Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Epic Fail - Claire LaZebnik


When Elise Benton’s mother gets a job offer from a prestigious private school in Los Angeles, the entire family gets uprooted. Elise and her sisters couldn’t be more out of place at Coral Tree Prep where they’re surrounded by the children of famous celebrities, and the green minivan that their mother makes them drive doesn’t make fitting in much easier. Juliana is fortunate enough to snag the attention of the attractive, yet surprisingly down-to-earth, Chase. Elise finds herself being dragged along to social events in order to make Chase’s buddy, Derek Edwards, feel like less of a third wheel, but Elise and Derek don’t exactly hit it off. Derek is the son of one of Hollywood’s most famous acting couples, and he’s constantly paranoid that people are only interested in him because of his fame. Elise couldn’t care less, but his attitude puts her off, particularly when he kicks up a fuss over her friendship with Webster Grant. She just wants Derek to leave her alone so that she can choose her own friends at Coral Tree, but this guy just won’t let up. To make matters worse, her mother, the principal, keeps disciplining Chase’s annoying younger sister, and Elise’s own sister, Layla, is meddling in affairs that a fourteen year old should know nothing about. Is Elise’s time at Coral Prep going to be an epic fail?

Here’s a rather amusing anecdote: Claire LaZebnik was the first “grown up” author that I read as a teenager. I read Same As It Never Was (or Olivia’s Sister, as it’s titled in the UK) when I was thirteen and had exhausted my library’s supply of Sweet Valley University and Point Horror novels. I recall really enjoying her novel, but my library sadly never got any more of her books. I’ve now finally made it out of my teen years (I turned twenty in September) and apparently, Claire has started to write Young Adult fiction! It seemed appropriate that I do a reversal of my initial experience with Claire’s work and take a dip into her foray into teenage fiction. Plus, this book was incredibly cheap on Kindle and it was advertised as being a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – how could a penny-pinching English Literature student resist a deal like that?

As shocking as it may sound coming from an English major and a romance reader, I actually only read Pride and Prejudice for the first time last year. The story wasn’t entirely fresh in my mind, however, so I had to occasionally keep looking up the character names on Wikipedia, as I was curious to see who Webster Grant and Chelsea were modelled after. Epic Fail didn’t exactly follow Austen’s original to the letter, and missed out the character of Mr Collins almost altogether, but I don’t think it could have made a compelling high school novel while accurately mimicking Pride and Prejudice. I’m not a massive Austen fan, but I have enjoyed most of her novels, and I would consider Epic Fail to be an original and successful adaptation. But I’d also say that one of Epic Fail’s best characteristics is that it can be read without any prior knowledge of Austen. It isn’t riddled with links to Pride and Prejudice that would alienate a potential reader, so jump right in if that’s what’s been holding you back. 

As I came close to finishing this novel, I was very tempted to give it full marks. The only thing that holds me back marks is that Layla’s storyline felt very unfinished, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen to her, Weston and Campbell. It stopped me from completely enjoying the incredibly sweet concluding scene with Elise and Derek. I'm holding out for the hope that this means there will be a sequel about Layla. I’m particularly interested to see whether Claire follows up some of the secondary characters in this novel, especially Derek’s sister Georgia, who was introduced towards the end of the book. Even if Elise and Derek weren’t to feature in a later novel, I’d still be interested in reading it as I think some of the tertiary characters had real potential.

However, I do have to complain about the title. It has no relation to the story whatsoever, other than that Elise herself makes two or three mentions to something being an “epic fail”. I get the feeling that the publisher wanted to use what they thought was typical teen lingo in order to get the attention of their target market. But from what I’ve see of reviews, many teen readers have also bemoaned the fact that this phrase has very little to do with the story. 

Epic Fail was an incredibly cute, fun, touching read. I was cautious about reading a teenage romance as I never had much of a love life as a teen. I devoured many Meg Cabot novels and books about the Sweet Valley Twins, which set me up for a bit of a disappointment when I got older, when I realised that it was very unlikely I’d meet a guy in high school who remotely resembled any of my fictional heroes. But I felt that the relationships in Epic Fail, both those between Derek and Elise as well as Chase and Juliana, were very well written. The characters acted their age, unlike some teen protagonists who either seem younger or older than they’re meant to be, and it was encouraging to see the mistakes that occur through the inevitable teenage miscommunications. Despite all the wonders of texting, emailing and vid-chatting (which even I’d never heard of), these characters still managed many a misunderstanding, which echoed my own teen years all too well. I’d like to think that Epic Fail accurately reflected the behaviour of teenagers, which should be appreciated by teens and adults alike. I really hope that there’s a sequel in the works, or maybe even another modern Austen adaptation. 

