Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review: House of Sand and Secrets by Cat Hellisen

Title: House of Sand and Secrets (Hobverse, #2) 

Author: Cat Hellisen 

Rating: 5 Stars

This review is Spoiler Free for When the Sea is Rising Red, Book 1 of the Hobverse Series (My Review HERE)

It has always seemed, to me at any rate, that a novel is best as a stand-alone. Especially if it is part of a series. When each installment can remain strong on its own merit, while also building off of its predecessors to add depth and focus to characters we've already given our heart to, a story's full potential is reached. Urban Fantasy authors have seemed to master this trick early on, as has Cat Hellisen. While House of Sand and Secrets is a true sequel to When the Sea is Rising Red, enabling the pairing of these two books to blend together perfectly as a duet, it also stands alone, as Hellisen apparently intended for it to.

The Hobverse novels are intended to be composed of a series of stand-alone companion novels. Nevertheless, I encourage readers to pick up 
When the Sea is Rising Red before reading House of Sand and Secrets, merely because the character development, an arc that ties together both these novels, is integral to understanding these complex individuals. When House of Sand and Secrets begins, Felicita is no longer in Pelimburg, the city of her birth. Now, having run away again, she finds herself thrown into yet another societal mess. Yet, this time, it may be more than just her life on the line. Felicita has done the unthinkable: married Jannik, a vampire. As the head of their household, a strange role-reversal from the norm, Felicita carries little influence among her male counterparts in respective Houses. Nevertheless, as lone vampires slowly begin to be killed off, one by one, and the movement to diminish the status of the vampires to mere animals takes off, Felicita is determined to ensure that no one underestimates her, least of all, herself.

Felicita and Jannik's marriage is, foremost, one of the strongest aspects of this novel. While there seems to be little love between the two, their union charged with heavy dislike and bitterness, it remains a complex three-dimensional relationship. For one, Jannik is Felicita's inferior, meant to be nothing more than a slave to her by societal standards. Only Felicita truly understands the intelligence and heart that lies beneath the cold exterior Jannik puts forth. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Felicita knows Jannik is her equal, her actions - quite unintentionally - do not always convey this fact. While I enjoyed Jannik's role in When the Sea is Rising Red, he remained ever-so-slightly aloof and detached from Felicita. In House of Sand and Secrets, we eventually peel back the layers to his complex personality and the man he keeps hidden inside is one I couldn't help but fall in love with. Felicita and Jannik's romance is a slow-burn, full of the torturous one-step-forward-two-steps-backward dance which I anticipate. Although their relationship is hurtful, from the barbs they throw at one another to the actions they commit, it is a realistic portrayal of messy, honest love at its best. Not everyone will love it - and it certainly isn't for those readers who love their romances tied up with a bow or need declarations of love to cement a relationship - but the words that go unsaid between these two are far more romantic than those that do. And, honestly, that's the type of romance I can swoon for. 

While the secondary characters remained dark, complex, and strange in When the Sea is Rising Red, thrown into the equation between Felicita and Jannik in House of Sand and Secrets are Isidro and Harun. A vampire and a House Lammar, Isidro and Harun's relationship is similar to that shared between Felicita and Jannik. As such, their two Houses remain lone friends, isolated from the human partnerships shared within the other Houses. Isidro and Harun are key characters in House of Sand and Secrets, more so than the secondaries in When the Sea is Rising Red. I've come to love this pairing just as much as Felicita and Jannik, which speaks volumes about their development. Nevertheless, it isn't smooth sailing when it comes to these two pairs. Both Felicita and Harun are reluctant to forge a partnership, though the need for it becomes evident, and their interactions are far from friendly at first. Yet, the complexity of these friendships and the individual relationships intertwining between these pairs, only add to the excellence of this installment as a whole. 

In a field dominated by alpha male heroes, Hellisen cleverly subverts this rather tiresome trope. Felicita, for instance, is superior by rank and birth than Jannik and, even when it comes to their relationship, she winds up taking the reigns. When it comes to Isidro and Harun, on the other hand, two males, Isidro comes across as the stronger of the pair, more decisive (and impulsive) in his thoughts. Although Isidro is a vampire slave, according to societal rules, his relationship with Harun remains equal regardless. Obviously, the main plot conflict in House of Sand and Secrets is the societal inequality present between the Houses and the vampires. Even beyond that, however, Hellisen explores the inequalities within House marriages as well, providing readers with a well-rounded image of her world. While there are plenty of sly political conversations to keep our minds occupied, there are just as many heart-pounding action sequences. Unlike its predecessor, House of Sand and Secrets flows as a much smoother story arc, developing a few main characters extremely well while simultaneously balancing a complicated plot line. Contrary to the occasional choppiness of narration I felt at times with When the Sea is Rising Red, Hellisen has improved as a writer with just this one volume. 

Ultimately, this sequel is an extremely strong - and certainly better - novel than is typically expected of a second book. Although I do believe that Hellisen has two more novels in the works for the Hobverse Series (hopefully still following Felicita and Jannik!), this book can be read as both a stand-alone and the conclusion to an extremely satisfying duet. House of Sand and Secrets remains a character-driven tale and, unlike its predecessor, I'd argue that this installment definitely falls into the Adult genre. Its content is mature, dark, and often unsettling for its characters refuse to fall into simple black-and-white categories, but the novel is strengthened by these very same qualities. Felicita is a lively, feminist heroine, one who falters but continues to pick herself back up despite those mistakes. While the events of When the Sea is Rising Red do play an integral role in her growth, much of her maturity stems from a sense of self-realization as she begins to comprehend what she truly feels from what she thinks or has lead herself to feel. House of Sand and Secrets is one of those rare, vibrant novels whose characters will not leave me, despite the distance I place between myself and the story. It is deeply thought-provoking, movingly romantic, and heart-wrenchingly satisfying. A definite favorite of the year, this is one story I don't want to forget. 

A huge thank you to Heather @ The Flyleaf Review for lending me a copy of this! :)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

Title: Troubled Waters (Elemental Blessings, #1)

Author: Sharon Shinn

Rating: 5 Stars

It takes only one line of a Sharon Shinn novel to hook me. Ever since reading Archangel earlier last year, I've known that Shinn was an author I'd be re-visiting; an author whose backlog I'd be pouring through dutifully and savoring as the years pased by. While I enjoyed Archangel immensely, the distasteful covers of the entire Samaria Series prevented me from picking them off the shelves of my library. A shameful excuse, I know. Shinn, and the genre of Adult Fantasy, in fact, had dropped off my radar until the release of Shinn's latest novel, Royal Airs. With its bright, friendly cover, I immediately wanted to dive into it. If only I had known that I would fall in love with its predecessor, Troubled Waters, perhaps I might have requested it from my library sooner.

Troubled Waters begins with the death of Zoe's father and the consequent arrival of transportation from the palace where the king has demanded that Zoe become his fifth wife. Zoe, now an orphan, leaves without complaint, too shocked with grief to protest. Nearing the palace, however, Zoe runs away, escaping her fate as the fifth wife of an older king, and finding her true place in the world. In Shinn's universe, newborn infants are given three blessings at birth. Normally, their blessings align with the element they will come to identify with; water, air, wood, earth, and fire. While Troubled Waters lacks a distinct plot line, meandering through politics, action, and self-discovery, it chronicles Zoe's adventures in finding the three blessings she was originally given during her birth: beauty, power, and love.

