Friday, January 31, 2014

Mini-Reviews & Giveaway: Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke & Amber House by Kelly Moore

Title: Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea (Between, #1)

Author: April Genevieve Tucholke

Rating: 2.5 Stars

...that's it? Are we all sure I received the right book in the mail, because I'm just a little bit confused. Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea became a blogging sensation when it first released a few months back and, ever since, I've been curious to try it out for myself. When my copy first arrived, I got through about half the book before turning to other pressing ARCs. Now, having finally found the time to settle back into this story, I've wound up disappointing. For some reason, I expected a lot more to...happen. *scratches head, still confused*

Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea excels as the gothic mystery it is marketed as. Not only is the writing beautiful, painting an atmosphere of chilling nights and howling winds, but the imagery Tucholke forces us to conjure, of little children holding sticks and hunting the devil, are spine-tingling. With the exception of this lyrical prose, however, this novel has little to offer. Its protagonist, Violet, is much like any typical heroine who plans to resist the "bad boy" but fails spectacularly. Moreover, I didn't appreciate the manner in which our feelings for Violet are intentionally manipulated. Violet's twin brother, Luke, is a rude misogynist and his girlfriend, Sunshine, essentially exists as a foil to Violet. Both Luke and Sunshine do little to develop the story, but their existence makes Violet seem like a much better alternative character. Frankly speaking, though this method is used by many authors, I'm not a fan of it merely because it doesn't offer many reasons to like the protagonist for who she is, which seems like cheating to me. If you only like the protagonist in comparison to those around her, do you really even like her at all?

River West, the mysterious boy who rents the guest house behind Violet's huge house, is essentially a creep. And an insta-love machine. Although he has never fallen for a girl before, of course he falls for Violet. Why? I still have no clue. And Violet too, who is a sensible teenager (supposedly), takes one look at River and instantly falls for him as well. *gag* While I really liked the moral questions that River's presence brings up - after all, can you really love someone if their actions go against your moral code? - ultimately that wasn't enough to save this novel for me. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is very similar to most paranormal reads, but its writing style sets it apart, giving it a gothic feel that I really enjoyed. When you strip that away, however, this is nothing but a slow-moving novel with characters that are just a little too familiar.

Title: Amber House (Amber House, #1) 

Author: Kelly Moore, Larkin Reed, Tucker Reed

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Despite its unremarkable beginning, Amber House is a promising start to a new series. In many ways, this novel reminded me of The Dark Unwinding for both books feature a mysterious old house, even more curious tenants, and hidden mysteries. Where The Dark Unwinding relied upon steampunk machines, an "insane" uncle, and unknown towns to further its plot line, this novel features strange twists of time, hushed-up family secrets, and long-forgotten abilities.

Amber House is dull, at first, rather boring and difficult to get through. Once the novel hits its stride, however, it soon delves into an intriguing tale. Sarah, the protagonist of our tale, can see the past. And in Amber House, a building known to preserve echoes of its history, Sarah's abilities thrive as she witnesses pieces of her ancestry come together to reveal truths she never knew about her family. One of the highlights of this novel is the relationship Sarah sustains with her family members. With her autistic younger brother, Sam, she is unfailingly caring, but with her mother, her relationship is tenuous at best. Moore and the two Reeds explore this rift between the two in a complex manner, giving us insight into Sarah's mother's past, which therefore sheds light on her present behavior.

Unfortunately, there is a rather irritating - and unnecessary - love triangle at play here. In fact, it only detracts from the story and causes Sarah to forget her usual sensibility. Quite thankfully, however, the love triangle is resolved in this first installment and will - hopefully - be absent from the sequel. With such a rushed ending, one that leaves behind more questions than answers, I am glad to have the sequel already on hand. Needless to say, I won't be wasting much time to find out just where Sarah's journeys take her next.

Win a Gothic Romance Bundle of Books! 
In preparation for the month of February - the month of romance! - I will be picking two winners and each winner will choose a Gothic Romance Bundle of their choice from the list below:
Bundle #1: Of Old Houses
ARC of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Brand New Hardcover of Manor of Secrets
Bundle #2: Of a Series
ARC of Amber House
Brand New Hardcover of Neverwas, sequel to Amber House

Ends 2/10
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Just Another...Book Crush (#11): Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

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

I've made no secret of my love for Rosamund Hodge's debut novel, Cruel Beauty. From the its ground-breaking heroine to its vivid re-imagination of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," I simply adored this book. And yet, one of my favorite aspects was, of course, the romance. Any "Beauty and the Beast" love story is one I watch out for but the blooming relationship between Ignifex and Nyx is of a dark nature merely because their personalities are both so unforgiving. Rosamund Hodge had quite a bit to say about how she went about crafting the enigmatic personality of Ignifex and, trust me, it's quite the post to kick off the year with.
Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny. Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him. With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people. But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her. As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex's secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.
Sometimes I wonder why I wrote CRUEL BEAUTY. 

I mean, I know why I wrote it: because the idea crashed into my head and it was so much fun, I couldn’t resist, even though I was still recovering from a ten-year period of trying to squash all my melodramatic storytelling tendencies. (It turns out, if a story isn’t melodrama, I can’t write it.)

But the thing that baffles and amuses me about CRUEL BEAUTY is that it’s a bad boy romance. A really bad boy romance. My heroine falls in love with Public Enemy Number One: the demon prince who rules her country and holds it captive.

And I’ve always hated bad boys. 

What’s attractive about somebody who’s arrogant, or manipulative, or cruel? Sure, he might be a good kisser, but why would you want to be around him? Or even if you enjoyed being around him, how could you ever respect him?

When I was a teenager, my hatred was absolute. Bad boys were bad, wicked, evil people, and it made me furious when they were rewarded with dating the heroine when they ought to be punished until they were SORRY.

(I was a little judgmental as a teenager.)

But time went on and I read more stories and I became aware that I actually kind of liked a few bad boy characters. And yet some infuriated me as much as ever. I didn’t think I was simply losing my principles--though I was learning to be a little less judgmental--so I started trying to figure out why some of them worked and some of them made me long for murder.

Finally I realized that what it came down to was this: is the bad boy treated as a person or not?

People make choices. Those choices, and their consequences, always matter. But too often, choices don’t matter for bad boys.

I once read a novel where the male love interest—in addition to being creepily pushy with the heroine—had slept with a million girls, and respected none of them, and treated some of them really horribly. But it was all okay, because he was just so incredibly hot and he really,really loved the heroine! Like, for real this time! If he said so, it must be true!

There are a million feminist critiques you could have made of this hero and the heroine’s spineless acceptance of him. But you could have also made this critique: he wasn’t a person. He was a sex god floating on the astral plane, and nothing he did had any consequences, so none of it mattered.

That’s not just morally problematic, it’s boring. Where is the drama in someone whose choices don’t mean anything?

But if the bad boy is treated as a person, if what he has done and what he might do matters, then there are a lot of interesting stories you can tell.

I still like sweet, kind, honest boys the best. But here’s what I’ve realized that I like about bad boys:  

(1) Every love story involves the heroine trying to figure out, “Who is this person and can I trust him?” If the love interest has been awful in the past, and might be awful still, that question is a lot more dramatic.

