Friday, December 30, 2016

16 Moments, Experiences, and Books of 2016

I wanted to change things up, this year, as 2016 comes to a close. Instead of launching into a long post detailing the best of my reading log this year, I want to simply reflect on sixteen of the biggest moments, most life-changing experiences, and most pleasurable books I picked up this year. I've had a year unlike any other--full of travel and challenges, equally--so I feel like this is the best way to share my year with you all. 

Note: This list is in chronological order (January - December).

1. Ringing in 2016 in India! I usually spend the New Year with my small family of four in New Jersey but this year, I got to celebrate with my grandparents and grand-uncles and grand-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins was just so special. This is the first time I've ever gotten to ring in the new year with so much of my family present and it's a moment I will always remember. 

2. Presenting at JMM in Seattle! I presented my math research from the previous summer in Seattle, earlier this year, and I loved being part of a huge group of math majors and enthusiasts, even if it was just for three days! 
3. California with the Wellesley College Choir! My choir tours every year and this year, as we stayed with Wellesley alums and road-tripped from San Francisco to Los Angeles, was so very incredible. I love and miss the choir with all my heart but our time together in California was some of the very best. Even though my Spring 2016 semester was incredibly tough (as you may remember), the choir kept me grounded and sane so I am so grateful for the close-knit bonds and unbreakable friendships forged on this tour together.

4. My favorite FANTASY novels of the year! Obviously, A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab (by far the best book I read this year) which is closely followed by Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo and The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon.
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5. Spring semester at Wellesley! This was my hardest semester, ever, for so many reasons--study abroad applications, juggling multiple jobs and classes and leadership positions, friendships--so while I have so many stressful memories from this semester, I also want to remember the best parts. Marathon Monday. Pub Night. Choir. Graduation. During the tough moments, the bright spots always shine a little brighter and somehow, this semester wound up being special and utterly remarkable all the same.

6. Spending the summer with my grandparents in India. I will always regret how little time I have to spend with my grandparents, so to be their sole focus and company all summer was such a gift. It wasn't a summer of much activity or excitement, but there was so much love and affection and I miss the peace of it all. 

7. PARIS! I've been wanting to visit Paris for years--years!--and the opportunity to spend ten days in this amazing city as I began my study abroad experience was simply unbelievable. Paris was everything I wanted it to be and more and I cannot wait to go back, again and again and again. 

8. My favorite ADULT reads of 2016! Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a gem. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is incredibly moving and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a book I couldn't stop recommending or thinking about, far after I'd finished it.
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9. Living in Aix-en-Provence for four months with my incredible host family! As you all know, there were plenty of ups and downs to my time in Aix, from micro-aggressions to feeling homesick to simply needing to be in a larger city. But, I made life-long friends in my program, not to mention with my host family, and I will always be grateful that I had a chance to travel as much as I did and live in a relaxed, truly wonderful part of the world. 
10. Traveling Italy with my mom! I was so lucky to be able to have this wonderful experience with my mom, who is one of my best friends in the world. We had such an incredible trip and I can't wait to travel with her again, hopefully soon!

11. Falling in love with Athens, London, and Barcelona--far more than I expected. I didn't think I'd love these three cities as much as I did, but, gosh, I just want to go back!

12. Meeting Jasprit in London! Jasprit is one of my earliest blogging friends and we started our blogs at the same time, reading and discussing books together and even sending packages across the ocean to one another. It was so lovely to finally meet her in person and spend a wonderful day with her! She's the first blogger I've met, but hopefully definitely not the last! :)

13. The best CONTEMPORARY fiction of 2016! Of course, Morgan Matson's The Unexpected Everything, Kirsty Eagar's Summer Skin, and Act Like It by Lucy Parker.
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14. Taking my first solo-trip to Amsterdam! I love the city of Amsterdam and I love even more that I was able to do this trip entirely alone, conquering any fears I might have had about being incompetent without the company of my friends or not being able to eat a meal alone. It was such a wonderful trip and I cannot wait to take my next solo-adventure!

15. Adventures in Morocco! During my five days in Morocco, I took an overnight train to Tangier, knowing that there was no overnight train back to Marrakech where my hostel was located (and the return trip of my flight based in), and then found my way to the beautiful town of Chefchaouen, all while taking a long, winding path back to Marrakech through Fez. I saw so much more of Morocco than I planned and I loved every bit of this beautiful country. I have to go back--after all, I didn't get to visit the Sahara yet!

