Monday, August 22, 2016

ARC Review: Made For Sin by Stacia Kane


Title: Made For Sin

Author: Stacia Kane

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: August 30th, 2016

Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series is simply incredible. Each book is better than the last, the characters well-developed and unique in a world that is bursting with originality and darkness. I've been anxious and excited for the latest Downside Ghosts novel for years, but when I realized that Kane was starting a new series, I immediately transferred those emotions onto Made For Sin. And that is, certainly, my fault. Made For Sin is an interesting, certainly thought-provoking new foray into urban fantasy for Kane but it is no Downside Ghosts. Sadly.

Where this novel falters is, unfortunately, in its rocky beginning. Made For Sin takes place over the course of three days and that first day--nearly the first third of the book--is painstakingly slow. The mystery is gruesome, but fascinating, so it is a surprise that it is Kane's characters who leave the story bleak and dull. Speare, our narrator, works for a notorious crime boss in Las Vegas, tasked with determining who has been murdering--and slicing off body parts--of said crime boss's right-hand men. In order to help solve the mystery, Speare turns to Ardeth, a thief and dealer in magical artifacts. But Speare and Ardeth are not safe and as the bodies--and missing body parts--keep piling up, Speare must decide which danger is more pressing: the killer on the loose or the evil in his head.

Literally, there is evil in Speare's head. At thirteen, a demon appeared in Speare's head, sharing his body with him. In order to keep the beast at bay, and satisfied, Speare must sin. If he keeps himself from sinning, the beast could take over--and when that happens, Speare surges back into his body, often overlooking a carnage of death. Thus, Speare has learned the art of sinning like no one else, keeping himself aloof and alone so that the beast cannot hurt anyone else. Unfortunately, what this means is that Speare is quite...boring. When he hasn't sinned in awhile, like at the start of this novel, he is nearly incapable of holding a witty conversation, instead focused on keeping the beast held down. His entire existence revolves around the beast--which I completely understand--but it's akin to befriending someone whose existence revolves around their significant other. After awhile, there's just not that much more to them.

Where this story really picks up is when the beast begins to make an appearance. The mystery is extremely well-paced and unpredictable, so it's not easy to set this book down, and Ardeth, though a little bland at first, grows into her character, proving to be indomitable and clever. As Speare's demon grows stronger, flickering in and out of his mind-view, Made For Sin becomes a strong, four-star read. I sped through the pages, marveling at the complexities and layers that the beast brought to Speare and Ardeth's relationship. The ending, with its plot twists and unexpected sacrifices, is compelling--it's certainly enough to have me eager for the sequel (although another Downside Ghosts book, first, would not be unwelcome).

Nevertheless, I cannot deny that the first third of this story isn't as fascinating as it could be and, further, I feel as if this story has been written before, in bits and pieces, and in some ways better. Sarah Rees Brennan's Demon's Lexicon and Lynburn Legacy trilogy contain demons and voices-in-your-head, respectively. More recently, V.E. Schwab's This Savage Song is about monsters and humans; how a monster tries to keep himself from killing/eating in order to convince himself of his own humanity. It's similar, in so many ways, to Speare's sinning and while this book is Adult while those previously mentioned are Young Adult, there's nothing more that makes this novel better.

Made For Sin is an interesting read. I'm curious to see where the future of this series lies and would love to read more about this world--not to mention, there's an elephant (or demon) in the room that needs to be taken care of. But if this is your first foray into Stacia Kane, read her Downside Ghosts series instead. It's vivid and alive, its characters leaping off the page and never dull, not for a single moment. Its romance is sexier, stronger, and far more swoon-worthy. Naturally, I'll read anything this woman writes, but her latest is a mere shadow of her full potential.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: Undecided by Julianna Keyes


Title: Undecided 

Author: Julianna Keyes

Author: 4 Stars

Undecided is a sexy, smart, love-triangle-free New Adult novel. Nora, the protagonist, is a sophomore in college desperately trying to get her life back on track. She partied during her freshman year and after losing half her scholarship after a series of infractions, Nora is determined to study and avoid attending a single party all year. When she winds up rooming with Kellan, a frat guy who is best friends with Crosbie--easily the two guys who sleep around the most on campus--she tells herself she isn't going to fall for them. But she can't get Crosbie out of her head; he keeps sneaking past her boundaries and turning out to be a much person than she originally bargained. But Nora's past is sticky and sordid and as much as she tries to escape it, she can't...

