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REVIEW:  Going Rogue by Robin Benway

REVIEW: Going Rogue by Robin Benway

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Dear Ms. Benway,

Your previous novel, Also Known As, was one of my favorite novels last year. I was charmed by prodigy safecracker Maggie and her family of spies. In that novel, Maggie and her parents are sent to New York to stop a journalist from exposing the secrets of the organization they work for. To do so, she had to get close to the journalist’s son, inadvertantly falling in love with him — and the idea of a normal life — along the way. I thought Also Known As stood well as a standalone and didn’t need any sequels but unlike many other cases, I was delighted when I discovered there was another book about Maggie and her friends.

It’s been a year since the events of Also Known As. Senior year is rapidly approaching, which means college applications and graduation. Or it would, if you were a normal high school student. And while Maggie has been pretending to be just that, there’s no escaping who, and what, she truly is.

When her parents are framed for stealing some priceless coins, Maggie is determined to prove their innocence. After all, she strongly suspects her parents are merely collateral from the Collective’s anger with her. But the more she tries to keep her family safe, the more she realizes the Collective is trouble. Other agents have left, driven away by circumstances similar to the one now plaguing her parents. There are rumors of agents who’ve gone bad. Worse yet, Maggie learns a painful lesson: sometimes you can’t keep your professional life and your personal one separate.

This is a difficult novel to discuss. While reading it, I really enjoyed. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It sucked me in and kept me engaged. But now that I’ve spent some time away from the book, I can see that it has one very noticeable flaw.

The novel almost tries to do too much. There’s the plot involving Maggie’s parents and the Collective. There’s the plot involving Maggie and Roux’s strained relationship once it becomes apparent Maggie’s gone active again and has to keep secrets from her best friend. There’s the plot involving Maggie and Jesse, who she also has to keep secrets from and if this sat poorly with Roux, it sits even worse with her boyfriend. There’s the fact that Maggie’s attempts to clear her parents’ name has to remain secret from them, thereby straining their relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. I like these plotlines. They’re all interesting areas that I’d like to see explored. But to do so well, there need more space. Going Rogue is just a little too short to do them all justice. But by trying to include all of them in the novel, they all get short-changed. I’m still not sure I completely understand what Dominic was trying to do.

On the other hand, I liked that Going Rogue addressed the “I just want to be normal” trope that is so prevalent in many novels. Maggie comes from a family of spies. She is a genius safecracker. She loves it. But she wanted to be a normal girl who stayed in one place and got a boyfriend too. She got but a year into that life and she’s bored. When given the opportunity to return to the spy life, she jumps at the chance. Maggie’s boredom and repeated denials of being bored rang very true to me. A normal life sounds good and all but if you’re a teenager with an amazing talent and a chance at a more exciting life, wouldn’t it be more believable to jump at that opportunity?

I still love Roux and her friendship with Maggie. In many ways, my wanting to see more of that relationship is what led to my disappointment at how underdeveloped the conflict between Maggie and Roux was. Things haven’t changed. She’s still a social pariah and Maggie is her only friend. The idea of Maggie leaving is too much for her to bear so their friendship breaks and Roux starts avoiding Maggie. This is an angle that just needed more page-time.

The same can be said for the time devoted to Maggie and Jesse. Early in the novel, much is made of Jesse and the return of his mother into his life. Maggie subsequently makes a mistake that could jeopardize everything and while her error in judgment leads to trouble in their relationship, the mother is barely mentioned again. Huh?

Despite these flaws, I still really liked Going Rogue. It’s over the top and fun, and sometimes I need that. I especially recommend this to fans of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girl series, who might be looking for something similar now that series is completed. B-

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill

REVIEW: Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill

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Dear Ms. Morrill,

When I picked up your novel, I somehow managed to misinterpret the back cover copy. For some reason, I thought the two heroines were twins separated at birth who randomly meet and switch places. No, I have no idea why I had The Parent Trap stuck in my head. I quickly realized my mistake but kept reading anyway. I’m glad I made that choice.

