Thursday, May 29, 2014

Series Review: Arcadia Bell by Jenn Bennett

NOTE: This is not a review for Banishing the Dark but rather a spoiler-free series review for the Arcadia Bell Series. 

Title: Banishing the Dark (Arcadia Bell, #4) 

Author: Jenn Bennett

Rating: 4 Stars

I inhaled the entire Arcadia Bell Quartet back in early December, my thoughts an incoherent jumble of too-loud exclamations and too-few actual words. Even now, months later, my thoughts resemble the flailing limbs of a fangirl whenever they stray back towards Jenn Bennett's perfect, oh-so-perfect, Urban Fantasy debut.

From the surface, Arcadia Bell seems to be deceptively similar to mercenary Kate Daniels: a magician, parents with ever-so-slightly-evil origins, and a penchant for attracting danger. From the onset itself, however, Bennett's novels have contained tighter plot threads and, what's more, a heroine far removed from the loner we know both Kate Daniels and Mercy Thompson to have originally been. When we first meet Cady in Kindling the Moon, she is forced to re-visit the fact that her parents, both powerful magicians in their own right, were framed for murders they did not commit. For the past seven years, Cady has been able to slip under the radar, conducting an incognito livelihood as a bartender--but now, she unexpectedly is forced to prove her parent's innocence.

Every UF Series has specific qualities about it that keep me coming back for more: with Mercy Thompson it's her relationship with Adam and the pack; with Kate Daniels it's the way more and more people creep into her heart; with Downside Ghosts it's Chess's insecurities which slowly begin to shed off as she begins to believe in her own self-worth. With Arcadia Bell, it's Cady's vibrant spirit. Unlike most UF heroines, Cady arrives at the airport surprisingly baggage-free. Granted, she begins to accumulate plenty of baggage as the series progresses, revealing twists about her past she could have never predicted, but Cady never loses either her kick-ass demeanor or her vivacious energy despite the hurdles life throws at her.

What's more, this series is graced with Lon Butler. *cue swoons* It seems the only man more attractive than a lean, fit, intelligent male with a pirate-mustache is a lean, fit, intelligent single-father with a pirate-mustache. While Lon and Cady have their difference--most noticeably their age gap--I simply thrive off of the stability their relationship provides. Even when faced with the disastrous ex-wife, as we are in Binding the Shadows, Lon and Cady's relationship never wavers. Moreover, both of them bring unique talents to the table, both being extraordinarily blessed magically, so the blend of their powers is always a sight to behold as they work together to defeat demons.

Jupe, Lon's teenage son, while ordinarily a character I'd steer clear of, is the backbone of both this family and this series. Bennett never writes Jupe as annoyingly immature, instead giving to us an energetic, curious, and deeply loving young boy. Jupe and Cady's relationship, in particular, is wonderfully developed as the series progresses. Cady is not merely "the younger woman" in Lon's life, but she is truly part of his family and the bond built between herself and Jupe, separate from the bond Jupe could share with a biological parent, is truly special.

The Arcadia Bell novels have each been one better than the next. Kindling the Moon started off strong and Banishing the Dark truly only ended stronger. Each one of these four novels ties back together, tracing the same larger mystery in a few smaller ones, but building deep character ties along the way. From our titular lead to the secondary characters we cannot seem to forget, this series has etched its way onto my heart. With my paperback copies safely tucked into my bookshelf, there is no doubt I will be re-visiting Cady, Jupe, and Lon many more times to come. Banishing the Dark released on Tuesday and, believe me, if you don't at least have a copy of Kindling the Moon on your nightstand, you're only doing yourself a disservice.
Chronological Order (Prior to Banishing the Dark)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Series Review: Artists Trilogy by Karina Halle

Note: Every review in this post is spoiler-free for the Artists Trilogy. 

Title: Sins & Needles (Artists Trilogy, #1) 
Author: Karina Halle
Rating: 3.5 Stars

I bought Sins & Needles back when it was first released and rave reviews of Halle's characterization populated the internet. In fact, I've bought every installment of this series and have had it sitting on my Kindle for months, now, unread originally because of the reputed cliffhangers and later for reasons I won't know. Likely because, somewhere in my subconscious, I knew this series was going to consume my weekend and I simply hadn't had that type of time to commit to a mere trilogy. But once I started The Artists Trilogy, I knew there was no going back. Sins & Needles is slow to start, one of its biggest draw-backs, but once it hits its stride, there's no looking away from the multiple train wrecks of disaster this series finds itself in.

Ellie Watt was born to con; brought up by criminal parents, exposed to drug lords at a young age, and surviving on little love throughout her childhood, she's a walking minefield simply unable to trust anyone in her path. Now, on the run from her dangerous ex-boyfriend, Ellie finds herself back in her hometown where it all began. Here hometown where Camden McQueen still lives only now, he's no longer the scrawny goth she humiliated in high school, he's 6'2" of hard, tattooed male. Camden is wealthy, successful, and seems to have forgiven Ellie for her past, genuinely liking what he sees. So, naturally, Ellie decides to make him her new mark; seduce him and then run off with his money. Camden got his new start, so why shouldn't she? But Ellie isn't the only one who changed since high school and as she comes to know this new Camden, a trip to her past--to her ex-boyfriend involved in a drug cartel--just may be knocking on the door.

Frankly speaking, this novel thrives on action, suspense, and its fast-pace. Halle sprinkles the narrative with third-person flashbacks to Ellie's childhood--flashbacks which did little for me except slow down the plot--but present-day Ellie Watt was an intriguing heroine, to say the least. I struggled with her motivations for much of the story and as the layers to her characters, and especially that of Camden, were revealed I found myself more than a little disturbed by the psychological damage these two had suffered. Don't expect to find normal, caring individuals within the pages of this series; they're all messed-up in some way or the other. Yet, despite the fact that I disagreed--on more than one occasion--with the unfolding of events in this novel, I managed to thoroughly enjoy it. It's a dark, dangerous world Halle builds, filled with criminals and unfaithful characters at every turn, but it's so wildly entertaining and the growth these characters sustain is realistically enough for me to persist onward. Well, that and the cliffhanger ending, of course. ;)

Title: On Every Street (Artists Trilogy, #0.5)
Author: Karina Halle
Rating: 4 Stars

Wow, talk about a convincing argument for Team Javier. Though, let's be honest, just not convincing enough to get me to walk away from Camden... ;)

We don't find out much about Javier, Ellie's ex-boyfriend, in Sins & Needles with the exception of a glimpse into his criminal bad-boy side. With On Every Street, though, Halle completely turns the tables on us, giving us Ellie and Javier's love story from the time they first met. And, boy, is the Javier of six-years ago a different man entirely. It's almost impossible not to fall for him, just as Ellie has, particularly as he exposes so much of his inner vulnerabilities with this story. It's a twisted, unlikely love story that is unhealthy to its core, but, as with Halle's prior novels, you cannot help but be enthralled, waiting for the impending wreck of doom to appear. More importantly, though, I love that this novella only adds to the multitude of layers these characters possess. Definitely a must-read before launching into Book 2; I firmly believe you will be lost going into Shooting Scars without this.

