Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Let's Carpe the Hell Out of This Diem."

The Darkest Minds / Never Fade / In the Afterlight covers
The Darkest Minds / Never Fade / In the Afterlight by Alexandra Bracken
Series: The Darkest Minds #1-3
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Dates: December 8, 2012 / October 15, 2013 / October 28, 2014
Source/Format: Owned || Kindle, hardcover; Borrowed from Rachel || ARC

Imagine, if you will, a world where children develop a mutation that allows them to tap into unseen parts of their brains and do extraordinary things. But these children, instead of being celebrated for what they can do, are quarantined in camps and facilities. They are treated poorly, inhumanely, by those scared of what they can unleash and those high on the power they have been granted. Imagine, then, that there comes a day when it all becomes too much to take. Imagine that one girl is given the opportunity to be free, to fight for her rights, for her friends, for these children. This is the story of Ruby Elizabeth Daly. This is the story of her friends, her allies, her enemies. This is the tale of how one girl lit a spark, and set the world on fire to create it anew.

It all sounds a bit dramatic, I know. But the way that The Darkest Minds is told just demands such an extreme response. There's a level of mastery in the way that it is written that I haven't encountered very often in my reads, with Bracken striking just the right balance between exposition and revelation. We don't know everything about this world or these characters right off the bat. But Bracken carefully peels away at all the layers, until we learn what the bottom line is, what the truth is. It's one heck of a journey, and the initial uncertainty and lack of knowledge makes the reading experience all the more intense. This story is woven well, inviting readers to get to know these characters in their fullness, past, present and future, admirable traits or inevitable flaws. It slowly maps out a variety of relationships, all of which fall somewhere on the spectrum between necessity and desire. It exposes a world of utter strangeness permeated with familiarity and just on the line between what's real and what's not. The care and caution that went into the construction of this story, of this series really, is undeniable, and I truly admire the writing ability Bracken has displayed.

The true strength of The Darkest Minds lies in two things: characters and themes. Yes, the world-building is excellent, particularly because there is an obvious attention to detail. Yes, the plot is well-planned, with surprising twists meant to catch readers off guard and further ensure their investment in the book. However, without the overarching themes, without these characters, I wouldn't be able to lavish the same amount of praise on this series.

I love being entertained by my reads, but I also love being challenged by them. The Darkest Minds might be fiction, but it does bring some really interesting questions to the forefront of a reader's mind. What is right and what is wrong? Is there any situation where the end will justify the means? Why is it that we automatically assume that different is dangerous or different is bad? Is there more than one type of family? How far are you willing to go in the name of freedom? In the name of control? What will it take to make people understand? How much needs to happen before people take notice of injustice that is happening right in front of their faces? Why do people turn out differently in spite of having similar personalities and gifts? I have no clue whether or not Bracken intentionally wove themes of prejudice, relationships, injustice and more into her stories, but either way, it was really well done. It was really interesting to find myself thinking about these things, and trying to discern my own answers. I felt really challenged and empowered, and I love that these books inspired me to go that route. 

Admittedly, the themes are point in favor of this series. But I don't think I would have felt them so keenly or examined them so well if I didn't care so deeply for these characters. Ruby. Liam. Chubs. Zu. The original Black Betty gang, and the group of kids that immediately stole my heart. Each one of them has experienced horrible things, has done horrible things, but each one manages to stay strong. True. Loyal. Vulnerable. Even if it doesn't seem like it, they always have the best intentions when it comes to their choices. They care deeply for one another, always acting in each other's best interests. More than friendships, more than allies, more even than the romance (which was pretty damn swoon-worthy and wrecked me multiple times), they were family. As the events in this series unfold, more characters join the fold - Jude, Nico and Vida, Cate and Cole. It took some time to really warm up to anyone outside the original four, but after reading all the novels, I can't imagine this story without all the rest in its pages. These characters felt real, as they flew up out of the pages and into my heart. And I know that they are the kind that will stick around for the long run in my mind and in my heart.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is this: The Darkest Minds is insanely amazing. It has all the elements I want in my stories: strong and flawed characters with complex relationships, detailed world-building, and an intricate plot. Every character, every moment pops to life off the page effortlessly, and it didn't take all that long before I was emotionally invested in the outcome. If you're looking for a new young adult series to binge read, if you want to be emotionally invested in characters whose lives and choices will wreck you on occasion, if you want to be transported into a terrifying, vivid new world, your search ends here. Pick up your own copy of The Darkest Minds (and you might want to make sure you have the other two on hand), and simply let the story take you away.