16. Other ROMANCES I loved? The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski and The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron--both so much more than mere romances but featuring some of my favorite couples of all time. 
What were some of your best moments, experiences, and books of 2016? Are there must-read titles that I didn't get to, this year, and that I absolutely need to bump up my TBR for 2017? Please let me know in the comments below as I'm always on the lookout for recommendations and if you're interested in my full list of 2016 favorites, a.k.a. books, you can check it out HERE. A very Happy New Year to everyone! :)

Friday, December 23, 2016

ARC Review: Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

Title: Breath of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles, #2)

Author: Amanda Bouchet

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: January 3rd, 2017 

I know a lot of people are looking forward to this book--and I was too, believe me--but I have to be honest and admit that I am, sadly, not going to be continuing with this series. A Promise of Fire held an immense amount of potential for a new romantic fantasy series and I loved the progression of both the romantic and fantastical elements. In Breath of Fire, though, instead of offering a breath of fresh air into the genre, Bouchet relies too much on traditional gender roles and an extremely central and heavy romance that I found myself rooting for less and less as the novel wore on. The problem, really, starts with Chapter 1 itself.

Breath of Fire picks up precisely where A Promise of Fire left off (and I mean literally, it picks up exactly where we left off so don't expect any re-capping at all) and within a few pages it is clear that Griffin has uncovered Cat's glaringly obvious "secret" lineage. And, to express just how angry he is about her keeping this a secret, he proceeds to throw objects, smash vases, and then destroy their bed with his sword. Wow. Was this display of male aggression really necessary? Turns out this temper tantrum is all for nothing, though, because obviously Cat and Griffin are going at it like rabbits in the next chapter. But, okay, fine, trying to move on back to the story.

Cat is forced to come to terms with the fact that she must face her past, at one point or the other, and she and her team set out on a quest to protect Sinta in the hopes of then expanding Griffin's kingdom. Ever-so-conveniently, though, whenever Cat recklessly throws herself in danger, a Greek god magically keeps her alive so she doesn't die. Plus, it's not just a Greek god who is invested in Cat's future--it's practically all of them. I'm all for the Special Person trope--I mean, I love fantasy!--but the Most Special Person To Ever Live trope? Please. Fantasy is such an easy genre when your main character has all the powers, all the gods and goddesses behind her; there are no limits to her powers and her abilities. It takes the challenge out of the equation and I love fantasy best when my magic has its boundaries. To that extent, I found the world-building far too convenient and wasn't worried or invested at all because I knew that Cat would figure everything out with the help of some Greek gods and no repercussions.

Add to that that every dangerous scene is followed by a sex scene, regardless of where they are or the fact that they might still be in danger, and I was rolling my eyes. I felt that Griffin and Cat are in love, but what I was really seeing was that they're in lust. And constantly. I get that, I do, but I just wanted to get back to the complex story and inner struggle of these characters, not their libido. Griffin also really grated on me throughout the first half of this novel. He's at the point where all he wants to do is protect Cat and that type of alpha behavior has gotten so old. It takes awhile for their relationship to become more equal and supportive and though I appreciate that it does get there, I hated how Cat constantly felt guilty for helping out in a fight because now Griffin would be focused on her and could get harmed. You both can take care of yourselves!

Anyway, despite these annoyances, I continue to love the secondary characters in this story and the politics between all the houses. Plus, we are able to see more clearly how Greek mythology informs this world and a lot of aspects were incredibly exciting. I think readers who enjoy more romance from their fantasy novels will genuinely love this. Perhaps I'm a traditionalist but the infusion of fantasy and eroticism just didn't work for me, sadly. For readers eagerly anticipating this: don't write it off. It's a strong case of "it's not you, it's me."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes

Title: The Distance Between Lost and Found

Author: Kathryn Holmes

Rating: 4 Stars

The Distance Between Lost and Found is very much a novel where we know, roughly, the structure of the story. Hallie has been mercilessly bullied and ignored by her peers for the last six months, ever since her ex-crush, Luke, spread nasty rumors--all lies--about her not only to the entire school but also to her church. When Hallie is finally allowed to return to a church retreat, she has no friends and keeps to herself, hoping to avoid Luke as much as possible. Rachel, someone who doesn't attend their high school but has joined the retreat, knows nothing of Hallie's past and tries to slowly befriend her. But when Hallie scares her off and the rest of the students at the congregation ignore her for even trying to speak to Hallie, Rachel decides to go home. Hallie, feeling guilty over her role in making Rachel want to leave, decides to follow her. And lastly, Jonah, Hallie's close friend pre-Luke follows them both as well. Before long, however, the three teens find themselves lost on Hannah Mountain with limited supplies and no cell phones. Can they find their way back before it's too late? Or is this just another trial that Hallie is going to endure post-Luke?

