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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

I Have Lost My Way

*This review was originally posted on Teenreads.com*

Three strangers. Three different lives. One day. What could ever happen? Gayle Forman’s newest young adult novel, I Have Lost My Way, brings together three characters who are each grieving in their own way. Loss is at the center of the novel, but so is friendship and fate, and how pure chance can bring you the people you need the most at just the right times.

The story takes place over the course of one day and is broken up with flashbacks that reveal how Freya, Harun and Nathaniel have all lost something important to them. Freya, a rising popstar, has just lost her voice. Harun has lost the love of his life. Nathaniel has lost the most important person to him, his father. The teens are brought together after a series of strange events, and although each character’s background differs dramatically from the others, their shared feelings of grief bind them together in a strange and powerful way.

Forman’s writing is very lyrical and the story is fast-paced. Forman is effective at slowly revealing each character’s history through alternating chapters and points of view, and having the narrative switch back and forth between past and present. While each character’s loss seems surface-level at first, it quickly becomes apparent that these weren’t just things that were taken from them, but essential parts of their identities that have become the core of what makes each of them special, and what keeps them going.

The level of representation in this novel is also impressive. Freya is a half-Ethiopian girl who has a complex relationship with her older sister, Sabrina. The backstory to their relationship was a page-turner for me, and I kept wanting to see how their sibling rivalry would play out in the end. Harun, a Pakistani boy, is figuring out how to reconcile his sexuality with his family’s religion. He’s expected to marry a Muslim girl, but Harun is hopelessly in love with his ex-boyfriend, James. Nathaniel is blind in one eye and struggling with depression after his father’s death. All his life, Nathaniel has coped with his father’s strange childlike tendencies: his inability to live in reality and his insistence that they are a “fellowship of two” like Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. It’s clear that Forman has done her research and has done the best she could to portray these characters in an authentic way.

Aside from delving into important discussions about identity, race and mental health, Forman shows a messier, more complicated side of New York City rather than the romanticized version that you find in most young adult novels. This is partly due to the time she spends on scenes with each of the character’s families, in different parts of the city. The only aspect of the book that I wished Forman spent more time developing was the relationship between Freya and Nathaniel, which developed at a pace that seemed a bit unrealistic for a one-day romance.

Although the book is mainly about loss, it is ultimately a hopeful story. I was emotionally invested in every character, and I am left with a satisfied feeling knowing that by supporting one another, Freya, Harun and Nathaniel were able to overcome their struggles. This book was everything I expected from Gayle Forman.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Wicked Charm

*This review was originally posted on Teenreads.com*

After moving to the murky swamps of Georgia with her family, Willow Bell is warned to stay away from her new neighbor, Beau Caldwell. He’s mysterious, cold-blooded and on the top of the suspect list for a series of murders in their small town. But there’s just something that draws Willow to him. When the dead bodies of young girls begin to surface, Willow questions whether or not she should trust her instincts about Beau. Part-murder mystery, part-love story, Wicked Charm, Amber Hart’s young adult romantic thriller will appeal to fans of Pretty Little Liars and April Henry.

On first look, you’d think that a love story set in the Okefenokee swamp—a location that also serves as a murder scene—would be odd, but somehow Amber Hart makes it work. Willow and Beau fall in love with each other from the moment Willow sets foot in the small town. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Willow and Beau. From Willow’s perspective, there’s something captivating and mysterious about Beau, and she’s determined to find out what he’s hiding. From Beau’s view, Willow is totally unlike the other girls he’s dated. She sees right through the walls he puts up to protect his heart from being broken, again.

Wicked Charm is a fun, late-night read with a charming romance and a mystery to keep you on your toes. The unusual setting of Georgia’s creepy woods and swamps made a fabulous backdrop for a serial killer’s rampage. Additionally, the multilayered characters of Gran and Grandpa Caldwell offered a different perspective from the younger generations. Charlotte, Beau’s sassy twin sister, had a cool exterior that was a refreshing contrast to Willow’s more reserved temperament. I’m new to Amber Hart’s books, but found her writing style to be simple, fast-paced and compelling. Reading Wicked Charm was like slipping into bed with a cup of coffee and a warm blanket.

Although there were things to love, the plot of the book was predictable and the main characters often read like caricatures rather than real people. Beau in particular quickly falls into the tall, dark and handsome trope. There’s not much depth to his character other than his clichéd “tortured” past. His reasons for picking Willow over every other girl in school was unconvincing, and their relationship felt forced. Similarly, Willow, a relatable and somewhat authoritative character, was too trusting of the people around her. She lost credibility for me when she became more focused on making out with Beau in the swamp than on the five murders that happened in the same area. Overall, the romance had little substance and the characters could have been better developed.

This book would be great for younger teens. It is not so much a mystery rather than a love story though, so I would not recommend this for people who don’t want romance taking a front-seat.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Looking Back, Saying Goodbye, and Staying Healthy in 2018

(Gunnuhver, Iceland)

2017 was an immensely difficult year for me, for many reasons. Every time I sat in front of my computer and attempted to blog, words jumbled together in my head. I didn't have anything to say that didn't sound superficial, and I had no desire to share my private, often painful experiences so publicly. All in all, I no longer enjoyed the idea of having strangers read about my personal life.

Aside from wanting to keep my personal life off social media, my family went through a number of severe health scares in 2017 that I find myself still coming to terms with. I believe I will always have trouble putting these experiences into words, but it doesn't feel right avoiding them entirely, as they marked two major transitionary periods in my life. Before I post another book review or travel post, I feel that I owe my friends and readers a bit of transparency, something we often do not see online.

