Review: Chasing Shadows

chasingTitle: Chasing Shadows
Author: Swati Avasthi
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 320
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Review copy: the library
Availability: September 24, 2013

Summary: Before: Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftops to rooftop. But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof…

After: Holly and Savitri are coming unglued. Holly says she’s chasing Corey’s killer, chasing revenge. Savitri fears Holly’s just running wild—and leaving her behind. Friends should stand by each other in times of crisis. But can you hold on too tight? Too long?

In this intense novel, Swati Avasthi creates a gripping portrait of two girls teetering on the edge of grief and insanity. Two girls who will find out just how many ways there are to lose a friend…and how many ways to be lost. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I can’t say often enough how much I enjoy friendship stories. That being said, Chasing Shadows was a completely different creature than I am used to. Reading Holly and Savitri’s story of friendship, loss and grief was definitely a different experience.

Holly and Corey are twins; Savitri and Corey are dating. The three are a close trio of friends who face risk headlong by freerunning all over the city, off high buildings and through alleyways. When Corey is killed, Holly and Savitri’s friendship is put to the test as Holly seeks closure and vengeance, while Savitri tries to decide her future college path. Both grieve in their own ways, as shown by the two unique perspectives in Chasing Shadows.

Both girls’ grief is affected by more than Corey’s death. Holly’s grief begins to spiral into insanity as her reality begins to blend with the Leopardess comics she loves to read. Savitri’s grief and outlook on life is influenced by her cultural background and the story behind the name Savitri. The blending of influences is illustrated through comic pages interspersed throughout the narrative. While this approach to storytelling felt fresh and different, it also felt at odds with the flow of the story. That, combined with the stylized writing meant to depict Holly’s gradual breakdown, made immersion in the story difficult.

Chasing Shadow‘s innovative approach to storytelling is its main draw and also, at times, its weakness. This is a great book for anyone who enjoys psychological stories, or just wants to read about freerunning.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Interview: Ellen Oh

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to ask Ellen Oh a few questions about her books Prophecy and its sequel Warrior. Prophecy is a fantastic Korean-inspired fantasy with an awesome female heroine (read the review here!). Warrior will be released on December 31st, 2013.

prophecy warrior

What inspired you to write a Korean style fantasy?

It started with Genghis Khan. Back in the year 2000, Genghis Khan was named Man of the Millennium by Time magazine. I remember buying that issue and reading all about him and thinking how cool it was that an Asian man was considered the most influential man of the millennium. So I went and bought a bunch of biographies on Genghis and I just fell in love with all the Asian history I learned. It made me crave more information. But it was actually really hard to find a lot of books on ancient Korea. And there was hardly any fiction novels at all other than Linda Sue Park’s classic novel A Single Shard. This is really the reason I began writing again (I hadn’t written creatively since college.) I just felt that all these amazing historical facts would make for a great novel.

How did you go about researching for Prophecy and Warrior?

The great thing about being a faculty member of a university is that you have all the university’s library services at your disposal. I’ve pretty much researched everything I could get my hands on about Asian mythology, shamanism, Korean legends, even architecture and pottery. It’s fascinating stuff. I used a lot of legends and myths of Korea. One of the most famous legend is the story of the Rock of the Falling Flowers. It is a cliff in the old Paekche kingdom where 3,000 court ladies leapt to their deaths when faced with the invading Tang and Shilla army. Their colorful hanboks made them look like falling flowers – hence the name. I also use the myth of the 8 Heavenly Maidens and then twisted it to suit my needs. Usually, the folktales have the Heavenly Maidens descending to earth and bathing in a pool and some poor woodcutter comes and steals one of their clothes. Without her clothes the heavenly maiden cannot return home and is forced to marry the woodcutter. Well I never liked that myth. As far as I’m concerned, that poor woodcutter is a stalker/peeping tom/kidnapper. So I changed that myth to make my Heavenly Maidens strong and with an important purpose in life. I think research is really my favorite part of writing the Prophecy Series and I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to do something I love and get it published by a great house like HarperTeen.

Kira is supported by her tiger spirit. Are there or will there be other chracters with animal spirits, or is she unique?

She is definitely unique. But I’ve been toying with the idea of having other characters with animal spirits. It would be a play off of the twelve animal horoscopes. I don’t know if it will make it into the series, but it is something that I’ve been working on as a side project.