Through the Dark book cover
Through the Dark by Alexandra Bracken
Series: The Darkest Minds #1.5, 2.5 + 3.5
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
[I received this book from the publisher. This in no way affects the content of my review.]

It might not be necessary to read these novellas in order to enjoy the series. But I can easily tell you that reading Through the Dark enhances the experience of Bracken's world, giving readers a chance to see what's going on in places other than wherever Ruby happens to be. I was fascinated by the glimpses of the country and camps that these novellas provided, terrible and horrible and scary and occasionally good. But I was even more thrilled to get to know two characters more intimately - Zu, the youngest member of the Black Betty gang who is selectively mute, and Sam, a Green kid that Ruby was incarcerated with at Thurmond. Both these periods in their lives are handled delicately, as their circumstances are certainly never ideal. Bracken succeeds at getting creative with her stories, even as she keeps things consistent with what is happening on Ruby's end in the novels. I read it in the recommended order (The Darkest Minds, In Time, Never Fade, Sparks Rise, In the Afterlight and Beyond the Night), and they fit together seamlessly. Fans should certainly read this bind-up, as these novellas are perfectly written to accompany the series.

Monday, November 23, 2015

College Confessions • Just Visiting

Just Visiting book cover
Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler
Publisher: Spencer Hill Contemporary
Publication Date: November 17, 2015
Source/Format: Author || e-galley
[I received this book from the author. This in no way affects the content of my review.]

Reagan Forrester wants out—out of her trailer park, out of reach of her freeloading mother, and out of the shadow of the relationship that made her the pariah of Charytan, Kansas. Victoria Reyes wants in—in to a fashion design program, in to the arms of a cute guy who doesn't go to Charytan High, and in to a city where she won't stand out for being Mexican. 

One thing the polar-opposite best friends do agree on is that wherever they go, they’re staying together. But when they set off on a series of college visits at the start of their senior year, they quickly see that the future doesn’t look quite like they expected. As both Reagan and Victoria struggle to learn who they are and what they want in the present, they discover just how much they don't know about each other's pasts. And when each learns what the other’s been hiding, they'll have to decide whether their friendship has a future.

If you’re anything like me as a reader, you’ll like Just Visiting. It is a recent addition to the group of YA contemporaries that feature excellent female friendships, and I’m personally thrilled to be able to say that it’s really good! Adler’s portrayal of friendship is incredibly spot on – fun and frank, with no hesitation to show the natural ups and downs as the relationship grows. (It really isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, even when you love your friend dearly!) But her story is not just about these two friends. It’s about their struggle to figure out what they want to do after high school, learning more about themselves and yes, there’s a bit of romance thrown in too. 

It’s so rare to find an author who knows how to capture relationship dynamics perfectly, but Dahlia Adler certainly has a knack for it. Friendship, romance, family, enmity, attraction – all of these relationships can be found in Just Visiting. They were all written to be complicated, and their complexity made them seem real to me, and I loved that. I was happy to go along for the ride, watching as Adler explored and exposed different parts of these relationships to share with us. The highlight, of course, is watching Reagan and Victoria’s friendship grow as both girls do. They go through some tough times (balanced out by the fun they have together), and they definitely fight. But their friendship just gets stronger when faced with adversity, and I really, really loved that.

