The Assassin and the Empire by Sarah J. Maas

July 24, 2012 Reviews 0 ★★★★

The Assassin and the Empire by Sarah J. MaasThe Assassin and the Empire by Sarah J. Maas
Buy from AmazonPublished by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on July 20, 2012
Genres: YA Fantasy
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
four-stars
Celaena Sardothien is the assassin with everything: a place to call her own, the love of handsome Sam, and, best of all, freedom. Yet, she won’t be truly free until she is far away from her old master, Arobynn Hamel; Celaena must take one last daring assignment that will liberate her forever. But having it all, means you have a lot to lose . . .

This fourth fantastic e-novella gives readers an inside look at the characters who appear in the full-length novel Throne of Glass. Don’t miss out!

Now that’s better.

While reading the first three novellas, I found myself liking each one less than the one before until I outright hated the third one. With The Assassin and the Empire, it makes improvements in leaps and bounds and creates the set-up for Maas’s hyped-up debut novel.

Celaena realizing exactly how spoiled and entitled she is after she loses access to the endless supply of money she had while still under Arobynn’s command was great, and I liked how the struggles she and Sam had to endure now that they were free were portrayed. I originally disliked they became lovers, but after seeing the imperfect yet likable way they worked together as a couple, I finally got won over by it. The twisted, abusive relationship between Celaena and her father figure/mentor Arobynn also showed that a relationship doesn’t have to be romantic for it to be abusive and/or unhealthy. Well-written, that part was.

In a problem that has occurred multiple times throughout the novellas, there is a mystery that is no mystery at all because it’s too easy to figure out. The big reveal of whodunnit is supposed to have some kind of impact, but when we see it coming a mile away, it loses that punch. Speaking of thing that lack punch, the most important event of the novella (which I can’t detail because it spoils too much) that leads Celaena to make the decisions that seal her fate and put her in the Endovier salt mines she is plucked out of at the beginning of Throne of Glass left me surprisingly disinterested. It certainly impacts Celaena, but it doesn’t make me feel anything at all.

I’m thinking I should give this three stars, but I’m feeling generous right now because this was such an improvement on the other novellas (and also on some of my recent reads, but that’s another story altogether) that I’ll round it up.

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Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer

July 23, 2012 Reviews 0 ★★

Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah StrohmeyerSmart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer
Buy from AmazonBuy from The Book DepositoryBuy from Barnes & NoblePublished by Balzer + Bray on June 26, 2012
Genres: YA Contemporary
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: print ARC from Amazon Vine
two-stars
Gigi, Bea, and Neerja are best friends and total overachievers. Even if they aren't the most popular girls in school, they aren't too worried. They know their "real" lives will begin once they get to their Ivy League colleges. There will be ivy, and there will be cute guys in the libraries (hopefully with English accents) But when an unexpected event shows them they're missing out on the full high school experience, it's time to come out of the honors lounge and into the spotlight. They make a pact: They will each take on their greatest challenge--and they will totally "rock" it.

Gigi decides to run for student rep, but she'll have to get over her fear of public speaking--and go head-to-head with gorgeous California Will. Bea used to be one of the best skiers around, until she was derailed. It could be time for her to take the plunge again. And Neerja loves the drama club but has always stayed behind the scenes--until now.

These friends are determined to show the world that smart girls really can get what they want--but that could mean getting way more attention than they ever bargained for. . . .

After I just finished a book about the negative messages hidden in media we tend to think of as mindless entertainment, I’m not sure Smart Girls Get What They Want stood a chance.

I’m always endeavoring to be fair and I wanted to love this book. A novel about the smart girls getting everything they want? Oh yeah! My kind of book! But it turned out not to be. The first 130 pages nearly made me quit because our three “smart girls” were more like morons with straight As. Gigi’s judgmental ways really got on my nerves and I just didn’t care about the other two girls because they weren’t given quite as much development as I wished they had been.

