Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Kiss Kill Vanish by Jessica Martinez

Title: Kiss Kill Vanish
Author: Jessica Martinez
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release date: October 7th 2014
Pages: 432
Genre: Young Adult contemporary/mystery
Source: Edelweiss - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Valentina Cruz no longer exists.
One moment, she was wrapped in Emilio’s arms, melting into his kiss. The next, she was witnessing the unthinkable: a murder in cold blood, ordered by her father and carried out by her boyfriend. When Emilio pulled the trigger, Valentina disappeared. She made a split-second decision to shed her identity and flee her life of privilege, leaving the glittering parties and sultry nightlife of Miami far behind.
She doesn’t know how to explain to herself what she saw. All she knows now is that nothing she believed about her family, her heart, or Emilio’s love, was real.
She can change her name and deny her past, but Valentina can’t run from the truth. The lines between right and wrong, and trust and betrayal, will be blurred beyond recognition as she untangles the deceptions of the two men she once loved and races to find her own truth.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a hard book to review without spoilers. The description is really vague (it might not seem vague, but there is so much more to the story than you could tell from the description), and I think the mystery of not knowing is really important to enjoy this novel. So I'm going to try to not give anything away, but this means I might have to be pretty vague about some parts, so I apologize in advance.

The mystery had a lot of potential. There is tons of intrigue and secrets, and this whole world is fascinating to read about. Sadly, though, the pacing made it hard to really love the mystery: there are parts that dragged and could have been made a lot shorter, and then there are parts where there is just way too much going on. There are a ton of plot twists, which could have been really good, but because they're one right after the other, I kind of just lost track of what was going on. Especially in the last 100ish pages, things got kind of far-fetched and unrealistic, and Valentina became kind of irrational. This is really unfortunate because I loved all of the ideas - I just wish they had been spread out a little more to make the beginning more fast-paced and the later parts more plausible.

The characters are okay. I don't know I'd say I liked Valentina, but I did like reading about her. In the beginning, at least, it's great to see her figure out how to live by herself, without the wealth and privilege she's always known. Later on, though, she becomes a lot less independent and kind of irrational, like I said, so I didn't like reading about her quite as much anymore. There's also a romance storyline, and I'm not sure what to make of that: I really liked the banter between Valentina and the love interest, but I always just saw them as friends, so it seemed kind of weird to me when they randomly got together at the end.

I know this review doesn't really tell you anything, but that's how I feel about this book - my thoughts are kind of all-over-the-place. The mystery had a lot of potential, but I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more to make for a more plausible, realistic story. I'm not going to go around recommending this to everyone, but I'm not going to discourage you from Kiss Kill Vanish a try, either. It was just kind flat for me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Tape by Steven Camden

Title: Tape
Author: Steven Camden
Publisher: Harper Collins Children's Books
Release date: September 23rd 2014
Pages: 363
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
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In 1993, Ryan records a diary on an old tape. He talks about his mother’s death, about his dreams, about his love for a new girl at school who doesn’t even know he exists.
In 2013, Ameliah moves in with her grandmother after her parents die. There, she finds a tape in the spare room. A tape with a boy’s voice on it – a voice she can’t quite hear, but which seems to be speaking to her.
Ryan and Ameliah are connected by more than just a tape.
This is their story.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I haven't DNFed a book in over a year, but I wanted to DNF Tape multiple times. The reason that I rarely DNF books is that I like reading good books (for obvious reasons) but also like reading bad books because they give me something to complain about (I'm really good at anger). (Someone please tell me I'm not the only person who likes reading bad books so they can complain.) But Tape gave me neither the pure form of enjoyment nor the anger-enjoyment, because I just felt indifferent about it throughout. I couldn't tell if there was anything technically wrong with the story, but for some reason I just couldn't connect with it. The story bored me, and I couldn't get myself to care about any of the characters, so Tape was a hard book for me to get through.

Part of why Tape was so hard for me to read is the writing style. For some reason, the author used dashes instead of quotation marks throughout the whole novel. I know that shouldn't really be a big deal, but it was really hard for me to get used to this, and it also made me feel kind of removed from the story, since the dialogue isn't properly embedded in the narrative. Asides from this smaller issue, the writing is just very simplistic and basic; a lot of it read like it would be better suited for the middle grade audience. (Which would make sense, since with 13-year-old main characters, Tape is right on the border of MG and YA.) But even if it's meant for younger readers, I didn't find the writing to be all that engaging; it just never drew me in.

As for the plot, the problem is that... there is no plot; nothing really happens until the very end. The whole story moves incredibly slowly and just drags so much. 90% of this story is just the main characters complaining about how annoying their families are; I really can't remember anything else that happens in the first 200 pages. Towards the end, there are two plot twists. One of these I found very predictable; we know from the description that there's some kind of connection between Ryan and Ameliah, and it's hinted at throughout, so the way they turn out to be connected is not all that surprising. The other plot twist, regarding a character in Ameliah's life, I hadn't expected, so I guess that was good. But since I didn't really care about the characters, I couldn't get myself to care about this revelation, either.

