ARC Review: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Title: Starry Eyes
Author: Jenn Bennett
Series: N/A
Pages: 432
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: April 3rd 2018
*I received a free copy of this novel through NetGalley which does not influence my review*

      “Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. It doesn’t hurt that their families are the modern day, Californian version of the Montagues and Capulets.
      But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.
      What could go wrong?
      With no one but each other for company, Zorie and Lennon have no choice but to hash out their issues via witty jabs and insults as they try to make their way to safety. But fighting each other while also fighting off the forces of nature makes getting out of the woods in one piece less and less likely.
      And as the two travel deeper into Northern California’s rugged backcountry, secrets and hidden feelings surface. But can Zorie and Lennon’s rekindled connection survive out in the real world? Or was it just a result of the fresh forest air and the magic of the twinkling stars?”

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Jenn Bennett’s Starry Eyes suffers from an interesting synopsis that never quite gets delivered on page. Zorie and Lennon were once best friends, but now regard each other with nothing less than scorn. Though the synopsis boasts of a turbulent relationship between their families, the reality is less dramatic. Zorie’s mother has always been friendly with Lennon’s moms. The major point of contention between the two families is Zorie’s father. His bitterness about the failure of his career and his own bigotry toward Lennon’s moms are what fuels the tension between the two families. At times, the novel felt too long and the conflict between Zorie and Lennon felt too short-lived that the initial animosity at the beginning felt rather pointless.

I liked that Zorie, a devoted planner, learns to appreciate spontaneity, that she learns that there is value in the unexpected. Her relationship with her mother is my favorite in the novel. Joy is patient and understanding with Zorie. She never ridicules her daughter for bad decisions, but is always there to help her through her problems. Joy makes a striking contrast to Zorie’s father, Dan, and much of the time, I wondered what he really brought to the table in their marriage and Zorie’s upbringing. So much of the novel hinges on Zorie’s father’s destructive behavior without giving the character anything else to work with. As a result, Zorie’s father falls very flat. The revelations surrounding his character and the consequences with regard to his relationship with his daughter did not have a strong impact on me as a reader because I never could value him as an important influence in Zorie’s life.

One of my major issues with the novel is the hostility between the main character and her love interest. Part of the build-up is revealing what went wrong between former best friends, Zorie and Lennon. Though the two do their best to avoid one another, it seemed obvious from the beginning that this wasn’t something that Zorie felt strongly about. I expected a relationship with more tension, but after only a couple of bantering scenes, the two were already quickly on their way to reconciliation. My problem with this whole dynamic is when everything is put on the table, I could not help but shake my head because a little communication could have saved both characters from a lot of heartache. Strangely enough, I was more interested in finding out more about their friendship than their thwarted romance. It’s an aspect that is forced to take a backseat, but one I was more invested in.

Starry Eyes will probably appeal to those who enjoy second-chance romances and Bennett’s previous novel Alex, Approximately, but left me wanting more overall.

3/5

★★★

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When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

Title: When Dimple Met Rishi
Author: Sandhya Menon
Series: N/A
Pages: 380
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: May 30th 2017

      “Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the ‘Ideal Indian Husband.’ Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?
      Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.
      The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this ‘suggested arrangement’ so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?
      Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

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“It was beginning. Her freedom, her independence, her period of learning—about herself, about the world, about her career. She was finally doing it. Here she wouldn’t be Dimple Shah, wayward, Americanized daughter of immigrant parents; she’d be just Dimple Shah, future web developer. People would judge her on her brain, not her lack of makeup.”

Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi is a delightful rom-com that captures how magical and unpredictable first love can be. Dimple Shah knows she will never be the kind of daughter her mother wants her to be, but she is determined to do everything in her power to make her own dreams of becoming a web developer come true. Attending Insomnia Con will bring her one step closer to realizing this dream. Unbeknownst to Dimple, her parents have co-conspired with the Patels, to get their children to meet at the con in hopes of getting them to agree to an arranged marriage. Rishi is happy and willing to meet Dimple, of having an arranged marriage altogether, but their meeting will challenge both of them in ways they never expected.

