Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: The Shameless Hour (Ivy Years #4) by Sarina Bowen

The Shameless Hour (Ivy Years #4) by Sarina Bowen
Published April 12, 2015 by Rennie Road Books

She's not looking for a hero. He's not looking for a hookup.

For Bella, the sweet-talking, free-loving, hip-checking student manager of the Harkness men’s hockey team, sex is a second language. She’s used to being fluent where others stutter, and the things people say behind her back don’t (often) bother her. So she can’t understand why her smoking hot downstairs neighbor has so much trouble staying friends after their spontaneous night together. She knows better than to worry about it, but there’s something in those espresso eyes that makes her second guess herself.

Rafe is appalled with himself for losing his virginity in a drunken hookup. His strict Catholic upbringing always emphasized loving thy neighbor—but not with a bottle of wine and a box of condoms. The result is an Ivy League bout of awkwardness. But when Bella is leveled by a little bad luck and a downright nasty fraternity stunt, it’s Rafe who is there to pick up the pieces.

Bella doesn’t want Rafe's help, and she’s through with men. Too bad the undeniable spark that crackles between the two of them just can't be extinguished.

Sarina Bowen is one of my favorite contemporary romance authors, and her Ivy Years series is a great New Adult series because of how deftly she addresses current issues in a college setting, and this is my favorite book of the series because she turns so many stereotypes on its head: you have a sex-positive female (Bella) who doesn't pay much attention to her appearance; and a virgin male (Rafael, Rafe for short) who works in the school cafeteria, but whose masculinity and desirability is never once questioned. Bella's closet friends are members of the men's hockey team at the elite New England college which she attends. But when she's the victim of sexual harassment, she finds herself ashamed from turning to her friends. Her neighbors, Rafe, all-around-good-guy, and reclusive celebrity Lianne, step in when they see she's not okay.

Issues like sexual assault, double standards in rape culture, and shame are addressed well, although the thread of the challenges faced by first-generation minority students in elite higher education is left hanging. The rapport that develops between Bella and Lianne is hilarious, and there's a delightfully empowering scene where Bella gets retribution for a misdeed done against her.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read that challenges gender expectations and our attitudes towards sex and shame, and also authentically captures college life in America.

Rating: 5 Stars

Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Broken Beauty Novellas by Lizzy Ford

Broken Beauty (#1, Broken Beauty Novellas) by Lizzy Ford
Published February 3rd 2017 by Lizzy Ford
Broken World (#2) available on WattPad
Broken Chains (#3) available on Radish Reading

Broken Beauty Synopsis:
Just a broken girl in her broken world.

When socialite party girl Mia Abbott-Renou wakes up in a garden she has little recall of the previous night -- except that she is naked...hurt...terrified. Not only has she been raped, but she knows one of her assailants: the son of a wealthy politician who happens to be her own father’s political ally.

Mia wants and needs justice. Except this privileged boy has an alibi and her father forbids her from going to the police. It’s a critical election year, one that his party might lose if his image as a doting father is soured due to Mia being labeled a lush or worse, promiscuous.

Devastated at not having the support of her family, Mia finds herself in a tug-of-war with her conscience over what to do, especially since she can’t remember exactly what happened that night. Worse, the men who attacked her have hurt several other girls, and Mia may be the key to stopping them.

Mia tries to forget, until the unthinkable happens, and she’s left reeling once again, faced with a new challenge that will force her to take more control of her life.

Broken World Synopsis:
A confrontation is brewing …

Mia realizes the aftermath of her rape is not over when she is rocked by another challenge, one that will put her publicly at odds with her father, a U.S. Senator who has made her the poster child for his re-election. But the public face he wants her to wear can’t be farther from who she is inside.

The latest rape victim is expected to die soon, and only Mia can identify the attackers. With pressure from the police to come forward, Mia is distraught when her father forbids her from speaking out.

She is surprised to discover new allies in her siblings, who break ranks with her father to support her. But even they have their own agenda.

Before Mia turns eighteen, she’ll face the ultimate choice: betraying her family or her conscience.

