Monday, March 28, 2016

A Wonderful Intersectional Feminist Read | Review: The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller (ARC)

The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller
Publisher: Viking
Release Date: March 8th, 2016
Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls' father is a plant hunter, usually off adventuring through the jungles of China.

Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan fails to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid, meaning that he will be thrown into debtors' prison and the girls will be sent to the orphanage or the poorhouse. Elodie's father has one last chance to return to China, find the orchid, and save the family—and this time, thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate, Elodie is going with him. Elodie has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China.

But even if she can find the orchid, how can she find herself now that staid, responsible Elodie has seen how much the world has to offer?
Disclaimer: I received an eARC from the publisher. This did not affect my review in any way, nor am I being compensated for this.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this except that I knew it was going to be an amazing feminist-y read. Ever since I read Waller's last book, A Mad, Wicked Folly, I wanted to read more of her works. I felt even more excited about this book after my video chat with her and Sofia. And when I saw that this was going to be set in China, I knew I had to read it.

I'm not even sure where to begin this review. Just like A Mad, Wicked Folly, the book followed a determined young woman--Elodie--through her life in England, where she feels underestimated and trapped. I loved seeing her transformation throughout the book as she leaves her sheltered home and takes matters into her own hands. If anything, I loved her even more than Vicky because I agreed with her actions more and it was easier to feel sympathetic to her/her situation. That being said, I didn't find the other characters as compelling. I thought the characters represented various walks of life and points of view which I really appreciated and loved. I loved Ching Lan's storyline, and it was interesting to see it from Elodie's point of view and from that time in history. At first I didn't really like Ching Lan but more because we were viewing her from Elodie's perspective, but as we learned more about her, her situation really struck me and very strongly shows cultural differences and how they impact our lives. And though I loved Alex, I don't know how I feel about his relationship with Elodie. It was pretty obvious and predictable and just didn't feel very authentic to me. I do think their relationship changed over time, and it became less of a thing, but it sat weirdly with me for a while.

I thought the parent-daughter relationships and sibling relationships were particularly interesting here, as well as the idea of a chosen family. I found these to be much more compelling, particularly showing Elodie's growth. She cares so much about her family and that never goes away, but she also learns that sometime we need to be selfish and put ourselves before our family members. She learns to be her own person outside of her family, but it's clear she doesn't care about her family any less because of it. The feminist message in this book is just fabulously done, and I think it was much clearer (and perhaps more explicitly stated) than in A Mad, Wicked Folly, but I just loved how this dealt with how culture plays such a big part in feminism and about intersectionality (and seeing supportive males).

I also really appreciated the two settings, England and China. Even though I'm Chinese (and Taiwanese), I've never visited the country, yet Waller perfectly captures the atmosphere of Chinese neighborhoods (but without the same Western lens we experience it here) and really captures the culture. I could picture all of the locations. It was just beautifully crafted.

However, I did have some qualms about the book. As I mentioned briefly earlier, I didn't really feel as connected to these characters. Though their stories were compelling, I wasn't pulled into them. In addition, there was a lot more build up before the actual trip to China than I was expecting. I suppose that it's necessary as it builds the backdrop for the second part of the book, but it really dragged for me. And even once we arrived in China, I didn't feel as though the pace picked up. Normally I'm okay with a character-driven, not high paced book, but without feeling the same pull to the characters, it made it a bit of an effort to keep reading the book. I know some people DNF'd the book, and I could understand why, but I'm glad I stuck with it until the end.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and thought the messages were much more developed than the author's previous novel, despite a more dragging plot. The setting was done very well and really captured the culture and atmosphere.
The Forbidden Orchid: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Book Depository
Sharon Biggs Waller: Website | Pinterest | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Beautiful, Unputdownable, Worth Every Tear | Mini Review: None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio

None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: April 7th, 2015
What if everything you knew about yourself changed in an instant?

When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She's a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she's madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she's decided that she's ready to take things to the next level with him.

But Kristin's first time isn't the perfect moment she's planned—something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy "parts."

Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin's entire identity is thrown into question. As her world unravels, can she come to terms with her new self?
"I cried so much while reading this, but every tear was worth it."