Readers will also appreciate how Adler shows the struggle of two teen girls trying to figure out what they’d like to do with their lives after high school. There are a lot of options out there, and I like that this story explored many alternatives. Add to that the college visits (which were fascinating to me), the diverse cast of characters, and a surprisingly dramatic turn of events, and Just Visiting gets even better. I really liked this one, and definitely think others will too!

After reading Just Visiting, I had a chat with Rachel of Hello, Chelly and it surprised her to learn that I had never gone on college visits ever. With that in mind, and with the desire to share a little bit of my own thoughts about college, I wanted to share my own college story with all of you!

Confession: I never had to do college visits.

In a big way, this had a lot to do with distance. The bigger schools were all in Manila, an island that requires a 45-minute plane ride from my hometown of Bacolod. There was not enough time (or funds) for school visits. And sure, there might have been some program designed to allow high school seniors to visit the schools the way that Reagan and Victoria did (though I wasn’t aware of it, mind you). But for the most part, representatives from the universities would visit schools all over the Philippines to talk about their alma maters. 

Confession: This never really concerned me.

When I was a senior in high school, there were really only three schools that were options for my college education: Ateneo de Manila University (my first choice, and my alma mater!), De La Salle University (where my parents and most of my dad’s side of the family went to college!) and University of Asia & the Pacific (where my sisters went to college!). 

I ran with it, submitting three sets of applications and taking three different entrance examinations, not even stopping to think about whether or not these places (and courses) were truly what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have a plan back then, nor did I really have any sense of what direction my life would take. I decided that it would be easiest to just go with the flow, take others’ opinions into account and then hopefully, magically, I would suddenly know what to do.

Confession: I had never really thought about college, or life after college.

I had no plans. I wasn’t like a lot of the college freshmen I encountered – those who were armed with a four year plan to jumpstart their adult lives, those who were ready to reinvent themselves for an entirely new experience, those who were ready to just enjoy their lives and coast through college. I had nothing going for me but my family’s expectations, my love of learning and the idea that this was the right thing to do. I’ll save you the long sob story (which includes an intensely crazy first semester) but with thanks to some really excellent people – my parents, my friends and some of my teachers – I found my way.

Confession: There is no one “right” way when it comes to college.

I don’t regret going to college and getting my degree; in fact, I consider myself lucky to have been given the gift of a great education. What I do regret, however, is the fact that I never once questioned my options. I could have studied in another country. I could have taken a gap year to travel. I could have volunteered for a year. I could have taken time off to really think about what I wanted out of life. Even though I know I would have eventually wound up in college at some point, I would have been equipped with more experience, more insight into myself and what I really saw in my future. It would definitely have made my own college experience a whole lot less terrifying and confusing; it would have grounded me in purpose with an actual goal.

Still, I can’t say college wasn’t a life-changing experience. I learned plenty, in the classroom and outside it. And I certainly don’t regret the relationships I formed. (Fun fact: I met my now husband when I was a freshman in college! And I’m still very close with my roommates for all four years of my college life.) All in all, in spite of the fact that I might not have chosen for it to go the way it went, college turned out to be a turning point, a good one, and for that, I will always look back at those years with affection.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Sunday Mix (19)

This year has simply been flying by! I've said that so, so many times already, but it's still true. In the last edition of this post, November had just started; in this edition, it's nearly at its end. I'm really looking forward to having Thursday (Thanksgiving meal, here we come!) and Friday off (I don't know if I'm doing any shopping yet), and just relaxing with my family and friends (and a book or two). And then it'll be time to put the Christmas decorations up, which I am madly excited about!

