Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
Rise of the Empress #1
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: October 10th, 2017
Source: Netgalley
Date Read: 9/2/17 to 9/7/17
384 pages

An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl's quest to become Empress--and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng's majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins--sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was a tough book to review, mainly because I was initially so excited about the synopsis, but the closer it got to the release date, the more I felt like I (for some reason) wasn't going to enjoy the book? And I'm not sure why, but I feel like this biased me a bit, causing me to go in it with lower expectations.

Yet when I started reading, I was in for a surprise since I had no idea that this was about an anti-heroine. I remember when the cover reveal happened, I was like, “how is the cover NOT a beautiful scene of a thousand lanterns, you know, like in Rapunzel?” Clearly I was in the wrong, because that image would have not fit with the story at all. But yes, the main character being classified as an anti-heroine is awesome, but she wasn't really the anti-heroine I had in mind.

The story revolves around Xifeng, who’s completely taken advantage of by her aunt (Guma). Her aunt emphasizes the importance of physical beauty and court manners all for a prophecy that may or may not be true. She tries to turn Xifeng into someone she is not, all for the sole possibility that Xifeng might one day be empress. After a falling out with her aunt, Xifeng runs away and escapes with her boyfriend, Wei.

The both of them end up in the Imperial City, where Xifeng finds a way to join the court. Since ladies-in-waiting cannot have outside relationships, she leaves Wei behind. To me, the motivation behind this made no sense. For one, Xifeng loves (or I supposed loved) Wei, but she immediately abandons him in order to fulfill her aunt’s dream. But then, since when did her aunt’s dream become her own dream? There never was any mention of her desperately wanting power or riches. I suppose it could be that she just simply wanted to be better than everyone else, yet her love for Wei seem stronger (even though Wei was an asshole)?

Xifeng also starts forgiving and appreciating everything her aunt did for her. Maybe to the point of even loving her. Even though I kind of get this, her aunt’s actions were so extreme and almost unforgivable. Even without being present, Xifeng’s aunt still found a way to manipulate her thoughts.

The rest of the book focuses on Xifeng’s slow climb up in rank. She serves and puts up with the emperor’s primary concubine, gets in the Empress’ good graces, befriends the eunuch Kang, the one person who truly likes her as a friend. In order to become empress and fulfill her aunt’s dream (?), she needs the emperor to like her. In other words, Xifeng has to get with this man who potentially might be a lot older than her, since she's only about 17 (18?) years old.

The plot definitely picked up during the second half of the book, only because that's where all the killing starts! Well, all the action is. But anyways, I enjoyed that much more than just seeing how she worked her way up in rank.

In the end, I did warm up to Xifeng, even though I had no idea what her motivation was for all of this. I do want to read the next book, as I’m curious to see how magic will play a role in the series.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Wild Beauty

Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: October 3rd, 2017
Source: Macmillan
Date Read: 8/16/17 to 8/22/17
320 pages

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

I finished! My thoughts! Well. I didn’t really think of any while I was reading. Which sometimes happens when I’m into a book and its characters. For one, I don’t think I could adequately describe the plot of this book, except flowers, and a strange boy, and a family full of women, who can magically grow the flowers.

Oh, and they can’t leave their home, La Pradera, for fear of being branded witches. And for the fact that their flower magic goes completely out of control.

Before I say anything else, you should read this book if you love elegant writing. I literally can flip to any random page and I’ll find something like this:
“…the ground was whispering, the grass and the flower beds giving up strange things Estrella could not name.”
“Their mothers did not notice the other moments that made color bloom in their daughters’ cheeks.”
“She imagined pressing her lips to Bay’s so lightly the wind would find its way between them.”
As you can see, it’s extremely well-written. And, the writing is really flowery, literally and figuratively.

I also did enjoy reading about the characters, but I didn’t really have many feelings. It didn’t help that it was hard to differentiate between all the characters introduced. Also, the plot didn’t pick up until the second half of the book, so I ended up being quite bored until then. These reasons are partially why I have no words for this review.