The world of Elemental Blessings is one of those few fantasy realms I wouldn't hesitate to live in. Admittedly, the palace politics is a messy affair, but the traditions of this world have charmed me. From the serene actions of selecting blessings and using them as guidance to the representations that elements hold over an individual's soul, Shinn's world is richly developed and impossible to walk away from. Its hold over my both my brain and my heart is astounding, but ultimately unsurprising. After all, this is a realm where elemental magic rules side-by-side with innovations from the time period of the Industrial Revolution. Even beyond the world-building, however, it is Shinn's characters which force her novels to transcend the boundaries of their genre. All of her characters, even those which originally seem insignificant, are artfully developed and explored, their flaws brought to light right alongside their strengths as they enhance the scope of the story.
Was her existence so empty of meaning that any opportunity, however remote, suddenly lent it contour and substance, no matter how imaginary? She had no desire to be a tradesman's wife. She wasn't even sure what desires she did possess; her future still looked blank to her when she tried to peer into its shadowy corridors. 
Zoe, our protagonist and narrator, is a heroine I was rapidly able to get behind. When we first meet her, she is grieving her father, the man who raised her after her mother passed away and whose vivacity and intelligence fueled Zoe's own quick mind. As such, it isn't difficult to sympathize with Zoe and the pain she feels upon being jostled into a vehicle, transporting her away from her former life and the body of her father. While Zoe gradually heals and moves on from her loss, however, her true personality begins to seep through. Zoe is clever, able to hold her own against the scheming wives of the king; fierce, determined to survive despite the odds against her; stubborn, refusing to yield her independence to anyone; and flawed, too. As her blessings foretold, Zoe comes into power, rather unexpectedly, but wielding that power is a challenging task. Even when Zoe utilizes her power without noble intentions, though, she remains a morally strong woman. 

The world of Elemental Blessings places women in positions of power - almost as often as it raises men into these holdings - and, moreover, features LGBT characters. Troubled Waters manages to be both diverse and feminist, empowering Zoe as a heroine while introducing individuals from opposing societal hierarchies, sexual preferences, and parts of the world. Nevertheless, despite these favorable points, Troubled Waters truly won me over in terms of its romance. First and foremost, it is a slow-burn romance which, as we all know by now, is my favorite. I relished the gradual simmer of this love story and, by the end, my cheek bones ached from smiling for so long. Yet, what sets this romance apart from most is the fact that it is just as volatile as it is caring. Zoe and her love interest bicker all the time about politics, the state of the kingdom, or Zoe's abilities. It's a constant back-and-forth of either interrogation or defense, which may seem odd, but manages to work perfectly for these two strong-willed characters. Especially as, when all is said and done, they still care deeply for one another.
"That's because there is a natural contrariness to you that seems to have been designed specifically to drive me mad," Darien replied. 
She laughed out loud. "Oh, no, I don't think of you at all when I am trying to determine my next course of behavior." 
He smiled in return. "I find that I do not believe you," he replied. "I am convinced you think of me a great deal of the time." 
It annoyed her that this was true, so she snapped, "Only when I'm feeling spiteful." 
His smile widened. "As I said. For I am certain you are feeling spiteful more days than not." 
He made her want to laugh; he made her want to scowl and stomp from the room. Instead, she threw her hands in the air and shook her head and did not reply. 
Admittedly, Troubled Waters may not live up to the mark of truly classic fantasy fiction, but it is vividly memorable, its characters wildly entertaining, and their journeys - both physical and psychological - will sweep you off your feet. I, for one, will certainly be re-reading Troubled Waters whenever I'm in the mood for brilliant, resilient characters who are determined to find themselves, despite the turmoil around them. (Not to mention the utterly swoon-worthy romance!) 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

Title: When the Sea is Rising Red (Hobverse, #1) 

Author: Cat Hellisen 

Rating: 4 Stars

When we first meet Felicita in When the Sea is Rising Red, she is a wealthy young girl stifled under the pressures of her caste. Felicita's best friend commits suicide escaping an arranged marriage and Felicita, bound for the same fate, fakes her death and runs to the Hob, filled with lower-caste individuals without magical ability. In Felicita's world, an addictive substance known as scriv is capable of unleashing the powers the Houses possess. Meanwhile, those of the lower caste systems must suffer in poverty or find ways to make money. More often than not, this either means becoming a prostitute or offering to allow a vampire to drink your blood. Bats, as the vampires are mockingly called, are another class entirely, below the Houses but not quite at the level of the Hob folk either. While the Houses are structured in typical fashion - patriarchal societies - the vampires are matriarchal hierarchies for only the females are born with magical power.

When Felicita runs away from home in the beginning of 
When the Sea is Rising Red, she is desperate. In an attempt to keep herself alive, she finds herself in the midst of flimsy friendships, shocking betrayals, and facing hasty decisions with unexpected consequences. When the Sea is Rising Red brings about both the best and the worst in Felicita, enabling her to understand her moral limits in a manner that is, frankly, disquieting. Felicita is, however, a remarkable protagonist. While her circumstances force her to regard both her societal status and previous lifestyle differently, they also propel her into darker paths. For the majority of her life, Felicita has lived following a code of strict guidelines. Naturally, when given the opportunity to make choices of her own, Felicita makes plenty of mistakes. When the Sea is Rising Red never attempts to gloss over the gravity of the difficult situations Felicita finds herself in, which I appreciate. While this is marketed to teens, I would argue that a handful of scenarios are, certainly, more adult in their nature. 

Evidently, though, the strongest area of When the Sea is Rising Red remains its world-building. Hellisen has created a rich, complex world, one in which heavy disquiet runs among all the social classes. Although there this plenty of action towards the end of this novel and the pace moves rapidly, the conflict remains political at heart. Hellisen, though, has mastered the art of showing her universe to her readers in small, seemingly insignificant snippets which contribute to the depth of her world as a whole. Instead of blatantly describing her fictional land in a series of paragraphs, there is a sense that each chapter adds a new layer to the sphere she has created, which I appreciated as both a reader and a lover of words. Even beyond her world, though, the dual nature of her secondary characters keeps the narrative afloat for though their presence may be minimal, it is thought-provoking. 

Where this tale tends to falter, for me at any rate, is in the fact that there are multiple story lines. Once in the Hob, Felicita meets Dash, an enigmatic young man whose confidence boasts of taking down the Houses and their ridiculous caste system. Into this mix is thrown Felicita's encounters with the vampire Jannik who brings her into his world, different though similar to both her own and what she has experienced in the Hob. Additionally, the death of Felicita's best friend continues to hang over the land and rumors of a sea witch rising from the waters haunt the streets. While all of these converging plot lines eventually come together in a startlingly original manner, the plot threads do become ever-so-slightly choppy at times through the middle of the narrative. 

Additionally, the romantic entanglements within this novel are...strange. It isn't quite a love triangle, at least not of the usual variety, but while I enjoyed the ultimate revelations and outcome of the romance in this novel, I was never attached to either of the love interests. But, then again, I do not believe I was meant to be. Felicita never truly falls in love in this installment. While she believes she has strong feelings for a character, they do not overtake the plot at hand and neither do they play a strong role in her own growth. Instead, there are a plethora of stronger, more true emotions regarding the characters in question which contribute to the gray matter and brilliance of this novel. Thus, for those looking for an epic love story in the midst of a rebellion, When the Sea is Rising Red isn't your best bet. (Yet, I encourage romance fans to stick to this series if they enjoy the paranormal for the romance in House of Sand and Secrets is ALL kinds of swoon!)

Nevertheless, there is so much to love within When the Sea is Rising Red, from its complex world to its even more complicated characters whose mistakes are exposed for all the world to see, right alongside their strengths. Another point to note about Hellisen's universe, though, is the fact that it boasts of LGBT characters. It isn't unusual or even regarding as peculiar for two men or two women to be involved in a relationship. For sexuality to be embraced in such a bold manner, particularly in a world where individual freedoms are generally restricted, spoke volumes about equality and diversity in both this fictional world and our own very real one. Needless to say, for fans of the paranormal with just a touch of fantasy magic, romance, and strong contemporary relationships, When the Sea is Rising Red offers something to love for everyone. Moreover, for those looking for a haunting, thought-provoking read, Hellisen's debut is sure to keep you up late into the night. And, really, aren't those the best kind of books?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

Title: A Clash of Kings (A Song of Fire and Ice, #2)

Author: George R. R. Martin

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: This review does NOT contain any spoilers for the previous novel in this series but if you'd like to read my thoughts on Book 1, you can see them HERE

Tyrion = Epic Genius of All Time

While his one-liners were the highlight of GoT, he basically stole the show in this book. And yes, I totally cheered for a Lannister... :P

It's the last third of this novel that has me thirsting for SoS. Not only was it fast-paced and full of unexpected plot twists, but it's made me anxious for the outcome these characters will face. Admittedly, I found a handful of narrative voices in this novel to be dragged out unnecessarily, but the political intrigue more than made up for that, as did the character growth and unique spins Martin puts on certain issues. Needless to say, I'm VERY curious to see how a lot of events are going to play out in the sequel. (Seriously, ALL the Stark children...just give them a break already, Martin!)