Throughout the book, I kept picking up a message that really angered me: that it’s OMG TERRIBLE to not be well-known in your class and if you’re a very smart girl with a small, close circle of friends but you’re kind of invisible to everyone in your class, you don’t have anything of worth. I never thought this book would go that way and personally offend me by doing so, but it did. I’m certain the author didn’t mean to deliver that kind of message, but intent isn’t magical like that.

So what changed? What made me finish this book and kinda-sorta like it?

Character development happened, thank goodness. Gigi stopped being judgmental of her seatmates, who liked to discuss dresses and shoes and jewelry each day in homeroom (which is one of the major things I side-eyed Gigi for; there’s nothing wrong with people who like fashion). The skiing scenes where Gigi and Bea joined the ski team and raced were really, really fun to read. I never came to fully like the novel or care about what happened to its characters, but I went from hating it to being indifferent to it, and that was a pretty big step up. I give it that much.

The writing grated on me every now and then. The prologue was nothing but babbling info-dump about where their friendship began and Gigi rotated between talking in present tense and talking in past tense. I’d like to see the rampant tense confusions evened out, but Smart Girls Get What They Want is still an easy read. The romances are cute, but nothing I really cared about.

The first third is easily one-star material and the rest of the book is worth about three stars, I’ll give it two. I wanted to be generous and give it three because it managed to crawl out of a pit I didn’t think it could get out of, but messages that personally offend me ruin any chance of me being generous.

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Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman

July 21, 2012 Reviews 0 ★★

Beautiful Lies by Jessica WarmanBeautiful Lies by Jessica Warman
Buy from AmazonBuy from The Book DepositoryBuy from Barnes & NoblePublished by Walker Childrens on August 21, 2012
Genres: Mystery, YA Thriller
Pages: 432
Format: eARC
Source: eARC via NetGalley
two-stars
Rachel and Alice are an extremely rare kind of identical twins—so identical that even their aunt and uncle, whom they’ve lived with since their parents passed away, can’t tell them apart. But the sisters are connected in a way that goes well beyond their surfaces: when one experiences pain, the other exhibits the exact same signs of distress. So when one twin mysteriously disappears, the other immediately knows something is wrong—especially when she starts experiencing serious physical traumas, despite the fact that nobody has touched her. As the search commences to find her sister, the twin left behind must rely on their intense bond to uncover the truth. But is there anyone around her she can trust, when everyone could be a suspect? And ultimately, can she even trust herself?

Master storyteller Jessica Warman will keep readers guessing when everything they see—and everything they are told—suddenly becomes unreliable in this page-turning literary thriller.

The idea behind stigmatic twins, a concept central to Beautiful Lies and its plot, is that if one twin is hurt, the same injury will manifest itself on the other twin. Warman created well-rounded characters as she explored the relationships between stigmatic twins Rachel and Alice Foster and how they interact with the world around them and it’s a shame such fantastic characterization is brought down by horrible pacing, glaring inconsistencies, and bloated writing.

The greatest strength Beautiful Lies has going for it is how well done its character relationships are. Alice and Rachel’s relationship as sisters and as stigmatic twins who have only had each other for a large portion of their lives is believable, especially once Rachel’s secrets start coming to light. Alice is a complex character herself–not fully explained or completely comprehensible, but she’s someone people will want to read about. They might need a hint of what’s to come to get them hooked, though. Their relationships with their aunt and uncle and also their friend Kimber were high points as well.

What really got me was how inconsistent the novel was. Remember the explanation I offered earlier about stigmatic twins? The way it’s used in the novel doesn’t always make sense. Alice doesn’t notice she has two black eyes, a dog bite in her leg, or a big gash in the back of her head until someone else points it out and that strikes me as a little strange considering the injuries. When Rachel pulls out one of her teeth, Alice feels nothing and loses no tooth. The scene would have worked had Alice questioned why she didn’t feel her sister’s pain, but she takes it at face value and never questions why she didn’t feel the pain of a tooth being pulled out if she suffers through her sister’s injuries.

