July's Monthly Recap

Friday, July 31, 2015
I don't know about you guys, but it's so hot I have like, zero amounts of energy. So,with no further ado -- click the linky if you missed the post:

Book of the Month:

Reviews Posted:
Backlist Review: Moonglow by Kristen Callihan (Darkest London #2)
A Clockwork Heart by Liesel Shwarz 
Book Tour Review: The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (The Queen of the Tearling #3)
The Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson (The Remnant Chronicles #2)
Book Tour Review: Love May Fail by Matthew Quick
Backlist Review: Tankborn by Karen Sandler
What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
Various Positions by Martha Schabas
Two Minute Review: The Paradox of Vertical Flight by Emil Ostrovski 
Review Take Two: The Wonder by Colleen Oakes (Queen of Hearts #2)
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Backlist Review: The Ruined City by Paula Brandon (The Veiled Isles #2)
DNF Review: The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (The Fixer #1)
Two Minute Review: The Night We Said Yes by Lauren Gibaldi

Fun Stuff:
Book Haul

Two Minute Review: The Night We Said Yes by Lauren Gibaldi

Title: The Night We Said Yes
Author: Lauren Gibaldi
Genre: young adult, contemporary 
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Published: June 16 2015
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 3/5

A fun, romantic read, perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen and Susane Colasanti!

Before Matt, Ella had a plan. Get over a no-good ex-boyfriend. Graduate from high school without any more distractions. Move away from Orlando, Florida, where she’s lived her entire life.

But Matt—the cute, shy, bespectacled bass player who just moved to town—was never part of that plan.

And neither was attending a party that was crashed by the cops just minutes after they arrived. Or spending an entire night saying “yes” to every crazy, fun thing they could think of.

Then Matt abruptly left town, and he broke not only Ella’s heart but those of their best friends, too. So when he shows up a year later with a plan of his own—to relive the night that brought them together—Ella isn’t sure whether Matt’s worth a second chance. Or if re-creating the past can help them create a different future.

In alternating then and now chapters, debut author Lauren Gibaldi crafts a charming, romantic story of first loves, lifelong friendships, uncovered secrets, and, ultimately, finding out how to be brave.

It's fitting that my friends' ratings for The Night We Said Yes are all over the place because so are my personal feelings for it and the characters within. It also worked in TNESY's favor that this is a pretty short novel that reads quickly because my attention was waning the longer it lasted. It's a fun read, but it's a superficial kind of enjoyment. There's no lasting impression or emotions once the book is over.

Things I Liked About The Night We Said Yes:

The premise
The narrative structure
Featured a strong, realistic female friendship

Things That Didn't Work For Me In The Night We Said Yes:

Matt and Ella's relationship being dissected

Unfortunately, while there is a compelling secondary plot concerned with the two main girls' evolving relationship, the book is more focused on the principal romance between Matt and Ella than any other aspect. And while it was okay, I was mostly blase about it from the introduction to the finale. It all feels familiar, despite the narrative frame and the "night(s) of saying yes" that the narrative revolves around. I just never really invested in the characters and that's kinda the point of a contemporary?

I liked this more than I was detached, but the characterization is not the most polished. The bones of the story and the cast are good, but this debut lacked an emotional core.

DNF Review: The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Thursday, July 30, 2015
Title: The Fixer
Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Genre: contemporary, thriller
Series: The Fixer #1
Pages: 384
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2/5

This thriller YA is Scandal meets Veronica Mars.

Sixteen-year-old Tess Kendrick has spent her entire life on her grandfather's ranch. But when her estranged sister Ivy uproots her to D.C., Tess is thrown into a world that revolves around politics and power. She also starts at Hardwicke Academy, the D.C. school for the children of the rich and powerful, where she unwittingly becomes a fixer for the high school set, fixing teens’ problems the way her sister fixes their parents’ problems.

And when a conspiracy surfaces that involves the family member of one of Tess's classmates, love triangles and unbelievable family secrets come to light and life gets even more interesting—and complicated—for Tess.

Perfect for fans of Pretty Little Liars and Heist Society, readers will be clamoring for this compelling teen drama with a political twist.

I should have followed my instincts on this one. I should have remembered every time I try to watch Scandal, I get bored within minutes and change the channel. I should have remembered that I never watched Veronica Mars and thus have no built-in nostalgia for it.  I should have read the bookish comparisons (Heist Society) and realized that it was for another series I DNF'd early on. Basically, the charms of this book were just wasted on me. So yes, I am one of the very few black sheep for this novel and it's entirely because I upended the black paint all over myself.

I picked this up because of the hype and word-of-mouth building in the last few weeks. And while it didn't particularly work for me, I can see why it does for others. For the right kind of reader, The Fixer would be a slam dunk novel. I just was not caring at all about the mystery OR the characters. I'm primarily a character-reader though I can be more plot-driven in special cases. That was not the case here. The chemistry between characters is natural and banter-y but I just observed from a distance, and never invested. Maybe it was the lack of a romance? I'm not sure but the emotional connection was never there.

As this review so clearly states above, I did not finish The Fixer. It was just too long of a page commitment for a book I was so very mehhh about so early on. I made it 210ish pages in, set it down, and started reading a series about dragons. I didn't feel the need or even an interest to see it through and that's how I know that this series is not for me. I do enjoy Jennifer Lynn Barn's writing style (both here and in Every Other Day) and plan to explore her other series. Tess and Vivvie and Co will live to fight the good fight as this expands into a series, I just won't be around to read about it.

Backlist Review: The Ruined City by Paula Brandon

Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Author: Paula Brandon
Genre: fantasy, steampunk, horror
Series: The Veiled Isles #2
Pages: 384 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Paula Brandon’s epic and captivating trilogy continues as magic and mystery wreak havoc with the very fabric of existence.