If a novel is lacking a plot, I'd assume it'd at least have good characters so it can be more of a character-driven story. But... no. I never connected with these characters. Ameliah and Ryan are really similar characters in really similar situations - they're both dealing with a death in the family and adjusting to a new family arrangement, and that's really all that's happening. Their voices are very similar and hard to tell apart, at times. Since Ryan's story is set 20 years before Ameliah's, I had thought their voices would be different and adapted to their respective time periods, but that's not really the case. In Ameliah's world, everyone has cell phones, but that was the only difference I could see; I wanted to see more of a difference in the way they speak and act. I just didn't have any kind of connection with either of the main characters.

The secondary characters are very one-dimensional. I was especially disappointed by Eve's character. Considering she's so central to the whole story, I feel like she should have had some sort of personality, but we never really got to know her. Ryan and Eve's romance should have been hugely epic, since it brings the whole book together, but we only get a couple of short conversations, lots of insta-love, and nothing else. Everything about the romance is cliched, melodramatic, and not very realistic.

I really liked the idea of the tape connecting these two stories with its time-travel-esque features. But that turned out to just be a whole lot of wasted potential. The tape thing could have made this story stand out, but it didn't even turn out to be all that important. These two characters being connected via the tape could have had so many implications for their futures and could have really changed the course of these stories (sorry for being so vague; I don't want to give anything away), but the characters don't really use this connection for anything, which was really disappointing.

Tape really just didn't have any redeeming qualities for me. The plot is non-existent, the characters are flat, and the romance is melodramatic. Maybe Steven Camden's writing just isn't for me; it never drew me in, and I felt removed from the story throughout. Maybe it would be a better fit for younger readers, but even then... I just can't recommend Tape.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Title: Lies We Tell Ourselves
Author: Robin Talley
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Release date: September 30th 2014
Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult historical
Source: BEA 2014
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In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I was ridiculously excited for Lies We Tell Ourselves. A book that tackles racism, sexism, and homophobia all in one sounds like my kind of book. And while I was a little disappointed by the writing and by some smaller elements, I did really like Lies We Tell Ourselves.

My knowledge of US history is limited, but I think that even if I did know more, I probably wouldn't know all that much about how exactly desegregation worked. It's not something you really learn about; you might get the idealized version, but not what the real issues were. That's what makes Lies We Tell Ourselves such an important novel. The racism and the amount of terrible people in this book are ridiculous, and it's kind of hard to read at parts, but it seems authentic, making this a very powerful story.

But Lies We Tell Ourselves is not only about racial issues; it is nuanced in its portrayal of various issues during this time period. Of course, LBGT rights are a big issue in the novel, and it's treated with respect, authenticity, and nuance. Women's rights aren't quite as obviously addressed, but the main characters do question their gender roles in subtle and meaningful ways over the course of the novel. I love how Robin Talley weaved these important issues together seamlessly in Lies We Tell Ourselves.

The characters are pretty good. They're not quite as fully developed as I'd hoped, but they are definitely intriguing characters. Sarah, of course, is someone the reader sympathizes with; she is courageous and strong, but also very vulnerable. Linda is not the easiest character to like, but I did feel for her; it shines through that these problematic values are what she's been taught all her life, and it was fascinating to see her begin to question what she has always thought to be true. Her progression happens in a very natural way, which I really appreciated.

Despite all these great things, there was still something... missing. You could very much tell that this is a debut novel. While it fits the voices in some cases, the writing is a bit too simplistic for my tastes, and I wish the characters had been a just a little bit more complex. The plot is quite predictable, and while I don't think this story calls for any intense plot twists, I would have liked to see some more surprising character development. I can't really pinpoint what my issue with the writing is; I just wish it had been a bit more emotional, thought-provoking, hard-hitting... just more.

Even if the writing isn't quite as great as I'd hoped, I still really enjoyed Lies We Tell Ourselves. It's educational but it's also a great story. Lies We Tell Ourselves is a powerful, important novel, and I definitely recommend it!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday #30: Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish with a different topic for a top-ten list each week. You can find out more about it here.

This week's topic is: Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

I only have seven for this list, but here goes...

Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour's debut, Hold Still, is one of my all-time favorites; her writing is incredible. And yet, somehow... I still haven't read The Disenchantments or Everything Leads to You. I really need to make that happen.

Justina Chen

I loved Justina Chen's writing in North of Beautiful... but still haven't gotten around to reading any of her other books.

Trish Doller

I remember being completely obsessed with Trish Doller's debut, Something Like Normal - it was one of my most anticipated releases, and it was still better than I'd expected. And Trish Doller is awesome on Twitter, too, so I really should read her sophomore novel. One day...

Libba Bray

The only Libba Bray book I've read is Beauty Queens, which I liked, but which everyone says is her worst one. So I should really read some of her other books...

