Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1) 

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Rating: 4 Stars

I find it distinctly odd that Half a King is Joe Abercrombie's young adult debut. Yarvi's tale, full of political strife and immense character growth, is far removed from the quintessential young adult fantasy novel. I love fantasy--high fantasy, romantic fantasy, young adult fantasy, adult fantasy--but I find that young adult fantasy marks a delicate balance between magic and romance. When you pick up a novel by Tolkien or George R. R. Martin, you know it's fantasy--obviously--because of the fictional setting. Both Tolkien and Martin imbibe magical elements into their work, whether it be in the form of other races of humans or fantastical creatures, but those characteristics are not at the cornerstone of their work. Instead, their novels focus on human nature, challenged to its utmost in foreign lands and situations, but somehow prevailing.

Now that is the type of novel Half a King is. Not only does it lack a romantic story arc, but it further lacks a protagonist who discovers their own magical ability--qualities evident in nearly every young adult fantasy novel. Yarvi, Abercrombie's surprising hero, is a cripple, constantly living in the shadow of his warrior father--the king--and his equally competent sword-wielding elder brother. Thus, Prince Yarvi, the youngest prince of the realm, trains to become a minister, forsaking marriage and status in a quest for knowledge. On the eve of his exam qualifying him to leave behind the manacle of Prince Yarvi and become Brother Yarvi, news arrives that both his father and his elder brother have been killed. Thus, Prince Yarvi becomes King Yarvi--half a king with only half of his hands. But Yarvi's reign as king is short-lived. Swearing an oath of vengeance to kill those who have murdered his father and eldest brother, Yarvi sails away to war. Naive, trusting Yarvi finds himself caught in the crossfire of political machinations, though, and is sold into slavery before fulfilling his oath. Now a slave instead of a king, Yarvi vows to complete his oath and seeks matter the cost.

Half a King is littered with unforeseen plot twists, some I predicted but most I did not. As such, it is nearly impossible to set down once picked up and Yarvi's tale is both moving and captivating. Abercrombie's secondary characters, alongside Yarvi, are infused with depth and as they travel with Yarvi through cold snows and roaring rivers, they begin to shed their layers, revealing their true personality beneath. While Yarvi is an endearing hero, both physically and emotionally weak at first despite his cunning, his story is impossible to prey away from his friends. We see him Before, as a lonely and cowering prince fervently praying to be made minister, and then we see him After, thrown into a game of survival and forced to rely on his wits to form alliances and escape the bonds of slavery which keep him from his rightful throne. Consequently, Yarvi's growth is steady and noticeable, a marked difference throughout multiple stages of the narrative. Ultimately, as he grows from boyhood to manhood by the end of the novel, we will have met a dozen different Yarvi's, all facets of his journey to acquire the strength he lacks as Prince Yarvi.

What I find fascinating about Half a King is that, despite the "typical" politics of usurping a king to overtake his throne, the politics of this world are heavily wrapped up in the mythology/religion of this universe as well. Moreover, the traditional genders we associate with ideas such as war or peace are reversed in Half a King. In Greek myth there is a God of War and a God of the Sea just as there is Mother Earth who symbolizes nurture, growth, and peace. Conversely, within these pages you will hear of Goddesses of War and the Sea just as you'll hear of Father Peace. While this isn't indicative of peaceful men and warring women in the societies of Yarvi's land, it does hint at stronger female roles and, what's more, I suspect that with such role models the women of this universe haven't grown up nearly as suppressed as the women in our universe. Abercrombie writes of fearless women, ones who aren't afraid to take on leadership roles and own their place in them effortlessly. Not all of his characters are good, but the feminist in me loved the dual-nature of both his men and women regardless.

Yet, perhaps what I appreciate most about this novel is its ending. I love an epic fantasy series but what I love even more is a novel that is both part of a series and able to stand on its own. Half a King ends remarkably, wrapping up the loose threads of this particular plot line but leaving readers anxious for more of this world and, of course, of Yarvi. From an underdog to a hero, Yarvi is a protagonist who is shockingly easy to relate to, despite his high-born status, and the conclusion of his tale is utterly perfect. I was kept guessing until the very end but the pay-off was more than worthwhile. Even if Half a King fails to shock readers with its plot twists, the level of character growth is certain to entice even the most heartless of readers. Yarvi's tale is an impossible one, full of courage and hope, and I loved every minute of it. Its sequel can simply not release fast enough.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Shimmer by Paula Weston

Title: Shimmer (The Rephaim, #3) 

Author: Paula Weston

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: There are minor spoilers for Haze in this review, though if you are unfamiliar with the series as a whole you will be unable to discern the actual spoiler. If you have read Shadows but not Haze, however, there are a few spoilers below. 

You can read my spoiler-free reviews of both Shadows and Haze here and here respectively. 

Shimmer, I find, is my least favorite edition of this series to date. When the weakest link in a quartet still manages to pull off 4 Stars effortlessly, though, you've certainly found an undisputed winner among novels.

Weston's strength, as always, lies in her flawless execution of plot but, even more, in her mastery of characterization. With Rafa out of sight in 
Shimmer, it becomes all the more imperative to tie these characters together and define their relationships. Jude and Gaby, in particular, truly blossom as siblings and their united front, combined with the strange experiences they've shared, make for a memorable growth arc. I'm both anxious and eager to see its culmination in Blaze, the finale to this quartet, as the past finally catches up to these two.

Shimmer takes place predominantly in the Sanctuary, home to the Rephaim. Lines have already been drawn between Nathaniel's followers and the Outcasts but, when forced to work together, these allegiances gradually begin to shift. I found the first-half of Shimmer to fly by seamlessly but I also found it to be oddly repetitive in the argumentation between the secondary characters. Yet, I love how Weston uses this base to evolve her characters as the story wears on and the conversations, however minor or similar, all carry their weight.

Gaby certainly discovers more about her past, especially pertaining to how she came to lose her memory, but so many of the vital details are still shrouded from the reader. Once again, though, we never feel frustrated by the lack of answers since Weston keeps up a steady stream of action and tiny tid-bits to please fans. Where Shadows introduced us to this complex world and 
Haze began to answer our swirling doubts, Shimmer brings forth slightly unexpected plot lines and introduces even more questions into our minds even as we gain answers. I'm in awe of Weston's ability to do this; to introduce even more into the complicated mix-up of Gaby's past all while weaving these threads together. Unlike Laini Taylor's plot introductions towards the end of Dreams of Gods & Monsters, in Shimmer everything feels all-too natural thanks to the expert foreshadowing Weston has littered throughout the story. I'm curious to see, now, what Gaby and the gang make of these new developments in this sequel.

Many readers have promised that the romance in 
Shimmer is delightfully swoon-worthy--it is! While I'm all about the build-up, hence the reason I adored Haze as much as I did, Shimmer in no way disappoints and I'm more than a little curious to finally have all my romantic enquiries answered in Blaze. If you expected to find more about Rafa and Gabe's history in Shimmer you'll remain disappointed but at this point I'm just as curious about Jude's romantic past as I am about Gaby's so alongside the explosive revelations in Blaze and kick-ass action sequences, I'm expecting a full load of swoons, sighs, and kisses. 

