Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ARC Review: The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski

Title: The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Curse, #2) 

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: March 3rd, 2015

The Winner's Crime is tragic. Unlike Game of Thrones, where the train wreck disasters are interspersed with complex political motivations and nearly shrouded from the reader, The Winner's Crime blatantly opens the flood gates of impending doom from the start itself and though the reader knows what the inevitable, terrible conclusion will be, they are forced to watch the entire sordid tale of despair and irony unfold without the added benefit of side politics to distract them.

Frankly speaking, I just wasn't a fan of this form of storytelling. I adore Rutkoski's prose and her ability to seamlessly weave glimpses of the past--The Winner's Curse--into the present. Moreover, her gift for metaphor wins me over every time and the simple pleasure to be gained from reading her words is unrivaled. Yet, The Winner's Crime is a slow-build novel which, for me at any rate, offers very little to love beyond the prose and impeccable characterization. I wanted politics. I wanted passion. I wanted assassinations.

The Winner's Crime picks up shortly after The Winner's Curse ends with Kestrel on the verge of marrying Prince Verex and Arin reclaiming Herran as the governor of his people. With Kestrel's impending nuptials, the Governor of Herran must travel to the Imperial Palace to be present during the proceedings prior to the wedding. Arin, who knows nothing of Kestrel's role in securing a Herrani treaty, believes that she is following through with her upcoming marriage in order to gain more political power and wealth. Suddenly, the Kestrel Arin though he knew is no longer the same woman standing before him. For Kestrel, revealing the truth of her role in Herran's freedom to Arin only leads to a dead-end. After all, she is stuck in a marriage of convenience, torn between her desire for Arin and her life-long wish to please her father. The tension between the two is painful, at times, for the truth lies between them, as wide and deep as the ocean, and the doubts and misconceptions that they share only grow with time.

And that, truly, is why I am not as big a fan of The Winner's Crime as I could be. I don't relish the drama that is built up after multiple compounding misconceptions and, frankly, felt as if Rutkoski could have used the palace setting to enrich the political machinations of this world. Though Kestrel does her best to use her power to help both the Herrani people and the people of the East, the only true individual with power is the emperor. Everyone has either been bought by the emperor, living under his thumb, or killed by the emperor, dying under his hand. It's a black-and-white world of politics, one that Kestrel struggles--and fails--to succeed in. As far as the political sphere is concerning, The Winner's Crime barely moves pieces into place for the grand finale. Arin and Kestrel remain as estranged as ever and with their relationship slowly falling to pieces over the course of this novel, the future remains bleak.

The Winner's Crime does, however, introduce a new host of characters. Verex, Kestrel's future husband and the prince, is a difficult character to like at first but I thoroughly enjoyed the development of his friendship with Kestrel. Risha, the Eastern princess who has grown up in Valoria and, ironically, is an integral part of the plot despite having very little to say throughout the novel. The manner in which Rutkoski wrote her into the plot and made her such an important figure, albeit an often silent one, amazed me. Tensen, the Herrani minister of agriculture who arrives at Valoria to represent Herran. Although Tensen seems to be loyal to Arin and Herran, his vision of what is best for the governor often clashes with the reader's vision of what is best. And, of course, the emperor himself. Rutkoski writes the emperor to be every bit as ruthless and cunning as expected--a true villain to defeat--though his weaknesses and flaws are never revealed.

Instead, what becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses, is the weaknesses of Arin and Kestrel. Arin, who keeps wanting to believe the best of Kestrel even when she treats him with disregard and without any of the former affections she used to exhibit for him. Kestrel, who yearns to make her father proud and constantly puts a man who has disappointed her over men, like Arin, who have cared deeply for her. Arin, who is so consumed by thoughts of Kestrel and her impending marriage that he often fails to see what is right before his eyes. Kestrel, whose association with Arin causes her to lose her lifelong friendships despite the fact that Arin himself doesn't know the truth about Kestrel's feelings for him. It's all such a complicated emotional web, and though I love it, I also hate it for the wreck it made me by the end of the novel.

