Sometimes I have so much to say about a book that I have to force myself not to think about it. Other times, I have very few words yet my thoughts are assaulted by my feelings even days after finishing a book. The Truth About Riley falls into this second category, though when I first finished it I had the urge to slam my laptop shut in frustrated petulance. Once I’d calmed down a bit, though, I realized that this quiet little novel, despite eliciting a tantrum at its abrupt ending, was one of the better romances I’ve read lately, so much so that I bumped up my rating by another point and now stare at my blinking cursor, trying to put into words why I loved this story so much. It’s by no means perfect. Even I, a reader who lives for character development and dialogue over exposition and plot arcs, found myself skimming some of the lengthier conversations between Cam and Riley. The story could have used more editing, fewer endearments, and definitely more closure. Many other readers have lamented the fact that this novel ends on a cliffhanger. I wouldn’t characterize it as a cliffhanger ending – we know what is going to happen, and if one is willing to accept imagination rather than elaboration, it’s fulfilling enough – but given the fact that all that was needed was perhaps another chapter (hell, another sentence) to flesh out the final moments, I can’t help but think that Clarke was trying to squeeze out another book deal by holding the final few moments hostage. A follow-up was promised for early this year, meaning that Clarke contemplated more between these two characters; I can only assume part of their continuation would include angst, in which case I’m happy enough to content myself with this novel alone. Still, I would have loved to have seen Cam’s relationship withRiley’s family explored further, as well as seeing Riley assimilate into Cam’s inner circle of friends. Still, despite these flaws, I found myself completely engrossed in the slow unraveling of Cam and Riley’s story, tothe point where, even though I have very little to say, I can’t deny that thecharacters remain with me days later. Also, for the records, this novel has one of the best first kiss scenes I have ever read, hands down.
Let me preface this review by stating that I waited to write down any of my thoughts until I had reread this book cover to cover. I never do that. Ever. To say anything about this book would be to spoil the experience of slowly uncovering its secrets. It is for this reason that I begin with a disclaimer that I do not want anyone who has not read this book to read past this paragraph. Go read this book. It is good New Adult. It is good Fiction. Read it. That being said, I feel I can reveal to you that, even going into this book knowing the twist within a twist, I STILL couldn’t figure out what was going on. This is not a dig at Read’s skills as a writer, but rather a testament to them. Unravel is a perfect name for Naomi’s story, as Read has crafted a truly immersive tale that keeps you guessing even as you start to suspect the endgame. While I did have a few issues with some of the narrative threads and lack of resolution regarding how they ultimately played a role in Naomi’s reality, the story and writing are strong enough that I can forgive the remaining ambiguity in favor of hypothesizing to fill in the gaps myself. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is that I enjoyed Naomi. I related to her, not because I’ve been through anything like what she has been through, but because she felt like a real person that I might know and like. This is a trait that is startlingly absent from so many of the books I read nowadays, the New Adult genre in particular. Yet while this novel is undoubtedly focused heavily on plot, it is likewise a character study, one whose purposely convoluted structure means that I had a difficult time connecting to certain characters upon the first reading. I rarely reread a book right after I’ve finished it, but in this case it was almost necessary, and I’m so glad I did, because it enhanced my impression of the characters that Read has created and created a level of depth that makes the story even stronger.
Many are confused about Max’s role in Naomi’s illness. Was he Lachlan the whole time? Did the relationship actually happen, just with faces/names swapped in Naomi’s mind, or did she imagine the whole thing? I think it is pretty clear that Naomi’s relationship with Max was the actual progression of her relationship with Lachlan, a fact brought home by his confusion when she confesses to him that she has been seeing “someone else.” Lachlan is not concerned that she has been seeing someone else because it is apparent to him that she HASN’T been. She has been seeing him, and only the fact that she doesn’t seem to realize this fact is upsetting.