A lot of YA lit has a heavy focus on romantic love, but not on familial love. What made you choose to give Kira so many brothers and cousins?

I think family is definitely an important focus of my books. Family is the support base for most people. Whether it is brothers and sisters, cousins, friends, etc. The bonds that form family are incredibly important and I feel they should always be celebrated and remembered. It was a very conscious decision on my part to have Kira come from a strong family support group. Because that is true love. I know that some people are disappointed in how light romance is in the Prophecy series, but romance was never the focus of Kira’s story.

Jindo is pretty much my favorite, so I have to ask — What type of dog does Jindo resemble? Do you have a dog?
jindo

Source: http://jindoranch.com/gallery
Jindo is a Jindo, a very special breed of dog from the Island of Jindo in South Korea. They are known for loyalty and are considered a national treasure of Korea. When I was thinking of naming Taejo’s best friend, I thought “what would I name a dog I just got from this far off island of Jindo… hey Jindo is a cool sounding name. I’ll just name him Jindo!” :o) As for me, well I had a dog growing up, a german shepherd that I loved, but my husband and oldest are dreadfully allergic to animals (not just the fur but the saliva) so it hasn’t been possible… yet.

I love the introduction of more mythical creatures in Warrior — like the Dokkaebi, Kumiho, and so on. Will there be more to follow?

Yes, definitely. The Asian mythology was one of my favorite parts of researching for this series. There are quite a few creatures that are very distinctly Asian and are very different from what we normally see in Western mythology. But I have to say that the Dokkaebi and the Kumiho were my favorite characters to write about. They were so fun!

Finally: If you had to choose, who do you think would make a better avatar in the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra series — Kira or Korra?

Oh, tough question! I do love the Korra series but I don’t think I could answer that particular question. But how about this – If both Kira and Korra lost all their magical powers, who would be the stronger fighter? And I would say Kira, because her skills have never been completely dependent on magic but her own strength and power.

ellen_145Originally from NYC, Ellen Oh is an adjunct college instructor and former entertainment lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She also loves martial arts films, K-pop, K-dramas, cooking shows, and is a rabid fan of The Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra series. Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and three daughters and has yet to satisfy her quest for a decent bagel.

 

 

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Mini-review: Akata Witch

Title: Akata Wakatalskjsljdsitch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genres: fantasy, contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Viking Children’s
Review copy: the charming library
Availability: April 14, 2011

Summary: Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ve been meaning to read Akata Witch for a while now since the cover is pretty awesome and everything by Nnedi Okorafor is bound to be great. This contemporary fantasy set in Nigeria has pretty much all the things I love in fiction — magic, friendship, and good food. Sunny, Chichi, Orlu and Sasha have completely different personalities and lives, but that only serves to enhance the camraderie they have. The solid worldbuilding neatly fuses the magical with the ordinary and Sunny’s initiation into the world of free agents, juju, and Leopard Knocks is fascinating to read. I only wish I had read this book sooner. I am definitely looking forward to the sequel Breaking Kola.

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love a good contemporary fantasy.

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Mini-review: Stormdancer

yuckTitle:  Stormdancer (The Lotus War #1)
Author: Jay Kristoff
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 313
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Review copy: the library
Availability: September 18, 2012

Summary: The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: To be honest, I was skeptical of this book’s self-proclaimed status as “Japanese steampunk.”* Still, I decided to give it chance because I love griffins and the book blurb promised me griffins. Sadly, my skepticism and doubts were not unfounded — Stormdancer’s use of Japanese culture as a convenient exotic setting was off-putting, to say the least.

The book takes place in Shima Isles (“Island” isles? Hm.) where Yukiko befriends a griffin (“thunder tiger”) and goes up against the dark conspiracies afoot in the empire. I did end up loving Buruu the griffin, who is pretty much the best part of the entire book. The prose was extremely detailed and occasionally beautiful, but this was also the book’s failing. The prose was so jampacked with detail that it felt like a wikipedia article full of feudal Japan factoids had somehow fused with the book, which brings me to–

Unfortunately, the book’s casual treatment of Japan as an exotic fantasy backdrop prevented me from enjoying the story. This ranges from the generic Asian-y atmosphere of the book to the offensively cavalier use of Japanese culture. In addition, Japanese words are misused and mistranslated in both the text and the glossary. Throughout the book, there’s a strong sense of cultural appropriation and shallow, careless research.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I believe this saying also applies to books. When it came to creating a book that respects the culture it uses as its setting, this village fell down on the job.

