Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Black Iris by Leah Raeder

Title: Black Iris

Author: Leah Raeder

Rating: 4 Stars

I don’t think I can adequately begin to express just how important of a book Black Iris is. I attend an extremely liberal, accepting college but, even then, this novel made me feel less alone and more comfortable in my own skin—and that’s no small feat.

Black Iris is a revenge story, one that I often found difficult to read, but Raeder’s prose is pure magic and it is impossible to stay away from this book for long. While Unteachable was a clear-cut forbidden romance, filled with emotion and romance, Black Iris is its darker, more mysterious cousin. Raeder crafts this novel in such a way that timelines converge, split apart, and shift dramatically. It’s easy to think you know what’s happening or what the end result is or who the victim and perpetrator really are—but, truly, you’ve simply been kept in the dark until the final, all-too-unpredictable reveal. It’s a brilliant feat of writing, this combination of prose and plot, and when you add Raeder’s cutthroat emotion—the kind that seeps into your skin and deep into the pits of your stomach—it is evident that Black Iris is different. It is special.

In all honesty, I do not love this book. I don’t think I could ever read it again—a strange combination of hitting too close to home and not too close at all—but that does not negate the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of it. More than anything else, I am grateful to Raeder for writing about sexual fluidity; for creating characters who do not fit in any boxes but still manage to find happiness. It is important for readers to be able to pick up a book and find characters they identify with—sexually, and personality-wise. With Unteachable Raeder already made strides in writing an unlikable heroine who, somehow, we manage to root for. With Black Iris, the lines are even more blurred. I do not know if I always rooted for this heroine, but I always respected and supported her decision; I always accepted who she was and her bravery in reaching that place of self-confidence.

Black Iris is best read blind. I hesitate to discuss the plot or the characters or anything, really, with the exception of my feelings. And, oh my, did I feel. I fell for the wrong characters, I rooted for the morally corrupt, I switched sides. There is nothing I love more than a novel that inspires such a wide range of emotion and with Black Iris, that is precisely what you are guaranteed. Leah Raeder, thank you for having the courage to write such an important, meaningful novel. I appreciate your guts and, in particular, you sharing your story in the acknowledgements section. It means more than you can know, perhaps.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

ARC Review: Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway

Title: Emmy & Oliver

Author: Robin Benway

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: June 23rd, 2015

Emmy & Oliver is the type of best friend romance I would normally be clamoring head-over-heels for...only, it's a liiitle more complex than that. Emmy and Oliver are not only neighbors, they're best friends. They've grown up alongside one another and for the first seven years of their life, they have shared everything, including their birthdays. When Oliver's father arrives to pick him up after school one Friday afternoon, no one thinks much of it. After all, Oliver spends every weekend with his father. When he doesn't come back to school on Monday, however, that's when Emmy starts worrying. When he doesn't come back for ten years, it's a tragedy.

At seven, Oliver is kidnapped by his father and, at seventeen, he is found in an apartment in New York City. To Oliver, his life has been a series of adventures; him and his father against the world. Oliver was led to believe that his mother abandoned him and, grief-stricken and confused, he never attempted to contact her. A curious Google search a decade later reveals that his mother has been searching for Oliver all her life. Oliver's absence has not only fractured his life, it has torn up the lives of their entire community. Emmy's parents, once carefree, have been strict, curfew-abiding jailers for much of Emmy's life. Their fear following Oliver's kidnapping has haunted Emmy her entire life and now, at seventeen, all Emmy wants is to surf and attend UCSD--dreams that will never be fulfilled as her parents have already planned that she will commute to college from home and instead of enroll her in dangerous sports like surfing, the most they have allowed her to do is have a car.

