Monday, October 26, 2015

Just Another...Book Crush (#20): These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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. 

I am so incredibly excited to be welcoming Jennifer Donnelly to the blog today. I read her sophomore novel, Revolution, when I was in high school and quickly followed it with her debut novel, A Northern Light, and loved them both. Revolution is one of the first books to have made me cry and A Northern Light is still among one of my favorite novels. Donnelly writes rich, realistic, and headstrong female protagonists who fight tooth-and-nail to fulfill their dreams. They're the type of heroines I look up to and emulate and I am so grateful that her books are out there to inspire young women. Her latest, These Shallow Graves, is just as feminist, romantic, and suspenseful as I hoped so I'm thrilled to be promoting it on the blog today. Welcome, Jennifer! :)
Set in gilded age New York, These Shallow Graves follows the story of Josephine Montfort, an American aristocrat. Jo lives a life of old-money ease. Not much is expected of her other than to look good and marry well. But when her father dies due to an accidental gunshot, the gilding on Jo’s world starts to tarnish. With the help of a handsome and brash reporter, and a young medical student who moonlights in the city morgue, Jo uncovers the truth behind her father’s death and learns that if you’re going to bury the past, you’d better bury it deep.

Ghosts from the past haunt the characters from THESE SHALLOW GRAVES, and they also haunt me. But I'm not afraid of them. In fact, I love ghosts. They help me do my work. Researching for THESE SHALLOW GRAVES, or any historical novel, is all about digging up ghosts. 

I tend to start my research by reading, broad, historic surveys of the time period I'm writing about. Then I go deeper, into primary sources -- autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, cookbooks, guides to etiquette or housekeeping, advertisements, newspapers and magazines that were published during the time my characters lived. In these sources, you can hear the voices of the past, and how they spoke, both formally and informally. You can get a sense for social proprieties, social roles, and how people were expected to conform to them. 

I also go to museums to look to look at jewelry, paintings, clothing, toys, dishes, furniture, and carriages. The Victorians were fond of hair jewelry -- lockets, rings or necklaces in which a lock of hair from a deceased loved one was kept. Holding a pendant in my hand that contains a twist of hair from a child reminds me how closely the Victorians walked with death. 

I also spend a lot of time in the place I’m writing about trying to absorb what remains. Old buildings speak volumes about the people who lived or worked in them. They can tell us what those people thought was beautiful and inspiring, how they worked, and how they lived. 

My chief duty as a novelist is to get the souls of my characters down on paper. Accuracy with names, dates, and places is crucial -- and good research provides it -- but letting the ghosts in, as well as the facts, is also important. It's what brings the dead back to life.    

Just Another...Book Crush! 

Winger by Andrew Smith
Because it's hilarious and real and the voice is true.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Because Robinson speaks to the soul like no one else.

Plenty More, a cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi
Because his food is so good, and the pictures are so gorgeous, that I drool just looking at them. 

Thank you so much for stopping by the blog, Jennifer! The attention to detail that Jennifer describes during her research process truly pays off in the historical fiction she writes as they always feel incredibly authentic and well-researched. I am extremely picky about the world-building of my novels, even non-fantasy novels, which is why I enjoy Jennifer's novels so much. I haven't read any of her latest book crushes, though--have you? If you haven't read my review of These Shallow Graves you can do so right here. I want to know what you all think of this post, this novel, Jennifer's books, and just historical fiction in general. Any good recommendations to tide me over until Jennifer's next book releases? Let me know in the comments! :)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Six of Crows (Six of Crows, #1) 

Author: Leigh Bardugo

Rating: 5 Stars

Six Reasons Why Six of Crows Is LIFE: 

1. A HEIST! 

If you haven't already heard by now, Six of Crows is a heist novel. I've heard it compared to Ocean's Eleven, which I haven't seen, but I'd liken it to The Avengers since there's an epic round-up of our team and an utterly satisfying journey as they learn to trust one another and work together, despite the fact that a handful of them are strangers. Moreover, I can promise that Bardugo doesn't disappoint. Not in the details, not in the plot twists, and definitely not in the sucker-punches to the gut (you know, that feeling you get every time you're reminded of how this is an impossible task and the team assembled is guaranteed to fail).

