“Giving Up” made me want to give up on it

Reviewed for Netgalley

Giving Up by Michelle Engardt

I guess I’ll be the bad guy here because other reviewers seemed to love this book, but not me. It was all I could do to keep reading it.

The beginning of this story moves too fast to really build up the characters into something realistic, and I found them to be simplistic and not believable. For example, Dylan knows Mandy for about 10 minutes before he reaches the conclusion that she’s “one of the nicest, most genuine human beings he had ever met,” but he doesn’t know her well enough to reach that conclusion. Sorry, but sitting with him for five minutes and offering to make a phone call for him doesn’t justify his feelings about her. And Dr. Robertson? Yikes! I really hope actual shrinks in this situation are more tactful. How in the hell is someone on suicide watch with no family or friends or job supposed to make living arrangements from a hospital bed?

I don’t find Dan to be a believable character. He just happens to be passing under a remote bridge while Dylan was bleeding out? And then he just happens to have every possible commodity that Dylan needs during his recovery? A rent-free apartment, furniture, a job? Sorry, but that seems like a fantasy to me. And at times, his dialogue sounds more like a suicide-prevention pamphlet than a genuine manner in which two young men would talk to one another, and other times he just sounds downright patronizing. There’s some hints to his character’s back story, but so much about him isn’t revealed until far too late in the story to give his character substance. As a reader, I didn’t know enough about him to be invested in him.

A third of the way through the story, I was completely sick of Dylan. I understand that he represents what it is like to be in the throes of depression and what it is like to live in that state, but he came across as whiny, and I found him irritating and unlikable.

It got slightly better when Dan’s motivation for taking in Dylan is finally revealed, but I felt that it would have helped the story a lot more to have disclosed that early on. And, for me, by the end, it deteriorated even further with Dan and Dylan’s fight where two mild mannered characters were suddenly dropping F-bombs every other word. That seemed to come out of nowhere and be completely out of character for both of them.

The point in the story at which certain things were revealed just seemed to be oddly timed. A small example, 125 pages into the book, after he and Dan have shared countless meals of Chinese food, pizza and Christmas dinner with Dan’s parents, it’s suddenly revealed that Dylan has to order cheese pizza because he’s a vegetarian. So, what’s he been eating up to this point? And why is there suddenly a need to reveal this information two-thirds of the way into the book? And here’s a much bigger example. Halfway through the story, Dan and Dylan have a sex talk where Dylan reveals that he’s not into sex, and Dan suggests that he might be asexual, a concept that Dylan does not seem familiar with. Fast forward to almost the end of the story, and Dylan is talking about his past as if he had always known he was asexual. It just made no sense based on their earlier conversation.

Depression, suicide, and sexual identity are all very important for young people to read about, and there are many books out there that deal with these topics (Liane Shaw’s Caterpillars Can’t Swim is a beautiful example), but I can’t recommend Giving Up as one of them.


Burro Hills is a bleak coming out story that ends with hope

Reviewed for Netgalley – Mild Spoilers

Burro Hills by Julia Lynn Rubin

There’s no sugar coated way to say this. Jack’s life sucks. As in devoid-of-hope suckage. When even your best friend thinks you’ll turn out to be nothing more than a dead-beat stoner, that is a really crap life. Jack lives in a dying town with his alcoholic father and his unemployable (and possibly mentally ill) mother. His closest friend, Toby, is an ass and a drug dealer, and Jack and all of his friends do drugs to try and escape their going-nowhere lives.

The other force behind Jack’s drug use is a deeply buried secret that he can’t admit to anyone, including himself. This changes when new student Conner enters the picture. Connor comes with a reputation as a total bad boy who punched his last school principal and has been with just about every girl at his last school, so why can’t Jack stop watching him? And why does Connor return his looks?

It isn’t long before Jack has to stop lying to himself about his sexual orientation, but when a gay student is beaten and left naked by other students, Jack lets his fear destroy his relationship with Connor and almost destroys himself in the process.

