Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review: Down London Road by Samantha Young

Title: Down London Road (On Dublin Street, #2) 

Author: Samantha Young

Rating: 4 Stars

Young surprised me, nearly a year and a half ago, when she released On Dublin Street. Usually, I struggle with the romantic genre, but despite the cookie-cutter appearance of On Dublin Street, its unexpected depth, warm characters, and complex love story won me over, heart and soul. By the time Down London Street rolled around, however, I bought myself a copy and proceeded to forget about it in the hidden depths of my Kindle. It got lost somewhere in my TBR Collection and though I would glance over its cover online, the synopsis failed to capture my attention and it slipped my mind. Again.

Desperately in the mood for an intense, all-emotions-consuming romance, however, I stumbled upon Down London Road and, re-calling the roller-coaster ride of emotions I went through while reading On Dublin Street, prayed that Young's sequel would be even half as good as its predecessor. From the moment I began reading Down London Road, though, I already knew it would exceed my every expectation. Quite simply put, Jo's narration sucked me in. While I re-called her character - and the worst aspects of her persona - quite vividly from On Dublin Street, I expected only to like her grudgingly, as the novel wore on and revealed her many layers. Yet, from the first few sentences itself, Jo's heart and soul were laid bare with her frank, honest voice which bled through the pages and I found myself a goner, re-evaluating everything I knew about Joss's friend and sympathizing with her every step of the way.

Stuck caring for her alcoholic mother and younger teenage brother, Jo's life has been far from easy. While juggling two jobs, she finds the time to snag rich, older men in the hopes that marriage and wealth will solve the plethora of problems she finds herself facing every morning. Accompanying her current "sugar daddy" at an art exhibition, Jo meets Cameron, a sexy young graphics designer who takes one look at her and immediately judges her. Long past caring what others think of her, Jo shakes off Cameron's rudeness and finds him a job as a bartender, working alongside her. As Cameron gets to know Jo, however, stripping away the layers of her day-to-day facade and acknowledging his prior errors in judging her too quickly, the two form a fast friendship and grow to unexpectedly trust one another as well; somewhere along the way, love slips in.

What I've come to appreciate about Young's romances are the fact that they so effortlessly subvert tropes. While the romance genre is known for its general predictability, Young forces her strong, independent, and intelligent protagonists to confront their own personal problems and face them. During crucial moments of common misunderstandings, Jo deigns to discuss her issues with her boyfriend, not hide them from him and stew in silent agony. While that isn't to say that Jo faces her own set of troubles at every corner, it makes for a painless read as Jo fails to stumble into the tell-tale potholes that countless romantic heroines have found themselves in. Jo even goes so far as to steer clear of the problems Joss faced in On Dublin Street which only made me appreciate Young further. Instead, the dilemmas brought up throughout this narrative are real, harrowing ones. It is impossible to feel emotionally detached from Young's characters and, as a result, my heart ached and my pulse quickened with every new problem brought forth.

Down London Road isn't the easiest of reads to breeze through, but the character relationships - everything from friendship to strong sibling bonds to true love - are strong, vital components that drag this novel forward. Young is a master at complexity, but she has also mastered the art of conveying the heart within her novels into our own hearts as well. Down London Road was just the sort of riveting, engaging read I needed to propel me out of a reading slump. Moreover, it certainly didn't hurt that I met a couple of unforgettable characters along the way.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Just Another...Book Crush (#14): What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzpatrick

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. 

Reader, I've been dying to share this post with you since I first read it in February, believe it or not. Huntley Fitzpatrick's sophomore novel, What I Thought Was True, remains my absolute favorite contemporary read of the year and I couldn't resist the urge to invite her on the blog after it nestled its way into my heart. I only hope you all love her novel - and this post! - as much as I do.

Gwen Castle's Biggest Mistake Ever, Cassidy Somers, is slumming it as a yard boy on her Nantucket-esque island this summer. He's a rich kid from across the bridge in Stony Bay, and she hails from a family of fishermen and housecleaners who keep the island's summer people happy. Gwen worries a life of cleaning houses will be her fate too, but just when it looks like she'll never escape her past—or the island—Gwen's dad gives her some shocking advice. Sparks fly and secret histories unspool as Gwen spends a gorgeous, restless summer struggling to resolve what she thought was true—about the place she lives, the people she loves, and even herself—with what really is.
As a teenager, I felt like all I did was make mistakes. I fell in love too hard, too easily and way too permanently. I talked (babbled) at the wrong times and was completely lost for words at other crucial times. I could not for the life of me love the guy who gave me his heart but handed over mine without question to the one who couldn’t. And I looked all around in books to find someone like me. 

There are a lot of heroines out there whom everyone seems to love. Rose in the Eight Cousins book was the first one I encountered. Louisa May Alcott’s heroine had seven boy cousins and they ALL loved her. Bella Swan is another—she moves into Forks and the entire male population of the high school succumbs to her charms. 

I just always liked the rougher, tougher, less charming girls. Jo, from Little Women. Laura Ingalls, from the Little House books, with her stubbornness and her anger, her honest jealousy. Scarlett O’Hara, no one’s good girl. Janie Crawford from Their Eyes were watching God, t ough and true enough to do all she could to save her own life. Meg, from A Wrinkle in Time, whose faults turned out to be her salvation. None of them waited around to be saved. When the hero fell for them, it felt earned…real, in a way the perfect boy falling for the perfect girl never can.

So, that’s where Gwen Castle, from WHAT I THOUGHT WAS TRUE, came from. I wanted a heroine who was far from perfect, and a hero who loved exactly that about her, who recognized that about her. I wanted to write someone who made mistakes, hurtful ones, and learned from them. Who loved her imperfect family for its imperfections, the seemingly perfect boy because she saw his flaws and understood that he struggled with them, and tried to do better, and who finally could love herself, faults and all.

Just Another...Book Crush!

Aristotle and Dante Explore the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
I read the summary of this and thought,” Well okay, I’ll read it, even though I know exactly what will happen.” But nothing, NOTHING, about this book happened the way I expected. It is that rare heartfelt, real book where there’s not a single cliché. The characters love one another because they are genuinely there for one another, time after time, difficult circumstance after more trouble. They show up, turn from confused fifteen year olds to seventeen year olds who know what they want (even if it takes the very last chapter for one of them to figure it out) They don’t have distant, absent, lost parents…both are from families who love them for exactly who they are. The lost brother doesn’t get redeemed, but the distant father unexpectedly, the world disapproves but they find their way through…it’s all so perfect, in the imperfect way that is the best of books…and life. 

How To Love by Katie Cotugno
Sawyer LeGrande is a mess, and Reena Montero loves him anyway. And this could be the basis for a lot of cheesy love songs and bad books with abusive heroes and passive codependent heroines. But How to Love is nothing like that at all. It’s a brilliantly written story of two people who share an honest love, with so many issues of timing and circumstance getting in between that, how they find their way across the gulf. Told in time past, and time present, this book will make you ache and cry and laugh and rage. Intelligent but lost hero, smart but derailed heroine. The way they find one another. So so good. 

