Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ARC Review: Crash Into You by Katie McGarry

Title: Crash Into You (Pushing the Limits, #3)

Author: Katie McGarry

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: November 26th, 2013

It's no secret that Katie McGarry has constantly transcended my expectations of contemporary romance since her debut last year. While Pushing the Limits is still my favorite of her works, I've found that she manages to take very worn story lines and breath life into them, pulling in character depth and emotion in unexpected areas. Although I didn't connect with Crash Into You nearly as much as I did Pushing the Limits or Dare You To, I cannot deny that it is yet another solid installment that fans of McGarry's novels will thoroughly enjoy. 

Crash Into You is the much-awaited and longed-for love story concerning Isaiah. I speak for most readers, I think, when we expected Isaiah and Beth to receive their own happily-ever-after in the last novel. McGarry, however, truly emphasized just how unhealthy a relationship between these two broken foster children would be and though our hearts broke for Isaiah's broken heart, we knew it was the right decision. Thus, one of the defining elements to Isaiah is his isolation. While he has Noah - his brother by loyalty, if not by blood - he has lost one of his best friends and with his mother fresh out of prison and back in his life, he is lost, confused, and doesn't know where to turn. It's clear with him, even more than with Noah or Beth, just how miserable the foster care system is, but it exposes the gray matter too, not just the black-and-white truth we - and Isaiah - would like to believe.

Isaiah, desperate for money to keep the apartment he and Noah rent together so that Isaiah doesn't have to return to his foster parents, decides to enter the dark world of betting and street racing. We've known about Isaiah's love for cars since Pushing the Limits, so to see him embrace his passion whole-heartedly and do what he loves is invigorating. It is here, though, that he meets Rachel - rich, beautiful, and besotted with cars. Isaiah, rushing to save Rachel from the cruel lords of the street racing world, assumes a large debt in her name and the two are drawn together, both by their mutual attraction and their desire to pay off their debt. I felt as if this plot line was rather extraneous and unnecessary, mostly because there was so much else going on in this book, but it did provide solid - and unique - grounds to build this relationship off of. 

When it comes to Rachel, though, I really love how McGarry introduces a trope subversion of sorts. You see, Rachel is given nearly all the "typical" teenage girl issues. Not only is she classically a virgin (hasn't even kissed a guy), but she is protected by four older brothers. Moreover, it's up to her to sacrifice her happiness and keep their family happy by playing the role of her mother's replacement daughter for the elder sister, Colleen, who died from leukemia before Rachel was even born. What this means is that Rachel's love of cars is kept hushed-up, as is her stage-fright and Rachel must constantly overcome these hurdles to live life on her own terms. McGarry truly empowers Rachel, though, enabling her to find the strength within her to fight for her own happiness without sacrifice; to accept that she doesn't fit into the boxes her family wants her to. What I really love about this theme is the fact that it takes a seemingly weak characters and exposes the fact that she is capable of making her own decisions and fending for herself - if only others will let her. For me, it is Rachel's journey, far more than Isaiah's, that made this book so strong. I did enjoy the fact that Isaiah went through levels of self-discovery, acknowledging qualities about himself that he hadn't previously realized existed, but it lacked the punch that Rachel's far more emotional arc did.

Isaiah, by comparison, is rather disappointing as his narration pummels into a sea of mushy-gushiness that is so uncharacteristic of the guy we've come to know. I feel as if the actual love story within these pages lacked substance. Not only did it progress to "love" quickly (how I hate the use of that word so freely!), but much of the corny dialogue felt forced. And, like its predecessor, this novel takes on a little too much. I wanted certain plot threads to be further explored (Isaiah's relationship with his mother, for instance), but they just weren't. Moreover, while I think McGarry does an excellent job of initiating Rachel into Isaiah's world - befriending his friends, learning his lingo, etc. - the opposite isn't true and I am still left wondering just how this relationship may play out over time. Nevertheless, despite these flaws Crash Into You is an addictive read, one you won't want to put down. McGarry's writing remains one of her greatest strengths as her stories are so very all-consuming and quick. Needless to say, I cannot wait for her next novel - and am so glad she isn't leaving this world behind. I am not through with these characters...not yet.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: The Distance Between Us by Kasie West

Title: The Distance Between Us

Author: Kasie West

Rating: 2 Stars

I've been itching to try a Kasie West novel ever since her debut - and successive sophomore novel - took the blogging world by surprise. I have a wide variety of friends in the blogosphere, all with different tastes, but if there's one thing they agreed upon, it was that this book was good.

Um, not so much for me.

I really enjoyed West's prose, so I have a feeling I'll be back for more, and this novel just flew by so quickly and was practically impossible to let go of, but ultimately I wasn't charmed. It tackles on a little too much, a little too poorly, and although I struggled with aspects of the story, the parts I really loved were more-or-less pushed under the carpet and dealt with in a very shot-gun conclusion that wrapped things up a little too neatly for my tastes. Ultimately, however, my main issue is that this story is oozing with potential - potential that is, sadly, never acted upon.

The Distance Between Us tackles a rather generic love story - rich boy meets poor girl - but it has a lot of promising elements too. For one, Caymen (the poor girl in question) owns a doll shop with her single-mother who she maintains a strong relationship with. For another, the reason Caymen and Xander (the rich boy and heir of an expensive hotel business) are drawn together is not because of "chemistry", but because they are both struggling to find their place in the world. While Caymen is initially wary of Xander's extended hand of friendship, primarily because her father is a wealthy lawyer who abandoned her mother and never attempted to contact her, the premises of their relationship seemed promising.

Well, talk about a wake-up call.

For me, the most disappointing aspect of this novel was the fact that Caymen and Xander's attempts to help each other find their perfect career was merely a plot device to draw them together. I've found that the age of seventeen is on the cusp of Young Adult and New Adult; it tempts authors to push that boundary and tackle the more complicated questions of a looming future, but also draws them back to safety of a well-worn love story. And, sadly, West took the easy route out. Although I appreciated the fact that Xander used his wealth to expose Caymen to options she wouldn't have considered with her poor background, the opposite did not hold true and Xander's introduction into a life of "poorly" occupations was lacking in depth. Moreover, by the end of the novel this entire plot thread was thrown out of the window in favor of - you guessed it - needless drama and a convenient conclusion.

Even past the immediate plot of this story, the characters failed to truly jump out at me. While Caymen constantly describes her relationship with her mother as being strong and supportive, it isn't ever shown throughout the narration. Additionally, while Caymen and Xander push out of their stereotypes of "poor" and "rich", their friends remain black-and-white, eating at gas stations or making lewd comments. Furthermore, I cannot claim to have been enamored by Caymen - or her narration, for that matter. Although I appreciated her sarcastic tone, the constant comparisons between her lifestyle and that of Xander's grew tiresome and the issue as a whole is, as I've mentioned previously, handled a little too neatly. Moreover, Xander lacks any real personality beyond being kind. I often have trouble connected with nice romantic leads, merely because nice does not constitute the entirety of a person. Okay, Xander is nice and caring...what else? What makes him tick? What skeletons are in his closet? Give me something!

And, on the subject of romance, West throws in another love interest in this novel - one who is at the same economic level as Caymen - and though he is far more interesting and shares many more passions than Xander does, his character is purposefully left under-developed so as to keep the spotlight on Caymen and Xander. It's such an unnecessary plot device that does nothing for the romance or for the message of this novel in terms of stereotypes. In fact, all it succeeded in doing was grate on me. West not only has a huge fan base, but she has devoted readers who have extolled this novel far more than it deserves, in my opinion, and I simply did not expect these sorts of plot tropes from such a well-known story.

