Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: The Tragic Age by Stephen Metcalfe

Title: The Tragic Age
Author: Stephen Metcalfe
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release date: February 16th 2016
Pages: 320
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source:  I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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This is the story of Billy Kinsey, heir to a lottery fortune, part genius, part philosopher and social critic, full time insomniac and closeted rock drummer. Billy has decided that the best way to deal with an absurd world is to stay away from it. Do not volunteer. Do not join in. Billy will be the first to tell you it doesn't always work- not when your twin sister, Dorie, has died, not when your unhappy parents are at war with one another, not when frazzled soccer moms in two ton SUVs are more dangerous than atom bombs, and not when your guidance counselor keeps asking why you haven't applied to college.
Billy's life changes when two people enter his life. Twom Twomey is a charismatic renegade who believes that truly living means going a little outlaw. Twom and Billy become one another's mutual benefactor and friend. At the same time, Billy is reintroduced to Gretchen Quinn, an old and adored friend of Dorie's. It is Gretchen who suggests to Billy that the world can be transformed by creative acts of the soul.
With Twom, Billy visits the dark side. And with Gretchen, Billy experiences possibilities.Billy knows that one path is leading him toward disaster and the other toward happiness. The problem is-Billy doesn't trust happiness. It's the age he's at. The tragic age.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Tragic Age was a bit of an up and down for me. I started out wary of our main character Billy; he seemed like a pretentious know-it-all. But I warmed up to him pretty quickly, and I began to enjoy his voice; he's very funny, in a snarky, pessimistic, self-deprecating way, The writing style is rather unique, interspersing the story with explanations and facts that are entertaining to read (most of the time) and adding to the quirkiness of the story's voice. Billy is very clever and entertaining, and his voice engrosses you in the story. Even when there's not much going on, Stephen Metcalfe makes it interesting to read about with Benny's individual voice.

None of the other characters are developed with as much complexity as our narrator. They're pretty stereotypical, with the oversexualized latina, the bad boy, and the nerd. Gretchen isn't as much of a stereotype, but I wouldn't say that she's fully developed, either; I felt like we never really got to know her.

And then the ending turns the book into a complete mess. I don't even know what to say about the ending other than.... wtf. I would really like to hear the author's reasoning for ending the story this way because it makes absolutely no sense to me. Billy had been warning us all along that this would end badly, but I was never expecting things to end this badly; everything escalates so quickly and just completely blows up in the main characters' faces. And when things go wrong, common sense goes out the window, even for oh-so-smart Billy, and everything just turns into a huge mess from there. All of this is made worse by how much of an unrealiable narrator Billy is. I enjoyed this at first because I would believe everything Billy said and then be surprised when he tells us he had lied, but after a while I just stopped believing what Billy was telling the reader, and in the end I just assumed Billy was making something up and got really confused when parts of it turned out to be true (and I'm still not entirely sure about this). I can't explain this any more without spoilers, but this book has one of the bizarrest, messiest, least sense-making endings I have ever read.

I know my review sounds very negative, but that's not entirely accurate; there's a lot to criticize about The Tragic Age, but there are also many parts that I really enjoyed. I really liked the every-day parts of the story, being told in Benny's fresh and funny voice, and those made The Tragic Age a worthwhile read for me. But the lack of character development in the secondary characters, and the confusing, messy ending kept me from really loving this novel.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: The Secrets of Lake Road by Karen Katchur

