Friday, September 27, 2013

ARC Review: Just One Year (Just One Day, #2) by Gayle Forman

Title: Just One Year (Just One Day, #2) 

Author: Gayle Forman

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: October 10th, 2013

I melted into Just One Year.In January, I was impressed by Forman’s Just One Day, but not nearly as much as I was impressed by her If I Stay/Where She Went duology. Just One Year, however, ties together these two novels so seamlessly that I find myself unable to choose which duology I love more. And Forman? Forman hits all the rights notes with this novel; travel, Shakespeare, unflinchingly honest characterizations, familial relationships – and my favorite – love that’s meant-to-be.

Just One Year picks up in Paris, from the moment when Allyson and Willem’s stories diverge. While we know what Allyson went through in her separation from Willem, we now are privy to the inner workings of Willem’s mind. And, gosh, what a fascinating place it is. For me, one of the greatest strengths of this novel is the stark parallels, but also the shocking differences, between both these narratives. For one, many of the locations are similar. In fact, the near-misses between these two will make you cry out in frustration – more than once! – but they only add to the steady build-up of tension to the tale.

A slightly more subtle similarity, however, is the thread of confusion that connects Allyson and Willem’s journey. In Just One Day, Allyson wakes up to find herself alone in a foreign country. Yet, she finds herself more puzzled by what happened to her companion – why did he abandon her? Why could he see aspects of her true personality that the others around her could not? And what, most importantly, is she to do with her life now that that colorful, whirlwind day is behind her and bland, boring days lie ahead? Forman answers these questions with aplomb, creating a New Adult novel that realistically explores the journey of college and, even better, the journey of finding yourself in a seemingly normal world. As we will find out, though, Willem undergoes a similar state of mind. After all, how is he to find Allyson without even knowing her real name? After traveling for years and meeting dozens of people, why is it that she disarms him and sees into his soul with her honesty? And how is he ever going to return to the normalcy of his on-the-road life, now that he knows what it’s like to be with someone who genuinely cares; someone who has forced him to care, for the first time in three years?

It was evident, even from Just One Day, that there was far more to Willem than what met the eye. And there is. Bram, Willem’s father, passed away three years ago and ever since, Willem has barely spoken to his mother, Yael. Bram and Yael’s love story is legendary, encompassing their lives in such a way that Willem has always felt the odd one out. And now, left with the parent who is nothing like him, Willem has resorted to the one thing he knows how to do: escape. Instead of making any conscious decisions, Willem has left his life up to fate, going where the wind blows him, sleeping with the girls who throw themselves at him, and spending time with the people who care to spend time with him. Forman’s portrayal of Willem is unapologetically raw, giving us the glimpses into the real man beneath the veneer of charm and wisdom. Moreover, Willem is slow – and hesitant – to acknowledge the full impact of his day spent with Allyson. Although he knows, in his gut, that he is changed, it takes awhile for him to truly accept this; for him to accept that he wants more from his life but meaningless travel, meaningless relationships, and random “accidents.” While, admittedly, this can become frustrating, I love that it’s so typically Willem. We don’t expect his journey to be nearly as straight-forward as Allyson’s and it isn’t, but it’s just as – if not more – rewarding.

Furthermore, Forman explores the concept of will vs. fate so beautifully, weaving it into the storyline and subtly bringing it up every-so-often. It’s an integral part of Willem’s growth, but it’s also a theme of these two novels as a whole, so I love how they intersect. Moreover, I adore the emphasis on family in this novel, especially as Forman never wastes time with meaningless family trees or background information. Instead, she throws us fully into Willem’s head, leaving us to grasp at the straws of his connections to his remaining family members and their impact on his life. Yael, Willem’s mother who resides in India, is a particular favorite of mine. Not only is their relationship messy and real, full of the uncomfortable facts of life we’d rather push under a rug, but Forman expertly reveals the layers of upbringing that go into making a parent-child relationship. Yael’s childhood has a direct impact on Willem’s own childhood as well and so much of Willem’s understanding of his mother comes from his understanding of her past. Yet, the best aspect of their relationship is the fact that, ultimately, Willem comes to realize that the parent he thought he was not so similar to may actually have more in common with him than he thought. And I love this; I love that Willem and Yael have moved on from their grief, but still find ways to move on from it together. It isn’t a perfectly patched-up relationship, but it’s the small, baby steps that go a long way.

And yet, when you strip away the travel, the family, the self-discovery, at its heart, Just One Year is a love story. We find Willem’s thoughts littered with Lulu; memories, trinkets, thoughts, words, dialogue. And, despite the fact that Lulu lives in Willem’s thoughts for the majority of this novel, Forman convinces us that what they share is more than just a passing fancy; it’s true love. As Willem himself slowly grows to seize his life with his own hands, he too, like Allyson, acknowledges that their day spent together changed him for the better. And while there is the admission that both Willem and Allyson will be fine alone, there is also the truth that they will be remarkable together. Bram and Yael’s love story, which draws heavy parallels between that of Willem and Allyson’s, serves to strengthen our belief in the rightness of this couple. Moreover, what Forman really excels at conveying is that a relationship is build upon the willingness of both people to make it work. It doesn’t matter what hurdles are thrown their way; if they’re convinced that they are meant to be together, no matter what, they will stay together, no matter what. It is the growth of that mindset, then, that is more important than the arc of any relationship. It is for this reason that I love the way Forman has chosen to end this novel. If you read closely enough, if you understand fully enough, you just know what’s really being said in all those undertones. And those are the endings that make me gasp in awe every time.

Needless to say, fans of Forman’s work will be flocking to buy this the day it releases. It needs no further endorsement from me or any other reviewer – the name of Gayle Forman is enough to ensure that it delivers and lives up to expectations. And yet, I was still surprised when I read this novel. While Mia and Allyson are both very different heroines, they do share subtle similarities in their lifestyle. Adam and Willem, however, are as different as can be and I love that I love these two distinct male narratives for different reasons. Despite both being darkly flawed beings, Adam and Willem find ways to cope with their lives and move on. And, best of all, I love that both these duologies are of a different nature. Where She Went is more sequel than companion novel, whereas Just One Year relies on the dates, time periods, and locations of Just One Day to be fully experienced at its raw potential. Perhaps best of all, though, Shakespeare remains the underlying inspiration, connecting together the books and giving rise to the tones they convey. With the magic she has worked up, Forman has ensured one thing: you will close her novel stained.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Title: Shiver (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #1)

Author: Maggie Stiefvater

Rating: 4 Stars

With Stiefvater's The Dream Thieves releasing in less than a month, I've been slowly re-reading The Raven Boys and have, quite suddenly, realized something: Stiefvater's novels improve, tremendously, upon re-read. When I picked up Shiver last year, fresh from loving both The Scorpio Races and The Raven Boys, I was skeptical that my luck had run out. And yet, last night, when I was gripped with the urge to re-visit the novel I had abandoned half-way through just a year ago, I knew I had to act on it. And am I glad I did.

Shiver is most definitely not a novel for everyone. In fact, I am in a rare position to claim that I can understand both sides of the coin, and perfectly. Last year, Shiver drew me in with its prose, but little else appealed to me. Grace and Sam's romance seemed too quick and flimsy, Grace's missing parents seemed too convenient, and the sweetness of the love story made me flinch. However, upon a closer - slower - re-read, I've come to realize that, against all odds, everything in this book works. It adds up and, like all Stiefvater's novels, is a rare and beautiful piece of fiction.

First and foremost, let me address the issue of the romance to quickly get it out of the way. Grace and Sam have, inadvertently, rescued each other six years ago without truly realizing it. Sam prevents his pack from killing Grace when she is dragged away into the woods and Grace forces Sam to recognize his humanity, deep within his bestial self. For six years, these two watch each other from the safe distance of trees and behind glass. Until, that is, Jack Culpeper is killed and in a rush to destroy the wolves, Sam is shot and turns up bleeding on Grace's back porch.

