Saturday, August 31, 2013

Discussion: Time Management

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single bibliophile in possession of a good book to read must be in want of time to read it. Am I right or am I right? As bloggers, I think we all struggle - a lot - with managing our time, reading, commenting, reviewing, and formatting our blogs. It's time-consuming and it doesn't really give us all that much in return. Except, you know, that little thing called happiness. ;) 

I've been asked - multiple times, actually - to write up a post about how I manage my time. Many people seem to be in awe of the fact that I comment on roughly 12-18 blogs a day, post reviews once in two days (max.), and manage to read at least three hundred books a year. 

Well, I'm here to tell you it's not all that unusual.

A List of Reasons Why I Can Read As Much as I Do 

1. Adulthood = Sucks. Many bloggers who read YA are adults, which means you have to take care of kids or cook meals or pay bills. I don't have to do any of that. I wake up, go to school, come home, study my butt off, and repeat the process. So, if there's any secret to my reading habits, it's probably my age.

2. Boring Blogging = Easier Blogging. In case you haven't noticed, my blog is very green. (It's my favorite color.) Maybe your blog is blue or red or purple or maybe it's ALL of those colors. What I'm saying is this: I don't spend a lot of time formatting my blog. I know my header and button aren't very pretty. I'll change it. Eventually. I know my posts are plain. "Title, Author, Rating, Review. Add a picture." BAM. But this works for me. I know tons of bloggers who have gorgeous blogs with reviews that have links to bookstores or include a synopsis or do a number of other creative things. I also know tons of bloggers who are active meme participants or vloggers. I don't make vlogs or participate in too many memes, which is a personal decision I made because I found that (a) I look/sound terrible in videos and also happen to get a lot of my books on my Kindle and (b) back when I participated in memes I used them as placeholders for reviews instead of enjoying the meme itself, which I recognized as incorrect and stopped. For a lot of bloggers, though, these memes and vlogs really work and I absolutely love seeing them (so don't stop!), but it does take a lot less time to organize my posts when I don't have to edit videos or format ten pictures for Top Ten Tuesdays. 

Now, I just wanted to get that out of the way. I'm not here to boast about how many books I read (honestly, I feel awfully embarrassed writing up this post, but a good friend convinced me that many readers were interested in this topic, so here I am, writing this post!), but I am here to tell you that although you may not be reading as much as you like, you're probably doing a lot of other wonderful things, like spending time with your family or on other areas of your blog. 

Time Management Tips & Tricks: How to Squeeze in Reading & Blogging into Our Everyday Lives

1. Read Fast. I read roughly a hundred pages an hour. I don't know if that seems like a lot or not, but it will help to keep that in mind as this list progresses. 

2. Read Everywhere. I mean this statement literally. I, for instance, manage to read for seventeen minutes before I even leave the house every morning to catch my bus. How? (1) I read my Kindle while I brush my teeth for two minutes and (2) I read my Kindle while I eat breakfast every morning which usually takes fifteen minutes. Which means that before I've even left the house, I've read roughly twenty-five or more pages. I also find time to read in school, especially if I've finished a test earlier and have free time. Or on the bus back since my friends and I usually stay after school for various activities, so I find myself a nice twenty minute reading slot, so on a normal school day, I return home at 3 PM having read a total of fifty pages, combining my morning and afternoon reading slots. 

3. Read Regularly. No matter how busy my day is, even if I'm pulling an all-nighter and only finish my physics project at 3 AM, I make it a point to read for thirty minutes before I go to bed. Which means another fifty pages, usually. If you're doing the math with me, this equates to roughly a hundred pages in one day. If I'm reading a normal, four-hundred page novel, I can have this done within a week. And over the weekend, I put in some extra time to have another book finished within those two (or three) days. Which means that during the school year, I finish two books a week. 

If you commute via bus, train, or even car, your regular reading time could be during this time period - an audiobook while driving, an e-book on the bus or train? Just make it a point to read every day at one certain time (maybe after you make dinner but before you eat it?) and you'll likely find yourself reading more during the week. Otherwise, I used to read kind of any time I had free time, but that free time takes forever to present itself and before you know it, it's been three days since you last even looked at a book. It happens. *sigh*

4. Trust Yourself. Now, this is probably easier for some people and harder for others. I say trust yourself because I know a number of reviewers who write their reviews and re-write them and edit them and edit them again. Well, I'm telling you now: don't. Does your review read better when you edit it? Yes. It does. But does it really have a whole lot of different content? No. And this is an important thing I began to realize. I used to edit my reviews a lot - and I still edit any guest posts I hand it - but now, I've learned that just typing out a first draft of a review and running over it for spelling errors is more than enough. Ask yourself: what do you want your readers to know about this book? Characters? Plot? Flaws? If it's all in your first draft, then post it! We're not rating anyone on their best writing capability; we read reviews to find out whether or not we want to read that particular book. And if a reader can figure that out from your review, they're good to go. So: don't stress. Just write. (And post.)

5. Technology is Your Best Friend. I'm sure you've heard this one, but one thing that always surprises me is how few bloggers use their i-Devices or phones to comment on blogs. Both Blogger and Wordpress have very accessible websites on technological devices which have made my life about fifty times easier. I sometimes have mornings where I just want to snuggle in for a few extra minutes, although I'm already awake, so I use those mornings to log into Blogger and start reading and commenting on blogs. It's so much easier to read blogs on my iPhone, believe it or not, and I've become very adept at commenting as well. I also comment on blogs all the time. When I'm waiting for the microwave to heat some food, I'm commenting on a blog. When I'm waiting for my computer to boot up, I'm commenting on a blog. When I'm changing or packing my bag for the next day I'm usually reading a blog post. I carry my phone everywhere, which also means I have an ability to comment everywhere I go. It's quick and extremely efficient too.

Also: USE APPS! I use the Twitter App all the time to read author interviews or just find new blogs that have reviewed a book I'm curious about reading. The GoodReads App is my favorite, though, since I can read & like reviews (without the distraction of those shiny polls and thoughtful quotes) and occasionally jot down a few thoughts on a book I finished to help guide my reviews. 

6. Inspiration...Use It! I tend to review books in one of two ways. Either I finish a book and immediately know exactly what I want to say, in which case I type out my review immediately and format it on the blog as well. Or, I usually have no idea what to say and leave it on my GoodReads shelf to return to. And once in two or three weeks, I am struck by an intense urge to review. I don't know if this happens to a lot of other people, but it happens to me, and I usually manage to belt out three or four long reviews and have them formatted for the blog over the course of an afternoon. Which usually means that my "draft" shelf on Blogger is a lot longer and I don't have to worry about reviewing for almost another month, in-between guest posts and "Showcase Sunday" memes. I know writer's block can be a pain, but when inspiration strikes, drop everything and run to the nearest computer. Also: don't just stop at one review. When I get my reviewing done in chunks, I feel so relieved afterwards and can really just focus on enjoying the reading part of this hobby instead of worrying about the other parts. 

7. Find a Review Format...and Stick With It! I know a lot of reviewers who have a very distinct style, which I love - especially on dual-run blogs - since I can tell who wrote the post without even needing to look at their name. I also know a lot of reviewers who are extremely creative in their review approaches every week. And, you know what? - to each their own. I do think, though, that it's important to create a general format, if not of the review of what you want in each review, so that reviewing is easier. I used to be really tense about reviewing because what if I forgot the character's personality? or didn't mention the romance I really liked or skipped over the action sequences? Now, however, I have a mental checklist of everything I want to include in any review, regardless of the book, and while reading I try to add to that mental list if the book has something extra I want to discuss. 

For instance, I always mention the protagonist, the love interest, and any flaws I saw in the novel, but in some reviews - like my recent review of The Bone Season - I felt compelled to discuss the genre because I thought readers might like to know that this isn't a book that belongs in one genre, but rather one that elements of multiple genres. So, even if you don't have a strict five or six paragraph review format, knowing what you want to say really helps. I know I have a tendency of thinking about a book long after I've finished it and finding more and more interesting things about it, but prioritizing - secondary characters, summary, villains, time period, etc. - can make sitting down and writing that review so much easier.

