmer and slimmer, better and better and better. And dealing with that kind of pressure isn't easy. Not everyone in this movie winds up a star performer. It's far more realistic than that. Even better than the slow and creeping understanding the characters experience in finding their place in the world, doing what they're passionate about, they grow to love themselves for who they are, attitude and body included.

And this, ladies and gentleman, is what I want New Adult to be like. In the movie, Jody has two guys vying for her attention, but the best part is that neither of them play a role in her growth. No, she comes to terms with who she is all on her own. And while Maureen has some help from others down her path, she too comes to realize what she wants without others having to tell her or lead her hand. I find that New Adult, though, is typically the opposite. You have an all-consuming and intense romance that somehow heals the concerned parties from a dark past and that, somehow, helps them face their future. And while this is the reality for some, I'm sure, the truth is that college and growing up is more about growing and discovering than it is completely about healing. It's about all the paths, all the opportunities, laid out at your feet and that nerve-wracking emotion of "What do I do? What do I choose? I can't mess up!" And it's scary. I want New Adult to explore this, not the feelings of healing from grief or dealing with abusive parents. I'm sorry, but there are other genres for that. Anyway, the bottom line? What "Center Stage" and pray for better New Adult books. I'm glad that a market exists for this genre, simply because I hope it means that more - and better - New Adult is coming our way, but I'm hoping the market changes soon too. Hmm...just my two cents on the matter. 

Favorite New Adult/Self-Discovery Novels: 
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Not all of these books are strictly New Adult and not all of them belong in simply one genre. BUT, what they do all have in common are themes of self-discovery, are protagonists who come into their own over the course of the story, and they're all some of my all-time favorites. If you know any other titles similar to these, don't hesitate to recommend them to me in the comments below. I'm always on the hunt for more self-discovery books! :)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Series Review: Alpha & Omega by Patricia Briggs (#2 & 3)

I recently posted my reviews for the first two books in this spin-off series HERE. And though I loved those books, these two installments were just phenomenal! All of them are spoiler-free, but you can read my reviews for the Mercy Thompson Series HERE if you'd like. 

Title: Hunting Ground (A&O, #2) 

Author: Patricia Briggs

Rating: 4 Stars

It physically pained me to finish Hunting Ground because I knew I'd have to say goodbye to Anna and Charles until Fair Game, which I unfortunately don't get to read until after I finish Silver Borne and River Marked. Just one of the few downsides to entering a series late and having to read the books - spin-off series included - in order. Nevertheless, while Cry Wolf left me with a slightly puzzled expression, Hunting Ground made up for that slight disappointment, delivering the type of novel I've come to expect from Patricia Briggs.

For me, what makes this spin-off series so special is Anna and Charles. Although secondary characters don't receive the type of limelight they manage to snatch in the MT Series, I find that this spin-off batch doesn't need them to carry the plot forward. With MT, Briggs strikes a delicate balance between secondary characters, carefully timed clues, and character development - all which works perfectly for Mercy and Adam, keeps us riveted to the page, and ends off with a bang. With Alpha & Omega, however, the majority of the novel is focused on Anna and Charles with a surge of action solving the mystery at hand towards the end. Although my main issues from this series still happen to stem from the drawn-out plot threads which all seem to focus on the last quarter of these novels, Hunting Ground was much better balanced than Cry Wolf was. Granted, I still wished for a slightly quicker resolution, not to mention a better explanation than a list of details running through Charles's mind, all very sloppily thrown on the page, but these are excuses I can forgive in light of the rest of this novel.

Hunting Ground focuses on a diplomatic meeting between the wolves of America and Europe as they plan to finally come out to the world, but against this backdrop of werewolf politics, vampires and fae lurk. And where vampires and fae reside, there's bound to be murder. Briggs definitely had a stronger hold on me with the plot in this installment and, even better, she had me with her characters too. While Anna and Charles always steal the show, I enjoyed the cast of secondary characters in this, particularly the European werewolves. Yet, what makes Hunting Ground such a large success for me is the understanding reached between Anna and Charles. Anna has proven that she is no timid rabbit but can, in fact, take care of herself. Thus, the leeway Charles gives her in this novel is a relief to his rather irritating dominance in the previous book. What makes Charles Charles is still very much present in this book, but his understanding and appreciation for Anna is greater, which strikes a more equal footing between them.

Moreover, I feel like I finally understand both Charles and Anna. In Cry Wolf, I had a difficult time sympathizing with Charles's insecurities, but his feelings of being perceived as nothing more than a killer was obvious and pulled on my heartstrings. Additionally, the mating bond between Anna and Charles is explored in greater detail, which just went to make me fall even harder for this couple. Anna and Charles's relationship is so different from that of Adam and Mercy's, mostly because Charles is not the Alpha of a pack and, as such, has fewer responsibilities than Adam. As newly-weds, though, Anna and Charles were simply adorable and the comfort to be garnered, even from reading about their time together, is unforgettable.

All in all, it is evident that Briggs just keeps amping up the stakes and the depth to her characters. Although Charles is the dominant in his relationship, it is Anna who somehow manages to steal the show with her quick wit, inner strength, and ultimate goodness. My hands are simply itching to latch onto Fair Game and skip the next two MT novels, but I have more control than that. I think. Either way, from what I've heard, Fair Game is about to be the best installment yet.

Title: Fair Game (A&O, #3) 

Author: Patricia Briggs

Rating: 5 Stars

There isn’t much I can say about Fair Game that can’t be summoned up in one word: PERFECT. Charles and Anna have both come such a long way from when we first met them, both mentally and physically. While Hunting Ground finally saw the physical fruit of their relationship – their joyous honeymoon season, filled with understanding and happiness - Fair Game sees the harsh reality of a marriage that isn’t quite as perfect as it seems. With its first chapter itself, Fair Game crushed my heart, shattering it into a billion pieces. Needless to say, the most recent Alpha & Omega novel is both emotional and action-packed, upping the stakes in every possible way and delivering even more successfully. 