For such a simple story, I became very quickly invested in these characters. We don't find out what happened to Hallie until roughly the half-way point of the story, but that doesn't mean that I didn't feel for her at every step of the way. Hallie hasn't told the truth to nearly anyone and finds it easier, now, to simply stay silent rather than speak up. This journey--getting lost in the forest--is such a transformative experience for Hallie. Not only because it gives her friends, but because she realizes that she is capable of so much more than she thought. And if she can survive rainstorms and near-starvation then surely she can finally make her voice be heard and tell everyone the truth about Luke, the preacher's "perfect" son?

The secondary characters, though, are not to be outdone. Rachel is energetic and lively but she has her own baggage that she brings on this trip and Jonah, Luke's best friend, has been shunning Hallie for months when he finally discovers the truth and is desperate to atone for his past behavior. It's a complicated web of emotions that accompanies these three and I really enjoyed watching them maneuver their pasts alongside their present where they must work together to survive. Jonah and Hallie, especially, have so many pent-up feelings towards each other and their relationship made me want to smash a vase and smile beatifically; both. That's not to say that I didn't love the strong female friendship between Rachel and Hallie, but Jonah's relationship with Hallie is so complex and interconnected with so much else so I especially loved how Holmes wrote it; slowly and with such finesse.

I'm not someone who gravitates towards survival stories but I will say that this seemed believable to me, throughout, and I definitely found myself doubting whether these three would make it out okay. Holmes is a masterful weaver of prose and passion, combining the plot and emotional arcs of these three characters perfectly. I'm excited to pick up whatever she writes next and am hopeful that more will read this remarkable debut.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monthly Rewind: November

3 Things About My Life This Month

1. The U.S. Presidential Election CRUSHED Me. I was a sobbing mess for days and I felt even more helpless being here, in France, and away from all of my friends and loved ones. I haven't spoken about the election on this platform, yet, because there is so much to say and so many people who are saying far better than I can. It's a travesty but, frankly, we cannot give up; we cannot allow the despair that followed the election results to keep us down and we also cannot allow it to fade into our memories. We have to keep that feeling alive and, what's more, we have to constantly support one another, call out each other's racism and sexism and bigotry, and try to make sense of the fractured country we live in. We have to keep ourselves informed, leave our safe bubbles, and challenge our thinking at every step of the way. If we don't do this, we will not have learned from this election and, at this point, that's the best we can do. 

2. I went to London!! I couldn't sleep the night before my flight to London--I was so damn excited. And I loved London! It's my favorite big city in Europe (that I've visited) and I had such a wonderful time, meeting up with relatives and friends and especially seeing Jasprit from The Reader's Den! The two of us have been friends since we entered the blogging world, around the same time, so it was amazing to spend a wonderful day with her, and, what's more, she's the FIRST blogging friend I've met face-to-face! It was amazing and tysm Jasprit, for coming into London and spending so much time with me!

3. I took my first solo-trip, ever, to Amsterdam! I've been wanting to travel solo for awhile and Amsterdam, where the majority of the population speaks English and the crime rate is very low, seemed like the perfect destination. I had such a wonderful time in this beautiful city and even met up with a cousin and a friend of mine, so combined with all the delicious food, no regrets whatsoever. Plus, I now feel more confident than ever to travel alone, eat alone, and spend a weekend entirely alone. None of it was as hard as I imagined and I highly recommended solo travel for everyone! 

Best Book I Read This Month

I didn't read a lot this month, in the midst of election depression and then my travels, but I adored this last book in this beloved series and, I promise, it delivers on all counts and is well worth the wait.

Most Popular Post This Month

I looooved this book so I'm thrilled that my review got as many views and comments as it did. I hope you all pick this one up this holiday season and LOVE it like I did! :) 

Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

This book (and author) fell under the radar but I really enjoyed this one so much so I hope I can convince a few more of you to pick this up before the year is over!