8. DNF, DNF, DNF! A lot of readers feel guilty for not finishing a book - and I totally get that. I was exactly like that last year. I've come to recognize, though, that I'm happier when I'm reading what I want to read and what I like to read. I hate slogging through a novel because I have to. No matter how much better the book gets by the end, there is no erasing the fact that hours of your life were wasted flipping page after page. I believe that DNFing a book is perfectly acceptable as long as you've (a) given the book a chance and (b) explain why you were unable to finish the novel. Of course, if you really, absolutely, cannot DNF a book, that's fine, but think about it. A bad book takes at least two times as much time to read as a good one, so you could be reading two great books instead of finishing a bad one. Just my take on it. 


Um...that's all I've got! Obviously, what works for me isn't going to work for everyone. I'm one of those highly competitive people who is competing with her own book pile, so I have a fierce determination to just keep reading. Also, reading (honestly) keeps me sane since I go to an extremely competitive school district and find it easy to lose track of where I end and my grades begin. So, really, I do extreme things like reading while brushing my teeth to keep my sanity intact. I really tried to think, though, of both things I do consciously (using my iPhone to comment on blogs, reading regularly every day, reading on the bus, etc.) and things I do subconsciously (mental checklist of topics to discuss in a review, random intervals of inspiration, etc.).

Also, I think it's important to keep in mind that while my challenge is to read at least three hundred books a year, whatever your challenge may be, it is a challenge, and that's the important thing. I hope this managed to help some readers, so let me know if I missed any important tips or tricks in the comments below! Happy Reading! :D

Friday, August 30, 2013

Review: The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Title: The Beginning of Everything 

Author: Robyn Schneider 

Rating: 1.5 Stars

I almost feel like laughing, but not quite. The Beginning of Everything is majorly over-hyped, but I suspect that's because of the nature of YA. We've come to expect a very standard, happily-ever-after-esque, unrealistic portrayal of life from YA. We assume the end of the book is the end of these characters lives and don't bother to think about them breaking up with their "true love" in three months or rushing off to college and possibly creating another screwed up parental relationship. Which is why I think this book is so well-liked; because its ending forces you to recognize that bittersweet reality and accepts that people are not always meant for relationships with certain people or at certain time periods.

And this saddens me because I feel as if this should be a given. Life isn't about people healing each other from tragic moments with New Adult sexy times; it's about things not working out and rejection. It's about moving on and finding yourself. While I think this book really tries to do a lot and utterly succeeds in its incredibly honest ending, I don't think that makes this a good book. Just because The Beginning of Everything does something most books should do, doesn't necessarily mean it's fantastic or deserves quite this much hype.
As I said, The Beginning of Everything really does try to be an incredible, inspirational kind of novel. When you take its bare-bones outline, it’s nothing short of brilliant. Ezra, the Golden Boy of his high school, shatters his knee in a car accident and quickly finds himself saying goodbye to his jock clique and popularity as he knows it. Ezra is quickly forced to find himself – true him that lies beneath all the false smiles and tennis backhands – and although he attributes much of his change to Cassidy, the new girl who is different and turns his life around, he eventually learns that his growth was all his own. And that idea, of realizing that your personal change is due to you and your decisions, not those of someone else, is a wonderful concept. And yet, it is one that has been done before and, sadly, much better.
Moreover, this book reads too familiarly. It has elements of Life in Outer Space with nerdy references and movie buffs. It has traces of North of Beautiful with crazy outlandish activities like geo-caching. And it has a whole lot of not-quite-good-as-John-Green moments. I have nothing against Manic Pixie Dream Girls, but Cassidy read all too transparently with dialogue I'd heard before and a shabbily covered up "secret". Ezra, while undergoing a fantastic journey, is the only strong character in a novel filled with strangely absentee (and conveniently rich) parents, stereotypical jocks, empty-headed blondes, and under-developed secondary characters.

For a book that dares to explore finding your place in the world, The Beginning of Everything is surprisingly black-and-white. Ezra, in fact, is the only character whose portrayal I found to be even remotely realistic. Not only was he complicated, but he was intelligent. In some instances, I really love the dialogue in this novel, in others, however, it feels as if this book is just trying too hard. You know all those tumblr posts with words in different languages that mean so many things that the English language doesn’t capture? Well, that list is basically in this book. Among other “creative” and “cool” and “wacky” and “different” tid-bits that all basically fail to impress.

You see, as much as Schneider doesn’t talk down to her audience with her out-there topics, she doesn’t talk up to them either. Just take Charlotte, Ezra's ex, for example. Not only is she a blonde cheerleader who invites guys to secluded areas, thrusts out her breasts, and has no ambitions except popularity, but her presence only makes Cassidy appear to be a better person. And, frankly, I am fed up of seeing girls portrayed like this. Why must Charlotte be empty-headed in order to explore her sexuality? Why must Ezra look like a hero for denying Charlotte while she herself is portrayed as a harlot for wanting him? Why are Charlotte’s string of boyfriends frowned upon but not Ezra’s string of girlfriends? I hate the double standards placed on girls and with The Beginning of Everything, these don’t even end with Charlotte. Cassidy, as I mentioned, is like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, complete with that classic “secret” and “tragic past” that excuses her strange behavior. Excuse me, but why do girls need to have a tragic past to excuse their behavior? Why can’t Cassidy just be moody and upset if she wants to be? When Charlotte is moody she’s basically a bitch, but if Cassidy is moody it’s okay because she has a tragic past. I hate how this book conveniently places characters into tidy little boxes. No. I am a teen and I am a girl and I cannot be placed into a tidy little box nor will I. And I hate to see that representation in YA.

I’m not picking on The Beginning of Everything. I avoid books like this one precisely because of these issues, but I gave this a chance because of the hype surrounding it. It wound up being such a disappointing read, though. Ezra’s high school is so stereotypical, not only with their cliques and taunts of “faggot” or “dork” but also with the personalities of their secondary characters. Every clique in this book is straight out of "Mean Girls" and the football jocks spray paint children's playgrounds when they're drunk, but Ezra can stop them, no worries. Even Ezra’s best friend, Toby, manages to remain flat on the page as he is quick to welcome Ezra back to his circle and acts as a medium to introduce Ezra to Cassidy and glean more information about her. Ezra’s parents, though mentioned, are simply…strange. Ezra has no relationship with them at all. Although his mom calls him regularly and is worried sick about his condition, he never seems to care for her or carry much of a relationship of any kind with her. Schneider introduces a lot of different characters and concepts with this book, but so many of them are under-developed that I wish they were just excluded instead.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend Schneider’s latest. While I loved its concept and am all for finding-yourself-esque novels, I felt this one had too many flaws to stand-out. It was an unfortunate mix of too many books and movies, mashed together, and the impact of the story is only felt in those last five or ten pages, which only barely manage to redeem this in my eyes. I’ve read far better and more realistic coming-of-age novels, but if you haven’t, then I don’t doubt for a second that The Beginning of Everything will be a delight. While I’ll still be looking out for Schneider’s work in the future – her writing flows perfectly – I’ll be regarding it all with the eye of a skeptic from now on. You’d think I’d have learned by now not to succumb to the hype, but I guess some lessons just need to be re-learned. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

ARC Novella Review: Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand

Title: Snow-Kissed

Author: Laura Florand

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: September 17th, 2013

Well, don't let it be said that Laura Florand can't slay your heart just as much as she makes it palpitate with her descriptions of chocolate! After having read - and loved - five of Florand's novels, I think I am more than qualified to admit that Snow-Kissed is perhaps her most ambitious piece. With every romance I read by Florand, I feel as if I am sucked deeper and deeper into her lush prose. And out of all the contemporary authors out there, only Florand can really bewitch me with her words; which is why, even though I was warned this novel was a heart-breaking one, I simply jumped at the chance to read it as soon as I could. Needless to say, I was far from disappointed.

Snow-Kissed is unlike anything Florand has ever tackled before. I am used to her quiet, but beautiful, romances, all set against the backdrop of Paris and each with a unique heroine. While I find that these novels have more than enough depth, they are primarily a whirlwind of melting chocolate and steamy gazes, which truly mends your heart more than it breaks it. With this novella, however, Florand manages to make the tear-ducts flow using just a few well-timed phrases - and it is slaying. (But so, so worth the read.)