  • Cee is hosting the YA Book Cover Choice Awards again! I love a pretty cover. The nomination round is over now, but the semi-final and final rounds of voting will be coming up, so keep an eye out for that. What's your favorite 2015 book cover?
  • If you're on the hunt for some Christmas romances to read, Estelle has you covered. Here's her list of suggestions for this year! Have you read Christmas romances before? Share your recommendations in the comments!
  • Jodi Meadows shares some ideas for how to write conflict into a story. It's always a struggle for me to let my characters suffer (which makes me Jodi's complete opposite), so I'm keeping this bookmarked to remind myself that it's okay, it's necessary and there are plenty of different ways to do it.
  • Looking for some 2016 contemporary releases? Ginger put together a list of titles that she's excited to read (and she's hosting a giveaway!). Personally, I'm most excited to check out Emery Lord's When We Collided. What 2016 release, whether contemporary or another genre, are you looking forward to?
  • Cee created wallpapers featuring her favorite quotes from books she's read this year. I'm particularly in love with the Six of Crows one! Which is your favorite?
  • I always enjoy Rachel's Featurette posts, but I'm especially intrigued by the latest one featuring Lauren Smith. She recommended a French version of Beauty and the Beast, and I already know I'm going to do my best to find a way to watch it. Do you watch foreign films? If you do, what's your favorite?
  • Josephine talks about reading in public. There are definitely moments where I spot readers in public, and I live for those moments! I always feel a sense of connection as a fellow reader. As for me, I'm generally reading a book whenever I commute or wait somewhere public. It's my preferred way to pass the time, and my favorite hobby, so it's a given that's what I'm normally found doing. Do you read in public or during your commute? 
  • I love it when I can learn something from the books I read. This Bustle article shares lessons you can learn from some well-known childhood reads, and I definitely found myself agreeing when it came to the ones I've read (Charlotte's Web, The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). 
  • Dahlia Adler shares book recommendations for each member of the Babysitters Club, and I love the heck out of all of them (even the ones I haven't read). First of all, I love the BSC. I grew up reading about those girls (and guy, if you count Logan). Second of all, her reasons for each rec make so much sense. I personally love the Jessi/Tiny Pretty Things one best!
  • "Writing isn't always easy. And that's totally okay. Just keep on writing." I really, really love Susan Dennard's thoughts on NaNoWriMo and writing; I always have! It was actually partly because of her (and Sarah J. Maas) that I ever tried my hand at NaNoWriMo in the first place, and I'll always be grateful for that.
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses was optioned for film! Even though that's only the start of the process, it's very exciting stuff. And now, my only question is - who do you think they should cast in it?
  • Ever wondered if your favorite Disney places were inspired by real life locations? This article puts the film location and real location side by side, and it is glorious. I just want to take a trip to visit them all.
  • Who else is excited about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? I loved seeing these first photographs of the film, and I'm even more excited to see it when it's out in theaters.


bought: The Secret Garden + A Little Princess Classic Library / The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett / A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett / Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier / Me Before You by Jojo Moyes / Sandry's Book by Tamora Pierce / Book Three: Air + Book Four: Earth by Tamora Pierce / Cold Fire by Tamora Pierce / I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith / Granny Dan by Danielle Steel / Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas / The Last Letter from Your Lover by Jojo Moyes / The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley / Daja's Book by Tamora Pierce / Squire by Tamora Pierce / Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas / Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas / Scandal in Spring by Lisa Kleypas / The Sum of All Kisses by Julia Quinn / Ten Things I Love About You by Julia Quinn / Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (Kindle book)
for review: Loud is How I Love You by Mercy Brown

Friday, November 20, 2015

Autumn Adventures

It has been entirely too long since I've shared what's been going on in my life with you guys, and I miss it. Sure, I mention what's been happening over the last two weeks in The Sunday Mix, and yes, I also tell you all about the month in my recaps. But I haven't gotten the chance to actually write a whole post detailing some of my adventures since September, and I thought it was high time to remedy that! Signings, friends (bookish or otherwise), road trips, bookstores and food - this post has a little bit of everything. Get ready for a whirlwind tour of my life!