Title: The Secrets of Lake Road
Author: Karen Katchur
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release date: August 4th 2015
Pages: 309
Genre: women's fiction/mystery
Source: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Jo has been hiding the truth about her role in her high school boyfriend’s drowning for sixteen years. Every summer, she drops her children off with her mother at the lakeside community where she spent summers growing up, but cannot bear to stay herself; everything about the lake reminds her of the guilt she feels. For her daughter Caroline, however, the lake is a precious world apart; its familiarity and sameness comforts her every year despite the changes in her life outside its bounds. At twelve years old and caught between childhood and adolescence, she longs to win her mother’s love and doesn’t understand why Jo keeps running away.
Then seven-year-old Sara Starr goes missing from the community beach. Rescue workers fail to uncover any sign of her—but instead dredge up the bones Jo hoped would never be discovered, shattering the quiet lakeside community’s tranquility. Caroline was one of the last people to see Sara alive on the beach, and feels responsible for her disappearance. She takes it upon herself to figure out what happened to the little girl. As Caroline searches for Sara, she uncovers the secrets her mother has been hiding, unraveling the very foundation of everything she knows about herself and her family. The Secrets of Lake Road by Karen Katchur is a riveting novel that is impossible to put down and hard to forget.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I was really excited for The Secrets of Lake Road, since it combines women’s fiction with YA crossover appeal with a mystery. The book started out strong, and I enjoyed the beginning, but over the course of the story I developed more and more issues with the book, and it left me feeling very underwhelmed in the end.

What pulled me in the beginning is the writing. Karen Katchur’s style immediately immerses you in the story and makes it impossible to put the book down. The writing is evocative, creating a palpably eerie atmosphere and really making you wonder about what could have happened in this town (and specifically the lake). Some scenes have a very peaceful beachy, summery feel to them, and they’re perfectly contrasted with the darker elements of the story. Regardless of my issues with this book, you can definitely tell that Karen Katchur is a great writer. 

What first started to annoy me are the characters. Most of them are not very likeable people, which doesn’t have to be a problem, but I found myself getting really frustrated with Jo and Kevin, especially, and also kind of bored by the repetitiveness of the mistakes they make. I enjoyed Caroline’s and Patricia’s chapters the most because they’re the only two characters I could empathize with, although sometimes Caroline’s parts frustrated me as well because is not always authentic to that of a twelve-year-old girl. Patricia, I wish we had gotten to know better – her story is fascinating but isn’t actually explored all that much. I also wish we had gotten Johnny’s perspective at some point; he seems to be the only major character who doesn’t get any of their own chapters, and I’m still not sure why that’s the case. I really just didn’t connect with the characters or care about their stories enough to really stay immersed in the plot.

The ending is what frustrated me the most. I was waiting for some kind of plot twist or major revelation, but we already know pretty much everything when we get to the end. There’s no resolution or big change in the family dynamic, so the book left me wondering what the point of the whole thing was. I wanted more of a resolution to Sara’s and Patricia’s story, too; with no resolution or further exploration at the end, their story just seemed like a device to show what happened with Jo and Kevin in the past.

The Secrets of Lake Road just left me feeling very underwhelmed. The novel had a ton of potential, with evocative writing, a great sense of setting and atmosphere, and a mystery that could have been taken in many different directions. But unfortunately, the characters fell flat, and the mystery doesn’t have any surprising twists or interesting resolutions. I might pick up Karen Katchur’s next book because I did really enjoy her writing, but I’m not sure if I can recommend this one.

Friday, June 17, 2016

ReviewL The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

Title: The Weight of Feathers
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Release date: September 15th 2015
Pages: 308
Genre: Young Adult magical realism
Source: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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The Palomas and the Corbeaus have long been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for more than a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.
Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught since birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I'm kind of sick of Romeo and Juliet retellings, but The Weight of Feathers is a completely new take on the story and creates its own magical world to set it in, so I was intrigued from the first page on. While I had some issues with the story, the strangeness and the magic of The Weight of Feathers is what kept me turning the pages.

The writing is what carries the story. The style is very elegant and ornate, but not in an alienating way; the voice pulls you in and lets you become immersed in the world of the novel. It makes The Weight of Feathers feel kind of like a dream - I don't quite understand it, but it's beautiful nonetheless. The whole novel is very atmospheric and just has a certain energy to it which makes it impossible not to want to figure out the intricacies of the world its set in. I loved reading about both families, their shows, and their magical traits. Even when I had issues with the story or the characters, I kind of just accepted all of them to just be part of the intrinsic weirdness of this book, so I feel like I can't even criticize it. 