Other cool things I liked about this book:

  • It’s beautifully written. I wish I could write like that.
  • All of the daughters have a secret crush on Bay, who’s a girl. And there is no backlash at all whatsoever.
  • The culture. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to what I have been reading recently, in regards to the fantasy genre.
  • SO MUCH FOOD. AND DESCRIPTIONS OF FOOD. Most of it was in Spanish though, so I can’t even repeat it here because I have 0 experience with Spanish and remember nothing.
  • And of course, all the flowers. Can’t forget those. This is magical realism at its finest (unless I'm wrong and I'm getting the genre wrong). 
  • I say I was bored with the first half of the plot, but it did pick up and I like where it went! Also conveys a really deep message that is pretty relevant to current and social issues.

But yes, don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy this a lot. 4 stars in fact! I just don’t have much to say about the characters and the plot unfortunately.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Review: Ramona Blue

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: May 9th, 2017
Source: ALA Midwinter 2017
Date Read: 8/12/17 to 8/15/17
432 pages

Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.

Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family. Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.

The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected. With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

Man, I have such mixed feelings about this book. Really mixed feelings. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to accurately express myself in this review, but I’ll try my best.

Also, there may be spoilers, so read at your own discretion.

A couple of months before the release of Ramona Blue, there was controversy centering around the blurb, which has since been changed. Long story short, some people were upset about the main character, a lesbian who discovers that she likes a boy.

I think those feelings are very valid, especially in a time like now. On the other hand, sexuality can be fluid. I personally view sexuality as fluid, as people can change. Having a label, and expecting to stick to it, puts a ton of pressure on that individual. Especially when you’re trying to avoid the whole “told you you weren’t X”.

Obviously some people love labels, and it works for them. And that’s totally fine, I have nothing against that.

But just a heads up, Ramona Blue leans towards being sexually fluid (at least I would say? More on that later). Which is why the main character’s sexuality is never labeled as being bisexual in the end.

But first, let me get to the parts that I liked about the novel:

  • Swimming. Automatically a win right there.
  • The fact that Ramona and her family are economically diverse, if that’s the right word. They aren’t rich, and even since Hurricane Katrina, they have been barely managing. But they make it worse. A big part of the plot is driven by Ramona’s sister, Hattie, and her pregnancy. (And that deadbeat boyfriend Tyler, who I HATE. Or hated I suppose. Just kidding, I still hate him)
  • Freddie. He is cool. And he also swims. And he does really have a great, adorable relationship with Ramona. Oh, and I also loved his grandparents, Agnes and Bart (step-grandparent?). Mostly Agnes though. They are so supportive towards him AND Ramona’s family.

  • Basically, every character is multi-dimensional and fully developed.

BUT HERE COMES MY MIXED FEELINGS. Not because the representation was portrayed inaccurately, but rather because of how accurate it was. The remarks from Ramona’s family and friends weren’t exactly enjoyable, obviously. It reminded me of another book, Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, which didn’t sit well with me.

 This was why, at times, I ended up skimming parts of the novel. For example, when Ramona’s mom kept putting pressure on Ramona with the “I told you it was just a phase” mindset. I felt sad at this point, because these expectations hold people back, as they don’t want to prove their parents or their peers “right”. Which, I get, happens in real life. It just sucks.

Also, Ramona’s friends (mainly Ruth) were upset that Ramona liked Freddie, a boy. Their thought process was that liking both girls and guys took away from her identity as Ramona, the girl with the blue hair. Even though it…doesn’t. The thing about this was that Ramona never really stood up for herself in front of her friends (Ruth, really), so this thought is never challenged. In the end, they kind of accept Ramona liking Freddie. But kind of? Like more of “this is a one-time thing that will happen, I guess” And it seemed like Ramona also believed it was a one-time thing? At least it seemed that way to me.

I could be reading that wrong though. Lastly, I was slightly surprised that Ramona is never labeled as bisexual, as this book was often marketed as having a bisexual main character. She even admits that she’s still trying to figure it out and doesn’t know what to identify as, which is totally fine, don’t get me wrong! (Which is why I viewed her as being sexually fluid, but obviously other readers can think differently) I think I was just misled as to what I would be reading about. Like, seriously misled. It happens.

