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The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold #1) by Traci Chee
Published September 13th 2016 by Putnam
Source: FC from Publisher
Rating: ★★★½☆

Once there was, and one day there will be. This is the beginning of every story.

Sefia lives her life on the run. After her father is viciously murdered, she flees to the forest with her aunt Nin, the only person left she can trust. They survive in the wilderness together, hunting and stealing what they need, forever looking over their shoulders for new threats. But when Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is suddenly on her own, with no way to know who’s taken Nin or where she is. Her only clue is a strange rectangular object that once belonged to her father left behind, something she comes to realize is a book.

Though reading is unheard of in Sefia’s world, she slowly learns, unearthing the book’s closely guarded secrets, which may be the key to Nin’s disappearance and discovering what really happened the day her father was killed. With no time to lose, and the unexpected help of swashbuckling pirates and an enigmatic stranger, Sefia sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue her aunt, using the book as her guide. In the end, she discovers what the book had been trying to tell her all along: Nothing is as it seems, and the end of her story is only the beginning.

I was on hiatus when all the buzz for The Reader happened, so I didn’t actually know this existed until recently, but I’m glad I decided to pick this up! I was sold at “swashbuckling pirates and an enigmatic stranger,” and the book proved to be a really fun read.

The writing’s really suitable for fantasy – a little mysterious, a little lofty, a little wry, alternating between lines like “people passed stories from mouth to mouth like kisses, or plagues…” to characters huffing, “Yes, I’ll read now. But if Captain Cat continues to act like a yellow-bellied coward, we’re skipping it” (which by the way, is me at all the waffling main characters of numerous books. Get moving!!).

And really, reading the book was like a mini adventure or a treasure hunt of its own. I’m not sure if the book’s design is the same across all editions, but I have the hardcover edition, and I love the little intricacies of the design! I don’t want to give too much away, but just as the story dropped little fragments and clues and left the reader to gather them all up and piece them together at the end, so did the book’s designs, which really added to the reading experience.

The setting is lush and sprawling across the pages, and the plot is rather intricately layered – it was really cool to see all the parts that I thought were insignificant and/or unrelated come together at the end – but if I had to pick a favorite, the experience of reading The Reader would be the best part. The Reader’s just one of those books that just work really nicely in physical book form: the design is well-planned to match the story, and then the story sweeps you along so that every little thing about the design of the book in your hand is heightened by Sefia’s experience with the book in her hand. And that was really pretty cool. Although I do have to mention – while it was lovely to see Sefia fall in love with books – eyes wide and dreamy, unlike my own 0 to 100 experience – the whole “this is a book” thing got repetitive after a while, and then annoying after that. So while I loved the idea of a book about books, there was a point where the novelty wore off. Maybe somewhere around here? –

“Reading herself in the book.
Reading herself reading herself in the book.
Reading herself reading herself reading herself…
Maybe someone was reading her right now, and if she looked up, she would see their eyes staring down at her, following her every move. Maybe someone was reading the reader.”

(And then, a couple paragraphs later, cue: “THIS IS A BOOK.” /sighs/)

I also really enjoyed the romance. Really, really enjoyed the romance. Maybe in part because it was light and fair and barely-there, given life by the plot instead of the other way around, as is common with a lot of reads. Mostly, though, because of Archer, resident cinnamon roll who could kill you, but is still a cinnamon roll who deserves all the love and happiness in this world because he’s pure and deadly and sweet as fuck.

“He could not remember wanting anything so badly as he wanted to kiss her now. To be that close to her, mouth to mouth, testing the shapes of her teeth and her lips. It was as if he’d never really wanted anything, and now this wanting blazed inside him like a lamp, the light reflecting out of him as bright as a beam from a lighthouse.

But he didn’t dare.

He looped his arms over the rails, and made his sign for the book.

And Sefia began to read to him, her voice clear and strong in the wind, and that was enough. It didn’t matter what the book or the legends said. What mattered was that he and Sefia were there, legs kicking idly off the edge of the quarterdeck, with the breeze and the bright afternoon sun pouring over them. What mattered was that they were together… and he was happy.”

Kind, lovely, cute, dangerous cinnamon roll. Yep.

I also really loved the chapter (section?) “The Boy from the Sea – Harison’s Favorite Song,” which was just three short stanzas but made me feel all sorts of bittersweet and sad, but I’ve already quoted two things and this review’s already more than long enough as is, so: page 325 of the hardcover! Please read it.