What  makes A Clash of Kings stand out, for me at least, however, is the sheer level of atmosphere Martin creates. Although there are multiple perspectives in this novel, all of them taking place in different locations throughout Westeros, they possess distinct voices. Moreover, these transitions are practically seamless as Martin manages to transport readers from the South all the way to North of the Wall without batting an eyelid or causing confusion. While this method of story-telling may seem to yield a detachment from the characters, it never detracts from the emotional ties Martin creates.

And yet, the best aspect of this novel lies in the individual challenges these characters face. All of them are distinctly different and although the magnitude of their difficulties may seem to vary, they are each large and forbidding to their respective character. Martin creates plot lines that not only serve to further his story, but also serve to challenge his characters in a manner that is unique to them. Moreover, he plays with the concept of power in more than just political, kingly ways, offering his characters moral choices that present a plethora of other dilemmas. Once again, it is this aspect of the series that, undoubtedly, makes it so famous and well-known. Martin takes risks, not only with his plot, but also in forcing his characters to transcend their barriers in realistic terms. Needless to say, I'm practically on pins and needles to find out what more he has in store for them.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: Live by Mary Ann Rivers

Title: Live (Burnside, #1) 

Author: Mary Ann Rivers

Rating: 4 Stars

Live is one of those novels I feel compelled to write a review for, despite having nothing to say. Mary Ann Rivers's stories are so wrought with emotion - my heart is always too tangled up in their arcs - for me to objectively put into words what I love. For I love everything. I love these characters, sharp and hurting and bitter and true. I love their growth, unstable and unsteady and messy and hard. I love the settings, realistic to a flaw, a home away from home, and utterly lovable. But, perhaps most importantly, I love the words. Mary Ann Rivers's words, from her descriptions to her dialogue. And I love all the words that go unsaid, all the words that are conveyed with just a look, a glance, a touch. I love all the words swirling around in the minds of these far-too-real-to-be-fictional beings.

When Des receives yet another rejection e-mail, cementing the fact that she has been unemployed for months at this point, she begins to cry, very publicly, in the library. Hefin, the Welsh woodcarver Des has privately lusted after nearly every day, cannot help himself from reaching out to Des. Des, who walks with purpose, optimism, and a smile on her face every day, even though she has no job, has just lost her father, and her indomitable older sister is injured. And Hefin, whose failed marriage has never stopped haunting him. Des and Hefin's brief contact, however, is only the beginning of a beautiful that both Hefin and Des know will end once Hefin's contract is finished as he is returning back to Wales. But for a romance that is supposed to be temporary, love is turning out to feel a lot more permanent.

From its synopsis, Live reads like such a classic contemporary romance novel. And yet, as is always the case with Mary Ann Rivers, it is much, much more. Des, for instance, has always remained in her small hometown in Ohio, going no more than a few miles away to attend university and returning straight back to live surrounded by neighbors she knew and the siblings she loves. When Sarah, Des's headstrong older sister, is gravely injured in a biking accident following her father's death, these four siblings are left grasping at straws. In the midst of them all, Des frantically attempts to keep her family together.
She felt like no matter how much she loved Sam and Sarah and PJ she'd never understand the trick of how her dad held them all together.
In fact, she had never doubted that they would ever have any trouble holding together, forever, until he left them behind to scatter. His ashed swirling in the wind on the winter morning just a few months ago took longer to disappear than their Sunday dinners, the ease that his children had always had with each other.
Now she was the only one who seemed to remember that there was a way that they could all fit.
Meanwhile, though Des's actions are propelled forward by her selflessness and love for her family, Hefin's past has never been able to leave him. A whirlwind marriage brought him from Wales to America, impulsively, but left him broken by the end. Even now, years later, Hefin cannot stop blaming himself for his failed marriage, for slowly turning his love and affection into bitterness and despair. Neither Des, with her responsibilities and little time, or Hefin, with his stark emotional unavailability, are ideal for each other. Although their physical chemistry is off-the-charts, Des and Hefin are not, no matter how much they wish it, the solution to one another's problems. Watching them stumble through their own personal hurdles and attempt to make their relationship work through honesty and frankness was both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Despite the fact that neither Hefin nor Des are ideal partners, capable of breaching the divides between them, the fact that they are able to look objectively upon one another's lives gives their relationship an uncomfortable, but necessary sense of clarity. Where Hefin is able to see only his failures from his past marriage, taking in all the hurt and pain and resentment and internalizing it, Des is able to turn around and see that Hefin's ex-wife, too, contributed to the collapse of their relationship. Similarly, where Des is only able to give love and give affection and give help to her family members, Hefin is able to identify that, sometimes, she needs to take it too.

Mary Ann Rivers has always written brilliant, provocative love stories in which characters fall, but sometimes they fall in puddles or are scraped and bruised along the way. None of her romances are easy, simple equations, especially not Des and Hefin. Moreover, the flaws these two possess are revealed right alongside their strengths, which makes falling in love falling for the bad sides as well as the good. While much of the arc of this relationship feels like saying goodbye - because, at the end, that is what Des and Hefin are telling one another - the conclusion to their tale is unforgettable. It is strong and empowering and oh-so-right for both these characters, not convenient in the least. Live is an incredible tale of finding your place in the world, especially when you think it belongs in a box where all your emotional needs aren't being met. It's about gathering the courage to look beyond and grasp that better opportunity that comes your way, even if it means sacrifice. It is only the first of Mary Ann Rivers's full-length novels and for that, I am infinitely glad for if there is anything I need more of, it is her words.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Young Adult Mini-Reviews: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey & The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: Jasper Jones

Author: Craig Silvey

Rating: 3.75 Stars

Despite all the 5 Star reviews of Jasper Jones clogging up the blogosphere, Silvey's novel isn't quite worth all the hype it has garnered. Granted, it is beautifully written with realistic dialogue, complex relationships, and a plot line that is equal parts bitter and sweet. Moreover, its prose is stunning, quiet and reflective without dragging the novel down. Within the pages of Jasper Jones lurks a shocking small town secret, an achingly sweet first love, and a realistically unfair portrayal of life in all its highs and lows. It does, admittedly, get off to a bit of a slow start, but once it hits its stride, Jasper Jones is impossible to set down. And yet, I will not be re-visiting the world of Jasper Jones the way I lovingly re-read the pages of Melina Marchetta's novels. As such, take my advice: lower your expectations for this novel and prepare to be, very pleasantly, surprised. You'll thank me later.

