Posts tagged ‘Romance’

Under Her Skin

Under Her Skin.jpgTitle: Under Her Skin
Series: Blank Canvas #1
Author: Adriana Anders
ISBN: 9781492633846
Pages: 344 pages
Publisher/Date: Sourcebooks, Inc. c2017

“Old hag in need of live-in helper to abuse. Nothing kinky.”
Uma read the ad again.
Jesus. Was she really going to do this?
Yes. Yes, she was. She’d come all the way back to Virginia for the hope its free clinic offered, and if this was the only job she could get while she was in town, she should consider herself lucky to have found it. Especially, she thought with a wry smile, since it’s one for which I’m so qualified. (1)

Uma had fled a relationship with a possessive prosecuting attorney, one that has led scars scattered across her body in the form of a multitude of tattoos. Hearing of a clinic that provides free laser surgery to abuse victims, Uma bravely returns to that state of suffering, securing a job as an elderly woman’s live-in aid. Next door lives ex-con Ivan, who takes in strays and strives to avoid his own past with metal work and martial arts. Uma is just as set at not getting involved as Ivan is to learn more about his secretive and reclusive new neighbor. But Uma is right to worry that their paths might collide and cause trouble for both of them.

Long time readers of this blog know that I rarely read adult titles. This year is my attempt to change that and expand my exposure to other genres. So a new romance title it is, even though I rarely if ever read romance. I personally find them predictable, but people could say that about most genres. Murders get solved, bad guys get captured, worlds get saved, and good triumphs over evil. But sometimes you can appreciate a little predictability, and I know that’s one reason I return and reread favorites over and over, so I can find my favorite parts and live through them again. Maybe that’s the draw of romance, is that you see people find love, and who can fault someone for doing that?

Ivan’s character might be a tough ex-con, but he’s learned methods to control his anger, for the most part. His overprotective demeanor towards Uma and the animals makes sense when you learn of his past. Uma’s self-sufficient spirit and continuing dismay over the position she’s found her in is also understandable: she doesn’t want help, doesn’t want pity, and wants to resume her life with as little fanfare and notice as possible. But she suffers, just like any abuse victim would, and her thoughts and struggles to deal with the nightmares, the physical scars, the skittishness around men, her dire financial situation, and more makes for a very sympathetic character.

The loves scenes were steamy. Ivan takes it slow, and you HAVE to give him props, because Uma’s situation is everything but predictable. They are inventive in the beginning, and it was refreshing to see they are both willing and able to adapt to the needs of their partner. Uma is a strong woman underneath all the hesitancy and uncertainty, and Ivan is able to recognize that, coax it out of her, and allows her to receive and take the lead as needed. Towards the end, someone comments to Uma “Now don’t go running over there all pissed off that he’s taking your ability to choose away and all that crap, ’cause he’s not. He’s giving you a choice. Another option.” (336) I think what I liked about this book is that there was no “will they or won’t they.” The attraction is evident from the very first meeting, they are both drawn to each other, and the pull for readers is the journey, and seeing how they get together, not whether or not they do. Obviously with any romance the main couple ends up together, but this one doesn’t have misunderstandings and blow up arguments engineered to keep them apart. The final hurdle between them allows not only the loose ends to be tied up, but for Uma and Ivan to stay in character. Uma wants to ensure that her wishes are heard, respected, and adhered to, something she never got in her previous relationship, while Ivan needs to reassure Uma that he can do that and reassure himself that he’s not going to regress back to the man he used to be. Overall, I think everyone involved, including readers, walk away satisfied.

