Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Book Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Wow. I just finished reading this book and was just hit by a barrage of so many emotions. Just, wow. In the last few chapters alone, I cried, smiled and was filled with the kind of small, budding hope that comes in the aftermath of something sad. I picked up "Eleanor & Park" after seeing it on the recommended books section on Amazon, guessing that it was of a similar genre to Jennifer E. Smith's books, which are my new summer obsessions. And with a name like Rainbow Rowell, I knew I was in for something special.

No one forgets their first love. When Park reluctantly shares his seat on the bus with the eccentrically dressed new girl, he never, ever suspects that he'd end up falling in love with her, quirks and all. Eleanor, with her untamable red hair and slightly-larger-than-average size, quickly finds herself the brunt of cruel jokes and sneers. Even after school, she returns to a home with an abusive stepfather, a cowering mother, and four younger siblings she has to take care of. The two star-crossed misfits are smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts--but they're brave and desperate enough to try.

What's clear from the start is just how young Eleanor and Park are. Yeah, I know I'm just a teenager myself, but the innocence that you see in the two protagonists are unmistakably there--and it's what makes their story so endearing. Throughout the story, Park clings onto the belief that love, even when it's happening in tenth grade, can be true and lasting. But what Ms. Rowell does extremely well in the face of such seeming naivete is transform it into something beautiful, something hopeful. And she does this by reminding those of us who have had our first love that that's exactly how we felt. Take, for example:
Eleanor made him feel like something was happening. Even when they were just sitting on the couch.
This line struck me right in the heart. Because that's what being with your first love is like: the familiarity, the comfort, like you're sharing something with one another even if you're not expressly doing anything. The way Ms. Rowell evokes these emotions and empathy transcends the novel past a typical high school love story. Instead, it's the truth, sweet and simple as that.

Eleanor and Park themselves are such interesting characters to read about as the story progresses. Eleanor is, without a doubt, quirky and different, wearing sharkskin suits and neckties around her ponytail. But even if you don't wear men's clothes or do anything eccentric like that, you can still relate to Eleanor because she's deals with pretty normal issues that other people have to deal with in their lives, like being bullied or having family problems. Yet she still maintains her cynical wit and, despite everything, an innocence that can't be taken away from her, something which grows when she falls in love for the first time. For Eleanor, her love with Park gave her hope and strength that kept her from falling apart in the face of these issues. For Park, on the other hand, his love with Eleanor gave him the opportunity to grow and really find himself. As the story progresses, Park becomes a much more active and dynamic character, someone who isn't afraid to wear eyeliner or kick a guy in the face for bullying his girlfriend. Through Eleanor and Park, Ms. Rowell reminds her readers just how big of a role our first loves play in our lives, unforgettably and irrevocably.

"Eleanor & Park" is also beautifully written, allowing Ms. Rowell to convey subtle nuances and messages in the most poignant of ways. This is especially important, I think, in realistic fiction novels, since there isn't much heart-racing battle scenes or out-of-this-world magical powers to get the story moving. Instead, the author has to work mostly with two things: her characters and her language. There's nothing flowery about Ms. Rowell's prose. Rather, it's simple and to the point, and that's what makes it so striking. There's quite a bit of parallel structures used in the writing, which helps to really drive the point home. The same effect is achieved through her use of short, simple sentences. One of my favourite lines was:
I'm yours. The me that's me right now is yours. Always.
Wow, I just got tingles just from copying that down. How true is that? "The me that's me right now". Wow. I said 'wow' a lot in this review, didn't I?

All in all, Ms. Rainbow Rowell's "Eleanor & Park" is a smart, poignant story about first love, with two endearing protagonists, simple, evocative writing, and the central message that there is always hope.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review: Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay

I loved fairytales when I was a kid--and still do! I remember watching the Disney movies of singing animal helpers and big-nosed, blue genies, and, as a grew older, reading the classic versions of those very same fairytales. One of my favourite tales of all time is "Beauty and the Beast", and when I saw that Stacey Jay's "Of Beast and Beauty" was released just a few days ago, I just knew that I had to get my hands on it. Good thing I did, because I found myself completely immersed in an incredible, unique retelling on the classic fairytale that everyone knows and loves.

