Friday, January 22, 2016

Guest Post by Laura J. Burns & Melinda Metz (Sanctuary Bay Blog Tour)

Today we have Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz here for a guest post and a giveaway! This post is part of the blog tour for Sanctuary Bay.

Sanctuary Bay was released on January 19th. Here's what it's all about:

Sanctuary Bay by Laura J. Burns & Melinda Metz
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When Sarah Merson receives the opportunity of a lifetime to attend the most elite prep school in the country-Sanctuary Bay Academy-it seems almost too good to be true. But, after years of bouncing from foster home to foster home, escaping to its tranquil setting, nestled deep in Swans Island, couldn't sound more appealing. Swiftly thrown into a world of privilege and secrets, Sarah quickly realizes finding herself noticed by class charmer, Nate, as well as her roommate's dangerously attentive boyfriend, Ethan, are the least of her worries. When her roommate suddenly goes missing, she finds herself in a race against time, not only to find her, but to save herself and discover the dark truth behind Sanctuary Bay's glossy reputation.

In this genre-bending YA thriller, Sanctuary Bay by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz, Sarah's new school may seem like an idyllic temple of learning, but as she unearths years of terrifying history and manipulation, she discovers this "school" is something much more sinister.
I love when YA books combine elements of mysteries/thrillers with the usual contemporary YA topics such as romance, friendship, etc. Could you talk a little bit about what made you want to combine these genres and how you worked to balance them in Sanctuary Bay?
We love that, too! It’s funny; when we think of writing any YA book, even if it’s a genre like mystery or thriller, we assume that things like romance and friendship would be a part of it. How could they not? In order for our characters to feel as if they’re real people, we need them to act and think and feel like real people would. If you were busy tracking down a killer, you probably wouldn’t be obsessing about your latest crush. But you would still be you, and that means you’d think about your friends and how they could help you, or you’d think about your parents and things that they taught you. Basically, you’d still think about things that mattered to you, even though those things might be a lower priority while you were solving your case.

In Sanctuary Bay, we’ve got a boarding school with some crazy stuff going on. Our heroine, Sarah, has her hands full trying to figure it all out. But she still pays attention to her friends. She worries about their safety and fears for them when they’re in danger. Occasionally she even feels a stab of attraction to the guy she’s having these adventures with. Those things make her human. It would be strange if she didn’t feel them. But she doesn’t let them derail her quest for answers.

Or, really, WE don’t let those things derail her! This is a fast-paced book, and if we had Sarah sit down in the middle of the action to think about her confusing feelings for Ethan…well, that would ruin the pacing of the book. Readers would feel frustrated by the interruption. So the way we balanced the more typical elements of a YA book (romance, friendship, school) with the thriller aspects was to take our time setting up Sarah as a character, her life at the Sanctuary Bay Academy, her friends and potential boyfriends. We tried to draw those relationships and the world of the school as clearly as possible. And then we spent the rest of the book completely messing with all of it!
Make sure to check out the other stops of the blog tour, and keep your eye out for Sanctuary Bay, out now!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Instructions for the End of the World by Jamie Kain

Title: Instructions for the End of the World
Author: Jamie Kain
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release date: December 8th 2015
Pages: 224
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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When Nicole Reed’s father forces her family to move to a remote area of the Sierra Foothills, one without any modern conveniences, her life is completely turned upside down.
It’s not that Nicole isn’t tough. She’s learned how to hunt, and she knows how to build things—she’s been preparing for the worst-case scenario for what seems like forever.
But when she and her sister, Izzy, are left alone in this remote landscape to fend for themselves, her skills are put to the ultimate test. She’s fine for a while, but then food begins to run out, the pipes begin to crack, and forest fires start to inch closer every day.
When Wolf, a handsome boy from the neighboring community, offers to help, Nicole feels conflicted. She can take care of herself. But things have begun to get desperate, and there’s something about this boy she can’t shake.
As feelings develop between these two—feelings Nicole knows her father would never allow once he returns—she must make a decision. With her family falling apart, will she choose to continue preparing for tomorrow’s disasters, or will she take a chance and start living for today?
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Let me start by saying that if you're looking for a survivalist/apocalyptic novel, you're definitely going to be disappointed by Instructions for the End of the World. I was a little confused after reading the description and wasn't sure if there actually is an impending natural disaster or if this is just about Nicole and her family, and the latter turns out to be the case, but since I like either type of story, I didn't really mind. The story in Instructions for the End of the World is really weird, and I'm still not exactly sure what to make of it - Jamie Kain's writing is strong, and I really loved the originality of the novel, but there are some elements that are not developed enough to make this novel as impactful as it could have been.

