Thursday, March 19, 2015

Spring Break in...South Korea!

I just wanted to make a quick post to let you all know that I will be MIA from the blogosphere for the next ten-ish days because...I'm heading to South Korea! My choir is touring internationally this Spring Break so I'll be out of the country, taking lots of pictures and hopefully catching up on ARCs during the nineteen-hour plane ride. I apologize for not having as great of an online presence as I usually do but, unfortunately, it seems as if two posts a week and the occasional tweet every month or so is going to be the most I can manage during college. I appreciate each and every one of your comments, though, and your constant support keeps me going--thank you! I should be back on March 30th with another post (hopefully about my first author event if I can find the time to finish transcribing the Q&A) but, until then, I hope you all enjoy the turn of the season into spring! 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

ARC Review: The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord


Title: The Start of Me and You

Author: Emery Lord

Rating: 5 Stars

Release Date: March 31st, 2015

I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but sometimes I'll glance over at the cover of a novel or read the descriptive copy and I'll just know, viscerally, that I'm about to fall in love with literature all over again. It's not that there aren't more beautiful covers or better written descriptive copies out there; it's just a gut-reaction that hasn't led me astray. I felt it, first, in the fourth-grade while browsing through a Scholastic catalog for the upcoming book fair and stumbled upon The Cry of the Icemark, a fantasy novel which was read and re-read throughout the formative years of my young adolescence. I felt it again when I gazed at The Scorpio Races, trying to find a Stiefvater novel which would make me love her as her fans did. I experienced that pure love-at-first-sight longing with Fire, a novel I'd never seen or heard of but which remains my all-time favorite to this day. Even on Amazon, as I click on titles to pre-order, I knew, inexplicably, that Isla and the Happily Ever After would become my most beloved Stephanie Perkins novel yet. Most importantly, though, despite not having falling head-over-heels in love with Open Road Summer the way I know countless other readers did, I could not resist The Start of Me and You. It makes no sense, these random novels from different genres and authors, most of which I'd never typically pick up, yet gravitate towards only to fall madly, deeply, in love. The Start of Me and You is one of those unbelievable love stories for me; it fits into all the curves and prickly corners of my heart and thank you, thank you, thank you Emery Lord for writing it.

Lord's sophomore novel takes place roughly a year after Paige's boyfriend of mere months, Aaron, jumps of a cliff during a Boy Scout meet and accidentally drowns. Unlike a typical grief novel, however, Paige's pain following Aaron's death has far more to do with her own coming to terms about death and its sudden, fleeting quality than it does about him. Of course Paige mourns for Aaron, but mostly she grieves for the fact that his life was cut short; that he died so young and full of life. For nearly a year, Paige has suffered PTSD, fearful of drowning and unable to stop dreaming of it. Moreover, Aaron's death has affected her entire community, making her mother far more overprotective than before and thrusting Paige into the spotlight as a recipient of countless condolences. Commencing her junior year, however, the last thing Paige wants is to be the same, mopey person she's been for the past year. Lord's grief novel isn't about the immediate pain afterwards but rather about the lingering effects of mourning; the way it creeps into your thoughts without debilitating you, the way you try to move on and finally begin to succeed, the way you realize there are so many other types of grief in life beyond what you've already experienced. In order to truly become a new person, though, Paige carefully outlines a set of goals for herself to accomplish, one-by-one. Whether it be something as simple as attend a high school party or join a club, or something more difficult like date someone again (preferably her crush from sixth grade, Ryan Chase), travel, or finally get back into the pool, she's determined to make this year better than the last.

What I loved about The Start of Me and You, from the onset of the novel itself, is that it's set up as an introspective novel. Paige's voice jumps out from the beginning itself--raw, natural, and real--and as she changes, the self-assurance and happiness she finds leaks into her narrative and into our hearts. From just the beginning chapters, I knew Paige was the type of heroine I'd become friends with in a heartbeat; loyal to a fault, flawed but kind hearted, and a nerd to boot. Moreover, this story is, first and foremost, about her. For romance lovers, I hate to say it, but the majority of this novel is not a love story. It's a Paige story.

