Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

Title: Isla and the Happily Ever After (Anna and the French Kiss, #3) 

Author: Stephanie Perkins

Rating: 5 Stars

Sometimes, you can just feel when a novel is about to change your life. Isla changed mine.

Stephanie Perkins knows the deepest corners of my heart; the spaces where the darkest secrets and most tragic insecurities lie. In Anna, Lola, Isla--in them she painstakingly reveals, piece-by-piece, the fears I hesitate to lay before even those most beloved to me. But, in doing so, she reminds me that I am not alone in my swirling thoughts. To sit down and curl up with a Stephanie Perkins romance is to lose yourself in the flesh-and-blood ideal that you are human; you belong on this Earth. You, with your quirks and flaws and bad parts, are not an anomaly.

I experience such a personal, visceral reaction to the tales Stephanie Perkins weaves. In Isla I could not help but become lost in the lines of Josh's artwork, the strokes of his dreamlike love, or the coils of tension which dictate their tragic love story. Perkins does little to re-build Paris, for location is of next to no importance to either Isla or Josh. Where Anna comes to realize that her home is St. Clair, Isla and Josh measure their romance in distance. Josh returned three hours ago from D.C. Josh's flight left two hours before Isla arrived. Josh is seated across the table from Isla but it feels as if he is across the Atlantic. It's curious, to me, that I re-call my favorite scenes from Anna based on their setting. That heart-warming reconciliation atop Notre Dame. When Etienne buys Anna a collection of love poetry from Shakespeare & Co. Or that moment when St. Clair rests his foot against Anna's in the movie theater as they watch a screening of "It Happened One Night." With Isla it feels as if every moment of the novel melts fluidly together. Isla. Josh. Isla and Josh. Their limbs intertwined, their hearts beating as one, their silent spaces.

In comparison to Anna and Lola, both which read--from the surface--to be "just another" contemporary romance with a blossoming love story, indomitable hurdle, and all-too-happy reconciliation, Isla is intense, explosive, and--dare I say it?--sensual. It feels distinctly foreign from any brand of American romance, merely because it is such a tangle of limbs, mess of hearts, and all-round love affair. What Isla and Josh share is far more than a simple love affair but the pacing, the sensation, the hit-you-in-the-feels emotions...surely nothing but the movies can feel this way? But Stephanie Perkins not only forces you to believe it on paper, she makes you believe it in life too. I want a romance like Isla and Josh; passionate, understanding, and messy. Forget Anna and St. Clair, Lola and Cricket, because Isla and Josh are the love story I never even knew I craved.

Like I said, this woman knows my heart better than I do.

For readers, Isla will most likely surprise, not because of its protagonist, but rather because Josh comes alive in a manner we never knew possible until this tale. We imagine we know him through Anna's lens but, in truth, it's such a tiny facet of the person he truly is. What I love most about Josh, beyond his encompassing, incredible artistic talent, is the fact that he is far removed from the ideal boyfriend. Not only is he on the verge of being expelled from high school but he treats those threats with disdain, ignoring high school for he believes he has found his true calling. On paper, I wouldn't want to know Josh, let alone date him, but through Isla's eyes we grow to see him as more than the qualities which define him.

Yet, for me, Isla remains the soul of this novel. Whether it be her insecurities, her strengths, her weaknesses, her mistakes; I understood her. I felt connected with Anna, likely because of her initial out-of-body experience in arriving to Paris and, later, because it's simply impossible not to root for her. With Isla, though, I felt a kindred spirit. I'm not petite or pale or ginger. I don't share Isla's physical appearance and, even mentally, I am not nearly as introverted or painfully frightened as she is. But I used to be. And, even now, I sympathized with Isla's struggle to break out of her bubble. Even now, I feel scared about my unknown future and the adventures college may bring--but like Isla, I'm more excited than scared. I lose myself in a book. I use studying as a coping method to forget about the difficulties in my life. I typically have nothing but time on my hands to devote to school work that when I do decide to pursue an endeavor solely for myself or take time to meet a friend it shows in a slight drop in my GPA and the unfairness of life hits me all over again. So many lines in this novel felt as if they were straight out of my head that I could scarcely believe it. Isla, in many ways, chronicles my own journey of growth, albeit in a far more romantic way (isn't that always the case, though?).

Moreover, Isla is the romance novel I've been clamoring for; the one which explores the hurdles in making a relationship work. With Isla not only must Isla come to terms with the tight friend circle Josh shares outside of the school they both attend but Josh, too, must learn how to ingratiate himself into Isla's already-established lifestyle and friendships. It's a dance, in so many ways, finding that perfect space where real life, friendship, and romance can all exist as one and, as Perkins writes it, it isn't easy. Not in the least.

I could go on about Isla for ages and, likely, still be unable to reveal anything concrete about the story without spoiling the tale for you. It's passion. It's adolescence. It's growth.

It's Stephanie Perkins. Of course it's goddamn perfect.

You can read my review for Lola and the Boy Next Door here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Just Another...Book Crush (#16): Rites of Passage by Joy N. Hensley (Interview & Giveaway!)

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'M ALIVE! I moved into college on Monday and ever since I've been busy, busy, busy. You'd think I'd have a bit of time to just breathe and figure out all this college stuff, but NO. I've been thrown into Orientation and running around campus, finding buildings, and in general plastering a smile on my face in case I run into my future Best Friend For Life has been exhausting. So forgive my minimal online presence and, instead, welcome Joy N. Hensley to the blog! I looooved Joy's debut novel, Rites of Passage which I'll hopefully be reviewing soon (hopefully!). When I approached her to write a guest post for the blog she mentioned that she'd prefer an interview instead so, forgive my lack of creative questions, but I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did. 

Also, Joy was sweet enough to send me amazing swag for her upcoming novel along with extras which I will be giving away below. Since it's my birthday today I suppose you can treat this as a bit of a birthday giveaway! ;)
Sam McKenna’s never turned down a dare. And she's not going to start with the last one her brother gave her before he died. So Sam joins the first-ever class of girls at the prestigious Denmark Military Academy. She’s expecting push-ups and long runs, rope climbing and mud-crawling. As a military brat, she can handle an obstacle course just as well as the boys. She's even expecting the hostility she gets from some of the cadets who don’t think girls belong there. What she’s not expecting is her fiery attraction to her drill sergeant. But dating is strictly forbidden and Sam won't risk her future, or the dare, on something so matter how much she wants him. As Sam struggles to prove herself, she discovers that some of the boys don’t just want her gone—they will stop at nothing to drive her out. When their petty threats turn to brutal hazing, bleeding into every corner of her life, she realizes they are not acting alone. A decades-old secret society is alive and active… and determined to force her out.At any cost. Now time's running short. Sam must decide who she can trust...and choosing the wrong person could have deadly consequences.
1. First and foremost, thank you for agreeing to participate, Joy! I'm so glad you were able to make it onto the blog today. I knew next-to-nothing about you prior to your debut but after reading Rites of Passage I found out that you yourself had been to military school before. It is evident throughout your novel as the story and experiences feel so authentic. Were any of the scenes from Rites of Passage similar to your own life? Could you explain the process of fictionalizing a real experience and molding facts from your life into this tale? 

Thanks for having me, Keertana! I looked over your questions and realized I was going to have to take a little bit of time to think about them and actually craft some answers. It was actually a learning experience for me. I had to think past the basics of Rites of Passage and dig for the answers. I did go to military school, on a dare, in fact. There are a lot of scenes in Rites of Passage that could every easily have taken place. Near the beginning there's a day-long event called Dedication Day where the recruits have to show what they've learned in their "boot camp" week. I took a lot of that from the school I went to. I'm sure other military schools do something similar, but I'm not sure when in the training it happens. There's another scene in the book later on where the drill sergeant is doing some physical training with the recruits in the hallway. He turns the lights out and plays a song--the song I chose for that scene was very specific and that type of training was done by my cadre.