When Oliver returns, Emmy doesn't know what to think. She and Oliver were best friends ten years ago but can they still be best friends now? Is Oliver even the same person? Although Oliver hasn't been maltreated by his father, Emmy cannot even begin to understand his life or emotional state. She, living in the same home and growing up with the same friends, Caroline and Drew, who also used to be friends with Oliver, is comfortable and happy where she is. But Oliver, who has traveled around the nation and is coming all the way from New York City...does he even want to live with his mother anymore? While Oliver's mother never stopped looking for him, she also refused to stop living. Now married with two twin girls who Emmy babysits every week, the world has gone forward despite the fact that Oliver has come back and the road ahead for Emmy, Oliver, and those closest to them is paved with hardships.

It took me awhile to truly immerse myself in this tale, primarily because Benway has to set-up the backdrop of this novel and Oliver's story is a sad, depressing one. Though he doesn't suffer from trauma and has been treated like a son by his father, he doesn't go out of his way to befriend students and his arrival in high school isn't the easiest of transitions. Yet, Emmy is a laid-back, easy-going heroine and her willingness to draw Oliver back into her life is what truly made me invested in this love story. Emmy is frank and open about her life, showing Oliver her favorite spots to surf and immediately treating him as the friend he always was to her. The fact that Emmy accepts that Oliver was gone for ten years but acts as if he knows her is what enables him to leave his shell and slowly join her circle of friends.

Emmy and Caro are the type of best friends you always read about or see on television but Benway makes them even more realistic than the classic portrayal. Caro is the youngest of five siblings and unlike Emmy, who is an only child and under the constant scrutiny of her parents, Caro's parents could hardly care less where she is or what she does. She shares a room with her messy older sister, Heather, and Caro dreams of sharing an apartment with Emmy and attending college with her. Drew, who has recently told his family that he is gay, struggles with the fact that his parents still love him and yet are disappointed in him. Their trio is a tight one and while Emmy grows and changes due to Oliver's presence in her life, her friends do too. They each have their own issues and the fact that they became so alive, despite remaining secondary characters, is a testament to Benway's skill.

Emmy and Oliver's own romance is sweet and slow to develop. You're almost not certain if they'll choose to remain friends but it's so very obvious that their feelings for one another run deeper than mere friendship and the support they give one another is incredible to watch. Emmy and Oliver have one another's backs and when they find it difficult to speak with their parents or other friends, they somehow have the right words to coax the truth from one another. Reading about their relationship is heart-warming and swoon-worthy in all the right ways. Especially because, first and foremost, they will always be friends.

I really enjoyed how this novel focused so deeply on family units and parental relationships. Whether it be the relationship Emmy sustains with her parents where she is forced to hide parts of her personality to please them or the one between Oliver and his mother where he feels unable to confide in her, Benway captures both the difficulties and joys of family. Emmy & Oliver is being marketed as a love story but, truly, I felt as if the romance was secondary to the growth both Oliver and Emmy undergo over the course of this novel and, what's more, their friendship and relationships with others--from their parents to their friends to the one between Oliver and his father--is what is at the crux of this novel. Sure, there's a love story too--a sweet, sweet one--but Emmy & Oliver is about so much more than that mere label.

Benway writes in a manner that makes even the darkest of subjects accessible and her trademark humor, combined with the easy sarcastic dialogue she imbibes within her characters, makes her novels fly by. I just can't put one of her books down and Emmy & Oliver, with an older cast on the cusp of transitioning into college, brings forth a variety of themes and concepts that I love to see in YA. Benway explores the idea of freedom in college, not to mention the harsh reality of leaving behind your high school friends, with such aplomb that I hope she returns to this older YA age group and explores more of those ideas in greater depth. Having read her entire backlist at this point, I cannot wait to see what she has up her sleeve next (I'm keeping my fingers crossed for another Also Known As novel). Whatever it is, though, it'll be worth the wait.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Just Another... Book Crush (#18): Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

Just Another...Book Crush! is a monthly feature where I invite an author whose book I've recently reviewed and loved to write a guest post and share their three latest book crushes. It's a feature I'm starting mostly because I'm often very shy to approach authors, especially ones I admire, and also because I love reading guest posts since, more often than not, they convince me to pick up a book even when the reviewer cannot. 