Where the juxtaposition of reality and imagination becomes blurred for me is in Lachlan’s treatment and knowledge regarding Namoi’s rape. Reconstructing the timeline, it seems probable that Lachlan was clued into the fact that she was not a virgin the first time they had sex; her reactions and responses, while not unheard of for one’s first experience with sex, nonetheless are far enough outside the normal experience as to alert Lachlan that it might not actually be the first time. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t have put things together by then; even if he suspected that Naomi wasn’t a virgin by that point, there is no reason to assume that the loss of her virginity was connected with unusual circumstances. When Lachlan has the conversation with his mother, I believe he was at least alerted to the fact that there were issues he should watch out for, which leads me to believe that he was at least somewhat aware of Lana’s true nature at this point or soon thereafter. Then Max/Lachlan sees the google search. Now, at this point, even if he still had reason to assume that Lana was an actual friend of Naomi’s whom he’d never met, he would have known that Michael was not Lana’s father, but rather Naomi’s. Lachlan did business with the man, was acquainted with him. This is the part of the story where I start to make assumptions in order to fill in the gaps. Naomi never tells Max/Lachlan that Lana is the victim of the rape; I have to assume he believes it was Naomi, and why wouldn’t he assume the “real” daughter to be the victim rather than the daughter’s friend? Yet, in Naomi’s mind, Max/Lachlan accompanies both Naomi/Lana to go apartment hunting; again, I have to assume. Either Max/Lachlan is aware of at least part of Naomi’s disorder by this point and is playing along by pretending that Lana exists, which in my mind is less likely, or rather, he doesn’t realize that the apartment is for Lana, nor that Lana is there with them. Rereading that passage in particular, the intentional omission of names suggests that Max/Lachlan understood the apartment to be for Naomi, in order to help her escape from her own situation, and that he mistook any pauses or silences during which she was “talking” to Lana as simple silence, nothing more. Yet while I can content myself with all of the foregoing explanations, I still have two issues with the story. First, as I stated before, I have to assume Lachlan knew that Naomi was the real victim, which means that he initiated sexual relations with her even after he was aware of the rape. In most cases, this situation would make me somewhat wary, and I would want him to use more discretion in allowing her time to heal. Now, perhaps he truly did see her split personality as a protective mechanism and believed that by sleeping with Naomi, he was not injuring the part of her that had experienced the rape. But if he wasn’t even aware of her split persona, or the extent to which it operated, and thus wasn’t sure whether the Naomi persona hadn’t experienced the rape…this is a gray area that I won’t explore too much for fear of delving into an area that I know too little about to render an opinion. The second issue has to do with infidelity. It is a huge red flag for me. I hate it. And whether Max really was Lachlan or not, the fact that Naomi didn’t know this means that she chose to be with someone who wasn’t Lachlan. I got the feeling that Read was trying to promote the idea that it wasn’t really cheating since she was drawn to Lachlan’s essence, but sorry. That doesn’t fly with me. I would have liked to have seen this issue, and Lachlan’s reaction to it, dealt with in more depth, but I guess Lachlan was willing to forgive Naomi her faults given the extreme stresses and difficulties she was facing. That might be his call to make, but it still leaves me unsatisfied. Ultimately, the power of this story is Read’s willingness to give us a book unafraid to delve into ambiguity. Upon finishing the book, I felt that more questions than answers had been delivered- until went back and reread and realized that the clues are all in the omissions. While some might guess at least one twist before the big reveal, I doubt that most readers will have worked out all of the mysteries. However, while the plot was gripping enough to keep me glued to my seat for four hours straight so I could devour this story in one go, it’s the characters that will bring me back to this story for future rereads. Some passages suggest that Read intends for Lachlan to be a sort of metaphor- the fact that Naomi needs both Max and Lachlan in her life showing that she subconsciously needs to reconcile the two halves of her consciousness. I’d rather not reduce Lachlan’s character to a mere symbolic vehicle. Truthfully, even while I assumed that Read had drawn me into an unwelcome love triangle, I connected to the characters enough to make me hope for the impossible- a happy resolution. Upon my first read-through, I was perplexed why I had found Unravel sitting on the romance shelf. It is clearly first and foremost a psychological thriller. The romance came second only to Naomi’s struggles, and while I liked the characters in and of themselves, as far as the relationships were concerned, what romance was there didn’t really do it for me. I’m not a huge fan of established relationships or instant attraction, and those seemed to be the foundations for Naomi’s relationships with both Lachlan and Max. Then I had the idea to reread her interactions with both chronologically, and suddenly I found myself immersed in a wonderful love story, slow burning and passionate in her encounters with Lachlan, and playful in the development of that relationship with “Max.” Unravel was one of my favorite titles this year to date. I encourage anyone who dislikes New Adult to forego their aversion and give this title a try. I think Read hit it out of the park by creating a story that can appeal to readers of so many different genres. If you do give it a go (or hopefully already have if you’ve just read my spoiler-riddled review), let me know what you thought.
