Like Never and Always: A Review

cover art for Like Never and Always by Ann AguirreLiv, Morgan, Clay, and Nathan are all driving home from a party in Clay’s convertible. Best friends dating brothers? It’s fun. And this ride is the perfect end to another perfect summer night.

Until a crash changes their lives forever.

Liv wakes up in the hospital, hazy from the drugs and her injuries. She doesn’t think too hard about it when people keep calling her Morgan–it has to be some kind of mix up. A mistake. Everyone keeps telling her Liv died in the car crash and she dreads having to correct them–especially Morgan’s father.

But when the bandages are finally removed, Liv doesn’t see herself in the mirror. Instead Morgan’s face stares back at her.

Trapped in a body that isn’t hers, Liv tries to make sense of Morgan’s life. It always seemed perfect from the outside but now Liv starts to realize that she didn’t know her best friend as well as she thought.

As Liv starts to make sense of Morgan’s life, she unearths dangerous secrets about a decade-old murder and a dangerous love affair–all while pursuing a love that feels like a betrayal in Like Never and Always (2018) by Ann Aguirre.

Like Never and Always is a standalone thriller with a supernatural twist.

Liv’s unique position as an outsider in her own (that is, Morgan’s) life, ratchets up the suspense as both readers and Liv herself are left in the dark about all of Morgan’s secrets. The pacing is tight with Liv constantly questioning her current situation and trying to make sense of it.

While most of the story focuses on Liv’s investigation into Morgan’s past, she also struggles with being caught between two boys. Nathan isn’t the boy she thought he was when they were dating–especially now that he’s consumed by grief. Clay, meanwhile, is so much more. Liv finally starts to understand what drew Morgan to Clay to begin with. But how can Liv move forward with either of them the way she is now?

Like Never and Always is a serviceable thriller with genuine moments of suspense despite some predictable reveals. The unique body swapping spin adds another dimension to the story but fails to be fully explored as Liv increasingly embraces her new circumstances without question. Recommended for readers looking for a new take on stolen identities.

Possible Pairings: The Possible by Tara Altebrando, Don’t You Trust Me by Patrice Kindl, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, In Her Skin by Kim Savage, As I Wake by Elizabeth Scott, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

I Remember You: A Review

I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt BellLucas and Juliet have nothing in common. Juliet is an overachiever who, even as a junior, already has plans for college and law school. Lucas knows that at the end of his senior year he will enlist in the Marines–just like his father and countless other relatives.

Still, Juliet finds herself drawn to Lucas even as common sense tells her she should be afraid. Despite just meeting, just starting to know each other, Lucas says he remembers their entire relationship from their first kiss to their first fight and even how they break up.

Juliet doesn’t know if she should be more worried about Lucas or herself when she starts to believe him. As they grow closer, Lucas’ memories begin to come with more frequency and much more foreboding. Juliet wants desperately to keep Lucas safe with her in the present but she doesn’t know how to do that when she has already lost him in the future in I Remember You (2015) by Cathleen Davitt Bell.

I Remember You sounds like a fantasy. It is not. Instead I Remember You reads superficially as a contemporary romance with one (supposedly though with no explanation given) supernatural element. Except it’s technically historical because most of the book is set in 1994. (It becomes clear early on that Juliet is relating past events from a point in the future as an adult which also raises questions about whether this book even is YA in the truest sense but that’s a different discussion.)

Upon closer reading, the problems in I Remember You begin to mount. A lot of how readers react to I Remember You depends on how they feel about Juliet and Lucas (both separately and as a couple).

Working from the initial fact that Lucas and Juliet have nothing in common beyond proximity in Physics class (the only class they have together since the rest of Juliet’s schedule consists of Honors classes), it’s incredibly hard to believe these two characters would ever embark on a relationship, let alone an epic one that seems poised to defy time and space. This uncertainty about the two main characters ever connecting casts the entire initial premise of the book in doubt but if you can get past it, then maybe this book will work for you.

That is assuming you can also get past the fact that when Juliet and Lucas first begin to talk, Juliet is afraid of him. It’s important to point out that Juliet is also drawn to Lucas and there is definitely mutual attraction. But the key point here is that Juliet is afraid of Lucas when he starts to talk about remembering their relationship. If you can get past fear being as key to this relationship as attraction, then maybe this book will work for you.

Plot-wise, I Remember You is going to be familiar because it reads like countless other romantic first love stories.

Character-wise, there are also a lot of familiar faces. Juliet is the calm, focused, over-achiever-with-her-eye-on-the-prize. Lucas is the jock with a surprising amount of depth but also the boy who is going to leave everything behind to enlist. Add to the mix a single mother (Juliet’s), a disillusioned father and harried mother (Lucas’s) and you start to check off a lot of character archetypes.