3 Things I'm Looking Forward to Next Month

1. MOROCCO! So, technically, by the time this post goes up, I would have already spent five amazing days in Morocco, but this is my last trip and one I am so very excited for. I am sure it is going to be remarkable. 

2. I AM FINALLY GOING HOME! Guys, I miss my family so much (and my town, and my mom's cooking, and just MURICA) so I cannot wait to be on a flight back! Less than two weeks and I will be in my own bed, eating my mom's homemade everything, speaking ENGLISH. I am so ready.

3. Christmas! My family doesn't typically do a lot for Christmas but this year my aunt and cousin are coming to visit and I'm really excited to see them! We haven't had a family reunion in a loooong time so it'll be so much fun to see them and spend some time with them in New York. :)

What are you looking forward to in December? Is anyone else already listening to carols and watching Christmas movies? How was November? I'd love to hear in the comments and I promise to be much more active this month!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review: The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

Title: The Forgetting

Author: Sharon Cameron

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I didn't expect The Forgetting to become by favorite of Sharon Cameron's works when I picked it up. It's a complete 180 from her typical brand of historical fiction, for one, and for another, this novel is much more mature and dark from the beginning. I loved it. I haven't read a sci-fi/dystopian thriller in what seems like years, but is almost definitely a few months. Cameron's launch back into the genre, with a fresh new twist, surprised me--after all, I was quite sure we, as YA consumers, had exhausted everything this genre had to offer. I'm glad the era of Hunger Games look-a-likes and love-triangle infused tropes are over, though, so that a novel like The Forgetting can hopefully set the tone for future sci-fi/dystopian reads.

Nadia's world revolves around The Forgetting, an event that happens every twelve years and wipes away the memories of every human in her village. As such, her society is protected by walls--because who knows what's outside when no one can remember?--and no one ever leaves the house without their books, where they have written everything they can remember about each day. Their books are their truth and without them, they are no one. It's a shocking, dark realm but Nadia is seemingly the only one who can remember. As threats of food shortages emerge from the Council who governs Canaan, Nadia begins to use her memories and her knowledge of the world outside Canaan to solve the mysteries behind her town--and hopefully save her family, too.

Nadia is the heart and soul of this story and I loved her narration. It's unflinching and honest, in a world where no one remembers and lives could very well be built on lies. I was with her every step of the way as she uncovered the layers to Canaan and the plot twists were not ones I saw coming in the least. Nadia's relationship with her family--her mother, on the brink of craziness, her older sister, who believes she's an imposter, and her younger sister, who loves her dearly--were impeccably written. Many of the secondary characters truly came alive and I loved the romance with Gray, the glassblower's son, who becomes central to both the plot and to Nadia's growth. It's the perfect slow-burn with plenty of development but it takes a back-seat when needed to the action and plot at the core of this story.

My only complaint with this novel is that the ending felt a little too Disney-like for me. Just one villain, just one hero, etc. There are so many gray layers to the secondary characters in this story that I was disappointed by the black-and-white treatment of the villain. I love this world, though, and am so curious to learn more about Nadia's future exploits that I hope Cameron writes a companion novel, or the very least a few novellas to satisfy my curiosity. For fans of Cameron, or even those who haven't been charmed by her historical fiction/steampunk works in the past, The Forgetting is a completely new venture from her and one I think older readers, in particular, will appreciate. Cameron's previous works definitely read on the side of naivety, when it came to her heroines, so I love that she holds back no punches with Nadia's fierce personality. Believe me, you won't be forgetting this story very easily; not even in twelve years.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review: The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon

Title: The Bird and the Sword

Author: Amy Harmon

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I knew nothing about this book before diving in and then, against all odds, I fell in love. The Bird and the Sword is one of the best fantasy novels I've read in a very long time and if this novel is anything to go by, Amy Harmon is swiftly about to become one of my favorite authors.