Title: The Impossible Knife of Memory 

Author: Laurie Halse Anderson 

Rating: 4 Stars

The Impossible Knife of Memory is impeccably told through the narration of Haley, a protagonist whose voice has just a touch of cynicism in it, thrown in with a scoop of sarcasm and a whole big bucket of survivalist instincts. Haley's father, a war veteran suffering from severe PTSD, is hardly equipped to take care of her, let alone keep a job. Nevertheless, he insists that Haley have a "normal" life, ending their years on the road while Haley learns to navigate the zombied existence of a high school teenager. Anderson's latest is not easy to read, however. Haley's relationship with her father is tenuous and fragile, a careful construct of one step forward just as quickly as two steps backward inevitably follow. Moreover, high school is no walk in the park for Haley. While she makes friends and snags Finn - an absolutely sweet, nerdy, and handsome swimmer - her schoolwork comes second to her father. As do her relationships, unfortunately.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is a beautifully written tale of growing up and, most importantly, facing the harsh realities of life even when we need to see the world through rose-tinted glasses. I did find myself disappointed by the ending of this novel, which wrapped up events a little too neatly for my liking. Still, I can't not love a book that contains swoon-worthy math pick-up lines, exemplary teenage driving, and features a genuine college application process (complete with college visits AND the essay prompts for the 2013-2014 application year!). And, if you needed any more motivation to read this novel: it's written by Laurie Halse Anderson. You simply cannot go wrong with her.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: Fault Line by Christa Desir

Title: Fault Line

Author: Christa Desir

Rating: 4 Stars

For all that I live in a progressive, diverse community in the Northeast, this is still a town where nasty letters against the Gay Straight Alliance make the quarterly report and high school boys laugh at the thought that a girl wearing a short skirt isn't "asking for it." Needless to say, when a novel about rape is published and begins to garner mixed reviews, I am curious. Fault Line is a dark, gritty read, but I don't just use those terms to describe its subject matter. Desir's novel is physically uncomfortable, from the situations she describes to the lack of resolution by the end. Fault Line isn't a love story. It isn't a novel about a girl who becomes raped but finds romance to heal her. It isn't a story of a teenager who looks for help and digs herself out of the dark hole that rape has propelled her into. In fact, it's just the opposite.

When Ani moves into Ben's neighborhood, his entire world is turned upside down. Confident, sarcastic, and fiercely independent, Ani is nothing like the simpering females who fight for his attention. An excellent swimmer and handsome teen to boot, Ben has it all going for him and now, with Ani by his side, his life is perfect. Until, that is, Ben receives a frantic call from Kate, one of Ani's close friends, informing him that his girlfriend is at the hospital. Informing him that at the party he skipped out on last night, Ani was gang raped. Informing him that when Kate and Ani went to put together a rape kit at the hospital, the doctors needed to perform an ultrasound on Ani. Informing him that the boys who raped Ani left a lighter inside her.

Utterly distraught and blaming himself for Ani's predicament, Ben doesn't know what to do. And, the more and more he hears about what happened at the party the night Ani was raped, the more and more the lines blur. Ani asked for it. Ani danced on top of tables. Ani wasn't that drunk. Ani got off on a lighter in front of the group of guys she voluntarily went upstairs with. Yet, despite these rumors, Ben can see Ani disintegrate before his eyes. Suddenly, the creative, strong, and humorous girl Ben fell in love with has become a shell of her former self, refusing to reveal the truth of her rape to her mother, smothering herself in over-sized sweatshirts, and hiding from the barbs sent her way.

Ani - who cannot remember what happened the night she was raped, who does not know if her behavior was the product of date rape drugs or mere intoxication - begins to lose sight of herself. From the strangers around her to the close friends she once had, everyone ceases to see Ani for the brilliant girl she is, instead focusing on her assault. Needless to say, this is all Ani begins to see as well. Within a matter of weeks, Ani has emerged from her shell, convinced that all she is good for is sex. Where Fault Line shines, in my opinion, is in creating a destructive, alien, and unfathomable mechanism for Ani to cope with the loss of freedom and choice she suffered. Unlike most heroines who push away the world, converging in on themselves or pursuing suicidal tendencies, Ani becomes increasingly active sexually.

Ben, who witnesses first-hand how Ani spirals out of control, is rendered speechless by her decisions. While, on one hand, he respects Ani and understands that it is her choice to do as she pleases with her body, she is still his girlfriend. More than that, though, Ben is fueled by his own guilt at leaving her to attend that fateful party without him by her side and, as such, he aches to help her in any way he can. While Ani's sexual conquests increase, Ben phones a therapist, attends a healing group, and speaks to rape victims about their experiences.

In dealing with an issue as delicate as rape, Fault Line never falters. Not only does Desir emphasize the importance of putting together a rape kit, but she also covers a variety of organizations available to help both victims and their loved ones. Moreover, despite the blurred lines concerning Ani's rape and the unconventional - and, frankly speaking, unlikable - methods she resorts to in order to cope with her assault, Desir never places the blame of Ani's rape on Ani, Kate, or Ben. While all three blame themselves, Desir firmly stands her ground that rape is an action that only the rapists themselves are at fault for, though unfortunately they rarely suffer the consequences.

Fault Line is definitely not a book for most readers. Its ending is open-ended, leaving this issue largely unresolved, but it makes a strong statement nevertheless. For me, however, the most important decision that Desir makes with her debut is in molding Ani into a victim whose actions do not inspire sympathy. Whether it be in media, films, or novels, the symbol for rape is a downtrodden young girl whose vulnerability is a cry for help. More often than not, though, true pleas for help are messy, disgusting affairs. While Ani, doubtless, makes a series of mistakes following her rape, instead of criticizing those decisions, Desir enables us to see to the pain Ani hides beneath the facade of a slut. Young Adult rarely delves far enough in creating heroines who defy the lines of the boxes they are placed in the way Fault Line did, which enabled this novel to exceed my expectations in delivering a gritty read. Told from the perspective of Ben, Desir's debut is a brilliant, but difficult, story to read; one that I hope will leave readers thinking for the days to come.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Split Second by Kasie West

Title: Split Second (Pivot Point, #2) 

Author: Kasie West

Rating: 2.5 Stars

I read a little over half of Split Second before skipping to the end of the novel and remaining unsatisfied. For fans of Pivot Point, there is no doubt in my mind that Split Second is a sequel worth waiting for. For me, though? Not so much. Split Second picks up directly where Pivot Point leaves off, which is both a relief and a point against its favor. On one hand, the novel doesn’t suffer from a slow start the way its predecessor did but, at the same time, it relies a little too much on Pivot Point to define our relationships to the characters. Instead of re-building the bonds we have with characters we’ve come to anticipate and love, Split Second reads very much as plot, dialogue, and action opposed to emotion, feeling, and response.

First and foremost, it should be mentioned that West’s duet is about parallel universes. Pivot Point followed Addison, our main character, as she explored two different paths before by choosing to live with either he mother or her father who were divorcing. Split Second starts off with Addison switching to visit the parent she didn’t choose to stay with as she copes with the events from Pivot Point. Since we already met two casts of characters, one that lives where Addison’s mother lives and one where her father lives, we find ourselves meeting old characters again while Addison meets them for the first time. Unfortunately, I found myself distancing from these story arcs a second time around, both because I knew the events that would draw two characters together and also because I enjoyed the way their relationships played out in Pivot Point and wasn’t a fan of seeing them rehashed in a different manner in Split Second.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Pivot Point and Split Second is the fact that this sequel adds Laila’s perspective to the story. Laila is Addison’s best friend and after the two went through a series of traumatic events in the past novel, I was surprised to find that neither of these girls mentioned those issues or their reactions to them. In fact, Pivot Point seems to exist solely to establish a link with these characters as Split Second doesn’t re-build that connection. Moreover, I found myself skimming over Laila’s perspective which I wasn’t quite interested in. I never connected with Laila the way I did with Addison and I didn’t feel the strength of their friendship in this novel the way I did with Pivot Point either.

As I kept reading Split Second and the plot become more and more evident, it also become more and more familiar. West relies on tropes similar to the dystopian genre as she delves into not-so-secret secrets from the Compound Addison hails from. Frankly speaking, I wanted a little more politics, a little more shock, and a little more focus on the world-building than the romance with this installment. While I believe that fans of Pivot Point will find lots to love with this sequel, I’ve had little luck with West’s work in the past and Split Second simply wasn’t for me. It is a romantic, unique duet but not one I was able to become emotionally or psychologically invested in.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

ARC Review: Salvage by Alexandra Duncan

Title: Salvage 

Author: Alexandra Duncan 

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: April 1st, 2014


I really wish someone had told me about that BEFORE I read it, or even better, requested it. Just MAYBE this would have been a good instance to include in the synopsis that there was a LOVE TRIANGLE present. If there's anything I hate more than a love triangle, it's an unexpected love triangle.

