Tuesday, October 18, 2016

ARC Review: Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

Title: Of Fire and Stars

Author: Audrey Coulthurst

Rating: 2.5 Stars

Release Date: November 22nd, 2016

I want nothing more than to have the future of fantasy fiction become well-worn stories with women marrying women or men marrying men. I love the fantasy genre and I especially adore that Coulthurst is among the first to write YA LGBTQIA fantasy. But, sadly, I am disappointed to report that Of Fire and Stars is a novel I would recommend skipping, despite the female romance at its core.

For me, one of the main issues with Of Fire and Stars is how completely it throws the reader into its world. We are given no prior knowledge of world-building or character background before cutting straight to Denna's arrival in Mynaria as she prepares to marry Thandi, the prince she has been betrothed to since birth. Denna has had an affinity for fire magic since she was young and though Thandi and his people revile magic, she hopes to keep her abilities a secret for the rest of her life and successfully fulfill her duty to marry the prince and bring an alliance between their two reasons.

Why Mynaria hates magic is a mystery, as is the history of these nations which, very quickly, are upon the bring of war with another small country. Coulthurst tries too hard to create an intriguing political situation but she belittles her audience, failing to give them an adequate backstory or write a unique culture for any of these countries, with the exception of their stance on magic. Thus, the entirety of this novel feels...lacking. It is impossible to get a true grasp of the plot without solid world-building and though the reader becomes accustomed to switching between Denna and Mare, our two narrators, a little more backstory for both heroines would have been useful.

Speaking of Denna and Mare, I will admit that their romance is satisfactory. It is a slow-burn, classic hate-to-love tale and I enjoyed reading of their growing attraction and friendship. However, once again returning to the lack of world-building, neither Denna nor Mare fully explain why they cannot be together. It isn't forbidden to take on lovers or even marry within the same sex in this world but why Denna and Mare cannot form an alliance, instead of Denna and Thandi, is rather puzzling. While I greatly appreciated the fact that sexuality is so fluid in this novel and many of the characters are bisexual, I almost wonder if all of the characters are bisexual until proven otherwise. And while I have nothing wrong that assumption, it almost seems just as dangerous as the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. It fails to account for sexual diversity in a novel that seems as if it must do that, if nothing else.

Another disappointment, for me, is that at times these characters seem incredibly juvenile. And ignorant, perhaps? Both Denna and Mare have grown up in societies where homosexuality is normal yet they ignore their feelings for one another, passing it off as friendship, for most of the novel. While I find this to be realistic in a society where homosexuality is not accepted, I found it confusing in the society Coulthurst created. I find that this is an increasing issue with YA fantasy, in fact--a fantastical, fictional setting often means that issues that plague our world are non-issues within the novel. But I want fantasy to reflect messages and themes that we can learn from in our own worlds, despite the lack of magic, and Of Fire and Stars rather fails on that account.

I will not deny that this novel is fast-paced and entertaining. There are plot twists, sudden deaths, and of course the secrets of Denna's magic. Her blooming romance with Mare is exciting and their clash of wills, especially the manner in which they change one another, is rewarding. I enjoy both of these heroines, individually and together, but the world they've been placed in makes little sense and raises more questions than it answers. For a debut, this shows promise, certainly, but I hope for YA fantasy with LGBTQIA heroines where the plot is just as good as the romance and the diversity is not limited to that of sexual diversity. We have a long way to go in creating diverse, well-written novels but Coulthurst's debut is certainly an important first step in that direction.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: Cam Girl by Leah Raeder

Title: Cam Girl

Author: Leah Raeder

Rating: 4 Stars

I never know what to say about a Leah Raeder novel. It made me uncomfortable. It was difficult to read because I kept wanting to stop, to leave these messy, unlikable characters with their dark flaws in the pages of the book. It made me think, late into the night, unable to make sense of myself, the characters, or the world. And all of these are good. It is so rare to find a book that makes me reflect, that forces me to take a long time anguishing over the language, that genuinely shoves me outside of my comfort zone.

I both love and hate Raeder for her ability to do this; I relate to aspects of her novels, always, but I always want them to be a little less dark and messy and them so they can fit into the tropes I know and am comfortable with. I am so very glad that Raeder does not do this disservice. Not to me and not to her readers. She writes the stories she wants to write--the stories she wishes were being told--and I applaud her for that. Plus, her prose is gorgeous and the topics she tackles are hard-hitting and challenging to understand and discuss in a complex manner, which she always manages to do. It's so rare to see queer characters--those who identify along the spectrum of "queer" and do not always fit into the categories of LGBT but rather LGBTQIA--and I am so grateful that Raeder writes the diverse stories she does.