Reality is wavering. Soon its delicate balance will shift and an ancient force will return to overwhelm the Veiled Isles. Now those with the arcane talent forge an uneasy alliance in hopes that their combined abilities are enough to avert an eerie catastrophe. Yet it may be too late. The otherworldly change has begun. The streets of the city are rife with chaos, plague, and revolt. And it is here that Jianna Belandor, once a pampered daughter of privilege, returns to face new challenges.

The dead walk the streets. The docile amphibian slaves of humanity have taken up arms. Jianna’s home lies in ruins. Her only happiness resides in her growing attraction to Falaste Rione, a brilliant nomadic physician whose compassion and courage have led him to take dangerous risks. Jianna, stronger and more powerful than she knows, has a role to play in the unfolding destiny of her world. But a wave of madness is sweeping across the land, and time is running out—even for magic.

Once again returning to the simmering pot of trouble and magic that is the fantasy land of the Veiled Isles, Paula Brandon's second effort in the series is a sadly rather mixed one with The Ruined City. A larger worldview and a focus outside of main character Jianna certainly allows for more options and ideas, twists and turns, all to varying degrees of success. With plagues, intelligent automatons, revolution, amphibian humanoids, the walking dead, star-crossed love, betrayal and the prophesied return of an alien race looming, it's easy to feel that the author bit off a bit more than she could chew in this genre-blending exercise. While some aspects do better in the frame of the second novel (the Faerlonnish resistance versus Taerleezi occupation plotline gets much more traction than previously seen), others felt ignored or simply tedious in their execution, like the interminable journey Aureste/Innesq/Vinz are on together for 300 out of 384 pages. This is a resundingly second novel in a series - plotlines advance, there's little to no true resolution to anything and as a result, large chunks of this can come across as filler. Whatever else it may be, The Ruined City is definitely an ambitious fantasy novel - one with an author totally unafraid to try and incorporate new ideas to varying degrees of success.
Even the title of this direct sequel is a clue that this series isn't just going to focus solely on the eponymous character of The Traitor's Daughter, Jianna Belandor. The Ruined City is a novel that is more concerned with illustrating the upheaval this world is undergoing as its unpredictable magic shifts and changes; a novel with more attention paid to the emergence of the evil Overmind than with the personal storylines of many characters. This may be a benefit in disguise because, on the whole, I found the cast here to be rather stifling and uninspiring. With the exception of a few delightfully flawed individuals, there's not a whole lot of originality to be found this second time around the Veiled Isles. Jianna's story is important and featured but not to the extent it was in the first novel. Jianna herself still has a lot of growing to do as a person. As a character, she is serviceable (moderately smart, reasonably capable) but her tendency to try to maneuver and manipulate others (instead of just being honest) got old. She also needs the personal growth to realize she is not the center of the world. Aureste's characterization was mystifying here as well (the woman that abducted and held his daughter for months, whom Aureste has still not yet seen, is with him for the whole book and he says/does nothing? That's not the Aureste of The Traitor's Daughter.) The previous minor antagonist of Dowager Magnifica Yvenza is still present but less of a force - I found her addition to the expedition story and her machinations while there to be entirely obvious, ham-handed and rather frustrating to read. The deterioration of her malevolence is quick and disheartening - what was the point of her at all?

I do have to give props for all the strong female characters shown in the two books thus far published. This is a world where women are subservient, expected to adhere and obey any and all of their husbands/father's wishes and they are regarded as possessions to be bartered and traded at will. However in the middle of all this patriarchy, Paula Brandon goes out of her way to illustrate many different forms of strong female characters. Some are evil, or wronged (like Dowager Magnifica Yvenza), some are spoiled but resourceful and determined (Jianna), some are quietly unyielding and steadfast (Sonnetia), and some are zealots and patriots (Celisse). Whatever the case may be, it's a rare fantasy series where the women are as equally impressive and rounded out as their men - I mean, for much of the novel it is the "maidenlady" Jianna is trying to save Falaste instead of the typical other way around. As I've said before, both characters of Jianna and Yvenza were sadly underutilised here in round two, but their respective continued presences add family drama and unpredictability to the plot. Yvenza may not be truly necessary as a secondary foil with the Overmind stepping up antagonism and zombification as the novel progresses, and her cruelly manipulative "talks" with Vinz felt more like filler than most else in the book.

This is very much a middle-of-the-trilogy novel, with all the implied problems that such books inevitable encounter - it is solid but not spectacular and often tepid and bland in execution. The worldbuiliding shown here is still on par with the best I've come across (So complete! convoluted!) but now lacks the originality that helped it stand out in The Traitor's Daughter. Much less action-packed than its immediate predecessor, I even found the final conflict herein to be entirely underwhelming - so much so that I knocked this down from a 3.5 to a 3. While I found the first book's narrative cut off at a near-perfect spot, with resolution of some plots and an overarching problem that easily lent itself easily and naturally to the sequel, the same cannot be said of The Ruined City and its final conflict and denouement. A bit unsatisfying and lacking the original oomph that was so alluring in the first book, The Ruined City suffers a bit from its place in the line of publication but there is enough here to keep fans of the first engaged and reading.

Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Title: Everything, Everything
Author: Nicola Yoon
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Published: expected September 1 2015
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

This innovative, heartfelt debut novel tells the story of a girl who’s literally allergic to the outside world. When a new family moves in next door, she begins a complicated romance that challenges everything she’s ever known. The narrative unfolds via vignettes, diary entries, texts, charts, lists, illustrations, and more.

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

So there is a lot of hype surround Nicola Yoon's debut and Everything, Everything is pretty worthy of the attention it's gathered. It's a YA romance with a lot of diversity, great main characters, and a plotline that seems expected in the TFIOS-vein but is still clever and memorable for its own merits. For a novel that's on the shorter side of the contemporary scale, it also manages to pack in the emotion and ship in those 320 pages.