Shimmer is a difficult novel to review mainly because it picks up directly where Haze leaves off and much of Shimmer's excellence stems from the plot twists in the second-half of the story. Yet, the political machinations between these Rephaim are just as intriguing and I'm glad we finally glimpsed the true personas of Nathaniel's followers unclouded by bias. It was all-too-easy in the past two novels to distinguish the "good" Rephaim from the "bad" but with Shimmer that line becomes blurred and I love that level of depth in a novel. Though Shimmer may not have provided all the answers I sought, fans of Weston will certainly not be disappointed--well, with the exception of that ending. Seriously, so cruel Ms. Weston. CRUEL. *pouts*

Friday, July 25, 2014

Rainy Day Re-Reads (#1): Amour et Chocolat by Laura Florand

I've had the idea to begin "Rainy Day Re-Reads" around the same time I decided to start "Just Another...Book Crush!" but it somehow took a longer amount of time to fully actualize in my mind than the latter did. "Rainy Day Re-Reads" is essentially a feature I created for myself and other bloggers in order to stave off re-reading guilt. I re-read a lot and I like re-reading books. But, I also want to keep up on blog content and oftentimes, it's difficult to write a brand-new review for a book if it's the second or third time you're reading it. Thus, you just feel guilty for having re-read a favorite instead of tackling a new ARC's a vicious cycle.

"Rainy Day Re-Reads" is a feature where I will be highlighting a few of my absolute favorite novels, the ones I really do sit down to re-read from cover to cover. It's going to be a sporadic, disorganized feature; one I'll use so that during months like this one where I haven't fallen in love with any new titles to invite authors on board for "Just Another...Book Crush!", I still have creative content to fall back on. 

I've been working on this post about my unique love for Laura Florand's romances for awhile, now, and seeing as Chachic is hosting her "Amour et Florand" week over on her blog, I figured this would be the perfect time to publish this live. (In case you don't know, "Amour et Florand" is a week celebrating Florand's work, so if you're even remotely interested in this series I'd highly suggest you check it out--it's amazing!) 

I began my review of Florand's The Chocolate Heart with the following paragraph:
Usually, after the initial honeymoon period wears off – generally around the third or fourth book in a series – I begin to become wary. Whether it be Kate Daniels or Mercy Thompson, there always comes a time when my stomach churns, my mind imagines all the worst case scenarios, and I settle down to read a book with crossed fingers, toes, and hair strands. When it comes to Laura Florand, however, whose Amour et Chocolat series is made up of companion novels, my trust is never shaken. It’s a comfort to know that even if – by some strange chance of fate – I don’t fall head-over-heels for the love stories Florand writes, I always walk away besotted and impressed by her languid, graceful prose. Of course the setting of Paris, the chocolate-making heroes, and deeply complex heroines draw me in – but Florand’s writing always, always, clinches the deal.
For readers who have yet to pick up a Florand novel, it may be difficult to imagine an author whose writing is poignant, beautiful, and evocative enough to carry forward an entire story, plot and characters be damned. Florand could publish her grocery lists, though, and they'd likely earn 5 Stars from me. Nevertheless, I don't re-read Florand's books solely for her prose. Granted, I inhale this series knowing I'll be transported to France in a matter of minutes, my senses overflowing with chocolate and a not-so-healthy dose of swoon--for that is the magic of Florand's words. But I find myself drawn to her books time and time again, not merely for the comfort of her languid phrases enveloping themselves around me or the steamy scenes I'm sure to melt at, but rather for the love stories she weaves. 

Oddly enough, I find myself talking of Florand's heart-stopping prose, delectable chocolate concoctions, or vivid Parisian setting far more than I discuss her actual romances. Florand writes love stories but they are of such an intense, gripping variety that to pull them apart and dissect them is to leave them a little less magical. Yet, the strength of her romances lie in their equality. It is a balance that many other contemporary romance authors manage to achieve, not just Florand, but Florand's brand of it is far more realistic than most. Usually, when faced with a love interest who is at the top of his field we find ourselves with heroines who are just as successful in their careers. Julie James repeatedly pulls this off with her FBI/U.S. Attorney Series and Jill Shalvis achieves the same results with her Lucky Harbor Series, only her characters have less glamorous professions. Florand, too, pairs characters--such as Cade Corey and Sylvain Marquis--who both share confidence, arrogance, and ego when it comes to their respective careers.

Yet, Florand strips her characters--whether it be Cade and Sylvain or Jaime and Dominique--of the labels they hide behind. And then, when left with just Cade Corey, heir to an American chocolate industry who dreams of living in Paris, and just Sylvain Marquis, an insecure young man who seeks love, their love story becomes both achingly simply and enchantingly complex in the space of a heartbeat. Florand does this with every single one of her novels. With her decadent prose she effortlessly introduces us to these seemingly simple characters, allowing our mouths to salivate with her descriptions of chocolate and our hearts to pound outrageously as the sexual tension is slowly, slooowly turned up but then--then she pulls the drape off of her leads, exposes their raw insecurities, and makes both them (and us!) fall in love.

It isn't easy. It isn't simple. And I don't know how she does it, time and time again. None of her characters, deep down, are the same. Sylvain and Dominique may both be master chocolatiers, but there is a reason Sylvain is perfectly suited for Cade as Dominique is for Jaime, despite any similarity their labels may share. Underneath, these two egotistical, highly motivated men are utterly changed individuals and it is only in the hands of their lovers that they reach their full potential. Somehow, Florand takes men who strive for perfection and enables them, with the strength of their love, to achieve that perfection even more effortlessly. It isn't an enigma reserved only for her heroes, though. Florand's heroines--emotionally strong, incredibly inspirational, and downright gorgeous--are kick-ass women even without man-candy on their arms. Yet, they truly bloom in the face of love. It is, perhaps, most evident in The Chocolate Touch and The Chocolate Heart, the two most grueling installments for the heartache they spread. In writing her love stories, however, Florand never loses sight of what it is to be human. Within the swirls of chocolate and spoonfuls of sugar, there is an incredibly raw amount of humanity too. 

It is for this, and this alone, that I find myself returning to Florand's novels not just when a new release is around the corner. For me, cracking open the spine of a Florand novel means discovering minute intricacies, delicate details, and subtle references I failed to catch the first, second, or third time I devoured her work. It is not only to fall even deeper in love with her romances, but also to understand even better the nature of true love. And perhaps, after all, it is for that simple reason why I hold--and will hold--these novels so close to my heart. Always.

You can use the following links to read my reviews of each individual novel in this series:

The Chocolate Thief (Amour et Chocolat, #1) by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Kiss (Amour et Chocolat, #2) by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Touch (Amour et Chocolat, #4) by Laura Florand
Just Another...Book Crush (#6): The Chocolate Touch by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Heart (Amour et Chocolat, #5) by Laura Florand
The Chocolate Temptation (Amour et Chocolat, #6) by Laura Florand
Snow-Kissed (Snow Queen, #1) by Laura Florand
Sun-Kissed (Amour et Chocolat, #7; Snow Queen, #2)

(Psst! If it isn't already obvious, feel free to join this feature whenever you happen to re-read a favorite and don't hesitate to grab the button!) 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Series Review: Sirantha Jax (#5-6) by Ann Aguirre

I did a series review of the first three books in this space opera last summer and, having finished the books at last, realized it was only fitting to review the last three novels as well. I couldn't find much to say about the fourth novel, Killbox--which was excellent with the exception of rather unnecessary relationship drama--but here are my thoughts on the conclusion to this series.

Note: The following reviews are spoiler free for the Sirantha Jax Series

Title: Aftermath (Sirantha Jax, #5) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 3 Stars

Aftermath got off to a promising start, what with Jax on trial against the Conglomerate, but it quickly became apparent that Book 5 of the Sirantha Jax Series was very much a--and I hate to use this word--filler novel. Essentially, nothing much happens. Jax isn't acting as a diplomat to a foreign planet, she isn't off fighting a war, and nor is she doing much jumping. Aftermath fills in the gaps that we've forgotten about since Doublebind burst onto the page and, as such, it isn't a favorite of mine.