This doesn't mean that I loved Cam Girl without reservation or would even read it again--I wouldn't--but it does mean that it made me re-consider a wide range of topics I simply hadn't spent too much time thinking about. Whether it be gender, sexuality, or the sex trade, Raeder covers so much in this novel--densely packing it with meaning and feeling--and I can't really describe or fully discuss it without ruining the story. Raeder almost has too much going on--Vada, the main character loses function of her right hand in a car accident, disabling her for life and ending the career she thought she had as an artist. But Vada is also in love with her best friend, Ellis, yet she clings on to the hope of a future where she marries a man. And then Vada and Ellis have a falling out--over Vada, the accident, the true story of that night--and Vada is approached by two young entrepreneurs to cam for them. From there, the story only gets more complicated--Vada's empowerment and agency through her role as a cam girl, her feelings for Ellis which won't abate, her involvement with Max, the father of the boy who was killed the night of the accident, and then her late-night chats with "Blue" who pays her for her time and thoughts, not her camming skills.

It's intense, it's messy, and I wish Raeder had taken on a little less, only so that I could fully wrap my mind around it all. But, it works. It definitely works and its message is strong, beautiful, and full of hope. Needless to say, for readers familiar with Raeder's work and her brand of dark--as in mentally, emotionally dark, going to places you won't be familiar with, necessarily--and fans of Black Iris, Raeder's latest is definitely up your alley. I'd suggest readers new to Raeder's work to pick up Unteachable first--it's the most heteronormative and familiar of her works to other New Adult tropes--but if you're looking for New Adult that explores disability and difficult topics of LGBTQIA then this is a must-read. I don't look forward, necessarily, to what Raeder is putting out next but I'm eager to pick up yet another thought-provoking, emotional read by her.

I just want to add a quick note that I am aware that Leah Raeder now goes by the name Elliot Wake and that Elliot also now uses the pronouns he/him/his. However, when I wrote this review it was before Leah had begun publishing books under the name Elliot, hence the different pronouns/names in this review. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Elliot Wake but as Elliot has continued to use his previous name on the covers of his older titles, I assumed it would be alright to use the name Leah and the pronouns she/her/hers, as when I wrote this review. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know and I will absolutely change it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: The Rose Society by Marie Lu

Title: The Rose Society (The Young Elites, #2)

Author: Marie Lu

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Holy. Shit. What did I just read? The Rose Society is dark, twisted, and completely unpredictable. It takes more political turns than its predecessor did, but Adelina--our heroine turned quasi-villain--remains at the core of this novel. In The Young Elites Adelina tries to please those closest to her, whether they be her father or sister or The Daggers, a group of Elites who take her in and save her. After being betrayed by everyone, though, Adelina gives herself over to the darkness. She forms her own group of Elites, The Roses, and sets out to recruit the best alongside her sister, Violetta, who she convinces herself to trust. But in her quest to overturn the Inquisition and exact her revenge, Adelina slowly turns darker and darker, losing parts of herself within her power.

I found The Rose Society to be scintillating from start to finish. We have Adelina, who seeks Magiano, the elusive Elite whose powers are legendary but no one knows how to find. We have Raffaele and the Daggers, who align themselves with the Beldish Queen, Maeve, and her dangerous abilities. And then we have Teren, still by the side of the Queen but whose visions for the future are beginning to veer drastically away from his Queen's plans. These three story lines converge seamlessly throughout the novel, leaving us swimming in a sea of lies, betrayals, and ultimately plot twists--Lu just doesn't disappoint.

The character development in this middle novel is on par with the unpredictable plot line. Adelina, of course, is still battling with her power and discovering new aspects to it at every turn. Violetta really comes into her own in this novel, emerging from Adelina's memories and becoming a character who has her own flaws, agenda, and strengths. We learn much more about the pasts of Raffaele and Lucent, two of the Daggers, and I loved getting that closer insight into these two characters who play really fascinating roles in this story. Maeve, the Beldish Queen is someone who I am still not quite sure I know, fully, but I'm glad we were introduced to her and I want, very much, to see her play a larger role in the finale. Teren becomes less of a villain and more of an obsessed, deranged human being in this one, but it humanizes him, strangely. And then there's Magiano; mysterious, clever, and powerful. He's the opposite of Enzo in so many ways and I loved this rogue thief, especially his light-hearted nature and how he inspires Adelina. Lu does a fantastic job of balancing the darker and lighter characters together so that the darkness in this tale never becomes overwhelming. Plus, there are a whole host of even more new characters--and old ones--who we come across in this novel and I really enjoyed traveling to different parts of this world and observing the changes in culture and politics and how that affected the characters from those parts of the world. This fantasy has really become global and I love nothing more than this type of all-encompassing world-building.