(2) If the bad boy is to be remotely plausible as a love interest, he has to have a redemption arc. And redemption arcs are always deeply interesting to me. How can you change yourself, and how much? How do you deal with the fallout from the person you used to be?

(3) So you’re in love. That’s wonderful. It doesn’t change the consequences of what your wicked-hot boyfriend once did. How do you deal with the things that love doesn’t fix?

(4) How does this forgiveness thing work, anyway?

I love good boys more than bad boys. But I love writing challenges even more. Once I started thinking about how to write bad boys, I couldn’t resist trying.

So that was (partly) how I came to write CRUEL BEAUTY: I was trying to write a bad boy romance that might work for girls who don’t like bad boys. A story with a bad boy who never got excuses and a (somewhat) good girl who never forgot what he’d done, set in a world where every choice they made had serious consequences. A story about learning to love and be loved when neither one of you was entirely lovable.

And also, a story with really hot kisses. (I am not made of stone, okay.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

ARC Review: Royally Lost by Angie Stanton

Title: Royally Lost

Author: Angie Stanton

Rating: 2 Stars

Release Date: May 6th, 2014
Dragged on a family trip to Europe’s ancient cities, Becca wants nothing more than to go home. Trapped with her emotionally distant father, over-eager stepmother, and a brother who only wants to hook up with European hotties, Becca is miserable. That is until she meets Nikolai, a guy as mysterious as he is handsome. And she unknowingly finds herself with a runaway prince. Nikolai has everything a guy could ask for-he's crown prince, heir to the throne, and girls adore him. But the one thing he doesn't freedom. Staging a coup, he flees his kingdom and goes undercover on his own European tour. When Nikolai and Becca meet, it’s their differences that draw them together. Sparks fly as they share a whirlwind of adventures, all the while dodging his royal guard. But Becca's family vacation ends in a matter of days. Will Nikolai and Becca be forced to say goodbye forever, will his destiny catch up to him, or will they change history forever?
If "The Prince and Me" and "The Lizzie McGuire" movie had a love child, Royally Lost would be it. Frankly speaking, I have nothing against a cute, cheesy, and unrealistic romance - in movies. In books, I find myself rolling my eyes and craving more depth. Stanton's latest is predictable in every way from the coincidental meetings of Prince Nikolai and Becca to their swimming adventures, balcony conversations, and stolen kisses. Unfortunately, I went into this novel expecting something a little more like Just One Day and Wanderlove and, as such, was disappointed by the rather silly love story this novel presented.

Royally Lost isn't wholly lost, though. Stanton provides plenty of historical background to the European countries and landmarks Becca visits, making this journey an authentic one, and, moreover, the sibling bond between Becca and her older brother Dylan is realistically written. Becca's entire family situation, from her behavior after her mother's death to the eventual relationship she is able to form with her younger step-mother, is paced impeccably and although it held potential for more, it did attempt to provide Becca's character with more than just "sun-kissed hair" and classic American looks. Nikolai's situation as well - wanted to escape responsibility, not understanding the necessity for a monarch in the twenty-first century, etc. - all felt true to the age group of this teen, but, again, there were so many lost opportunities in the execution of this plot device.

Stanton hits the nail on the head as she uncovers that teens, during this time period in their lives, have no idea what their purpose is or, for that matter, why they must perform duties they dislike or feel no passion for. In this manner, both Nikolai and Becca are thoughtfully put together, giving rise to a perceptive story of growing up. Or, would have given rise to this novel if Nikolai and Becca weren't so caught up in their romance. While the "secret/undercover prince" concept of this story is - thankfully - not the cause of too much drama/angst, the main focus of both these characters remain each other. When Becca doesn't see Nikolai she's worried about him and vice versa. Instead of discussing their looming futures - Becca's college or Nikolai's impending enrollment to serve his country's military - the conversations between these two are increasingly cheesy. Granted, there is a certain degree of growth to both their characters, but the type of depth, resolution, and ultimate discussion I craved - anything similar to Wanderlove or Just One Day in their exploration of teenage opportunity, scope, and perspective - was sadly missing.

Ultimately, I felt as if this story had the potential to be a much better novel than it was. Although Royally Lost is a delightful story to curl up with as a guilty pleasure or feel-good romance, it does little to improve the gap between the YA and NA genres, failing to incite the type of thought-provoking conversations that other travel stories have done in the past. As such, I just cannot recommend this book. Sorry Royally Lost, but you would have been better off not being found after all...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Everbound & Evertrue (Everneath, #2 & #3) by Brodi Ashton

A Few Quick Notes:
1. Both of these reviews are spoiler-free. Although they may be a little vague - and quite short - they are written that way to avoid spoilers for the entire series. If you haven't read Everneath or even heard too much about it, you still won't be spoiled in the least. While I really enjoyed Everbound I couldn't say much specifically about character growth and what-not without giving away spoilers but for Evertrue I was able to make a lot of generalizations for this series as a whole, reflecting back, but rest assured that despite the differences in the size of their respective reviews, neither contain spoilers. 
2. I rated Everneath 4 Stars. I didn't review it, but I did review the short novella set in-between the time periods when Everneath ended and Everbound starts. You can read my review for that prequel novella HERE if you're curious since I do mention it briefly in my review of Everbound below.

Title: Everbound (Everneath, #2)

Author: Brodi Ashton

Rating: 4 Stars

Everbound is easily the best this series has to offer. Not only is the world-building drastically expanded upon, realistic and visual, but the characters are revealed to contain even more depths than we originally imagined. If there is anyone who steals the show in this installment, though, it is Cole. From the beginning itself we can tell that there is a lot more to Cole than what meets the naked eye and while the prequel novella to this installment didn't convince me of his character, this novel certainly did, painting him to be a deeply misunderstood character. With Nikki we travel deeper into the Everneath, but we also see deeper into Cole, finally getting his backstory, meeting his friends, and putting together thousands of miniscule pieces. It's intriguing, to say the least, and makes this middle book shockingly exciting.

Even the pace of Everbound never lets up, traveling from the Surface to the Everneath and back and forth and back and forth. With so many scene changes, Ashton is able to keep the urgency of Nikki's quest alive. Moreover, short flashback stories dispersed throughout the novel keep Jack fresh in our minds, despite the fact that Nikki and Cole's friendship takes precedence. Ashton never blurs the lines between these two, proving that the classic love triangle can and will be disregarded if need be. Instead, Ashton uses her main leads to their full potential, tying together mythology, relationship, and words in a seamless manner. Granted, the cliffhanger at the end of this novel is a real gut-ripper, but it's almost worth it considering the executive brilliance throughout this book. But only almost. ;)

Title: Evertrue (Everneath, #3)

Author: Brodi Ashton

Rating: 3 Stars

Although Evertrue is a satisfactory conclusion to this trilogy, I still found myself a little disappointed. First and foremost, Ashton must be commended in the way she resolved the love triangle between Nikki, Jack, and Cole. One of the only reasons I've been able to consistently continue with this series is because it is clear that Nikki loves Jack and Jack alone. Yet, the friendship she sustains with Cole - dark, vague, but still strong - is a lovely relationship that is gradually built upon with each novel. As such, the resolution of this romantic dilemma is not so much a surprise as it is a heartwarming farewell. While Evertrue excels in this regard, tying up all the loose ends neatly, it tends to lag in parts and, moreover, the inclusion of our full team of characters on board sadly detracts from the story as a whole.

