Friday, December 30, 2016

16 Moments, Experiences, and Books of 2016

I wanted to change things up, this year, as 2016 comes to a close. Instead of launching into a long post detailing the best of my reading log this year, I want to simply reflect on sixteen of the biggest moments, most life-changing experiences, and most pleasurable books I picked up this year. I've had a year unlike any other--full of travel and challenges, equally--so I feel like this is the best way to share my year with you all. 

Note: This list is in chronological order (January - December).

1. Ringing in 2016 in India! I usually spend the New Year with my small family of four in New Jersey but this year, I got to celebrate with my grandparents and grand-uncles and grand-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins was just so special. This is the first time I've ever gotten to ring in the new year with so much of my family present and it's a moment I will always remember. 

2. Presenting at JMM in Seattle! I presented my math research from the previous summer in Seattle, earlier this year, and I loved being part of a huge group of math majors and enthusiasts, even if it was just for three days! 
3. California with the Wellesley College Choir! My choir tours every year and this year, as we stayed with Wellesley alums and road-tripped from San Francisco to Los Angeles, was so very incredible. I love and miss the choir with all my heart but our time together in California was some of the very best. Even though my Spring 2016 semester was incredibly tough (as you may remember), the choir kept me grounded and sane so I am so grateful for the close-knit bonds and unbreakable friendships forged on this tour together.

4. My favorite FANTASY novels of the year! Obviously, A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab (by far the best book I read this year) which is closely followed by Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo and The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon.
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5. Spring semester at Wellesley! This was my hardest semester, ever, for so many reasons--study abroad applications, juggling multiple jobs and classes and leadership positions, friendships--so while I have so many stressful memories from this semester, I also want to remember the best parts. Marathon Monday. Pub Night. Choir. Graduation. During the tough moments, the bright spots always shine a little brighter and somehow, this semester wound up being special and utterly remarkable all the same.

6. Spending the summer with my grandparents in India. I will always regret how little time I have to spend with my grandparents, so to be their sole focus and company all summer was such a gift. It wasn't a summer of much activity or excitement, but there was so much love and affection and I miss the peace of it all. 

7. PARIS! I've been wanting to visit Paris for years--years!--and the opportunity to spend ten days in this amazing city as I began my study abroad experience was simply unbelievable. Paris was everything I wanted it to be and more and I cannot wait to go back, again and again and again. 

8. My favorite ADULT reads of 2016! Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a gem. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is incredibly moving and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a book I couldn't stop recommending or thinking about, far after I'd finished it.
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9. Living in Aix-en-Provence for four months with my incredible host family! As you all know, there were plenty of ups and downs to my time in Aix, from micro-aggressions to feeling homesick to simply needing to be in a larger city. But, I made life-long friends in my program, not to mention with my host family, and I will always be grateful that I had a chance to travel as much as I did and live in a relaxed, truly wonderful part of the world. 
10. Traveling Italy with my mom! I was so lucky to be able to have this wonderful experience with my mom, who is one of my best friends in the world. We had such an incredible trip and I can't wait to travel with her again, hopefully soon!

11. Falling in love with Athens, London, and Barcelona--far more than I expected. I didn't think I'd love these three cities as much as I did, but, gosh, I just want to go back!

12. Meeting Jasprit in London! Jasprit is one of my earliest blogging friends and we started our blogs at the same time, reading and discussing books together and even sending packages across the ocean to one another. It was so lovely to finally meet her in person and spend a wonderful day with her! She's the first blogger I've met, but hopefully definitely not the last! :)

13. The best CONTEMPORARY fiction of 2016! Of course, Morgan Matson's The Unexpected Everything, Kirsty Eagar's Summer Skin, and Act Like It by Lucy Parker.
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14. Taking my first solo-trip to Amsterdam! I love the city of Amsterdam and I love even more that I was able to do this trip entirely alone, conquering any fears I might have had about being incompetent without the company of my friends or not being able to eat a meal alone. It was such a wonderful trip and I cannot wait to take my next solo-adventure!

15. Adventures in Morocco! During my five days in Morocco, I took an overnight train to Tangier, knowing that there was no overnight train back to Marrakech where my hostel was located (and the return trip of my flight based in), and then found my way to the beautiful town of Chefchaouen, all while taking a long, winding path back to Marrakech through Fez. I saw so much more of Morocco than I planned and I loved every bit of this beautiful country. I have to go back--after all, I didn't get to visit the Sahara yet!

