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.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Black Iris by Leah Raeder

Title: Black Iris

Author: Leah Raeder

Rating: 4 Stars

I don’t think I can adequately begin to express just how important of a book Black Iris is. I attend an extremely liberal, accepting college but, even then, this novel made me feel less alone and more comfortable in my own skin—and that’s no small feat.

Black Iris is a revenge story, one that I often found difficult to read, but Raeder’s prose is pure magic and it is impossible to stay away from this book for long. While Unteachable was a clear-cut forbidden romance, filled with emotion and romance, Black Iris is its darker, more mysterious cousin. Raeder crafts this novel in such a way that timelines converge, split apart, and shift dramatically. It’s easy to think you know what’s happening or what the end result is or who the victim and perpetrator really are—but, truly, you’ve simply been kept in the dark until the final, all-too-unpredictable reveal. It’s a brilliant feat of writing, this combination of prose and plot, and when you add Raeder’s cutthroat emotion—the kind that seeps into your skin and deep into the pits of your stomach—it is evident that Black Iris is different. It is special.

In all honesty, I do not love this book. I don’t think I could ever read it again—a strange combination of hitting too close to home and not too close at all—but that does not negate the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of it. More than anything else, I am grateful to Raeder for writing about sexual fluidity; for creating characters who do not fit in any boxes but still manage to find happiness. It is important for readers to be able to pick up a book and find characters they identify with—sexually, and personality-wise. With Unteachable Raeder already made strides in writing an unlikable heroine who, somehow, we manage to root for. With Black Iris, the lines are even more blurred. I do not know if I always rooted for this heroine, but I always respected and supported her decision; I always accepted who she was and her bravery in reaching that place of self-confidence.

Black Iris is best read blind. I hesitate to discuss the plot or the characters or anything, really, with the exception of my feelings. And, oh my, did I feel. I fell for the wrong characters, I rooted for the morally corrupt, I switched sides. There is nothing I love more than a novel that inspires such a wide range of emotion and with Black Iris, that is precisely what you are guaranteed. Leah Raeder, thank you for having the courage to write such an important, meaningful novel. I appreciate your guts and, in particular, you sharing your story in the acknowledgements section. It means more than you can know, perhaps.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

ARC Review: Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway

Title: Emmy & Oliver

Author: Robin Benway

Rating: 4 Stars

Release Date: June 23rd, 2015

Emmy & Oliver is the type of best friend romance I would normally be clamoring head-over-heels for...only, it's a liiitle more complex than that. Emmy and Oliver are not only neighbors, they're best friends. They've grown up alongside one another and for the first seven years of their life, they have shared everything, including their birthdays. When Oliver's father arrives to pick him up after school one Friday afternoon, no one thinks much of it. After all, Oliver spends every weekend with his father. When he doesn't come back to school on Monday, however, that's when Emmy starts worrying. When he doesn't come back for ten years, it's a tragedy.

At seven, Oliver is kidnapped by his father and, at seventeen, he is found in an apartment in New York City. To Oliver, his life has been a series of adventures; him and his father against the world. Oliver was led to believe that his mother abandoned him and, grief-stricken and confused, he never attempted to contact her. A curious Google search a decade later reveals that his mother has been searching for Oliver all her life. Oliver's absence has not only fractured his life, it has torn up the lives of their entire community. Emmy's parents, once carefree, have been strict, curfew-abiding jailers for much of Emmy's life. Their fear following Oliver's kidnapping has haunted Emmy her entire life and now, at seventeen, all Emmy wants is to surf and attend UCSD--dreams that will never be fulfilled as her parents have already planned that she will commute to college from home and instead of enroll her in dangerous sports like surfing, the most they have allowed her to do is have a car.