I am sure that The Distance Between Us will continue to win over fans, but much like My Life Next Door, this is one contemporary that just has not worked for me. While I can at least claim that the latter had many solid scenes and used its characters (and their economic statuses) to its advantage, this novel ends the novel very quickly, failing to go back and address many of the self-discovery issues that Caymen and Xander face and solving the monetary problems between them a little too easily as well. I would still recommend this book for fans of contemporary romance and I will, definitely, be reading West's next romance (I am a sucker for best-friend romances!), but I need my story lines to be a tad bit more realistic and contain a much needed dose of substance. We'll see if West moves in that direction...or not.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mini-Reviews: After the Kiss & The Outside

Title: After the Kiss (Sex, Love & Stiletto, #1)

Author: Lauren Layne

Rating: 4 Stars

For those of you who know me well, you'll know that I am often hard-pressed to pick up a romance novel. I've been craving Layne's work, though, ever since Rachel @ The Reader's Den reviewed her upcoming New Adult novel - out by the end of this month, thankfully! (I actually reviewed this already - you can read my review for it HERE.) When I saw that Layne already had an adult romance novel out, one that Rachel enjoyed as well, I knew I had to check it out. If it isn't already obvious, Rachel is my go-to romance reviewer. I'm a fish out of water in this genre, but I trust her completely and - whew! - did this book deliver or what? ;)

After the Kiss sounds remarkably similar to "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," but the two manage to remain unique in their own spheres. Julie and Mitchell, the romantic leads of this novel, are so much more than they appear and their rocky road to love - full of unexpected surprises - was infused with both depth and swoon. While - granted - the misunderstanding in this novel can be seen from the synopsis itself, this book is more about a guilty pleasure read; the product of a rainy day, aching feet, and a Kindle nearby. It's funny, heart-felt, amusing, and oh-so-entertaining. As long as I love the characters in a romance, chances are, the book has already sold me. If you're looking for a new romance author -  one who certainly delivers in the character development department (not to mention handsome hunk!) - then look no farther than Lauren Layne!

Title: The Outside (The Hallowed Ones, #2) 

Author: Laura Bickle

Rating: 4 Stars

I've struggled a lot with this review, mainly because so much that I want to say about this novel is a spoiler. And yet, let me reassure fans of The Hallowed Ones first: The Outside is a remarkable follow-up to the creepy, vampire-infested Amish story we were given last year. Although Bickle has strayed away from the Amish community that was once her setting, the values of these people are still very much alive and present throughout the novel in the form of Katie, our protagonist. Moreover, where I could scarcely see a solution to the problems presented within this series, Bickle creatively wraps up this duology perfectly, presenting solid solutions and leaving no threads un-explored.

For me, The Outside got off to a bit of a slow start, struggling to really find its voice in Katie's narration until nearly a quarter of the way through. Once it hit its stride, though, it was impossible to put down. While the bulk of Katie's growth remaining in The Hallowed Ones, she continues to adapt to her environment - while retaining her values - in this installment. In particular, her romance with Alex is intensely developed; slow, but true. The Hallowed Ones touched upon their connection, but The Outside really solidifies what they have into something real. Additionally, I love that there is both an influx of new characters and a return to old characters in this installment. Bickle goes back to fix the issues caused by Katie's hasty departure, as well as explore the lore and world she has created with her vampiric disease. Although she doesn't bring up nearly as many intriguing topics to mull over as she did in The Hallowed Ones, creating a divide between the spiritual and science, she does manage to make readers truly think and reflect with this installment as well. Bickle isn't afraid of exploring the boundaries of her Amish protagonist, which I love, so all-in-all, this novel wound up being just as strong - if not even more memorable - than its predecessor.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

ARC Review: Isn't She Lovely by Lauren Layne

Title: Isn't She Lovely

Author: Lauren Layne

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: October 28th, 2013

From its mere appearance alone, Isn't She Lovely seems to be a rather classic tale. After all, we have a New Adult college setting, an opposites-attract situation, and two "troubled" teens...what's new? Well, Lauren Layne, that's what. Although I often struggle to find a New Adult novel I enjoy - one that isn't Holier Than Thou or Unteachable, - Layne's debut into this genre won me over almost instantaneously. Not only is her writing addictive, impossible to put down, and a true page-turner, but her characters truly come alive, making this book one to read...again, and again, and again.

From the moment they collide in the hallway, rushing on their way to classes, there is a spark between Ethan and Stephanie. With her black eye make-up and goth gear, Ethan is surprised he is even remotely attracted to her and the same can be said for Stephanie as she studies Ethan's jock good-looks and rich-boy attire. As luck would have it, the two are paired up for a summer film project and their plans of avoiding each other are thrown out the window. Instead, Ethan comes up with the brilliant idea of transforming Stephanie and introducing her to his parents as his new girlfriend. For Stephanie, the only plus side is that they will be filming the facade as their summer film, but soon, the lines between what's real and what's pretend begin to fade. As Stephanie and Ethan begin to spend more and more time together - as they begin to fall for each other - Stephanie can't decide if who Ethan likes is the real her...or the girl she's pretending to be for his parents.

Admittedly, Isn't She Lovely doesn't really take place in college. Thus, much of the coveted college experience I look for in New Adult novels is conveniently absent, as are any friends that Stephanie and Ethan may have. Instead, much of the novel simply revolves around the two of them, but considering the baggage they bring to the table, this works just fine. Yet, what I appreciate is that Layne never makes this novel about how Stephanie and Ethan "heal" each other. Stephanie, with her deceased mother and re-married father desperately wants to stay away from home while Ethan, after finding out that his mother slept with another man, wants the same. Nevertheless, the growth that these two go through - the acceptance they find to face their problems - all comes from within. Of course, their impact on each other is significant, but the ultimate decisions they make are without the influence of the other.

Isn't She Lovely really isn't a heavy read, for this reason. In fact, the bulk of this novel revolves around the budding attraction between Stephanie and Ethan, from their cold stares to their witty banter and ultimate friendship. Moreover, with a "Pretty Woman"-esque backdrop, the plot of this novel is only spiced up. I've found that I'm not a fan of the opposites-attract romance angle, merely because it seems so implausible the deeper you dig into it. Granted, they attract each other, but can they sustain a relationship? As Ethan and Stephanie grow closer and closer, Stephanie cannot help but ponder this question herself. After all, how much of Ethan's attraction to her is because of her now-normal appearance? With her standard goth get-up, would he still want her? And even if he did, what about the rest of his family? Is there a place for her in his rich lifestyle?

While Ethan is extraordinarily rich, Stephanie is rather upper middle-class herself, but the wealth gap between them is still noted - as are their opposite personalities. Layne, thankfully, makes very convincing arguments and ends this novel with an ending I can be satisfied with - one that acknowledges the realistic hurdles this couple faces. And, believe me, there is no way you aren't rooting for these two. Ethan, despite having been born with a silver spoon, is respectful and supportive of Stephanie. While she hides her secrets, he never takes advantage of her - emotionally or physically - which I appreciate and the slow pace at which their relationship moves is a refreshing, and frankly more honest, portrayal than those normally seen in New Adult. (Once Stephanie's "secret" is uncovered, this makes a lot more sense and only emphasizes how genuinely sweet and caring Ethan is.)