Alex + Ada

Series: Alex + Ada
Volumes 1, 2, and 3
Story by: Jonathan Luna and Sarah Veughn
ISBN: 9781632150066 (vol. 1), 9781632151957 (vol. 2), 9781632154040 (vol. 3)
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Originally published in single magazine form by Image Comics, c2015

You might think about getting one.”
“Me? An android?”
“Sure. You could always put her in the basement when you find someone.”
“Do you know how sick that sounds? It might as well be a dungeon.”
“Kinky.”
“Grandma… I appreciate the idea. But, no– even if I had the money– I don’t want an android girlfriend. It’s just… weird.” […]
“Grandma, what were you thinking?
“‘Thank you’ would suffice.”
“When I gave you a spare key, it was for emergencies only! It is not okay for you to sneak into my house and drop off a robot! How did you even get it here?” (unpaged)

Alex is getting over a break-up and is tired of everyone offering him advice, from his coworkers to his friends. So when his grandmother sends him an artificially intelligent, realistic looking android, he is less than happy. Especially amidst speculation that the security features keeping them from being sentient are possibly malfunctioning. But Alex can’t shake the feeling that there is more to the robot named Ada, and pursuing those possibilities might lead him into deep trouble.

The premise reminded me of a more militarized version of the movie Bicentennial Man, and could definitely spark discussion about the current state of artificial intelligence, technological advances, and the ubiquitous nature of surveillance and information gathering. Different viewpoints are presented, and while obviously readers are meant to side with the main characters, both sides have valid arguments and neither one is victimized or demonized. For instance:

“Daniel would have so much potential if he was unlocked. He’d have a life.”
“But it would put him in danger.”
“Is it really all just about the danger.” […]
“I like the way things are. It was why I got Daniel in the first place. I didn’t want complications. But if he’s not sentient, then I don’t see an issue. What harm is there in keeping him as he is now?”
“It would be wrong to keep him locked just because he doesn’t know there’s more for him.”
“Or is it wrong to unlock him when the world isn’t prepared for it?”
“Plenty of people have done important things in history when the world wasn’t ready.” (Volume 2, unpaged)

I was admiring the ability of the artist to keep Ada straight-lipped throughout the series (since I’m assuming her robotic origins would limit mobility) but then realized that every character is drawn in that same manner. The pacing provided by wordless panels enhances the story, as it forces readers to consider reactions before they happen, slow down in the reading, and really look for the incremental differences in facial expressions and body language that provide cues of the character’s intentions and thoughts. While the predictable plot is enjoyable, it also prevents the series from standing out among the cliche of sentient robot stories.

All the Bright Places

All the Bright PlacesTitle: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyer
ISBN: 9780553552195 (audiobook), 978038575587 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours
Pages: 388 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2015. (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.)

”Ladies and gentlemen,” I shout, “I would like to welcome you to my death!” You might expect me to say “life,” having just woken up and all, but it’s only when I’m awake that I think about dying. I am shouting in an old-school-preacher way, all jerking head and words that twitch at ends, and I almost lose my balance. I hold on behind me, happy no one seems to have noticed, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to look fearless when you’re clutching the railing like a chicken.
“I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind, do hereby bequeath all my earthly possessions to Charlie Donahue, Brenda Shank-Kravitz, and my sisters.” […]
Then his head turns away from me and points at the sky. At first I think he’s pointing at me, but it’s at that moment I see her, the girl. (4-5)

It just so happens that Theodore Finch and Violet Markey have chosen the same day in January to climb the bell tower at their school and contemplate suicide. Finch, aka “Freak” to all his classmates, has caused trouble before, has a violent school history, and sees the counselor on a regular basis, coming from a home where his father has left him, his two sisters, and his mother, for a new family. Violet’s family isn’t much better, as she is still trying to recover from the death of her older sister in a car accident less than a year ago. Not minding casting Violet in the hero role, as if she was only up there to save his sorry life, Finch in fact wants to prolong this instant connection he feels, and volunteers himself to be her partner in a geography project. A reluctant Violet slowly starts to open up to Finch as their relationship evolves, but Finch has difficulty expressing his deepest thoughts to even Violet. Does the world ever offer enough to live for?

