Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: Iced by Karen Marie Moning

Title: Iced (Dani O'Malley, #1; Fever, #6) 

Author: Karen Marie Moning

Rating: 2 Stars

Iced is a shockingly disappointing installment from Karen Marie Moning. Honestly, I can't believe this is the same author who wrote the first five books of the Fever Series, charming readers with her impeccable plotting and honest narration. While there are a plethora of issues with Iced, many of which have been discussed at length by earlier readers, the crux of my problem with this novel is not Dani or her narration; it's the flimsy plot, the unnecessary glimpses into the minds of characters who offer nothing to the tale, and the cheap tactics by which Moning distinguishes the "good" guys from the "bad" ones.

Although Iced could have easily been set a few years after the end of Shadowfever, mostly to give us a narrator who isn't fourteen-years-old, this novel takes places shortly after the events of the first five Fever books. Dani, now estranged from Mac, is captured and blackmailed brutally by Ryodan who forces her to help him discover how--and why--parts of Dublin are slowly being iced over. If it wasn't bad enough that Dani is being bullied by Ryodan, she has to contend with Christian, whose transformation into an Unseelie Prince seems to be tampering with his sanity, all while trying to enjoy her childhood with the people she actually wants like Dancer, a genius kid who is one of Dani's only true friends.

While Dani's narration can take some time to get used to, I have to admit that I actually like her. Seriously, I have nothing but respect for Dani. She's young, talented, and thrown into a world where she's the smallest fish--not to mention the fact that Mac, who was like an older sister to her, has now abandoned her. Dani may be reckless and naive, but she does the best she can in the circumstances she's thrown in. Moreover, she keeps a clear mind and unlike other characters in the novel (*ahem*, Jo!) she is able to see Ryodan and Christian for what they are. Ryodan, for all the swooning readers do over him, is, plain and simple, a bully. He secures Dani's cooperation by blackmailing her and hiring Jo as a result of that transaction and, for that, Dani detests him. She does her best to maintain her freedom and sense of independence and, in doing so, often violates Ryodan's many rules which allow him to keep an eye on her. Yet, despite the fact that Dani tells everyone who will listen that Ryodan is bad news, out of everyone else in this book, he's possibly the adult that treats her best. Which, honestly, is despicable. Ryodan is likable simply because in comparison to Christian, who is a full-fledged pedophile, he is a saint. Ryodan doesn't sexualize Dani and though he is possessive of her, he never crosses the lines that Christian does.

Speaking of Christian, I feel genuinely sorry to see him have sunk this low. Back in the day, Christian was hot. I mean, we all swooned over this guy. Now? Ick, you can't get me out of Christian's head any faster! Moning includes one too many chapters from Christian's perspective and it's beyond disturbing. Not only is Christian obsessed with Dani, thinking about her constantly and trying to convince her that someday they will be together, but even the actions he completes that have nothing to do with Dani are disturbing. I just feel sad that Moning felt compelled to mold him into a sick, genuinely reviling character. Thus, in comparison to Christian, I can completely see why readers are falling head-over-heels for Ryodan. I'd prefer anyone to Christian. Yet, that doesn't negate the fact that Ryodan isn't exactly Mr. Nice Guy and though I suspect I might grow to like him more as the series progresses--after all, that was the case with Barrons, too--I'm not holding my breath.

Characters aside, Iced is a novel composed of filler pages. Not much happens in such a hefty volume and the fact that Ryodan requires Dani's help is a flimsy excuse for a plot to be built upon. It isn't until the last hundred, or so, pages that the plot finally picks up and Iced ends with a bang. Hopefully, this means that Burned will be far more entertaining and far less cringe-worthy. At any rate, I'm hoping that a healthy dose of Mac and Barrons can reclaim the magic of the Fever Series. While Moning's novels often deal with brutal, horrific themes at least they've had an adult protagonist cope with those situations. Dani, at fourteen, is just too young a character and to expect her to be on par with Mac, physically and particularly emotionally, isn't fair. What's more, I found that Mac's story is an emotionally compelling one: her sister has been murdered and Mac wants revenge. With Iced, the motivations feel cheap and lack depth. Dani's backstory certainly pulls heartstrings but her past has little to do with her present.

I knew, from the mixed reviews--many of them unhappy ones--that Iced wasn't going to be a favorite of mine. I just hoped, foolishly perhaps, that knowing what to expect would make the experience of reading this far more tolerable. I guess...not. Iced is slow, torturous, and not what I would expect after a five fast-paced, action-filled novels with revelations and plot twists around every corner. Needless to say, if Moning plans to keep fans reading this spin-off, Burned will need to be a really good read.