Now, I will admit that this novel doesn't break new ground in this genre. It doesn't tackle the difficulties of college, the tenuous relationships formed with friends, or even the looming future of career choices very effectively. Nevertheless, unlike the other novels in its genre, it is drama-free, with three-dimensional characters, and manages to explore the idea of family very well. And, more than that, it is a wonderful love story, full of entertaining dialogue and a relationship formed on the basis of equality. If you're looking for a light read to curl up with for an hour or two - or just another jock to swoon over - look no farther than Isn't She Lovely. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: How to Love by Katie Cotugno

Title: How to Love

Author: Katie Cotugno

Rating: 3 Stars

It's no secret that I struggle with romance. I'm just as prone to swooning as any other girl, but perhaps I'm just more picky about who I swoon over. Or maybe it just takes more for a romance to really click for me. Whatever it is, How to Love, failed to impress me. Not only did its love story fall flat, but its tale of redemption didn't tug at any heartstrings whatsoever. Although I believe that Cotugno's debut novel manages to cover a plethora of topics with poise, its prose lilting and impossible to tear away from, my overall feelings towards this novel remain ambiguous. In fact, I sincerely hope to forget all about it...soon.

How to Love is told in alternating timelines, switching from "Before" to "After" every other chapter. It chronicles the tale of Sawyer and Reena's young, teenage romance in a small Florida town "before" Reena became pregnant and then, two years "after" when Sawyer finally returns, turning Reena's life upside down once again. It's a fairly typical story line, no denying, but Cotugno's writing is beautiful, flowing from past to present and aligning these dual tales perfectly. I particularly love the manner in which the details of this couple are slowly revealed, layer by layer. Moreover, it is especially effective in witnessing both the similarities and the differences between teenage Reena and grown-up Reena; teenage Sawyer and grown-up Sawyer. I've found that most novels that tackle this idea tend to either begin in the past before shifting to the present or are merely dispersed with numerous flashbacks. In contrast, Cotugno's style works best.

Where Cotugno truly shines, however, is in her honest portrayal of Reena. As far as protagonists go, Reena is an easy one to root for. Not only is she under the drinking age and straddled with a two-year-old daughter, but her dreams of attending a nonfiction writing program at Northwestern and traveling the world have all been dashed by her careless teenage mistake. Yet, I appreciate that she took responsibility for her actions and her strength is one to be admired. Moreover, despite the stigma and allegations of her conservative parents and town, Reena manages to work, take care of her daughter, and attend classes at the local community college. When it comes to teenage pregnancy, Cotugno really hit the nail on the head. Although I am quick to judge on this subject, numerous novels over the past year - Beth Kephart's Small Damages most notably - have allowed me to view this subject in a much more different light. Cotugno is no exception and excels, not only in capturing Reena's tumultuous mindset, but also in highlighting the tense relationships she holds with her parents and friends.

Nevertheless, where this novel fell apart for me was in its love interest, Sawyer. As a teenager, Sawyer is a mess: drugs, alcohol, and a total Casanova to boot. Unfortunately, I never really came to understand why Sawyer was forced to resort to such extremes to cope with his life, which only twisted my view of him. Furthermore, though, I simply could not see his charm. Sawyer is the godson of Reena's father and, as such, she has grown up seeing him all her life. And, all her life, she's been head-over-heels crazy for him. Why? I have no idea. Granted, Sawyer is handsome and polite, but once his relationship with Reena truly took off, I could only think of one word to describe it: unhealthy. Sawyer convinces Reena to skip classes, blow off her responsibilities, and subtly peer pressures her to mingle with his crowd. On more than once occasion, Reena is upset after spending time with Sawyer and often uncomfortable at the scenes he takes her too. Still, no matter how discomfiting it was to read about their destructive relationship, it ultimately stands as a realistic portrayal of many teenage relationships.

Where How to Love completely lost me, though, was in the "after" relationship between Reena and Sawyer. Although Sawyer takes off for two years to attend rehab and get his act together, I was unable to fall for the man he had become. It should be made clear that Sawyer was completely unaware of the fact he even had a daughter until he returned home to Florida. When he did learn the truth - that Reena didn't, in fact, go to Northwestern - he immediately steps up and makes an effort to become Hannah's father. I appreciated this and even understood the persistent sparks between himself and Reena, but the relationship between Reena and Sawyer also persists in its unhealthy aspects. I found it to be almost destructive in its intensity; a little frightening. Sawyer's arrival causes Reena to turn her life around - again - going so far as to break off her relationship with Aaron, the wonderful guy who genuinely wants to be part of her life. I particularly hate this trope, mainly because it causes a completely innocent third party - Aaron - to be hurt for no reason either than the fact that Reena and Sawyer need to be together. Why? I still have no idea.

You see, Sawyer may return to Florida willing to get his act together and become a father to Hannah, but that doesn't mean that he repents in the least or even tries to redeem himself. Instead, his mere presence causes Reena to - slowly - forgive him with time. Although I gradually warmed up to his character during the last fifth of this narrative (mostly because Reena yelled at him a lot which I thought he totally deserved), I cannot admit to truly comprehending the inner workings of this couple. I feel as if Sawyer has a lot to apologize for, both in impregnating Reena (even though, let's face it, that's her fault too), but mostly in disappearing from her life, accusing her of leaving him for college, and in dragging Reena into his lifestyle of drugs. While Sawyer's nature may appeal to many, it failed to win me over in the least, and I am left ending this book with a sour taste in my mouth. I really love the growth arc that Reena goes through, but I ultimately do not like either her or Sawyer.

And, that's almost what I like about books the most: I do not have to like these characters. I appreciate their complexity and their lives and I particularly admire the writing style their narration is told in, but I still do not believe that this story has reached its full potential. In my eyes, Sawyer needs to be fleshed out far more than he is. Not only do questions concerning his past need to be answered, but the relationship between himself and Reena isn't convincing enough - for me, at any rate. I think the inclusion of so much else in this book really worked in its favor, from the impact of teenage and adult friendships to the importance of family on ones own psyche. Furthermore, Cotugno does a true service to an honest portrayal of life as a teenage mom. How to Love certainly does have a lot to love, which is why I would not hesitate to recommend it to fans of contemporary romance, but while I will be looking out for Cotugno's future works - her writing is too good to miss - I won't be seeing this one again any time soon.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron

Title: A Spark Unseen (A Dark Unwinding, #2)

Author: Sharon Cameron

Rating: 4 Stars

I read this entire duology over the course of a weekend - on my iPhone, that too! Needless to say, it was impossible to put down and I loved every moment spent in this world. A Spark Unseen, the highly anticipated follow-up to A Dark Unwinding, is both stronger and weaker than its predecessor. On one hand, it manages to hit very high notes in certain areas; on the other hand, it fell flat for me in places where its predecessor did not. Yet, on the whole, both these books are identical in their level of reading pleasure, aesthetic appearance, and historical accuracy. While I never expected to see it, Cameron has, well and truly, written a spectacular historical fiction duology.

A Spark Unseen begins nearly two years after A Dark Unwinding has ended. In the opening scene itself, a kidnapping attempt on Uncle Tully is foiled, leaving Katharine with no choice but to leave her beloved estate. Uncle Tully, as established in the first book, is a genius, though an autistic one. It is his strict need for structure and moments of troubled interaction that allow others to believe he is insane, when, in fact, he is not. Now, caught up in the midst of an emerging battle between England and France, with both countries vying for the better weapons, Uncle Tully's inventions have come under the eye of politicians and others who wish to exploit him. Faced with no other option, Katharine whisks her uncle away to safety in Paris; both to keep him away from others and to find Lane Moreau. It is a tumultuous time that Katharine vastly underestimates, however, and in her quest to protect those dear to her, she finds both unlikely allies...and enemies.

