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Beautiful & achingly realistic tale of young love & its aftermath

How to Love - Katie Cotugno

Very rarely does a book impress me, satisfy me, and affect me emotionally as much as Katie Cotugno's debut novel, How to Love, did. This novel is a beautiful and achingly realistic portrayal of one couple's doomed teenage love affair, the aftermath, and their eventual coming to terms with one another.

HOW TO LOVE stands out among the crowd of other YA contemporary novels most notably due to Cotugno's lyrical, evocative writing. The author creates beautiful mental images throughout the novel by including details that add nuance and feeling to the story. Every detail or repeated image seems intentionally placed and well-considered. I would often stop reading to admire a passage and think to myself "THIS is what good writing looks and feels like." Another strength lies in the two main characters, Reena and Sawyer. Both are complex, flawed characters with multifaceted family members and friends surrounding them. While I often didn't like Reena or Sawyer, the writing allowed me to understand them and their actions and motivations.

In addition to her strong character development, Cotugno also does wonders with the plot and the structure of the novel. There is a careful interweaving of plot threads about family pressures, work, alcohol/drugs, religion, school, and friendship to make the characters' lives feel real and palpable. I especially liked the presence and impact of Reena's best friend, Allie, on the relationship between Sawyer and Reena. The plot of HOW TO LOVE never hurries nor dallies; the juxtaposition of the "before" and "after" chapters are perfectly aligned with mirrored events that follow one another naturally. When the book came to a close, the ending left me satisfied, even without answering every plot question directly.

Though this book was a perfect fit for me, there were a few phrases or sentence choices that threw me at times, and other readers may not be able to look past Reena's and Sawyer's flaws in order to find them sympathetic.

In all, though, HOW TO LOVE is the best young adult book that I've read in the past two years. I can't wait to see what moving, realistic, and emotionally arresting stories Cotugno writes in the future. I know that I'll reading every one of them.

Note: This review refers to an advance review copy.

Bird Homes and Habitats - Bill Thompson III
Heavy on nest box information, lacking on habitats

As an avid birder who's now getting into creating bird habitat in our own yard, I was excited to read Bill Thompson's [b:Bird Homes and Habitats|13202047|Bird Homes and Habitats|Bill Thompson III|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1358995651s/13202047.jpg|18384993]. I was most interested in learning how to design and create a yard that attracts birds of all kinds, not just those that seek out nest boxes. With a blurb that claims the book will cover "plenty of...things that can attract birds to a landscape," I thought that the pages would be filled with the information I was seeking. Unfortunately, they were not.

Though this is a solid and easily-read guide about bird homes and habitats, it is focused primarily on nesting structures, not bird habitats in general. When a reference comes up in an early chapter about what plants to add to your bird-friendly landscape, I got excited because that's what I wanted to learn about most. However, right after that statement, the reader quickly learns that he or she must buy different books in the author's series in order to obtain that information. Most curiously, those books don't even have titles to suggest that they would be about habitat or plantings ([b:Identifying and Feeding Birds|8746807|Identifying and Feeding Birds|Bill Thompson III|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348195359s/8746807.jpg|13619973] and [b:Hummingbirds and Butterflies|10180370|Hummingbirds and Butterflies|Bill Thompson III|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348197921s/10180370.jpg|15079332]). Only the first 20 pages of the book cover habitat needs in general, and then the book moves on to focus on nesting specifically.

When the book does focus on nesting, it does a comprehensive job of providing species profiles with details about nesting habits and nest structure needs. One unique feature of this guide is the section that highlights "Birdy Backyard All-Stars" -- people who have created fantastic habitats on their own properties. Each profile is from a different part of the U.S., so readers can choose the locale most like their home and then read about how those in their area have created appealing avian habitats.

Even so, this wasn't what I wanted or needed. The majority of the birds that come through my suburban yard are not going to nest there; they're going to seek temporary food, water, and shelter. If I can get a migrating warbler to eat some bird-friendly berries and take a dip in a specially-designed water feature, I would be ecstatic. Sadly, I finished this book no more knowledgeable about how to create that type of bird habitat in my yard than I was before.

Recommended to those who are novice-to-amateur birdwatchers/nest box creators and/or those who want a guide that provides a general overview of many species' nest structure needs.