2. Legends 

Every one of the six characters who make up our heist team are legends in their own right. There's Kaz Brekker, the criminal mastermind and genius who is unstoppable. There's Inej, the Wraith, who is as silent as a shadow and can travel anywhere, anyhow, without being detected. There's Jesper, whose guns never miss their mark. And so on and so forth. We're introduced to these characters by their legends--the stories that surround them, the rumors that circulate about them--but by the end, we've slowly started to peel back the layers and expose that they, for all their impossible feats, are mere people. I love how Bardugo does this, so gradually, and it works perfectly. It forces us, as the reader, to become invested emotionally and then just keeps twisting the knife in deeper until our hearts are bleeding and our breath is becoming shallow and we can't imagine our lives before we knew about these characters; I am so in love with all six of them, it's desperate.

3. Multiple POVs

Bardugo writes Six of Crows from a third-person perspective, which works perfectly as she alternates between narrators. Each of the six have their turn, time and time again, and though I usually shy away from multiple perspectives, Bardugo perfected it. Not only is it ideal when we're working with a heist, especially one as elaborate as this where the team members need to be split up, but it's also ideal when peeling back the layers of a group of six people who don't trust each other, who don't know where they stand with one another, and who all want money desperately. I never thought the POV shifts were abrupt, unexpected, or unwanted so kudos to Bardugo for walking that fine line flawlessly.

4. Politics, Slavery, and Discrimination

Shadow and Bone revolved mostly around Grisha politics, centered in Ravka and working its way inward through the Second Army and the different ranks of Grisha. With Six of Crows, we've entered a whole new underbelly. Admittedly, some parts are familiar--Grisha, Fabrikators, Heartrenders, etc.--but others are relatively new. Bardugo expands this world so much, including different races of people and different customs, some of which despise the Grisha. I found it interesting to see how these six individuals, each with completely different--and tragic--backgrounds interact with one another despite their prejudices and pre-conceived notions which are, perhaps surprisingly, harder to let go of than we may think. Bardugo never info-dumps this onto us, instead revealing to us bits and pieces in multiple narratives. As a lover of fantasy, and particularly fantastical politics, I ate this all up.

5. Romance

No one can slay me with a romance quite like Bardugo can. Remember how, in Siege and Storm, your heart was breaking page after page because Mal and Alina so desperately wanted to be together and so clearly were destined to be together but their rank and circumstance and past just couldn't allow them to be in the relationship they once dreamed of? And it was so painful because of how unfair it was? Because neither of them could really do anything except give up a part of themselves? And how could we ask them to do that? Well, that's how the romance is in this novel. Except times fifty. So...just get ready for a lot of blood and tears. But it's so, so good. My favorite romance is, obviously, the one that seems utterly doomed and full of strife and peril but, I hold on to the smallest shreds of hope, even as the sexual tension kills me, slowly. There's another romance, too, one which I think is less subtle and I love the depth and complexity that this one has, too. Moreover, I strongly suspect there's yet another romance, hidden deep in small phrases and tiny gestures, so though I may simply be fangirling for no reason, I ship yet another couple in this novel (and I will go down shipping them, so they better become a prominent couple soon, Bardugo)!

6. Villains

Every good novel has a good villain--or two, or three--and this book is teeming with formidable villains. Ones I want to see go down. While the Darkling was more like Draco Malfoy--extremely attractive, to the point where you didn't want to hate him, and not entirely evil--the villains in this novel, much like the main characters, are flawed and without remorse. I love the fine line Bardugo emphasizes between hero and villain because, our crew? None of them are heroes. All of them have lied and stolen and cheated their way to where they are now and though they may have survived out of circumstance, none of them are without guilt or blame. Yet, Bardugo makes us root for them and believe in them, much like real people whose pasts are messy but whose futures still hold hope. We've gotten glimpses of our villains in Six of Crows; strong and potent glimpses. I am sure they will come further into the forefront as the series wears on and I cannot wait to meet them, head-on, with Kaz and his team.

