Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review: The Holders by Julianna Scott

Title: The Holders (The Holders, #1) 

Author: Julianna Scott

Rating: 3.5 Stars

The Holders is a vastly underrated take on a rather typical plot line. Becca's younger brother, Ryland, has been hearing voices in his head for years. While numerous adults have approached Becca and her family to move Ryland to a psychiatric ward for treatment, they have steadfastly refused. Becca knows her brother isn't a "different" child, despite appearances, and her fierce protectiveness has allowed him to lead a relatively normal life. When Alex appears on her doorstep, however, vividly good-looking and promising to take Ryland to a special school in Ireland, Becca's guard is instantly up. But Alex is the real deal. Becca and Ryland's father, who abandoned their family a decade previously, runs an institution for Holders, a long line of Irish descendants who possess supernatural abilities. These gifts, passed down predominantly through the male line, are taught and controlled in the school Alex suggests that Ryland attend. Although Becca doesn't trust her father, Jocelyn, in the least, the fact that her younger brother shares the same talents he does is reassuring, nevertheless, and Becca agrees to let Ryland travel to Ireland as long as she accompanies him.

It's all fairly standard; your run-of-the-mill Hogwarts-esque place complete with unusual children who finally find a place to call home. Only, Becca's voice--fiercely protective of her younger brother yet distinctly alone in the world as she graduated high school at fifteen and has waited two years to attend college--is a far cry from your typical protagonist. I admired Becca from the start and the fact that her younger brother is the special one, not her, only makes this a more interesting read. As an elder sister myself, with a seven-year age gap between my younger brother, I understood Becca's protectiveness and felt a kinship with her from the moment I began her narration. She's strong-willed and determined, yet also vulnerable, as she shows Alex.

And Alex. When it comes to Alex, Becca admits her attraction to him but never lets it deter her from her mission to ensure her younger brother's safety and protection. Instead, Becca and Alex become close friends and confidants before their relationship moves on to love. It's a slow-burn, that's for sure, and Scott writes romance exactly the way I like it with the two love interests on equal footing, able to balance one another and bring out the best in each other. While I thought I knew the direction this story was headed, I have to say that both Becca and Ryland grow immensely over the course of the book, their experiences molding and changing them, and I really enjoyed watching as the plot unfolded alongside different aspects of their personalities as they grew into who they were meant to be. Becca's relationship with her parents is also intriguing, mainly because it's such a rocky one. With her father she is prickly, though deeply hurt, and with her mother Becca is protective and slightly resentful that she has had to assume many of the adult roles in the household due to her mother's genteel nature. Becca is such a three-dimensional character that each facet of her was endlessly interesting, endearing, and captivating.

I will say, however, that the plot of this novel becomes fairly predictable after a point. Scott's characters, even the secondary ones, are what stood out to be to make this a truly incredible novel. Don't expect twists and turns with this one; just expect excellence characterization and don't be surprised if you fall for a bald professor or two because Scott makes you care. While I will admit to the fact that there are a few-too-many cliches within this installment, I loved the concept Scott created and her characters are vibrant, her setting vivid, and her plot wildly entertaining. The Holders may not have made the top of your TBR before, but it certainly deserves to be bumped up there for sure.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ivy Book Bindings Turns 3!

I can't believe it but it's that time of year again: blogoversary time! 
I started this blog when I was in high school and I'm about to enter my sophomore year of college now, so the full impact of these three years is really hitting me all at once. But, I think this past year of blogging has been, perhaps, one of my "worst" years. Not in terms of content--because I feel as if I've now become comfortable in my skin, both who I am as a person and who I am as a reader--and I also truly believe that the values I look for in novels have become clearer and clearer in the types of books I choose to read and review and the manner in which I do so. I've also become less "anal" about blogging, choosing to post when I can and also choosing to review select books I truly feel passionately about. I've also had so many incredible experiences this past year, even blogging-related like meeting my all-time favorite author, Kristin Cashore, who is fittingly the first (and so far only) author I've managed to meet. Yet, compared to my first two years of blogging, I haven't been as present in the blogosphere--I actually manage to be surprised by a new book release--and, furthermore, I don't feel as if I'm as close to a lot of my blogging buddies as I once was. In large part, that has to do with me. And that's fine. I'm a college student and it's a good thing that my priorities are face-to-face relationships and my education but it also makes me look back on the days I'd send long e-mails about novels to friends or receive packages in the mail from across the sea. If I'll ever have the time to return to that level of dedication I don't know--although I do hope to do so--and while this past year has been a bit of a transition year for me, what with--you know--college, I'm hoping my fourth year of blogging will be one in which I am better able to balance blogging, bookish friendships, and life. For me, the problem has never been about making the time to read--because that's a passion that will never change--but rather about making the time to blog.

