The Reading Perusals of Rose Summers

Creator of "Writing Through Rose-Tinted Glasses", self-proclaimed bibliophile, health/fitness enthusiast, and purveyor of all things books, writing, and media related.

Review: Scientific Secrets for Self Control (The Great Courses)

Scientific Secrets for Self-Control - Professor C. Nathan DeWall

Quick review for a quick read. This isn't the first "Great Courses" audiobook I've listened to, but it was one of the ones I was most disappointed by. A shame because the topic is very fascinating in terms of how self-control is regulated by the brain. It touches on several topics with support from several studies: brain injury and how it affects self control, mental energy and fatigue, dietary influences in brain energy, making decisions, how fatigue factors into difficult topics, self control and finances, etc. I found that I wasn't really the biggest fan of the audio lecturer. His dictation didn't feel immersive/enthusiastic about the topic and the transitions between topics weren't as smooth from lecture to lecture as I would've hoped. I did have a few takeaways for the knowledge base and topics this series of lecture covered, but not enough for the time and energy that it took for me to move through this audio course (which was well over 3 hours).

Overall score: 2/5 stars.

Review: Gem and Dixie by Sara Zarr

Gem & Dixie - Sara Zarr

Quick review for a quick read. Another emotional and engaging read from Sara Zarr. "Gem and Dixie" is a story of sisters as well as knowing when to let go and grow. I enjoyed the journey, though the story had more compelling points in certain turns than others. It got a little muddled in the middle trying to march itself towards the ending, but still pulled at my heartstrings for showcasing the relationship between the characters.

Gem is four years older than Dixie and has been tasked as the responsible figure in a complicated household. Gem and Dixie's father is often absent from their lives, and usually when he returns, it's never for good reasons. Their mother can barely keep food on the table and while she's present in their lives keeps her own distance from taking on responsibility due to a number of vices. Gem has always tried to help and protect her younger sister, but even as they've grown older, their relationship has become more distant, with Dixie wanting to hold on to memories they used to have while Gem is ready for something more, something better.

The two have a rather unique opportunity to get away when their father returns to their lives, leaving a questionable amount of money of undetermined source under the bed. Gem asks Dixie to get away for a short time - just to "let loose". But their journey from that point is a series of encounters that have the girls meeting mishaps and discovering each other in a way they hadn't had opportunities to do before. I think the first half of the novel had me in its compelling portrait of the girls' broken home, while the latter part had some moments of emotional connectivity, but the pacing and grip loosened a bit up until closer to the end when the girls have to face the reality of their situation and Gem has to make a decision for herself rather than for the inclusion of her and her sister. In the end, it's a solid read - probably not my personal favorite from the author, but well included among her potent stories in contemporary YA and dealing with difficult issues. Wonderful audio narration by Julia Whelan as well.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

Review: The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares

The Whole Thing Together - Ann Brashares

Quick review for a somewhat quick read for me, though it felt like I had to push myself through this novel several times. "The Whole Thing Together" has many issues, but I would echo concerns that much of this novel suffers from rampant cliches, insensitive references in the measure of racial attribution (considering it uses a racial slur casually and struggles constantly to accurately and sensitively portray the multiracial character who struggles with her identity) and sexism (slut shaming and odd fixations on physical details of the characters). In addition to those issues, I think the biggest downfall of this novel really came in that I just couldn't find a space to connect with the characters. Not as much as I wanted to, because there were parts of the narrative that had the potential to go interesting places, but never quite reached that point and abruptly halted in places where the development could've provided more intimacy than the narration allowed.

At its heart, "The Whole Thing Together" is a family drama, showcasing teens as well as young adults in a separate sections of the same family struggling through multiple phases and revelations in their lives. Think "Parenthood" or "Brothers and Sisters" in terms of TV dramas, only I think the characters in this novel were far less fleshed out. As ambitious as this narrative sought to be, it tried to take on far too much in a narrow scope, to the point where nothing really worked well. The narrative voices blended far too much for me to truly connect to them (I don't mind third-person omniscient POV, I read it quite often in many genres). I would hesitate to call this YA, it feels more like it straddles the line between YA and New Adult (at least if you think about certain themes tackled in this book).

The surprise revelation towards the ending was emotional, but I honestly think that it could've had more impact if the character constructions were stronger. In the end, it's a narrative with strong intentions, but the execution leaves an unmemorable and sometimes offputting portrayal that doesn't showcase the best of what Brashares can do, and as someone who liked the Sisterhood series, this left me greatly disappointed.

Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.

Review: Burned (Burned #1) by Ellen Hopkins

Burned - Ellen Hopkins

Quick review for a quick read that I picked up from my library's audio collection. Powerful and really wonderful character exploration, which is typical of Ellen Hopkins's books. Pattyn is a young woman living in a tightly knit religious community and abusive household. She strongly laments her inability to grow as a young woman - in relationships, in asserting herself among other things - as well as watching her mother being subjected to her father's fists. After a series of incidents in which she acts out, she's sent to live with her aunt and begins to know what it means to have a better life for herself, including being valued in a romantic relationship with her S.O. (Ethan). In the end, she's not prepared to return to the household that cast her out, yet she never really wanted to leave completely behind, and things only turn for the worst after that point. I'll admit it hit me like a punch to a gut and I couldn't shake the emotional upheaval it left within me long after turning the final page.