I loved Jamie Kain's writing so much that I didn't even question the plot for maybe the first half of the novel. The writing style is so immersive that I finished the book within a day. The descriptions are very vivid and convey a great sense of setting: I felt like I was really there in the woods, the abandoned house, or the spiritualist camp. This writing really carried the novel for me, made me enjoy every part of it and not really notice until after I had finished reading that some of the other elements are lacking.

Even though elements of the characterization are flawed, all of the characters are intriguing to say the least. The story is told by Nicole, Izzy, Wolf, and Laurel, and all of them have very unconventional stories that are fascinating to read about. They're not really likeable (other than maybe Wolf), but I didn't mind because that didn't seem to be the point, and they all grow a lot over the course of the novel. Nicole is the obedient daughter who has always gone along with her father's obsession with survival, which makes for a very different main character; she might not be someone I can relate to, but she was fascinating to read about. Izzy is even more frustrating at the beginning of the novel: while of course her anger at the situation is understandable, her refusal to cooperate or help out Nicole makes her come across as a spoiled brat. But I actually really loved her storyline: the traumatic event that happens to her later on is handled with grace and made me really feel for her. I also loved how Izzy's and Nicole's developed over the course of the story. I just wish that we had gotten to know their parents more; both of them are fascinating people, and we do learn some of their secrets in their absence, but I wish that whole part of the novel had been elaborated on more. Then there's Wolf, who, albeit also living in very unconventional circumstances, is a bit easier to relate to. I really liked his story and the stories of the other people living on the reservoir. The fourth character whose POV we get to read from is Laurel, and I'm still confused about what readers were supposed to take from her story. I found the chapters from her perspective fascinating and really liked her character, but then she just kind of disappeared from the story. There are no chapters from her perspective in the second half of the novel and she just disappears to the peripheries of Wolf's story. I'm not really sure why Kain decided to do that; I wanted more development of Laurel's story because the way it is, I feel like it didn't really add anything to the novel.

The ending felt very underwhelming for me. I wasn't expecting a happy ending or anything, but I was expecting... something. The book just kind of ends with most things going back to the way they were before, with some minor changes, but that made it hard for me to see where the story was going. I especially wanted more of a resolution regarding Izzy and Nicole's parents, wanted a scene where the two of them could confront their mother, or something. The way it is, I couldn't really tell where the author wanted to take the story.

In a word, this book was different, in ways both good and bad. I really loved the writing, the unique setting, and the intriguing characters, but I wanted a lot more from some elements of the story. So if you're looking for a different type of YA novel to read, maybe give Instructions for the End of the World a try, just don't expect an entirely coherent story arc or anything like that. I do want to check out Jamie Kain's debut novel or whatever she publishes next, though, because I loved her writing style so much. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Breakaway by Kat Spears

Title: Breakaway
Author: Kat Spears
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release date: September 15th 2015
Pages: 290
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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When Jason Marshall’s younger sister passes away, he knows he can count on his three best friends and soccer teammates—Mario, Jordie, and Chick—to be there for him. With a grief-crippled mother and a father who’s not in the picture, he needs them more than ever. But when Mario starts hanging out with a rough group of friends and Jordie finally lands the girl of his dreams, Jason is left to fend for himself while maintaining a strained relationship with troubled and quiet Chick.