Update: Burned is good! You can read my mini-review of it HERE

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Title: Prisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1) 

Author: Anne Blankman

Rating: 3.5 Stars

I only truly began to fall for this novel towards the end. Gretchen, the protagonist of this debut whose relationship with Adolf Hitler is intimate enough that she addresses him as Uncle Dolf, reads far younger than her age for much of this novel. Prisoner of Night and Fog chronicles her much needed wake-up call as she finally recognizes the lies that she has been fed all her life. It isn't until almost after half-way through the tale that she begins to come into her own; formulating her own opinions and leaving behind the teachings of Uncle Dolf.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Gretchen grow and change remarkably over the scope of this novel. From her former naivety to the bravery she accumulates like a cloak, her character is tremendously inspirational and downright believable as well. Despite aching to free her family from Uncle Dolf's influence as well, Gretchen is nevertheless prone to cracks of vulnerability in her armor. What's more, despite the fact that her profound change is precipitated by Daniel, a Jewish reporter who reveals that Gretchen's father did not die saving Hitler, as she believed, Gretchen's actions are self-motivated. Instead of dismissing Daniel, Gretchen discovers that her father was murdered by a member of Hitler's own party and her steps to discover just who murdered him are not solely a result of Daniel's influence.

Gretchen and Daniel's romance is sweet and nurturing; a support system in a time when they both lack precisely that. Gretchen's family is falling apart, whether it be her older brother who harbors psychological illnesses of his own or her mother, determined to do right by her elder child even if it means sacrificing much of Gretchen's own happiness. Each of these relationships is so nuanced and rich, full of scope and depth, and yet they also align perfectly with history. Many of the characters in this novel are real Nazis and the manner in which Blankman weaves Gretchen's fictional tale alongside Hitler's slow accumulation of power is tremendous. In learning of WWII, we often learn of the Holocaust and the end of the war, not Nazi politics, so the fact that this novel remains intensely political is a welcome surprise.

I didn't expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did. Perhaps if I had, I'd have picked up my ARC sooner. But Gretchen is a heroine I can get behind, just as Daniel is a love interest I can swoon over. It isn't an easy path for these teens but their struggles are realistic, rooted in history, and not without their sacrifices. Although Gretchen's narration reads young, many of the brutal events in this novel are definitely geared towards a more mature set of readers. Blankman provides a detailed explanation of fact and fiction at the closing of this debut which made for fascinating reading, particularly as many of the facts revealed were ones I didn't know myself. She goes into great depths about the psychological mindset of not only Hitler, but many high-ranking Nazi officers, and Gretchen's search for her father's killer brings her face-to-face with a myriad of other realities she is forced to accept. Brilliantly written, Prisoner of Night and Fog is one historical fiction debut you won't want to miss.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Romance Mini-Reviews: Burned by Karen Marie Morning, Still the One by Jill Shalvis, The Kraken King by Meljean Brooks, and Crushed by Lauren Layne

Title: Burned (Fever, #7) 

Author: Karen Marie Moning 

Rating: 4 Stars

Burned hasn't been the most popular book off-late. It seems as if every day I open my Goodreads homepage to yet another slew of negative reviews of this novel, alongside the slightly hesitant positive ones. Despite not enjoying Iced, though, I really did like Burned. It's funny, it's light, and it's entertaining--frankly, I don't ask for much more from my Urban Fantasy. Granted, the synopsis is utterly misleading in that the "drama" between Mac and Barrons is low-key and of little worry, but the new characters introduced in this installment have me salivating to find out where Moning takes this series next. I agree with a lot of the points reviewers have brought up about why this novel isn't nearly quite so good--it takes the easy-way-out in some instances, Mac's PoV isn't always necessary, it goes to great lengths to paint morally ambiguous characters are purely good--but I also didn't feel as if these faults were wholly detrimental to the plot line.

Burned is a fast-paced read, one that even I could get into despite my piles of pending work, and re-visiting these beloved characters was a treat. I'm confident Moning has a plan for the rest of this series and I'm prepared to stick along to find out what it is. After all, if she could smooth away the rough edges of Iced then, surely, she can do anything.