  • Way back at the end of September, Rachel & I caught a Jana Kramer concert at Gramercy Theatre. (We featured it as part of Books in Real Life!) I'm still not over it. It was definitely one of the best performances I've ever seen. Jana has a great stage presence, and easily charmed me and the rest of the crowd with her stunning voice and friendly personality. (I'm also still obsessed with her albums. You should check them both out!)
  • Also at the end of September, Rachel & I trekked up to the Barnes and Noble in the Upper East Side for a chance to meet Jojo Moyes. In my personal opinion, she's one of the best adult contemporary fiction writers in the business. It was really fun to hear her speak about her books, and the upcoming movie adaptation of Me Before You, and I was so glad I was able to tell her how much I loved her stories in person.
  • My sister Mel has been on a baking kick recently. Initially, she did all the work herself, creating brownies (yum!) and cookies (these were especially delicious!). But when she started making cupcakes, she recruited me to be her right hand girl. My most important task was to frost the cupcakes, which is apparently something I actually can do. It's probably my steady hands that make it so easy!
  • It's been a whirlwind of secondhand bookstores for me over the last month, and I've soaked up every single minute of my visits. I honestly love a good bargain, and when it happens to be for books I love or want to read, it's even better! I got some great deals (which you'll see in Sunday's post), and got to hang out with some awesome people in the process. This particular photo is from a visit to The Strand with my friend Danica. 
  • In October, Rachel & I went apple picking. (We also featured this for Books in Real Life!) I hadn't been to an apple orchard since I was a little girl and still lived in the US, so it was a bit of novelty to me. Even though we went late in the season, there was plenty of fruit for the picking (or gathering) and we were quite pleased with our apple haul by the end. Plus, we got to have apple cider donuts, and I love apple cider donuts.
  • It's a hobbit home! While we weren't able to visit in time for second breakfast, nor did we encounter any hobbits, it was enough just to see this adorable structure in person. It can be found at the Book Barn up in Connecticut, a place I've been longing to go to for ages. Finally, after making concrete plans with Gaby, Alyssa & Amy, I spent one Sunday on the road, meeting up with the girls at the bookstore and just hanging out. It was so much fun!
  • I finally got a chance to reunite with some of my friends! We had a pre-birthday dinner for my cousin Clarissa at Taqueria, where the tacos are delicious and the margaritas are a little too strong. It was fun to just spend the night catching up with the girls on what's been going on in our lives, what the future holds for us and making plans too. We were enjoying ourselves so much that we ended up grabbing a bottle of wine and hanging out at Jaymee's apartment!
  • Speaking of Jaymee's apartment, Mel & I slept over the next day. In the tradition of sleepovers past, we had cute pajamas on, lots of snacks on hand and we watched a few movies (Rumor Has It, Love Actually and Listen To Your Heart). It was a really fun way to unwind, and Clarissa even joined us for a portion of it.
  • Rachel drove us all the way down to West Chester so we could meet up with Betty and Kelly at Second Reading II, a secondhand bookstore I had heard about from Kim. Saturday is actually bag sale day, and that basically means you fill an entire bag with as many books as you possibly can and it's going to cost you only $15! You can bet I took full advantage of that, and I brought home some new books for my collection.
  • I love that I was able to hang out with some of my closest bookish friends in person! It's so rare for me to get to see Betty, and even rarer to get to see Kelly (I see Rachel all the time, but I always love hanging out with her and never take that for granted), so I treasured every second. It's definitely different (in the best way) to see people in the flesh, and to really have conversations about anything and everything. Love these girls loads!
  • We had a late lunch at the Market Street Grill, a cute spot that had a diner feel. I had to indulge in a vanilla milkshake and the classic Benny. Both were really yummy, and I was definitely just the right amount of full when we finished. Plus, doesn't it just look like such a happy meal?
  • I did my first ever #SockSunday post last week on Instagram, and I'm excited to do more in the future! I do love a pair of cute socks, and these are a recent addition to my collection. I was reading The Impostor Queen then, though I finished later that day. (It was really, really good, in case you were wondering, and I'm hoping there's a sequel to come. Pretty please?)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Flip A Coin • Rules for 50/50 Chances

Rules for 50/50 Chances book cover
Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern
Publisher: Farrar, Strous & Giroux (BYR)
Publication Date: November 24, 2015
Source/Format: Publisher || ARC
[I received this book from Macmillan. This in no way affects the content of my review.]