With such an enticing opening, A Spark Unseen grabs readers from the first page and keeps them hooked...for awhile. Where this novel lagged, for me, was in its change of scenery. Although I recognize the necessity of this to keep the plot moving forward, I cannot claim that Paris held nearly as much atmosphere as Stranwyne Keep. Instead, the setting of this novel felt very much a backdrop to the plot instead of an entity all on its own and the absence of many beloved secondary characters was strongly felt. A Spark Unseen has its own cast of new introductions, from the charming Henri to the nosy Mrs. Hardcastle, but with the exception of these two, the rest failed to make much of an impression.

Nevertheless, that is where the flaws inherent in this novel vanish. A Spark Unseen has a fascinating plot, filled with mysterious disappearances, unforseen deaths, and novel innovations. One of my favorite aspects of this novel, aside from the political intrigue, was the fact that Katharine truly had to come into her own. Even with Lane gone, she had the help of Mrs. Jeffries and trusted employers to help her cope, but in Paris, she is truly alone. When stripped of all those she holds on to for support, Katharine discovers that she is more than capable of rising to her burdens herself. Cameron, once again, proves to be an adept writer, weaving together Katharine's emotional troubles with little clues that slowly tie together the mystery at hand.

Unfortunately, Lane Moreau - our resident swoon factor - is absent for much of this novel, but his presence is still strongly felt. Once Lane does, however, make an appearance, the pace of the plot quickens considerably, resulting in detailed - but tense - action sequences. Old enemies return, new ones show their faces, and unexpected help is given too. Add to this a scene of politics, complete with sneaky housekeepers and stalkers under lampposts, and you've got yourself another scintillating tale. Another strong point to this novel, though, is the romance. Although it is very much understated and pushed under the rug in favor of the plot and character development, I enjoyed the realistic direction it took and especially the fact that Katharine never backed away from conversation - or confrontation, really - when needed. It's always annoying to have secrets fester, so the manner in which Cameron dealt with this plot line, while simultaneously empowering Katharine to seek the answers she wanted, was - hands-down - my favorite part of the entire series.

A Spark Unseen is a brilliant conclusion to this duology. Both A Dark Unwinding and this novel can be read as stand-alones - what a relief the lack of a cliffhanger is! - but they both also leave room for just a little bit more. I don't believe there are plans of a sequel to this novel, but if there are, I would welcome it gladly. It's so hard to say goodbye to characters who have grown dear to your heart, or relationships that have only blossomed and taken hold, so I am - against all odds - hoping for just another glimpse into this world. Either way, I cannot wait to see what Cameron comes up with next. If this duology is anything to go by, then it's bound to be fantastic.

Monday, October 21, 2013

ARC Review: Fractured by Sarah Fine

Title: Fractured (Guards of the Shadowlands, #2) 

Author: Sarah Fine

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: October 29th, 2013

It goes without saying that I couldn’t wait to delve into Fractured when it arrived on my doorstep. I loved Fine’s debut, Sanctum, last year, and couldn’t get enough of her complex world or even more tantalizing characters. Needless to say, I charged into Fractured with high expectations and have been, for the most part, fairly satisfied. Does Fractured fall short of hitting a few high notes? Sadly, yes, but I can guarantee that this sequel will still manage to satisfy fans and keep them thirsting for more. (Believe me, after this ending you will be willing to sell your soul to find out how this trilogy ends!)

Fractured picks up where Sanctum left off, with Malachi and Lela back in the human world. Fine excels in putting Lela back into the realm she left before, forcing her to face seemingly mundane issues. In particular, I loved Lela’s relationship with Dianne, her foster mother. We continue to uncover so many layers of vulnerability to Lela as we begin to learn – and live – with her current situation. Moreover, Lela must acclimate in high school, this time without Nadia. Fine slowly, but surely, eases Lela back into her old lifestyle, but making pointed changes, making Lela open herself to others, trust in friendship, and rely on loyalty.

Additionally, as Captain, Lela is in charge of the unit to find, hunt, and kill the Mazikin roaming in the human realm. Malachi, despite his seventy years of experience, is underneath Lela in terms of rank, which changes their relationship dynamic. More than that, though, Lela must assume responsibility, making decisions for those around her and following through with their consequences. Malachi, as Lieutenant, also struggles, however, both in the human world and with his own sense of firm morality. Fine takes Malachi on a dark path, psychologically, in Fractured, forcing him to accept many of the truths he took for granted in the past, which I love. Yet, I wish Malachi were explored in greater depth in this novel. Fractured is largely Lela’s novel, which I appreciate, but I felt as if the narrative could have benefited from a deeper insight into Malachi’s troubles as well.

A primary reason for this divide, though, is the fact that Lela and Malachi experience more than their fair share of utterly irritated relationship trouble. Sanctum developed the romance between these two perfectly – broken, but healing – and while I expected to see a struggle between Lela and Malachi in terms of maintaining their relationship, I didn’t expect the heavy dose of high school drama that came with it. Fractured introduces quite a few new characters with only a handful of them truly managing to get under your skin and make an impact. Sadly, the rest are background characters, existing solely for the purpose of creating tension in Lela and Malachi’s relationship – a trick that is just a little too old in the YA Genre these days.

What Fine does right, though, is keep this to a minimum. Instead, her novel is focused on the emotional growth of her characters and, most importantly, the plot thread of hunting down the Mazikin. Fractured brings forth a whole slew of bad-assery and unexpected twists, making for an enticing read despite the paranormal setting. Lela, in particular, has honed her skills and is a woman to be reckoned with, in terms of fighting prowess, which makes for an utterly action-packed novel. Fine, additionally, drops just enough hints about the Mazikin to keep us satisfied, but also keep us guessing about their true nature. We still remain largely in the dark about these beings, but I am fully confident that all answers will be revealed in the stunning conclusion next year.

Granted, Fractured may have not held my attention or kept my interest nearly as much as its predecessor did, but there were still plenty of bright spots. Lela continues to shine as a complex and intriguing protagonist while the plot of this novel never loses its breath-taking pace. With the high school setting, the middle can drag – just a little bit – but all-in-all, this is a sequel fans of Sanctum aren't going to want to miss. It's Sarah Fine, so as always, it's utterly readable, beautifully crafted, and such a pleasure to curl up with. Just be prepared for a little less Malachi, a little more kick-ass Lela, and a horde of crazy Mazikin, and you should be good to go! ;)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Showcase Sunday (#28)

Showcase Sunday is a weekly meme hosted by Vicki at Books, Biscuits and Tea. Its aim is to showcase our newest books or book related swag and to see what everyone else received for review, borrowed from libraries, bought in bookshops and downloaded onto eReaders this week.