I did have a few other small bones to pick with the book, though. For one, there were a couple glaring inconsistencies, most of which surrounding Sefia’s book knowledge. I found it really strange that she didn’t know about books and reading, but was somehow able to teach herself to read? I get that she remembered a little from what she’d seen from her parents when she was very little, but I can’t imagine how she’d be able to come up with the proper sounds just by looking at letters she doesn’t recognize? Also, she didn’t know what a book was, but the word and meaning of a bookmark seemed to come to her very naturally… how?

And, then while it was pretty cool to have all the pirate inserts, and Lon’s chapters… I felt like they weren’t that necessary for the overarching plot? It was intriguing at the beginning, but as the story went on, they began to feel more and more like filler chapters – and I’ll admit to skipping and skimming parts of them. If those parts were cut down a little, and more scenes were introduced into the climax, particularly around Tanin’s big part, then I think the story would’ve read more cohesively and smoothly.

But overall, I loved the idea of a book celebrating the magic of books, and with the really lovely reading experience, The Reader delivered! And, one more quote to end this review, because I can’t resist, and because this passage just stuck with me for a long time:

“I’d be lyin’ if I said I didn’t want to be part of that story… We got such a short time in this world, you know? Cut shorter by the blasted foolishness of men. Tavern brawls, rival outlaws, wars that claim the lives of thousands. Our existence is so small that most of us only matter to a handful of folks: the captain, the crew, maybe a couple others. But bein’ part of a story like that? A story that’d blow all others outta the water in its greatness and scope? It wouldn’t give me more time here, but if I were part of something like that, maybe my life wouldn’t be so small. Maybe I could make a difference before my time ran out. Maybe I’d matter.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Published March 14th 2006 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Source: Borrowed
Rating: ★★★☆☆

A story about, among other things: A girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . .an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.

I feel kind of heartless writing this review. I guess that’s the thing about books dealing with topics like these; I wanted so badly to say I bawled my eyes out after reading The Book Thief, or that it broke my heart into tiny, tiny pieces, or point to the mountain of tissues by my side but instead I’m sitting here a good chunk of time later, with no clue how to start.

Let’s just start with: yes, this was sad. It’s almost a given, seeing the topic. But it didn’t strike any chords, didn’t trigger the waterworks, and didn’t make me want to read and re-read over and over again to savor the story. Yes, Zusak is a brilliant writer. He really knows how to craft sentences, everything is incredibly well-written, and his prose is probably the thing that convinced me to keep reading. But I felt very disconnected from the characters, the setting, the story.

One of the first things you’ll hear about when people talk about The Book Thief is how it’s narrated by Death. Which seems interesting until you actually read the story, and then you realize that Death’s narrative is akin to placing me in front of a classroom filled with strangers, and giving me an hour to talk about a topic I’ve never researched: I’m going to ramble and stutter and repeat myself over and over again, and you’re hardly going to be interested in, much less pay attention to, a good chunk of it. It was interesting at first. Every chapter or so Death would come in with these little interjections and offer us a little glimpse into the future or the past, or a random little musing that wouldn’t quite seem so significant, but would make you curious enough to mull over. But it got old quickly. The thing about giving your readers little tidbits to mull over on the side is that it takes away from the actual story. The Book Theif was simultaneously trying to tug at your heartstrings with Liesel’s story and bait you with tidbits and musings from Death, but didn’t juggle the two carefully enough, resulting in an incredibly disjointed story, and a disconnected reader.

I loved the idea. The Book Thief is about the people on the “other side.” I’ve read so many Holocaust novels from Jewish perspectives. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry was perhaps the first historical fiction novel in this time period that featured a different narrator. The Book Thief was the second, and I went in expecting something bigger, something deeper, but it pretty much just touts a everyone-in-the-army-is-evil mantra. Is it too much to say that I was hoping for something more? Needless to say, The Book Thief stayed small, safe, and disappointing. I feel like there were bigger things, bigger problems that The Book Thief only skimmed over. I mean, I know Liesel’s still a child, and people probably made an effort to shield her from what they could, but Nazi Germany’s reach was global. They were a Big Deal, but the The Book Thief pretty much disregarded that.

Next time I go into a book with this big and this wrong of an expectation, yell at me?

I liked it enough to finish it; The Book Thief was a decent novel. I really liked the “power of words” theme, and the characters, while not the most memorable cast I’ve ever “met,” were solidly written. I liked the idea of a book thief (and, after misspelling it again and again in this review, I’ve learned that, unlike most of the words in the English language (?), it’s spelled with “ie” and not “ei”) and her scenes running around town.

I was, however, a little disappointed to find that, while she was called the “Book Thief,” she only stole two or three books. With a title like that, I was thinking of thefts climbing into the double digits.