The first health scare happened in February, a day before my 21st birthday when I fell off a motorbike in Yangshuo, China. I was immediately taken to a hospital (more of a clinic) where I was treated for cuts and bruises, and given 10 stitches on a deep wound just an inch away from my left eye. The next few days were a blur. I was in pain, could barely open my left eye, and was in the worst state possible to be celebrating a 21st birthday.

My mom, being my #1 support system, was devastated after hearing about the accident. She actually flew to Shanghai to make sure I was okay. She told me, after seeing a picture of my black eye and bruised face, that she banged her head repeatedly on a table. I imagined the absurdity of that image: my mom sitting alone in a room, gripping the edge of a wooden table and hitting her forehead over and over again like a madwoman.

“Why?” She must have begged God. “Why did you let this happen to my daughter?”

The physical recovery period took about 6 months and the scar has finally faded to a dull baby pink, but the emotional trauma of that experience took much longer to overcome—for both myself and my parents. Looking back on that experience now, I realize the accident could have been way worse. I could have lost an eye or broken a bone. Despite how we appear on the surface, self-esteem comes from a genuine contentment with life and a happiness within oneself. This is something that I had to learn on my own.

Fast forward to August. I was in New York City at the time, interning and enjoying being back in the city. Yes, our country was going through a hell of a time. Diversity took a backseat to deep-rooted hatred and violence. Women were forced to lay bare their trauma in order to prove that our cultural norms foster sexual assault. We decided not to protect a free and open internet. But despite these terrible events happening in America, I was still thankful; at least my family and I were healthy.

It was a Thursday night when I got the call from my dad. He told me he had waited a few days to call because he didn't want to scare me. But because he had no idea what was going to happen, he felt he should finally come clean: my mom had a hemorrhagic stroke.

Suddenly, all of my worries and frustrations—everything from the national news, to having to move apartments three times, to starting my last semester in college—disappeared. Nothing mattered anymore, except for the fact that my 56-year-old mom was in the hospital and we weren't sure if she was going to make it.

In the time between Thursday and my flight home on Tuesday, everything seemed to move in slow motion. I threw things, I banged my head on a table, I yelled at people I loved. I prayed to a God that I have never believed in. You could say that I was a zombie, because that is absolutely how I felt.

A number of MRIs and tests were done in the two weeks that I was home. The first MRI showed about a quarter-size bleed on my mom's right frontal lobe, a second one 5 minutes later showed that her brain was 90% full of blood and that nothing surgical could be done. My mom was transferred to Neuro ICU to wait for the swelling to go down. Her brain continued to swell for weeks while she was in a medically-induced coma, even after I had flown back to New York City to start my last semester of college.

A month later, my mom woke up in the ICU and immediately started writing with a pen. Her left side was completely paralyzed, but her mental capabilities were still intact. I flew home again in October to see her, and finally in December for winter break. As of now, my mom is learning how to walk again with a cane and doing physical, occupational, and speech therapy every week. She's returned with a refreshing sense of humor, an optimistic outlook, and a new purpose in life: to stay healthy and to get better.

2017 was tough. It really, really was. However, I'm choosing to look back on last year as a learning experience with a few important lessons:
  • Emotions (esp. showing emotions in public) do not make a person weak
  • You absolutely cannot rely on someone else to bring you happiness or support
  • Everything painful in life is a reminder not to take anyone or anything for granted
These all seem pretty self-explanatory, but these are lessons that I benefited from. No matter what life hurls at your face and then continues to hurl, there are always places and people to be thankful for.

So with that, goodbye tough year. Hello, 2018. I will not take you for granted. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Hearts We Sold

*This review was originally posted on Teenreads.com*

In The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones, demons run free and humans are making deals with them. What do demons desire the most? Your limbs, in exchange for anything you’ve ever wanted. For some, it’s a finger for endless beauty, a leg for fame, an arm for someone else’s life, etc. For Dee Moreno, however, it’s her heart for an escape from an abusive home.

When Dee finds out that her boarding school is cutting off her merit scholarship, she knows she’s in a difficult situation. Her parents are alcoholics, and her emotionally abusive father refuses to help pay her tuition fee. Without a way to support herself, Dee does the only thing she can think of: she makes a deal with a demon. But this demon wants more than just a body part. He wants her heart—for two whole years.

At first, all seems well. Dee can stay in boarding school, where she lives with her eccentric roommate, Gremma. More importantly, she doesn’t have to depend on her parents. However, Dee soon realizes that she’s gotten into far more than she’s bargained for. It turns out that demons aren’t the only monsters roaming the universe. Dee finds herself among a team of other deal-making teenagers, including the charming artist James Lancer. These teens are the only ones who can shut down the voids threatening our reality and allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our world. On top of that, Dee finds herself falling hard for James. But can she give someone her heart when it’s no longer hers to give?

A modern Faustian tale, this book is the perfect read for fans of fantasy and sci-fi, who appreciate a gothic fairytale twist. While some aspects of the book could have been better explained—such as the science behind the voids in our reality—and how the teens are able to jump back and forth through them, The Hearts We Sold is surprisingly refreshing, with a diverse cast of characters and an endearing narrative voice.

Author Emily Lloyd-Jones tackles tough issues like depression and self-doubt, while asking questions about life and immortality. Is it better to die young and be remembered forever, or live a long life without accomplishment? As Dee learns to make choices and live with them, she also finds the strength to let go of her past and choose to survive. The Hearts We Sold is dark, compelling and romantic and will have readers questioning the nature of humanity and the meaning of being alive.

Rating 3.5/5