It's important to note, as you did in your question, though, that this book is definitely fiction. I survived my military school dare, however I didn't thrive. Basically, when I started to write Rites of Passage, I wanted to tell the story of how I *wish* I had done, and Sam is the character that embodies that. Were there nice upperclassmen? Yes. Attractive ones? Definitely. There were also cadets who didn't live up to the uniform and ones who still (after forty years of being co-ed) believed that females didn't belong on campus. Were there secret societies at my school? I don't know. There were whispers of them, as there are at many old, traditional universities. Would I call them out? Heck no! :-) But all of these facets went into creating this book, Denmark Military Academy, and the cadets who inhabit the novel. Is any one character true to life? I don't think so, not 100%, probably not even 50%. But, as with any book written by any writer, there were people that I drew on for inspiration and character building.

2. What stood out to me the most about Rites of Passage was the overwhelming feminist manifesto throughout. Sam, as a woman, is discriminated against for attempting to enter a predominantly male society and career. Was it your intent to write Rites of Passage with such a strong feminist focus or did you rely on experiences of female soldiers who have also undergone similar forms of discrimination in their field? More importantly, do you feel as if Sam's determination to push through the dire circumstances she finds herself in is due to her own sheer will or was it an intentional shout-out to women's rights? 

Wow, you're using some strong language in this question! I'm not sure I'd say feminist manifesto so much as feminist undertones , maybe? My intent was just to write a kick-ass female character, you know?

I didn't want Sam to have to depend on boys to get her through. I wanted to write a character who was okay with herself, who didn't need a boyfriend to feel important. I wanted to show how friendships in teen years are so much more important that relationships and how it's okay to not be dating all the time. Life can take us so many different places and while I love a good romance just as much as the next girl, it's important to see that we can love ourselves and be okay with ourselves. 

It's nice to be loved and held and kissed and swept off my feet, but I want someone who believes in me, too. Someone who understands that I need to accomplish things on my own and I don't necessarily need to be rescued.  As a teacher, I see so many girls who think they aren't worth anything because they don't have boyfriends. 

But that's not what life is, you know? 

Life is about finding out who you are and who you want to become. If it takes putting relationships on the back burner for awhile, that's okay.  Every single girl deserves to know that she is capable of whatever she dreams. She might need help, she might need friends along the way, but she can do anything!

3. Over the course of Rites of Passage Sam grows and changes, both mentally and physically as she finds herself training both harder and longer. Could you explain the process of creating Sam's growth arc--as it pertained to her military household, her blooming romance, and the brutal hazing she suffers? 

Sam's a pretty strong main character with pretty strong convictions about the way life should be. Throughout the book, I needed to make sure she questioned what she believed in. It's not enough to say "This is what I believe." You have to be able to answer the inevitable "Why?" that comes next. So for a character like Sam, I had to shake her to her core, which meant putting her through some pretty horrible things regarding her family and the hazing. She had to realize on her own that not everything is black and white, good and bad. There are gray areas to everything, but it's where you stand in the gray that makes you who you are. At the end of the novel, I hope it's clear that Sam understands the why--not only of her beliefs--but of the other characters' beliefs as well. 

4.  Lastly, I cannot help but ask: is there any possibility of a companion novel or sequel? What else can you tell us about your current projects? 

Right now Rites is a stand alone, but that doesn't mean there won't ever be a sequel or companion novel. How's that for a non-answer? :-)  Right now I'm working on my second book for Harper Teen called The Harder You Fall. I can't say much yet, but it takes place in the world of mixed martial arts.  

Thanks again for having me and for the great questions! Did I pass the test? :-) I hope everyone enjoys Rites of Passage.

Thank you so much, Joy! I don't doubt for a second that everyone is truly going to enjoy Rites of Passage--seriously, what a treat! :)


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Saturday, August 23, 2014

ARC Romance Mini-Reviews: I Want it That Way by Ann Aguirre & Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan

Title: I Want it That Way (2B, #1) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: August 26th, 2014

Aguirre's I Want it That Way is a relatively unexceptional piece of literature. It isn't the New Adult Series I'd recommend on a whim but, an important distinction to note is that I also wouldn't warn away from it. For me, it seems to be a new milestone in New Adult literature when I can find a novel that steers clear of slut-shaming, misogyny, rape, or other over-used tropes. Thus, though I hesitate to say it, Aguirre's I Want it That Way belongs to that new milestone of New Adult; not remarkable but a far cry from terrible too.

I Want it That Way is, at its core, a romance novel. Nadia moves into a two-story apartment complex and finds herself living above Ty, the gorgeously sexy single-father who works by day and studies by night. Nadia and Ty have chemistry--they can feel it, even from the vertical separation of a few feet, but with his son and complicated lifestyle there is no place for Nadia in Ty's life. But as Ty spends more and more time with Nadia he finds it more and more difficult to stay away. Just a brief place-holder relationship until The One came couldn't hurt, right? But what if The One was there all along and Ty just won't open his eyes...?

I hardly feel the need to touch upon the love story within I Want it That Way. Just the way I like it it's a slow, tortuous burn and I appreciate the fact that Nadia and Ty get to know one another on an emotional, mental level before they broach a physical relationship with one another. It isn't easy for Ty to let Nadia into his life and, similarly, it isn't easy for Nadia to choose to be with Ty. Ty lives the life of an individual at least another decade older than he really is and for Nadia to adjust to that--and vice versa--is tough. Aguirre leaves no stone unturned, however, in exploring their relationship and its struggles and I found it a delight to read. Moreover, I really enjoyed Nadia's collegiate experiences bleeding into her romance. Whether it be a tiff with her best friend and roommate or lending a shoulder for another friend to cry on, the dynamics of these four roommates and Nadia's role in the midst of it, juggling her school work with her social life with Ty, was not only a balance to have to live through but also to write. Granted, Nadia's experiences as a college student are not the focus of this novel but their presence enhanced the tale and brought Nadia's unique decisions into broader perspective. Perfect for a lazy afternoon or a stormy night, I Want it That Way is quick, entertaining, and satisfying. While you can certainly ask--and expect--more from both Aguirre and New Adult, this is likely the best you'll read of them together.

Title: Talk Sweetly to Me (Brothers Sinister, #4.5)
Author: Courtney Milan
Rating: 4 Stars

I find myself utterly charmed by the notion that the Brothers Sinister novellas shine brighter than their full-length companions. Whether it be The Governess Affair, A Kiss for Midwinter, or--now--Talk Sweetly to Me, each of these three novellas have contained tender, heart-tugging romances whose brevity worked to their advantage. That's not to say I don't adore the novels which make up this memorable quartet (or that I treasure A Countess Conspiracy or The Suffragette Scandal any less), but it simply wears easier on the heart to adore smaller volumes.

Stephen Shaughnessy, the infamous advice columnist for a women's magazine and a self-proclaimed feminist to boot, finds himself falling for the inexplicably brilliant Rose Sweetly. From the surface, Rose appears to be timid, shy, and painfully quiet. Not many know of her nor do they recognize the mathematical genius she possesses--but Stephen has. Initially having met Rose on the street, Stephen finds himself constantly seeking an excuse to bump into her, probe her analytic mind, and emerge from their discussions a different man entirely; one whose world-view has been shifted, ever-so-slightly. When the opportunity presents itself for Stephen to learn from Rose, employing her as his tutor, he eagerly pushes forth his luck. Stephen claims not to be seducing Rose but his every interaction, word, and gesture is simply too sweet to be true...or is it?

Talk Sweetly to Me is a novella of intense longing. From the beginning itself, Milan presents us both with Rose's perspective and that of Stephen's as well. Juxtaposed alongside one another it isn't difficult to see that both parties are already besotted with each other--they just don't recognize the full extent of their affection for one another. Thus, to read of their crackling dialogue, witty banter, and charged movements is only to prolong the agony, the wait, the slow-building sexual tension. Moreover, as can only be expected from a novella with a title of Talk Sweetly to Me, the story is extremely, extremely sweet. Not only is Stephen, known as a notorious rake, a complete gentleman at all times but he never allows Rose to lose sight of herself, which I love. What's more, as a colored heroine Rose adds another dimension to the otherwise Caucasian-dominated historical romance genre. From her early struggles as a woman pursuing the STEM fields to the drawbacks she faces (and witnesses!) due to her race and the color of her skin, Talk Sweetly to Me isn't always laughter and charm. Over such a short expanse of pages Milan manages to pack an entire era, truly, but all with Stephen and Rose's romance remaining sharply front-and-center. Despite the fact that there remains a tinge of bittersweet longing for more of the Brothers Sinister in my heart, Talk Sweetly to Me is a short, all-consuming love story with the sweetest of endings. Truly, the perfect coda to a perfect quartet; I can't wait for more, Milan.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Title: Into the Darkest Corner

Author: Elizabeth Haynes

Rating: 4 Stars

I remember looking up from this novel, expecting it to be around 11:30 in the night and finding it was pushing past 1 AM. Like the bibliophile I am, though, I told myself I'd just finish the chapter I was reading but it was 2:40 when my traitorous eyes, struggling to stay awake, forced me to close the book and drag myself to bed, only barely remembering to shut the lights off.