Anyhow, now that that long sentimental rant is over and done with, let's get to the exciting part: the giveaway! I haven't had a chance to do a giveaway on the blog for a loooong time so if you win this one, you can pick any book you want and I'll either order it and have it shipped to you or pre-order it for you if it hasn't already released.

I may not have explicitly taken the time to detail out all the thank-yous I owe to people in this past year but I cannot thank you all enough. For all the readers who stop to write me comments, for all the bloggers who have kept in touch and continue to leave me the nicest of notes, for all the newcomers who have discovered my blog and enjoyed its content, and especially for those of you who I never interact with but who subscribe and read and like my posts: thank you. If it wasn't for such an amazing readership, I wouldn't have the level of motivation I do to continue to post. I truly adore this community and am so grateful, not only to have been welcomed with open arms, but to have been a part of it for three years! So thank you--each and every one of you. You cannot know how much this has meant--and will continue to mean.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Recent Reads: Diversity Edition

I've been lazy when it comes to blogging, lately. I know it, you know it, publishers know it.
It's embarrassing.
In my defense, I spend every waking minute either sleeping, studying, eating, or de-stressing with friends. I squeeze in a few minutes every day to read, even if it's just one chapter, but actually sitting down to write a review--or even jot down a few thoughts--is simply too much. (I know, I know, it's SUMMER, but I'm at an internship, people! I'm supposedly conducting Very Important Math Research! I get paychecks! I have to buy my own groceries! I'M BECOMING AN ADULT!)
I've published a few reviews, here and there, that weren't written over Winter Break. I've assembled a handful of guest posts, commented on a couple of blogs a week--I've been present but, unfortunately, the books that I've wanted to discuss have slipped under the radar.
Hence, this post; Recent Reads: Diversity Edition.
One of the most notable--and pleasant surprises--of 2015 has been discovering diversity in the fiction I've been reading. YA and NA are notorious for ignoring minority races, sexes, and personalities so I'm truly so proud of the strides that the publishing industry and authors are making to lessen this gap.

First and foremost, I want to talk about Trade Me, Courtney Milan's latest novel and her debut New Adult endeavor. Courtney Milan is known for writing unusual historical romance novels--the kind that make you swoon but also make you think. I love her historical fiction primarily because she writes about the types of female heroines no other author really feels comfortable discussing, whether it be the feminists, the scientists, the overly large, or those of different races. What's more, her male characters range from the classic duke to the a-typical male virgin to the self-proclaimed male suffragist. Thus, I knew Trade Me was going to be a treat even before I cracked open its spine because--Courtney Milan.

But Trade Me surpassed even my wildest expectations. Built upon the foundation of a relatively flimsy plot line--wealthy young man volunteers to switch lives with a poor immigrant woman--Trade Me does a brilliant job of pointing out not only the privileges of the wealthy, but also of the non-immigrant. It features an Asian protagonist and is one of the first times that I have been able to sympathize completely with a character due to her life circumstances--immigrant parents who don't fit into the American culture, a series of different traditional values, struggling to make ends meet, missing family members who live oversees. And, honestly, I found the entire experience shocking and eye-opening. How was Trade Me, published in January of 2015, the first time I had been able to relate to the immigrant experience in a YA or NA novel? It made me angry but, most of all, it made me grateful to Courtney Milan for doing her research and being brave enough to write about a culture of people different from her own.

Beyond the in-your-face diversity of an Asian protagonist, though, Milan weaves this love story through many complex issues. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal much more due to fear of spoilers, but none of these characters are what they seem on the surface--and I love that. Admittedly, the whole "the rich have problems, too!" trope seems cliche but, I promise you, Milan writes it in such a way that you never find yourself thinking that way. If you're looking for a couple to swoon over, but one that will destroy your every pre-conceived notion about them, Trade Me is the book for you.