Broken Chains Synopsis:
The truth will set her free...

But first, it might suffocate her.

After a brief reprieve and a quiet birthday, Mia once more becomes the center of media attention. This time it's because the charges against her rapist go public - before Mia and her team are ready/ Thrust into intense publi cscrutiny again, Mia is faced with a new difficulty from the direction of her father, who follows through with his threats and forever alters the dynamics of her world.

Her desperate need to be loved by her father is crushed once and for all. But it's the great family secret she discovers that offers her the first piece of real hope she's experienced since the incident. For the first time in months, she's starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel - and that light includes Dom.

All she has to do is survive the trial - and a terrifying confrontation with Robert Connor.

Broken Beauty is, as far as I understand, a revision of a previously published work under the same title. This is not a novella, nor even a short story, as there is no structure - we are introduced to the main character, Mia, and the plot starts off with conflict, but there is no character arc. It is, instead, a sampler of a longer work that ends at the end of an inciting incident, when the reader might think that Mia is finally going to see some character development.

I do think the story deserves credit for addressing rape, the recovery process, as well as rape culture. Ford excels at description, particularly the movements of people, but I thought there was sometimes too much description and not enough of moving the plot forward.

I do think this series has potential, and "Novella" #2 (available on WattPad) definitely is a stronger work than the first in the series, with actual character development. I enjoyed the strong friendship between Mia and her best friend, Ari, as well as witnessing Mia's relationship with her uncle, Chris, develop. Unfortunately, the most interesting characters are Chris, uncle and lawyer extraordinaire, and Dom, police officer to the rescue. Mia is rather...bland.

I understand that she's been sheltered, hidden, and purposely trained to view herself as a possession or a prop her entire life, but her steps towards agency are rather limited. There's also not much of a sense of her personality. She is described as sporty, one who enjoys playing basketball and soccer, but I was surprised when I read that she was one of the co-leaders of the cheer team, since as someone who professes to like physical activity, she didn't think of exercising as a way to relieve stress until suggested by someone else.

The narrative finally reaches a conclusion in "Novella" #3, which was released on the Radish app, a mobile app for serialized fiction, where you can read the rest of the narrative chapter-by-chapter on a weekly basis, or all at once for a nominal amount through the purchase of coins (the number of coins purchased at once determines the cost per coin). As an aside, I liked the layout and design of the Radish app, but found the works there to be of vary quality - mostly middling.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really go anywhere for 7 of the 8 chapters. Overall, Mia just comes across as a boring young woman of privilege with a too quick, too neat wrapping up of a conclusion. I don't need likable characters, but I do need characters who make more of an effort. Perhaps being released on the Radish platform contributed to the problems in "Novella" 3, since the serialization of works prevents a big picture edit.

I received a copy of the Broken Beauty "novella" through NetGalley in exchange for a review.

2 stars (Broken Beauty)
3 stars (Broken World)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

Published May 2, 2017 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Lara Jean’s letter-writing days aren’t over in this surprise follow-up to the New York Times bestselling To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You.

Lara Jean is having the best senior year a girl could ever hope for. She is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Peter; her dad’s finally getting remarried to their next door neighbor, Ms. Rothschild; and Margot’s coming home for the summer just in time for the wedding.

But change is looming on the horizon. And while Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. Most pressingly, where she wants to go to college and what that means for her relationship with Peter. She watched her sister Margot go through these growing pains. Now Lara Jean’s the one who’ll be graduating high school and leaving for college and leaving her family—and possibly the boy she loves—behind.

When your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?

Lara Jean returns in this charming conclusion to the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, retaining many of the characteristics that I loved in the first two novels: a focus on family relationships (particularly that between sisters), Lara Jean's romantic optimism, seamless interweaving of Lara Jean's Korean-American heritage, astute observations of teen life, and well-developed characters, both primary and secondary. But, this last book is even better with a more mature and self-aware Lara Jean, such as this observation after a fight with her boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky: "I’m petty enough to be glad he’s not enjoying himself anymore."

The writing is the clearest of the series, with less contrivances in the plot, and characters, while complex, that also behave true to themselves.