In the domed city of Yuan, Isra, the blind princess of the Smooth Skins, has grown up with the knowledge that one day, she will be sacrificed to the roses, her blood sustaining the city's vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a warrior of the Monstrous, fights to save his people from starvation. When Gem finds himself trapped in Yuan after a failed attempt at stealing the royal gardens' enchanted roses, neither he nor Isra suspects that together, they can return balance to both of their worlds.

Something I found especially striking in "Of Beast and Beauty" was the ingenuity of the retelling of such a classic tale. Quite a few retellings often take the original story and simply transcribe them into different settings and times, and so tend to fall short in innovation. However, Ms. Jay took the overarching message of true love prevailing over all, as well as the concepts of beauty and ugliness, and used them to weave an entirely different story. Not only is the setting completely different from olden-day France, but the story itself has sci-fi and dystopian elements woven into it. There's the idea of prejudice, which is present in the different social groups both inside and outside the dome, leading to ignorance and suffering. But what I loved above all about the story was that while it was clear who was the beauty and who was the beast in the traditional tale, in "Of Beast and Beauty", the line between 'beast' and 'beauty' was blurred, suggesting that these two ideals may not be as clear-cut as they seem, and that oftentimes people possess both traits inside of them.

The two protagonists of "Of Beast and Beauty" are charming and intriguing in their own ways. First, you have Isra, who's lived most of her life blind and locked up in a tower, yet possessing an insatiable desire for freedom and independence. Isra is undeniably a strong heroine, full of compassion and determination, but at the same time, struggles with uncertainties about her ability to rule as queen of Yuan, as well as with the lies that she's been fed her whole life by people she thought she could trust. It is this kind of weakness that makes her such a three-dimensional and relatable character, one that you become invested in as you read about her growth as the book progresses. Then, there's Gem, the wild 'mutant' who has dealt with the troubles inflicting his people, who have been barred access from civilization and sustenance inside the domes. What I found particularly interesting whenever I read the chapters from his point of view was how he slowly shifted from being bent on manipulating Isra to finding himself falling for her, while at the same time maintaining his loyalties toward his people. There's certainly nothing flat or cliched about the two protagonists of the novel. The same can be said of Bo--I have mixed feelings about his character, though reading some chapters from his perspective did help establish some empathy with his thoughts and feelings.

The plot of "Of Beast and Beauty" remained compelling throughout the novel, allowing ample time to portray a believable development in Isra and Gem's feelings toward one another--something which is important in YA romance books. Outside of the lovey dovey stuff, the tensions of the storyline were strong, especially as Isra discovered more about the history of her ancestry and dealt with increasing pressures of sacrificing herself to the roses as situations inside the dome worsened. However, I did find that there were times when certain things could've been explored a little deeper, like that ancestry and political pressure, since I felt like some of those things happened pretty quickly.

All in all, Stacey Jay's "Of Beast and Beauty" is a refreshingly imaginative retelling of a classic fairytale, complete with great characters you can't help but become invested in and an engaging storyline. I swear, I had shivers down my back as I read the final couple of chapters from how perfect the ending was! I highly recommend this to any fairytale and sci-fi lovers out there--you're in for a good one.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There really is a reason epic fantasy is called epic fantasy. Everything's elevated to a grander scale that requires a vast amount of imagination and creativity: the people, the story, and, above all, the world. Brandon Sanderson is one of my favourite fantasy writers, and, at the urging of a fantasy-loving friend, I decided it was time to journey my way through the huge tome of "The Way of Kings", the first installment in "The Stormlight Archive", which promises to be a thrilling series.