Oh, Isla. Where to begin?
I’m predicting that I will be in the minority of reviewers who don’t come out of this reading experience singing Isla’s praises. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Isla is a thoroughly enjoyable book, written with the same easy flow that make Anna and Lola such accessible reads. This book has been three long years in the making, and in that time, more readers have come to discover Perkins’ debut and sophomore novels and have fallen in love with her innate ability to place readers squarely in her characters’ shoes. For good reason; when I first discovered Perkins’ work, for a few blissful hours, I was Anna and Lola. Particularly with regard to Anna, her experiences were related so organically that I never once felt like I was being told a story. Perkins wasn’t feeding us lines designed to make us swoon; she was tapping into every secret thought that we have ever had about our own love lives.
Isla is a good story, but unfortunately for me, I never lost myself to it like I have with Perkins’ previous works. Overall, I found Isla to be an engaging protagonist, and I admire Perkins’ decision to let her remain somewhat of a wallflower. Anna and Lola both have such vivid passions and personalities that, with Isla, it was nice to see the shy girl get the spotlight for a change. I related to Isla’s struggles regarding her future. I had those same conversations at many points during my late high school years and early twenties, and I still struggle with the fact that, while I tend to get obsessive about my interests, they never develop into anything that I could truly consider a passion or a calling or anything that allows me to identify myself. I would have loved to delve further into Isla’s doubts, in fact, but unfortunately we never get that chance. What we get instead is a whirlwind, quixotic romance that could have been just as fulfilling as Anna’s and Lola’s respective tales if it had been fleshed out a bit more.
I understand that Perkins wanted to give us a different type of love story. In Anna, we got a slow-burn friendship-turned-more; in Lola, a resurrected romance. Isla offers up something suspiciously close to instalove, though thankfully she avoids delving into those waters full-force. Isla has yearned for Josh for years, and I believe we are to assume that Josh has reciprocated those feelings, despite the fact that they have barely spoken to each other. Once they do strike up a tentative friendship, though, there is enough genuine connection between them that I bought the relationship, even if it moved at a rather quick pace. Still, while reading, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the plausibility (and validity) of falling in love in a month. For those of us jaded by having already weathered our teenage and twenties years away, Isla’s urgent, awe-struck voice felt too naïve at times. I believe that love can be found and experienced at any age, and that a relationship is of no less value simply for being formed during the tumult of youth. I don’t discount anyone’s ability to love, but I do take issue when I’m told, repeatedly, of that love when I don’t see the groundwork for its formation. During the few conversations that Isla and Josh have, I was sold on their chemistry, but there simply wasn’t enough. I’d all but written off the inevitable falling-out halfway through the book as the obvious consequence of two young people who are mistaking lust for love, or at least the desire for love for the real thing.
And then, on my way to work this morning, I remembered something; I once fell in love with a boy after having dated him for four weeks, and we have now been happily together for six years. That being said, I am intimately privy to the conversations and glances and touches that comprised our discovery of each other during those four weeks leading up to the big romantic revelation. And I’m sure that Perkins intended for her readers to assume a similar getting-to-know-you period for Isla and Josh; she just didn’t let us see it. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure what filled up the majority of the book’s narrative, because it felt as if this book was at once entirely focused on the romance between Isla and Josh (to the detriment of fleshing out secondary characters, as was done so well in her first two books) and yet, having finished their story, I’m still not entirely sure who either of them is. I don’t know why Josh was drawn to Isla from the beginning, or what made him fall in love with her now. Inadvertent breast-gazing and strolls through bookstores are cute fillers, but there wasn’t one single conversation between the two that allowed me to see how a connection fueled by outward attraction could be sustained in the long run. What’s more disappointing, while Perkins focuses so heavily on the supposed attraction between these two, none of their interactions gave me butterflies like the ones I got during the movie theater scene in Anna, or when Anna calls St. Claire Etienne for the first time, or when Cricket helps Lola fix her hair. The spark was so close to being there, but it never ignited for me.