Lara Jean shows her maturity by consciously appreciating the present instead of being caught up in the romance of the past:
When I’m old and gray, I will look back on this night, and I will remember it just as it was. Is. We’re still here. 
It’s not the future yet.
The greatest pleasures of the book, are how deftly Han captures the excitement and uncertainty of the transition from high school graduation to adult life, whether it be attending college or taking a gap year, and the bonds of sisterhood.

Lara Jean frets about the results of her college applications:
"I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, but will it be enough? At this point, all I can do is wait, and hope. And hope and hope."
Or, on choosing from her college acceptances:
"What if I came here and I ended up loving it? What if, after a year, I didn’t want to leave? What then? But wouldn’t it be great if I loved it? Isn’t that the whole point? Why bet on not loving a place? Why not take a chance and bet on happiness?
The simultaneously hopeful and retrospective tone perfectly encapsulates how many of my graduating students must feel, year after year. Additionally, just like the best part of Frozen was the relationship between Elsa and Anna, Always and Forever, Lara Jean is at it's strongest in the scenes between Lara Jean and sisters Margot and Kitty. Lara Jean observes, "Because of my big sister, the grief I felt about growing up was less acute."

Lara Jean places those bonds of sisterhood above every other relationship, describing how she feels love and relief when Peter promises her younger sister that they will still be friends even if she and Peter break up, knowing that her sister will be cared for, and how touched she is that Peter always takes Margot's side: "Of course he should take her side. It’s his job to take her side. It shows that he gets how important her good opinion is to me, and he gets the place she has in my life."

Also joyful to see was Lara Jean and her best friend Chrissy. They're very different, in personality, lifestyle, and choices, but they making being a support for each other a priority and there's genuine respect and acceptance of each other for who they are. I think this book, a very easy read, is a satisfying end to the series. Finally, as a college counselor, I am relieved that Jenny Han got every part of the college admissions process right.

Rating: 5 stars

Monday, June 5, 2017

Review: On Point by Annabeth Albert

On Point by Annabeth Albert
Published June 5, 2017 by Carina Press

Never fall for your best friend…

Pushing thirty, with his reenlistment looming, decorated navy sniper Maddox Horvat is taking a long look at what he really wants in life. And what he wants is Ben Tovey. It isn't smart, falling for his best friend and fellow SEAL, but ten years with Ben has forged a bond so intimate Maddox can't ignore it. He needs Ben by his side forever—heart and soul.

Ben admits he likes what he's seen—his friend's full lower lip and the perfect muscles of his ass have proved distracting more than once. But Ben's still reeling from a relationship gone to hell, and he's not about to screw up his friendship with Maddox, too.

Until their next mission throws Ben and Maddox closer together than ever before, with only each other to depend on.

Now, in the lonely, desperate hours awaiting rescue, the real challenge—confronting themselves, their future and their desires—begins. Man to man, friend to friend, lover to lover.

It's Pride Month! So, in honor of this month, and conveniently out today is On Point. Annabeth Albert is one of my favorite authors who writes LGBTQ stories because:

  • I read to escape, but it also has to be relatable. Thus, I prefer contemporary to historical and fantasy novels, and I like my characters ordinary, that is, no crazy rich people with model-perfect bodies, thank you. 
  • Albert's characters are normal, real people; they have jobs that they actually have to work at, are sometimes challenging, and realistically portrayed. Sometimes they have work-life balance struggles, they're smart, and sometimes (charmingly) geeky. They're flawed but on the whole deal with their issues like adults.
  • Conflict is organic to situational circumstances, not manufactured melodrama. The characters, through growth and communication, come to solutions together.
  • There's no one person saving the other; character growth is internal, though the motivation to grow comes from love and affection.
  • The writing is good, too.

This is my favorite of the "Out of Uniform" series so far, featuring my favorite trope, friends-to-lovers. You have sweet, gentle Maddox and his ball-of-energy Ben. They're opposites, and have been best friends since their Navy SEAL training. Yet, despite their personality differences, both have incredible respect for each other.