Natalie Standiford

How to Say Goodbye in Robot spoke to me in a very personal way, and I still think about it to this day. (Which is a big deal, because I usually forget what happened in a book like a week after I finish it.) I really need to read some more of her books, even if they probably won't live up to how much I loved How to Say Goodbye in Robot.

Sarah Mlynowski

Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn't Have) is the only Sara Mlynowski book I've read, but I absolutely loved it; it was hilarious, the perfect feel-good read. I think I need some more Sarah Mlynowski in my life...

Melissa Walker

I loved Melissa Walker's Unbreak My Heart, and I've heard great things about her other books, so I really need to get on that...

Have you read any of these authors' books? Which ones do I NEED to read?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Fine Art of Pretending by Rachel Harris

Title: The Fine Art of Pretending
Author: Rachel Harris
Publisher: Spencer Hill Contemporary
Release date: September 30th 2014
Pages: 256
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance
Source: BEA 2014
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According to the guys at Fairfield Academy, there are two types of girls: the kind you hook up with, and the kind you're friends with. Seventeen-year-old Alyssa Reed is the second type. And she hates it. With just one year left to change her rank, she devises a plan to become the first type by homecoming, and she sets her sights on the perfect date—Justin Carter, Fairfield Academy’s biggest hottie and most notorious player.
With 57 days until the dance, Aly launches Operation Sex Appeal and sheds her tomboy image. The only thing left is for Justin actually to notice her. Enter best friend Brandon Taylor, the school’s second biggest hottie, and now Aly’s pretend boyfriend. With his help, elevating from “funny friend” to “tempting vixen” is only a matter of time.
But when everything goes according to plan, the inevitable “break up” leaves their friendship in shambles, and Aly and Brandon with feelings they can’t explain. And the fake couple discovers pretending can sometimes cost you the one thing you never expected to want.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The cover of The Fine Art of Pretending is adorable, and when they're well done, this type of story can be really cute. Sadly, The Fine Art of Pretending doesn't belong in the "well done" category, in my opinion - the characters are frustrating, and the plot drags on with unnecessary drama about nothing. The Fine Art of Pretending just didn't work for me.

Aly rubbed me the wrong way from the first page on, since the novel starts with her plan to give herself a total makeover of appearance and personality, in order to get guys to like her. I know this was to be expected from the description, but I had somehow assumed she was making these changes for herself, rather than for male attention. But... no. The whole thing is about getting guys to like her. Her entire self-worth is based on male perceptions of her, which is problematic in so many ways. When she finds out that the guys at her school have organized girls into two groups - Casuals (girls to hook up with) and Commitments (girls to have relationships with) - she is only concerned with wanting to become a Casual, rather than being outraged at how offensive and objectifying this distinction is. Yes, I understand that Aly isn't supposed to be entirely likeable at the beginning of the novel, since the plot is about her character growth. But this character growth focuses on her learning she is really a Commitment and shouldn't try to be a Casual, rather than dismantling this ridiculous binary. The depiction of femininity within these two groups is highly stereotypical and demeaning to both "categories" of females. It also bothered me how the only way for Aly to become okay with being a Commitment is realizing that this is something guys do like - rather than becoming comfortable with herself regardless of male perceptions of her. The problems with the depiction of gender roles and definitions of femininity in this novel are just endless.

Brandon isn't much better. His views of gender are also highly problematic, but I think my feminist rant has gone on long enough, so I'll talk about my issues with his character, regardless of gender stuff, instead. Honestly, I just don't think his story was strong enough. The main obstacle standing in the way of Aly and Brandon being together, once they've realized they have feelings for each other, is that Brandon believes relationships always end and therefore aren't worth it, which he learned from seeing his mother grieve the death of his father. This idea has a lot of potential, but it isn't developed enough to actually make me feel for him. We never find out anything about his dad, other than that he died, or his mom, other than that she's grieving; they're very, very one-dimensional characters. We also never really get to see Brandon grieve his father, other than making those statements about how he learned that relationships only cause pain. If we had really gotten insight into how grief has affected his family, I could have sympathized with Brandon and understood his reluctance to start a relationship, but because the storyline is so underdeveloped, it seemed kind of contrived and constructed only to have Aly and Brandon face some kind of obstacle.

Most of the secondary characters are just personifications of stereotypes. I really wanted to get to know Aly's girl friends, but the only time they play a role is when Aly needs someone to discuss her guy troubles with; I don't think they ever have a conservation that doesn't revolve around one of their relationships with a guy. All the other characters are just the stereotypical popular high school kids who don't get real personalities. And what is up with all of these one-week relationships everyone is having?? The only other character we get a little bit of insight to is Justin, but his story is oversimplified, too.

I can't really think of a nicer way to put this; I just didn't like this book all that much. There are many books out there who do the friendship-turning-into-romance storyline a lot better than The Fine Art of Pretending does. This story is melodramatic, stereotypical, and highly problematic regarding perceptions of femininity. I just couldn't enjoy it in any way.
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