Paige's three best friends--Tessa, Kayleigh, and Morgan--play such a pivotal role in her life and I want to applaud Lord for writing authentic female friendships. Each of Paige's friends have their own strengths and weaknesses, their own struggles to resolve alongside Paige's, and they each bring a unique perspective to her life. Moreover, just as Paige changes over the course of the novel, her friends do too, each dealing with their own issues but coming out stronger and more beautiful than before. I admire the strength of their bond, their frank conversations, and even their disappointed musings as they discover that yet another cute teenage guy is a misogynist. What's more, Lord doesn't hesitate to dedicate chapters solely to these girls. In fact, I'd have loved this book even without the romance element; the rock-hard friendship between these girls was all I really needed.

Yet another aspect Lord nails is the familial relationships. Paige's divorced parents aren't her greatest allies; she doesn't get along with her overprotective mother and having to follow rules her friends don't have to abide by is difficult. What makes Paige's life at home all the more strange, though, is the fact that her divorced parents have been dating one another--for four months! Paige doesn't want to see her parents unhappy--after all, they got a divorce for a reason--and she can't see their new arrangement working out at all. In fact, it seems as if she and her younger sister are going to be caught in the middle of it all. But Cam, Paige's thirteen-year-old sister, is ecstatic about their parents reunion and Paige feels more alone than ever. The only person she can talk to is her Grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer's. Paige's relationship with her Grandmother--the strength she finds within her Grandmother's stories and the comfort she feels from her presence--are some of the most touching aspects of the novel. It's painful to see that her Grandmother often doesn't remember discussing Paige's life with her and watching her patiently re-tell the same fears, hopes, and dreams she had unburdened only a day prior isn't easy. But Paige's Grandmother doesn't enforce rules, like her parents, and isn't blinded by hormones, like her sibling. It becomes evident that Paige's Grandmother is, above all else, an inspiration to her; someone who encourages her through blind faith in her abilities. I love that Paige has someone like that in her life and that she is not only moved, but strengthened, by her Grandmother's past experiences and courage. For me, the fact that Paige is so heavily influenced by such an incredible female role model is such an important part of this novel.

Nevertheless, the aspect of this novel that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout those last few chapters is, of course, the romance. Paige has her sights set on Ryan Chase, recently single, but winds up befriending his cousin Max, who recently moved into their school district. Becoming friends with Max means being a part of Ryan's life too and as Paige's crush persists, she finds herself calling Max one of her best friends. Max and Ryan quickly integrate with her already close-knit group of girlfriends and Paige goes beyond to befriend her Quiz Bowl team, among which Max is the captain. The jump from strangers to best friends is slow-going between Max and Paige and, often times, Paige's crush on Ryan is infuriating. While Ryan is an incredible person, anyone can see that Max is the one who is perfect for her. But their love story is an entirely well-worth slow-burn. Paige shifts her attentions from Ryan to Max well before the end of the novel and though their journey isn't as straight-forward as you'd think, it's all the more rewarding despite that. More than a romance, though, Paige's friendships with Ryan and Max, particularly, allow her to let other people in and open her heart. Max understands her in ways even her best friends don't and their tight bond makes you wish for a male best friend of your own. Moreover, their love story is made all the more special by the fact that Max and Paige are the "plain" counterparts to their best friends, Ryan and Tessa, who are bold and beautiful. Paige never even considers Max crush-worthy because he doesn't have the classic good looks or charm Ryan possesses, so the fact that these two fall in love for all the right reasons and none of the artificial ones makes my heart melt.

The Start of Me and You has so much to offer to the YA community. From inspirational teachers to through-thick-or-thin friendships, from figuring-their-life-out parents to encouraging family members, from new beginnings and blossoming friendships, from feminist discussions to an authentic display of grief, from students determined to pursue their own interests to Jane Austen references...there's something in this book for everyone. It can be nerdy and light, funny and warm; it can be fearful and shaky, tentative and shy; it can be grief-stricken and sensitive, brave and bold. It's unlike anything you've read before and yet, it's all you could possibly want from this genre. Again and again and again and again.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Just Another...Book Crush (#17): Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes

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. 