I don't read too many thriller/horror novels. I relish the creeping sense of suspense, the hint of dramatic flair, and the embroiled emotions involved with such stories but, seeing as horror movies keep me anxiously awake late into the night, I often convince myself such books will do the same.

Into the Darkest Corner, however, is the perfect blend of thriller, horror, and contemporary fiction--all just with a hint of romance. Make no mistake, Haynes's novel is a dark one. Within these pages you will find graphic and gruesome detailing of an abusive relationship, domestic violence, and rape. Yet, it is an impeccably written and thought-provoking account of the type of day-to-day horrors people experience--and we often want to forget. Into the Darkest Corner is told in alternating timelines of 2004 and 2008. In 2004 Catherine Bailey went to a bar in a red silk dress and began an intense relationship with a man she met there, Lee. In 2008 Cathy Bailey lives alone in an apartment, aloof from her co-workers and neighbors, frantically checking and re-checking her locks for fear of her ex-boyfriend, currently in jail.

With every chapter alternating between Catherine and Cathy, it is impossible not to become utterly sucked into this tale. Catherine is young, friendly, flirtatious, and sexy; she drinks into the night, she finds different men to take home every week, and she discards her loneliness in a sea of friends. When she meets Lee--handsome, intelligent, caring--at first neither she nor her friends can believe her luck. While Lee keeps odd work hours and often dodges career-related questions, their relationship is stellar in every other regard--particularly in bed. Yet, week by week, month by month, Catherine begins to realize that her perfect relationship is not quite as it seems. Lee isn't so much besotted with her as he is obsessed with her, eager to control every aspect of her life from who she meets to when and where she meets them.

Reading Catherine's experience, side-by-side with Cathy's present-day problems as a result of her abusive relationship with Lee, is jarring. Catherine and Cathy hardly seem like the same person but, gradually, we can see how Lee's influence has Catherine become the cautious, timid, and often scared heroine that Cathy has become. Cathy suffers from both OCD and PTSD and the vivid descriptions of her symptoms--their direct influence in inhibiting her day-to-day lifestyle--are depressing. I found it difficult to read, particularly as my mother suffers from mild anxiety attacks on occasion and reading of a much more severe version of a similar illness was truly upsetting. Haynes captures Cathy's life so realistically, though, her facts spot-on as Cathy abhors any slight change to her schedule. Including her new neighbor, Stuart. Stuart is a therapist and recognizes Cathy's symptoms upon meeting her but their relationship isn't easy. In fact, juxtaposed with the ease in which Catherine fell into a relationship with Lee it's downright difficult.

But I really, really loved Stuart. First and foremost, he never "saves" or "heals" Cathy. If anything, he gives her the encouragement and support that she needs to seek help and follow her treatment. Moreover, their relationship isn't centered around Cathy's illness but rather around her. Reading Catherine and Lee's volatile relationship is like seeing a painting; the end result without knowing the work that went into it. Even when Catherine likes Lee, before he begins to hurt her, Lee hardly takes the time to get to know the real her, the one beneath the party-going and fun exterior. By the time he should, it's already too late and Catherine is terrified, desperately seeking a way to escape. Suddenly, their entire relationship becomes about Catherine's fear; the desperation she feels as Lee isolates her from her remaining friends and alienates her, alone and hurting. In contrast, Stuart seeks to know Cathy as an individual and as they fall in love, despite the stumbles and mistakes in their courtship, we know it's real; it's genuine and it's here to stay.

Into the Darkest Corner, however, thrives off of suspense. First, it's the suspense in Lee and Catherine's relationship--the unanswered questions. How did Catherine get away? When did they catch Lee? What mistake did he finally make that allowed Catherine to escape? Due to the short, alternating chapters it is never possible to forget Lee. Even when Cathy is moving on and having a good day, we remember Catherine from four years ago and the trauma she suffered--pain that still lives on in the form of scars on Cathy's body or simply the mental torture she's had to live with day-after-day. One of the strongest aspects of this novel was the fact that Lee charmed his way into Catherine's life and systematically turned her friends against her. None of them, let alone her best friend Sylvia, could understand how Catherine could be unhappy with Lee. So what if he was intense? So what if he wanted to know where she was and what she was doing all the time? Didn't she know how lucky she was to have a man whose world revolved around her? Wasn't that the type of man every girl was trying to find? It's a real slap into a reality, both because Catherine's long-time friends choose to believe her short-term boyfriend instead of her and, moreover, because Lee is the kind of man girls are told to find--and that's terrifying. Not the abusive traits, of course, but the bare-bones structure of him is built from the perfect man of our dreams.

All of this only serves to make Lee so much more scarier than he could be otherwise, particularly as he doesn't look or act like an abuser; he just is one. Haynes builds a growing crescendo of suspense, here, as present-day Cathy must cope with the fact that Lee is about to be released from prison--and she's confident he's going to come after her. She doesn't know when he'll find her or how long it'll take him, but she knows that one day she'll wake up, check her apartment, and find Lee there in some form or the other. And that's absolutely terrifying.

Into the Darkest Corner was a novel I couldn't disentangle myself from. I became so worried and protective over Cathy, wanting her to find her own footing in life while simultaneously wanting to whisk her away to Mars so she could escape Lee once and for all. I haven't felt so emotionally attached to a character in awhile and it felt good, frankly, to care so much for this fictional woman and want everything to go right in her world, just for once. I love these stories; the ones that make you forget you're reading and transport you into another reality altogether. Cathy, Stuart, Sylvia, Lee...they're characters I may forget, admittedly, but the overwhelming amount of information shared in this novel about these types of abusive relationships and the suffering they can cause--that I won't forget.

I'd never read or heard of Elizabeth Haynes prior to this novel but, if her writing and command over characters are anything to go by, Into the Darkest Corner certainly won't be my last read by her.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Release Day Review: Storm Siren by Mary Weber

Title: Storm Siren (Storm Siren, #1) 

Author: Mary Weber

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: August 19th, 2014

The more I ruminate over Storm Siren the less I find to enjoy about it. I found Weber's debut to be remarkable when I originally read it, mainly because I had read the novel in a single sitting and the adrenaline rush that comes from finishing an action-packed book is difficult to beat. It makes it hard to think and upon finishing Storm Siren I was concerned for the future of the series but, still, very much in love with the characters and journey I'd found inside. Now, having put a considerable amount of time and distance between myself and Storm Siren I am able to discern that this novel, while an excellent debut, is by no means flawless. What's more, the narrative lags seem more and more evident upon reflection and I find myself in the tenuous situation of not quite knowing whether or not I'll be picking up the sequel after all.

Storm Siren begins with a clap of thunder as Nym, an Elemental, is forcibly sold at an auction and, upon witnessing the cruelty of a master towards his young slave, retaliates in anger. In Nym's world Elementals are killed at birth and, what's more, are born male. Thus, Nym is an anomaly; she shouldn't exist. With a well of power she is unable to control, however, Nym is dangerous and has accidentally murdered dozens over the course of her short life span. Wracked with guilt and loathsome of her own gifts, Nym finds herself bought by Adora, a noblewoman and court adviser who promises to train Nym. Under Adora's command Nym finds Eogan, the handsome trainer who is immune to Nym's powers and claims to be able to help her harness it.