I think that, had Perkins expanded this story out past her main characters a bit more to focus on the other people in Isla’s life, or even on Isla herself, I could have forgiven what I see as a somewhat overworked romance story. I get the sense that Perkins spent a bit too much time worrying about getting all of the pieces to fit together neatly, and the aftermath of serious editing is that the story lost some of its heart. I like Isla and Josh, but until I am more fully convinced of why they love each other, I simply can’t love them as a couple.
That being said, Isla is far from a bad novel and is perfectly delightful in its own right. Perhaps if Perkins hadn’t had two truly remarkable titles leading up to this one, a lack of comparison would have made me more inclined to love this book.
PS- I truly hope that we one day get an alternate narration of one particular scene that occurs toward the end of the book. You’ll know when you get to it.
A little over a year now, I was standing on a precipice, the breeze from the door that was closing behind me threatening to tip me over the edge into whatever lay over that cliff. I had just graduated law school and had three months full of Bar exam preparation stretching out before me in a terrifying declaration of the end of my days as a student and the beginning of the career that I’d been working toward for three years. Or perhaps seven counting the undergrad experience leading up to it, and another eighteen considering that it was only due to my lifelong drive that I had managed to make it this far. So with the path laid out clearly enough ahead of me, I laid down the books in which I found solace, my novels and essays and blog posts from fellow literary lovers, and I picked up a few dozen tomes of legalese that, hopefully, would help me to clear this next and greatest hurdle.
I passed the Bar. And I lost my dedication to reading in the process, and somewhere along the way, a bit of myself as well.
I’d actually put my reading habits to rest a few months before I ever sat down to give myself a stern lecture on the perseverance I’d have to adopt to make it through three grueling months of Bar study. Job hunting, capstone thesis papers, final exams, and the daunting prospect of being an actual, credentialed graduate ate up my will to read, and I told myself the break would only be for a few weeks, until things calmed down a bit. Then weeks turned to months, dust collected on my bookshelves, and before I knew it, the latest post on my blog seemed frighteningly irrelevant. I realized I was out of touch with the literary circles I had taken such pleasure in keeping up with. I still read a bit here and there for fun, but it was mostly a habit of rereading old stories to visit home again and take comfort in their familiar pages. My blog remained my default browser, and I quickly moved to a different webpage every time I opened a new window so I wouldn’t have to face the shameful evidence that I’d allowed something I had created to languish.
I’m not sure what starving depth of my subconscious prompted me to open up a blank word document last week and just start typing, but soon I found myself finishing up seventeen pages of my first new story in years. And I felt rejuvenated. I may not be back to my old reading habits, but I’ll get there. I’ve never fallen out of love with the joy of the written word, no matter the medium. I just had to remind myself that, sometimes, it’s not enough merely to absorb words born from others’ inspiration. To really understand words’ power, to allow them to become a part of your life that is meaningful and tragic and raw and real, you’ve got to give them expression.
To promise a return to my prior form would be a disservice to you, my lovely readers, and to myself as well. It’s been nearly two years since I contributed regularly to this blog, and that former form of me must remain in the past. My life is different and better and more overwhelming than my former self could have dreamed. My interests have shifted, my tendencies changed, and I don’t expect anything more from myself other than this: my need to create remains. I need to throw thoughts out through my fingertips. I don’t know in what form it will be, but I hope it can find a place here, among those who have stuck with me for whatever reason, and those who may find this page in the future.
I am back, I think. I missed you, and now I see just how much I missed myself. It’s good to be home.
Charm & Strange is a funny little book, and by funny I mean sly and dry and twisted up into all sorts of uncomfortable and nebulous corners of our narrator’s consciousness. I’ve not read a lot of young adult fiction lately, let alone new releases, yet I feel confident in saying that Kuehn’s debut stands apart in the pack. Those who read a quick blurb or glance at the cover will undoubtedly come into this novel with certain expectations, and I’m loathe to spoil anything for those readers. Usually I am the queen of spoilers; I rarely start a book unless I’ve already read the last page and been comforted by the conclusion I glimpse there. Yet I accepted Charm & Strange for review somewhat spontaneously, despite the fact that I don’t have time to give it a thorough review.