Can you believe this is the first "Just Another...Book Crush!" post since August? You probably can. Ever since entering college I have begun posting far less frequently than I typically do and, sadly, that meant reducing the amount of time I had to send out e-mails and hunt down authors who would be willing to write a guest post for the blog. I am incredibly excited, however, to have Paula Stokes back on the blog today. Paula wrote The Art of Lainey which debuted last year and--if you re-call--I loved it. She was gracious enough to return to the blog this year to talk about her sophomore novel, Liars, Inc. which is both incredibly compelling and vastly unique. I cannot recommend this book enough and I guarantee that you're going to want to run into the stores to buy it after reading Paula's incredible post. It discusses all the topics I feel most passionately about and crave in the YA genre so it's an absolutely perfect fit for the blog. Enjoy!
Max Cantrell has never been a big fan of the truth, so when the opportunity arises to sell forged permission slips and cover stories to his classmates, it sounds like a good way to make a little money and liven up a boring senior year. With the help of his friends Preston and Parvati, Max starts Liars, Inc. Suddenly everybody needs something and the cash starts pouring in. Who knew lying could be so lucrative? When Preston wants his own cover story to go visit a girl he met online, Max doesn’t think twice about hooking him up. Until Preston never comes home. Then the evidence starts to pile up—terrifying clues that lead the cops to Preston’s body. Terrifying clues that point to Max as the murderer. Can Max find the real killer before he goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit? In a story that Kirkus Reviews called "Captivating to the very end," Paula Stokes starts with one single white lie and weaves a twisted tale that will have readers guessing until the explosive final chapters.

MAX AND PARVATI--BEYOND RACIAL DIVERSITY

Let me start by saying I’m thrilled to be back on Ivy Book Bindings, a blog that has a diverse, intellectual readership and brings out my analytical side. I write commercial fiction—unapologetically—but that doesn’t mean I can’t think deeply about it, right? ;-)

I am a huge fan of racial and cultural diversity in literature. THE ART OF LAINEY could have had more, but the manuscript did have more until some of the elements were challenged by people higher up than I am (the average author is not very high on the power hierarchy) who felt some of Bianca’s original portrayal was stereotypical. Was it? Maybe? But definitely not in a negative way. I won’t bore you with the details, but I modeled her and her family off the Mexican friends I had when I lived in St. Louis.

In hindsight, do I wish I had fought harder for some things? Sure, but it’s important to strike a balance between advocating for your book/characters and being humble enough to recognize that the people who have been doing this a lot longer than you might be right. What mattered most to me was that Bianca wasn’t reinforcing negative stereotypes about Mexican people. I feel I accomplished that and I’m proud that my future books include a whole slew of racially diverse characters—both main and supporting—that will hopefully feel authentic to most.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about racial diversity; this is supposed to be about going beyond that. So: here’s a question. Why is it important to have YA books with diverse characters? The two reasons I see proposed the most are so that different groups of people can see themselves represented [realistically, positively] on the page, and so that people outside of those groups can become more educated. I think these are both noble goals, and I think we should be striving to achieve them not just for readers of different ethnicities and sexual orientations, but also for readers who are differently-abled, mentally ill, physically ill, different religions, different socioeconomic classes, and even for readers of different personality types and so on. [Thanks to Keertana for providing the framework for this post when we were discussing topics. She mentioned how a lot of YA main characters seem to have the same basic personality types and I realized I feel similarly.]

Obviously, not all writers will feel comfortable writing for all those possibilities, but we’re probably all comfortable writing for at least a couple of them. I wrote Max and Parvati, the main character and the love interest (book-girlfriend?) of LIARS, INC. with several of those groups in mind.

MAX: Max Cantrell is an 18-year-old white male living in Southern California. On the surface, he’s one of the least diverse characters of all. But I’m going to challenge that idea. For one, in YA novels, there are more female protagonists than males, especially males who feel like actual guys. [So far reader response of Max’s portrayal is very positive, so I hope Max feels authentic to you too.] He’s also the adopted child of two parents who love him, which isn’t something you see in books every day. Prior to being adopted at age ten, Max was a foster kid and then homeless for almost a year. Because of all that he’s got some mild PTSD that affects his willingness to form deep connections with people. Finally, he’s lower-middle-class—poor enough for it to show in his thoughts and actions, but not so much that it’s a major plot point. Foster kids, the homeless, people with PTSD, lower-income families—all of these populations are sometimes marginalized. But the thing I find most fascinating about Max, for lack of a better term, is that he’s Factionless. And I am not talking ALLEGIANT “violent uprising” Factionless.” I’m talking DIVERGENT “if anyone needs me I’ll be sleeping under this br—oh wait, no one will ever need me” Factionless. Think about it—don’t most book boys slot neatly into the Dauntless, Erudite, or Abnegation camps? Don’t most protagonists of both genders fall into those groups?