Nym's journey is a compelling one, particularly as her entire childhood has been spent being bought and sold from one owner to another. With her white hair Nym cannot escape the features which mark her as Elemental and nor can she escape her gift. Storm Siren stands out in large part due to the gradual arc Nym experiences. When she is first bought by Adora Nym resists training with Eogan. Not only does she lack faith in his promises but she doesn't believe in herself either. Thus, to watch her grow with every experience, get up from every set-back, and move forward from a past that has been haunting her is admirable.

Yet, as Nym conquerors her inner demons and finally finds self-confidence, the world around her grows weaker and weaker. Nym, having lived the life of a slave, has traveled extensively throughout the land of Faelen. Not only does she understand the downtrodden lifestyle of these citizens better than she comprehends the opulence of Adora's world but her bond to her country could have easily been felt. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Weber swiftly shifts the focus of the novel from Nym's past as a slave to her present as an Elemental. I found this to be a necessary direction for the novel as a whole but, as far as world-building went, Storm Siren lacks a comfortable balance. Weber provides readers with just enough information to understand the immediate situation on hand. Whether it be the politics, society, or class structure of this realm, Weber is careful to always impart the bare minimum. Thus, while I could follow the story line perfectly, I felt cheated of truly immersing myself in an original and intriguing universe. Towards the end of Storm Siren the political machinations at hand, which have been building throughout the narrative, truly reach a climax and, in those instances, a deeper understanding of the prior bonds, political struggles, and unspoken relationships between the characters would have been invaluable.

Nevertheless, the world-building aside, I didn't find much else to fault with Storm Siren. Granted, Adora's characterization veered on cartoonish, at times, for she is cast as a villain and desperately wants Eogan for herself, threatening Nym if she gets too close to him. Moreover, the conclusion of Storm Siren leaves much to be desired, forcing readers to remain hanging on a cliffhanger of deadly proportions shortly after a massacre that upends the former direction of the plot. I cannot bring myself to be satisfied with a novel that leaves too much up to chance, to fate, to imagination. I needed more concrete answers, particularly after reading an entire narrative composed of character growth and politics and war. Truly, I suspect this is a series to binge-read, back-to-back, or simply drive yourself crazy with curiosity.

For all those qualms, I still enjoyed Storm Siren immensely. Eogan, the mysterious trainer whose job it is to help Nym, is a bundle of surprises and the steady romantic arc built between him and Nym is both tantalizing and heart-breaking. What I love best about Nym and Eogan's relationship is the fact that it is multi-faceted, full of hard truths and unexpected hurdles, but it still remains wonderfully rewarding. Their companionship gives and takes strength in equal measure, which I appreciated, and I only wish for an even greater dose of swoon. In addition to Nym's romance with Eogan, however, another crucial relationship at the heart of Storm Siren is the friendship shared between Nym and Colin. Much like Rossi's Under the Never Sky, there is no love triangle caused by the presence of two men in Nym's life. Instead, while Eogan's support and faith gives Nym the strength to find her self-confidence, Colin's friendship and laughter allows her to embrace life once more and emerge from the shell she once was. Both these bonds are fierce, just as is the respect between Eogan and Colin as Colin, too, is Eogan's student. Together, the three of them are an unstoppable force to be reckoned with and their relationships bring them only closer, not farther.

There is much to love and cherish within the pages of Storm Siren but for fantasy lovers for whom world-building is a deal-breaker, I'd recommend waiting on this one. Its cliffhanger is nasty, the ending is remarkably uncertain, and though Storm Siren begins with such a promising tale I remain in the dark as to where this story is headed next. Sure, I'm curious, but I'm also wary. Storm Siren is a strong YA Fantasy debut but, coming off of the Grisha trilogy, Weber leaves more to be desired. Quite a bit more.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

ARC Review: Visions by Kelly Armstrong

Title: Visions (Cainsville, #2) 

Author: Kelly Armstrong

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: August 19th, 2014

Note: Mild spoilers for Omens, the first book in this series follow. I do not believe that the brief spoilers will ruin the series but you can read my review of Omens here.

It is always ever-so-slightly disconcerting to pick up a sequel and read a novel far altered from your expectations. I adored Armstrong's Omens when it released last year, both because of its unique paranormal plot line and its psychologically consuming characters. While neither of these traits have diminished in strength throughout this sequel, they have altered in some capacity. Granted, some are for the better--certainly--but some, sadly, for the worse.

In Omens Olivia, the protagonist of our tale, discovers that she has been adopted and that her biological parents are notorious serial killers, the Larsens. Working with her attorney, the elusive Gabriel Walsh, the two prove that the final two of eight murders committed by the Larsens were falsely accused. Thus, when Visions was announced I immediately assumed that the course of the series would be to continue to prove that Olivia's parents had not, after all, committed a single murder and their daughter would work to contribute evidence to that cause. Instead, Visions presents us with a different sort of mystery on our hands, one far removed from Olivia's true parentage but linked, rather, to the small town she loves: Cainsville.

When Visions begins Olivia witnesses a dead body in her car. One which bears an uncanny resemblance to her. Yet, when Gabriel arrives on the scene the body is missing and no evidence can be found. This body continues to plague Olivia, its head turning up unexpectedly in her bed one night only to vanish just as quickly. Soon enough, Olivia is able to identify the body as belonging to Ciara, a young girl who is distantly related to the town of Cainsville. But as Olivia begins investigating the truth behind Ciara's death and its unexpected link to her, she stumbles upon a secret she just may have been better off knowing. Because both Cainsville, and its residents, are not as they seem...

While I found that aspects of Visions could have easily been omitted--this book is, after all, a hefty volume--the plot is impeccable as always, well-timed, atmospheric, and unique. Perhaps what I love most about Visions is that it reveals a plethora of layers, both the characters we've come to know and the story line we've come to love. Since it touches only briefly upon the subject of the murders Olivia's parents are accused of it can be difficult to find ones bearings amid this novel. While Olivia is diligently tracking down the truth behind Ciara's murder, I couldn't help but seek the connecting draw behind the entire tale. It isn't until the end of Visions that Armstrong hits us with explosive reveals but the hints are present over the course of the narrative and the manner in which Omens bleeds into Visions, creating an even stronger story line than the one before, is remarkable.

Yet, while Armstrong excels in plot she sadly fails in the romance department. Omens seemed to establish a slow-burn romance between Olivia and Gabriel--my absolutely favorite kind--but early in Visions their friendship takes a deep setback. At this point in the tale, Olivia is no longer in shock or grief regarding the truth of her parentage. Thus, as a young woman, she is once again prepared to fill her life with the social standings she needs, boyfriend included. Gabriel, on the other hand, who remained an aloof enigma in Omens, is, by no means, prepared for a relationship as yet in Visions. We grow to learn of his traumatic past and the emotional scarring has left him in a position where he doesn't even view Olivia in a romantic light. While Visions continues to establish the strong connection forged between them and the strength of their friendship shines through and overcomes hurdles, neither Gabriel nor Olivia view each other as anything more than a close, reliable friend.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise to find that Olivia becomes romantically involved with Ricky, the biker we briefly met in Omens. Only, I was surprised. Rationally, I can reason the need for this romance and, certainly, Ricky is a balanced counterpoint to Olivia. Not only does her respect her independence but he never becomes jealous and supports Olivia's friendship with Gabriel. Yet, I honestly felt as if the love scenes in Visions were more than just a little unnecessary and theirs wasn't a romance I enjoyed, frankly. What I do appreciate about Armstrong, however, is that Ricky plays an important role to the plot as a whole beyond simply being Olivia's boyfriend. Moreover, the citizens of Cainsville are against Ricky and Olivia's fling and it is made evident that Ricky and Olivia are not a couple who are here to stay. Thus, while Visions lacks a love triangle the focus on the romance lacked authenticity and I couldn't engage as thoroughly as I'd wanted to as a result of it. Moreover, it completely took me by surprise so, hopefully, future readers can better prepare themselves for an assault of romance in this installment.