From the surface, Grace and Sam's relationship escalates very quickly from this moment on. After treating Sam in the hospital, he returns home with Grace, living with her and sleeping in her bed without her parents even realizing. Yet, what was invisible to me the first time I picked up this volume was the glaringly obvious factor that Grace and Sam have known each other for six years. Maybe not as boy and girl, but their knowledge of each other was based on something far more important: trust. Grace trusts Sam and Sam trusts Grace. Furthermore, they both recognize that they are obsessed with one another, but it's a pull they cannot resist. And, best of all, although their relationship is peppered with kisses, it slowly develops with honest dialogue.

Additionally, Grace's parents are an intriguing set of characters on their own. Sam describes them as being almost like college students who found a baby on their doorstep, and in many ways, they are. It's not uncommon for two self-centered individuals to raise a child. Grace is fiercely independent and many of her personality traits and flaws stem from her upbringing. Is it convenient? Certainly, but Stiefvater doesn't hesitate to address the issue nevertheless. Moreover, Grace does have an existence beyond Sam. Although her friends only truly come into play during the last third of the story, I felt as if her introverted nature and the acknowledgement that her relationship with her friends was slowly changing and growing apart was more than enough to make this a believable part of the tale.

Nevertheless, what made me love this novel so much more on my second read of it was the language and lore that Stiefvater has written. If you’ve read anything by Stiefvater before, then you’ll know what I mean when I say her words have the power to transport. Not only are they lyrical and lush, but they build her world in front of your eyes. I had to stay swathed in blankets while I read this, despite the hot summer sun directly outside. Even better, though, Stiefvater’s depiction of werewolves is far different from most and her exploration of their battle between humanity and wilderness was stunning. I felt the desperation of both Sam and Grace to keep their relationship intact with such a looming impediment in front of them and with such a heady rush of emotion, I was hard-pressed not to love this one.

I won’t deny the fact that Shiver has its flaws, but it was a story that became all too real for me while I read it. While the dual narration works perfectly in terms of the plot, there is no denying that, at times, it can be hard to distinguish Sam from Grace. Thus, I will not say that Shiver is a perfect novel. Nevertheless, this love story grew on me as the novel wore on. Will Sam and Grace’s romance win out over the course of time? Who knows, but they deserve the chance to try. For me, Shiver works perfectly as a stand-alone. I will admit to being terrified of what the sequel with bring, not to mention the conclusion which has received more than its fair share of mixed reviews, but I think it’s safe to say that I am hooked onto these books now. Stiefvater has become one of my favorite authors over the past year and while Shiver isn’t anywhere near as good as The Scorpio Races, it’s rather brilliant anyhow.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

ARC Review: All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry

Title: All the Truth That's In Me

Author: Julie Berry

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: September 26th, 2013

In life, there are always those books you just know you're going to read, no matter what; maybe it's written by your favorite author or it came highly recommended by a trusted reviewer or maybe the cover is just too pretty to resist. And then there are the books you read because you're curious; because a certain review sparked your interest or the author said something remarkable in an interview or the cover flashed by your vision and you couldn't stop thinking about it. For me,All the Truth That's In Me falls into the latter category. Needless to say, this novel took me by surprise, but in all the best ways. While I began this novel with trepidation - after all, it is full of Things That Shouldn't Work - I closed it with the awed expression of a reader whose expectations have been blown sky high.

Things That Shouldn't Work (But Did!)

1. Second Person Narration
Only three years ago, a friend and I wrote a short story together. It was an intense, psychological piece about two friends - one German and one Jewish - whose friendship was ripped apart by WWII. Nothing unique, except for the fact that it was written in second person. (A decision our teacher didn't condone at all, so we were forced to revert to third person, though I believe our second person version is still lying around somewhere in the depths of my e-mail folder.)

Quite simply put, second person narration doesn't work for a lot of people, both readers and writers. It's tricky, it's frustrating, and at times unnecessarily complicated. Thus, to see Berry execute it with such ease, poise, and sheer talent is nothing short of brilliant. All the Truth That's In Me works as a letter, of sorts, from Judith to her childhood lover, Lucas. Judith, at fourteen, was kept captive in the woods, but is sent back, years later, with her tongue cut off. Unable to talk and thought to be cursed by her small Puritan town - including her own mother - Judith learns to live in silence. Her second person narration works seamlessly with her story line, conveying the horror of her cruel past, the isolation of her present, and the bleakness of her future. Moreover, it is strangely intimate, allowing us to see Judith in both her strongest and weakest lights. Ever since she was a young girl, Judith has been in love with Lucas, and with her directly speaking to him, so much of her nature seeps through these pages - her loyalty, fierce love, and even obsessiveness. It's a truly wise decision that enables us, the reader, to understand Judith on a much deeper level, practically crawling into her thoughts.

2. Puritans
I feel as if it's an unspoken rule that only Nathaniel Hawthorne can pull off the Puritans. (And, let me make it very clear, I love The Scarlett Letter like I love The Great Gatsby, so believe me when I say I'd kill to have written that book.) While the precise setting of All the Truth That's In Me is not given, it is clear that the novel takes place in a historical era, one where pilgrims have only recently escaped religious persecution, are required to attend church every Sunday, and live by rigid moral laws. If that doesn't practically spell "Puritan" then I don't know what does.

While I really enjoyed this setting while reading the novel, I thought - extensively - about how the story would have been different in modern-day society. Why does an author make the decision to anchor a novel in a certain time period after all, especially when the events in this book - kidnapping, estrangement, societal mistreatment - could have happened today too? I think the beauty of this novel lies in the answer to that question. From the surface, the cruel punishments Judith bears upon her return - the blame for her father's death, a stigma as a whore, complete estrangement by former friends - can be attributed to the rigidity of the morals the Puritans lived by. After all, in a society with much looser morals, mightn't have Judith's homecoming have been a different experience? Maybe, but maybe not. What this Puritan setting does so well is emphasize the inherent evils visible in humans, and that faint line drawn between black and white becomes all the more hard to see set against this time period. Berry paints depicts this morality question beautifully, creating complicated relationships that can claim no simple label. I love that Judith shares so many different types of relationships - with her mother, with her brother, with her friends - but they all contain aspects of this time period and are deliciously ambiguous when it comes to the question of morality. Moreover, I love my historical fiction, so details of Judith's struggle in this century only made her story more authentic.

3. Childhood Romance
I know I struggle with love stories - namely, their believability - but childhood romances practically never work for me. I find that authors seem to take it for granted that the duration of time these characters have known each other should equate love. It doesn't, but thankfully Berry doesn't fall into that trap. Very carefully, she builds a contrast between Judith's love for Lucas as a child, and then as an adult. I particularly love how true to age Berry remains, showing us the naivety of a girl's dreams and then the truth of a woman's reality. Now, after her ordeal, Judith returns to see Lucas gearing up to marry the town belle and, as such, her love changes. It remains, constant and true, no matter what, but it also slowly acknowledges that Lucas is not the paragon of perfection that she's built him up to be. One of my favorite aspects of this novel is that Judith's growth and maturity is so closely tied with the romance; that the most important lesson she learns is to fall in love with the truth - of her past, of her deformity, and of love. Just the fact that Judith is able to eventually come to love Lucas despite - and maybe for - his flaws makes their love story all the more realistic and durable. It isn't an easy journey, but it is certainly a rewarding one.

4. Maiming & Disabilities 
I recently read this incredibly detailed post about diversity - or the lack of it - in YA. And while All the Truth That's In Me doesn't necessarily involve non-white characters, it does feature a protagonist who is maimed. Judith's speechlessness is derived from her own physical barriers, unlike most heroines, which makes this novel fall into 2.9% of novels in 2013 with disabled characters. Normally, this fact would probably remain rather unremarkable. After all, many novels feature secondary character with disabilities and, either way, Judith's inability to speak is an enormous plot device. And yet, Berry truly give this issue so much more depth. Not only does Judith work at regaining her ability to speak fluently, but she feels - constantly - the unfairness of her circumstances. 