The story is told from allergic-to-the-world Maddy's perspective but it's peppered with illustrations, snarky reviews, clever asides, and personal definitions. These miscellany are infrequent but often charming and add another dimension to Maddy's characterization. She's well drawn as it is, but Yoon uses these ably and to great effect throughout the story to further personify her. Since the main character is so removed from all but two people, it would usually takes a lot of personality or sympathy to keep me engaged as a reader. Maddy does that. She's smart and an honest bookworm, but her growth through the book turns her into a more three-dimensional person.

Olly, her love interest is likeable but in the grand scheme of things, felt somewhat bland. They work well as a couple (and I do ship it)  but Olly doesn't feel fully realized the way Maddy or her mother do. The relationship between the teens is also a sticking point for me; it's one of the reasons this was not a full five-star read. I can see that Maddy's isolation leads her to feel things for Olly  intensely and quickly but the jump from "neighbors who IM" to "soulmates" was just too fast for me to fully enjoy. I ship them as a couple, I just wish the relationship had taken more time to mature authentically.

Everything, Everything is also to be commended for a twist in the novel that changed the terms of the game. I thought I had figured out how this would play and Yoon is far smarter than the expected. Some may think it strains credulity and I can see that aspect but personally, I appreciated the sleight of hand and thought it made the end of the novel quite memorable. I also greatly enjoyed the diversity present throughout this novel. Maddy is Afro-Asian. Her closest friend is a middle-aged Hispanic nurse. 

Everything, Everything is a strong debut. I'd recommend it to fans of YA contemporary who like believable characters, authentic representation, and interesting plotlines. 

Review: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Title: Devoted
Author: Jennifer Mathieu
Genre: contemporary
Series: none
Pages: 336
Published: June 2, 2015
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5

Rachel Walker is devoted to God. She prays every day, attends Calvary Christian Church with her family, helps care for her five younger siblings, dresses modestly, and prepares herself to be a wife and mother who serves the Lord with joy. But Rachel is curious about the world her family has turned away from, and increasingly finds that neither the church nor her homeschool education has the answers she craves. Rachel has always found solace in her beliefs, but now she can’t shake the feeling that her devotion might destroy her soul.

Jennifer Mathieu has hit another emotional, dark contemporary out of the park.

Rachel, the middle child in a family of ten, is part of the Quiverfull movement. Named for their strict interpretation of the psalm “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate,” (127:5, KJV,) Rachel’s evangelical parents are obsessed with having as many children as they can, so they can praise God with their sweet countenance and return to patriarchal ideals. (If this sounds familiar, yes, the Duggars are members.)

As the oldest girl in the house, (she also has three older brothers, who are not expected to help with “women’s work”, and a married sister,) Rachel is expected to work from sun up to sun down - cooking, cleaning, and homeschooling her siblings. She’s not allowed to read secular books or watch tv or get online. She can’t even leave the house without a chaperone. She can never date and her first kiss is reserved for her wedding day. Her life revolves around the church and her siblings.

After her mother falls into depression following a miscarriage, Rachel’s workload drastically increases and she feels suffocated and questions why it’s so hard to pray. She begins sneaking unauthorized web browsing, and after weeks of wrestling with herself, Rachel finds herself obsessed with the blog of a former church member, Lauren, where she documents her journey to escape the movement. When her father also discovers Lauren’s blog, he orders Rachel to a violent and brutal “camp” for reprogramming. Rather than go, the seventeen year old runs away instead, ending up at Lauren’s.

Lauren, much farther along in her grieving process, can be very difficult. She’s angry. Angry with her abusive parents. Angry at the church that shielded them. Angry with the patriarchy and factory farming and her ex-boyfriend and God and Rachel’s progress and her parents. She lashes out, dating the wrong boys and drinking, much to her new roommate’s distress. But Lauren’s one of the most loving characters I’ve read. She knows it could be dangerous for her to pick up Rachel. She knows what happened when she ran away. She does it anyway. She loves the animals at her vet and the Tasty family. She’s so passionate and scared and real and I found her more interesting and relatable than Rachel in a lot of ways.

My only true problem is Mathieu doesn’t go far enough. Of course the book was written before the current Duggar scandal, but one look at No Longer Quivering will show the depth of the abuse and corruption in the movement. Lauren tells Rachel the church is abusive and cites that her dad beat her when she left, but neither mentions the blanket training, the spanking of six month olds, the way Bill Gothard blames victims for sexual abuse, (not everyone uses the ATI homeschooling program, but it is the program used by the Duggars, an obvious inspiration.) Neither mentions the isolation and withholding of mental health care. The church’s abuse is a lot more serious than sheltering one domestic abuser, in and out of the book world.

Instead, the book focuses on the successes. Rachel finds a job, organizing and updating files for a friend of Lauren’s. She meets Mark, (who is totally awesome and swoony,) and finds a way to be friends with a boy and maybe more? She stands up for herself and makes relationships outside of family and learns and even when she stumbles, Rachel moves on.

Review Take Two: The Wonder by Colleen Oakes

Monday, July 27, 2015
Title: The Wonder
Author: Colleen Oakes
Genre: young adult, fantasy, retelling, fairy tales
Series: Queen of Hearts #2
Pages: 238
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

An Exiled Princess.
An Ancient Tribe.
A Dangerous Stranger with Unknown Loyalties.

Dinah, the former Princess of Wonderland Palace, has been chased into the wilds of Wonderland after the brutal murder of her brother and the ruin of her impending crown. Now, as her half-sister Vittiore sits on the throne beside her Father, the brutal King of Hearts, Dinah finds herself alone in the forbidding Twisted Wood with only Morte, a homicidal beast, for company.