I've been eyeing this book for some time now, so I'm grateful for Dahlia's Book Club for giving me that extra push. This is a fabulous novel and is so important. It's so important for people to learn more about those who are intersex and what that is like, and this book hopefully provides some more visibility on the topic. So much of the focus of LGBTQ+ discussions leaves out intersex, leaving most people very unaware of what that actually means. This is manifested in the majority of Kristen's school.

This story broke my heart and then slowly healed it again. I learned so much along the way, and it was just an emotional rollercoaster. The characters really add such a depth to the story and to the conflicts. I feel like there might be criticism about some of Kristen's friendships, but oh my gosh did I see my own middle/high school friend dynamics in there (minus the partying). And I would hate to think about how non-tolerant those in Kristen's school were, but to be honest, I don't find it surprising. High school can be so ruthless and terrible, and teens can be so quick to tear one another down. But I think another important experience and lesson to be learned here is that despite all the terrible people (or the good people who make bad decisions), there are also really decent and amazing people who don't care and will stick up for you. And seeing that in this book was such a treasure. I cried so much while reading this, but every tear was worth it.

But before I forget or get sidetracked, I want to bring it back to this being about a girl who just founds out she's intersex and is struggling to figure out her identity when she feels it's being taken away. It is just so powerful, but it's also so impactful for anyone who goes through a time where they feel they're losing/they have lost their identity, even when it's something that doesn't truly define you or your personality. I just think this story was beautiful, and I couldn't put it down.

That being said, there were large parts of the story that were pretty predictable, including that ending. And there were a few other things, but I think they are far outweighed. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and while it wasn't my favorite, it sure is amazing and definitely needs to be read by all.
None of the Above: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Book Depository
I. W. Gregorio: Website | Tumblr | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Great World Building and Exploration of Identity, But Where Did Everyone Go? | Mini Review: Audiobook: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu (Audiobook)
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Release Date: September 24th, 2013 
On an island on the edge of an immense sea there is a city, a forest, and a boy. The city is called Asteri, a perfect city saved by the magic woven into its walls when a devastating plague swept through the world years before. The forest is called the Barrow, a vast wood of ancient trees that encircles the city and feeds the earth with magic. And the boy is called Oscar, a shop boy for the most powerful magician in the Barrow, who spends his days in the dark cellar of his master's shop grinding herbs and dreaming of the wizards who once lived on the island. Oscar's world is small, but he likes it that way. The real world is vast, strange, and unpredictable. And Oscar does not quite fit in it.

But it's been a long time since anyone who could call himself a wizard walked the world, and now that world is changing. Children in the city are falling ill; something sinister lurks in the forest. Oscar has long been content to stay in his small room, comforted in the knowledge that the magic that flows from the trees will keep his island safe. Now, even magic may not be enough to save it.
"There's so much depth to Oscar, and I love the exploration of identity and what it means to be human and to be growing up."

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I was actually introduced to it through Dahlia's Book Club, and I decided to listen to this instead since finding time to read in college is hard.

There's so much depth to Oscar, and I love the exploration of identity and what it means to be human and to be growing up. Growing up can be so hard and so isolating for anyone, but social interaction is particularly difficult for Oscar. I also really enjoyed Callie as a character and how she is one of the few people to see through everything that prevent people from really getting to know or care about Oscar. Their friendship is so beautiful and so important and shows how important acceptance and love are, how much someone can change your life.

The world was really interesting, and I loved the premise of the story. I thought the story carried itself well, and I almost always wanted to keep listening. I'm still getting used to listening to audiobooks, but this wasn't particularly difficult to get into. I was glad there weren't long descriptions, but there were also so many times where I found it difficult to get any image of the setting. Like I know what the places are called, but it was still difficult to visualize much that wasn't the forest or garden.

The ignorance of the people also bothered me beyond belief. As much as it could be realistic, I don't see how everyone could just be brainwashed to forget simply because they were scared...but maybe that's because I never lived through something like that. My other biggest problem with the book was how quickly so many seemingly important characters just left the story, from Master Caleb to Wolf to Madame something (the one who Callie was working under) to the baker. There was so little exploration of these characters, and maybe the author didn't find that important, but it's such a shame.