Yet, by no means is it forgettable. If anything, the emotional growth Jax undergoes throughout this novel--not to mention the palpable strength of her bond with both Vel and March--push this story onward. It's the most introspective novel of the series, oddly enough, and though there is plenty of action, it isn't the most memorable aspect of this tale. Instead, combing through Vel's past, facing the harsh realities of March and Jax's relationship, and labeling the differences between the bonds Vel and March share with Sirantha cause Aftermath to stand out. It's an emotional journey, from beginning to end, and though it falters in part plot-wise, it's still a valuable addition to the series.

Aftermath may have lacked much of a climax, what with every issue Jax tackling resolving itself far too easily, but I'm still on board with this crew. With Endgame up next, I should be feeling nostalgic but I think I'm ready to see Jax off, once and for all. I just hope it's as explosive of a conclusion as I'm gearing up for.

Title: Endgame (Sirantha Jax, #6) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 4.5 Stars

I thought I was ready to say goodbye to Sirantha Jax after Aftermath, but Endgame is such a brilliantly plotted novel that I feel nostalgic, bittersweet, and ever-so-upset after all. Aguirre's Endgame weaves together everything I've loved about this series since Grimspace: excellent world-building, blooming character growth, and complex relationships.

Once again, Sirantha Jax is a solider, a fighter, a warrior. On La'heng now, she is determined to free an enslaved race of people--despite knowing the mission will keep her on ground for years to come. Endgame has no shortage of well-written battle scenes, devious schemes, and military plans ensuring its plot is set at a break-neck pace. Nevertheless, the strength of this novel stems from Sirantha herself; from the bond of friendship she sustains with Vel and the lengths she will go to aid him, from the relationship she shares with March and the difficulties they endure, from the new characters she meets and the sacrifices she makes even for them.

Endgame doesn't allow Sirantha to take the "easy" way out, charging in guns blazing and somehow saving the day. Instead, it pushes her to her limits testing her patience, her unselfish desires, and her loyalty to those around her. It compels her to both stay and to fight, though not always in combat. Where this novel suffers, in my eyes, is in the odd jumps of time. The war on La'heng takes years and for Sirantha to oddly mention that a year or six months have passed from the turn of a page is jarring, to say the least.

Yet, despite it all, I love her and her romance with March undergoes necessary strife in this novel. Unlike past novels where Sirantha and March have been thrown into dramatic situations, likely to prolong the story, in Endgame these two finally embrace the honesty of their relationship and unearth their hidden insecurities. It isn't always easy, between these two, but it's always strong and sure. Sirantha's relationship with Vel is of a different--and frankly easier--nature, but that in no way diminishes its strength. For me, this series is defined by the two men in Sirantha's life; both their respect for her and her respect for them. Aguirre never fails to create fascinating, equal-footed relationships and that isn't different even with this volume.

Endgame is, well and truly, the end. Aguirre has not left this world, thankfully, though Sirantha and her journeys are behind us now. Will I miss her? Yes, undoubtedly. Somewhere between all the psychological probing of Sirantha's mind, I fell in love with her, flaws and all. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end and, as always, Sirantha goes out with a memorable bang, never a whimper.

In case you missed my reviews of the first three novels in this series last summer or just want a refresher, you can read them HERE

Needless to say, I'd highly recommend this series to fans of science-fiction romance and space operas. I gave Grimspace 4 Stars, Wanderlust 3 Stars (generously), Doublebind 5 Stars, Killbox 4 Stars, Aftermath 3 Stars (well-earned), and Endgame 4.5 Stars. It hasn't been a perfect journey and there have certainly been ups-and-downs, but if you're willing to meet flawed characters and be entertained no matter what, this is certainly the series for you! :)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

Title: Free to Fall

Author: Lauren Miller

Rating: 4 Stars

I flew through Free to Fall in the space of an afternoon. Its beginning may take awhile to find its footing, but once Miller hits her stride this sophomore novel is a chore to set down. I've always believed that the best dystopians were the ones whose worlds were eerily similar to our own--and that's exactly what Free to Fall is: familiar. Unlike the societies of The Hunger Games or Divergent, Miller has molded a futuristic world much like our own, complete with large technological corporations which dominate the market and apps which dominate our minds. In Rory's present--our future--Lux is the "it" app to own. Using a complex algorithm, it manages to keep users up-to-date on appointments, take control of their time management skills, and help them make decisions such as what to eat, wear, and buy. In other words, Rory's world is devoid of much thought.

But, in a world so similar to our own, it's impossible not to imagine an app like Lux taking hold of citizens and working. We're constantly searching for ways to complete our tasks faster, become more efficient, and rely on technological advances to get our jobs done. Lux, with just a tap of our fingers, gets all that done--and more. It thinks for us. It isn't until Rory joins Theden Academy, an elite two-year "Ivy League"-esque school that her deceased mother attended, that she begins to question her dependency on Lux. North, the cute coffee-shop guy who works just outside the academy boundaries, forces Rory to leave her comfort zone of Lux and figure out for herself what she truly enjoys. Just as North reveals to Rory the marketing scheme that Lux truly is--intentionally showcasing popular brands, not all brands, and using the placebo effect to make users think they like what Lux recommends--Rory herself begins to uncover the truth about her mother's past. Rory's mother left Theden Academy shortly before she could complete her graduation and immediately following Rory's birth, she passed away. Rory and her father have always wondered what led her mother to abandon the school she seemed to love and now, creeping closer to the truth, Rory just may have stumbled upon a conspiracy bigger than anything she could have imagined...

Much like a classic dystopian, Free to Fall presents us with the veneer of a seemingly utopian society, only to reveal a dark underbelly of evil leaders whose control extends over the entire population. Yet, the manner in which Miller narrates her tale is extremely effective. Rory is an endearing heroine, one whose naivety can be slightly eye-roll inducing but whose growth is immediate and believable. What's more, as she uncovers layer after layer of the secrets shrouding her mother's strange dismissal from Theden Academy, she makes, breaks, and sustains a variety of different relationships along the way. What I appreciate most about this novel is not its originality in daring to publish a dystopian so different from the ones we've come to know, but rather in tackling contemporary issues alongside futuristic problems. Despite the grand scheme of issues Rory is up against, she's still just a sixteen-year-old girl and her friendships, relationships with teachers and other students, ties to her family, and bond with North are all still very much a part of her life. In fact, as a normal sixteen-year-old may grow and change from their relationships, Rory does as well only her growth comes alongside a revelation of secrets.

Free to Fall is the type of tale that builds; its momentum gets larger, its issues seem practically impossible, and the secrets seem to finally have come to an end. Only, the ending is still a pleasant shock, surprising readers out of the norm they may have imagined. Its well-paced plot aside, though, the aspect of Free to Fall which surprised me the most was the romance. In the beginning of the novel, shortly after Rory firsts meets North and begins to fall for him, the two have a slight misunderstanding. Yet, once it's solved their relationship is rock solid, one of utter support as Rory grows to trust and count on North's presence by her side. Moreover, his--rather secret--skills only aid Rory in her quest for the truth and the happiness these two find in one another is flawlessly written. I can actually believe that these two, despite being teens, love each other and that in and of itself is nothing short of miraculous.

