Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: A Blind Spot for Boys by Justina Chen

Title: A Blind Spot for Boys

Author: Justina Chen

Rating: 3 Stars

Chen's North of Beautiful utterly charmed when I first read it a few years ago and has continued to do so upon every re-read. Yet, for reasons unknown, I have not braved the waters of Chen's fairly extensive back list. I blame the horde of mixed reviews which accompany her work--her novels seem to be a hit or miss with most readers and, what's more, they vary depending on the title. I don't know many who actively like or dislike every title she's written--myself included.

A Blind Spot for Boys is a truly intriguing mix of a variety of topics, themes, and ideals. It introduces us to Shana, an ambitious young protagonist whose passion for photography and dedication to her fashion blog define her life. Well, that and a long history of boyfriends. Just a matter of months ago Shana was dating Dom--she, being underage, and he, being six years older--and in the aftermath of his discovery of her age and their consequent breakup, boys have flitted in and out of her life. She thought she had found "The One" with Dom and no matter how hard she tries to move on, her heart won't let her.

On a mission to capture the perfect photograph, though, Shana bumps into Quattro, an attractive guy who--like her string of past boyfriends--is absolutely into her. Before the two can further their relationship past acquaintances, however, Shana's father--a bed bug exterminator--is diagnosed with blindness. In a matter of months he will lose his eyesight and the photography career he gave up to continue the family business, the traveling dreams he and his wife forsake to raise three children--all these come into the forefront of his existence.

Surprisingly enough, it takes only a matter of chapters to cover this--unusual for Chen whose North of Beautiful took nearly half the novel to truly get rolling--but the bulk of A Blind Spot for Boys takes place on the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu where Shana, once again, bumps into Quattro. I appreciated how thoroughly this novel balanced both familial and romantic relationships. While we are given glimpses into the tight circle of friends Shana maintains, the focus is solely on the disease tearing apart her family and new relationship struggles tearing apart her heart.

Frankly, I didn't feel entirely connected with the story line of A Blind Spot for Boys. I'm not sure why. Chen does a superb job of creating an intriguing plot line following Shana and her family on the Inca Trail as the people they meet and experiences they undergo manage to change their lives and shape their perspective on the world. Yet, perhaps it felt too neat and predictable. It's nearly a prerequisite to writing a tale with travel within it that new sights and sounds will drastically alter your life--as it has done for Shana and the members aboard their expedition to Machu Pichu. Thus, perhaps the ultimate revelations felt predictable more than revealing?

Yet, that being said, I completely admire the pacing of Shana's growth as she gradually gains the maturity to look beyond her idealized version of her relationship with Dom and acknowledge that she's better off without him; that, in reality, she escaped an abusive relationship. In realizing that, Shana begins to put other instances in her life into perspective as well--her friendship with her brother, Max, who knew Dom; her relationships with her close girl friends from whom she had kept Dom a secret; and even her own Boy Ban that keeps her at a distance from Quattro and those like him.

While A Blind Spot for Boys excels in Shana's personal agency, pushing her forward, and subtly touches upon the delicate balance of marriage as we look into the lives of Shana's parents, the romance is both a highlight and a downfall. Quattro's hot/cold attitude toward Shana is frustrating, though his understanding of her is swoon-worthy. His back story is compelling but the amount of time it takes to finally come to light is disappointing. It's a mixed bag, as is this novel, but perhaps in the hands of the right reader--one who is more in touch with Shana than I am--I don't doubt it can be an incredible experience.

A Blind Spot for Boys hasn't made me any more inclined to go through Chen's backlog but I certainly don't regret picking it up. I relish the lack of slut-shaming within its pages, the honesty with which Chen writes relationships of every nature and every age group, and the pace at which she chronicles the growth of her characters. Granted, it isn't perfect--and hasn't made my heart palpitate wildly--but it's a solid, strong contemporary read. No doubt about it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

Title: A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4) 

Author: George R. R. Martin

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: This review is spoiler-free for A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords which is why readers will notice that I am intentionally vague while mentioning certain plot points. There is a minor spoiler for A Game of Thrones where I mention an event which occurs early on in the novel (and in the first episode of the show, actually). You can read my reviews of the previous three books in this series here, here, and here respectively. 