Next: Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes. I had Stokes stop by on the blog a few weeks ago to talk about the diversity in her latest novel, a thriller, and was incredibly moved by her discussion of not only racial diversity--with Parvati, the female love-interest of the novel--but also of Max, the protagonist. From the surface, there doesn't seem to be a lot of diversity to offer with Max--after all, he is a Causasion, heterosexual male. But, Max isn't your typical male protagonist. Not only does he struggle academically, but he also isn't the classic bad boy or the shy nerd or the cute guy-next-door. And, by breaking that mold, Stokes introduces a new form of diversity: diversity of personality. It's okay not to fit into a pre-labeled, pre-stamped, and pre-approved box.

I also really appreciated the fact that the female protagonist of this novel, Parvati, wasn't the perfect love interest. I adore a sharp-tongued, nasty female lead, if only because they defy the stereotype that women must be perfect and dainty and polite. Moreover, I rarely see it done with a woman of color because--let's be honest--I think authors are worried to include PoC who aren't cast in the role of "good guy." PoC are just as flawed and real as non-PoC so, authors, don't worry about offending us by creating angry and bitterly caustic PoC. Not that Parvati is just oozing badness, but she certainly is far from perfect and I appreciate the unapologetic ambiguity in her characterization.

And speaking of imperfect female heroines, that brings me to Rosamund Hodge's Crimson Bound, one of my favorite novels published this year. Hodge's debut, Cruel Beauty, already struck the perfect cord with me. After all, we had an angry 'Beauty' and an evil 'Beast'--can you really even beat that? But Hodge did one better in Crimson Bound, making her protagonist a killer. Can you redeem an individual like that? Do you?

One of the strongest aspects of this novel, for me, is the fact that Hodge enables us, the reader, to sympathize with and root for a heroine who is selfish, who murders others, and in general is not the paragon of perfection we've come to associate with an ideal female lead. Now that, right there, that's diversity. Rachelle isn't all-out evil--not even close--but she also does bad, horrible things. Yet, this story comes together so perfectly, weaving together a fairy tale re-telling with the background of a host of characters who stand by their flawed personalities and still manage to come out stronger; to grow and change. Moreover, Hodge is a genius at building re-tellings that can be recognized but that also veer off the beaten track and incorporate innovate magic combined with unseen plot twists so that you're on the edge of your seat till the very end. I love them, dearly, and am waiting with bated breath for her next novel. I know she will deliver.

Of course, these aren't all the diverse reads I've read recently but they are some of the most meaningful ones I've come across this year. Others, like The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler (literally my new favorite book EVER!) and The Wrath and the Dawn will be getting their own, full-fledged reviews soon. And yet others, like Trish Doller's The Devil You Know, while well-appreciated for their feminism, simply didn't do it for me storyline-wise. (And, further, others, like Simon and the Homo Sapien Agenda were just so good I couldn't find the words to write about them!) Nevertheless, I think the awareness of characters that break the mold and defy traditional racial, sexual, and gender norms is rising and I'm excited to read more novels tackling these barriers to diversity.

If you know of any other diverse reads, please let me know in the comments below! I'm always on the prowl for a new read and, in particular, authors brave enough to write stories that may not sell, but will definitely make a statement and take a stand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1) 

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Rating: 3 Stars

It's no secret that Sarah J. Maas just doesn't do it for me. Her debut Thrones of Glass fell seriously short of impressive--for me, that is--and though I have regarded her fans with a degree of jealousy (seriously, no one wants to joins the Sarah J. Maas bandwagon more than I), I still remained skeptical about her latest, A Court of Thorns and Roses. When the masses praise Maas (see what I did there?), their recommendations rarely apply to me. With ACoTaR, however, I admit that this is far superior to Throne of Glass in every way. Not only has Maas's prose improved, but her plot, her world-building, and her characters are more lively and entertaining than ever. Still, though ACoTaR has jump-started her into the hearts of many readers, I'm afraid there is still no room for her in mine.