Nevertheless, I must admit that I expected Free to Fall to be ever-so-slightly more. I'd heard so much about this novel before launching into it and though I fell completely for the corporate mystery this tale wound up becoming, aspects of its felt a little too unreal. Somehow, aspects of this novel rang untrue as the complete control these corporations held over individuals and data felt like a violation of too many of our laws such as freedom of speech and, what's more, Free to Fall is based on the assumption that a monopoly would be ruling our future, which I just can't see being allowed to happen. Thus, there is a certain suspension of belief required throughout this novel and while it's no different from the majority of other tales within the genre, I was unprepared for it. Nonetheless, that being said, Free to Fall is precisely the direction I hope to see dystopias heading in: realistic, standalone, utterly devoid of a love triangle, and able to formulate a meaningful message not only about a fictional futuristic society but today's society as well. If Miller's sophomore novel spells the future for this genre then I am certainly going to be free to fall right back in love with it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

2 Minute Reviews: Romance Edition

Yup, that's right: two minute reviews. I was having somewhat of a mental breakdown looking at the stack of books I'd read but hadn't reviewed, especially since the majority of the novels on that pile were there because I couldn't summon up overly strong feelings for any of them, so I figured I'd pile them all into one post and save myself the trouble. Plus, everyone is always complaining about how "long" my mini-reviews are, so this is how short I can really get! ;

Title: Only With You (The Best Mistake, #1) 
Author: Lauren Layne
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: July 29th, 2014

Only With You is a classic hate-to-love romance, complete with a couple whose initial meeting gives them the wrong impression of one another and their subsequent interactions chip away at that image until the reality is revealed. Gray is a modern Mr. Darcy, if you will, and though Sophie is nowhere near as clear-minded as Elizabeth Bennett is (or would be in today's world), I still fell for her charming persona. I definitely wanted the resolution to be a tiiny bit more hard-won, particularly because the sexual tension and build-up in this novel is killer, but I just couldn't put this one down. Plus, I just LOVE that Lauren Layne never fails to include pivotal scenes that contribute not to the plot or the romance, but rather to female independence as her protagonists continue to find and re-create who they are and what they want from their own lives, irrespective of what those around them believe. *fist pump* 

Title: Come Back to Me
Author: Mila Gray (a.k.a. Sarah Alderson)
Rating: 3.5 Stars

I've always thought Sarah Alderson would make a phenomenal New Adult author and I wasn't wrong. Come Back to Me may rely on romance cliches during its first-half, but the growth, depth, and realistic love story within these pages completely won me over. Seriously, a definite must-read for those looking for a solid New Adult package that explores sexual awakenings, dealing with different responsibilities, and finding your path in the future. Its cover may scream "Nicholas Sparks" but the content within is far superior for sure.

Title: If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend
Author: Alison Pace
Rating: 4 Stars
It became a ritual for me to scroll away from If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend. Somehow, the combination of its odd title, simplistic cover, and typical synopsis simply didn't appeal to me. Even when I finally picked it up, I did so with an immense amount of skepticism. Yet, If Andy Warhol Had a Girlfriend is a light, fun, immensely touching read about life, love, and the ups and downs we all cope with. Jane is the all-too-familiar protagonist who finds her boyfriend cheating and, in a state of broken-heart-ed-ness, finds herself traveling the world. While it's meant to be all business for Jane as she helps Ian, known as the art genius of their time, set up exhibits in major cities around the globe, it becomes an adventure in self-discovery and growth unlike any other. Everything I can possibly say about this novel is as typical and bland and familiar and cheesey as its cover and title and synopsis are, but, somehow, the words inside this book are not. Its authentic relationships--from friendships to family to work to love--are incredibly three-dimensional and oh-so-real. Just trust me on this one, reader: it's really, really good.

Title: A Girl Like You
Author: Gemma Burgess
Rating: 4 Stars

A Girl Like You is classic, unapologetic chick-lit--and I love it. Newly single Abigail is entering the dating world for the first time. Now, having broken up with her boyfriend of far too many years, Abigail is determined to find the right guy. Robert, her new flat-mate and a classic player, is the perfect candidate to coach her on the Art of Dating. From the beginning itself, Abigail's narration is honest, unassuming, and drop-dead hilarious. It's impossible not to become entirely embroiled in this romance, particularly as we witness Abigail stumble through bad dates, make the walk of shame, and finally become a Dating Guru. Within months, she has all the single guys of London eating out of her hand...but she still hasn't found the one. If you've seen or read even a half-dozen chick flicks, you already know by now who the love interest is but the journey from friendship to romance is long, charming, and oh-so-endearing. Seriously, this book will have you in peals of laughter one moment only to have you clutching your abdomen in tension the next but I can guarantee you this: you'll close this book with the most languid, lazy, and satisfied smile.

Title: A Lily Among Thorns
Author: Rose Lerner
Rating: 4 Stars

A Lily Among Thorns is an unconventional historical romance if there ever was one, but it's so, so good. Lady Serena, a prosperous woman in possession of her own inn, can never forget the life of prostitution she left behind to reach her current status. Nor can she forget Solomon, the drunken young gentleman who, instead of paying her for her services, simply gave her the means to start a new life. When Solomon knocks on Serena's door, seeking her help in retrieving a stolen heirloom, she doesn't hesitate to accept. Here, dear reader, is the start of a beautiful romance--only you nor the characters quite know it yet. Serena is tough-as-nails, having grown up fighting for not only her independence, but her own body as well, and as a result, getting past her barriers is practically impossible. Solomon, however, grieving his twin brothers death, content living the life of a mere merchant, and downright sweet, just may be the man to see the real Serena. Neither Serena nor Solomon is flawless, but their journey to love--battling through a sea of societal hatred for a former prostitute who is no longer putting out, a former friend who plans to claim Serena's inn for himself, and espionage--is unforgettable. I dare you not to fall in love with these characters yourself; just try.

Any more romance recommendations for me to try? ;)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Then Came You by Jill Shalvis

Title: Then Came You (Animal Magnetism, #5) 

Author: Jill Shalvis

Rating: 4 Stars

I'm not sure I can adequately express just how terrible this cover is. I mean, look at it.

Actually, no, sorry, don't; don't look at it.

I know this is a romance novel--I didn't need the horrible cover to confirm that--but with all the awkward photo-shopping going on with this one, it's particularly bad.

Thankfully, Jill Shalvis's novels are most definitely not bad. I haven't picked up her Animal Magnetism Series, mostly because I'm a bit of an anti-animal person myself (I'm scared of dogs and cats are just...creepy? Or at least the ones in my neighborhood are. I never seem to see the cute cats of tumblr in real life...) but the synopsis of this novel captured my attention completely and I just couldn't resist to sneak a romance read in-between the sci-fi/fantasy kick I've been on.

And, seriously, Then Came You was such a treat. I inhaled it in practically a single sitting, completely besotted with Emily, Wyatt, and their myriad of problems. Emily is The One With The Plan. We all know people like this; people so set in their ways and determined to stick to a certain path that they believe with guarantee them happiness that they are completely unnerved by any curve balls. When she winds up interning for a veterinary practice in Sunshine, Idaho though, Emily is far away from L.A., the city she planned to intern in. What's more, Wyatt--the sexy doctor she had a one-night stand with a few months ago--works in Sunshine. The sparks between Wyatt and Emily haven't died down one bit since their night together, but the real question here isn't whether or not their chemistry is still blazing--it's whether or not Wyatt can get Emily to forget her plans...

Then Came You is complete with Shalvis's trademark sense of humor, sass, and laughs. Emily finds it impossible to keep a filter on her thoughts around Wyatt and, though they try for professionalism, they fail quite spectacularly. While Emily and Wyatt's relationship is the main focus of the novel, I love that Shalvis almost always writes strong sibling relationships to accompany her characters. Wyatt, the middle child squeezed between two sisters, and Emily, with her lesbian sister, are both shaped by their family ties--which I love. Moreover, their journey to love is a slow-burn. Shalvis makes the sharp distinction between insta-lust and actual love so seamlessly in all her romances, which is likely why I keep coming back for more.

If you're an animal lover of any nature--dogs, cats, horses, turtles--Then Came You is going to bring out your soft side for sure. It's impossible not to feel the passion both Emily and Wyatt feel for their job and the animals they care for, which is an unexpected surprise in a love story. Needless to say, Then Came You hit all the right notes for a lazy-day summer read and, should the urge strike me again, I'll be visiting the handsome vets of Sunshine yet again.

