Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

Title: Rebel of the Sands (Rebel of the Sands, #1)

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Rating: 3.5 Stars

I am so utterly surprised by this book. I didn't even add it to my shelves for the longest time because previous Westerns that I'd read, while not bad, had never quite blown my mind. And though Rebel of the Sands was making waves across the blogosphere, I've never been one to agree with the masses. So, against all odds I find myself admitting that I really, actually, enjoyed Rebel of the Sands. I was swept up in its breakneck pace, its daring protagonist, the romance, and the world-building. Now, that's not to say that this is a perfect novel--because, believe me, it has its share of flaws--but it was surprisingly better than I anticipated.

The Good:
- Amani, our heroine, is such a badass. We first meet her as the Blue-Eyed Bandit, dressed up as a boy and competing in a shooting tournament. Amani's parents have passed away and all she wants is to escape the home of her aunt and uncle, both of whom wish to marry her off soon. But Amani has plans to escape herself--all if she can win this shooting tournament. But things don't quite go as planned and she finds herself aiding Jin, a foreign mercenary who escapes her small town with her and the two become unexpected allies as they navigate the desert.

Amani is strong-willed and stubborn and though she isn't anything unique in the world of YA heroines, I thoroughly enjoyed her voice nevertheless. She is clever and cunning and though she isn't loyal, her growth over the course of the novel is admirable. Her romance with Jin, the swoon-worthy hero of our tale, isn't quite a slow-burn but it's also not insta-love. It's well-timed, considering their situation, and I enjoyed watching as their relationship grew and developed and changed with time.

-The world Hamilton (OK, is it just me or is it officially unfair for anyone's last name to be Hamilton because now I officially want to burst into song because #LinManuelMiranda) creates is unique and, in some ways, bizarre. It's like the Wild West, with shoot-outs and small towns and mythical horses who ride like the wind. But, it's also infused with Middle Eastern folklore of the djinn and magic and princes fighting for their throne. Honestly, I'd say it works. I really enjoyed the folklore aspect and the world-building is quite well-done. It isn't as descriptive as I'd have liked and I certainly have questions that I want answers to, but I suspect that they will all be answered in due time. This world is far more unique than that of Under the Painted Sky or Walk on Earth a Stranger so of all the Westerns I've read, Rebel of the Sands has proved to be the most exciting.

The Bad:
-A slew of new characters is introduced to us rather late in the novel and they all become important characters in their own right. Sadly, I found this to be a little too much, a little too late. I wanted more of Amani and Jin while Hamilton was frantically trying to establish strong connections between Amani and all these new characters. I just don't think it worked and I finished this novel feeling excited about the prospect of future novels and the upcoming plot lines but also wanting to know these new characters, who still felt new.

-In retrospect, the pacing of this book could have been a lot better. I think I would have enjoyed this considerably more had Jin and Amani's time together been sped up or cut down a bit to allow for the second-half--which is where the real plot begins and Amani discovers a lot, both about herself and Jin--to have had more of an influence on the novel as a whole. Instead, I primarily remember this as being a book about Amani and Jin trekking across the desert--which was a great deal of fun, but I feel ill-equipped for this sequel. Not to mention, there are so many characters introduced even in the first-half that we don't get a lot of closure with or follow-up on. This book is mainly Amani and Jin and while that worked, I think attention to other relationships in the novel would have gone a long way.

I'm worried about the synopsis of the sequel, only because I wonder at a possible love triangle (if that's true, i.e. if anyone who gets an ARC can confirm this for me, I will not be picking up the sequel). But, if the sequel remains drama-free then I am more than ready to further explore the political machinations of this world and return to Amani's kick-ass narration for another thrilling adventure. If you've read a loved a lot of previous Westerns, I'm not sure this novel will introduce too many new concepts to the genre but if you've been relatively unimpressed, so far, then give this one a shot. It's better than I expected, and that's saying something for sure.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

6+ Recommendations for Your Book Bag

Sorry to have been absent nearly all week, friends! I got on a flight to India on Wednesday and reached early Friday morning and have since been sweating, stuffing myself with delicious food, and fighting off jet lag--not necessarily in that order. ;)
If you're racking your brain over what books to bring with you on your beach vacation, day trip to the sea, or any other instance where you're carrying your beloved book bag, look no further! I've got six books for six different moods to recommend, complete with back-up options for you to investigate and pick up as well. I think these are all perfect summertime reads and all of these books are, in some way or the other, my favorite books. Enjoy! :)

If You Want a Laugh...

Honorable Mention: Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

If You Want That Summertime Vibe...

If You Want to Swoon...

