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review 2014-11-12 16:14
Refreshingly Original Contemporary. If you hate New Adult, try this anyway.
The Year We Fell Down - Sarina Bowen

I devoured the whole Ivy Years series during a 5 day long-weekend (one thing transcontinental flights are good for is reading), and I'm not usually a fan of the New Adult genre. These books were a pleasant surprise. The Year We Fell Down is the first in the series, and it tells the story of Corey Callahan and Adam Hartley, two students who meet when they are neighbors in Harkness College's (modeled after Yale) handicapped student dorm. Hartley's injury is temporary: he has badly broken his leg, which lands him in a cast for twelve weeks and costs him a season playing hockey. Callahan's disability is more significant and more permanent: also a hockey player, a bad fall left her with a spinal cord injury that has left her unable to feel her lower extremities. Though she can walk (with great effort and the assistance of cumbersome braces and crutches), she is most often in a wheelchair.


There were a lot of things I loved about this story. First, it felt like nothing I'd ever read before. The "disability" trope isn't uncommon, but usually a main character is stricken with a scar or something disfiguring but which doesn't impact his/her physical abilities, or something like blindness or deafness, which doesn't impact his/her attractiveness. Corey is recovering from an injury that has changed, permanently, both her physical ability and the way she and others see her, and there's no miracle cure. She can walk (with great effort and perseverance), but she's never going to skate again.


I loved Corey's attitude, and the thought-provoking way the author addressed her disability. Nothing is sugar-coated. Corey is honest and sometimes angry about her condition. She gets annoyed when she goes to the dining hall and can't see over the counters to see what's being served, and how, in her chair, her line of sight is exactly at everyone else's butt level. She gets frustrated when she goes to a party and can't move around to mingle, and when she gets separated from her chair, she has to do an embarrassing butt-skoot down several flights of stairs to get back to it. And yet she goes to the dining hall and to the parties anyway. Her parents would rather have kept her home, or at least at a closer, more modern school with better handicap access, but Corey has dreamed of going to Harkness forever, and she's determined to live her dreams. 


I also love that Corey doesn't let romance or heartbreak stand in the way of her studies. She is a serious student without being a geek, and when Hartley blows her off when his long-time girlfriend comes home from a semester abroad, Corey doesn't slink off somewhere to sulk: she studies her ass off. Neither does she wait around for Hartley to discover the error of his ways and come crawling back to her: Corey realizes it was a mistake to rely so heavily on Hartley for social interaction, and she joins an intermural water polo team in an effort to get out more. In short, Corey is brave, and smart, and frankly pretty awesome, without being an angsty Mary Sue.


I didn't love Hartley so much. For much of the first part of the book, he moves in on Corey despite the fact that he's got an absentee girlfriend. (And the girlfriend is annoyingly one-dimensional, such that Hartley's attraction, even when he explains that it's more than just her looks, does not reflect well on him at all.) However, he eventually owns his sins in a way that is satisfying even as it did not entirely win me over.


The sex scenes are few but they're great: funny and sexy and frank.




One thing I didn't love about this book is the tidy conclusion to Hartley's family dilemma. He's never met his father, a wealthy society scion who got Hartley's mom (a waitress at the country club) knocked up and then didn't pay his child support. Hartley dates Stacia, the one-dimensional rich girlfriend, because she lives in his dad's neighborhood. At the end of the story, Hartley's dad shows up writing huge checks for back child support and full of promises to make things right, and it was all just a little too neat and Pollyanna-ish for the rest of the story. Reading on in the series, it seems like these late-entering characters who show up to tie up the thorniest plots with a neat and tidy little bow seem to be a recurring theme in the Ivy Years series, and it's a theme I could have done without.

(spoiler show)


Bottom line: This is easily the best New Adult book I've ever read--(Caveat: Most of the other NA books I've tried, I've hated)--and it's also one of the most refreshingly original contemporary romances I've ever read, so I highly recommend it. 