Title: Shooting Scars (Artists Trilogy, #2) 
Author: Karina Halle
Rating: 4 Stars

I admit it: I was conflicted going into Shooting Scars. After Sins & Needles I firmly believed Ellie belonged with Camden, but On Every Street made me consider Javier, however briefly, for Ellie. With this second installment, the stakes are even higher than before and Halle alternates chapters shifting between Ellie and Camden's respective perspectives. I enjoyed this sequel even more than I did its predecessor, likely because it took off on a break-neck pace from the beginning itself and Camden's perspective was not only essential to keep the plot of the story moving forward, but it added so much additional tension to the story. Truly, these books would make such fantastic films as Halle takes the time to give you every angle of her tale, all while keeping aspects to her plot hidden so we continue to be pleasantly surprised by the twists and turns of betrayal, even when we think we know what's going on.

While there is, definitely, a prominent love triangle in this novel in particular, I believe it's important to point out that it isn't quite that conflicting. I've read these books back-to-back, without the agony of months to wait for the sequels or discuss the future of the plot and, therefore, I was able to distance myself from most of the unpleasantness that arrives with a love triangle. Moreover, what I like about Halle's take on the love triangle is that it is meant to be horrible and uncomfortable and unlikable in Shooting Scars. All too often authors try to please readers one way or the other with their romantic entanglements, but the love triangle in Shooting Scars is more about exposing the raw underbelly of Ellie's broken mind than fan-service. Ellie continues to be an "unlikable" protagonist, one whose actions I don't fully condone, but I still admire and enjoy her narration. Granted, she's a difficult person to constantly like, but then again, she's meant to be. With Halle's novels, you're meant to fall into them head-first and feel a range of emotions for these characters, be them good or bad.

Shooting Scars is written impeccably, Halle handling these two voices distinctly and with class as she navigates the criminal underworld, taking us from America to Mexico and beyond. If you enjoy dark, twisted tales--particularly romances of the psychological nature--this is certainly not a series to pass up on. Onto Book 3! (Gosh, these cliffhangers just don't end!)

Title: Bold Tricks (Artists Trilogy, #3)  
Author: Karina Halle
Rating: 3 Stars

Bold Tricks is a respectable ending to this trilogy, but it's a little too easy. We've seen these characters live through truly insane situations; we've seen their personalities change time and time again as life has forced them to leave behind their naivety and hope and aspirations; we've seen them practically be beaten by the hand life has dealt them. Only to have this all wrap up in a rather too perfect happily-ever-after, complete with a gorgeous bow. Granted, I wanted this dream ending for these characters, but combined with the cartoon-ish characterization of the villain in this novel, Halle's finale seems a tiiiiny bit of a cop-out.

Shooting Scars was such a spectacular sequel, avoiding MBS perfectly, precisely because of the fact that it was impossible to pinpoint any true allegiances. Everyone mistrusted everyone else, the true motivations of characters remained hidden, and no one individual was starkly black-and-white. With Bold Tricks, Halle begins shedding these gray areas, making the decisions these characters are forced to make that much easier. Suddenly, after so much hardship, these convenient pieces falling into place just seemed too good to be true. Of course, the plot is still full of unexpected reveals, the pace absolutely riveting as these characters speed through Mexico, avoiding one drug cartel only to fall into the arms of another, and the violence is particularly high in this final installment opposed to the rest. Yet, the psychological growth of these characters feels strangely incomplete, likely because Bold Tricks focused on plot more than character for the first time in this trilogy. Ultimately, Halle's trilogy is thrilling, edgy, dark, and highly original. It's impossible to put down from start-to-finish, its characters and thought-provoking and unforgettable, and it truly messes with your mind as you attempt to wrap your thoughts around these convoluted love stories. Bold Tricks eliminates any potential for a love triangle early on and though it may not have been the conclusion I wanted, it's certainly an ending I can live with: explosive to the very end.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Mini-Break: Memorial Day Weekend

I've been meaning to draft this for awhile but I just didn't get around to it and now I'm sitting in a hotel in Washington D.C. for Memorial Day Weekend. 


But long story short, my younger brother desperately wanted to visit D.C., so here we are for a short trip this long weekend. I hope you all have a terrific weekend, even if you don't have Monday off for Memorial Day. :) I'll hopefully have a post up on Tuesday, dear readers!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Contemporary Summer ARC Mini-Reviews: #scandal, Magnolia, and On the Fence

Title: #scandal
Author: Sarah Ockler
Rating: 2 Stars
Release Date: June 17th, 2014

Frankly speaking, I'd encourage readers to skip #scandal entirely. Seriously. If you haven't read Ockler before, I'd dissuade you from beginning with this novel and if, like me, you're a fan, you're simply better off re-reading one of her previous titles.

#scandal dealt with one too many issues for it to handle with aplomb. When Lucy's best friend, Ellie, is down with the flu and unable to attend prom with her dashingly handsome boyfriend, she forces Lucy to be Cole's date instead. Only, Lucy has had a crush on Cole since before he began dating her best friend and now, at such close proximity with him for an entire night, her feelings rush back, all at once. As luck would have it, however, Cole returns her feelings--a truth he can admit to, as he and Ellie broke up before prom--but before their break-up becomes public, an image of Lucy and Cole kissing goes viral instead.

Now, I don't know if it's because I spend more time on Goodreads than on Facebook, but I felt oddly distanced from this story. Lucy begins the novel already in love with Cole, which left their romance a pile of disappointment as I was unable to become emotionally involved in it. Ellie, from the first page itself, stood out as an odd type of best friend, forcing her friend to accompany her boyfriend as his prom date, and I cannot claim to truly feel the bond of friendship between these two girls. Even more than that, though, #scandal deals with cyber-bullying in a manner I find to be woefully disappointing. Lucy is attempting to clear her name from the scandal she is associated with, all while trying to find out who stole her phone and posted the picture--along with other incriminating ones--online. Thus, the entire problem of cyber-bullying is dealt alongside a heavy dose of gossip and drama, which didn't work for me. Quite simply put, I barely have anything to say about #scandal except for the fact that its characters failed to resonate with me, its plot felt flimsy and underdeveloped, and with the exception of that gorgeous blue background color, I'd prefer to entirely forget about the existence of this novel. Excuse me while I hunt for my copy of Bittersweet to remind myself of what a classic Sarah Ockler story reads like; this innovative approach just didn't do it for me.

Title: Magnolia
Author: Kristi Cook
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Release Date: August 5th, 2014

Magnolia is a delightfully light, quick summer romance. Cook attempts to set up a reverse Romeo & Juliet situation in Magnolia as her romantic leads, Jemma Cafferty and Ryder Marden, absolutely detest one another while their families--old, Southern-style households determined to uphold decades-long traditions--are eager to see them together, if only to finally witness their families joined together by more than friendship. But Jemma and Ryder are determined to keep those dreams exactly as they are--dreams. While the two used to be friends, recent events have created a rift between them they aren't keen to breach. Until, that is, a deadly hurricane sweeps through town and Jemma and Ryder find themselves alone, dependent solely on each other for survival. While the hurricane unearths even the ground itself, Jemma and Ryder finally unearth the secrets in their past, realizing that the line between love and hate is far more transparent than it seemed.