Disclaimer: There are a few instances of bad language. While there are brief instances of smoking and use of alcohol and drugs, all of the principal characters are disapproving of such behaviour. There are some vague hints at how far one character's relationship is going physically, but nothing descriptive and what is considered “far” is up to the reader’s interpretation. A secondary character is revealed to have been taking photographs of girls in various states of undress, but this topic is dealt with very sensitively.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Arms of Love - Kelly Long


PROS: Contains Kelly’s trademark edgy romance; good presentation of PTSD; presence of visions and the Holy Spirit is very encouraging

CONS: Initial introduction to the characters feels rushed; a lot of sad events occur at the start of the novel; spiritual message is a bit overwrought

The American Revolutionary War was a time of a great loss, and not just for those who fought for freedom. Lena Yoder’s father has been imprisoned for refusing to give up his livestock for the war effort, and not soon after this her mother dies in childbirth. Alone with just her younger siblings, the only place Lena can think to turn is to her childhood friend, Adam, whom she had always hoped she would someday marry. But Lena’s mother was fearful of the hold that Adam’s father held over him, and made Adam promise not to marry Lena until he was sure Lena would be safely out from under his father’s influence. Adam cannot tell Lena this, but he does know that he would not make a good husband to Lena at present. Continually wrought by troubling dreams, Adam is permanently unsettled, and wants nothing more than to gain freedom from the memories that haunt him. The only way he can see fit to do this is in bearing arms and fighting for the patriot cause. Lena is appalled at Adam’s desire to fight, and turns for solace and stability in his older brother, Isaac. Adam must reconcile himself with the troubling memories that haunt him and with his own desire for freedom before he can begin to fight to win back the love of Lena.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Kelly’s next book ever since I finished her contemporary romance, Lilly’s Wedding Quilt. But although Lilly’s Wedding Quilt made my list of favourite novels for 2011, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Arms of Love. While a few authors have attempted Amish historical fiction recently and handled the combination well (Murray Pura, Anna Schmidt, Lori Copeland and Virginia Smith), none of them have gone as far back as the eighteenth century, and I wasn’t entirely sure how a novel about the Amish during the American Revolutionary War would turn out. I didn’t enjoy Arms of Love as much as Kelly’s contemporary romances, but I do think that this book is a good start to her Amish Beginnings series and breaks new ground in Amish fiction.

It took me a while to get into this novel, and I’m not sure if that’s just because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time and was up to my ears in exam revision. The beginning of Arms of Love is incredibly sad, and wracked with numerous tragedies – a father is imprisoned, his wife dies in childbirth and a new widow loses her home. Throwing Adam and Lena’s troubled love into the mix made my initial reading of this book quite depressing, and I kept putting it down so that I could read something lighter. I don’t think that all readers will find this book as sad as I did, and perhaps if I read it at a later date, when I didn’t have so much on my plate, I would enjoy it more. I didn’t really feel like I become properly involved with the story until about halfway through the novel, when the plot pacing really began to pick up and I felt like I’d got to know the characters better. When I first met Adam, Lena and their families there was so much going on that I almost felt like I’d been thrown into the middle of a story that already in progress and that I’d missed some essential details. But by the middle of the book I’d settled into the lives of the eighteenth century Lancaster Amish and felt that I could accurately keep up with their troubles.

Arms of Love isn’t all sadness and tragedy; it contains a good helping of romance and a little bit of humour. One of my favourite scenes is probably one around the middle of the novel, in which Adam tells his brother that he won’t have any time to study or work when he has a wife because she’ll want to do is kiss him all day long. The exchange between the brothers was amusing, and really brought the characters’ personalities to life for me. I really enjoyed watching Adam and Isaac’s friendship develop, almost as much as I appreciated the romance between Adam and Lena.

One of my favourite aspects of Kelly’s writing is how her romantic scenes are just a little bit more edgy than most Amish authors’, showing the importance of physical as well as spiritual and emotional attraction in a marriage. The cellar scene was the one that made me really start to care about Adam and Lena, when I found myself rooting for them to get together, even though Lena was then engaged to Isaac. I won’t say any more than that, but any true romance fan can’t help but root for Adam and Lena after reading the all important cellar scene. Kelly hasn’t neglected her trademark of edgy romance, even in the eighteenth century.