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review 2014-07-29 16:24
Let's be real: the All Souls trilogy is Twilight-spawn.
The Book of Life - Deborah Harkness

Slightly pretentious Twilight-spawn, actually, as if all of this highbrow attention to history and science and art could obscure the fact that we're still talking about two stories where an obscenely wealthy and dangerous old vamp falls in love with a mousy, not-very interesting human and their love is obsessive and forbidden, and over the course of the series Mousy Girl gets her groove back and becomes Queen of the Mary Sues, and when the couples breed the Powers That Be are disgusted and afraid of the unknown dangers that these rare forbidden vampire-hybrid babies represent, and vow to wipe out the whole Cullen/de Clermont clan.


That said, there's a reason Twilight made Stephanie Meyer rich, and there's a reason all of these books are bestsellers. Mock all you want, with good reason (and even Harkness mocks, when her vampires haughtily insist they don't sparkle), but the fact is, these books are entertaining. Twilight lets you shut off your brain and get carried away in the fantasy of forbidden attraction; All Souls takes you on the same journey without shutting off your brain.


I read A Discovery of Witches in February 2011, with no idea it was the start of a trilogy, and when I got to the cliffhanger ending, I was so gobsmacked it took me several days before I could sleep again. When Shadow of Night came out in 2012, I got an ARC copy and took a week's vacation so I could savor it properly. But since then, I've moved house, had a second baby, weathered a lot of changes at work, and I'm generally a lot busier, and so when the long-awaited final book in the All Souls Trilogy showed up on my Kindle, while I was excited to see it, I didn't have time to drop everything and devour it. Moreover, I didn't have time to re-read the first two books to refresh my memory, which in retrospect would have been very helpful. Consequently, I spent the first quarter of The Book of Life catching up on vaguely remembered details from the complicated world Harkness developed in the previous books.


The Book of Life picks up more or less where Shadow of Night leaves off: time-traveling supernatural power couple Diana Bishop (a witch) and Matthew Clairmont (a vampire) have returned to the present day from 1590, where Diana was learning how to use her rare spell-weaving powers from the more powerful witches of that age. (One of the overarching plot issues is that the magical world is weakening in the modern age: witches cast less effective spells, vampires are less able to make new vampires, and daemons are more prone to insanity than genius.) Diana is pregnant with twins, a secret which will get them in very hot water with the Congregation (the governing council of the magical creatures), because witches, daemons, and vampires aren't allowed to marry outside their own kind, much less reproduce.


Book of Life ties up the convoluted strands of the series-wide plot: the search for the ancient manuscript, Ashmole 782, that all of the creatures believe holds the key to their survival; the long-anticipated confrontation with the Congregation over Diana and Matthew's forbidden relationship; the explanation (and solution) to the problem of weakening magic. In reaching these conclusions, the book delves deeply into a lot of less central subplots: there is a lot of time devoted to the gordian knot of political and familial loyalties and obligations in the de Clermont vampire clan, a lot of time devoted to the analysis of genetic material in the pages from Ashmole 782 and DNA-testing of various magical creatures, and a lot of time devoted to traveling and describing the many settings of this book, including various locations in France, upstate New York, New Haven, London, New Orleans, Oxford, Venice, and Chelm, Poland.


The entire series has been plagued by pacing problems. Deborah Harkness's attention to detail is at once the series' greatest strength and also its greatest weakness. The extensive descriptions of places, people, history, furniture, art, and so on make the reader feel like s/he is right there in the story, but sometimes Harkness gives us more detail than we could possibly need. In A Discovery of Witches, the never-ending descriptions of Diana's clothes and meals made me crazy. In Shadow of Night, Harkness told us more about arcane alchemical processes than any reader (except perhaps a Ph.D. candidate) could possibly care to know. -And here in Book of Life, perhaps more than ever, the details get in the way of the story.