Fair Game finally gives us the heart-wrenching rift between Charles and Anna that we’ve all been waiting for, without even realizing it. After years of being his father’s Wolfkiller, Charles is tired, alone, and guilty. At this point in his life, all Charles can do is shut out everyone around him – including Anna. Unable to reach her husband, despite being an Omega wolf, Anna seeks the help of the Marrok – only to come away empty handed. Bran refuses to see the extent of his son’s wounds, the ghosts that haunt him, but does give him a break, sending him to Boston to help the FBI on a serial killer case in which three werewolves have also been murdered. For the first time, though, Anna and Charles may truly be in danger – not only from the serial killer, but also from each other. 

What makes Fair Game such a huge leap for this series is the mere fact that its characters have embedded themselves into our flesh. At this point in the series, I know Anna and Charles just as well as I do Mercy and Adam, despite having spent half as much time with them. While Mercy and Adam’s story is a slow build-up of simmering heat and internal issues, Anna and Charles’s story is more of the loud crash-and-burn journey afterwards, which, frankly speaking, I like a lot more. Anna, especially, is for me a much more realized character than Mercy is, perhaps because I find her voice so much easier to relate to. I admire her quiet and cool demeanor, all while respecting the fierce strength that hides beneath that façade. 

And in Fair Game, Anna really comes into her own. What I love about this series is that I use that statement with every novel – and it’s true, every time. With every journey Anna undertakes, she grows and changes and proves herself over and over again and still we know it will never be enough for she, as all humans, will still have so much more to change. In this installment especially, Anna finally takes charge, doing her best to help Charles who is so far into himself that it seems as if he cannot be helped. With her persistent nature, though, Anna never gives up on Charles and the manner in which her relationship with him is interwoven into a dark tale of murder and torture is seamlessly done. Neither aspects of the story overtake, allowing Anna and Charles’ relationship to bloom into something deeper just as they delve closer to the heart of the crime at hand. In Fair Game, more than any other novel, we can see just how far Patricia Briggs has come as a writer – and it is spectacular. 

Not to be outdone, though, Charles is just as prominent in this tale as Anna. Although I’ve often felt as if he’s been overshadowed by the memory of Adam, lingering in the dark recess of our brain (or not-so-dark if you’re like me and just think ADAM HAUPTMAN during random moments during the day), or simply by his role in these books as the protector, in Fair Game, Patricia Briggs finally made me fall head-over-heels for Charles. I always liked him, sure, but I may have swooned a couple of times in this one. I, for some reason, find a man infinitely more attractive when we can see the vulnerabilities that make him who he is and seeing the role reversals in this novel, as Anna tried so hard to be the protector from her husband’s guilt and fear, was nothing short of beautiful. Granted, the mystery in this book is easily the best of all the novels Briggs has written and there are huge repercussions by the end of this installment for the entire Mercyverse, but more than anything else, it is the relationship between these two incredibly real and well-fleshed leads that keeps me coming back for more. If nothing else, Fair Game has made me seriously reconsider whether shirtless Adam is the best Patricia Briggs can offer because after this installment, I just want MOAR. (Not shirtless Adam, although hell knows I wouldn’t complain about that, but I meant more books like this. WANT WANT WANT.)   

Friday, May 24, 2013

ARC Review: Dare You To by Katie McGarry

Title: Dare You To (Pushing the Limits, #2) 

Author: Katie McGarry 

Rating: 3.75-4 Stars

Release Date: May 28th, 2013

When it comes to Katie McGarry’s sophomore novel, I don’t quite know where to start. For one, I have to admit that I didn’t love this as much as I did Pushing the Limits. For some reason, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in this tale, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I had my misgivings about it even before I started, mostly because I was a little confused as to why Beth and Isaiah were not the couple in this novel, but McGarry had proven that better than anyone else, she truly knows her characters inside-out and she makes us, as the reader, get to know them on that level of depth as well. Truly, McGarry is one of the few contemporary authors who I can count on to deliver a romance that is equal parts heart-wrenching and sweet, making her stories close to perfect.

Dare You To is a very different story from Pushing the Limits.While McGarry’s debut had an undercurrent of mystery to it, her sophomore story takes on a more typical route. On one hand we have Beth, a heroine we already know; we know her mother does drugs, we know Trent, her mother’s boyfriend, hits both Beth and her mother, we know that Beth has been taking care of her mother since she was eight, not vice versa. On the other hand we have Ryan, a boy who seems to be perfect from the outside but whose family is falling apart, whose brother is gay and has been kicked out of the house, whose goals are so intertwined with his father’s dreams that he no longer knows what he really wants. When extenuating circumstances force Beth to move in with her Uncle Scott, a baseball player and huge inspiration to Ryan, a baseball player himself, the two find themselves unexpectedly meeting and talking and then, without even knowing how, falling in love.

First and foremost, I want to get out of the way that in retrospect, I am thrilled that this isn’t Beth and Isaiah’s love story. McGarry makes us understand as this novel progresses that Isaiah is Beth’s rock – the friend she can always count on – but that doesn’t mean that he necessarily does what’s best for her. If anything, the two are too similar, too broken, and too messed up to help each other truly heal, which is why Ryan and Beth are made for one another.

Dare You To starts out a little disjointed, taking awhile for the reader to grow accustomed to the narration. It is still the characteristic dual perspective used in Pushing the Limits and, once again, it works beautifully, but it takes awhile for this story to really get started. Once it does, however, it is impossible not to be drawn into both of these characters. Beth is a character we all know – tough exterior, but utterly vulnerable underneath. While Ryan’s original interest in Beth stems from a dare and the fact that her uncle is a famous baseball player, something he himself aspires to be, he slowly begins to see the girl she is underneath. As Ryan falls in love with Beth, so do we and our heart breaks for her and her and her helpless situation.

In a lot of ways, McGarry’s sophomore story reminded me of Lara Zielin’s The Waiting Sky since both novels feature protagonists who are constantly taking care of their mothers, unable to understand that there is nothing they can do for them. Like Zielin, McGarry too crafts this storyline with poise, elegance, and feeling. Beth becomes so three-dimensional and real, despite the fact that her problems are so far away from our own. Ryan, comparatively, is easier to relate to because his life is more like ours and so are his problems. Yet, I love that both Ryan and Beth have to learn to find their own happiness, without that added pressure of pleasing others. McGarry builds this theme so perfectly, the idea of living for yourself and learning to trust not only others, but also yourself with the idea of happiness. It’s beautiful.