Ashton's debut trilogy is such a departure from the classic set-up precisely because of its subject matter. Since it explores the ramifications of a mythological Greek Underworld set in our universe, not all the main characters have been present from Page 1. Whether it be Nikki, Jack, or Cole, each of them have spent an equal amount of time in both the Everneath and the Surface, though not always together. In Evertrue they're all finally reunited, different people from when they first met but similar in the ways that count most. Unfortunately, though, instead of utilizing this plot set-up to its full potential, Ashton sacrifices tell-tale character personalities for the sake of conveniently solving the dilemmas she has created. I cannot explain this any better without giving away spoilers, but while I expected Nikki, Jack, and Cole to fit into the molds we've come to associate them with, certain plot devices prevented that from fully occurring and, as such, took away from the overall enjoyment of this story.

While the pacing of this book is a slight issue, it is easily overlooked and forgivable. What isn't, however, so easy to let go of is the fact that Nikki's father and brother, secondary characters who have been present throughout the series, are ultimately not fleshed out to their full potential. Although Everneath may not have been the strongest debut, the raw emotions Nikki felt in being reunited with her broken family, lovesick boyfriend, and worried friends made the novel stand out. From the first word to the last, Ashton is a master at forcing her readers to feel every emotion, particularly if it is a complex one. With every installment, I've enjoyed how Ashton has pushed and pulled our perceptions of the characters we've come to love. Nothing remains in stasis, especially the gray matter apparent in these books which shifts around from one character to the next. With such detailed personas at our fingertips, the underused characters are starkly highlighted and, sadly, disappointing in comparison. Although I initially appreciated that Ashton kept Nikki's family a realistic element of this series, I wish that her father's role as Mayor was truthfully conveyed instead of standing as a convenient plot point (as does her summer classes, etc.).

And there, perhaps, is where my root issue with this book lies: convenience. While Nikki and Jack have been frantically chasing down contacts to find out more about the Everneath, a mere professor is able to decipher an old document and re-cap everything that Jack and Nikki have learned in the past two installments - and more! Fulfilling the task Nikki set out to achieve isn't simple, but it lost its sense of urgency since events snowballed into creating a solution. Evertrue is very firmly a reading experience: a reader from the outside looking at words on a page of how a challenge is overcome. Unlike with Everbound where the reader is practically in the tunnels with Nikki herself, this sequel failed to capture those same emotions. Nevertheless, the themes running through these books - fate, redemption, forgiveness, humanity, friendship, love - are all important ones that resonate even more soundly with each installment. Ashton's characters are impeccably drawn, her writing crisp and accessible, and her ideas creative in a genre starving for innovation. As such, despite the rough patches I ran into with this book, I'm definitely on board for whatever Ashton writes next.

Monday, January 27, 2014

I Almost Didn't Care: My Thoughts on Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor & Outcast by Adrienne Kress

Apathy. Indifference. It's a strange feeling, but a recognizable one. Lately, however, I haven't quite grasped it, but almost. I've shut the covers of books feeling...something. Only, not much. Weird? Very. Both Maybe One Day and Outcast are, objectively, very good books. I liked them, in fact. But I didn't love them and, for some reason, I don't have much to say about them either. 

Maybe One Day is only the second "cancer book" I've read but, just like The Fault in Our Stars, it made me tear up. Only, unlike Green's renown novel, Kantor's latest is a little less humorous, a little less romantic, and has a little less to take away from it too. Where Maybe One Day excels is in its portrayal of friendship. Olivia and Zoe, two high school juniors, have been best friends since the age of four. Ever since they met in dance class, they've had the type of friendship most people only dream  of or witness in the movies. Thus, when Olivia is diagnosed with leukemia, Zoe is devastated. 

Kantor builds up the friendship between these two teens beautifully. It isn't riddled with flashbacks, but just from their day-to-day interactions we are able to glean just how close the two are. As such, when tragedy strikes it isn't only Olivia who is affected, but Zoe as well. Now, Zoe is forced to be strong for her best friend, caught between comforting her and going on with her life. Kantor is unapologetic in her portrayal of both Olivia and Zoe. Both girls go through a series of complicated emotions in coping with their current situation and their friendship, but told from Zoe's point of view, this novel takes on a different subject matter than we're used to. After all, just how does it feel to be that awkward best friend in a hospital room, surrounded by your best friend's family members? Is it an intrusion or a welcome hand of support? And how does one continue through life, talking to other people, when such an event occurs? All of these questions - and more - are answered with such an honest appraisal. It isn't easy to see Olivia's family members act out, even at Zoe, in their grief but it is understandable, as is the growth that Zoe experiences for the first time - on her own - without her best friend by her side. 

I really appreciated that this novel took a no-nonsense stance on Olivia's treatment, explaining everything meticulously but also not focusing on it too much. Instead, it is the emotional relationship between these two girls - more sisters than friends - that takes center stage. Even the romance, a side story at best, with Calvin, the best friend of Olivia's older brother (who Olivia has a tiiiny crush on), is subtly handled. Admittedly, Zoe does come to have feelings for Calvin but instead of causing a rift between these friends, they genuinely want each other to be happy and both of their characters are so mature in the face of so much loss. Maybe One Day isn't a novel about grief, however. It's about living with someone who may not have much time left. Where my main issue with this novel arises is in the fact that, ultimately, there isn't much to take away from it. Is it sad? Gosh, yes, it's sad. We begin to feel Zoe's emotions right alongside her as Kantor draws us so deeply into the friendship between these two girls. As such, the writing is impeccable, pacing admirable, and growth of Zoe just right. Yet, where The Fault in Our Stars brings up fascinating questions about the purpose of our lives, infusing light humor into a dark tale, Maybe One Day didn't make me think much beyond the scope of the novel itself. It isn't a flaw, per se, but it does make this story an ever-so-slightly forgettable one. For fans of contemporary fiction, issue novels, or just gritty emotion this novel is a must-read which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. I just wish I could have taken more away from it.

Maybe One Day releases on February 18th, 2014. 

Outcast is a novel I enjoyed, but don't have very much to say about. It's about angels. Only...with a slight twist. Riley lives in a small Southern town where, once a year, angels drop down from the sky to take a handful of young humans up to the heavens with them. In her god-fearing town a Church of Angels has been built and instead of fearing the day the angels arrive, her neighbors have learned to celebrate it. On the third year the angels came, though, they took Chris, Riley's best friend and soon-to-be boyfriend. On the fourth year the angels came, Riley shot one. And it turned into a very attractive, but naked, young boy who believes it's the 1950s. Gabe.

Admittedly, this book wasn't what I expected. I think I flipped that first page thinking I'd get Angelfall only in a modern-day Southern setting instead of an apocalyptic one. Well, let's just say that Outcast has a lot less action, gore, or plain bad-assery. Yet, it was a very entertaining story. Gabe doesn't remember being an angel at all, so his admittance into modern-society is amusing to witness as is his developing friendship with Riley. And yes, you read that right: friendship. Riley still misses Chris and, moreover, she is angry. What she really wants are answers and if anything, those seem to be missing. Gabe has no celestial powers and even by attending the Church of Angels, he doesn't remember anything that happened to him in the last fifty years. As such, the plot of solving the mystery at hand is slow to emerge, focusing instead on the slow trust gained between Gabe and Riley.