Then Jason meets Raine, a girl he thinks is out of his league but who sees him for everything he wants to be, and he finds himself pulled between building a healthy and stable relationship with a girl he might be falling in love with, grieving for his sister, and trying to hold on to the friendships he has always relied on.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I didn't have my expectations set to high for this book: it sounded like a pretty generic contemporary YA story, and I hadn't heard much about it. But Breakaway took me by surprise and completely blew me away. I read the first 200 pages in one sitting, and didn't pause to realize how much I was loving the book until after I had devoured all of it. Kat Spears's writing is so immersing, honest and poignant; I loved everything about this book.

I loved Jaz as our main character. I don't even think I would like him all that much if I met him in real life, but I absolutely loved being inside his head. His voice is honest and authentic, equal parts entertaining and and poignant. Jaz is impulsive and has a bit of an anger problem; he tends to make really terrible decisions. But he's a good guy deep down, and I grew to really love him and feel for him over the course of the novel. 

It's hard to pinpoint what exactly this book is about, and don't even want to talk about any of the storylines in too much depth: what I loved most about Breakaway isn't any one storyline, it's just how it tells such a real story in such an honest, engaging way. I loved reading about Jaz's friendship with Mario, Jordie, and Chick, even as it's disintegrating; each of them has their own fascinating story, and I loved the changing dynamics between the four. Although at times I felt like the grief element of the novel was underdeveloped, I loved reading about Jaz's family, too. I could see how some readers might think that all the storylines are underdeveloped because what happens or how Jaz feels about it is never spelled out for us, but I think that's just the subtleties of Kat Spears's writing: rather than telling us anything straight up, she shows us what's going on through Jaz's actions and his refusal to think about or feel things. This is a very honest, maybe even bleak, way to tell the story, but I really loved it.

Even though I appreciated that it wasn't the main focus of the novel, I really enjoyed the romance. I loved Raine - I was scared she would be the cliched popular girl who turns out to be troubled and different, but there's a lot more to her than that. She's spunky and fun to read about, and I loved the influence she had on Jaz. Kat Spears really knows how to work the slow burn; the two of them take forever to finally get together, and it made the chemistry between them all the better. Their relationship is honest and realistic, and I loved it.

Despite Kat Spears's subtleties, she manages to address a variety of issues in her novel. I really appreciated the honest portrayal of class relations and racial identity, and how that plays into the boys' friendship as well as their feeling of belonging with certain sets of people. Depression, mental illness, and suicide are big themes in the book as well, novel also briefly mentions learning disabilities. Drug use is explored, too, although I found the portrayal of Mario's drug use as bad and Jaz's own drinking as unproblematic to be a little too simplistic. But other than that, Spears weaves these issues into Jaz's story in honest and thoughtful ways.

I can see how a lot of readers will take issue with the book's ending. The novel ends very abruptly; it just kind of... stops, and it's about as far away from a happy ending as you can get. At first, I was a little disappointed by the abrupt ending: I wanted to know what really happened to Jaz's sister, and I wanted to know what would happen after. But, the more I think about, the more I understand that this ending works better than anything else; a happy, sugar-coat-y ending that gives us all the answers wouldn't have fit the rest of the book at all. I wished the book would go on because I wasn't ready to leave these characters behind but, artistically, I think this ending makes the most sense and works well with the story.

If you're expecting resolutions and happy endings, this book probably isn't for you, but I really appreciated the almost painful rawness and honesty of Breakaway. Kat Spears's writing style and Jaz's voice are engaging and immersive, the type of writing you can read forever without noticing the time passing. I've read some other reviews complaining that the book is too sad, but I didn't find it sad in an intentional tearjerker-y way; it's just a very honest story with a somewhat bleak outlook on life. With immersive writing, lovable and complex characters, and an authentic story that will make you think, Breakaway is a story that will stay with me for a while. While it's not for everyone, I really loved the authenticity and harshness of the novel. I can't wait to get my hands on Kat Spears's debut novel, Sway, and see what she comes up with next!