Honorable Mention: Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran (This book is historical romance but let me tell you this: it's a loose re-telling of "Beauty and the Beast". If that doesn't have you scrambling to read this this summer, I don't know what will.)

If You Want to be Inspired...

Honorable Mention: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

I happen to think that the heroines of both these novels are wonderfully inspiring. In Ockler's novel, the heroine has lost her voice and left behind her family to come to terms with the fact that she will never sing again. In Buxbaum's, the heroine has just lost her mother and is struggling to cope with her father's re-marriage and her sudden move to LA. Both of these books are fantastic and romantic and funny but most of all, they are inspiring and made me want to grow and develop and become more.

If You Want a Kick-Ass Heroine...

The Winner's Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski (The Winner's Curse, The Winner's Crime, The Winner's Kiss)

Honorable Mention: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

If You Want to be Whisked Away to a Far Away Land...

Honorable Mention: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

What are some of your recommendations for my book bag this summer? I'm desperate for some summertime reads, not to mention a few trilogies or duologies that I can fly through in the next couple of months so please leave me some recs in the comments below! 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Title: My Lady Jane

Author(s): Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Historically, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have never been my go-to authors (to put it mildly). As can be suspected, I figured that their joint collaboration, while creative, would fail to charm me. If these three ladies couldn't win over my heart individually then how could they manage it with differing POVs in a fantastical realm, similar (but also not quite so similar) to our own world and history? Well, the truth of the matter is this: I pushed back lunch for three hours to reach the end of My Lady Jane. Yes, you read that right; I finished this book in one sitting. Quite unexpectedly, I'll assure you. But if you, like me, were considering skipping out on this gem of a novel, do yourself a favor and give it a chance.

Five Reasons to Read My Lady Jane:

1. If you're a fan of The Princess Bride, either the novel or its film adaptation. Probably you will enjoy this novel if you're a fan of Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and/or Jodi Meadows. But My Lady Jane is an entirely different beast from their previous work, so don't expect angels or Greek mythology or high fantasy. Instead, expect sarcastic commentary from three highly amusing narrators. Expect dramatic escapes, sword-fights, shape-shifting, treason, poison, and true love. If The Princess Bride had you worried sick, laughing, crying, and utterly joyful then My Lady Jane is guaranteed to have you in a similar state of mind.

2. If you're a fan of fantasy. Even just a little, tiny bit of it. First and foremost, the world of My Lady Jane is almost identical to ours with the exception that there are humans who can shape-shift and the historical, political struggle through time has not been one of religion but rather one of prosecuting those who can shape-shift opposed to those who cannot. As such, the world-building is not heavy and detailed, but it is sufficient. I never had doubts or questions that went unanswered but, also, the fantasy elements blend seamlessly into a typical historical setting.

Moreover, My Lady Jane reminds me of fantasy books I would read as a child, such as The Tale of Desperaux. Animals can make daring rescues and are spoken to and cared for by other humans because, after all, they could be human themselves. I enjoyed, immensely, just how clever this entire tale was. Every piece of history fit together with this newly re-imagined fantasy re-telling and I remain in awe of the genius employed by these three ladies to make this novel work.

3. If you believe that the answer to "Who Run the World?" is "GIRLS!" Almost all of the female characters in this novel are utterly kick-ass and, yes, they rule absolutely. Jane, our titular heroine, is brilliant beyond words as she's had her nose stuck in a book for most of her life. Thus, Jane knows almost anything and her kindness, loyalty, and intelligence make her an asset even in the most un-bookish of times. Her POV is sharing alongside that of Edward, the king who is slowly, but surely, dying when we first meet him and Gifford, the son of Duke Dudley and the future husband of Jane. Edward, the sole male heir of his father, believes in the gender roles he was brought up to live by and respect. As his condition worsens, however, and circumstances whisk him away from the palace where he has grown up, he grows to respect and admire women for their strength in all ways.

Admittedly, the time period in which this novel is set demands that Edward think the way he does--that a woman should mend his clothes and cook his food and clean his living space--but his growth was so, so satisfactory, I'm sure especially to the women of this novel. Gifford, on the other hand, shape-shifts into a horse from dawn to dusk. As such, Gifford is only a human at night and this makes him...particularly useless, in many ways. But Gifford re-defines what it means to be a man, to be manly, and to embody masculinity and I love his definition far more than I thought I would when I first met him.