When Oliver returns, Emmy doesn't know what to think. She and Oliver were best friends ten years ago but can they still be best friends now? Is Oliver even the same person? Although Oliver hasn't been maltreated by his father, Emmy cannot even begin to understand his life or emotional state. She, living in the same home and growing up with the same friends, Caroline and Drew, who also used to be friends with Oliver, is comfortable and happy where she is. But Oliver, who has traveled around the nation and is coming all the way from New York City...does he even want to live with his mother anymore? While Oliver's mother never stopped looking for him, she also refused to stop living. Now married with two twin girls who Emmy babysits every week, the world has gone forward despite the fact that Oliver has come back and the road ahead for Emmy, Oliver, and those closest to them is paved with hardships.

It took me awhile to truly immerse myself in this tale, primarily because Benway has to set-up the backdrop of this novel and Oliver's story is a sad, depressing one. Though he doesn't suffer from trauma and has been treated like a son by his father, he doesn't go out of his way to befriend students and his arrival in high school isn't the easiest of transitions. Yet, Emmy is a laid-back, easy-going heroine and her willingness to draw Oliver back into her life is what truly made me invested in this love story. Emmy is frank and open about her life, showing Oliver her favorite spots to surf and immediately treating him as the friend he always was to her. The fact that Emmy accepts that Oliver was gone for ten years but acts as if he knows her is what enables him to leave his shell and slowly join her circle of friends.

Emmy and Caro are the type of best friends you always read about or see on television but Benway makes them even more realistic than the classic portrayal. Caro is the youngest of five siblings and unlike Emmy, who is an only child and under the constant scrutiny of her parents, Caro's parents could hardly care less where she is or what she does. She shares a room with her messy older sister, Heather, and Caro dreams of sharing an apartment with Emmy and attending college with her. Drew, who has recently told his family that he is gay, struggles with the fact that his parents still love him and yet are disappointed in him. Their trio is a tight one and while Emmy grows and changes due to Oliver's presence in her life, her friends do too. They each have their own issues and the fact that they became so alive, despite remaining secondary characters, is a testament to Benway's skill.

Emmy and Oliver's own romance is sweet and slow to develop. You're almost not certain if they'll choose to remain friends but it's so very obvious that their feelings for one another run deeper than mere friendship and the support they give one another is incredible to watch. Emmy and Oliver have one another's backs and when they find it difficult to speak with their parents or other friends, they somehow have the right words to coax the truth from one another. Reading about their relationship is heart-warming and swoon-worthy in all the right ways. Especially because, first and foremost, they will always be friends.

I really enjoyed how this novel focused so deeply on family units and parental relationships. Whether it be the relationship Emmy sustains with her parents where she is forced to hide parts of her personality to please them or the one between Oliver and his mother where he feels unable to confide in her, Benway captures both the difficulties and joys of family. Emmy & Oliver is being marketed as a love story but, truly, I felt as if the romance was secondary to the growth both Oliver and Emmy undergo over the course of this novel and, what's more, their friendship and relationships with others--from their parents to their friends to the one between Oliver and his father--is what is at the crux of this novel. Sure, there's a love story too--a sweet, sweet one--but Emmy & Oliver is about so much more than that mere label.

Benway writes in a manner that makes even the darkest of subjects accessible and her trademark humor, combined with the easy sarcastic dialogue she imbibes within her characters, makes her novels fly by. I just can't put one of her books down and Emmy & Oliver, with an older cast on the cusp of transitioning into college, brings forth a variety of themes and concepts that I love to see in YA. Benway explores the idea of freedom in college, not to mention the harsh reality of leaving behind your high school friends, with such aplomb that I hope she returns to this older YA age group and explores more of those ideas in greater depth. Having read her entire backlist at this point, I cannot wait to see what she has up her sleeve next (I'm keeping my fingers crossed for another Also Known As novel). Whatever it is, though, it'll be worth the wait.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Just Another... Book Crush (#18): Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

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. 

Today on the blog I am thrilled to be re-welcoming Rosamund Hodge back to discuss her sophomore novel, Crimson Bound, which I actually found to be even better than her debut, Cruel Beauty, which I loved. Hodge has a talent--and the courage--to write unlikable female characters, ones who don't always make the moral of decisions. I am head-over-heels in love with her blog post today and I hope you all will be too! 
When Rachelle was fifteen she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless— straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat. Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her find the legendary sword that might save their world. As the two become unexpected allies, they uncover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night? Inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Crimson Bound is an exhilarating tale of darkness, love, and redemption.