Friday, January 08, 2016

Author Interview with Laurie Elizabeth Flynn (Firsts Blog Tour)

Today we have Laurie Elizabeth Flynn here for an author interview! This interview is part of the blog tour for Firsts.

1. Without spoiling anything, could you tell us what was your favorite scene to write in Firsts?
That’s a great question! The first chapter was seriously fun to write. But there’s a particular scene later in the book that has my heart. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say it involves a reference to a certain type of pasta.
2. If you had to pair up your main character Alma from Firsts with any other character from any other YA book (either romantically or as a friend), who would it be and why?
I’d love to put Mercedes in a room with Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl. Their combined sarcasm would be deafening, and so entertaining. I think sparks might fly.
3. I absolutely love the idea for Firsts, and I’m always really excited about sex-positive YA books. Could you talk a little bit about what made you want to write about this?
I was working on an entirely different New Adult contemporary when the idea for Firsts struck me. All I had was the name Mercedes and the hook—a girl who wants to give virgin guys the perfect first time. I didn’t know what happened beyond that. I just knew I had to write the rest to find out. As I wrote, I thought more and more about the double-standard that exists for teenage girls when it comes to sex, and I got angry. I wanted to write something from the point of view of a girl who would be slut-shamed because of her actions—and in doing so, raise tough questions that people don’t always want to think about.

 4. How do you go about naming your characters?
I don’t name them intentionally. I like to think they choose their own names. Generally when I have a new idea for a story, the first things to come to me are the main character’s name and the hook. As I write, the other characters show up on the pages and their names just seem to fit.
5. For any aspiring writers out there - what's the best writing advice you've ever received?
Write what you want to write, not what you think an agent will want to read. If you’re passionate about your writing, that will make your words electric. It’s okay to be scared by an idea, but don’t let that stop you from writing it.

Also, try not to compare yourself—to other authors or to different projects you’ve worked on. There’s a saying that comparison is the thief of joy, and I believe it. Be happy with the stage you’re at, and don’t be hard on yourself if every book you write follows a different process.

Make sure to check out all the other stops of the blog tour, and keep your eye out for Firsts, which came out January 5th! This is what the book is all about:

Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
ESeventeen-year-old Mercedes Ayres has an open-door policy when it comes to her bedroom, but only if the guy fulfills a specific criteria: he has to be a virgin. Mercedes lets the boys get their awkward, fumbling first times over with, and all she asks in return is that they give their girlfriends the perfect first time- the kind Mercedes never had herself.

Keeping what goes on in her bedroom a secret has been easy- so far. Her absentee mother isn’t home nearly enough to know about Mercedes’ extracurricular activities, and her uber-religious best friend, Angela, won’t even say the word “sex” until she gets married. But Mercedes doesn’t bank on Angela’s boyfriend finding out about her services and wanting a turn- or on Zach, who likes her for who she is instead of what she can do in bed.

When Mercedes’ perfect system falls apart, she has to find a way to salvage her reputation and figure out where her heart really belongs in the process. Funny, smart, and true-to-life, FIRSTS is a one-of-a-kind young adult novel about growing up.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Review: Don't Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom

Title: Don't Ever Change
Author: M. Beth Bloom
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: July 7th 2015
Pages: 368
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: I received a free advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Eva has always wanted to write a modern classic—one that actually appeals to her generation. The only problem is that she’s starting to realize she can’t “write what she knows” because she hasn’t really lived. So the summer before heading off to college, Eva is determined to live a life worth writing about.