Recommendation: Just skip it.

For more in-depth reviews: the Book Smugglers and Dear Author
Further reading: Ellen Oh on The Importance of Proper Research

*Steampunk set in shogunate Japan is sort of like setting steampunk in medieval England instead of Victorian England. Um, what?

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Review: Fire with Fire

fire with fireTitle:  Fire with Fire (Burn for Burn #2)
Author: Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 528
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review copy: the lovely library
Availability: August 13, 2013

Summary: Lillia, Kat, and Mary had the perfect plan. Work together in secret to take down the people who wronged them. But things didn’t exactly go the way they’d hoped at the Homecoming Dance. Not even close. For now, it looks like they got away with it. All they have to do is move on and pick up the pieces, forget there ever was a pact. But it’s not easy, not when Reeve is still a total jerk and Rennie’s meaner than she ever was before.

And then there’s sweet little Mary…she knows there’s something seriously wrong with her. If she can’t control her anger, she’s sure that someone will get hurt even worse than Reeve was. Mary understands now that it’s not just that Reeve bullied her—it’s that he made her love him. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, burn for a burn. A broken heart for a broken heart. The girls are up to the task. They’ll make Reeve fall in love with Lillia and then they will crush him. It’s the only way he’ll learn. It seems once a fire is lit, the only thing you can do is let it burn… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The Burn for Burn series is the sort of series that people would call a ‘guilty pleasure’ — though why anyone should feel guilty about reading something that makes them happy is beyond me. Fire with Fire is the second book in the Burn for Burn series. The first book involves the three main girls (Lillia, Kat and Mary) getting their respective vengeance on those who have wronged them. It’s probably best to read the first book to follow what’s going on in the second, but it’s not strictly necessary for enjoying the sequel.

The second book, Fire with Fire (a brilliant title!), follows in the wake of Burn for Burn after the girls have gotten their revenge. Instead of being satisfied, the girls are determined to follow through and get revenge on the one guy who hurt Mary. Of course, the revenge plot does not go as planned.

The constantly shifting relationships create a lot of compelling drama and conflict, which is at once Fire with Fire’s strength and weakness. Fire with Fire takes place in the same alternate universe as many tv shows and YA books — you know, that bizarre alternate universe in which every girl is rich/cool/beautiful and the only clique that matters is the popular crowd. The romantic conflict, while highly emotional and interesting to read, definitely threw me. I just can’t get behind any romance that even vaguely follows the path of Irredeemable Hot Jerk Gets Redeemed. More forgiving and romantic readers would definitely disagree with me on this point — so if you like it, read it.

The high drama tone of the series felt heavy handed at times, but what sets the series apart from others is the development of the girls’ friendships and the tinge of the supernatural that creeps in from time to time. Crazy plot twists are this series’ strong point and it only gets better in the second book. Unfortunately, the foundation for these plot twists isn’t laid out clearly, so it’s a little jarring. If you enjoy revenge and romance in the alternate universe setting where everyone is beautiful and cool, then this book will be a pleasure to read.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday if you want a dose of revenge and romance.

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Nostalgia trip: The House of the Scorpion

house of the scorpionTitle: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopian
Pages: 380
Publisher: Atheneum Book
Review Copy: the library
Availability: January 1, 2002

Summary: Matteo Alacrán was not born; He was harvested. His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium — a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster — except for El Patrón. As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

The House of tlord of opiumhe Scorpion is one of those books from my childhood that I remember oh-so-fondly — it was terrifying and fascinating, and a great introduction to both the dystopian and science fiction genre. It had everything: Clones! Adventure! Political conflict! The worldbuilding was complex yet incredibly easy to fall into. The House of the Scorpion was my first Nancy Farmer book and it led me to read every other Nancy Farmer book I could get my hands on. Reading the book again as an adult did not diminish the experience. If anything, being older lets me truly appreciate the incredible storytelling and sense of adventure in the The House of the Scorpion.

When The Lord of Opium came out a month ago, I’d nearly forgotten about this childhood favorite. Now that the long-awaited sequel is out, I am ready to reread everything Nancy Farmer again.

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