Ultimately, Visions excels as the paranormal thriller it is. Armstrong's research is on-point and enriches the atmospheric quality of these novels and, with the manner in which this installment wrapped up, I'm certainly expecting to see both the murder mystery of Omens and the paranormal twists of Visions converge in the next novel. While I remain a twinge nervous about the direction these characters are headed in, I look forward to their arcs; their growth is genuine, their personalities memorable, and their relationships authentic. Not my favorite Armstrong novel by a long-shot but, obviously, a must-read for fans of Omens.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: Boomerang by Noelle August

Title: Boomerang (Boomerang, #1) 

Author: Noelle August

Rating: 4 Stars

If Julie James's Practice Makes Perfect had a half-child, Boomerang would be the result. And, since Practice Makes Perfect is my favorite James novel, of course I fell for Boomerang. For those of you who don't know, Practice Makes Perfect chronicles the blooming romance between two lawyers who compete for exactly one prestigious position in their firm. Boomerang, similarly, is the love story of two young, ambitious, and disastrously attractive interns competing for one job opening at Boomerang, an up-and-coming dating site.

Noelle August's debut New Adult novel--an effort co-authored by Veronica Rossi herself--doesn't break new ground in the genre yet, it's still massively entertaining. Boomerang opens with our protagonists, Mia and Ethan, waking up in bed together. Unknowingly, the two wound up celebrating their internship positions together, not knowing that they'd soon be competing for a job. Or, for that matter, that their new company would have a strict policy on inter-office dating. Both Mia and Ethan know they have chemistry--the sparks just won't stop flying!--but for Mia, Boomerang is the opportunity she needs to launch her career as a filmmaker and for Ethan, Boomerang equates to the salary he desperately needs to earn in order to pay back his student loans and afford grad school after his dreams of becoming a soccer star were shut down due to an injury. But, the real question here isn't who will land Boomerang's exclusive position--it's whether Mia and Ethan can abide by company rules and keep their hands off each other...or not?

Alternating from Mia and Ethan's perspectives, Boomerang is the type of romantic comedy that hits all the right queues: targeting the humor, hitting the laughs, and keeping the storyline short and sweet without dragging it longer than necessary. It's a self-aware novel--rare, but necessary, in this particular genre--and though there are a variety of typical tropes such as petty jealousy, they are dealt with in such an honest and forthcoming light that, as readers, we find ourselves charmed instead of irritated. What's more, the characters have valid reasons--beyond plot-spun dilemmas--to prolong their happily-ever-after. Both Mia and Ethan have been burned by their past relationships and coping with the aftermath of those tragic romances have molded these two into different, more cautious, individuals. Thus, to jump into a relationship--real life consequences and job hunt be damned--isn't quite as easy as it seems for Mia and especially for Ethan with his financial difficulties.

In the small details, Boomerang shone. Mia, the daughter of a famous photographer and a self-made father, wants nothing more than to rise to success on her own two feet. Unlike typical protagonists following this storyline, her goal isn't to escape from the shadow of her parents but rather to find her own artistic voice separate from theirs. It seems like an identical concept, but the subtle differences truly make a change. Mia's ambition, her love for film, and particularly her drive to chronicle her Alzheimer's suffering grandmother on video are all such raw, true glimpses into who she truly is, teasing at the type of naivety and emotion found only amongst the New Adult age group, that Boomerang benefits from it. Ethan, as well, struggling under the burden of not having quite enough to live by comfortably but, at the same time, not wanting to trouble his parents represents a much more relate-able lifestyle. One line, in particular, where he remarks that his parents are currently putting his younger brother through college and really can't afford to pitch in for day-to-day expenses like his rent--those thoughts felt all-too authentic. Now, heading off to college myself with a younger brother in the house, these are the tragic thoughts I know will plague me some day as well.

While Boomerang still stumbled in areas, namely the sexual tension between the love interests steaming up the page far more than the actual sex did (kind of a bummer, not going to lie...), I found this debut to be full of charm and oozing with promise. Mia thinks to herself, at one point, that being out of college and in the "real" world, sustaining a job and building a career, still feels like playing at adulthood. For me, Boomerang hit the nail with one-liners like these which mirrored my own tumultuous and confused thoughts about growing up all-too-well. (Seriously, internships feel like dress-up! I traveled to NYC for a research internship all of last summer and sitting on the train every morning with actual adults who made money and paid taxes felt far too surreal.) Needless to say, I'll be picking up the companion novel to Boomerang once it releases and I certainly hope Noelle August continue to write honest, open, and downright entertaining romances--I certainly won't be tiring of them anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

ARC Review: Broken by Lauren Layne

Title: Broken (Redemption, #1) 

Author: Lauren Layne

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: September 2nd, 2014 

Over the past year, Lauren Layne has swiftly risen to become one of my favorite romance authors. So much so, in fact, that I request her novels without even glancing at their synopses. Thus, to find that Broken continued the tale told in Layne's debut, only this time following Olivia instead of Stephanie, was a pleasant surprise. In Isn't She Lovely Olivia stars as the villain--the ex-girlfriend who cheated on her perfect boyfriend and plans to steal him back. Now, in Broken, she stars as an angel--the college senior who drops out to take care of a soldier.

Only Olivia and a handful of her close friends know, however, that dropping out of college isn't an angelic task; it's redemption. In healing others, Olivia hopes to face the darkest parts of herself and come to terms with what she did to wreck the relationships around her. Paul Langdon, the young and tortured solider she finds herself in care of, seems to be an even greater expert on wrecking relationships, however. Ever since returning from Afghanistan, Paul has pushed aside those around him, refusing to face the world with the scars on his face and the limp he carries around as a remnant of battle. Chasing away caretaker after caretaker, Paul finally acquiesces with his father's wishes and promises to cope with the new caretaker for three months. Neither Paul nor Olivia are prepared, though, for the youth or attraction they feel for one another upon meeting. But their exterior veneers hide two very angry, very unstable, and very broken individuals inside. If they play the cards right, these two just may be the solution they've been searching for all their lives...if only they can get past their destructive tendencies to find the love beneath.

I find the premises of Broken far better executed than the actual novel itself. While I thoroughly enjoyed this love story, from its stumbling road blocks to the true struggle these characters were forced to undergo in order to make it work, I also remained unimpressed. Layne has, up until now, taken seemingly classic story lines and added her own unique twist to it. Not only are her protagonists independent, confident, and undergoing self-growth, but her relationships always end with equal footed partners. Moreover, she never fails to drop tid-bits that hint at so much more than mere romance in her characters lives, whether it be in the form of friendships or family. While many of these elements continue in Broken, from Olivia's growth and acceptance of her past to her difficulty sustaining her former friendships as she takes a different path in life, many of my qualms with this story stemmed from the love story itself.

From the beginning, Paul pushes Olivia away from him in what is an often irrational manner. We are forced to make many allowances for Paul, as a character, because of his past and the fact that we don't know the true extent of his battle scars, physical and emotional. Thus, when Paul treats Olivia's care and genuine affection with contempt I ignored it--but only at first. Despite the fact that Paul is rude, even cruel to Olivia at times, she forgives him very easily. On one hand, it's refreshing to see two characters understand one another so rapidly without unnecessary drama or angst taking over the plot, but at the same time, I couldn't forgive Paul as easily as Olivia could for many of his actions. I felt as if, by the end of this tale, Paul hadn't fully redeemed himself in my eyes.

Moreover, the tail end of this novel reads far too familiar and happily-ever-after, which is typical of any contemporary romance tale but feels particularly odd after the struggle these two underwent to be together. It felt too convenient, almost. I still enjoyed Broken very much: Layne's writing is impossible to tear away from and her pacing is impeccable. Yet, after Mila Gray's Come Back to Me perhaps my expectations of war-torn romance are slightly higher than usual. Whatever it may be, I'd still heartily recommend Layne's new adult and adult novels alike. I suspect Broken is a mere lapse in my otherwise perfect record when it comes to Layne's romances and I am fully on board for her next novel; really.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: Something Real by Heather Demetrios

Title: Something Real 

Author: Heather Demetrios

Rating: 4 Stars

As someone who turns on the television maybe five times a year--for the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas--I couldn't adequately understand the hype over Something Real. I've never watched a reality TV show--not unless you count Food Network's "Chopped"--and was ignorant of the existence of "Honey Boo Boo" and "Dance Moms" until very recently. I may be young, but I really do live under a bookshelf. Needless to say, Something Real flew over my head, though not under my radar, until I read and loved Demetrios's sophomore novel, Exquisite Captive.

