Initial reaction: I thought I would get something closer to an NA version of Kristen Hubbard's Wanderlove with this book and ended up being disappointed for more reasons than one.
All right guys, this review is close enough to the actual release date to where I can post a comprehensive review of what I thought about this book. And to disclose, I really respect Karina Halle and her work (and I was a big fan of her Artists Trilogy), so this isn't an easy review for me to write. However, my interest in reading anything is maintaining my honesty for what I read and why, so honest (as always) I shall be in this subsequent reflection. Even if such critique could be deemed as "harsh" in some terms.
A few things to note before I get fully into this review: I assumed that this was a stand-alone and approached it as such, but it turns out it's a companion novel to Halle's series staring with "Accidentally in English." I have not read that series as of the time I'm penning this review. Maybe my mind will change once I read it (and I certainly plan on doing so eventually on my own time), but I judged this work on the quality of what it gave me in and of itself, so my perspective may be different than someone who may have read that series or is a fan of that aforementioned series.
Second thing, there are things in this book I take issue with because of my own personal experiences, interpretations, values and knowledge. I don't expect anyone and everyone to feel the same way or take issue the same way I do, but I will use those as talking points in the duration of this review and explain why something may be problematic for a number of reasons. I usually assume this is implied in every review I write, but I'm reiterating it just as a general point.
That said, "Where Sea Meets Sky" isn't one of the worst NA reads I've picked up (far from it actually). Halle is a good writer, but I don't think this was one of her best works to date. I struggled with this read more often than not, but there were a few highlights. The star of this particular novel is the setting - the details taken to New Zealand and the trek the characters take across the country is amazing. I loved that part of it, I think if that were more of a focus with characters that I could care about, this easily could've been a four or five star read for me. Many NA authors don't take such attention to detail to setting in their narratives, and it was refreshing to see Halle take a variant approach and incorporate that in the narrative. As well, I was glad to see such a diverse cast of characters from different countries interacting and playing a significant role in the narrative. Again, if the work had stronger characters I could care about, I probably would've loved this.
Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. I struggled to care about the characters in this novel. I wanted to. Dear goodness I wanted to, but I was irritated as heck reading about them. To me, I couldn't identify what I felt to be very cardboard, cliched characters in a cliche scenario which played into an overfocus on sex that was more telegraphed than intimate, and into heavily NA cliches that only served to piss me off more than humor me.
But I think I should start from the beginning.
Josh is a young man in his 20s struggling to make a living on his own and decide his future. (I at least identified with that part of his journey and found his voice to be valid to life on that note.) He's Canadian, and he ends up meeting a woman (Gemma) who turns out to give him the best sex of his life in a one-night rendevous. (The sexual parts were hard to really connect with because it was told, not shown, and I felt like it was too dictated to really feel the connection between these characters. So, quite notably, I felt nothing at all for Gemma and Josh's relationship from the get go. That's a bad sign, and I didn't like that Josh tried to sell this point to me in his narrative voice when it didn't feel intimate and it felt like it was more "OMG, her sex was awesome sauce". Maybe Bruno Mars can get away with saying "...sex takes me to paradise" in "Locked Out of Heaven", but Josh is not so charming, really, especially on account of things he says later on.)
So what does he do? He attempts to follow her to her home country of New Zealand, using what funds he has from the job he's quit in order to find his way, and maybe in the off chance he might run into Gemma again (because you know he will. It's inevitable.) At least he's self-aware enough to know that this might be a bad idea.
I decided to follow this scenario without much judgment to begin with, though this presents a problem that I see in New Adult a lot. Instead of a female character being instantly drawn to the "magic penis" power of a male love interest, this presents the opposite problem and it's really not an endearing quality to know that a supposedly geekish, lovable dude who's sex crazy reduces his lady love to the sum of her sexual parts (Because if his mantra is "Life is spreading her legs for me, I'm going in" - dude...that's not endearing. That was one of the worst lines I've read in an NA novel to date and I was seriously offended there, and I shouldn't have to apologize for feeling offended by that because it IS offensive. I'm so over this body gendered objectifying, reductive bullcrap. If this were said about a dude, I would be as equally incensed. It's not funny and it will never be funny to me. I wish NA authors would find more diversified ways to show the appeal of men's and women's bodies without reducing the person, and there are many, MANY ways to do this as a writer. This is a problem in the romance genre in places as well, but it's especially prominent in NA romance.)
Gemma's perspective seems palpable as she's a personal trainer (I identified with her at least on a surface level because, hey - fitness is my interest too), just coming out of a tumultuous relationship. But the problem I had with Gemma is that she's in a relationship with a jerk of a boyfriend and she knows that "Nick the Dick" (as Josh refers to him) isn't the one for her, and she makes comments that are a constant comparison to how Josh is better than him, forcing the dialogue and the relationship. Josh does the same thing, constantly making comparisons as to how other women are less in comparison to Gemma, including a comparison to a girl (Amber, who was probably the closest to any character I actually liked in the book, but she wasn't really a major character) he bonds with and kisses in a movie theater, but doesn't really feel anything for - he just fools around with her just because he can.
Maybe Gemma and Josh deserve each other for that similarity alone, but I certainly wasn't rooting for them in light of those details. I get they're young, naive, flawed characters, but they didn't have much flesh to pinch from in development or immerse me enough in their plights to really care about them. There were moments of insight I appreciated and scenes (like the one they dived into the lake) where I felt there could be more of an intimacy between them, but they were far and few between, and came after more than 50% in the novel. The majority of the time, the narrative tried to sell me on Gemma and Josh's intimacy by telling me, rather than showing me and letting me feel their connection on my own. I wasn't convinced by it most of the time.
Same with the geek and music references - some I appreciated, but I felt the references didn't flow always with the narrative. Pink Floyd I appreciated as the soundtrack to the journey they were on in the van, but I don't know if any of the songs really resonated with some of the moments of the novel. Some of the songs were in the painting scene, but the flow didn't really match it - I didn't connect.
I think as the novel went on, some of the dialogues weren't as painful and it got into more of the character's experiences of the country and travels. But I felt the last 15% or so with the conflict thrown in to drive a wedge between them - was a bit too forced in hand just to prolong the conflict. By then, despite some nice moments in the writing between with the attention to place and some environmental details, it wasn't enough.
In the end, I was disappointed and felt like I had to slog myself through this book just to see the end. That wasn't worth it for me, not when I felt a huge piece missing from the connection I could've had with the narrative.
Nice ideas and some moments were worth reading, but the execution left much to be desired as it was uneven, the characters too underdeveloped and too much in the line of overworn, even offensive cliches for me to believe in them, and the scenario too farfetched to me to feel real and symbolic with the thematics it tried to carry with it.
Overall score: 2/5 stars.
Note: I received this ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Atria Books.