It was a good choice to alternate narrators between the characters/chapters. Kirby Heyborne has an appropriately anxious and gravelly voice for Finch, and Ariadne Meyers has a youthful sounding voice filled with trepidation. Niven includes a heartbreaking author’s note discussing the inspiration for the story, and it’s after hearing her story that you realize why certain aspects of the end sound so realistic. The highlights of the novel are the scenes where she focuses in on the emotions and the little details, and the dialogue is both relatable but also disconcerting. For example, Finch’s interaction with his counselor has the counselor asking him “Do I need to call your mother?” and his response is “’No. And again no.’ And again: no no no. ‘Look it was a stupid thing to do. I just wanted to see what it felt like to stand there and look down. I would never jump from the bell tower.” (14) Finch’s nickname for Violet, the Facebook messages back and forth, the endearing flowers scene and the Purina Tower expedition all lead credibility to the relationship and make him so endearing to Violet and to readers, encouraging hope for the best.

In the beginning though I wasn’t thrilled with how the relationship with Finch and Violet evolved. He struck me as similar to Edward Cullen in Twilight. He obsessed over Violet, who originally has no interest in hanging out with him, investigating her Facebook page and website. While eventually the changes he forces upon her are good for her growth and recovery from her sister’s death, the way he went about it grated on my nerves. He did have his moments though, especially his patience and protectiveness of Violet. He knows how to project charm and respect, but as we get to see him both when he is and isn’t with Violet, we’re left asking the same questions he asks himself about his own authenticity and that of her feelings toward him. I thought he was too assertive, too sure of himself, too brash and too phony, although this was probably the author’s intent. He reminds me of a modern-day Holden Caufield, with his attempts to remake himself with a complete disinterest about how anyone else feels about him, except Violet. His dependency on her scared me, and those fears were ultimately validated.

The Sculptor

SculptorTitle: The Sculptor
Author/Illustrator: Scott McCloud
ISBN: 9781596435735
Pages: 496 pages
Publisher/Date: First Second, c2015.
Published: February 3, 2015

“So what if the art thing didn’t work out? Is it really that important?”
“It’s all I have.”
“What would you give for your art, David?”
“I’d give my life.” (32-33)

With those fateful — or maybe fatal — words, David sets the next 200 days in motion. David has spent so many years trying to accomplish his life’s goal of making a name for himself in the art world. But he’s currently a down on his luck sculptor who has no future work prospects, no girlfriend, no family, little money, and will soon be homeless. So he’s spending his last dollars on his birthday getting drunk at a local diner, until two unexpected visitors – one is an angel and the other is death – deeply impact the next six months of his life.

Visually stunning and satisfying. These are the first two words that come to mind after finishing. Scott McCloud literally wrote the book on comic books. This graphic novel proves that not only can he talk the talk, he can also walk the walk. The writing and drawings are equally affecting, and in some cases I paused to not only process the plot but also come up for air as I was immersed in this world. The monochromatic colors change the mood with the flip of a page, with one section using a much darker blue color scheme to convey the dark emotions and some panels and pages being completely devoid of color. Some pages are more traditional in their layout, whereas others change the tone of the narrative by either switching from a white gutter to a black one, and in some cases doing away with the gutter completely. The full-page panoramic shots are eye-catching, but the varied layouts add interest and keep readers engaged. Sometimes they feature detailed street scenes with identifiable individuals in the crowd, other times focus on a single character close-up which draws readers into the dramatic relationships, and that unique final sequence feels like a flip book as it follows one character’s descent.

David, the epitome of a starving artist, just can’t catch a break, at one point claiming he’s cursed, being told it’s just bad luck, and asking “What difference does it make?” His grand goals and aspirations are what continues to drive him. He can’t think small, he can’t be confined by what others in the art world dictates. He needs to succeed in a big way and make a name for himself, which is especially influenced by his having to distinguish himself from an already successful artists with the same name. He has made promises to himself that he refuses to break, which bring morals and character to an otherwise selfish and self-centered persona. In fact, he’s criticized for his impatience and his inability to consider anyone else’s needs, whether it deals with his life personally or professionally. His life of ongoing disappointments make it difficult for him to connect with others, and you see through his few relationships how loyal he is to them, although those friends have long recognized that they can’t count on him to “act normal”. His awkwardness in social situations is stereotypical (think of any geeky, artistic character, in any romantic comedy, and you have David) but if you have a problem with the stereotype don’t blame the artist and it’s also endearing to watch David try to navigate this space.

