Review: Outrun the Moon

moonTitle: Outrun the Moon
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Genre: Historical
Review copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: May 24, 2016

Summary: San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, an historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the Army to bring help. Fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, yet Mercy still has the ‘bossy’ cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenaged girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Review: Mercy Wong always has a plan. Once she knows what she wants, she figures out the steps she’ll need to take to get there and she’s off like a shot. Mercy doesn’t seem to know the word impossible. She’s strong willed and has “bossy cheeks” like her mother. Some people say this about her as a put-down, but Mercy takes it as a compliment. Her mother says those bossy cheeks mean Mercy can “…row your own boat, even when there is no wind to help you.”

Mercy has ambitions and the know-how. She has thoroughly studied The Book for Business-Minded Women by a woman named Mrs. Lowry who has achieved hero status in Mercy’s eyes. Mercy’s prepared to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve her goal, but her ambitions are not only for herself. She wants to succeed so her father won’t have to work sixteen hour days and her little brother, who has health issues, won’t have to follow in his father’s difficult footsteps. Her dreams are big, but her family’s comfort and health is what inspires her and keeps her moving forward.

Mercy has a long way to go make her dreams come true though. She realizes that the key to becoming wealthy is opportunity. Having been born into poverty in Chinatown, Mercy has a short supply in the area of opportunities. “And if opportunity didn’t come knocking, then Mrs. Lowry says you must build your own door.” Mercy sets about building those doors which involves much scheming, plotting and more than a few adventures. I loved the adventures. There are even hot-air balloon rides. Along the way, Mercy makes connections with people from many different backgrounds. I loved meeting the unique characters and didn’t want to say good-bye. I’m hoping there will be a companion novel or even a sequel so we can meet them again.

Another aspect I truly enjoyed about this novel was the sayings. Throughout the book, Mercy quotes Mrs. Lowry, her mother, her father and many other people she respects. She also has some wise statements of her own. It makes the book very quotable. Here are a few sayings I especially appreciated:

“It amazes me that even when the world is going to hell in a handcart, there’s still beauty in the fringes.”

“Our success is determined not by external forces, but how we react to them.”

“As Ma likes to say, you cannot control the wind, but you can control your sails.”

“Your circumstances don’t determine where you can go, only your starting point.”

In addition to the many young women in the story, there is a love interest. Mercy has loved Tom for quite some time, but there are complications and he is moving far away. I appreciated that there’s a romance in the story, but it’s not the main focus of the novel. Mercy has many different things going on in her life and he is important, but is just one of her concerns.

I also found the history interesting. Because I went to school in California, I had a basic understanding that many Chinese people came to California in the 1800s and understood that there was racism, but either didn’t know or didn’t remember the many restrictions placed upon the immigrants and their children even when they were born in the U.S. One of those restrictions was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which severely limited Chinese immigration and made it virtually impossible for men to bring over their wives and children. Mercy experiences racism over and over again. At one point she notes that “people will never stop seeing my color first, before me.”

Recommendation: Get this one as soon as you can especially if historical fiction is your thing. Stacey Lee is a wonderful storyteller. She does a fabulous job bringing the setting to life and she creates memorable characters that are sure to steal hearts. Oh, and you might need a tissue once in a while.

Extra: Pre-order special

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Book Review: Darkness Hidden

darkness hiddenTitle: Darkness Hidden (Name of the Blade #2)
Author: Zoe Marriott
Genres:  Adventure, Urban Fantasy, Supernatural
Pages: 352
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available Nov. 10

Summary: Zoë Marriott’s inventive, Japanese-inflected urban fantasy raises the stakes in a sweeping second installment.

Against all odds, Mio has defeated the evil Nekomata and seen her love, Shinobu, restored to life. But in the wake of the battle, Mio’s unsettling connection to the katana—an ancient sword her family has been compelled to guard for generations—has grown more frightening. And now the Underworld has sent the Shikome—foul women whose feathers carry death—to spread a supernatural plague through London. With her best friend in the hospital, Shinobu’s very existence at risk, and the city in chaos, Mio realizes there is no way she can keep everyone she loves alive. What terrible sacrifice must she make to save the world?

Review: With so many fantasy novels set in European mythology, having a book that breaks the “status quo” is refreshing and Zoe Marriott’s Name of the Blade series is the perfect fit. Candlewick Press was kind enough to send me both books from the series, so I was able to enjoy Name of the Blade and Darkness Hidden back to back. To say I enjoyed both novels is an understatement. When I finished Darkness Hidden, I was ready to read the final installment, because like many authors before her, Marriott left a main character “in peril”, so to speak, and I was not happy. I need to find out what happens to…ha, not going to tell! You have to read to find out. Anyway, onto why Darkness Hidden was such a fun read.