If there are any flaws within this novel, they lie mostly within a few plot structures. I, for one, wanted a little more of nearly everything. McGarry tackles on a lot of issues in this novel, which is ambitious, and she makes it work for the most part too, but I craved more of Ryan and his interactions with his parents, especially when it came to his gay older brother, Mark, who his family shunned and his own personal struggles in convincing his parents that he wanted to go to college and pursue writing instead of directly joining pro baseball leagues. In addition, I wish that Beth’s relationship with Scott’s wife, Allison, had also had a little more of a foundation. It sprung up out of seemingly nowhere by the end of the story and while Scott and Beth’s progressive growth and trust of their relationship was excellent, Allison and Beth were a little shaky. Even Beth’s friendship with Lacy, the girl who used to be her best friend, was all slightly glossed over in favor of expanding Beth and Isaiah’s friendship troubles. Lastly, and this is minor, is the fact that Ryan and Beth's attraction started out purely physical, which grated on me a bit, but I'm glad it moved into a realm where they found genuine love and acceptance in one another for who they were, not what they looked like.

While these issues were never overly large or looming, I did feel their absence and I hope McGarry takes on slightly less in her next novel. What I do appreciate about her books, though, is that they seem typical and dramatic, but the drama and misunderstandings all serve a greater purpose; at the end of them, the relationship between the people involved is always changed for the good, so it never seems to be a plot device that is simply there to prolong the story. I know many readers were irritated by the drama in Pushing the Limits, so I can’t promise that it’s not present in this one either, but in my opinion, both books used the drama in them to further their tale. Plus, despite Ryan and Beth facing such dissimilar issues, McGarry manages to make them both seem equally as important, dangerous, and life-changing, which goes a long way in creating their depth.

Fans of Pushing the Limits will definitely not be disappointed by McGarry’s latest, which is another page-turning, heart-pounding romance that will make you swoon and cry, all at the same time. Beth and Ryan’s voices are so different from that of Noah and Echo, so it feels as if I’ve never read this story before, even though I’ve read so many various versions of it in each contemporary novel. Nevertheless, if there’s one author I can count on to help me escape to another world for a few hours, to forget about my own problems and immerse myself in someone else’s, it’s Katie McGarry. Somehow, this author has turned into one whose books I just can’t say no to and I’m already excited to get my hands on her next book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Harlequin for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for a honest review. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers

Title: Some Girls Are 

Author: Courtney Summers

Rating: 4 Stars

Courtney Summers is the type of author who makes her novels feel physically real. For me, reading a book by her is more than just feeling the book, the crisp pages beneath my fingers or the soft paperback in my palms; it's about that slow pressure that builds in my head, pounding in tension, and that ulcer-like knot in my stomach, stealing the breath out from me. It isn't a pleasant feeling, but I almost crave it, for the moment I crack open the spine of one of these books, I can't put the book down. I just can't. It's psychologically frightening, but so are these books. And I love them for that.

Some Girls Are follows the story of Regina, a former mean girl. Seriously, Regina is that girl who stood there and watched you get bullied. She's the one who made you feel inferior, whose voice would linger in your mind as doubts, whose face inspired fear. Granted, she's not the ring leader - that's Anna - but as the puppy dog, she's even worse. Our story begins, however, with a rape. Regina's rape. By Anna's boyfriend. And then a broken confession of this torn night to an enemy. An enemy who tells Regina to go home, to act as if nothing happened, but when Regina walks into school on Monday, the word is out: Regina slept with Anna's boyfriend. And Anna is out for revenge because, as a mean girl, revenge is what she does best.

If you're not a fan of books that make you squirm with discomfort or force your fist to your mouth so you won't scream of horror, pain, and disbelief, then don't pick this one up. Summers always writes novels that explore the darker side of humanity, but this is probably the toughest to get through. Regina deserves to be ostracized, to be taken down, to be laughed at, but she didn't deserve to get raped. It is here that we enter into a realm of gray area because, honestly, the only action that justifies that Regina isn't wholly bad is the fact that she is a victim of rape. If you're waiting for a hidden side to Regina, you'll only keep waiting. Sure, she didn't want to terrorize others and follow Anna's orders, but the very fact that she did makes her bad enough. And yet, as is always the classic case with any Summers novel, she makes us like, feel, and sympathize with her unconvential heroines. I wasn't entirely sold on the path Summers took with this, but by the end, it all came together perfectly with an ambiguous ending that was just the right amount of relief, punch, and puzzlement.

And yet, that isn't to say this novel is perfect. I felt there was a sincere lack of parent interaction, not to mention the teachers in this school turn a convenient blind eye to everything. Honestly, the full impact of this book can only be felt with a solid suspension of belief. And, in some ways, I am willing to concede this point. Some Girls Are explores the twisted nature of the human mind, not so much in Regina's past, but rather in her present inability to let go and mount revenge instead. I love this book for all the ambiguity present in it, from Regina to Michael, her only friend. With the two of them, there is an unlikely friendship - unlikely because Regina made his life hell too; forced him to become a loner and ostracized him. And despite the strangeness of their relationship, the almost unhealthy quality to it, it was one of my favorite aspects of the story merely because it was so nuanced, so raw, so real and gutting. As is everything in this book. Every line, every's all aimed to dig that knife deeper into your heart. It seems like I'm exaggerating, but that left over feeling of numbness and disbelief and rage and relief and heartache that comes with the end of this novel speaks for itself.

Some Girls Are is a novel I would not hesitate to recommend, but only because I'm a masochist. I love the shocking feeling Summers's novels give me. I love being terrified to open the covers; I love that feeling when I can feel my sanity ebbing away as I become more and more immersed in the lives of these oh-so-real characters; I love the numbness every time I force myself not to set the book down, not to scream, not to shout; and most of all, I love that at the end, I am so, so blown away. And an emotional wreck, but that's irrelevant compared to the sheer scope of the novel itself. If you're looking for anything like that, for a book that can make you feel - make you live - that much, then look no farther than Courtney Summers. You simply cannot go wrong with her.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

Title: In the Shadow of Blackbirds

Author: Cat Winters

Rating: 4.5 Stars

"The road ahead may be rather upsetting for a sixteen-year-old girl. I'm afraid your delicate female eyes and ears will experience some ugliness." 
"Oh, you silly, naive men." I shook my weary head and genuinely pitied their ignorance. "You've clearly never been a sixteen-year-old girl in the fall of 1918."