Like No Other by Una LaMarche.
“Romeo and Juliet” –like story gets tossed around a lot. And I majored in English Lit and Shakespeare, so I don’t toss this around lightly. But this is the real deal. Bittersweet, original, incredible. About a pair of teenagers from completely, diametrically opposed backgrounds, backgrounds they genuinely believe in, who fall into an improbable but genuine love. This book is ‘bittersweet’ in every good way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and about the good hearts and thoughtful minds of the hero and heroine.

I absolutely loved Gwen, precisely because of her flaws. Thanks for sharing, Huntley, and I'm off to add these recs to my TBR at once! (Aristotle and Dante is a favorite of mine, so if you haven't already read it, READ IT!)

P.S. -- You can read my gushing review of What I Thought Was True HERE in case you missed it last month!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn

Title: Royal Airs (Elemental Blessings, #2) 

Author: Sharon Shinn 

Rating: 3 Stars

Note: This reviews contains NO SPOILERS for Troubled Waters, the first book in this series, though you can read my review for that HERE if you'd like.

Fa la la la la, la disappointment!

Frankly speaking, I didn't expect Royal Airs to be particularly memorable after Troubled Waters. I mean, how could I? It wouldn't have been fair of me to hold this sequel to the same standards I held its predecessor, not after absolutely loving the first novel in this series intensely.

But this?

It isn't that Shinn's Royal Airs is necessarily a bad book, but it just isn't a good one either. It picks up five years after Troubled Waters from the perspective of Josetta, Zoe's half-sister, who runs a shelter for the homeless in the slums of Welce. Once a princess, now merely an idol for the crown, Josetta has discovered her purpose outside of the palace. Corene, Zoe's step-daughter, however, hasn't been as lucky. Especially not with the influence of her scheming mother and former queen, Alys, hanging above her head. In an effort to escape Alys's latest husband, Corene runs to find Josetta in the slums of Welce, only to run into a gambler: Rafe. Not surprisingly, after becoming involved with Princess Corene and then Princess Josetta, Rafe unknowingly ties himself to the royal family. Before long, Rafe and Josetta have struck a tender friendship, the future of the crown is put to the test, and foreign dignitaries are arriving in Welce: again.

From the beginning itself, Rafe is singled out as unique; an individual who possesses no blessings. In Welce, the custom of having blessings chosen for you is regarded as an important ritual, but only ghost blessings are ever chosen for Rafe. Royal Airs is told in alternating perspectives from both Rafe and Josetta, but despite this intrusion into Rafe's mind, I found that his character quickly lost his original charm. When we first meet Rafe, he is an enigma. After all, who doesn't receive blessings? Instead of this seguing into an intriguing study of Rafe's unique personality, this tid-bit is merely used as a leveraging point to emphasize just how special Rafe is - a quality which winds up becoming conveniently important as the novel wears on. Without these interesting tags to pin upon him, though, Rafe is nothing special, as far as love interests go.

Josetta, too, doesn't fare much better. I enjoyed her narration, certainly, not to mention the close bonds she shares with Corene, Zoe, and Darien, but aspects of her voice fell flat. For one, I find it difficult to fully fathom that a Crown Princess could live and run a shelter in the slums with such ease. Even beyond the credibility of her back story, however, Josetta lacks the uncertainty and confusion that characterized Zoe during the beginning of Troubled Waters. With Royal Airs neither Josetta nor Rafe undergo any monumental amount of change or growth, which I found to be disappointing. If anything, their interactions are blessedly tame; complacent and dull. Where Zoe and Darien lit the page with their strong personalities, Josetta and Rafe undergo an extremely normal courtship. Admittedly, I enjoyed their slowly developing friendship, but it lacked the spark - the sizzling chemistry, if you will - that was distinct between Zoe and Darien. Royal Airs is, significantly, more romantic than Troubled Waters was and though I did not mind this in the least, I longed for the feeling of a deeper, simmering love than those of a quick, sweet infatuation. Shinn is, as always, a master at writing love stories - which remains true even in this installment - but I found myself distanced from this romance, unimpressed with the balance of character personalities, and ultimately disappointed that Josetta and Rafe lacked both the individual and coupled strength that Zoe and Darien were known for.

Royal Airs is slow to start, as I mentioned, but once it hits its stride, its quite the entertaining journey. While I found that the plot revolved a little too conveniently around Rafe and the unexpected plot twists he brought to the page, I absolutely loved the role that Corene and Darien played in this novel. More than Josetta, it is Corene who stands out in this sequel. Caught at a difficult time period in her life, feeling unwanted and confused, Corene is a mass of complex emotion - one I wanted to be involved in. I am certainly looking forward to getting to know her in the sequel, quite desperately, only because Corene is the strong, vivacious, and intricate heroine I look for in a novel. Josetta, in comparison, who is quietly fierce, is a character I love but one who makes for a poor protagonist due to the fact that much of her life is already figured out, orderly and neat. Nevertheless, main characters aside, the character who - yet again - stole the limelight (and my heart!) was Darien. In Royal Airs, Darien continues to play a large political role in the conduct and ruling of Welce, but he continues to surpass my wildest expectations. From the outside, Darien isn't an easy person to like, so seeing Rafe slowly gain respect for him over the course of the novel was an interesting relationship to watch unfold. Moreover, Darien's cleverness and loyalty are showcased so clearly in this installment, right alongside his flaws just as they were in Troubled Waters. Needless to say, it was more than just a little bit satisfactory to read about one of my favorite characters in all his complex glory. While I wished we could have had even just one teensy romantic gesture shared with Zoe, I have no complaints whatsoever when it comes to my favorite couple (or their adorably cute daughter)!

Unfortunately, however, Royal Airs remains a sore disappointment. Troubled Waters works perfectly as a stand-alone - and an absolutely brilliant novel - but I certainly wished for a slightly more enticing welcome back to Welce. Shinn's sequel is slow, riddled with characters who lack true conflicts and complex personalities, not to mention they are quick to be saddled with the role of the "Chosen One" archetype. While the overarching plot to this series remains intriguing and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be reading the sequel, perhaps with considerably less enthusiasm. (Unless, of course, Darien Serlast is in it... *sigh*)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Shadowy Horses

Author: Susanna Kearsley 

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: I found it difficult to write my review of The Shadowy Horses without comparing it to the first novel I read by Kearsley, The Winter Sea. As a result, though both these novels are stand-alones, I discuss minor aspects of The Winter Sea in order to paint a better picture of The Shadowy Horses as a separate entity. Thus, just to confirm, this review contains no spoilers for The Winter Sea, though you can read my review for it HERE if you'd like.

The Shadowy Horses, oddly enough, threw my preconceived notions regarding Kearsley's work right out of the window. After having read The Winter Sea, I expected Kearsley's prose, plot, and characterization to follow a similar pattern, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. While her writing style does, once again, transport readers into a rich, ethereal atmosphere, little else about The Shadowy Horses was similar to The Winter Sea. Yet, despite the fact that Kearsley lacks a formulaic approach, the way most authors with a large back log tend to have, I fell in love with The Shadowy Horses just as much as I did with The Winter Sea, albeit in a slightly different way. 