While I am not a fan of the tactical devices employed in The Winner's Crime, namely the endless list of misconceptions Arin harbors towards Kestrel and the lack of resolution concerning them, I couldn't put this book down. Personally, I enjoy the middle books which lend themselves to hidden clues and hints of the impending finale, unlike The Winner's Crime where the conclusion seems open-ended and tragic, but The Winner's Crime is compulsively readable and for fans of The Winner's Curse, will not disappoint in the least.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Audiobook Mini-Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Title: Yes Please

Author: Amy Poehler

Narrated By: Amy Poehler

Rating: 4 Stars
In Amy Poehler’s highly anticipated first book, Yes Please, she offers up a big juicy stew of personal stories, funny bits on sex and love and friendship and parenthood and real life advice (some useful, some not so much), like when to be funny and when to be serious. Powered by Amy’s charming and hilarious, biting yet wise voice, Yes Please is a book is full of words to live by.
Having binge-watched all six seasons of "Parks & Rec" in the past two weeks, I couldn't resist the audiobook of Yes Please. While many readers have assured me that I'm missing out by not having a physical copy of this novel to peruse, filled as it is with pictures and other creative images, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a listen of this novel. Poehler's voice is animated and intimate, impossible to stop hearing, and the guest speakers and sound effects she adds makes this a truly unique listening experience. While I didn't enjoy every single one of the memories shared, the ones I did fall in love with affected me deeply and profoundly. There's something reassuring about a celebrity memoir in that the aspects of life they share in common with you only serve to humanize them and make your own life experiences seem that much better since, if Amy Poehler had similar thoughts, surely I must be a pretty exceptional person myself? Regardless, I loved this book for its raw, open advice, it's silly lists which made me laugh out loud, and the superb narration which made it feel as if I was listening to a movie or a play, not a book. For fans of audiobooks, memoirs, or just Amy Poehler, this is a must-read.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: Going Rogue by Robin Benway

Title: Going Rogue (Also Known As, #2) 

Author: Robin Benway

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: This review contains no spoilers for Also Known As, the first book in this series, but it does hint at events from Also Known As during the brief synopsis to provide context for this novel. You can read my review of Also Known As here.  

I honestly didn't expect to fall in love with this series as much as I did. I tend to gravitate towards darker contemporary fiction featuring teens on the cusp of adulthood and yet, Benway's entertaining spy thrillers have managed to establish their own niche in my heart. In Going Rogue, Maggie, a safecracker whose life has been spent working for a spy agency known as the Collective, has finally settled down for the first time in her life. She's been in New York City for nearly a year now, spending her days alongside her best friend, Roux, and boyfriend, Jesse. Though Maggie longed for the chance to be just another normal teenage girl, now that the highlight of her days are SAT prep classes, she is forced to admit that she's bored. As much as she thought she could suppress being a spy, the fact of the matter remains that deep down, being a spy is more than just a profession; it's who she is.

When the Collective turns against Maggie's parents, however--a retaliation after Maggie exposed the chink in their armor in Also Known As,--Maggie takes it upon herself to find the evidence that will prove her parents' innocence. With the help of Angelo, the man who is practically an uncle to her, Maggie swears to save her family, all while maintaining the new relationships she's formed since arriving to NYC. While Also Known As charmed me with its down-to-earth narration and genuine honesty, Going Rogue stole my heart with its all-too-believable hurdles and heart-warming difficulties. As easy as it may be, physically, for Maggie to return to former skills in order to save her parents, it's a mental strain as it means she must distance herself from her best friend and boyfriend. After getting Roux and Jesse involved in her life a year ago, Maggie has no desire to put them in harm's way again and though she has their best interests at heart, it isn't easy to navigate those relationships.