Note: This review refers to an advance review copy.
Frigid - J. Lynn,  Jennifer L. Armentrout I know that many people enjoyed this, but it felt like a sloppily-put-together mess to me. I didn't once believe that the two characters had been best friends their entire lives, especially when there appeared to be no real communication between them. I also found Kyler to be terribly unappealing (and downright disgusting) because of the ways he used and treated other women. I adore friends-to-lovers stories, but this one didn't seem believable to me at all.
In the After - Demitria Lunetta This was just meh. I can't say much either way about it right now.
Deadly Little Lessons - Laurie Faria Stolarz
A disappointing end to Stolarz's TOUCH series in which the exact same storyline is recycled yet again, the love triangle is resolved in an unbelievable and quick fashion, and the characters remain shallow and too-inwardly focused overall.
Making It Last - Ruthie Knox
A surprisingly good romance novella in which the characters are not new lovers navigating a nascent relationship, but rather a married couple who finds themselves lost in kids, work, and their roles and responsibilities. The book contains much more depth (and less sex) than the blurb would suggest, as the story is focused primarily on the couple's problems and how they struggle to decide if and how to handle them. I found this novella moving and honest in how it depicted marriage, albeit sometimes depressingly, and it wrapped up with a hopeful ending and a very nice author's note to explain why she wrote this story. Highly recommended to romance fans, especially those who can relate to married life with children.

Note: This review refers to an advance review copy received from NetGalley and the publishers in exchange for an honest review.
The Lost Sun - Tessa Gratton
Solid & engaging start to new series based on Norse myth

[a:Tessa Gratton|3111338|Tessa Gratton|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1328563756p2/3111338.jpg] begins her new series, The United States of Asgard, with [b:The Lost Sun|13021366|The Lost Sun (The United States of Asgard, #1)|Tessa Gratton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1362068810s/13021366.jpg|18183974], a tale of two teenagers and their race to find and save the sun god, Baldur the Beautiful. Soren Bearskin has always feared the fire in his chest, the berserking, that might lead to a murderous rampage like that of his father. Conversely, Astrid Glyn, a young prophetess, lives in the shadow of her mother’s great seething and seeks to embrace it. When fate throws them together and the country erupts in chaos after Baldur goes missing, the two strike out on a cross-country trek to find the missing god and return him to his rightful place.

[b:The Lost Sun|13021366|The Lost Sun (The United States of Asgard, #1)|Tessa Gratton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1362068810s/13021366.jpg|18183974] is a solid and engaging start to Gratton’s new series, and its strength lies in the writing and the depth of emotion and conflict depicted in the characters. Set in an alternative United States filled with the creatures of Norse myth, this is a story that could have easily been overshadowed by the flash and action often associated with retold myths. Instead, however, this is a novel (and likely a series) about the characters, their struggles, and their humanity. Soren, Astrid, and Baldur are all sympathetic characters, but Soren is especially so; the dilemma that Soren faces as a berserker feels genuine and heart-wrenching. While there is a romance, it’s not the focus. This is foremost a story about friendship, loyalty, self-discovery, and self-definition. When romantic moments did occur, I also felt twinges of swoon despite the too-quickly-realized romantic connection.

Having said that, though, this novel also excels at its interpretation of Norse myth, even when playing loosely with the original tales. I enjoyed reading about this reimagined U.S. where mortals walk among demi-gods, gods, and Valkyries. The writing is rich and full of description that allowed me to easily envision every setting and situation, from dilapidated farmhouses with trolls inside to the emotional conflict roiling in Soren's mind. The story then concludes with a bittersweet ending that avoided the easy solution, which I also appreciated.

Even with these strengths, there were a few instances in which I longed for more. The romance and some friendships developed quickly and a bit unbelievably; I wish there had been more development in the initial stages of each relationship. The mythology, including the trickery involved at the climax, was a bit hard to follow at times, and I was grateful that I had at least some background in Norse mythology. And, while I love Gratton’s style, the abundance of descriptors and metaphors/similes became noticeable and distracting at times.

Regardless of these small qualms, [b:The Lost Sun|13021366|The Lost Sun (The United States of Asgard, #1)|Tessa Gratton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1362068810s/13021366.jpg|18183974] is a winning start to a new series with a unique and relatively unexplored mythos, and I’m looking forward to the coming books in the series. Norse mythology is likely to be the next big thing, and I’m glad Gratton is in on the front end of it. Highly recommended to fans of [a:Maggie Stiefvater|1330292|Maggie Stiefvater|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1359424840p2/1330292.jpg] and [a:Brenna Yovanoff|3023658|Brenna Yovanoff|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1261685101p2/3023658.jpg].

Note: This review refers to an advance review copy.
Far Far Away - Tom McNeal
Beautifully written fairy tale best suited for younger YA readers

As the book blurb states, [b:Far Far Away|16030663|Far Far Away|Tom McNeal|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1366106300s/16030663.jpg|21800322] is a tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost. But it is also more than that: it is a beautifully written story about friendship, love, regret, and the evil that can lurk under the most benevolent of façades.