4. If you're a sucker for a slow-burn love story. Jane and Gifford, though they married in real-life, absolutely do not want to marry each other in this novel. But they do and, before you know, Jane is living with a horse by daylight, a man by night. And Gifford, similarly, is living with a woman who is constantly in love with her books and little else. It isn't the ideal situation for either of them but their love story is absolutely delightful. It starts with hate, grows into friendship, is ruined by a fight or two, is repaired by loyalty, gets tested time and time again through difficulty, almost falters in the face of trust and respect, but is eventually held and mended by love.

It's such a difficult journey but both Jane and Gifford learn and grow so much--I loved them when we first met them but I loved them all the more by the time I was forced to leave them. Edward gets his own love story and while it isn't quite the central romance, it nevertheless is cute and forced Edward to change in all the best of ways. I want to stress that though these love stories are important, they're mostly that way because of the character growth that stems from them.

5. If you like laughing. My Lady Jane isn't as funny as I thought it was going to be, but it's a light-hearted tale and there are many horse jokes (at the expense of poor Gifford, who can shape-shift into a horse) and a slew of other fabulous puns and jokes, not to mention sarcastic insults, that will keep you grinning, if not outright laughing out loud, as you read this. You can't go wrong with My Lady Jane. It's going to make a lot of "2016 Favorites" lists, so don't let this one pass you by.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Review: The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne

Title: The Wrong Side of Right 

Author: Jenn Marie Thorne

Rating: 4.5 Stars

What did The Wrong Side of Right manage to get right that so many other YA Contemporary novels have gotten wrong? Nearly everything.

Thorne's debut is a story of family, friendship, and finding your voice even in changing situations. Kate was brought up by her single-mother, a woman who worked for NGOs and kept out of politics, in LA, as far away from Washington D.C. as you can get. When her mother passes away in a car accident, Kate is sent to live with her uncle and aunt in South Carolina--only to find out, one day, that her father is running for President. The Senator immediately whisks Kate away to D.C. where she meets Meg, his wife, and his twin children, Gracie and Gabe, all while reeling from the shock that her mother had an affair with a married man while working on his campaign sixteen years ago. As Kate struggles to ingratiate herself into her father's family, though, she must work the campaign trail, fend off the current President's persistent (and very handsome) son, and find her voice in a home where every word is scripted, debriefed, and debated over.

From the first page itself, I found myself drawn to Kate. Her voice is simple, but relate-able, and Kate is the type of heroine I'd pick as my best friend. Not only is she hardworking and intelligent, she is polite and kind and willing to make the best of any situation she is thrown into. Although she is shocked to find out that her father is a famous politician, she instantly tries to spin her existence in a positive light for the campaign, reading up on his policies and accompanying him on his travels. Her younger siblings, Gracie and Gabe, are absolutely adorable and her growing relationship with them was an instant favorite. Surprisingly, I loved Meg, the senator's wife and Kate's stepmother, even more than I thought I would. Meg is brilliant, compassionate, and welcomes Kate into their family. Instead of throwing her weight as the scorned woman, Meg supports her husband and her relationship with Kate is one that I found myself rooting for and tearing up at.

The persistent problem at the center of this story is Kate's relationship to her father. The Senator is busy--constantly living and breathing the campaign, traveling non-stop, and determined to win the Presidency. That leaves him very little time to get to know his daughter and it was hard for me--and for Kate!--to feel as if the senator even cared. Not only that, but the head of his campaign, Eli, is rude, disrespectful, and disdainful of Kate's presence in the senator's life. For Kate, who simply wants her father to like her and yearns to be a part of his life, this all leads to her keeping her mouth shut and following orders; doing her best to keep out of trouble and be a good girl. I understood Kate implicitly and as her situation on the campaign becomes worse, I was glad to see her finally find her voice and stand up for herself. Kate's growth is so well-timed and she never feels like a character who lacks a backbone--she simply feels very real.

Yet, one of the best aspects of this novel are the friendships Kate sustains. Her best friend from LA, Penny, calls and keeps in touch with her constantly but winds up playing a vital role to the plot of the story, which I greatly appreciated. Penny's parents are undocumented residents who escaped the drug wars of Mexico to give a better life to their children--three US citizens growing up in LA. Kate's father is staunchly opposed to giving undocumented residents any type of leeway in their lack of citizenship but Penny is Kate's best friend and the fact that her father supports deporting her parents is difficult for her to swallow. I truly loved that Thorne not only touches upon the subject of undocumented residents in America, but gives them a voice in this novel. It's an important, vital issue that affects so many people in our country, not to mention our economy, and regardless of your stance on this issue, Thorne's approach to it is bipartisan and merely thoughtful which I truly salute.