If you need more than six reasons to pick up Six of Crows, I promise I can come up with them for you. This is a novel that features disabled characters, diverse characters, mature characters and if you're searching for a New Adult-esque fantasy novel that explores the ideas of a New Adult novel--finding your place in the world, albeit through mistakes and strange situations--then Six of Crows fits that bill too. It's so many incredible, wonderful, surprising stories and genres in one that I am truly astounded by it. Easily one of the best books of the year, if not the best, this is one I couldn't put down, classes be damned. (Although, Bardugo, I might be begging for more than just the next novel at this point. It would be nice if you could give me my GPA back too...)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Title: Carry On

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Rating: 4.5 Stars

I didn't expect to love Carry On nearly as much as I actually did. Admittedly, I've been shipping Simon and Baz ever since Fangirl but mostly, I came away from Fangirl dying over Cath and Levi (obviously). I adored their story and enjoyed Simon and Baz's interactions along the way. But Carry On? Oh. My. God. I will die with this ship. Seriously. Rainbow Rowell characterizes Simon and Baz perfectly, tracing their violent past, their "hatred" for one another, and transforming into a completely believable, utterly adorable, entirely sexy romance.

Now, that's not to say that Carry On is a perfect novel. To me, its strength lies in the fact that I fell so hard for these characters and their interactions. In fact, my rating is a primarily emotional one: I love Simon and Baz, separately but mostly together. What I will say, criticizing this book, is that it feels like a part of a whole. Loosely based off of Harry Potter, Rowell's "fanfiction" lacks the length of Rowling's epic. We don't know the intimate details of Simon's past six years; his relationship with the Mage (think: Dumbledore) as it developed over time, his friendship with Penelope (think: Hermione's brains with Ron's loyalty and his large family) or his relationship with his girlfriend, Agatha. While Rowell does an excellent job of truly fleshing out these core secondary characters, especially as they relate to Simon, there are still gaps that are felt in the narrative.

Additionally, Rowell's world and plot is quite different from Rowling's, though I'd argue quite complex, but it's difficult to get a strong grasp on it since we don't have prequels of world-building the way we do when reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I really love Carry On for what it is but when compared to other fantasy novels, it definitely comes off as lacking. Moreover, the deaths and emotional aspects of this book were relatively lost on me, both because I didn't have a strong connection to all of the secondary characters (some who play really important roles towards the end) and also because the romance feels were so overwhelmingly in this narrative. Now, that's not to say that the romance takes over or is the focus but it's a huge part, at least in that the romance contributes to the growth of the two leads immensely.

I still, though, loved Rowell's latest. It's my favorite of her YA line-up, though Fangirl comes in a close second (though Attachments is still unbeatable IMO). Carry On was un-put-down-able for me and I read it all in one sitting, devouring Simon and Baz's story and their incredible romance. I love nothing more than copious amounts of sexual tension, fantastical elements, and an epic reveal that changes the trajectory of the plot and Carry On had all those elements. Plus, Rowell drops in plenty of diverse characters, which I appreciate so much and her writing, as always, is impeccable. If you're a fan of Fangirl this is obviously a must-read but if you're a fan of romance, in general, or are just craving a different type of love story from the all-too-familiar, then Carry On isn't to be missed. I want more romances like this: where I can root for the main characters regardless of gender or sexual orientation or race and just be caught up in the love. One thing I'm certain of, having finishing this novel, is that carry on I simply cannot; I'm going to be stuck in this world for a long time to come.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Monthly Rewind: September

Guys, how is September over already?

3 Things About My Life This Month

1. Flower Sunday 

Flower Sunday is my favorite Wellesley tradition--and there are many!--but this is easily one of my favorite days of the year. Flower Sunday is a ceremony where the entire Wellesley community gathers in the chapel during the first Sunday of the school year. It's a beautiful ceremony, one where every member of our Multifaith Council shares a little bit about their culture and the choir, which I'm part of, sings as well. The best part about Flower Sunday, though, is that every upperclassmen is assigned a Little, a first-year who joins our family and we all have brunch together afterwards. It's one of the few times you'll see the entire study body as stress-free as they are, that first weekend of college, and it's a time that reminds me how much I love it here. You can see, here, a picture of myself and my best friend, who also happens to be my fellow Little. The two of us were assigned to the same Big last year and I definitely consider her to be my sister.

2. Family and Friends Weekend

My mom visited for Family and Friends Weekend and it is such a different experience to have your parent visit your college during your second year. I remember crying when my parents drove up for Family and Friends Weekend last year but this year I took my mom around Boston, MIT, and Harvard Square, she attended my Choir Concert, treated my friends and I out for dinner, and we saw Inside Out together in the cinema on campus. It was so, so much fun and though I don't miss my family the way I used to, as a first-year, it reminded me of how much I love and really do miss my mom.