Meg is beautiful. Her unexpected meeting with David is rooted in today’s culture, but we view things from a previously unseen perspective. She is so full of energy and life, even though as we later learn she has her own scars and past to confront and manage. Her spontaneous, optimistic, romantic heart contrast against David’s more pessimistic mood swings, but David comes to realize that he can’t just take those attitudes for granted. Many have complained that Meg is a foil for David’s character development and she isn’t as developed as she could be. I feel that while this is a valid complaint, we see her primarily from David’s perspective when they are alone together, so I feel like this point of view is justified within the context of the story. Meg’s background is a mystery, sure, but that’s because David is so self-absorbed he doesn’t think to ask and when he does she is reluctant to reveal and let him in, going so far as to warn him not to let her push him away. While David’s attraction to her is fast, Meg holds him at bay until she is sure of her own feelings.

The presentation of Death is interesting, and David’s conversations with him bring to mind questions of death, memory, fame, art, and immortality. Some questions that spring to mind for possible discussion, if I ever get around to using this as a book discussion:

  • Do you continue to “live on” after death when others remember you?
  • Is David’s pursuit of fame on par with the pursuit of immortality?
  • How did events in David’s past influence his current goals? What are his goals, and does David accomplish them by the end of the book?
  • Is art for the sake of the artist or the public?
  • How often do artists intend their symbolism in art, is it found after the completion, or is sometimes a square just a square?
  • What qualifies as art, and who decides between underground and mainstream pieces?
  • On page 217, there is a discussion about rules, and how you “can’t break the rules”. Is this true? What are some of the rules that David tries to break and what are some of the rules he tries to keep?

Although some have called it cliched with the presentation of Meg as a “Manic Pixie Girl” and David as the starving artist ready to do anything to catch a break, this hefty tome is definitely thought-provoking. The plot twists, while somewhat expected, are no less gut-wrenching as we watch these two characters try to navigate this world. Portrayals of frontal nudity cause me some hesitation in handing it to younger teens, but high school students could definitely empathize with David’s struggle to make a name for themselves and garner fame as they pursue their own futures.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Impossible Knife of MemoryTitle: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrators: Julia Whelan and Luke Daniels
ISBN: 9781480553569 (audiobook)
Pages: 391 Pages
Discs/CDs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 13 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014.
Publication Date: January 7, 2014

Hayley Kincain is starting school for the first time in years in her father’s home town, after spending time on the road with him. Both Hayley and her father suffer memory issues, her father from PTSD after serving time in Afghanistan, and Hayley from the traumatic events following his return. Hayley knows that her unpredictable father is just one small step away from the breaking point, but she’s never quite sure what will set him off. One day he’s shooting hoops, the next day he’s shooting his gun at the television. She hides her situation from everyone, trying to avoid the pitying looks and their inevitable separation. But when a classmate begins showing an interest in her and her circumstances, Hayley wonders if there is a future, or if it’s just one more complication in a world causing her and her father so much hurt.

As always, Laurie Halse Anderson weaves readers into a spell of a story. On more than one occasion I found my heart in my throat as we see Hayley struggle to stitch her life together. You can see that Hayley and her father aren’t bad people, but don’t know how to handle their situation. The title is applicable, as Hayley continuously refers to memories as slicing through her system, and her father would probably describe them in the same way as they spring upon both of them unbidden, altering how they look at the world. You get the sense that they are balancing on a knife point, just waiting for their family to get sliced in half.

A slight spoiler, but Hayley’s classmate Finn has entered my top five list of perfect boyfriends. He pushes for more information, and comforts and aids Hayley as he can, but he recognizes that they are both in over their head at the climatic ending. Their sarcastic, witty back-and-forth banter is the comedy relief that such a serious topic needs, and you anticipate their relationship long before it is formalized. There’s an ongoing gag about their involvement with different covert operations and Finn’s slow driving and derelict car. Hayley’s jaded voice is offset by Finn’s down to earth disposition. His persistence pays off, and their first date is swoon worthy. With all the complications that their families bring to the table, they struggle, and the real question is if they will stay together or not. Can I bring him to life?