Verity, the protagonist of The Shadowy Horses, is a far cry from the gentle personalities shared by both Carrie and Sophie of The Winter Sea. Instead, I find her to be a much more modern, ambitious woman, driven by her passion for her history and her belief in the impossible. When she arrives in the Scottish Borderlands on an excavation, she knows nearly nothing about her mission. It isn't too long, however, before she realizes that this dig isn't for just a mere artifact or two, but rather for the lost Ninth Roman Legion. And, the only evidence substantiating that the army is, in fact, on this property? Merely the word of a young boy, Robbie, who claims to have seen the ghost of a Roman Sentinel roaming the grounds. Before Verity can dismiss the excavation as a fraud, however, and simply walk away, the ghosts around her force her to question not only her sanity, but everything she has ever believed to be true. 

Oddly enough, I found the presence of the plot to be diminished in The Shadowy Horses. Although its premises is intriguing, as is the mystery contained within these pages, The Winter Sea seemed far more focused on a direct plot line than this novel did. Yet, that isn't a detriment in the least. The Shadowy Horses focuses on Verity and, moreover, her interactions with those around her. As Verity becomes part of the lifestyle at this excavation, forming relationships with those at the dig, she finds it harder and harder not to care and simply walk away. In fact, she eventually doesn't want to at all for she finds herself believing Robbie too. 

What's more, the enigmatic presence of Davy, another archaeologist on site whose family ties him to the Scottish Borderland, is a little too distracting to turn away from. Despite the fact that The Winter Sea contained not one, but two, romances, The Shadowy Horses is the more romantic of these two novels, perhaps because the romance is not quite so understated or perhaps, simply, because there is space to focus largely on the development of one sole romance. Whatever the reason may be, I enjoyed the love story that played out between Davy and Verity far more than I did either of the romances in The Winter Sea - and I really adored those romances when I read them. Needless to say, there was something tangible about the relationship between Davy and Verity, something about the chemistry sizzling in the air between them, that made me fall head-over-heels for their slow-burn love. Or, perhaps, it is simply the fact that I enjoy Verity far more as a protagonist than I did Carrie or Sophie of The Winter Sea.

With The Winter Sea, Kearsley's driving purpose is to finish the story: finish the story Carrie is writing about Sophie, finish the story she herself is writing about these two heroines to give them an ending worthy of their distinct personalities. With The Shadowy Horses, however, the historical aspects are not so much the main focal point as much as the general atmosphere of the novel is. Verity becomes entrenched into this small town, complete with its belief in Robbie's "second sight" as they like to call it. For a practical, intelligent woman to succumb to local legend, all while falling for a born-and-bred Scot in the process, somehow appealed to my senses just a tiiiny bit more. It helps, too, that she fights off exes with ease, truly harboring no lingering feelings for them to the point where she can work comfortable alongside them to further her career. All the little aspects to Verity's personality molded together into a protagonist I truly did love and hold dear to my heart. 

Nevertheless, it seems that with Kearsley one aspect of the story or another seems to be sacrificed along the way. As I mentioned, the historical aspects to The Shadowy Horses weren't as strong as they were in The Winter Sea, a disappointment due to the fact that I became intensely involved in the Jacobite Revolution while reading the former in a way I never became while reading the latter, concerning the Ninth Roman Legion at any rate. Still, both these novels are incredible works of historical fiction - beautifully written, richly crafted, and widely researched. In my eyes, no one book is better than the other, the positives and negatives of both neatly balancing one another. If it isn't already clear, Susanna Kearsley is a must-read for fans of historical fiction. (And, trust me, if you enjoy romance in any capacity you'll want to meet Davy...for sure!) 

Monday, April 21, 2014

ARC Review: The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

Title: The Art of Lainey

Author: Paula Stokes

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: May 20th, 2014

After varsity soccer play Lainey Mitchell gets dumped by her popular boyfriend, Jason, in front of her co-workers no less, Lainey resolves to get him back, no matter the cost. With the help of her best friend Bianca, the two scout the internet for tips - to no avail. The Art of War, however, an ancient Chinese text referred to when fighting battles, seems to perfectly suit their needs. And thus, Lainey launches an all-out war to win back her ex-boyfriend, employing Micah, one of her co-workers, to help her out. As Micah recently broke up with his girlfriend, the tattooed teen agrees to fake-date Lainey in an effort for them both to win back their respective significant others. As their charade heightens, however, Lainey begins to realize that she has always wanted may not necessarily be what she really needs...

The Art of Lainey, from the get-go itself, is a refreshingly feminist novel. Ever since Lainey fell into the popular crowd in high school, she has stopped being tomboy Lainey and started being the girlfriend of Jason, her best friend's older brother. In fact, the two have been dating for so long that Lainey can't even imagine life without him by her side. In short, from the time span between middle school and high school, Lainey has been living as Cinderella; the girl who went from nothing to something. After her unexpected break-up with Jason, however, Lainey is more concerned with facing her day-to-day life than her reputation. Like any teen, Lainey is loathe to embrace change and break-ups are difficult, drawn-out affairs that force individuals to realize that not only do they crave the simplicity of their lives prior to the break-up, but they also are simply unprepared for the possibilities that change brings. Instead of running back to Jason, though, or moping in silence, Lainey forces herself to get up, get out, and get her man.
For a second, I imagine going back as someone other than Jason Chase's girlfriend. My heart starts to race. Who would that girl even be?                                                                          I don't want to find out. 
While I'm not a fan of the fake boyfriend/girlfriend trope, I really appreciated the fact that Lainey is portrayed as an aggressive heroine. Not only is she extremely tall and muscular, to the point where she can be considered "buff", but her tumultuous feelings - anger, disappointment, shock, fear - are never suppressed. Instead, Stokes writes Lainey for the confused and complicated young woman she is and, by doing so, has unapologetically created the type of protagonist I scourge the pages of books trying to find. First and foremost, it is practically impossible to stick Lainey into any type of preconceived box. If we weren't given a description of her appearance, her narration would read just like any other popular student. Instead, however, her physical description forces her to stand out from the Mean Girl-esque Barbie dolls that plague our mind when we think of popularity in high school. Additionally, her close friendship with Bianca, a curvy young girl who has been Lainey's friend since childhood, is a far cry from the majority of childhood friendships which seem to fizzle out after high school is hit. Yet, perhaps most importantly, Lainey's aggressive stance regarding her boyfriend's behavior is never chided or looked down upon. In fact, everyone from her friends to her co-workers support her in her endeavor, despite its unconventionality. For me, the fact that Stokes gives her heroine free rein over her life, no matter the results or the morality of the situation or just the unprecedented nature of the event, is a large stepping stone in presenting a sensible, rational, but independent type of modern-day teenager.

Admittedly, Lainey's narration starts off rather shallow. After having been with only one clique for the majority of her teen years, she comes in with a slew of preconceived notions about Micah whose mohawk, tattoos, and jail sentences spell him out as the complete opposite of Jason. Gradually, though, as the story wears on, Lainey begins to change. Stokes times this impeccably, giving Lainey an ample amount of time to see the world around her in a new light, argue her own perspectives, and then come to understand and appreciate the views of others around her. In fact, the evolution of values that Lainey holds dear change so slowly that she herself doesn't even realize the extent to which she has altered as a person until she attempts to ingratiate herself back into her old lifestyle. As Lainey embarks on her "war" to win back Jason, though, she also allows herself to open up to new experiences she hadn't considered before and, as a result, is a far cry from the fearful teenager she starts out as, unwilling to let go of her past.