Without a doubt, Magnolia is a lovely, tickle-me-pink love story, full of the tension we crave between romantic leads as we witness them--grudgingly--grow to love one another, putting aside their former emotions. Cook writes the focal hurricane scene believably, at least for this Northern girl, building suspense to drive forward the plot line while sustaining the atmosphere of Southern charm she creates within the first few chapters. There are a decent number of story lines running through this tale: Jemma coping with her older sister's sudden brain tumor; dealing with the attentions of Patrick, a cute boy whose DUIs indicate a persona not entirely suited for Jemma; and realizing that she, Jemma, may not want to attend the local universities her parents have picked out for her but may, instead, want to attend film school in New York City. Yet, Cook manages to weave these together for they all contribute to the general confusion Jemma feels during the time, while simultaneously getting to know the boy who she has self-declared her very own Public Enemy #1, Ryder.

I found it easy to slip into Jemma's narration and rather enjoyed it, with the exception of a few scenes where I felt as if her voice distanced the reader rather than included them. Ryder, too, is the complete package of swoon, proving to be far more than the "villain" Jemma paints him out to be from the onset of the story. In fact, I found myself anticipating their interactions, merely because both Jemma and Ryder were mature and self-aware enough to know when to put aside their differences and work together, but they aren't above throwing a jab or two at one another regardless. Their tentative journey to an ultimate relationship, despite balancing their own desires from that of their parents, is more than just a little rewarding. While one particular plot point towards the end of the story forced me to raise my eyebrows in annoyance, for the most part--those personal narrative moments aside--Cook's latest novel certainly surprised me. Don't expect an ocean of depth and you may just close this book with a grin. I know I did.

Title: On the Fence
Author: Kasie West
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: July 1st, 2014

On the Fence is the first Kasie West I've genuinely enjoyed. While her previous contemporary romance had me reeling in disappointment and her debut, Pivot Point, did little to convince me of her writing prowess, this upcoming novel hit all the right notes. 

We've all read or seen or heard, in some form of media or the other, the classic tale of a beautiful young girl raised in a household of men, brought up to be a vivacious tom-boy. Charlie fits that bill perfectly, unable to remember a life before her mother's death. For as long as she has known, all she's ever needed is football, her older brothers, the reassuring presence of her father, and Braden, her best friend and neighbor rolled in one. Until, that is, this summer. While searching for a job to pay off her speeding tickets, Charlie realizes how woe-fully un-feminine she is. And, lo and behold, On the Fence won me over at last. Charlie's narration is deceptively easy to slip into, reading strong and honest, bold and unique, which is quite refreshing. Yet, the vulnerabilities she began to expose as she discovered aspects of her personality she never even knew existed, spoke to me. I completely felt for Charlie; for her mother-less childhood, for the manner in which her family never spoke about her deceased mother, and for the swirling confusion in her heart whenever Braden approached. 

West copes with the family machinations in this novel beautifully, building realistic relationships with believable dialogue. Though it can feel partially stereotypical at times, it isn't wholly so, which makes the necessary distinction. Braden, especially, is such a delightfully complex hero; a buddy to Charlie's brothers, another son to Charlie's father, but merely a friend to her. While he seems to treat her as "one of the guys", the midnight conversations these two share along their shared fence made me fall head-over-heels for their romance. Not only do these two complement one another perfectly, slowing falling--and discovering--their love, but they also accept and understand each other for their true personalities, not the facades they hide behind. On the Fence surprised me with its unexpected depth and, finally having found a Kasie West novel I like, I can only hope the trend persists. If you're looking for a feel-good love story, one filled with a realistic growth arc and strong familial relationships (not to mention a swoon-worthy best friend romance!), On the Fence is your best bet, rain or shine. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn

Title: Mystic and Rider (Twelve Houses, #1) 

Author: Sharon Shinn

Rating: 5 Stars

From the ages of six through thirteen, I dreaded Back-to-School Night. Every year, my parents would meet the new teacher I had been assigned that fall and every year, that teacher would repeat the same phrase: " advanced and voracious reader, but fails to read diversely." Following those meetings, my parents would return home with a concerned frowned on their faces, having been told their daughter was bright and apt in all subjects, but simply refused to pick up a novel outside the fantasy genre. In fact, it is thanks to those very same Back-to-School Nights that I've stockpiled on beautiful editions of the classics: everything from Little Women to Anne of Green Gables has made its way under my Christmas tree for years, to no avail.

Eventually, I grew bold enough to venture into contemporary fiction, but to this day, it fails to bring me the same sense of grounding -- of lightness of being, if you will -- as fantasy does. I can't explain it, but there's something incredibly calming about losing yourself in an other world, forced to remember a multitude of names, cities, and countries which don't exist on our plane, but do in another.

Mystic and Rider, after a long and hollow reading slump, has awakened my passion for both reading and writing after a too-fatigued era of empty novels. Inevitably, fantasy never fails to bring me around; I just don't know why it took me this long to remember.

Shinn's introduction into her Twelve Houses Series is a bold and unforgettable story. I dare you to try to put this aside after finishing its first chapter -- it may as well be declared impossible. While many reviewers have claimed Mystic and Rider is slow to start, I found it riveting from beginning to end, unable to turn my eyes away from this tale of political turmoil and religious upheaval. Gillengaria, a country overseen by a king, twelve houses, and home to mystics, is in grave danger. Rumors that the king has been ensnared by a sorceress, his young new queen, have shaken the land and, secretly, the houses prepare for war. Senneth, a mystic in the king's favor, is dispatched with two of the King's Riders, Tayse and Justin, alongside Kirra, another mystic, to travel the kingdom and bring back news of the nation's unrest.

From the surface, Mystic and Rider follows the most basic format known within the fantasy genre. Shinn's novels, as I've learned, though action-packed with plenty of intriguing plot action, are driven primarily by her characters. Senneth, our protagonist, is a powerful mystic, capable of controlling fire. Kirra, a shapeshifter, joins her journey with her bodyguard, Donnal, yet another shapeshifter. Lastly, Cammon, a young boy Senneth finds in captivity and frees, discovers that he, too, is a mystic, capable of sensing those nearby. Accompanied by two King's Riders, deadly bodyguards whose sworn loyalty to the king and weaponry skills are legendary, the six traveling companions are far from friends. Justin mistrusts mystics and aristocrats, Donnal mistrusts anyone who isn't Kirra, and Tayse is wary of Senneth for her secrets and, more importantly, for her lack of allegiances. With the exception of Senneth and Cammon, each of these travelers bears loyalty either for the king or for one of the twelve noble houses they belong to. With a multitude of warring loyalties, the inner politics of this group alone are sufficient to carry forward this story.

But Shinn's world-building is beyond impressive. Mystics, or those who possess magical ability, burn when brought in direct contact with moonstones. As such, a religious sect devoted to the Pale Goddess of the Moon, is bent on eradicating the mystics from Gillengaria. Meanwhile, the twelve houses are torn, some determined to erase mystics while others merely seek to install a different king to the throne. Wherever Senneth and her group of companions travel, they lack no end of deception, intrigue, and danger at every corner. What makes Mystic and Rider a remarkable novel, despite its hefty length, is its sheer presence. Shinn allows her characters to creep under your skin, slowly but surely. Each of these six travelers, remarkably unique and starkly different in their own light, find a way to breach their differences and trust one another, quite unexpectedly, as the story wears on. In most novels, such situations can seem easily contrived but Shinn weaves these into the narrative, never deviating her focus from Senneth's task and the political upheaval of this nation. Yet, the emotional impact of this novel never suffers for that focus, only benefits from it.