The romance is okay but not great, and I kind of wish it hadn't taken over so much of the book (which I know is a strange thing to ask of a Romeo and Juliet retelling). I liked reading about Lace and Click when they first meet and everything that happens before they get together. Once they're together, though, the romance got a little too idealized for my tastes; we're told that the two of them are so perfect together and they both talk about their love for the other, but I never really felt it. It wasn't quite insta-love, but I do think they fell for each other too quickly for the romance to work for me. And the plot twist towards the end that affects their relationship kind of weirded me out, to be honest.

Not just the romance but really, the characters themselves, just aren't that strong. They have interesting backstories and live in a fascinating world, but I don't feel like I ever got to know neither Lace nor Cluck as people. I had some smaller issues with the novel, too, like the unevenness of the pacing, and the randomness of what parts of the story are based in logic and the rules of our own world and which parts are simply explained by magic. 

I'm sorry that this review is so all over the place, but I'm still not really sure what to make of The Weight of Feathers. It's just really weird, but weird in an enthralling way that makes it impossible to put the book down. I didn't like everything about it, but I just kind of accepted that even these things that bothered me were just part of the uniqueness of this book. I'm still not sure if I actually liked this book, but if you're looking for a strange and unique read, you should definitely give this one a try.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: Trauma by Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer

Title: Trauma
Author: Michael Palmer & Daniel Palmer
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release date: May 12th 2015
Pages: 384
Genre: Adult mystery/medical thriller
Source: NetGalley - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Dr. Carrie Bryant's is a much-admired neurosurgical resident at an esteemed Boston hospital. But when her first unsupervised brain surgery goes horribly wrong, she loses her confidence-and, after another fateful misstep, Carrie decides to quit her residency and move back home. Her new life's purpose: To help her combat-vet brother, Adam, recover from a crippling case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
At first, the experimental program at the VA Medical Center-one that could forever cure the ravages of PTSD-seems like best option for Adam. But Carrie has her doubts when one of her patients goes missing...and then another. Carrie turns to local investigative reporter David Hoffman for help in getting answers. But the VA organization is determined to keep its secrets-at all costs. As Carrie and David descend into a labyrinth of murder and corruption, the price Carrie could pay for asking the wrong questions is her own life...
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I haven't read many medical thrillers, so I might not be the best judge, and I can't really compare Trauma to any other books in the genre. But I was just very disappointed by this book. I was excited about the premise because I tend to like mysteries with female MCs that combine suspense with a more personal story, and I thought the PTSD element might be an interesting twist. But unfortunately, the awkward writing and implausibilities made it hard for me to enjoy this book.

I feel really mean saying this, but the writing felt very amateur-ish; this felt very much like a debut novel, or even an unpublished manuscript, which is kind of surprising for accomplished writers (although I had never read anything by Michael or Daniel Palmer). The writing is just so awkward, with bad metaphors and all telling and no showing. A lot of the over-the-top descriptions had me rolling my eyes, and I was always so focused on the awkwardness of the writing that I could never actually get lost in the writing.

The characters had a lot of potential. Carrie is actually an interesting character, I really liked David, and Adam adds an interesting element to the story as well. But the writing kept me from actually feeling for these characters. Because I associated the melodramatic wordings with Carrie's voice, I couldn't really take her seriously, and since the awkwardness of the writing was so distracting, I couldn't actually feel for Carrie or David. The romance between Carrie and David is especially cheesy and the descriptions of Carrie's attraction to David made me seriously question the authors' ability to write a female MC. 