The novel picks up moments after “Name of the Blade” leaves off, and I actually like that bit of storytelling. Darkness Hidden starts out with a sense of urgency right away and doesn’t let up until, well…never. The “big bad” in this novel is truly terrifying and at times it seems like our heroes won’t win. Unlike the first book where only a few people in the “normal” world were affected by the events in the book, with the Shikome, the terror is city wide, which really ups the stake for Mio and her friends. In many urban fantasy novels, it seems like the “normal” world really isn’t effected that much, but in Darkness Hidden, London definitely is. The plague that the Shikome spread through the city has real world effects and London basically shuts down. I greatly enjoyed that Marriott decided to involve more of London in the story because it made her world much more richer than it already was. Milo is learning about the supernatural world that she is a part of, but she still is living in the mortal world and her decisions are effecting not just those whom she is close to, but the larger society. This allows for Mio to truly grow and become more responsible in the book. She realizes the extent that her one moment of curiosity and/or selfishness has brought.

Speaking of Mio, aside from the tremendous world building that Marriott has brought to the series, Mio is a character that we can really relate to. She is a typical teen who sometimes doesn’t make the best decisions, but her intentions are always good. She is doing her best to make sense of a world that in practically the blink of an eye, is one that is so much bigger than she ever thought. And then, Mio receives some news that truly rocks her world, in a perfect plot twist moment. It is one that no one will see coming and I love this book for it. With the twist comes some clarity for Mio, but it isn’t easy. And that is also what makes Mio such a great character and the novel so interesting. Aside from the action and supernatural baddies, Darkness Hidden gives us some deep themes to have us consider as we travel with Mio on this journey to right a wrong. I am very interested to see how the trilogy ends, especially with that ending!

Recommendation: I greatly enjoyed this series as it was a lot of fun. I can’t wait for the third book in the series and so will you. Get it soon!

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Review: Trail of the Dead (Killer of Enemies #2)

trail
Title: Trail of the Dead (Killer of Enemies #2)
Author: Joseph Bruchac
Publisher: Tu Books
Genres: Action/Adventure, Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 400
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: October 1, 2015

Summary: In the sequel to the award-winning Killer of Enemies, Apache teen Lozen and her family are looking for a place of refuge from the despotic Ones who once held them captive and forced Lozen to hunt genetically engineered monsters.

Lozen and her allies travel in search of a valley where she and her family once found refuge. But life is never easy in this post-apocalyptic world. When they finally reach the valley, they discover an unpleasant surprise awaiting them―and a merciless hunter following close behind.

Hally, their enigmatic Bigfoot friend, points them to another destination―a possible refuge. But can Lozen trust Hally? Relying on her wits and the growing powers that warn her when enemies are near, Lozen fights internal sickness to lead her band of refugees to freedom and safety. Alongside family, new friends, and Hussein, the handsome young man whose life she saved, Lozen forges a path through a barren land where new recombinant monsters lurk and the secrets of this new world will reveal themselves to her… whether she wants them to or not.

Review: Bruchac is a master storyteller. From the beginning to the end, he weaves a tapestry made of many intriguing stories. They come from many sources. Much of the book is told from Lozen’s point of view. She shares stories told by her father, uncle and mother. Some of my favorite stories revolve around Coyote. The video below is Bruchac reading a portion of the book involving Coyote if you’d like a sample.

Other parts of the book are delivered through the eyes of her enemy. That adds a rather disturbing twist to the tale. Her enemy’s mind is not a pleasant place to visit and his world view is horrifying. His complete lack of empathy and his pure enjoyment of other people’s misery can be unsettling and more than a little creepy. Once in a while it was unclear who was narrating at the beginning of a chapter. That could be a little confusing for readers, but it becomes clear eventually. I couldn’t tell if that was a deliberate tactic on Bruchac’s part or not, but he did have me puzzled a few times.

I appreciated the inner conflict that Lozen was facing in addition to the monsters outside. Her phenomenal skills would have been unbelievable if she didn’t have weaknesses somewhere. All of the killing she has done begins to take a toll on her mentally and spiritually. She realizes that there is a dark side to what she’s been doing even though she has only been killing to protect herself and her family.

I also appreciated getting to know some of the other characters. Killer of Enemies focused in on Lozen, but in this second book, Lozen is grappling with her inner turmoil and is forced to rely on others. As she allows more people to get past her defenses, readers get to learn more about them. If you were wondering, yes, the love interest does become more interesting. This aspect of the book doesn’t overwhelm or become the sole focus of the story, but it does add another intriguing layer.

Even with all of the developing relationships and internal conflict, there is still plenty of action in the story. Bruchac doesn’t spare us the details either. We see the monsters up close along with weapons, blood, guts and gruesomeness often at top speed.

When I finished reading, one of the first things that popped into my head was this is a very entertaining book. There was plenty of action, introspection and even humor. I had to smile then when I read the author’s note. Bruchac explained that while there are certainly important lessons to be learned in this series, “My first aim is to entertain you.” I would say that his goal was met.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you read and enjoyed Killer of Enemies. This is one of those books that will keep you on the edge of your seat and will even get a laugh or two out of you along the way.