And thank god for that. In the Shadows of Blackbirds is historical fiction at its best - so richly atmospheric and full of true accounts that it leaves you chilled to the bone. It is often difficult to imagine that our world could be as scary or frightening as an alien planet, but it was, it is, and it will continue to be. World War I especially, though, was a frightful time. Granted, there was no threat of nuclear warfare, but trench warfare was just as deadly and the image of poison gas, giant rats, and infection still plagues my mind when I think back to that time period in history. Now, undoubtedly, the image of white masked faces and black feet, carts carrying the dead as if it were the Bubonic Plague, will haunt me too.

Cat Winters picks a time period of deep loss, fatigue, and fear to place her debut novel in, but it works perfectly. Although the aura is one of fear, for people are hiding away not just from officers determined to arrest any and all who seem pro-German, but they are hiding away from Death himself. Mary Shelley Black, the headstrong protagonist of our tale, has arrived in San Diego to live with her recently widowed aunt. Since her mother died during child birth and her father has been deemed a traitor, Mary is alone in the world but for her aunt and childhood sweetheart, Stephan, who is now fighting in the war. In San Diego, though, the people are slowly going mad, both from fear of the plague - eating nothing but onions and clutching their gauze masks to their faces - but also from the hope of seeing their deceased ones in spirit images. Julian, the older step-brother of Stephan, specializes in such images and Mary, ever a girl of practical knowledge and scientific learning, is skeptical of his claims. When Mary begins to see the spirit of Stephan, her first love, though, she turns her eye to the spiritual - and to the question of why Stephan can't find peace in the afterlife.

"Why can't a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?"

From the first page itself, Mary Shelley Black is the type of protagonist I love. Not only is she fiercely independent and practical, but as the daughter of a female physician, she is intensely curious in how things work. Mary is, quite simply put, the beginning of women engineers in our world. While she remains skeptical of Julian, though, she never relinquishes her strength in helping her aunt and maintains her courage during this time of death. Furthermore, and perhaps best of all, Mary is smart enough to realize that seeing the ghost of her first love is not a ticket to happily-ever-after like so many other young adult protagonists seem to think. No, the ending of this story is bittersweet and set in an era of so much death, there really are only a few ways this book can turn out.

"Everyone wants to categorize the world as good or bad, right or wrong. There is nothing 'in between' in their eyes."

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is not a happy novel, but it is beautifully written, managing to transport the reader into a time long-forgotten. Winters uses striking images, buried before and after certain chapters, to drive home the unforgettable era she paints. Not only that, but Cat Winters weaves beautiful love stories within these pages, whether it be the tales of familial love and strength that emerge or the sweet tales of first love. Both these dual - and prominent - relationships that Mary holds with her aunt and Stephan are richly developed and believable. Mary and her Aunt Eva, in particular, become close companions and though they are both very different women, they come to represent the strength of their sex in different ways. With Stephan, the unshakable foundation of their relationship is evident in past letters and ghostly encounters, both terrifying and soothing at the same time. For me, the strength of Winters's skill is shown most evidently in these scenes, both full of real-life horrors while simultaneously displaying an emotion of calm and palpable love.

"Just remember human beings have always managed to find the greatest strength within themselves during the darkest hours."

In nearly every way, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is perfect. Within its pages awaits a seemingly forgotten era - another Lost Generation of souls deceased from infection - along with a remarkable heroine and a blood-curling mystery. And yet, Winters doesn't stop there. In the Shadow of Blackbirds contains some of the most poignant one-liners I've come across, bursting with truth and dripping with wisdom. Furthermore, Winters takes care to explore the shifted dynamic that has emerged among women during this time of war. One of Winters's greatest assets as a writer is her ability to subtly weave in many aspects of this time period, from socially acceptable customs to gender roles to intimate details about warfare, but nothing is over-done. Every subject she touches upon manages to be delved with the perfect balance so that the reader is felt completely satisfied, even on the subject of spiritualism. If Winters did lose me anywhere, it was only that there were one-too-many near-death - or death - experiences to completely sell me, but as this is a novel of fiction that is perfect in every other way, I can easily forgive this. In the Shadow of Blackbirds is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite reads of the year. It is a novel I will return to, certainly, as for me, any book that is a time machine is worth holding on to.

Monday, May 20, 2013

ARC Review: The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler

Title: The Book of Broken Hearts

Author: Sarah Ockler

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: May 21st, 2013

What's left to say about The Book of Broken Hearts? I feel as if all of Ockler's fans have already nit-picked this book apart and proved that it's perfect in every way that counts - and they're right. And yet, while I know for a fact that The Book of Broken Hearts is Ockler's best book by far, I enjoyed Bittersweet much more and there remains that slight troubling fact that there is always something about an Ockler novel that prevents me from giving it a full five stars. Which, admittedly, isn't a big deal but makes me feel really upset anyway.

Anyway, long story short, The Book of Broken Hearts is nothing short of incredible. Jude is spending the summer with her father, whose brain is slowly deteriorating from Alzheimer's. And yet, despite his declining memory, Jude's father remembers every moment spent on his motorcycle with a startling clarity. Inspired by her father's enthusiasm for his old bike and yearning to chase away his dark condition, Jude hires a mechanic to fix up her father's bike - and hopefully fix him in the process. Only, the mechanic winds up being Emilio Vargas, the younger brother of the two boys who broke the hearts of two of her three older sisters. Ever since Jude could remember, the Vargas boys have been off-limits and although Jude tells herself that Emilio is only around to help fix her father's bike, the charm of a Vargas boy is not lost on her. Jude intended to soak up the sun with her father this summer, but her father's condition may be far worse than she thought and before long, the condition of her own heart may be the worse for wear too.

The Book of Broken Hearts has a lot to love, but perhaps my primary reason for falling head-over-heels for this book is the very fact that Sarah Ockler explored the life of an immigrant family. One of the best aspects of this, though, is that it is never over-done. Instead, Jude's heritage feels natural and the brief glimpses into a past in Central America and the struggle of learning English in a new country is enough to cement the diversity this novel provides. Furthermore, Ockler perfectly proves the utter inevitability of morphing friendships. Jude is going through a difficult time in her life, but that doesn't always mean that the rest of her life doesn't change. While she is focused on her father, her friends grow and change into different people just as she does, and this is so beautifully conveyed through Ockler's writing. I seem to be constantly on the look out for books that push the boundaries of YA and deliver more, so I am thrilled that The Book of Broken Hearts satisfies my thirsts.