Title: Still the One (Animal Magnetism, #6) 

Author: Jill Shalvis 

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: April 7th, 2015

Still the One is, unfortunately, the most disappointing installment I've read in the Animal Magnetism series. Darcy and AJ, the romantic leads at the forefront of this novel, are fascinating characters in their own right. A travel photographer for National Geographic, Darcy has always been a dare-devil, living life to the max. When she meets with an accident that leaves her unable to walk until after intense physical therapy, the course of her life is forever altered. AJ, her physical therapist and brother's best friend, has been there with her through thick-and-thin. So, of course, when she throws herself at him and he rejects her, Darcy is shattered and determined to move on. But AJ is quickly realizing that when it comes to Darcy, he made a huge mistake, and now, he wants her back. At any cost.

Shalvis has an easy way of forcing her characters into your heart and that is no less apparent in Still the One. I adored this heroine, with her prickly nature and tough exterior, all hiding a heart of mush, and this strong and silent hero, whose hurts were so deeply concealed. Darcy and AJ are a perfect match but their love story, full of the push-and-pull that can grate so easily, lost its appeal. Moreover, there are one-too-many tropes used in this one and, ultimately, though I adore these two as individuals, this is one case where I felt as if their relationship was weaker than their separate personalities.

Clearly a must-read for fans, I'm sure Still the One will still satisfy--after all, it's Jill Shalvis. But, nevertheless, I'd lower my expectations for this one, just ever-so-slightly...

Title: The Kraken King (Iron Seas, #4) 

Author: Meljean Brooks

Rating: 4 Stars

Although I harbored my doubts when Brooks announced that The Kraken King would be written in a serialized format, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how effectively it came together as a cohesive novel. The latest in this vividly imaginative steampunk series follows Zenobia Fox, the sister of adventurer Archimedes Fox, and her experiences are no less enthralling than that of her sibling. The Kraken King worked particularly effectively due to its length. It feels longer than her other novels--and rightly so, due to the serial format--but it also allows her to infuse more detail and depth into the world and her characters. The romantic tension is prolonged, a slow-burn that feels so good and the problems that rip these two apart are wholly mental and all the more realistic for it. Of course, Brooks excels at political machinations and introducing new facets to the world she has created, time and time again, so these books are all-round winners through-and-through. If you haven't picked them up yet; do.

Title: Crushed (Redemption, #2) 

Author: Lauren Layne 

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Release Date: April 14th, 2015

While the first novel in this series really is the best--Isn't She Lovely--I enjoyed Crushed far more than I did Broken and the vibrant, unique protagonist of this novel completely won me over. I think what makes this series tricky--or at least the last two installments--is the fact that these protagonists are not nice. They don't fit into pre-defined labels of goodness but they also aren't quite the classic bad boy so it's hard to know how to navigate a lot of the sticky emotions in these books. Moreover, the characters are at that New Adult stage where everything just is overly dramatized, mostly because of the nature of the genre but partly because of the age group as well. While I grew a little impatient with the prolongation of the final HEA--seriously, did we need all of those misunderstandings--I still thought this was an excellent novel from Layne. Her adult series definitely sit better with me but this was a genuinely interesting and original take on a lot of classic tropes in the New Adult genre and the more I think about the nuances Layne added to her work, the more I find to recommend within this series.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Mini-Review: The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons

Title: The Glass Arrow

Author: Kristen Simmons

Rating: 3.5 Stars
The Handmaid’s Tale meets Blood Red Road in Glass Arrow, the story of Aya, who lives with a small group of women on the run from the men who hunt them, men who want to auction off breeding rights to the highest bidder. In a world where females are scarce and are hunted, then bought and sold at market for their breeding rights, 15-year old Aya has learned how to hide. With a ragtag bunch of other women and girls, she has successfully avoided capture and eked out a nomadic but free existence in the mountains. But when Aya’s luck runs out and she’s caught by a group of businessmen on a hunting expedition, fighting to survive takes on a whole new meaning.
The Glass Arrow is being lauded as a breath of fresh air in the dystopian genre--and, to some extent, I suppose it is. Yet, while Simmons latest is a vast improvement from her debut trilogy (in my opinion, at any rate), I found myself left wanting at the end. Simmons throws us into a futuristic world where the freedoms women have fought so hard to win are, once again, stripped away. In the world of The Glass Arrow, women are auctioned off for their beauty and virginity, the combination proving to be deadly as wealthy merchants, landowners, and politicians seek females in order to extend their line. Aya, our protagonist who has grown up in the wild, free from civilization's constraints, finds herself captured and awaiting to be auctioned. Determined to escape and return to her family, still somewhere in the wilderness, Aya rebels and finds herself thrown time and time again into solitary confinement.