As Jack faced one problem after another, I found myself wondering how he didn’t simply implode from the pressure of it all. No wonder he toked up as often as he did. His situation is just so bleak. He doesn’t see a way out of it and, as a reader, I found it hard to have any hope for him either. While I enjoyed the overall story, I do admit to becoming frustrated with some of Jack’s decisions such as his lack of defending Connor when he faces arrest because of Jack or when Jack, knowing what Toby has done to Jess, answers Toby’s distress call, putting himself and Connor in danger. Then again, teenagers make dumb decisions. It’s basically a requirement for growing up, so I can understand it no matter how irritating it was.

Julia Lynn Rubin has a lot going on this story, but she manages to encompass the endless issues that youth face in schools today, from peer pressure to drug and alcohol abuse, to bullying, and hate crimes. She captures the insecurity, immaturity, and need to be accepted that every high school student endures. One of the strongest themes of this book is Jack’s struggle to accept who he is, which is a huge challenge in the conditions in which he lives and the toxic environment where he goes to school. Rubin does an excellent job of showing the fear and anxiety that youth face when deciding to come out. Fortunately, the ending isn’t as hopeless as the beginning, and Burro Hills is a solid coming out story about a boy who has to learn to overcome fear and become he who is truly is.


Where Death Meets the Devil is Pure Escapism

Reviewed for Netgalley

Jack Reardon’s 35th birthday is not going as planned when he comes to tied to a chair in the torture shack owned by the same criminal Jack was sent deep undercover to infiltrate over a year ago. And when Ethan Blade, world renowned assassin and ruthless killer, enters the shack, Reardon doubts he’ll be making it to his 36th birthday.

L.J. Hayward’s story of a former SAS soldier on an assignment gone terribly wrong and the world’s 7th deadliest assassin is total entertainment from the get-go. The story shifts each chapter from Then, when Reardon first encounters Blade, to Now, one year after the pair met and had to fight their way through an army and a desert together to survive. These shifts enhance the suspense, dropping hints in the present about what happened between the two in the past and then returning to the Then to expand on those hints and set the story for what is happening in the Now and why. It created an excellent pace for the story and a momentum that would not have been present had the story been told in a linear fashion.

And while events near the end require some Fast-and-Furious-level suspension of belief, Jack is well developed and complicated, having doubts about himself, his mission, and Blade. He’s a former Special Forces soldier whose mind still carries the scars and trauma of all that he has been through, and it shows in the doubts he has in his current agency and the decisions he makes.

I enjoyed the characters, the action, and the non-linear story telling. I look forward to more works by Hayward and hope she’ll bring Jack and Ethan back in a sequel.

Caterpillars Can’t Swim is a beautiful story of tearing down boundaries and building unlikely friendships

Reviewed for Netgalley

Caterpillars Can’t Swim…but they do eventually morph into beautiful butterflies just as the relationship between three high school boys changes from ugly and awkward into something beautiful that breaks down barriers and saves a life in the process.

Wheelchair-bound Ryan becomes a local hero when he pulls an unconscious Jack out of a river and saves his life, but what could have been an ending is only the beginning as Ryan becomes entwined in Jack’s secretive, unhappy life.

Liane Shaw deftly handled issues such as homophobia, physical disability, depression, and suicide and portrayed them in a way that was gripping without being preachy or clichéd. Her characters were fresh and managed to escape so many of the stereotypes that are usually present in books about high schoolers. Cody could have easily been a one-dimensional jerk, but he had layers that were at times chopped right off to reveal surprising truths about himself. He was abrasive and rude and charming and even sweet in his own way. It’s rare that a reader wants to hug and slap a character all in the same paragraph, but Cody was definitely refreshing and believable in his reactions to Jack. I also liked Ryan from the start. He was snarky and funny and genuine. He was a perfect mix of someone who had accepted his disability and someone who occasionally got completely pissed off about being stuck in a wheelchair. His discomfort and uncertainty about Jack were palpable and made him real to me.