I really enjoyed Undecided because of its focus on college--the mistakes you inevitably make and the journey to fixing them. I loved Nora from the first page itself, mostly because she wasn't perfect. Nora is the goody-two-shoes who blended in and never stood out in high school and for her, college was a time to let loose and become a different person. It turns out that for Nora, though, there isn't a middle-ground between partying and studying. I admired Nora for owning her mistakes, though, and making a conscious effort to change her habits. I also appreciate that Keyes doesn't sugarcoat the college experience. Nora has to work hard, forgoing parties and friendships from time-to-time to keep up with her school work. Plus, she works outside of her regular classes and as a college student myself, I felt as if Nora's lifestyle was authentic.

There's also a gaping double-standard in the college party scene when it comes to hook-ups that Keyes addresses very tactfully. Nora is terrified that her growing regard for Crosbie is going to make her a "Crosbabe," the name given to the long list of women that Crosbie has been with over the years. This list is literally posted on the bathroom stalls and numbered so the last thing Nora wants is to become #26. But Crosbie, too, hates that there is a list of women he has "conquered" floating around the college. Although he benefited from his frat boy status last year, as he, too, tries to turn over a new leaf he finds that his past poses problems in any future he may have with Nora. Though I appreciates that Keyes discusses the issue of college hook-up culture, both the agency it gives women and the power it takes away from them, I wish that she had focused a little bit more on this issue, merely because it was central to the storyline and I think this is an important discussion to have in a New Adult setting.

But, the true highlight of Undecided is the romance. Crosbie and Nora have a slow-burn romance that is all kinds of delicious tension and hot chemistry. I really loved how the two of these characters approached any type of relationship with preconceived notions about one another and, as they began to know one another better, peeled back the layers to their personalities. Moreover, Crosbie and Kellan's bromance is a factor that doesn't change, which I appreciate. Undecided is low on the drama and the emphasis on friendship isn't lost, even for Nora. Both Nora and Crosbie have active lives outside one another and their ability to balance their school work alongside their relationship and other activities is realistic.

If you're looking for a New Adult romance that doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth, Undecided is your best bet. While I think it could have benefited from more than just one encounter with Nora's parents and I would have liked to see the discussion about Nora picking a major and coming to terms with the double-standards erected by hook-up culture expand, I found this to be a thoughtful and mostly accurate portrayal of college life. Nora is a heroine that isn't hard to root for, despite her flaws and past mistakes, and Crosbie will win your heart over in a heartbeat. I devoured this novel in an afternoon and would do it all over again if I could. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Blog Tour: Vicarious by Paula Stokes

I am so, so excited to be kicking off the blog tour for Paula Stokes's Vicarious today!! I've read and enjoyed every single one of Stokes's novels, but Vicarious is unique and unlike anything else I've ever read. If you've been a reader of the blog for awhile, you'll know that I very rarely participate in blog tours and am, in fact, very selective of which books I choose to promote on this platform. But, Vicarious is a groundbreaking novel in YA, featuring a Korean protagonist, half-Mexican romantic interest, and an honest discussion of PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Stokes is all about pushing the barriers of what we think of as YA and I am so honored and proud to be a part of this tour. Without further ado (seriously, if you want to read more of my thoughts on this novel, you can read my review here), I'm going to hand it over to Paula Stokes!