When the mystery prevalent in this novel slowly begins to come together, I found myself far more immersed in the story. Not only is the pacing faster, but Riley's growth and change as an individual is far more apparent. Kress's portrayal of Southern society and high school is typical, but only at first as she soon embeds depth into even the most stereotypical of characters, making for a truly engaging read. Nevertheless, where Outcast truly shines is in its ending. It is a bittersweet one which made my heart ache, but in all the right places. Ultimately, Kress manages to write a novel with memorable characters whose story arcs are complex, but realistic with just a tinge of paranormal/fantasy thrown in. It wasn't enough to earn a spot on my favorites shelf and it definitely didn't rock my socks like I'd hoped, but it is a perfect read to lose yourself in. Recommended? Very much so.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Novella Review: Neverfall by Brodi Ashton (Salute Your Shorts, #5)

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly (ish) feature hosted by Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks. It highlights and reviews short stories and novellas, both of which don't receive too much attention in the blogosphere. 

Title: Neverfall (Everneath, #1.5)

Author: Brodi Ashton 

Rating: 3 Stars

I suppose that, when compared to other YA Novellas, Neverfall is kind of amazing. Yet, taking into account that the novellas I usually read are either written by Australian Authors (Melina Marchetta's Ferragost) or Adult Urban Fantasy Authors (Ilona Andrews), Neverfall fell short of the exemplary novella-writing I've come to expect when I crack open these short stories. While it was entertaining and kept me engaged (for the most part), I struggle to find the real purpose in it. Is there a point, because really, I would have picked up Everbound with excitement even without this filler piece. 

Neverfall is told from Cole's PoV and every few chapters or so, we are gifted flashbacks to Cole's meetings with Nikki and his perspective of their brief exchanges. In the present-day, however, Cole is desperately trying to find an answer to why Nikki was able to survive the Feed - and what the secret is to finding another human who can survive it too. Although the beginning of this novel is slow, and I did skim a few sections, it gradually picks up as Cole's quest takes him to places that we, as the reader, could have never imagined. In fact, I find myself being bowled over, once again, by the creativity Ashton uses throughout this series and her deft incorporation of Greek myth in a modern setting. I am still very much in love with it. 

Where this story fell flat for me, though, is my understanding of Cole. In Everneath it is very obvious that Cole has no real or true feelings for Nikki. We don't really have a love triangle on our hands as Cole simply wants Nikki so that he himself can survive for thousands and thousands of more years and, of course, gain power along the way. In Neverfall, this understanding of Cole is only confirmed as he is truly only interested in Nikki for what she can offer him. When extenuating circumstances force him to question his life and his reason for existence, however, he rapidly comes to the conclusion that he is, in fact, in love with Nikki. Now, I still firmly believe that Cole has an obsession with Nikki - nothing more, nothing less - even at the end of this short story, which really proves that this novella is pointless. Cole doesn't change and although it says he changed, we have nothing to substantiate that claim and his change of heart is so quick that it is missed in one small sentence. 

Nevertheless, I still enjoyed being back in this world, reading the banter between Cole and his best friend, Max, and re-familiarizing myself with the world Ashton created. If nothing else, Neverfall is a great reminder of what the Everneath Series offers and it throws in some creative new settings and mythology at the same time. Although I wouldn't have missed out on much - or lessened my understanding of Cole - if I had skipped this, Neverfall remains a must-read for all fans of Everneath. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

ARC Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

Title: Faking Normal

Author: Courtney C. Stevens

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: February 25th, 2014

Lately, I’ve grown very cynical. At least when it comes to Young Adult Contemporary. It’s no secret that I am constantly let down by this genre, my expectations of the reality it will expose shattered by over-used tropes, love triangles, and an ironic dose of the unreal. When Faking Normal fell into my hands, it was with little, or no, expectations at all that I cracked open its spine. Stevens’s debut already seemed a little too familiar; the girl on the cover, the gorgeous font, the too damaged protagonist. And, in many ways, Faking Normal is not a new story. It’s not meant to be, though. Instead, Faking Normal is the novel I’ve wished so many preceding titles could have been and, in my eyes, to finally tell a story the right way, without romanticizing a traumatic situation, is more profoundly moving than anything else.

Sadly, the first thing to stand out to me about Faking Normal is the fact that the main character, Alexi, and her two best friends, Liz and Heather, discuss sex. Extensively. And in a manner that is utterly nonchalant, proving how perfectly normal this occurrence is. For a novel that deals with rape and domestic abuse, it says a lot about this genre that a healthy discussion about sex with girlfriends is what stands out. Needless to say, it’s a rarity in this genre, though it should not be. Stevens never shies away from the plethora of “taboo” topics that girls discuss and, frankly speaking, the friendship between these three girls is refreshing. First and foremost, it is honest and real, never sugar-coating the complex relationships among these teens and, most importantly, treating their hurdles as insignificant. Although Alexi, Liz, and Heather all have their own set of stereotypes associated with them, as the novel wears on and secrets are revealed, it is proven that no one – and especially no one girl – fits the label she is given and that is okay. I find that this is a universal theme that truly needs to be emphasized more often, especially with modern-day media selling girls as one type or another. As the layers to these three friends are slowly peeled back, the raw truth is all the more beautiful as it arrives hand-in-hand with acceptance.

Nevertheless, while friendship is certainly a strong, and prevalent theme, throughout the novel, the bulk of Faking Normal deals with the trauma that Alexi and the boy-next-door, Bodee, have faced. When Bodee’s father murders his mother in a violent situation of domestic abuse, Alexi’s parents invite Bodee to live with them, particularly as Alexi and Bodee’s mother were best friends. While Alexi doesn’t know what to think of the Kool-Aid Kid whose hair is a different color every day, she learns to trust him as he recognizes the scabs on the back of her neck and keeps her secret. Both Alexi and Bodee, however, are unable to own up to the darkness inside of them. For Bodee, turning his father in seems like a no-brainer, but is surprisingly difficult. And for Alexi, even accepting the fact that she was raped this past summer – by someone she knew and trusted, no less – is even harder.

It is evident, throughout the novel, that Alexi is hurting; blaming herself for the rape, feeling an immense amount of guilt, and ultimately hating her perpetrator for stealing her virginity – something that she should have had the choice to give away. With her friends, Liz and Heather, discussing their own sexual encounters and first-times, Alexi cannot help but feel even more dirty and contaminated by her circumstances. In Bodee, however, she finds a true friend. Although Alexi and Bodee never become true confidants until much later in the novel, they help each other cope with their respective traumas. Bodee, for instance, attempts to wean Alexi off of the habit of picking at the skin on her neck just as Alexi tries to help Bodee feel safe enough so that he doesn’t feel the need to do pull-ups underneath the bed.