I wound up pleasantly surprised by A Feast for Crows. Unlike its predecessors, Martin's fourth volume in the Song of Fire and Ice Series is far more introspective than originally anticipated. While it lacks the ominous build-up of A Game of Thrones, the battle-torn scene of A Clash of Kings, or the twist-heavy climax of A Storm of Swords, it forces us deeper into the minds of the characters we've come, in equal part, to love and hate.

Very early in the text Martin introduces us to the perspective of Arianne Martell, princess of Dorne and niece to Oberyn. I found much to love about Arianne but, perhaps, what struck me the most is the subtle juxtaposition of her character to that of Cersei Lannister's. Not only are both Arianne and Cersei women in positions of immense power, but they both detest their fathers and simultaneously yearn to emulate and become better than them. Moreover, both women are aware of their attractiveness and use their sexuality as a weapon. Yet, somehow, Arianne comes across in a far more sympathetic light than Cersei. By using these two women as foils for one another Martin hints at the fascinating concept that the qualities Cersei prides herself in possessing uniquely--her relationship with Tywin Lannister, her incredible beauty, her power, her intellect--are not, after all, the traits that make her her. Instead, by this stage in the story line, Cersei has evolved into a woman beyond a simplistic mold and, looking upon Arianne, it is clear that Cersei's change is certainly not for the better.

Speaking of Cersei, I found myself both in awe and in fright of her throughout the course of the novel. Cersei, time and time again, throws herself into the political game in Westeros and fails. Not only does her fear propel her to put into power individuals who are of little help to the realm, but it also ensures she is the sole ruler in King's Landing. One plagued by nightmares, whose pride errs her judgement. Yet, what I find most compelling, in many ways, about Cersei is that she looks upon her failures with contempt at others. Instead of finding fault with herself, she believes that if she were a man, her decisions would reveal the outcome she hoped for. While Cersei has used her feminine wiles as a weapon, she nevertheless feels burdened by them as well. Why I find this entire concept to be achingly familiar is because, quite simply put, in a rage of feminist fury I often blame my failures on my sex as well. It is all too easy for women to claim that their gender is a hindrance to their success because, in most cases, it is. But not in Cersei's situation and this, above all, stuck with me.

Jaime, in contrast with his older sister, pulls himself away from the politics of his nation. Plagued with guilt concerning his actions towards Tyrion, mad with disbelief at the barbs Tyrion threw at him, A Feast for Crows sees Jaime and Cersei finally turn against one another. Now, perhaps more than ever, both these siblings need one another's support but it is oddly absent. Not only has Cersei changed, as hungry for power as she is fearful of her son's life, but Jaime is forced to reconcile himself to the life of a cripple. How fitting, isn't it, that Jaime who pushed Bran to his crippled state now finds himself in a similar position? Yet, I love Jaime. I love this Lannister whose past is defined by physical prowess and future will, sadly, not be determined by it. From his struggles to re-define who he is without his sword-fighting hand to his all-too-true suspicions concerning Cersei, Jaime's tale is both enlightening and heart-breaking. We know it's necessary for him to wander down this path but that doesn't make it any easier to watch--not for me, at any rate.

And Brienne. Brienne stunned me in A Feast for Crows. I loved that her arc showcased the truth of Jaime's words in A Storm of Swords--a knight is torn by his vows. More than just that, though, Brienne is, for the first time since we've met her, surrounded by men who despise her occupation and want nothing more than for her to fade into the background as just another household wife with a brood of children. While we're familiar with this mentality concerning Brienne, we are also familiar with the occasional glimpse of a respectful face whether it be Catelyn Stark or Jaime Lannister. In A Feast for Crows, however, Brienne is truly alone to face not only her fears--taking a man's life--but also the past she has escaped from. I thoroughly enjoyed learning of Brienne's childhood, her path to pursuing her dreams, and her kick-butt sword-fighting skills. It is difficult to determine, yet, just how important of a character she is to the series as a whole since she removes herself from political games but, regardless, I love her character. (And, if you can't already tell, I ship Jaime and Brienne so hard.)