Let me explain: As the capstone of the trilogy, Book of Life is the climax the whole series (all 1800 pages of it) has been building to. The reader therefore has a sense of urgency in seeing how certain plots resolve that the detailed narrative often frustrates. Some examples: Matthew's mother, Ysabeau, gets held prisoner early on by the Congregation. Despite expressing some concern about it (and after learning why imprisonment might be especially traumatic to Ysabeau given her history), Matthew and Diana hie off to the States and spend several months gardening and cleaning the Bishop homestead in New York rather than working on a plan to free her. Later, they learn that the Book of Life's main villain is holding a witch hostage and repeatedly raping her, trying to breed with her. Matthew and Diana express horror and outrage... and then go to Yale and spend several more weeks futzing around in labs and libraries. Then, Diana has a pregnancy complication and gets put on bed rest while she and Matthew are on separate continents. Rather than rushing to her side, Matthew spends a week carving infant cradles. Later still, Matthew himself is a hostage of the Big Baddie, and Diana hurries to France... to feed her babies. Now, as a relatively new mom myself, I get that babies need to be fed, but surely not even the most hard-core breastfeeding enthusiasts would object to the sitter offering a little bit of formula so that Mom can go save Daddy from Mortal Peril.


The baby plot was almost as ridiculous and cringeworthy in Book of Life as it was in Breaking Dawn. The birthing scene was less horrifying, thank God, and the Bishop-de Clermont babies have reasonably normal names and growth patterns, but they still prefer blood to milk, and there's a ridiculous scene in which Diana tells her husband that their daughter is "not a vampire. She's a vampitch. Or a wimpire." (p. 424). Seriously?!


Book of Life has a point of view problem (as does Breaking Dawn, now that I think of it). Some of the book is written in first-person POV, as narrated by Diana. Some of the book is in third-person POV, usually limited to Matthew or other characters, but sometimes almost omniscient. Whatever rhyme or reason there may have been to the POV changes, I found them jarring and unnecessary.


One plot I wish the series had developed more fully (and I say that with some hesitation, when there were so many plots that could and maybe should have been pared down), is the issue of Diana's mortality. Unlike Twilight's Bella, Harkness's protagonist has no intention of becoming a vampire. That means this is a story of a timeless, all-consuming love between a woman who will live a mere handful of decades and a man who has already survived millennia. Perhaps the most empowering aspect of this love affair (especially contrasted with Twilight) is that both Diana and Matthew are happy with Diana the way she is, and don't wish to change her... but I still think they need to confront the issues raised by her mortality in a more meaningful way. At one point, Matthew tells Diana that his greatest wish is to grow old with her, which of course can't happen -- Diana's response is to conjure him a few grey hairs for Christmas, a wholly unsatisfactory answer to a real and pressing problem.


Reading over my review, it all sounds more negative than my actual reading experience reflects. I have a lot of nitpicky complaints, but overall, this book, and this series, is great entertainment. It's long and complicated and full of delicious (and sometimes maddening) detail, and the romance is compelling and the stakes are sky-high, and for a lot of people (including me) the All Souls trilogy is total reading catnip. I envy newcomers to the series who have the time to dive into all three books and read them in one epic 1,800 page binge, all at once, because I bet the story would be all the more transporting and satisfying that way, rather than interrupted by the long wait between book releases.

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review 2014-06-15 16:15
Great Book. Sucky Ending.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

Back when this movie came out, I heard good things about it, but we had a baby and no free time, so never got around to seeing it. Then I heard it was based on a book, and I thought, well, at least I have time to read... but as I was reading blurbs and reviews of the book in preparation to buy, I kept seeing it compared to The Catcher in the Rye.


I hate The Catcher in the Rye. More than any other book I can think of, I loathe that book, I loathe Holden Caulfield, and it is at the very top of my list of Books-I-HATE-that-Everyone-Else-Loves (followed closely by The Great Gatsby). And of course the fact that everyone else loves Catcher in the Rye makes me loathe it even more. So, based on all those CitR comparisons, I took a pass on The Perks of Being a Wallflower.