Stevens writes Faking Normal with such skill and poise that it is difficult to imagine this being only her first novel. Not only is her prose lilting and easy to lose yourself in, but it is sparse when needed and the words capture the raw emotions of these teenagers in a way nothing else possibly can. Although Bodee’s growth and hurt is only briefly touched upon throughout the story arc, we truly manage to delve inside Alexi’s head and heart, feeling her pain and sorrow and loneliness. While Alexi, unlike Bodee, still has her entire family with her, she is close with neither of them, least of all her sister Kayla whose dominating personality has always overshadowed her own. Thus, the relationship that blossoms between Bodee and Alexi, one of trust and friendship, carries so much weight throughout the novel. Moreover, the subtle romance that occurs between the two is understated, but heart-felt. For me, the best part is that the words “I love you” are never uttered – it doesn’t need to be. Faking Normal is so much more a story about the heavy weight and comprehension of complex emotions than the words that make them up, which is beautiful.

Stevens’s debut is a raw, gritty, and often brutal contemporary. None of the relationships in this novel are simple and the path towards healing is constantly a challenge, one step back for every two steps forward. It isn’t a dark, or even heavy read, however. Filled with the bustle of daily high school life, flirty jocks, and even a mysterious desk-writer nicknamed “Captain Lyric,” Faking Normal manages to be wildly entertaining, all while touching upon serious subjects in a poignant manner. I am, rarely, impressed by Contemporary YA, but this novel is worth every penny. I hardly need to say it, but if I do, then pre-order this one at once – it’s going to be a definite favorite this year. I can just tell.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Title: A Game of Thrones (Song of Fire and Ice, #1)

Author: George R. R. Martin

Rating: 4 Stars

I finished this book with a crick in my neck. For about the last two hours of reading, I couldn't even move from the uncomfortable position I had curled into on my giant green reading chair; I was just too absorbed in the book.

I've been meaning to read A Game of Thrones ever since the HBO TV Series began to gain critical acclaim, which means I've had this collecting dust on my shelves for the past two years. I'm not quite sure why I waited so long. I've read high fantasy before, but Martin's series is notably different from anything I've read before. For one, its plot isn't centered around a quest or even a particular goal of overthrowing a dark lord. Instead, it's a novel of power, politics, and intrigue. Exceedingly well-written, Martin crafts a story with as many characters as there are words, taking risks most authors would shy away from, but having them pay off by the end.

Although I understand why many readers are wary of these books - after all, their size could scare even a Gryffindor away, not to mention the multiple perspectives Martin packs into a couple hundred pages - but their main appeal, for me at any rate, is the truth of humanity found within the complexity of world-building, plot, and characters. While these characters may be preparing for literal wars, they are also fighting inner battles. Moreover, the people Martin writes of are not ordinary heroes - bastards, dwarfs, children - and nor are they black-and-white. For a fantasy novel to focus on these elements of characterization in a make-believe world opposed to a cut-and-dry quest with a common goal to achieve, the ambiguity of both the plot direction and character motives truly made this novel stand out for me.

Ultimately, despite the initial hesitations readers may have in picking up this novel, I would recommend it whole-heartedly. Although I typically shy away from books with multiple perspectives, the third-person narration throughout this novel made the point of view changes with each chapters accessible. And, what's more, I have already nagged my parents enough to get them to speed their way over the library so I can grab a copy of A Clash of Kings. In fact, it's sitting at the foot of my bed as I type this. (Sadly, A Storm of Swords is going to be harder to find...grr!) Excuse me now, I am off to read just how this game of thrones is about to play out.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ARC Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Title: Red Rising (Red Rising Trilogy, #1)

Author: Pierce Brown

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Release Date: January 28th, 2014

From the moment I finished Red Rising I knew I wanted to review it. Unfortunately, I also knew that words could do no justice to the sheer scope of the story contained between the gender neutral covers of Red Rising. And yet, I persisted. I wrote draft after draft, introduction after introduction, trying so desperately to get it right, to articulate what made this novel work when dozens of other dystopian series had failed for me. I wanted to write this review, not because I was required to by a publisher or needed to for a blog tour but rather because I wanted readers to pick up this book and just immerse themselves in the raw, brutal, but intelligent world Brown had created. Just to lose themselves in the onslaught of emotions and finish a post-apocalyptic novel loving not only the characters, but also loving the flood of new thoughts, knowledge, and queries that the book forced.  

Darrow, the protagonist of our tale, is a Red. In other words, he is a slave working beneath the surface of Mars to make the surface habitable for human occupation. For generations his family has lived in brutal, harsh conditions sacrificing their sweat and blood for the sake of humanity. After a series of events, however, Darrow uncovers the startling truth that the surface of Mars has been habitable for generations, ruled by Golds who leave the Reds underground, unable to enjoy the fruition of their labor. With nothing to lose and ruled by the hatred in his heart, Darrow trains to join the Golds, become one of them and infiltrate them from within, seeking the revenge he and his people so desperately deserve. In his plan to join a command school, however, Darrow doesn't realize that the school is a literal battlefield and in order to prove himself, he has to win...

While I hesitate to slap the "Young Adult" label on Red Rising, I do not hesitate to credit Brown with his impeccable writing style and meticulous world-building. Full of creativity and originality, the society Brown has created is deeply political, rooted in corruption but still thriving. It's a nation with imperfections deep within and by starting from the bottom but rising, slowly, to the top from Red to Gold we're able to glean a complete picture of the world at hand. Moreover, Brown paces his reveals gradually, taking time to develop his characters and, most of all, their growth. Darrow's own story is split into stages, realistically molding him from an ignorant Red to a furious Red to a vengeful Gold and then into a true weapon. Brown doesn't hesitate to reveal the ugliness to his society, but he also doesn't hesitate to uncover the positives - positives which throw Darrow off his game and force him to accept that not all Golds are evil, admissions which make his task that much harder.

While Red Rising starts off underground, the bulk of this novel is based on a battlefield. Although Darrow's transformation from a Red to a Gold is fascinating, as is his journey to joining a command school full of Golds, the true genius of this story emerges once Darrow has been accepted and after he is thrown into a war. Granted, there are proctors to watch over the events of this war but, for the most part, it is an all-out strategic affair between the students as they compete for the prized position of Primus. Darrow's growth simply within this "war" is astounding. Where he once held no power as a Red, he is now is possession of a tremendous store of power as a Gold. Moreover, he is handsome, strong, and charismatic - qualities that make him a prime leader - but ruling isn't as easy as he expects. Although he makes loyal friends, he also makes sworn enemies and as he travels from being on the top to once again sinking to the bottom, as he tries different methods of winning over men and keeping his armies, he grows into a deadly tool for he is quick to learn from his mistakes and driven, motivated to achieve his true purpose no matter what. 

Much of Darrow's inspiration comes from his wife, Eo. Darrow is, first and foremost, a feminist male narrator. All that means is that he respects women, takes their advice and opinions into consideration, and never looks down upon them. For him, Eo was a source of wisdom and guidance like no other and even among the Golds, this mentality never changes. Red Rising, with its gender neutral cover and male narration, will appeal to audiences of all ages, regardless of gender. As such, I am thrilled to see that this novel acknowledges women as equal without explicitly drawing attention to that fact. It is merely another part of the story, which I appreciate, though it sends a truly positive message to readers (one rather contrary than the gender stereotypes we are flooded with from the media on a day-to-day basis). Additionally, the romance in this novel is minimal at best. It isn't a focus - not in the least - and although I am curious to see its arc throughout the series, I remain most intrigued by the political shifts yet to come. 