Micah, too, grows and changes from his friendship with Lainey, their relationship affecting them both in different ways. Once again, the build-up of emotion between these two is subtle and quite minimal, in fact, as they are both rather determined to win back their exes, but their relationship is a strong one precisely because they challenge one another. Instead of forcing Lainey to accept his lifestyle or vice versa, Lainey and Micah introduce each other to different aspects of their respective lives. And perhaps best of all, Micah isn't intimidated by Lainey, willing to dish it right back to her when she is too stubborn or simply acting too shallow to notice obvious facts staring her in the face. Thus, Stokes does away with so much unnecessary drama and angst, instead introducing both Lainey and Micah to an equal footing in their strange - and undefined - relationship.

What else does Stokes perfect? Friendships. I've already mentioned how Bianca and Lainey's continued support of one another from childhood to the teenage years isn't a relationship that is seen too often in Contemporary YA, but it truly only gets better from there. For one, Bianca and Lainey are already considering their future-lives after high school. Bianca, for instance, dreams of attending medical school while Lainey hopes to be scouted and later recruited to play soccer for the university she attends. It is all too common to hear of athletic guys contemplating their college choices or nerdy guys figuring out which Ivy League to attend, but the exploration of the college process for young females is sadly absent from literature (excluding the Dairy Queen Series, but then again, those books break a lot of classic molds). As such, the realistic conversations between these two were a pleasant surprise. Moreover, Bianca and Lainey have each others' backs in a way only true friends do. While Lainey often feels lonely because Bianca is busy and she no longer has a boyfriend to hang out with, I felt that the separation between these two girls was also a realistic issue, as is the strength of their friendship despite not spending every waking moment together.
"Do you want him back?"                                                                        I lower my voice. "I do. Is that terrible? We've spent the last two and a half years together, Bianca. I don't even know who I would be without him."                                                     "You would be my amazing friend, Lainey," Bee says vehemently. "The same person you've been since second grade. Seriously. You don't need Jason to define you."
The Art of Lainey combines a lot of classic elements - slow-burn/opposites attract romance, fake boyfriend/girlfriend trope, growth of a "popular" heroine - with a lot of not-so-classic ones such an aggressive heroine who isn't portrayed as bitter, strong sustainable friendships, and a love story whose foundation is based upon equality. And yet, it's the smaller instances that make this novel such a memorable one from the involvement of Lainey's parents in her life - minimal, but still there - to the three-dimensional quality of all the characters in this book, even Jason. Best of all, for me at least, is the fact that not all of Lainey's difficulties are solved in this volume. Granted, the main story line is satisfied, but niggling issues such as her friendship with Jason's sister or even Jason himself are kept unfinished. For me, this isn't so much a negligence of a plot thread but rather a subtle acknowledgement of the fact that relationships mend themselves and change over time. Just as Lainey's whirlwind romance with Jason was once a romantic tale, so is this one right now and perhaps a different one in the future, so these minor loose threads give this novel a sense of timelessness, not finality, which I appreciate. The Lainey we encounter by the end of this book isn't the same as the Lainey in the beginning and nor will she be the same as the Lainey ten, fifteen, or twenty years down the line.

It is for this reason, really - this subtle acknowledgement of time and growth and change - that The Art of Lainey is such an incredible novel. Not only is it realistic to a flaw, but it isn't afraid to portray teenage girls as complicated, emotional beings. While being a "teenage girl" always carries with it an unfortunate negative connotation, as does the statement "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," Stokes combines both of these age-old adages and destroys them with her debut novel for Lainey is no weak, silly, or angsty teenage girl and neither is she an embittered and vengeful girlfriend. Instead, she is smart, talented, and best of all, determined. And it is Lainey's determination - her drive to achieve her goals, no matter the obstacles that stand in her way - that make this novel remarkable feminist, inspirational, and, truly, timeless.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Audiobook Review: Night Broken by Patricia Briggs

Title: Night Broken (Mercy Thompson, #8) 

Author: Patricia Briggs

Narrated By: Lorelei King

Rating: 4 Stars

On Spoilers: While I reference objects or characters from previous installments in this series, there are no spoilers in terms of plot twists or reveals.

Frankly speaking, my enjoyment of Night Broken comes as a surprise. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the Mercy Thompson Series, from Moon Called to Frost Burned, the sudden arrival of Christy, Adam's ex-wife, threatened to ruin my all-time favorite Urban Fantasy Series for good. It happened with Magic Rises, the latest in the Kate Daniels Series which included a (rather unnecessary) jealousy factor into the romantic equation, presumably to fan its flame even later into the series. Jenn Bennett did it with Binding the Shadows, but ironically enough, her inclusion of an ex-wife only made the novel stronger, not weaker. Seeing as Mercy Thompson and Kate Daniels are far more closely aligned than Arcadia Bell, however, I expected the worst from Night Broken. Even the legions of reviewers who promised that Briggs had not compromised the relationship between Adam and Mercy in the least were unable to convince me to pick up my shiny pre-ordered hardcover.

...just goes to show how much I know, eh?

It took the audio book, sitting brightly packaged when I opened the door to my library, to convince me to finally read the latest Mercy Thompson installment. Being a quick reader, audio books have always bugged me - ever-so-slightly - with their slow pace. Yet, the acclaim surrounding the Mercy Thompson audio books over the years have ignited my curiosity and, admittedly, though Night Broken was a novel whose (predicted) train wreck I wanted to fly through, what I truly needed was a slow, solid digestion of this tale. Lorelei King, the narrator of this audio book, effortlessly switched voices, enabling the world of Mercy Thompson to come to life through her voice, that despite feeling irritated by Christy's presence, I found myself creating mindless tasks for myself in order to keep returning to this audio book, to King's voice, and, even, to the story itself.

In this newest installment of the Mercy Thompson Series, Adam's ex-wife Christy has come to the Tri-Cities, seeking the protection of the pack in order to escape a dangerous stalker. With her husband's ex-wife in her home, re-creating the days prior to Mercy's initiation into the pack, it hasn't been the best of weeks for Mercy. Add to Christy's arrival the fact that the fae want the walking stick back - the walking stick which Mercy conveniently gave Coyote - and Mercy is once again racing against the clock, desperately trying to find a way to contact her father while keeping her family - and her sanity! - together.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of Night Broken is the fact that characters and minor details from past novels come together in this installment. Even if they are only mentioned in passing or feature a fraction of the screen time, the entire cast of the Mercy Thompson Universe truly does get a mention, at one point or another. Now, at the eight book in this series, the driving arc tying these books together isn't the romance or, even, the inner-growth that Mercy herself experiences. Instead, its focus has shifted to bigger themes such as family, friendships, and sacrifice, not to mention the larger political sphere of this world involving human and paranormal interactions. While aspects of this novel are trying - everything from the slow start to literally every word which falls out of Christy's mouth - it is a worthwhile installment to this series, continuing to take it towards the climax we have been anticipating from Briggs.