I often bemoan the lack of dual perspectives in contemporary romances. Though I love getting to know one protagonist, I’m often left wanting to know more about the love interest. Menon’s story playfully jumps from Dimple’s perspective to Rishi’s, allowing both characters to become fully-realized and partaking in perfect comedic timing. As a result, it was hard not to smile with every page turned. I loved how Menon explored the cultural significance of having an arranged marriage through her two characters. As children on Indian immigrants, both Dimple and Rishi experience the weight of their parents’ dreams. For Rishi, these means embracing his heritage, of making his parents proud, and continuing a cultural tradition. For Dimple, it means forever being trapped in a box, of never being able to discover what she wants out of life, of following a path that will only smother all her untapped potential.

Dimple is a character who I immediately liked. She’s opinionated, temperamental, and often doesn’t have a filter. She has all this passion inside her just waiting to get out. Her ambition and dedication to furthering her education and need to discover what she can truly accomplish if given the right opportunities is hard not to admire. Dimple is sure of her future plans, but in the novel she learns to accept that life happens and sometimes those plans end up changing for the better. One of the things that resonated with me the most was Dimple’s relationship with her mother. They often clash when it comes to what one expects and wants of the other. Even though there’s a lot of love between the two, this doesn’t mean they don’t get fed up with one another, especially when their views on things like marriage differ so widely. Dimple wants to be valued as more than just a potential future wife, and she struggles with the fear that that’s all her mother sees her as.

Rishi is one of the sweetest characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading. He’s thoughtful, kind, and sensitive. When he finds out Dimple had no idea about their parents’s plan, he backs off immediately. He feels the need to be responsible, to fulfill all the dreams his parents have for him. Unfortunately for Rishi, this means giving up something he’s truly passionate about. I admired how sure he was of himself and how easy it was for him to be assertive when he had to be. I loved his interactions with his brother Ashish. These are two characters who could not be more different, but who in the end, find common ground and becoming really supportive of one another. Rishi’s first interaction with Dimple could not be more of a disaster, but I loved how both of these characters became friends and pushed each other to embrace their dreams.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a wonderful contemporary that allows its characters to make mistakes and grow. It’s a coming-of-age story as much as a fun rom-com and I loved every second of Dimple and Rishi’s story.

5/5

★★★★★

History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Title: History Is All You Left Me
Author: Adam Silvera
Series: N/A
Pages: 294
Publisher: Soho Teen
Release Date: January 17th 2017

      “When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.
      To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.
      If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

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“Is it weird to envy him for that, for witnessing something I would never want to see with my own eyes? I have all this history with you, Theo, but he has pieces of your puzzle that would destroy me if I ever had to put them together, and yet I still want them.”

Adam Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me is an roller coaster of emotions. As Griffin tries to cope with the loss of his first love, readers are taken on a journey that alternates between the past and present: from the Griffin and Theo’s first kiss where the future held nothing but happy possibilities to the devastation Griffin experiences losing the one person who understood him. Once upon a time Griffin and Theo were inseparable, but life got complicated when Theo gained early admission into a college across the country. Despite how much he loved Theo, Griffin broke things off. Time passed and while Griffin still held on to hope they would be together again, Theo moved on with his new boyfriend Jackson. When Theo dies unexpectedly, all that hope and the ever-present memories of the two of them together become unbearable. Now Griffin must deal with his loss and every mistake he made that led him to where he is, but no one seems to quite understand like Theo’s boyfriend Jackson. As the two grow closer, Griffin is forced to confront the memories of his first love, both the good and the bad.

There are novels that punch you in the gut by surprise and others that you go into knowing the punch in the gut is a catalyst for a broader story. Silvera hits readers with a freight train in the very first few sentences. Every chapter devoted to the past that is filled with love and hope is bittersweet to the reader who knows where the story inevitably ends. Chapters set in the present are heavy with grief, an abridged version of the truth as it needs the past to put things into context. Griffin spends a lot time thinking about alternate universes. This is not only a callback to conversations he had with Theo, but a way Griffin copes with Theo’s death. He imagines that in some different world, the two of them are both alive and happy together. Silvera excels at making the reader care about his characters through all these mediums, expertly weaving through the ups and downs, and never letting up until the very end.

Griffin is in an incredibly vulnerable headspace from the very beginning of the novel. It isn’t hard to see how much Theo meant to him and how the loss has made his whole world seem like it has imploded. It’s easier for him to retreat from those around him than to let them help him grieve. Jackson shares his grief  and even though there is a lot of resentment on Griffin’s part, there are still drawn together. Jackson will always represent an obstacle to Griffin and Theo’s hypothetical reunion. He will always hold precious memories of his ex-boyfriend that Griffin will never have himself. Whether he wants to admit it or not, Theo and Jackson were happy together. Griffin and Jackson’s connection is wrought with hurt and confusion. While it’s important for Griffin to work through his feelings, he tends to be self-destructive and this flaw hinders his own healing. Still, I found it really refreshing to read about a character who is allowed to be broken, misguided, and self-centered while working through his pain.