Winter Kim and her sister, Rose, have always been inseparable. Together the two of them survived growing up in a Korean orphanage and being trafficked into the United States. But they've escaped the past and started over in a new place where no one knows who they used to be. Now they work as digital stunt girls for Rose's ex-boyfriend, Gideon, engaging in dangerous and enticing activities while recording their neural impulses for his Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs. Whether it's bungee jumping, shark diving, or grinding up against celebrities in the city's hottest dance clubs, Gideon can make it happen for you--for a price. When Rose disappears and a ViSE recording of her murder is delivered to Gideon, Winter is devastated. She won't rest until she finds her sister's killer. But when the clues she uncovers conflict with the digital recordings her sister made, Winter isn't sure what to believe. To find out what happened to Rose, she'll have to untangle what's real from what only seems real, risking her own life in the process.Paula Stokes weaves together a series of mysteries and the story of an unbreakable bond between sisters in this unforgettable high-tech thrill ride.

PART I: Writing Outside my Perspective

Why I Wrote Diverse Characters and What I Hoped to Accomplish


I drafted Vicarious in 2012, before Venom (now called Venomous Kiss, writing as Fiona Paul) was published, before I had received many reviews, before I was active on Twitter, and before #WNDB was a thing. My knowledge of the publishing industry was limited and I wasn’t thinking much about diversity in literature at the time. Vicarious was a love project that I worked on around my work-for-hire assignments, grad school, and nursing. I had no idea if the book would ever sell. I didn’t even tell my agent about it until the book was finished.

As I mentioned on my blog yesterday, Winter and her sister were Korean from the moment I “met” them. There are a few reasons why I think my brain created these characters who are so different from me.

First, my father served in Korea in the military, and when I was still a baby my aunt adopted two Korean children. So I grew up with Korean cousins (though we always lived in different states) and a dad who spoke fondly of Korea quite often. Because of those things, when I made the decision to teach English overseas about ten years ago, Korea was an easy choice for me. While I was living in Seoul, I not only immersed myself in Korean culture, I became close friends with many Korean people.

Seoul was a little (okay a lot) intimidating to me, with its crowded sidewalks and faster-than-NYC-pace, and some of the things my new friends explained to me about country and customs were hard to understand. No culture is perfect and there are definitely some things about Korea that made me sad, but there were so many lovely moments too. I loved the way the same older women who chastised me for being slow on the subway steps would turn around and offer to hold my packages when I had to stand up on the train. I loved how Korean kids respected the elderly and gave up their subway seats without question. I loved the Buddhist temple set right in the city, a place for meditation and quiet reflection directly across the street from a giant shopping mall. And the countryside-Korea has some of the most gorgeous mountain trails. I loved hiking there, even when everywhere was packed on weekends and I had to get in line with fifty others to reach the summit. Like any outsider anywhere, I experienced flashes of prejudice, but for the most part I felt very welcomed. It was exciting to learn about and slowly embrace Korean culture.

However, there were things I missed about the USA too—little things like American TV and bigger things like five-day work weeks—and after a year in Seoul, I was ready to return home. But I came back a changed person, one with a newfound respect both for South Korea and the United States. In a way, I think Vicarious started out as a love letter to the city of Seoul and to a culture that I came to understand and appreciate. When Winter popped into my head and she was Korean, it just felt right, and if you’re a writer, you know not to question it when things feel right :)

I don’t want to mislead anyone—Vicarious is not set in Korea, but that doesn’t mean my time there didn’t inspire the story and characters. And much of the second book in the duology is set in Seoul. As I mentioned in my Five Facts About Vicarious blog post, the mystery turned out to be more complicated than I originally imagined, and one book turned into two books.