For Review: 
I have a TON of books for review because I got auto-approved by Harper Collins and Harper Teen, along with a few other publishers, on Edelweiss. I genuinely never thought that would happen, so I'm more than just a little bit excited! :D

P.S. - If you click the book cover, the link will take you straight to the GoodReads page where you can learn more about the book.
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Finding Cassie Crazy by Jaclyn Moriarty & Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood were gifted to me by Mandee @ Vegan YA Nerds. I was struggling to find the American equivalent of Finding Cassie Crazy - The Year of Secret Assignments - so Mandee offered to send me an extra copy she had. She also sent me the electronic version of Six Impossible Things which I've been dying to read for a long time, so thank you Mandee! :)
Jasprit @ The Reader's Den sent me an absolutely wonderful package, along with her copy of The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher since she knew this novel didn't release in America until 2014. I'm a huge fan of Lucy Christopher and can't wait to read this one! Jasprit also sent me a Cadbury Oreo chocolate bar (my favorite!), a British candy that was absolutely delicious, a lovely card, and an absolutely adorable teddy bear key chain. Thank you so much, Jasprit! :)

I just HAD to buy myself a copy of these books! I received ARCs of both The Dream Thieves and Just One Year, but I couldn't go without having the finished copies on my shelves. I also read Fall for Anything earlier this year and loved it - it's my favorite Courtney Summers, actually - and I found it at such an amazing price on Amazon and couldn't resist! ;)
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Ever since I finished All the Truth That's In Me, I've taken an interest in mystery/thriller novels, hence the reason I didn't even hesitate to pick up both Another Little Piece and 17 & Gone from the library. I devoured Another Little Piece in a matter of hours and recently reviewed it, so hopefully 17 & Gone will be just as satisfying!
I haven't had any luck with Schwab's YA Novels, but Vicious has been getting stellar reviews from just about everyone and I'm both excited and nervous to read it. As always, Emily May's reviews are more than just a little bit convincing. :)
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I've wanted to read The Miseducation of Cameron Post since forever, but it was NEVER available in my library until NOW. Clearly, I snatched it off the shelves and checked it out before it could disappear again! ;)
I hadn't even heard of How to Love until Lauren @ Love is Not a Triangle gave it a glowing review. I'm usually not one for these types of romances, but I trust her judgement completely. I am - currently - reading this one, though I expect to be done with it by the time this post goes live.
I don't know how I've never heard of Deanna Raybourn before, but I stumbled upon her on GoodReads recently and Silent in the Grave is the type of book I know I'm going to love. I mean, historical fiction, mystery, and detectives all rolled up in one? Not to mention witty banter and a slow-burn romance? Say no more!

Phew! I'm so glad I've got that HUGE haul off my chest now. I meant to put together this post last week but I was really sick and completely bed-ridden. :/
What books did you get this week? I'd love to come and visit, so link me up! :)

Also: You can see the pictures of the majority of the books I received in this haul, along with Jasprit's gift and a handful of other novels I forgot to showcase on my Instagram page. You can check it out and follow me HERE.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn

Title: Another Little Piece

Author: Kate Karyus Quinn

Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve been struggling to put together exactly what did – and didn’t – work for me with this novel. Another Little Piece is a strange story, there is no denying that. Annaliese, our protagonist, is found walking in her hometown with no recollection of who she is or even that she has been missing for nearly a year. As pieces of her past slowly begin to come back to her, however, Annaliese realizes that she isn’t, in fact, Annaliese; she is another girl in Annaliese’s body. And, even more hauntingly, Annaliese isn’t the first girl to lose her soul – she is only one of many.

What I Liked:

Bold: Another Little Piece is a bold debut, unflinching in its honesty and not hesitant, in the least, to portray gruesome, often horrific, imagery. Quinn, with her first novel itself, tackles on a variety of “taboo” topics in YA, which I loved. Not only does this novel talk about sex, but it discusses homosexuality, suicide, and death explicitly as well. If you’re not comfortable with these topics, then I’d suggest you seek out a different read.

On the other hand, what this enables Quinn to do is to approach her novel without any barriers, which is refreshing. Annaliese is subject to a variety of dreams, memories, and fleeting glimpses into the past lives she has lead, which makes for an interesting case study into the teenage girl. Why is it, after all, that so many of these girls are willing to sell their souls? Although Quinn portrays adolescent girls in a light that isn’t always positive, it is most definitely realistic, which I appreciate. Everything, from friendships to relationships to the obsessive tendencies which girls possess comes to light in a brutal, no-nonsense manner which really works. Although this novel is very much a mystery, dispersed with paranormal thriller and horror sub-genres, it remains a very intriguing look at the lives of teenage girls, in all their psychological glory. I’m all for authors who can expose hidden realities in our society, so I appreciate that instead of reverting to tropes such as slut-shaming or sexism, Quinn takes a different approach at looking at girls in YA.

Family: When Annaliese – or anyone, for that matter – goes missing, her family is devastated. Thus, when she unexpectedly returns, the bond she forms with the mom and the dad, as she calls them (for they aren’t her real parents), is realistic and beautifully written. I love the depth of the relationship between these three, both their messy flaws and the strength and acceptance they have for one another as well. Quinn perfectly captures the feelings of hopelessness and guilt that Annaliese’s parents feel in having let down their daughter. After all, with a missing child, they have only themselves to blame. Thus, Annaliese’s return is both a joy and a worry for they can immediately tell that the child who has returned to them isn’t the same one who left. Yet, finding a way to remain a family after such a tragic incident is a heart-warming journey to watch unfold.

Romance: Admittedly, the romantic arc of this novel isn’t very well developed – it kind of just…appears – but it works for the tone of the storyline. Dex, the neighbor of Annaliese, is perfect for her precisely because he is so very messed up himself. We begin to see a greater manifestation of paranormal abilities in him and their effect on his life is startling. What I truly love about Dex, though, is that he isn’t defined by his relationship to Annaliese. Instead, he’s very much a character in his own right with his own personality, his own problems, and his own plot lines as well. Thus, their convergence with those of Annaliese’s work strangely well, creating a love story that only enriches the individual personalities of these two complicated protagonists.

Choice: Annaliese, as a character, is strong and easy to get behind. Not only is she one of those no-bullshit type of protagonists, but she does her best to make her transition back into the world as seamless as it can be for her parents and friends. Yet, I particularly love that as Annaliese uncovers more and more about her past, she feels as if she has no choice in her future. Quinn handles the arc of Annaliese’s inner battle between taking a decision and not taking that leap of faith really well, portraying it in a believable manner. Moreover, Annaliese faces these choices all the time: to tell the truth about who she is or not; to salvage the friendship with her former best friend or remain alone; to trust her family or keep them in the dark. In addition to the reoccurring theme of choice, there is also an equally important counter-effect of dealing with those choices and following through on them, which is both chilling in context of the novel and surprisingly real as well. Ultimately, these themes come through really well throughout the novel and only add to the essence of the story.

What I Didn’t Like:

Paranormal: Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of the paranormal elements to this tale. I didn’t mind them in the least, mainly because they made for such horrific and gory reading, but I wish these aspects of the novel had been explained. Although we finally come to put together what happened to Annaliese and uncover the mystery of her past, we never figure out how – or why, really – it even began. Additionally, the ending of this novel wraps up a little too quickly and a lot too neatly precisely because of the presence of these paranormal elements. It was a satisfying ending in every way possible, but I wish I hadn’t felt so confused while reading it. Quinn offers no explanation, which almost makes her already creepy story even creepier, but it also grates, just a little.

Obviously, the good outweighs the bad with this piece. Quinn’s writing is beautiful, atmospheric, and utterly gripping, just as her story and characters are. It’s always jarring, though, to reach the end of a novel and remain nearly as confused as you were at its beginning, which is perhaps why I cannot bring myself to rate this book any higher. Yet, you can bet I’ll be watching eagerly for Quinn’s sophomore novel; the bolder the better.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: East by Edith Pattou

Title: East

Author: Edith Pattou

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Ever since I read the tale of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," I've longed to give one of its numerous re-tellings a try. Edith Pattou's version, East, practically fell into my lap when I discovered it in the hidden recess of my Kindle and within moments, I was sucked into the tale. For those of you who don't know, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" is similar to "Beauty and the Beast," only instead of a beast, we have a polar bear, and instead of a wicked witch, there is an evil troll queen. Of course, there are a variety of other differences, but the jist of the tale is the same - a girl must find it in her to remain with and love a creature who is more animal than man. And while East isn't the best re-telling I've read, it's nearly perfect in its own right.

