Review: The Truth About Riley by Henrietta Clarke

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 18103276development 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.

4cuprating

Review: Unravel by Calia Read

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 Unravel by Calia Readrelationship 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. 4cuprating

Review: The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

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.The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

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.

4cuprating

Review: The Mysterious Madam Morpho by Delilah S. Dawson

Last year, Dawson’s debut novel Wicked As They Come introduced one of the most unique and delightful landscapes I’ve come across in the paranormal genre for a long time. The world of Sang is dark, twisted, wonderfully irreverent and impossibly sexy.  In this novella, Dawson plunges readers back into her world, and I couldn’t be happier to return.

The story is rather short yet surprisingly well-developed for its truncated page time. Dawson effectively balances the necessity of reuniting us with past characters (because what Blud book would be complete without an appearance from Criminy?) with further developing the characters and creations that populate her fantasy world. I was so pleased with the pace of the worldbuilding with this novella, as it allows us a better glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in the caravan as well as a taste of life in the cities. I adored Mr. Murdoch and could have read twice as many pages recounting the various inventions he has contributed to the circus. Madam Morpho’s talent is equally as enchanting, and while I won’t spoil some of the surprises that are in store by going into detail about how her show really works, I will say that Dawson has succeeded in emphasizing the steampunk underpinnings of her story in a way that I haven’t seen before.

As for the characters, I didn’t connect as strongly with Madam Morpho as I had

The Mysterious Madam Morpho by Delilah S. Dawson

with Trish, which proved to be somewhat of a struggle as I read, but her chemistry with Mr. Murdoch more than made up for any shortcomings I found in her character. I wish we could have gained a bit more insight into Mr. Murdoch’s psychology, as it plays quite an important role in the story and I felt that the story ended on a rather unresolved note. Yet in this regard Madam Morpho‘s ending was rather similar to the resolution of Tish and Criminy’s story in the previous book, and Dawson has shown that she is willing and eager to revisit their storyline, so I’m hoping that further installments in the series give us more insight into how Madam Morpho and Mr. Murdoch’s relationship allows each character to grow past their insecurities.

Overall, The Mysterious Madam Morpho is a great installment in the series and makes me greedy to get my hands on the second book, Wicked As She Wants, next year.

Review: This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

I was lucky enough to win a copy of This Is Not a Test the week it was released, though based on the wonderful reviews it was receiving, I likely would have gone out to purchase a copy regardless. Though I’d heard praise for Summers’s contemporary young adult, I’d never read any of her works. Still, descriptions of This Is Not a Test as a “contemporary-with zombies,” rather than a zombie book, had me intrigued despite Summers’s reputation for writing rather somber stories.

For those hoping to read about gore and bloodshed, you won’t be entirely disappointed by This Is Not a Test. I can’t say the above-mentioned description got it completely right, as this story contains enough disturbing material to make those wary of the zombie genre shy away. Yet, ultimately, this book truly isn’t about what’s beating on the doors to get in; it’s about the demons that already live inside us. Summers’s decision to narrate the story through the voice of a suicidal teenager was simple yet quite brilliant, as the stark questions raised by the fight for survival

This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

become all the more uncomfortable when viewed with a sense of detachment. A particularly beautiful effect of this approach was the highlight on survival not merely as a solitary endeavor, but as one in which the fight to live is endured as much for others as for oneself.

It’s rare that an author can sustain such a large cast of characters without allowing any single one to come to the forefront as someone to root for, yet Summers has achieved the nigh-impossible. I didn’t identify myself with any of the characters, didn’t feel the queasy nervousness of their dubious survival, yet I sincerely wanted them all to be alright. I’m not sure I would like to be friends with any of them, yet I cared about them. In an environment that brings the best and worst of people to the surface, Summers unerringly reminded us of the large expanse of gray in which most people live their lives, though shades of black and white might flitter at the periphery.

