Friday, January 26, 2018

In a Nutshell Reviews: The Dark Side Edition

In a Nutshell Reviews are my version of mini-reviews, because sometimes, you just want the highlights. I subtitled this one, The Dark Side Edition, because all three of these books deal with heavy topics and are a little darker than my normal fare.

The Last to Let Go
Amber Smith
Series: n/a
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads
How do you let go of something you’ve never had?

Junior year for Brooke Winters is supposed to be about change. She’s transferring schools, starting fresh, and making plans for college so she can finally leave her hometown, her family, and her past behind.

But all of her dreams are shattered one hot summer afternoon when her mother is arrested for killing Brooke’s abusive father. No one really knows what happened that day, if it was premeditated or self-defense, whether it was right or wrong. And now Brooke and her siblings are on their own.

In a year of firsts—the first year without parents, first love, first heartbreak, and her first taste of freedom—Brooke must confront the shadow of her family’s violence and dysfunction, as she struggles to embrace her identity, finds her true place in the world, and learns how to let go.
This book was a Can't-Wait Wednesday pick for me, and my initial thoughts based on the synopsis were that there would be a lot of suffering and loss. I can confirm, that the main character and her siblings suffered a great deal in this story, but they also pushed forward, and as the title states, they let go.
  • Pro: Considering this was a book about domestic abuse, there was a strong sense of family woven into the story. After their loss, family and family-like members reached out to help Brooke and her siblings, reconnecting with them after many years. I was happy to watch these relationships grow and flourish as Brooke and her siblings worked through their issues. 
  • Pro: We shared many painful and beautiful moments with these three siblings. Though their connections were strained, I never doubted their love for each other. 
  • Pro: I like that this was not a story of abuse. We did witness some abuse through flashbacks, but the bulk of the story was the aftermath. Brooke had to deal with the emotional damage, as well as, manage her life without her parents. Don't get me wrong, this was painful, but I appreciate the focus on the recovery versus the battle to survive. 
  • Con: Although hopeful, the ending left me a little wanting. I watched these three kids struggle throughout the book and would have liked a few more questions answered. 
  • Pro: Thank you, Amber Smith, for giving us Dani and Tyler. They provided most of the bright spots in this story, and I really needed those moments. 
  • Pro: This was a tough and honest look at the cycle of abuse. Brooke's grandparents were abused or abusers, and her parents ended up being abused or abusers. By the end of this book, I felt hopeful that the cycle would end here for this family. Brooke and her sister were getting professional help, they were talking about what happened, and were receiving care and support, which had previously been missing. 
  • Pro: Witnessing Brooke trying to hold onto her past life brought tears to my eyes, because the harder she tried to keep things the same, the more she unraveled. I breathed a sigh of relief, when she finally came to terms with the situation, and, as her siblings had, let go. 
  • Pro: Brooke was a fighter, no doubt, and I was rooting for her the whole time. She made mistakes. She paid for her mistakes, but she grew and came out stronger from this ordeal. 

Overall: This was a beautifully written book about something very ugly. My heart broke over and over again as Brooke tried to hold onto the past with both hands. However, my heart was mended, when she ultimately found solace by letting go.

Winner Take All
Laurie Devore
Series: n/a
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Publisher: MacMillian Children's
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads
For Nell Becker, life is a competition she needs to win. For Jackson Hart, everyone is a pawn in his own game. They both have everything to lose.

Nell wants to succeed at everything—school, sports, life. And victory is sweeter when it means beating Jackson Hart, the rich, privileged, undisputed king of Cedar Woods Prep Academy. Yet no matter how hard she tries, Jackson is somehow one step ahead. They’re a match made in hell, but opposites do attract.

Drawn to each other by their rivalry, Nell and Jackson fall into a whirlwind romance that consumes everything in their lives. But when a devastating secret exposes their relationship as just another game, how far will Nell go to win?

