I first heard about Strength over on Absolute Write, a really great community for writers and authors that I've been a member of for a couple years. Carrie Butler had started a thread to share her new cover with everyone in the romance forum and after seeing the stunning design and reading the equally great synopsis, I knew I wanted to read the book.
So imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail telling me Xpresso Book Tours was hosting a tour for Strength, a book that I've been dying to read? I don't sign up for tours very often--I'm not good with fixed dates for anything and tend to prefer to do stuff at my own pace. But here, I just couldn't resist. The opportunity to read this sooner, and to share my thoughts with everyone in a way that would hopefully get the word out about this book, was too much for me to resist.
Of course, the danger of signing up for a tour is that while we can hope a book will be the most awesome thing under the sun, there is no guarantee. Strength is an interesting story and there are some really great things going on in it. But there are also certain things that drove me a little up the wall. I can't quite sing the praises and give the gushing review I had hoped for, but hopefully I can give you all information to help you decide whether Strength will be worth checking out for you. Despite any flaws I do feel it has, I am glad that I read it.
(Summary from GoodReads)
When college student Rena Collins finds herself nose-to-chest with the campus outcast, her rumor-laced notions are shattered. Handsome, considerate, and seemingly sane, Wallace Blake doesn’t look like he spends his nights alone, screaming and banging on the walls of his dorm room. Hell, he doesn’t look like he spends his nights alone, period.
Too curious for her own good, Rena vows to uncover the truth behind Wallace’s madman reputation--and how two seconds of contact had left her with bruises. Of course, there are a few setbacks along the way: guilt, admiration, feelings of the warm and fuzzy variety…
Not to mention the unwanted attention of Wallace's powerful, supernaturally-gifted family.
They’re a bloodline divided by opposing ideals, two soon-to-be warring factions that live in secret among us. When Rena ends up caught in their crossfire, Wallace has no choice but to save her by using his powers. Now they’re really in trouble. With war on the horizon and Rena’s life in the balance, he needs to put some distance between them. But Rena won’t let go. If fighting is what it takes to prove her own strength and keep Wallace in her life, then that’s what she’ll do--even if it means risking a whole lot more than her heart.
First, I want to praise the paranormal elements in this book. They were interesting, well handled and original. They were also integrated very slowly into the story, allowing the reader to get a handle on the characters, what their concept of "normal" was and showing interest between Rena and Wallace before things shifted too much. This created an interesting mystery, and many questions, as I read. I knew from the blurb that things weren't going to be what they seemed, but the pacing regarding this element of the story gave me time to guess things, come up with theories, etc. in a way that isn't always common in paranormal or urban fantasy.
Unfortunately, this came at the cost of the opening being a bit slower then I would have liked. Things moved about in what I felt was a rather odd fashion and there were several times early on where the book lost my attention because of strange plot shifts that (at the time) did not make any sense.
I also had a lot of "Why are you telling me this?" moments as I read. This is bad for two reasons: (1) If I am asking the author this, it means I am not being pulled into the text, which means I'm not seeing / hearing / practically tasting it the way I tend to when I read something that has really sucked me in. (2) This often results in pacing issues that hold back my need to keep reading. I don't know about anyone else reading, but if I walk away from my kindle and haven't left myself at a point where I'm dying to go back it can be really hard for me to pick it back up. As an author, you really don't want that loss of momentum in a story because most readers won't be reading the story for a tour like I was. There's no guarantee they will pick the book (in general--I don't necessarily mean *this* book, just to be clear) back up.
However, the above issues are honestly side effects. The real problem for me, I think, was that I never really connected with Rena. There are several reasons for this. When we meet her at the beginning of the story her immediate and pre-existing judgments about Wallace are (or were for me, at least) very off putting. It may not be fair, but I found myself annoyed with her on page one. Now, this is a gutsy move on Carrie Butler's part and the way it allowed her to open the story did up the tension and make me have an immediate need to know what the heck was going on. But unfortunately, for each thing that I learnt about Rena that brought her a step closer to being likable or relatable, she would inevitably do or say something that would push her back onto my shit list. It's very hard to root for a character when I feel like that, and when I'm not rooting for them to succeed, it ties back into what I was saying about the plot and causes my "care meter" to start nose-diving and my interest in continuing the book to wane.
Fortunately Rena is countered by the intriguing and endearing Wallace, whom I immediately liked and felt deeply sorry for. It's to Carrie's credit that he, as a character, was just as interesting and memorable as the mysterious circumstances surrounding him. Every time that Rena did something that made me want to use my Kindle for a frisbee, Wallace was the saving grace that kept the Kindle in one piece and the book being read.
The other thing I want to praise on the character front is the very real feeling and unique friendship between Rena, Gabby and Aiden. I liked the grounding presence this friendship added to the story, even if it was sometimes responsible for the plot taking a bit of a lull. These characters do not fit into some type of pre-existing clique or stereotype. They felt real, unique and like the kind of trio that could actually exist within a college setting. They were both parts loyal and able to push each other's buttons, which made them feel very fleshed out and memorable.
That's the final thing I want to make clear before I move on from characters. Despite any complaints I may have given here, and despite how they may have effected my reading experience, these characters were all well created with depth and individuality. Given a choice between a character like this not working for me or the author chickening out and creating something more palatable, but also more cardboard, give me this any time. Because even in a situation where a real character does not work for me, I would not want to deprive another reader from discovering a character her or she may really love. I don't get along with everyone in real life and I don't expect fiction to be any different.
The imbalance in my feelings toward the characters did cause me to not be as invested in their romance as I would have liked to be.
Speaking objectively I can tell you that there is no weird funky insta-love here, although there is definitely some attraction to Wallace on Rena's part from word go.
There was nothing 'wrong' with the romance. Rather, I just felt like Wallace and Rena didn't fit together quite the way I like a couple to. This likely, again, has much to do with how I felt about them. I honestly couldn't imagine becoming interested in someone who had previously been (at least partially) responsible for an entire dorm thinking thinking I was crazy, and while I admired Wallace's obvious capacity to put that behind him my own biases (I have never been a real social butterfly, and university was not any better then high school) likely played a part here.
Strength is by no means a bad book. It just wasn't as good (as far as my own reading experience) as I would have liked, and this was largely due to a disconnect between me and Rena, who was a first person narrator. That is a key danger of first person: the narrator gets to have a lot of influence on how the story feels overall and can work wonders or wreck havoc.
Strength is well written and has some really original ideas. I don't want to make it seem like there was a tremendous error on the author's part, because that is not so. Rather, Carrie Butler took some interesting chances and for me, some of those paid off while others, well, didn't. If you've been looking forward to reading Strength, though, you really should. There is some real brilliance here and as I keep saying, your experience and mine may differ greatly.
A huge thank you to Xpresso Book Tours, Carrie Butler and Sapphire Star Publishing for having me along. :)