But soon Eva’s story starts to go in unexpected directions, like growing apart from her best friends, working at a job she is completely unqualified for, and even falling for the last person she would have ever imagined. Like anyone, though, it will be up to Eva to figure out how she wants this particular chapter in her story to end.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I hadn't heard much about Don't Ever Change before picking it up, and it sounds more like quiet, character-driven novel than a big frontlist title, so I didn't go in with any set expectations. And even though there were lots of things about this book I didn't like or that were just kind of weird, I actually really enjoyed reading Don't Ever Change! Not all that much happens and I can't really put my finger on what it is that I liked about it, but this novel was a very character-driven, enjoyable read.

I was looking at other reviews of this book just now, and, as I was expecting, there are a lot of negative reviews talking about how they didn't like Eva, the main character. And I can see where they're coming from because in the beginning, I didn't like Eva either. She is very uptight, judgmental, and pretentious, and she has no tact or empathy for other people. The way she treats her friends and doesn't seem to care much about anyone else annoyed me to no end. Eva would not be someone I would like to be friends with in real life.

And yet, I still really enjoyed reading about her and reading from her perspective. The writing is kind of stream-of-consciousness-esque, so we get Eva's unfiltered thoughts most of the time. Even when she's being kind of a terrible person, her witty, sometimes judgmental thoughts are very entertaining to read; I don't even know what it is about her, but I just wanted to keep reading from her perspective. And of course, Eva does not stay this way for the entirety of the novel: people continue to call Eva on her hypocritical, judgmental behavior, and she grows up a lot over the course of the novel. She still sticks to her beliefs - she's a vegan and a feminist - but she learns how to voice her beliefs without being quite so pretentious about it. Eva is a definite break from the usual contemporary YA heroines, which made for a refreshing and immersing read.

I'm not really sure what to make of the secondary characters. They are nowhere near as fully developed as Eva, and I wish I had gotten to know Eva's parents and best friends Michelle and Stephanie a little better, as well as the love interests, which I'll get into later. But in a way, it makes sense that their characters wouldn't be explored as much - with the stream-of-consciousness writing style and Eva's self-absorption, it wouldn't have fit for Bloom to include lengthy explorations of secondary characters. While their personalities are never spelled out for us, the interactions Eva has with the secondary characters are very telling. I especially liked the dynamics between Eva and her older sister Chloe. None of the secondary characters really have their own fully-developed stories, but they do contribute to Eva's stories in significant ways.

I also wasn't really sure how to take the romance. There are two principal love interests, Elliott and Foster. Things with Elliott start off kind of strangely: Eva meets a drunken Elliott at a party, and I didn't think it was gonna go anywhere, but the two of them end up talking for most of the summer, even though Elliott is off touring with his band. Eva is very straightforward about what she wants, and she's not whiny or overly emotional like many YA characters: it's clear that things with Elliott are never going to be all that serious, and that's what both of them want, which is refreshing to read about. Then there's Foster, who is the good guy counterpart to bad boy Elliott. Foster, I wasn't really sure how to feel about - he doesn't seem to have much of a personality, to be honest. He doesn't even seem to like Eva for the majority of the book, and even though I liked Eva's straightforwardness with Elliott, it gets a little weird when she does it to Foster, who doesn't seem to want to do anything with Eva. I wasn't really sure what to make of their relationship, so I thought it was especially weird when it became such an important part of the story later on; I kind of wish we could have just seen Eva grow on her own, rather than focusing so much on the romance towards the end.

I'm still not sure how to gather my thoughts about Don't Ever Change, and whether or not to recommend it. Parts of the novel are very unconventional for contemporary YA, which a lot of readers didn't like but I think can be a nice change of pace. Some elements are definitely weird, but I really enjoyed reading Don't Ever Change. If you're looking for a fast-paced plot or unambiguous messages, this book probably isn't for you, but if you think you could like a character-driven novel that doesn't stick to all the YA conventions, give Don't Ever Change a try!