"Burned", like the other books of Hopkins I've read, went down so smoothly and quick for the overarching read - I really enjoyed the audio narration of the novel as well as the poetic form she uses to tell Pattyn's story. She captures Pattyn's thoughts, questions, fears, uncertainty, and emotion to the teeth, and I liked being able to follow her throughout. I thought her fears and concerns were front and center, making me feel her struggle, but I think there were opportunities of depth and debate (particularly around the religious community concerns, since Pattyn lives in a Mormon household) that were missed. I definitely look forward to reading the next novel in this series, though the cliffhanger ending makes me all the more anxious to get to it as soon as possible.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

Review: Come Home by Lisa Scottoline

Come Home - Lisa Scottoline

Quick review for a somewhat lengthy read. I'm actually asking myself in the hours after finishing the book: What on Earth did I just read?

I haven't read many of Lisa Scottoline's books, but admittedly it's been a while and this is the most recent example I can go on. It's...definitely not the first book I would recommend anyone read from this author. I feel like it was an entertaining read but also a complete waste of time. (That sounds like a contradiction in itself, but I'll explain shortly.) So much of this book annoyed me to heck and back - mostly for how over the top and non-cohesive it was. The dialogue in some stretches is completely unrealistic and cringe-worthy. I guess the entertaining aspect of it lies in that it plays out like a soap opera - with the main character running to and fro searching for answers that absolutely no one asked, and one calamity building upon another to ramp up the action and conflict to march forcefully through its conclusion. There are times when I like this kind of story if it can poke fun at itself or just proves entertaining to watch with the characters who make the story more than the bones it stands upon. But "Come Home" was the true definition of a false advertisement of a book if I ever started one.

The story centers around Jill, a pediatrician who's adjusting to life with a new fiance and her daughter. Yet, Abby, Jill's estranged ex-stepdaughter comes bounding to her doorstep one rainy night to proclaim that her father's dead and that someone killed him. This sets off a chain of events that lead to Abby's disappearance, and Jill's desperate search to find her. Only...the search for Abby takes up a good portion of this story, but it's just one thread among several microconflicts that don't really reach satisfying conclusions. "Come Home" dangles false carrots of conflict in front of you, leading you in one direction, but just when you reach a climatic point that promises some answers, the answers lead in another direction that doesn't really have much to do with the original thread of conflict and seems to get weaker and less intriguing as it goes on. I felt like part of it was Jill's utter recklessness and stupidity in approaching every mystery around her, and what she finds just happens to hit the mark in some way without really having any kind of payoff.

In retrospect, I really didn't like most of the characters in this novel, including Jill. I did like Sam and Jill's friend (mostly because they were the ones who had the most sense), but everyone else was annoying as heck in speaking voice as well as contributing to the microconflicts and unreliable narrators here. I wish I could've believed in them or had a good laugh at them, but in the end, the dramatics were lain on far too thick - and the characters far too grating - for me to enjoy this more. I will say it kept me reading and wanting to see what would happen, but I took far too much time on the audiobook and overarching story than the story paid off in the experience. I probably wouldn't pick up this book again, once was enough.

Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.

Review: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

The Black Witch - Laurie Forest

Initial reaction: I think my end thoughts after going through this whole novel are much more complex than I can summarize in a quick bit review, but I'll leave you with this food for thought:

No matter what culture you come from: no individual or group wants to be labeled an "a", an "an" or a "the." That is just one of the many problems this book has when approaching the issue of identification and tolerance when it comes to relations with groups of many different backgrounds, and it reveals a much deeper issue when the narrative itself is so out of sync with the matter at hand that it can't even recognize why it's flawed down to its very execution and presentation.

I think this could've easily been a 250-300 page book and have gotten a better story across than 608 pages of beating a point home...which ended up being contradicted constantly by harmful reiterations.

It's not a good fantasy novel either. :(

Full review:

In all honesty, I think "The Black Witch" could've been a much better novel than it was. Don't get me wrong, long before the ending of the novel, I knew what it what its intention was, and I'm not going to say that there weren't bit pieces of this novel that I ended up liking. But the bad parts of this novel far outweighed the good. I'm not even going to touch the diversity issues yet, because while that's the chief issue of controversy in this novel, the other elements of bad in this novel make it that much worse.