In solitary confinement, Aya befriends Brax, a wolf pup, and Kiran, a Driver. The Drivers are a separate caste, almost, of people who are said to be born mute. Though Kiran doesn't speak, Aya finds herself slowly growing to trust him. As a heroine, Aya is an inspiration. Not only does she shut down, fight against, and correct the notions of the girls around her--beliefs that they hold about their worth as seen through a man's eyes--but she can hold her own both physically and mentally as well. While she's remarkably similar to kick-ass protagonists like Tris or Katniss who care for their family and freedom above all else, the originality of the realm she survives in sets her apart. Aya isn't a difficult character to like and neither is Kiran. Though the Drivers can be dangerous, and Aya suspects Kiran during their initial meetings, the friendship and trust that build between them extend to the reader as well. While Aya is an open book from the first page to the last, Simmons uncovers the layers to Kiran's character slowly, using his mute-ness to create a dynamic between himself and Aya that is wholly unique. Aya and Kiran's romance is subtle--a true back-burner--and though I yearned for more of it, it is nevertheless utterly satisfying.

The Glass Arrow possesses a scintillating plot line, one that shifts from different settings and introduces a fascinating host of secondary characters at every turn. I couldn't predict the outcome of many of the situations Aya was placed in but I found myself emotionally involved and rooting for her throughout. Yet--and perhaps this is because I attend an all-women's college--I wanted The Glass Arrow to take a stronger feminist stance. Aya is seemingly the only female in this world who wants her own rights and freedoms. Moreover, there is little to no political scheme throughout this story though I would love to see this set-up of this future explored in a manner that isn't traditionally dystopian. While Simmons has created a world full of strife, inequality, and injustice, she doesn't use this as a platform to remark on modern-day issues. Or, at any rate, not enough. I expected this to be a larger-than-life tale and though Aya and Kiran's journey is remarkable and touching, it also stays a little too safe, in my eyes. Simmons doesn't challenge her readers to think or question society--it's all quite black-and-white--and I find myself wondering why she chose such a potentially conflicting backdrop if she didn't intend to spark conversation.

Nevertheless, The Glass Arrow is a fast-paced, entertaining dystopia which is guaranteed to garner emotional attachment. While it didn't reach the full potential I hoped for, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Simmons returns to this world--much like the authors of These Broken Stars--to more carefully remark on other aspects of this universe. For those who believe the dystopian genre has run dry of ideas, The Glass Arrow will prove you wrong.

Monday, March 30, 2015

In Which I Meet My Favorite Author OF ALL TIME

Yes, you read that right. I went to a book event. And I met my favorite author EVER. If you don't already know who that is, it's Kristin Cashore, writer of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue. The Seven Kingdoms trilogy is a fantasy trilogy with Fire being my all-time favorite novel. It's a trilogy that is often disputed among readers of the blogosphere but they are my absolute favorites and I cannot recommend them enough. If you are a fan of fantasy, kick-ass heroines, and swoon-worthy romances then, trust me, these are books to place high on your bookshelf.
Kristin and Marie Rutkoski were meant to give a joint event with Q&A at the Harvard Bookstore, roughly an hour away from where I attend school in Massachusetts, but Marie, unfortunately, couldn't make it. Luckily for me, though, this still meant I could meet Kristin Cashore and that the entire event was dedicated to asking her questions and simply basking in the glory that is the Seven Kingdoms trilogy. Kristin mostly answered a LOT of questions, the most interesting of which I have transcribed below, but she also commented a little bit on The Winner's Crime, Marie's latest novel which I have reviewed HERE. If you are interested in obtaining the full, 47-minute Q&A dialogue with Kristin just e-mail me and I'd be happy to send it over. I have it saved for posterity on my iPhone and will likely cherish it forever because Kristin Cashore! 

Kristin on The Winner's Crime: I guess what I love about Marie's books and these ones in particular is that it's just got a certain emotional intelligence. They're very plot driven, they're definitely page turners, but the characters are believable, emotional characters and it's their feelings, their hearts that are driving the plot. 

Q: So you're working on something now? I've been waiting for a very long time. 
Kristin: I have two things in revisions right now. One is contemporary realistic YA and one is really weird. It's sort of a genre crossing bizarre thing that I can't really talk about because it could change but that weird one is probably going to be my next book that comes out. I'm also drafting a new fantasy that I am forbidden to say anything about. 