Moreover, though, the romance present within the pages of Mystic and Rider stole my breath away. Subtle and slow, wavering but kind, doubtful yet aware; it's a mature, entirely beautiful arc that unfolds carefully, rewarding the reader for their patience. Senneth, the protagonist and one of the main narrators of this tale alongside Tayse, is precisely the type of heroine I crave to read about. While she is powerful, she is no "Chosen One" for her successes are empty without the help of those around her. Yet, it is her strength of will that builds her into such a compelling protagonist. Shinn balances courage alongside vulnerability so well within each of her characters, rendering them incredibly realistic, and then she does it again, balancing their personalities and strong wills alongside a romantic interest in such a way that they complement one another, on perfect ground and equal footing despite the surface inequalities that may lie between them. I remain in awe of her skill, constantly, and can only be grateful for having discovered such characters; characters who not only understand one another, but who -- inexplicably -- understand me.

It is hard to tell if I've enjoyed Mystic and Rider more or Troubled Waters, though I suspect it is the former, after all. Sharon Shinn's novels, even the one I have been disappointed by, always manage to strike a powerful cord within me, likely because of their quiet brilliance. While I heartily love the loud, voracious novels of fantasy, such as The Song of Fire and Ice Series, I find that I equally appreciate -- if not more -- the silent stories; just as strong, just as fiery, just as compelling.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Jane by April Lindner

Title: Jane

Author: April Lindner

Rating: 3 Stars

When it comes to JANE, I find it difficult to summon much feeling for this modern re-telling of Jane Eyre.

You see, Jane Eyre is the novel that cemented my relationship with my mother. We'd always been close, but during those awkward, teenage years of Middle School, I slowly began to gravitate away from her opinion, discovering my own instead. Needless to say, our relationship was strained, but that all changed -- surprisingly -- when I picked up my mother's well-worn copy of Jane Eyre from the recesses of our dusty attic. Jane Eyre is my mother's absolute favorite novel. Not only can she quote from it seamlessly, but her passion for the story pours out, even from the pages of the copy she has carried with her from India. Thus, to read Jane Eyre at fourteen, carrying with it my memories of late-night book discussions with my mother, is to render it a novel close to my heart.

With JANE, April Lindner certainly writes a respectable re-telling. It sticks closely to the original tale, with Jane Moore taking up a position as a nanny in the house of former rockstar, Nico Rathburn, following her parents' tragic death. Jane Moore's childhood hasn't been any easier than Jane Eyre's, complete with a cruel mother and even crueler siblings. Even following her entrance into Nico Rathburn's life, Jane Moore's life is similar to that of Jane Eyre's. Whether it be her passion for painting, quiet demeanor, or straightforward aura which catches the eye of Nico Rathburn and draws them together into a tight friendship, Lindner refuses to gloss over or forget these details. The flashy Bianca Ingram, the startling fire, the mysterious third's all present in JANE, though with a modern twist, as befits a re-telling.

Yet, despite these stellar qualities, JANE lacks the true spirit of Bronte's Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre's story is tragic, difficult, and tough to swallow but Jane's constant strength of will drives both her -- and the reader -- forward through hardship. Jane Moore, on the other hand, bitterly reflects upon her past in flashbacks which did little but connect this tale back to the original. Jane Moore's recollections of her family lack the underlying current of strength that is present in Jane Eyre's experience with her family. While we read -- and struggled -- alongside Jane Eyre as she was sent from her home to boarding school and later left to fend on her own, with Jane Moore we are merely given glimpses into the difficult childhood she suffered and told she made it through. Even in her present-day relationships, Jane Moore fails to strike much of a cord. JANE certainly captures the bare-bones of Bronte's complex characterization, but without filling in that skeletal structure with muscle, tissue, and pumping blood, Jane Moore merely remains a character on the page where Jane Eyre could just as easily have been my sister.

Nevertheless, perhaps my largest roadblock with JANE arrived in the form of Nico Rathburn. Rathburn? When I was eight, I would voraciously watch Arthur, a fellow third-grader who often suffered under the ministrations of his no-nonsense and "evil" teacher, Mr. Ratburn. Unfortunately, every time Jane Moore addressed Nico as Mr. Rathburn, I thought of a rat. (Rest assured, I quickly grew accustomed to thinking of this sexy rockstar as a human, not a rodent, was difficult.) Nico's name aside, I found myself unimpressed with his rockstar occupation. While it provides fertile ground upon which to build Edward Rochester's dark past, not to mention his current lifestyle in a modern-day setting, I found the charisma of Nico to dull the rougher edges of Mr. Rochester which I'd grown to love. JANE utterly impressed me by rendered Nico a flawed -- very much so -- hero, not to mention the fact that I couldn't help but lean in closer, falling in love with Nico and Jane's conversations, but Mr. Rochester is a whole other level of dark, brooding, and swoon than Nico Rathburn is, I'm afraid.

JANE is, I believe, I only modern-day adaptation of Jane Eyre I've stumbled across and, as such, it certainly plays homage to the original. I believe YA lovers of JANE will certainly pick up Bronte's masterpiece, which is an incredible feat to pull off. Lindner has cleverly woven in the historic details of Jane Eyre into the 21st Century and though aspects of her plot feel contrived, false to our dynasty, and the atmosphere she builds is far from the creeping gothic aroma behind Jane Eyre, I still flew through JANE, soaking up its every word. Granted, it's a poor substitute for the original, but every now and again even we lovers of classics need a break from the lengthy, wordy originals we stack on our shelves. And for those days, JANE is absolutely perfect.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: Love, in English by Karina Halle

Title: Love, in English

Author: Karina Halle

Rating: 4 Stars

I finished this at around 1 AM, my tears finally having dried somewhere between those tumultuous ending chapters and the epilogue. Love, In English is a difficult novel to read, if for the very reason that it forces readers to throw out their preconceived notions about infidelity. Nevertheless, despite the fact that this novel threw me far out of my comfort zone, I found myself unable to gain distance from the plot, emotionally at any rate. I became embroiled in Vera and Mateo's love story, almost against my will. While Vera berated herself for being attracted to a married man, I berated myself for mentally encouraging her attraction. You see, this is no simple romantic tale. Vera and Mateo, both in a three-week program in Spain to teach and improve their English respectively, start out as friends. Mateo is an eager and open listener, welcoming news of Vera's short life and, similarly, Vera brings out the best in Mateo, awakening his younger dreams and aspirations which he threw away for his current life - married to a wife he is unhappy with, stuck in a job he doesn't love, and his five-year-old daughter the only bright light in his current existence.

Thus, to see Vera and Mateo become pillars of support to one another, behaving as close friends, it is impossible not to wish for more between them. Especially with that palpable sexual tension simply rolling off the pages. But, as Halle shows us, it isn't that easy. Even after love has been acknowledged, Vera must live with the messy complications of being "the other woman." While Vera is the last person to become a home-wrecker - after all, her own family was torn apart by her father's years-long infidelity - by falling in love with Mateo, she unknowingly becomes one anyway. Although neither Vera nor Mateo set out to do what they did, the fact that it happened - that they cannot find happiness without each other now - is yet another consequence they must deal with. Halle never sugarcoats the difficult decisions or path Vera and Mateo must take, trying to find a way to love despite the ocean in between them and the marriage they wish didn't exist, not to mention the age gap they won't be able to ignore a few years down the line. It's a tough, complicated affair (no pun intended!), full of heart-wrenching emotions. But, I still loved it.