Max is none of those things. Sure, he shows smarts occasionally and a bit of bravery or selflessness, but probably the most special thing about Max is that on the surface he’s utterly unspecial. He’s a loner with only a couple of friends. He has no idea what he wants to do after high school. He’s that guy in the back of the classroom who falls asleep while the teacher is lecturing. I was a Type A overachiever in high school and kids like Max were invisible to me. (And I know that’s a sad thing to admit, but I also know I’m not the only one.) It wasn’t until I student-taught high school that I started wondering what was going on inside those “slacker kids’” heads.

 It’s funny--the proofreader sent a query that read: “You have Max in Algebra as a senior and both his best friends are in Calculus. Did you want to make this Algebra II?” No, I didn’t, because Max is the kind of guy who is only going to take the required amount of boring classes he needs to graduate (which doesn’t make him a bad person or “inferior” to us), and for a California diploma all he needs is Algebra.

So why write about this guy? Because of those reasons mentioned above about why we need diverse characters.  There are plenty of kids like Max and they don’t usually get to have stories—especially not ones that end well. [I’m not going to say LIARS has a happy ending per se, but Max does get to grow and change and become better throughout the book.] I want those kids to see themselves in LIARS, INC. and think “Hey, I can have the affections of this ambitious, pretty girl and this awesome adopted family. I can come out a winner. I am worth reading about.”

And then for the people like me, who all but ignored the Max-types during high school because we couldn’t be bothered with them, there’s the second reason. I want to show there’s more to Max than what you see on the surface—that it could be a huge mistake to write off a human being because superficially they don’t impress you. Since I got [a lot] older and [a little] wiser, I have dated some Max-types and found them to be all kinds of amazing. Max is far from perfect even at the end of LIARS, INC., but throughout the book he’s loyal, honorable, and trying to be a decent person. He takes responsibility for his screw-ups. He feels bad when he does the wrong thing. Even if you read LIARS, INC. and find him hard to love, I think these traits will make it easy to respect him.

PARVATI: I don’t give characters different ethnicities to fill some sort of moral quota. Props to authors who can “insert diversity” in that manner and have it feel organic, but my first loyalty is always to the story. And for me, just as the wand chooses the wizard, the story often chooses the characters.

Sometimes they show up with their races, personality types, and basic traits already apparent and I will only force changes in them if the storyline demands it. Max’s girlfriend was Indian from the very beginning. [Note: throughout the book she is described as half-Indian because that is how Max knows her and her father is white, but she looks 100% Indian and there might be more to that story.] She didn’t come fully-formed, though. I made her Indian because I knew she wanted desperately to work for the CIA and the CIA heavily recruits people of color because they are easier to place in overseas posts. I chose Indian specifically because I have close family friends who are Indian and they served as resources for some of my cultural questions. [That’s not to say you can’t write any type of character you want. You might just have to work a little harder to get it right.]

But there’s more to Parvati that her ethnic heritage. She has a personality disorder that causes her to make some destructive choices, but it doesn’t keep her from having big dreams. She possesses a really cool makeup of “traditionally feminine” and “tomboy” traits that I don’t see a lot of in YA. She’s similar to Lainey in that she likes pretty clothes and eye makeup, but she’s also really athletic and fierce, including having a brown belt in karate. [Note: the seeding of her brown belt was left out of the ARC on accident. There are more mentions of this in the finished book.] She’s a mix of ambitious/intellectual and wild/irresponsible. She’s very Western in the way she dresses and thinks and acts, but she embraces parts of her Indian heritage too.

For me, Parvati is a study in contradictions—a message to people that you don’t have to put yourself in a box. You can be many different things. You can screw up massively and still consider yourself responsible and hard-working. You can like some things about where you came from and dislike others. Putting on makeup doesn’t make you less of an athlete. Having emotional problems doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great things. I know there are plenty of readers who don’t need these messages, but some do, and I consciously strive to create characters who encourage acceptance—both of other people and ourselves.