History Is All You Left Me is an emotionally complex novel about heartache and grief. Silvera continues to create multilayered stories and characters that the reader will not soon forget.

4/5

★★★★

Not Now, Not Ever by Lily Anderson

Title: Not Now, Not Ever
Author: Lily Anderson
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: November 21st 2017

      “Elliot Gabaroche is very clear on what she isn’t going to do this summer.
      1. She isn’t going to stay home in Sacramento, where she’d have to sit through her stepmother’s sixth community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
      2. She isn’t going to mock trial camp at UCLA.
      3. And she certainly isn’t going to the Air Force summer program on her mother’s base in Colorado Springs. As cool as it would be to live-action-role-play Ender’s Game, Ellie’s seen three generations of her family go through USAF boot camp up close, and she knows that it’s much less Luke/Yoda/”feel the force,” and much more one hundred push-ups on three days of no sleep. And that just isn’t appealing, no matter how many Xenomorphs from Alien she’d be able to defeat afterwards.
      What she is going to do is pack up her attitude, her favorite Octavia Butler novels, and her Jordans, and go to summer camp. Specifically, a cutthroat academic-decathlon-like competition for a full scholarship to Rayevich College, the only college with a Science Fiction Literature program. And she’s going to start over as Ever Lawrence, on her own terms, without the shadow of all her family’s expectations. Because why do what’s expected of you when you can fight other genius nerds to the death for a shot at the dream you’re sure your family will consider a complete waste of time?
      This summer’s going to be great.

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“I opened my mouth to laugh, but it died in my throat, threw itself a funeral, and dug graves for every ounce of joy that I could ever feel again…”

Lily Anderson’s companion novel to The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is inspired by Oscar Wilde’s jovial play The Importance of Being Earnest. In Not Now, Not Ever, seventeen-year-old Elliot Gabaroche concocts a plan to attend Camp Onward in an effort to win a scholarship to her dream college. The only problem is she has to do it without her overprotective family finding out. But as Ever Laurence, Elliot gets to be whomever she chooses, without the expectations of her parents hanging over her head. Winning one of the few scholarships at a camp full of geniuses and keeping her scheme a secret becomes increasingly more difficult when Elliot’s annoying younger cousin Isaiah shows up, hoping to win a scholarship himself.

Elliot is a character who is easily relatable. On the verge of adulthood, Ellie needs to decide what path her life is going to take. This isn’t easy when she’s been born into a family where her choice of career means choosing one parents over the other. Her mother expects her to attend the Air Force Academy over the summer, to follow in so many Laurences’ footsteps. Her father and stepmother are hoping she takes a different route — the former hoping she chooses to study law like him. Elliot on the other hand has dreams of her own. At Rayevich College she’d have a chance to study her all-time favorite authors like Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin. Even though Elliot’s family is a point of contention in the novel, I loved how important a role family played in the story. It’s easy to see how much Elliot loves her parents and how much she doesn’t want to disappoint any of them. I also loved that this novel has a positive portrayal of a blended family where Elliot’s stepmom is an important part of her life. Elliot’s relationship with her cousin Isaiah has been defined by a childhood where her own accomplishments were always overshadowed by his own. I wanted more for the two of these characters in terms of their relationship. In the end, it felt like Elliot had more of a chance to mature, but this is her story, so it’s somewhat understandable.

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is filled with nerdy references and Anderson does not disappoint in this department when it comes to Not Now, Not Ever. A camp full of nerdy geniuses provides plenty of opportunity to celebrate all things geeky. Anderson has a way of writing settings where the cast of characters gets to celebrate their nerdiness in a fun and unapologetic way. One of my favorite things about her books is how authentic and relatable these incredibly intelligent characters end up being. Fans of the first novel will recognize some familiar faces and rediscover others. Elliot’s love interest, Brandon, for example, is a character that I didn’t know I wanted an update on. Their relationship is sweet with just enough realism to feel authentic.

Not Not, Not Ever is the perfect contemporary for those who love nerd culture. It can be read as a standalone, but I highly recommend everyone pick up both of Anderson’s novels as she continues to impress me with her writing.