After three miscarriages, Kai is depressed and utterly broken. Although her marriage to Kurt - perfect, caring, and mindful of her every need - is warm and loving, her string of failed pregnancies has driven a wedge between the pair. Unable to cope with having disappointed her husband, Kai leaves, hoping to re-build her life. When Kai and Kurt wind up snowed in, however, on a cancelled trip from work, the two are tense and confused. Can they patch up their marriage or was their perfect happily-ever-after truly too good to last? If Kurt has anything to do with it, though, he's getting Kai back. And this time, he won't let her run away. No matter what.

From the beginning itself, Snow-Kissed is permeated with a melancholy aura of nostalgia and regret. Kai regrets leaving Kurt. Kurt regrets not being enough for Kai to stay. And yet, underneath that, is also the bitterness. Kai is bitter that Kurt cannot understand her feelings, that he cares more for her than the babies they have lost. Kurt is bitter than Kai walked out on him instead of sticking around to make their marriage work. And just with those surface emotions, so much depth in built within this novel. It's gut-wrenching to see Kai and Kurt dance around each other, both so hurt and wary of what to do. And yet, what made me fall so hard for this short story is the fact that it is full of hope. Kai and Kurt, despite their broken pasts, despite the fact that they may never have children, despite the fact that their friends' lives revolve around their children now while their own lives are filled with that gaping hole, despite all that, there is still the hope that they can find a way back to one another.

Moreover, it should be noted that Snow-Kissed is far from a cold, hard novel filled with stark emotion. On the contrary, this book is steaming hot! Seriously. One of the aspects of this novella that I felt really worked was that the sex was such an integral part of the re-growth of this relationship. We are privvy to the perspectives of both Kai and Kurt, so while we feel their emotions and hear their swirling thoughts, we also witness the gradual change in the two of them. Surprisingly, their time away from each other has made both of them ready to do what they were unable to do before: heal together. And while, admittedly, the sex is fan-yourself burning, it's also a very charged, emotional experience that brings this married couple even closer.

Additionally, though, it is impossible not to connect with these characters. Both of them are so well-drawn and realistic that I felt my entire body sag in depression for Kai and similarly perk up at Kurt's burning hope. Kurt, who feels as if Kai is the ray of sunshine in his life with her spontaneity and optimism, is determined to bring back the old Kai - the one who teased him and made him fall so deeply in love with her. And yet, although so much of this novel is focused on Kai's healing, Kurt is never forgotten amid this either. I find that it is so easy to dismiss the father in a novel, merely because he is not the one who undergoes both physical and emotional pain, and while Florand made that distinction, she never disregarded Kurt's feelings either.

And yet, perhaps best - and worst - of all, Snow-Kissed ends off with Kai and Kurt in a better place in their marriage, not necessarily the best one. What Kai and Kurt learn about each other and about their relationship in this novella is incredible, but it is also not everything. We finish this novella knowing that we have only been given a small glimpse into the lives of this couple; a glimpse that does not necessarily reassure us that the future will be better, but does soothe us that the future will have these two tackling its challenges together. Nevertheless, I did feel a certain sense of loss upon completing this novella. I blame Laura Florand's writing - I'm so in love with it that I feel bereft at leaving it all, let alone slightly abruptly the way this one was. However, that small qualm aside, Snow-Kissed is not to be missed for fans of Florand. It may seem unusually heavy - and I certainly have made it seem that way - but truly, there is a pleasant dose of romance side-by-side with the emotional depth that makes this novella so wonderful. If you, like me, are anxiously awaiting your next Florand Fix (yes, her writing is like a drug!), then this will more than sustain you until her next romance novel is out. I, for one, have not regretted my time with Kai and Kurt and know that, once my heart is healed, I will return yet again.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

Title: The Floating Islands 

Author: Rachel Neumeier

Rating: 4 Stars

I have a three-pronged reaction to seeing The Floating Islands on my shelf.

(1) A sigh of contentment because just look at that cover! It's gorgeous and oh-so fitting for the story within.

(2) A goofy smile because my copy is signed! Also: I think this is the only signed book I own, so a double goofy grin. (If those even exist...)


(3) A large pool of guilt because, no matter how much I try, I simply cannot seem to sit down and write a review for this book.

I've sort of promised myself that I am - under no circumstances - allowed to read another Neumeier book until I review the last book of hers I read; otherwise I'd just inhale all her books over a weekend. (Yes, they're just that good.)

When I read Neumeier's House of Shadows last year, I was struck by the strange sensation that Neumeier was not merely writing for an audience of fantasy lovers, she was writing for me. Which, obviously, is not true, but her books, nevertheless, contain all the perfect ingredients that I yearn for. With Neumeier, you are guaranteed to get three things, all done to perfection.

(1) Character Development
(2) Political Intrigue
(3) World Building

(NOT necessarily in that order, mind you!)

From the beginning itself, I was captivated by the three-dimensional quality of her characters. The Floating Islands shifts between the perspectives of Trei, an orphan who arrives at the Floating Islands to stay with his uncle, and Araene, his cousin who, as a girl, has a very limited amount of freedom. With this set-up, not only do we delve into the mind of these two protagonists - their dreams, hopes, and fears - but we also grow to understand the world around them. Trei cannot help but compare the Floating Islands to his homeland in the North and similarly, Araene cannot help but yearn to be a boy in her land instead of a girl. When Araene, notorious for sneaking out of her home as a boy, discovers a hidden school of magic and Trei, an outsider to the Floating Islands, is filled with an ambition to become a kajurai, one of the messengers of the realm who learn to fly, a tale of political intrigue is swiftly uncovered as are...dragons!

I wish I could wax poetry about this book, but I think I'll stick to sentences for the sake of all our sanities. Quite simply put, this book is brilliant. Trei and Araene grow to have a close bond of kinship - a pleasant change from the usual romances - and the focus of the plot never leaves the tense political situation at hand. Furthermore, the plot threads of Trei and Araene's life come together beautifully, all with a burst of emotion too as both these protagonists suffer greatly throughout the novel. While their adventures will keep you on the edge of your seat, their experiences will touch your heart.

What Neumeier does so well is build, not only her world (seamlessly), but also the relationships between her secondary characters. Both Trei and Araene grow to find their places in the world, both of their own accord and with the help of the new friends they make. I love that with Neumeier, nothing is truly sacrificed in her novels. Trei, who struggles to find a place to call home, and Araene, who is so uncomfortable in her own skin and what it dictates she can and cannot do in her own homeland, grow to find themselves gradually as the novel progresses. Furthermore, though, the secondary characters in this book are just as fleshed-out, integral to both the plot and the character growth. Neumeier is a true storyteller and tales are like one big puzzle piece, just waiting to be put together into such an incredible package.

The Floating Islands lacks for nothing. It has dragons in it - everyone's favorite mythological creature - politics, and, best of all, two protagonists to get behind. I already know I'll be re-reading this one, multiple times, in the future and I'm sure that each time, I'll discover something new to love about this. Is it my favorite Neumeier? Quite happily, I can't decide yet. After all, I still have so many of her books left to read - and I hope it stays that way for awhile. When I need a book to just get me, I know where to look: Rachel Neumeier.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Eleanor and Park 

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Rating: 2.5 Stars

I sincerely hope no diabetic patients read this novel. Seriously. Eleanor and Park is almost a sickly-sweet kind of romance. I could feel myself cringing at the utter delight of it all: the gentle Asian boy, the big red-headed girl who didn’t fit in, the slow hand-holding, the chaste kisses, the Star Wars compliments, the cradle-the-phone-in-the-night discussions, the endless question-and-answer sessions, and most of all, the improbable romance of a poor girl who doesn’t even have a toothbrush and the rich boy who has a room full of model airplanes and cassette tapes. Nevertheless, despite the clichés in this novel and the almost dream-like quality of the story itself, I found myself hard pressed to dislike this story. Eleanor and Park is most definitely a love story I’m going to forget within a few hours, but somehow Rainbow Rowell is an author I’m not.