And yet, where Patricia Briggs outdoes herself is in the romantic department. We've seen Adam and Mercy share their fair amount of post-marital bliss. For the past two novels, they have presented a strong, united front as a couple and, even prior to that, their relationship has suffered only from internal issues, never external ones. With Chrisy pushing herself back into her old life - a life where she was Adam's wife, not Mercy - the potential to create a drama-filled love triangle is enormous. Yet, Briggs brings out the best in Mercy with Night Broken, molding her into a mature adult, one who picks her own battles and handles the presence of a rival in her household with poise. Though the pack is staunchly Team Christy, loving the chance to care for the helpless human woman, Adam's love for Mercy never wavers and he is constantly by her side. Even when Adam falls prey to Christy's charm, he is quick to catch himself and, surprisingly, the short romantic moments that Adam and Mercy share feel delightfully special, even after all this time.

Ultimately, I am ashamed to admit I underestimated the Mercy Thompson Series and, especially, Patricia Briggs. Night Broken may not be my favorite Mercy Thompson novel out there, but it's one of the better ones; truly. And, as always, I will be going back to re-read (or re-listen) to all my favorite Adam bits. After all, who can ever get enough of that man? ;)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Reading Slumps & College Visits

Over the past month, I feel as if I've been more absent from the blogosphere than present.


In all honesty, I've been in an odd form of a reading slump. Granted, I haven't been reading the best of books, but even when I do pick up a great book and give it a high rating, I don't feel fulfilled by the novel in the least. I feel as if I'm still searching for the perfect book to get me out of my strange moods and unhappy reading funks, but I can't seem to find it yet. I feel as if my inability to become wholly immersed in a story is due to my own mental and emotional turmoil. Usually I can distance myself from the issues of my day-to-day life by reading; I can devote myself completely to a new world and unique characters and different dilemmas. Usually. 

Ever since I got back from Disney World in late March, I've been receiving acceptances and rejections from colleges which, obviously, has been hard. I didn't get into my top choice school. None of my friends got into their top choice schools. In fact, my very best friend and I - who have been neighbors for the past decade and inseparable friends for at least the past five years - aren't even going to the same college. On some level, I knew we would all wind up on our own separate paths, but it suddenly feels so real. I have six Mondays left in the school year. Six. And then I'm done with high school. 


Anyway, the point of this post is this: I am taking a short break to visit colleges in Boston, so I will be back with (hopefully!) more frequent posts on Thursday. I did, luckily, get into my second choice school, so after a quick visit I have a feeling I'll be ready to put down my deposit and commit. Even though I didn't get into my top choice school, I have a feeling I'm going to be a LOT happier at the school I did receive admittance into and I'm really very excited about visiting. I'm even staying overnight with a friend of mine at her dorm, so it should be a great trip. :)

I hope you all had a fantastic weekend filled with plenty of coffee, sunshine, and books. And I hope the start of this new week is just as wonderful and exciting for you as it will be for me. 

See on Thursday, dear readers!

Friday, April 11, 2014

ARC Mini-Review: High and Dry by Sarah Skilton

Title: High and Dry 

Author: Sarah Skilton

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: April 15th, 2014

Following the success of her debut novel, Bruised, Sarah Skilton's sophomore effort, High and Dry left much to be desired. Quite simply put, High and Dry contains one too many plot threads to function efficiently as a cohesive novel. Where Bruised was direct, providing focused insight on the trauma surrounding a young teenage girl, High and Dry follows high school senior Charlie as he tries to win back his ex-girlfriend Ellie, help his other ex-girlfriend find her stolen flash drive, and thwart the authorities who insist on pegging him responsible for causing a classmate to overdose. Although aspects of High and Dry certainly shined, the overall effect of this story was not say the least.

As she did with her debut, Skilton proves - once again - to be adept at navigating the tumultuous waters of the teenage mind. Writing from the perspective of a male narrator, she still manages to keep Charlie's voice realistic, witty, and engaging. It's incredible easy to become sucked into Charlie's tale - a definite plus point - and his inner struggles were perfectly portrayed. At the forefront of this novel is the fact that Charlie is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, Ellie, and he's quite sure she's still in love with him too. In the fall, however, Charlie will be attending a nearby university while Ellie is still uncertain about her future. Every moment of their relationship, then, is spent as a ticking time bomb with Charlie firmly believing that Ellie is too good for him and their relationship won't last. Ellie, unable to put up with Charlie's attitude, breaks it off with him only to find him following her diligently, desperately hoping she'll take him back. From my perspective, the entire romantic set-up of High and Dry is original. A male protagonist who feels grounded - anchored, if you will - by his girlfriend, but not to an obsessive or unhealthy extent. Charlie's own insecurities are put to rest due to the knowledge that Ellie picked him. Without Ellie, however, Charlie hardly knows who he is and finds himself struggling to reaffirm his own worth without her approval.

It makes for an intriguing dilemma, to be sure, but one that isn't expanded upon as much as it should be. I found myself wishing that Skilton had chosen to delve deeper into Charlie's psych opposed to his day-to-day actions and interactions; everything inside Charlie's head was far more compelling than anything out of it. Instead, the pace of High and Dry moves quickly, highlighting the multiple action-filled plot threads. While these aspects of the story do come together by the end - with a few surprising plot twists too! - I didn't feel entirely engaged or connected to the Charlie who went out of his way to track down a flash drive. Skilton expertly showcases the multiple facets of Charlie's personality through her complex plot and, by the end of this novel, his growth is truly admirable. Moreover, I absolutely love the slightly open conclusion to this stand-alone, tying together the loose pieces nicely while still leaving room - and hope! - for Charlie's future. Yet, my inability to become entrenched within the fast-moving pace of the bulk of this story made for slow and disappointing reading. While Skilton makes an important statement about teens during this transitional period between childhood (high school) and adulthood (college), High and Dry needed better execution - desperately. Although I certainly wouldn't dissuade readers from giving this one a shot, only because Sarah Skilton wrote it and her characterizations are spot-on, I'd encourage readers new to her work to pick up Bruised first. It doesn't disappoint in the least; trust me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

Title: The Winter Sea (The Slains, #1) 

Author: Susanna Kearsley 

Rating: 4 Stars

It likely comes as no surprise for those of you who have been following my recent reads that I've fallen in love with historical fiction - again. It happens a few times a year. I discover a historical novel I fall head-over-heels for and feel compelled to run out and read everything I possibly can within the genre before I become bored of it. In this case, it started with Kate Forsyth's The Wild Girl and seemed to swiftly end there as well since Forsyth's other historical fantasy title was miles away, across the ocean, sold seemingly everywhere but the United States. As a result, I stumbled across Susanna Kearsley; yet another author not sold within the United States but whose novels were slowly being re-published - with gorgeous covers, mind you - and this time available for American audiences. After reading glowing review after glowing review and receiving one too many recommendations to pick up The Winter Sea, I finally relented and requested a copy at my local library. 