A Court of Thorns and Roses reads much like a re-telling of the beloved fable, "Beauty and the Beast." And, at first, I loved it. I was head-over-heels for Feyre, the youngest of three sisters who has learned to hunt and feed her feeble family. I waited in breathless anticipation as it was pain-stakingly revealed that Feyre had broken the laws of the land by killing one of the Fey, under disguise of a wolf, and would be whisked away from her home and family to live out the remainder of her life with Tamlin, whose friend she killed. And then, just when it seemed I had arrived at my favorite part of this well-known tale--when Beauty falls in love with the Beast--I had the rug pulled out from underneath me.

You see, Tamlin is no Beast. Tamlin, despite the mask melded to his face, despite the fact that he and his kingdom are under a curse, is a Beauty. And Feyre, too, is a Beauty. Who ever heard of "Beauty and the Beauty"? The crux of "Beauty and the Beast" lies in the magic--the sheer magic--of having a young, capable, intelligent, beautiful woman find something to love in a snarling, grotesque beast. Tamlin, however, is hot. I wouldn't take much of an issue with this--after all, the "Beast" of Marillier's Heart's Blood is a strikingly good-looking man--but at least Marillier's "Beast" is snarling and rude, contemptuous and unapproachable. Tamlin is kind--sweet, even--and is eager to please Feyre. In fact, Tamlin goes above and beyond--ensuring that her family is taken care of, bringing her paints, showing her the hidden beauties of his kingdom--to make Feyre happy. Neither the reader nor Feyre have to work to love Tamlin. It's a foregone conclusion from the moment he transforms from his temporary bestial form to his ethereal self.

Having read Rosamund Hodge's Cruel Beauty, which pushes the boundaries of the "Beauty and the Beast" re-telling with a prickly heroine and a truly horrendous hero, I found ACoTaR to be tame, dull, and boring, even, in its romance. From the hype surrounding this novel, its eye-catching cover, and the synopsis that promised so much more I think my expectations were higher than they should have been. I really thought this was going to be more along the vein of Cruel Beauty than a New Adult novel in a fantasy setting. (And, for those of you on the fence about this, I highly recommend Cruel Beauty as an alternative.)

I find next to nothing compelling about an easy love story. It was well-written, I'll give it that, and I find immense potential in the world Maas has created, not to mention the secondary characters whose personalities are far more complex than that of Feyre or Tamlin, but I just didn't swoon at this romance. Is it fan-your-face hot? Absolutely! But the type of slow-burn, butterflies-in-your-stomach, giddy sensation that accompanies a well-written "Beauty and the Beast" tale was simply missing. Moreover, Mass knows this love story is too easy; she knows that it needs more of a challenge. So, the entire second-half of the novel, that's exactly what she does--introduce a few more thorns into this bed of roses. What I really enjoyed about the second-half of the novel is the fact that we, as the reader, finally feel the stakes at hand. We begin to question and worry and tense up at the thought that these two may not make it through, after all.

But, despite that, I much prefer a novel where the tension stems from the romance between the two leads--the plausibility of it, the question of whether or not it will finally come to fruition--than anything else. Moreover, I have my own plethora of spoiler-y issues with the second-half, namely from the way Feyre is treated as a woman. Nevertheless, I will not hesitate to admit that ACoTaR is compulsively readable and though this wasn't the re-telling I wanted it to be, I'm hoping that the sequel--an original, and not a re-telling, from my understanding--will pull me deeper into this world and its characters. For now, I'll wave the Sarah J. Maas bandwagon a disappointed goodbye.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Title: Uprooted

Author: Naomi Novik

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Oh, this was good.

I originally dismissed Uprooted as being a Middle Grade novel--something about its cover reminded me of Frances Hardinge--and, not being a reader who gravitates towards the MG genre, I didn't bother to even read its synopsis. Big. Mistake.

Luckily for me, Uprooted began showing up on my newsfeed constantly. So often, in fact, that I finally scourged through all its reviews, read its synopsis, and proceeded to get my hands on it immediately. Though it has been compared to "Beauty & the Beast," its similarities to the fairy tale begin and end with a young girl being whisked away to live in a tower with a "beast" of a man who converses with none and harbors secrets of his own. Uprooted takes off on its own after that initial set-up, deviated almost entirely from the fable we know and becoming a magical tale in its own right. If I had to compare it to any novel, I'd compare it more to A Court of Thorns and Roses, which also released around the same time. Maas's novel and Novik's both feature strong protagonists who are imprisoned by a "beast" only to find themselves willing to help this "beast" in overcoming the struggles that plague him. Maas's novel is far more deeply entrenched in the New Adult genre--romance-centric with hints of erotica--while Novik's is a fantasy novel, through-and-through.