Today on the blog I am thrilled to be re-welcoming Rosamund Hodge back to discuss her sophomore novel, Crimson Bound, which I actually found to be even better than her debut, Cruel Beauty, which I loved. Hodge has a talent--and the courage--to write unlikable female characters, ones who don't always make the moral of decisions. I am head-over-heels in love with her blog post today and I hope you all will be too! 
When Rachelle was fifteen she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless— straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat. Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her find the legendary sword that might save their world. As the two become unexpected allies, they uncover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night? Inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Crimson Bound is an exhilarating tale of darkness, love, and redemption.

Misery Loves Company: Why I Wrote Two Guilty, Self-Hating Heroines

When you have a book about to be published, you start thinking of all the reasons that people might not like it. You ponder all the points in the book where a reader might demand, "But why did you do that?" And you try to come up with a few good answers.

At least, I do. So I've been conscious for a long time that there are a lot of similarities between Rachelle, the heroine of Crimson Bound, and Nyx, the heroine of Cruel Beauty. They both struggle with guilt and self-hatred. They both think that they're unworthy of love. And they both use a lot of anger to cope with that.

Why did I write a second angry, guilty, self-hating heroine? 

Because I wasn't done yet.

I like writing about guilt and self-hatred because . . .  well, for one thing, it brings the DRAMA like little else.

But I also like writing about it because it's a way to get at some fundamental human issues. Who am I? Who should I be? How can I be loved? Those are questions that we all face, and those are the questions at stake when you're writing a character who's dealing with guilt.

And I wrote two guilty heroines because I wanted to write two different sets of answers to those  questions.

If I had to summarize Nyx's story, it might be: "You're not as bad as you think you are." Nyx hates herself because she's full of anger and resentment--at her father, for promising her to a demon, at her sister, for escaping that fate, and really at the whole world, for letting her be in such an awful position. Over the course of the novel, she learns to be kinder to the people around her--but she also learns to accept her own anger, to stop hating herself for it, and sometimes to embrace it.

That isn't Rachelle's story.

Because the reason that Rachelle hates herself? The evil, supernatural powers of the Great Forest offered her a choice: kill an innocent, or die. She killed and lived. And there were a whole bunch of mitigating circumstances--she didn't accept that choice without a fight--but at the end of the day, somebody was dead. She did it.

I wrote about Rachelle because I wanted to write a story about the question, "What if you are as bad as you think you are?"

You hear a lot about needing to "forgive yourself"--in novels, TV, and inspirational blog posts.  But when there's an example of  "forgiving yourself," usually it's all about realizing that what you did wasn't so bad.  Or that you were trying your best. Or that you really didn't harm anyone in the end. Or that at least you're different now, hooray, so let's just wave our hands and ignore what happened earlier.

And quite often, that's exactly what you need. I know that a lot of the time when I start wallowing in self-hatred, it's over something absolutely inconsequential, where I did try my best and anyway nobody will ever know the difference. Sometimes you really just need to realize that you're not as bad as you think you are.

But not always. Sometimes you really have done something awful. And I used to struggle a lot during those times, because I felt like forgiving myself would be saying that what I had done was okay. It would be denying my own principles of right and wrong, and I loved my principles far more than I loved myself, so I figured it was just time to board the guilt train.

If you had asked me, of course I would have said that forgiveness didn't mean making excuses; I would have told you that in fact, forgiveness can only exist when somebody has really done wrong. I would have sworn that anything could be forgiven.

I would have said that, and thought that, and defended that to the death. But I often had hard time believing it.

So I wrote Rachelle. At the start of Crimson Bound, she's in a similar position. She's done something wrong, and she hates herself, and she clings to that self-hatred because it is the only thing she has left. The Great Forest took away her dreams of courage and heroism; it took her family and friends; it took away her innocence and her sense of self.  As long as she hates herself for being what the Forest made her, she's still a little bit free of it.