The Winter Sea is a difficult tale to describe, but Kearsley's prose will have readers enamored from the first page itself. Following a young author, Carrie, as she embarks into depths of Scotland seeking inspiration for her latest novel, The Winter Sea is part fiction, part history, and part some other genre entirely. When Carrie stumbles across the ruins of Slains Castle, she feels oddly drawn towards the location and rents a nearby cottage, finally having found the spark to write which eluded her for so long. Now, approaching her novel from a different angle, Carrie begins to draft her novel from the perspective of a woman, one who she names after a distant relative, Sophie, who, too, was alive during the Jacobite Revolution Carrie plans to write of. But as Carrie dreams of Sophie's life, attributing her sudden knowledge of the time period to the vast research she performed prior to drafting her novel, she is eventually forced to admit that details of Sophie's life - an existence she believes is fictional - may, in fact, be real. 
Slains Castle Ruins
Kearsley's prose is stunning, not so much because of her words or their placement in a sentence, but rather because of the lush atmosphere she builds. I finished this book blinking in surprise at being in my rather dusty old home in New Jersey instead of the windy cliffs of Slains, Scotland. While I struggled at first to connect with Sophia's perspective, I absolutely loved the strong love stories and detailed historical research that went into The Winter Sea. Eventually, I was thoroughly wrapped up in these dual narratives; Carrie's in our present-day world as she struggled to find answers to the odd situation she found herself in while simultaneously striking up a tentative romantic relationship with a history professor and Sophie's as she resided at the Slains Castle during a dangerous time period and found her own love in the most unexpected of places. 
Slains Castle & the "Winter" Sea

Although The Winter Sea is a love story, it is, first and foremost, a tale of two fiercely independent women. Sophie, in particular, is forced to sacrifice much for her love due to her place in the era she lives in, but her courage and bravery is palpable on every page. In contrast, Carrie never undergoes the difficult journey that Sophie faces, partly because modern-day Scotland is a far safer place than it was centuries ago, but her spirit is no less indomitable. What I love, especially, is the fact that both Sophie and Carrie find men who are willing to fight for them and accept them for the women they are; men who treat them well and make them happy. The Winter Sea is a slow, languid story, but one I felt compelled to keep reading, if only to hang on and witness the fate of these two women whose lives had become so closely intertwined with my own. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

ARC Review: Open Road Summer by Emery Lord

Title: Open Road Summer

Author: Emery Lord

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: April 15th, 2014

Admittedly, I'm a little confused by the hype surrounding Open Road Summer. Lord's debut is striking, distinctly flavorful in its focus on strong female friendships, diversity, and prickly heroines. Nevertheless, the glowing five-star reviews around the blogosphere left me with an intangible wanting when it came to the end of this novel. Open Road Summer is a debut I wouldn't hesitate to thrust upon readers, particularly those looking to bridge the gap between YA and NA, but a perfect novel it is not.

Although most readers are likely drawn in by the synopsis of Open Road Summer, - a season spent on the road with a rock star best friend - I failed to be impressed. Frankly speaking, I'm not one for stories about fame. Yet, the emphasis on bold protagonists with enviable friendships compelled me to pick up my ARC and forced me to keep flipping the pages, even when my eyes ached late into the night. Reagan and Dee have been best friends for years; a constant in each others lives even when the world has changed around them. Now, at seventeen, Dee is a blooming musician, complete with a throng of besotted fans. On her tour this time, however, is Reagan, the friend Dee desperately needs after breaking up with her boyfriend, Jimmy. Dee isn't the only one who needs friendship, though. After finding her ex-boyfriend cheating on her and splitting off from him rather disastrously, Reagan is turning over a new leaf. Determined to give up smoking, drinking, and partying, Reagan needs Dee's presence to keep her grounded and focus. And this summer, it's going to be about them: Dee and Reagan. Infinity.

But, as expected, their plans don't quite pan out. When nasty rumors instigate a false nude scandal concerning Dee and her ex-boyfriend, Jimmy, the record label is forced to bring Matt Finch on tour. Matt, whose fame died out when his band disbanded a few years ago, is back with a solo album and as a close friend of Dee, has agreed to act as Dee's fake boyfriend to keep the media entertained and the rumor mill surrounding Jimmy at bay. For Reagan, however, Matt's inclusion into their duo is an unwelcome arrival. No matter how desperately she tries to deny it, there is something about Matt that pushes at her buttons. Unlike most guys, Matt genuinely wants to know the Real Reagan, the one hiding behind the thick barriers and, for the first time, Reagan might actually want to drop those walls after all. Only, is it really safe for her to trust Matt? Or is she simply setting herself up for heartbreak all over again?

What makes Lord's debut a note-worthy novel, in my opinion at any rate, is Reagan's personality. Unlike Dee, Reagan isn't the goody-two-shoes girl-next-door. In fact, she's the girl whose name is constantly being spoken in hushed voices around the school. Its her name you're most likely to see scratched crudely into bathroom stalls. And, what's more, her police record does little to dispel her bad-girl image. Thus, the close friendship between Reagan and Dee comes as an unexpected surprise. Yet, despite their different personalities, there is no denying the strength of the bond these two girls share. While it is easy, at first, to keep them in their stereotypical molds, Lord quickly dispels this, showing us the caring sides to Reagan's personality alongside the uglier aspects of Dee's. What I love about their characterization is the fact that is reads as truly teenage. Dee is quick to react tearfully to news of rumors while Reagan is eager to lash out in anger at those trying to hurt her best friend. And yet, despite the readiness of their emotional responses, neither Dee nor Reagan comes across as irritating, bitchy, or slutty - terms all-too-often associated with YA protagonists. If anything, both these girls come alive as realistic teens, uncertain about their futures, worried about their pasts, and trying desperately to live in the present. With both their good and bad sides expressed dutifully, the gray coloring that makes up the true personalities of these girls, beyond their famous and infamous statuses, is what shines through.

Although Open Road Summer is, technically, about a summer road trip, the novel lacked the needed feel of spontaneity. Dee's tour is meticulously planned and, as a result, the excursions into the world, outside of mandatory concerts, didn't do much for the story. Quite simply put, the setting of this novel never brought this story to life. Without the vivid characters and summer-esque feel to their languid interactions, you'd be hard-pressed to appreciate the scenery as these girls travel across the United States by bus. Nevertheless, despite that, the strong relationships throughout this story prevail. Aside from Reagan and Dee's friendship, minor bonds from Reagan's rocky relationship with her father - her only true parent after her mother ran away from home many years ago - to Dee's tight relationship with her parents are never brushed aside. I appreciated the fact that Lord included the parental units as part of her novel, if only because they are a realistic element in the day-to-day lives of teens, even celebrity ones. Moreover, we can clearly see how nurture has molded Reagan and Dee into different people, though their faults and rough patches only serve to make their friendship stronger.

Nevertheless, the aspect of Open Road Summer which truly opened up my heart and make me feel, swooning and sighing with glory, was the romance. At first, Matt Finch seems remarkably unoriginal - the sweet, boy-next-door type who simply wants to help out a good friend. But just as he kept unexpectedly surprising Reagan with his candor and infectious personality, he unexpectedly wormed his way into my heart as well. Although both Matt and Reagan are physically attracted to one another, their main draw to each other comes from their personalities. Matt likes the Reagan who hides behind a prickly exterior of disdain. While Reagan's cynicism comes with her true self as well, Matt appreciates both the good and bad sides to her, from her loyalty towards Dee to her unwillingness to open up to others. Similarly, Reagan cannot help but fall for Matt - the real Matt whose true emotions take over his expressions. Not the Celebrity Matt whose smiles are perfectly sculpted for the camera, but the one whose laughter is just a little bit crooked. While there are a plethora of hurdles in their way, most notably the fact that Matt is meant to be Dee's fake boyfriend for the summer, their romance plays out slowly. As the sexual tension, banter, and understanding between them builds, it is impossible to feel as if their love story is simply a summer fling: it's so much more.