But overall, I enjoyed the book, and it was worth the time.
The Real Boy: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Book Depository
Anne Ursu: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Real, Raw, Palpable, Heart-breaking, and Hopeful | Mini Review: Finding Center by Katherine Locke

Finding Center by Katherine Locke
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: August 17th, 2015
Zed and ballet are my two greatest loves

It took all of Aly's strength to get them back after a tragic accident ripped them from her six years ago. A long road to recovery led to her return, dancing full-time for the District Ballet Company and carrying Zed's child. But Aly is slipping. Each day becomes a fight to keep her career from crumbling under the weight of younger talent, the scrutiny of the public eye and the limitations of her ever-changing body. A fight she fears she's losing.

I'm scared Aly is broken to her core

Zed recognizes the signs, but he doesn't know how to fix her. The accident left him with his own demons, and while he wants nothing more than to take care of the woman he loves, it's getting harder the farther downward she spirals. When Aly's life is threatened and Zed's injuries prevent him from saving her, he's never felt so useless, so afraid he's not capable of being the man Aly and their child needs.

With new life comes new hope. And with their fractured lives already hanging by a thread, Aly and Zed must discover if they have what it takes—both together and apart—to rebuild and carry on.
"This book in particular is raw and haunting but also hopeful."

"It made me feel understood too, and that made me feel a little less alone."

THIS BOOK. I'm not sure why I waited so long to read this, but I was really missing ballet, so I picked this one up. And I'm so glad that I did.

I loved Second Position, but I didn't realize I could fall in love with Locke's story even more. Yet Finding Center did just that. It still contained the ballet that I love and was looking for within Locke's story, but this one hit so much more and focuses much more on the characters and their development. 

The story continues with the emotional character development in the first book. I absolutely love how Locke handles mental illness within her books. She handles it deftly and carefully but doesn't leave anything out, doesn't sugarcoat anything. This book in particular is raw and haunting but also hopeful. We see that there's a way through. It never leaves you, but it gets easier, and you learn how to handle it amongst everything else in life.

But the journey to get there is an emotional one. There are so many ups and downs, so many miscommunications, so much that is conveyed. Locke shows how people can change but also how slow and how much of a process it is. The changing point of view is especially effective in this book and in getting the message across. Both are going1 through so much and shut others out, but we can see both sides of it, and I think that is so important and so well done.

The book is never lagging, and the struggles are so real and palpable. My heart broke so many times, and I cried so much while reading this, not just because the plot was often so sad and distressing but also because it just understood what it felt like. I definitely don't have anything close to what Aly and Zed are feeling and going through, but I can understand how they felt. It made me feel understood too, and that made me feel a little less alone. (And of course the dance/ballet portions are beautifully written, as always. The conflicts are well written and envisioned, and I loved every moment of it.)

I implore you to go read it (and/or Second Position).
Finding Center: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N
Katherine Locke: Website | Twitter | Tumblr 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Music Monday (#16): Feb 2016 Playlist

Every other Monday, I'll share a song/artist/album that I'm either currently listening to or currently obsessed with, though they often go hand-in-hand. Some may have special themes or surprises. This means that I might share a playlist, fan!mix, Top Ten list, etc.

Today I'm sharing my February 2016 playlist with you all! I want to start compiling some songs I listened to and enjoyed in each month, so I'll try to share them here with you. The songs/lyrics don't necessarily have any relation to things that happened in the month. They're just mood/aesthetic music and music I found.

Listen to the playlist!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Intense, Engaging, Fun, Kick-Ass, Political, and Incredibly Complex | Review: Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release Date: January 5th, 2016
In the Witchlands, there are almost as many types of magic as there are ways to get in trouble—as two desperate young women know all too well.

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lie. It’s a powerful magic that many would kill to have on their side, especially amongst the nobility to which Safi was born. So Safi must keep her gift hidden, lest she be used as a pawn in the struggle between empires.

Iseult, a Threadwitch, can see the invisible ties that bind and entangle the lives around her—but she cannot see the bonds that touch her own heart. Her unlikely friendship with Safi has taken her from life as an outcast into one of reckless adventure, where she is a cool, wary balance to Safi’s hotheaded impulsiveness.