The scenario that let Rachel get kidnapped in the first place wasn’t too logical either. Alice’s phone got taken away with good reason, but her guardians still let Alice (or Rachel, since the girls switched identities) to go out with her friends on a Saturday night. Strange way of punishing a child, sending them out with their friends without their cell phone. It seems more sensible to ground her from going out. At the very least, it seems smarter to lift the cell phone ban for one night so Alice would have a way to communicate. But no, that’s too inconvenient to the plot, so we get this nonsensical set-up.

None of this was helped by the novel’s poor pacing. Alice and Rachel have a strong relationship with one another that gives Beautiful Lies the minimum amount of drive needed, but it isn’t powerful enough to hold up a four-hundred thirty-two page novel, nor is the mystery of where Rachel is and who took her. With so little forward momentum to it, getting the novel read took much longer than it usually takes me to read novels just as long or longer. Toward the end, I started skimming.

I own Between, another of Warman’s novels, but I’m a little more hesitant about it because part of the problem I had with Beautiful Lies was its prose and how the book felt twice as long as it was. That’s more of a style problem than a content problem and there’s not much you can do about that sort of problem. Still, Between is here and I might find myself happy with it if I decide to flip through it one day. Beautiful Lies requires a great deal of mental energy because it’s the kind of novel where you’ll have to reread passages to fully understand what’s happening, but other readers may find such a novel more rewarding than I did.

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Shut Out by Kody Keplinger

July 20, 2012 Reviews 0 ★★★

Shut Out by Kody KeplingerShut Out by Kody Keplinger
Buy from AmazonBuy from The Book DepositoryBuy from Barnes & NoblePublished by Poppy on September 5, 2011
Genres: Retelling, YA Contemporary
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Bought
three-stars
Most high school sports teams have rivalries with other schools. At Hamilton High, it's a civil war: the football team versus the soccer team. And for her part, Lissa is sick of it. Her quarterback boyfriend, Randy, is always ditching her to go pick a fight with the soccer team or to prank their locker room. And on three separate occasions Randy's car gas been egged while he and Lissa were inside, making out. She is done competing with a bunch of sweaty boys for her own boyfriend's attention.

Lissa decides to end the rivalry once and for all: she and the other players' girlfriends go on a hookup strike. The boys won't get any action from them until the football and soccer teams make peace. What they don't count on is a new sort of rivalry: an impossible girls-against-boys showdown that hinges on who will cave to their libidos first. And Lissa never sees her own sexual tension with the leader of the boys, Cash Sterling, coming.

Inspired by Aristophanes' play Lysistrata, critically acclaimed author of The Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) Kody Keplinger adds her own trademark humor in this fresh take on modern teenage romance, rivalry and sexuality.

Even though this is the first Kody Keplinger book I’ve read, she is one of my favorite authors. How? Because I love sex-positive authors who write sex-positive books. We need more ladies like her writing YA and I have serious respect for her. I was happy to finally buy a copy of Shut Out so I could see if she’d be a favorite author for the quality of her books and not just her open-minded way of writing about teens and sex.

Shut Out is an easy, breezy read I blew through while sitting poolside and Keplinger gets how real teenagers think, feel, and speak. I love that! I like most of the characters, though Lissa’s boyfriend Randy being such a caricature irritated me. (Really, naming a sex-hungry boyfriend Randy? Those aware of British slang will see right through it.) Lissa fell a few notches when she kept referring to one girl as The Blonde even when she learned the girl’s name (Autumn). Just no. It was silly and not like Lissa considering what she was preaching.

The approach to double standards and a woman’s right to feel how she wants to feel about sex, whether she loves having it or wants to wait, is a little heavy-handed, though I agree with them whole-heartedly. I’m already thoroughly educated in feminism and the evils of sexual double standards that let men do whatever they want where women are prudes for not having sex and sluts for having it, so the way they are brought up and talked about bored me and felt like too much. For someone who hasn’t thought about those double standards before or didn’t even realize they were there, this head-on discussion might help or it might be too much. I’ve seen head-on approaches like that put people off and fail to get their entirely valid message across.