And yet, despite its originality, this book never breaks away from the standard necessities of any strong novel. For one, this novel is just heart-breaking. I guess that is only to be expected from the title, but I found myself surprised by the depth of emotion that was conveyed through small scenes as Jude watched her father slowly lose his memory. Moreover, the strong bond between these four sisters is even more bittersweet in a way. For one, Jude feels helpless as the youngest. In fact, she calls her three older sisters The Holy Trinity and obviously feels divided from them and their wisdom. Not only has she always heeded the advice of her older sisters, but for the first time, she feels as if their advice may not be the right course. Emilio is nothing like his heart-breaker older brothers and to push away his sincerity because of his family seems ridiculous to Jude - and rightly so. And yet, despite that evident conclusion, truly breaking away from her role as the baby sister and embracing a greater role of independence is difficult for Jude, which makes her journey all the more poignant. With The Book of Broken Hearts, Ockler truly strips away so many pillar-like foundations that Jude holds onto - her father's memory, her mother's dependability, the wisdom of her older sisters - and forces Jude to find herself amidst the confusion in her life. And this, this I love.

Emilio Vargas, however, is what I suspect most readers will love the most. While the swoon-worthy hero of Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere is notorious for his eyelashes (Bat. Bat. Bat.), Emilio will undoubtedly become notorious for those knee-weakening dimples. Wink. Wink. Although Emilio and I got off to a rough start, mostly because his teasing can come across as arrogant at times, he is easily one of the sweetest and most understanding male protagonists I've met. Ockler steers clear of the ridiculous "forbidden romance" route with this one and allows Emilio to prove himself worthy of Jude, which wins her over completely. Not only is her immensely caring of her father and her situation in life, but he never gives up on her either. And although I craved for more of a back story with Emilio, for more of his problems and his musings, and often even wondered why he found Jude so appealing when he himself was so perfect and patient and far too good for her, I did enjoy their romance immensely.

Nevertheless, I found that despite the fact that Jude was a dynamic character, there remained a palpable distance. I couldn't always understand her on the level I wanted to and while I did really like her, at other times I felt as if her growth was almost prolonged in parts. Now, that's not to say that the plot of this story suffered - because it didn't - but it did feel as if the same idea needed to be repeated so many times before Jude understood what she needed to do with her life. Which is realistic, guaranteed, but this wasn't written in a way that truly enabled me to understand Jude. Additionally, a lot of this story is told in flashbacks, which both worked and didn't. For the most part, this transition was seamless but in some areas, it was wholly unnecessary. In my opinion, to end off a chapter with an event and begin the next one the next day and go back and recount what happened in the previous night's event is a little excessive. Still, despite these qualms, The Book of Broken Hearts is a solid read. Although I suspect Bittersweet is still my favorite of Ockler's work - not to mention the most light-hearted too - there is no denying that Ockler has grown immensely and her next novel promises to be even better than this one.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Aussie Reviews: Creepy and Maud by Dianne Touchell & Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil

Title: Creepy and Maud

Author: Dianne Touchell

Rating: 3 Stars

Creepy and Maud is a strange book. A really strange book. On one hand, I really do have to give Touchell props for creating a contemporary novel that is original and unique in nearly every way that counts. It quite honestly seems impossible to find another novel that is similar to this in any way. Yet, ironically enough, I think it was this very same originality that I'm always running towards that managed to make this book not work for me as much as I may have wanted it to.

I find it difficult to explain Touchell's debut. Very loosely, it's the story of two children who are neighbors and fall in love through their window conversations. From the surface, it seems very cute and sweet, but don't let that fool you. In actuality, Creepy and Maud is a very dark tale. Creepy narrates the majority of the story with a few perspective shifts to Maud, the girl next door, who constantly pulls her hair out. Whether it be the hair on her head, the hair on her eyelashes, or her pubic hair, Maud just can't seem to stop.

At the same time, though, Maud has a volatile relationship with her parents with her father occasionally abusing her and her parents stuck in a terrible marriage. Creepy understands this perfect as his own parents share a bad marriage - one so bad that his father has trained their dog to bite his wife. If that wasn't strange enough, Creepy has his nose stuck in books all day, denied the access of any technology and both him and Maud attend a religious school.

Now, first and foremost, I have to admit that it was simultaneously really easy and really hard for me to connect with this story. On one hand, Creepy's narration reads very intelligently and is extremely witty, keeping your attention. Yet, at the same time, so many of the instances in this novel seem exaggerated to the point where they come across as unbelievable. For me, this novel felt like a classic situation where I sympathized with the characters and for their dire situations, but never really empathized with them.

Furthermore, Maud was very tough for me to get a grasp on. I suspect this has to do with the fact that her narration lacks contractions, making it a little irritating to read through and, as such, I will admit to skimming through a lot of her story. Yet, in my defense, this book lacks a conclusive plot line. Dianne Touchell pushes her characters to the limits of their endurance, but almost not enough. Granted, they both have bad backgrounds and go to a ridiculous school that continually censors any mention of sex (which is impossible since teenagers will find out about sex one way or the other) and on top of that, their parents don't understand them and they've grown up believing that love can never really last, as evidenced by their parents marriage.

Yet, into this is thrown the weirdest romance/friendship/love story imaginable. Creepy's narration is dispersed with paragraphs dedicated to random observations, his friendship with Maud grows through words scribbled on paper and shown through a window, and all in all, this was just so...strange. Weird. Unusual. I know I'm always harping about books being too typical, too standard, too much like everything else out there, but I think this one was a little too out there for me. I simply could not completely understand the characters. I wasn't in their heads enough. I didn't even find the ending to be all that powerful. If anything, it just seemed kind of inevitable.

Creepy and Maud, though, is a book I still recommend, although with reservations. I know plenty of my friends have loved it, which clearly means there is something in this book that I am just not seeing. It's written very well, clever and witty while still managing to paint a picture of depression and reality. Perhaps the best part of it, though, is that Touchell never sugar coats life. Instead, she keeps everything very realistic, which I truly appreciated. Sometimes, people just aren't meant to be parents and that is felt so palpably with this novel. Although I'll be wary about picking up another Touchell novel in the future, I know she's an author I'll be too curious to resist. If nothing else, you can be sure that she'll make you think and, sometimes, what more can you ask for?

