Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Don't Look Back by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Two music boxes with ballerinas, two missing girls, several suspects, and amnesia are the points that converge on Samantha and her best friend who is missing, Cassie. Sam has no memory of what happened nor does she know why there is blood all over her clothes. She doesn't know if all the blood is hers. She remembers nothing of the past four days while she has been missing or who she was before or now. She doesn't recognize her own face when she walks out of the night and into the swirling chaos that is the void that once was her life.

Jennifer L. Armentrout begins what is at first easily dismissed as a mystery where amnesia forms the central focus of the main character's life, and oh how boring and predictable that is. Except that Don't Look Back is anything but boring or formulaic. There are the usual elements of any mystery: lost memory, lost time, lots of suspects, and a confused protagonist. That is where the similarities end. Don't Look Back is also commentary about bullying and status and what happens when young people -- and adults -- succumb to the siren song of wealth, power, and fear. In the end, fear is what the book is really all about. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of being too different. Fear of other people's perceptions. Fear of peer pressure. Fear of wealth, and of losing wealth.

Sam was a likeable young woman, at least as long as her memory is missing. I'm not sure I'd want to know the kind of person who would gain pleasure out of bullying everyone around her. Her best friend, Cassie, is an equally nasty customer who is driven by popularity and fear and never hesitated to use both to get what she wanted, especially Sam's life and possessions.

Sam's twin brother and her best friend before Cassie, support her during this difficult time, but neither boy, despite being on the baseball team, are part of Sam's previous group of friends. Add Sam's previous friends and her very wealthy boyfriend and their on again-off again relationship, and Sams' parents' expectations coupled with her mother's drinking habit, and life just could not get any worse, except that Sam's life is worse. She cannot remember what happened to Cassie or who she really is. Someone keeps leaving Sam notes warning her that she does not want to remember her past or give the murderer any clue that she has begun to remember. And the police are taking a closer look at Sam because they think she might have murdered Cassie. So do Sam's old best friends and her boyfriend and everything keeps getting worse as Sam gets closer to the hired help's son.

The killer is not easy to spot. Most of the characters had a reason to get rid of Cassie and Sam. Although there are several candidates for murderer, I would have liked to get to know some of the major players better; however, it is a big cast with a lot of axes grinding in the wings.

Armentrout does a credible job of dealing with Sam's amnesia without resorting to manipulating the reader as the memories resurface. The characters are believable, though some are a bit one-dimensional. As Sam's relationships change in the wake of her memory loss, I wonder if the new Sam, so much like the Sam before Cassie, is who she would have been. As one character reminds Sam, she has gotten a huge break by being given a second chance to make herself and her life better.

Overall, I enjoyed Don't Look Back and was surprised by the ending. I did get hung up on grammar errors and the ubiquitous use of ahold, which is not a word and was yet used throughout. Ms. Armentrout would serve her readers and her novels better if she stopped using the word in place of hold, in place of ahold. One grabs hold of something, not ahold of anything, which, in my estimation, drops Don't Look Back from 4/5 to 3/5. Yes, grammar and word choice do count. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

Beginning The Kiss of Deception, I was struck by the similarity between so many other stories where a princess is dreading her arranged marriage to a man she doesn't know and has never met and the ensuing thwarting of her royal parents' plans. There was one small change and that was the princess lying face down and nake while artisans painted what amounts to a mehndi (henna painting) on her back that merged the symbols of two houses: the princess's and the betrothed's. The dress she put on framed the kavah (mehndi) with lace and precious fabrics and the princess was stunned by the beauty of the work, work that she plans to destroy as soon as she can get away from her parents and the guards. Princess Arabella Celestine Idris Jezelia, First Daughter of the ruling house of Morrighan, is just such a boring princess and I forced my way through the first two chapters.

It was after the first two chapters that things, and Lia, as her brothers call her and she prefers, flees Morrighan with her best friend and personal maid, Pauline, to Pauline's home before her mother died and she was sent to Civica, the Morrighan capital, to become Lia's maid. What happens next is far more interesting than would at first appear. The Kiss of Deception is far more complex and yet simple in its premise. Lia wants to fall in love and marry a man of her own choosing, a man who values her above her position, her royal blood, and the power of magic that reportedly courses through her, the power of the Sight, which she does not have. She knows the power; her mother has it. Lia does not -- or does she?

Lia is different from most privileged princesses used to dining on fine food, drinking the best wines, and dressing in finery. She wants an uncomplicated life, the life of every free man and woman in her country, a life worth living as her privileged life never was. It makes things interesting that Lia is also an intelligent woman with a sharp, ungoverned tongue who felt more at home with her brothers than with the life she was corralled and groomed to lead, a life of duty to family and country and marriage for the sake of alliance.

Two men, one the prince Lia spurned and an assassin set to kill Lia to keep the two kingdoms from merging with the marriage.  Both men follow Lia and Pauline to the village and are entranced by Lia's bold manner and beauty. It does help that the prince discovers the pot boy has seen Lia's kavah. The assassin aligns himself superficially with the prince to keep from being quickly discovered and the games begin.

While Mary E. Pearson's characters are memorable and interesting, she does lavish a great deal of detail on Lia's eccentricities that would otherwise put her at risk if this were anything but a fantasy, specifically a jeweled dagger that no tavern wench would own, Lia's aura of command and privilege, and her tart tongue. Lia may model herself after a saucy tavern wench, but she fails horribly and ends up about as subtle as a holocaust in the middle of the small town square.

Aside from those serious flaws, Lia is an interesting character and the situation between the prince, the assassin, and Lia make for a fascinating read. I raced through the story, which, for me, is a good indicator that I am enjoying the suspension of disbelief, even though suspending disbelief is a little more difficult than usual. The Kiss of Deception is the first book in the Remnant series and a fantastical fantasy worth the read. Many will miss the glaring errors and focus only on Lia's good heart, bravery, smart mouth, and boldness. These are all good qualities that would have pushed Pearson's first novel in the Remnant series into a much higher rating than 3/5 stars. Even so, the book and the characters are worth taking the plunge.