I have to admit that I found Adam far more interesting to read about than Lena, and what made me keep reading this book, even during the tough scenes, was the desire to find out what was behind his disturbing dreams. I don’t know a lot about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I found the portrayal of Adam’s struggles to be very realistic. Since PTSD wasn’t properly recognised until around the time of the First World War, it made me wonder how men like Adam were treated by society at this time, which made him all the more endearing.

On the topic of dreams, I also loved the way that Kelly incorporated the Holy Spirit into her novel, through visions and healings. It seems that writing about the Holy Spirit in Christian fiction is just as hard as presenting the physical love between a husband and wife. Kelly manages both in this novel, and I was really impressed by the way that she wrote the scenes containing healings and visions. Nothing felt forced, and I definitely got a sense of the characters’ faith in God. However, I will say that I felt that the message of “God is for us” to be a bit overwrought. I liked how Ruth, the non-Amish wet-nurse, mused over this statement as she came deeper into her faith with God, but as I got further into the novel so many characters were quoting this passage that I wanted to ask them if they actually knew of any other verses in the Bible. It fitted Ruth’s storyline, but at times the statement was made to the extent that it no longer seemed comforting and just became repetitive.

Although I have my qualms about some aspects of this novel, Arms of Love is an encouraging start to Kelly’s historical series and I hope that further Amish Beginnings novels are of a similar fare. Readers might be put off initially by the introduction of so many characters at the start of the novel and the presence of so many sorrowful events, but I would encourage readers to persevere, as this novel is definitely taking the time to read. Kelly doesn’t shy away from edgy topics, from romance to spiritual issues, and her presentation of both in this novel reflects what I’ve come to expect from her writing. I hope that other readers are similarly pleased and challenged by Arms of Love.

Review title provided by Thomas Nelson.

Friday, 11 May 2012

By the Light of the Silvery Moon - Tricia Goyer


PROS: Interesting take on the parable of the prodigal son; really captures the essence of what it was like to be onboard the Titanic

CONS: Hero and heroine fell in love too fast for it to be believable; some characters were underdeveloped; preachy in places

Amelia Gladstone and Quentin Walpole are both looking forward to making a new start in America, and the first step in their journey is taking a trip on the Titanic. But while Amelia’s ticket has been paid for by a potential suitor hoping to meet her and her aunt when they arrive in America, Quentin is thrown off the ship when he attempts to sneak onboard. Amelia can never ignore a need, but she doesn’t imagine how her life will change when she hands Quentin her spare ticket. Not only is this trip the start of a whirlwind romance with Quentin, but Amelia’s discoveries about her new friend help her to reunite him with his long-lost family, who are also onboard the Titanic. Soon Amelia is swept into the life of the first class passengers on the ship, dancing and dining with Quentin’s older brother, Damian, while Quentin struggles in deciding whether or not he should reintroduce himself to his family. And if he doesn’t, is he worthy of Amelia’s time and love? But very soon, Amelia and Quentin will have much harder problems to deal with, ones which could tear them apart for ever.

When looking at this spring’s new releases, it almost seems as if every publisher in existence was trying to put a Titanic novel on the shelves. When it came to deciding which book I wanted to read to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic, By the Light of the Silvery Moon was an obvious choice, as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of Tricia’s previous novels. But while I had high hopes for her writing and storytelling abilities, I was a bit cautious when it came to fitting a love story into the short space of time from the Titanic leaving Britain and coming to its sad demise only a few days later.

Ultimately, I was very satisfied with By the Light of the Silvery Moon. I came to care about the characters and could feel my heart thudding during the scene in which the ship sank. I can’t even begin to mention the amount of detail that Tricia put into the descriptions of the cabins, dining rooms, clothing and food onboard the Titanic. Tricia definitely did a lot of research into what it was like travelling on the Titanic and I could easily imagine many of the scenes that she described. But I feel that there were some aspects of the characterisation and romance that felt a little underdeveloped, which is only natural when you’re trying to fit so much into such a short space of time.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I’m just not a big fan of love-at-first-sight stories. I kid you not when I tell you that the first time I saw my fiancĂ©, I turned to my friend and said “He looks a bit weird, doesn’t he?” We did not have a fairytale romance, and I’m okay with that – real life is not that perfect. But a romance onboard the Titanic is definitely going to be along this vein, which I anticipated when I started reading this book. I had to try to make myself forget that Amelia and Quentin had only known each other for a few days when they described the strong emotions that they felt for each other. Ultimately, I did enjoy reading about their relationship and was rooting for them in the end, but I didn’t find how quickly they fell for each other to be entirely plausible.