If you haven’t already figured it out, this is the type of novel that depicts what an almost perfect romance is like. Almost perfect because despite the cheesiness of the dialogue and the cloying sweet quality of the scenes in this, Eleanor and Park are both flawed and realistic characters; to some extent. I found Rowell’s depiction of Eleanor, in particular, to be gratifying. Not only is she “Big Red,” the girl who stands out from the crowd because of her bright hair and big-boned body, but she’s also the girl who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, who’s stunningly intelligent, and whose sarcasm and wit manages to utterly charm Park. Furthermore, her family situation – abusive stepdad, single mom with five children – makes her all the more complicated. Some of my favorite scenes took place when Eleanor was upset, too shaken to speak about her family or simply too embarrassed to discuss her situation and background. Just the fact that she, with her mood swings and clipped tones and limited discussion about her own life, caused a few prickly thorns to spring up in her relationship with Park was more than enough to add an extra layer to their nerdmance.

On the other hand, Park is a little too opposite Eleanor for my liking. First and foremost, he is really sweet, slowly developing his relationship with Eleanor from silence to comics to music and inviting her over to his house practically every day. Park struggles, for awhile, to accept Eleanor - all of her - especially because he so wants his parents’ approval of his first real girlfriend and somehow isn’t brave enough to fight for her completely. Thus, his progression as an individual was well-written, as was his complicated relationship with his father. I feel like father-son relationships are too easily dismissed in favor of mother-daughter relationships, but I do think that the former is just as important as the latter. Needless to say, I was impressed by the complicated, but affectionate, stance Rowell took in portraying their bond.

Nevertheless, Park is a little too perfect for my liking. Although he is an Asian – and feels insecure about that – there is no denying that females are clamoring for his attention. Park walks into a music store and the girl behind the counter is totally into him. His ex-girlfriend from when he was twelve is still, somehow, after his affections. And yet he feels like girls don’t like Asian boys. I do think his insecurities are valid, but I never was able to connect with him on the same level as I was with Eleanor. Moreover, his family is just too perfect. His father comes home from work and makes out with his mother, irrespective of the fact that they have two sons, have been married for years, and will likely have time to do all that – and more – behind closed doors. Eleanor, on the other hand, has a father who abandoned her, a stepdad who abuses her mother, four other younger siblings, and can’t even afford a toothbrush. If you had to pick two lives to place on opposite ends of a spectrum, these are it. And I guess Rowell was trying – as most authors of romance are – that love can bloom among even the unlikeliest of couples, but it seemed all too forced and purposeful for me to appreciate.

Yet, my main issue with this novel was with Park’s mother. We have a Korean bride who marries an American solider and comes home to live with him right next door to his Irish parents. But, despite this, there is not a drop of Korean culture in Park’s life. No Korean food, no Korean language, not even a mention of his mother’s family back in Korea until much later in the novel. I’m all for diversity in YA, but simply introducing an Asian character for the sake of having an Asian character, especially without the messy dilemma that dual-culture brings into the picture, grates on me. I’m an Asian myself and I live in a community where 75% of my neighbors are Asian. Indian, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Pakistani…you name it. We’re here. And I get that Eleanor and Park takes place in a different time period, but this Asian audience that Rowell is trying to reach? We exist. Also? We’d like to be represented in YA. Accurately. For one, the majority of Asians I know – myself included – have very close ties to their family members overseas. Maybe there isn’t international phone calling by this time in history – I don’t know – but wouldn’t Park’s mom try to ensure that her children knew about her background? Doesn’t she know any traditional Korean dishes? I find it so difficult to believe that she simply left behind everything, including her own Korean culture and beliefs, to assimilate to American life. With the exception of her accent, you’d never even know she wasn’t born and bred in America. And for an Asian character, that just isn’t right.

For all of that, though, there’s something about Eleanor and Park that makes it hard to put down. Impossible, really. I enjoyed reading about Eleanor and Park’s relationship, no matter how clichéd it was. I loved seeing Eleanor battle her demons, inner and outer, and seeing Park help her. Is their romance too good to be true? Yes. Are their declarations of love, of missing each other over weekends, etc. just a little too my-eyes-are-tired-of-rolling? Yes. I won’t deny that this book has its flaws – plenty of them – but every once-in-awhile, I found myself forgetting about them and just enjoying this fairy-tale romance. And, either way, I will definitely be getting my hands on Attachments soon because, no matter what I’ve said, Rainbow Rowell can write.

Friday, August 23, 2013

ARC Review: All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Title: All Our Yesterdays (Cassandra Chronicles, #1)

Author: Cristin Terrill

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Release Date: September 3rd, 2013 

All Our Yesterdays is the book I've dreamt about, for nearly two years now. Ever since I began watching Doctor Who, I've been a huge fan of time travel. Sadly, however, none of the time travel books out there seemed truly remarkable and after watching episodes that blew my mind (thank you, Steven Moffat!), I knew that it would take a lot for a novel about time travel to truly impress me. Thus, it was a thrilling - and by no means expected - surprise to find that All Our Yesterdays was every bit as brilliant as rumored. Of course, this isn't a perfect debut, but it's pretty darn close.

All Our Yesterdays can be a bit confusing, at least when it comes to the plot, but I firmly believe that this novel is experienced at its best when little is truly known about it. Instead, what you do need to really know about this tale is that it revolves around the friendship of three teenagers, one of whom goes on to create a time machine and slowly become consumed by his ambition and greed. Thus, in order to save the world from the destruction they've witnessed in the future, the other two - Em (or Marina) and Finn - travel back in time to change the future. After dozens of unsuccessful attempts, they've both arrived at the same conclusion: in order for the future to be protected, they must kill their friend...before he turns into the monster he will eventually become.

What Terrill excels at with her debut are her characters. Each and every character is complicated and three-dimensional. Nothing about this story is black-and-white and although it seems like a simple thing to know right from wrong, Terrill goes on to show us just how ambiguous morality can be. Not only are her time travel elements intelligent and believable, but they also work together with the plot seamlessly. Em and Finn, now much older than their teenage selves, carry the burden of the future with them, but also that of knowing their friend before he changed. Thus, to kill him before the transformation is complete is much harder than they anticipated. Furthermore, even though we are given glimpses into the future, we also know the past. As Em and Finn know their friend, we grow to know him too, and despite knowing what he becomes, we cannot help but like him for who he is now. Terrill truly opens a can of worms with the questions she forces readers to truly ponder and I love a book that can make me think and question what I myself to believe cold, hard facts. Furthermore, the plot of this novel is breath-taking. It is doubtful that you will even have time to breathe; I know I forgot to on more than one occasion. Moreover, I found that the pacing was perfect, so by the time everything came together by the end, I was practically falling to the floor off my seat in excitement and curiosity.

And yet, perhaps because of the brilliance of so many concepts, Terrill's faults are also rather egregious. Most notably, perhaps, is that it is ever-so-slightly difficult to truly enjoy her characterization until much later in the novel. Marina, the younger version of Em, is a rich - there's no other word - brat. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that the transformation of these characters from their younger, innocent selves to their older, hardened selves is remarkable. And yet, it also reduces the emotional impact the characters have. Furthermore, many of the events in this novel are grossly simplified by the presence of money. With novels like The Raven Boys, the economic status of her characters seems a natural and ingrained factor. With All Our Yesterdays, however, it truly felt convenient. Moreover, I found that minority characters - such as a Mexican housekeeper - were sadly stereotyped. As I mentioned, Terrill's attention to detail in so many areas grew to become a fault as the few issues she didn't focus on became small flaws in her otherwise brilliant debut. Nevertheless, All Our Yesterdays isn't a book to miss out on. It's fast-paced, intelligent, romantic (oh, how you will swoon!) and - most of all - thought-provoking. I'm not sure there's anything more I could possibly ask for.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: Haze by Paula Weston

Title: Haze (Rephaim, #2) 

Author: Paula Weston

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Dear Paula Weston,
I hate to break this to you, especially since your novel has already released in many parts of the world, but I think you forgot to write an ending. Do you mind sending me those missing pages in the mail? Or will you accept chocolate chip cookies in exchange for Shimmer? Would a few of my limbs entice you instead?
Willing to Do ANYTHING For the Ending of This Book

Haze is undeniable proof that Middle Book Syndrome is a thing of nightmares - one that can clearly be avoided by Aussie writers. With her sophomore novel, Weston has crafted a sequel that is stronger, darker, richer, and all the more enticing than her stunning debut ever was. Shadows is a promising start to a new series, but that's all it is: a beginning. With Haze we are finally allowed to delve deeper, not necessarily into the foundation of this world, but rather its characters, which, in my opinion, always makes for a much stronger story.