Juliet’s best friend Rosemary also features. Rosemary–sometimes Rose–is gorgeous and she knows it. She also uses it at every opportunity to manipulate men (men because she is 16 and dating college students) to give her gifts and adoration. Rosemary’s outlook on life seems to be “love ’em and leave ’em” which would not raise any eyebrows if she were a boy and it is an interesting choice here. Except it all leads to rather disastrous consequences for Rosemary (and Lucas and Juliet) as one relationship escalates into stalking territory. Furthermore, without actually discussing that Rosemary is trying to parlay her looks into agency the entire thing falls flat and we are instead left with a one-note character who is manipulative and often quite mean.

Then we have Lucas’ best friend Dexter. Poor, hapless Dexter with his sad, hopeless crush on Rosemary. Dexter is used and abused in this story when he appears seemingly out of nowhere so that Rosemary will have a new guy to chew up and spit out. Dexter is shy. He has bad hair and he wears baggy clothes. He is also almost certainly white. Dexter eventually gets his day which comes in the form of a good haircut that highlights his inherent good looks. So far so good. Then Juliet says the haircut makes people notice things about Dexter including the fact that he has cheekbones like a Lenape warrior. There is no scenario in which that description can be interpreted as anything but the worst kind of cultural appropriation.

In addition to these problems, I Remember You often handles the fact of Lucas’ imminent enlistment very poorly. Juliet never truly accepts that being a Marine is something Lucas very deeply wants and not something he is being forced into. (There is a hint of familial obligation here since Lucas likely wants to gain approval from his father. But at the same time Lucas has two younger brothers who do not seem to share his aspirations so maybe there isn’t that much familial pressure after all?)

Later in the novel, Juliet describes herself as a pacifist. She goes on to talk about Lucas’ decision to enlist with what can only be called disdain. This disdain is especially troubling given the fact that the book has already established that Lucas is not as smart as Juliet (per their classes) and perhaps from the wrong side of the tracks (or at least the bad part of town).

Juliet’s friends are horrified by Lucas’ choice and have an even more pervasive dislike not only of him but perhaps the entire military as they clearly see Lucas (and by extension anyone who joins the military) as somehow lacking. Both viewpoints seemed reductive and distasteful. Is it not possible to be a pacifist while also holding at least some respect for our troops and the risks they take to protect our country?

In terms of unlikely romance, I Remember You is about as unlikely as it gets. I Remember You may appeal on a surface level to readers looking for a book to transition into YA as well as fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife or Nicholas Sparks. Readers who give their novels closer inspection may find more to fault than to praise.

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, How to Love by Katie Cotungo, The Secrets We Keep by Trisha Leaver, Now That You’re Here by Amy K. Nichols, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone, Pivot Point by Kasie West

In the Shadow of Blackbirds: A Review

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat WintersIt is 1918 and it feels like the entire world is falling apart. Boys are dying overseas fighting in World War I while the Spanish Influenza is cuts a swath across America leaving countless dead, and still more ruined, in its wake.

When sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black is forced from her home in Portland, Oregon, she travels south to live with her aunt in San Diego. The flu is just as bad in California, if not worse. A quarantine is in effect. Face masks are mandatory at all times in public.

In the midst of this chaos and fear, Mary Shelley watches with dismay and skepticism as mourners seek comfort in seances and spirit photographs.

When a dear friend appears in a photograph of her and begins to ask her for help, Mary Shelley will have to put aside her doubts to solve a mystery that will bring her to the brink in In the Shadow of Blackbirds (2013) by Cat Winters.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is Winters’ first novel. It was also a finalist for the Morris Award in 2014.

Winters delivers a well-researched and atmospheric story of desperation and loss in this historical mystery with supernatural elements. Period photographs and carefully chosen true-to-life details bring this story and the horrors Americans faced in 1918 to life.

While ghosts feature heavily in the story, In the Shadow of Blackbirds remains firmly grounded in reality as Mary Shelley works to out a spirit photographer as a fraud while trying to unravel the final days of her dear friend after his death.

Mary Shelley is an exceptional heroine with a strong interest in science and technology as well as a complete lack of fear when it comes to saying (or doing) what is right. Although this story includes romantic elements in its back story and denouement, Mary Shelley remains the capable center of this novel as she works largely on her own to unearth the truth.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds is an impressive historical novel. It is also a sensational mystery with enough twists to keep even the most seasoned mystery reader guessing. Recommended for fans of both genres.

Possible Pairings: The Diviners by Libba Bray, Born of Illusion by Teri Brown, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Nothing But Sky by Amy Trueblood, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Slide: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Slide by Jill HathawaySylvia “Vee” Bell has passed out often enough in class for everyone to know she’s narcoleptic. What no one would believe is that Vee doesn’t just pass out during her episodes.

When Vee loses consciousness she can slide into someone else’s mind. Most of the time when Vee slides she discovers secrets she’d rather not know like seeing her sister, Mattie, cheating on a math test or watching a teacher sneak a drink before class.

When Vee slides late one night she sees something much worse: the murder of her sister’s best friend, Sophie. While everyone else believes that Sophie killed herself, Vee knows the truth. Even if she has no way to prove it.

As Vee learns more about her sliding and unearths secrets about her friends and family, she’ll have to try to stop the killer herself before they strike again in Slide (2012) by Jill Hathaway.