When it came to Amelia on her own, I did really like her character, even if she seemed a bit too perfect at times. I was worried that Amelia didn’t have any flaws, until her aunt challenged some of Amelia’s notions about love and marriage. I had to be similarly challenged about my romantic ideals a few years ago so I could definitely relate to this part of the book. The section in which Amelia mused over her dilemma over whether to settle for someone stable, like her potential suitor in America, or risk her love on someone who has made a lot of mistakes in their life, like Quentin, was one of the most realistic and touching scenes relating to Amelia and Quentin’s relationship.

While I did like the fact that Quentin and Damian’s story was a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son – although I’ll admit, it took me a while to realise the inspiration behind this part of the plot – I wish that Damian’s character had been developed further. I knew that he was the villain of the story but I wish that Tricia could have delved deeper into what made him such a hateful person. There were some hints of jealousy and rivalry between the brothers, and bitterness because Damian associated their mother’s death with Quentin, but these hints weren’t developed enough to let me see Damian as a truly believable character. Although Damian managed to redeem himself in the end I still felt like something was missing from his part of the story.

When it came to the spiritual aspects of By the Light of the Silvery Moon, I liked the idea of Quentin learning that he needed to forgive himself in order to restore his relationship with God, but I wasn’t so keen on the execution of this part of the plot. The scene in which Quentin finally talked to God and asked for forgiveness was just a little bit too cheesy for my liking. Some of the spiritual sections of this book, particularly the conversations between Amelia and Quentin, were realistic, but others verged on too sermon-like. I was actually surprised at the way that Tricia dealt with the spiritual issues in this book as the spiritual aspect of her Big Sky series was what made me love it so much, but her approach in By the Light of the Silvery Moon seemed entirely different. I also have to mention that I’m honestly convinced that every single character that Amelia came into contact with on the Titanic was a Christian. Even in 1912, I didn’t see this as at all realistic. Please correct me if you find a character in By the Light of the Silvery Moon that doesn’t have some sort of relationship with God, but this is the way that it seemed to me when I was reading this book.

Ultimately I found By the Light of the Silvery Moon to be an enjoyable love story set onboard the Titanic. As far as I could tell, the details about the ship and its sinking were accurate and really made the story come to life. Tricia’s strengths definitely lie in her ability to research and recreate a scene.. While I did struggle with how quickly Amelia and Quentin came to fall for each other, this may just be a matter of personal taste, and I’m sure that some romance readers won’t let this deter them. By the Light of the Silvery Moon didn’t quite live up to some of Tricia’s previous novels, namely in the character of Damian and the heavy-handedness with the spiritual sections of the novel, but  those looking for a romantic, dramatic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic won’t be disappointed.

Review title provided by Barbour.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Where I Belong - Gwendolyn Heasley


PROS: Protagonist goes through a realistic transformation and endears herself to the reader; novel has some hilarious moments in it; realistic open ending to the novel

CONS: Moral of the story is presented in a rather cheesy manner; questionable presentation of body image

Corrinne Corcoran returns from another successful shopping trip at Barney’s to hear the worst possible news from her parents: not only has her father lost his job, but the family’s entire savings have been embezzled. Her father has been fortunate enough to get another, less well-paid job, but it’s in Dubai and he can’t take the family with him. So Corrinne, her mother and her brother are being shipped off to their grandparents’ house in the tiny town of Broken Spoke, Texas. No more shopping sprees, no more credit cards, no elite boarding school and definitely no chances of hooking up with hot, rich upperclassmen. Instead, Corrinne will be spending her days in a town where there’s only two places to eat and nowhere to shop, where Rodeo Queens still reign and everyone cares about whether or not the high school football team wins the championship. As Corrinne adapts to sharing her bedroom with her mother, getting driving lessons from her estranged Grandpa and eating mountains of carb-filled pancakes every morning she slowly comes to appreciate some aspects of life in Broken Spoke. Kitsy, the perky cheerleader, becomes her friend and she hits it off with a hot wannabe rocker, Rider, when she starts working at the stables. But when Corrinne's old best friend, Waverly, plans a trip to Broken Spoke, Corrinne is forced to evaluate how much she truly enjoys her new life, and whether she wants to take any part of it with her when she eventually returns to her old life in New York.