16. Other ROMANCES I loved? The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski and The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron--both so much more than mere romances but featuring some of my favorite couples of all time. 
What were some of your best moments, experiences, and books of 2016? Are there must-read titles that I didn't get to, this year, and that I absolutely need to bump up my TBR for 2017? Please let me know in the comments below as I'm always on the lookout for recommendations and if you're interested in my full list of 2016 favorites, a.k.a. books, you can check it out HERE. A very Happy New Year to everyone! :)

Friday, December 23, 2016

ARC Review: Breath of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

Title: Breath of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles, #2)

Author: Amanda Bouchet

Rating: 3 Stars

Release Date: January 3rd, 2017 

I know a lot of people are looking forward to this book--and I was too, believe me--but I have to be honest and admit that I am, sadly, not going to be continuing with this series. A Promise of Fire held an immense amount of potential for a new romantic fantasy series and I loved the progression of both the romantic and fantastical elements. In Breath of Fire, though, instead of offering a breath of fresh air into the genre, Bouchet relies too much on traditional gender roles and an extremely central and heavy romance that I found myself rooting for less and less as the novel wore on. The problem, really, starts with Chapter 1 itself.

Breath of Fire picks up precisely where A Promise of Fire left off (and I mean literally, it picks up exactly where we left off so don't expect any re-capping at all) and within a few pages it is clear that Griffin has uncovered Cat's glaringly obvious "secret" lineage. And, to express just how angry he is about her keeping this a secret, he proceeds to throw objects, smash vases, and then destroy their bed with his sword. Wow. Was this display of male aggression really necessary? Turns out this temper tantrum is all for nothing, though, because obviously Cat and Griffin are going at it like rabbits in the next chapter. But, okay, fine, trying to move on back to the story.

Cat is forced to come to terms with the fact that she must face her past, at one point or the other, and she and her team set out on a quest to protect Sinta in the hopes of then expanding Griffin's kingdom. Ever-so-conveniently, though, whenever Cat recklessly throws herself in danger, a Greek god magically keeps her alive so she doesn't die. Plus, it's not just a Greek god who is invested in Cat's future--it's practically all of them. I'm all for the Special Person trope--I mean, I love fantasy!--but the Most Special Person To Ever Live trope? Please. Fantasy is such an easy genre when your main character has all the powers, all the gods and goddesses behind her; there are no limits to her powers and her abilities. It takes the challenge out of the equation and I love fantasy best when my magic has its boundaries. To that extent, I found the world-building far too convenient and wasn't worried or invested at all because I knew that Cat would figure everything out with the help of some Greek gods and no repercussions.

Add to that that every dangerous scene is followed by a sex scene, regardless of where they are or the fact that they might still be in danger, and I was rolling my eyes. I felt that Griffin and Cat are in love, but what I was really seeing was that they're in lust. And constantly. I get that, I do, but I just wanted to get back to the complex story and inner struggle of these characters, not their libido. Griffin also really grated on me throughout the first half of this novel. He's at the point where all he wants to do is protect Cat and that type of alpha behavior has gotten so old. It takes awhile for their relationship to become more equal and supportive and though I appreciate that it does get there, I hated how Cat constantly felt guilty for helping out in a fight because now Griffin would be focused on her and could get harmed. You both can take care of yourselves!

Anyway, despite these annoyances, I continue to love the secondary characters in this story and the politics between all the houses. Plus, we are able to see more clearly how Greek mythology informs this world and a lot of aspects were incredibly exciting. I think readers who enjoy more romance from their fantasy novels will genuinely love this. Perhaps I'm a traditionalist but the infusion of fantasy and eroticism just didn't work for me, sadly. For readers eagerly anticipating this: don't write it off. It's a strong case of "it's not you, it's me."

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes

Title: The Distance Between Lost and Found

Author: Kathryn Holmes

Rating: 4 Stars

The Distance Between Lost and Found is very much a novel where we know, roughly, the structure of the story. Hallie has been mercilessly bullied and ignored by her peers for the last six months, ever since her ex-crush, Luke, spread nasty rumors--all lies--about her not only to the entire school but also to her church. When Hallie is finally allowed to return to a church retreat, she has no friends and keeps to herself, hoping to avoid Luke as much as possible. Rachel, someone who doesn't attend their high school but has joined the retreat, knows nothing of Hallie's past and tries to slowly befriend her. But when Hallie scares her off and the rest of the students at the congregation ignore her for even trying to speak to Hallie, Rachel decides to go home. Hallie, feeling guilty over her role in making Rachel want to leave, decides to follow her. And lastly, Jonah, Hallie's close friend pre-Luke follows them both as well. Before long, however, the three teens find themselves lost on Hannah Mountain with limited supplies and no cell phones. Can they find their way back before it's too late? Or is this just another trial that Hallie is going to endure post-Luke?