If Haze has any glaring flaws - beyond its lack of an ending, of course - it is that the crux of this novel only emerges well after the first-half of the book. In other words, Gaby and Rafa's quest to find Jude only really begins there. And yet, this book is all heart-pounding action and sexual tension, two aspects that are guaranteed to keep you flipping the pages frantically. (Or, you know, re-reading those paragraphs with a shirtless Rafa.) What I loved about Haze, from the beginning itself, was that it immediately solidified our bond to Gaby. While I sympathized with Gaby's predicaments in Shadows, I can't claim to have truly known her mind and heart. In Haze, however, Gaby has become as dear and close to me as a sister. Not only is Gaby still adjusting to the shocking fact that her memories are not real, she is also coping with the hope that Jude may be alive and, moreover, he may be different from the Jude she remembers. As such, Gaby doesn't jump at the chance to find her brother like Rafa does, and her hesitations are so palpably believable that you cannot help but want to prolong the inevitable search as well.

Quite thankfully, the events in this book are by no means unnecessary or filler. Instead, the plot focuses on finding a way to keep Maggie safe, which unearths a whole trove of Jason's past and hidden secrets even the Rephaim don't know about. It took me by surprise that Jason wound up playing such a huge role in this installment, but in retrospect, it makes the most sense. After all, unlike the other Rephaim Jason has living family members and his past is not only different, but unusual, from that his fellow brethren have shared. Thus, getting to know more about him, and his relationship to Maggie, was a pleasant spin. Maggie, too, comes more alive in this book. We finally see, not only how much she means to Gaby, but also how much Gaby means to her. Although both girls are facing new and life-changing revelations about themselves and the people they knew, their friendship endures. YA suffers from a dearth of realistic friendships, but I truly loved the manner in which Gaby and Maggie managed to remain close, all while moving apart from each other and into their own roles, at the same time.

I would be lying, though, if I said Haze was as good as it was without the presence of Rafa. Shadows established a murky commencement of the relationship between Gaby and Rafa. I, for one, was a little skeptical and worried about Rafa's continued insistence that Gaby remain in the dark about their past relationship. In Haze, however, not only is Rafa a kick-ass fighter, but he is also incredibly tender and understanding. It was those moments that made me fall head-over-heels for him. Yet, Rafa isn't simply the romantic interest of this tale. As a character, he brings a load of baggage to the table, working through his own inner demons, and we finally glimpse a sense of how difficult the past year has been for him without either Gaby or Jude. And this Rafa, the real Rafa, is a shocking and beautiful sight to behold. I love that Rafa and Gaby work through their relationship in this book. Actual, live conversations side-by-side with the raging sexual tension made this romance shoot up to become one of my favorites. It still remains merely an aspect of this series, and never an overwhelming majority of it, but it simmers and sits, boiling in the back of your mind and your heart.

If you haven't already picked up Shadows, I'm not sure what more I can say at this point to convince you to do so at once. Paula Weston is Australian. Surely that's enough? Plus, the sequel is much better novel, full of close friendships, tight bonds, and simmering romance. I savored this book, reading only a few chapters a day because I didn't want to leave this world. It is so rarely that I ever enjoy a series to this extent, and those are the books to watch out for and cherish. Needless to say, Haze is one of the best books I've read this year and I cannot wait for the rest of the world to devour it. Paula Weston - my chocolate chip cookie offer still stands. Meanwhile, excuse me while I scrounge for money to pre-order Shimmer. I doubt I'll get a good night's sleep until that book is in my hands.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mini-Reviews: The Best Man, A Certain Slant of Light, and Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake

Title: The Best Man (Blue Heron, #1) 

Author: Kristan Higgins

Rating: 4 Stars

It seems as if Kristan Higgins can do no wrong. Although Somebody to Love was a bump in the road, The Best Man certainly wasn't. From the beginning itself, it's difficult not to like Faith, the protagonist of this novel. After all, she's been dumped at the altar by her perfect boyfriend-of-eight-years, Jeremy, when he announces that he's gay. Thus, fleeing to San Francisco, Faith harbors a broken heart and a pool of hatred for Levi Cooper, Jeremy's best friend who convinced Jeremy to come out with the truth. Growing up, Levi never liked Faith. Not only was she extraordinarily rich, especially compared to his one-room house in a trailer, but she was Princess Super Cute - extra nice, extra peppy, all the time. Now, three years after her failed wedding, Faith is back home, still single and still detesting the very sight of Levi, now Chief Cooper. It seems fate, however, has slightly different plans for them...

I won't deny it - I struggled with the first third of this novel. I listened to The Best Man and while the audio book is good - not excellent, but still worth a listen - it tends to drag the break-up between Faith and Jeremy for too long. The Best Man switches between Faith and Levi's perspectives, one chapter in the present and one in the past, giving us a full overview of their lives. We grow to see Levi's difficult childhood - a father who abandons him, a life of scrounging for money, and the painful decision to join the army since he doesn't have $5,000 to pay for college even after a generous scholarship. We also see Faith's childhood, one that seems perfect on the outside but actually harbors a great deal of pain. Faith suffers from seizures and was in the car with her mother when she died. As such, Faith has spent her whole life attempting to atone for the fact that her mother was looking back at her, not the road. "Princess Super Cute" is all a facade to hide her pain and Jeremy - sweet, kind, perfect Jeremy - seems to be Faith's salvation. It takes a long while to reach this understanding, though. We are treated to pages upon pages of Faith remembering Jeremy with fondness, when, frankly, I would have kicked him if I was in her place. And yet, everything does make sense and Faith winds up being a much deeper character than we bargained for.

As always, The Best Man tackles a multitude of issues. Faith's family plays a huge role in this, particularly her widowed father, and Levi himself has an important family role as the sole caretaker of his younger sister, Sarah. If there is anything Higgins excels at, it is well-written family relationships. Levi and Sarah were my definite favorites, but Faith and her sisters, all going through different problems and at different stages in their lives, was utterly poignant as well. Furthermore, I loved how Levi and Faith's relationship developed oh-so-slowly. It's practically a tease - hell, it is! - and it was particularly interesting to see how Levi views Faith - as someone strong - compared to how Jeremy views her as vulnerable. And Jeremy. *sigh* You want to hate a guy for stringing a girl along for eight years and then leaving her at the altar, but you can't. Or, you can, but just not this guy. Jeremy and Faith's friendship was a highlight of this story as well and it was a refreshing change from the usual road of angst that many authors typically take. Higgins, however, is anything but typical. I love that her heroines have lives, are passionate about their careers and families, and even have pets (okay, DOGS) to keep away the loneliness. I love that her heroes are flawed - completely - and yet they are good men with good hearts. And I love these small towns. Not the vicious kind, but the sweet (but still annoying) type. All in all, The Best Man is yet another lovely romantic addition from Higgins. Needless to say, I cannot wait for the companion novel!

Title: A Certain Slant of Light (Light, #1)

Author: Laura Whitcomb

Rating: 3 Stars

A Certain Slant of Light is both a pleasant surprise and...not. On one hand, I am incredibly impressed with Whitcomb's story. It is a paranormal love story, but of a very different nature than most. Helen and James, the couple in question, are ghosts left behind in the Light, having been dead for nearly 130 years. Thus, when they find each other and take over two teenage bodies to be together, their relationship is an adult one - only in a teenage body. Needless to say, this brings up quite a few difficult situations, but Whitcomb weaves through these with ease. Not only does she present us with sticky dilemmas, but her solutions are just as complex. Furthermore, she never hesitates to answer many of the moral questions that possession brings up and the entire plot of this novel is nothing short of brilliant.

On the other hand, though, I couldn't really connect with the characters. I liked them well enough and I especially enjoyed their depth, but I wasn't wholly invested in them for some reason. By the time this short volume was over, I was overjoyed. I couldn't wait to leave this narrative voice, despite having been stunned by it. I can't say where A Certain Slant of Light went wrong, but I doubt I'll be picking up the companion novel to this anytime soon. I would, however, highly recommend it for fans of romance, ambiguous morality, and ever-so-slightly open endings.