"Will I help him make something of his life? Who will help me? Why does everyone presume that I, as damaged merchandise, forfeit any claim to happiness? That I expect nothing, have no ambitions or longings of my own? When was it agreed that my lot would be to gladly serve as a prop and a crutch for others who are whole?" (Berry, 53%)*

Instead of her disability making her the center of attention, Judith is pushed into the very corners of thought, her silence taken for granted as acquiescence. Essentially, her speechlessness makes her come across as a woman with no thoughts or opinions of her own. I love that Berry touched upon these ideals, only because they weren't ever ones I would have considered and this is precisely why I read: to be introduced to new ways of thinking.

5. A "Pinhole" Plot
I've heard this novel being described as a "pinhole" one, or one in which the entirety of the story is revealed as the book wears on. Well, let me tell you now, these "pinhole" methods never work for me. Never. I have no patience for authors who tantalizingly dangle answers just out of my grasp, so color me surprised to find myself flipping through the pages of this novel gleefully - "pinhole" storytelling and all. What Berry does, that most authors don't, however, is reveal pieces of information in a timely fashion. It is evident, from early in the story, who Judith's kidnapper is. And yet, the full details of her ordeal are never revealed until the end. Instead, small flashbacks litter the narration, working beautifully to weave mystery and thrill into this otherwise seemingly romantic tale. While I remain a fan of the slow, languid prose used in this novel, not to mention the character-driven plot focus, I am sure that not all readers will agree. And yet, I felt as if these purposeful decisions only worked to strengthen the plot, making us care for these characters and drown in seas of emotion. I know that by the end of this book, I was gripping the edge of my chair, unsure whether or not to laugh or cry or scream. And I love that build-up of tension, that slow unraveling of mystery, and the eventual - realistic - conclusion of a well-told tale.

All the Truth That's In Me truly hit all the right notes, at least in my book. Not only did it take a myriad of challenging qualities (see above) and make them work, but it also took the essentials I look for in a good story - characters with depth, thriller plot lines, and emotional undertones - and excelled in those areas as well. While I've never read any of Berry's past novels, you can be sure that I will - eagerly - be checking out her future YA works. After I own this beautiful hardcover on my shelves, that is.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Banned Books, Goodreads & Other News

I nearly always miss Banned Books Week, but I was lucky enough to be reminded before-hand, which is the only reason this post even exists. Banned Books Week is, actually, a really important event for me every year. Not exactly because I sit down to read a handful of banned books, but rather because the full extent of the phrase banned books finally hits me. I think I first learned about banned books when I was eleven – which is rather late. Although my parents never banned me from books, I always knew that I was not meant to read certain novels or pages before a certain time. For instance, I distinctly remember my mother telling me not to read the “August” section of our “A” Britannica Encyclopedia of the World as it mentioned Virgo, the star sign of the month, and my mother thought I was far too young to know about virgins at the age of nine. Understandable.

However, the actual banning of a book is an entirely different idea altogether. Just the image of burning books, crossing out words, or hiding a novel so it cannot be read and appreciated is downright blasphemous. After all, words have had the power to change my life, countless times, and the thought of others being denied that gift is heart-breaking.

I decided that, to celebrate Banned Books Week, I’d put together a list of some of my favorite banned titles from the American Language Association. After all, these books deserve to be celebrated, no matter what.

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1. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
I knew this was banned, but to be number one on the list was a little shocking, even for me. Quite simply put, this series is transformative. It lent me strength while I grew up and taught me so many valuable life lessons. It’s…magical.
8. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
I know this was my first real fantasy series and it blew me away. It still does. I’ve never re-read it, but my memories of it are so vivid and my emotions are so sharp and clear because this trilogy is just incredible.
23. The Giver by Lois Lowry
I think this was my first true dystopian novel, so I remember being both eerily fascinated by it and ever-so-slightly confused. It’s truly a remarkable piece of fiction, though, only because it makes you think and explores so much gray area. I struggled to believe anyone would want to ban this back when I read it more than half a decade ago and I still struggle to believe that today.

(My Favorite) Banned Classics
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1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the four years since I’ve discovered this book, I’ve already read it six times. And each time I’ve read it, I uncover something new about it and see this novel in a whole new light. Is it one of my favorite books ever? Yes.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
If you’ve read this book, you know just how wonderful it is. I love the book, I love the film, and I love the new anniversary edition covers. ;)
27. Native Son by Richard Wright
I read this just two years ago and it shocked me, confused me, and made me see the world in a whole new light. I don’t think that we, as people, can fully comprehend discrimination until we’ve read Native Son. We know it, on an academic level, and perhaps we’ve even experienced it, but not like this. I think this is one of the most under-read, fallen-under-the-radar classics ever, but I sincerely hope that isn’t the case in the future as it is so good.

On this note of censorship, let's stop to discuss Goodreads for a moment, shall we? Jessie from Ageless Pages Reviews and Nafiza from Bibliophilic Monologues both wrote wonderful posts about exactly what Goodreads has done and why their censorship is wrong (which is why I'm skipping over those subjects). All I really want to say about this is...what now? I joined Goodreads last year and found a community that accepted me for my bookish quirks and appreciated me for my opinion. I have - luckily - not had any of my reviews taken off of Goodreads, but I don't want to sit in the perpetual fear that they will. Does this mean I want to join Book Likes? Not really. Honestly, I appreciate Goodreads more for its ability to let me connect with other readers than anything else. I refer to the reviews of my trusted friends constantly, but even more than that, I love that readers are able to interact so easily with me and I with them. I don't worry over losing books or reviews in moving to a new website, I worry over losing friends. And so, I want to know now, what are you doing about the issue on Goodreads? Are you joining Book Likes, or completely leaving Goodreads? I will probably make myself a Book Likes account sometime soon and I will probably begin using it, but unless I can find all my friends back on it, I doubt it will completely replace Goodreads for me.

And on an entirely unrelated note, I wanted to add that I will be rather…absent…from the blogosphere over the next two months. Why? COLLEGE. I thought last year, with standardized tests every two months, was bad, but college applications are even worse. I’m currently still finalizing my list and I have two out of the twenty essays I need to write finished, but I have a looot of writing and editing in my future. I still have nearly a dozen backlogged posts, not to mention tons of ARCs to read and review in-between now and December, and I will definitely be commenting on blogs – only because I really just LOVE to – but if you notice me posting visibly less or perhaps commenting occasionally (I’m going to try to give shout-outs on Twitter, even if I can’t comment!), then just know it’s because I’m caught up in the college frenzy. I’m hoping to be mostly finished by the time December rolls around, so if I can get through this in one piece, I’ll be relieved. Anyway, just wanted to let you know! :)

And so, back to banned books! What are some of your favorite banned books? Have you experienced censorship (in another form than the current Goodreads Debacle...)? What are your thoughts about banned books? I'd love to hear, so let me know in the comments! :)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

ARC Review: Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Title: Where the Stars Still Shine

Author: Trish Doller

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: September 24th, 2013

Where the Stars Still Shine is something entirely special. When Doller’s Something Like Normal released last year, I knew I’d found a debut author to watch out for; little did I expect, however, that her sophomore novel would be this beautiful, poignant, and touching. And yet, perhaps the best thing is that no matter what it is that she’s writing, Doller’s passion for her work, her characters, and her settings is all so vivid and seeps through the pages, making her stories fly by in the span of a few short hours and our hearts heal, break, and mend all over again in the process.

In her sophomore novel, Doller veers away from war veterans and tackles on a subject just as raw and painful – abduction, abuse, and self-discovery. Ever since she could remember, Callie has been on the move. When her mother made the decision to run away from her husband, taking young Callie with her, her daughter was forced to follow her from place to place, never stopping long enough to make friends to attend school. And yet, in those years Callie learned to be wary of her beauty, of the unwanted attention it gave her. When Callie’s mother finally gets caught, Callie is sent to live with her father, Greg, now re-married with two young sons. Now, in a small Florida town, Callie is re-discovering her Greek roots, finding a family that loves her, and even making friends. If only her mother will let her stay…

I won’t lie - Where the Stars Still Shine seems deceptively similar to countless stories all featuring a rocky mother-daughter relationship or step-parent; but it isn’t. From the beginning itself, Callie is an endearing protagonist, one whose loss and life-like characteristics set her apart from any previous heroines we might associate her with. When Callie arrives back home, not only is she surprised by the attention she receives from her family, but she’s surprised that the boys she meets actually want to take her out on a date and treat her right. It was at this point that my heart went out to her. No matter how many times I rant and rage about the sexual stereotypes, stigmas, and injustices of the world, the fact remains that I have never met a guy who has seen me as an object to be used and then discarded. For Callie, this is an entirely new revelation and as she comes to see her self-worth, my heart gradually began to mend itself as well.