Then I gave her one last chance to save the world from the power of the Great Forest. I gave her a few people who were willing to believe in her. And I made myself a promise: no matter what happened on her journey, she would get to keep her principles. I would never, ever make her say, "That wasn't so bad," as the price for finding peace.

I think it ended up making a pretty interesting story. 

Just Another... Book Crush! 
1. The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski
2. Prairie Fire by E. K. Johnston
3. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Thanks for stopping by, Rosamund! I love, love, love this post--it exemplifies so many of the ideals I want to see in more YA heroines, which is why Rosamund Hodge is one of my favorite authors, even after just two books! What did you think?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: Iced by Karen Marie Moning

Title: Iced (Dani O'Malley, #1; Fever, #6) 

Author: Karen Marie Moning

Rating: 2 Stars

Iced is a shockingly disappointing installment from Karen Marie Moning. Honestly, I can't believe this is the same author who wrote the first five books of the Fever Series, charming readers with her impeccable plotting and honest narration. While there are a plethora of issues with Iced, many of which have been discussed at length by earlier readers, the crux of my problem with this novel is not Dani or her narration; it's the flimsy plot, the unnecessary glimpses into the minds of characters who offer nothing to the tale, and the cheap tactics by which Moning distinguishes the "good" guys from the "bad" ones.

Although Iced could have easily been set a few years after the end of Shadowfever, mostly to give us a narrator who isn't fourteen-years-old, this novel takes places shortly after the events of the first five Fever books. Dani, now estranged from Mac, is captured and blackmailed brutally by Ryodan who forces her to help him discover how--and why--parts of Dublin are slowly being iced over. If it wasn't bad enough that Dani is being bullied by Ryodan, she has to contend with Christian, whose transformation into an Unseelie Prince seems to be tampering with his sanity, all while trying to enjoy her childhood with the people she actually wants like Dancer, a genius kid who is one of Dani's only true friends.

While Dani's narration can take some time to get used to, I have to admit that I actually like her. Seriously, I have nothing but respect for Dani. She's young, talented, and thrown into a world where she's the smallest fish--not to mention the fact that Mac, who was like an older sister to her, has now abandoned her. Dani may be reckless and naive, but she does the best she can in the circumstances she's thrown in. Moreover, she keeps a clear mind and unlike other characters in the novel (*ahem*, Jo!) she is able to see Ryodan and Christian for what they are. Ryodan, for all the swooning readers do over him, is, plain and simple, a bully. He secures Dani's cooperation by blackmailing her and hiring Jo as a result of that transaction and, for that, Dani detests him. She does her best to maintain her freedom and sense of independence and, in doing so, often violates Ryodan's many rules which allow him to keep an eye on her. Yet, despite the fact that Dani tells everyone who will listen that Ryodan is bad news, out of everyone else in this book, he's possibly the adult that treats her best. Which, honestly, is despicable. Ryodan is likable simply because in comparison to Christian, who is a full-fledged pedophile, he is a saint. Ryodan doesn't sexualize Dani and though he is possessive of her, he never crosses the lines that Christian does.

Speaking of Christian, I feel genuinely sorry to see him have sunk this low. Back in the day, Christian was hot. I mean, we all swooned over this guy. Now? Ick, you can't get me out of Christian's head any faster! Moning includes one too many chapters from Christian's perspective and it's beyond disturbing. Not only is Christian obsessed with Dani, thinking about her constantly and trying to convince her that someday they will be together, but even the actions he completes that have nothing to do with Dani are disturbing. I just feel sad that Moning felt compelled to mold him into a sick, genuinely reviling character. Thus, in comparison to Christian, I can completely see why readers are falling head-over-heels for Ryodan. I'd prefer anyone to Christian. Yet, that doesn't negate the fact that Ryodan isn't exactly Mr. Nice Guy and though I suspect I might grow to like him more as the series progresses--after all, that was the case with Barrons, too--I'm not holding my breath.