ANYWAY, getting past that LOVE TRIANGLE (*rages*) Salvage was only moderately decent. I might as well call myself a critic of science-fiction/fantasy because of how picky I am about the genres and Duncan's debut doesn't live up to the mark. Ava, our protagonist, starts her journey on the space ship where she lives in a dominant patriarchal society. So dominant, in fact, that the women are kept illiterate and expected to perform household duties. Futuristic? Um, try prehistoric. While I appreciated that this divide was starkly outlined, evident even in mythology that told of women misbehaving and causing disaster when given too much freedom, the feminist growth arc Ava undergoes after leaving her home behind left much to be desired.

On her home ship, Ava is told that she is to be a bride soon. Ava hopes - desperately - that it is Luck, the brother of her friend, Soli, who she has only met once. When they meet again, Ava and Luck's feelings for each other are strongly existent, despite the time they've spent apart. Unfortunately, however, a tragic series of accidents leads to Ava being thrown off her space ship and back down to a polluted, dying Earth. If you couldn't already tell from my description of Romance #1, it's little more than insta-love. Yet, Luck does see Ava as a woman capable of learning the tasks of men and Ava, after living a sheltered life submissive to men, is naturally drawn to Luck who sees her as more than a mere child-bearer. On Earth, however, Ava must attempt to survive and her primary objective to find her aunt who resides in Mumbai.

Once on Earth, the narrative of this novel drags, becoming increasingly boring. In fact, I am almost positive I spaced (no pun intended!) out on more than a few occasions. As such, I can only be 99.9% certain in my claim that the world-building on this futuristic Planet Earth is limited. While the evidence of its decline is glaringly obvious, I remain puzzled about the nascence of the communities aboard space ships, not to mention why there is such a large population still on Earth when they could be living in space. Moreover, what made the communities aboard these space ships believe that they needed to go backwards in time after making so much modern-day progress in the women's movement? I wish Duncan had spent more time exploring these corrupt politics aboard these ships instead of focusing on the romance story line. After Amy Kathleen Ryan's Sky Chasers Trilogy, I've realized that the scope to be explored aboard a space ship is far more than most authors would lead their readers to be believe and, on that front, I was disappointed by Salvage.

Nevertheless, on Earth Ava does come to recognize the inconsistencies with her previous life. While her transition into a bad-ass feminist is rushed, it is still present which is a relief. Ava forges many strong bonds with characters she meets on her journey to find her aunt in Mumbai, but I wish those secondary characters could have come into their own a little more instead of the focus remaining solely on Ava's characterization. Once in Mumbai, though, my issues began to arise with Duncan's setting itself. I've been to Mumbai and though the landmarks mentioned are accurate, as are the mention of elephants, I found that the rich atmosphere of Indian culture that pervades every part of India to be missing. In The Lost Girl, Sangu Mandanna does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of Bangalore, the city where part of her novel takes place. Sadly, the essence of Mumbai isn't portrayed the way I'd have liked it to be in Salvage and instead of connecting to a setting I'd been to, I felt distanced from it instead. (Of course, this is a personal qualm I have as I've been to India many times, so I'm sure most readers will not struggle with this.)

Of course, Mumbai brings us to Love Interest #2 and, honestly, I just did not see this coming. I don't know why. I figured that since this novel is a stand-alone and Ava was so hung up on Luck throughout the novel, there couldn't be anyone else for her. WRONG. I saw Love Interest #2 as a genuinely sweet FRIEND to Ava, so to find that this character was actually a love interest in disguise shocked me. It's a sweet romance, but one I found rather unnecessary to the plot line as it is given such minimal screen time. Instead, it is the friendship that is developed well and I wish this novel could have remained that way. Not because I'm Team Luck, but because I'm Team Ava. I enjoyed the conclusive ending of this novel, though, and am thankful the love triangle is wrapped up quite neatly and very tastefully, actually empowering Ava.

Ultimately, though, Salvage is a character-driven novel where I didn't feel much for the characters. I love the world Duncan has created and I wish she had spent more time detailing this universe to the reader and exploring intriguing plot devices within the different nooks and crannies of her richly imagined future. Instead, I found myself flipping these pages rather dully, looking up with excitement from time to time but mostly reading this as a disengaged individual. Salvage isn't a spectacular debut and for fans of science-fiction, I wouldn't recommend this. On the other hand, though, if you're just looking for an innovative new read, this novel does the trick.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Romance Mini-Reviews: Bitter Spirits & Just One Night

Title: Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties, #1)

Author: Jenn Bennett

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I have a confession to make: Bitter Spirits is not my first encounter with Jenn Bennett. I picked up Bennett's Arcadia Bell Series a month or two ago and have been a goner for her work ever since. Needless to say, I have been holding out on you, my dear readers, for Jenn Bennett is not an author to lightly walk away from. In fact, hers is the only paranormal romance novel that's worked for me in the past few months. I've tried Jeanine Frost's Night Huntress Series (not bad, but not that good either), Nalini Singh's Guild Hunter Series (just...not for me), Kristen Callihan's Darkest London Series (leaves quite a bit to be desired) and even Molly Harper's Naked Werewolf Series which once used to work for me. From these, only Bitter Spirits finally managed to satisfy, leaving me satiated, but still craving more, as Bennett inevitably always leaves me. 

I haven't visited the Roaring Twenties since Libba Bray's The Diviners, but I was able to slim seamlessly back into Bennett's vivid re-imagination of this time period. Fraught with spirits, 1920s California is an exotic, but dangerous, place. Aida Palmer, the vivacious protagonist of our tale, is a spirit medium used to traveling across the country, performing in clubs, and summoning spirits. Aida stumbles across Winter Magnusson, a businessman, in the office of her current employer and banishes the strange spirit following him. While Aida is lining up her next offer in New Orleans and Winter, with a haunting past, wants nothing to do with love, the two cannot deny their attraction to one another. Set against a backdrop of danger, ghosts, and death, however, their sizzling chemistry may not be the most dangerous presence around...

From the first chapter of Bitter Spirits itself I was gripped - hook, line, and sinker - into this tale. Both Aida and Winter are impressive characters in their own right, courageous and determined in the face of obstacles, but together they are an explosive force. Even disregarding their chemistry, the dialogue, banter, and understand these two grow to possess for one another is deep and gradually portrayed. Moreover, while their romance has its fair share of ups and downs, it is fueled by a bone-chilling mystery, taking these two into the heart of San Francisco's China Town and deep into Chinese culture and folklore itself. Bitter Spirits excels as a romance, there is no denying that, but even as a historical novel it shines. Ultimately, it leaves little to be desired...except maybe an ARC of its sequel, naturally. 

Title: Just One Night (Sex, Love & Stiletto, #3)

Author: Lauren Layne 

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: March 11th, 2014

Out of all the books in this series, this is perhaps the "worst", which isn't saying much at all as it still scraped a solid 4 Stars from me. Just One Night follows Riley, the only remaining girl from her original trio of friends to stay single. Although Riley writes saucy articles for Stiletto magazine, next to none of the sexual appeal and confidence she exudes through her articles are taken from her own experience. In fact, if Riley takes the time to admit it to herself, she's been mostly celibate for the entirety of her life because she's waiting for Sam, her older brother's best friend, to finally notice her. Unknown to Riley, though, is the fact that Sam has noticed her, despite trying desperately not to, but this time, perhaps the sparks between them will finally fly...