Visceral and whip-smart, Laurie Devore’s Winner Take All paints an unflinching portrait of obsessive love, toxic competition, and the drive for perfection.
This was a dark read, as expected, but it wasn't the story I was expecting. This was solidly Nell's story in my opinion. It was a tale of girl, who had been broken by the standards imposed by society, the pressure to achieve, and the demands of her overbearing mother.
  • Pro: I found myself fully engrossed by this book. I found myself wanting to read just one more chapter, because I had to see where this was all going. 
  • Pro: I think people are going to find Nell unlikable, however there was something about the way Devore wrote her that made me share her pain and disappointments. I don't know if it was me relating to her as a woman, but as off-putting as she was, I wanted things to work out for her. Nell also experienced a lot of growth and was a different, wiser girl at the end of the book. 
  • Pro: This book takes on a lot of different topics broken families, class structure, but the one that resonated the most with me her exploration of gender inequality. Having graduated from engineering school and worked in IT, I just was able to related to what Nell was feeling. 
  • Pro: Devore also discusses the double standard that exists in society. Because Nell was driven and had goals she hoped to achieve, she was viewed as intense, in a negative way, whereas the boys were encouraged to go for what they wanted. Because Nell initiated sexual encounters, she was a slut, but you know, boys will be boys. I just found myself nodding my head in agreement often. 
  • Con: I was happy with the ending, but not totally satisfied. I still have some questions, but I think it was decent. 
  • Pro: I was a fan of the setting. Devore let us see some of the South Carolina beauty, and I always love seeing how the other half lives. 
  • Pro: The power politics were mind-blowing. This is not part of my nature, so watching it play out between Jackson and Nell was highly enlightening for me. Sometimes, it made me a little sad, but like a good train wreck, I could not look away. 
  • Pro: Go ahead, hate me, but I ended up liking Jackson. He evolved a lot over the course of the story, and there was good under all that damage.  I also loved Nell's dad and her friends, Taylor and Lia. It was good to see she had someone in her corner. 
  • Pro: There was something about the romance that worked for me. It was obsessive and a little over the top, but there were these seemingly genuine moments shared between the two. 

Overall: A provoking look at what can happen when the pressure to succeed pushes one girl past her limits.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In
Angelo Surmelis
Series: n/a
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Publisher: Blazer + Bray
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads
Seventeen-year-old Evan Panos doesn’t know where he fits in. His strict Greek mother refuses to see him as anything but a disappointment. His quiet, workaholic father is a staunch believer in avoiding any kind of conflict. And his best friend Henry has somehow become distractingly attractive over the summer.

Tired, isolated, scared—Evan’s only escape is drawing in an abandoned church that feels as lonely as he is. And, yes, he kissed one guy over the summer. But it’s his best friend Henry who’s now proving to be irresistible. It’s Henry who suddenly seems interested in being more than friends. And it’s Henry who makes him believe that he’s more than his mother’s harsh words and terrifying abuse. But as things with Henry heat up, and his mother’s abuse escalates, Evan has to decide how to find his voice in a world where he has survived so long by avoiding attention at all costs.
The title of this book eludes to advice the author was given as a small child, that in order to be loved, he had to hide his true self. Reading that broke my heart in half, and so did many parts of this book. This book is about abuse as well as homophobia and is quite painful at times, so be prepared for a little darkness and a bit of weeping.
  • Pro: I cared so much for Evan. I was incredibly amazed by how he was able to have any shred of decency left in him after the years of abuse heaped on him. I was so elated, when he was able to find the strength to escape the madness, and also, to love himself. 
  • Pro: As I was making my way through the story and a tear rolled down my cheek, I couldn't get the image of Faye Dunaway screaming about wire hangers out of my head. That is how well the monster-mother was written. [Note: if you have no idea what I am talking about, google Mommie Dearest.]  
  • Con: There were some small flow issues in the story and I would have liked a few of the characters to have been more fleshed out. 
  • Pro: Although part me was, "a little to little, a little too late" with the dad, I still appreciated the effort he put forth. He did make an attempt to foster a relationship with his son. I especially loved when they went for donuts. Those were some of the bright spots in the book. 
  • Pro: Another bright spot in the book was Henry. He was quite wonderful. He wore his heart on his sleeve and was quite the romantic. Most of all, he truly loved Evan and made him feel loved. 
  • Pro: Henry's family was also a great source of happiness for Evan, and I was happy they had been there in the years we didn't read about. I feel like they gave Evan hope, and in his situation, he needed to see that a family could be like that. 
  • Pro: In the author's note, we learn that this story is based on Surmelis' life, that was when I really starting crying. It's very brave to share a story like this, and I think there are many people, who will find comfort from this book, because it's their story too.  
  • Pro: The ending left me very hopeful. I was happy that Surmelis filled us in on Evan's present and hinted to his future. 

I just kept thinking, "Mommie dearest"

Overall: A raw and sometimes painful look at the cycle of abuse and having to hide, who you are in order to please others. I found myself longing for Evan to find the love, safety, and freedom to be his true self.

**ARCs received in exchange for honest reviews.









Have you read any of these books?
Let us know in the comments!