 Slide is Hathaway’s first novel.

In this sharp mystery with a sly supernatural twist, Hathaway introduces a heroine with equal parts candor and spunk. Vee’s narration is frank and unapologetic making her easy to identify with and even easier to love.

At a slim 256 pages, Slide is a finely tuned page-turner filled with unexpected surprises for Vee and readers alike. Vee’s father and sister are well-developed characters with their own flaws and, more troubling for Vee, their own secrets. Similarly Vee’s best friend Rollins is an admirable foil to Vee and adds another dimension to the story as he and Vee try to untangle their newly-complicated friendship.

While Vee works to use her sliding to uncover the killer, Vee also comes into her own as she learns more about how she slides as well as how to simply be herself. Slide finishes with an ending that is as shocking as it is satisfying. Hathaway skillfully completes most story threads while leaving room for future installments in what will hopefully be a long running series.

Possible Pairings: The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison, Clarity by Kim Harrington, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten

Check back June 1, 2012 to see my exclusive interview with the author!

Sleepless: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sleepless by Cyn BalogEverything is a joke to Griffin Colburn from the usual pranks and hijinks right down to his relationship with his girlfriend, Julia Devine.

So, really, maybe it isn’t so surprising when Julia thinks the news of Griffin’s death is a practical joke. Maybe it isn’t so surprising that he seems to be playing mean pranks on her . . . after, well, you know.

Julia is used to being the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. She’s used to the whispers and the gossip.

Eron DeMarchelle knows all of Julia’s secrets. He knows what happened to her as a child. He knows her dreams.

Eron is a Sandman, a Sleepbringer, who has been watching Julia since the day she was born helping her sleep and find rest. No longer human, he shouldn’t feel a connection to Julia. But he does.

As his time as a Sandman draws to a close, Eron has a chance to see Julia as a human. To talk to her and maybe have something more. That is, if he can keep her safe long enough to actually talk to her in Sleepless (2010) by Cyn Balog.

At 215 pages (hardcover) Sleepless is a quick read with a lot of appealing elements. The book is written in chapters alternating between Julia and Eron’s first person narrations.

Sleepless is also a strange book to review because I really did enjoy it even though there were a lot of issues with the story.

Eron is a charming character. Though naive and initially stiff, he quickly grows on readers. Even his lack of understanding about simple, rather ubiquitous, slang eventually makes sense considering Eron spends most of his time in the human world watching his charges sleep. Once you can get past the initial creepiness of Eron’s job as a Sandman (and about putting his charges to sleep being called a “seduction”–ew) he is actually very well-meaning and not creepy at all.

Julia, unfortunately, is less endearing though she does have her moments. She talks a lot about not wanting to be “Front-page Julia” or be seen as a victim anymore and how Griffin (and his best friend Bret) helped her develop a thick skin while acting as her buffers to the rest of the world.

The thing is, Julia kind of is a victim. She mentions learning to give as good as she got from Griffin, but he still comes across as a verbally abusive boyfriend.* Who proceeds to profess his undying (er, figuratively) love for Julia upon his demise. That might be possible to overlook as banter gone wrong, except that Julia also lets another character forcibly kiss her (twice) against her will because she wants to be nice. Then, when someone stops this character, she defends his actions since he’s such a “good friend” to her.

There are a lot of reasons Julia could be so misguided, most of them even work with the story although nothing is ever stated explicitly. I’m not even sure why the troubling aspects of this story bothered me so little. Maybe it has something to do with Eron being the main character and beyond reproach and the good guy and there to protect Julia? I’m not sure.

Some of the writing is also awkward.**

There’s a thing called “willing suspension of disbelief” (I learned about in a film studies class, maybe you’ve seen it attached to literature) where basically for a premise to work you have to temporarily surrender your logic.*** Sleepless works if you have enough willing suspension of disbelief.

If you can get past some of the fundamental problems mentioned here (by suspending that disbelief) and just want to sit back and enjoy a fairly straightforward supernatural romance, Sleepless might be it.

*And just plain mean. He gave Julia rabbit ears in their prom photos. Who does that? Is it weird to admit that was the moment I knew Griffin was kind of evil?

**Two words: “hip tumor”

***Star Trek works because the audience believes that gravity can be simulated in space, thereby willingly suspending their disbelief upon seeing the crew of the Enterprise walking around instead of . . . floating.

Possible Pairings: Wings by Aprilynne Pike,Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

Exclusive Bonus Content: I was going to make this cover image smaller but the alignment is so perfect and the cover is so nice that I’m going to leave it. I also want to point out the flower (I don’t know what kind of flower it is. If you do, tell me in the comments!) and the crescent moon. In addition to putting the character’s name at the top of each chapter, the moon is incorporated into the top of Eron’s first chapter pages while Julia’s first pages are adorned with the flower at the bottom of the page. I don’t have the book with me (I knew there was a reason I kept the books until the review was written) but the design is very indicative of the American edition of A Little Wanting Song and both books are published by Random House so I’m going to go out on a limb and say someone at that publishing house had a hand in both books.