Hunted by the King and his army of Cards, Dinah struggles to evade those who long for her head, including Cheshire, the King’s clever advisor, who is slowly tightening his grasp around her. Spurred on by her rising terror, the former Princess finds herself at the center of a web of conspiracy reaching far beyond the Palace and deep into the mysterious Yurkei mountain tribes.
Even with the balance of an entire Kingdom at stake, Dinah knows something that her allies and enemies do not: that the most dangerous conflict of all has already begun as she battles the enticing rage that beckons her ever closer as love slips further from her grasp.

The second book in the bestselling and award-winning Queen of Hearts Saga, The Wonder takes readers back to the most wondrous and curious places in Wonderland, and continues this darkly addictive tale featuring one of the most infamous villains of all time.

But be warned…not every fairy tale has a happy ending.
This is the story of a princess who became a villain.

So The Wonder was pretty a solid read but it was not as spectacular as its predecessor. I liked continuing prickly Dinah's journey and characterization into more than a spoiled royal --- the introduction of Sir Gorrann as a foil for the exiled princess is fantastic -- but the book was hampered by the (lack of) length and the placeholder feel of the plot. Dinah continues to shine as a great example of imperfect protagonist. She is flawed but her flaws make her interesting.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of the nomadic horseriders, the Yurkei, to the plot and worldbuilding, though they don't really do all that much or stray outside of pretty standard fantasy tropes. This is a creative retelling and Oakes has a good imagination. I wasn't too thrilled with how quickly the romance led to Dinah's "bitter woman" thoughts but I am also beyond excited to see her come into her own as the Queen of Hearts.

More than anything this can feels like an extended set up for The Fury, the series final novel, and needed more time and plotting to really surprise as a sequel. There were a few good twists thrown in, but The Wonder lacks the finesse of the first. This is a darker novel and features some unpleasant/creepy scenes but it fits; I continue to enjoy Oakes's clever and harsh reinterpretation of the Alice in Wonderland staples.


Danielle's review of The Wonder

Book Haul

 So... Danielle and I kinda took an unofficial hiatus, didn't we? It's been a busy month and I just have not had the time for hobbies, much less the time committment that is blogging. I am less than 4 weeks from my wedding so I am a) working a lot b) doing a lot c) stressing a lot. I plan to return to normal-ish posting here soon. But life is hectic and it's summer anyway!

that said, stress relief in the form of book buying is doing wonders for me.


The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes (Walsh Family #5)
The Killing Woods by Lucy Chirstopher
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
#scandal by Sarah Ockler
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

 Now with Bonus Penny!

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (Jenna Fox Chronicles #1)

Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine (The Great Library #1)


Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (The Gold Seer Trilogy #1)

Thank you, Harper Teen!

Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler (Daylight Falls #1)

Thank you Bekka from Pretty Deadly Reviews!

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (Memoirs of Lady Trent #1)
The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan (Memoirs of Lady Trent #2)
The Voyage of the Basilisks by Marie Brennan (Memoirs of Lady Trent #3)

Thank you Lili and Tor!

I also got this because it is awesome:


The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Lumiere by Jacqueline Garlick (The Illumination Paradox #1)
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
The Beast's Garden by Kate Forsyth
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

I have already read a few of these or am currently (A Natural History of Dragons, In Real Life, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Everything, Everything) and they have not disappointed. Any new releases or books you're excited about?

Two Minute Review: The Paradox of Vertical Flight by Emil Ostrovski

Sunday, July 26, 2015
Title: The Paradox of Vertical Flight
Author: Emil Ostrovski
Genre: general and literary fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 272 (ARC edition)
Published: September 24 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 1/5

What happens when you put a suicidal eighteen-year-old philosophy student, his ex-girlfriend, his best friend, and his newborn baby in a truck and send them to Grandma's house? This debut novel by Emil Ostrovski will appeal to fans of John Green, Chris Crutcher, and Jay Asher.

On the morning of his eighteenth birthday, philosophy student and high school senior Jack Polovsky is somewhat seriously thinking of suicide when his cell phone rings. Jack's ex-girlfriend, Jess, has given birth, and Jack is the father. Jack hasn't spoken with Jess in about nine months—and she wants him to see the baby before he is adopted. The new teenage father kidnaps the baby, names him Socrates, stocks up on baby supplies at Wal-Mart, and hits the road with his best friend, Tommy, and the ex-girlfriend. As they head to Grandma's house (eluding the police at every turn), Jack tells baby Socrates about Homer, Troy, Aristotle, the real Socrates, and the Greek myths—because all stories spring from those stories, really. Even this one. Funny, heart-wrenching, and wholly original, this debut novel by Emil Ostrovski explores the nature of family, love, friendship, fate, fatherhood, and myth.

It took me over a week to read this less-than-300-page book. That is not a good sign. I can read over 100 pages in an hour. If a 272 page book takes me over a week to read, it's a sign I either: a. I love it beyond reason and want to draw out the experience as long as possible or b. can only read a few pages at a time without grimacing or c. can't force myself to pick it back up. For me, this book was a mix of both b and c and that made for a very long week.

This is not a good book. It's self-congratulatory navel-gazing pretensiousness on paper. The Paradox of Vertical Flight tries so very hard, and it all feels forced, unnatural, or completely unlikely - from characters to plot. It veers from overly series to ridiculously twee, often on the same page. It's almost unrepentantly self-indulgent.

It's drivel. It tries way too hard to be Deep and Meaningful and to Say Something Important. It succeeds at none of these things. Zero. Zip. Nada. The long monologues have flashes of insight, but not many and they are few and far between.

And it's just so dry. Boring. Overwrought. Overwritten. If I can't make it through a page without rolling my eyes, there's a good chance that your book need some serious editing.