It's infrequent that I read a book and can tell how much time and planning an author put into it by the way the story unfolds, by how the details that seemed initially irrelevant are brought into play. However, this craftsmanship was readily apparent by the time I finished reading FAR FAR AWAY. [a:Tom McNeal|253358|Tom McNeal|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1299869361p2/253358.jpg] uses his words to describe a sleepy, small town called Never Ever where every person, place, and situation has the hint of a fairy tale embedded into it. The ghost, Jacob Grimm of the famous Grimm Brothers, was a wonderfully insightful and sympathetic narrator whose voice sounded genuine, and the other characters, all quirky in one way or another, will delight many readers. The plot points wove together in small, nuanced ways that all coalesced by the conclusion. And when the plot turned dark, it went very dark, and in doing so, the story stayed true to its roots in the original Grimms' tales.

Even with all of these strengths, I felt oddly disconnected from this story. For much of the book, I felt unsure of whom the intended audience was meant to be or how much of the town, its people, and their stories were meant to be taken seriously. The plot develops very slowly and does not pick up until nearly 70% into the text. Though I appreciated how everything came together, it felt as though it took a very long time to get there. When the pacing does change, the tone also shifts abruptly from one of small-town musings to that of a very dark and sinister variety. Most of the characters were described in broad strokes, and some were little more than caricatures. I believe this framing was intentional, as the story is a fairy tale about fairy tales, but I longed for more character depth. The two main characters, Jeremy and Ginger, also spoke and acted much younger than their purported age of fifteen.

If I were to rate this book based solely on my enjoyment of it, I would give it three stars, but McNeal's obvious mastery of his story and the language he uses to tell it make me bump it up to four stars. I would recommend this story most to those between the ages of 11 - 14 or to adult readers who want to immerse themselves in the Grimm-influenced lore. Given the right reader with a patient disposition, FAR FAR AWAY should be a treat of fairy tale proportions.

Note: This review refers to an advance review copy.
Captive: The Forbidden Side of Nightshade - A.D. Robertson
If I rated this on my reading experience alone, it would get 1 star. If I rated this, however, based on how it fares and compares to other novels in the romance genre, it would get 2 stars. Therefore, I'm going with 1.5 stars overall.
The Registry - Shannon Stoker One of the most poorly-written and poorly plotted things I've ever read. I just can't even begin to describe how lackluster this was. I also don't understand why it's being marketed as "new adult," but oh well.
Dare You To - Katie McGarry
Quick & easy read for fans of contemporary YA romance

In [b:Dare You To|13561164|Dare You To (Pushing the Limits, #2)|Katie McGarry|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1354200468s/13561164.jpg|19135892], Beth Risk lives with her drug-addicted mother under the constant threat of poverty and violence. When she's sent to a rural town to live with the uncle that left years ago, Beth struggles to find a way to save her mother and get back to the few close friends who have helped her. Though local golden boy and baseball star Ryan Stone's life appears blissfully easy in comparison, there's more simmering beneath the surface of his family's perfect façade. When Beth and Ryan's lives intersect, sparks fly and each learns that the expected path in life might not always be the best one.

While DARE YOU TO was a bit formulaic, this book was a quick and easy read that will appeal to fans of [a:Simone Elkeles|274533|Simone Elkeles|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1350327003p2/274533.jpg], both in its style of alternating male/female points-of-view and its overall light tone, despite the serious topics involved. One notable strength of the novel was Ryan: he was a great male lead who treated Beth with respect. Though there were some moments when he acted a bit chauvinistic, these instances seemed realistic for his character and the small-town climate in which he grew up. While I always knew where Beth and Ryan's relationship was headed, it was nice to see the progression from attraction and lust to something deeper. In addition, I appreciated how the sex scene was handled; the story featured a virgin hero and did a very good job depicting how sex can be an exercise in trust, not just desire. I also enjoyed the secondary characters, especially Ryan's friends Chris, Logan, and Lacey. The interactions between these friends and their classmates depicted small-town rural/suburban life well without mocking it.

This novel didn't work for me on all levels, though. Some very serious issues were presented in the book (e.g., drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty), but they were glossed over and resolved too easily, even if somewhat sadly. Similarly, significant changes in Beth's character seemed to happen too quickly to be believable, and she felt less developed as a character than Ryan. While I liked Ryan's character, he did some things that seemed to contradict his "nice guy" persona, while also sometimes seeming too idealized to be real.