Monday, July 14, 2014

ARC Review: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

Title: The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister, #4) 

Author: Courtney Milan

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: July 15th, 2014

I feel as if I've woken up every week craving a new Courtney Milan romance. Much like an addict, I've stalked her upcoming releases eagerly, refreshing the page in the fruitless hope that the release date will magically change and my pre-ordered copy will arrive, hot off the press, in just a matter of days instead of months. And though the clock has been ticking and July has creeped closer and closer, my impatience for her work has, in no way, diminished. Thus, to say I scrambled to download this ARC onto my Kindle would be the understatement of the year. I ran, my fingers flying over the keyboard in a frantic effort to click "Send to Kindle" now, now, now.

My poor Kindle. It suffered quite the barrage of abuse as I tapped my foot more and more impatiently, unable to wait much longer for the document to download. Once it did, I hardly spared a glance for the Table of Contents or the necessary preface about grammatical errors present in an ARC; I just read. Of course, I'd already read the first chapter on her website but I read it again and--truly--it was just as enchanting as I remembered. From the first sight of our romantic leads, the tragic Edward Clark and fierce Frederica Marshall, I knew theirs would be a Milan love story I secreted away in my heart, content to steal back to on the days I truly needed.

Frederica, the half-sister to beloved Ollie, graduated from an all-women's college to become a suffragist. Now successfully running a newspaper--for women, by women--she won't rest until women are given the right to vote. Edward Clark, originally born to an aristocratic family who abandoned him to die in a country about to be destroyed by war, never thought he'd be back in England--or, for that matter, back to meet his younger brother, James. Once again, however, James is creating trouble for Edward's childhood best friend, Stephen, and in order to stop him this time, Edward must return home. Though the peerage is rightfully his, he wants none of it, preferring to put behind the legacy of his traitorous family and allow James to claim what is rightfully Edward's. In targeting Stephen, though, James has also targeted Ms. Marshall whose newspaper Stephen writes for. Since an enemy of his enemy can only be a friend, Edward joins forces with Frederica, helping to save her newspaper from his younger brother's wild schemes to discredit her movement. Edward's motive is revenge against James and Frederica is merely meant to be a pawn in his game. Instead, the headstrong woman turns his world upside down, utterly enchanting him, and if it weren't the fact that he's a scoundrel of the worst kind--the kind that lies through their teeth--Edward would swear he's falling in love with her...

The Suffragette Scandal is a riot of wits from the first chapter itself. Edward arrives in Frederica's office determined to throw her off her game; he blackmails her, shows her his expert forgery skills, and then proceeds to tell her that she's merely a means to an end for him. In the face of these truths, however, Frederica is more than a match for him. Thus, a tenuous partnership is struck between the two and though Edward warns Frederica from the beginning itself never to trust him, his actions prove otherwise. Edward and Free's notable fascination with each other is charming. Through their alternating perspectives, Milan effortlessly builds their love story, complete with the dark secrets from Edward's past and his efforts to resist falling for Free. Perhaps it should be dramatic and angst-driven, but rather it all unfolds quite naturally, the love and regard these two hold for one another shining through against all odds.

For me, there is simply too much to love within this novel. Is it the blooming lesbian love story between Frederica's close friend and business associate and another woman she befriends? Is it the unending banter between Edward and Frederica, laced with intelligence, sexual desire, and wonder all at the same time? Or is it merely the manner in which Edward allows Frederica to be; be who she is without labels or expectations or more responsibilities than the ones she chooses to handle? The Suffragette Scandal, being a historical romance set during a time period of women awakening to both their political rights and sexual desires, is a wonderfully forward, feminist novel. Although it makes us appreciate the struggle women years before us have undergone--and the rights we reap as a result of that today--it also brings into sharp focus the truth of how much more is still left to be done today.

Yet, for all its political discussion on feminism, The Suffragette Scandal is primarily a love story and, on that front, it is written beautifully. Milan has always written empowering romances--tales where a woman discovers the power of her own sexual desire or joins the rankings of men in scientific discovery or merely creates a relationship of equal standing with her husband. Naturally, her latest is no different and perhaps what I love most about these romances are that Milan showcases men bowing down to and respecting the professions of the women they love, but in such a manner that their power or equality is never diminished either. I find it is all too easy to believe that in a marriage, one party or the other must hold the reigns. Either it is the man who controls his wife or the man who bows down to his wife. With Milan, however, her heroes and heroines never have to choose. Despite the struggles, they make it work and their love prevails--and, hopeless romantic that I am, I love that.

Granted, I am terribly biased against Courtney Milan, all-women's colleges (I'll be attending one this Fall!), suffragettes, and feminism in general (not to mention muscular men like Mr. Clark!), but even disregarding that, I am confident I'd have loved this novel through-and-through. I read it in a matter of hours, ignoring the World Cup for the delightful dialogue sparked between Edward and Free and, long after I'd finished my dinner, I couldn't quite stop grinning when I thought of them both and their lovely life together. I cannot wait to get my hands on Milan's upcoming novella, continuing to be set in this series, nor can I contain my excitement for an entire saga planned by her to begin releasing towards the end of this year. If it's not already clear, I'll confess it: I'll read whatever she writes.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Landline

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Rating: 3 Stars

Landline shines brightest when Rowell writes her trademark love stories, complete with authentic relationships, realistic growth arcs, and unforgettable characters. When Rowell tries to veer off that well-trodden path--introducing science-fiction elements of time travel--that's when the cracks in her narrative begin to show. Landline may be a significant improvement over Eleanor & Park, but it struggles to compare with Fangirl or Attachments for me. Perhaps I need to be married to fully appreciate the subtle strength of Rowell's latest?

Georgie McCool's lifelong dream is about to come true--Passing Time, the TV show she's worked on for years, is about to become a reality. But working on Passing Time with her best friend, Seth, means working through the Christmas holidays. Which means staying home while her husband, Neal, and her two daughters, Alice and Noomi, head off to Omaha. It isn't a big deal--not really--but it just may be the last straw in Georgie's marriage. In the Georgie & Neal equation, Neal is the stay-at-home dad--caring for the girls, cooking three meals a day, and decorating their home--while Georgie pursues her dream career of writing comedy TV. As the nights at work get longer, the lonely dinners become all the more frequent, and time spent with her family dwindles down, Georgie is forced to admit that she is taking advantage of Neal. Of who he is, of his limitations, and of his endless patience and love. With Georgie blowing off this visit to Omaha, instead of waiting to make the trip some other time, Neal decides to take off with the girls and visit his mother.

Stuck in LA, working, the last thing Georgie wants is to return to her empty home at the end of a long day. Thus, she decides to stay at her mother's place--complete with her step-dad who's only three years older than her, a younger sister who feels more like a niece than a sibling, and prize-winning pugs. When Georgie dials Neal's home phone from her years-old yellow landline, she somehow winds up talking to Past Neal--specifically, Neal, the week before he proposed to her. Neal, the week he broke up with her and went to Omaha for Christmas and returned, only to propose to her on Christmas morning. Now, Georgie can't help but wonder if this is all just a design of fate; if she's meant to speak to Past Neal and fix the future--to convince him not to marry her after all. Because, maybe, after all these years together, their love just isn't enough.