So, all in all, it was okay. I’ll probably look up excerpts and quotes from time to time, because Markus Zusak’s writing is lovely in that quiet kind of way. And while The Book Thief made a decent one-time read, it wasn’t outstanding by any stretch, an apt bookstore-read, though I am glad I read it.

Death Sworn (Death Sworn #1) by Leah Cypess
Published March 4th 2014 by Greenwillow
Source: Traded
Rating: ★★★½☆

When Ileni lost her magic, she lost everything: her place in society, her purpose in life, and the man she had expected to spend her life with. So when the Elders sent her to be magic tutor to a secret sect of assassins, she went willingly, even though the last two tutors had died under mysterious circumstances.

But beneath the assassins’ caves, Ileni will discover a new place and a new purpose… and a new and dangerous love. She will struggle to keep her lost magic a secret while teaching it to her deadly students, and to find out what happened to the two tutors who preceded her. But what she discovers will change not only her future, but the future of her people, the assassins… and possibly the entire world.

Because I’m quite the pessimist and always prefer my bad news before my good, I figured I’d start my review that way, too – bad before the good. Not that there wasn’t a lot of things to dislike about this book. Really, there wasn’t anything I particularly disliked about Death Sworn at all. It was just… light.

Death Sworn was a pleasant book – light on the romance, awesome characters, filled to the brim with secrets and conspiracies… it wasn’t a terrible book by any means. It was enjoyable, but I guess it just wasn’t the most impressive book.

This paragraph I’ve added in just now, after I’ve written the rest of this review, but now, mulling things over, I realize that Death Sworn has another noticeable flaw: world-building, or rather, the lack of it. I didn’t quite notice it when I was reading, or immediately afterwards – the writing and the story uses just the bare minimum and somehow makes it work – but Death Sworn lacked a lot of world-building details. We’re never really quite sure what’s going on beyond the caves where the book takes place, or really who any of the main power figures of the Empire are, though their names are scattered throughout the book. The Renegai (magicians) also remain quite a mystery for the duration of the novel, as does the whole magical system. Surprisingly, it didn’t take much away from my initial reading experience, but these were all things I’d like to know.

Also, I think it really says something about YA novels nowadays (or maybe just my crappy reading selection?) when I get extremely, irrationally happy when the main character, the single female, walks into a cavern filled with male assassins – most if not all of which have probably never seen a woman in their lives – and none of them looks her way. They’re assassins – they’re trained killers. They’ve got more to do than trip over themselves for some girl, no matter how kick-ass or beautiful she was. I also got extremely, irrationally happy when Ileni said something like “I love you, but I’m not stupid.” FINALLY. A heroine who can love while keeping her head on straight. Hallelujah. Where have you been my whole life. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I also think it’s quite sad to feel happy over things that should already exist.

I really liked Ileni, her level-headedness, and the way that, when something bad happens to her (and a lot does), she kind of just sucks it up and moves on, doing what she can. I know I’d fall apart and probably hide under a rock for a while, especially if I’m put in her situation: sent into a cave full of assassins without adequate magic to protect oneself with, but she has to trick and convince them that she does, for her own safety. Yep, if I was in a novel, I’d probably be that one crybaby helpless character who dies in the first chapter. Maybe the second, if I was lucky. But I digress. She knows her limitations and she doesn’t try to rely on miracles. She’s realistic, but she isn’t a bundle of negativity, and I liked that.

The romance was light, but a good kind of light. It was one that builds up slowly – they’re allies and have a lot more on their plate to worry about than love. Please excuse my laziness to walk upstairs and find my copy of Death Sworn for the exact quote, but I remember this one part when they begin realizing their feelings and Sorin freaks out and backs up a little, then says that basically meant that falling in love with Ileni was unavoidable, as she was the only girl he’s ever seen. That made me laugh a little. I liked how they were honest and awkward and they fit each other so nicely.

I think the main thing though, was that Death Sworn was exactly my kind of book. Magic, assassins, light romance – you’d really have to screw up for me to dislike it. And what Death Sworn did was far from that.

The False Prince (The Ascendance Trilogy #1) by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Published April 1st 2012 by Scholastic
Source: Borrowed
Rating: ★★★★☆

In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point—he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

So, um, yeah. This book. It was pretty freaking amazing.

I mean, guys? SAGE. His voice was strong from the get-go, completely captivating, and probably the main reason why I enjoyed The False Prince as much as I did. Sage is kick-ass, sneaky, mischievous, and clever, and sometimes (okay, often) his attitude gets him into trouble and he’s knocked down, but he always gets back on his feet and keeps going. At times, he lies like a pro, and at others, he’s brutally honest. He’s always looking ten steps ahead. He’s roguish, his voice is witty and convincing… I like him a lot.