The romance in this series has always been a little...doubtful, I guess I'd say. I wasn't ever sold on Enzo and Adelina's romance in The Young Elites, perhaps because I was more sold on their connection and the fact that they were using each other for their own emotional gain than any true love that lay between them. I do, however, believe that there is a strong, hopeful romance introduced in The Rose Society but it very much takes a backseat to the politics in this story. I think the romance will be important in the finale but, so far, this has proven to be a character-driven storyline more than a romantically-driven one.

I am thoroughly looking forward to the finale in this explosive, wonderful series. Lu has created a heroine who isn't always likable, a world that is complex and intriguing, and she keeps throwing plot twists our way. I have no idea where the future of this tale lies but I am confident that it is in good hands. If you're as fed-up of the fantasy-lite sweep that has infected YA lately, then The Rose Society will cure you. It's fantasy at its best, but it's also YA at its finest. Without a doubt, this dark, strange middle book is a favorite for the year.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Monthly Rewind: September

All the photos in this post were taken by me and you can see even more photos of France on my Instagram.

3 Things About My Life This Month

1. Living in Provence is harder than I expected. I don't want this statement to be taken idly, or out of context--I know exactly how privileged I am to be studying in Aix, a wealthy town in the South of France, and living with a host family who feeds me well and is sharing their large home with me for the next few months. But, despite some of the absolutely wonderful experiences I've had this past month, immersing myself into French language and culture, learning to convey the entirety of my personality in a language I'm not fluent in, has been tough. Adjusting to the slow pace and the disorganization of the school system, watching as my friends in London make friends effortlessly while I struggle to reach out to French students, has been frustrating. I've become very close with the girls in my program and, slowly but steadily, I feel as if my life is getting into a routine, but certainly this past month has been harder in ways I never anticipated.

2. The Mediterranean Sea is my version of paradise. I visited Cassis, Cannes, Marseille, Nice, and Monaco this past month and the beach was the highlight of each of these beautiful towns. I've never swam in the ocean before this trip but it's nearly impossible to drag me out, now. Certainly, my biggest highlight of this past month has been exploring the South of France and enjoying the warm September temperature while doing so.

3. I didn't read a lot this month. At first, it was because I was in Paris, and then Aix, and then visiting different cities in Provence. And then, it was because the honeymoon period had ended and homesickness had set in and all I wanted to do every night was Skype my parents. Now, though, I'm slowly getting back into the groove of reading and I'm excited to knock some books off my TBR.

Best Book I Read This Month

I'm sure you've all at least seen this book around, if not heard of it, but it deserves all the hype it's been getting. Written as a letter from Coates to his son, this is a raw, honest, and revealing piece about black culture and oppression in America. Coates speaks from a position of privilege, as a black man whose voice is far-reaching and who has the means to give his son a good education, but his life has been dominated by police brutality and racism. It's a stark, unflinching story but one that I couldn't put down. I cried. But it's not just a good book, well-written and life-altering, but it demands to be read, especially in the political culture we live in today where a man like Donald Trump has the potential to be the president of America and violence against the black body has risen, too much. Just read it--I can't recommend it enough.

3 Most Popular Posts This Month

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Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

My review of Paula Stokes's Girl Against the Universe. I thought this book was brilliant for daring to approach mental illness in such an accessible manner. Stokes makes it easy to understand mental illness, not stigmatize it, and with mental illness becoming all the more prevalent among teens these days, it's so important for teens to be able to find themselves in stories and I'm glad Stokes is writing the books that haven't been written, for the audience that is waiting for them. Obviously, very highly recommended.

Posts I Starred in My Blog Reader This Month

Not Shaving Isn't Always a Choice for Women of Color by Paniz Khosroshahy: This article is so well-written and it really resonated with me, especially since Wellesley is a place where we women boast about not shaving and being liberated from the constraints put upon us by society, but so many of the people I know who don't shave look just the same as if they did shave. Anyhow, give this article a read because it's such a good look at white feminism and how one type of feminism doesn't apply to everyone.

Coming Home: Queer South Asians and the Politics of Family: This article was written by a friend of mine awhile back but the article above made me remember this one and go back and hunt it down to re-read because it's just SO GOOD. It's so hard to explain South Asian culture, in general, to anyone who isn't part of it already not because it's complicated, but because we have so many ideas of what it is in our mind. Repressive. Conservative. Sexist. So to discuss topics of feminism or queerness within the context of South Asian communities is a lot harder than it seems but this article is just perfect. It gets it all right and if you're going to read one article this year, let it be this one.