3. I didn't read much this September

I just...didn't. I am deep in the heart of midterm season right now and my stress levels are sky-high, hence the lack of posting these past two weeks. And essentially this whole month. I finally got into a routine balancing my student leadership position, two jobs, two e-board positions, and a full course load when, BAM, midterms were dropped on us and to add insult to injury, I've had a paper to write and turns out that having a midterm doesn't mean that I don't have homework or problem sets's been a tough month, to say the least. I've been trying to eat healthier and work out more but somehow that means that reading has really fallen on my list of priorities, which I feel terrible about. And if I don't read, I don't blog and the vicious cycle of my internet absence continues... Also, I am so bummed that I haven't had the time to read Six of Crows yet, among other amazing releases that have been hitting the shelves! Friends! Where do I find time? HALP!

Best Book I Read This Month

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee: This is a Western that I expected to love, had mixed feelings for about half-way in, but wound up thoroughly enjoying by the end. I have a lot to say about this one, especially its attention to diversity and general brilliance in portraying male/female dynamics so look out for a review of this sometime soon! 

Most Popular Post This Month

Just Another...Book Crush (#19): The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler: Sarah Ockler is one of my favorite authors and The Summer of Chasing Mermaids is still my favorite book of the year so I was beyond ecstatic to have her on the blog this month and her post is so beautiful. Seriously. If you haven't read it already, read it!

Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

Mini-Reviews: I honestly thought these mini-reviews would get more love since they're recent, popular, and I usually write such rambling reviews that I feel like people jump at the chance to read a condensed version of my thoughts. Also because my mini-review of The Boy Most Likely To sparked an entire e-mail exchange with Huntley Fitzpatrick, who is one of my favorite people in the world, not to mention author, so I hoped that my review would inspire similar conversation in the comments. (Especially because Huntley's e-mail seriously made my week, if not my entire month, in terms of pleasant surprises, much-needed pick-me-ups, and book-ish tidings.)

Obsession of the Month

How to Get Away With Murder! I've seen the entire first season (and am all caught up with season two as well!) and I am obsessed! If you like crime/law dramas with seriously attractive people, talented actors, and a diverse cast then this is the show for you. Also, how bleeping amazing is it that Viola Davis won an Emmy for her work on this show? So. Well. Deserved. (Also, for fans out there: Coliver! I will sink with this ship, I swear...)

3 Things I'm Looking Forward to in October

1. Fall Break! I'm visiting one of my best friends in New York this Fall Break, which I'm really excited about, though I'm also looking forward to reading on the bus and sleeping a ton since I'm going home for two nights as well. I need this break. I've taken on too much this year and I desperately need to re-charge. 
2. Navratri! Navratri is an incredible time of year for Hindus because it's one of our longest holidays and it's in celebration of female strength which, being a Wellesley student, I am all about. To celebrate Navratri we participate in a dance known as Garba and I'm really excited to be attending at least one Garba this Navratri. It's so, so much fun (not to mention an excuse to get all dolled up!). 
3. Halloween! I'm not big on dressing up for Halloween (read: I am not creative enough to create mainstream costumes that people will recognize) but Halloween means pumpkin carving with the Choir Officers, celebrating Choir Halloween (as you can tell, my life is basically Wellesley College Choir...) and, of course, attending a truly spooky Halloween party. So, needless to say, what's not to be excited about Halloween? (Also, candy!)

How has your September been? Is anyone else as stressed as I am and unable to find time to read? Tips to keep me sane this Fall Semester? Any festivals you're looking forward to? Any How to Get Away with Murder fans out there? Plans for Halloween? I want to catch up with everyone so let me know in the comments below! 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mini-Reviews: The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke by Anne Blankman, and After the End by Amy Plum

Title: The Boy Most Likely To 

Author: Huntley Fitzpatrick 

Rating: 3 Stars

The Boy Most Likely To was not at all the book I expected it to be. Despite not loving Fitzpatrick's debut, I picked up this companion on the sole belief that I adored Tim Mason and Alice Garrett--and I do. Yet, their love story, the trials and tribulations they face throughout this volume, are not what I expected upon cracking open the spine of this novel. Tim is the Boy Most Likely to Fail and this is a burden he carries heavily upon his shoulders. Everyone in his family, from his father to his sister, expects the worst from him so when Tim is given an ultimatum to get his act together by December--staying sober, finding a place to live, supporting himself, figuring out his future--he is determined to prove them all wrong. But mistakes just follow Tim and his biggest mistake yet has just turned up on his front door.