Love, In English made me think for hours after I'd closed its pages, merely because the gray matter this novel wades through is dense. While, granted, there are many "tropes" in this story - aspects that seem similar to other tales - Halle utilizes them in an unconventional method. Despite being a romantic at heart, I did find that the utter despair that befell Vera and Mateo when they contemplated a life apart or a long-distance relationship became a tad bit too over-dramatic. While there is no denying that a long-distance relationship is hard, hard work and such an inconvenience, Vera could come across as being a little too dependent in parts. I thought that the ending for these two characters solved that, though, and was a fitting conclusion to their story. While not a conventional read by any means, I do believe this novel is indicative of Halle's exemplary prose and, most importantly, her grasp of character depths. Needless to say, I will be stalking her backlist in the near future for sure.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Just Another...Book Crush (#15): The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

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 got in touch with Paula a couple of months prior to the release of The Art of Lainey as I'd picked up my ARC almost immediately after receiving it and was thoroughly impressed with the story within. Of most importance to me, however, was the depiction of a strong female protagonist in Lainey and, in particular, Paula's journey to publication with a heroine who doesn't quite fit all the usual boxes. Needless to say, I had to have Paula on the blog to share her story with you all! :)
Soccer star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back. And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they're sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few "dates", it looks like her plan is going to work! But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game. What's a girl to do when what she wants is totally different from what she needs? How do you figure out the person you're meant to be with, if you're still figuring out the person you're meant to be?
Hi! I’m Paula. Keertana invited me on the blog to talk about the creation and evolution of Lainey, the main character from my first YA contemp The Art of Lainey. Like Keertana, I see Lainey as a strong and engaging female character, but she’s also very flawed. At the beginning of the book, she’s got a lot going for her—looks, athletics, friends, loving middle-class family, hot boyfriend, use of her brother’s car for the summer, etc. Because of this, she starts out as someone who might get hashtagged with #FirstWorldProblems, if you know what I mean.

So why would I want to write about this kind of girl? The first answer to that question is “I don’t know.” I don’t design my characters like some mad scientist in a lab, tweaking the height lever up a bit and the snark lever down until I achieve the perfect girl. They usually just appear out of the ether and start talking. Sometimes there are tons of them all fighting each other in a big mental street fight until eventually one or two win out. Lainey Mitchell came to me, with her likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses  mostly in place, based on the idea of “what happens to the girl who has everything when her world falls apart?”

The second answer is because I like flawed characters. There are plenty of books with inoffensive and seemingly perfect main characters for readers to insert themselves into, but everyone I know in real life has flaws. So what if Lainey is a little shallow and snarky and emotional? So what if she starts out a tad desperate in the romantic arena? These things make her real.  Plus, there’s more opportunity for growth and character arc if your MC isn’t perfect to start with.

The third answer is because I wanted to bust the myth of the popular girl. You know—the one whose life looks perfect? Well guess what? She has all the same insecurities as everybody else. She’s insecure about her looks. She worries about her future. She’s afraid of being hurt. She’s afraid of hurting people. She wants to be loved. When we put people in boxes, we run the risk of forgetting the common threads we all share.

Although I try to let my characters be themselves as much as possible, there is one thing I demand from my MCs—strength. They don’t have to be physically strong (although Lainey is) or even mentally strong, but they need to have strength of spirit. I think it’s clear from the first chapter that Lainey is going to be okay, no matter what. She’s a fighter. My female characters manifest their strength in different ways and occasionally do weak things (no one’s perfect) but in general they’re  tough chicks. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In summer of 2011, I took the first chapter of The Art of Lainey  (which was still a WIP) to a conference where an editor told me she liked the voice but that Lainey couldn’t think of herself as pretty or popular because all high school girls were insecure and considered themselves dorky. I’m paraphrasing her words, but basically I walked away thinking my book didn’t have a chance unless I made Lainey just like the quiet, quirky, intellectual, outsider girls that were prevalent in a lot of YA contemps published a few years ago.

But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, so I finished the book my way and queried four agents in fall of 2011. Three of them requested the full manuscript immediately, from the first ten pages where Lainey is kind of at her worst. Yay, vindication! Sort of. The agent I signed with also loved Lainey, though she pointed out a few places where Lainey was snarky for snarky’s sake that I ended up revising.

My agent felt really positive about my revisions and sent the book on submission in winter of 2011 using Stephanie Perkins’s books as comparison titles. I hadn’t read ANNA or LOLA at the time, but I knew how popular they were so I was feeling confident too. But unfortunately…EDITORS. HATED. LAINEY. “I just didn’t care about her.” “I didn’t feel a connection.” “I thought this book was full of horrible people.”

I cried. If you think it sucks to get a string of mysterious “not for me” agent rejections, wait until you get a whole slew of NYC editors being completely honest about why they didn’t like your book. I cried some more. Then I went for a run. Then I called some friends and discussed the uncomfortable reality of just how much of my inner self I had put into Lainey. “OMG.  Editors hate me,” I said. “I’m apparently a horrible person.” But my friends didn’t think so. And my agent didn’t think so either. We put our heads together. She thought the current draft of the MS was fine and that we should go out for another submission round. But since multiple editors had remarked on Lainey’s lack of appeal, I wanted to revise.  [Sidenote: Paula Writing Rule #3: Never pass up a chance to revise.]

That was the tricky part, because as Lainey’s creator, I knew every part of her. I knew her history. I knew her thoughts. I knew that underneath her “popular girl façade” she was awesome. But how could I bring that to the page?

Because I wasn’t willing to sacrifice Lainey’s popularity, feistiness, or her deeply felt emotions (she basically goes through the stages of grief after her boyfriend dumps her, so she is very angry in places and despondent in others), I decided to revise by addition instead of subtraction. I started by layering in self-awareness to make her more sympathetic and relatable. Finished book-Lainey realizes she’s being bitchy to Micah in the first chapter and wants to apologize even though she can’t quite spit it out. She knows when she’s being melodramatic. At one point, she makes a really bad decision and she questions herself the whole time. I also worked to emphasize Lainey’s positive traits. She’s funny, fiercely loyal, and hates to see people in pain. I developed scenes to show all of these elements throughout the book. Finally, I deepened her relationship with Bianca and her interest in soccer to make her feel more multi-faceted.

My agent loved the changes and the manuscript was eventually acquired in May of 2012 by an editor at HarperTeen. When I told her the story of “Everyone Hates Lainey” she was like “Nah. Maybe she needs a little tweaking, but I thought she was fun.” VICTORY! :-) My Harper editor pushed me to make the book even stronger by requesting I give Lainey and Bianca’s friendship additional backstory and develop the soccer aspect of the story even more. I also finessed Lainey’s intellectual arc with respect to The Art of War and her overall emotional arc with respect to her best friend and possible new boyfriend.

Lainey Mitchell doesn’t become a whole new person in one summer, because that would be unrealistic, but by the end of the book she has changed in subtle but important ways. She knows more about who she is and what she wants. She more thoughtful; she’s less afraid; she has new things in her life that matter. I’m proud of the person Lainey becomes. If you read The Art of Lainey, I think you will be too.