Yet I kept hearing good things about Perks, and eventually I broke down. The good news is, the comparisons to CitR are undeserved (though I get why people make them): Holden Caulfield is a spoiled, entitled, jaded, self-indulgent, self-centered, whiny little prick; Charlie is (blessedly) not. Charlie is observant, sensitive, generally considerate, and focused on others much more so than on himself (to his peril, as we learn). However, he's far from a perfect narrator: despite his prodigious intelligence, Charlie is painfully (sometimes unbelievably, as in the scene where he "discovers" masturbation) naive and clueless in social situations. He's also mentally ill. His diagnoses are never made explicit, and I'm not a doctor, but I'd say he's suffering from depression and PTSD stemming from several childhood traumas, including the suicide of one of his only friends, the death of a beloved aunt, and another, deeper trauma (so deep Charlie himself has shut out the memory) that is not revealed until the last pages of the book.


Despite Charlie's imperfections as a narrator, I connected deeply with his story. This book is set in 1991-1992, Charlie's first year of high school. That puts him one year behind me (and since he stayed back a year, we are the same age). Like Charlie, I too found my niche in high school among the semi-geeky, semi-awesome (depending on one's perspective) drama and music kids (we were called "art fags" at my school). Like Charlie, I too spent countless hours with my friends listening to Nirvana and the Smiths and watching Harold and Maude and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like Charlie, my friends and I wrestled with issues like unrequited first love, teen dating violence, substance use, sexual orientation and identity, suicide, abortion, and childhood sexual abuse.


I've read several other reviews that criticize Perks for raising all of these issues in only a glancing way, without thoroughly dealing with any of them. I see what these reviewers are saying, but I think that critique is grossly unfair. Charlie's perspective is very similar to my recollection of my own high school experience. All of these huge, weighty, adult issues kept popping up unexpectedly, and you just had to figure out how to think about them, talk about them, what to do about them in the moment so that you could get back to the day-to-day business of finishing your homework, preparing for exams, going to this weekend's party -- but no, you never actually solved these problems. You didn't figure them out. You dealt with them as they came up, and then you spent years reflecting on those experiences, learning from them in the hope that you will deal better the next time you find yourself in the same boat.


Why only 3.5 stars, then, if I found Charlie so authentic? The ending. So disappointing. I don't want to spoil it for anyone (and the book is totally worth reading, even with the bummer ending), but I will say that Charlie has a very late-in-coming revelation of a major childhood trauma that sends him around the bend. He gets hospitalized for two months, and upon his release, suddenly he has a new shiny happy outlook on life that, frankly, he didn't earn, and I don't buy. I don't mind the relatively superficial treatment of all of the other weighty issues of the book, but Charlie is this book, he is the narrator, and if we can't trust him, we can't trust anything about the story. I'd have been happier with an ending that left him damaged but honest.

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review 2014-05-24 04:06
Life is Too Short to Finish This Book.
Since the Surrender - Julie Anne Long

I'm giving up at 233 of 370 pages. I've jumped around in the Pennyroyal Green series, loving some, meh about others, but this is the first I've had to DNF. The main characters are bland (except for their penchant for exhibitionist sex, which doesn't turn my crank), as is the plot. The heroine's sister is missing, and you'd think that would be enough of a hook to make the reader care, but no. In all likelihood, the missing sister has been kidnapped into sex slavery, but no one seems that fussed about it, which makes this book weirdly disturbing as well as boring. Plus, there are creepy puppets. *Shudder*

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review 2014-05-06 16:44
Know Someone With ADHD? Read This Book. No? Read it Anyway.
Laugh (The Burnside Series): A Loveswept Contemporary Romance - Mary Ann Rivers

The more I read by Mary Ann Rivers, the more I love her. I didn't like this second full-length novel in the Burnside series quite as well as I liked the first, Live (which I loved), but I liked it a whole helluva lot more than almost anything else I've read lately. Rivers has a voice that is heavily influenced by her close friend and writing mentor, Ruthie Knox, but is a little bit more angsty and bittersweet than Ruthie's work. Everything I've read by Rivers has a common theme: people falling in love, surprised by love, totally caught up and swept away by love, even as they wrestle with the messy tangle of other heartbreaks, disappointments, and setbacks in their lives.