Characters aside, Iced is a novel composed of filler pages. Not much happens in such a hefty volume and the fact that Ryodan requires Dani's help is a flimsy excuse for a plot to be built upon. It isn't until the last hundred, or so, pages that the plot finally picks up and Iced ends with a bang. Hopefully, this means that Burned will be far more entertaining and far less cringe-worthy. At any rate, I'm hoping that a healthy dose of Mac and Barrons can reclaim the magic of the Fever Series. While Moning's novels often deal with brutal, horrific themes at least they've had an adult protagonist cope with those situations. Dani, at fourteen, is just too young a character and to expect her to be on par with Mac, physically and particularly emotionally, isn't fair. What's more, I found that Mac's story is an emotionally compelling one: her sister has been murdered and Mac wants revenge. With Iced, the motivations feel cheap and lack depth. Dani's backstory certainly pulls heartstrings but her past has little to do with her present.

I knew, from the mixed reviews--many of them unhappy ones--that Iced wasn't going to be a favorite of mine. I just hoped, foolishly perhaps, that knowing what to expect would make the experience of reading this far more tolerable. I guess...not. Iced is slow, torturous, and not what I would expect after a five fast-paced, action-filled novels with revelations and plot twists around every corner. Needless to say, if Moning plans to keep fans reading this spin-off, Burned will need to be a really good read.

Update: Burned is good! You can read my mini-review of it HERE

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

Title: Prisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1) 

Author: Anne Blankman

Rating: 3.5 Stars

I only truly began to fall for this novel towards the end. Gretchen, the protagonist of this debut whose relationship with Adolf Hitler is intimate enough that she addresses him as Uncle Dolf, reads far younger than her age for much of this novel. Prisoner of Night and Fog chronicles her much needed wake-up call as she finally recognizes the lies that she has been fed all her life. It isn't until almost after half-way through the tale that she begins to come into her own; formulating her own opinions and leaving behind the teachings of Uncle Dolf.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Gretchen grow and change remarkably over the scope of this novel. From her former naivety to the bravery she accumulates like a cloak, her character is tremendously inspirational and downright believable as well. Despite aching to free her family from Uncle Dolf's influence as well, Gretchen is nevertheless prone to cracks of vulnerability in her armor. What's more, despite the fact that her profound change is precipitated by Daniel, a Jewish reporter who reveals that Gretchen's father did not die saving Hitler, as she believed, Gretchen's actions are self-motivated. Instead of dismissing Daniel, Gretchen discovers that her father was murdered by a member of Hitler's own party and her steps to discover just who murdered him are not solely a result of Daniel's influence.

Gretchen and Daniel's romance is sweet and nurturing; a support system in a time when they both lack precisely that. Gretchen's family is falling apart, whether it be her older brother who harbors psychological illnesses of his own or her mother, determined to do right by her elder child even if it means sacrificing much of Gretchen's own happiness. Each of these relationships is so nuanced and rich, full of scope and depth, and yet they also align perfectly with history. Many of the characters in this novel are real Nazis and the manner in which Blankman weaves Gretchen's fictional tale alongside Hitler's slow accumulation of power is tremendous. In learning of WWII, we often learn of the Holocaust and the end of the war, not Nazi politics, so the fact that this novel remains intensely political is a welcome surprise.

I didn't expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did. Perhaps if I had, I'd have picked up my ARC sooner. But Gretchen is a heroine I can get behind, just as Daniel is a love interest I can swoon over. It isn't an easy path for these teens but their struggles are realistic, rooted in history, and not without their sacrifices. Although Gretchen's narration reads young, many of the brutal events in this novel are definitely geared towards a more mature set of readers. Blankman provides a detailed explanation of fact and fiction at the closing of this debut which made for fascinating reading, particularly as many of the facts revealed were ones I didn't know myself. She goes into great depths about the psychological mindset of not only Hitler, but many high-ranking Nazi officers, and Gretchen's search for her father's killer brings her face-to-face with a myriad of other realities she is forced to accept. Brilliantly written, Prisoner of Night and Fog is one historical fiction debut you won't want to miss.