Sunday, 22 May 2016

"Smut" by Karina Halle

SmutSmut by Karina Halle
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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3.5 stars.

You know, readers, I often forget that romantic comedy is a book genre. For me, 'romantic comedy' conjures images of Hugh Grant chasing some attractive woman across London in a standard 90 minute movie. So, yeah, this book was outside my usual reading material, and definitely outside my comfort zone. And yet, I found myself strangely enamored with "Smut". Maybe it was its commentary on what constitutes art, and maybe it was Blake's butt appearing as an essential character in almost every chapter. I guess we will never know for sure.

"Smut" was a witty, tongue-in-cheek look at the erotica e-book craze, which I thought was both enjoyable and thoroughly compelling. Everyone has heard people say that erotica is just written pornography; that it is not real literature. Personally, I think this is all snobbery. Erotica is not my genre of choice, but just because I do not like it does not mean it is not "real literature". Blake put this perfectly:

"Because... it's not real writing. It's not literature. It's garbage."
"That's what people said about Shakespeare back in the day. His plays were just entertainment. But what's wrong with that?"
"That's what movies are for."
"That's what all art is for. Your creations can become anything to anyone. I've realized there's nothing wrong with letting people escape for a few hours."

Say it again, Mr. Crenshaw. Say it again.

The characters in this novel were multidimensional and complicated. Romance novels (especially those with a strong sexual focus) can fall into the trap of lax characterisation so we can get to the (literally) juicy bits quicker. Halle wrote two beautiful, complex characters in a light and comic way, making their story easy to read, as well as enjoyable. Although the story followed a formulaic and relatively boring romance plot, the characters were interesting and fun enough for me to forgive this.

Speaking of main characters, let's talk about Amanda. I genuinely enjoyed our MC's development in 'Smut'. We saw her truly explore what it means to be alone after a whole life of dependency. Ahh, growing up - we all feel the need to "shed that cocoon" eventually. Early in
'Smut', Amanda says:

"I want to capture the lightning and hold it in my chest until I burst."

I think Amanda has achieved this by the story's end. "Smut" portrayed how sex can be truly liberating to a woman, and that is an important thing to write about since women are often shamed for their sexual desires. Kudos, Halle!

Overall, "Smut" was a fun romantic comedy, with great characterisation and some interesting points about art and maturity. I would recommend this novel to anybody who wants a light, fun read, with a cute romance and some pretty steamy sex scenes.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

"The Rose and the Dagger" (The Wrath and the Dawn #2) by Renee Ahdieh

The Rose & the Dagger (The Wrath & the Dawn, #2)The Rose & the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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3.5 stars

Hmm... This book was a bit of a letdown. I know, I know - if I rate something 3.5 stars, I should not be calling it a letdown. But after the brilliant and magical story that was 'The Wrath and the Dawn', this book felt, well, average.

In the first novel, Shazi and Khalid's romance was centre stage. I adored their connection - it was beautiful, well-developed and superbly written. In 'The Rose and the Dagger', the romance is not mentioned all that much. Normally, this would not bother me - I rarely need romance to drive a story - but the massive shift in tone felt a little awkward to me. The few parts that did focus on Shazi and Khalid's relationship were also extremely flowery, which did not help. However, I loved Ahdieh's focus on how they were "...two parts of a whole. He did not belong to her. And she did not belong to him." Their relationship was equal, despite the initial power imbalance.

Having said that, the positives did outweigh the negatives for me. I enjoyed Jahander's story line immensely:

Rescue his beloved daughter. And perhaps find his true calling -
As a man of power. A man to be respected. A man to be feared.

Jahander was an intriguing character, because he's not really the big villain of this story, but his thoughts show that he thinks he is. His thirst for power after a life of mediocrity was a pathetic, albeit relateable, attitude. I sympathised with him and disliked him at the same time - a hard feat to achieve.

The curse and the magical components of this story in general were enjoyable. I do not think they were particularly innovative, but they were interesting enough to keep me reading. I enjoyed seeing beloved characters from 'The Wrath and the Dawn' communicate properly for the first time, like Rahim and Irsa; Khalid and Tariq. It was beautiful to watch the growing respect between various ex-enemies and acquaintances. "Until you learn to let go of your hatred, you will always love yourself more." In addition, the new characters, such as Artan, integrated organically into the story line and never felt forced or unnecessary.

The ending of this novel was gorgeous, and everything I could have hoped for. From the resolution of the political conflicts, to the heart-wrenching emotions, I feel that Ahdieh ended the story on a satisfying note.

Overall, this was a nice ending to a gorgeous series. Although I preferred 'The Wrath and the Dawn', this novel included a lot more interesting political and magical aspects. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the first novel in this series.