I also really quite liked Conner. I mean, don’t get me wrong – that guy’s a complete asshole most of the time. But he was a really interesting character because he did shitty things for what he felt was all the right reasons. He’s ruthless, delusional, had no empathy for those who stood in his way, and what he was doing was pretty screwed up, but he did it because he felt that it was the only way. It wasn’t like I could sympathize with him (Ladamer made it pretty hard to do so), but what he was doing made sense in a twisted way, you know? He wasn’t your typical evil, reason-less villain.

From Tobias and Roden to Imogen, the other characters were really well-written and well-rounded, too, though no one could hold a candle to Sage. Sage is… well, Sage. They all have their strengths and their weaknesses, and with a cast of characters like them and a main character like Sage, there was never a dull moment in The False Prince.

Most of the story takes place in Conner’s castle. It was really straightforward – no info dumps and pages of flowery descriptions. It was really fun following Sage through the lessons Conner – attempted to – set for them. With horses, sword fights, and midnight escapades this was pretty much my kind of book.

I was just a liiiiittle disappointed by that twist towards the end, though. I mean, you could probably see it coming. You could probably see it coming just by reading the synopsis, before you even open the book. I mean, I’m not the slowest person, but I’m not one to catch most every plot twist before it happens, and I could see it coming from a mile away. But as the book progresses and you start to think that maybe it won’t happen, maybe it isn’t going to end up as predictable as you think it is, and then… Hello, Reality. The main character’s the main character, after all. And yeah, I’m going to admit, I was a little disappointed. It didn’t really seem that believable any more, especially after all the character development and buildup from all the previous chapters. But it happened. And that’s that, I guess. It wasn’t big enough to ruin the whole book, though I did bump down my rating because of it and the somewhat lackluster ending. It was as if the author suddenly ran out of steam at the end and just slapped down enough words to end the story with.

The ending ties everything up quite nicely; The False Prince could be a stand-alone novel if it wanted to. No awful cliffhanger ending for once! Hooray! Which gives you ever the more reason to read this book. Because you’re totally going to, right? Awesome characters, sword fights, midnight escapades… I think you should.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Published January 6th 2015 by Knopf
Source: Gifted
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This really isn’t much of a review, partially because there isn’t really much to say: it follows the formula to a T, but fails to do much beyond that.

The writing was nice – the source of all my stars, actually, but I hate the degree of emotional manipulation. It’s like this book was one large checklist for a Sad Book. The characters weren’t really characters, just labels stuffed into bodies for the purpose of some poignant novel a la John Green. I hated Violet’s passiveness, and really, what’s up with their families? Where were they?

Live Through This by Mindi Scott
Published October 2nd 2012 by Simon Pulse
Source: Purchased
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

From the outside, Coley Sterling’s life seems pretty normal . . . whatever that means. It’s not perfect—her best friend is seriously mad at her and her dance team captains keep giving her a hard time—but Coley’s adorable, sweet crush Reece helps distract her. Plus, she has a great family to fall back on—with a mom and stepdad who would stop at nothing to keep her siblings and her happy.

But Coley has a lot of secrets. She won’t admit—not even to herself—that her almost-perfect life is her own carefully-crafted façade. That for years she’s been burying the shame and guilt over a relationship that crossed the line. Now that Coley has the chance at her first real boyfriend, a decade’s worth of lies are on the verge of unraveling.

I picked this up looking for something gripping, emotional, and different from my usual reads, but I think the only thing I felt afterwards was disconnected and a little confused. The core story is a powerful one, and it touches on an important subject, but I feel like on a whole, the story could’ve been executed better. The plot, for one, isn’t all there, and there’s a lot of subplots and tidbits that are picked up and then promptly forgotten about at various points in the story. On a whole, I feel like a lot of things that should’ve been more explored weren’t, whereas many things that didn’t really lend a hand to the story – or, maybe, could’ve, if I’d been more clear on what was going on and why – took up too many pages. And as far as Coley, she seemed far to distant for a main character, making it hard to empathize with her, and coupled with such a rushed story… I know I’m supposed to have lots of feelings, but right now I’m firmly in the ??? camp.

The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Published August 18th 2015 by Dial Books
Source: Borrowed
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Tim Mason was The Boy Most Likely To find the liquor cabinet blindfolded, need a liver transplant, and drive his car into a house

Alice Garrett was The Girl Most Likely To . . . well, not date her little brother’s baggage-burdened best friend, for starters.

For Tim, it wouldn’t be smart to fall for Alice. For Alice, nothing could be scarier than falling for Tim. But Tim has never been known for making the smart choice, and Alice is starting to wonder if the “smart” choice is always the right one. When these two crash into each other, they crash hard.