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Review: Hello, I Love You by Katie M. Stout

Title: Hello, I Love You
Author: Katie M. Stout
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release date: June 9th 2015
Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance
Source: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Grace Wilde is running—from the multi-million dollar mansion her record producer father bought, the famous older brother who’s topped the country music charts five years in a row, and the mother who blames her for her brother’s breakdown. Grace escapes to the farthest place from home she can think of, a boarding school in Korea, hoping for a fresh start.

She wants nothing to do with music, but when her roommate Sophie’s twin brother Jason turns out to be the newest Korean pop music superstar, Grace is thrust back into the world of fame. She can't stand Jason, whose celebrity status is only outmatched by his oversized ego, but they form a tenuous alliance for the sake of her friendship with Sophie. As the months go by and Grace adjusts to her new life in Korea, even she can't deny the sparks flying between her and the KPOP idol.

Soon, Grace realizes that her feelings for Jason threaten her promise to herself that she'll leave behind the music industry that destroyed her family. But can Grace ignore her attraction to Jason and her undeniable pull of the music she was born to write? Sweet, fun, and romantic, this young adult novel explores what it means to experience first love and discover who you really are in the process.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I was really excited for this one: it was pitched as another Anna and the French Kiss; I love books that let you explore foreign places; and the darker family stuff sounded right up my alley too. But sadly, Hello, I Love You is nowhere near as good as Anna and the French Kiss, the writing is not even close to strong enough to carry the emotional storyline, and the element of exploring a foreign culture is ruined by a frustratingly ignorant main character.

Grace is painfully ignorant about the country she has just decided to move to. I understand that, to some extent, this is just due to her circumstances: moving to Korea was a spur-of-the-moment decision with the goal of getting as far away from her family as possible. But she doesn't seem to have done any research at all before moving there; she could have at least looked up yes/no/please/thank you in Korean or learned the most basic ideas about Korean culture. And this ignorance doesn't really change once she's there: she doesn't try all that hard in her Korean class, and she doesn't try to interact with anyone except for those who speak perfect English. She justifies this by saying "Call me antisocial, but in my defense, it’s hard to make friends with people who refuse to speak your language outside the classroom” (59), which irritated me to no end - YOU're the one who decided to move to another country but is refusing to learn its language or culture. URGHH. Grace's exotifying comments about Korean culture (or Asian culture, as she likes to call, since of course they're all the same) are culturally insensitive at best and racist at worst. I did enjoy some of the descriptions of the places Grace visits, since I love seeing new places I've never been to through books, but Grace's ignorant comments kind of ruined the whole thing. 

Of course, if all of this is intended, and the main character grows over the course of the novel, this doesn't have to be a bad thing. There are some attempts at character growth towards the end of the novel, and we do find out something that somewhat explains Grace's emotional state. But sadly, the writing just isn't strong enough to make this work. The writing is too simplistic for me to really feel for Grace, and her character growth is not developed enough at all: there are no consequences for Grace's behavior in the beginning of the novel, and she doesn't seem to show all that much remorse. That means the novel doesn't even question Grace's problematic attitudes, and Grace's racial and class privilege is never really addressed.

The romance might have just been tainted by my overall negative impression of Grace, but she frustrated me in her relationship with Jason too. Grace's constant back and forth about what she wants from Jason got irritating very quickly; she keeps messing things up with Jason on purpose and pushing him away for reasons that don't make sense to the reader, let alone Jason. Again, I get that, to some extent, this might have been intended, since we find out towards the end why Grace is so emotionally instable. But even if it makes sense, it did not make for an enjoyable romance, and the character growth at the end is not strong enough to justify the change in attitude and happy ending.

Everything about this book was just so frustrating. I can (sort of, maybe) see where Katie M. Stout was going with this, and the family storyline as well as the idea of moving Grace to another culture had a lot of potential. But the writing is very simplistic and none of the ideas are explored in enough depth to actually make this work. That leaves us with a culturally insensitive main character who doesn't really change over the course of the novel and a frustratingly hot-and-cold romance. I should have just reread Anna and the French Kiss instead...
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