Being Sloane Jacobs is about two girls who share the same name: Sloane Jacobs (surprise). Sloane Emily Jacobs is rich and privileged. She’s the daughter of a U.S. senator. She’s a former figure skater whose mother is pushing her to make a great comeback. By contrast, Sloane Devon Jacobs comes from a working class family that lives in Philadelphia. She loves ice hockey but has a bit of an anger management problem.

Both girls have things wrong with their families. Sloane Emily walked in on her father getting far too friendly, shall we say, with a member of his staff. Her father, of course, is doing everything he can to make sure she keeps what she witnessed a secret. After all, the political landscape thrives on scandal like this. Sloane Devon’s mother is an alcoholic who got sent away to rehab. She feels abandoned and a large of chunk of her anger on the ice stems from the displaced resentment towards her absent mother.

When Sloane Emily is sent to Canada for figure skating camp, she accidentally runs into Sloane Devon, who’s also been sent to the same city for ice hockey camp. A luggage mix-up due to their names gives them a ridiculous idea. Both of them want to pretend to be someone else for a while. Why not switch places?

I won’t lie and say Being Sloane Jacobs is a deep, meaningful book. It’s not. It’s fun and light. I found it very enjoyable, in no small part because both girls are athletes. There’s a charming scene where Sloane Emily and Sloane Devon compare “battle scars” from their physical exploits and it’s details like that, which stick in my head.

While Sloane Devon initially scoffed at figure skating, I like that she realized immediately it’s hardly a cakewalk and is far more than just looking pretty on the ice. There’s a part of me that’s a little disbelieving about her mindset. I mean, I’m not a figure skater. I can barely roller skate. But I can tell that is a hard sport. Not only do you need the grace and flexibility of a ballerina, you need the strength to generate enough speed to jump. Never mind landing without falling. It’s obvious the amount of physicality involved. But I guess I can accept her attitude. Sloane Devon is a tomboyish jock at the start of the book. If she’s used to the rough play of ice hockey, I suppose I can believe she’d think that about “girly” sport like ice skating.

On the other hand, I wish we’d spent more time with Sloane Emily learning the strategies involved in ice hockey and how she learned to play on a team. I imagine going from singles ice skating to a team sport is rather jarring. The novel tries to play it off as Sloane Emily trying to hide her lack of hockey knowledge and just sticking to the basics. But knowing “the basics” doesn’t automatically make you a great team member who knows strategy. Maybe I just don’t know the rules and gameplay of hockey well enough.

Both girls have their own love interests. The romantic subplots were nice enough but I felt that both boys were ciphers. They didn’t feel like fully fleshed out characters, especially when compared to the two heroines. I wasn’t sure I bought that Sloane Emily’s love interest had reformed from his player ways. How do we know that? Because he says so? Sloane Devon’s love interest had a better presented conflict but even so, he came off somewhat flat.

I will say the novel does require a heavy dose of suspension of disbelief. Sloane Emily and Sloane Devon are not twins. They just share the same name. Sloane Emily is the daughter of a prominent senator whose family is always plastered in magazines and newspapers. She used to be a competitive figure skater. It’s hard to believe both girls can just pass for each other with no one noticing for most of the book. Especially when they’re learning new to them sports at the same time. It worked for me but I had to actively not think about this detail.

Maybe my love of female athletes who love sports, or learn to love sports, is clouding my opinion but I liked this novel. I think it’s a good, fast read for anyone wanting fleshed out female lead characters who are both strong and flawed but in different ways, without one “type” being presented as better than the other. That said, the shallowly drawn supporting characters — especially the love interests — really detracted from the book. This is a case where I point to many things I enjoyed but can also say it’s missing that indefinable spark that boosts a novel from good to great. C+

My regards,
Jia

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