Both Roux and Jesse understand and support Maggie, but they also want her time and presence in their lives. For Roux, who is used to being left behind by her absentee parents, the thought of Maggie going undercover instantly equates to Maggie leaving. I love the friendship between Maggie and Roux but it undergoes its rough patches in this novel, though it certainly emerges stronger for it. Similarly, Jesse and Maggie face their own struggles in their relationship but, what I love about these two is how perfectly they balance one another out, especially in times of turmoil. Despite any hurdles in their path, they face them down together and Benway writes their romance with plenty of swoon, despite the lack of steam. In fact, that's what makes their love story all the more adorable and swoon-worthy; the little things.

Going Rogue introduces a handful of new characters, all of whom I loved, and it continues to feature a stellar example of faithfully realistic parent-child conversations. Angelo, who I grew to like very much in Also Known As, has swiftly become one of my favorite characters and his wisdom, intelligence, and presence in the lives of all these teens, not just Maggie, is reassuring. It adds a touch of realism to what would have otherwise been a wildly unbelievable novel, I think, as Maggie isn't solely responsible or wise enough to take on international spy tasks without Angelo's intel and guidance. Benway's prose, as always, is compulsively readable and the narration, full of easy sarcasm, clever wit, and laugh-out-loud humor only adds to the pleasure of the reading experience. These novels prove to be the perfect light-hearted contemporary read, all with the much-needed character-depth I constantly crave. Quick, fun, and with no shortage of swoon, Benway's novels are a must-read.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: Also Known As by Robin Benway

Title: Also Known As (Also Known As, #1)

Author: Robin Benway

Rating: 4 Stars

Also Known As is a brilliant, fresh, and innovative take on the classic teenage spy idea. While I've enjoyed Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books, I find that Benway's concept manages doesn't take itself quite so seriously and the end result is not only compulsively readable and instantly relate-able, it's also downright adorable and incredibly humorous. Maggie, the protagonist of our novel, is a genius lock-breaker and safe-cracker. Born to a set of spies who work for an organization known as The Collective which brings down the bad guys of the world, Maggie has spent her life traveling the globe, saving the world one assignment at a time. When Maggie and her parents are sent to New York City, however, this is the first time Maggie has a mission all of her own--one in which her parents can't aid her in the least. And her mission? Befriend local high school student, Jesse, and steal the files his father possess which could expose the members of The Collective, Maggie and her parents included. For Maggie, this meant that she actually had to step into the dreaded institution immortalized by every film, novel, and magazine for its cutthroat citizens, ruthless exams, and downright miserable atmosphere: high school.

Seriously, who doesn't want to read a novel about a kick-ass teenage spy whose greatest challenge is high school? Maggie's voice is so honest and likable from the beginning itself that it's impossible not to fall in love with her sarcasm, wit, and all-round general awesome-ness. Seriously, this not only the girl I'd want guarding my back in a gunfire, she's also the chick I'd love to call my best friend. Maggie and her parents, despite their unconventional lifestyle, share an incredible relationship which is truly put to the test as Maggie becomes a normal high school student, for the first time in her life, and her parents find themselves having to dole out curfews, check up on homework assignments, and attend parent-teacher conferences. For a family who has operated on private jet planes and breaking-and-entering missions, it's a whole new world. I really enjoyed, however, how Maggie's parents played such a large role in her life and their conversations and arguments were completely realistic and all-too-believable.

Another aspect of this novel that I love is Roux, the loner Maggie befriends. As a spy, Maggie isn't supposed to make friends or become attached to the people on her mission, but she slowly begins to realize that normality is what she craves after a far too exciting childhood. Roux, who slept with her best friend's boyfriend the year before, is your classically unlikable and downtrodden high school student. She's the one they all label "slut", she avoids every high school party imaginable, and until she can graduate, the high school population will never let her forget what she's done. Yet, there is absolutely zero slut-shaming in this novel and it is Roux who becomes Maggie's best friend and confidant. Roux has a prickly exterior--one she's been forced to accumulate due to the acerbic quality of her fellow classmates--but inside, she's just a big softie craving love and attention. Her parents, outrageously wealthy, are constantly traveling and rarely check up on Roux who lives alone in the Upper East Side for weeks on end. She's not your classic secondary character in the least but that's what I love about her and her character is simultaneously lovable, loyal, and unforgettable.