I understand that this is a medical thriller, but, to be honest, the excessive medical terms and explanations kind of bored me. I actually enjoyed them in the beginning, during Carrie's first surgery, but after that it just got too much. Of course a story like this needs some medical explanations to show its accuracy, and it did seem like the authors knew what they were talking about, but for readers like me, the amount of medical information was unnecessary; it was just too much and too confusing for someone outside of the field to follow. I got so bored by all of this information that I didn't even try to follow it towards the ending. The ending, to me, seemed very far-fetched and didn't justify everything that happened in the story, and one of my biggest pet peeves about mysteries is when the bad guy doesn't have adequate motivations.

The set-up seemed intriguing and had potential, but it just doesn't work. The awkward writing and far-fetched twists made it very hard for me to care about this story, and I don't think I can recommend it.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: Defending Taylor by Miranda Kenneally

Title: Defending Taylor
Author: Miranda Kenneally
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release date: July 5th 2016
Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance
Source: NetGalley - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Captain of the soccer team, president of the Debate Club, contender for valedictorian: Taylor’s always pushed herself to be perfect. After all, that’s what is expected of a senator’s daughter. But one impulsive decision—one lie to cover for her boyfriend—and Taylor’s kicked out of private school. Everything she’s worked so hard for is gone, and now she’s starting over at Hundred Oaks High.
Soccer has always been Taylor’s escape from the pressures of school and family, but it’s hard to fit in and play on a team that used to be her rival. The only person who seems to understand all that she’s going through is her older brother’s best friend, Ezra. Taylor’s had a crush on him for as long as she can remember. But it’s hard to trust after having been betrayed. Will Taylor repeat her past mistakes or can she score a fresh start?
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It's no secret I love the Hundred Oaks series, especially the first couple of books. The last book, Jesse's Girl, didn't impress me quite as much as the earlier ones, and neither did Defending Taylor, but they're both still stellar additions to the series. I loved everything about Defending Taylor, but it just didn't resonate with me the way some of Miranda Kenneally's previous books did.

Taylor is a very unique character. She's a pretty typical YA MC in how driven and smart she is, but her background and her decisions before and during this book make her stand out. She's not always easy to like because her naivete and privilege do show at times, but I still liked her most of the time. Despite her privilege, she's going to a relatable character for overachieving teens under a lot of pressure to succeed. I especially loved how tough she is and how she always speaks her mind, especially in regards to soccer and her relationship with Ezra. I had some issues with how judgmental and hypocritical she is about some things (like when she talks about drugs, condemning the guy who asks her for Ritalin, when she's been taking Adderall, which is almost the same thing), but I liked her nonetheless.

And Ezra, I absolutely loved. One of my favorite things about Miranda Kenneally's books is that they often have older, out-of-high-school love interests, which doesn't happen often in YA. Ezra is Taylor's older brother's best friend, which has definitely been done before, but it works so well! The two of them have great chemistry, and I love how Ezra's backstory and secrets are woven into the novel. But even though I loved Ezra, there was something missing in the romance department; even though I appreciate that this is a different kind of romance because Taylor and Ezra have known each other forever, the way they got together seemed a little too easy, and I kind of missed the novelty and drama of seeing two people meet and figuring out if they actually work together. 

I loved the secondary characters, too. Even though we don't get to know Taylor's parents too well, I loved reading about the politics element of the novel, seeing how Taylor's decisions influenced her dad's election and what role the media played in all of this. I loved getting to know Taylor's older siblings, Jenna and Oliver. And I also loved seeing friendships slowly develop between Taylor and the girls on the Hundred Oaks soccer team. I wish the soccer element had been explored even more, and I especially wanted more closure in relation to Nicole, the team captain/bully in order to see what might happen next for the team.

Despite these minor complaints, Defending Taylor is still a stellar book. It's not an all-time favorite of mine the way Catching Jordan and Breathe, Annie, Breathe have become, but it's definitely a cute romance with Miranda Kenneally's trademark engaging writing, keen understanding of teen relationships, and personable, realistic characters. While I would recommend starting with a different book of hers, fans of the series should definitely check this one out!
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