Another impeccably written portion of the story is the romance. Andy, the son of the current President who is running for re-election, is disillusioned with the campaign trail. Kate is one of the few people who understands what his life is like and when we reaches out to her, the two form a fast friendship--meeting whenever they get the chance, talking late into the phone, and exchanging campaign stories. Though their friendship is hidden from the press--enemies, and all that--the development of their romance is truly perfect, a slow-burn that I found myself grinning over like a fool. I really enjoyed Andy and Kate's interactions and though the romance is by no means a large aspect to the story, it's certainly the icing on the cake.

Kate Quinn carries this novel forward. She is a formidable heroine that I couldn't stop rooting for and her steady acceptance into the senator's life--becoming an older sister, a stepdaughter, a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, etc. The Wrong Side of Right is thoughtful, thought-provoking and forces readers to think about more than just their stance on politics. I love that it was about a normal, teenage girl who simply wanted to fit in and find a family; about a girl who wanted to be heard but also didn't want to be a bother. I feel as if girls today are constantly torn between societal boxes and their own desires and Kate is a perfect example of someone, not who rises above societal expectations or norms but one who struggles with it and does her best to be true to herself, too. And, frankly, that's the best we can all do. So, for those of you who haven't read or heard of this novel, read it--at least for yourself and for Kate and to feel a little less alone if not for anything else.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fierce Reads Tour Stop: Wellesley Books, Wellesley MA

The Fierce Reads tour stop happened about fifteen minutes from my dorm room so, of course, I couldn't resist wandering into Wellesley Books and listening in on a chat that included Marie Rutkoski, whose The Winner's Kiss you'll all remember I raved about. Joining her were Cecilia Ahern, Sandy Hall, and Harriet Reuter Hapgood with Erin Bowman moderating the panel.

I didn't record everything these ladies said, but here were some of my thoughts and impressions of these impressive authors.

Cecilia Ahern

I haven't read anything by Cecilia Ahern but her work is extremely well-known. Her newest novel is a YA debut called Flawed and, I have to admit, at first I thought it was just like every other dystopian. A society where everyone has to be perfect? Where have we not read that before? But Flawed is set in present-day society and it's all about the judgement and pressure put on us by societal standards today. Ahern really won me over with her discussion of how she tried to make this relevant and thoughtful to teens today so I'm curious to see what other readers will make of this duology!

Sandy Hall

I'd heard of Hall's debut, namely its multiple POVs, and while I had (and still have) no interest in picking it up, I cannot deny that Hall is hilarious. Also, her upcoming novel sounds amazing and I am so excited to have snagged an ARC of it! It's all about two neighbors, guys, who become best friends when the one begins to fall for the other. Hall said she was inspired by Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" only wanted to write a love story with a gay guy and a bi guy instead. I'm all about this, you guys. I cannot wait to dig into the ARC!

Harriet Reuter Hapgood

I think The Square Root of Summer is Hapgood's debut and she really sold me on this. "It's about all the ways in which you can love and lose love," and that alone has me adding this to my TBR. Hapgood used to work in the fashion industry in England so her stories of writing this book on late-night bus rides and over the weekends in-between any spare time she got were so inspiring. I'm really curious to see how this is received and I definitely need to snag a copy for myself!

Marie Rutkoski

Marie is exactly as I imagined she would be. She is succinct and careful with her words, much like her prose, and she is fierce. I was instantly in love with her lipstick, her rare smiles and, yes, I can see how parts of her are within Kestrel. Rutkoski shared with us that Arin's name is the name of a friend she knew who was born while it rained. His parents made his name an anagram of rain and Marie thought it was perfect for Arin, too, who can be a calm drizzle or a tempestuous storm. She also shared that she has signed another book deal with Macmillan and that her next series will be linked to The Winner's Curse trilogy in some way. We won't be seeing Arin or Kestrel for awhile but the worlds are similar. She spoke a lot about how the world-building in The Winner's Curse was inspired by ancient Greece and Rome so I'm curious to see where the elements of her world come from in her upcoming series. I also loved how she spoke about how Kestrel and Arin's world is as real as ours--there's no magic or potions or spells--but the natural world is different, whether it be through the animals or poisons or weather. We're always cognizant that they belong to another realm but their difficulties, strengths, and weaknesses are all as human and mortal as our own.

I really enjoyed the panel tonight and a huge thank you to Wellesley Books for hosting! We got absolutely adorable bags, ARCs, and signed books (along with LOTS of cool swag and posters) so I left with far more than I brought in (which, lets be real, is the only way to ever leave a bookstore). Did any of you make it to a Fierce Reads tour stop this Spring? Which one of these books are you dying to read? Which of one these authors is your favorite? Let me know in the comments because I always need new books to add to my TBR! :)