As far as what I hoped to accomplish with the book, it’s simple. I wanted to write a solid mystery and portray my Korean characters and their culture as authentically as possible. Korean culture is not plot-centric in this novel and I did not set out to highlight any certain aspects or “teach” anyone anything. I just wanted to make sure that what I had included wasn’t misleading, inaccurate, or unintentionally offensive. I utilized a variety of research methods to do this, and I’ll talk more about those things in my post on Thursday over at Hiver et Café.

Tomorrow, check out an interview I did with Minjae, one of my Korean beta readers, on her blog Reading and Some Tea.

Paula Stokes writes stories about flawed characters with good hearts. She’s the author of several novels, most recently Vicarious and Girl Against the Universe. Her writing has been translated into eleven foreign languages. Paula loves kayaking, hiking, reading, and seeking out new adventures in faraway lands She also loves interacting with readers. Find her online at authorpaulastokes.com or on twitter as @pstokesbooks.

Blog Tour Schedule:

Fri. 8/26: Writing Outside My Perspective: Part 5

Friday, August 12, 2016

Review: The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh


Title: The Rose and the Dagger (The Wrath and the Dawn, #2)

Author: Renee Ahdieh

Rating: 4 Stars

It's no secret that I loved Ahdieh's The Wrath and the Dawn. It was one of my favorite books of 2015 and though I had high expectations for The Rose and the Dagger, I was not disappointed. This sequel picks up roughly a month after where we ended The Wrath and the Dawn, with Khalid and Shazi on opposite ends of the country. Though these two are separated for a good portion of the novel, I loved that their growth throughout this novel was linked to the confidence and strength they had gained from their love. As a fan of Shazi and Khalid's union, the romance in this sequel did not disappoint in the least. It was beautifully written and, as before, Ahdieh made me fall in love with their romance. Both Shazi and Khalid continue to change one another and their story arcs, though often separate, were powerful.

Shazi, especially, comes into her own in this installment. Not only does she embrace her magical powers, but she becomes a true calipha. Khalid, too, learns to control his temper and for perhaps the first time, we see him accept his role as the caliph of Khorasan. Khalid helps his people, deals with diplomatic negotiations, and does everything in his power to prevent more bloodshed, leaving behind his fears of the curse and dealing with the hand he has been given. Ahdieh builds the curse over the course of these two novels and the new places Shazi must travel to, the people she must befriend and learn to trust, are all unique and exciting. I really enjoyed the new characters introduced in this installment, particularly Irsa, Shazi's younger sister, and Artan, a mysterious but powerful ally. Irsa has a much larger plot line than I originally anticipated but her growth throughout this novel and her own love story play an important role. I mostly enjoyed her interactions with Khalid--the manner in which he wins her over and becomes family to her, even over such a short period of time. Hands down, I'd read a spin-off series with Irsa as the heroine any day. She's no Shazi but she's strong and capable in a completely different way.

Tariq is a character I worried a lot about prior to the release of this novel but the pacing of his growth was perfect. Tariq is hot-headed and jealous, unable to believe that Shazi would fall in love with a murderer, so while his actions do not mark him out as heroic, I still respected him immensely. He tries his best to push aside his personal feelings for the best of Khorasan and though his journey was hard and often slow-going, it was rewarding all the same. Tariq is embroiled in the politics of this novel--of which I was pleasantly surprised!--and there are plenty of plot twists to keep readers on their toes. A handful of betrayals combined with age-old political scars made the conclusion of The Rose and the Dagger intense. While the resolution of the curse felt a little too neat, this ending is anything but easy and I appreciated that Ahdieh showed that the complexity of the curse was not quite linked to the curse itself but to its ripple-effect throughout the land.

