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REVIEW:  Omens by Kelley Armstrong

REVIEW: Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

I’ve been a fan of your work since the very beginning. Some books work better for me than others, but that’s to be expected from an author with a sizeable backlist. When your Otherworld series ended last year, I wondered what you’d do next. I knew you’d be writing another Nadia Stafford book but was that it for the adult realm? Then one day I opened up my mailbox to find that Jane had sent me an ARC of your latest book, Omens.

omens-armstrongOlivia Taylor-Jones is a privileged rich girl. There is no dancing around this fact. She comes from a filthy, stinking rich Chicago family, has an Ivy League education, and is engaged to a young CEO who’s being groomed for political office.

Then everything comes crashing down around her when tabloid journalists and bloggers break the news that she’s adopted. What’s more, her birth parents were infamous serial killers who murdered 8 people. The scandal and ensuing attention proves to be too much, leading her adoptive mother to flee to Europe (how nice of her) and driving Olivia out of Chicago.

Where she goes, though, is the small, insular town of Cainesville. There she hopes to learn more about her parents’ pasts, in the hopes of making peace with the newly uncovered truth. But her investigation only leads to more secrets, including mysterious abilities that seem to have awakened and grow stronger by the day.

I hesitate to call this an urban fantasy. It takes place in a small town where everyone knows each other (and their business) and where you can’t get a job until the locals get to know you. Small town gothic would be more accurate perhaps. As with all your previous books, Omens has a writing style that’s easy to read. It’s never a struggle and that’s so comforting to me.

Despite the fact that Olivia is so ridiculously privileged, complete with her “Oh, let me help the poor!” deal in the beginning that allows her to counsel them but never exposes her to the reality of their lives, I found myself sympathizing with her. It’s helped by the fact that even after she learned of her adoption, she continued to think of her adoptive parents as her real parents while the serial killers were just those people who gave birth to her. In so many stories, upon learning they were adopted, the protagonist drops everything to find their “real” parents, as if all the years spent with their adoptive parents amounted to nothing.

That said, I also liked that it didn’t gloss over the complications of having memories of your birth parents. Olivia as a little girl adored her birth parents and the news that she was adopted causes all those old memories to resurface. She may not call them her parents, but she loved them as a little girl and those feelings don’t entirely go away.

On the surface, I suppose you could say this is a narrative about a rich girl who gets knocked off her pedestal and is exposed to the real world. I don’t think that’s what this story is doing, however. Not entirely. For one, Olivia’s privilege is called out many times over the course of the novel. There’s nothing stopping her from asking for money from her family other than pride, after all. Nor is there ever a sense that she can really up and leave her new “poor” life and return to her old one. I mean, of course she can leave Cainesville and return to her Chicago mansion. There’s nothing stopping her from that either. But her entire world as changed, based on the perceptions of the people around her, and a person can never go back from that.

The fantasy aspects in Omens are subtle. There are no werewolves or witches here. Olivia’s ability relates to seeing and interpreting omens, actual omens. Omens related to luck, omens related to the weather, and omens related to death. The mysteries of Cainesville are never explained in this book but readers who know their European folklore (or are willing to google a few words) will get a big hint. I found myself preferring the subtle approach here because the branch of the supernatural world this deals with has never been my favorite, I admit.

Despite all this, however, I found myself finishing the novel and coming to an abrupt realization: nothing really happens in this book. Olivia meets her birth mother, thanks to the efforts of the lawyer who used to represent her birth parents. Her birth mother insists upon their innocence and sends Olivia to investigate the circumstances of the last couple they allegedly murdered. The investigation leads to secret conspiracies and then… And then…

And then?

That’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? There is no “and then.” The circumstances of the final couple’s murder are revealed and that plot line is resolved, but we don’t learn anything else. Not the mystery of Cainesville. Not the meaning of Olivia’s abilities. Not the depths of the secret conspiracy she may have uncovered. We don’t even learn if her birth parents are actually innocent. Omens is very much a set-up book, and I wish that wasn’t the case. The earlier novels of the Otherworld series were self-contained and standalone, despite being part of a series, and I miss that format. I really wish Omens didn’t show signs of following the pattern set by later novels in your previous series instead.