The book starts off with the natural drama of a mission gone wrong, and there's nothing like a near-death situation for Ben to acknowledge his feelings for his best friends and for Maddox to realize what he wants out of life for himself. The best friends accept each other as they are, and there's never a sense that they want the other to change their essential selves. Rather, each worries that they're not enough for each other. Ultimately, it's a very romantic and sweet story about two people whose shared history means deep feelings for each other having to overcome their insecurities to get their happily-ever-after.

I received an advance reading copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: Riot School by Robert Rayner

Riot School by Robert Rayner
Published August 22, 2016 by Lorimer

In the middle of the night, five teens break into a small town high school that has been closed by the regional school board. They are there to protest the decision to move them to a big city school and make their little town that much smaller. Led by Bilan, whose experience with the Arab Spring fired a passion to peacefully fight against injustice, the Gang of Five occupy their old school. The local police chief and the town quietly cheer them on. When the school board calls in a big security firm to break up their occupation using any means necessary, including force, the five have to decide how far they will go to show their outrage at having no control over decisions that affect their lives.

This is a novel which picks up on themes drawn from the world around us, and shows how these can play out in the lives of contemporary young people.

This book had a lot of potential with an interesting and diverse cast of characters. You have Bilan, the articulate and persuasive leader of this group of teens, her boyfriend Arn - angry at his father's incarceration, Grant - son of one of the town's council members, Barlow - the petty teen thief who also seems to be the school's most compassionate person, and Lettie - the homeless teen. With these different characters, there could've been some interesting character arcs but I was left feeling a lot of threads were left unfinished.

I wasn't sure of the purpose of narrative - if the author wanted to encourage students to speak up and have a voice, he wasn't very successful at it. I was left feeling like young people don't really have a voice, and the actions of unsympathetic adults lead to drug abuse and anarchists. And, I find hard to believe that these students, as articulate as they were, wouldn't have been more media savvy in increasing attention for their cause. All in all, this was a frustrating read.

I received a review copy through NetGalley.

Rating: 2 stars

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler

Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler
Published June 1, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

"Don't worry, Anna. I'll tell her, okay? Just let me think about the best way to do it."
"Promise me? Promise you won't say anything?"
"Don't worry." I laughed. "It's our secret, right?"

According to her best friend Frankie, twenty days in Zanzibar Bay is the perfect opportunity to have a summer fling, and if they meet one boy ever day, there's a pretty good chance Anna will find her first summer romance. Anna lightheartedly agrees to the game, but there's something she hasn't told Frankie---she's already had that kind of romance, and it was with Frankie's older brother, Matt, just before his tragic death one year ago.

Beautifully written and emotionally honest, this is a debut novel that explores what it truly means to love someone and what it means to grieve, and ultimately, how to make the most of every single moment this world has to offer.

The title of this novel is unfortunate because when I first saw it on the (electronic) shelves of my library, it seemed to be a light bit of summer fluff. In actuality, this is a beautifully written rumination on death, grief, and love - romantic, friendship, and familial, as well as a coming of age story, and an ode to the ocean and summers spent by them.

