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.

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.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Published September 13th 2011 by Doubleday
Source: Purchased
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night…

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway – a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love – a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Reading The Night Circus brought Daughter of Smoke and Bone to mind. Not the plots – the similarities start and stop at them sharing the same genre – but the author’s writing. Like DoSaB, The Night Circus is beautiful. Gorgeous. Super-expensive-decorative-frosting-cupcake pretty. It’s word porn at its finest, the beginning a beautiful, dizzying dream, and I can see – at least in the first few chapters – where all the hype came from. The Night Circus is absolutely magical and otherworldly you almost wish you were in the world, watching the circus unfold.

And I say almost because, in reality, the whole thing is a sort of farce, a contest between two old men who sit around sacrificing lives so they can have bragging rights and rub the fact that they were right in the other’s face. But right about what? The Night Circus never says. On what basis did all the children die? Who knows. The other characters are treated with the same ambiguity: shrouded in broad, sweeping paragraphs of prose that do everything but go in depth about their character (nothing). Celia and Marco’s relationship is built on a basis that is almost as solid as the old men’s’ contest. The other characters’ faces fade into the overly developed setting as if the author created them then tugged them around like puppets with no real aim.

There is no sense of urgency. There is no end, save for when the pages run out into the obligatory happily ever after. Reading The Night Circus is akin to playing a game of Monopoly with gorgeous prose – nice at first, but then the novelty wears off as all the property’s purchased, and then you’re just going around and around, waiting for the whole thing to just. End.

(But I really, really thought I’d love it.)

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis
Published October 6th 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books
Source: Traded
Rating: ★★★½☆

Grace Mae knows madness.

She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.

When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars, where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book half as much as I ended up doing, which came as a really nice surprise. I was a little hesitant to pick this up at first seeing as I’d read and wasn’t a fan of another one of the author’s books, but A Madness So Discreet ended up working a lot better for me than Not a Drop to Drink. I loved the atmosphere, all the little subtleties, the characters and Grace’s relationships with them, and the satisfaction that the ending brought. On the other hand, though, I wasn’t too sold on the murder case Grace and the doctor tried to solve. It all felt a little too vague and a little too shallow, which did get me thinking that maybe the author took on a few more plot points than a single book of this length could handle. But all in all, I really enjoyed A Madness So Discreet.

A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger
Published June 5th 2012 by Poppy
Source: Purchased
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Whitley Johnson’s dream summer with her divorcé dad has turned into a nightmare. She’s just met his new fiancée and her kids. The fiancée’s son? Whitley’s one-night stand from graduation night. Just freakin’ great.

Worse, she totally doesn’t fit in with her dad’s perfect new country-club family. So Whitley acts out. She parties. Hard. So hard she doesn’t even notice the good things right under her nose: a sweet little future stepsister who is just about the only person she’s ever liked, a best friend (even though Whitley swears she doesn’t “do” friends), and a smoking-hot guy who isn’t her stepbrother…at least, not yet. It will take all three of them to help Whitley get through her anger and begin to put the pieces of her family together.

I loved The DUFF and Shut Out, and I wanted to love this one too, but… wow. Ugh. Okay. Honestly, I feel like the main character just rubbed me in all the wrong ways. Whitley’s super pissy and obnoxious all the time, and blames everything she does on her parents and their problems and, okay, they’re far from great, but? Really? Bad backstory doesn’t excuse bad behavior. Her life’s been crummy, but the way she acted was detestable – the great majority of the characters around her too were pretty detestable. There’s slut-shaming and cyber-bullying, neither of which are ever really fully addressed (why). I skimmed a little to get to the end, mainly because I was hoping for it to do some drastic 180, but I’m pretty sure it went past the point of no return fairly early in, so all I was left feeling was increasingly angry.

All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry
Published September 26th 2013 by Viking Books for Young Readers
Source: Traded
Rating: ★★★½☆

Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station. Two years ago, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family.

Unable to speak, Judith lives like a ghost in her own home, silently pouring out her thoughts to the boy who’s owned her heart as long as she can remember—even if he doesn’t know it—her childhood friend, Lucas.

But when Roswell Station is attacked, long-buried secrets come to light, and Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice, even if it means changing her world, and the lives around her, forever.

All the Truth That’s in Me is one of those books that are a little hard to rate. I really enjoyed the writing – personally, I really love the fluid timelines, the fragmented, sectioned chapters, and the sort of narrative that leaves many gaps, so that at the middle of the book, there are more questions than answers, and then even at the end, there are still some pieces that are left up to the imagination of the reader to fill in. The author made the transitions between past and present, and between one scene and another work wonderfully, so that even though a lot of the sections were rather quick and rather short, nowhere did the flow feel jarring. However, I do feel like the author took a few cop-outs here and there, and under-handled a few pieces of the story, which left the ending rather unsatisfying, and me slightly unsettled – and not the haunting, chilling unsettled this kind of story often brings, but the sort of feeling you get when the story’s skipped a few turns on its way to the goal – as if there was something crucial missing.

Isla and the Happily Ever After (Anna and the French Kiss #3) by Stephanie Perkins
Published August 14th 2014 by Dutton
Source: Borrowed
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Love ignites in the City That Never Sleeps, but can it last?