For readers looking for romance, there isn’t much of one here. There’s an implication of something brewing between Olivia and Gabriel, the lawyer helping her, but the relationship is more similar to the relationship between Nadia and Jack from the assassin books. There’s something there but chances are it’ll be slow to form, and there’s a high probability Olivia will take a detour along the way.

I enjoyed Omens for its intriguing premise and compelling character conflict. What I’m cautious about is the execution and payoff, since recent novels from you fell short for me in this area. I’m willing to stick along for the ride but I’m definitely keeping my expectations in check. C+

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Just One Day by Gayle Forman

REVIEW: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Dear Ms. Forman:

Thanks to Jane’s foray into the genre last year, I’ve grown curious about New Adult novels. I’ve given a couple a try within the past month and the results have left me rather dubious. That said, I’ve enjoyed novels featuring older teens who are graduating or have just graduated from high school. Based on some recommendations, I picked up If I Stay and Where She Went and loved them both. So I eagerly looked forward to your new novel. Unfortunately, I don’t think it lived up to the hype.

Forman-Just-One-DayAllyson Healey has lived her entire life in a neat little box mapped out by her parents. But during a European tour after high school graduation, she meets an actor named Willem. There’s instant attraction and Allyson is charmed. When Willem invites her to spend one day in Paris with him, she decides to be impulsive for once and agrees to accompany him instead of heading to London with her best friend.

That day in Paris is magical and Allyson learns to take life as it comes, to pounce on the chances that come her way. But after a night of sex, she wakes up to find herself alone. Devastated, Allyson returns to London to meet up with her friend, and from there to the U.S. where she heads off to college in the fall. What follows is a year of self-discovery and picking up the pieces after Allyson’s first attempt at seizing the day results in disaster.

Despite my best intentions to keep an open mind, I go into novels with expectations. If I Stay and Where She Went were so emotionally visceral and I suppose I expected more of that here. I didn’t really get it.

Maybe it was the pacing. The summer stint in Europe took up more than a third of the novel. That doesn’t leave much room for self-discovery. In truth, what happens is that Allyson spends half of her freshman year in college in a deep depression. She attempts to return to the box outlined for her but finds she no longer fits because she’s discovered the world the exists beyond it. This dissonance affects all aspects of her life. Her once-perfect grades plummet. Her friendships stumble and fail.

Of course, all that would have been fine within the context of a story if more weight had been given to the idea of self-discovery. Instead the shadow of Willem dominated everything. I just can’t get behind the portrayal of a one-night stand derailing someone’s life so badly. Yes, she was a teenager — an older one, true, but still a teenager. But even so, Allyson wasn’t a virgin. She’d had a boyfriend. Yes, she thought she’d fallen in love. But because of her age, I wasn’t convinced. This is my age speaking but we know this story. One-night stands where the girl thinks she has a deep connection with the guy but the guy acts like he barely even knows her the next morning? Such a common tale. I realize knowing it happens is different from having it actually happen to you but the entire thing left a bad taste in my mouth.

Part of my feelings can be chalked up to the knowledge that Just One Day is the first half of a duology. The follow-up will be told from Willem’s point of view. I can already guess how it’ll go. He didn’t actually leave her alone the next morning. He had a reason! He’s not an asshole. If Allyson had only waited and had faith in their love, there’d been no reason for that year of moping. It was all just a misunderstanding. But if that’s the case, I would have liked for Allyson’s half of the tale to focus more on self-discovery and globe-trotting, the latter of which takes up less than 100 pages of the novel.

In many ways, I think Just One Day is attempting to replicate the magic of If I Stay and Where She Went. If that’s the case, it fails. It didn’t have the same romantic and emotional impact. The themes of self-actualization and discovery despite — or in spite of — life-changing love don’t ring as strongly. If there’d been more focus on Allyson learning to enjoy life for herself and on her own terms instead of her life being affected by Willem on many levels, maybe I would have enjoyed it more. That, I feel, is the spark missing from this story. Theoretically, I like the idea of chance meetings altering the shape of your life. But what I dislike is that chance meeting becoming the source of all your sadness, joy, and motivation. How is that empowering? C

My regards,
Jia

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