Ultimately, there was only one place that this story could be headed, and Summers doesn’t shy away from it. The end scene is a tad ambiguous, and the effect rather deprives readers of closure, but any other ending would have seemed far too disingenuous. While some might be displeased with the direction this story takes, I loved the journey that Summers takes us on from start to finish. This Is Not a Test is one of my top reads for the year. I’ll definitely be checking out Summers’ back-catalogue when I get the chance.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Throne of Glass certainly seems to be one of the standout young adult fantasy titles this year. When I first caught wind of this release, my excitement owed as much to the fact that the story had first appeared on Fictionpress.net as it did to the intriguing premise. I’m a huge fan of sword and sorcery novels, particularly those in the vein of Maria V. Snyder’s Study series, so a novel with a female assassin protagonist sounded right up my alley. Ultimately, Throne of Glass didn’t enthrall me as I had anticipated going into the novel, but having perservered through a somewhat rough beginning, I’m glad I stuck with it.

As Throne of Glassopens, we are introduced to Celaena Sardothien, self-proclaimed (and universally acknowledged) master assassin. It took me a good while to warm to Celaena. A cool, calculating demeanor is only to be expected of an assassin, yet I wasn’t a fan of Celaena’s seemingly unflappable confidence, which I more often than not interpret as mere arrogance in literature. Yet, there have been a number of series where it took me many chapters, indeed, sometimes an entire book or two to feel sympathy for a seemingly acerbic heroine; Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series and Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series are excellent examples. I’m glad to say that Celaena ultimately fell into this category, as Maas went down an unexpected route in the characterization of her protagonist. As we get to know Celaena, her haughtiness becomes more subdued (presumably due to her increased comfort with her surroundings and companions). It’s all well and good to assert that you’re the

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

best assassin in the world, but to me, the more you feel the need to proclaim your status to all you encounter, the more I tend to doubt your abilities. Luckily, Celaena quickly disavowed herself of the need to remind others of her experience, and I soon found myself rooting for her despite my initial disinclinations. What’s more, Maas imbued Celaena with an inherent girlishness that complemented the severity of her killing nature. Celaena might be ruthless when need be, but she’s also a woman and enjoys certain frivolities and vices. I particularly loved the Yulemas scene in which she receives and proceeds to eat a massive amount of candy, as it serves to contrast the harshness of her maturity with the innocence she is still capable of displaying. However, the thing I loved most about Celaena was the fact that she wasn’t afraid to admit when others were right. There is a particular scene in which she is told that, in order to win, she must forsake her pride. While most heroines would doggedly adhere to their convictions regardless of the wisdom such action would entail, Celaena laughed it off and conceded that the strategy was a good one. I loved that she was confident enough in herself to acknowledge when others had the right in the matter.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as impressed with most of the other characterizations. I’ll admit, the love triangle is shaping up to be an interesting one, and for once, I’m not quite sure who I think would be the better choice for Celaena in the long-run (though I believe I know who her endgame will wind up being). Chaol is a good idea of a character, but we didn’t get to know him nearly well enough for me to really root for him at this point. I felt that Maas’s brief transistions into his point-of-view actually hurt the story by removing some of the doubt and ambiguity. I would have preferred to learn of his feelings gradually as Celaena did rather than having them gift-wrapped and hand-delivered to us. Dorian was a bit more interesting, yet I feel that he, too, served a limited purpose. His resistance toward his father’s method of ruling and belief in marrying for love felt too neat and did little to create depth of character; rather, they merely served to make him a stereotype for the ideals that Maas hopes to champion throughout the series. Still, I enjoyed Celaena’s interactions with both men and look forward to seeing how Maas maneuvers these relationships as the series progresses.

For the first half of the story, there were few magical references save mention of some fantastical creatures who inhabit the forest. I was glad to see Maas incorporate a heavier fantasy element in the second half of the story and felt that she handled the magical system she created well. We saw just enough to keep us intrigued while holding back ample material for sequels to explore. Overall, the world Maas created is an interesting one that, while not particularly unique, nonetheless manages to combine oft-used elements into an attractive whole in which action and magic meld together. Throne of Glass is a solid contribution to young adult fantasy, yet I’m hoping that Maas focuses more attention on creating depth in her characters in upcoming installments. If she manages to do that, I believe that this series could shine above many of its peers.

Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

I’ve said it before, and I’ll reiterate: I do not take authors messing with my Jane Eyre lightly. If you are going to attempt to paint a new gloss over something that has already been perfected to my eyes, you’re going to have to bring something completely new to the table. In this regard, I applaud Connolly’s efforts to entwine a fey glamour over the well known Bronte tale, but I can’t say that she pulled off all she hoped to achieve.