I am head-over-heels in love with the premises of Landline; of the concept that love may not be enough to make a relationship work. When Georgie marries Neal in her 20s, she's confident that love is all they need. In fact, she could never have imagined a situation where she and Neal were apart. Now, Neal and Georgie can't even seem to catch each other on the phone, let alone patch up their marriage. Landline flips back and forth on the George & Neal time span, chronicling their first few awkward meetings, the slow manner in which they fell in love, the petty hurdles in their path--from Neal's high school girlfriend Dawn to Seth, Georgie's best friend and work partner whose good looks and easy manner always made him seem like more from the outside--to their marriage, their two beautiful girls, and how the home they'd built for themselves slowly fell apart. Rowell has a true talent for pacing and narration as she weaves these moments around Georgie's present-day work struggles as well as her conversations with Past Neal and it works. It never feels overwhelming or dull, rather drawing in the reader and exposing the underbelly of this relationship we cannot help but root for from page one.

I love how Rowell is able to, seamlessly, take us through the course of a marriage and the emotions she inspires are so raw; they demand to be felt. While her prose is simple--not the flowery beauty of Laini Taylor or Maggie Stiefvater--it nevertheless manages to hit all the right cords within our hearts. It is so unimaginably difficult to watch Georgie slowly unravel as she aches to stay behind and achieve her dream, but she also desperately wants to fix her marriage; a marriage that she knows is her fault for ruining. Although her flaws rise to the surface of this tale as she struggles with the knowledge that she was never as considerate to Neal as he was to her during the course of their relationship, they only serve to make Georgie all the more endearing as a heroine as she is pushing away Past Neal in a last-ditch effort to allow Present Neal to live a happier life without her. It's all so, so heartbreaking.

Yet, where this novel truly faltered for me was through the entire concept of Past Neal. I find it fascinating to explore a relationship by juxtaposing two difficult time frames side-by-side, but Rowell never fully dives into the idea of time travel in Landline. In some ways, I expected this as Rowell is--firmly--a contemporary author. Thus, I wasn't too disappointed by this fact, but the "magical phone," as Georgie comes to call it, only continued to deter this novel. By the end of Landline we've grown to know Past Neal far better than Present Neal--and this is a problem. It is a problem primarily because Past and Present Neal are two such different people and though we grow to love both of them from Georgie's memories, we fail to witness much of Present Neal and Georgie work through their relationship. Moreover, the present-day scenes grew rather repetitive after awhile; Georgie misses Neal, Georgie tries calling Neal, Georgie doesn't get through to Neal, Georgie tries to work, Georgie can't work, Georgie thinks about the magical phone, etc. It was a repeat of the same motions and though I understood its significance, my interest wavered throughout the story as I became engaged during the flashbacks, disengaged during the present-day repetitive scenes, engaged again during Georgie and Past Neal's discussions, and once again disengaged when they ended.

Ultimately, Landline works beautifully as a novel that showcases the realities of marriage past the honeymoon phase but aspects of this story failed to resonate with me as much as I'd have liked. I ended this Rowell novel wanting more--which isn't necessarily a bad thing--but it's not the most positive emotion to feel about a conclusion either.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach

Title: Fortune's Pawn (Paradox, #1) 

Author: Rachel Bach

Rating: 4 Stars

Rupert is the worst aspect of Fortune's Pawn. And not even the character Rupert, but his name.

I don't know about you, but when the name of the love interest is just about the only flaw you can find within a novel then that's a damn good book you've got there.

I've had Fortune's Pawn on my TBR ever since Wendy first reviewed it over at The Midnight Garden, making me jump for joy at the thought of a well-done science-fiction novel. It seemed too good to be true. While the reviews for the conclusion to this trilogy had me wincing and re-evaluating my decision to pick up these books, the influx of positive reviews for this first installment wore down my air-thin resistance.

I am so glad they did.

Devi is the backbone, protagonist, and true star of Fortune's Pawn. Not only is she physically strong and kick-ass, but her mental strength is admirable as well. Only upon reading a novel narrated by a confident woman--one who freely admits she's attractive and goes above and beyond to be treated with the respect she deserves--is it all the more evident that the majority of books out there lack a truly feminist character like Devi. Alongside her intelligence, quick wits, and clever jibes, Devi is compassionate and always the first to mentally scold herself and pick herself back up from the lows in her life. What makes her such a remarkable heroine, though, is that fact that she is flawed--and embraces those flaws. She knows she's ambitious and reckless and acts before she thinks and though she suffers for these mistakes, she also steps up to the plate and acknowledges that these traits are here to stay and deals with that. Instead of trying to change herself or improve her personality or rise above society's standards, Devi is comfortable just the way she is in her own skin which is such a remarkable change to find in a fictional heroine. I love her.

When our tale begins, Devi is looking for a fast and easy way to become a Devastator--one of the King's elite guard--and thus, joins Brian Caldswell's ship. It's meant to be a cursed aircraft, with a high death toll, but if Devi survives for even just one year, she's almost guaranteed to achieve her dream. Being as qualified as she is, Devi gets the job easily and, at first, the ship seems to be her tamest job yet. In fact, her only bright spot in the midst of the lack of danger is the handsome cook, Rupert. Soon enough, however, Devi begins to realize why Caldswell's ship has the reputation it does and, what's more, she slowly uncovers that things are not as they seem on this spaceship. Rupert, the cook, isn't the innocent civilian he seems to be; Ren, Caldswell's strange daughter, may not be entirely human; and Caldswell himself, a reputed trader, may be far more than he claims. Devi, as a simple merc and security guard aboard the ship, knows she shouldn't investigate further into the true goings-on of Caldswell's business, but curiosity only ever killed the cat--and that, Devi most certainly is not.

You'd think a science-fiction novel with actions scenes spaced out through the narrative would lose traction when its protagonist wasn't battling foreign aliens, but that isn't the case with Fortune's Pawn at all. Devi's time spent on The Glorious Fool, her relationships with the ship crew, and her blooming romance with Rupert are all just as engaging, if not more. It's hard to find time to breathe in-between this narrative because of its fast pace, but you'll hardly find me complaining. Bach manages to infuse plenty of depth alongside her action, making for the perfect combination of a debut novel. What's more, despite the fact that we don't know too much about the true motivations of the secondary characters in this novel, they still manage to come alive on the page--particularly Rupert. It's difficult not to fall for Rupert's sweet, calm exterior and the dangerous secrets he harbors only make him all the more alluring. Even when he makes decisions on Devi's behalf--standard angst-y issues such as pushing away the one he loves--Devi never lets him live it down, which makes for a relationship truly established on equal footing. It's different, it's romantic, and it feels authentic--which is more than I can say for most fictional romances.

Granted, Fortune's Pawn ends off in a slightly abrupt--and slightly cliffhanger-y--spot in the sense that readers are going to need the sequel on hand, but seeing as all three books in this trilogy are already released, this is hardly a complaint; just a caveat. Bach's debut is truly flawless; executed perfectly, written impeccably, and guaranteed to entertain readers of science-fiction. With original world-building, alien species attacking spaceships, and plenty of secrets to fit into the crevices of our minds, you can't go wrong with Fortune's Pawn. Just try it; I dare you.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: Dreams of Gods & Monsters by Laini Taylor

Title: Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3) 

Author: Laini Taylor

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Ever since devouring Dreams of Gods & Monsters in early April, I've spent countless hours reflecting over this novel; picking it apart, looking at it from every angle, and discussing it with numerous readers. Granted, my diction may have veered into vitriolic in parts but, despite the flaws I believe to be scattered throughout Dreams of Gods & Monsters, this is still a novel I really, really enjoyed.

When it comes to romance, it takes a lot for me to fall in love but, trust me, once I fall, I fall hard. While Daughter of Smoke & Bone certainly captivated me with its love story, Days of Blood & Starlight switched my focus to that of a hardcore fan. Literally all I wanted from Dreams of Gods & Monsters was for Akiva and Karou's love story to continue to be as gut-wrenching, emotional, and rewarding as I'd hoped. It's a shallow admission--I know--but it's also a true one. On that count, certainly, Laini Taylor did not disappoint.