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Sunday, 8 May 2016

"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this novel as part of the Better Read than Dead YA Book Club - feel free to join us!

This book was a surprise for me. It was a cute little contemporary romance, but it had something a little different about it - maybe that the romance was not shoved in my face, that I was able to appreciate Aristotle and Dante as individual characters before they became a couple. Whatever it was that was different, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Aristotle and Dante were two very different characters. I enjoyed hearing the story from Ari's POV, because his thoughts gave me much more of an insight into his character than his words ever did. Even though I knew this was a contemporary romance going in, it did not read like a typical romance to me. It read more like a coming of age story that happened to have some romantic aspects in it. In the current literary world of forced romances and insta-love, I appreciated the slow development of Ari and Dante's love story.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of this novel was Sáenz's brilliant writing. The book was easy to read, because the writing was unpretentious, but beautiful, in a way that made me forget I was reading:

I thought it might be a great thing to be the air.
I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me.

Sáenz really highlighted the struggle of growing up as an introvert to me. Wanting to be important to others, but also wanting to be left alone - a hard balance to strike, especially when you are a teenager. Ari was sympathetic even when he was not particularly likeable - which is my favourite type of protagonist, and the hardest to get right.

I loved the mentions of both Dante and Ari's Mexican heritage in this book, as well. Of course, the LGBT love story was a great example of diverse YA. But I felt that Saenz had more to say about what it is to be a racial minority in the USA than he did about being LGBT. From Dante's regular comments:

"Well, at least you're a real Mexican."
"What do I know about Mexico, Dante?"

To Ari's strong, inspiring mother:

"I'm an educated woman. That doesn't un-Mexicanize me, Ari."

What it means to be Mexican, and how this differs from person to person, was a topic that Sáenz considered throughout this novel. It was interesting for me to consider how a person's ethnicity could define their existence, in positive and negative; desired and undesired ways.

Overall, this was a sweet contemporary romance with beautiful writing and layers of political commentary. I would recommend it to someone who wants an easy read, or anyone who wants a more diverse cast of characters in their contemporary novel.

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Friday, 6 May 2016

"A Court of Mist and Fury" (A Court of Thorns and Roses #2) by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #2)A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beware, there are mild spoilers in this review!

Honestly, this book was a rollercoaster ride. It went a way I never could have predicted, but it was perfect. Maas gave me everything I did not know I wanted, and more. I really loved 'A Court of Thorns and Roses', don't get me wrong - but it pales in comparison to this masterpiece of a book.

'A Court of Mist and Fury', above all else, was a book about Feyre's recovery from a traumatic event and how she grows as a person as a result of this. Her descriptions of depression were alarmingly accurate and really made me feel the extent of Feyre's suffering:

I was glad for the silence - even as it became a weight on me, even as it filled my head until there was nothing inside it beyond... emptiness.
Eternity. Was this to be my eternity?

As I watched Tamlin suffocate Feyre and ignore her wishes in place of his own paternalistic way of dealing with problems, I genuinely felt sorry for her. I connected with Feyre to a much greater extent than I ever did in 'A Court of Thorns and Roses', and this made me feel personally invested in the outcome of the story.

While I am on the subject of Tamlin - I am so happy with how Tamlin and Feyre's relationship ended up. Why do women in YA fiction always have only one lover for their whole lives? It's entirely unrealistic. The people I dated when I was in my teens are certainly not people I would want to end up with forever. Sure, there are some people who have been together that long and are very happy - but I would not say they are the majority. Anyway, Tamlin and Feyre's love reminded me of a strongly burning fire - beautiful and strong to begin with, but eventually, it consumed all the kindling and there was nothing left to sustain it.

Rhys and Feyre, on the other hand, had the kind of love that develops over time. The kind of love that is respectful and considerate, never putting one person's needs over the other. While Tamlin locked Feyre up and told her "I know best", Rhys never forced Feyre to do, well, anything she did not want to do. Even when it made his plans more difficult, even when it would have benefitted him, and even when he genuinely thought it was the best thing for her. He never presumed to know her better than she knew herself. That's true respect, an absolutely necessary precursor to true love.

Also, regardless of their relationships with Feyre, Rhys is a much more complex and interesting character than Tamlin. He just had more to him. Tamlin was all macho masculinity, but Rhys was cunning, political, loving, protective but not overbearing, kind, generous, and above all, genuinely compassionate to his people, friends, and family. He had layers, not all of which were pretty, but which made him a much more believable and sympathetic person.

I have talked a lot about Feyre's relationships because they hit me really hard, but the romance is not that prominent in this book. It focuses much more on the political and mystical side of life in Prythian. From the water wraiths that are clearly analogous for a racially oppressed group, to the Summer Court who have a lot to show for their political neutrality over the years - this was a world well-imagined and well-written. We also meet some amazingly complex new characters, who enrich the story; indeed, I fell in love with Amren, Mor, Cassian, and Azriel, and what they meant to Rhys, and eventually, to Feyre.