It has been centuries since the ten consecrated orders known as the Knights Radiant left humanity to fight for itself. Only their Shardblades and Shardplates remain: mystical swords and armour that lend incredible power and near-invicibility to ordinary men. Wars were fought for them, and won by them. One such war rages on the ruin landscapes of the Shattered Plains. There, Kaladin, who traded his medical apprenticeship for a spear to protect his little brother, has been reduced to slavery. In a war that has lost all meaning, where ten separate armies fight a single foe, he struggles to save his men and hold onto the one thing that keeps him alive: hope.

What makes Mr. Sanderson's novels so mind-blowing is the sheer amount of thought and creativity that goes into them. In the "Mistborn Trilogy", you had Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy. In "The Rithmatist", you had, well, Rithmatics. In "The Way of Kings", Mr. Sanderson has created a whole other world of the Radiants, with skills like Soulcasting--the ability to change the matter of substances to transform them into other objects--and the Three Lashings: gravitational change, binding, and giving an object a gravitational pull. Not to mention the Shardplates, which gives the wearer some souped up superpowers, and the Shardblades, summoned by the warrior in ten heartbeats and able to kill enemies with a slice. Can you spell mastermind? You can see from a glance how much has gone into the world-building in "The Way of Kings", and, to make a long story short (and trust me, this was one heck of a long story!), everything is simply mind-blowing.

Of course, a world isn't complete without the people to inhabit it. The novel is split into five parts, with interludes in between. Each part is told from the point of view of Kaladin, the novel's main hero, as well as from those of either Shallan, Dalinar and Adolin. What I've always admired about Mr. Sanderson's protagonists is that they're never these otherworldly, super mighty people. Instead, they're pretty ordinary in every aspect except for their strength in character. Kaladin is only nineteen-years-old, but already struggles with the guilt he feels over the deaths of those he loves, including his younger brother Tien. The way his character develops as he loses hope and rises again to fight, and learn what is the right thing to do, is so believable every step of the way, and he is truly a relatable character you can't help but admire for his strength and willpower. Shallan, Dalinar and Adolin are all admirable as well, for different reasons. I especially liked Dalinar, who's the moral beacon in the novel, all full of honour and righteousness, even if he has to face disrepute for it. There's so much more that can be said about the characters, and all I think I can squeeze anymore into the review is how subtle and believable their development is throughout the story.

The plot of "The Way of Kings" is, of course, interesting and chock-full of intrigue and wonder. One thing that did hinder it a little was the fact that it did get a little dull in the middle--it was just too long! I think if those parts had been condensed a little more, it would've been more striking and engaging, not to mention more fast-paced and even more intense. Nonetheless, the storyline of the novel evokes action and emotion equally skillfully, while at the same time allowing the author to set up the world and introduce his characters as well. Things get especially exciting in the very last part of the novel, when humongous, world-shattering revelations are revealed and it left me with my jaws dropped and heart thumping! Talk about a cliffhanger. Now I can't wait for the second novel. And that's when you know you've read a great book.

Overall, Brandon Sanderson's "The Way of Kings" is a spectacular first installment to what promises to be a thrilling, awesome fantasy series, with enchanting world-building, believable yet heroic characters and a clever storyline. I highly recommend this novel--and any of Mr. Sanderson's works--for any readers who are seeking a great fantasy book, and I can't thank my fantasy-loving friend enough for introducing me to his writing.

Rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review: The Siren by Kiera Cass

Taking a dip (forgive the pun) into other books written by an author you've read is sometimes a little daunting. You have these expectations of this author's writing, characters and story, and there's always some tiny part of you that worries, "What if I end up disappointed?" I read the first two books of Kiera Cass's "The Selection" trilogy, and immensely enjoyed myself! I was a little iffy about picking up "The Siren", an older book Ms. Cass had written, but found myself wrapped up in an entirely different story that's interesting in its own way.