Just Another...Book Crush!
My book crush picks [Disclaimer: authors don’t get time to read 200 books a year like we wish we could, so these aren’t brand new releases, but they’re three of the last books I really loved.]

  1. VICIOUS by V.E. Schwab: Truth--I don’t like books that are written so just when something good is happening I have to flash to a different time period or POV and wait to find out what’s going on in the present. The fact that VICIOUS does this, a lot, and I still love it speaks to how absolutely phenomenal it is. What made this one for me is Victor, his relationships with the other characters, and the PERFECT ENDING.
  2. THE DUFF by Kody Keplinger: Sometimes a book speaks to you on a personal level—no, on several personal levels. I did not go into the book expecting that Bianca and Wesley would make me cry, but they did. If you like YA contemps and can handle some sex/swearing, this one should not be missed.
  3. A TALE OF TWO CENTURIES by Rachel Harris: I’m re-reading this one in preparation for the third book and it is such a delight. Austin is deliciously swoony in that bad boy/slacker/surfer who knows his classic literature kind of way. Less’s adventures in modern day California are hilarious. Reading this book reminded me of why I wrote The Art of Lainey—to make people laugh and feel good.
Thanks for stopping by, Paula! I seriously loved this post and The DUFF is a favorite of mine. I'm definitely bumping both Vicious and A Tale of Two Centuries up my list after your glowing recommendation, so I cannot wait to pick those up soon as well! :)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

ARC Review: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Title: Everything Leads to You

Author: Nina LaCour

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: May 15th, 2014

Without a doubt, this is LaCour's best novel by far. While I've loved and taken away something different from every one of her books, I was still blown away by this which, believe me, is no easy task.


What I appreciate about LaCour's writing style, in general, is the fact that she never writes down to her audience. Instead of depicting young adults whose lives revolve around school, she imbibes each and every one of her protagonists which a passion. In Hold Still it was photography; in The Disenchantments it was music; in Everything Leads to You it's film. Growing up in California with a family thoroughly invested in the film industry, Emi has almost always knows she wants a career in the movies. Not as an actress or a director or even a writer, but as a set designer. Through Emi's eyes, LaCour brings to life the thrill, the frustrations, and the importance of shaping a film set. Frankly speaking, I sort of want to fly to Hollywood myself, now, and decorate a few sets of my own. Emi's passion bleeds through the page and I love this. It makes her such a real, three-dimensional character.

What's more, the film atmosphere of this entire story enables it to read much like a movie unfolding, scene-by-scene. Everything Leads to You isn't lacking in an action-filled and exciting plot line. Unlike LaCour's past novels, which have been primarily character-driven, introspective reads, her latest is a page-turning mystery (at first) which develops into a nail-biting romance. When Emi discovers a letter on set from a deceased, but legendary, actor she sets out, with the help of her best friend, to give it to its rightful owner. Emi tracks the recipient of this letter around town, eventually stumbling upon Ava, the grand-daughter of a famous Hollywood actor, and within moments, the course of her summer is changed. As Emi is offered a script to work on, she explores not only Ava's film talent--genetic--but also the secrets of Ava. With the backdrop of a film town, infused with characters thoroughly invested in movies, and with the additional inclusion of lines from Emi's new script, the setting of Everything Leads to You only adds to its story. LaCour has painted such a rich, vibrant atmosphere that it is impossible to look away; one must simply be content to be pulled into the tide.


LaCour's novels are all, in some way, shape, or form, about growth and Everything Leads to You is no exception. It's one of those books; you know, the novels where the protagonist discovers herself over the summer. It sounds incredibly cliched, but combined with LaCour's prose and command of characterization, it comes across as sophisticated and, most importantly, real. Emi, having just broken up with her on-again-off-again girlfriend yet again doesn't begin this novel in the best of places. Not only is she unable to leave her current relationship completely behind her, but she is also classically confident in her own capabilities in a manner only a teenager can possibly be. Over the course of the story, Emi grows to mature, if nothing else, admitting her faults and doing her best to rectify them. What's more, despite her sheltered and luxurious upbringing, at least compared to Ava's childhood which is riddled with far more economic struggles that Emi could imagine, Emi makes the effort to bridge that gap and understand not only Ava, but the world around her.


Lastly, I have to admit that the romance in this novel is simply to die-for. LaCour never emphasizes the fact that Emi and Ava like girls; it simply is. For once, I have to admit it's refreshing not to constantly re-hash the oppression homosexuals face and instead appreciate and enjoy a romance between two female characters. Even beyond that diverse aspect of the love story within these pages, though, LaCour goes above and beyond to create distinct, but powerful, secondary characters. Emi and Ava come from two completely different walks of life and are drawn together by their love for film, but the presence of these secondary characters helped to ground their romance to reality. With Emi and Ava, and their overblown enthusiasm for the scripts and sets in their lives, it is all too easy to fall into the fake, fleeting love story of Hollywood. Instead, LaCour uses her secondary characters as barriers between reality and fantasy, ensuring that Emi and Ava's path to one another is not half as easy as their first meeting. And, believe me, it's such a worthwhile romance.

Everything Leads to You completely be-spelled me under its atmospheric setting, not to mention the glimpses it provided into the script Emi and Ava were working on during the summer. LaCour's small details, ultimately, elevate her novels from fiction to reality, breaking those barriers until her characters feel like living, breathing humans. It's a gift and with her latest, she uses that gift to her fullest capability. Yet another stunning novel from LaCour; I don't think anyone is surprised by that, least of all, me.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

ARC Review: Sun-Kissed by Laura Florand

Title: Sun-Kissed (Amour et Chocolat, #7; Snow Queen, #2) 

Author: Laura Florand

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: May 20th, 2014 

Sun-Kissed is a beautifully written coda to Florand's Amour et Chocolat Series. Bringing together Mack Corey, the father (or father-figure) to three of the heroines from this previously six-book series) as well as Anne Winters, the mother of Kurt from Snow-Kissed, Florand ties together the loose threads in this extended family of French chefs, chocolate-lovers, and emotionally strong individuals who have found love, often in the most unlikeliest of places. Without a doubt, I'd recommend reading Sun-Kissed only after having finished the rest of Florand's back-list, merely because the sweet cameos of past couples and references to prior love stories will tug at your memory, further adding to the experience of this short novel.

Sun-Kissed is a compelling romance, primarily because its protagonists are far older than the typical age-group associated with young love. Which is precisely what this story is not. Sun-Kissed is far from a tale of first love, with its healing kisses and gentle caresses. Instead, it is a story of the building affection and burning love between two adults; adults who have been knocked down by life, who have built walls of steel and ice around their hearts, and who have -- somehow -- persevered through watching their young family age and travel away from them. Set during the wedding of Jaime Corey, Mack's youngest daughter, and Dominique Richard, an absolutely swoon-worthy French chocolatier, Mack and Anne slowly realize that the only path they want into their future is one traversed together.