I'll admit it--the hype is right. For once. Something Real is a surprisingly poignant, emotional, and realistic debut. From the beginning itself, it's impossible to feel distant from the story at hand as Chloe's life is a tragic joke. Beth and Andrew Baker, once poor high school sweethearts with a dream of parenting a Baker's Dozen--or thirteen children--had their lives changed when MetaReel, a reality TV channel, decided to make their hopes a reality. For the first thirteen years of her childhood, Chloe's life has been documented on television--from her birth to her first steps to her medical overdose which put the show on hiatus for four years. Now seventeen, Chloe is finally living a normal life--friends, a potential boyfriend, and actual high school. But when she realizes her mother has signed up the family for another season of "Baker's Dozen", forcing Chloe back to her television persona of Bonnie and a life on camera, Chloe simply cannot deal. 

What I find shockingly depressing about "Baker's Dozen" is the viewer reaction to the show. Beth Baker is a role model of The Perfect Mother. Not only does she seamlessly run a household with thirteen children, but she has survived the infidelity of her husband and lived to find love again, marrying Kirk. Although Beth knows Chloe and her older brother, Benny, aren't eager to be back on "Baker's Dozen," she is forced to seek employment with MetaReel due to financial reasons. Chloe's reaction to "Baker's Dozen" immediately forces her into our hearts and her volatile relationship with the camera, her mother, and even her older sister Lex who loves being on television, are all so beautifully written. Demtrios creates nuanced familial relationships with so much depth, whether it be Chloe and Benny's easy sibling friendship or even Chloe and Lex's difficult sibling rivalry, both these sibling relationships of different natures are impossible to label or explain because they are multi-layered. Admittedly, I did find it difficult to condone many of Beth's actions, particularly towards the end of the novel, but I suppose a mother with thirteen children truly may react in the manner she does--I'll never know. 

Something Real is all-the-more endearing not for its reality television plot, but rather for Chloe's struggles to lead a normal life despite it all. Whether it be her tight friendship with her high school friends--who are seriously amazing friends--or her blooming romance with Patrick, the cute guy who sits behind her in government class, Chloe's internal battle to remain true to herself in the face of media dramatics is admirable. Chloe and Patrick's romance is a cornerstone of support throughout the difficult experiences Chloe undergoes. Of course, I found it far too perfect, but in Demetrios's defense it certainly made sense to write an easy, uncomplicated romance when so many other plot threads were complex. (Plus, if you want complicated romance from Demetrios just pick up Exquisite Captive--the gray matter is there in spades!) 

One of my favorite aspects of the tale, though, were the snippets from magazines, newspapers, or simply scripts from older "Baker's Dozen" episodes that are littered at the close of every chapter in Something Real. Demetrios brings her story alive by giving it a wider audience--paparazzi, scientists who study the psychological ramifications of reality television, etc.--and I loved this tactical decision. For me, it brought the effects of this story home in a truly impactful manner. Something Real isn't an altogether perfect debut novel, but then again, whose debut is perfect? Demetrios has written a thought-provoking piece, one ideal for the young adult genre as it forces readers to reflect on their exposure to media and the manner in which it shapes their lives. Moreover, this novel--lightly--touches upon difficult futuristic decisions, hinting at New Adult themes, which I further appreciated. I, for one, would love a New Adult follow-up novel, perhaps from the perspective of a different character. We won't be getting one, I don't think, but a girl can certainly dream, yes? 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On Old Hollywood, YA, and Love Triangles...

I spent my weekend with Cary Grant. After watching The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and Notorious in back-to-back succession I sent Lauren @ Love is Not a Triangle the following tweet:
And after that, I just couldn't stop thinking about these films. Why was it that these love triangles on screen translated so poignantly? I despise even the slightest hint of a love triangle in literature--and I usually despise love triangles in films too--but Old Hollywood just nailed it! 

I've found that all three of these films do, in some form or the other, contain a love triangle. During Grant's era of Hollywood, "screwball" comedies were all the rage; usually involving intriguing insight into the gap between the social classes, hilarious scenes, and romances in which a divorced (or about-to-be-divorced) husband and wife couple fell back in love together. Needless to say, this romantic set-up practically calls for a love triangle and His Girl Friday represents a quintessential scenario: Grant is still very much in love with his recently divorced wife who is engaged to another man and in order to break apart their engagement, he resorts to a series of hilarious events all while showing her just how integral both he and the journalism business are to her lifestyle. It is primarily a social commentary on journalism, with comedic tid-bits and an underplayed romance, which is I why I hesitate to label it as a love triangle. You don't feel the tension between the contenders for the heroine's heart--and in this case, that's perfectly fine. His Girl Friday isn't meant to be nearly quite that dark and as a "screwball" comedy, it's certainly worth the watch. 

The Philadelphia Story, on the other hand, yet another "screwball" comedy, is a film I fell in love with. Katharine Hepburn plays the role of a rich society heiress about to marry a self-made man whose rise to wealth and politics is admirable. Grant, her ex-husband, returns after two years in South America to attend Hepburn's wedding--bringing with him two newspaper reporters to cover the event. Now, the intricate details behind this set-up are ones I'll leave for the movie reviewers to explain but the film, featuring James Stewart as one of the newspaper reporters, engages in a truly captivating love triangle. In an early scene in the film Hepburn is told by Grant that she is a goddess; cool, aloof, and in a station above all others. Next, she is told by her current fiance that he worships her--even when she tells him that she wants to be loved, not worshiped. Lastly, her own father tells her that she is made of bronze--once again re-iterating the theme that both her ex-husband and future-husband have mentioned.

Critics will tell you that The Philadelphia Story was a breakthrough film for Hepburn and, seeing her performance, it isn't hard to see why. She nails the self-righteous, independent Tracy in such a manner that we come to perfectly understand the goddess-like image she holds for Grant while also viewing the flesh-and-blood human she is underneath. Stewart, a newspaper reporter whose station in life is far below that of Hepburn's in the film, becomes fascinated by the rich woman when Hepburn reads and appreciates his novel. At first, the two strike an easy friendship--Stewart never sees the sharp edges of Hepburn's character that the men who know her most intimately do see--but their affection blossoms quickly into a romance. It's that moment--when I found myself on the edge of my seat, utterly distraught over the fact that Hepburn might wind up with Stewart and not Grant--that I even realized there was a love triangle at play here. 

Yet, the reason The Philadelphia Story works is because the film's focus is firmly on Hepburn's character. Each of the men in her life, just days before her wedding, begin to show her what she truly wants, not only from a life partner but from her own existence as well. Whether it be her fiance, who is riveted by Tracy's status more than he is by her, or James Stewart, who feeds her pride without understanding her world view, or even Cary Grant, who sees her for the woman she is and finds it in himself to forgive her--but still love her despite it all--the love triangle in The Philadelphia Story makes the tale all-the-more rewarding. What's more, Stewart is Grant's best man by the end of the film when Hepburn and Grant re-marry, neatly avoiding the angst and drama that seems to accompany any literary love triangle. Moreover, the subtle threads binding them all to one another are never spelled out, the way they seem to be in modern-day romantic comedies with the hero confessing "I love you. I forgive you. I can't live without you...marry me!" in a melodramatic manner. Instead, the leap from seemingly distant to true passion lies in the undercurrents of conversation and is up to the movie-goer to watch, interpret, and process. 

Hitchcock's Notorious is a far cry from "screwball" comedy and, instead, serves to place Grant in a much darker role. Grant, taking on the role of American agent Devlin, hires Alicia, played by Ingrid Bergman, as an American spy. Although Alicia's father has recently been arrested for treason, having worked as a German spy during WWII, Alicia herself is loyally American. Yet, following her father's sentence, Alicia drinks, parties, and conducts improper behavior with men. Devlin, upon first meeting her, is both enchanted by her beauty and repulsed by her actions. After hiring her, however, the two fall in love in Rio. In Rio, Devlin learns that Alicia's assignment is to seduce Sebastian, a German, and infiltrate his network. Alicia's duty throws a wedge in their romance and as Alicia eventually marries Sebastian, neither she nor Devlin profess their true love for another. 