Needless to say, I've enjoyed Novik's far more than I expected to and cannot recommend this gem of a stand-alone story enough.

Agnieszka, the protagonist of our tale, is a wisp of a girl. Not only is she prone to losing items and has a knack for dirtying her clothes, she is as unexceptional as they come. Kasia, her best friend, is her exact opposite: beautiful, talented, and capable. Thus, the entire village expects that the Dragon, the wizard who guards their lands, will take Kasia to his tower. Every ten years, the Dragon selects a girl from the village to live with him for a decade. For ten years these girls live, away from their families and loved ones, serving him dutifully until he releases them with a sack of money and beautiful, gold-spun dresses. He's a fair and capable lord but his unwillingness to interact with the villagers--and the fact that he will likely take Kasia away--makes Agnieszka resent him.

When the Dragon selects Agnieszka instead of Kasia, she--and those around her--are all astonished. It quickly becomes evident, however, that Agnieszka is a witch. By law, the Dragon is compelled to take her on as an apprentice and train her in magic. As Agnieszka struggles to learn, however, dangerous evils are brewing. The Wood, the dark forest in which people disappear, is stirring and the royal family grows restless at the fact that their Queen, who vanished into the wood twenty years ago, has still not been found. Novik expertly weaves fantasy alongside political intrigue and deep, meaningful relationships to present Uprooted. Trust me, once you sink your teeth into this world, the last thing you'll actually want is to be uprooted at all.

One of my favorite aspects of this novel is the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia. Kasia has been preparing all her life to be chosen by the Dragon and when she is left behind, neither she nor her mother know what to think. Similarly, Agnieszka, despite hating the fact that her best friend would be snatched away from her, could not help but be relieved that she would not be chosen by the Dragon herself. With their roles reversed, however, I thoroughly enjoyed watching as both Agnieszka and Kasia grew on their owns, facing the strange twists of fate that life threw at them. More than that, though, I appreciated the manner in which their friendship changed with time and circumstance. As a student fresh out of her first-year of college, I connected with their honest--and often tumultuous--relationship. I love nothing more than when fantasy incorporates realistic elements in a make-believe world and Novik does it better than I've seen in awhile.

Nevertheless, I practically squealed when I realized how politically driven this novel was. Uprooted contains an intriguing plot, one that is best experienced blind, but the magical and royal politics of this realm are not only fleshed-out, they are manageable in this stand-alone volume. Moreover, they contribute to the stellar world-building and through the political sphere, the villain of this novel becomes all the more evil. I'm glad I didn't read this at night because--believe me--the Wood is terrifying. It's hard, these days, to create a believable evil but Novik manages it--just as she manages nearly everything else in this novel--to perfection.

The only aspect of this novel that I found (sliiiightly) lacking was the romance. I adored it. Agnieszka and the Dragon are a pair of complements. Though they seem unlikely at first, what with her being held prisoner by him, as Agnieszka grows and gains more agency, so too does she attain more equal ground with the Dragon. Novik paces their romance well and the growth of their feelings for one another feels authentic. I only wish, though, that we could have seen more of their interactions in the latter-half of the novel. Agnieszka and the Dragon are not together throughout the novel and though that aids the plot greatly, I also wished for more of them together. And, in particular, I wanted to learn more about the Dragon. Agnieszka I feel as if I know completely--her voice is friendly, her mannerisms adorable, and her strength admirable--but the Dragon is still an enigma, in many ways. Nevertheless, I swooned and sighed and, at the end of the day, I can't ask for much more.

If it isn't already clear, Uprooted is a must-read for fantasy lovers. It's beautifully written, scripted to perfection, and unique in the sense that it reads like lore--like a Marillier novel--despite being much more far-reaching than her Sevenwaters tales tend to be. For a fantasy-loving, political-plot-adoring, romance-swooning, stand-alone-admiring reader like me, Uprooted was a couple hours of sheer joy.