First, this book felt like a smorgasbord of overwrought (harmful) YA cliches, especially from the very beginning of the novel. Instalove, rampant girl-girl hate, sexual shaming and jealousy, overwrought drama that kept repeating itself over and over again (to the point it was redundant), poor portrayals of rape attribution and presentation, abusive love interests, and one dimensional characters. I don't even think Diana's humored oblivious, IDGAF attitude could've saved this novel from being a poor portrayal of so many different aspects. The worldbuilding might've been the most mediocre among many YA fantasy novels that I've read because it really doesn't make a lot of effort here, as the portrayal of different otherworldly beings not only relies on the prejudices of the main character to differentiate them (Male Lupines are RAPISTS! Female Lupines walk around naked and are automatically SLUTS! Fae creatures are FORBIDDEN! Mixed Breeds are EVIL!), but also on established folklore that's only scantly thrown in where its convenient to justify the character encounters with the main character, Elloren.

This book is like if the plotline of "Redeeming Eden: Save the Pearls" or "Out" were (scantly) mixed with Harry Potter (but with very little battles or magic - bummer) and Gossip Girl (nearly every character in this book hates each other on account of their racial backgrounds and histories, and they do some pretty horrible things to each other in the measure of power struggles and jealousy over relationships - namely boy lust). It's just horribly out of touch with the issue it portrays and wants the reader to take it seriously when it's really difficult to do so.

The second major issue in this book is that the pacing and editing in this novel is terrible. It took forever to get to some of the major plot turns and coming to terms that Elloren does in this novel. That's unacceptable, especially since some of the drama and expansions felt like they were repeated in several scenes - it didn't need all of that padding when really it didn't add much to the story. When I wasn't being overtly offended by some of the toxic insults that Elloren spewed in her internal and external thoughts towards the other characters in this novel (even in consideration of what some of the other characters do to bully and harass her, it was overkill), I spent the novel continuing to wait to the point where I'd get to the significance of The Black Witch, feeling like some descriptions were beautiful while others were overkill on the purple prose. Even then, the world is still really only scant in establishment, and it's hard to be immersed or repelled in this world when everything is just so...one-note.

"The Black Witch" feels like it's one big ad-hoc fallacy because every conflict is either all or nothing, "my way" and nothing else, or so over the top that it doesn't feel real or genuine. And that's the biggest disservice and means to educate anyone on systemic prejudices that I've ever encountered in a work, in fiction or otherwise. The narrative seems to be looking for reasons for Elloren's prejudices rather than rationales on why she shouldn't be predisposed to hate or label the other characters she's around, and that's absurd! The fact that the other characters are just as single-minded and predisposed to isolate themselves and think themselves superior and actively condescend others around them is also absurd. Keep in mind that the bulk of this story takes place at a university, and that even some of the professors are predisposed to ignore, hate, and be prejudiced against some of their mixed breed and otherworldly students. And that runs counter to the inclusive environments that colleges universities actually have and strive to create for their students (I should know - I live/work around a few.)

This book is in a line of books I've read within the past year that have really problematic roots and execution (see "Carve the Mark" by Veronica Roth and "The Glittering Court" by Richelle Mead), but I think this might be the worst one among those that I've read. The story centers around a young woman named Elloren who is a part of the Gardenian tribe. Fair-skinned, very focused on their women becoming wandfasted (marrying at a young age for life via a magic bond). Elloren is told by her sternly prejudiced aunt that she needs to hurry up and wandfast, while her uncle says that she should wait and go to university, get an education and enhance her trade. Elloren decides to follow through and do her education first, because of promising him.

It's not enough that we have to hear Elloren's aunt go on for paragraphs about how superior the Gardenian race is: *cough*

“This is unheard of!” my aunt exclaims. Her voice turns tight and angry. “You’ve raised these children like they’re Keltic peasants,” she snipes, “and frankly, Edwin, it’s disgraceful. You’ve forgotten who we are. I have never heard of a Gardnerian girl, especially one of Elloren’s standing, from such a distinguished family, laboring in a kitchen. That’s work for Urisk, for Kelts, not for a girl such as Elloren. Her peers at University will be shocked.” (Chapter 1)

“Do not let Sage’s unfortunate situation color your view of wandfasting,” my aunt cautions. “Wandfasting is a beautiful sacrament, meant to keep us pure and chaste. The lure of the Evil Ones is strong, Elloren. Wandfasting helps young people such as yourself to stay on the path of virtue. It’s one of the many things that sets us apart from the heretic races all around us.” (Chapter 5)

And the fact that even one of the former Gardenian runaways, Sage, gave birth to the AntiChrist (or this book's version of it), and was "Banished" from the tribe, but we have to hear Elloren and the other Gardenians talk about how vile or inferior all the other races are. *cough* Sexism included:

I gape at her. “A female? With that much power?” That high level of power is almost exclusively held by males, with the notable exception of my grandmother. (Chapter 5)

Fallon leans in toward me with obvious relish, her voice a scratchy whisper. “Lupines don’t ever marry, did you know that? They simply grab whomever they like and mate with them in the woods.”
“Like animals,” Echo chimes in, with great indignation.
“Really?” It’s all so scandalous. And troubling.
“I’ve heard,” continues Fallon, “that sometimes they grab young women, pull them into the woods and mate with them...as wolves!”
(Chapter 7 - and this isn't the only rape/non consensual reference in this book.)