Q: Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue are all interconnected. Did you plan that from the beginning? 
Kristin: So I was writing Graceling and there's a scene where Katsa and Po are talking about where Leck came from and he says he came to the Monsean court and would tell these stories about a land where monsters rise out of the rocks and armies ride out of the tunnels and I just made that up; I needed the stories to be about something. But I kept thinking about that and wondered what does that mean? What if that was the one thing that Leck said that was actually true? What is that place? And Fire grew from that. And because Fire takes place in another land I was able to do a much better job with world-building. [...] I was in the Jacksonville Public Library on the balcony having a conversation with my mother and I was like, "OH, thank god I'm almost done writing fantasy, I'm so tired of writing fantasy!" and she said, "You know who I really wonder about?" and I said "Who?" and she said "Bitterblue." And I knew that was going to be the next book; that's what all of this has been leading toward because let's actually deal with what this man did and Bitterblue is the one who had to get to the end of her story. How do you deal with what she dealt with?

Q: Are there any characters that seem smaller but in your head have a much bigger story but you don't get to tell it within the book?
Kristin: One character who probably doesn't seem small to anyone but in fact is bigger than he is in the book is Po. I hope someday I'll get a chance to write something from his perspective because I really think no one can quite understand what it is he's dealing with all the time in his own head and his own experience of just getting around in the world. But what I've noticed is that a lot of times it's some of my throwaway, on-the-side men who I'm just using as some sort of tool for the book, like Gideon for example, Gideon in Graceling who I hated--I just hated--and afterwards on book tours some people said to me, "You know who I really feel sorry for? Gideon," and I thought, "What if Gideon grew up? And changed and evolved?" I started Bitterblue not expecting him to be so important but he became really important. I don't really think about the characters except as they exist in the books so if I do start thinking about someone having a larger characterization it's probably because I'm hoping to write another book.

But characters can really surprise you, they can grow on you. In Fire it was Nash. I really didn't know I was going to end up caring for him. In fact, Nash was supposed to die in the scene where he gets attacked. I didn't keep him alive for my own purposes, I kept him alive because I realized I couldn't do this to Fire or she would never recover. It wasn't the story I wanted to tell. But I was, nonetheless, personally happy to keep him alive.

Q: One of the things that I loved in Bitterblue was the cipher and the coding. I found it really interesting and I always wondered where it came from.
Kristin: Bitterblue is one of those characters that likes a lot of things I don’t like; a lot of things I’m not wonderful at. I find ciphers really boring. But, in this book, I had to learn about them and write them. I don’t entirely remember but I know that it seemed realistic to me that Bitterblue’s mother would have tried to convey something and that her father would have, in his self-important way, would need to write in a complicated cipher in a language that no one but him spoke. One of my sister’s made the symbols for the cipher and I hired a friend, who also created the Dellian language for me. I didn’t ask him to create it for me—I just needed three words—but he said, “Well, I’ve basically created a program. It sounds amazing but it’s really not. It was just the easiest way.” It’s really cool but he could translate anything for me into Dellian. He said, “Oh yeah, I just brought English back a few steps into an earlier language and then I brought it forward a few steps into a language that could be created by a mountain.” It’s a really good language; he created a really good language for me. But he created the cipher for me, too.

You do remind me, though, of one of the sweeter moments. My mother sent me an e-mail after reading Bitterblue and it was a cipher and she didn’t give me the key to it. Of course, it was my name, just as the cipher in Bitterblue was Bitterblue’s name. It was a very sweet moment.

Q: I think all your books are focused on a theme, like womanhood. Do you start out with a theme because they all seem really focused?
Kristin: I start out with something that is beyond the plot and characters; just some sort of emotional story that I’m trying to tell, for every book. It can be a complicated one but I’m always going back to that. 

Q: I think one of the great things about your books—and Marie’s—is that they have such strong female characters. Is there one that you identify with more that was easier to write? 
Kristin: Easiest to write was Katsa because she’s so emotionally unaware. I guess if I had to say, there are certain ways I relate to all of them. Bitterblue is just a regular girl, she doesn’t have any special powers, so I related to her. But she’s like my daughter; they all start to feel more like my kids.

Q: What about Kestrel or Arin?
Kristin: I’m not as clever or manipulative as Kestrel. I’m too honest and she’s an actor. I would love to be like her; she really plays the long game. I think I’m more like Arin. Marie is more like Kestrel, though. You kind of have to be able to think that way to write a character like that. 
 I don't think I can put into words what an incredible experience this was. Kristin Cashore's novels--her words--are ones I've gone back to time-and-time again; they've been with me through thick-and-thin and though they are mere pieces of paper, bound together, they are so near and dear to my heart. I've dreamed about meeting Kristin myself for years and she was just as poised, charming, and intelligent as I imagined--if not more. I wait with bated breath, both for what she will write next and for the next author to grace my radar because after this, there is no doubt in my mind that I will be queuing up to attend more book events. :)