Don't form any bonds with humans. You can speak to your sisters, and can always commune with the Ocean, but your voice is deadly to humans. You are, essentially, a weapon. Kahlen has lived by these rules for decades now, patiently waiting for a life she can finally call her own. Ever since a fatal boat trip that left her family dead, Kahlen has lived a lonely existence as one of the four sirens, a sisterhood of beautiful girls who help the Ocean feed. But when Akinli, a human, enters her world, she finds the vast Ocean increasingly restricting and can't bring herself to live by the rules anymore. Suddenly the life that she's been waiting for is nowhere near as important as the one she's living now.

What I really enjoyed about "The Siren" was its unique take on mermaids--not to mention, these seafaring mythological creatures are perfect reading material for summer! The concept of a sisterhood of sirens who are saved from the brink of death by the mysterious Ocean is something I haven't encountered before, and it was exciting to see how these humans-turned-sirens dealt with such a life-altering change. One of the central issues Kahlen and her sisters deal with as sirens is their responsibility of feeding the Ocean; essentially leading humans to their watery deaths by using their enchanting, deadly voices. At the same time, the sisterhood of sirens have access to a life of luxury, spending their limitless time and money in exotic places and indulging in the richest of foods and clothing. Though whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages is another question entirely.

Unfortunately, one of the things that did disappoint me a little was Kahlen herself. Sure, she's meant to be beautiful and compassionate, but she's also crazy selfish too! I mean, I would understand why she'd want more for herself, since she's forced to live a lonely life, but still. For example, after falling head over heels in love with Akinli, Kahlen concocts a not-so-genius plan to stay with this mortal boy she loves: She'll stay away from water, marry Akinli, then fake her death a few years later after living a happy, married life. Um, what?! She'd put this boy, whom she supposedly loves with all her heart, through the pain of losing his wife? Not to mention the fact that he's already dealt with death of his loved ones in his life. Yet fully knowing this, she decides that she has to have him for herself, even if it means that he'll get hurt. Eh. A major shake of the head there, Kahlen.

Akinli, however, is a pretty good love interest for Kalen in the story. He's sweet and kind, if a little bit on the sensitive side (I think he's cried more than Kahlen has in the book), and falls for Kahlen despite the fact that she can't/won't speak. It takes a huge heart to do that. The other characters in "The Siren", like Ben and Julie, Akinli's cousin and Ben's girlfriend respectively, add an extra touch of sweetness and familiarity to Kahlen's experiences as a human, and they without a doubt create a homey, family feel. Kahlen's siren sisters are also great characters to read about, especially because they each have their own distinct personalities. Take, for example, Elizabeth. She's loud and wild and goes around stealing cars and boys' hearts. On the other hand, Miaka is the gentle, meek, artistic type who grows into herself as the years progress. Aisling is cold and distant, but, as is revealed later on in the novel, for a reason.

Another disappointment I found in "The Siren" was the narrative voice. Told from Kahlen's point of view, the narration was a little stilted and awkward. I think the main reason for this is that it sounded really 'tell-not-show', if that makes any sense. In other words, the narration seemed like it was just recounting the past in a rather orderly fashion, instead of showing to the readers what's happening to Kahlen. Maybe it's because the first bunch of chapters take place over a span of years, so you're fast forwarding through a lot of time in fewer pages. Or maybe it's also because there was relatively less dialogue, since Kahlen couldn't speak to Akinli and the other humans lest she bring them to their deaths. But that was actually kind of sweet, since it lead to an incredibly romantic, genuine romance between her and Akinli. Either way, the narrative voice was just a little iffy and not as flowing as it could've been.

All in all, Ms. Cass's "The Siren" is a decent novel with an engaging cast of characters and a unique take on classical mermaid folklore, though it could've been even more exciting had the heroine not been so darn selfish, and if the narrative voice had been a little smoother. Nonetheless, I'd say it's worth a read if you're a fantasy YA lover!