Obsession of the Month

I'd be lying if I didn't say this, so here goes: my obsession of the month has been the song "Cool Girl" by Tove Lo. I heard it in Nice for the first time and ever since, it's been the song that gets me up and awake every morning. Some of my friends may think I have a slight problem but...I disagree. ;)

3 Things I'm Looking Forward to Next Month

1. Going to Greece! So, this is happening to me right now, as you read this, but as it straddles September and October, I figured I'd post it here--after all, I cannot wait to land in Athens soon!! I have an aunt who lives in Athens and I've never even met her kids (my cousins!) but she's been incredibly sweet and invited me to spend the weekend with them and I'm so, so lucky and excited to be going. It's going to be a wonderful trip, I just know it.

2. Going to Lyon! Our program has organized a trip to Lyon, the third largest city in France, for us the second weekend of October and I'm really looking forward to traveling as a whole group again. I think one thing we all miss the most when living with a host family is the chance to socialize like we do in dorms, so this weekend is going to be a good time to just let loose and explore and enjoy ourselves so I'm very excited.

3. SEEING MY MOM! Okay, so I'm seeing my mom the LAST weekend of October, but it counts, and I am so ready. Living with a host family has made me miss my own family so much more than I thought it would, so I'm really excited that my mom is going to be coming to France to visit me! We have a rather epic trip planned for my fall break, but until all the flights and hotels and trains are booked, I don't want to spoil anything. But, suffice to say that I won't be in France for roughly a week--and I cannot wait.

How was your September? Any exciting plans for October? What books did I miss out on this past month that I need to add to my TBR? I'd love to hear in the comments below! :)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Review: Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

Title: Girl Against the Universe

Author: Paula Stokes

Rating: 4 Stars

Stokes is one of those authors who can write anything. The light tone of this, combined with the deep and thoughtful subject matter (not to mention stellar romance) really reminded me of her debut, The Art of Lainey, which is an absolute favorite of mine. I think this might even be better. 

Girl Against the Universe is about Maguire, a girl who believes she's cursed. Ever since she became the sole survivor in a car accident which killed her father, uncle, and older brother, Maguire has kept to herself. She has a "Luck Journal" in which she chronicles all the events in which she has escaped unscathed while those around her suffer. The only commonality that Maguire can find is herself so, she does the only reasonable thing and withdraws into herself. 

Our story begins, though, in a therapist's office. I loved how Stokes chose to tell Maguire's story through her challenges with therapy. Maguire not only believes that she's bad luck, but she has OCD tendencies in which she watches for accidents that could happen around her and surrounds herself with "lucky" objects. It's heart-breaking. I was instantly rooting for Maguire to battle her inner demons and her journey throughout this novel is phenomenal. It's realistic, paced well, and most importantly it stems entirely from Maguire. It isn't motivated by romance or fear or any other type of catalyst. Maguire has her goals and no matter how hard they are or how many times she fails, she picks herself back up and tries again. I love this girl.

I particularly want to point out that Girl Against the Universe breaks down so many barriers and stigmas in YA. Not only against mental illness, but it also defeats the trope of mean-girl-cliques and girls-"competing"-for-a-guy (all silly, absolutely false constructions with no basis in truth but somehow we all think that these are the "norm"). Maguire joins the tennis team and while some members seem hostile at first, the situation isn't at all what it seems on the surface and my heart gave a little leap of joy every time Maguire opened herself up to someone new. Moreover, Maguire isn't the only character struggling with a mental illness of some sort and I liked that she had someone to talk to about her challenges and didn't feel isolated the way so many teens can feel (and how she did feel for so long).

The guy in question is none other than junior tennis star Jordy and their friendship won me over even more than their romance did. Jordy is such a sweetheart. He's not a perfect guy--there are rumors flying around him from the start and he's had his fair share of mistakes--but he respects Maguire and doesn't push her, instead taking baby steps until she's comfortable with him. I enjoyed how their relationship played out with minimal drama and lots of honest, open dialogue. Plus, Jordy's presence isn't solely to be the romantic interest or Maguire's therapy buddy, it's also to show that there are more than one type of mental illness. Jordy struggles with staying true to himself in the face of his fame and fortune and I think a lot of teenagers struggle with the first part of that and can really relate to Jordy. I know I could. 

Gosh, this book is just so good. I want everyone to read it. It has fantastic friendships, a swoon-worthy romance, step-fathers who slowly become allies, families who become support systems, and a kick-ass heroine who overcomes her own fears. Girl Against the Universe is inspiring and wonderfully written and, perhaps best of all, you'll learn some tennis from it. I hope now I won't be among the few readers who actually watches tennis with an equal passion as I read books. (Note: key word being watch.)