I’m really on the fence with this one. One one hand, I liked it: it was heavier than I thought it would be, and at times it feels a little forcefully emotionally manipulative, but I loved Huntley Fitzpatrick’s writing and the voice that she gives the characters. Tim especially could be really… charming? (for some reason, I feel like some doting grandmother when I say that) at times, and I loved the large family sort of atmosphere. I have a huge extended family, but my immediate family’s rather small, so my everyday life’s really quiet, and it was really interesting to see the differences. However – and, speaking of forcefully emotionally manipulative – I didn’t like the “twist” that the author employed. I mean, I know these things do happen, and it did accomplish its goal of pushing Tim to grow up, and a large part of it really is just personal preference, but honestly, it also felt awkward and stilted, as if it was thrown in for the sake of more complications and more angst. Which I’ll pass on, thanks.

So while I did enjoy some parts of The Boy Most Likely To and will definitely be picking up some of Huntley Fitzpatrick’s other novels, a good chunk of this novel just really wasn’t for me. I’m thinking I probably should’ve gone with My Life Next Door instead?

Goodbye, Rebel Blue by Shelley Coriell
Published October 1st 2013 by Harry N. Abrams
Source: Publisher
Rating: ★★★★☆

Rebecca Blue is a rebel with an attitude whose life is changed by a chance encounter with a soon-to-be dead girl. Rebel (as she’s known) decides to complete the dead girl’s bucket list to prove that choice, not chance, controls her fate. In doing so, she unexpectedly opens her mind and heart to a world she once dismissed—a world of friendships, family, and faith. With a shaken sense of self, she must reevaluate her loner philosophy—particularly when she falls for Nate, the golden boy do-gooder who never looks out for himself.

I was so, so excited when I got my hands on a copy of Goodbye, Rebel Blue! Shelly Coriell’s debut novel, Welcome, Caller, This is Chloe was such a great read; I really loved how the author had balanced more serious topics with witty narrative and good humor, and was hoping for the same in Goodbye, Rebel Blue, too, and the bucket list synopsis seemed too good to pass up. I’m happy to say that Goodbye, Rebel Blue doesn’t disappoint.

Goodbye, Rebel Blue isn’t an original book by any stretch. The whole tough-girl-falls-for-golden-boy idea’s been done countless times, as had the bucket-list idea. However, the author writes it in such a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading the same old story again, but rather something new and different.

The plot was slow, and while often times that’s a reason for me to put the book down, I think I kind of liked it here. It was slow, as Rebel fumbled around – for the lack of a better, not-so-cheesy word – “discovering” herself. She’s stumbling along, screwing up and doing the best she can to fulfil a dead girl’s bucket list, the plot stumbles along with her, and in a situation like this, I found that I didn’t mind the pacing at all.

Not gonna lie – one of my favorite parts of the book was the pieces of Rebel’s personal bucket list at the beginnings of every chapter (especially number 20 – “learn math”). It really showed who she was as a person: quirky and sarcastic, but also, underneath it all, lonely (aren’t we all at least a little though? Or maybe I’m looking too much into #22?). Her voice was what stood out to me the most in Goodbye, Rebel Blue.

The secondary characters were, I felt, all there for a reason, which was awesome, though I’m having trouble remembering all their names now (more on that later). They all did their part in helping the story along, and all had a part in Rebel’s change of character from the beginning to the end. I think the most impacting part for me though was when everything started crumbling for Rebel, and then she goes to Nate’s and HIS SISTER WITH THE HAIR DYE AND HOW MUCH SHE TRIED TO BE LIKE REBEL AND WHEN SHE FAILED SHE WAS SO DISAPPOINTED AND HEARTBROKEN and oh my goodness my heart. That was probably my favorite scene in a feeling-killing sort of way.

The only shortcoming that Goodbye, Rebel Blue had for me was it’s failure to really leave a lasting impression beyond the pages. Like I stated earlier, I’m having trouble remembering most of the secondary characters’ names, as well as the love interest’s name (I had to look it up; it’s Nate). While reading, I liked how the romance wasn’t all in-your-face but rather a “side dish” to the story, but afterwards, it just kind of fades away. Rebel’s friendship with Macey (so many pies!), too, which I remember really liking while reading, I can’t really seem to recall anymore. My point being that, while Goodbye, Rebel Blue was a wonderful, fun, and emotional read, it isn’t really that much of a memorable one, which is rather sad.

But all in all, it was a great read. If you loved the author’s first book, Welcome, Caller, This is Chloe, you should definitely give Goodbye, Rebel Blue a try, and vice versa. And if you haven’t read any of her books, I definitely recommend fans of the genre to give them a try.