It's a tragic love story, acutely felt as Devlin and Alicia are their own hurdles. Devlin, spurning Alicia for taking on the job, and then Alicia, taunting Devlin as she is "with" another man. It isn't an easy film to watch, precisely because of the acerbic quality of their interactions at times, but the talent with which the movie is shot and the quality of the acting is unparalleled. Sebastian, who serves as the third wheel in this love triangle, is ironically the better of Alicia's two options. Not only is he madly in love with her, but he defies his mother by marrying her, fighting her at every instance in order to give Alicia reign over his household and shower her with every luxury. Moreover, he never once doubts that she may be marrying him for his money or his contacts; he simply believes in her. In contrast, Devlin hears of Alicia's task and assumes that her promiscuous past leads her to take the job. Bergman's famous line--"You don't think a woman can change?"--essentially drives forward the entire broken romance. Devlin cannot trust himself--or Alicia--after such a brutal war and Alicia, who needs to be seen for who she is, opposed to her past, similarly won't settle for a man who sees her as the sum of her sins the way Devlin does. 

What I love most about this film, and its love triangle, is that Sebastian's presence drives forward the entire plot. Notorious is, at its heart, a love story and the spy plot threads serve as a mere backdrop. It certainly amps up the tension and allows for brilliant cinematic shots, but the true tale to be told is the one between Devlin and Alicia. As Alicia grows from a "lush" to a courageous woman; as Devlin learns to shed his veneer of cynicism and finally allow himself to love Alicia, especially when that means leaving the shadows he knows--the love triangle, once again, focuses on the characters. 

I find that in YA or NA, a "bad boy" persona such as Devlin's would be explained away by a tragic past--perhaps his parents perished in war, his brother was deported to a foreign land, etc.--but Hitchcock allows us to become so embroiled in the love story he tells that such extraneous information is never necessary. I found myself inching closer and closer to the television screen as the film noir played on and, by the end, I wanted to hit rewind and live in the bubble of suspense, thrill, and romantic tension that Hitchcock had built. 

From seeing and analyzing these two classics, it is evident that where Young Adult falters is in its molds. Whether it be the mold of a trilogy--which forces authors to add tension where otherwise unnecessary--or the mold of genre, these qualities spell disaster for love triangles, authors, and readers alike. We most often see love triangles emerge in dystopian or fantasy settings and, quite simply put, the romantic entanglements take away from the world-building and plot tension at hand. We, as readers, find ourselves anticipating sequels not to see where the plot is going but rather to see who the heroine winds up with. Moreover, these literary love triangles destroy the female protagonist, putting her in such a position that she acts out in silly, un-admirable ways. 

Yet, Bergman and Hepburn's characters in these Old Hollywood films are classic, touching, and poignant. We feel for them, we understand their situation, and we root for them, by the end, Grant's handsome face be damned. (I take that back, I love you Cary Grant!) 

Lauren sent me the tweet on the right, responding to my tweet above and remarking that love triangles in films just weren't as difficult to deal with. Admittedly, she is right. Not only are love triangles in movies limited by time, but they also don't feature cliffhangers or sequels. Instead, the tension is maintained for a bearable amount. It doesn't drag for hundreds of pages, it doesn't linger in our minds for a year, it doesn't re-emerge for another hundred pages, only to ferment in our minds for another year, before we finally gain closure. It just doesn't happen with a movie and the two mediums, vastly different, are that way for a reason. 

Certainly Notorious, if it were ever to be immortalized by the written word, would lose much of its sinister appeal and impeccable atmosphere (not to mention Cary Grant's gorgeous face!). Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the decisive choice to include a love triangle in a certain work, whether it be cinematic or literary, is one that must be made after considerable thought--and Old Hollywood somehow has me wanting to see more love triangles, not less. It never occurred to me that a love triangle could work in such an effective manner, perhaps, and seeing these directorial takes on a plot point I despise simply have me looking at the love triangle in a different format altogether. 

Well, that's all I have to say on the matter, but I'd love to hear from you! Do you enjoy love triangles more on screen than on the page? Do you believe that literary love triangles are all doomed? Or can YA and NA somehow manage to imitate these black-and-white classics? 

I'd also love any novel or film recommendations on what books and movies you think I must read/watch before heading off to college in less than three weeks! You can leave a comment below or--better yet--just respond to my frantic tweet if you have any recommendations. :) 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Release Day Review: Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine

Title: Of Metal and Wishes

Author: Sarah Fine

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: August 5th, 2014

First and foremost, you should know that I've never read or seen "The Phantom of the Opera." Secondly, you should know that I read Of Metal and Wishes not even knowing it was a re-telling of the above classic. So. If you're looking for a comprehensive review comparing these two novels, you've come to the wrong place.

Nevertheless, despite my lack of insight into the re-telling aspect of Of Metal and Wishes, I enjoyed it immensely. Wen assists her father in a medical clinic located in a slaughterhouse--a slaughterhouse where a ghost resides. The Noor, a cast hired on as cheap manual labor, begin working at the slaughterhouse. When one humiliates Wen, she impulsively makes a wish to the Ghost and is shocked when it is granted in a violent manner. In an effort to ease her guilt, she befriends the leader of the Noor, Melik. But before long, Wen is torn between her growing feelings for Melik and her friendship with the Ghost. After all, nothing but brutality and violence are certain in the slaughterhouse and if Wen isn't careful, the two just may follow hot on her heels...

Where Of Metal and Wishes shines is in creating a palpable atmosphere. I don't usually gravitate towards horror/thriller novels--so I can hardly compare Fine with connoisseurs of the genre such as Stephen King--but the tension throughout the narrative reminded me distinctly of the impending sense of doom one feels when reading Rebecca or Nine Coaches Waiting. It doesn't overwhelm the senses but, rather, it lingers, festering until the dam breaks and the plot finally reaches its peak. Fine paces her tale impeccably, adjusting the background sensation in tune, and I found this to enhance the experience of the novel memorably.

Of Metal and Wishes, moreover, features a sympathetic heroine in Wen. Not only is she compassionate and considerate, but her blunders early in the novel prove that she isn't above mistake or reproach. Thus, it is impossible not to feel a connection with well-meaning Wen. Where I grow weary of her character, however, is in her distinctly damsel-in-distress portrayal. Now, perhaps this is my ignorance speaking and Fine is simply sticking to integral plot points as she re-tells "The Phantom of the Opera" but I found myself disturbed by the treatment of women in Of Metal and Wishes. If a young girl is seen alone with a man, it instantly means she is "loose" of morals, or a prostitute. Seriously, the number of times Wen, our protagonist, was forced to ward off unwanted sexual attention became tiresome. It did little for the setting--which I will discuss in a bit--and even less for the character growth. Additionally, I'm not a fan of dilemmas which are created to be solved with violence. For the romantic interest to prove himself by beating up the men who wanted to sleep with Wen seems far too reminiscent of Beautiful Disaster to me. It isn't a flaw, exactly, as Fine handles the issues she brings up with aplomb, but I had hoped YA was moving away from the artificial love stories of fists and helpless maidens.

Fine's tale further lost me with its setting. The Noor are--I believe, but do feel free to correct me if I'm wrong--a fictional group whose physical characteristics are similar to those of Asian origin. Yet, the novel contains a distinctly historical feel to it which threw me off on more than one occasion. The conflicts within this novel are merely fictional, as is the political turmoil, but it felt as if it lacked a true historical thread to tie it back to reality--mainly because aspects of the Noor culture are, certainly, derived from historical origins in Ancient China. What I did enjoy about this twist was the fact that Fine pitted two opposing social classes of people--neither of which were Caucasian--and I found that the commentary she was able to make as a result was thought-provoking. Nevertheless, I feel as if Of Metal and Wishes could have benefited from a slightly more concrete--grounded, if you will--historical air to it, particularly as the treatment of women alludes to a much older time period in history though Wen's father's dreams of sending her to medical school allude to far more recent times. It continued to plague me as the tale went on and, let me assure you, confusion is not a sensation I welcome.