Although the characters of Red Rising are young, Brown never shies away from tackling difficult subjects and, most of all, he forces his readers to think, to truly consider the best ways in which power can be used. Brown's debut may suffer from a bit of a lag in certain areas, but with the exception of those minor pacing flaws, it is a truly enticing novel, one to watch out for, pre-order, and count the days till. With just one book Brown has already made me a life-long fan - experiencing a rush of emotions just as fictional characters do will do that to you - and I am already staring at my calendar anxiously so that my finished copy of Red Rising will arrive and I can read it; again and again and again.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: Roses by G. R. Mannering

Title: Roses

Author: G. R. Mannering

Rating: 3 Stars

After having spent nearly an hour searching for the missing pages somewhere in the middle of my copy of Roses, I am forced to accept defeat. At just over three hundred pages, this is not a hefty volume and, sadly, not a complete one either. Although I enjoyed Mannering's debut immensely, its rushed ending, loose threads, and lingering questions leave quite a bit to be desired. After all, why write a "Beauty & the Beast" re-telling if the elements that make it a "re" telling are abandoned in favor of quickly fulfilling the "telling" aspect of the story? Quite frankly, I do not know.

I'd like to preface this review by apologizing if my voice seems bitter. I am. I am upset and rather irritable at present precisely because I was wholly invested into this tale, but found myself far from satisfied by the end. Roses, for all its flaws, however, is a truly magnificent tale. Set in a realm where magic is feared and those with Magic Blood are slaughtered mercilessly, young Beauty is a fearful enigma from the moment of her birth. With amethyst eyes and silver hair, she is unlike any normal human child and, once given to her aunt, Ma Dane of the House Roses, is kept away for much of her childhood. When, at last, the opportunity presents itself for Beauty - a name given in cruelty, mocking her strange appearance - to leave her home and live among the Hillside people far away, she leaps at the chance to escape and becomes the adopted daughter of Owain, the stable hand of the House Roses. It is from this point on where our tale becomes familiar, winding its way through the close bond that develops between Owain and Beauty, despite the hostility she receives even from the Hillside people, and thus the ill-fated rose that is plucked from a castle and speaks of Owain's demise finally comes into play, leading Beauty to the castle - and curse - of the Beast. 

Where Mannering shines is in her subtle world-building techniques. Roses takes place in a world much like our own world would have appeared, perhaps a hundred to two hundred years ago. And yet, it is also a world of magic. Beauty, whose appearance is shockingly different, is thought to be of Magic Blood all throughout her childhood although her guardian, Ma Dane, denies it. Yet, Beauty's dreams portend the future, as have the dreams of all from the House Roses, and for this reason she must run, fleeing those who wish her dead. While this realm, with its systematic genocide of those with Magic Blood, is dark, it is also incomplete. We come to know very little of the wars fought between those with Magic Blood and those without and, moreover, the scriptures that tell of Beauty's involvement in the struggle are inconsequential as they play a negligible role in this stand-alone. 

Roses takes time to build a fascinating scenario of Beauty, following her from her childhood to adulthood as she is discarded by many, loved by few, and universally feared. And yet, the questions we so desperately seek - where is her mother, who is her father, why haven't they seen her, why is she so important? - are never fully answered. Mannering offers us tidbits of information, presumably to keep readers satisfied, but I was far from sated. Additionally, the unveiling love story between Beauty and Beast is given minimal screen time. While we're given a thorough background into Beauty's life, truly growing to know her from inside and out, Beast is rather two-dimensional, bringing nothing new to this tale. Although his back story and enchantment is slightly different from that present in the original fairy tale, the bulk of his interactions with Beauty are unremarkable. I never felt much for these two as a romantic couple and though I enjoyed their time onscreen, I didn't miss it when it was absent and nor did I crave it for Beauty is an intriguing enough protagonist to keep readers engaged. 

Nevertheless, Beauty's tale practically eclipses that of the original "Beauty & the Beast" story line, which is ironically where this novel falters. Mannering manages to balance both for a time period, but towards the end, she is forced to abandon the plot lines she has created, quickly veering back to finish off the tail end of our re-telling. Thus, I found myself shutting this book with a bang of disappointment. Roses is certainly an entertaining tale, gripping in every way and bringing a well-deserved dose of originality to this tale, but it feels unfinished. Especially as it is a stand-alone, not the first in a new series. While to some readers this novel may feel like a romantic tale, I wished for more grit and flavor. Mannering turned down the opportunity to explore the diverse world she created, leaving her story as a mere re-telling instead of going beyond its scope to the political scheme at hand, the evil sorcerers running about, the importance of powerful amulets, or even the outcome of wars fought. Roses is such an incredible world, brimming of darkness and shadows that promise to keep you up at night, but sadly they are pushed aside. Needless to say, while Roses is, ultimately, the story it is marketed as - a Beauty & the Beast re-telling - I was disappointed that it wasn't the story it could have been. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

Title: The Caged Graves

Author: Dianne K. Salerni 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

When I think of the post-Civil War Era, I envision a nation torn apart by war, weary from years of struggle, and disheartened by life. I think of communities trying to re-build themselves, families joining together in companionship, and tentative smiles being shared over a dinner table. I think of the political strife in both the North and the South, the armies of soldiers kept to guard the untrustworthy South from resorting back to rebellion and the assassination of a beloved leader. I do not, however, think of Revolutionary War stories that haunt small towns, gold-digging visitors blinded by greed, or the graves of witches defiled both by the cages that stand over them and their blatant exclusion from holy ground. Now, though, it's practically all I can think about.

The Caged Graves is an incredibly atmospheric piece, immersing readers into the small-town life of 19th Century Pennsylvania where young men dream of growing farms, fathers ache to put the war behind them, and doctors yearn for the blissful ignorance they held prior to serving in the war effort. Verity Boone, having spent the last fifteen years away from her father and childhood home, finally returns to Catawissa, but not quite with the homecoming she's expecting. After agreeing to an arranged marriage with the most eligible bachelor in town, Verity is shunned by her new neighbors and distant from the father she never grew up with. Moreover, Nathaniel, the boy she has agreed to spend the rest of her life with, is a far different creature than his letters made him out to be. Although he is just as handsome - if not more - than his portrait alludes to, the shocking realization that Nate might have written his letters to Verity with a great deal of help from his sisters, potentially going so far as to have them select gifts for her, puts a damper on Verity's former excitement. After all, now she is stuck in the small town where she was born only this time, she is practically a stranger in her own household and, what's more, is about to marry a man who she realizes is not as familiar as she would have wished. Furthermore, to make matters worse, Verity discovers that her deceased mother and aunt are buried in caged graves, just outside the cemetery, and the quiet father she knows once used to fill his head with tales of buried treasure left over from the Revolutionary War. Already struggling to fit into her new home, Verity must now seek the answers to the questions regarding her mother's unexpected death and, most of all, the gold-diggers who still believe her mother's grave contains buried gold...

Where The Caged Graves shines is in its defiant portrayal of Verity, a heroine whose determination and flaws go hand-in-hand. From the first page itself, Verity's voice is seamless to slip into and her narration an enjoyment to read. While we first meet Verity on a train bound for Catawissa as a vivacious and energetic young woman, we quickly see her grow to make a niche for herself, despite the disappointments her homecoming brings. Moreover, it is Verity's unwavering stubbornness which drives the novel forward. Whether it be in her efforts to connect with the family she has grown without - father, uncle, aunt, cousins - or get to know her future husband, she is diligent and kind, not above letting her poised demeanor slip once in awhile, revealing the truly passionate girl that lurks within. Although The Caged Graves kept me glued to my seat from start to finish, the plot truly picks up once Verity uncovers the graves of her mother and aunt. From that moment on, Verity is an unstoppable force, going on with her day-to-day life while perusing her mother's diary entries and attempting to uncover the truth of her mother's death - a truth no one, especially not her father, will reveal to her.