Rating: 3.5/5

July '13 Releases!

Apologies for the belated post! Vacationing leaves little time for blogging--not to mention scouring the interweb for the most anticipated, most exciting book releases this month. Summer's whizzing by--it's hard to believe it's about halfway over already! Without further ado, however, I present to you the newest releases of July.

"The Distance Between Us" by Kasie West
Release date: July 2

"Viral Nation" by Shaunta Grimes
Release date: July 2

"The Night Itself" (The Name of the Blade #1) by Zoe Marriott
Release date: July 4

"Of Beast and Beauty" by Stacey Jay
Release date: July 23

"A Darkness Strange and Lovely" (Something Strange and Deadly #2) by Susan Dennard
Release date: July 23

"The Defiance" (Brilliant Darkness #2) by A.G. Henley
Release date: July 29

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

I think I’ve found my new favourite author for summer reads. After falling head over heels in love with “This Is What Happy Looks Like”, I knew I had to read more of Jennifer E. Smith’s novels—they just fill you with hope and appreciation for the everyday magic in our lives. “The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight” caught my eye while browsing her works, both for its stellar reviews and its endearing title. Maybe I should’ve saved the book a little more, but I found myself greedily inhaling this story, and loving every single page of it.

Today should’ve been one of the worst days of seventeen-year-old Hadley Sullivan’s life. Not only is her dad marrying his new love of his life in London, but Hadley’s also missed her flight to the wedding—by four, short minutes. But as she’s stuck at the crowded JFK airport waiting for the next flight, Hadley meets what has to be the perfect boy. His name is Oliver, he’s British, and he’s sitting in her row. A long night on the plane passes in a blink of an eye, and Hadley and Oliver lose track of each other in the airport chaos upon arrival. But can fate—and the uncanny quirks of timing—intervene to bring them together once more?

One of the things that make “Statistical Probability” so enjoyable are the incredibly realistic and relatable characters that you unfailingly identify with. Hadley’s an undeniable normal girl with a fairly normal life and issues that a lot of teenagers can relate to. She lives with her newly single mom, and struggles with her feelings of hurt and betrayal, and of love, toward her dad. She has her shortcomings like every human being, like not having a filter when she gets angry, and, overall, is not a perfect person. I mean, who’s ever heard of a perfect person? And that’s what makes Ms. Smith’s books so compelling—the sheer believability of her characters, despite the otherworldly tinge in their everyday happenings. The same can be said about Oliver, whose character gains more and more depth as the story progresses. Sure, he may seem like an easygoing, charming British guy, but Hadley and the readers find that there’s definitely more to him than meets the eye, making him a truly three-dimensional, engaging character that you can’t help but fall for.

Plot-wise, I felt like “Statistical Probability” was a little more realistic than the storyline of “This Is What Happy Looks Like”—but I’m going to stop myself there and not compare two entirely separate books. I feel like the main reason this story reaches out to us so much—just like its characters—is the fact that what happens to Hadley and Oliver can very much happen to us one day. I mean, two people meeting in an airport because one of them missed her flight due to a series of seemingly insignificant events? That could happen to anyone. And there are people all around us, strangers we’ve never talked to, but with one tiny event can alter what happens after it in unimaginable ways. That’s what I love about “Statistical Probability”: The touch of fate that gives our otherwise uneventful lives some hope and magic. I do have to admit, however, that there were times when things were a little bit clich├ęd and predictable—but maybe that’s how life is sometimes.

Ms. Smith’s writing cannot go unmentioned when talking about “Statistical Probability”. I remember finding myself completely enchanted by her lyrical prose, and the writing in this novel doesn’t disappoint. As always, the words strung together into sentences, and then into paragraphs and chapters and so on, are evocative and elegant, yet simple at the same time. Ms. Smith uses small, striking images to conjure up the reader’s emotions and memories, and then through those reader’s recollections, establishes an undeniably personal connection between her story and the reader’s own life. It truly tugs at your heartstrings, in ways that are both bitter and sweet, and that kind of writing is just truly magical in its own way.