One of the most impressive aspects of this novel, for me at any rate, was how closely linked Callie’s growth was to her own sexual desires. From a young age, Callie has never been treated well by men, leered at for her beauty and molested by her mother’s boyfriends. As such, sex has never been an act of pleasure for her. Yet, as Callie grows closer to people in her town, particularly Alex Kostas, the utterly swoon-worthy sponge-diver, she learns that sex is not an act of diminishing power, but rather empowerment. It is a truly remarkable moment to see Callie gain confidence in herself through the satisfaction she can gain from sex and though this is only a stepping stone in her growth, it is prevalent. Furthermore, Callie’s entire romance with Alex is sweet, believable, and bittersweet. It not only helps Callie, but also helps Alex for he too is a three-dimensional character, filling the page with his emotions just as much as Callie does. Together, these two are quite the pair and yet, my favorite aspect of their love story is its realistic conclusion. It broke my heart, but I left satisfied and hopeful as well.

And still, this book just keeps shining. Greg is the type of kind and caring father I’ve dreamed about throughout my childhood; the guy who understands and listens but is also upfront and honest and doesn’t shy away from showing affection. While his relationship with Callie went through its ups-and-downs, it progressed in a touching manner, both slightly awkward and hopeful of their future together. And, really, Callie’s relationships are this realistic and tight with nearly all the characters in the book, from her best friend to her grandmother to her step-brothers and even her step-mother. Callie’s own mother, of course, is still present throughout the book and Callie’s gradual emancipation from her mother’s grasp, her independence at choosing her life and finding her hobbies…they all come together beautifully by the end. I promise you, you cannot go wrong with this gem. If Trish Doller doesn’t make you at least tear up once, then you’re reading the wrong book. And, perhaps best of all, this book gives you hope that this genre does really have so much more to offer. It’s still shining, maybe not as bright as this book, but still there.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: Unteachable by Leah Raeder

Title: Unteachable

Author: Leah Raeder

Rating: 4 Stars

When it comes to Unteachable, I have very mixed feelings. You should know, straight off the bat, that this novel explores a student-teacher relationship, but one done right. Raeder quickly eliminates the sticky issue of rape by ensuring that her protagonist is eighteen and, moreover, she never beautifies the stark reality of this issue. Admittedly, I found this book rather difficult to connect to at first, but as the story progressed, I quickly became engrossed in the lives of these characters, my heart unwillingly giving itself over to them.

Unteachable begins in a carnival. Maise, a teenager suffering under the burden of a drug addict mother, absentee father, and general life-of-suck, meets Evan, a handsome man in his mid-thirties, and the two are drawn to one another; intensely, obsessively, crazily. Maise walks away from Evan, expecting never to meet him again, and is shocked when she sees him in her film class. As her professor, Mr. Wilke. With the sparks still striking between them, the two swiftly decide to start up a relationship, renting a room to stay in over the weekends and being careful to hide their relationship. Although these beginning scenes grate on me, only because of their utter wrongness, I love that Raeder never flinches away from acknowledging the mistakes in their relationship. Both Maise and Evan are at dark places in their life and, somehow, together they are able to cope. This is no chick-lit romance, a-la Colleen Hoover's Slammed. It's not about excessive drama or angst or staying away from one another or even doing the right thing. It's real. It's about the real-life repercussions, but also about the true feelings that blossomed between these two. And, despite the age difference, despite the built-in illegality of the issue, Raeder makes it feel so right.

Naturally, the romance is Unteachable is all-consuming and passionate, a full-out roar of fireworks and the messy ashes left behind. Its characterization, though, is also spot-on. Maise is a swirl of emotions, fragile and hurting under her strong veneer. If nothing else, Raeder truly captures the broken mother-daughter relationship in this novel. We see the effect that growing up alone has had on Maise; never having a mother to rely on and always having to fend for herself. It makes her self-reliant, stubborn, and unwilling to trust others, but these barriers are slowly worn away as the novel progresses, giving us a wonderful growth arc. In addition to Maise, though, Evan, too, broke the mold. Not only is he kind, truly caring for Maise and putting her before him, but he manages to be sexy without being an alpha-male. Unteachable is the first New Adult novel I've come across that doesn't feature an all-controlling, bulky alpha-male. And what a breath of fresh air this is. Evan comes with his own baggage - naturally - but despite all the cards against him - his age, his profession, his willingness to engage in a forbidden relationship - he still managed to win me over with his genuine affection and real tenderness. Who knew nice guys could be swoony too?

And still, my favorite aspect of this story is the fact that it captures exactly what I want New Adult to capture: messy relationships. Not only Maise's relationship with Evan or her mother, but also her friendships. With her background, Maise has been on her own for too long, so her complicated relationship with her one and only friend in this novel was charming in its realistic arc. I love that Raeder doesn't hesitate to touch upon subjects such as college or even go into the life of drugs that Maise lives in; the fact that this novel is not solely a romance makes it stand out from the crowd. Moreover, the writing is sublime. Raeder writes this novel in past tense, with Maise telling the story to the reader from a distant future in which she looks back on these events and drops cryptic hints every-so-often. Usually, this form of narration bugs me, but it worked perfectly in this scenario.

For all its plus points, though, Unteachable is not a perfect novel. I found a handful of minor plot lines to be over-exaggerated towards the end, the villain veering off the track of gray and into the disappointing territory of black-and-white. Additionally, the middle portion of this novel was...tedious. Essentially, it's a string of sex scenes, most of which could have been cut out without batting an eye. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Unteachable is the best student-teacher relationship I've read and one of my favorite New Adult reads, right up there with Holier Than Thou and Fangirl. And, coming from someone who makes it a point to steer clear of all New Adult novels, that's high praise indeed.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

ARC Review: Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Title: Not a Drop to Drink

Author: Mindy McGinnis

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: September 24th, 2013

Not a Drop to Drink is the type of novel that would have never appeared on my radar if it were not for the enthusiasm of dozens of bloggers. In fact, I believe this is one of the few dystopian novels I've picked up since my string of disasters with debuts last year, so color me surprised to find that McGinnis manages to do this genre justice. Not only is her debut gritty and realistic, but it combines one of the best aspects of dystopia that seem to have been buried under endless love triangles - fear. One of the primary reasons that dystopia became a favorite genre of mine was precisely because it lent itself so beautifully to psychological development; understanding how the fear of a future world led its people to behave in such inhumane ways. Not a Drop to Drink captures this dilemma perfectly, all without the eyesore of a love triangle or the burden of a mindless protagonist. If that isn't fortuitous, then I don't know what is.

As its title suggests, Not a Drop to Drink takes place in a futuristic world where water is a scarcity. Lynn has grown up in the middle of nowhere, far away from cities and other proper means of civilization, choosing to live with her mother in their small house with their small treasure. And by treasure I mean water. With water such a rarity in this world, Lynn has been forced to fight for her pond and, from a young age, has been taught by her mother how to shoot and just when to kill. In other words, shoot on sight, make no friends, and survive. When Lynn's mother is killed, though, Lynn slowly finds herself opening up to others surrounding her, but as her heart opens, so does room for danger as well...