Foreplay (The Ivy Chronicles #1) by Sophie Jordan
Published November 5th 2013 by William Morrow
Source: Traded
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Before she goes after the life she’s always wanted, she’s about to find the one she needs.

Pepper has been hopelessly in love with her best friend’s brother, Hunter, for like ever. He’s the key to everything she’s always craved: security, stability, family. But she needs Hunter to notice her as more than just a friend. Even though she’s kissed exactly one guy, she has just the plan to go from novice to rock star in the bedroom—take a few pointers from someone who knows what he’s doing.

Her college roommates have the perfect teacher in mind. But bartender Reece is nothing like the player Pepper expects. Yes, he’s beyond gorgeous, but he’s also dangerous, deep—with a troubled past. Soon what started as lessons in attraction are turning both their worlds around, and showing just what can happen when you go past foreplay and get to what’s real…

Admittedly, I don’t read much NA. Also admittedly, I haven’t exactly had the best of experiences with the NA novels I have read, and so I didn’t go into Foreplay with the highest of expectations. I also didn’t at all enjoy Sophie Jordan’s YA Firelight series, so, okay, my expectations were pretty much down the drain. But I’d heard nice things about Foreplay, and so eventually sat down to give it a try, and hey – I actually quite liked this one.

Yeah, the story’s predictable as fuck. It’s really nothing new: Naive Girl, egged on by some best friends, attempts to catch the eye of a Bad Boy to teach her about sex. Naive Girl with a Backstory has a long-time crush on Golden Boy, but finds herself maybe perhaps falling for the resident Bad Boy with a Deep and Troubled Past. But somehow it worked.

I liked how Pepper’s backstory, elephant in the room aside, didn’t cause her to run away so much as step forward. Because of what had happened, she was even more determined to fashion her perfect happily ever after with her own two hands, which was something I really admired. And after meeting Hunter, you really understand why Pepper would go after someone like that, even when we all know she’s going to end up with Reece. You aren’t just told the plot, but it actually all comes together and makes sense. And Reece! I mean he was pretty dreamy and swoon-worthy but aaaaalso I liked how he wasn’t just there to whisper sexy things in Pepper’s ear. He’s clearly got a lot of his own stuff going on and it showed. And while he cared for Pepper a lot, he also cared for himself…ish. But he wasn’t just going to become Hunter’s replacement like that, and I really liked that part.

I did cringe a lot at the ending, though. I thought the beginning and the middle was predictable, but the ending really takes the cake.

Foreplay doesn’t really do much to stand out, but it’s amusing and entertaining and heartwarming in a way. It’s a balanced romantic and sexy, as well as a little clumsy, a little drama-heavy, and more than a little cliche, but somehow, it worked.

The Fill-In Boyfriend by Kasie West
Published May 5th 2015 by HarperTeen
Source: Borrowed
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

When Gia Montgomery’s boyfriend, Bradley, dumps her in the parking lot of her high school prom, she has to think fast. After all, she’d been telling her friends about him for months now. This was supposed to be the night she proved he existed. So when she sees a cute guy waiting to pick up his sister, she enlists his help. The task is simple: be her fill-in boyfriend—two hours, zero commitment, a few white lies. After that, she can win back the real Bradley.

The problem is that days after prom, it’s not the real Bradley she’s thinking about, but the stand-in. The one whose name she doesn’t even know. But tracking him down doesn’t mean they’re done faking a relationship. Gia owes him a favor and his sister intends to see that he collects: his ex-girlfriend’s graduation party—three hours, zero commitment, a few white lies.

Just when Gia begins to wonder if she could turn her fake boyfriend into a real one, Bradley comes waltzing back into her life, exposing her lie, and threatening to destroy her friendships and her new-found relationship.

The Fill-In Boyfriend and I did not get off to a good start together. I cringed my way through the first few pages. From the get-go, Gia came off as whiny and immature. Granted, the synopsis is pretty telling and I knew, or at least should have known, what I was getting myself into when I picked up the book. But the way the book opened – with Gia clinging to Bradley and whining for him to stay at least for prom! Her friends haven’t even seen him yet! – didn’t do the story any favors. Then Gia turns around and asks another guy to go in with her because her friend group would slaughter her if she showed up alone, and he’s hot and free and nice and willing. Yay? From there, the story did pick up (or maybe acclimation is a terrifying thing), and it was a super entertaining, but while I did read
The Fill-In Boyfriend cover to cover in one sitting, that annoyance I felt at the beginning, as well as the situational ridiculousness and Gia’s blatant immaturity and self-obsession always lingered close by.