It is an engaging mystery, paced impeccably and made all the more intriguing for the stories of buried treasure whispered through the winds of Catawissa. While these two plot threads seem to be quite distinct at first, they soon diverge to build the suspense already palpable within the story. Verity, as the novel wears on, hardly knows who to truly trust and though the ultimate reveal is a tad-bit anticlimactic, it is strangely satisfying. Moreover, the inclusion of the mystery throughout the novel only helps Verity's character to grow, change, and rise to challenges. Where she came to Catawissa prepared to wed, to run her own home and to deal with proper society, she did not expect to find so much mystery and mahem at her doorstep and, as such, the plot reveals hidden depths both to her character and those of the people who surround her as well.

And yet, for all the interest that the plot of this novel generates, not to mention Verity's indomitable nature, the romance still had me anxious, reeling, and swooning all at once. While there is, admittedly, a love triangle in this novel, it was one I enjoyed - embraced, in fact - as it built upon the plot and Verity's character both in admirable ways. For one, the inclusion of the love triangle is a welcoming admittance to the fact that Verity does, in fact, have options in life. Although Verity herself instigated her arranged marriage, for a woman during her time period to be able to choose who she wishes to marry is a freedom offered only to few. Henry, the assistant to the village doctor, is a far cry from Nate whose aspirations lie in successfully running his own farm. Not only does Henry make his interest in Verity clear, flattering her in the process, but his profession lends itself to a greater scope of knowledge which is attractive. Additionally, Verity feels safe with Henry, trusting him to help her solve the mystery of her mother's death and though her heart is firmly set in making a home for herself and Nathaniel, she cannot help but wonder how her life would be if she married someone different. The Caged Graves makes effective use of this love triangle, using it to mold Verity into a woman who eventually comes to stand by her beliefs and convictions. Moreover, the ability that Verity has to choose her future makes her a much more confident character and her doubts about her relationship with Nate, a man who seems obliged to court and marry her due to their arranged marriage situation and the fact that Verity's dowry included plenty of fertile land for the farm he dreams of owning, are realistic and this challenge is yet another one to overcome.
Attracted to both of them in different ways, yes - but how, at seventeen, was she supposed to recognize love? 
And though Verity considers another man, despite her engagement to Nate, he is still the one with whom her affections lie. At first, Nate is a difficult character to like. After all, he all but admits that his sisters helped him court Verity through letters and in person he is quick to follow his mother's orders, never taking the initiative to propose to Verity on her own. Nevertheless, rocky start aside, as Verity begins to spend more and more time with Nate, she comes to trust him, rely on him, and even admire the person he truly is. What Verity struggles with, throughout the novel, is identifying her feelings as love. Salerni touches upon this subject only briefly, but it is a lasting theme in the story as Verity, who comes to love her father, her extended family, and even the housekeeper who brought her up, is unable to identify if she loves Nate. While she once thought she did during their letter correspondence which began before she returned to Catawissa, she hesitates to throw the word around lightly. Moreover, doubts and hesitations stand in her way, as they do in every relationship. The Caged Graves, though a historical fiction novel with a mysterious plot line, takes the time to thoroughly flesh out its characters and their relationships to one another, creating complex story lines that are impossible not to become invested in. Yet, perhaps the best aspect of the romance is that I never truly took one side or the other; I wanted Verity to be happy. Salerni builds such a strong bond between the narrator and the reader that it is impossible to feel anything but happiness at the ultimate conclusion of this romantic dilemma, especially as it remains such an important emotional journey for Verity herself, integral to making her embrace the woman she becomes by the end of the novel.

Needless to say, The Caged Graves is near-perfect, drawing together real-life historical elements, fictional characters who feel life-like, and writing which flows seamlessly to create a novel that is not only impossible to put down, but impossible to forget. While I've been lucky enough to read The Caged Graves so early in the year, I already know it's one title I will be recommending for the next twelve months to come.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane

Title: You Had Me At Hello

Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Rating: 4 Stars

You Had Me At Hello is the best type of romance. And by that, I obviously mean that it is effortlessly humorous, realistic to a flaw, and downright witty. McFarlane writes a love story that is only part true love, with a main course of friendship, side dish of embarrassment, and a drink of nostalgia. What makes this contemporary novel work as well as it does is precisely because it tries, but not too hard. Unlike a Sophie Kinsella which will often have you in peels of laughter or Sara Manning which usually has my stomach up in anxious knots (all while sighing simultaneously, might I add!), McFarlane is a much-needed mix of the two: the delightful urge to keep flipping the pages to know what happens right alongside the clever humor.

Although You Had Me At Hello starts off present-day with Rachel and Ben, our protagonist and love interest, in their early thirties, there are plenty of flashbacks to their time spent together in university. Unlike most novels, though, there is no pattern to these flashbacks. If anything, they are few and far between, spaced just far enough to have readers curious, once again, about Rachel and Ben's past but not too close to deviate from the current story at hand. And what a story it is!

Rachel, after dating Rhys for thirteen years, suddenly realizes that he isn't the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with. While the two have been together since before Rachel went off to college, their honeymoon period ended a long time ago and, unfortunately for her, she's realizing just a little too late. And so, off comes the engagement ring and on to packing Rachel goes, heartbroken at ending such a comfortable relationship and nervous for her future. Once moved in to the new apartment she finally finds, however, Ben shows up. Or rather, Caroline - one of Rachel's close friends from her college days - sees him in the library and before she can quite talk herself out of it, Rachel finds herself in the library too, "accidentally" bumping into Ben.

After ten years, there are obvious differences in her ex best friend. Rachel and Ben used to be inseparable throughout college, constantly a source of support for one another until, suddenly, Ben disappeared and the two lost contact. Now, seeing each other after ten years is both a pleasant surprise and an unwelcome shock. Especially since Ben is happily married. But Rachel only wants to reinstate their lost friendship and though she is still in love with her best friend after all these years, not all loves are meant to be...or are they?

First and foremost, I should make one thing perfectly clear: this is not a cheating book. No sirree. You Had Me At Hello transitions perfectly from Rachel's present-day dilemmas back to her university days, back when she was dating Rhys and Ben was obviously in love with her. McFarlane times her reveal perfectly, keeping the true reasons for Ben's sudden departure and Rachel's tumultuous feelings hidden until almost unbearable. And yet, it never feels as if information is being purposefully withheld. Rachel's day-to-day life is incredibly honest, chronicling her life as a journalist to the struggles she faces at work, the discussions within her friend circle, and a frank representation of her own difficulties launching back into the dating world.