A huge thank you to my friend Mandee at Vegan YA Nerds for sending me a copy of this book to read and review since it isn't available in the US. You're the best, dear! :) 

Title: Life in Outer Space 

Author: Melissa Keil 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Life in Outer Space has got to be the cutest book I've read this year. As a fan of films, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, and most nerdy things, I thoroughly enjoyed Keil's debut, devouring it over a weekend - one where I was frantically cramming for exams. Although Life in Outer Space seems like a rather standard romantic comedy novel, told from a guy's PoV, Keil manages to introduce many original aspects to it and, frankly speaking, it's worth the few hours of time it takes up. You'll come away from this novel feeling lighter, happier, and grinning like a fool. I don't know about you, but amidst all the depressing novels on my list, not many books that successfully accomplish that.

From first glance, Life in Outer Space is a book we all know well. We have our standard group of misfits who is content with their avoiding-the-bully-at-all-costs lifestyle until the new girl walks in, dazzles the entire school, but somehow joins the group of misfits. Who are not-so-misfit anymore. And, what do you know, we have our classic tale of a best friend romance. I know it's been done before, but it works every time. What makes Life in Outer Space so remarkable, though, is that it is a story of friendship far before it is a story of love. Camilla is the type of girl who fits in like a glove, but underneath her cheerful exterior is a girl who wants to find a place to belong. Stuck with her dad, who constantly moves, Camilla has never had a close group of friends who have lasted for very long - until now. In Sam, movie nerd 101; Adrian, socially awkward but without inhibitions; Allison, obsessed with anime; and Mike, silent, gay, and dedicated to karate, Camilla finds a group of friends who have each others backs and are ready to have hers too.

As the narrator of the tale, Sam is delightful. One of my favorite aspects of his tale is the fact that he must come to realize that just as he doesn't have everything figured out in life, his parents often don't have everything figured out either. When his parents finally get divorced and are faced with a fresh plate, he is surprised at their indecision. And yet, this is what I love about this genre and age group - this is when we all realize that our parents are not God and nor are they perfect human beings. In fact, they are still finding themselves and sometimes, that is a very scary realization. And when this crisis hits Sam, he has his friends to fall back upon. Seriously, the dynamics between this group is so realistic and palpable that I feel as if I could hug them all. Although they are all concerned for one another, especially Mike who mysteriously quits karate, they are often too engrossed with their own lives to prod too deeply into each others. And I feel as if this is another classic friendship crisis - which, by the way, Keil deals with beautifully. As this book came to and end, I wanted to pump my fist and cry with happiness because the friendships in this are so, so lovely.

Not to be outdone, though, the romance is slow and sizzling, perfect and awkward. Sam doesn't even realize the depth of his feelings for Camilla until he is barreled over with them all at once along with the admission that someone like Camilla could never go for movie-obsessed him. Sam's passion for movies, though, is what makes this book such a delight to read. Life in Outer Space is riddled with movie references and allusions and while we can see that Camilla is besotted by Sam's passions, he - obviously - can't. And watching these two grow from friends to something more and witnessing the trust and understanding they share is wonderful. It's so rare to find love stories that are based heavily upon strong friendships, so in all counts, this book is a definite winner. Strong, lively, and endearing characters make Life in Outer Space the sheer delight it in and as far as rom coms go, this is one of the good ones.

THANK YOU Mandee for allowing me to be part of this blog tour and THANK YOU Flann for sending this to me along with The Bitter Kingdom! You ladies rock! :D 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

ARC Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Siege and Storm (Grisha, #2)

Author: Leigh Bardugo

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: June 4th, 2013

While Shadow and Bone was the debut of a magical new realm, of a complex villain impossible to fully understand, of new power, of old allegiances, of politics and confusion, all mixed together with a gentle, calming love, Siege and Storm is the aftermath of all well-intended decisions, the destruction of formerly stable relationships and the creeping movement of darkness, not light. Like any strong sequel, Siege and Storm is as far removed from its predecessor as is possible. Although I loved Shadow and Bone, its sequel is far more mature, unpredictable, and thrilling as a whole. In other words, Leigh Bardugo has surpassed my wildest expectations and if this is any indication, Ruin and Rising will promise to be the best novel in this trilogy by far.

Siege and Storm picks up promptly where Shadow and Bone left off with Mal and Alina on the run from the Darkling. As you can imagine, their freedom is short-lived and they are soon back to being puppets, operating only by the choking hold of the Darkling himself. Yet, not all is the same. Alina’s previous battle with the Darkling left him with scars, but also with an ancient, more evil power than before. Now, the Darkling can create shadow creatures of his own and to combat him, Alina will need more power than one amplifier can give her. In the midst of this battle enters Sturmhond, the captain of the ship that the Darkling hires to sail after Mal and Alina. Sturmhond, however, has plans of his own and as Alina will soon learn, she has friends in the unlikeliest of places…if only they don’t turn into her enemies too.

Siege and Storm is a stronger novel that Shadow and Bone merely because of its maturity. With Shadow and Bone, Alina was insecure, constantly fearing the Grisha she was newly surrounded by. Now, however, Alina is forced to accept her power. Although she starts out running away from her past, she quickly realizes that she must embrace her abilities and join the throng of politics that will enable her to become a player, not a pawn. In fact, Alina’s growth throughout the novel is simply remarkable. As always, she retains her inherent flaws, such as her insecurity, but it is expressed in different ways now as she must battle the evil within her, one that thirsts for power and ambition. Nevertheless, Alina’s rise to who she needs to be to ultimately face the Darkling in the conclusion of this trilogy is perfectly timed, complexly written, and seamlessly arrived at.