I struggle to keep my expression neutral, greatly put off by her intrusive behavior. “Of course not. I’m unfasted.” And not in the habit of throwing myself at young men, unlike you. (Chapter 7)

Elloren starts off on rocky terms with Fallon, a powerful Gardenian and university mean girl. - That's part of the girl-girl hate that this book promotes. It's really petty stuff, over a potential wandfast (Lukas, whom Elloren's aunt blackmails her by holding her university money and lodging because she won't wandfast with him after knowing him for only a day or two) but other things like *gasp* CLOTHING!

I glance up at her. “Do you think you could use this?”
“Of course, Mage Gardner,” she replies, obviously thrilled by my choice.
Fallon’s hand comes down on the fabric. “You can’t use this,” she says, her tone hard.
I blink up at her in resentful surprise. “Why?”
“Because,” she replies, her voice syrupy with condescension, “this is what my dress is being made of.”
(Chapter 8)

TL, DR Translation: Bee-otch don't steal my man, don't steal my clothes! (I'm wondering at this point what I have gotten myself into.)

Elloren's university experience becomes a power struggle that involves her being relentlessly bullied by those of other races, playing into stereotypes that Elloren has overheard and/or internalizes. The unrealistic part of it is that every other race/being is distinctly hostile or does something to warrant/justify her attitude, which lends her to use her power as a Gardenian to make their lives miserable in turn. Some measures include her running to her instalove Lukas (who is also Gardenian) to threaten several different races (AND A CHILD!) and even includes the brutal killing of her roommate's pet chicken. It's the equivalent of using her power and prominence to punch down.

I think the first turning point of the novel has Elloren questioning the killing of the chicken, but it doesn't make any of her ruminations and derogatory blanket statements about those of the race her comrades belong to any better. Nor does it justify her inviting violence so that she (at least at first, she doesn't follow through with the plan, thankfully) can get her roommate kicked out of university and banished.

Elloren does eventually "befriend" people at the university, but honestly looking at the supporting characters of other races in this book, they're either used as props to support Elloren's ordeals or as teaching pieces to assimilate with the norms of HER culture. Case in point, someone who might be close to my favorite character of the novel: Diana.

Diana is a Lupine and quite oblivious to social norms of the university. She sleeps and walks around the university naked without a care in the world, and won't hesitate to say that none of the guys she's around are worthy enough to mate with her. Her introduction actually had me laughing because her brother had to call her out in the middle of class to say she was interrupting (and the professor was none too pleased). But even looking back at Diana's role in this book - she's a prop. There's a section of the book (too long if you ask me) where not only does Elloren and her brother convince her to put on clothes but also where Elloren shames her as not being good enough to be in a romantic relationship with a guy of another race because her nakedness makes her a "slut."

Like, what?

And I don't think I'd ever forgive Elloren for what she does to Trystan, who struggles because he finds his roommate Yvan attractive.

Elloren observes this:

Yvan cuts a nice figure, I reluctantly admit. He’s long and lean, and when his piercing green eyes aren’t tense, they’re stunning. My eyes are increasingly drawn to him in the kitchens, his strength and lithe grace tangling my thoughts and setting my heart thudding harder. I can’t help but remember how he looked when he smiled at Fern on my first day in the kitchens—how dazzling that smile was, how devastatingly handsome I found him to be.
I bite the inside of my cheek in annoyance.
Why does he have to be so distractingly good-looking? And why do I have to find him so attractive when he clearly doesn’t like me at all? And besides—he’s a Kelt!
(Chapter 25)

He eventually admits to finding Yvan "beautiful" and confessing to Elloren that he's gay.

Elloren's answer was this:

“Oh, Trystan,” I breathe, panic clamoring at the edges of my thoughts, “this is really bad.”
“I know,” he admits tightly.
“The Mage Council...they throw people in prison who...”
“I know, Ren.”
“You can’t be this way. You just can’t. You have to change.”
Trystan continues to stare rigidly at the book. “I don’t think I can,” he says softly.
“Then you can’t tell anyone,” I insist, shaking my head for emphasis. “No one can know.”

.."Trystan, I’m really worried about you now. I can’t...” Tears prick at my eyes as an unbidden image forms of Trystan being taken away, thrown into prison somewhere. A fierce urgency wells up inside me, accompanied by a very justified fear for my brother’s safety. “You’ve got to keep this secret.”
(Chapter 25)

Trystan is her brother, guys. I just...doesn't even matter that she says she doesn't think he's "evil" but she definitely doesn't support him. I would never recommend this book to a GLBT teen, in addition to mixed race teens or POCs because it directly condemns their existence on several occasions, even considering this is a fantasy world with supernatural beings. You can't separate the reality parallels to cultural diversity in this book, especially in places where it directly evokes the groups that exist in real life.