In addition, the way a contemporary spin is put on Lysistrata, where wives of warring nations go on their own sex strike in order to end the war (and win) is a teensy bit problematic. For these girls in the modern era to immediately decide they should go on a hookup strike, that implies the only way women can influence others even now is through their bodies. It’s one thing in the source material, where that is unfortunately true, but it’s another in Shut Out. I think an easy solution would have been mentioning earlier attempts to end the rivalry that failed, showing that they’d considered and tried to end the rivalry in other ways before deciding on a hookup strike as a last resort.

So I may not think Shut Out is the greatest and think the subject matter could have been handled better, but Keplinger remains one of my favorite authors. I still want to read more of her books and if I ever make it as an author, I soooooo want to be author-friends with her.

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Cold Fury by T.M. Goeglein

July 19, 2012 Reviews 0 ★★

Cold Fury by T.M. GoegleinCold Fury by T.M. Goeglein
Buy from AmazonBuy from The Book DepositoryBuy from Barnes & NoblePublished by Putnam Juvenile on July 24, 2012
Genres: YA Paranormal, YA Thriller
Pages: 288
Format: ARC
Source: print ARC from a swap
two-stars
Jason Bourne meets The Sopranos in this breathtaking adventure

Sara Jane Rispoli is a normal sixteen-year-old coping with school and a budding romance--until her parents and brother are kidnapped and she discovers her family is deeply embedded in the Chicago Outfit (aka the mob).

Now on the run from a masked assassin, rogue cops and her turncoat uncle, Sara Jane is chased and attacked at every turn, fighting back with cold fury as she searches for her family. It's a quest that takes her through concealed doors and forgotten speakeasies--a city hiding in plain sight. Though armed with a .45 and 96K in cash, an old tattered notebook might be her best defense--hidden in its pages the secret to "ultimate power." It's why she's being pursued, why her family was taken, and could be the key to saving all of their lives.

Action packed, with fresh, cinematic writing, Cold Fury is a riveting and imaginative adventure readers will devour.

If I keep seeing the exact same issues in YA over and over again like I have been lately, I am going to put down the books for a little while and start making buttons in Photoshop. Typing out the same complaints over and over again gets old very quickly and  if those buttons would create such a great shortcut for books like Cold Fury, whose problems I have all seen before and detailed my dislike of before. Negative portrayals of most women, spoilerific narrative choice, a badly developed heroine, and a slew of other issues made me happy to finish the book as quickly as I did.

On the bright side, I read this in a single day. Each chapter ends on a cliffhanger and it’s easy to keep turning the pages. Maybe it was a little easier for me because I was trapped on a six-hour road trip and I wanted to get Cold Fury finished, but it stands that it was good enough for me to take only one day to read.

If a character is female in this book and their name is not Sara Jane Rispoli (and if they are not her mother; absent as she is, her mom doesn’t get any characterization), they are almost certainly negatively portrayed. Uncle Buddy’s wife Greta: cardboard character who is controlling, mean, and the implied reason the feud between Uncle Buddy and his brother got worse. Mandi Fishbaum: cardboard character who calls Sara Jane a slut and whose friends (all girls) join in to make fun of her. Gina: gossip. The major antagonist is also female.

What is that supposed to accomplish? Is Sara Jane supposed to look better in comparison with every other woman in the book? It doesn’t work. It only makes me dislike the book more because that device is old and rather offensive to me. To be frank, Sara Jane could be genderswitched into a boy named Jack Rispoli and I would not know the difference. There is nothing authentically female about her voice or character.