For me, Lauren Layne's books stand out because of their seamless integration of family, friendship, career, and independence alongside romance. Just One Night doesn't simply revolve around Riley and Sam, their simmering chemistry, or the multiple hurdles in their path. It easily incorporates Riley's friendships, the love she bears for her job, and the complicated relationships she conducts with her family. I feel as if I keep repeating myself with every Layne novel I pick up, but the successful careers these women carry are such strong, feminist statements, particularly in Just One Night as Sam isn't nearly as successful as Riley is. And yet, this is never treated as an oddity or, for that matter, an issue of any real importance, which I appreciate. Additionally, Riley is a far different protagonist from either Julie or Grace, but the boundaries she draws up are respected. While each of these heroines brings something new to their respective romances, Layne never belittles their decisions, always portraying them as strong women who recognize that they deserve respectful men - and those are exactly the type of men they get. 

While Layne's telltale humor was sadly absent from this tale, I enjoyed the flawed personas of both Riley and Sam. Neither of them are able to mystically cure one another, but they take baby-steps into the future. Moreover, Sam, with his large horde of problems, is only gradually working through the chinks in his armor. Although this novel does - naturally - have a happily-ever-after it isn't wholly perfect, which I always love. Needless to say, I can't wait for Alex and Emma's romance in the next book. For fans of Lauren Layne, this is a must-read. As for the rest of you...what are you waiting for? 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: Flame by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Title: Flame

Author: Amy Kathleen Ryan

Rating: 4 Stars

I find I don't have very much to say about Flame. From the moment I put down my copies of both Glow and Spark, it was as if my fingers were possessed, desperately needing to type, to crow in glory, to shove this series into the hands of every unsuspecting bibliophile. After Flame, however, I remember sitting. Simply sitting, soaking up the lingering words in my mind. I was - and still am - very much shocked by the brilliance of this concluding installment. While I may not have much to regale about this novel - not without giving away spoilers, at any rate - Flame has been one of the few satisfying conclusions I've read in a very, very long time and I suspect it might remain that way for awhile to come.

Compared to its predecessors, Flame is a much slower novel than Glow or Spark were. And rightfully so. After the bitterness of violation, the anger of rebellion, the closed fist of anarchy, and the open strike of betrayal, these characters are exhausted. Kiernan and Waverly are now on the New Horizon, back under the influence of Anne Mather. Or are they? When Waverly meets an old doctor on board the New Horizon, she agrees to help him take down Anne Mather but, soon enough, she begins to question just who is the true enemy aboard the New Horizon. Meanwhile, Seth is - once again - a fugitive aboard a space ship, only this time it's the New Horizon. While he receives help from a small group of rebels aboard the New Horizon, his health is slowly deteriorating. All aboard on the same ships, friends and enemies alike, these teens don't know where - or who - to turn to. Despite having their parents back, they have been brainwashed by Mather and follow her blindly. Which means that, once again, Waverly, Kiernan, and Seth are alone. Only, this time, if they don't stop the evil aboard the New Horizon once and for all, they might not get another chance.

What makes Flame such a spectacular sequel is the fact that it stresses ideals such as redemption, friendship, and love. After writing such a bloodthirsty, violent series, Ryan comes back to these core values in a manner that never feels jarring but one that, rather, slips into the story line perfectly. Waverly and Kiernan, despite the differences they've shared, learn to set those aside and work together for the first time since their break-up. While they, along with Seth, try to infiltrate the New Horizon from within, though, they are no longer as convinced of Mather's cruelty as they once were. As they learn, Mather is not the only tyrant aboard the New Horizon. Escaped convicts from the prisons of the Empyrean have made it back to the New Horizon with the intent of wrecking havoc and Waverly's doctor has a following of adults who don't seem wholly trustworthy. Although these multiple villains may seem to overwhelm the plot, in reality they paint a picture of different kinds of evil. Mather has always been a villain with an extraordinary amount of depth and her gray matter is explored in even more detail within this installment. Although the other "villains" in this conclusion do not share the same degree of depth that Mather does, they nevertheless contribute to the slow, but constant, build-up to the climax of this tale.

As far as the plot goes, Flame is impeccable. It forces Waverly, Kiernan, and Seth to reach new heights as characters - areas from which they are able to look past the injustices done to them and the anger they feel. Ryan has truly made these teens transcend their barriers and the bumps they experience along the road are realistic. Additionally, this novel wraps up perfectly too. Ultimately, there are sacrifices that must be made and bittersweet separations as well, but I ended this novel utterly satisfied. While Flame is the most romantic installment to-date, its love stories never overwhelm the focus of the story. Although these romances remain minimal, they are heartfelt, equal, and true which I appreciated. Moreover, and perhaps best of all for me, is the fact that every loose thread is tied up, albeit not always in ways we want. Seth, Waverly, and Kiernan don't find the answers to all their questions, but they find enough to live by. Ryan has always been impeccably realistic, to the point of harshness, in this series and I loved that her stance on realism was never compromised in this finale.

Ever-so-slightly bittersweet, achingly romantic, heart-pounding action, and an influx of complex moral situations made this a conclusion to love. Amy Kathleen Ryan: write something else amazing! Quick!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

ARC Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

Title: Death Sworn (Death Sworn, #1) 

Author: Leah Cypess

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: March 4th, 2014

While a countless number of hidden gems flit under my radar on a weekly basis, I make it a point to hunt out every fantasy novel I can get my hands on. I thrive within the fantasy genre. I’ve grown up breathing the air of thousands of different worlds and I don’t intend to stop – not just yet. Mistwood, Cypess’s debut novel, similarly did not fail to come under my radar when it was first released; an ambitious piece, for a debut, and not without its flaws, but also shining in its merits. While I haven’t picked up a Cypess novel since, I couldn’t resist the allure of Death Sworn, the combination of its cover and synopsis proving to be my undoing. For better or for worse, however, Cypess has improved as an author – but only a little.

Ileni’s world is one held in a precarious balance: assassins, magicians, and politics. As a child, Ileni held a great reservoir of magical energy and as she grew up and trained under the tutelage of the Elders, she became a sorceress; one of the best. But now, Ileni’s magic is failing. The Elders failed to predict this when they initiated her into the world of magic and now, with Ileni’s powers fading, she is of no use to anyone. Except, that is, to be sent to the assassin caves. Both the assassins and the sorcerers have shared a history of bad blood. In a weak attempt to bring peace among their people, the sorcerers send one of their own to live and tutor the assassins in basic forms of magic. In return, their lives are spared. Ileni is the third magician – the first sorceress – to be send to the cave in a matter of months. As her last two predecessors died, the Elders have now volunteered her as their tutor of choice for the simple reason that Ileni’s task is a suicide mission and with her powers fading into nonexistence, she is dispensable. But Ileni, despite having lost her home, her reputation, her magical abilities, and her family has not lost her courage. Against all odds, she resolves to survive the task she has been forth and, what’s more, solve the mystery of the murders occurring in the caves.

Death Sworn carries an interesting premises. After all, what’s not to love about a group of assassins hiding out in caves, slowly sneaking into a city to take down a political regime they despise, all with the help of rebel magicians? One of the best elements to this tale is the fact that Cypess’s assassins are deadly. Each and every one of them is willing to risk their life for the future of the Empire and, moreover, willing to kill without question as well. Although these assassins are mere boys, they have been trained to become cold and unfeeling beings, brutal in their ways. Or, at any rate, this is how Ileni sees them. When Ileni first enters the caves she is a cynical character, already embittered from her own experiences with her people and now entering into a domain with preconceived notions about these “stone-cold” killers. As Ileni learns to live among these assassins, her opinion of them changes, lending itself perfectly to a steady, and sure, growth arc.