The ending of this book is completely and utterly soul-crushing. Throughout the book, I was predicting how it would end (as you do), and I was extremely far off. 'A Court of Mist and Fury' has Sarah J. Maas written all over it - beautiful world-building, complex and interesting characters, and a plot that will destroy your soul beyond recognition.

Overall, this was an amazing novel full of beautifully woven characters in an intricate and lovely world. I would recommend you read this, even if you did not love 'A Court of Thorns and Roses' - it is by far, my favourite of Maas' novels, and I have loved them all.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

"Curse of the Sphinx" (Sphinx #1) by Raye Wagner

Curse of the Sphinx (Sphinx, #1)Curse of the Sphinx by Raye Wagner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Raye Wagner for the free copy I received through her website!

This book was very different to what I expected. I was thinking it would be heavy on the fantasy elements, and lighter on the characterisation - I could not have been more wrong! Really, the opposite is true. 'Curse of the Sphinx' was a fun, romantic read above all else, and I found that quite refreshing.

Wagner's writing was exceptionally pretty in this novel. I especially enjoyed her characterisation. I really felt that I knew Hope and understood her feelings, fears and desires. It is critical for me to feel connected with a MC so that I actually care what happens to them, and I had so many sympathy feelings for her throughout the story it's not funny. Athan, Haley, and Mr. Stanley were also relatable and interesting characters that added depth to Hope's story.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the romance between Hope and Athan. As I previously said, I thought this book would be fantasy heavy, romance light. So, when Hope and Athan began to feature prominently as plot point, I expected to be disappointed - but I really wasn't. I found their romance believable, light, fun, and romantic. In my opinion, this is just how teen romances should read. Kudos to Wagner for writing a believable teen romance in a fantasy setting.

'Curse of the Sphinx' had an intriguing premise. I have read a lot of YA fantasy novels, but I cannot think of a single one that featured sphinxes as a prominent part of their mythology. A unique concept is hard to come by in fiction these days, and so I greatly appreciated this. I also loved that the mortal world seemed to follow the Ancient Greek religion (there's mention of mortals having temples for Athena in a modern day America). Wagner's world building is flawless, so I never questioned the plausibility of this. The mythology and fantasy elements were really interesting - however, I would have loved more focus on this side of the story. As much as I loved the characters and the romance, the mythology was definitely a big draw for me. I hope Wagner explores this side of the story more in future novels.

Overall, this was a fun story with a solid mythology backbone. I would recommend 'Curse of the Sphinx' to someone who wants a story with a unique fantasy premise in an urban setting.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

"The Winner's Crime" (The Winner's Trilogy #2) by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2)The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh. My. God!

This book was, quite simply, exquisite. It felt like a novel from an entirely different series. Personally, I found The Winner's Curse to be lackluster at best. Now, having read The Winner's Crime, I feel like the former book was merely a prequel to this masterpiece.

So, yeah. I liked it.

OK, brief synopsis: we open this novel with Kestrel in the Palace with the Emperor and her new fiancé Prince Verex. Arin is in Herran, running his new "independent territory". They pine for each other, but continue on with their lives and duties.

Where to begin? The writing in this novel was phenomenal. Rutkoski was a satisfactory writer in the first novel of this Trilogy, but it's like something clicked in her and her writing style is now sublime. I felt everything these characters felt because of her beautiful writing.

The relationship between Kestrel and Arin is so angsty. Anyone who knows me knows I love angst. I loved that things really didn't run smoothly for them - nothing like a few emotional barriers to make me ship them even more fiercely. The back and forth between them is beautiful: Kestrel's lying (and her emotional turmoil over it), Arin's desperation that he means more to her than Kestrel is letting on, Kestrel's fantasies about Arin, Arin's refusing to touch another woman because he always wishes it was her. This is the stuff truly loved book ships are made of.

The political side of this novel was also intriguing. This novel focused less on Kestrel and Arin's relationship (although there is still plenty of them to go around), which I think was a strong point. In the real world, people who are meant to be together are often kept apart by external forces. Kestrel and Arin both have their struggles for their respective countries and loved ones, entirely separate of each other. Oh, and any time the Emperor entered a scene, my heart started beating faster in fear. Literally.

Finally, the ending of this book made my soul weep... I won't say why (because spoilers), but I definitely was not fine when I finished this book. It's been a long time since a book made me so angry (in a gratifying way).

Overall, this book was an amazing work of art - I would recommend it to anyone who wants their heart served up to them on a platter, cut into tiny little pieces and garnished with salt. In a good way.

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