At 31, having just broken off her engagement to the man she has been dating for 13 years, Rachel isn't in the ideal situation. Moreover, her single friend, Mindy, is also in the same boat as Rachel is: early thirties with no sight of The One. McFarlane presents us with a variety of couples, from Caroline's marriage to Ben's and the honesty with which these relationships are depicted, not to mention the stigma of remaining a single woman past her prime childbearing years without a husband, two children, and the white picket fence, is appealing. Since it is so rare to see this topic approached in such an honest manner, with equal parts optimism, I found it to be a pleasant inclusion. You Had Me At Hello isn't all fun smiles and laughs, dry sarcasm and true wit; it's also the harsh reality of living life either with someone you know isn't The One or with no one at all.

Of course, because this is a contemporary romance there is plenty of swoon-worthy love story in this book too, but I truly loved the raw conversations and bonds established between Rachel's friend circle. If there's anything she does have it's a close group of tight-knit friends who have got her back and a fantastic job that keeps her on her toes. Another friendship Rachel discovers she still has is Ben's. It is impossible not to root for these two after reading about their university friendship, but despite the ten-year gap in conversation and initial awkwardness, Rachel and Ben discover that despite the odds - particularly Ben's wife! - they can still fall back into their easy and trust-worthy friendship. All of these relationship arcs are perfectly paced, being just slow enough to swoon over and melt into, but not too slow as to cause the mind to wander.

I've found that there is just something about giant contemporary novels that grab me. And maybe - just maybe - it's because in all those extra pages, there is more true honesty and raw feeling about life, its relationships, and its struggles than is possible for a shorter novel to encompass. With these larger volumes, not only do I find myself reflecting, thoughtful and contemplating the issue at hand, but I also find myself drawn into the story, characters, and romance in a much more intelligent manner. Needless to say, You Had Me At Hello is a delightful read, perfect for a cold wintery day, and one I do not hesitate to recommend. After all, it did have me at hello! ;)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review: Foreplay by Sophie Jordan

Title: Foreplay (Ivy Chronicles, #1) 

Author: Sophie Jordan

Rating: 4 Stars

Do me a favor and disregard everything you've heard about this book. (Especially if you've read the synopsis.) And, while you're at it, throw out those pre-conceived notions you may have looking at the cover or title of this novel.

Hmm...ready to listen? Foreplay is, in a few simple words, a genuinely good New Adult title.

Now that you've gone off in a huff, called me crazy, shut down your laptops and hastily logged back in, I'll use a few more words, shall I?

Jordan's Foreplay is about Pepper. From the first page itself, Pepper is in love with Hunter Montgomery, her best friend's older brother. Unlike the Montgomery's, Pepper's life has been far from perfect. Instead of a nuclear family she's dealt with a deceased father and missing mother, being brought up by her grandmother. Instead of family vacations to Disney land and an atmosphere of safety, Pepper has never been able to let go of the past she led running from one place to the next when her mother was still around. Needless to say, for as long as Pepper can remember, Hunter Montgomery has been the symbol of all she has ever hoped for: safety, security, and love. Now that he's finally single, though, after two years in a committed relationship, Pepper has no idea how to woo him over.

Enter: Reece. Or, as most people would rather call him, sexy bartender. While Reece isn't the type of guy Pepper would ever go for - and neither is the goody-two-shoes beauty the type of girl he'd usually pick either - the two are strangely drawn to one another. And Pepper, hoping for an experienced guy to teach her a few tricks of the trade, happily launches onto Reece to become that person. What she doesn't expect is the unexpected intimacy - and genuine feeling - that creeps into her heart after spending so much time with him. After all this time, is Hunter really the one she wants? Or is it someone else?

Although Foreplay doesn't necessarily sound as original as, say, mutant zombies in space wielding katanas and riding space unicorns (I just made that up...), in comparison to other New Adult reads, it genuinely does stand out. (Besides, isn't the summary I just gave you far better than the nasty internet rumor going around of Foreplay being about a girl who wants to lose her virginity?)

1. This is a story about broken people who do NOT heal one another. Both Reece and Pepper haven't lead the best or more comfortable lives, but they fall in love despite those issues, not because they expect to change each others lives. Moreover, Jordan never sugarcoats their romance. Every issue that Reece and Pepper start out with in the beginning of the book is carried over to the end, but that only strengthens the bond between these two.

2. Zero Slut Shaming. Zero. First off, Pepper doesn't want to lose her virginity in this book. She is more than happy to stay a virgin until she finds the right guy, but she doesn't look down upon those with different attitudes either. Are there still women who "thrust their cleavage" and what-not? Of course, but these are treated as observations and never explicitly remarked upon, which I appreciated. It's all too common for New Adult books to veer into sexism or misogyny because alpha-males are trying to hard, but Jordan avoids that issue with this book quite adeptly.

3. Friends. Real Ones. Emerson and Georgia, Pepper's close college friends, though leading different lifestyles than Pepper are watching out for her regardless. If she isn't comfortable in a situation and they're about to land a hot date, they do the right thing and make sure Pepper gets home instead of ditching her for their one-night stand. Friendship. It exists in NA. *gasp*

4. College Exams/Dorm Life/Jobs. Everyone in this book is young, but they deal with regular activities like a job, parties, exams, having dorm rooms and suite mates. It's so blessedly normal and the fact that this existence is even acknowledged outside the romance is a plus point in favor of this novel. (Yes, that's how bad NA has gotten...)

5. A respectful romance. What I really appreciated with this one was how little angst was present. Reece knows that Pepper wants Hunter for safety and comfort and though he has feelings for her - and her for him that she refuses to acknowledge - he's mature and let's her find her way on her own without ever forcing himself on her. Reece only goes as far as Pepper is willing, never telling her that she'll enjoy more or trying to please only himself. It's a strong, mutual relationship in which both parties give and take, compromising in a realistic, but equal, manner.

If those aren't five promising reasons to pick this one up, then I don't know what are! Seriously - give this one a shot. You won't be disappointed.

P.S. - If you are a frequent user of GoodReads, then I'd encourage checking out Emily May's NA Experiment which has never led me astray. If you aren't already aware of this, I'd urge you to keep track of these reviews. Not only have they helped me find decent NA reads, but they're wonderfully written too. Thanks Emily May! :)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Showcase Sunday (#30)

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:
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I received Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory awhile back but still haven't gotten around to reading it, simply because I am terrified of issue books. I will, however, read it because the reviews for it have been simply stunning so far. I did, though, read both The Art of Lainey, which I really enjoyed, and Royally Lost, which I didn't care much for. Red Rising is the next ARC I'm planning to tackle - I have high expectations for this one! - and I have no doubt that both The Vanishing Season and Of Metal and Wishes will be spectacular as I love their authors so much.

I've loved both these books from the moment I first read them a few years back and have finally gone out and bought copies for myself to read and re-read. And yes, I really did go through the lengths to acquire the cover of Chime shown above. I absolutely detest the new paperback. *shudders*

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I absolutely LOVED Jenn Bennett's latest, Bitter Spirits, and though I wasn't a fan of Roses, I am hoping to enjoy the rest of my library haul. I have a fair mix of Adult and YA Novels, from old favorites such as Sarah Addison Allen and Swati Avasthi to new authors I am excited to try like Yangszhe Choo and Rachel Bach. Either way, my reading schedule looks quite good for the coming weeks! (And, hopefully, these books can carry me through the endless wait for A Storm of Swords as it takes forever to become available in my library!)

What new books have you received this week? I'd love to see, so link me up if I haven't already stopped by to visit! :)