I absolutely love the growth in this novel. Tim's perseverance to be a better person, despite being put down by those around him time and time again, is admirable and my heart went out to him. He hides his insecurities and pain behind his laid-back demeanor and flirtatious comments with Alice but the real Tim is a strong and capable man. Alice, too, grows immensely over the course of this story as she grows to accept and love Tim for who he really is, not to mention love herself. Alice has always hidden behind her figure and beautiful face, taking up responsibilities above her age to support her family and sacrificing her dreams to help them. But sometimes the hardest thing is learning to love yourself and actually be selfish, once in awhile, and Alice's tough journey to that acceptance was so beautifully written. Fitzpatrick does this with each and every one of her novels; she identifies journeys and stories that are powerful and painful and messy but ones that need to be told and she does it with such aplomb. I read her books for her rich characterization that is sustained throughout and never falters.

Despite the fact that I loved the ultimate take-home messages of this novel, I will admit that I found it tough to read because of the unexpected events that occur within it. I wasn't a fan of those paths and wished that these journeys could have been explored in a slightly different manner. With these two books I've always wished for this--for these same characters to achieve their growth through slightly different plot circumstances. I suspect it's an issue only I truly have for, either than that, I cannot recommend this book enough. Don't expect a light and breezy romantic comedy because this book is far heavier than it seems but, if you go in with the right mindset, you'll fall in love.

Title: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke (Prisoner of Night & Fog, #2)

Author: Anne Blankman

Rating: 4 Stars

I found this sequel to be even more rewarding than its predecessor. Gretchen's voice is far more developed and mature, though just as vulnerable, which enabled me to instantly connect with her in a way I hadn't in Blankman's debut. What's more, the romantic tribulations that she and Daniel must face alongside the thrill of the historical time period they are thrown into made for a truly enlightening and exhilarating read. Extremely well-written and sure to satisfy fans of the first novel, this is not a sequel--or author--to be overlooked.

Title: After the End (After the End, #1)

Author: Amy Plum

Rating: 3.5 Stars

I really, really enjoyed After the End. It isn't a dystopian novel--though the protagonist believes she's living in a post-apocalyptic world--and that premises is so wholly unique that it was enough to drag me through the alternating chapters in the beginning (which didn't do much for the plot) and into the rest of the enticing novel. Plum's latest series is written impeccably, putting into the confused mindset of our protagonist and introducing us to the culture shock of the modern world. In the midst of all this, though, the real plot lies in a chase, an adventure, and an uncovering of the secrets we're all dying to figure out.

One of the strongest aspects of this novel is the relationship between Juneau and Mike, the main characters. For one, neither Juneau nor Mike see eye-to-eye on anything. Mike believes that Juneau has been brainwashed and struggles to believe the truth about her existence--that she was brought up in the wilderness of Alaska, living as a nomad for all her life. Similarly, Juneau cannot believe that her family and mentor lied to her and that, in truth, WWIII never occurred and that the modern world is safe and well. While Juneau is on a mission to find her family, who have been captured and moved across the country, Mike is there to bring Juneau to his father, the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company who believes that Juneau knows the ingredients to a secret drug being brewed in Alaska. Their rocky start and eventual friendship is an adventure to behold and I loved the slow and careful characterization of these two.

I did struggle, though, with the actual genrefication of this novel. It started out dystopian, proceeded to be contemporary fiction, but truly ended with traces of paranormal and/or fantasy elements which, for a reader who likes to know what she's getting into, inspired a great deal of confusion. And that, sadly, dampened my enjoyment of this story. I really didn't know what to make of it and, to a large extent, still don't know what to make of the multiple genres this novel can fit into at different stages in its storyline. It was jarring and unexpected, to say the least, but I suspect I'll enjoy the sequel much more having this solid foundation going in. All in all, After the End was an unexpected surprise and I'm eager to devour its sequel soon!