Julia Whelan does an excellent job bringing Hayley’s anguish and uncertainty to the narration. She does an admirable job distinguishing voices, and listeners will get caught up in the story. Luke Daniels adds some intermittent insights into Hayley’s father’s head. While I wish there were more, I can understand what the author is doing. We never get a full picture of what is going on in a wounded veteran’s head, so it’s unfair that we would get more information than Hayley has on her own father. The slow drawl and anguished distance that Daniels conveys through those short interludes is terse, tense, and timely to the plot. I’m glad they choose to have two narrators.

How to Save a Life

How to Save a LifeTitle: How to Save a Life
Author: Sara Zarr
Narrators: Ariadne Meyere and Cassandra Morris
ISBN: 9780316036061 (hardcover), 9780307968722 (audiobook)
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 341 pages
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown, and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2011.

“Don’t, Dylan. Don’t ‘ever since your dad died’ me.” The ice scraper falls from my numb hands. I pick it up. “I haven’t changed. I’ve always been this way.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Okay, well, I don’t remember that Jill.” I hold my hands to my face to warm them up, to press back tears. “I don’t remember. I’m sorry. And I can’t be her now, and I’m never going to be her again,” I say, my voice rising. I realize it, finally. This elusive old Jill I’ve been chasing isn’t someone who can be found. Short of my father coming back from the dead, it’s not happening. Which doesn’t mean I can’t change, just that I can’t change back. (302)

Jill is dealing with a lot of change. In the last year, her father died in a car accident, she’s lost her friends and on-again off-again boyfriend while trying to deal with her grief, and now her mom is adding a baby to the mix. Mandy is the pregnant, unmarried teen who has struck up a tenuous deal with Jill’s mother through emails and has come to live with them until delivering the baby. Their backgrounds are drastically different, but their fears all revolve around this unborn child and how the birth will impact their lives. But can these two girls learn from each other, or will their differences push them further apart from the love they both need?

I think depending on where readers are in their life, different people will get different things from this book. Both girls have their own attitudes, problems, and flaws, making them each extremely relatable in their own way. Mandy has led a hard life, dealing with neglectful mother whose ideas come from real-world experience rather than ideals. She comes across as naive because while she knows life is hard and that she wants a better life for her child, Mandy doesn’t plan very well for her own future because she’s never had that ability before. By contrast, Jill has a primarily sheltered idea of the world and comes across as spoiled, never questioning her ability to plan a gap year and follow her father’s nomadic footsteps. Isolating herself from her friends and family in an attempt to deal with her grief privately, Jill is starting to break out of her shell again and yearn for the time before her father’s death. But as the quote above (which I absolutely love) recognizes, it’s nearly impossible to go back.

Yes, I’ll admit that the self-reflection might get a little corny for some, but it isn’t overdone or too preachy, as this is an emotional book, and it’s beautifully written and read. Ariadne Meyers and Cassandra Morris make this book come alive, with inflection that makes you feel like you’re a fly on the wall listening to these conversations. There’s a reveal that’s alluded to that makes Mandy’s attitudes all the more realistic. Jill and Mandy’s opinions are understandably conveyed best, but the minor characters are in no way background. Jill’s mother has her reasons for doing what she’s doing, Jill’s boyfriend Dylan and Jill’s friends are frustrated, confused, and clueless on how to help her work through her grief. Someone from the past also enters the picture, slowly but surely becoming more and more involved in the present day events. Attitudes change gradually, regressing and advancing, ebbing and flowing as second and third thoughts continue to encroach upon everyone.