The characters were all cookie-cutter paper-people in their happy little 2D worlds: Bradley, the asshole ex; Hayden, the perfect popular boy; Spencer the slimeball; Jules, the evil “friend”; Bec, the enemy-turned-unique-friend-accessory; Gia’s parents, the barely-there family figures present only to drive her places and spew the occasional word of wisdom. Every single character fitted into a stereotype and stayed there.

There isn’t much to say about Gia and Fake-Bradley’s relationship. Circumstances clearly wrought for the sake of plot aside, there’s nothing noteworthy, and it reads exactly as it was written in the synopsis. It’s disappointing because fake-dating is one of my favorite tropes ever and while I pick and critique a lot, I’m also a sucker for cheesy romance and drama, which is what generally encompasses the fake-dating trope. It’s pretty hard to get me to find the whole fake-dating thing unnecessary for the book and dislikeable, but Kasie West managed to do that. Ticked all the little boxes in a pretty row down the page. Overran it with one-dimensional characters and aggravating plot holes.

But the main thing that really bothered me was the situation with Jules. The entire plot happened because she was too scared of how Jules would react but could she not have told her other friends how she was feeling about Jules? Or attempted talked it out with Jules herself? Gia has the guts to tell a mutual acquaintance that he’s being an asshole and to slap him across the face, mock her fellow classmates appearances on a daily basis, and scoff at random strangers on the street, but she can’t tell a friend that the said friend is making her feel shitty? And I’m not too sure about the others, but Gia was super close to Claire, and Claire was the ideal supportive best friend throughout the great majority of the book. I know that sometimes, there are things you can say to relative strangers that you can’t to the people close to you, but at the very least, once she entangled herself in the Fake-Bradley hoax, why couldn’t she at least pull Claire aside and explain the situation?

And it just got worse. As the story’s wrapping up, the situation becomes something like this: Gia feels like Jules is out to get her, so after attempting to connect and sympathize with her for all of two times, Gia starts feeling like she’s being a good person but the world just hates her guts. Then Claire, who’s been nothing but patient and kind to the both of them, finds out that Gia’s been lying to her about something huge – so she does what any normal person would do and distances herself from Gia. She needs some space, she says. Some time to think. At first Gia’s upset and full of apology, but when Fake-Bradley-Hayden comes back around, suddenly the world is beautiful again and Claire’s all but forgotten, and she gives up on her whole friend group basically because who needs friends when you have a boyfriend?

I did like a lot of the dialogue-heavy scenes, and though ridiculous, the drama did make for an entertaining book. The Fill-In Boyfriend like one of those bad rom-coms: the storyline’s ridiculous and the main characters belong in elementary school, but for some reason, it’s still addicting and you still find yourself wanting to see it through to the end. But it’s the kind of movie you’d watch at a friend’s place, or online, and only ever once.

The Last Best Kiss
by Claire LaZebnik
Published April 22nd 2014 by HarperTeen
Source: Purchased
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Anna Eliot is tired of worrying about what other people think. After all, that was how she lost the only guy she ever really liked, Finn Westbrook.

Now, three years after she broke his heart, the one who got away is back in her life.

All Anna wants is a chance to relive their last kiss again (and again and again). But Finn obviously hasn’t forgotten how she treated him, and he’s made it clear he has no interest in having anything to do with her.

Anna keeps trying to persuade herself that she doesn’t care about Finn either, but even though they’ve both changed since they first met, deep down she knows he’s the guy for her. Now if only she can get him to believe that, too….

The Last Best Kiss isn’t my first book by Claire LaZebnik – I read Epic Fail quite a while back and loved it at the time. It was a cute, fluffy, pick-me-up sort of read: nothing too serious, but a good way to pass the time nevertheless. Looking back, The Last Best Kiss does do some things better than Epic Fail, but I’m also a very different sort of reader now, so here we are.

The Last Best Kiss isn’t anything outrageous or new. It’s a story of “the one that got away,” and a girl hoping for a second chance, a second shot at something that could’ve been. Anna and her friends are a tad too superficial and a bit too much the generic high-school friend group for my liking, but her realization that she screwed up is an all-too-common feeling, and her looking to right her wrongs isn’t a foreign concept – while maybe not be about a guy, the basic sentiment is a pretty universal one, and it makes the story and Anna herself easy to follow and root for. Having never read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I can’t say much about how well this works as a retelling, but as far as plot, The Last Best Kiss does a pretty solid job of depicting the usual YA romance high school. The story’s accompanied by an equally generic cast of characters, given enough depth and emotion to lull them to life across the pages, but hardly enough to break them from their cookie-cutter stereotypes. I do have to just point out, though, that I’d never get along with Anna’s dad. Ever.