For me, what makes or breaks a solid re-telling is the author's own insight into a traditional fairy tale. It's part of the reason why I'm so disenchanted with book-to-movie adaptations - I desperately want the director to push the story on screen with his or her interpretations instead of merely following the book word-for-word or deleting scenes altogether. In East, Pattou truly gives so much depth to this intriguing tale. For one, the novel is told in alternating perspectives, each chapter shifting from the point of views of Rose, her older brother Neddy, her Father, the Troll Queen, or the Bear himself. While, on one hand, I was initially skeptical about this method of story-telling, let me reassure you that it works beautifully. Not only are we able to gain a much fuller understanding of the entire story at hand, but we are also able to understand these central characters on a much deeper level.

Moreover, I love that the villains of this tale are so ambiguous in their "evil" label. The Troll Queen, for instance, is obsessed with the human prince she finds; so much so that she fakes his death and is punished for her actions by her father. Ironically, though, her punishment entails the imprisonment of the prince she loves. And thus, a boy is turned into a bear. Furthermore, it is not evil intent that drips from the Troll Queen, but rather a strange, obsessive longing. If anything, the Troll Queen is an anomaly among her kind, especially as trolls keep humans as servants. The Troll Queen, however, isn't our only "villain." Rose, the protagonist of our tale, is born facing the North, which indicates both that she will become a traveler and also that she will - as her mother's only North child - face death at the hands of ice and snow. As such, her mother does everything in her power to keep Rose safe, but often times that spells more harm than good.

I love that this family is painted so realistically. Rose is beloved by her brother Neddy, not to mention her father, and while her mother clearly cares for her, there is a distance between them that is written with poise. As the last child in a household of seven, not to mention a replacement child for the East daughter who died, Rose and her mother share a strained relationship. And yet, Rose's love and affection for her family - for all her sisters and brothers - is so palpably felt. In fact, Rose herself is such a remarkable heroine for the emotion she brings to this tale. While her adventurous spirit is one to get behind and her genuine loyalty to be admired, her flaws - her curiosity, her homesickness, her inability to follow directions - makes her all the more realistic. Moreover, I love that Rose never gives up. No matter how difficult the task before her seems, she keeps barreling forward.

Another beautiful aspect to this tale is the romance. The White Bear, as Rose comes to call him, is sweet and kind, hopeful that Rose will enjoy her stay at his castle. And yet, he too is not all perfect. Ultimately, the reason why I grew to love Rose's time in the castle was primarily because of her interactions with the Bear, which were both endearing and exasperating. Stuck in a difficult situation, tempers rise just as often as they fall, which made for intriguing reading. Once the bear is kidnapped away by the Troll Queen, however, the second-half of this story only picks up. I appreciated this not so much because of the change of pace, but rather because Rose sets out after the Bear solely because she let him down. Of course, she cares for him, but the extent of her feelings are hidden even from herself until much later in the story. The romance that brews in East is extraordinarily subtle, only hinting at the depth of affection that lies between Rose and the Bear, but the focus on trust that the novel took was far more important as a foundation for their future, fitting perfectly into this tale.

If you haven't already, I'd encourage you to look into this fairy tale. It's an interesting spin, especially as "Beauty and the Beast" is so well-known. Moreover, Pattou's rendition of it is more than satisfying, going so far as to touch upon Norse mythology and Inuit history. Although the ultimate conclusion regarding the Troll Queen seemed to tie up a little too neatly for my tastes, overall, this novel is perfect from beginning to end. What Pattou excels at, as a writer, is showing, not telling, which makes this story a true emotional experience. I dare you not to become completely enthralled by Rose's tale - I promise you, it is impossible!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Ashbury/Brookfield Series Review: Feeling Sorry for Celia & The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty

Note: As this is a series composed of companion novels, it is not necessary to read these books in order (as I prove with my reviews below).

Title: Feeling Sorry for Celia (Ashbury/Brookfield, #1)
Author: Jaclyn Moriarty
Rating: 4 Stars

Feeling Sorry for Celia is hilarious, heartfelt, and an absolute delight. Moriarty's specialty seems to be novels told in an epistolary form and her talent comes alive in this novel. Elizabeth, the protagonist of our tale, begins a written correspondence with Christina, a girl from a neighboring school, that soon blossoms into a tight friendship. The titular Celia is Elizabeth's best friend since childhood, a wild spirit who is constantly running away from home. Like Moriarty's latest, A Corner of White, her debut serves as a character-driven piece, centering about Elizabeth and her gradual journey of self-discovery. With a long-lost father come to stay in Sydney, a neglectful mother who communicates through notes, and a missing best friend, Elizabeth's year is about to become far more complicated than she anticipated.

What I love about Moriarty's work is the utter cleverness of it. I kid you not, this woman is a genius. Feeling Sorry for Celia is dispersed with short notes to Elizabeth from multiple organizations with names such as "THE COLD HARD TRUTH" or "The Best Friend Society" which serve to reflect Elizabeth's own conflicting feelings and her emotions of self-doubt. Growing up, the teenage years are perhaps the most difficult because of these mood-swings and Moriarty conveys these increasingly mixed feelings that Elizabeth has towards others and towards herself in the form of these notes. Additionally, the many tales of Elizabeth's life are told through her letters to Christina, who gradually becomes a confidant and helps Elizabeth to realize that friends, like other things, change as you grow older. And that's okay. I love that this is the theme of this novel - that change, in every way, is inevitable and perfectly alright. We need more books in YA that epitomize this because, truly, no friendship is perfect and long-lasting, as much as we'd all like to believe. When one door closes, another one opens. It really does.

And yet, my favorite part of this story was Celia's own relationship with her mother. Although we see their interactions through colorful and amusing notes stuck on the refrigerator, mostly because Elizabeth's mother is busy so often, it provides a different angle to the classic mother-daughter relationship. I like seeing a mother who doesn't let her single parenthood dictate her life. I like seeing that Elizabeth's mother pursues her passions, but also loves her daughter very, very much. Elizabeth is fiercely independent, but the love and comfort she gains from her mother is still visible. It is a delicate balance to strike, one that becomes more obvious and meaningful as the novel progresses, but it is present and beautiful all the same. All in all, Feeling Sorry for Celia is one of the best contemporaries out there and an unexpectedly honest portrayal of growing up, facing the world, and friendship.

*Bonus: Sex Positive YA, Anonymous Letters, Secret Admirers, Rescue Missions, and Circuses!

Title: The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie (Ashbury/Brookfield, #3)
Author: Jaclyn Moriarty
Rating: 4 Stars

The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie can only be described as a literary delight. Once again, Moriarty's epistolary format not only surprises, but stuns, in its genius. With this installment in the Ashbury/Brookfield Series, Moriarty follows the tale of Bindy Mackenzie, a top student whose life is slowly turning upside down. For starters, she's living with her aunt and uncle while her parents pursue their careers. For another, there's a strange new class called Friendship and Development (FAD) in which Bindy is stuck with the Venomous Seven. On top of all that, Bindy is forgetting her assignments, baby-sitting, sending frantic e-mails to her parents, and transcribing conversations she overhears. With so much crazy going on, there can be only one explanation for Bindy's change in behavior: she's being - slowly - murdered.