The lack of an insta-friendship was a welcome change. I enjoyed seeing the friendship between Ryan and Jack build over time. Their comradery required honesty and a slow-building trust which wouldn’t have been credible if it had been rushed. And I loved the ending. Jack’s problems didn’t just disappear with a new friendship. Everything wasn’t neat and tidy. The ending was scary and messy and let the reader know that Jack has a long road ahead of him, but that road just might end in a happier place.

Caterpillars Can’t Swim is not your typical YA story, and that is something I really enjoyed about it. This was my first Liane Shaw book, but her writing style and her approach to topics that can be difficult to write about in a fresh, non-stereotypical fashion really appealed to me, and I look forward to reading more of her work.




The dumbing down of Damen, a spoiler-ridden review of Kings Rising

Packed with SPOILERS! Just an FYI….

Okay, I guess three days after finishing is enough processing time to attempt a cohesive review of Kings Rising.KR

C.S. Pacat’s first two books in her Captive Prince series are some of the best books I’ve ever read. The depth of the characters and their cruelty, the exotic customs of the societies Pacat created, the twists and deceptions, the scattered truths, and the intense sword’s edge on which the main characters balanced were all spellbinding. Those books were like nothing I had ever read. It was a very long wait between Captive Prince: Volume Two and Kings Rising, loads of anticipation, and I must admit that halfway through the series’ conclusion, it was just meh for me. I thought the story was dragging and dull to the midway point. Fortunately, the pace did pick up after that.

My biggest problem with this whole book was Damen. I felt that Damen’s character was somewhat lost in this third installation. He was so busy pining for Laurent that he was missing or misjudging what was happening around him. Damen, you are a King now so pull your head out of your ass and act like one! Damen’s naivety was irritating and so was the trust he put in others. How many times must this man be betrayed before he learns that people are not trustworthy? How many chances must he give people before he learns the lessons that Laurent has already mastered? Blind trust is what got him enslaved in the first place and, yet, he is repeating the pattern. I believe Nikandros said it best:

‘No. Listen Damianos. You trust blindly. You see the world in absolutes— if you believe someone a foe, nothing will dissuade you from arming up to fight. But when you give your affections . . . When you give a man your loyalty, your faith in him is unswerving. You would fight for him with your last breath, you would hear no word spoken against him, and you would go to the grave with his spear in your side.’ Pacat, C. S. (2016-02-02). Kings Rising: Book Three of the Captive Prince Trilogy (p. 75).

I guess I just expected Damen to be more suspicious of people in general after what he went through in the first book. I hated that he never seemed to wake up and figure out what was happening. Most of the time, Laurent had to clue him in and other times he was just hit over the head with something he’d completely missed. Example, the fact that the Regent sexually abused Laurent. How could Damen not get this? Look at all the young boys who are the Regent’s known victims. Think of how closed-off and uncertain Laurent is in bed. Think of the timeline of Laurent’s life with the Regent. And, hello!, drunk Laurent falls asleep murmuring ‘yes Uncle,’ but Damen still doesn’t get it? Argh!!!! And also, sending Kastor a warning that he was coming? Stupid, stupid, stupid. I guess he has truly learned nothing from his time in Laurent’s presence. It was almost as if Pacat had dumbed Damen down for this book.

Furthermore, I wanted Damen to get angry. When it appeared that Laurent had left him to be slaughtered at Charcy, when Laurent reveals that he’s known Damen’s identity from the beginning, I wanted Damen to be something other than hurt. I wanted him to be furious. I wanted him to react to Laurent’s cold, calculated manipulation as a sovereign would instead of a besotted victim of unrequited love. Instead, he just rolls over and gives in to all of Laurent’s demands. Even as Laurent’s venomous words cut Damen just as deeply as the whipping he endured on the Vere prince’s command, Damen just keeps being endlessly concerned about Laurent.

I thought the story also got lost a bit in the middle with their wagon-burdened trek through Akielos, and Laurent’s saving the day by impersonating Charls. It all seemed unnecessary and overcomplicated. At times, it was disjointed as if there should have been more but wasn’t. I think the best thing to come out of the middle portion of the book were the exchanges between Jokaste and Laurent, two vipers sizing each other up and striking with words. Oh yeah, and the other best part: Laurent finally shows that there is emotion and love under that ice cold exterior. The frigid prince experiences some global warming!