Claire LaZebnik’s books give me the same feeling Sarah Dessen’s does. They aren’t terribly exciting, and once you’ve read one you can pretty much predict and map out the rest, but they’re the kind of feel-good reads you find yourself craving every once in a while. You know what to expect, you know how it’s going to end, and when it comes, everything’s neatly tied up and handed to you with a bow, and you leave with a fluffy, quiet sort of satisfaction.

So, really, there isn’t a lot to say. The Last Best Kiss is very normal and predictable, but it works for the story. It’s fluffy and sweet, with a splash of the author’s “signature wit and expertly authentic teen voice” as the synopsis proudly declares (it isn’t wrong, but just not as prominent as you’d expect). I quite recommend it as a library read, a one-time sort of thing for an hour or so of enjoyment, and a little breath between heavier reads.

How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller
Published February 21st 2013 by Razorbill
Source: Gifted/Traded(?)
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

A meth dealer. A prostitute. A serial killer.

Anywhere else, they’d be vermin. At the Mandel Academy, they’re called prodigies. The most exclusive school in New York City has been training young criminals for over a century. Only the most ruthless students are allowed to graduate. The rest disappear.

Flick, a teenage pickpocket, has risen to the top of his class. But then Mandel recruits a fierce new competitor who also happens to be Flick’s old flame. They’ve been told only one of them will make it out of the Mandel Academy. Will they find a way to save each other—or will the school destroy them both?

Full disclosure: I actually have no clue where my copy of How to Lead A Life of Crime came from. I was sorting through my bookshelf the other day and came across it; I know I didn’t receive it from the publisher because then it would’ve been in a special and shamefully big stack in a separate part of my bookshelf. I’ve never won any giveaways, and it’s an ARC version so it’s definitely not something I picked up at the bookstore. But I digress.

I really liked the premise of this one – one glance at the synopsis, and it’s hard not to want to read this book. The early chapters of How to Lead A Life of Crime, following Flick pre-Mandel Academy, lived up to my synopsis-formulated expectations. It’s brash, quick, and engaging. I loved the set-up, Flick’s voice, and all the references to literary works and movies – I especially liked the whole Peter Pan thing that carried forward into the rest of the story. Flick’s interactions are charged and exciting, and part of me was going “Flick no,” but a much louder part of me… Let’s just say that I’m the kind of person that’ll tell you all about what a bad and dangerous idea I think it is, but eventually, I’ll find myself dragged along anyway.

Then we got to Mandel Academy, and How to Lead A Life of Crime lost most of it’s shine. The biggest problem I had – and this is going to sound super bad given all the things the students have gone through, but hear me out – is that How to Lead A Life of Crime couldn’t convince me to care. At the beginning, Flick was this struggling, messed-up guy, rather bitter and strong, but then suddenly he steps inside the academy and he’s flawless and perfect at everything and he’s got everything going for him. Suddenly, magically, everything goes his way. Even the things that appear not to. The rest of the characters are just as bland. There’s Joi, admirably kick-ass when her page-time allows, who I gather is supposedly the Wendy-type figure, and Jude, Flick’s brother, who does give some depth to his character, but doesn’t ever linger long enough to solidify anything. There is, of course, Flick’s obligatory backstory, which I’m still rather lost about (all I’ve gathered is that his father’s an asshole, but not really, but really). And there are other characters too, of course, but they flicker on by too quickly for me to catch. They’re given a name, some choice words to describe their personality, and then they’re gone again. Actually, I was writing this review and realized that in my confusion I’d combined some of the characters together in my mind. Skimming through again, and there’s Lucas, whose relationship with Flick I rather liked, and Gwendolyn, who would’ve been fascinating had the author truly taken advantage of all the paragraphs dedicated to her to properly flesh out her character.

But that just proves my point: none of the characters are truly memorable, or are impactful in any way. They just come and go with the pages.

The same applied for the story. I feel like the author tried to cover too much, and ended up covering very little. There were a lot of worldly problems addressed in How to Lead A Life of Crime, but the book never really got anywhere with them, and even almost suggests that blowing up the school would put a stop to all of that, which I think is a serious underestimation of the depth of those issues. I mean, I get that the whole point of Flick’s choice was that there’s always another way. But if you’re going to show that “other way,” then shouldn’t you flesh out the problem and the two presented options first, instead of skimming all three, then plunging straight into the last?

So, in summary, I was a huge fan of the first part, but not a huge fan of what followed. A great idea in theory, but not so much in execution – the last 300 or so pages was a rather dull wade-through.