When it came to Akiva and Karou, I didn't know what direction their relationship would take but I loved the path of forgiveness, redemption, and re-connection they wound up on. Of course, the sexual tension was beautifully written--Laini Taylor is a master of it by this point--but I loved the small one-liners that carried so much weight. Neither Akiva nor Karou interact a whole lot during the book, but what they left unsaid was just as powerful as what they did say.

Moreover, the secondary characters truly come into their own in this installment. Whether it be Zuze and Mik, whose friendship and romance have been pillars of support for Karou throughout her journey or Liraz whose growth arc was indicative of the entire angel population as a whole and impeccably paced, Taylor doesn't disappoint in these minor technicalities. Her prose, as always, is on point and breath-taking as is her wild imagination and penchance for weaving the most fantastical of worlds. With Dreams of Gods & Monsters Taylor's world-building prowess truly comes to light and stuns; it truly rendered me speechless.

Yet, this novel falters--quite a bit--when it comes to the actualization of Akiva and Karou's dream. Over the course of these three novels, we've seen their love story blossom alongside their fervent hopes to unite their two races and end the war that has been plaguing their beautiful country for years and years on end. Now, however, when the time has finally come to integrate their societies and live as one, the page space felt too minimal. Taylor doesn't end this novel on a definitive note of whether or not Karou and Akiva's dream works. We don't experience much of it first-hand and don't even hear belated accounts of what becomes of this country or its people, which is disappointing after becoming so embroiled in the politics of this nation.

What's even more strange, though, is the fact that new and unexpected plot threads emerge and gain sudden importance. While it has always been evident that there is more to Taylor's world than what meets the eye, the influx of new information she shares with readers comes far too late in the series. I didn't care enough, unfortunately, about this new development or the characters it brought with it and, what's more, it took away from the dream Karou and Akiva had been chasing all their lives. For Taylor to dump this on readers at the very end of the end was to fail to give them enough time to process this twist or what it would mean for these beloved characters. It was simply a case of poor timing, weak plotting, and added confusion. Perhaps if it were confirmed that Taylor had a companion series in the making I would be more comfortable leaving this story at its conclusion, but there remain one too many unanswered questions and open plot threads by the time we reach the final pages of Dreams of Gods & Monsters.

Overall, though, I really, really, really liked this finale. Taylor's writing was gorgeous, Akiva and Karou's relationship totally won me over, the moral and philosophical discussions were thought-provoking, the secondary characters wonderfully developed, and the ending felt right, in a bittersweet way. I definitely expected a lot more in way of a battle, not to mention backlash from the armies concerning Akiva and Karou's final dream, and, what's more, I have a lot of questions concerning the end; but looking at this as an objective conclusion to Akiva and Karou's tale--without all the messy new mythology thrown in--I admire their journey as a whole and the strides they've made. With Dreams of Gods & Monsters I was hooked from beginning to end and have to admit to feeling content when I closed its back cover. Not elated, but not quite disappointed either.

Friday, July 4, 2014

ARC Review: Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

Title: Falling into Place

Author: Amy Zhang

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: September 9th, 2014

If If I Stay and Some Girls Are were to somehow morph into one book, Falling into Place would be the result. Unfortunately, Zhang's debut was nowhere as strong--for me--as Gayle Forman or Courtney Summers's novels were. Nevertheless, I have to admit that the overwhelming consensus concerning this debut is true: it is very good. When it comes to my relationship with contemporary, however, it falls short of being truly memorable.

Following the story of Liz, Falling into Place is a realistic probe into the harsh truths of high school. Liz is a classic bully; popular, beautiful, boyfriends, drugs, alcohol. Only, while ticking off the boxes to reach the highest rungs of the high school heirarchy, she's hurt a lot of people. Anyone who has ever, unknowingly, hurt her best friends (and cronies), whether by performing better than them at band or dating their ex, falls under the scrutiny and destruction that Liz brings with her. While she isn't well-liked, she is well-respected by the student body. Yet, as Liz begins to wake up to the horror she has wrought over others, she begins to realize that she creates more problems by existing than not existing. Crashing her car is supposed to be her ticket to heaven (or hell), but instead she winds up in ICU, fighting for her life. Told in flashbacks, jumping through the timeline of Liz's life, Zhang weaves a suspenseful story, peeling back the layers of her bully while we read on to see whether she makes it...or not.

For me, the premises of this novel is far more successful than its execution. What I really appreciated about Zhang's novel is the fact that it so carefully explores Liz from multiple angles of her life. Whether it be from her childhood to her father's death to her mother's workaholism and subsequent absences, Zhang certainly makes excuses for Liz's behavior. But, she also doesn't. Quite simply put, Liz is a wrecking ball. Her friendship with Julie, one of her best friends, first began when Julie was a victim of Liz's bullying and then, when given the opportunity, chose her friendship over seclusion. Kennie, Liz's other best friend, is constantly looking to her for attention and advice while Liz carelessly leads her down the wrong path. Zhang first paints these three as a "Three Musketeers"-esque relationship but the subtle threads that have brought them together and string them apart are beautifully revealed, giving us a far more complex friendship than we may have imagined. For all the drugs and sex these girls are involved in, for all the shitty decisions they make--together and apart--they still care for one another. It isn't always easy to read about Liz's role in their lives or the role these three have played together in ruining the lives of others, but it's certainly intriguing to see the lines of karma come back to hit them two-fold.

Zhang's depth is easily the strongest aspect to this novel but the manner in which it is told is definitely memorable. Certain chapters, in particular, work remarkably well when told from the perspective of Liz's mother as she reflects that she knew how to anticipate her daughter's first moments, but cannot fathom how to cope with her last. Other chapters, such as the musings of her physics teacher over learning news of Liz's hospitalization, or the third-person perspective of school life with Liz's absence, continued to shine. Yet, the method in which the novel progresses left much to be desired. Falling into Place is narrated by an unexpected narrator, one whose narration I found added little to the story. It didn't enhance my understanding of Liz in the least nor did it add to my emotional attachment. Furthermore, the storyline of this arc jumps a lot. I enjoy shifting timelines, but Zhang's debut contains chapters that are just too short and the following chapters are all completely different settings or perspectives or times which, sadly, forced me to become detached from the novel.

When it comes to contemporary, for me, I either feel for the characters or I don't. I thoroughly appreciated the complex characterization of the protagonist and her friends in Falling into Place, not to mention the story being told by Zhang--that of a bully who is far more than her surface deeds--is an important one. Yet, I felt too detached from the story-telling method to truly become involved in this novel. What's more, I feel as if Zhang threw in every possible teenage issue into one slender volume. I'm glad she bothered to explore a lot of issues that don't receive too much attention in YA, but these slivers of mentions did little for the story since they needed to be further expanded upon for me. Moreover, the epilogue of this tale came too abruptly for my liking, desperately needing a little more in-between. I feel as if so much of this story is Liz before she crashes her car, Liz's life story up until she crashes her car, and her friend's reactions after she crashes her car. Ultimately, before the ending revealed in the epilogue I needed a little more from her since so many of the gaps in her story are filled by others.

Falling into Place is certainly a worthy debut and a novel I know fans of contemporary are going to love. What's more, it's an important story for this day and age when bullying and drugs are such prevalent aspects to teenage life. Yet, in comparison to If I Stay or Some Girls Are, this one pales. If I Stay explores the tenuous connection between life and depth with such greater poise than this one ever does and Some Girls Are is a much rawer exploration of bullying than Zhang's novel, simply because it is told from the perspective of the bully and it is impossible to alienate yourself from her thoughts the way we can with the alternating perspectives and timelines in Falling into Place. Zhang piles on a bit too much on her plate for my complete enjoyment, I'm afraid, though I don't hesitate to recommend this to other readers. I know the world is going to fall head-over-heels for this. I just didn't.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Favorite Books of 2014 (So Far)!