In addition to Alina, though, Mal too grows immensely in this novel. For the first time, we see Mal as a character on his own right, not simply Alina’s childhood friend. Yet, there are hurdles that prevent these two from further developing their relationship and rather, it fades away slowly as the novel progresses, leaving us with only a sliver of hope by the end. With Alina as the Sun Summoner, the power imbalance between her and Mal only increases with time. Not only is Mal not a tracker anymore, having deserted the army, but he pales in comparison to the royals that Alina is forced to spend her time with. And, to make matters worse, Alina can’t help but be consumed with a thirst for more power, pulling her away from Mal. What makes their relationship so heart-breaking is that we’ve seen them before Alina claimed her powers as Sun Summoner and an imbalance of power existed then too, with Mal having the upper-hand. As such, it seems almost impossible for these two to work through their differences and see each other again amidst their new roles in life.
Yet, the question arises if Alina has any other options but Mal for he loves Alina for who she is, not her power, and all the other men in her life, no matter how charismatic they are, all want Alina for the power she holds more than they want her for the person she is inside. Still, the Darkling remains a strong contender for her heart. Although the Darkling may not love Alina, he certainly understands her in a way no one else does, a fact she must slowly come to accept as her relationship with Mal declines and they are unable to understand each other. Granted, the Darkling only has true screen-time for roughly ten percent of the story, but he remains a constant fixture in Alina’s mind. I, for one, found this to be all the more alluring and creeping. Without even appearing for much of this story, the Darkling manages to cause a rift between Alina and Mal and, even more, his words never escape Alina, practically haunting her. It remains true, then, that our resident evil lord is just as sexy, bad, and unpredictable as ever – just the way I like him.

Siege and Storm, though, shines not because of any of the characters we’ve already met, but rather because of ones we are about to meet. Sturmhond, the privateer of the ship the Darkling originally hires, is a force to be reckoned with. Seriously, this guy could charm all the books off your shelves – that’s how charismatic he is – and he isn’t afraid to use his skills to get what he wants. Although Sturmhond has an agenda of his own, he is more friend than foe to Alina and I found myself unable to resist his charms. I wound up underlining nearly all of his lines in this novel – he’s just too witty for his own good – and it is his presence that I am most eager for in the next novel. And, to add to his appeal, there is a plot twist or two surrounding this mystery man – all brilliantly executed, I might add – which only improve this stunning sequel.

In fact, I have to admit that many of the decisions that Bardugo made with this novel surprised me. We have the incorporation of the Darkling – how he was present in Alina’s mind, but not within the actual plot – a clever decision that both increased his power, maintained his mystery, and allowed for the screen time of other characters, all while keeping him very much within the story. Even more surprising, though, is the sudden importance given to the Apparat. In Shadow and Bone, the Apparat was a rather creepy figure we all were more than happy to brush off, but he makes a startling appearance in Siege and Storm, rallying up followers of “Saint” Alina. Although this sudden introduction of religious fanatics, all believing that Alina possesses other-worldly abilities, isn’t explored in too much depth in this novel, it is important and its role in Alina’s growth is subtle, but surprising.

For me, though, the most astonishing aspect of this novel was its ending. You know you’ve written a good book when your readers don’t like the ending, but they accept it for what it is and come to slowly see the brilliance of it. Now, looking back, I am able to appreciate the infusion of themes re-iterated throughout this story line, particularly the fact that deadly repercussions can result from even the best-intended decisions. We all try our best in life and even when our actions have terrible consequences, we are forced to keep going on; perhaps this is why I love this trilogy so much. It may be fantasy, but its themes and ideas are just as prevalent to all our lives, Grisha or not.

With such an impressive cast of characters, it should come as no surprise that Siege and Storm can do no wrong. Its plot, although a little slower than that of Shadow and Bone and slowing down considerably after the first half, is vital to the continuation of the story arc of this series, which I truly appreciate. Unlike with most trilogies, this second novel isn’t a filler story, merely meant to make money and keep readers entertained. Rather, it allows its characters to grow, change, and reach the necessary areas in life mentally and emotionally to be ready for an earth-shattering conclusion. I, for one, am prepared for what Leigh Bardugo has in store for us next. After all the heart-break that I went through with this novel, my duct-taped heart can bear anything. And if not, I’ll just have a Corporalnik Healer nearby.

A huge, huge, HUGE thank you to Macmillan Teen and Henry Holt for sending me an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review. You have no idea how flattered I was to receive this in the mail, so thanks! :)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews

Title: Gunmetal Magic 

Author: Ilona Andrews

Rating: 4 Stars

Gunmetal Magic is an amazing beginning to what is sure to be a fantastic spin-off series from Ilona Andrews. But, then again, I expected nothing less. While I suspect I've been reading too much of Ilona Andrews and too little of it that actually features Kate as a protagonist lately, I was still more than a little pleased to be back in this world. One of the biggest surprises of Ilona Andrews is the fact that despite the formulaic quality of their books, even with a protagonist who isn't Kate, they always manage to pull it off in a way that leaves the reader feeling as if they read a completely new story every time. With such complex and detailed characters, though, it isn't too hard to see why.

If you don't already know, Gunmetal Magic is the story of Andrea Nash, Kate Daniel's best friend, beastkin, and ex-Knight of the Order. Oh, let's not forget ex-girlfriend of one rather sexy bouda named Raphael. Gunmetal Magic picks up with Andrea and Raphael only recently broken up and with Andrea still nursing her wounds from being kicked out of the Order. Now, she not only has to decide whether or not to join the Pack, but she also has to help solve a crime...with Raphael. Who, it turns out, is engaged. If you thought the tension in Kate's life was bad, then welcome to Andrea's world.

As it turns out, Kate and Andrea, while seemingly similar on the surface, are really completely different people. It would be impossible to get their voices mixed up because of how unique they are from one another and while we saw a glimpse of this with the short e-novella Magic Mourns, we feel that all the more clearly with a full-fledged Andrea novel. What I loved the most, in terms of comparisons between Kate and Andrea, is the fact that both of them regard the other as having it better than they do. When we were in Kate's head, we were constantly privy to her slight jealousy at the fact that Andrea had found someone who could love her for her, and now in Andrea's head, we feel a return of that slight jealousy as she looks at Kate and Curran, still utterly lovesick with one another. It's such a clever and subtle dynamic, but I love that Ilona Andrews makes it known as it makes their friendship seem that much more authentic.