All in all, I did like Ramona Blue, even though I was cursing out the book every couple pages or so. It’s a book that will leave you with a lot of feelings, as you can see from this review. And ultimately, this just didn’t end up being the book I thought it was going to be.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: Release

Release by Patrick Ness
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: September 19th, 2017
Source: Edelweiss
Date Read: 7/23/17 to 7/27/17
288 pages

Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart. At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

I’m kind of not sure what I want to rate this. After talking with Shannon, I realized that I didn’t like this as much as I thought I did? For one, I'm not even sure what to say about this since I had no strong feelings about Release. But at the same time, I’m grateful that it was a quick read.

Release is a story about Adam trying to find “his release” (and there’s the title!), as he has so much pent up angst and overall frustration over…life in general. Because yeah, his life isn't exactly the best. First off, his family is super religious and has "a hard time" loving him as their gay son. Second, his gross supervisor is threatening to fire him, unless Adam agrees to sleep with him. And lastly, Adam doesn’t know if he truly loves his current boyfriend, Linus. This obviously ends up affecting their relationship, as Adam continuously thinks and reflects back on his ex. And of course, as this is the time where high school is about to come to an end and college is just around the corner, people are leaving his life.

So as simple as this all sounds, it's actually not quite that simple.

The chapters in between Adam’s story are a bit...cryptic? And in no direct relation to Adam’s, really. It reminds me of the author's other book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, where the alternating chapters tell a new story. In this case, I didn't quite fully understand what was going on. It was telling the story of a murdered girl from the same hometown, yet the two stories didn't really connect. However, the overarching theme was definitely still present, and still tied in with the whole "release" theme going on. Though I say this, I found these chapters a bit unnecessary, and as I said before, confusing.

Other than that, I don't have much else to say. I really enjoyed this, yet I feel like I’ve read this same type of story before? I think I just have such high expectations for anything Patrick Ness writes, and this fell a bit below them.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon

The Girl With The Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
Publisher: Albert Whitman Company
Release Date: September 1st, 2017
Source: Netgalley
Date Read: 7/12/17 to 7/15/17
256 pages

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

It’s a miracle! I’m writing this review one month early! Wow!

Let me get right to it. Overall, I did like this one. Time travel, WWII-themed (though to my surprise, not actually set during WWII), magical red balloons, all of this just screams me. Though to be completely honest, me and this book did not get off on the right start.

1% into my eARC and already I was seriously judging the simple writing style. Meeting our main character, Ellie, felt a bit lackluster, all tell and no show. I was afraid that this writing style, and therefore this book, wouldn’t work for me at all. Fortunately, that didn’t end up being the case as after 2%, the writing changed and started to appeal to me.

I also must admit that my expectations were set really high, even though I have never read any of the author’s older works before. If you don’t know by now, but I try to read anything and everything related to WWII. Even though this didn’t necessarily take place during that setting, it is still set during the time of the Berlin Wall. This came as a shock, as 1989 wasn’t so long ago, and I had thought the Berlin Wall was brought down earlier.

The Girl with the Red Balloon had a solid plot and solid characters. And time travel of course! I was impressed and surprised with Ellie’s actions, despite the fact that she so badly wanted to go back home. Kai and Mitzi were also wonderful additions to the book, though to be honest I’m not sure whether I cared about the romance between Ellie and Kai.

More could have been developed, especially in regards to world-building. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of the balloon makers. I’m assuming that there will be more in the sequel, or companion book, as this one is only 256 pages. There were also times where I was confused on who was on who’s side. Though perhaps this was due to my lack of knowledge in history or just the terms used.

Either way, I did enjoy this! Not sure if I will pick up the “sequel”, but I’ll think about it!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Review: The Secret History of Us

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: August 1st, 2017
Source: Edelweiss
Date Read: 8/4/17 to 8/6/17
288 pages

When Olivia awakes in a hospital bed following a car accident that almost took her life, she can’t remember the details about how she got there. She figures the fog is just a symptom of being in a week-long coma, but as time goes on, she realizes she’s lost more than just the last several days of her life—she’s lost her memory of the last four years. Gone is any recollection of starting or graduating high school; the prom; or her steady boyfriend Matt. Trying to figure out who she is feels impossible when everyone keeps telling her who she was.