A good portion of this book really doesn't start picking up momentum as a fantasy title until around 85% of the book when the actual battles, magic and personal stakes begin, with Elloren making alliances with some of the races and individuals she once railed against, but they have prejudices that still linger throughout the book and Elloren even shuns some of the relationships actively because their races are just "too different", which infuriated me. It's also a hard bargain because Elloren only deals with some aspects of discovering the root of the prejudices she's held, such as asking the history professor for the Kelt version of historical events and not wearing the clothing she owned that was made by child slaves of another race. This also feels like a paint by numbers TCO fantasy, with Elloren attempting to follow in her mother's legacy as the purported Black Witch. This is established early on, but more strongly leaned upon in the latter part of the book.

I feel like this book tested my patience and painted some horribly inaccurate portraits in turn to lend into a fantasy stake filled battle that I don't care enough to follow, and so my journey with the series ends here.

Not recommended.

Overall score: 1/5 stars.

Review: Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1) by Rhoda Belleza

Empress of a Thousand Skies - Rhoda Belleza

Quick review for a somewhat quick read (at least as far as audiobooks are concerned). I honestly enjoyed "Empress of a Thousand Skies", though it took me a while to really get started with it. The challenge for this story lies in the fact that it has multiple narrators, has a very extensive set of worldbuilding rules and jargon that may be difficult to adjust to at first, and follows different storylines that eventually converge and reveal themselves in terms of the link between characters. It also starts very sluggish with pacing and development, which to me was probably the narrative's biggest achilles heel through the beginning of the story. However, once I found the flow with the story, I honestly couldn't put the book down and I loved the experience. I honestly can't wait to see where this series ultimately goes, considering the stakes established and the character relationships.

In sum, this story follows two characters. The first is Rhee, a princess who is the last surviving member of her family after a tragedy befell them many years before. But Rhee knows it wasn't just an accident, and is bent on revenge against the person whom she believes is the culprit behind her family's death. It isn't long that she realizes that there are traitors in her inner circles who want her dead, and that her fight to keep her throne will cost more than she realizes. The other character is Aly, a reality star (DroneVision) who often faces conflict because of his racial background and war refugee status. Yet his world is turned upside down when he stands accused of murdering Rhee. The two have very different storylines and encounters, though both have to go into hiding and find themselves manipulated in a sinister plot that involves political and technological manipulation. The way the story is crafted with respect to the technologies and ambitions of the characters is very well done, and I was intrigued and taken in by the respective aims and motivations of the characters here. Sure, they start off as naive and driven by their own motivations, but as events and encounters come to light, they grow in significant ways, utimately facing losses, revelations about their role in events, and determination towards reclaiming their lives on their own terms.

I really enjoyed the audiobook narration by Rebecca Soler - she captured the emotional delivery and investment of the characters down to a tee. The only thing that I would say about the story that didn't strike me as well as most was the pacing and some meandering points in the worldbuilding that could've been tightened better, but the story itself was well done. I can't wait for the next book.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

I've been fortunate that the last several books that I've read in a stretch this year have been among my all-time favorites, and Angie Thomas's "The Hate U Give" is no exception to that. Any review that I write really won't convey the depth of how much I loved and appreciated this book, but nonetheless I'm going to do my best to try and hope that it inspires others to read this undeniably necessary and engrossing book.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement alongside actual events that have occurred in the past several years, "The Hate U Give" is the story of Star, a young woman who witnesses her friend Kahlil being shot by a police officer after they are pulled over one night. What transpires after that is a realistic portrait of racial tensions and family struggles that Star finds herself within front and center. I thought the characters and voices conveyed in this book were so honest, real, and dimensional that I couldn't put the book down - I was very invested in her overarching story. Whether it was talking about the differences between her home and school life, her family history, her grief over seeing two people she knew and loved dearly killed at gunpoint, Star's narration held my attention from beginning to end. (It certainly helped that Bhani Turpin provided a great narration to the audiobook.)

This is a book with many different layers to pull from. Usually I say the best stories that stick in my mind are those that are multidimensional in not only the showcasing of the events, but also provide dimensional portraits of the characters within. From the beginning of this book, Star's strong voice and personality lept off the page for me. I liked her interactions with her friends, her honesty, confidence and even pieces of her vulnerability and doubt as events transpire through the story. Watching what happened to her and Kahlil broke my heart (especially knowing so many real life stories that mirror Kahlil's). Her grief comes in waves through the narrative as she struggles to come to terms with it alongside her family as well as her community. I honestly thought it was refreshing to see a YA story that also focused so strongly on Star's interactions with her family and friends. There are moments that are tense given the events, insecurities, and flaws each of the members of Star's family (Star included) have, but there are also refreshing moments of humor and grounding that I really appreciated. The romance is very well done for the bit showcase it has in the story.

Ultimately, Star plays an important part of the narrative as she struggles to seek justice for Khalil against the people and perceptions that skew the person she knew him to be. She doesn't find the strength to speak up right away, especially with so many different events and setbacks that make her fearful and angry. The narrative takes an honest look at racial prejudices and injustices from a multitude of angles, some overt and others more subtle. It gave an honest look at Star's reactions and rationales to a number of things she endures and witnesses through the narrative, and I think that's something many people will get out of this narrative long after the final page is turned. She doesn't back down from trying to do the right thing and have people understand her, and even when realizing the reality of situations that go horribly awry, she ultimately learns when to stand up and speak and when to let go (even if it means letting go of relationships she once had).