Not a Drop to Drink is a largely plot-less novel, but that is far from being a detriment. While I found it to have an unusually slow start, it swiftly picked up and I found myself immersed in Lynn's life. McGinnis does a brilliant job of portraying the harsh brutality of the world Lynn has grown up in and we are witness to the prickly thorns surrounding her walls as she fails to connect with those around her. Lynn finds Lucy, Eli, and Neva - a young family searching for water - and with the help of her neighbor Stebbs, slowly grows to envelop them in her life. McGinnis never rushes Lynn's growth, taking her time to make her feel comfortable with strangers and re-connect with her humanity. One of the largest themes of this novel is that of life vs. survival. From the moment she was born, Lynn has simply been surviving. Her mother, a heard-hearted woman whose circumstances turned her to steel, never let Lynn feel the brunt of gentle emotions. Thus, Lynn has a long way to travel, psychologically, before she can learn to see people and not enemies, before she can learn to trust instead of kill.

I love that this is not only a far cry from the typical overbearing governments that litter dystopias, but this is also a much more realistic portrayal of a futuristic conflict. McGinnis writes beautifully and the details of her world fit in like puzzle pieces into the story. Although the main focus of this novel is on Lynn, there is still a depth of world-building that is slowly revealed over the course of the novel, as well as a plethora of other mysteries that begin to show by the end. Unfortunately, I found this was a detriment to the novel as, frankly, there was simply too much piled on to that conclusion. For once, the epilogue was mildly satisfying, but beyond that, the quick succession of events towards the end lost any real impact those concluding scenes may have had. Moreover, the characterization of many of the secondary characters was ever-so-slightly disappointing. None of them had the level of depth that Lynn or her mother possessed, and while this didn't impact my enjoyment of the novel in any particular manner, I would have loved for those other characters to come alive for me the way Lynn did.

Nevertheless, if you've lost belief in the dystopian genre, then this novel is the one to restore your faith. Not a Drop to Drink is an engaging thriller, full of concise prose and vivid characters. You'll come away from this with a far better appreciation of dihydrogen monoxide than before and, most likely, a thirst for more solid stand-alones from this genre. If nothing else, McGinnis has proved to be an author to watch out for and I can only hope she continues to belt out winners.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Fangirl

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I can't stop thinking about this book. Rowell's Eleanor & Park was the type of story that had the potential to become a favorite, but simply never broke that barrier of cheese. Needless to say, I was more than a little concerned diving into Fangirl. Although the masses of reviews claimed I'd love this (though they've been wrong before!), I still opened this book with trepidation. I slowly waded through those first few chapters, not entirely reviled, but not entirely enthralled either. And then, before I knew it, my fingers were flying across the pages, my eyes were growing red from emotion, and the book refused to leave my hands, my soul, my mind.

Fangirl isn't necessarily a ground-breaking read. Rowell, frankly, has done nothing overly brilliant with her latest piece. It is just a book. And yet, what makes it strike a chord in my heart is not the subject matter of fandoms, but rather the genuine manner in which college life is portrayed. What does it take to get a book about college devoid of alpha males and dramatic romance? Rainbow Rowell, apparently. For me, reading good New Adult is a refreshing, exotic experience, merely because it is so very rare, so this book is - truly - a gem. In its bare-bones form, Fangirl is the tale of a girl emerging from her shell. Only, you know, with plenty of fanfiction, romance, and parties thrown in.

Cath and Wren, twin sisters, have gone through everything together - their mother's abandonment, their father's quirks, their Simon Snow obsessions - and now they're both going to the same college. Only, this time, Wren wants her own freedom, leaving Cath - shy, insecure, and timid - to a new life all alone. All Cath has that teethers her to her old life are her fans. Cath, the writer of "Carry On", one of the biggest fanfiction stories on the internet, lives and breathes Simon Snow. Or, specifically, Simon and Baz - two enemies, one love story, totally not canon at all(think Drarry). Thus, unlike her party-going sister, Cath locks herself up in her room with nothing but her laptop for company. It turns out, though, that being a self-imposed recluse isn't quite so easy in college, and whether or not Cath embraces college-life, college-life is certainly going to be embracing her.

What I love about Fangirl is the realistic growth arcs that all the characters undergo. Most notably, of course, is Cath. What Rowell makes so clear in this novel is that taking chances means opening yourself up to both the good and the bad. While Cath goes one step forward - befriending her roommate Reagan, for instance - she is also forced back by a plethora of difficulties that embrace her at every turn. Not just socially, but academically as well. Cath struggles to perform well in her classes, pursuing an English degree, and write her fanfiction. She struggles to become self-reliant, on herself and new friends, instead of her sister. And, most importantly, she struggles to fully put aside her past life, perhaps because that life still exists. Just because Cath is in college, that doesn't mean that her past eighteen years are worthless. No, she still has to worry about her father, still has to live without her mother, still has to encounter the "crazy" in her head. And, though it can feel that there are simply too many problems on Cath's shoulders, there are also so many small reasons to be happy.

Rowell captures the depth and scope of these issues perfectly, creating a divide between Cath and Wren, forcing Cath to push outside her barriers, and making her realize her full potential - as a writer, as a friend, and as a sister. Moreover, I love the direction that Rowell takes this romance in. On one hand, it's slow-burn romance, tantalizing and gentle. On the other, however, it had the potential for a great deal of angst, which thankfully, Rowell immediately cuts off. Cath and her romantic interest hold real discussions with one another and, best of all, he never pushes her to move too fast, instead respecting her wishes for space and trying to understand any qualms she may have. Rowell depicts a wonderful romance, built on equal-footing and mutual respect, but also one that goes beyond those initial stages and into a much more complicated route. And yet, Rowell doesn't hesitate from sex, or at least discussions of sex and safe sex behavior. Fangirl is refreshing, mostly because of its catapult into New Adult, but partly because of its honest depiction of sex as well.

Where Fangirl falters is, ironically, in its portrayal of a fangirl. Cath, who loves the Simon Snow books and movies, reads like a true fangirl, in all her crazy glory. Rowell explores the difficulties that this may pose in college, which I appreciated, but this immersement into Cath's world is clunky and jarring at first. Moreover, the excerpts from Simon Snow novels and fanfiction that grace the endings of every chapter are, at times, unnecessary, doing nothing but slowing the pace of the novel. I think they were a highly creative manner of incorporating the Simon Snow Series into this book and when the excerpts matched up with the chapters, they were truly powerful, but that effect wasn't felt as constantly as I'd have liked. Either than that small blimp, though, I found that Rowell tackled everything beautifully in this novel, pulling together all the plot threads, tying up all loose ends, and writing one of my favorite self-discovery novels.

Fangirl will obviously appeal to the masses of fangirls (and fanboys) out there, but more than that, it is such a remarkable novel because its protagonist manages to grow and learn and change her outlook on life without embarking on a road trip or traveling to an exotic land. Instead, she is forced to stay put in college, to work out her issues with her sister, her professor, and her friends and tackle on all the challenges life throws at her instead of merely discarding them to be dealt with later. Rowell captures this tumultuous period in Cath's life perfectly, showing us the good and bad in everyone so that no one character lacks gray matter. Rowell's Fangirl hasn't quite made a fangirl out of me yet, but slowly and surely, Rowell will.

Monday, September 16, 2013

ARC Review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Title: The Dream Thieves (The Raven Cycle, #2) 

Author: Maggie Stiefvater

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: September 17th, 2013

Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle is a little like wizard chess. The Raven Boys is the initial set-up, The Dream Thieves the careful maneuvering of pieces on the board, and now, with everything in its place, with secrets having emerged inside-out and back again; now, the real battle can begin. Stiefvater's latest is a mind meld; surprisingly lucid, utterly unbelievable, and wholly pleasing. If you aren't dreaming about this book afterwards, then you haven't read it right.

What makes The Dream Thieves stand out from its predecessor is its pacing. Where The Raven Boys was languid, an unusually casual pace with an aura of mystery that culminated - unfortunately - in an ending that left readers (i.e. me) wanting, The Dream Thieves is a hot Virginia summer; lazy, slow, creeping, and steadily building up to a stunning conclusion that makes the entire journey worth the wait. Moreover, it introduces a handful of new characters who not only enrich the novel, but who enhance the characters we've already come to know and love. It takes talent to create three-dimensional characters, but it takes genius to forever peel back layer after layer, making the reader feel simultaneously as if they know everything about the characters and nothing at all.