I am honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed Gwendolyn’s debut novel. I usually preface my reviews of Young Adult books by saying something along the lines of “I'm not a teenager anymore, and I don’t normally enjoy teenage novels, so I may not be the best person to be reviewing this book”, but now I have to admit that, okay, maybe I have become a fan of Young Adult fiction. It’s been a long time since I used to eat up the latest Meg Cabot novel as soon as it was released, and maybe it was due to an overdose of teenage fiction that I swore off it when I was sixteen, but Where I Belong has seriously convinced me to give this genre another try.

This is yet another case of me being suckered in with a pretty cover. I saw that this book was selling for £1.99 on Kindle and decided to download a sample in case the book lived up to its gorgeous cover. I’m currently working my way through Oliver Twist and a surprisingly depressing Amish novel and definitely needed a light read, so when I found myself relaxing as I read the sample for Where I Belong I decided to take a chance on it. And I’m really glad I did. This book had me grinning away at the antics of Corrinne and her new friends in Texas. It was just what I needed at this time in my life.

I did find myself wondering whether or not I would have appreciated this book so much as a teenager. I’ve read some reviews from younger readers who got fed up with Corrinne’s ignorance and self-centred nature. But one of my favourite books as a teen was Legally Blonde purely because I found Elle's actions so hilarious, so considering that, I reckon that I would have enjoyed this book just as much as a teen. There were a few times when I found Corinne's comments a bit annoying - namely the remarks about her dress size (a fair few below mine, and I’m by no means fat) and her initial hatred of all foods that she deemed fattening (I am the Baking Queen in our house and addicted to pinning recipes on Pinterest) but other than that, I found her a very endearing character. For all her talks of drinking wine and staying out all night, she was still very innocent and naive. Sure, she knew her way around New York and could keep up with the “in” trends far better than anyone I know, but she didn’t truly understand how friendships and relationships and families worked until she moved to Texas. I enjoyed watching her character grow, and until she did mature, she was just utterly hilarious to read about. I never thought I’d enjoy reading about a rich, privileged teenage girl from Manhattan, but it happened!

Unlike some readers, I liked the open ending of the book. Perhaps some people would have liked more of a romantic conclusion, a confirmation that Corrinne was going to end up with the right guy and live happily ever after. But I found it quite nice that while Corrinne had grown as a character and developed over the course of the novel, the end of the book wasn’t the end of her growth. She’s still a teenager, after all. It’d be interesting to read the companion book about Kitsy and discover what happens to Corrinne after Broken Spoke.

I only have a couple of real gripes with this book. One of them was the scene in which Corrinne’s grandmother and mother recounted how they’d come to deal with their differences and reconcile with each other. I found it really cheesy and it didn’t seem at all realistic. Perhaps if they’d let their comments drip out little by little it would have worked, but it basically came across almost like a speech or a sermon, as if Corrinne was finally being told the big message of the entire book. The scene could have been a lot subtler and still made its point.

I also found some of the comments about dress sizes a bit disconcerting. If I remember rightly, Corrinne is a size 4 at the start of the novel, and she comments at the end of the book that she’s dropped a dress size due to all the work she’s been doing at the stables. I know that there are some women who are naturally stick-thin, but I didn’t like the idea of Corrinne’s weight loss coinciding with her finding contentment. To some readers, this might give the wrong impression and suggest that Corrinne’s happiness was linked to her unnecessary weight loss. In fact, I don’t think it’s entirely natural for someone of Corrinne's age to be dropping sizes. Teenagers are constantly growing, and it would be more realistic for Corrinne to go up a size. I don’t know many women who stayed a size 2 after they hit puberty, so Corrinne’s dress size isn’t exactly representative of most teenage bodies.

Aside from the slightly cheesy scene with Corrinne’s mother and grandmother and the questionable presentations of body image, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I've now joined the ranks of grown women who read Young Adult novels, and will definitely be seeking out more books in a similar vein to Where I Belong. If Gwendolyn can make me enjoy reading about a stuck-up teenage fashionista then I have high hopes for her next book, A Long Way from You, which is about the adorable Kitsy attending art school. If you’re tempted by this beautiful cover and not typically a reader of Young Adult novels, I would encourage you to give this book a try. Where I Belong is the perfect relaxing, feel-good read...and it may even make a Young Adult convert of you! If you’re already a fan of Young Adult fiction then I can’t see how you could be disappointed by this wonderful story.

Disclaimer: There was one instance of swearing in this novel and a couple of suggestions that Waverly was engaging in a sexual relationship. There were several instances of underage drinking, although Corrinne never seemed to have more than one drink at a time.