Ironskin suffers from a dissonance between Connolly’s desire to adapt Jane Eyre and her desire to write an original fantasy work. The result feels like Connolly’s take on how she would have written Jane Eyre had she gotten first crack at it rather than a reimagining or tribute. Nevertheless, Connolly introduces some interesting ideas and I can’t help but feel that she ultimately did herself a disservice by trying to shoehorn her story into such a well-known mould; she would have done better to eschew comparisons and simply tell her own tale.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Jane Eliot is fundamentally different than Jane Eyre. Perhaps, considering our own reactions were we placed in Jane Eyre’s shoes, many of us feel that Jane Eyre should have felt rage at her situation, yet the very fact that she didn’t defines her character. It’s what sets her apart from and above her peers, what gives her the beauty that shines through an ordinary exterior. Where Jane Eliot allows the rage to take root, Jane Eyre lived above it. Where Jane Eliot yearns for normality badly enough to take drastic, disturbing measures to achieve it, Jane Eyre accepted herself with pride and grace if not always with pleasure. This was one of my biggest points of contention with the book, for in the original it is Rochester who needs reminding that Jane is as she is and won’t be changed. In Ironskin, it is Jane herself who succumbs to shallow desires and embraces superficiality. Making the decision a supposedly crucial plot point does nothing to lessen my disappointment in Jane’s decision and underscores the fact that this is not the same Jane I’ve come to love.

Rochert had potential as a reincarnation of Rochester yet, like so many who have tried before, Connolly fails to grasp Rochester’s essential nature. His depiction quite confused me, really. We are told of his internal suffering, but it doesn’t truly play out on the page. Before we learn of his deep, dark secret, I had actually gained the impression that he was in fact a warm man, loving of his daughter and wife both, not doggedly attempting to hold back the defeating force of his past as Rochester was. We are given so little page time with Rochert that he is never fleshed out (never mind the utter lack of chemistry between him and Jane). I rather liked the dimension Connolly added with his somewhat addled composure concerning the fey, but this too is inadequately addressed.

The greatest interpretations of character for me were Dorie and Poule, as Jane must work at her relationship with both much moreso than in the original. Though I never warmed to Dorie (in truth, she freaks me out more than a little), her storyline was one of the few that suggested the story would have been better off told as an original work. Poule also intrigued me, particularly as she and Jane formed something of a team here, so unlike Jane’s wary regard of Poole in the original. I wish we could have learned a bit more about Poule’s heritage, as it was one of several threads of fantasy worldbuilding that offered a promising story yet was not fully explained.

Overall, I couldn’t tell if Connolly truly wanted to retell our beloved story. Aside from the character names and a rough outline of the plot, so few critical elements of the original story remain. The pacing barely reflects that of the original, throwing Jane into her new employ on the first page, rearranging key scenes and completely eliminating the character of St. John. Whether this is meant to be a permanent feature of the series or whether Connolly introduces St. John in the next book remains to be seen. Jane’s background is completely altered, which likely goes far in explaining her drastic personality change. Whereas the unforgiving environments of her aunt’s home and Lowood shaped Jane Eyre into a strong woman determined to resist the scorn thrust upon her lowly station, Jane Eliot’s abrupt reversal of fortune at a later age made her resentful and proud.

Ultimately, Connolly seemed to want to write a fantasy, and Jane and Rochert’s relationship suffered for it. While her take on the bedroom scene is a novel change, it failed to make up for the numerous other iconic interactions that defined both characters in the original, yet that were missing from this novel. Though I was initially intrigued by the mask plotline, this too wound but being merely a grotesque externalization of conflict that distorted the subtle genius of the original.

I was also confused by Connolly’s repeated references to other classic works. Surely Bronte was influenced by those who came before her, yet she allowed those guiding voices to shape her story without stealing heavy-handed elements. Connolly not only mentions tales such as Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, but she goes so far as to incorporate threads of these tales into the story, which merely adds to the disjointed feel. It’s a shame, since, divorced from recollections of her predecessor, I rather liked Jane. The fey world Connolly has created seems rather fascinating, but we are given the barest glimpses of it. I’m also not quite sure that this work is best described as steampunk, but that characterization will suffice. Overall, Ironskin had promise, but ambivalence regarding the extent to which this was meant to be a retelling ultimately resulted in a failed execution of interesting ideas.