A Feast for Crows is yet another masterful work of fiction from Martin. I've yet to complain about this series and, truly, if you are a fan of high fantasy or political drama, the Song of Fire and Ice Series is the finest you will find.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

ARC Romance Mini-Reviews: In Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins, As Long As You Love Me by Ann Aguirre, and Made for You by Lauren Layne

Title: In Your Dreams (Blue Heron, #4) 
Author: Kristan Higgins
Rating: 3 Stars
Release Date: September 30th, 2014
Emmaline Neal needs a date. Just a date—someone to help her get through her ex-fiancé's wedding without losing her mind. But pickings are slim in Manningsport, New York, population 715. In fact, there's really only one option: local heartthrob Jack Holland. Everyone loves Jack, and he won't get the wrong idea…. After all, Jack Holland would never actually be interested in a woman like Em. Especially not with his beautiful ex-wife creeping around, angling to reunite ever since he rescued a group of teens and became a local hero. But when the wedding festivities take an unexpectedly passionate turn, Em figures it was just one crazy night. Jack is too gorgeous, too popular, to ever end up with her. So why is she the one he can talk to about his deep, dark feelings? If Em is going to get her dream man, she'll have to start by believing in him…
I have mixed feelings concerning this latest from Higgins. On one hand, I definitely feel as if the quality of the novels in this series are declining--largely in part due to the excellence of the first novel, The Best Man, which just can't be beaten. On the other hand, though, I did really enjoy the latter half of this story. I feel as if the characters--Jack and Emmaline--don't share a classic love story trajectory which is refreshing. Emmaline, in particular, has always been thought to be a lesbian due to her muscular body type which doesn't conform with the typical norms of beauty. Thus, to watch her struggle with that perception and to witness Jack fall in love with her and find her sexy and beautiful just the way she was was incredibly sweet. Moreover, Jack's ex-wife--though causing a fair bit of unnecessary drama--nicely clinches the "right" feeling of Emmaline and Jack together in a tasteful manner.

Yet, In Your Dreams is terribly bland and apathetic during the first half. I felt little for either of these characters during the fake wedding date plot thread outlined in the synopsis of the book. Moreover, it fails to truly expand upon the intriguing aspects of the story such as Jack's PTSD which he suffers as a result of being the rescuer, not the victim, which was a unique twist. In Your Dreams does, ultimately, put a smile on your face and the butterflies-in-your-stomach swoons are downright lovely by the end but it isn't a favorite or a must-read of Higgins, I will acknowledge that. (Also, what's up with the snowy/Christmas-y cover? I don't remember all that much winter spirit in this novel...O.o.)

Other Kristan Higgins novels I've reviewed: Catch of the Day, Too Good to Be True, Somebody to Love, The Best Man, The Perfect Match, and Waiting on You

Title: As Long As You Love Me (2B Trilogy, #2) 
Author: Ann Aguirre
Rating: 3 Stars
Release Date: September 30th, 2014
Most people dream about getting out of Sharon, Nebraska, but after three years away, Lauren Barrett is coming home. She has her reasons; missing her family, losing her college scholarship. But then there's the reason Lauren can't admit to anyone: Rob Conrad, her best friend's older brother. Football prowess and jaw-dropping good looks made Rob a star in high school. Out in the real world, his job and his relationships are going nowhere. He's the guy who women love and leave, not the one who makes them think of forever; until Lauren comes back to town, bringing old feelings and new dreams with her. Because the only thing more important than figuring out where you truly belong is finding the person you were meant to be with.
I enjoyed this novel considerably less than its predecessor, likely because it read merely as a love story opposed to a tale belonging to the New Adult genre. Moreover, I found the conflict--while certainly important--to emerge too late in the story line. We spend more than 75% of the novel believing our characters are working through certain issues only to uncover an entire back story much later. Yet, that being said, As Long As You Love Me is certainly a worthwhile read. Much like its predecessor, it still fails to break new ground in the New Adult genre but its strong female friendships, gentle romance, and tight-knit family bonds make it a tale to enjoy, if not quite remember. 