I definitely appreciated the whole of "The Hate U Give" and indubitably consider it one of my favorite reads of 2017.

Overall score: 5/5 stars.

Review: Fireworks by Katie Cotugno

Fireworks - Katie Cotugno

Quick review for a progressive read. Katie Cotugno's "Fireworks" was a struggle for me to read in places, but in the end, I'm glad I read it, especially considering the turns it took in the story. The ending was bittersweet and not quite the impression and direction I thought it would go given the beginnings of the story. Yet even saying that, I'll admit I struggled to hold interest in the novel for a while.

The story is told through the viewpoint of Dana, a young woman stuck in a small town with a mother who drinks too much, a job that ended upon her graduation, and a struggle to decide how to escape what seems an inevitable future. Dana's best friend Olivia seems to have everything that Dana doesn't: a supportive family, a college career, and a chance to go to be a part of a pop group in what seems to be like an X-Factor music competition. Olivia begs Dana to accompany her to the competition, but Dana gets the shock of her life when she's asked to be a part of the group after an impromptu competition. Alongside a budding relationship with a guy that's a part of rising boy band maintained by the same manager, things seem to be going well in Dana's circles despite rivalries with her group and rising tensions between herself and her best friend as the practices and training roll on.

One might think this is the kind of novel in which Dana is a special snowflake who gets everything she asks for (the prospective accidental singing career, the boy, the supportive best friend through thick and thin with some moments of emotional tension, etc.) and has a talent that makes her the TCO of the work: but that would be far off the mark, especially as the novel finally hits the ground running in a different direction after the midpoint of the novel. I appreciated that it wasn't so predictable and unrealistic as to paint Dana as a practically perfect underdog heroine. She was selfish and immature on many fronts, but the novel showcases places where she makes mistakes, growing and learning from those decisions/interactions on her own accord. Her emotions are palpable to the encounters/betrayals/relationships she has.

Like Cotugno's other novel "99 Days", the decisions and interactions between the characters aren't so much glorified as they are put into perspective relative to the interactions and passions of the characters within. For another point against the narrative, though, I felt an odd sense of detachment throughout the novel that kept it from being a more meaningful experience for me. For one, the pacing was very slow and the setup in the beginning is so cliche ridden and predictable that it was hard for me to feel invested in Dana's experience. I mean, I got that she got the chance of a lifetime, something that seemed to offer an out to the downcast spiral her life seemed to be. Dana's character, I understood, was incredibly passive and going with the flow, being the odd woman out among vocalists - including Olivia - who had been training their entire lives for the opportunity in this 90s-era singing competition (the novel takes place in the late 90s when boybands/girlbands are all the rage. There are spot references to frame the era, but they're not superfluous. I'd argue that they also weren't as immersive as they could've been, though.)

Dana's narration through the novel is at an odd distance and lacks a passion/immersion that I would've thought could've grown with each experience she had with respect to her experiences in Orlando. The romance in this wasn't poorly done for intent, but again - I felt like I couldn't fully invest in it because of the way it was presented: telling more than it showed. The showcasing of the competition and relationships within was weirdly mechanical in dictation and I wish it could've been more intimate and invested.

The latter part of the novel was actually when I finally became invested as I watched the interactions between Dana and Olivia move in some fluctuating high and low tensions, ultimately culminating in something that was less than ideal. I had a feeling it would likely turn out that way after a point, but I was still surprised. I liked the direction, but I didn't like the execution, and I almost wish that Olivia could've had a narrative perspective to see what she thought on the other end of the events that transpired in this story (because I feel like that would've held my attention by being a different take).

In the end, it was an okay novel, but not really one that I loved from Cotugno. I feel like it could've had much better execution for the intent and premise.

Overall score: 3/5 stars.

Review: Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper #1) by Daniel Jose Older

Shadowshaper - Daniel José Older

Initial reaction: One of my favorite reads this year so far. I loved this book so much. The MC had a strong voice and the overarching storyline was imaginative and exciting. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel.

Full review:

I'll admit I saw this book on the shelf at my library and was completely taken by cover lust. If you also want a different experience than reading the physical book, the audio version is wonderfully read by Anika Noni Rose (I ended up purchasing this from Audible because I loved the book so much.)

I think one of the things that I can say off the bat about this book's collective experience was that it was so much fun to read and very imaginative. I haven't read any of Daniel Jose Older's work before this point, but my experience with "Shadowshaper" makes me want to read more. The story revolves around a young woman named Sierra who descends from a long line of "Shadowshapers": those who can magically manipulate the art they create. Sierra's ill grandfather suddenly snaps out of his near comatose state, begging Siera to finish a mural that she notices has come to life and is quickly fading away. She doesn't understand what it means at first, but a rich history and harrowing adventure unfolds as Sierra discovers not only her hidden abilities but a rich and dynamic family history that was kept hidden from her because of the rising conflicts between members of her family. I really enjoyed Sierra's strongly asserted voice and the dynamic characters that I came to know in this book. Even the romantic angles of the story were well-developed and in a dynamic I was rooting for throughout the story. It's the kind of tale that I wish more YA novels had the depth and development to tell. Plus, the multicultural cast, lore and history really sets this book apart from many of its peers.