Where this installment faltered for me was in its inclusion of too many characters and plot lines. We sadly don't see much of Jalal, who is an all-time favorite of mine, and instead of focusing on Irsa's romance I would have liked to see more of Jalal and Despina. Yasmine is another fascinating character and I wish that the ending would not have been so rushed so that we could have had more time with old secondary characters. The Rose and the Dagger flits between many third-person perspectives effortlessly, though, and the conclusion of this duology is nothing short of perfect. I'm glad this didn't become an unnecessarily long trilogy and though I want for more of these characters and their world, I am excited to hear what Ahdieh's future writing endeavors will be. This installment doesn't lack in terms of story-telling and of all the re-tellings I've read of "A Thousand and One Nights" this is by far my favorite. It isn't quite loyal to the original but the deviations, the care spent on this epic love story, and the political world beyond the palace are all highlights. I stayed up till 2 AM to finish this and despite my drooping eyelids, I have no regrets whatsoever. Take a chance on this series--you might just fall in love.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

ARC Review: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown


Title: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit

Author: Jaye Robin Brown

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: August 30th, 2016

Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit is not a perfect book, not by any means. In fact, it is so full of plot holes and unnecessary dilemmas that I'm surprised I managed to get through it. But Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit shares some deeply important messages in a thoughtful manner that cannot be ignored--perhaps, especially, in wake of the Orlando tragedy. This is a story of a girl who has already come out to her friends and family in Atlanta but who is asked, by her father and new stepmother, to conceal her sexual identity in small-town Rome, Georgia where she moves for her senior year of high school. It's a ridiculous set-up because it hardly seems just that a father who supports his daughter regardless of her sexuality would ask her to change herself, but it brings up a host of fascinating points.

Firstly, Joanna finds that she doesn't mind being closeted. It's not quite true to herself, but in Rome no one stares at her for her outfits or for her lesbian best friend who flirts with every attractive woman she meets. In Rome she is invisible and as confusing as that is, it's also easier. It turns out that coming out isn't something that happens just once. We treat it that way and think about it as such but in reality, coming out means repeating yourself and re-introducing yourself to every community you find yourself a part of and hoping that they accept you. That if you meet their parents or grandparents that they accept you as well. It's a privilege that non-queer people take for granted and I appreciated that Brown called out the blatant heteronormative society we live in and how harmful that is to our own minds and to LGBTQIAP+ individuals around us.

This book calls for further suspension of belief since Joanna reveals her secret to a friend of hers whose parents are both lesbian but she can't trust the girl she falls in love with with the same secret. If Joanna had simply communicated better, half this novel would be unnecessary. But Joanna's journey to support a friend in coming out, making her own plan to come out again in Rome, and deal with telling the truth to the people she's become friends with is all such an important path. It's also important for her parents and those around to her to come to terms with her truth, even if they're re-coming to terms with it. Back in Atlanta, people always judged Joanna for her lesbian haircut and outfits and for once in her life, she's surrounding by people judging her for her character and then accepting other facets of her personality.

To add to the convoluted plot line, though, we have a hacker lesbian and a manipulative theater lesbian thrown into the mix. I don't feel great about the inclusion of these characters and their lack of depth but I did appreciate that the issues in this book were not resolved overnight and no matter how badly the plot was constructed, it was still dealt with in a realistic manner. What's more, in a strange way the fact that girlfriends can also be manipulative--not just boyfriends--and that girls can be just as jealous as boys can be is normalizing. In some way.

What I particularly loved about this book, though, were the relationships. Joanna's relationship with her stepmother evolved throughout the novel to a point where Mother #3 became "mom". Her anger with her father is realistic and festers throughout the story, even though her father has always accepted and supported her decisions. Joanna's new friendships, and especially her romance, are believable and heart-warming and full of swoon. It's just a shame that a host of such fabulous relationships must be against the backdrop of an unbelievable plot, but it works.

This book does a REALLY good job of discussing issues that plague queer teenagers and I'm a huge fan of the way that Brown approaches a lot of important topics. Unfortunately, this contains a terribly implausible plot line so if you're prepared to suspend your belief quite a bit, this is going to be a resounding hit. I'd definitely recommend this one, if only for its thoughtful nature, but it isn't stellar as a story by itself without the queer romance at its core.