I was not expecting Damen to turn himself in. Frankly, I was kind of hoping he would sneak in and gut the Regent like a fish, but, instead Damen foolishly believes that Guion will keep his word and testify against the Regent. Seriously, D, stop trusting people whom you know have no morals! However, Damen does finally, FINALLY figure something out on his own, and we find out why Paschal is in Laurent’s service. And then came my final disappointment in Damen: his inability to kill Kastor! Why would you trust a man who sold you into slavery to your worst enemy? Who murdered your father and then tried to frame you for it? Nikandros was right, but instead of a spear, it’s Kastor’s knife in your side. And also, as you later state, you know the wound isn’t fatal so don’t just lie there helplessly! Get up, retrieve your sword, and finish it!

Despite my frustration, I do understand why it had to be Laurent who killed Kastor, why that symmetry between the two characters had to be established. Because Damen, who has been so brutally betrayed, still has love in his heart for Kastor, so Laurent killing Kastor is a stabilizer. It makes them equal. Each has now killed the other’s brother. Frankly, it was a brilliant move on Pacat’s part.

After this review, you probably think I hated the book. I didn’t. Even though the execution of the story wasn’t quite what I had hoped for and even though I didn’t think Kings Rising was as good as the first two books, I still love these two characters. I never thought they could have a happily ever after, but they got one, and that makes me very happy. And leaves me wanting more. A nice little epilogue of how they rule one kingdom, united and together. Perhaps Makedon can even bring more griva to toast his new best friend. I look forward to the short stories Pacat has promised because she, like myself, is not ready to give up this wonderful world and these fantastic characters that she created.

The River Leith, an amnesia story worth remembering

There were other people in the occupational therapy ward….People who were shells of the beings they were before, empty and unable to give anything back to the world except for the memory that once they were more, and that they never would be again.

The River Leith was my first Leta Blake book, but it will definitely not be my last. From the first page, I enjoyed Blake’s writing style and the obvious development that went into these characters. I’ve read amnesia novels before and found all of them lacking, but not this one.

When Leith wakes up in a hospital with no memory of the last three years of his life including his roommates and friends he can’t remember, his frustration and anger practically leap off the page. Blake did a fantastic job getting inside the emotions of not only the amnesiac but the devastated boyfriend whom Leith can’t remember. Zach’s vlog posts about the loss of his love are heartfelt and believable. I’ve never read such a convincing account of amnesia from the devastated point of view of those who are forgotten. Seeing Zach’s POV only through his vlogs was a fresh way to convey not only what was happening in the story, but also how Zach was feeling. Little lines about a forced smile or nervous fingers picking at a loose thread painted a perfect picture of Zach’s ordeal.

And though the book had plenty of sex, which is expected in an M/M book, it never detracted or overshadowed the real story of Leith struggling to find the man he had once been and reconciling with the person he now is. Unlike so many books with amnesia storylines, The River Leith really explores how much is lost when a person loses their memories and whether or not life can resume without them.   

Caught in the Crossfire lacks firepower

I was intrigued by the premise of this book, a young boy at bible camp tries to reconcile his beliefs with his growing attraction to another boy. Unfortunately, the book never lived up to the intrigue of the premise. I found the first half boring and skimmed most of it. When Jonathan finally acts on his feelings for Ian, the story that enfolds just didn’t delve deep enough. The characters all felt a little too cliché. There was everyone I expected to be in a book like this (homophobic bible-thumpers, peer bullies, disapproving parents, token supportive guy) but no one I didn’t expect, no surprises.

Then there was the counselor who outs Jonathan to his mother. Considering that Jonathan is in a turmoil about coming out to his parents, the fact that it never actually happens in the story is a tremendous letdown. There was no discussion, just a few words with his mother that didn’t lead anywhere. It was all a bit anti-climactic in the end and rather disappointing.