Just because you can do something doesn't always mean you should. Just because the author thinks along these lines, "What I needed was a trump card. Something to make admissions deans all over the country trip over themselves at the thought of my attending their institution of higher learning. Writing, I decided, would be this trump card. After all, how hard could it be?" doesn't mean he is qualified to or should write a novel.

I know some people will read this and love it. They will read it and find a lot to think about and enjoy. I am unequivocally not one of those people. I don't begrudge anyone that, but The Paradox of Vertical Flight is not my kind of book -- everything about it rubbed me wrong and it never lived up to its promise/premise. 
Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Backlist Review: Various Positions by Martha Schabas

Genre: young-adult, general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2/5

Nuanced, fresh, and gorgeously well-written, Martha Schabas' extraordinary debut novel takes us inside the beauty and brutality of professional ballet, and the young women striving to make it in that world. Shy and introverted, and trapped between the hyper-sexualized world of her teenaged friends and her dysfunctional family, Georgia is only at ease when she's dancing. Fortunately, she's an unusually talented and promising dancer. When she is accepted into the notoriously exclusive Royal Ballet Academy--Canada's preeminent dance school--Georgia thinks she has made the perfect escape. In ballet, she finds the exhilarating control and power she lacks elsewhere in her life: physical, emotional and, increasingly, sexual.

This dynamic is nowhere more obvious than in Georgia's relationship with Artistic Director Roderick Allen. As Roderick singles her out as a star and subjects her to increasingly vicious training, Georgia obsesses about becoming his perfect student, disciplined and sexless. But a disturbing incident with a stranger on the subway, coupled with her dawning recognition of the truth of her parents' unhappy marriage, causes her to radically reassess her ideas about physical boundaries--a reassessment that threatens both Roderick's future at the academy and Georgia's ambitions as a ballerina.

That was... odd. Weird. Uncomfortable. Utterly not what I thought I was getting: a book about ballet dancers at an exclusive academy. This made me think quite often of last year's movie Black Swan except the whole thing where ballet is not the focus at all: the sexualized teacher-student relationship, the unhealthy obsession with food and thinness, the messed-up family dynamic at home. This is not a dance book at all: this is a book masquerading as dance book, and probably even masquerading as YA as far as I'm concerned. Now, at a second glance, having read this, even the title seems like a double entendre - and not one I like.

Georgia's fixation on her ballet instructor is as unsettling as it is perplexing. Georgia is supposedly a 14-year old girl, or a Grade 9 at the academy at which she studies. Interestingly, Various Positions reads nothing like a 14-year-old girl: far too mature-sounding (especially as Georgia is very, very naive), far too educated, this reads like the thoughts of a twentysomething. Basically: Georgia expresses herself beyond the capabilties of her years: it feels false, and it was quite jarring to read about [SPOILER ALERT] a 14-year-old ballerina googling sex phrases and then studying the poses of pornstars. While it totally could, and probably has happened, it didn't read like the perspective of a bareeeely teenaged kid. END SPOILERS] I don't have an issue with the sexual aspect, or even the fact that there is a lot of focus sex within the book: sex is natural, part of every teen's life. What I do mind is how Georgia relates to all of the above. It's not believable, nor I think, accurate. I also have large issues with the message sent about girls that do have sex.

There are absolutely no healthy relationships between the characters of Various Positions. None - strained? Check. Full-out dysfunctional? Check. Secretive/mysterious? Check Shady? Checkcheckcheck. Siblings, parents, friends: all Georgia's interactions are limited by her immaturity and her selfishness. Georgia cares about Georgia, and dance and how Georgia looks while dancing. She has zero friends: the closest she comes is a charter "named" Laura. Named is in quotes because all through the novel, she is never called anything by the narrator other than her audition number from the first chapter - Sixty. Georgia's interpersonal skills are so underdeveloped she frequently and alarmingly misinterprets many actions of many, many characters throughout the book. From a man on the subway, to her dad, to her teacher, Georgia is too naive to understand basic human interaction. Georgia's parents might lend an interesting perspective on her fixation on her teacher: as Georgia slowly realizes the similar patterns between her parents history and her current situation, her delusions/justifications become intensified and more urgent. It's also easy to point out Georgia has a strained relationship with father/father-figures, as her own dad is controlling, demeaning, distant father - an attitude mirrored in Roderick's approach to Georgia at the school. I just wish either Georgia had been aged up a bit, or all the sexual undertones and themes could've been toned down. It just really didn't work for such a young protagonist [SPOILER ALERT!] or was Georgia the antagonist? He was kind of a jerk, but he is the victim here. Or his career is. Either way: no [END SPOILER].

The other ballerinas, though largely ignored so much as to be set pieces, are a piece of work. From an unhealthy and uncomfortable focus on weight - one girl, one of the few to receive their own name, is outcast and shunned because she has thicker thighs! - made it hard for me to like anyone from this 300+ page book. The repeated and recurring label of "sex girls" versus virgins/prudes to distinguish within the group also set me off a bit; here to Georgia, to Roderick, ballet is art, utterly asexual and anyone that dares own her femininity is a "sex girl" and deserving of any and all bad things sure to come her way.

This is just an odd read. Two stars for now, but it could possibly go lower the longer I think about this and just why I was so disquieted while reading. Those looking for a light YA read about ballet, look elsewere. I've added Bunheads as an alternative option in my search for a good ballet book; Various Positions missed the mark. I've had a hate-on for this for several paragraphs so I will say this: not all is bad or uncomfortable in Various Positions. The writing itself is deceptively easy to sink in; though not much happens at all throughout, this is never a boring read. I'm sad that this ended up to be such a disappointment, but this wasn't the book I thought I was getting, and I disliked the book it was.

Backlist Review: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Monday, July 20, 2015
Author: Sarah Dessen
Genre: young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 402 (hardcover)
Published: May 2011
Source: bought
Rating: 3/5

Who is the real McLean?