Speaking of Sara Jane, I don’t like action movies. This book, down to the hollow lead character who doesn’t get any depth and just does what she needs to so the plot will advance and the lack of development, reminds me too much of the action movies that made me dislike the entire genre. Sara Jane had so many viable opportunities to show she has depth–a little bit of resentment toward her parents when she discovers how male children are prized over female children in Outfit families, for instance, because that’s perfectly understandable–but she never takes them. She lives and breathes and moves, but inside, there is nothing complex going on. She’s hollow.

Cold Fury has such an interesting, awesome storyline going on with the Chicago Outfit (better known as the mob), but the way in which it’s executed and its history is explained is so droll that it becomes less interesting and awesome as a result. We learn the history of the Outfit and each family’s place in it through pages and pages of infodumps by Sara Jane as she reads the notebook. I cared about what was being explained, but when delivered in such a dry way, I lost interest.

A few continuity issues range from mild, like when she first felt cold fury (we learn early on it happened during a boxing match; later, she says it happened after a girl called her a slut) to something more important like her birthday (her family’s disappearance and the Spring Dance in late April/early May fall on her birthday, but it’s an important detail that her birthday is November 23, 1996 because it opens an all-important suitcase). Because my copy was an ARC, I’d love for a friend with a finished copy to look through it and confirm whether or not those details are still there. If they aren’t, that’s fantastic and the continuity issues are nil. If they are still there, I may need to trim off another star.

My final complaint is the narrative choice. First-person past is what I prefer, but Sara Jane’s reflections on her past tend to dole out spoilers like a card dealer in a Las Vegas casino. Spoilers aren’t fun, especially when a book’s own narrator is doing the spoiling. Though the jacket copy tells readers her family is involved in the Outfit, she herself doesn’t learn this for at least half the book. Her reflections on the past make it so obvious what is about to happen or how important a moment is, but I don’t want her to tell me this. I want to discover it and/or figure it out myself! Annoyance at this device made me put the book down multiple times.

Cold Fury is the first in a trilogy, but I’m unsure whether or not I will come back for book two. Hints at a possible love triangle between Max, Sarah Jane, and Tyler, a seventeen-year-old CEO who is an Outfit kid just like Sarah Jane, are scaring me away. Sara Jane already claimed she may love Max even though they barely interact during the novel–classically bad insta-love–and that doesn’t give me much hope in any romance this series has to offer As I’ve learned, I really should stop saying never when it comes to sequels because sometimes, I break down and read them. This time, I’ll say “maybe.”

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Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard

July 18, 2012 Reviews 0

Something Strange and Deadly by Susan DennardSomething Strange and Deadly
Buy from AmazonBuy from The Book DepositoryBuy from Barnes & NoblePublished by HarperTeen on July 24, 2012
Genres: Gothic, YA Paranormal
Pages: 400
Format: Hardcover
Source: print ARC from Amazon Vine
one-star
The year is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…

Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper—

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor…from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including their maddeningly stubborn yet handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.

Something about the cover of this book always struck me as being off. The model’s expression, maybe? The way her right eyebrow seems to dive straight into her eye? I’m not sure. Though I enjoyed Something Strange and Deadly for its first hundred pages, that same feeling of something being off came to me again, this time about the book’s content. It took me less than half the book to figure out what’s off this time: the predictability of the story and a few other details that ultimately made me dislike Dennard’s debut novel.

The story was well-paced and well-plotted enough for me to read the majority of the novel in one day and the prose was quite nice. It wasn’t a book I had to force myself to read by any means even when I lost the desire to keep reading. Though her character arc was not as great as I hoped it would be, what changes Eleanor went through did make me happy. These better facets of the novel keep it out of the zero-star range I save for terrible books, but they weren’t enough to redeem what I considered book-breaking points.

What really broke Something Strange and Deadly was the fact that its mysteries–who the necromancer is and their motive, why certain people in Philadelphia are dying, who Elijah’s bullies were, and more–were as subtle as a nuclear bomb going off.