I'm definitely looking forward to the next book in the series.

Overall score: 4.5/5 stars.

Review: Echoes of Us (The Hybrid Chronicles #3) by Kat Zhang

Echoes of Us - Kat Zhang

Initial reaction: That was a satisfying end to a good series overall. A few points for me had the narrative dragging but I enjoyed the journey overall.

Full review:

I'll admit I'm a little sad to be finishing this series with "Echoes of Us" for two reasons: 1. It took me a long time to pick up this final novel and 2. This is pretty much the end of the journey for Eva and Addie. I've spent three books following these characters and found myself invested in their fight for representation and non-erasure of hybrid souls. This book has Addie and Eva delving into an alternate identity once again by going undercover at a facility with hybrid children like themselves to expose the horrible treatment of the souls there, but it comes with a high cost.

It may be a better thing for those who are reading the series to read these books back to back because I did struggle a little in the transition between this book and the last for remembering certain details and characters (though the book does a fair job of highlighting some of the major events from the previous books that Addie and Eva were involved within). Once I reacquainted myself with events, I was okay for the most part. I wasn't expecting some major character deaths from the get go - when the action hits home, it definitely hits home. I definitely felt for Eva in the midst of the novel for the separation anxiety and loss she feels on multiple levels. The novel on the whole ties up the major conflicts in a way that - to me - was one of the strongest ends to a YA series that I've read in recent times. However, I feel like there could've been more time spent with respect to the character development and some of the plot points that really didn't have a lot of answers with them (i.e. the existence of hybrid souls vs. the general public and how that related to the international conflict). I can't complain on the whole though, this series collectively had me glued to see what would happen next in Eva and Addie's overarching journeys.

I'm going to miss following these two - wonderful audiobook narration by Kim Mai Guest and a unique YA dystopian trilogy that left me with great impressions. The only thing I wish in finishing the novel (and series) is that it could've delved a bit deeper.

Overall score: 3.5/5 stars.

Review: The First Wife by Erica Spindler

The First Wife - Erica Spindler

Quick review for a rather quick read. Well, I definitely didn't see the end of this book coming. It's a multi-level mystery that takes its time working through the motions. The story revolves around Bailey, a woman who falls madly in love with a man with a suspicious past. Logan's family is a complicated one, and as Bailey follows him to Louisiana, she finds that he keeps secret after secret from her about his family, particularly involving the disappearance of his first wife, True. When Bailey suffers from an incident that leaves her with retrograde amnesia, she struggles to know who to trust and tries to put the pieces of her fragmented memory together in order to discover the culprit, but *he* or *she* might be closer to Bailey than she can guess.

I definitely liked the fact this novel kept me in due suspense. I couldn't guess who the culprit was, particularly because when you think it might be one person in particular, the plot would reveal some other aspect of the crime and throw those guesses out the window. Every single person in this particular book came across to me as shady (save for Bailey), and even in its OTT presentation of drama in moments, there were also moments where the story would poke fun at itself through the characters (which didn't bother me in the least). In the end, I was satisfied that it managed to be a quick read and lead to a satisfying solution. Though if I'm honest, this book gets about 3.5 stars from me because I felt moments where the development of the characters wasn't really as full as it could've been, and the pacing dragged to heck and back (When the story was slow, it was slowwww).

Overall score: 3.5/5 stars.

Review: Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

Lock and Key - Sarah Dessen

Initial reaction: I really enjoyed this story by Sarah Dessen (and ended up buying it on a spontaneous trip to Barnes and Noble). The key metaphor throughout the book really resonated with me and I enjoyed reading the narrative through Ruby's voice. Though I'd probably give this book 3.5 stars overall because there were certain emotional moments that I think would've hit home more if they'd been given more room to be showcased.

Full review:

Sarah Dessen does such a great job getting into the lives of her characters, it's hard not to be drawn into their experiences regardless of the myriad of circumstances they might find themselves within. "Lock and Key" proves no exception to that, though I'll admit I kept feeling even as I finished the novel that I wanted to sink my teeth into the conflict and lives of the characters just a little bit more. But only a little, because it still held my attention and interest through the entire story.

Ruby is a young woman who's been on the run with her mother for a significant part of her life. There used to be a time when Ruby shared a close bond with her sister Cora despite her mother's flights of fancy and abrasiveness. When Cora moves off to college, Ruby thinks the bond is broken as she's forgotten them entirely. Ruby doesn't see this as a problem, she's used to taking care of herself and having to do things for herself and her mother, yet it takes the intervention of a landlord and some dire circumstances (including a stretch in which Ruby's mother doesn't return to their fractured home) to necessitate Ruby being taken into custody and sent away to live with Cora, long thought lost. Ruby isn't exactly welcoming to the change. She's close to being 18, ready to run away at a moment's notice. But she realizes that the environment around her might be the key to her opening up and finding roots in her life after all.