But for once, that’s probably for the best, as going into any great detail on thisbook would only ruin the experience for those who have yet to read it. Charm & Strange doesn’t read like most of the young adult fiction on shelves nowadays, and honestly, I believe it (like many of its peers) could easily make the jump to adult fiction were it not for certain readers’ and reviewers’ hangups on teenage protagonists delivering anything but age-appropriate stories. Kuehn’s writing felt at times like Meg Rosoff’s, at others like a young Melina Marchetta. It wasn’t necessarily an enjoyable read, but it was a good one, and one that I feel is important for the genre right now, especially given the propensity for many to dismiss young adult completely based on certain traits (vapid love-triangles, unnecessarily drawing out self-contained stories into series, self-insert new adult) that are becoming increasingly more prevalent.
Kuehn doesn’t deliver a protagonist who is easy to identify, or identify with. I didn’t relate to Win, but I believed his struggle (even as I suspected there was an unreliable narrator in my presence). The secondary characters could have been more fleshed out, maybe should have been, but part of me feels as if that would have undermined another crucial element of Kuehn’s narrative. I felt removed from Win’s story in a way that would usually make me drop a book within the first few chapters, but here if felt integral. I hope readers persevere as I did; the payoff was quiet and a bit bleak, but made the journey worth it.
I knew it would take a special book to get me back into the swing of blogging, even if only temporarily, but it took nearly three-hundred pages for me to realize that The Sea of Tranquility would be that book. In fact, I nearly gave up on it a dozen times in the first hundred pages. Millay’s debut novel showcases writing superior to many emerging in the genre nowadays, but unfortunately it took her longer to convince me (and likely many other readers) of this than it should have. As the story unfolds into a dual narration account of two high school students’ respectively tragic lives, there is little that can be called innovative. Granted, most YA heroines today don’t employ full-on Hot Topic regalia, but Nastya’s cultivated bitterness and self-proclaimed trashy appearance did little to endear her to me early on. It’s a shame, too, since I welcome any deviation from the norm, generi-goth or no; given my own predilections for the strange and unusual, I actually relate far more to the offbeat protagonists than to those who surf the mainstream. Unfortunately, Nastya’s dive into the dark side never felt genuine to me, even after Millay begins to peel back the layers of Nastya’s painful past. Her mask is convenient, a curiosity, but a mask all the same, without the underlying depth that could make me forgive use of such literary contrivance.
Still, I continued to read despite my initial inclinations and was pleased when Nastya and Josh’s interactions began to gain more substance at the halfway point. I fear that writing too much about the actual substance of the plot will give away the mystery, but this is a story in which the plot isn’t the driving force anyway. Oddly enough, neither are the characters when considered alone; I’ve already lamented my disappointment in how Millay handled Nastya’s character, and while I found Josh to be infinitely more appealing and interesting, he still doesn’t compare to some of his literary peers. Yet, and this is the part where my semi-coherent ramblings come fully undone, for this is a book in which my brain and my heart diverge in opinion, but somehow, when Nastya and Josh are together, Millay managed to make me feel in a way that I haven’t while reading for some months now. Their relationship holds all the angsty hallmarks that I tend to hate, but it was believable and woven together in stolen moments that had me holding my breath even as I knew where things were heading. I’ve seen several other reviewers despair at writing down their emotions for this novel, at having to mold feelings into words, and I find I’m having the same trouble, which doesn’t make for a particularly compelling review to read, but it does speak to the strength of Millay’s novel that, despite flawed characters and bungled plotlines (which I won’t get into both for spoilers’ sake and because I am still too angry at certain characters to discuss them rationally), this book had me too wrapped up in the story’s heart to care about its flimsy structure.
The Sea of Tranquility is not one of the best books I’ve read this year (and yes, I have been reading despite my lack of blogging activity). But the fact that it inspired me to write about it, even though I have nothing much to say, speaks to its strength as a story.