That may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. All the small hints at the larger picture aren’t really that small.The answers were so obvious that I thought they had to be red herrings, and I wasn’t happy to discover that my predictions were, in fact, correct and none of the answers I’d come up with were wrong. I wanted to be surprised and enchanted and sadly, I was not either when it came to this novel.

The reliance on tropes that are becoming more common in YA novels didn’t help either. Mothers using their daughters in an attempt to attain money for them/their family and heroines being motivated by their missing/in-danger brothers? I’ve seen enough of both of those tropes to last me a few years. Stock characters thrown in here and there (I have become a lot more sensitive to and annoyed by stock characters as of late due to some recent nonfiction reading), weak characterization for almost all the characters who weren’t named Eleanor Fitt, and how inauthentic the 1876 Philadelphia setting felt were other weak points that kept me from enjoying myself more.

Yes, I disliked Something Strange and Deadly. Yes, I am giving it only one star. Strangely enough, I do have an interest in reading the sequel–not to laugh at it, but because I’m genuinely interested in where Dennard will take her characters next. I have a good feeling A Darkness Strange and Lovely will be a vast improvement over this book. It’s very rare I feel this way after reading a book I dislike; only one other book, The Faerie Ring by Kiki Hamilton, has ever gotten that reaction from me before and it’s a very good sign.

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The Assassin and the Underworld by Sarah J. Maas

July 17, 2012 Reviews 0

The Assassin and the Underworld by Sarah J. MaasThe Assassin and the Underworld by Sarah J. Maas
Buy from AmazonBuy from Barnes & NoblePublished by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on May 1, 2012
Genres: YA Fantasy
Format: eBook
Source: Bought
one-star
When the King of the Assassins gives Celaena Sardothien a special assignment that will help fight slavery in the kingdom, she jumps at the chance to strike a blow against an evil practice. The misson is a dark and deadly affair which takes Celaena from the rooftops of the city to the bottom of the sewer—and she doesn’t like what she finds there.

This novella made me wish it were in print so I could throw it across the room without hurting my e-reader. That should be a fine summary of its quality, but reviews are best when detailed and I always try my best when writing reviews. I liked the first novella and cared less for the second one, but this third one offended me a little with how it treated female characters whose names weren’t Celaena Sardothien.

There was a little bit of merit to the novella and I will recognize that much. It’s well-paced, smoothly written, and largely interesting. Readers can figure out the truth behind Celaena’s mission if they pay attention, though. It appears Maas is not skilled at writing mysteries because this problem happened once before too. The build-up with Sam comes to a head and the attention to continuity is something I can respect. I’m sure the events of these novellas will play a part in the novel too.

Now then, what offended me. Throughout these first three novellas, four relevant female characters have been presented to the readers. Two were villains, one was a horribly characterized caricature, and one was Celaena. A large portion of Throne of Glass‘s hype rests on its strong female heroine, but weakly characterizing or demonizing all other female characters so Celaena will look good is not the way to go. She’ll look worse, actually. I sure wouldn’t recommend the series to girls if it took that route of characterization, so I’m hoping ToG won’t go that way. (Post-reading ToG: It doesn’t go that way, thank goodness. I am beyond happy about that.

As it was solely within this novella, the caricature girl, a courtesan named Lysandra, had no effort put into her characterization. The way Celaena looked upon her and the other courtesan girls carries a tone of implied slut shaming as she calls them all insipid. This also makes Celaena a hypocrite, since she uses her beauty to accomplish her goals exactly the way a courtesan might. I think the only courtesan looked kindly upon is Sam’s mother and she’s dead.

Reading more of this series right now would result in a blown gasket and considering what is going on at this point in time in my life, a blown gasket is not what I need right now. One of my friends absolutely loved Throne of Glass and she is often as sensitive to issues of female representation as I am, so I’m hoping these novellas are a fluke and the novel itself will bring me back and make me fall in love. What can I say? I give things chances even when people say I shouldn’t anymore.

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