Other Ann Aguirre novels I've reviewed: Enclave, Bronze Gods, Silver Mirrors, Sirantha Jax SeriesI Want it That Way

Title: Made For You (The Best Mistake, #2) 
Author: Lauren Layne
Rating: 3 Stars
Release Date: October 28th, 2014
Some mistakes are worth making...
Eh. I love these types of antagonistic love stories but I found the protagonist, Brynn, to be far too selfish and stubborn to truly enjoy this. We met both Will and Brynn in the previous novel in this series but only briefly--enough to know that Will loved Brynn and Brynn simply saw him as a one-night stand. Now, three years later, Will is back in Brynn's life after unexpectedly moving to Boston and, this time, he has plans to win Brynn over once and for all. Brynn, however, refuses to change her opinion of Will despite the efforts he takes to present his true self to her, not the antagonistic rudeness they've grown comfortable with. Unfortunately, I felt as if Brynn takes advantage of Will a bit too much and wasn't a fan of her character the same way I was of her younger sister, Sophie. Not a bad read, just not Layne's best. :/ 

Other Lauren Layne novels I've reviewed: Isn't She Lovely, After the Kiss, Love the One You're With, Just One Night, Only With You, Broken

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review: Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach

Title: Heaven's Queen (Paradox, #3) 

Author: Rachel Bach

Rating: 4 Stars

*This review is spoiler free for the Paradox Trilogy*

Having finished Heaven's Queen, I can honestly claim to be baffled towards the dislike this final installment has received. Granted, it isn't the strongest of the three novels in this trilogy and, what's more, the ending reads perhaps a little too convenient, but I find myself strangely satisfied.

Honor's Queen is, oddly enough, a much more introspective piece than its predecessor. While it has no shortage of action, wit, or humor, it also forces us to face--head-on--the atrocities in this world and the gray nature of its secondary characters. Fortune's Pawn certainly hinted at an unquiet nature present in space while Honor's Knight exposed the dark underbelly of the intergalactic world, but those facts and figures were left to float about in our minds...until now. In this final installment, Devi has to do something, trust someone, and deal. In a world where the secondary characters are not black or white, but gray, grayer, and grayest, this task becomes incredibly difficult.

Thus, I wound up loving the direction the romance took in this installment with Devi cautiously learning to trust Rupert once again after their formerly rocky emotional relationship. What's more, I loved the evolution of her relationship with the secondary characters we came to love back in Fortune's Pawn. In Heaven's Queen Devi takes chances and often winds right back at square one, but she is making those decisions--which, really, makes a world of a difference. It's a fascinating story simply because we, as the reader, still don't know who to trust or to what degree to trust them and, as such, neither does Devi. Moreover, the difficult moral decisions that have been made in this world are not easily brushed aside and handled. For me, so much of the sheer energy and kudos from this debut trilogy comes from creating such a difficult, complex scenario to begin with and continuing to probe it, poke at it, and find a solution, no matter how simplistic.

Having read every book in this series back-to-back, I didn't stop in-between the formulate theories or evaluate what I wanted--nay, needed--from a conclusion. Perhaps that made the difference. I went into Heaven's Queen wanting Devi to grow, to find her happily-ever-after, and to become a better person. I got that. It may not have been nearly as tension-filled as I'd have wanted (or bittersweet as I'd have liked) and there were certainly moments where this finale lost me, whether it be in Devi's reactions to meeting old friends or simply in the bow-tie conclusion, but seeing as this trilogy was spectacular from start to finish, I don't have a bone to pick with Heaven's Queen after all. Needless to say, I need Rachel Bach to polish off another sci-fi trilogy--fast!--preferably with a cameo appearance by Devi. I'm going to miss this kick-butt, no-nonsense, act-first-think-later, brave girl. I really am.