4/5

★★★★

Mini Reviews: First & Then + An Enchantment of Ravens

MiniI meant to post these mini-reviews before the end of the year, but with all the posts I was hurriedly putting together, I didn’t get a chance to post this one. In a rare case, I actually regret not writing a full review for An Enchantment of Ravens as I enjoyed it more than my mini review implies, so if my brief thoughts don’t convince you to pick it up, I’m hoping this little note will. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: First & Then
Author: Emma Mills
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Release Date: October 13th 2015 

      “Devon Tennyson wouldn’t change a thing. She’s happy watching Friday night games from the bleachers, silently crushing on best friend Cas, and blissfully ignoring the future after high school. But the universe has other plans. It delivers Devon’s cousin Foster, an unrepentant social outlier with a surprising talent for football, and the obnoxiously superior and maddeningly attractive star running back, Ezra, right where she doesn’t want them: first into her P.E. class and then into every other aspect of her life.
      Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights in this contemporary novel about falling in love with the unexpected boy, with a new brother, and with yourself.

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“It was endearing, in that way that almost ached sometimes, how much my folks wanted Foster to be okay. And I think even more than I did, they wanted Foster to be normal. For me, being normal meant fitting in. For them, I think it just meant being happy.”

Emma Mill’s First & Then is a Pride & Prejudice inspired contemporary that failed to grip me emotionally, making it difficult to enjoy. I had a hard time getting immersed in this book and a lot of this had to do with the protagonist. Though I understood that Devon’s judgmental thoughts were meant to create that needed tension with her love interest Ezra and draw parallels to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, it was still difficult to get behind a protagonist who referred to the freshman gym girls as “prostitots.” Her long-standing crush on her best friend Cas never radiated with me, but this was mostly the fault of the author never showing her readers why someone like Cas was worthy of such a crush. I wanted to swoon along with Dev over Ezra and knowing their relationship was gradual should have made my slow-burn loving heart skip a beat, but I mostly found the star athlete to be too wooden and meaningful interactions between the two to be lacking. The standout character and who really held the whole story together was Devon’s younger cousin Foster. He gave Devon and Ezra a common purpose and added heart to a story that would have completely fallen apart otherwise. There isn’t anything extraordinary about First & Then, but if you’re looking for a simple Jane Austen retelling, you might enjoy this one more than I.

Rating: 2/5

★★


Title: An Enchantment of Ravens
Author: Margaret Rogerson
Series: N/A
Pages: 300
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: September 26th 2017

      “Isobel is a prodigy portrait artist with a dangerous set of clients: the sinister fair folk, immortal creatures who cannot bake bread, weave cloth, or put a pen to paper without crumbling to dust. They crave human Craft with a terrible thirst, and Isobel’s paintings are highly prized among them. But when she receives her first royal patron—Rook, the autumn prince—she makes a terrible mistake. She paints mortal sorrow in his eyes – a weakness that could cost him his life.
      Furious and devastated, Rook spirits her away to the autumnlands to stand trial for her crime. Waylaid by the Wild Hunt’s ghostly hounds, the tainted influence of the Alder King, and hideous monsters risen from barrow mounds, Isobel and Rook depend on one another for survival. Their alliance blossoms into trust, then love, violating the fair folks’ ruthless Good Law. There’s only one way to save both their lives, Isobel must drink from the Green Well, whose water will transform her into a fair one—at the cost of her Craft, for immortality is as stagnant as it is timeless.
      Isobel has a choice: she can sacrifice her art for a future, or arm herself with paint and canvas against the ancient power of the fairy courts. Because secretly, her Craft represents a threat the fair folk have never faced in all the millennia of their unchanging lives: for the first time, her portraits have the power to make them feel.

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“Just like that the wrongness spread. The breeze dropped away, and the air grew still and oppressively hot. The birds stopped singing, the grasshoppers stopped buzzing, and even the wheat dropped in the stagnant air. The stench of decay grew overwhelming.”