It isn't an easy romance, though. For Mack, facing the reality that both his daughters have married, found spouses they want to spend more time with than their own father, and are moving to another continent entirely is a difficult admission to deal with. Mack's entire life has revolved around his daughters; caring for them, providing for them, making enough money for them, and loving them enough for two parents. Now, to witness them simply leave everything he has built for his not-so-modest son-in-laws is -- to put it mildly -- a bit of a shock. Moreover, for Anne, the tough facade she walks under refuses to drop. In order to have become a wealthy and successful single-mother, Anne chilled her heart with ice and sharpened her gaze with steel, intimidating every man who dared challenge her and knock her down. Thus, to open her heart to Mack Corey is no easy task. Florand builds their romance gradually, though, making sure to intersperse within their love story the familial issues that plague them, due to their age. Kurt and Kai's heart-breaking situation follows us into Sun-Kissed as Anne acknowledges the fact that she may never have grand-children and, worse, that her son fell in love with a woman as far removed from Anne herself. It is the myriad of all these dilemmas -- both inner and outer -- that make Sun-Kissed such a masterpiece to inhale.

Moreover, the brief appearances made by my absolute favorite Florand heroes, from Sylvain Marquis to Philippe Lyonnais, only elevated Sun-Kissed as Florand manages to keep her large host of characters distinct in their individual personalities, despite the similarities many of them share, and displays their relationships with a balance of poise and realism. Nothing is sugar-coated and though this novel seems to be full of happily-ever-afters, they are endings hard-won; endings that will only continue to be hard-won as well.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Romance Mini-Reviews: Jill Shalvis, Sherry Thomas, and Molly O'Keefe

Title: It Had to Be You (Lucky Harbor, #7)

Author: Jill Shalvis

Rating: 4 Stars

With a decent sprinkling of snow on the ground and the covers of my comforter up to my chin, a warm, breezy romance fit my mood precisely. I've been on a bit of a romance kick lately - one I almost feel guilty about as it means I'm disregarding my ever-growing pile of ARCs - but flying through love story after love story on a chilly weekend just feels so right. I picked up Simply Irresistible a few months back and, ever since, have been meaning to return to Lucky Harbor. Both the sequels following Simply Irresistible, however, had such summer-friendly covers that I wasn't quite in the mood  for this winter season but I couldn't resist the allure of a cop and the beginning of a new mini-trilogy within this expansive series that It Had to Be You had going for it. And, let me tell you, Luke gives Jax Cullen a really good run for his money! ;) Needless to say, Shalvis is a must-read for readers on the lookout for a lovely romance, quiet depth, and a slow simmer.

Title: Lucky in Love (Lucky Harbor, #4)

Author: Jill Shalvis

Rating: 4 Stars

Dear Publishers,

I regret to inform you that you have chosen the incorrect candidate to bestow your ARCs upon. In fact, this individual in question needs to be placed under surveillance for she hasn't reviewed a novel in a very long time and neither is she actively reading the ARCs you have been diligently sending to her doorstep. No, she is instead caught in Lucky Harbor (or Victorian England if you want to discuss the historical romance novels she's been flying through!) and, therefore, is unable to attend to upcoming novels. A pinch of pixie dust to snap her back into reality may be necessary.

A Concerned Reader


Since I seem to be mastering the art of "Ignore the ARC", I figured another trip to Lucky Harbor couldn't hurt. And, trust me, Lucky in Love hurt in only the right places. If you're a fan of the strong and silent type of hero alongside a heroine who's hiding an inner bad girl, this is your best bet. Quick, steamy, and ever-so-sweet, it'll bring a gust of luck and a dopey smile or two on your face for sure. (Although, diabetics, beware! Shalvis does not hesitate to mention chocolate...again and again and again. Thus, tread with caution! A craving for chocolate in practically guaranteed should this book fall into your unsuspecting hands...)

Title: The Luckiest Lady in London 

Author: Sherry Thomas 

Rating: 4 Stars

I swore off of Sherry Thomas after Not Quite a Husband destroyed me, leaving me an emotional wreck. With just a mere string of words Thomas held my heart far above my reach and the palpable pain she portrayed within the pages of her romance was unbearable. Needless to say, I've sought much happier, less bittersweet love stories since and, thankfully, The Luckiest Lady in London fits the bill. While it still contains Thomas's signature skill of character and persona, developing complex - and deeply flawed - heroes and heroines for us to love, the emotional scarring was minimal, though still felt. For fans of historical romance, this is a definite winner, filled with an enticingly entertaining courtship and a wonderfully contained marriage afterwards. Very, very highly recommended.

Title: Wild Child 

Author: Molly O'Keefe

Rating: 4 Stars

I've been finding it really, really tough to write a review for the Molly O'Keefe books I've read. Firstly, because the covers make this book seem like erotica or hard-core contemporary romance when it's more of a raw, realistic, and brutal look at life. It's an adult novel, so yes, it has fairly explicit sex, but the sex is only one aspect to the depth these books contain. Of course these characters are broken, but they're the kind of broken that passes for normal until it doesn't. And these are the kind of relationships, messy and unflinchingly honest, that we all sustain, at some point or the other, in our lives. I really wish I could articulate how perfectly O'Keefe writes really complex story arcs, with plenty of swoon to counter the dark places she takes her characters, but I can't. If you're one for realistic novels, ones that use sex as a means of empowerment, take characters out of the boxes we've labeled for them, and is downright un-put-downable, read Molly O'Keefe. I just don't think you can go wrong with her.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

ARC Review: Strange and Ever After by Susan Dennard

Title: Strange and Ever After (Something Strange and Deadly, #3) 

Author: Susan Dennard

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: July 22nd, 2014

From the first moment we met parasol-wielding Eleanor in Something Strange and Deadly, I've been a fan of this series. While A Darkness Strange and Lovely clearly suffered from Middle Book Syndrome, Strange and Ever After most definitely did not. Out of all the conclusions I've read lately, this installment feels the most conclusive. Dennard not only notches up the pace of this final novel, but she also heightens the risk and danger. As such, Strange and Ever After is a non-stop, page-flipping adventure, incorporating elements from the previous two novels into an explosive finale that may not necessarily satisfy, but definitely will not be forgotten.

Strange and Ever After starts out in Paris, quickly moves to Marseille, and finally ends up in Egypt. When the novel opens, Allison has just arrived from Philadelphia, bearing the unfortunate news that Eleanor's mother has passed away. Stuck on Daniel's hot-air balloon with nothing but her grief, worry for her best friend Jie, and anger at Marcus, Eleanor slowly begins pushing everyone away. Yet, there is hardly time to dwell on emotions for Marcus is becoming more and more powerful by the minute and if Eleanor ever wants the hope of a normal life, she will have to stop him...before he stops her.

While Eleanor's motives and personality in A Darkness Strange and Lovely remained obscure and changed, in Strange and Ever After I was finally able to understand her agency. Eleanor's relationships don't start out in a very strong place and, more often than not, she is readily testy. Not only has Eleanor lost the trust of Ollie, her demon, but her relationship with Daniel is fragile and uncertain for he dislikes her abilities as a necromancer. With Allison on board, Eleanor's situation is no easier and her heart, mind, and emotions pull her in different directions. One of the best aspects of this novel, though, lies in the fact that Eleanor grows to open up to those around her and carry meaningful conversations with them. While she still struggles to control her abilities, she is determined not to succumb to darkness and maintain the relationships she shares with others - which she does.