Even with these misgivings, I enjoyed reading DARE YOU TO and think it will have a wide fan base. This installment was a definite improvement over my experience with McGarry's first book ([b:Pushing the Limits|10194514|Pushing the Limits (Pushing the Limits, #1)|Katie McGarry|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1322770025s/10194514.jpg|15093690]), and I look forward to reading the final book in the trilogy ([b:Crash into You|17233800|Crash into You (Pushing the Limits, #3)|Katie McGarry|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1370532247s/17233800.jpg|23751121])) when it comes out.

Note: This review refers to an advance review copy.
Stealing Harper - Molly McAdams
When I requested a review copy of [b:Stealing Harper|17607319|Stealing Harper (Taking Chances, #2)|Molly McAdams|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1364325603s/17607319.jpg|23694180], I didn't realize that it was a companion novella to an already existing book ([b:Taking Chances|15739018|Taking Chances (Taking Chances, #1)|Molly McAdams|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344296221s/15739018.jpg|21424080]). Despite that, I was still able to read it and understand what was going on, but I unfortunately didn't care about the story or its characters. The writing was repetitive and insipid, and the characters had few distinguishing characteristics other than an unexplainable attraction to each other and a noticeable lack of reasoning. Chase wasn't hot; he was emotionally hurtful, sometimes physically abusive, and downright disgusting in his dealings with and perception of women. Harper, his love interest, had no personality other than being indecisive and easily embarrassed. Their interactions with each other lacked authenticity, and the supposed romance between them never held a hint of romance for me; it was merely empty sexual attraction and a lot of repulsive, possessive inner dialogue from Chase about "his princess."

Only recommended to those readers who enjoyed the first book, TAKING CHANCES, and who want to see things from Chase's perspective.

Nota bene: Only 65% of the e-book contains actual content; the remaining 35% is merely samplers for the author's other works.
How to Love - Katie Cotugno My first five-star book in two years! I am so incredibly impressed with the quiet but compelling story this novel tells and the style and lyricism with which the author tells it. I can't wait to see what this author writes in the future.
Between the Covers - Sophie Jordan, Lisa Desrochers, J. Lynn, Abigail Gibbs, Cora Carmack, Shannon Stoker, Jay Crownover, Molly McAdams, Jennifer L. Armentrout
[b:Between the Covers: The Hottest New Adult Books|17824566|Between the Covers The Hottest New Adult Books from Jennifer L. Armentrout/J. Lynn, Cora Carmack, Abigail Gibbs, Sophie Jordan, Molly McAdams, and Shannon Stoker|J. Lynn|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1366456307s/17824566.jpg|24934124] is a sampler e-book meant to entice readers to pick up the full-length novels from these authors. Selections include excerpts from some already-released titles and others that will be published in the next few months.

Despite the publisher's attempt to pique my interest in these ten titles, I was turned off by the poor writing, plotting, or characterization in all but three of them. The only three I would consider ever reading further included [b:Wait for You|17314430|Wait for You (Wait for You, #1)|J. Lynn|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1363819713s/17314430.jpg|23981243] by J. Lynn, [b:Dinner With a Vampire|15998621|Dinner With a Vampire (The Dark Heroine, #1)|Abigail Gibbs|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347665414s/15998621.jpg|21759169] by Abigail Gibbs, and [b:Foreplay|17254035|Foreplay (The Ivy Chronicles, #1)|Sophie Jordan|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1367338814s/17254035.jpg|23845708] by Sophie Jordan. I am admittedly biased toward WAIT FOR YOU, as I have read it before and it is the best New Adult title I've read (though that's not saying a great deal, as I only gave it 2.5 stars). THE DARK HEROINE had a snappy and harrowing opening and was the one paranormal title among the mix, and FOREPLAY seemed like it could be a fun, mindless romance if someone was in the mood for that.

Otherwise, even THE REGISTRY, which I had high hopes for as a dystopian, held little appeal. The excerpts by Carmack and McAdams were especially egregious in their writing, complete with run-on sentences and comma splices galore, and horribly contrived or cliche plots. I would have hoped that these titles, which were primarily self-pubbed before being picked up by HarperCollins, would have been cleaned up before being promoted, but apparently not.
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer - Lish McBride
My first complete audiobook "read." [b:Hold Me Closer, Necromancer|8041873|Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Necromancer, #1)|Lish McBride|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312050504s/8041873.jpg|12671757] was a humor-filled urban fantasy romp with touching moments mixed in. A great choice for YA readers who like older, college-aged protagonists and also a great choice for male readers.
Sever - Lauren DeStefano Meh. I just feel so...meh about this book and the conclusion of this trilogy. I can see what the author was trying to do theme-wise, but it still didn't grab me.