Of Metal and Wishes is ideal for lovers of thriller/horror/mystery novels, especially as its genre contains just a hint of steampunk, romance, and hints at a sequel (though, as far as I know, a follow-up has not been confirmed). So far, none of Fine's works have been able to compare to her debut--for me, at least--but I can easily see her latest becoming a favorite among many. If there's anything Fine has proved with this one it is that no genre can deter her--she is, well and truly, a versatile writer.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

ARC Review: Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M. Lee

Title: Gates of Thread and Stone (Gates of Thread and Stone, #1) 

Author: Lori M. Lee

Rating: 2.5 Stars

Release Date: August 5th, 2014

I felt hopeful, sliding open the cover of Gates of Thread and Stone. Lee's debut begins with promise, introducing us to Kai, a fierce and headstrong heroine whose ability to slow down time is refreshingly unique. Moreover, the first few chapters of this novel present us with an intriguing fantasy world, one in which Kai, living practically in the slums, must earn credits--opposed to hard cash--to rise above her rank. Kai, who was adopted by an orphan boy, Reev, when she was eight-years-old, has a strong bond with her older foster brother. Seeing the two interact on the page at the opening of Gates of Thread and Stone was heart-warming--just as witnessing Kai's frantic worry over Kai's sudden disappearance is heart-wrenching.

With the help of her childhood friend (and crush!), Avan, Kai sets out to find Reev knowing only that he has been taken by the Black Rider, formerly thought to be a mere legend. Unfortunately, I found that this novel gradually declined from this point on-wards. For me, where Gates of Thread and Stone is strongest lies within Kai. Unlike typical protagonists, she doesn't allow the presence of her love interest to distract from her mission. Instead, I admired Kai's unflinching devotion to saving Reev and, moreover, her inner strength in challenging herself and overcoming her own hurdles. When it came to the romance I certainly had a bone--or two, really--to pick with Kai but with that slight exception, I found her to be a welcoming heroine.

Yet, despite her shining qualities, I feel as if Lee fails to utilize Kai to her fullest potential. We, rather disappointingly, see very little of Kai's marvelous ability and the instant camaraderie I felt upon meeting her during those initial pages vanished only chapters into the narrative. I continued to enjoy Kai, support her decisions, and marvel at her actions but, I couldn't feel much for her. In large part, this is due to the lack of development that Lee offers her secondary characters. Reev brings out the best in Kai and, seeing the strength of their bond in the opening of the novel, establishes the reader-character connection that is absolutely essential. Lee fails to sustain that thread throughout the narrative, however, as Kai is constantly on the move from one location to another, meeting characters only to dismiss them at later points in the tale. I never felt grounded, neither to a location nor to a character, over the course of Gates of Thread and Stone. I relish secondary characters, not only for their different personalities but more so for what they bring out in the protagonist. Lee's secondary characters are forgettable, at best, and their roles in Kai's life are all-too-similar to those played by other, far more memorable, secondary characters in other novels; whether it be teacher, guide, betrayer, fighter, potential friend...none of these roles are filled in a manner that bears remembrance and I found myself ever-so-slightly saddened by the direction the plot took.

I will say, though, that Lee keeps readers guessing at her plot lines. I often expected the story to travel in one direction and it pleasantly surprised me by taking a different path. Nevertheless, I didn't find the pacing of this novel to be particularly engaging and, once Kai leaves the city gates, the world-building felt confusing at best, nonexistent at worst. Now, that's not to say it isn't there--because it is. Lee infuses her debut with hints of mythology, pulled from various sources, and the result is rather fascinating. I only wish it had been presented in a different light. By the time the entirety of Lee's world becomes evident, the story is winding down and the influx of emotion, detail, and plot twists all packed into the final few chapters isn't lovely.

What's more, the conclusion of this novel banks upon the fact that you, the reader, actually cared about the romance. Which, I assure you, I didn't. I found Avan to be a respectable romantic interest--not too perfect but not an asshole either--yet I couldn't summon up much emotion for him. Avan and Kai skirt around their feelings for far too long. Lee takes it to a point where it begins to feel unnatural--seriously, how could they not have figured out one another's feelings sooner?--and the romantic tension isn't of the welcome variety. Granted, Gates of Thread and Stone avoids a love triangle but--I'll warn you--don't come here looking for swoon. I genuinely felt as if Avan's character, particularly with his past and liberal mindset, could have been utilized in a different--and possibly better--manner throughout the narrative. Just...unimpressive, is all.

I am confident that Lee's debut will finds its die-hard fans. Of that, I have no doubt. Yet, for me, it wound up being a mash-up of too little magic (Kai, USE YOUR POWERS!), too little chemistry, and far too little connectivity. I just couldn't get into this one and while I truly loved the sibling bond that lies at the core of this novel, not to mention the qualities of Kai's that are truly admirable, Gates of Thread and Stone just didn't amaze me.

I was given a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank You!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Honor's Knight by Rachel Bach

Title: Honor's Knight (Paradox, #2) 

Author: Rachel Bach

Rating: 4.5 Stars

*This review is spoiler free for the Paradox Trilogy*

Honor's Knight presents a paradox to the typical trilogy; it defies Middle Book Syndrome. Having read far too many trilogies than I probably should have ever read, I can truthfully claim that MBS is real and it usually occurs when an author has a story to tell--only it's a duology, not a trilogy. Thus, that fated middle book is the source of dragging plot lines, new love interests, and lackluster characters. Bach, however, truly does have a story that needs to be told in three books. As a result, Honor's Knight is remarkable: fast-paced, thought-provoking, and most definitely mind-blowing.

Without giving away spoilers for Fortune's Pawn, all I will remark about the plot of this novel is that it begins in an unusual situation. Devi, our kick-ass, no-nonsense protagonist finds herself a stranger on her own ship, due to circumstance, and watching her battle those around her--but especially herself--in a quest for the truth is enlightening. It reveals even more facets to Devi than we thought existed. Fortune's Pawn does such a terrific job of presenting us strong Devi, weak Devi, fierce Devi, romantic Devi, ass-kicking Devi, etc. that to see her as more than those images is seemingly impossible. Yet, I loved her growth arc throughout the novel.

Honor's Knight moves forward through a series of multiple plot twists. Of course, for readers of Fortune's Pawn, there is an obvious reveal that needs to occur that the reader knows of but not Devi. Yet, even beyond that, Bach unveils the extent of her world-building and the secrets--answers, really--we've been yearning for since Fortune's Pawn are displayed in their full glory. Witnessing Devi react, process, and act on these new sources of information is the main motivation of the storyline. It works. Not only is Bach's world richly layered and morally ambiguous, keeping readers questioning their own set of standards and blurring that line between right and wrong, but it also keeps readers on the edge of their seat anticipating both the next unknown to fly at Devi and her consequent change as a result.

As with Fortune's Pawn, the secondary characters support and enhance Honor's Knight beautifully. All strong characters in their individual right, Devi's relationship with even the most minute of secondary characters carries weight. What's more, Honor's Knight is set up in such a manner that the nature of the relationships Devi has sustained from Fortune's Pawn change. In Honor's Knight there are many more layers to the seemingly two-dimensional and simplistic relationships Devi held in Fortune's Pawn and that evolution is a treat in and of itself.

Of course, the romance in this trilogy is note-worthy since it truly is hard-won. Honor's Knight is the least romantic of the trilogy, strife with conflict and the never-ending battle of inner conflict. Both the romantic leads, Devi and Rupert, must overcome their insecurities and pasts to be with one another and, even then, the unspeakable acts they've done hang in the air between them. While they're both fighters, they're also betrayers, and the bitterness that adds to their complex equation is entertaining, to say the least. Honor's Knight truly made me care for their relationship in a way I hadn't in Fortune's Pawn and the outcome of it is one I eagerly anticipate in Heaven's Queen.

Honor's Knight is not an easy novel to have written, I am sure. It sets up a dark, tragic problem at hand--one whose solution remains shrouded. Although this is Bach's debut trilogy, she is already a master at creating tension and forcing readers to think beyond their typical capabilities. Heaven's Queen will, undoubtedly, be a treat; I am sure of it.

You can read my review of Fortune's Pawn, the first book in the Paradox Trilogy, here.