While Eleanor and Daniel's romance truly took off in this installment, with plenty of swoon-worthy moments and touching dialogues, the relationship at the forefront was that between Ollie and Eleanor. I couldn't get a grasp Ollie's character in A Darkness Strange and Lovely as I was unsure whether or not to trust him. Even in this installment, he is exasperating, pushing Eleanor to her breaking point at times. But as we grow to understand Ollie, to see life from his perspective, the friendship between him and Eleanor becomes ever-stronger. I grew to love his character by the end and, in some ways; he even eclipses Daniel (but never in my heart).

With such a large host of characters and emotional ties, Strange and Ever After never falters in its plot. The Spirit Hunters are constantly on the move, uncovering pieces of information about Marcus and the Old Man in a timely fashion. Moreover, I really enjoyed the change of setting from one novel to the next. Dennard has mastered the art of world-building and the richness of the reality she has created, as well as the mythological references that cropped up, made this story such a delight. Even the final showdown with Marcus is brilliantly written, proving that every victory has its sacrifices. We've seen Eleanor up against Marcus before and though she is stronger, he is still a formidable opponent. It is only with the help of others that she is truly able to put an end to his evil once and for all.

Where this story faltered for me, though, is in the unexpected death of a main character. I anticipate and look forward to character deaths in a concluding novel because of the emotional upheaval they bring. With this death, though, I felt blindsided and surprised. It's a death I struggled to rationalize and cope with 
because it was so unfair and while I have qualms about it - particularly regarding its necessity and the fact that it represents that the character in question never saw themselves as worthwhile - it also makes for a bittersweet, albeit surprising, conclusion. I'm not sure how I expected this series to end, but I'm glad it's done. Dennard's debut trilogy has had its ups and downs and while I wouldn't recommend against it, I'm not sure I'd shove it upon a friend either. Nevertheless, I look forward to whatever Dennard has up her sleeve next. I may harbor mixed feelings towards this series as a whole, but towards her writing? None at all.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Title: Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles, #1) 

Author: Ilona Andrews

Rating: 4 Stars

If the distasteful rumors of an impending love triangle within this new series wasn't enough to steer me away from the latest Ilona Andrews, my disappointment following Magic Rises certainly was. Months after the last Kate Daniels release, however, I found myself - quite inevitably - in the mood for Ilona and Gordon's work. With the Edge Chronicles inconveniently checked out of the e-library, I was left with Clean Sweep to borrow. A resigned sigh, the click of a mouse, and the title was downloaded onto my Kindle.

And, lo and behold, I really, really liked it.

First and foremost, allow me to dispel any - and all! - rumors of a love triangle within these pages. While there are, admittedly, two love interests for Dina, our protagonist in question, it is clear just who Dina has feelings for. Moreover, the second love interest - who only makes an appearance a little over half-way through the book - fails to display the same level of romantic interest in Dina. Although he could, very well, be a true contender for her heart as the series progresses, I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed that Ilona Andrews steers clear of that path. It hasn't been their style in the past and I certainly hope they do not adopt it for the future.

While Clean Sweep is certainly a stronger introduction to a promising series than Magic Bites ever was, it still lacks the epic nature of a Kate Daniels installment. Nevertheless, Dina is a formidable heroine; strong, resilient, and determined to carry out her job. Dina, the owner of a magical inn, is duty-bound to protect her residents when danger comes knocking on her doorstep. Moreover, as the daughter of two innkeepers who have mysteriously gone missing, Dina has taken it upon herself to maintain neutral territory on her grounds, all while enticing more visitors in the hopes that someone, someday, will know what happened to her parents. With unknown dangers lurking around the corner however, Dina will need all the help she can get - even if it's from her frustratingly handsome neighbor - to keep her community safe.

It seems Ilona Andrews can still be relied upon for a quick, pick-me-up Urban Fantasy read. Though Clean Sweep starts off a little shakily, it quickly gains momentum and maintains a solid pace throughout. I cannot wait to see where Ilona and Gordon take this series next. With such a lot of promise, originality, and heart captured within the pages of this first installment itself, I have no doubts that Dina's books will soon become just as memorable and adored as those of Kate Daniels as well.

Friday, May 2, 2014

ARC Review: Tease by Sophie Jordan

Title: Tease (Ivy Chronicles, #2) 

Author: Sophie Jordan 

Rating: 2 Stars

Release Date: May 27th, 2014

In a rare display of symbolism, the cover of this novel is every bit as off-putting as it needs to be. When I first looked at the ARC of this novel, I was originally disappointed as I felt the cover image - with those models looking at the viewer and at each other so oddly - would work against an otherwise excellent novel. Unlike its predecessor, however, Tease is exactly the typical New Adult novel it is projected as. Where Foreplay managed to draw me into the college lifestyle, warm friendships, and a romance that defied stereotypes while playing within them, Tease follows an all too-familiar cookie-cutter formula which has, fortunately or unfortunately, run its course.

Tease follows one of Pepper's best friends, Emerson, as she finally meets a guy willing to get to know the real her beneath her multiple layers of barriers. Frankly speaking, I am not exhausted of this particular plot-line. I think that with maturity and time, there comes a point in every relationship where honesty is needed above "faking" it and considering the state of women's self-esteem all around the world thanks to the media, I am not surprised that this a theme authors keep returning to and readers keep embracing. After all, every character is different and their approach to their growth isn't the same either, appealing to certain types of audiences more than others.

In the case of Tease, though, this wasn't the case. Emerson is estranged from her family, bitter at the world, and uses guys to further the image of her sexual experience. Moreover, she enjoys teasing guys as it gives her a modicum of welcome power of her life. I get that. Where I had a difficult time with this story, however, is in the fact that Emerson's growth is peppered with recycled tropes playing a large role in her agency. Whether it be the alpha-male, Shaw, whose insistence at control forces Emerson to give up her own control and learn to trust and open up to him or the sexual abuse which drives forward her present-day motives, Emerson's story line dulled my senses, causing my eyes to skim over the pages instead of lean in with barely-contained excitement.

Admittedly, my dislike for alpha-males is a personal one and, as far as they go, Shaw is definitely one of the better, nicer guys whose dominance doesn't dictate his every action. Nevertheless, Shaw's personality as a love interest never came alive for me and, moreover, his connection with Emerson seemed purely physical. No, not purely physical, but if Emerson had met a different stubborn, alpha-male she would have likely fallen for him too as his controlling qualities would have forced her to open up under his probing gaze, just as she did with Shaw. Moreover, I am growing a little disgusted by the blatant use of sexual abuse in every single New Adult novel to further the plot line. I am not denying the fact that the percentage of women who experience sexual abuse is high - it is - which makes the chances of all these characters suffering from some type of sexual abuse a realistic statistic, but the manner in which this is explored is never to the full depth and capacity it needs to be. In Tease, this aspect of Emerson's past is a negligible detail, mentioned and utilized to increase the drama of the story line instead of address serious allegations of potential rape and our societal view of it. Emerson's trauma and baggage is big enough to deal with without adding sexual abuse into the mixture, so its presence only clouded an already disappointing story.

For fans of Sophie Jordan, I have a feeling Tease may prove to be a success. Seeing as I've only ever enjoyed Foreplay, I am certainly the first to admit that I went into this with grossly high expectations and have had to pay for those hopes dearly. Perhaps, for me, Foreplay was only a one trick pony. Either way, I won't be lunging for the next book in this series; lesson learned.