Ultimately, Open Road Summer was a breath of fresh air. It's a quick read, practically impossible to set down once its momentum gets going. While it isn't the type of story that is likely to stick with me for long, I do not doubt that readers will connect with both Reagan and Dee, not to mention their respective love stories. Moreover, despite the minor flaws within this narrative - the underdevelopment of Reagan's step-mother, the lack of true setting in a road trip novel, etc. - Lord's debut is promising for readers for YA/NA. I, for one, will be checking out her future books without even a sliver of hesitation.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Showcase Sunday (#33)

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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In this weeks ARCs I've got upcoming novels from three authors I have absolutely LOVED in the past - Nina LaCour, Mindy McGinnis, and Christa Desir. I have no doubt in my mind that I will thoroughly enjoy their latest novels and I've been reading so many positive reviews of Open Road Summer that I'm excited to tear into it, despite the fact that it's outside my usual comfort zone. Don't Touch seems to be an utterly unique take on coping mechanisms which has sparked my curiosity and despite the mixed reviews concerning Kiss of Deception, we all know I'm a sucker for high fantasy, especially with pretty covers. ;)

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I think it's quite obvious from my library stash this week that I've been splurging into the Adult Genre. Authors like Susanna Kearsley, Kate Forsyth, Matthew Quick, Sharon Shinn, and Samantha Young are already familiar to me, but I'm excited to get into the works of Kate Morton and Scott Lynch. Gabrielle Zevin has actually written YA - which I haven't read, so hopefully I'll enjoy her writing style enough to pick up those books too! - and Janie Chang's debut seems to be a popular one among readers of historical fiction/fantasy, so I'm curious enough to give it a shot. 

Once again, dear readers, I have to apologize for being slow on posting and commenting over the past few weeks. I'm busy visiting colleges, slowly trying to determine where I want to go and how to best convince my parents, so it's been a really stressful time period. Add to that scholarship applications and I've basically been swamped. I'm also not feeling well, thanks to the ridiculous weather over by the East Coast where it's warm one day only to be freezing the next and raining the day after that, so I've just in general been exhausted. I have a huuuge list of reviews I need to catch up on which I just haven't had the time or energy to get to, so I apologize for the creeping slowness of activity on the blog these past few days and during the upcoming days as well. Nevertheless, I absolutely love seeing all your book hauls - bookish pictures make me happy! - so don't hesitate to link me up so I can stop by! :)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Courtney Milan Mini-Reviews

I discovered Courtney Milan's historical romance novels early this year and have spent the better part of the past three months making my way through her back list. Of the multitude of novels and novellas I've read of hers, these are the three I took the time to review, albeit briefly, and they are in the order in which I read them, which wasn't chronological (though I'd likely recommend reading these books in order as they're likely better appreciated, in some ways at least). Needless to say, I hope to convince many more readers to pick up her work - particularly if you believe historical romance isn't a genre that appeals to you. Milan will likely prove you wrong.  

Title: Unraveled (Turner, #3) 

Author: Courtney Milan

Rating: 4.5 Stars

It's official: Courtney Milan is my new favorite author. While I'm not known to have much luck in the historical romance genre, Milan subverts a plethora of overused tropes, making her novels enticingly real. Although I've only read three of her works so far, they've featured a doctor intent on using revolutionary means to prevent the spread of infection, a thug (of sorts) who has followed instructions without questioning them for years, and now a magistrate whose middle name might as well be justice itself. None of her heroes are, from the surface, heroic but they all lend themselves perfectly to an exploration of the time period and to an unknown source of depth. Moreover, these heroines are no less stunning in their portrayal, vivaciously strong and determined to survive despite the odds they are constantly battling. Unraveled is a historical romance, yes, but it will do so much more than simply set your heart on fire; it will melt it.

Title: The Countess Conspiracy (The Brothers Sinister, #3) 

Author: Courtney Milan 

Rating: 4 Stars

What do you get when you combine historical feminism, science, and a best friend romance? If you answered The Countess Conspiracy, you'd be right. I seem to be making it a habit to start off with the third book in a Milan series, despite the fact that I fully intend to read the predecessors. With its synopsis of a widowed countess whose science experiments are masqueraded off by her best friend, however, I couldn't resist. Compared to the previous full-length Milan novel I read, Unraveled, this romance is remarkably chaste. And yet, the palpable tension between Violet and Sebastian, two friends who have been pillars of support for one another for years, is a welcome torture. Milan manages to build their relationship dynamic without resorting to flashbacks, a pet peeve of mine, but the strength of the bond between these two is undeniable. For me, however, the best aspects of this novel lie in the fact that Sebastian loves Violet for who she is - determined, stubborn, loathe to trust due to her tragic past, and fiercely intelligent. Despite the fact that she is not a great beauty and that her behavior defies the strict rules of society, he cannot help but admire her for the person she is. Milan's tidbits of feminism, evident both in the scientific aspects of this tale and weaved throughout the story line, are true gems. In the end, The Countess Conspiracy does, after all, prove to be a conspiracy. One to win over your heart.

Title: Unclaimed (Turner, #2) 

Author: Courtney Milan 

Rating: 3 Stars

I blame myself. I began this series with the third Turner brother, Smite, who is by far the most enigmatic, intriguing, and (let's be honest) sexy sibling of these three very fine brothers. After absolutely loving Smite's story, I - naturally - rushed out to grab a copy of the previous books in this series. While I've found myself falling in love with both Ash and Mark, the other two Turner brothers, and their respective romantic interests, there has always been a missing spark, if you will. Neither of these brothers charmed me nor did they win over my hearts. Moreover, the plot lines towards the end of these two installments veered off, becoming increasingly drawn-out. While I admire Milan's knack of including truly historical aspects into her work, the romances in these first two novels did, nevertheless, leave me feeling a twinge of disappointment.

Nevertheless, Mark Turner of Unclaimed makes extremely important points regarding sexuality, chastity, and mutual respect in a relationship. Seeing these ideals espoused - and carried out - by a strong, inspirational male character (who is a virgin, no less!) is the direction I wish more novels would move towards. Especially in an era which glorifies the male empowerment over the female. As such, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Milan's discussion of female treatment in this book, along with her exploration of their sexuality. Jessica, despite being a courtesan, has never liked herself or felt empowered by her gender. Instead, she has seen relationships as possession - only she is the one being possessed. While I didn't always enjoy the direction Jessica's actions took her, I really did love her continual growth throughout the novel which was linked both to her physical and mental psyche.

While not a stunning Milan piece, Unclaimed is still far superior to the majority of historical romances out there. And, if you read this series in the right order, you'll be awarded with Smite Turner next. Who could turn that down?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Just Another Book Crush (#13): Plus One by Elizabeth Fama (Blog Tour, Guest Post, and Giveaway!)