The Dream Thieves has been hailed as Ronan's story - and Ronan's story it is. That's not to say that there aren't glimpses into Adam, Gansey, Blue, and - a new "villain" I love - The Gray Man's perspectives, but it certainly does place most of the focus on Ronan. In The Raven Boys, Ronan is largely a mystery, which makes the scrutiny into his life that this novel provides necessary. I was one of the few readers who dismissed Ronan's "charm" in the previous novel, but his pain and insanity won me over in this installment. Moreover, Stiefvater meticulously answers all unanswered questions regarding Ronan's mysterious abilities, leaving practically no stone unturned. While there are still mysteries remaining - Where has Neeve disappeared off to? What is the extent of Adam's newfound powers? How will Blue's curse manifest? Where is Glendower? - Stiefvater bestows us with many unbidden answers nevertheless. In my opinion, this decision only makes the novel stronger, giving us more than enough information to keep our curiosities sated, all while fanning the flames.

One of my favorite aspects of The Dream Thieves, though, is the fact that Stiefvater enables us to view our favorite characters from the perspectives of others. Even though The Dream Thieves is Ronan's novel, the story never ceases to revolve around Gansey. It's as if his name is whispered across the pages for, despite the focus on Ronan's dreaming abilities, the plot continues to spin around Richard Gansey III. Every plot device, from the large to the minuscule, are all pieces in Gansey's quest for Glendower; every character is present only because of their connection to Gansey; every unrelated action, no matter how strange, somehow comes back to Gansey. Even better, though, is the fact that Gansey continues to morph and change, depending on the eyes who view them. The Gansey that Ronan witnesses is different from the Gansey that Blue sees under that exterior, and I love that despite the continued ordinariness of Gansey among his Raven Boys, he never ceases to change. It is Adam, however, who takes the cake when it comes to morphing. Out of all these characters, my heart breaks the most for Adam, whose darkness bleeds through these pages. The Dream Thieves stretches the boundaries between good and evil, especially so with The Gray Man who is both hero and villain, but a constant remains that these characters are ones we cannot fall out of love with. I love Adam, I love Ronan, I love Gansey, I love Noah, I love Blue...I love them all and no matter what nightmares emerge from the recesses of their mind, I will always continue to feel for them.

The Dream Thieves is brilliant precisely because it is a blend of perfect qualities. It contains Stiefvater's signature writing style; beautiful, gorgeous prose that sticks in your mind and refuses to fade away. It has a breath-taking cast, full of characters who make you question your own reality for, surely, they cannot be fictional. Its plot, though slow, is beautifully so, introducing new beings seamlessly into the tale. And yet, best of all, it clinches these characters ever closer to your heart. No matter how magnificently a novel is written and plotted, it is nothing without those raw, brutal emotions that rip through your body as your eyes frantically cross the page; and on that count, Stiefvater more than delivers, going above and beyond all hyped-up expectations. I am left wondering only one more thing: can Stiefvater possibly get any better than this?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Just Another...Book Crush (#8): This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

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. 

Today I am welcoming Leila Sales, the author of This Song Will Save Your Life. I fell head-over-heels for this story back in July when I read an ARC of it and pre-ordered a finished copy for myself the moment I finished it. It simply spoke to me on a much deeper level and was written so poignantly. Although Leila wasn't able to write a guest post for today's feature, she is sharing her Top Three Book Crushes, so we're still in for a treat! :)

Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing.

Just Another...Book Crush!

The sorts of books that I love most are the ones where I have no idea how the author did what he or she did. When I come to plot reveals and am totally shocked, when I meet characters and can’t imagine what it would be like to view the world as they do—that’s what makes me fall for a novel. Here are three books I’ve read recently that I have made me feel that way:

The Edge of Falling, by Rebecca Serle. One of the things I love most about Rebecca’s novels is how detailed they are. People sometimes talk about “world-building” as though it’s only pertinent to fantasy or sci-fi novels. Not so. It’s those details that the author puts in—about inside jokes the protagonist and her friend have had since childhood, about what her mother’s shoes always sound like on carpeting, about Thanksgiving traditions—that make it seem like this world is real, and has always existed, and will continue to exist long after we, the readers, have turned the last page. There are few authors who manage to convince me of their worlds’ real existence as well as Rebecca Serle does.

Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis. Is it cheating to choose two books? They are really two halves of a whole, so I think it’s fair game to count them as one—right? Anyway, I love Connie Willis. She is my favorite living novelist. I never know where she is going with her plotlines. I read her books and sort of understand what is going on, have no idea what anything signifies, and am completely hooked the whole time. Some authors are very talented and dedicated, but Connie Willis is a genius. She seemed to disappear for close to a decade after publishing Passage, and I kept being like, “What on earth is Connie Willis up to these days? Why doesn’t she just write another book, huh?” Then I read Blackout, and I was like, “Oh.” It is the sort of novel you could spend a decade of your life writing and that would be one hundred percent justified.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. This is another one where I had no clue how the author did what she was doing, and I loved every minute of it. Like Blackout and All Clear, Code Name Verity is set in England during World War II, so maybe there’s something about that setting that I particularly like? I don’t know, mostly what I loved about this novel was not its history, but the complexity of its plot, the way it all fit together, the way it bucked so many assumptions and tropes of the YA world—and the friendship between the two main characters, of course. One thing that comes across in all of the stories I write is how much I value female friendships. They have been some of the most defining relationships of my life, as I think they are for many, many women, so I love seeing them explored in literature. I cried at the girls’ friendship in Code Name Verity. I won’t tell you at what point in the book because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but if you’ve read it, you’ll know.

--Leila Sales is the author of MOSTLY GOOD GIRLS, PAST PERFECT, and the forthcoming THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE (September 17, 2013). For more information visit her at or follow her on Twitter @LeilaSalesBooks.

I don't know about you, but I absolutely LOVED Code Name Verity, so I am definitely out to check out the other books Leila has recommended. Plus, if they're anything like her own novels in terms of character depth, I can't wait! Thank you so much for stopping by, Leila!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

ARC Review: Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan

Title: Untold (Lynburn Legacy, #2)

Author: Sarah Rees Brennan

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: September 24th, 2013

In retrospect, Untold is an extraordinarily boring novel. Unspoken was a novel I loved inexplicably; just because it was whimsical and amusing and magical and I could. With Untold, however, my feelings are far more mixed. On one hand, this novel delivered exactly what I wanted it to, but on another, I found myself left with an intangible wanting.

What Brennan has always excelled at - ever since the release of her debut - is capturing the personality behind the shells her characters wear. Kami, especially, truly blooms in this installment. Without her link to Jared, she is suddenly forced to face her deepest fears and secret hopes - alone. Moreover, her once-perfect family suddenly cracks under the pressure of magic as truths come spilling out. For me, the highlight of this novel lies in seeing Kami come to believe in herself, all while retaining her characteristic flair. I also really loved her interactions with her parents. Kami, as a half-Japanese character, is treated as such and the background on her parents, not to mention the close ties between her siblings, is written so deftly, weaving this family both together and apart.

Untold would be nothing, though, without its secondary characters. Brennan truly delves into the mindset of Kami's friends, making their lives and troubles just as real for us as Kami's. Yet, where this concept falters is in its execution. While I've come away from Untold truly understanding the layers behind characters such as Angela, Holly, or Ash, beyond adding more depth to the story, their perspectives did little. Ultimately, the relationships between these secondary characters has progressed very little. I surmise that - hopefully - we'll see them play a much greater role in Unbroken and all the backstory Brennan has written will finally come into play, but with this installment, it's rather useless.

I find that the issue with Untold lies there. Its plot is so very loose and flimsy. It's meant to be centered around Kami learning to fight back against the sorcerers, but it's composed of conversation, drama, and tension. It's certainly enjoyable, but it lacks a certain tightness to its motivations that its predecessor possessed. Moreover, I desperately longed for more; more about the magic of the Lynburns, more about Rob than just a facade of black-and-white evil, more of the classic atmosphere that Sorry-in-the-Vale possessed in Unspoken. Just...more.