Seventeen-year-old Rose Levenson has a decision to make: Does she want to know how she’s going to die? Because when Rose turns eighteen, she can take the test that will tell her if she carries the genetic mutation for Huntington’s disease, the degenerative condition that is slowly killing her mother. With a fifty-fifty shot at inheriting her family’s genetic curse, Rose is skeptical about pursuing anything that presumes she’ll live to be a healthy adult—including going to ballet school and the possibility of falling in love. But when she meets a boy from a similarly flawed genetic pool, and gets an audition for a dance scholarship in California, Rose begins to question her carefully-laid rules.

To put it simply, I really enjoyed Rules for 50/50 Chances.

Rose is one of the realest teen narrators I've read in a while, and not just because of her vernacular. It is actually quite impressive how easily McGovern manages the many things Rose is dealing with: her mother's Huntington's disease and what it means for her, a budding romance with artistic Chad, uncertainty about what her future as a university student is going to look like. She makes all these things fit perfectly into the puzzle of Rose's story, never missing a beat when it comes to making sure all these aspects are developed properly. While there were times I found her so frustrating, it is testament to how well-written her character is that I also understood where she was coming from. 

It's even nicer to know that Rose is not the only memorable character. There's Chad, the boy who makes her laugh and understands her feelings about her mother's condition. There's Lena, her supportive, vivacious best friend. There's her grandmother, who came over from England to help out around the house; her father, who struggles to do his best in light of the situation; her mother, torn between who she used to be and who she's becoming at the hands of her disease. McGovern really takes the time to introduce these characters, and it certainly pays off!

But, more than anything, it's the raw authenticity that makes Rules for 50/50 Chances stand out. Yes, I loved the adorable romance that develops. Yes, the friendship was something I approved of. Yes, the depiction of Huntington's Disease is detailed and educational. Yes, I enjoyed the mentions of art, and trains, and ballet as a big part of these character's lives. But it is the way McGovern didn't hesitate to peel back the layers and show us the truth of what's underneath everything that really appealed to me. Rose's narration - how she feels, what she does, what she says - is laid bare for the reader, whether it happens to be good or bad, right or wrong. This is true from start to finish, and I really love that we're not given rose-colored glasses to view this situation. The disease is a tragedy, and the way that it is affecting everyone involved is terrible. There are good things, yes, but there are also bad things, and the fact that both are included in this story just made it even better.

If you're looking for something a little bit different in the contemporary YA genre, you should pick up Rules for 50/50 Chances. It's sad and frustrating; it's heart-warming and cute. And, most of all, it's one of the realest contemporaries I've had the fortune to read.

Are you a train person or a plane person?

Am I allowed to cheat and say that I'm both? I love traveling, and these are actually my two favorite ways to get to the places I want to go. I've ridden on many more planes versus trains, but I'd have to say that I'm pretty darn sure I'm a train girl. Even though it takes up more time to take trains, I love it. I love being able to sit by a window and watch the scenery going by, changing as we move along the track. I love the amount of space I have to stretch, and the freedom to walk around when I'm tired of sitting. I've also just felt more comfortable sitting on trains for long periods of time, feeling the easy, slight sway of the wheels carrying us forward. Plus, more transit time means more reading time! All in all, I don't mind a long journey; sometimes, it's just fun to take your time savoring the experience of getting to a new place.


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