Easily one of the highlights of this novel is friendship. When we first meet Bindy, she is quick to judge - instantly disliking the "Venomous Seven" in her FAD class - and goes out of her way to be rude. And yet, as the novel progresses, we begin to see Bindy's side of the situation; of her past and the small actions that have caused Bindy to slowly hate the majority of her classmates. As she works to win them back, though, the friendships formed are ones to look out for. Not only are they achingly realistic, but also heartfelt. Furthermore, it's impossible not to love Bindy. After all, this is the girl who is vying for her parents affections, who sends them long e-mails but never receives any responses. Moriarty manages to weave so much depth into this one piece, all while retaining her humor and light voice.

Sadly, what really prevented me from giving this book a higher rating - despite the fact that I teared up during a scene or two and completely LOVED the growth arc of this novel - was the "murder" plot. We see this really emerge during the last third and while I cannot deny that it is brilliantly woven into the story, never taking away from the depth of the novel and only adding to its enjoyability, it did take away one thing from the novel that I particularly enjoyed. Bindy experiences what it's like to suddenly become so involved in what others think of her and redeem herself to her friends that she often pushes aside her school work. I feel as if this is a very natural direction for many teens to take and loved that Bindy's isolation from everything - even school, which she formerly excelled in - was a part of this novel. Thus, to have it explained away in the end was a bit of disappointment. Furthermore, I wanted more closure when it came to Bindy and her parents. I simply wish we could have seen a greater source of interaction between them. Nevertheless, this is a definite winner. I do think Feeling Sorry for Celia is a slightly stronger story overall - and I loved seeing Elizabeth re-appear in this novel and witnessing the direction her story arc took was enriching - but The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is certainly a worthy piece of YA Fiction. One of the few out there.

*Bonus: Mysteriously Missing Brothers, Unknown Nail Polish Senders, Creepy Babysitting Hirers, and...Murder?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron

Title: The Dark Unwinding (The Dark Unwinding, #1)

Author: Sharon Cameron

Rating: 4 Stars

I've waited almost a year to read The Dark Unwinding, but it was a worthwhile wait. It's always a pressing fear in the back of my mind that by holding off on an unfinished series, the hype will cause my expectations to escalate in such a manner that I will be left disappointed when I finally do get around to the book in question. Quite thankfully, however, The Dark Unwinding is the unusual exception to the rule, living up to its hype and more. While I hesitate to label this novel as steampunk - really, it's simply historical fiction with innovations - Cameron't debut is not one to be missed.

Katherine, an orphan since birth, has been saddled with the onerous task of visiting her Uncle Tully - said to be mad - and sending him off to an asylum. Ever since she was young, Katherine has lived with her widowed Aunt Alice - vicious, rude, and greedy - subject to a life of cruelty, injustice, and no love. Thus, Katherine's only plan is to evaluate her uncle's holdings for her fat cousin brother who will inherit it, send her uncle packing to a mad house, and return home to hopefully earn a small amount of living herself. When Katherine arrives at her uncle's home, though, she discovers a budding inventor and genius instead of a raging lunatic. Moreover, the warehouse her uncle has built to work in is a source of livelihood for hundreds of poor men, women, and children. Now, unwilling to give up the secret of this teeming community to her aunt, Katherine is torn between protecting her own interests or those of her uncles. Meanwhile, the insanity that her uncle has been charged with may run in the family after her.

The Dark Unwinding excels primarily because of its characters. Although its plot is sufficiently creepy - strange laughter, sleep-walking, and unseen twists to boot - it is a slow story. Its characters, however, will keep you riveted to the page, unwilling to look away even for a moment. Katherine isn't, at first, an easy character to like. Although we sympathize with her plight, her true nature is never revealed until the novel wears on. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Katherine's narration from the start: honest, conflicted, and emotional. I love a heroine who is able to admit to her own faults, no matter how foolish, and whose courage reveals itself in the unlikeliest of times. Moreover, Katherine's relationship with her Uncle Tully - brilliant, though autistic - is beautifully written. In England, shortly after the French Revolution, autism was thought to be a form of madness and Cameron captures this sentiment perfectly, never painting Uncle Tully to be a perfectly normal human, but firmly steering clear of the label of lunacy as well.

Nevertheless, this book would be lacking without its vibrant cast of secondary characters. Mrs. Jeffries, the cook; Davey, the mute boy; Mary, the lady's maid; Ben Alridge, the handsome man with an interest in Uncle Tully's workhouse; and Lane, Uncle Tully's apprentice. When Katherine first arrives, she isn't given a warm welcome, merely because the people of her uncle's estate know she's there with the intent to evict them. It is a slow and gradual climb, however, to build trust, but ultimately a journey that pays off. Katherine's budding romance with Lane, in particular, was butterfly-inducing. It's the sort of slow-burn romance I crave, filled with understanding and tender conversation. Although the plot of the novel truly only picks up the second-half, the first-half is more than a little entertaining, built with these superb character relationships.

I wasn't expecting such a strong debut, despite the hype surrounding this novel, and while I can't fully claim it's the perfect October-themed read, it's not one worth missing. Cameron's understanding of character arcs is already nuanced, so I cannot wait to see how these relationships continue to grow and develop in the sequel. (A historical fiction duology - YAY!) If you're a fan of historical settings, intrigue, or just a good dose of innovation, then The Dark Unwinding is the perfect addition to your shelves. Cameron's world is one you'll miss; I'm already counting down the hours until I can return.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

ARC Review: Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow

Title: Sorrow's Knot

Author: Erin Bow

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: October 29th, 2013

If I had realized how apt the title of this novel is, perhaps I wouldn't have picked it up. In her sophomore novel, Erin Bow, weaves an eerie tale of grief; of the living, of the dead, and our inability to let go of our loved ones. Granted, it's a fairly weighty subject matter, but that doesn't discount the fact that this book blew my mind. I just didn't see it coming. Sorrow's Knot is fantasy at its best: creepy and alluring; is contemporary at its finest: realistic and honest emotions; and horror at its creepiest: shivering but sure.

Sorrow's Knot takes place in a land much like North America, ruled by matriarchal societies in which boys, after becoming men, leave their homes, never to seen or heard from again. It is the women, in this world, who are born with power; the power to create knots. Rangers, to create the knots that will hunt animals and protect the villages; Storytellers, to create the knots that will make their tales all the more real; and Binders, to create the knots that will help the dead to depart from the living. And yet, the Binders are of utmost importance to these tribes, not just because of their duty to help the dead pass on, but because they have the power to keep away the White Hand, an evil manifestation of a human spirit kept on Earth. Otter, the daughter of Willow, the strongest Binder since Mad Spider herself, has always known that she will become a Binder herself one day. When Willow, however, refuses to take on Otter as an apprentice, claiming the knots have turned against themselves, Otter is left with immense power and little training. And, worst of all, White Hands lie near, waiting to touch the minds of the living and turn them insane. With her life slowly unraveling, spiraling out of control in every way, Otter is left with only one choice: find a way to stop the White Hands or become one herself.

Bow's novel is enticing from the very first page itself; impossible to put down. Otter's world is so different from our own, but Bow's world-building is woven throughout the tale, in the little things. In the customs, in the phrases, in the relationships. Nothing is explicitly stated, but rather subtly hinted at; folklore repeated, clues scattered, and dialogue haunting. It's a masterpiece to read, merely because the writing is so beautiful and chilling at the same time. The White Hands of Bow's novel are utterly creepy, being slowly built-up into the terrifying monsters they truly are. In fact, the reason this book excels is precisely because everything is built up slowly, especially the relationships. As a novel dealing with grief, there is - obviously - a large presence of death throughout the story, but despite knowing this, our hearts involuntarily go towards these characters, becoming enraptured by their tales and brutal realities. Sorrow's Knot is deeply emotional because of these connections; because we come to empathize so deeply with these real-life people and are just as hurt when darkness and sorrow come their way.