Anna, the narrator, had long loved her male best friend, Matt, big brother to her female best friend, Frankie. On her birthday, the summer before the start of tenth grade, Matt kisses her, and thus begins a whirlwind secret relationship. Matt asks her to keep the relationship quiet, until he can figure out a way to tell Frankie/ Ockler captures the wonder and excitement of a new relationship:
"Does he like me, or was he just messing around? Will it happen again? How do we tell Frankie? Why did he say it’s our secret?"
Unfortunately, Matt dies in a car accident before he can tell Frankie. and Anna struggles with grieving his death and her competing commitments to her two best friends. The following summer, Anna joins Frankie and her parents at their annual beach holiday. It's the family's first trip without Matt, and there are poignant observations of how a family adjusts to a new reality. Simultaneously, boy-crazy Frankie thinks the trip is an excellent opportunity for Anna to lose her "albatross," aka virginity, and Anna's thoughts perfectly capture a teen wrestling with whether or not to reach this milestone:
"The whole idea of losing one’s virginity is kind of ridiculous. To lose something implies carelessness. A mistake that you can fix simply by recovering the lost object, like your cell phone or your glasses. Virginity is more like shedding something than losing it."
The writing is excellent, the dialogue snappy, the observations sharp. The heavy topic is lightened with by Anna's delightful voice, with her dry repartee with boy-crazy Frankie:
“Anna, no one will notice us if we’re wandering around in old-lady clothes. They’ll think we’re pregnant or something.”
“Rather than wanting to get us pregnant?”
Additionally, the educator in me appreciates the subtle vocabulary lessons:
“Don’t worry. He already said you can go. You just need to do some — oh, what’s that thing called — envisionation, I think.”
“Envisionation?” I ask.
“You know, where you think about the thing you want and just picture yourself getting it?” “Visualization, Frankie, and it’s not gonna work.”
I really enjoyed this book - this is one where I cried in some moments (and I'm generally not a crier) and laughed out loud in others. Oh and Sam? He makes the perfect summer (book) boyfriend.

Rating: 4 Stars

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: Long Way Home by Katie McGarry

Long Way Home by Katie McGarry
Published January 31, 2017 by Harlequin Teen

Seventeen-year-old Violet has always been expected to sit back and let the boys do all the saving.

It’s the code her father, a member of the Reign of Terror motorcycle club, raised her to live by. Yet when her dad is killed carrying out Terror business, Violet knows it’s up to her to do the saving. To protect herself, and her vulnerable younger brother, she needs to cut all ties with the club—including Chevy, the boy she’s known and loved her whole life.

But when a rival club comes after Violet, exposing old secrets and making new threats, she’s forced to question what she thought she knew about her father, the Reign of Terror, and what she thinks she wants. Which means re-evaluating everything: love, family, friends . . . and forgiveness.

Caught in the crosshairs between loyalty and freedom, Violet must decide whether old friends can be trusted—and if she’s strong enough to be the one person to save them all.

One of the many pleasures of reading is the opportunity to discover new worlds; that certainly is the case with Katie McGarry's books which has introduced me to life set in rural and small-town Kentucky, certainly different from my childhood spent in metropolitan Los Angeles and adulthood spent in urban Boston and Taipei. I've also learned about how it is to be raised in the foster system (Pushing the Limits), growing up with an drug-addicted parent (Dare You To), street racing and drag racing (Crash Into You), homelessness (Take Me On), and life as a drug dealer (Chasing Impossible). In all of her books, McGarry's protagonists struggle against being defined by their circumstances.

Katie McGarry's Thunder Road series centers around a motorcycle club, and Long Way Home is the third and last book of the series. Though each of the books in the series features strong female characters, both primary and secondary, I have struggled with understanding the Reign of Terror motorcycle club's attitude towards women and the role they play within the club. It's a fraternal organization in a patriarchal society, and while the men portrayed certainly love their female partners, women are literally not allowed a seat at decision-making table. In previous installments in the series, female characters worked around this structure to influence situations they weren't happy with.

Violet is perhaps McGarry's strongest female character yet, one is able to most clearly articulate what she believes is wrong about the structure and advocate for agency in her life. The daughter of a member of the club's leadership team, she blames the club for her father's death. As an insider who has now purposefully placed herself on the outside, this unique vantage point gives her a more insightful perspective of the club. Much of the arc of the novel is the conflict between Violet, her love Chevy, and the club's leader Eli as they struggle to balance the desire to protect out of love, with realizing that protection can be disempowering. At one point, Violet reflects, "I hate his way of caring, though. Hate how he controls. But how can you fully hate someone who does all the stupid things because that’s the way he loves?"

At the same time, Violet is not afraid to call out double-standards: "“Is that what I am? A traitor? When you protect your family, it’s called being an upstanding member of the club, but when I do it, I’m a traitor?”

Because Violet's not afraid to speak the truth and push against what she sees as inherent unfairness, Chevy and Eli also come away with a greater understanding of how to love in a empowering and respectful way. For these reasons, this is my favorite book of the series.

Rating: 4 Stars