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkTitle: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
ISBN: 9780385368261 (book on cd), 9781250012579 (hardcover)
Pages: 328 pages
Discs/CDs: 9 hours, 7 CDs
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2013. (audio from Listening Library)

“You can’t sit there. That’s Mikayla’s seat.” […]
“I have to sit somewhere,” The girl said to Tina in a firm, calm voice.
“Not my problem,” Tina snapped. The bus lurched, and the girl rocked back to keep from falling. Park tried to turn the volume up on his Walkman, but it was already all the way up. He looked back at the girl; it looked like she was starting to cry.
Before he’d even decided to do it, Park scooted toward the window.
“Sit down,” he said. It cam out angrily. The girl turned to him, like she couldn’t tell whether he was another jerk or what. “Jesus-fuck,” Park said softly, nodding to the space next to him, “just sit down.”
The girl sat down. She didn’t say anything–thank God, she didn’t thank him–and she left six inches of space on the seat between them.
Park turned toward the Plexiglas window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan. (8-9)

This is how Eleanor and Park meet. Eleanor, described by Park as “big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like. . . like she wanted people to look at her.” (8) Eleanor, when comparing Park to the other, meaner classmates on the bus, “couldn’t tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them, or whether he was just really stupid. (But not stupid-stupid- he was in two of Eleanor’s honors classes.)” (11) But then Park notices Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder, so he lends her some more. And he realizes that they like some of the same bands and music, so he lends her some cassette tapes. And then batteries. It’s when Park invites Eleanor home with him that they both realize two things: they are becoming more than just two teens who share the same bus seat, and their lives couldn’t be more different. It is those differences that ultimately put their relationship to the test, and Eleanor asks Park to give her something he truly doesn’t want to give up on.

What is it about books lately that are making me see the world so differently? Obviously books are supposed to make you view the world through a window or a light that isn’t your own. But I have never heard Eleanor’s analysis of Romeo and Juliet before, and I loved how contrary she was to the teacher. It’s also a little eye-opening and a little unnerving to have a historical fiction title that takes place during a time (1986) I was alive! Finally, after reading about the censorship scandal last September, I guess I should give fair warning that there are a multitude of swear words and some sexual content, although they don’t make it to home plate.

The relationship between Park and Eleanor I initially thought of as cliché, with two people who originally hate each other slowly falling in love. Really though, they didn’t hate each other in the beginning, they just had to get to know each other better and overcome this huge space between them. The bus seat and their body language while riding to and from school becomes symbolic of their feelings, as they start out avoiding each other, but then slowly migrate closer and closer, first ducking down so no one can see and then not caring what anyone on the bus thinks of them. Park starts off being this stereotypical Asian boy, smart, small, and silent, but then there’s that scene between him and Steve (if you have read the book, you KNOW which one I’m talking about), and it just smashes your entire opinion of Park. It also smashes your entire impression of Eleanor, as her response is just… wow.
Eleanor is getting teased by the kids on the bus. Park gets upset, and Eleanor tells him:

“It’s not worth it.”
“You are,” he said fiercely, looking at her. “You’re worth it.”
“This isn’t for me,” she said. She wanted to pull at him, but she didn’t feel like he was hers to hold back. “I don’t want this.”
“I’m tired of them embarrassing you.” […]
“Embarrassing me?” she said. “Or embarrassing you?” (130)

You realize how mature she is and it’s sad that her abusive home life is what caused that maturity. Your heart hurts for Park that he gives so much and asks so little, but Eleanor isn’t really in a position to offer any more than she does, and she is forced to keep her guard up around everyone.

Speaking of families, Park’s is the polar opposite of Eleanor’s family. While yes we have the stereotypical absent and/or abusive parents in Eleanor’s case, we also have Park’s involved, loving, and caring parents. Park’s parents can empathize with the spot he finds himself, and while they are not perfect, they play off each other beautifully. They are willing to change when circumstances change, and they are overall some cool parents to have who support and mentor Park with his tough decisions.

Another opinion altering moment comes at the end. That is NOT how I expected this book to end. Not in a million years. But it works, and it makes sense. The book’s ending is so gut-wrenching yet hopeful, all at once, that you may just find yourself smiling even as a tear or two runs down your cheek. Whether you listen to the excellent audio or curl up next to the fire for a cover-to-cover binge reading, be prepared to have your heart stretched.

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