Summer Series Reading Challenge: 16

Title: Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (Love By Numbers, #1) 

Author: Sarah MacLean

Rating: 4 Stars

Although I am a meticulous planner and organizer to boot, when it comes to books, I follow my gut. And when my emotions scream that they want light, escapist romance fiction, I nearly always turn to historical romance. I find there is something alluring about this genre that keeps me coming back for more, despite the horrendous covers, and I'm thrilled to have discovered another author I can pile up onto a pedestal next to Lisa Kleypas: Sarah MacLean.

Historical Romance falls into three categories. We have, first and foremost, the horrible kind where our heroes are raping our heroines but they fall in love anyway. We have the typical trysts and romances that are filled with unbelievable scenes. And then we have the truly good, deep and emotional yet extremely realistic and sensual love stories. Seeing as the latter is so hard to find, I don't fault many readers for avoiding this genre entirely. Yet, the feeling that can be found when you have a good historical romance novel in your hand is hard to recreate.

I love this book. Callie, our protagonist, is sick of being a spinster at just 28 years of age. Instead of throwing herself at the nearest suitor, though, she resolves to enjoy her life and accomplish all the scandalous tasks she's ever wanted to, such as gamble in a men's house. I love that Callie is so fed up with her role in society and life that she takes matters into her own hands and finds herself once again in her adventures. Along the way, the notorious rake Ralston becomes intrigued by Callie and their gradual romance is sizzling. While the love story in this is unparalleled with swoon, I enjoyed this book mostly for its hilarity, pure fun, and mainly Callie. There are few things I enjoy more in this world than strong female characters and Callie is the epitome of that and more. If you're looking for some pure, uninterrupted, and fiery amusement, this is the perfect read. I'd immerse myself back in Callie's world of wit and charm in a heartbeat.

Summer Series Reading Challenge: 17

Monday, August 19, 2013

Just Another...Book Crush (#7): The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson (Blog Tour, Guest Post, and Giveaway)

We are switching up this month's "Just Another...Book Crush!" post a little. I contacted Rae Carson last month, requesting her to be part of this feature, and she graciously accepting...only, could I be part of the blog tour for her book too? And, of course, I couldn't resist. The Bitter Kingdom has been one of my favorite books of the year (you can read my review HERE), so I am all for promoting this one! Without further ado, I welcome...*drum roll*...Rae Carson!
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. 

Title: The Bitter Kingdom (Girl of Fire and Thorns #)
Author: Rae Carson
Pub. Date: August 27, 2013
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Pages: 448
The epic conclusion to Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny. Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she's never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most.
Just Another...Book Crush! 

I admit it: I don't often crush on book boys. I’m a middle-aged woman after all, and crushing on boys who are the same age as my stepsons would be CREEPY AS HECK. I do, however, occasionally fall for a book MAN. And here are a few who have recently won my heart. Well, sort-of.

Sturmhond from Leigh Bardugo's Siege and Storm. I have a weakness for witty banter. And there's something inherently sexy about pirates. (The Hollywood version, I mean. You know, the hot ones in possession of all their teeth and good personal hygiene.) Sturmhond is almost a bad boy—mysterious, ruthless, manipulative. I usually have no patience for such douchenozzles, but my man Sturm (can I call you Sturm, darling?) is a man with a cause, and looking back at his actions, you see that he's not a privateer so much as a man at war. War is not sexy. But the men who are willing to fight for a cause greater than themselves definitely are.

Christian Grey from E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Okay, I'm cheating here, because Christian is actually my anti-crush. I'll explain.
Once upon a time, I met a guy. This guy was hot. He was also successful and had lots of money. Our first conversation was interesting, but also awkward, because this guy was a little too intense. Maybe a little too interested. Yeah, I was intrigued, but my stalker-sense was pinging like whoa. When we parted, I was relieved to get away. You can imagine my shock when, a few weeks later, the hot guy tracked me down and showed up at my work. I gave him the finger and told him to f*%#! off.
Years later, I tried to embrace the worldwide Fifty Shades phenomenon. And in the very first pages, rich, hot guy Christian shows up unannounced to Anastasia's place of employment to begin pursuing her. Since that actually happened to me, I can tell you straight up it was the OPPOSITE OF SEXY. And Christian got worse from there. If a guy ever tried to do to me some of the things Christian does to Anastasia, he would lose a testicle. So yeah, Christian Grey has won the coveted spot in my heart for #1 Jerkwad.

Jon Snow from George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. Ah, Jon, my love, why haven't you texted me? Jon is smart, loyal, and earnest. He is proof that you can have a mysterious past, an epic destiny, and a soulful gaze and still be…that's right, GOOD. I love good boys even more than I love the bad ones. Sturmhond is the kind of guy you want to have a non-committal makeout with. But Jon? Everything about him says "relationship."

What about you? Any book boys/men you are crushing or anti-crushing on? Tell me in the comments!    

Rae Carson is the award-winning author of The Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy. She was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start author for Fall 2011 and was a finalist for the Morris, Cybils, and Andre Norton Awards. Her first novel was named to ALA's Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list.
Rae lives in Ohio with her husband, novelist C.C. Finlay, two stepsons, and two very naughty kitties. She is hard at work on her next trilogy.

Thanks for stopping by, Rae! Gosh, this is such a fun post and I love the idea of an anti-crush! Also, just to make things clear, you can have Sturmhond - just give me Mal and we're even!(; 

A signed set of the complete trilogy. US Only
a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you're a fan of this trilogy, be sure to check out the other tour stops as well!
Tour Schedule:
8/19/2013- Ivy Book Bindings- Guest Post
8/20/2013- Magical Urban Fantasy Reads- Interview
8/21/2013- Refracted Light Reviews- Review
8/22/2013- A Backwards Story- Review
8/23/2013- The Starry-Eyed Revue- Interview
8/26/2013- Candace's Book Blog- Review
8/27/2013- Two Chicks on Books- Guest Post
8/28/2013- Citrus Reads- Review
8/29/2013- Hobbitsies- Interview
8/30/2013- Fiktshun- Guest Post

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: Cold Steel by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Steel (Spiritwalker, #3) 

Author: Kate Elliott

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I can't remember ever being so distraught about the ending of a trilogy. I rarely read a series all in one go, but when I do, I enjoy flying through the books instead of drawing out the plot over years and forgetting key elements. With this series, however, I wish I had started it back when Cold Magic had released, if only so that I could hold onto these characters a little longer. I'll definitely need to be making time in the future to re-read this delightful trilogy because it's quite near perfect.

Cold Steel is not the mesmerizing perfection of Cold Fire, but it's close. It's not as meandering or slow as Cold Magic, though it does contain some of those elements. For the most part, this book is stunning when it comes to characterization, plot, and romance. One of my favorite aspects of this series, from the beginning itself, has been the world-building. Elliott starts us off in Europa, but then whisks us away to her version of the Americas, and now back in Europe for this installment, we're able to notice the blatant differences between the cultures of the two countries. I find that this is particularly clever as it enables the reader to not only better understand the world Elliott has created, but also to become entrenched within the politics of this country. I've said it from the beginning and it bears repeating - Elliott writes political fantasy with a touch of steampunk. And while the politics are brewing in Cold Magic and come to an even larger forefront in Cold Fire, this is where they finally erupt.

Nevertheless, where this series shines is in its characters. I've loved the resolute friendship between Bee and Cat from its nascence and seeing it grow, change, and still hold over time has been a worthwhile journey. What I particularly love about it, though, is that this series doesn't hesitate to bring into its picture more than one strong heroine. Bee finally finds her way in this installment and while Cat and Vai still steal the show, I love how Bee's importance has sustained itself throughout the series. If anything, she is the character of greater value than Cat is, yet the two girls are always on equal standing, whether it be politically, romantically, or in regards to their friendship. It's so rare to see friendships in literature, let alone between two best friends who are girls, without the relationship dissolving into drama, but the one Elliott has crafted is, above all things, meaningful.