Our novel begins with a curse. Lark, our heroine, is a Teller; whatever she speaks will come true, by magic. As a young girl, she is caught making puppets fly with her mother, also a Teller, and when her mother takes the blame for the magic, the king kills her in front of Lark's eyes. But before she dies, her mother curses those around her. She tells Lark to remain silent, to keep her magic hidden within her. She tells her husband, next in line for the throne should the king's son die, that his life is tied to Lark's--if he fails to take of her and Lark dies, so does he. And lastly, she curses the king himself. Years later, Lark is mute and kept a prisoner by her father in her home, lest she accidentally harm herself or die and kill him in the process. Lark doesn't think much of her mother's curse, though, despite the faith that her father puts in it. It is only when the king's son, now the new King Tiras, arrives to whisk her off to his palace, that she begins to see that her mother's curse might still exist. And for this king, so unlike his father who murdered her mother, she just might want to try to break it...

This book is just pure magic, from beginning to end, and I loved how the plot twists and revelations all came full circle. Lark is a fascinating heroine, both because she is mute and because she possesses magical abilities. I wrote in my review of A Court of Mist and Fury that fantasy walks a fine line when it uses issues that exist in our day-to-day lives--abusive relationships, disabilities, etc.--and then explains those situations away with magic. In The Bird and the Sword, though, I really loved how Harmon made Lark's disability her strength. Lark grows immensely over the course of the novel and she learns to embrace her disability, never allowing it to inhibit her from anything else she wishes to do.

The fairy-tale writing and curse are, of course, the main plot to this novel but I appreciate that Harmon nevertheless expands upon the world-building and throws us into a world of complex court politics once Lark reaches the kingdom. There is little I love more than a fantasy world where magic and politics co-exist, battling each other for power, and the systematic slaughter of those who possessed magical abilities, even if they were Healers, brought forth powerful messages about race and inequality. Admittedly, I was not a fan of how these deep, complicated issues were resolved rather quickly by the end of the novel, but that's a slight fault to have with a novel so wonderfully crafted.

The Bird and the Sword shines, though, because of its romance. As a prisoner of King Tiras, Lark has more freedom than she had when she lived with her father and, what's more, Tiras personally teaches her how to read, giving her the words that her mother's curse stole from her. He helps her to harness her power and though he uses that power--she is his prisoner, after all--it's at the cost of slowly giving up his secrets and trusting her. Their relationship is a slow-burn, inching from enemies to tentative allies to friends and finally to something more but witnessing it all from Lark's perspective, from inside of her head as she falls in love with this king of contradictions, is beautiful. I'm in love with their love story and I know this is one I will read and re-read. It's all about navigating messy feelings and power imbalances until they've found and secured an equilibrium and I love seeing that progression.

The story, as I said, isn't perfect since the ending is a little neat, pieces fitting together at a rapid pace, but I loved this novel immensely. I cannot recommend it enough, particularly for fans of Kristin Cashore's Fire as this story reminded me of my favorite on more than one occasion. My only problem now is to decide whether to re-read this--and stay stuck in my book hangover forever--or move on to Harmon's other words and, possibly, be stuck in book hangover anyway.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Monthly Rewind: October

The best way to keep up with my travels this semester (and the next!) is through Instagram where I post quite frequently! All my pictures do not make it to the blog, sadly, but feel free to follow me on Instagram!! 

3 Things About My Life This Month 

Hydra, Greece
1. I did a LOT of traveling. It didn't feel like a lot, but in retrospect, I visited cities in five different countries! I went to Greece to visit my aunt and cousins who I've never met, but I adored my trip since I got to spend so much time in Athens as well as on a cruise visiting three different Greek islands, of which Hydra was my favorite. I was in Lyon, France for a weekend--the third largest city in France--and it was beautiful! Like Paris, it's surrounded by rivers and the old cobblestone streets, bridges lit up at night, and delicacies in all the windows made me fall in love. I also went to Barcelona, Spain for a weekend and was shocked by how much I loved it! Some of my favorite meals since arriving in Europe were had on this trip and the city, such a mish-mosh of modern and funky architecture, stole my heart. I must, I must, I must return.
Lyon, France
Lastly, I went to Italy with my mom, stopping by Venice for a day before heading south to Rome, Naples, and the smallest country in the world, Vatican City. I desperately fell for Venice, but I do have to admit that Rome took awhile to grow on me. The city wasn't as tourist-friendly as I imagined, with very few people knowing any English at all, and without an efficient metro system, my mom and I were clocking anywhere from 12-15 miles a day. It was exhausting. By the end, though, I think I did grow slightly fond of Rome but I doubt I'll be returning. Italy, though, I plan to visit again--probably with an Italian-speaker if I can, next time.