So as you can see, a lot of thought went into the creation of Max and Parvati, and I’m proud of both of them, even when they’re making bad choices and doing things they probably shouldn’t do. However, nothing in this post is meant to downplay the need for racial diversity in books, or to say one type of diversity is more important than another. For too long, literature and film relegated characters of color to the roles of second-rate superheroes and sassy friends. It’s exciting to see such an influx of diverse lit in the past couple of years and the future looks bright. But not all authors will feel comfortable writing main characters outside of their gender or culture or sexual orientation, and that’s okay. Knowing your limitations doesn’t make you prejudiced. Just remember that there are lots of readers out there who are underrepresented in fiction. Reach out to the ones you can.

And finally, if you’re a writer, never let anyone tell you a certain type of character is off-limits. I went to a diversity panel discussion recently and one of the speakers was asked:

“So what are the key points to remember when trying to craft a POC who is believable but doesn’t fall into the trap of being a stereotype?”

The speaker’s entire answer was that if we want these types of stories we need to support authors of color. And as much as I agree we need to support authors of color, the subtext there—that white people can’t do it right and shouldn’t even try—really bothered me. For one, it puts the entire responsibility of creating diverse lit onto authors of color, which is unfair. And second, if you do your research, get feedback from beta-readers, and try your best to write POC characters in a way that is authentic and respectful, then it shouldn’t matter what color you are, should it? You tell me.

Just Another...Book Crush! 

These aren’t the newest, but I decided to stick with the diversity theme and highlight some of my past favorites:

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka 
This is the book the movie THE EDGE OF TOMORROW is based on, and the translator managed to maintain the lyrical cadence of Japanese language. Keiji Kiriya dies and comes back to life again and again on the battlefield as he faces an army of alien invaders. What’s so special about him that he’s getting so many chances, and can he use his gift to figure out a way to beat his unbeatable foes before he dies for good?

FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB by Antony John 
Piper bets the school’s rock band she can become their manager and land them a gig. The problem: Piper is severely hearing-impaired. This book is a fun and heartfelt musical odyssey featuring a girl who refuses to be owned or defined by her disability. A prime example of a non-hearing-impaired author who did his research and crafted a superb book. Winner of the Schneider Family Award.

GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray 
In addition to being another MC I would label as Factionless, Cameron just happens to have Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy—the human form of mad cow disease. Sure, there probably aren’t a ton of BSE-afflicted readers out there, but I’m sure there are some chronically ill readers tired of reading depressing cancer books. In GB, Cam sets off on a quixotic quest in search of a mysterious time traveling doctor who might have a cure for BSE. Friendship, love, music, and snow globes collide in a book that made me laugh, cheer, and weep simultaneously.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing such a thought-provoking post, Paula! What do you think about diversity in YA Fiction? Be sure to look out for Liars, Inc. in bookstores on March 24th! (If all goes as planned, I'll be reviewing this book before it hits the shelves in case you need any more motivation to put it on the top of your TBR!)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

ARC Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman


Title: Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2) 

Author: Rachel Hartman 

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: March 10th, 2015

When it comes to Shadow Scale, I confess I remain conflicted. Hartman's highly anticipated sequel to Seraphina is the type of novel I've gone and pinned all my hopes and dreams on. I loved Seraphina like I've loved few other books when I first read it and its beauty never dwindled upon my multiple re-reads. Thus, I expected to adore Shadow Scale just as much as I loved its predecessor. Unfortunately, though Shadow Scale is a beautifully written sequel and a truly impeccable ending to this unexpected duet, I still have a qualm too many with it.

Shadow Scale picks up roughly three months after the events of Seraphina which the country on the verge of civil war. Queen Glissenda and Prince Lucian Kiggs send Seraphina on a mission to gather all the half-dragons she possibly can as magical abilities only they possess may be the key to winning a war against dragons. The first half of Shadow Scale is devoted to Seraphina's journey as she travels the kingdom in search of other half-dragons. Hartman's world-building truly shines within these pages for every region of this fictional country is teeming with its own customs, religion, and bias. Everywhere Seraphina travels, she is treated differently as a half-dragon and, what's more, the other half-dragons she meets have endured circumstances far removed from her own. Though Seraphina expects to gather a group of people who can instantly connect to one another due to their shared experiences, the reality is far more complex than she can imagine. Building upon Seraphina's insecurities from its predecessor, Shadow Scale continues to challenge Seraphina to think beyond her own life experiences and bind these half-dragons for the betterment, not only of her nation, but of her own heart as well.