For such a simple story, I became very quickly invested in these characters. We don't find out what happened to Hallie until roughly the half-way point of the story, but that doesn't mean that I didn't feel for her at every step of the way. Hallie hasn't told the truth to nearly anyone and finds it easier, now, to simply stay silent rather than speak up. This journey--getting lost in the forest--is such a transformative experience for Hallie. Not only because it gives her friends, but because she realizes that she is capable of so much more than she thought. And if she can survive rainstorms and near-starvation then surely she can finally make her voice be heard and tell everyone the truth about Luke, the preacher's "perfect" son?

The secondary characters, though, are not to be outdone. Rachel is energetic and lively but she has her own baggage that she brings on this trip and Jonah, Luke's best friend, has been shunning Hallie for months when he finally discovers the truth and is desperate to atone for his past behavior. It's a complicated web of emotions that accompanies these three and I really enjoyed watching them maneuver their pasts alongside their present where they must work together to survive. Jonah and Hallie, especially, have so many pent-up feelings towards each other and their relationship made me want to smash a vase and smile beatifically; both. That's not to say that I didn't love the strong female friendship between Rachel and Hallie, but Jonah's relationship with Hallie is so complex and interconnected with so much else so I especially loved how Holmes wrote it; slowly and with such finesse.

I'm not someone who gravitates towards survival stories but I will say that this seemed believable to me, throughout, and I definitely found myself doubting whether these three would make it out okay. Holmes is a masterful weaver of prose and passion, combining the plot and emotional arcs of these three characters perfectly. I'm excited to pick up whatever she writes next and am hopeful that more will read this remarkable debut.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monthly Rewind: November

3 Things About My Life This Month

1. The U.S. Presidential Election CRUSHED Me. I was a sobbing mess for days and I felt even more helpless being here, in France, and away from all of my friends and loved ones. I haven't spoken about the election on this platform, yet, because there is so much to say and so many people who are saying far better than I can. It's a travesty but, frankly, we cannot give up; we cannot allow the despair that followed the election results to keep us down and we also cannot allow it to fade into our memories. We have to keep that feeling alive and, what's more, we have to constantly support one another, call out each other's racism and sexism and bigotry, and try to make sense of the fractured country we live in. We have to keep ourselves informed, leave our safe bubbles, and challenge our thinking at every step of the way. If we don't do this, we will not have learned from this election and, at this point, that's the best we can do. 

2. I went to London!! I couldn't sleep the night before my flight to London--I was so damn excited. And I loved London! It's my favorite big city in Europe (that I've visited) and I had such a wonderful time, meeting up with relatives and friends and especially seeing Jasprit from The Reader's Den! The two of us have been friends since we entered the blogging world, around the same time, so it was amazing to spend a wonderful day with her, and, what's more, she's the FIRST blogging friend I've met face-to-face! It was amazing and tysm Jasprit, for coming into London and spending so much time with me!

3. I took my first solo-trip, ever, to Amsterdam! I've been wanting to travel solo for awhile and Amsterdam, where the majority of the population speaks English and the crime rate is very low, seemed like the perfect destination. I had such a wonderful time in this beautiful city and even met up with a cousin and a friend of mine, so combined with all the delicious food, no regrets whatsoever. Plus, I now feel more confident than ever to travel alone, eat alone, and spend a weekend entirely alone. None of it was as hard as I imagined and I highly recommended solo travel for everyone! 

Best Book I Read This Month

I didn't read a lot this month, in the midst of election depression and then my travels, but I adored this last book in this beloved series and, I promise, it delivers on all counts and is well worth the wait.

Most Popular Post This Month

I looooved this book so I'm thrilled that my review got as many views and comments as it did. I hope you all pick this one up this holiday season and LOVE it like I did! :) 

Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

This book (and author) fell under the radar but I really enjoyed this one so much so I hope I can convince a few more of you to pick this up before the year is over!

3 Things I'm Looking Forward to Next Month

1. MOROCCO! So, technically, by the time this post goes up, I would have already spent five amazing days in Morocco, but this is my last trip and one I am so very excited for. I am sure it is going to be remarkable. 

2. I AM FINALLY GOING HOME! Guys, I miss my family so much (and my town, and my mom's cooking, and just MURICA) so I cannot wait to be on a flight back! Less than two weeks and I will be in my own bed, eating my mom's homemade everything, speaking ENGLISH. I am so ready.

3. Christmas! My family doesn't typically do a lot for Christmas but this year my aunt and cousin are coming to visit and I'm really excited to see them! We haven't had a family reunion in a loooong time so it'll be so much fun to see them and spend some time with them in New York. :)

What are you looking forward to in December? Is anyone else already listening to carols and watching Christmas movies? How was November? I'd love to hear in the comments and I promise to be much more active this month!