I am so excited to be part of Elizabeth's Plus One Blog Tour! If you haven't already read my review of Fama's sophomore novel, you should definitely check it out HERE - Elizabeth references it in today's post. Without further ado, let's invite Elizabeth over to the blog already, shall we? ;)
Just Another...Book Crush! is a monthly feature where I invite an author whose book I've recently reviewed and loved to write a guest post and share their three latest book crushes. It's a feature I'm starting mostly because I'm often very shy to approach authors, especially ones I admire, and also because I love reading guest posts since, more often than not, they convince me to pick up a book even when the reviewer cannot. 

Title: Plus One 
Author: Elizabeth Fama
Divided by day and night and on the run from authorities, star-crossed young lovers unearth a sinister conspiracy in this compelling romantic thriller. Seventeen-year-old Soleil Le Coeur is a Smudge—a night dweller prohibited by law from going out during the day. When she fakes an injury in order to get access to and kidnap her newborn niece—a day dweller, or Ray—she sets in motion a fast-paced adventure that will bring her into conflict with the powerful lawmakers who order her world, and draw her together with the boy she was destined to fall in love with, but who is also a Ray. Set in a vivid alternate reality and peopled with complex, deeply human characters on both sides of the day-night divide, Plus One is a brilliantly imagined drama of individual liberty and civil rights, and a fast-paced romantic adventure story.
I try not to obsessively read early Goodreads reviews when my advance reader copies are released. I try hard, but I often fail. It was particularly difficult this time around, because so few people seemed to be reading their ARCs of Plus One. (I blame the "Southwest Airlines safety pamphlet" ARC cover.)

That's when I saw Keertana's review. Poor Keertana! I craved opinions about this book so much that I threw Internet etiquette out the window and contacted her for a literary conversation. Thank goodness she didn't slap a restraining order on me.

I learn so much from readers' reviews. Often when a reader stumbles it means I didn't do my job. In this case, Keertana had problems with the romance, love, and sex, and I wanted to understand why. In short, she found 1. the main characters' relationship jumps too quickly from like to love after a particular revelation, 2. the two characters are rushed into protestations of love because their time together is limited, and 3. the sex feels rushed and less meaningful than it should, for the same reason ("bucket-list sex").

If Keertana didn't sense the characters' affection growing over the course of their adventure (problem #1), then I definitely needed to pause and study what I had done. Yes, there's the particular plot point that grounds some of their feelings, but she's right that by itself it's not enough, and there are at least supposed to be hints at burgeoning respect and compatibility before that point is revealed to them. Sol and D'Arcy start out as opposites, and at odds, but their characters are meant to be fundamentally similar where it counts: they're fiercely loyal and family-oriented, strong, smart, and decent. I wanted to show that slowly, privately, they begin to admire particular qualities in the other person. Keertana's struggle here made me realize that the tiny meaningful moments I thought I had embedded in the narrative along the way may have been too tiny. [See footnote 1 at the end of the post for examples--but they're spoilery.]  Each moment is small enough that perhaps even taken together they're "not enough." It gives me so much to think about, as a writer.

As for Keertana's problems #2 and #3, I was actually happy to see that she experienced discomfort with the pace of their relationship. Their relationship is rushed, and she's right: it's precisely because of the predicament they find themselves in, and it was not only deliberate on my part, but crucial to the theme of lost freedom that I was exploring. Because of an arbitrary, unjust government policy, their time together is precarious. Sol distinctly feels that it's running out, and she's taking the one and only opportunity she has to be with this person she cares so deeply about. There is a blend of healthy agency (she wants him, she initiates sex) and forced urgency (it must happen now). How might their relationship have progressed if they the politics of their world had been different? [See footnote 2 for spoilery speculation.] 

But why include the love and sex at all, if Plus One is about personal freedom? Or as Keertana said, "I am all for sex in YA but the short sex scene in Plus One didn't serve a purpose." I wanted readers to become invested in the romance so that they would internalize the political and social issues that made that love impossible. I wanted the reader to think about was how unfair that was--how the Day/Night divide has this ripple effect that takes away even the smallest rights from a person: the right to choose to be with the person you love, and at what pace to take your first sexual relationship, which I think are issues teens are highly attuned to (more than, say, which career paths are open to you, which is also an issue in the book).

Just Another...Book Crush! 

Here are three books that have filled my head recently:

1. Cress by Marissa Meyer. The Lunar Chronicles is joyful storytelling at its best. Marissa Meyer wants to take you on a delightful, sweeping ride and you should let her. I've been so impressed by how each book tells its own story, introduces new characters, but builds on the foundations of the previous books. Soon, we'll have four dynamic couples battling one evil Lunar queen, and I can't wait. In this third book, I adore the way Captain Thorne is metaphorically blind to Cress's simple goodness and love at first, and also literally blind.

2. The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski. I read this and wanted more so I listened to it on audio. And then I listened to my favorite parts again. This book reminded me of Megan Whalen Turner's work, not just because of the geo-politics in a slightly ancient mediterranean-ish setting, but also in the way Marie Rutkoski shows subtle interactions between characters and trusts that we'll understand them without her own intrusion into the narrative. 

3. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. This is the most difficult book I've read in years--or perhaps ever. It was pure torture, like running a marathon--I read every sentence five times before I understood it. But at the finish line, sweating (and angry at what happened on the last page), I found I was enriched by the experience. It even inspired the language of my short story "Noma Girl," for (Which is to say: if my short story is incomprehensible because of lack of punctuation and stream of consciousness, you can blame it on Faulkner.)
(Keertana: feel free to put these footnotes after the Book Crush's your call. What kind of author puts footnotes in a blog post anyway? A nerdy one, I guess.)

Footnote 1: For example, the way they instinctively, simultaneously step back behind the privacy line in the emergency room to give a very sick patient and his wife space shows a similar kind of consideration; the way Sol makes D'Arcy laugh when she says that she'll go to college at Dwight Correctional University (this joke is too regional, perhaps: Dwight is the women's prison in Illinois), and Sol notices the similarity of his belly laugh to her brother's; the way D'Arcy pauses, taken aback for just a second when Sol reveals why she kidnapped the baby (her reason is insane, but it's intensely loving); the way Sol observes without judgment D'arcy's concentration while wiping up the condensation ring, whereas before she thought it was machine-like; the way she admires the way he scrabbles his hair when he's thinking; the way Sol finishes D'Arcy's sentence for the first time under Wacker Drive; the way she wants to spare him when he drops her off at the yacht from being dragged down by her... I could go on and on, but listing them is showing me how very small they each are! 

Footnote 2: We already know, for instance, that Sol has never had a boyfriend, and D'Arcy has taken dating very slowly in high school, and has been thoughtful about what he is and is not ready for with other girls. For me, this is evidence that these are two people who, with the luxury of time, would probably have taken things much more slowly. In addition, D'Arcy's concern about hurting Sol during sex is strong enough that I believe it may have led them to delay intercourse, and to approach it with smaller steps. 

Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Keertana, and for embarking on the discussion of romance, love, and sex with me!

ELIZABETH FAMA is the YA author most recently of Plus One, an alternate-history thriller set in contemporary Chicago. Her other books include Monstrous Beauty, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection and an Odyssey honor winner, and Overboard, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a society of Midland Authors honor book, and a nominee for five state awards. A graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned a B.A. in biology and an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in economics, she lives with (and cannot live without) her boisterous, creative family in Chicago.
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Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth! I adored the footnotes and I have a feeling readers are going to love your recommendations - I know I do! :)

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