From the first page itself, Ileni is a quiet, but fierce heroine. With her powers gradually waning, she is stuck in a cave of assassins virtually powerless. Yet, she never lets these obstacles hold her back. Surrounded by enemies, Ileni is reluctant to become close to anyone, let alone show much emotion. Sorin, who Ileni slowly comes to form a close friendship with, is also loathe to wear his heart on his sleeve. As an assassin, he seems rather cold and calculating at first but as the novel progresses, Ileni witnesses that Sorin – and all the assassins for that matter – have manages to retain their own personalities, doubts, fears, and inner bitterness despite the fact that their profession calls for a complete lack of feeling. Sorin and Ileni’s romance, too, is impeccably timed, starting out as a very firm friendship before progressing any further. Even when it does go forward, though, it is constantly pushed aside in favor of the plot in question. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this slow-burn sizzle, merely because it allowed us, the reader, to see the true personas behind the blank facades these characters have learned to wear so well.

Ironically, these very same personalities prove to be a bit of a downfall throughout the novel too. At times, they could almost be a little too apathetic. While I grew to love the individual Ileni becomes by the end of the book, I lacked a strong connection with her character during the duration of the story. Moreover, Ileni and Sorin are written into the molds of Teacher and Assassin who are intended to “hate” one another, but these shapes they wore detracted, again, from my emotional connection with the story. An issue of even more concern, however, is the lack of sufficient world-building. First off, Death Sworn is set entirely within caves which I found was a tactically unsound decision. The main plot points of the novel revolve entirely around the Empire but we know very little of it, especially as the political situation is kept under wraps for most of the book and, even then, only briefly hinted at. Additionally, the layout of this world felt unfamiliar. Are these caves at the foot of the Empire? Is there a gate, like the one to Mordor, that guards the Empire? Or is the cave miles away from the Empire? While I have no doubt that the sequel will be heading in a much more detailed direction concerning the Empire, I couldn’t help but be disappointment by the tid-bits we were meant to be satisfied with.

Nevertheless, the reason Death Sworn has received such a favorable rating, from me at any rate, is because of the ethical situations it manages to bring up. Is it moral to use death to achieve a higher purpose? It is ethical to consort to evil means to destroy another source of evil? Is not making the most use of an individual’s death a dishonor to their life? As Ileni is surrounded by assassins, all of whom make decisions about death almost all the time, these are fascinating questions that are probed over the course of the narrative. Cypess questions the value of a life, particularly during a political war, which I appreciated.

Ultimately, Death Sworn is not a perfect work, but I will be on board for the sequel to this duet. While this novel felt, in many ways, like a prequel to the true story, it was still an extraordinarily entertaining introduction into this world and its characters. Although I fear that hardcore fans of fantasy may be disappointed, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the sequel more than makes it up to them (and me!). 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: Cress by Marissa Meyer

Title: Cress (Lunar Chronicles, #3) 

Author: Marissa Meyer

Rating: 2.5 Stars

I can't say I enjoyed reading this; I counted down till the end. For those of you who aren't aware, Marissa Meyer and I have a love-hate relationship, leaning towards the latter, unfortunately. I found Cinder to be less-than-stellar, devoid of world-building and overtaken by a plot that was far too predictable. When the synopsis of Scarlet released, all it took was one mention of Wolf to have me scrambling for a copy. Admittedly, Scarlet had its flaws too, but I loved it. Unabashedly. For a few blissful months I felt like a white sheep; just like everyone else. And then I cracked open the spine of Cress.

Cress is a loose re-telling of Rapunzel, a tale which was once unknown but has now been popularly marketed thanks to the brilliance of Disney's "Tangled." In comparison to "Tangled," Cress leaves a lot to be desired. In comparison to Scarlet, it leaves even more. Where Meyer excels as a writer is in the fact that her plotting is impeccable, tight and focused without wandering astray even once. We begin this novel with a plan to stop Prince Kai's impending wedding with Queen Levana and, despite the hurdles thrown at these characters, that remains the goal throughout. In order to achieve this, however, Cinder & the Gang need the help of Cress, a Lunar born as a shell, lacking powers, who is trapped aboard a satellite where she spends her time hacking into computer systems, infiltrating into top secret facilities, and reporting information back to Sybil, a.k.a. Mother Gothel. And, as you can guess, of course Sybil works for Queen Levana.

When Cress first makes contact with Cinder & Co., she is eager to help them escape scrutiny from the Lunar Queen and find a way to escape herself. Needless to say, their plans fall through - rather catastrophically - forcing an unexpected visit to the Sahara Desert. With so much going on, Cress is a fast-paced, action-packed novel. Flitting from one perspective to the next, Meyer continues to build upon our understanding of this world. While the history behind the nascence of Lunars and their magic remains nonexistent, I've learned to survive without these vital tidbits of information. Instead, I appreciate the fact that Meyer has created a complicated political system at hand, one that Prince Kai  is constantly attempting to work through.

While Prince Kai may not have been my favorite character in Cinder, over the course of the past two novels he has truly grown. In fact, it is Kai and Cinder, the main leads of the first installment in this series, who continue to surprise me as this series wears on. Both of them play important roles in society, but their inner musings and the manner in which they navigate through their fears while still attempting to do what is right for the citizens of the world they live in is admirable. Meyer has, slowly but steadily, won me over to this couple which failed to spark my interest two installments ago. But, then again, Kai and Cinder have very little competition in Cress. Not only are my two darlings - Scarlet and Wolf - conveniently captive or unconscious for much of the novel, but Cress and Thorne are pathetically disappointing.

I will be the first to admit that I loved Thorne in Scarlet. Loved. Him. In Cress, however, I found that his character lacked the same dynamic, presumably because of the presence of Cress. Individually, I really enjoy the characters of both Cress and Thorne. As a couple, however, they leave much to be desired. The bulk of Cress follows this pair as they trek across the Sahara and my eyes glazed over the page far too many times. Quite simply put, Cress is no match for Thorne. Not only is she naive and shy, but she lacks the inner anger and fury that Rapunzel of "Tangled" possessed. Cress's rebellious streak starts and ends with her desire to escape. Once outside the confines of her satellite, she has little interest in much else. Except Thorne. Cress has had a crush on Thorne ever since the handsome rascal first made it across her news feed and while the universe may believe Thorne is a criminal, Cress already believes he hides a kind heart within.

While this could have been an incredible spring board to launch an epic romance, it sizzles and dies out quickly. Though Thorne tells Cress, immediately, that her infatuation with him is tainted by bias and lies, she holds onto those beliefs throughout the book. Even when she doubts Thorne, a small action of his - a kind, normal, human gesture - is seen as heroic. Cress places Thorne on a pedestal and though she experiences a unique growth arc, I feel as if she never falls in love with the real Thorne. Moreover, there is next to no development of Thorne's attraction to Cress until the last few chapters, which honestly sprang out of nowhere. I was blindsided and, honestly, a little upset over the direction this romance took. I believe that Thorne and Cress have the potential to become a worthwhile couple, but the way they were written never made me believe in their romance, let alone the equality and stability of their bond.

And yet, perhaps nothing takes the award for Disappointment with a capital D the way Scarlet and Wolf do. In Scarlet, this couple was sizzling, full of unacknowledged sexual tension, betrayal, and a complex scope of emotions. Both Scarlet and Wolf still have a long way to progress in their relationship, so the fact that they are separated early in the novel is a little jarring. (Especially as their separation occurs after the majority of the "Rapunzel" fairy-tale is told, so the re-telling in Cress is compressed to the first fifth of the narrative. Not a fan of that plot choice either.) If it weren't bad enough that Scarlet and Wolf are separated, they have just about two scenes each afterwards. Um...WHAT? With Scarlet, Meyer won me over with her ability to delve into the minds of two complex characters, all while sustaining a convoluted story scheme. With Cress, she fails to give Scarlet and Wolf the depth we know they contain. Instead, their intriguing story arc is pushed aside in favor of other characters. While it is difficult for me to continue on my angry rant about this decision without giving away spoilers, I'll leave you with this last thought: I don't think Winter can repair the damage of Scarlet and Wolf's relationship from Cress. Both these characters go through traumatic events in this novel and the effects of those experiences will, most likely, not be explored to their full capacity in the sequel, which disappoints me even further.