Laugh's protagonists, Nina and Sam, fall neatly within this pattern. Both have "loss all over them" (as Nina puts it): Sam is reeling from the recent death of his father, his sister's rocky recovery from a near-fatal bike accident, his youngest sister's sudden defection to Europe with a new lover, a strained relationship with his baby brother, and tons of work-stress as he tries to open a new low-income health clinic in his neighborhood. Nina, the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico, lost her husband in Afghanistan. Because they had been childhood sweethearts whose parents farm together, she lost her connection with her parents and in-laws, too, when she left Seattle to start a new life as an urban farmer in Ohio. Now, her best friend and business partner has just been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and Nina is terrified that she will have to face another loss. As always, Rivers manages to capture the giddy, anxious, beautiful, terrible euphoria of falling in love against the backdrop of her characters' messy lives, and the juxtaposition of love and grief and everything in between will give the reader All. The. Feels.


There were a few things I loved about this book. First, Sam's ADHD. Rivers did an amazeballs job of portraying this way-too-common disability in a sensitive, realistic way. Readers get a sense of not just the obvious inconvenience of the diagnosis--the messy house, the missed deadlines, the impulse control issues--but also the professional and interpersonal costs. His medical license is suspended and the fate of the clinic is jeopardized because he loses some paperwork. He tries to control and micromanage his world and the people in it in a vain attempt to juggle everything on his plate. When that juggling act falters, his frustration quickly turns to anger, and he lashes out at siblings, friends, and lovers, souring almost all the relationships he's ever had. Yet for all of the costs of his disability, Rivers makes it so clear that Sam is unbelievably intelligent and loving and capable. Anyone who loves someone with an attention deficit should read this book, if for no other reason than that Rivers offers such a wonderful, nuanced portrayal of Sam as a whole person with so much more to offer than just his diagnosis.


Second, even more so than in Live, Rivers does a wonderful job exploring her protagonists' relationships with others, not just their lover. Sam has important relationships with his siblings, his business partner at the clinic, and his childhood best friend. Nina has wonderful friendships with her business partners: Rachel, the chef at the farm-to-table cafe where much of Nina's produce goes, and Tay, Nina's farm manager. So many romance novels focus in on the main couple and include secondary characters only as sequel bait or as poorly-developed stock characters brought in only to advance the plot, but Rivers' characters fall in love without sacrificing the social connections that shape and color their lives. Learning how to weave a new love into that pre-existing social fabric is an integral part of the story.


Third, Nina and Sam have a gloriously, hilariously bad first date that goes wrong in just about every possible way, and it is so funny, I'd recommend this book just for those chapters alone.


However, I do have a few quibbles. On the technical side, I read this ebook as an ARC from NetGalley, and it could use a few more editing passes both for basic typos and for more substantive stuff like run-on sentences and sentence fragments. I also found myself losing track of who was talking sometimes during dialogue, because Rivers tends not to use a lot of dialogue tags.


Two other things reduced this from a five-star read to four, for me. The characters' internal monologues, especially Nina's, sometimes got too introspective and abstract. A certain amount of navel-gazing is necessary in a story as emotionally rich as this one, but sometimes I got lost in the noise going on in Nina's and Sam's heads. (Maybe in Sam's case that was intentional; sometimes Sam gets lost in the noise in his head.)


Second--(and I can't believe I'm saying this, since most of my old high school and college era paperback romance novels open right to the smexy parts when you pull them off the shelf)--the sex was just this side of too much. Rivers writes very explicit, very detailed sex scenes, and there are a lot of them. While they're well done--(which is of course a matter of taste, but from my perspective, 'well done' = the characters stay in character and don't become random sex robots, no purple prose or weird euphemisms, the sex blends with the story, etc.)--the sex scenes were just too frequent and too long, and I found myself skimming to get back to the forward momentum of the plot. But, I'm sure a lot of people find the sexy bits to be the best part, so maybe this complaint is just a matter of taste.


Anyway, I liked this book a lot, and while it isn't Mary Ann Rivers' strongest work, it's still very, very good.


***I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***


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