Since her parents' bitter divorce, McLean and her dad, a restaurant consultant, have been on the move-four towns in two years. Estranged from her mother and her mother's new family, McLean has followed her dad in leaving the unhappy past behind. And each new place gives her a chance to try out a new persona: from cheerleader to drama diva. But now, for the first time, McLean discovers a desire to stay in one place and just be herself, whoever that is. Perhaps Dave, the guy next door, can help her find out.

Combining Sarah Dessen's trademark graceful writing, great characters, and compelling storytelling, What Happened to Goodbye is irresistible reading.

Sarah Dessen writes young-adult novels very well, with feeling and veracity and What Happened to Goodbye is on par with all her previous efforts (that I have read). Mclean is our main character, an independent and self-sufficient teenager that lives solely with her father after her mother cheated on their marriage. Since her mother and father's acrimonious divorce, Mclean has moved towns multiple times with her restaurant-fixing father, often adopting (and subsequently shedding) different versions of herself to play for each town. Dessen utterly nails the inner emotions and silent turmoil this troubled girl is experiencing: Mclean is a study in withdrawal and hidden pain. 

Familiar character types appear: the stalwart best friend, the intriguing love interest, the resented parent figure (this time the mother) but each with unique twists and traits to distinguish from both each other and past Dessen characters. Deb, the squirrely and unpopular yet utterly awesome best friend Mclean meets at her new school was constantly surprising me with different, random aspects of her personality. Portrayed as a bookish, uber-nerd, the revelation that Deb is a "metal screamo drummer" and tattoo enthusiast only increased my affection for this varied cast. Dessen's plots may tend a bit towards formulaic and recycled, but it is her fresh, fun characters that draw me back time and time again. Incorporating past figures (oh hey Jason from The Truth About Forever - glad to see you've matured up a bit! and Gervais from Lock and Key!) and new soon-to-be-loved ones like Deb and Opal.

Mclean herself was sadly not my favorite. Though realistic, I found her worldview and voice throughout the novel to be too dry and direct for me. With sparse descriptions and little to no visual exposition, this novel and Mclean herself were just not as fully realized for me. I liked her well enough, but the emotional distance she places between herself and others made it hard for me as a reader to feel sympathy for her in crucial moments. Mclean and her mother's avoidance of a conflict and voicing their problems drove me nuts. I can't stand vacillating for 300 pages and then nada; I want a compelling, even visceral scene if the drama has been hyped that much.

As I've mentioned I felt vaguely disappointed with parts of this novel and the climax was one of those. There was never a true feel of urgency in any part of the story, certainly not found at the end either. My interest was not kept in several of the subplots because there was no driving force or antagonist to keep the pace and story moving as it might have. Additionally, Dave, the love interest never really seemed to shoot sparks or fireworks with Mclean. They certainly had chemistry, but it was more platonic in my opinion.  I did like that the love-triangle and most of the romantic angst was hung on Mclean's dad Gus instead of her - I sometimes authors forget that a love triangle doesn't have to a young girl with two hot teen dudes; Gus and his women twist a familiar YA trope into a fresh and awkwardly humorous setting.

What Happened to Goodbye was not my favorite thus far of Dessen's books. Of the three I've read, I would rate it last of all but it is by no means a bad book. I think fans of Dessen's will inhale it and breathe out love, but I don't think it will be a novel that brings many new fans to the author. 

Review: Tankborn by Karen Sandler

Monday, July 13, 2015
Title: Tankborn
Author: Karen Sandler
Genre: dystopia, science fiction, young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 384 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: September 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated when the time comes for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. High-status trueborns and working-class lowborns, born naturally of a mother, are free to choose their own lives. But GENs are gestated in a tank, sequestered in slums, and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.

When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds a host of secrets and surprises—not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul's great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night. With the help of an intriguing lowborn boy, Mishalla begins to suspect that something horrible is happening to them.

After weeks of toiling in their Assignments, mystifying circumstances enable Kayla and Mishalla to reunite. Together they hatch a plan with their new friends to save the children who are disappearing. Yet can GENs really trust humans? Both girls must put their lives and hearts at risk to crack open a sinister conspiracy, one that may reveal secrets no one is ready to face.

Tankborn surprised me. What I initially assumed was simply a run-of-the-mill, churn-'em-out-quick young-adult dystopia, Tankborn emerges as a strong novel with compelling adult-ish themes about defining what humanity and beauty mean to every individual. Clocking in at a nice length of almost 400 pages, Karen Sandler creates a distinctive, dark and utterly readable world with her science fiction gem. I would put her indie-published Tankborn up there with The Hunger Games and The Demi-Monde as the best young-adult dystopias I have had the pleasure to read in 2011. Simply and best put: Tankborn is an all-inclusive novel that is not one to miss for any reader that appreciates well-rounded plot, outstanding and three-dimensional characters within an alien but totally interesting location.

The beginning of the novel does suffer a bit from a rushed introduction to a large variety of terms, places, people, scientific ideas. The book very quickly dispenses with needed information and details, and Tankborn is quickly a rewarding and interesting read. This is a standalone novel that doesn't stint on imagination: from vocabulary to flora and fauna, Karen Sandler left no stone unturned in creating her highly-realized and almost tangible Loka (I also wondered if the name "Loka" was a statement that the way of life on the planet was well . . loca. Sorry, I make bad jokes.) With both ominous and interesting-sounding names like sewer-toads, droms, seycats and (eeugh!!) giant spiders known as bhimkay, Loka is a wild tangle of creative, and very original plots and threads that mesh very well together. Over and over, I both felt that this was a book that was crafted so believably and so intricately as well as being very impressed by the effort of the author. It felt probable in a way I had had not anticipated for a youg-adult science fiction novel about gene-spicing and engineered people. It helps that the "science" of the novel is basic and minimal, without missing out on specificity or indulging in ridiculousness.