(Just Jared!) You didn't think I'd end this review without mentioning Jared or Rusty, did you? ;) Rusty, as always, is a delight with his laugh-out-loud dialogue and hidden depths - which still remain hidden. Jared, however, becomes ever more real as the novel progresses. I love the few glimpses we're given into his mind - heart-breaking, but necessary - and am really impressed by the moral ambiguity associated with this character. His affection for Kami is no secret, but neither is his desire for the link, which puts him in an ironic situation. Furthermore, Brennan brings up another level of interest as she forces us to question whether Jared would be Jared without Kami in his head. It's interesting, merely because Jared is so very fixated upon Kami and does contain his own dark patches. He really does steal the show whenever he turns up on the page, though, and I really love that both he and Kami retain their own auras, despite their tight bond.

Ultimately, I can't say that Untold shows much plot progression, but it's entertaining nevertheless. I both love and hate that there's such a strong focus on character development in this novel, only because much of it failed to have much direction, but Brennan manages to keep us riveted with her every word and it's physically painful to leave behind these characters as we leave our hearts behind too. Untold isn't one of Brennan's best works, but it'll keep you coming back for more. (What? You thought Brennan wouldn't write another cliffhanger? You naive're in for a shock with these last few pages. And we thought Unspoken was bad... *shakes head*)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Title: A Curse Dark as Gold

Author: Elizabeth C. Bunce

Rating: 5 Stars

If you, like me, are hard-pressed to find truly chilling gothic fiction, then A Curse Dark as Gold is not one to pass up. As a re-telling of “Rumplestiltskin,” this novel is haunting, poetic, and – most importantly – whole. Out of all the fairy tales in the world, “Rumplestiltskin” is easily my least favorite. After all, who really wants to read the story of a nameless heroine who later betrays the only character who helps her and winds up marrying the man who threatened to ruin her? It simply doesn’t make for good literature and, moreover, there is something grotesque about the dark underbelly of human nature that it manages to expose. With A Curse Dark as Gold, however, Bunce has taken this flawed – and largely unlikable – tale and crafted it into a believable story, one full of human flaws, but also realistic virtues.

A Curse Dark as Gold is, as many readers will undoubtedly rush to admit, slow. And yet, it is never cumbersome. Bunce’s writing is beautiful and as she builds for us the mythical village of Shearing, she also slowly writes the creeping tale of ill luck and curses that have followed the Miller family for ages. Charlotte and Rosie, the two sisters of Stirwaters, are orphaned when this novel begins, but quickly take up the difficult mantle of running their late father’s business. As can be expected, a slew of new changes is in store for them, from their little-seen Uncle Wheeler making an appearance to the discovery of thousands of pounds of debt their father hasn’t paid and – my favorite – the introduction of Randall Woodstone, a banker. As Bunce throws multiple hurdles at these two sisters, she also peels back the layers of rumors and superstitions that surround Stirwaters and the Miller family.

One of the only reasons this novel excels is because of Charlotte. Not only is Charlotte a headstrong, self-sufficient, and reliable heroine – one who doesn’t shirk responsibility and embraces hard work – but she’s also extremely pragmatic. Charlotte refuses to believe in the Curse of Stirwaters, meeting challenge after challenge with a clear mind. And yet, as this novel progresses, as misfortune presses down upon her, Charlotte slowly begins to fall back upon the hidden mysteries of her home that she has refused to acknowledge. Where Bunce truly shines in her portrayal of Charlotte is in displaying the dual nature of her personality. Every trait of Charlotte’s that is one to be applauded – her stubborn nature, her commitment to the mill, her loyalty to her family – are all slowly spun in such a way to become her downfall and revealed to truly be flaws. A Curse Dark as Gold is, as I mentioned earlier, a very slow, creeping read, one that builds its gothic atmosphere as the curse becomes more and more actualized in our minds. As Bunce writes this atmosphere, though, she perfectly captures its effects upon her protagonist, rendering her a far more three-dimensional character than the nameless heroine she was originally based off of.

Bunce continues to strengthen the original tale of “Rumplestiltskin” through her interpretation of the dwarf himself. Jack Spinner, a mysterious man who appears whenever Charlotte and Stirwaters are nearing their ends, is one of the best villains I’ve come across. I am relieved to announce that Bunce does, in fact, tie-up all loose ends concerning Spinner’s character by the end of the novel, and she does so brilliantly, instilling a level of history, sorrow, and depth to a villain we formerly may have thought to be forgettable. And yet, what makes Spinner such a brilliant character is his ability to bring out the worst in the best people. I love that Bunce took an innocuous device from “Rumplestiltskin” – the dwarf’s ability to prey upon helpless individuals, gradually increasing his payments and forcing their own hand at evil to stop him – and brought it to life, even more encompassing than before, to drive home the extent of gray matter that exists within everyone’s hearts.

Nevertheless, A Curse Dark as Gold would fall seriously short of its mark of brilliance without its cast of secondary characters. First and foremost, the village of Shearing is a force to be reckoned with. Bunce makes this fictional environment come to life, with her accurate descriptions of the Industrial Age – how I love a well-written historical fiction novel – in England and her lyrical prose. More than that, though, her vision of Stirwaters – a mill that provides for the livelihood of an entire village – is given breath and air as these workers become just as dear to us as they are to Charlotte. Stirwaters, not to be outdone by Shearing, comes with its own ghostly atmosphere, from hexes that refuse to be erased to equipment that won’t work without the presence of a charm to ward off evil nearby. Its owners, Charlotte and Rosie, are family that worm their way into your heart. Rosie, though lacking the extent of responsibility that Charlotte faces, is no less admirable, courageous, and intelligent. I particularly loved watching the relationship arc between these siblings, from their arguments to small gestures of love.

I would do this book an injustice, however, without mentioned my absolutely favorite character, Randall Woodstone. Randall arrives in Shearing to collect the many pounds that Charlotte’s father borrowed on loan from the bank. Although he is easily dismissible at first glance, Randall soon continues to makes re-appearances in Charlotte’s life and their romance, though brief, is fitting for this time period. What I truly loved about his character, though, is that he embodies the qualities that I seek in a worthy romantic interest – loyal, intelligent, and respectful. Randall allows Charlotte free rein of her business, never interfering and only seeking to support her. Although my heart broke at the multiple hurdles they faced – not always together – I loved the progression of their relationship, from their realistic stumbles to their messy patch-ups. Bunce never allows us to view this couple through rose-tinted glasses, showing us the stark reality of their relationship and the strain of both the curse and hidden secrets, but our patience and love for these two pays off by the end.

A Curse Dark as Gold, if it isn’t already obvious, is simply not one to miss. Although this novel firmly remains a re-telling of “Rumplestiltskin” – and a brilliant one, at that – it goes on to encompass so much more than merely that, from its history to its characters. It reminded me, very much, of Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light. If you’re a fan of strong heroines, one who can’t necessarily fight to the death but ones who can stand up for what they believe in and fight – in any way they know how – for their families, then this book is for you. If you’re a fan of fairy tale re-tellings, especially re-imagined ones that only serve to better the original tale, then this book is for you. And, most importantly, if you’re a fan of courage, especially found in dark times, then this book is most definitely for you. Just take my word for it – Stirwaters is worth the visit; very much so.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fantasy Reviews: Robin McKinley Edition

Title: Deerskin

Author: Robin McKinley

Rating: 3 Stars

I genuinely feel at a loss for words when it comes to Robin McKinley, not because her work inspires speechlessness, but rather because it doesn't. After finishing The Blue Sword last year, I realized that much of McKinley's charm was lost on me. I found one of her best pieces of work to be dull and in need of desperate polishing. Thus, I didn't really intend to read Deerskin but the premises sounded too intriguing to pass up.

A beautiful princess, largely ignored for much of her life, comes to the attention of her father, the King, after her mother passes away. The Queen, known to be the most beautiful woman in all the Seven Kingdoms, makes her husband promise not to marry a woman who is of lesser beauty than she, which shockingly causes the King to announce his intentions to marry his daughter, just two years later. After beating and raping her violently, leaving her for the dead, the King leaves Lissra to her fate.