Hopeless romantic Isla has had a crush on introspective cartoonist Josh since their first year at the School of America in Paris. And after a chance encounter in Manhattan over the summer, romance might be closer than Isla imagined. But as they begin their senior year back in France, Isla and Josh are forced to confront the challenges every young couple must face, including family drama, uncertainty about their college futures, and the very real possibility of being apart.

This might partially be due to the fact that I’ve binge-read far too many contemporaries recently, but Isla and the Happily Ever After just didn’t carry that same spark Anna and the French Kiss did. I loved the cameos. I loved some of the banter (it’s a Stephanie Perkins novel, after all). But it wasn’t terribly impressive; it was missing something. For one, it was super cheesy – talk about overdone. But then it also didn’t feel authentic. Their story’s supposed to be one that’s started before the novel. They’ve got history and tension and all that good stuff, but it just didn’t feel convincing – just too hot and heavy too quickly and way too insta-love-y. I don’t know. The whole Kurt situation was also really weird, and the ending? Everything’s falling apart and broken and drowning in tears but then suddenly flip the page and everything’s sunshine and daisies again? I know it’s fiction, but would it be too much to ask for something a liiitle more realistic?

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #1) by Laini Taylor
Published September 27th 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: Gifted
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”, she speaks many languages – not all of them human – and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

If I could pick one word to describe how I felt while and reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Disappointment. It’s the negative effects of hype all over again, when you go into a book after hearing so many amazing things about it (in this case, about how Daughter of Smoke and Bone was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking and emotional and powerful and kick-ass and amazing), and then after a few pages or chapters, you start to wonder if you were reading the same book as everyone else, and if maybe you set your expectations too high.

I loved the concept behind it all: the wishes, the teeth, the black handprints, and the exotic setting. And I won’t deny – Laini Taylor’s writing is gorgeous. It’s vivid and mesmerising and reads like a wonderful fairytale. Especially since I’m all for gorgeous, lyrical prose, at some points it’s easy to be swept up into her words.

I did wince a little when I opened the book and saw these two paragraphs (“Mondayness”? “Januaryness”?) on the very first page, though:

Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark – in the dead of winter the sun didn’t rise until eight – but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tyntype photograph, all siver and haze.

On the riverfront thoroughfare, trams and buses roared past, grounding the day in the twenty-first century, but on the quieter lanes, the wintry peace might have hailed from another time. Snow and stone and ghostlight, Karou’s own footsteps and the feather of steam from her coffee mug, and she was alone and adrift in mundane thoughts: school, errands. The occasional cheek chew of bitterness when a pang of heartache intruded, as pangs of heartache will, but she pushed them aside, resolute, ready to be done with that.

And after a while, the army of commas get a little too much as well, although, seeing all the “ands” and commas I’ve been using in this review, I suppose I really shouldn’t be the one talking. Add that with the multiple pages (no joke) on how beautiful and talented and amazing Kaoru is, and, well… Needless to say, her writing was gorgeous, but it came with it’s flaws.

I mean, I get it. Karou’s an amazing person. She’s intelligent, mysterious, beautiful, and she can handle herself just fine. Plus she rocks blue hair, and let’s be honest, that’s pretty freaking cool. But I’d rather the author leave something like that for the reader to decide, rather than dedicating large, unnecessary chunks of text to gushing over Karou.

The first few chapters of Daughter of Smoke and Bone was the better half. The plot was intricate and complex with just the right amount of mystery to keep me reading. The story was following Karou’s teeth-gathering journey. It was really exciting. But then Akiva came in and, rather disappointingly, like many other books of the same genre, the story started tumbling downhill. Teeth and wishes are replaced with narratives on Akiva and Karou’s fascination for each other and their overpowering forbidden romance. At one point, Akiva even watches her sleep (he’s been taking lessons from Edward Cullen on romance, you see).

But probably the largest flaw I found with Daughter of Smoke and Bone was my inability to connect with the characters. Karou, in all her blue-haired, artisy, mysterious glory, was hard to connect with. Akiva appeared to me as a very textbook brooding, dark and handsome YA love interest. Karou’s ex was also pretty much the textbook player ex. I did like Zuzana, Karou’s boyfriend – and not just because we share the same vertically challenged problem – but she wasn’t present for most of the story. See, the problem with being unable to connect with any of the characters is that when things happen to them and problems arise, you read about it, and yeah it does induce some eyebrow-raising and/or uh-oh-ing, but you can’t really seem to – and I don’t mean to sound as terribly harsh as this is going to sound, but for the lack of better words – bring yourself to care all that much. As the events unfolded, I found the characters all seem to float further and further away, and when that cliffhanger ending came about?

“Oh.” <- that was pretty much my reaction. The characters were all too far away for my to emotionally invest myself in them, and so, to me, the story fell flat. I didn't feel as if Daughter of Smoke and Bone was heart-wrenching or a roller coaster of emotions at all. It was just… meh.

Also, somewhere along the way, the mysterious aura began to wear off, and we took the first turn into into the Land of Predictable Plot Twists. Examples include: Madrigal, Karou and Akiva’s attraction towards each other, and what happened to Brimstone, Issa, and the others.

So all in all, Daughter of Smoke and Bone wasn’t terrible, but still very disappointing. I definitely went in expecting a lot more than what I really got.