As Liv tries to block out what her family and friends say about who she used to be, the one person she hasn’t heard enough from is Walker, the guy who saved her the night her car was knocked off that bridge into the bay below. Walker is the hardened boy who’s been keeping his distance—and the only person Olivia inexplicably feels herself with. With her feelings growing for Walker, tensions rising with Matt, and secrets she can’t help but feel are being kept from her, Olivia must find her place in a life she doesn’t remember living.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

I’m not surprised that I didn’t end up liking this much. Not so much hating it but rather not finding myself caring after the first 50 pages. To put it simply, this didn’t have the spark, nor really the plot, to keep me engaged.

The beginning of the novel starts off with Olivia, or Liv, waking up from a coma. She slowly comes to realize that wait, she’s not about to start high school, but has already finished her senior year. Basically, 4 years has already gone by, and she remembers none of it. And she definitely doesn’t remember her boyfriend, Matt.

As you can tell from the blurb, it’s pretty predictable. There’s this other boy, and obviously he comes into the picture later. But other than that, not much really happens besides seeing Liv figure out her life. The whole mystery behind the car accident? Not really that much of a shocker. Such a huge deal was made of the video filming her rescue, but I didn’t really see what made it so important. Probably because I actually need to be in that situation to feel anything, I guess. Also, definitely would have been better as a movie scene, I feel like.

There didn’t really seem to be much of a plot. For one, we don’t actually get much of Walker. The book ends suddenly, and I could have been better with another 100 pages or so (though lucky for me, there wasn’t!) The Secret History of Us is really more about the overall message of letting go of the past, rather than reminiscing on what was lost.

I’m a bit disappointed in this one, as I really liked Things We Know By Heart, but I kind of expected it after seeing a couple of ratings from my friends. Oh well better luck next time! (Thanks to Nick and Shannon for discussing this book with me)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virture

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: June 27th, 2017
Source: Edelweiss
Date Read: 5/26/17 to 6/28/17
528 pages

An unforgettable tale of two friends on their Grand Tour of 18th-century Europe who stumble upon a magical artifact that leads them from Paris to Venice in a dangerous manhunt, fighting pirates, highwaymen, and their feelings for each other along the way.

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.
I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from ARC may or may not be in the published edition.

Woo this book clearly took a long time to get through. And then it's pretty much been a month since I finished it, and here I am, trying to write a review. I haven't written a review in ages it seems like.

Honesty time. When I started Gentleman's Guide, I wasn't quite into it. I wasn't keen on the setting, because for some reason I am not a fan of historical Europe? Or at least France? I mean I keep replaying Assassin's Creed Unity, which takes place during the French Revolution, and I can never seem to finish it. Now I'm having doubts though. Did this book take place in France? Part of it did, I'm pretty sure.

Yet, this clearly grew on me. I came to appreciate the characters, like Monty, his sister Felicity, Percy, and their developments, which really is the best I've read in a while. Maybe this entire year. Though if you do pick up this book, just a warning that the beginning is a bit boring. The pace is a bit slow as we learn that Monty, his sister Felicity, and Percy are all going on tour to France. And I'm like, "great, that's it?" I really judged wrong, guys. Or at least too soon.

But as the novel further progressed, BAM, the plot appeared (thank you Aila for pushing me through via her review). I'm not sure why I didn't expect any adventure, but yes there are pirates, highwaymen, a seemingly impossible quest, ALCHEMY, and all around fun. Looking back from this point, the book was actually very nicely paced. I, as usual, was just being impatient (again).

Overall, very glad I requested this. And read it. I did read This Monstrous Thing last year by the same author, and I can definitely tell that her writing has improved tremendously (or maybe this just interested me more than the story of Frankenstein? Sorry) No, it's definitely the former. The dialogue in Gentleman's Guide is much more fleshed out, and of course, has so much more humor. Yay!

Bottom line. Highly recommend! Even if it does seem a bit daunting.