Hartman infuses each of these half-dragons with personalities so distinct that getting to know them feels like falling in love with aspects of Seraphina herself. From living in her mind's garden, there is already such a strong link between the strangers Seraphina meets and our beloved heroine herself and though the first half of this novel feels slow, in many ways, as it is the build-up to the tension in the last half, it is also necessary. Despite tackling such a large host of characters, most of them newly introduced in Shadow Scale, Hartman maneuvers them with ease and the end result--the reader feeling just as close with nearly ten half-dragons as Seraphina does--is remarkable.

Yet, the first half is not merely about Seraphina discovering and meeting these half-dragons. No, Hartman introduces our villain into these first few hundred pages as well and the depth and moral ambiguity she is given from the start makes Shadow Scale a fascinating read. Jannoula, a half-dragon with the capacity to take over the minds of other half-dragons, is both pitiable and dangerous. As Seraphina travels, finding new half-dragons every region she goes to, she also discovers that many of these half-dragons have been possessed by Jannoula who has her own agenda. Though she claims to want to help Seraphina gather the half-dragons, her unwillingness to let go of their minds is frightening, particularly as neither Seraphina nor any other half-dragon knows how to fight her and combat her powers.

Jannoula's shadow follows Seraphina on her journeys in Shadow Scale and as the tensions come to a head during the last half of the novel--Seraphina fighting to discover where her uncle Orma is, the half-dragons attempting to expel Jannoula from their minds, the civil war creeping closer to home--Hartman proves her incredible ability to write. Just as with Seraphina, I couldn't predict the plot twists revealed in the second half of this narrative and the resolution reached by the end was truly satisfying. Moreover, I loved the heart-breaking plot line concerning Seraphina's uncle, Orma. Within the pages of Shadow Scale is a rare epilogue that is truly wonderful. Although I didn't expect, at first, for Shadow Scale to be the end of this short series, I couldn't have asked for a better ending to the duet and Hartman's scope of imagination has convinced me that she will--hopefully!--return to this world as there remain many stories left to be told.

Where my disappointments with this narrative arise, however, are with the romance. Shadow Scale could have easily simply been the first half of itself, forcing readers to wait for a third novel to discover how the plot thickened and came to a resolution. By choosing to write a duet, Hartman allows her plot to thrive as readers are able to witness the back-to-back nature of the tensions at once instead of with a year in-between. Yet, the rich relationships developed in Seraphina between our heroine and her friend, Queen Glissenda, or her lover, Lucian Kiggs, are minimal as a result. At just over 600 pages, it would be remiss, likely, of Hartman to extend her narrative for the sake of the romance. Nevertheless, I wish that was the route at hand.

I was incredibly invested in the romance outlined in Seraphina and though it reaches a conclusion--of sorts--in Shadow Scale, it also leaves many unanswered questions. Moreover, the interactions between Kiggs and Seraphina in Shadow Scale, though full of the intelligent conversation these two adore and incredibly supportive, lacked the longing I felt palpable in Seraphina. Kiggs isn't a significant character in this plot line and though he is important to Seraphina, there are so many other characters--half-dragons and dragons alike--that her relationship with him doesn't pierce the heart. I wanted much, much more on the romance front, particularly due to some last-minute revelations that were sprung upon readers. Especially because Hartman tells us that there has been much discussion as to matters of the heart but the reader is not privy to these discussions and, on the love story angle, I needed more closure.

With such a large host of characters, Hartman managed to make Shadow Scale an incredible novel with distinct character personalities and relationships. I only wish the few we had seen develop in depth in Seraphina continue to be as strong in this sequel. While Seraphina was a distinctly character-driven tale, Shadow Scale is more firmly plot-driven. Nevertheless, Hartman accomplishes so much with this sequel. From her world-building to her plot development and beyond to the diversity of race, sex, and gender that she includes within these pages, Shadow Scale feels revolutionary. For fans of Seraphina this one is worth waiting for, minor disappointments and all.

A huge thank you to Lauren @ Love is Not a Triangle for lending me her ARC of this novel. If not for her, I'd have likely gone insane waiting for this sequel. Thank you, Lauren!(:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ARC Review: The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski


Title: The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Curse, #2) 

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: March 3rd, 2015

The Winner's Crime is tragic. Unlike Game of Thrones, where the train wreck disasters are interspersed with complex political motivations and nearly shrouded from the reader, The Winner's Crime blatantly opens the flood gates of impending doom from the start itself and though the reader knows what the inevitable, terrible conclusion will be, they are forced to watch the entire sordid tale of despair and irony unfold without the added benefit of side politics to distract them.