But she survives. And as a survival tale of courage, this book excels. Lissra is poignantly written and her brutal rape is delicately handled. Furthermore, despite its darkness, I enjoyed this tale. It is beautifully written in a gripping, fairy tale style, and the relationship between Lissra and her faithful companion, the dog Ash, is beautifully depicted. Even the eventual romance with the plump, but kind, Prince Ossin is sweet. I was willing to forgive the slow passages in-between in favor of a 4 Star rating as well - that's how well this book was shaping up - but it seems I am doomed to give McKinley's novels no more than a mere 3 Stars.

Unfortunately, where this book lost me was in Lissra's ultimate healing. While her mind buried the events of her past and she gradually came to know the truth, I was disappointed by the heavy guidance of a magic that dictated her actions. Lissra finds help in the form of the Moonwoman who heals both her mind and body, but throughout the story - and especially during those last scenes - the Moonwoman helps Lissra to confront her father. For me, this lacked the strength of Lissra's own courage and will to stand up to her oppressor.

Additionally, the romance that gives Lissra a new life was paced slightly abruptly. I found that the line between trust and love, friendship and romance, was drawn too faintly and that jump made far too quickly. I cannot deny, however, that Deerskin is a beautiful novel. For once, I have no real qualms with McKinley's writing and have come to admire the deft manner she dealt with the more complex issues in this story. And yet, no matter how much I wish to embrace McKinley as a fellow fantasy lover, I seem unable to fall in love with her books. Maybe Beauty or Rose Daughter will change my mind yet.

Title: Beauty

Author: Robin McKinley

Rating: 3 Stars

I'm hesitant to call Beauty a re-telling of "Beauty and the Beast" as it's not so much a re-telling as it is a telling. McKinley's rendition of this classic fairy tale not only fails to veer off from it's typical path, but it also - sadly - fails to capture much of the magic of the original tale as well. I half expected my Kindle to burst into song or for "A Tale as Old as Time" to suddenly play out of thin air, but I fear I enjoyed even Disney's telling of this tale more than McKinley's.

From the surface, there is nothing egregiously different about this story from the classic "Beauty and the Beast" tale. All the usual elements are present - Beauty willingly goes to live in the Beast's castle, the Beast slowly wins her heart, and the spell of bestiality is broken. With such a simple formula, it seems impossible to really fail; and McKinley hasn't. I cannot deny that her writing is lush and gorgeous, the magical enchantment strangely enticing, the interactions between Beauty and her Beast unerringly lovely. And yet, I feel as if the fault of this novel lies in its perfection.

Most notably, to me at least, is the utter humanity that seeps through the Beast. After a two hundred year imprisonment, this is - oddly enough - not a man to lose his temper or give in to any of his bestial traits. In fact, he is always the perfect gentleman, which essentially makes him a bore. Either than a small temper tantrum that is mentioned - not even witnessed - Beauty is given no reason to dislike the Beast. Not only is he kind and caring, but he provides Beauty with every comfort, including companionship. Of course Beauty falls in love with him - what's not to love? With this fairy tale, appearance is the only obstacle to cross, which takes away from the depth of this classic story. Beauty never has to tame the Beast, as she so bravely announces in the first part of this novel, so their love story is disgustingly sweet and a complete bore as well.

Beauty herself is also another paragon of perfection. When confronted with sending her father to his death or willingly venturing into the Beast's lair - one where, rumor has it, he eats humans - she quickly volunteers to go and swiftly begins to enjoy her time spent in the enchanted castle. Although she is described as being studious, she is disappointingly dull and never curious at all, which works well for the story, but not so much for her characterization. Furthermore, while Beauty is forced to defend her Beast against her family's opinions, they all come together in the last few pages for a typical happily-ever-after without the surprise or wonder of seeing Beauty's Beast transformed into a man.

Unfortunately, the more Robin McKinley I read, the more I am convinced that the rest of the world is seeing something I am not. I think McKinley is an extremely talented storyteller, but as an author, she manages to nearly always fall short of my expectations when it comes to characterization and development. Is Rose Daughter a sad repeat of Beauty? I suppose I'll find out, soon enough.

Reviewer's Note: I did, in fact, read Rose Daughter, but I failed to review it as my qualms with it and with Beauty were nearly identical. Ultimately, it seems McKinley is not an author for me. :/

Books I Didn't Review (But Should Have): Kick-in-the-Feels Edition

I nearly always review the books I finish, even if it's just to give a brief 1-2 paragraph summary of my thoughts, but I've been truly struggling to put down my feelings into words when it comes to these novels. You know that feeling when you need to post a review, but you just keep staring at a blinking cursor, wondering if you could somehow just place your heart into the monitor so that everything could be explained that simply? Well...I do. Needless to say, these aren't reviews; they're just brief sentences on why you shouldn't pass up on these books. Even if you are a coward of right-in-the-gut emotions, I promise you, these ones are more than worth it. 

Title: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Rating: 4 Stars
Release Date: September 10th, 2013

What to possibly say about Rose Under Fire? Honestly, Elizabeth Wein's name speaks for itself. After the brilliant and tear-inducing Code Name Verity, I knew to expect great things going into this book, and I wasn't disappointed. I found this novel a tad bit easier to get into, only because the beginning chronicles the life of Rose Justice, an American pilot during WWII who loves her job and remains untainted by the war. It's a naive telling, but a mostly content one. When true horror finally finds Rose, the juxtaposition between her life before and after is so palpably felt. Once again, Wein writes about the strong bonds and friendships between women, and she writes these beautifully. I find she is practically unrivaled when it comes both to character development and historical fiction. Unlike most authors, Wein has mastered the art of placing fact alongside fiction and making it into a believable tale. While I found this novel to lack a bit of the emotional punch that Code Name Verity contained, along with the literary genius of Julie's prose, it is still an extraordinary novel. If you loved Code Name Verity at all, this is a must-read. And if you haven't read Code Name Verity yet, then why are you waiting for your heart to get broken? Grab a dozen boxes of tissues and get to it - at once!

Title: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
Author: Matthew Quick
Rating: 5 Stars

I hardly know where to begin with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Suffice to say that this novel is brilliant, beautiful, and heart-breaking. It follows a teenage boy - Leonard Peacock - on his birthday as he chooses to kill another boy in his school and then commit suicide himself, all after giving the few special people in his life gifts to remember him by. As a foray into Quick's works, I can't say this was the happiest of reads, but it made my throat close up in grief and my knuckles fist into my mouth to stop my sobs. It's difficult for me to articulate exactly why this book is so powerful, but Quick manages to capture the mindset of a lonely and hurting teenager perfectly. Moreover, the cast of secondary characters in this novel is stunning in their gray matter and unexpected depth. Leonard, especially, is a character our hearts go out to at once and I loved nothing more than his growth and the realistic, but hopeful, ending of this story. I truly believe this is one that everyone must read, if only to realize the pain that others carry within their hearts and learn to appreciate humanity a little bit more.

Title: Wrong Ways Down (Downside Ghosts, #1.5)
Author: Stacia Kane
Rating: 4.5 Stars

Out of the novels I chose not to review, this is perhaps the least heavy. And yet, the Downside Ghosts Series makes my stomach flip every time. After five books, we're finally given a glimpse into Terrible's head - and what a heart-breaking, but wonderful experience it is! I wouldn't encourage new readers to this series to read this novel after Unholy Ghosts, only because its full impact is felt only after the latter installments have been read. It is incredible to see how fully Terrible understands Chess - an understanding that we, the reader, only obtain after five books in her head while he claims this same understanding after a mere few meetings. Even more than the relationship between Terrible and Chess, though, this novel is so very emotional because of Terrible's own insecurities. We've seen Chess battle her inner demons, but Terrible's are also just as deep, secret, and dark. And, oh, Terrible made my heart shatter (as always). I feel like Stacia Kane just stabs me with a fork in all her books, so I'm still bleeding, but it's slow. And yet I love it. A definite must-read for fans of this series; trust me, you don't want to pass this one up.