Margaret Rogerson’s An Enchantment of Ravens is a enjoyable fantasy with intriguing world-building and multilayered characters. Isobel lives her life dealing with the fair folk on a daily basis. As a talented portrait artist, many fair folk have commission her to paint their portraits in exchange for an enchantment. Isobel has learned that though the fair folk are beautiful, they are incredibly deceptive. She has relied on this knowledge and her own shrewdness when dealing with them. Her connection with the autumn prince Rook is more of an unspoken connection at first and it is for this reason that I hesitated to get behind their relationship. I’m not a fan of the insta-love trope, but as the story progressed, the author ended up selling their relationship better over time. I probably would have taken to the idea of Rook and Isobel sooner if the story had shown them interacting more during his portrait painting. The fair folk were fantastic antagonists in this book. I loved how dark and twisted Rogerson’s wrote them. Their fascination with humanity helped, but also hindered Isobel as she tried to escape their realm. I loved the imagery of the different fairy courts and like Isobel, readers quickly learn that just because something is enchanting, doesn’t make it innocuous. An Enchantment of Ravens does a wonderful job of showing two contrasting beings trying to navigate the other’s world and after finishing, I’m really surprised that this won’t end up being the start of a series rather than a standalone.

Rating: 4/5

★★★★

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You by Lily Anderson

Title: The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You
Author: Lily Anderson
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: May 17th 2016

      “Trixie Watson has two very important goals for senior year: to finally save enough to buy the set of Doctor Who figurines at the local comic books store, and to place third in her class and knock Ben West–and his horrendous new mustache that he spent all summer growing–down to number four.
      Trixie will do anything to get her name ranked over Ben’s, including give up sleep and comic books–well, maybe not comic books–but definitely sleep. After all, the war of Watson v. West is as vicious as the Doctor v. Daleks and Browncoats v. Alliance combined, and it goes all the way back to the infamous monkey bars incident in the first grade. Over a decade later, it’s time to declare a champion once and for all.
      The war is Trixie’s for the winning, until her best friend starts dating Ben’s best friend and the two are unceremoniously dumped together and told to play nice. Finding common ground is odious and tooth-pullingly-painful, but Trixie and Ben’s cautious truce slowly transforms into a fandom-based tentative friendship. When Trixie’s best friend gets expelled for cheating and Trixie cries foul play, however, they have to choose who to believe and which side they’re on–and they might not pick the same side.

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“The very idea that Ben West and I had ever been anything other than bitter rivals was the most horrifying aspersion ever cast upon my character. Even worse than West himself accusing me of being a ‘fake geek girl’ back in sixth grade. “

Lily Anderson’s The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is the modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that you didn’t know you needed. Trixie Watson and Ben West have been mortal enemies since grade school. To say that they hate each other’s guts would be an understatement. At Messina Academy for the Gifted, students are pushed to their academic limits. Trixie is determined to end her senior year by beating Ben in the rankings. Their verbal battles are notorious at school. Desperate for peace, their friends secretly hatch a plan to get the two to reconcile. When Trixie and Ben’s tenuous new friendship begins to evolve into something more, Trixe’s best friend is accused of manipulating the senior class rankings. Now Trixie will do anything to prove her friend’s innocence, but it may cost her her new found friendship with Ben.

The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a smart and funny contemporary. Trixie’s personality jumps right off the pages with her cheeky insults and nerdy allusions. I love how unapologetically geeky Trixie is and enjoyed reading about an entire group of nerdy teen friends. Trixie isn’t always a likable character. She remarks that Ben’s insults always go just a little too far, but Trixie is just as guilty of taking low blows. She’s sometimes more interested in taking a jab at Ben than recognizing her insults can be really harmful. I really admired Trixie’s unwavering loyalty to her best friend Harper. She sets aside her own interests and regardless of the consequences did everything she could to clear her friend of any wrongdoing. Despite her flaws or maybe because of them, I came to really love Trixie as a character. She makes mistakes, but more importantly she learns from them and grows.

The novel is told in first person which limits readers’ insight into certain characters. While I enjoyed the verbal sparring between Trixie and Ben, I was so happy when they were able to spend some time together without feeling the need to bite each other’s heads off. More alike than either of them would dare admit, Trixie and Ben get along surprisingly well. Bonding over comics, sci-fi shows, and graphic novels, the two learn to appreciate each other’s positive qualities. With that being said, I would have liked to have seen these two characters open up more with one another. Ben has some family issues that came up that I wanted more insight into and their relationship would have been a good access point.

With witty banter and steadfast friendship at its center, Lily Anderson’s The Only Thing Worse Than Me Is You is a delightful retelling that had me invested in the main relationship from start to finish. I cannot wait for more novels by this gifted writer.

4/5

★★★★