Frankly speaking, I just wasn't a fan of this form of storytelling. I adore Rutkoski's prose and her ability to seamlessly weave glimpses of the past--The Winner's Curse--into the present. Moreover, her gift for metaphor wins me over every time and the simple pleasure to be gained from reading her words is unrivaled. Yet, The Winner's Crime is a slow-build novel which, for me at any rate, offers very little to love beyond the prose and impeccable characterization. I wanted politics. I wanted passion. I wanted assassinations.

The Winner's Crime picks up shortly after The Winner's Curse ends with Kestrel on the verge of marrying Prince Verex and Arin reclaiming Herran as the governor of his people. With Kestrel's impending nuptials, the Governor of Herran must travel to the Imperial Palace to be present during the proceedings prior to the wedding. Arin, who knows nothing of Kestrel's role in securing a Herrani treaty, believes that she is following through with her upcoming marriage in order to gain more political power and wealth. Suddenly, the Kestrel Arin though he knew is no longer the same woman standing before him. For Kestrel, revealing the truth of her role in Herran's freedom to Arin only leads to a dead-end. After all, she is stuck in a marriage of convenience, torn between her desire for Arin and her life-long wish to please her father. The tension between the two is painful, at times, for the truth lies between them, as wide and deep as the ocean, and the doubts and misconceptions that they share only grow with time.

And that, truly, is why I am not as big a fan of The Winner's Crime as I could be. I don't relish the drama that is built up after multiple compounding misconceptions and, frankly, felt as if Rutkoski could have used the palace setting to enrich the political machinations of this world. Though Kestrel does her best to use her power to help both the Herrani people and the people of the East, the only true individual with power is the emperor. Everyone has either been bought by the emperor, living under his thumb, or killed by the emperor, dying under his hand. It's a black-and-white world of politics, one that Kestrel struggles--and fails--to succeed in. As far as the political sphere is concerning, The Winner's Crime barely moves pieces into place for the grand finale. Arin and Kestrel remain as estranged as ever and with their relationship slowly falling to pieces over the course of this novel, the future remains bleak.

The Winner's Crime does, however, introduce a new host of characters. Verex, Kestrel's future husband and the prince, is a difficult character to like at first but I thoroughly enjoyed the development of his friendship with Kestrel. Risha, the Eastern princess who has grown up in Valoria and, ironically, is an integral part of the plot despite having very little to say throughout the novel. The manner in which Rutkoski wrote her into the plot and made her such an important figure, albeit an often silent one, amazed me. Tensen, the Herrani minister of agriculture who arrives at Valoria to represent Herran. Although Tensen seems to be loyal to Arin and Herran, his vision of what is best for the governor often clashes with the reader's vision of what is best. And, of course, the emperor himself. Rutkoski writes the emperor to be every bit as ruthless and cunning as expected--a true villain to defeat--though his weaknesses and flaws are never revealed.

Instead, what becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses, is the weaknesses of Arin and Kestrel. Arin, who keeps wanting to believe the best of Kestrel even when she treats him with disregard and without any of the former affections she used to exhibit for him. Kestrel, who yearns to make her father proud and constantly puts a man who has disappointed her over men, like Arin, who have cared deeply for her. Arin, who is so consumed by thoughts of Kestrel and her impending marriage that he often fails to see what is right before his eyes. Kestrel, whose association with Arin causes her to lose her lifelong friendships despite the fact that Arin himself doesn't know the truth about Kestrel's feelings for him. It's all such a complicated emotional web, and though I love it, I also hate it for the wreck it made me by the end of the novel.

While I am not a fan of the tactical devices employed in The Winner's Crime, namely the endless list of misconceptions Arin harbors towards Kestrel and the lack of resolution concerning them, I couldn't put this book down. Personally, I enjoy the middle books which lend themselves to hidden clues and hints of the impending finale, unlike The Winner's Crime where the conclusion seems open-ended and tragic, but The Winner's Crime is compulsively readable and for fans of The Winner's Curse, will not disappoint in the least.