As always, Cold Steel brings forth my favorite protagonist, Cat. What I especially adore about this series is that Cat is so self-reliant. Although the beginning of this novel suffered a bit, lagging in areas, it managed to still stun me through Cat resourcefulness as she rescues her husband, Andevai. Cold Fire may have seen their love blossom, but in Cold Steel these two manage to make it work through thick-and-thin. Obviously, with their strong personalities, their relationship isn't easy, but the fact that these two trust each other and are willing to listen to one another is what makes it so unique. Moreover, Andevai continues to surprise me as we keep peeling back more and more layers to his personality. Elliott has taken the image of Fitzwilliam Darcy - arrogance and vanity covering a veneer of shyness and vulnerability - and enhanced it even further with Andevai. While Cat and Bee no longer astonish me - I feel as if I know them too well for that - Andevai still manages to make my jaw drop. (Okay, maybe that's because I'm swooning so much...can you blame me, though?)

If there are any true flaws with this installment it is that the plot thread concerning the Wild Hunt came up much later than I expected it to in the novel and was resolved rather quickly. Much of this story focuses on looming war and politics, so it made sense that after Cat's valiant rescue of Andevai the plot would cease to include the Spiritworld as much. I just don't think I realized how thoroughly, though, which was a bit of a surprise. For the most part, however, Cold Steel is a thrilling conclusion to this trilogy and will leave no fan disappointed. Furthermore, if you're a fan of fantasy and have yet to pick up this series, I cannot reiterate it enough: you are missing out. Kate Elliott has swiftly shot up to be one of my favorite authors and this series is very easily a favorite as well - one I will be returning to for years to come.

Summer Series Reading Challenge: 15

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay

Title: Of Beast and Beauty*

Author: Stacey Jay 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

*I've featured the incorrect cover for this novel - I know - I just happen to like it better. It's much darker, which fits the tone of the story perfectly, and the city featured in the background of the final hardcover is nothing like what I imagined the domed cities in this book to look like. 

Every good fairy tale has a few critical elements. We have our heroine and our hero, their epic tale of romance, the obstacle in their way, and, most likely, there is a curse to break as well. “Beauty and the Beast” is easily the best of these fairy tale stories, far more romantic than “Snow White,” much darker than “Sleeping Beauty,” and all together more satisfying than “Cinderella”. With Of Beast and Beauty, however, Stacey Jay has managed to mix together all of the correct ingredients and just a little something more; a secret ingredient, if you will. And thus, I am finally elated to proclaim that Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood is not my only favorite “Beauty and the Beast” re-telling…this one is too.

Our Heroine

Isra, the blind Queen of this tale, is unlike any protagonist I expected. For one, I love that, right from the start, Jay manages to twist this classic tale around so that it is not a woman caught in a man’s castle, but rather a man caught in a woman’s. And yet, despite being the Queen of her domed city, Yuan, Isra is powerless. In her world, Smooth Skins live in glass domes to escape both from the harsh conditions of the outside world and from the mutations that take place there, giving the people who live there the name “Monstrous.” All Isra knows is that the Monstrous are cruel and dangerous and that to live safely, every few decades a queen must willingly sacrifice her blood to the roses that bloom in the gardens and keep their dome intact.

Nevertheless, despite knowing her fate, Isra is not content to merely sit still in the tower her father has confined her in. Instead, she escapes each night to roam through her city, yearning to feel the wind on her face though she cannot and yearning even more to see. When she catches a Monstrous, Gem, in her city walls one night, Isra is terrified and curious. For all her airs and graces, at her core Isra is just a girl, one who yearns for friends and freedom. What I love about her is not that she is courageous – for she is – but rather that she is perseverant and, no matter what, refuses to go down the wrong path. Furthermore, her blindness is not the detriment most people believe it to be. It enables her to see with untainted eyes and this, this I loved. Every love story is made better by characters who look beyond appearance and not only does Isra’s blindness make her romance stronger, it also makes her bolder in her vision for a better world.

Our Hero

Gem, the “Monstrous” who breaches the city walls and winds up being Isra’s prisoner, was possibly a character I liked better than our protagonist. First and foremost, I have to mention that his narration was perfect. I love that Jay chose to add more than one point of view in this tale as it helped to see the situation at hand from both perspectives. Isra and Gem’s people have a long and estranged history. Although they both were once the same race, the new and magical land they came to sought to help them through mutations which many of the people were frightened by. Thus, seeing Gem’s perspective – his starving people, their different customs and traditions – only added to the world-building. Furthermore, I love that Gem is so unapologetically honest. When he first sees Isra, he’s there to kill her, to take her roses and food and help his people. Even as the two get to know each other, he still thinks of ways to kill her – alongside ways to help and comfort her. Jay never crosses that awkward line of insta-love and instead allows their romance to develop, right alongside their conflicted feelings. Gem, especially, is flawed and the fact that he is even more flawed than Isra at times makes him seem all the more human, despite his scaled body.

An Epic Tale of Romance

I do, actually, think this is a beautiful love story. Not only is the pacing perfect, but the reasons behind it – true understanding, not lust – are evident too. Furthermore, there is no concrete “Beauty” and “Beast” in this tale. Both Isra and Gem have their own aspects of beauty and bestiality to their personalities and the fact that either of them could fulfill those roles is utterly satisfying. And yet, what really made me fall head-over-heels for this romantic pair was the fact that their physical attraction was explored as well. Jay doesn’t hesitate to explicitly state that Gem and Isra are physically attracted to each other as well. I feel as if most literature either goes one way or the other – true comfort/understanding with a few chaste kisses or pure lust. Of Beast and Beauty manages to strike a balance between the two, however, which I appreciated. If there is a dearth of anything in fiction it is of a teenage girl acknowledging that she wants sex, so I particularly enjoyed seeing Isra approach their relationship in a light in which she felt comfortable wanting more physically and especially seeing how that empowered her in many ways.

Obstacle in their Way

Obviously, there are many hurdles for these two to cross. And yet, perhaps most taxing emotionally is the truth of their pasts. For both Gem and Isra, their union is foolish and unethical, despite how right it feels. Not only do their people hate each other, but their people would hate them if the truth emerged as well. Furthermore, Isra has a duty as Queen to at least marry before sacrificing her life for her people. I was pleasantly surprised that Bo, the man she is supposed to marry, is given his own slices of narration as well. From Bo we finally see that Yuan is more than merely a kingdom, it is a cage to all sorts of people, not just Isra. Additionally, his perspective allows us to see the true political rulers of Yuan. Isra is just a sacrificial doll at the end of the day and this only raises the stakes and heightens our bond with her.

A Curse

I won’t deny it – the original curse in “Beauty and the Beast” is a little lame. I’ve seen it employed in various ways in multiple re-tellings, which is why I love that the curse in this novel is of a different, darker nature. Granted, Isra and Gem must fall in love, but are so many deeper, subtler nuances to this as well. For one, the curse began when the first people began to build a divide between themselves – the Smooth Skins – and the Monstrous. From that initial fear and hatred grew an even scarier and more deadly curse – one that demanded blood. As the book unfolds, so does the full entirety of the curse and what it has done to both Isra’s life and Gem’s. It has affected everyone in different ways over the centuries and as the full implications of that are felt, it is shocking. One of my only qualms about this plot device is that the majority – if not all – the information about the curse is revealed in the prologue of the novel. Of course, seeing Isra discover this information and relate it to her own sheltered life is what makes the novel so intriguing, but it also manages to take away a little from the overall reading experience. Nevertheless, I have to hand it to Jay – she can build a complicated world, a complex romance, and even more twisted curse. I love it.

Of Beast and Beauty is a must-read for fans of romance, world-building, and fairy tales. As a fantasy fanatic, I loved the inclusion of magic, the unique take on this classic tale, and, most of all, this breathtaking romance. Although I’m a little skeptical to try Jay’s other works seeing the mixed reviews they’ve gotten, I am eager to see what she comes up with in the future. If it’s as brilliant as this, you can bet I’ll be clamoring after it for sure. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Review: Seer of Sevenwaters (Sevenwaters, #5) by Juliet Marillier

Title: Seer of Sevenwaters (Sevenwaters, #5) 

Author: Juliet Marillier

Rating: 4 Stars

Seer of Sevenwaters is a novel that seems deceptively easy to love on the outside, but the novel that lies within the pages of the cover and its synopsis is harder to form an attachment to. Now, that isn't to say that this story isn't beautiful and gripping, as every Sevenwaters tale is, for it is. And yet, at the same time, despite its sea monsters and memory loss, despite its strangers and sea tides, Seer of Sevenwaters leaves something to be desired in the wake of its predecessors, each more stunning than the next.