Kayla, the main character and my personal favorite of the varied lot, is a 14th-year GEN - otherwise known to everyone on the planet of Loka as a Genetically Engineered Non-human. In the 400 years since humans left earth, "gene-splicers" have mixed animal and human DNA, ascribing certain skill sets to each individual GEN. Within her very intricate, detailed and striated society because if this DNA and her tank-origin, Kayla represents the lowest of the low on the entire planet of Loka. Marked with identifying facial tattoos, Kayla's caste is reminiscent of both the "untouchables" of real-world India's infamous social pyramid mixed with the downtrodden Jewish population of  Nazi Germany. I really liked Kayla through the course of her struggles; this is a girl considered less than human, but one that genuinely empathizes and sympathizes with a trueborn even on her worst day. I do wish the novel had shown her with her tanksister and fellow main character Mishalla, but Kayla does not disappoint on her own. It's also refreshing to once again read a character of color, without her skin tone becoming her defining characteristic.

I can't say too much about Kayla's tanksister Mishalla. One of the few issues I had with this delightful read were with this particular character. She lacked initiative and in such a situation as she was in - it just drove me crazy for her to just sit and worry for 250 pages. I also felt her romance with the rarely-seen Eoghan was completely unrealistic. The reader sees them together maybe three times before the ending, and I never bought into their "love". Also - spoiler warning, fairly large, so stop reading this here! - her and her husband adopting the lost children? Also just: Mishalla getting married at about 15!?!?! - so obviously too much about this character didn't work for me. END SPOILERS. Now, lets talk about Kayla's love interest Devak. I liked him infinitely more than Eoghan and Mishalla, and thought his rounded personality of hedged kindness, curiousity and sheer arrogance presented a very real face/name for the readers to root for redemption. He's a bit naive, as is Kayla, in that these two believe so much of what they are told and do not question authority at all. I did like Kayla's and Devak's approach to their "relationship": it was mature, it was giving and especially at the end, it was surprising.

Echoing the earlier Nazi-vibes with the facial tattoos/identification of Kayla and the rest of the GENs, is the party saying, "Work Will Make You Safe" for the lowest of their rigid and regimented society (Nazi's used the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" meaning "works makes us free" above the concentration camp of Aushwitz.)  This omnipresent saying is both a reminder of the GENs own mythology of work ensuring happiness and reward after death from their deity The Infinite and also serves as a subtle threat from the government. The message is simple: the GENs existence is only suffered as a work force. If a GEN doesn't work, it is useless and will be "reset", or "realigned" out of existence. I love the multiple facets of real-world hatred and oppresion were worked into the framework of the soceity within Tankborn. From the allusions to Nazism and the "untouchable" aspect akin to India mentioned earlier, I also felt an echo of the United States slavery and continuing racial issues into the 1960's. Like blacks and whites of Earth before the Civil Rights Act, the GENs of Loka cannot share a water fountain, a seat with a trueborn: immediate action and punishment would follow were they to even try. Human suffering and oppresion are universal, sadly, and Ms. Sandler's sad, but entirely apt homage to that fact only reinforces the solidity of her science fiction creation.

(Warning: Slight spoilers ahead) All that praise written above is not to say I did not have a few quibbles with Tankborn. I sometimes felt that Kayla's neverending search for understanding and answers seemed a tad drawn out... especially when the man with literally ALL THE ANSWERS has both had illicit and seditious coversations with the main character as well as living less than 100 feet away. If a little time had been trimmed off her to-and-fro'ing, it would've been a more seamless (and sensical) read. I also wondered just why the gene-splicers are having issues creating new GENs - if they've had no issues the first 50 years of the experiments, why all of the sudden there is an issue? Still, these are two very minor issues waving in the face of much more win and awesome, so I didn't fixate on the irritations.

With an open ending that manages to both fulfill open-ended questions and leave a possibility for more in this complex world, Tankborn is a win. I will be on the constant lookout for more books from this author, set in this world/series or not. Karen Sandler is most impressive with her science fiction, young-adult dystopia set in a world far far away. It's a relevant and insightful look into racism, young love and burgeoning independence. 

Book Tour Review: Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

Thursday, July 9, 2015
Title: Love May Fail
Author: Matthew Quick
Genre: general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 416
Published: June 2015
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 2/5

Portia Kane is having a meltdown. After escaping her ritzy Florida life and her cheating pornographer husband, she finds herself back in South Jersey, a place that remains largely unchanged from the years of her unhappy youth. Lost and alone, looking for the goodness she believes still exists in the world, Portia sets off on a quest to save the one man who always believed in her—and in all of his students: her beloved high school English teacher, Mr. Vernon, who has retired broken and alone after a traumatic classroom incident.

Will a sassy nun, an ex-heroin addict, a metalhead little boy, and her hoarder mother help or hurt Portia’s chances on this quest to resurrect a good man and find renewed hope in the human race? Love May Fail is a story of the great highs and lows of existence: the heartache and daring choices it takes to become the person you know (deep down) you are meant to be. 

So having read The Good Luck of Right Now and enjoyed despite what could be the overly quirky nature of the narrative, I thought I was ready for Matthew Quick's latest adult novel. I was wrong. Love May Fail is like TGLoRN in that in pulls a disparate group of characters together to act out an outlandish plot while supporting the book's central themes.  But it's unlike TGLoRN in that it lacks the charming characters or writing to support the story and engage the audience. I wanted to love Love May Fail but in the end, I didn't end up feeling much about it besides annoyed and disappointed.