You can read my spoiler free reviews of Fortune's Pawn and Honor's Knight here and here respectively. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

ARC Review: The Perilous Sea by Sherry Thomas

Title: The Perilous Sea (The Elemental Trilogy, #2)

Author: Sherry Thomas

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Release Date: September 16th, 2014

I am still reeling from the aftermath of The Perilous Sea. With The Burning Sky, Sherry Thomas introduced us to a world of magic and destiny, one in which our protagonists--Titus and Iolanthe--had to battle the Bane, the deadly ruler of Atlantis. The Perilous Sea picks up shortly after The Burning Sky left off, only this time it is the end of the summer holidays and Titus, whisked away to princely duties in Atlantis, has not seen Iolanthe in months. Now, finally reunited, to two are determined to work harder, fight longer, and discover the secret to bringing down the Bane. Only, it seems fate--or rather the diary of Titus's late mother, a seer--has very different ideas...

From the beginning itself, The Perilous Sea sets itself apart from The Burning Sky due to its format. Thomas writes two different timelines simultaneously, meaning that every alternate chapter jumps between the present and the past catching up to the present moment. With cliffhanger endings concluding every chapter, it is practically impossible to set this book down once you've picked it up, not only because of the urge to discover the situation in the timeline you left behind, but also to figure out how our protagonists went from Point A to Point B.

Moreover, from the onset of this novel itself, it is clear that Thomas is choosing to focus on the age-old question of fantasy: can one truly make his or her own destiny? Very early on in The Perilous Sea a sequence of events plays out in such a way that Titus begins to doubt the veracity of his mother's prophecies. Or, at any rate, her interpretation of them. Thus, the lives and focus of both Titus and Iolanthe are upturned by these circumstances and the emotional turmoil they experience is simply heart-breaking. I love that despite the fact that we know both these protagonists so well from The Burning Sky, Thomas continues to challenge them, forcing them to become even better, stronger, and more confident versions of themselves. Additionally, these change of events cause The Perilous Sea to be far more romantic than we may have anticipated. In one timeline, circumstances allow for Iolanthe and Titus to fall in love all over again, albeit in a different way. In another timeline, Iolanthe and Titus must battle through their differences to find a way back to one another, despite the hurdles they themselves have erected in their paths. In both instances, it is abundantly clear once and for all that yes, these two truly do love each other and, above all, they are stronger together than apart.

The Perilous Sea continues to excel as a sequel, however, primarily because of the depth we gain about the secondary characters. I truly enjoyed the characterization of the secondary characters we met in The Burning Sky, particularly Titus's friends in Eton, but in The Perilous Sea we finally peel back the facades these boys put forth and discover the true individual beneath. The plot of The Perilous Sea is such that the secondary characters are just as important, this time around, as our two protagonists, so the depth they're given in this installment is a pleasant--and very welcome!--surprise. What's more, the Bane is finally unveiled for the true horror we are told he is. While we learn a little of this villain in the previous installment, The Perilous Sea travels deep into his past and--believe me--the atrocities he is capable of are cringe-worthy.

In fact, The Perilous Sea packs plot twist after plot twist, reveal after reveal, at such a breakneck pace that it is difficult to imagine what Thomas can possibly unveil further in the final installment. We receive answers about Iolanthe's past--everything from her origins to her memory keeper--speculate about Titus's parentage, and learn the minute secrets as to the true reality of Titus's mother's visions. It's such a spectacular sequel simply because we believe one thing to be true, only to find that it isn't what we thought it was. While this ensured that readers were constantly in a state of surprise, at times the narrative style of this novel became a detriment to the story as a whole. For me, at any rate, I didn't find both timelines to be completely necessary and, what's more, the fact that one timeline moved at a significantly slower pace than the other one, could be a bit jarring at times. Most importantly, though, I found the never-ending reveals to be pleasant--at first--but found myself needing slightly more detail or clarification than was provided. And, sadly, the political turmoil that marked The Burning Sky is mostly devoid in this novel as the focus is on overthrowing the Bane. I am hoping--and eagerly looking forward to--seeing more of Atlantis's political scheme in the sequel, along with the final battle that is looming ahead. The Perilous Sea is one of the strongest sequels I've come across this year and if Thomas continues to improve and build upon this series as she has, I do not doubt that the finale will be unforgettable.