Misery Loves Company: Why I Wrote Two Guilty, Self-Hating Heroines

When you have a book about to be published, you start thinking of all the reasons that people might not like it. You ponder all the points in the book where a reader might demand, "But why did you do that?" And you try to come up with a few good answers.

At least, I do. So I've been conscious for a long time that there are a lot of similarities between Rachelle, the heroine of Crimson Bound, and Nyx, the heroine of Cruel Beauty. They both struggle with guilt and self-hatred. They both think that they're unworthy of love. And they both use a lot of anger to cope with that.

Why did I write a second angry, guilty, self-hating heroine? 

Because I wasn't done yet.

I like writing about guilt and self-hatred because . . .  well, for one thing, it brings the DRAMA like little else.

But I also like writing about it because it's a way to get at some fundamental human issues. Who am I? Who should I be? How can I be loved? Those are questions that we all face, and those are the questions at stake when you're writing a character who's dealing with guilt.

And I wrote two guilty heroines because I wanted to write two different sets of answers to those  questions.

If I had to summarize Nyx's story, it might be: "You're not as bad as you think you are." Nyx hates herself because she's full of anger and resentment--at her father, for promising her to a demon, at her sister, for escaping that fate, and really at the whole world, for letting her be in such an awful position. Over the course of the novel, she learns to be kinder to the people around her--but she also learns to accept her own anger, to stop hating herself for it, and sometimes to embrace it.

That isn't Rachelle's story.

Because the reason that Rachelle hates herself? The evil, supernatural powers of the Great Forest offered her a choice: kill an innocent, or die. She killed and lived. And there were a whole bunch of mitigating circumstances--she didn't accept that choice without a fight--but at the end of the day, somebody was dead. She did it.

I wrote about Rachelle because I wanted to write a story about the question, "What if you are as bad as you think you are?"

You hear a lot about needing to "forgive yourself"--in novels, TV, and inspirational blog posts.  But when there's an example of  "forgiving yourself," usually it's all about realizing that what you did wasn't so bad.  Or that you were trying your best. Or that you really didn't harm anyone in the end. Or that at least you're different now, hooray, so let's just wave our hands and ignore what happened earlier.

And quite often, that's exactly what you need. I know that a lot of the time when I start wallowing in self-hatred, it's over something absolutely inconsequential, where I did try my best and anyway nobody will ever know the difference. Sometimes you really just need to realize that you're not as bad as you think you are.

But not always. Sometimes you really have done something awful. And I used to struggle a lot during those times, because I felt like forgiving myself would be saying that what I had done was okay. It would be denying my own principles of right and wrong, and I loved my principles far more than I loved myself, so I figured it was just time to board the guilt train.

If you had asked me, of course I would have said that forgiveness didn't mean making excuses; I would have told you that in fact, forgiveness can only exist when somebody has really done wrong. I would have sworn that anything could be forgiven.

I would have said that, and thought that, and defended that to the death. But I often had hard time believing it.

So I wrote Rachelle. At the start of Crimson Bound, she's in a similar position. She's done something wrong, and she hates herself, and she clings to that self-hatred because it is the only thing she has left. The Great Forest took away her dreams of courage and heroism; it took her family and friends; it took away her innocence and her sense of self.  As long as she hates herself for being what the Forest made her, she's still a little bit free of it.

Then I gave her one last chance to save the world from the power of the Great Forest. I gave her a few people who were willing to believe in her. And I made myself a promise: no matter what happened on her journey, she would get to keep her principles. I would never, ever make her say, "That wasn't so bad," as the price for finding peace.

I think it ended up making a pretty interesting story. 

Just Another... Book Crush! 
1. The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski
2. Prairie Fire by E. K. Johnston
3. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Thanks for stopping by, Rosamund! I love, love, love this post--it exemplifies so many of the ideals I want to see in more YA heroines, which is why Rosamund Hodge is one of my favorite authors, even after just two books! What did you think?