It's hard to engage in a novel when my character options are as follows: spoiled, privileged white lady, dead nun, morose ex-teacher with a fascination for Albert Camus (the writer) and Albert Camus (his deceased dog named after, oh I'm sorry, who was actually the reincarnation of Albert Camus-the-writer), and a genial but boring guy named Chuck who has loved the same girl -- despite not seeing her for years at a time -- for 20 years. This book is weird and it's not the kind of weird I could dig, personally. Portia never rises above her inherent privilege and is a mess for the whole book. Chuck is the least interesting POV of the bunch and it's because "nice" was the only characteristic given to him in over 400 pages.

And the length -- those 416 pages? They feel self-indulgent given how little plot exists in Love May Fail. This book is too long and too unfocused. Or perhaps just focused on the wrong aspects because it is also frequently tedious. People drink. Fight. Complain. Drama. More of the same. There are moments when I was caught up in the story -- that's how you know it's Matthew Quick. You fully realize the absurdity of what you're reading but you just don't care because it's so damn readable -- but they aren't as common as you would expect from the author of The Silver Linings Playbook. The humor is there, occasionally, but there's none of the poignancy from Quick's other books to be found.

There are kernels of a good story here, and I could see why, perhaps for a different kind of reader, this is already a good story. For me, it was just average and fairly unmemorable. It certainly wasn't to the standards I've come to expect from the author and the unlikely coincidences coupled with the overwrought characters made this one a hard sell. Love May Fail is unflinching and dark but with the lack of a substantial plot, but it wasn't enough to merit more than 2 stars.

Review: The Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson

Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Title: The Heart of Betrayal
Author: Mary E. Pearson
Genre: fantasy, post-apocalyptic, young adult
Series: The Remnant Chronicles #2
Pages: 470
Published: July 7 2015
Source: publishers for review
Rating: 4.5/5

Intrigue abounds in this hotly anticipated sequel to The Kiss of Deception!

Held captive in the barbarian kingdom of Venda, Lia and Rafe have little chance of escape. Desperate to save her life, Lia's erstwhile assassin, Kaden, has told the Vendan Komizar that she has the gift, and the Komizar's interest in Lia is greater than anyone could have foreseen.

Meanwhile, nothing is straightforward: there's Rafe, who lied to Lia, but has sacrificed his freedom to protect her; Kaden, who meant to assassinate her but has now saved her life; and the Vendans, whom Lia always believed to be barbarians. Now that she lives amongst them, however, she realizes that may be far from the truth. Wrestling with her upbringing, her gift, and her sense of self, Lia must make powerful choices that will affect her country... and her own destiny.

If there's an antidote for Second Book/Sequel Syndrome, Mary E. Pearson has it.  Last year the first book in this post-apocalyptic/fantasy hybrid series was a fun and engaging, if flawed, introduction to the world of Lia and Terravin, but Heart of Betrayal, with the Komizar in Venda, is to Kiss of Deception what Crown of Midnight was to Throne of Glass. In every way, this sequel improves upon its predecessor. It's just as fun but has more depth; there's action, but it's balanced by a more political plot; the familiar characters are further developed and the new ones are just as well rendered. Pearson's story and filled out has grown to fit the imagination shown in the first.

The Heart of Betrayal is much less concerned with the romance this time around... and somehow, that makes the romance-as-a-subplot work a lot better. It helps that the cleverly constructed but still irritating love triangle is resolved (sorry Liaden shippers) but that doesn't mean that it's happily ever after for Rafe and Lia, especially once the Komizar comes into play.

So often YA novels focus on just the importance of starting a relationship between main characters but not dealing with the... shenanigans the preceded it, or the work that goes into maintaining it. That is not so here -- both Lia and Rafe have to come to terms with questions about their relationship and each other. They've both lied, deceived, and manipulated each other -- it's not a perfect pairing. It could be overwrought and overwhelm the real plot, but Pearson handles it pretty well. The forced-apart-for-reasons trope is rarely well-employed but Pearson sells it here by making those "reasons" authentic to the plot and the characters' situations.

Speaking of reasons keeping the love interests apart... let's talk about new characters and places. I loved seeing the new sides of the world with the introduction to Venda thanks to Lia's abduction. The author didn't go into as much worldbuilding detail as I would like to see (especially with the near-canon nod that yes, this was once America [CALLED IT!]) but did a decent job of presenting Venda as a completely different and organic culture. However, since we are two books in, there are some holes in the worldbuilding that need filling and fast, if this trilogy is going to wrap up satisfactorily. We do see more interaction between the countries but there is little else to go on, which bums my fantasy-loving heart. I am so interested in this world that Pearson has envisioned (almost akin to Erika Johansen did with The Queen of the Tearling series) but I need more solid information to really endorse it.

Character-wise, I can always appreciate a good antihero. Pearson walks the line with crafting  the Komizar -- I couldn't quuuuiiiiite get there even with my penchant for loving the antihero --- but she makes him a compelling and intriguing character despite his many faults. There are hints about his past that hopefully are explored further later in the books but he is the focus of the novel as much as Lia for all of his being a latecomer to the series. Lia reacts to him rather than the pattern we are used to from the first book (Lia making decisions and everyone else scrambling to keep up, compete, etc.) and he's a well-drawn antagonist. Calantha remains opaque and unpredictable but has potential for a larger role and more importance with her strategic position and her privileged knowledge.

Lia really comes into her own over the course of The Heart of Betrayal. She was always a likeable but naive character but here, with grief and maturity and determination tempering her, she's becoming quite a clever force to reckon with. Even as a prisoner, or a captive, Lia never gives up or stops playing the mental game.  Outnumbered and out of her depth, she fights back and plans her vengeance but she does so intelligently and with care. Lia is many things, but her intelligence and her empathy are two of my favorite aspects to her characterization. Rafe has less to work with (damn you third person) and less time as a narrator, but he also matures over the course of the book.

The Heart of Betrayal is darker book than I was expecting, given the first novel's plot and tone. It's not a typical fantasy, but Pearson isn't pulling punches. This second book is more serious, more thoughtful, and a damn good read.

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