Safi and Iseult just want to be free to live their own lives, but war is coming to the Witchlands. With the help of the cunning Prince Merik (a Windwitch and ship’s captain) and the hindrance of a Bloodwitch bent on revenge, the friends must fight emperors, princes, and mercenaries alike, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
"It's intense and engaging. It's fun and kick ass and political and just so complex."

Ahhh, let's take a moment to talk about the hype monster surrounding Truthwitch. I'm not going to lie; I added to that hype as part of the #Witchlanders team. But I will admit that there were many times when I knew I was just playing/adding to the hype. Don't get me wrong, I love Sooz and am not ungrateful for the street team, for the experience, and for my clan (Aether!) (on a side note, I felt a twinge of pride every time Aether was mentioned in the book hehe), but it sometimes felt like a little much, like everyone was always seeing something about Truthwitch, which I guess was the point of the street team.

But moving on, I was very much looking forward to this book. I really enjoyed Dennard's first series, Something Strange and Deadly, and I loved that the book was meant to focus on a badass female friendship. I kept hearing amazing things about the book from people who had read the ARC, and it didn't help that I kept talking and thinking about it.

I loved it as much as I expected to. I love the characters and the way Dennard builds up characterization and really shows how people change, even within the time frame of the novel. Dennard has always done a great job of creating interesting, complex characters and conflicts, and Truthwitch is no different. Each character has a different background, different experiences, different motives, and different goals, yet they're woven together to create this story, and it works so well. And of course, there's Iseult and Safiya's friendship, which is just so fabulous and so nice to see. The way they complement one another and support and love one another is everything I could have hoped for and more. They are stronger when they are together, but they still have flaws, both individually and together, and I loved that. Seeing how intertwined their stories are was just such a treat, and I love how much love they showed to one another, either out loud or within their narratives. It's the kind of friendship I would want, that strong bond that becomes hard for others to even begin to sever. There's this loyalty and sense of wanting what's best for the other--almost to a fault--that is so powerful and does lend itself to some conflicts as well. To be able to see both of their thoughts and see how much they both love one another is important and well-done and just fabulous. The romance that is set up is also just all heart eyes. I love it!! Sooz has such a way with writing interactions and relationships (of all kinds), and it's one of the strongest aspects of this novel, for sure. It's a fantastic fantasy novel that sets up for a much grander set of challenges ahead, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next book. This book is so full and so much happens. It's intense and engaging. It's fun and kick ass and political and just so complex.

The map is gorgeous and accompanies her grand world building. At times it was an uphill battle to fully comprehend everything. The magic system and its intricacies are a bit difficult to fully grasp at first and aren't fully fleshed out because the characters already (of course) know how it works and the history behind it. I think Dennard does a wonderful job of explaining it as best she could, but there were still many points at which I just didn't understand what was being said or explained. But while I think it's important to understand the magic within the Witchlands, I could still follow the story.

The book was such a ride and kept me turning pages. However, there are slow(er) portions, and I could see others getting put off by that. Particularly at the beginning, it can be a bit tedious to get through the set up where there's not much happening yet, but I definitely think it picks up. As with any novel, there are also some spots throughout where the action lulls, and I could see that affecting people's read of it. I didn't mind it too much because that was where a lot of important developments occurred and where I saw a bit of the political aspects of the world and of the conflict. I personally found that she still captured my attention and kept me engaged, even if not as much as I was hoping or as when it was an action-packed scene.

I found that Truthwitch read very much like her Something Strange and Deadly series, which is fine by me because I enjoyed the series. However, some of the things I didn't like as much about the SSaD series did carry over, and I still saw parts of it in the novel. If you didn't particularly like her writing or style of storytelling, you might not enjoy Truthwitch. I don't know yet how Truthwitch stacks up again SSaD, but I'm thinking that this is a step up, an improvement (again, not that SSaD wasn't good!). She has certainly improved a lot and has created yet another wonderful set of characters and an enthralling new world. I cannot wait for the next part of the adventure, but even more so, I cannot wait to see more of the wonderful friendship she has woven into an already intricate story.
Truthwitch: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | Book Depository
Susan Dennard: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr | Pinterest | YouTube
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