One of my favorite aspects of this tale, however, is Otter. As a protagonist, Otter is unrivaled, particularly in the realistic influx of her emotions. From the first moment we are introduced to her itself, Otter is full of gray matter: hating her mother for abandoning her, but loving her nevertheless; terrified of her lack of a role in society, but courageous enough to stand up for what she believes in; desperate to fit in, but fiercely loyal no matter what. Every one of the relationships Otter sustains - particularly with her best friends Kestrel and Cricket - is shockingly nuanced. Kestrel, Cricket, and Otter are a fierce trio, constantly there for one another. Kestrel and Cricket's romance - short, but sweet - is never a detriment to their friendship with Otter and only strengthens the bonds between them. Kestrel, a Ranger, and Cricket, a Storyteller, both play important roles in this novel, right alongside Otter, the Binder. From the beginning to the end, their friendship is strong and true, realistic and bold, practically unseen in its honesty. And that, plain and simple, is what I loved so much about the characters in this novel; they were flawed, but proud of who they were, never romanticized or dishonestly portrayed. With the subject matter that she tackled, it was integral for Bow to keep her characters realistic, even in their cruelty, and that came across so well, particularly within the cast of secondary characters who make up the people of this village.

Although there is a romance in this novel, it isn't a focus. In fact, it only emerges during the last quarter, or so, of the story, but still manages to be well-developed and poignant. Sorrow's Knot is very much a creeping mystery, a slow unraveling of the truths hidden in this society. The Rangers, Storytellers, and Binders are kept apart, sworn to secrecy to never reveal their knots and lessons to one another. It's a strange realm, that's for sure, and it's particularly jarring to see males referred to as weak, merely because it's so far from the truth of our own patriarchal society today. Yet, I love that this novel, though looking at a flipped society of female dominance, never veers away from the main plot threads. With her world, Bow manages to touch upon many intriguing topics - the power of secrets, the misconceptions society leaves us with - but those only enrich her tale. With many authors, it's easy to get carried away by these side issues or, more often, ignore their impact on the characters, but Bow strikes such a perfect balance between her tale, her world, and her characters.

Frankly speaking, Sorrow's Knot is a novel one simply has to experience. It's difficult to put into words exactly why it works, but it just does. It's unique, on so many different levels, and leaves such a jarring impact; of our world, of our afterlife, and of death in general. Although it seems to be a very heavy novel, it truly is more horror-story-esque than anything else. And yet, I wouldn't hesitate to thrust it upon any unsuspecting passer-by. I can certainly promise you one thing: it'll leave your hearts in knots. Ones you just won't want to untie.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

Title: Forever (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #3) 

Author: Maggie Stiefvater

Rating: 5 Stars

Maggie Stiefvater has this ability to render life after her books meaningless. It truly seems, to me, that her words cast a spell, throw out their tentacles, and wrap around you, holding you down, close, forever, to her world. Stiefvater has mentioned, many times, that she hopes her books are the kind that never truly leave her readers’ minds, and on that front, she has succeeded completely. Whether it be The Scorpio Races or The Raven Boys or even just Shiver, it’s so difficult to fully leave these characters and settings behind and go forward in life. After all, what is grocery shopping in the face of true love?

Stiefvater’s Forever is, in my eyes, the best this trilogy has to offer. Although my fingers and toes were crossed tight while reading this – I would have hated to be another disappointed reviewer adding to the throng of mixed emotions – I needn’t have worried. Forever is the perfect ending to this trilogy. Each installment truly built upon the previous story in a remarkable manner and the way everything comes together in this in such a bittersweet and realistic way is heart-stopping.

What stands out to me about Forever is its maturity. Whether it be the nature of Grace and Sam’s relationship – all the more intense, romantic, and yet slow – or the developing friendships between Sam and Cole – tentative, understanding, and loyal – these characters have truly grown up. In my eyes, Linger marked a true journey of growth for Cole, but Forever sees him continue to battle his inner demons, especially alongside Isabel. I find that their relationship, though seemingly typical of most, is truthfully very different as Stiefvater never rushes anything between them. Both Cole and Isabel are tortured and broken people; humans who cannot heal merely because of love and affection, but rather with time. And, perfectly, Stiefvater gives them that time and, moreover, she gives us that hope.

Additionally, Isabel truly came alive for me in this installment. In Linger, her emotions were raw and edged with a brutality, but in Shiver they are whirling uncontrollably. I was finally able to see the extent of her pain, but also the extent of her strength. Isabel also acts as the voice of reason, which I love. Despite her grief – or perhaps, because of it – she never hesitates to stand up to Cole, Sam, or Grace and put them in their place. As the only human among werewolf friends, her contributions are valuable. Moreover, Isabel, Grace, and Rachel grow to find a steady footing in their friendship. We come to see just how important both these girls are to Grace and, by virtue of their common friend, Isabel and Rachel manage to form a bond, pushing their differences aside. Friendship hasn’t necessarily been a raging theme throughout this series, but with this installment, I truly found that it shone.

Cole and Sam, especially, have an intriguing bromance that brews in this novel. With Grace a wolf and Isabel a human, Sam and Cole are stuck together in Beck’s home with nothing but their own company and their swirling thoughts. Thus, the steady trust that develops between them was one of my favorite relationships to watch unfold. Moreover, Cole and Grace share an easy friendship. It is remarkable to see these characters from each others eyes, particularly from those of Cole. Cole sees Grace as a remarkably different person that maybe even we see her and I love those additional insights into her character and particularly into her relationship with Sam. Linger gave us an insight into each character and into their role in the tumultuous plot, and while Forever continues to employ that method, it also manages to build a rhythm of greater balance, throwing in these lenses with which to view the other characters differently as well. It is this, I find, that is the strength of novels with multiple perspectives and Stiefvater truly hones on this.

Nevertheless, Forever is Sam’s story. (Admittedly, everything is Sam’s story because, let’s be honest, no one wants to read anything without Sam Roth in it, but this book is more his than the previous ones.) Sam’s growth throughout this novel is remarkable. Not only is he forced to quickly assume responsibilities, being the leader and in charge of ensuring the pack’s safety, but he is also driven to embrace his past fears. Whether it be the bathtub or losing his humanity or even finally facing the truth of his relationship with Beck, Sam bravely faces it all in a heart-wrenching fashion. With Sam, there is always so much emotion involved and my heart tore for him on more than one occasion. I love how Stiefvater has molded his character from Shiver to Forever and looking back on that journey is ultimately both insightful and rewarding.

Also, the last page of this book? I was praying it was the last. It was beautiful. I'm a huge fan of ambiguous endings and that one was just...lovely. I'd have hated a more conclusive ending (but I've been told I'm strange since most readers seem to like very wrapped-up endings...*shrug*). Needless to say, I'll be walking around in a haze, now, unable to leave Mercy Falls in spirit. And that is why this trilogy is so remarkable. It takes hold of your heart and doesn’t let it go. It leaves you with hope, but also bittersweet longing. It leaves you shivering, but not forever. It makes you look out upon the world and upon every person you meet in a new and different light. And I love that; those are the books I live for.