Venice, Italy
2. I've been restless, lately. I know this sounds bizarre, considering all the traveling I've been doing, but I feel as if I'm not doing enough; not using this time to its maximum ability. I think it's just a general feeling of anxiety that I'm not doing my study abroad the "right" way, but there is no "right" or "wrong" way to study abroad and I've been slowly coming to terms with that. Alternatively, it could just be that I've got the travel bug and after two decades of essentially never traveling, I'm now obsessed. I constantly want to go, go, go and just jet off to a different city, a different country. I hope I can find more meaningful ways to just enjoy the present, too, because--hey!--Provence is a pretty sweet place to be.

Pizza making class in Rome!
3. My traveling has given me a new appreciation for my life in Aix, this semester. I hadn't realized how much I'd come to rely on fresh croissants for breakfast or a crepe stand at every corner until I left the country. I've become so comfortable using French that I floundered while trying to communicate with locals in Spain and Italy. Somehow, against all odds, this place has started to feel like home and when I finally stepped into my room after eight days in Italy, I was relieved. I don't know where the transition between homesickness and feeling-at-home happened, but I find myself pleasantly surprised that it did! I'm sad to be leaving in just another month and a half and though I still want to go, go, go to other places, I'm contemplating slowing down a bit to enjoy the life I've built for myself right here.

Top 3 Books I Read This Month

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Obviously, Crooked Kingdom was everything I wanted it to be and more. Bardugo just does not disappoint and I already want to re-read this perfect, perfect duology. Harmon's The Bird and the Sword was a fantasy stand-alone I had heard mixed reviews of, but I actually really, really loved it. It's part fairy-tale, part fantasy, part romance, and utterly beautiful in both its characterization and prose. Hopefully I will find time to write the gushing review this book deserves. And, lastly, The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron. I contemplated putting The Midnight Star by Marie Lu up here, but at the end of the day, the latter felt like a peaceful conclusion while the former felt fresh, original, and just so mature. It's my favorite of Cameron's books--and I've loved her steampunk/historical fiction novels!--but this is a whole new level for her, I feel, and I really adored it. October was not a large reading month, but it was a goooood reading month.

Most Popular Post This Month

Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

(Only because I absolutely ADORE this series and the final book in the trilogy, which just released, was SO AWESOME. If you like fantasy at all, pick up this series--it won't disappoint!)

Post I Starred in my Blog Reader this Month

I adore this article about shaving and how it's not always a choice for women of color. As a feminist and someone who attends a women's college (when I'm not studying abroad, that is), this is something I hear and see a lot--that you are more feminist if you don't shave and conform to beauty standards that men have erected. I can totally see how that's a valid argument, but it's also not a huge deal if you're hair is light and barely noticeable on your skin in the first place. For a curly-haired girl like me, it's the same as someone with straight hair with the tiiiiniest wave saying that they're going to get rid of their hair straightener so they can have healthier hair; their hair is frankly straight already, so the sacrifice doesn't mean a lot. Obviously, this article delves deeper into this issue and does a better job of addressing it than I do, so give it a read; it's worth it.

Obsession of the Month

Um, Quantico, actually. I saw all of Season 1 in less than a week and am now waiting every week for a new episode of Season 2. I began Quantico back when the show first released, mostly because I was immensely proud of Priyanka Chopra (a huuuge Bollywood actress) for making it onto American television, but I found that the first few episodes of Season 1 were painful to watch episode-by-episode. I can now confirm that my initial thoughts, that this is a show that would thrive off of binge-watching, is correct. I returned to the first-half of Season 1 and then sped through the second-half within just two or three days and now I'm enjoying Season 2 episode-by-episode a lot more than I did Season 1. Anyway, I highly recommend the show! It's smart and the viewer is kept guessing till the end, which isn't easy to do. The characters, especially the secondary ones, have fascinating story arcs outside of the seasonal arc and the diversity on this show, not to mention the feminism, lack of slut-shaming, and female friendships, are all FANTASTIC. It helps that the men are quite cute, too. ;)

3 Things I'm Looking Forward to Next Month

1. Going to London!!! I am SO EXCITED to go to London, you guys! I've read about this magical city in SO MANY BOOKS and I'm finally going there myself! I'll be meeting Jasprit from The Reader's Den, which is so incredibly exciting since she's one of my very first blogging friends and I can't believe I'll finally be meeting her in person! I'm also going to Oxford to visit my best friend of ten years and I'll be attending the choir concert of one of my best friends from the Wellesley College Choir (I MISS THE CHOIR SO MUCH!). I'm also (obviously) going to go to all the major touristy sites and, unfortunately for my suitcase, I have a looong list of books with UK covers that I want to own, so I'll definitely have to pack light so I can return with a suitcase full of books. ;)