Nevertheless, Gunmetal Magic is Andrea's story and although Kate and Andrea are best friends, Kate is only a small part of it. With Magic Mourns, we were briefly recounted the brutal past that Andrea faced, making her the tough woman she is today, but with Gunmetal Magic, we go even deeper to see the psychological ramifications that past has had on Andrea. Even more so, we can see how difficult it is for others to understand her actions, even Raphael. I love that this novel, despite its usual infusion of myth, lore, and kick-ass battle scenes, was in equal parts filled with growth, on both Andrea and Raphael's sides, as they came to understand each other on deeper emotional levels. Andrea, too, is much more complex character than we originally give her credit for and seeing the multiple layers to her made me appreciate her much more as a character.

Gunmetal Magic continues to shine in the romance department and while I'll never be a Raphael fan-girl - I suspect it's hard to once you're so firmly besotted with Curran - I still ate up the sexual tension between him and Andrea and was thrilled by the slow, tortuous, yet meaningful path their eventual reconciliation took. It still remains to be, though, that Gunmetal Magic is the beginning of a spin-off series and this, sadly, was painfully evident. Not only was this book shorter than the Kate Daniels novels, but it also felt slightly more disjointed in terms of plot structure. Although I still thoroughly enjoyed it, I suspect it would lag as a series without the Kate Daniels books to support it. Nevertheless, I eagerly look forward to more from Ilona Andrews, especially this spin-off series since I can't wait to be back in Andrea's head. Only after I've been back in Kate's head first though. I suspect I'm missing Curran too much.

You can check out my reviews for the Kate Daniels Series HERE and HERE

Sunday, May 12, 2013

ARC Review: Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

Title: Wild Awake

Author: Hilary T. Smith

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: May 28th, 2013

I think the last time I felt this strangely disjointed and certifiably insane after reading a book was shortly after closing the cover of This is Shyness, which is pretty darn perfect. Wild Awake Hilary T. Smith's debut is one of those books that will spark controversy once the right people read it; the kind of people who don't fully understand this book and want to tear it down. For others, though, Wild Awake will sing a special tune, will whisper a secret world, and unlock a store of hidden memories and dreams. As for me, I think I fall somewhere right smack-dab in the middle because Wild Awake left me speechless, but still slightly doubtful of my true feelings for it.

Wild Awake is a novel about grief. And, as you know, grief makes people do crazy things. At first glance, this seems to be a novel about a girl who has her entire summer spread out before. Not only have her parents left her alone at home, gallivanting on vacation themselves, but her older brother is away at camp, leaving Kiri, our protagonist, to a summer of piano practice and smoking pot with her best friend. Yet, Kiri’s seemingly perfect summer is disrupted by a phone call that tells her to pick up her sister’s belongings – her sister's belongings from five years ago when she died – and her whole world is turned upside down.

Now, to be perfectly honest, Wild Awake startled me at times. It is a realistic portrayal of life, which is possibly why it's so messy and chaotic. Kiri is a protagonist who is lost within her world after the sudden revelation of her sister's death, but she's also focused on entering into a piano competition, and she's also crushing on her best friend, and her parents are also away on vacation for months on end, and she's also flirting with a bike repair guy named Skunk get it. Kiri is not just defined by her sister's death, a death she never got the time to mourn. A death she was unable to understand five years ago and is unable to come to terms with now. As Kiri has ups-and-down, as she spirals through life, not everything is perfect. At times, you can only watch as everything collapses and at other times, you cannot help but laugh right along Kiri as life displays its infinite beauty to her.

You are along with Kiri for this ride, though, that much is made clear. Hilary T. Smith is a talented writer, the kind who uses evocative phrases and drags you into her story. Emerging from Wild Awake is like waking up from a dream. Was all that real? Is it real? Can it be real? Yes, yes it can. As crazy as Wild Awake gets, it is an honest portrayal of a teen coping with her grief, with her sexuality, with growing up, and with finding who she is. It isn't pretty, and Kiri is often not likable - I still don't know if she's someone I would befriend - but Smith makes you crawl into her skin and understand her, no matter what. Moreover, you find your heart breaking at random moments, you yourself not sure why this book has affected you so. It's one of those books where if you look out the window for a second or two, you'll feel yourself being dragged further in or tearing up. Or both.

Of late, I've been running around complaining about contemporary YA. You may not have realized it, but I have. I've been demanding a novel that chronicles real friendships, that chronicles messy relationships, that deals with sexual desires, that allows a girl to be as un-contained and disaster-driven in life as she wants to be without being labeled as a rebel. Anything. Wild Awake responded to ALL of this.

Although Kiri's parents are absent for most of the book, their short appearance at the end makes up for this completely. Denny, Kiri's brother seems to be a rather stereotypical older brother at first, but their rocky relationship is real and gives way to hidden layers beneath. Kiri’s friendships, too, change, evolving into a connection that inspires more nostalgia than anything else over time. Even Kiri's own romance with Skunk is slightly sudden, rather strange, but oh-so-right. Both Skunk and Kiri aren't completely normal, aren't at complete right angles in their lives and by being together, things don't get solved. If you’re looking for one of those broken-people-heal-each-other novels, you won’t find it here. Yet, their presence, their understanding, their unconditional helps them find their way independently, which is so much stronger than any all-consuming romantic angle could ever be.

Yet, best of all, I love Kiri. I love that Smith allows Kiri to lash out at others, to drink, to smoke pot, to do everything that a Serious Piano Student shouldn't do. And yet, Kiri is also that serious student. Kiri is more than her label and her drinking and running around at midnight isn't just her becoming a rebel, it's her finding herself. Smith isn't telling teens to do what Kiri is doing. Although her novel has drug usage in it, it isn't about using drugs. It's about getting out experiencing life and about coming to terms with who you are in whatever way you need to. And, granted, it doesn't espouse or suddenly liberate girls from their self-contained roles in life, with their parents, or in schools as either the timid goody-two-shoes or the punk-rock-rebel or the depressed-goth-chick. It doesn't outright do this all, but by making Kiri someone who can't be defined, by someone who is everything and more, I have fallen in love with Wild Awake.

The Bottom Line? Give Wild Awake a chance. I know the first few chapters are strange. I know that books about drinking or pot or hangovers aren't ones that most people want to read about. I know that there are other realistic books out there that aren't even half as messy as this one. But just try. If you don't like it, you only gave up a few short hours. And if you do, you just might find that small piece of your heart, so minuscule you didn't even know it was missing.

Thank you to Harper Collins for providing me with an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.