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REVIEW:  All of You by Christina Lee

REVIEW: All of You by Christina Lee

Dear Ms. Lee,

I’ve been slow to climb on the new adult train. I’ve read a few but I keep running into what I call the Trauma Wall. So much trauma. So many victimized characters. I get that angst is very popular in the genre right now, but I can only read that sort of thing in small doses. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of a virgin hero so I picked up your debut.

all-of-you-leeAvery doesn’t do relationships. One night stands and friends with benefits are more her speed. When a hot tattoo artist, Bennett, moves into the apartment upstairs, she thinks she’s met her next hook up. There’s only one problem. Bennett wants a more lasting relationship with her, and that is the one thing she can’t give him.

Like many NA protagonists, Avery has a traumatized past and the fact that she’s female should give a big clue as to what type of trauma it is. The narrative treated it as this big skeleton in the closet, but it was very obvious what had happened in her past. By the time the details were finally revealed, I was tired of all the skirting around the subject. There’s a fine balance between keeping a secret to heighten tension and just drawing it out needlessly, and I think All of You tips towards the latter.

One thing I did like about the treatment, however, is that there were lasting effects on her behavior. Avery is in complete control of her sexuality. She controls who she sleeps with and when, where, and how it happens. She’s not ashamed of her sexuality and screw anyone who thinks she should be.

Both Avery and Bennett come from similar family backgrounds: no father present while they were growing up and a neglectful mother with a tendency to date terrible men. It gives them common ground. But while that history made Avery not want to form any permanent relationships with men, it made Bennett very cautious and careful about who he has sex with.

I liked that the usual relationship dynamic was flipped. In All of You, the heroine is the one with lots of sexual experience while the hero is a virgin. I thought that reversal was great, and I got what the subversion was trying to accomplish. In other romances, the sexually experienced hero sleeps around indiscriminately until he meets the heroine, and then he stops because he’s met The One. In All of You, a similar thing happens except the gender roles are switched and that’s refreshing. But because Avery is a woman, there’s an aspect to it that’s not present in the male character equivalent. Namely, because of her history and family background, the subtext is that Avery sleeps around because she’s broken. Her own brother even implies it. Like there has to be reason why she sleeps with multiple partners beyond she wants to. And this is where the subversion starts falling apart for me. If a hero can sleep around because he’s alpha and hot, why can’t a heroine sleep around just because she’s alpha and hot? Does she need a traumatic, broken backstory to justify that behavior?

For the most part, Bennett is all right with Avery’s sexual experience but only in a theoretical context. There are a couple times in the novel when he comes face to face with her previous partners and loses it, but I found that reaction believable, sadly. Despite these scenes, I was fine with those depictions because the narrative makes a point to say he has no right to feel that way. Bennett is genuinely sorry he reacted the way he did. The same also goes for Avery. The narrative clearly says she has no right to feel jealous of the girls Bennett talks to because she’s made it clear she wants no relationship with him. She knows and Bennett calls her on it.

The main complaint I have pertains to the subplot involving Avery’s stepfather. The way that played out seemed forced and contrived. It seemed like it was present for the sole purpose of bringing Avery and Bennett together and then once that happened, the set-up required some closure.

I thought All of You was a good portrayal of two people with opposing desires falling in love. They spend a long time negotiating the ins and outs of their relationship. They go from an initial attraction to determining it wouldn’t work because they clearly want different things to trying to be purely platonic (and very much failing). I enjoy reading about evolving relationships and how they change as the people involved get to know one another and in that sense, All of You delivered. B-

My regards,
Jia

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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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