Perhaps the aspect of this novel most integral to the plot, however, is Jesse. Though Jessie is Maggie's mark, she finds herself falling for him--hard. At first glance, Jesse seems like a typical bad-boy, good-for-nothing student. Not only is he failing calculus, but he was caught shoplifting a copy of Catcher in the Rye as well. But as Maggie gets to know Jesse more and more, she realizes that there is far more to him than what her initial research revealed. And she likes him. Their romance is utterly adorable and, though you wouldn't expect it, drama-free which I appreciated. I love how level-headed these two are and they manage to balance one another perfectly. Everything about them, from their first kiss to their first date, just made me smile so much; my cheeks hurt. It's the perfect example of a YA romance that really enriches Maggie's life and adds to it instead of causing drama or hurt instead.

Angelo is yet another secondary character who really stands out in this series. He's a close friend of Maggie's parents and basically an adoptive uncle to her. Not only is he a skilled forger and a guide to her in her spying endeavors, but he's an adult--who isn't her parents--who Maggie trusts and relies on. His wisdom is aptly given and delivered in such a way that Maggie is more likely to listen to his advice instead of those same words from the mouth of her parents. I just really appreciate that Maggie has another adult in her life who serves as her inspiration beyond just her parents. Also Known As is such a strong novel precisely because of the strength of its characters. Maggie maintains such strong relationships with all of those closest to her, from her parents to Angelo, and slowly her family starts to grow and expand to include Roux and Jesse as well. Moreover, the crux of this novel lies not in assignments and spying, but rather in Maggie comes to terms with what she wants from her life and defining that not only for herself, but for her parents too. Maggie begins to question whether a life dedicated to The Collective is really for her when she sees the advantages that normalcy can bring and the fact that the core of this novel is a classic coming-of-age tale is what makes me love it most. Robin Benway is quickly on her way to becoming one of my most favorite authors ever and if you read Also Known As, you'll definitely see why.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

ARC Review: The Trouble with Love by Lauren Layne

Title: The Trouble with Love 

Author: Lauren Layne 

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: March 3rd, 2015

The Trouble with Love is one of my favorite Lauren Layne novels. I'll admit, having read all of her works to date, I was losing steam with this author. While I remained blown away by her first few novels, I just haven't clicked with her more recent installments. With The Trouble with Love, though, Layne has only reaffirmed what I always suspected and knew: she's an incredible romance author.

The latest in the Stiletto series presents us with Alex and Emma, two ambitious individuals whose past has torn them apart a few too many times. Alex, now the head of Oxford, a men's magazine which rivals Stiletto, the women's magazine Emma writes for, is put in charge of Stiletto for three months while their leader takes a sabbatical. Alex and Emma have tacitly agreed to keep their past in the past--after all, no one wants to remember being left at the altar--but with Alex's new position as Emma's boss, this puts them in closer proximity than they've been in seven years. Although the two maintain a veneer of cold civility, indifference dripping purposefully from their every interaction, it hides a deep hurt--on both sides--and simmering sexual tension. Will Alex and Emma finally be able to give in to their chemistry and put the past behind them? Or can some grievances just never be forgotten?

The Trouble with Love has been teased at ever since the second novel in Layne's quartet and the continued sexual tension that just builds over the course of this novel is both enticing and unbearable. What I loved about the love story here, though, is how authentic it felt. Emma is hurt. Alex is hurt. For them to move on and forget their past will take a lot and Layne really maps out their growth and relationship in a believable manner. It's all in the baby steps. Moreover, the friendship between the women of Stiletto and the men in their lives is heart-warming to read. All of these relationships boast equality, respect, and success on both sides of the equation.

Emma observes her friend's relationships and struggles to define what she wants which is a fascinating struggle. Layne's romances read light and fluffy but there are a lot of deeper themes and connections running through her heroines, making their characters stand out. Emma is, hands down, one of my favorite heroines she has written to date, right up there with Julie. Alex, too, is a pleasantly well-rounded romantic interest. When he assigns Emma the task of writing about her ex-boyfriends, he begins to realize just how he wants Emma to be treated in a relationship. Because of the nature of their past, The Trouble with Love takes a lot of time in establishing what Emma and Alex want individually from a union before finally bringing them together which is so, so worth the wait.