24 comments:

  1. The Last to Let Go sounds heartbreaking and intense! I'm glad you liked it! I added Winner Take All to my TBR a few weeks ago, so I'm sad to see you thought the ending was unsatisfactory. I hate feeling like there are too many loose ends and unresolved issues.

    Do You Dog-ear?

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    1. Winner Take All took me on quite a ride, there was just something about that ending. I found the direction it was going interesting, but I would have liked a little more, and I am super harsh about endings.

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  2. I haven't actually heard of any of these books before, so it was interesting to learn about all of these new reads. Although most of them fall into the midway mark, it sounds like there were a lot of elements of them you could enjoy too. Brilliant reviews x

    My recent post: http://oliviascatastrophe.com/2018/01/lets-talk-about-love-book-review-giveaway/

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    1. If I actually finish a book, than it was a decent read for me. I did enjoy all three of these, but since the warm-and-fuzzy are my niche, they won't win all the stars from me. This is why stars and reviews belong together. There were a lot of great things in each of these books, and I think there are readers, who would adore some of these.

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  3. I've been seeing The Last to Let Go around a lot lately. I'm glad that although the story is about abuse, it's more focused on recovery. That hopeful nature makes me want to read it.

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    1. That is one thing that I appreciated a lot. There were some flashbacks, but the focus was in the present, with the father dead, the mother in jail, and the kids trying to recover. It was dark before her breakthrough, but there were bright spots scattered within.

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  4. The Last to Let Go looks great. I love that the abuse is more in the past and only getting flashbacks. I can only imagine how emotional this read is. Great review!

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    1. All three were pretty emotional in different ways, but I was happy with the way Smith told the story.

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  5. I have to prep myself to read books like these. They are always so hard. The last one is the one that speaks to me the most. Thanks for sharing, Sam.

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    1. The Dangerous Art of Blending In was really heartbreaking. You hear the stories of abuse all the time, and you always wonder about how the other parent lets it happen. It's such a complicated dynamic, but Surmelis wrote Evan as a survivor, who kept pushing towards his goal of escaping his mother. The whole situation is really sad, but I was super happy with the ending.

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  6. I really like the sound of Winner Take All! Southern settings are so much fun, and I like stories that explore what it's like for the other half (or the 1% as the case may be). Maybe I'll pick it up the next time I'm in the mood for a contemporary!

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    1. Devore really did embrace the setting. Nell's love for the river was obvious, and there were many scenes that took place near or on the river.

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  7. Going to read Winner Take All soon and Last to Go before too long. Glad you liked them overall!
    Jen Ryland Reviews

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    1. These were darker reads for me, but lots of food for thought, especially Devore's book. I think many female readers will ponder a lot of what is presented in that story.

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  8. I am so happy to read that The Last to Let go Lived up to its goodness. I love love that blurb. And two new ones I didn't know about! Your choice of angst hits the spot, Sam lol

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    1. These were rather angsty for me, but sometimes I need to change it up. I absolutely had to read something fun after I finished these though.

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  9. These all sound good. Too bad that a couple of them left you wanting a bit more out of the ending. The Dangerous Art of Blending In sounds like one that I would like.

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    1. I am a lover of definitive endings. I get frustrated when the author just leaves the ending too open. The mother in Blending In was CRAZY! My heart definitely ached for Evan.

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  10. All of these are new to me, and I'm always open to dark reads. Call me crazy! Thanks for sharing your review of these, gives me something to think about. I definitely want to try at least one of these!

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    1. You're not crazy. There are quite a few bloggers who like darker reads and even books without romance (gasp!). Different books, different readers.

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  11. These all sound quite good, and I usually like my contemporary with a darker twist. Though I will also say, I don't see myself reading any of these, which is weird, right? I think maybe I am not in the right mindset for darkness that is actually real, you know? This stuff happens in our world, not in a fantasy or apocalypse or whatever. Maybe makes it a bit harder to read, and I need to be mentally prepared. And currently, I am not. Great reviews, glad these were all pretty good!

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    1. I agree about the mindset. When I am feeling a little "moody", I will often set aside a book that hits too close to home. And yes, darkness in a fantasy world versus darkness in our world is definitely easier to keep a healthy distance from.

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  12. Love your review of The Last to Let Go, Sam. I think I’ve mentioned before how moved I was by Smith’s previous novel, The Way I Used to Be, and between that and seeing your review, I definitely want to pick this one up.

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    1. I need to get my hands on Smith's last book, because I think she did a great job with conveying the emotion and crafting the characters. I will definitely read more from her.

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