Speaking of Winter, though, we are awarded a taste of the mad Winter and her lover in Cress and I am rather intrigued to meet them in more detail. After coming this far, reading every novella and novel within this series, I plan to see it through to the end. Frankly, though, Cress has little to offer besides an enticing plot line. While this would, ordinarily, be alright, I read for characters, not for plot twists. I didn't wholly dislike everything about this novel, but I disliked enough to know that I won't be recommending this to many readers. In fact, I may just re-read Scarlet and rationalize it into a stand-alone in my mind. Still, take my words with a grain of salt: after all, I am the only reader to dislike this novel. (So far.)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

Title: Heartbeat

Author: Elizabeth Scott

Rating: 4 Stars

Heartbeat first came to my attention because of an influx of negative reviews. As a reader who has attempted a handful of Scott's issue novels in the past - unsuccessfully as I simply could not get past those first few depressing chapters - I've been anxious to find a novel of hers that was equal parts charming and heartfelt. Scott's work is, generally, liked which makes it difficult to sift through the praise to discover whether or not that particular novel of hers will work for me. Thus, the phrases thrown around about Heartbeat - particularly that is featured an utterly unlikable heroine - surprised me. And thrilled me. You see, if the masses love a novel, the chances practically guarantee that I will dislike it. (After all, "black sheep" is my other name!) Going by that philosophy, I took a gamble on Heartbeat: if other readers disliked it, there was an equally high probability that I wouldn't. And I was right.

Scott's latest isn't an easy novel to read. Yet, that being said, it also isn't as crushing as Living Dead Girl which makes it a good place to start with her work. It contains her tell-tale stance on issue novels, along with the inevitable weight of pain that accompanies her books, but it isn't overwhelming. Not quite. Heartbeat is, after all, a story of grief. YA suffers from no dearth of grief novels, but Scott's manages to be different from the typical take on mourning. Emma, the protagonist of our tale, visits her mother in the hospital everyday. Only, her mother is dead. All that remains is her body which is kept alive to ensure that Emma's unborn baby brother will survive. Dan, Emma's stepfather, took the decision to keep Emma's mother alive without even consulting her and, as such, Emma cannot help but cast Dan in the role of the villain. Emma's mother never had a choice in her situation and Emma, frankly, believes that her mother would have been happier if she were not being kept forcibly alive when she is, in fact, brain-dead.

While Emma is mourning her mother's death - while strangely not mourning her mother for she sees her everyday - life moves on, without her. Emma was once one of the most competitive students in her high school. Now, Emma can't find it in herself to care for anything as silly as homework, as papers, as school projects. Not when her stepfather has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and Emma is grieving. Olivia, Emma's best friend, is a pillar of support for her during this time. While Olivia's life still continues - school, crushes, assignments - she never hesitates to lend her shoulder for Emma to cry on when Emma needs it. Olivia keeps Emma grounded into reality, forcing her to keep from giving into the grief that lies inside. And Olivia is an exemplary best friend. Although she cannot understand Emma completely, she tries.

But sometimes, all Emma really wants is for someone to understand her. Enter: Caleb. Ever since his younger sister died by falling off her bike, Caleb has been the resident bad boy. From drugs and alcohol to stealing cars, Caleb is the real deal. When Emma first sees him in the hospital, her first instinct is to stay away. And then she allows herself to look at him - really look at him - and the grief she sees mirrored in his own eyes surprises her. Before long, Caleb and Emma are talking. Walking. Spending time together. Caleb and Emma's relationship is complicated, full of messy emotions. Both of them are brought together by their grief and their ability to understand one another. As Emma realizes, though, Caleb cannot heal her. Caleb has no magical words, no mysterious gifts to heal her pain. And that is okay.

As Caleb and Emma grow to like each other for who they are, outward appearances set aside, Emma's relationship with her stepfather grows increasingly volatile. And I get why readers don't like Emma. Emma is angry, bitter, sarcastic, and upset. While she is torn over her mother's death - the lack of her mother's presence in their household - she is even more angry with Dan for taking such a monumental decision without consulting her. Now, it has become Dan & The Baby vs. Emma. At least in Emma's mind. Emma doesn't make many attempts to understand her stepfather, despite the fact that he tries - time and time again - to breach the gap between them. Emma walks away from conversation, shuts down those who try to get through to her, and lashes out at every chance she gets. Obviously, her behavior isn't likable. Emma isn't likable; she isn't meant to be.

Scott - from what I presume, at any rate - set out to write a realistic character, not an idealistic one. While we, the reader, would love for Emma to just listen to Dan once or allow herself to open up to him, it isn't easy for her. Perhaps I enjoyed Heartbeat as much as I did because I understood Emma. I saw some part of myself reflected back in her. It's such a common coping mechanism to shut down, to revert into your mind and re-evaluate situations with your own bias tainting the picture. So common. And this is exactly what Emma does. It doesn't make her an admirable heroine, but it makes her an understandable one. I was able to rationalize all of Emma's actions without needing to think them through and her growth throughout the novel, though messy and difficult, was worth the struggle.

Heartbeat is a novel I know can work for a lot of readers - if only we'd get past this stigma of an "unlikable" heroine. Even beyond that, though, this novel is an honest portrayal of grief, coupled with a realistic, but very swoon-worthy, romance that heals, but doesn't necessarily cure. In other words, Scott's latest was exactly my kind of novel. Give me an angry, bitter, lashes-out-at-everyone heroine over a Bella Swan any day. Oh, and for good measure, throw in an actual bad-boy, not one of those "I-look-like-a-player" or those "I-ride-a-motorbike" or "I-am-too-sarcastic" kind of bad-boys we keep having in YA. A bad-boy who steals cars, does drugs, and sets himself on a road to redemption and love. Yes, please.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Rating: 4.5 Stars

A Visit from the Goon Squad is like reading the first novel in a companion book series. We read about the protagonists, but also about the secondary characters. In fact, our connection to them whets our appetite to read about them as protagonists in their own right in the impending sequel. But imagine reading about those same characters from the angle of a different narrator. And another one, now from a different time period. Just try to picture following a series of characters, all loosely connected, but through the eyes of different narrators who hail from different time periods, continents, and backgrounds.

In a nutshell, that’s A Visit from the Good Squad. Egan follows the tale of Bennie, an old man who once used to discover the best bands and help them hit big. Using multiple perspectives, narrative voices, and time periods, Egan steadily builds a picture of Bennie from his adolescent years to his stardom and beyond. It isn’t solely a novel centered around Bennie, however. It’s about the lives of the people Bennie has touched, whether it be before or after their interaction with him. And the lives of the people those people in turn have affected.

Egan is a definite Pulitzer Prize winner due to her ability to spin such a tight, complex tale in a convoluted manner. A Visit from the Goon Squad never lags in pacing, but Egan’s creativity oozes out the pages, falling just under overwhelming. Jumping from first person to third, second person to distant futures we have yet to experience, even entire chapters told through newspaper articles or a PowerPoint presentation, Egan is a masterful storyteller.

Yet, the reason this novel is so worthy of its accolades and its 5-Star rating is for the raw emotion Egan is able to capture in just a few pages. Every chapter is a short story in and of itself, though they all connect to create a beautiful novel. While we never re-visit a narrator, we manage to grow attached to them in the short span we spend in their heads and grow ever-more anxious and curious to hear about them, even in passing, during other chapters. Although this method could have been used to wring out frustrating emotions, Egan writes tactfully, pulling us into her tale emotionally but enabling us to enjoy the journey she forces us on without becoming too messily involved.

Ultimately, Egan manages to re-create so many small, seemingly unimportant facets of life which hold greater meanings. By the end, it is breath-taking to see all of the minuscule details come together with spellbinding ease. Egan’s writing is effortless, flowing from one page to the next timelessly. While I cannot claim that A Visit from the Goon Squad changed my life, it did garner a greater appreciation for the art of writing. And, most importantly, like a picture, it spoke a thousand words without uttering a sound.