Though readers may be a tad bit concerned that The Trouble with Love starts out with Emma and Alex dating other people, Layne deals with this issue tactfully and it isn't dragged out long at all. No worries about a love triangle here, folks! I'll be sad to see this series end but I've already fallen for many of Layne's other projects and can't wait to see what--or rather who--she writes next.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Review: Make it Count by Megan Erickson

Title: Make it Count (Bowler University, #1) 

Author: Megan Erickson 

Rating: 1.5 Stars

Make it Count began with an incredible amount of potential. After all, what's not to love about a sexy nerd? Ever since I realized I was a not-so-sexy nerd, all I've wanted in life are sexy nerds. Yet, for many readers, Make it Count is going to be a novel to avoid merely because its set-up deals with cheating--which I know is a no-can-do subject for many of my friends. Kat and Alec, the protagonists of our tale, have exactly one thing in common: Max. Kat is dating him, Alec has known him since elementary school, and though both Kat and Alec are incredibly good-looking people themselves, their similarities start and end with Max. Until, that is, Alec is assigned to be Kat's new statistics teacher. While I assure readers that there is no form of physical cheating in this novel, there is emotional cheating. I don't avoid cheating books merely because I've read a few instances where an author has been able to build a believable story around this issue but Make it Count isn't one of those novels.

Max, Alec's best friend, is portrayed as one of the worst boyfriends on the planet. Not only does he repeatedly ignore Kat and nag her, but he cares little for her interests and their relationship is very much short-term hook-up material. What I really didn't like with Make it Count is the fact that Max is essentially the villain here despite the fact that he and Alec are best friends. From the beginning of the novel, Max is acting "differently" than usual and when we find out his secret, later in the story, it only serves to thrust Kat and Alec's romance in a more positive light. If you're going to write a cheating novel, don't take the easy way out.

What's more, the Standard Romance Plot of a romantic couple falling in love, getting together, and having a misunderstanding occurs within the first half of this story. While I thought the last half would be dedicated to a meaningful look into New Adult, instead it is simply a prolongment of the misunderstanding between Kat and Alec...for half the novel. If you're a fan of excessive drama--think Colleen Hoover, friends--then Make it Count is going to be exactly up your alley. As a reader who has little to no tolerance for drawn-out fight scenes in which the heroine waits around for her boyfriend to figure out what he did wrong, this was a chore. Especially since I didn't think that Kat was entirely blameless in the situation, so the fact that she waits for Alec to read her mind and apologize felt extremely passive to me. Throughout the novel Kat has been a go-getter; making the effort to improve her grades, taking over in the bedroom, etc. I wanted her to take some initiative in her relationship with Alec and their entire dynamic ultimately didn't feel as equal and grounded as I expected it would be from the beginning of the novel.

Dramatic, filmy, excessively annoying...all of these are adjectives I'd use to describe my experience with Make it Count. What upsets me the most about this novel, though, is that is had so much potential. Alec and Kat are genuinely nice people dealing with issues that go far beyond the cheating scandal they find themselves in. Moreover, they are extremely self-aware of their involvement with one another as it pertains to Max so, if done right, this is a story I could have really gotten behind. Kat also brings in a much-needed dose of diversity to the genre. You wouldn't know from the cover, but the girl is Brazilian, born and brought up in a bi-lingual household with immigrant parents who did what they thought was best for her despite the fact that, often times, it was far from that. I understood and sympathized with Kat's struggles and I wish that her story line wasn't marred by her lack of her personal agency towards the end of the novel. I applaud her for taking the necessary steps in her educational career, but in terms of her relationship with Alec...well, it was just too much for me to handle. Make it Count isn't on its way to becoming the next best New Adult novel. It had its strong suits and doesn't lack in potential, but this just gave me more of a headache than I wished.