All in all, “The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight” is a must-read, with relatable characters, beautiful, evocative prose, and a reminder that there’s magic in ordinary life. This novel left me feeling refreshed and hopeful for what’s to come in life, and I highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who needs a little renewal of hope, and faith, to brighten their days.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead

For some reason or the other, I’m a sucker for retellings. Or at least, for stories that take something old and transform it into something totally new and original. Richelle Mead’s “Gameboard of the Gods” was released sometime last month, and after reading that it has to do with mythical gods from legend, I knew I had to check it out. Much to my dismay, I found my Kindle an increasingly distant companion as I read the book. There’s just something about the characters and the story that just didn’t do it for me.

Mae Koskinen is a praetorian, a soldier of the military’s most elite and terrifying tier with enhanced reflexes and skills. Justin March, having failed his job as an investigator of religious groups and supernatural claims, only longs to return to the Republic of United North America. When he and Mae are assigned to work together to solve a string of ritualistic murders, they soon realize that their discoveries have exposed them to terrible danger, where unknown enemies and powers greater than they can imagine are gathering, unseen, around them, ready to reclaim the world in which humans are merely pieces on their gameboard.

One of the main things that really caught me off guard was how old the main characters were. After assuming that “Gameboard of the Gods” was the first book of a new YA series, I was a little disoriented when I found out that Justin and Mae are around thirty-years-old. Which also meant that it amped up the maturity of the whole book, something I found out when they ended up sleeping together in, oh, the third chapter or so. That was when I decided that this is definitely more of a New Adult novel. Not that I really have a problem with a book being a part of the NA genre—it just completely altered my expectations of the characters and their priorities. For example, instead of having a gradual development of romantic feelings toward one another (or the typical YA love at first sight stuff), Mae and Justin’s relationship began slap-bang with some flirting and then the bed. Despite this, I think Ms. Mead did a pretty good job with developing their romance post-supposed-one-night-stand, as both Mae and Justin struggled to come to terms with their feelings toward one another.

The characters themselves were fairly interesting to read about throughout the novel. First, you have Mae, who’s a butt-kicking praetorian who seems to be perfect in just about every single way. Then, you have Justin, the incorrigibly flirtatious, devil-may-care exile who, at the same time, has some genius skills of deduction. Plus he has a couple of crows in his head that talk to him. Yeah. These two characters were generally interesting, but I don’t think I became entirely invested in what happened to them and what they were feeling since Justin seems to be kind of a douche who somehow ends up with a different woman in every chapter, and Mae is a little stagnant as a protagonist in terms of character development. The other, more minor characters, like Teresa and Leo, are more likable—Teresa definitely grows as a character as she adapts to Gemman life, and Leo’s attitude is pretty endearing as well.

Now remember when I talked about how much I love retellings? I felt like “Gameboard of the Gods” really fell short of doing the gods and their myths justice. Admittedly, the concept about the golden apple of discord, as well as that of gods choosing a human as their ‘game piece’, was compelling and intriguing, but I felt like Ms. Mead could’ve taken more advantage of the whole idea. It just seemed as if half the time, she was somehow undermining her own retelling of the gods in the human world by expounding so much on the different religions and how full of bullpoop they are in the RUNA’s eyes. Or maybe that’s what she wanted, to show the conflict between humans and the gods. Either way, it just didn’t really do it for me. More mythical gods and a little bit more magic would’ve been more dynamic and compelling.

Overall, “Gameboard of the Gods” is a fairly interesting start to the “Age of X” series, but it ultimately does fall short of its potential. Things did pick up towards the end, but most of it was pretty slow and not as compelling as it could be. A little disappointed with this one, in the end!

Rating: 2/5