I really enjoyed reading from Ruby's perspective. She can be funny and spontaneous, but I think seeing her character grow throughout the novel brought the most rewarding experience for me throughout this work. She really makes you feel for her situation and I understood why she acted the way she did in the beginnings of the book. I also liked the fact that she came to see on her own terms why her own actions and missteps were wrong, not just from her interactions with the other characters in the book, but from observing the lives of the other characters situations (i.e. Nate's, whose circumstances hit home with me as well) and how they mirrored to her own. The other characters were great to watch unfold in the overarching story as well. I definitely liked the relationship between Ruby and Cora (heck, I would've loved more of those moments), and Nate and Ruby's relationship had some great moments as well. Dessen tackled a lot of difficult issues in this book, yet there were some moments that felt summarized and lacked as much emotional connectivity as some of her other books (i.e. "Dreamland" and "The Truth About Forever") that I was hoping for. I felt like I couldn't really sink my teeth into the experience despite the coming to terms for the characters. The key metaphor carried throughout the book was a good one, and I liked how it came full circle in the end.

It's a book of Dessen's I enjoyed - probably not my favorite in her bibliography, but still a memorable one and well worth reading.

Overall rating: 3.5/5 stars.

Review: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

The Leaving - Tara Altebrando

Quick review for quite a strenuous read. I think "The Leaving" had good ideas and intentions, but in the end, none of it worked for me. I'll admit I really had to push myself in a marathon just to get through this book. It was very sluggishly paced (for little to no reason at all), the characters were lacking (you have three perspectives: two of the abducted kids and one who's the sister, and there seems to be a mismatch with the gravity of the emotional events with the voices of the characters, who seemed very removed from it all despite having gaping holes in their memory and a potential missing kid that they don't even remember who might still be out there somewhere), and the mystery had little to no buildup. Matter in point, the story ends with such a telegraphed ending with very little expansion that I just felt underwhelmed at the whole deal despite this being in a genre I usually like. I spent more than 3 hours in spurts just to get that ending? *sighs*

The variant font stylistics also added nothing to the story, so don't think you're missing much if you don't get the inclusion or why it was done that way.

In the end, not my cuppa and not really worth the time I spent on it. A shame since the premise and certain reveals in the book had potential, but the cast of characters, pacing and narrative focus just weren't there.

Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.

Review: The Ultimate Happiness Prescription by Deepak Chopra

The Ultimate Happiness Prescription: 7 Keys to Joy and Enlightenment - Deepak Chopra

Quick review for a quick read. A library read that was recommended to me regarding texts on mindfulness. I really enjoyed it. "The Ultimate Happiness Prescription" is one of the most concise, inspiring reads that I've picked up in its respective genre. Chopra's explanation of the seven keys are logical, honest, encouraging, and informative. While admittedly much of this may be simply stated, I think revisiting the affirmations helps in one quick guide that's easy to flip back to and put to practice. Many of the principles here encourage mindfulness and note that happiness isn't a byproduct of having things from the external world, but rather comes from within and being honest in a unified mind, body, and spirit approach. I enjoyed the read immensely, and I definitely could see myself coming back to this for years to come. Chopra narrated the audiobook as well, and I give it extra notation for his clear diction and soothing voice.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

Review: Maestra by L.S. Hilton

Maestra - Hilton L. Root

Quick review for a truly abhorrent reading experience (for me). This was a random library read I picked up, and suffice to say I won't be reading the sequel to this.

*sighs* I'll put it like this: it's a bad sign when you have nothing good to say about a book upon finishing it, but it's even worse when the experience is so bad that you have little to nothing to say about it. Usually when I'm writing reviews about a book that I dislike, I have a plethora of things to say that was wrong with the experience and I'll spell it all out. In this case? Everything with this just didn't work for me. I spent most of the book either bored or just shaking my head at Judith. This book wasn't well written, the sex scenes lacked connectivity (mostly they were for shock value, but I wasn't shocked or impressed at all), the so called crime aspects were fleeting and disconnected. The constant weight shaming, brand dropping, among other things just threw me even further off the plight. I saw where the book was going with Judith's character, but again I couldn't care enough to be able to connect and follow her experience with true investment. I think if there were one thing about the novel that stood out to me on a "good" note was the establishment of the scenic art world and there were tendrils of high society life that could've developed into something interesting, but it didn't immerse me as the book went onward.

If L.S. Hilton writes another series, I might see if I can give her writing another go just to see if it connects better with me, but my journey with this series ends here. I just can't bring myself to care and I'm coming out of this novel more frustrated that I wasted my time with it than taking it for the experience of the story itself.

Overall score: 1/5 stars.

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