2. Thanksgiving! Obviously, Thanksgiving isn't a holiday here in France but in my program, all the students make a traditional Thanksgiving dish with their host families and all of our host families come together to celebrate Thanksgiving together. I'm really excited for this to happen and it's going to be such a wonderful melange of cultures! I'm especially looking forward to meeting other host families since we've all been talking about our families so much, so I feel like I know them all already!

3. Sweater Weather! It's only now getting a tiiiny bit cold, here in Provence, so while I'm going to miss the warm weather, I'm ready for the weather to decide if it's warm or cold. Right now, we have cool mornings and HOT afternoons so I kind of just want to be able to wear my jacket without sweating in it and pulling on my tall boots without regretting wearing them that day. Plus, I miss the fall colors and fashion from the US so much so I'm ready to embrace that and skip the horrible winter part of it altogether. :)

What did you do in October? Any Halloween celebrations? I, for one, did not celebrate Halloween or the two biggest Indian holidays, Navratri or Diwali, so it was a celebration-less October for me, sadly, but I'd love to hear about you all did! Any exciting November plans? I want to hear in the comments below!! 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Wanderlost by Jen Malone

Title: Wanderlost

Author: Jen Malone

Rating: 2 Stars

I received an ARC of Wanderlost a few months ago and, after sampling a few chapters, I completely wrote this book off. Aubree, the protagonist, was a tad too immature and whiny for me to handle and her voice simply didn't speak to me. But when the raving reviews of Wanderlost began to flood in closer and closer to its release date, I dug out my ARC again and resolved to give this novel another try, with an open mind.

Well, it turns out my first instincts are spot-on. Wanderlost didn't improve much for me past those first few chapters and while I found redeeming qualities, certainly, this isn't a novel I would recommend. In fact, do yourself a favor a buy a copy of Kristen Hubbard's Wanderlove instead--similar title, relatively similar premises, but a much stronger plot and romance.

My number one issue with Wanderlost was Aubree. Elizabeth, Aubree's older sister, is whip-smart and determined--she always gets her way and she doesn't let anything stop her. When Aubree throws a party with underage drinking and Elizabeth covers for her, Elizabeth is arrested and can't leave the country to lead a tour around Europe as planned. Since Aubree now owes her, big time, Aubree takes her place and leaves her small town, for the first time, terrified to be traveling to Europe. Aubree is so ungrateful. I won't deny that Elizabeth isn't the most supportive older sister, but Aubree refuses to see the opportunity in front of her eyes. I found her inner monologues so frustrating and wanted her to open up, see eye-to-eye with her sister, and seize this experience.

Aubree gets there--eventually!--but it takes so very long and I found myself unimpressed by her growth arc. The tour itself is cute, with six elderly men and women and Sam, a sophomore in college who is added onto the tour last-minute to help his grandmother with her elbow injury. Sam is downright adorable and it's hard not to fall for him. Why he fell for Aubree? A mystery. Their romance didn't make me swoon in the least and the matchmaking going on between the grandmothers and grandfathers on this tour made me roll my eyes. It was so very cliche.

I appreciate that Malone really does develop Aubree and Elizabeth's relationship over the course of this novel and, what's more, she tries to add facts about different European cities. It doesn't feel atmospheric and the prose is unremarkable but it's easy to forgive that with Sam around. But, this novel fell so short of being wonderful for me. I wanted Aubree to really grow and change on her own but it felt as if so much of her opening up was due to Sam. And that isn't a bad thing, but I wanted more of her individual growth, too. And, perhaps I was comparing this too much to Just One Day and Wanderlove. (The latter, especially, features a 17-year-old girl on a tour in a foreign country for the first time, traveling alone, so the similarities were inevitable.)

Wanderlost isn't exceptional, new, or ground-breaking. It's a quick, simple read that will make you smile. The conflict isn't anxiety-inducing and though there was a particular plot point that surprised me quite a bit towards the end, this book is exactly what you imagine it will be--sadly, nothing more.

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! :)