We're officially half-way through 2014! Woo-hoo! Around this time, I always love seeing what the round-up is of some of the best books readers have discovered. Usually, I find that it's a challenge for me to reciprocate but--and I don't know if I'm just being unusually picky this year--but I only have twelve favorite novels so far (and this is out of the 195 books I've read so far this year!) so I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to share them with you all. As always, pictures link to GoodReads and titles link to my reviews. :)
pic name pic name pic name
I think I still hug Mystic & Rider before bed every night. I connected with this one right off the bat and the characters, the world, the politics, and--oh!--the romance...just perfect. 
A Storm of Swords is easily the best, most jaw-dropping and brilliant political fantasy novel ever. I still can't think of very many more words to describe it as, months later, I'm still speechless and reeling from the aftermath of this novel. So, so good. 
House of Sand and Secrets was a pleasant surprise, admittedly. I didn't expect to love it as much as I did, but I fell hard. Eagerly looking forward to anything this author decides to publish next (including her grocery lists--gimme!). 
pic name pic name pic name
I haven't reviewed Dangerous Girls yet, but I want to. It's one of those books that turns the tables on you at the last second and BAM, mind-blown. Yup, it's that good. 
Forsyth's The Wild Girl is still the only novel I've read of hers but this story is so very compelling and mesmerized me from the first page. I loooove it. 
Troubled Waters I read before Mystic & Rider and while our love story wasn't nearly so immediate, the pay off was worth it. Despite a few lagging areas, I devoured this story and the complex characterization still keeps me awake, just analyzing it. 
pic name pic name pic name
What I Thought Was True is easily the most surprising novel of the year--for me--because My Life Next Door really didn't do it for me. But this book? Gosh, I love, love, love it. Definitely need to splurge on a shiny hardcover for my shelves soon! 
The Caged Graves is one of the few YA historical fiction titles I've read this year, but it truly impressed. It made me a fan for sure, at any rate. 
The Laurentine Spy is a novel I've had sitting on my review-to-come shelf for aaaaaaaages! I loved it so much, readers, and I can't articulate that into words. It had its flaws, I'll be the first to admit, but a tale of spies, fantasy, magic, and forbidden love? It was practically written for me. I've read it twice this year and each time was better than the last. I just can't get enough of it. Ugh, so much love.
pic name pic name pic name
More Like Her takes the bill for the most thought-provoking title on this list. It truly made me reflect and contemplate life and its value in such a poignant manner and is my favorite of Palmer's work. Just lovely. 
A Clash of Kings is nowhere near as good as A Storm of Swords but it's still a paragon of near-perfection and, compared to the other titles I've picked up this year, a distinct favorite. 
Nearly a Lady might be one of the first historical romance titles to reach my favorites shelf but, seriously, I had a love affair with this book. It's so different from your typical historical romance tale and the sheer joy of reading this made me sink into my chair and never want to stop flipping these pages. It's romantic, of course, but more than that it's sweet and deep and lovely. Just look past the purple cover and give it a try--you'll fall in love. 

Of course, I've been reading plenty of fantastic novels this year, having discovered Courtney Milan and sped through Jenn Bennett's work and relying on previously discovered authors such as Kristan Higgins, Ruthie Knox, Sherry Thomas, Anne Bishop, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sarah Addison Allen, Mary Ann Rivers, Laini Taylor, Karina Halle, Jaclyn Moriarty and Laura Florand to keep me satisfied in the book department, but these are truly the best of what I've been reading this past year.

What are some of your favorite reads of the year so far? Or, better yet, what are some books you're hoping to get to in the latter half of the year?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Release Day Review: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Title: The Vanishing Season

Author: Jodi Lynn Anderson

Rating: 2 Stars

I should have fallen under the spell of The Vanishing Season. I love a quiet, slow, introspective novel that is primarily character-driven. Combine that with Jodi Lynn Anderson's melodic prose and the result is a miracle, the way Tiger Lily is. The Vanishing Season, however, despite containing elements that I would have usually fallen head-over-heels for, somehow  managed to keep me at a distance. Its cold, unemotional stance never allowed me to fall for its story and, unfortunately, this remains one of my most disappointing reads of the year.

I didn't make it too much of a secret that I loved Tiger Lily back when it came out and, similarly, I didn't make it much of a secret that I expected to love The Vanishing Season when it released. With its synopsis promising a murder mystery, ghosts, and small town setting, I really couldn't fathom how it could possibly go wrong. Well, here's how: mismarketing. Seriously, whoever wrote the synopsis for this novel needs to buy themselves a copy of The Vanishing Season, actually read it, and then do the world a favor by resigning.

In reality, The Vanishing Season is the story of Maggie, our unassuming protagonist, who moves into a small town and befriends the beautiful Pauline and her childhood friend, Liam, who is utterly besotted with her. Maggie hears stories of girls in nearby towns who are mysteriously murdered but, make no mistake, this is not a murder mystery novel. Anderson, in no capacity, focuses on this background plot line throughout the course of her narrative and The Vanishing Season very firmly remains an intriguing character study. Admittedly, there is a ghost, but more on that later.

Now, I am all for character studies. Courtney Summers's novels are all, in my opinion, intense character studies of her multiple protagonists, just as Tiger Lily managed to be an in-depth analysis of Peter and Tiger Lily's doomed romance. The Vanishing Season looks closely at the dynamics of these three friends--Maggie who is falling for Liam who is hopelessly in love with Pauline who cares for no one. It is a love triangle, but admittedly an interesting one. I didn't quite mind exploring the changing dynamics between these three, at least not at first, but as the novel wore on and certain circumstances came to pass, I grew irritated, mainly because nothing much happens in this book with the exception of this strange love conundrum. The Vanishing Season is a slow, slooooow novel and I'm not sure I ever even fully got into it in the first place.

Every chapter finishes off with a first-person account from the ghost who resides in the home Maggie has just moved in but, nevertheless, this is not a ghost story either. Much like how Tiger Lily was narrated from Tinker Bell's perspective, parts of this novel are narrated from the ghost's perspective and she looks in on these lives. I practically skimmed these sections in the beginning, though they later became the most interesting part of the narrative. Ultimately, however, I find it difficult to summon up much feeling for any part of this story--forgive me, readers, for this apathetic review.

What I do feel quite strongly about, however, is the ending of this novel. For those of you who don't already know, I love ambiguous, unlikable, and tragic endings. Sure, a happily-ever-after gets me smiling every time but a tragedy gets me thinking long after. Where Tiger Lily concluded on a bittersweet, brooding note, however, The Vanishing Season ends in such a way that the reader is left distraught. Anderson's novel lacks true meaning. We've stuck with these characters for so long through such a meandering, tiresome plot only to have the ending reflect the cruel twist of fate when karma doesn't work out and bad things happen to good people. Thus, it isn't an ending I felt added to the meaning of the novel, of my life, or of the world as a whole.

Every book, in my eyes, should have a purpose; a goal or reason for being written. Maybe it's just written to entertain--which, trust me, this book was not written to do as its so dull--or it's written to express a theme or a belief, but the conclusion of this novel only further detracts from this story because of its inability to convey a strong, wholesome message. Perhaps there are gems of wisdom weaved into this conclusion, but I definitely missed them.

The Vanishing Season failed to inspire feeling and, for a character-driven tale, that only spells demise. Its plot disengaged, its characters failed to compel, and its conclusion left me devoid of much hope for our universe. Thus, I really can't say I recommend this one at all. In fact, I'm going to pick up my well-worn hardcover of Tiger Lily from my shelves--I seem to have forgotten why I loved Jodi Lynn Anderson so much in the first place.