Sibeal, unlike the past heroines, is not someone I found myself very attached to or interested in. On one hand, her journey is perhaps the most interesting. Sibeal finds herself with her elder sister, Clodagh, on the island where her cousin, Johnny, trains his men. It is her last summer before she becomes a druid and although her faith is strong and she is prepared, Ciaran sends her to spend the summer on the island nevertheless. Within the first week she arrives, though, a ship is wrecked on the shore with only a few survivors. As Sibeal helps to care for the man she names Ardal, she begins to realize that the man has lost his memory. When he does finally regain it, though, the tale he has to tale is one so fantastical it is nearly impossible to believe. And the journey Sibeal will take because of it will change her life, and her calling, forever.

Seer of Sevenwaters is, in some ways, one of the best novels Marillier has written. In the Sevenwaters Saga, it is the only novel – so far – that features a male perspective and seeing Ardal’s narration definitely helped the novel. At the same time, though, it is probably the only book in the series that needs another narrator. Sibeal is a strong character, fierce in her devotion to the gods and unwavering in her loyalty and love. Yet, as a druid, she is forced to be calm, to keep her emotions in check, and that shows through the dullness of her narration at times. Furthermore, it is impossible to feel anything but distant and apart from Sibeal. While I sympathized with her warring feelings as she battled through an inner struggle between a life of physical love and a life of spiritual love, I cannot claim to have felt one with her as I did with each of the Sevenwaters women before.

Still, that hardly says much for this book is still stunning in every way. Ardal and Sibeal’s romance broke my heart, mostly because it is based on the most simple of human virtues. Kindness. Comfort. Peace. Understanding. Ardal and Sibeal hardly know one another, but through nursing him, Sibeal begins to realize that this is a man she can trust, one who will lend her his ear instead of his voice. Ardal, too, begins to see Sibeal as a savior, of sorts, as a light during his dark times. In every way, they are a perfect complement to one another and their path to love is bittersweet, but rewarding. It is with Ardal that Sibeal breaks from her stoic druid shell and in those scenes I felt a greater connection with her. If only it was that Sibeal we saw throughout the entirety of the novel.

Sibeal aside, the strangers who are shipwrecked onto the island bring a story of their own and the eventual journey that occurs in the novel as a result of them is incredible. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Seer of Sevenwaters is more plot-based than character-driven. A little like Son of the Shadows was, though not quite. Every scene in this novel builds to an eventual climax and the unraveling of a mystery is most unusual to see in a Marillier novel, but still extremely interesting and, as always, well-written. I cannot deny, though, my favorite parts of this novel were the glimpses of Cathal. (I almost feel guilty for falling in love with someone else's husband, but then I remember they're all fictional and all my guilt disappears...). From Heir to Sevenwaters, it was clear Cathal would play a large role in the rest of the series and his continued importance is a source of joy, for me at least. I cannot wait to see how his character keeps growing and changing, especially in preparation for – what I assume will be – the final showdown with his father in the concluding novel of this series.

Sadly, I have to admit that Seer of Sevenwaters is perhaps the weakest, for me, of the series yet. I enjoyed this novel immensely; there is no denying that, but not as much as its predecessors. It was a chore to get through some chapters and, honestly, it was the secondary characters that shone in this. Perhaps I am so harsh on Sibeal and her journey because I have seen Nessa, from Marillier’s Wolfskin, undergo a similar inner battle and face that struggle with more depth than Sibeal was allotted. Whatever it is, Seer of Sevenwaters is an essential novel for the series as a whole and its glimpses into important secondary characters – Ciaran, especially – make it an essential and worthy read. It is hard to believe that I am nearly finished with this series, but I suppose that, at some point, all good things really must come to an end.

Summer Series Reading Challenge: 14

Monday, August 12, 2013

Audiobook Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Title: The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, #1) 

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Read By: Nick Podehl

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Now, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting from Name of the Wind. While it has been lauded as an epic fantasy novel – saga, really, from the size of it and its companion – I was a little apprehensive launching into it. And, though I flinch to say it, I feel slightly underwhelmed now that I’ve sped through this massive story. Rothfuss’s debut is fantasy of the best kind, there is no denying that, and I flipped through this book at an astonishing speed, unwilling to let its characters stray too far from my thoughts. I re-read my favorite passages and laughed, I froze in sorrow, I clutched my seat in anticipation… In other words, Name of the Wind was brilliant, is brilliant, and is most definitely a book I liked, really liked. For all of that, though, I could not fall head-over-heels in love with it, no matter how desperately I wanted to. But that, I fear, is a story for another paragraph.

Patrick Rothfuss has been hailed as an author who has revived the fantasy genre and I can’t bring myself to disagree. While Name of the Wind is not quite as innovative as many may think, it is beautifully written and plotted. Although it is a hefty volume, and I will not deny that a few chapters could have easily been cut off, this story never drags or veers upon boredom. If anything, it is fast-paced and interesting, following the story of Kvothe, a reputed magician, from his trouper origins to his lowly demise into poverty and orphan hood and later into his rise to fame and heroism. Needless to say, it is an ambitious journey, but it is masterfully executed. One of the reasons I keep returning to fantasy is because of all the original ideas floating around and this book is chock-full of them. Rothfuss’s take on demons, lore, dragons, and magic is all vastly different from any I have encountered before and I ate it up like a starved child.

And yet, beyond the world-building, the reason this book is hailed as an epic is because of Kvothe. Not only is Kvothe a complex character, full of his flaws amidst his seeming perfection and bright intelligence, but he is a hero we can cheer for and get behind. Gen’s wit and clever tongue, Harry’s undying loyalty, Aragorn’s reckless bravery…they all converge together in Kvothe, creating a protagonist who is in equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking. Kvothe’s tale, one rooted in revenge and filled with antics, is pure, mindless fun. In the midst of that, though, it still manages to drop gems of wisdom from time-to-time, making me stop to reflect in the middle of the breakneck speed of this tale. And I love that. I love a character that can make me contemplate, one who can challenge the boundaries of gray and black and white, one whose life consists of tasks harder than the rest but also hope and courage stronger than them all. Or, in Kvothe’s case, fearlessness and sheer dumb luck for being born with such intelligence.

While Name of the Wind is a story I know I won’t be able to forget – especially since I’m already clamoring for its sequel – it is a flawed tale. For one, I didn’t appreciate the rendering of any of the females in this novel. Not, thankfully, because their depiction was sexist – not at all – but rather because I found their personalities to be so bland. Kvothe sees hidden mysteries in the eyes of beautiful women and these mysteries unfortunately never come to light and give them the depth they need. And, admittedly, while one female in particular was emphasized her importance, I simply felt ill whenever she was mentioned. I can’t shake off the feeling she’s about to backstab Kvothe quite terribly. I hope I’m wrong.

In addition to the women, though, Name of the Wind is only part of a tale. It doesn’t have a cliffhanger ending, but it might as well. In this volume is only the tales of Kvothe’s childhood and I’ve come to realize that, as a reader, I resent a lack of closure. I can deal with ambiguous endings – I thrive off those, actually – but I cannot stand an unfinished tale, especially when I need to go out and find the remaining 1,100 pages of it and then still sit and wait another year or more for the next presumably 1,000 pages. I want to know Kvothe’s tale, all of it, and now. It’s my fault, not the novels, and perhaps once I know how this tale ends I will enjoy this one all the more, but the fact that this book remains unfinished, not even giving the reader a glimpse of how young Kvothe came to be the legend he became or the man he is during the present, is frustrating, to say the least. Nevertheless, for avid fans of fantasy, Name of the Wind is a breath of fresh air. I am immensely grateful not to have missed out on this – especially the audiobook  version which is incredible – and can only hope The Wise Man’s Fear is as stunning and satisfying as I want it to be.