Extras:

Goodreads Book Giveaway (through September 28, 2015)

Joseph Bruchac reads from Chapter 15

Audrey’s review of Killer of Enemies

My mini-review of Rose Eagle (prequel e-novella to Killer of Enemies)

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Review: Court of Fives

18068907Title: Court of Fives (Court of Fives #1)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 448
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Availability: August 18th, 2015

Summary: In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Little Women’s been on my mind, what with the recent announcement of a dystopian TV show adaptation of the classic novel. I know, sounds super weird. When I started reading Court of Fives, I immediately noticed that the four sisters had names that resembled the sisters in Little Women. The characters loosely match Little Women — especially Jessamy, the protagonist, who would totally jump fences with Jo.

That’s where the resemblance ends, to my mind. Court of Fives is set in a ‘Greco-Roman Egypt’ inspired world, where Jessamy yearns to escape her privileged Patron life (with a few catches) so that she can go run the competition known as the Fives. The Fives involves five sets of challenges and obstacles — and Jessamy is pretty good at it. When Jessamy meets Kalliarkos, a high-ranking member of the Patron class, the difference in their stations in life are starkly apparent.

When Kalliarkos was introduced, I was afraid this would become the usual story — less privileged girl falls in love with privileged boy who is somehow different from his peers. But just the opposite happened. Through subtle details and less subtle commentary from other Commoner class characters, Kalliarkos is shown to benefit from his privilege, while also being a sympathetic characters. I was pleasantly surprised at how well most of the race dynamics and class privilege handled in the book. (My grudge against Jessamy’s father will never cease, though.)

The story itself is incredibly compelling! After a slow start, the book picks up the pace — within a chapter, I was hooked and read the rest of the book in one sitting. The setting felt real, and the late reveal about the sins of the conquering nations (hello, imperialism!) was awesome. I’d love to gush about it more, but that would be spoiler city. Suffice it to say, that it’s magical and thought-provoking.

All in all, I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel. This was a solid book from start to finish, and Jessamy’s world is one I want to return to.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Review: Ink and Ashes

inkTitle: Ink and Ashes
Author: Valynne E. Maetani
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure/Thriller
Pages: 386
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Claire Takata has never known much about her father, who passed away when she was a little girl. But on the anniversary of his death, not long before her seventeenth birthday, she finds a mysterious letter from her deceased father, addressed to her stepfather. Claire never even knew that they had met.

Claire knows she should let it go, but she can’t shake the feeling that something’s been kept from her. In search of answers, Claire combs through anything that will give her information about her father . . . until she discovers he was a member of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. The discovery opens a door that should have been left closed.

So begins the race to outrun his legacy as the secrets of her father’s past threaten Claire’s friends and family, newfound love, and ultimately her life. Ink and Ashes, winner of Tu Books’ New Visions Award, is a heart-stopping debut mystery that will keep readers on the edge of their seats until the very last page.

Review: I knew from the moment I read the summary that I needed to get my hands on Ink and Ashes, and I’m pleased to say that Valynne E. Maetani’s debut novel did not disappoint me.

For me, an integral part of a mystery is making me anxious for the characters, and Maetani did an excellent job keeping me on the edge of my seat. As Claire continued to dig deeper and deeper into the mysteries surrounding her father, the more the danger ramped up. Maetani used different types of suspense so the audience didn’t get bored with repetition: sneaking around places to pick locks, being followed, unnerving threats, car chases, etc. The different types of dangers made it hard to predict what kind of obstacles Claire, her friends, and her family would face, and that made the read all the more engaging.

The actual mysteries were complicated, and I loved watching Claire throw herself into solving them. It was great to see her brothers, friends, and eventually parents rally around her, but I particularly liked the glimpses we got into the less glamourous side of mystery solving, like painstakingly typing a letter written in Japanese into an internet translator or trying to figure out how to order an autopsy report.

The romance between Claire and Forrest was nicely interwoven with the main mystery plot. I’m always a sucker for best friends turning into something more, and Maetani generally did a great job of keeping me engaged in the romance without letting all of the tension out of the mystery. (I will note a bit of disappointment that it took so long for things to start getting dangerous—based on the summary, I was expecting potential deadly situations to show up sooner.) Claire and Forrest were a great team, and their concern for and support of each other made it easy to root for them.

While Ink and Ashes had a nicely fleshed out supporting cast (I was particularly fond of Claire’s stepfather and Fed), there were very few women in the book overall. Claire easily spent more time interacting with her stepfather than her mother, and her friends on the soccer team barely appeared in the story. Her core investigative team—five people in addition to herself—was entirely boys. I wish Claire had had a close girl friend to do some mystery solving with.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you like stories about uncovering family secrets. While there are a few flaws in Maetani’s debut, Ink and Ashes is a fun, compelling mystery. The book balances its genres well and is anchored by an inquisitive and determined heroine. Tu Books has published some amazing novels, and Ink and Ashes is one of them.

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Review: An Ember in the Ashes

emberTitle: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 443
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review: An Ember in the Ashes got a lot of early buzz this year, and I’m thrilled to say that, for me, it lived up to its hype. Sabaa Tahir created an intricate world with a violent history, militaristic customs, and protagonists you want to root for.

This high-fantasy, Roman-esque world is a brutal one. Tahir doesn’t skirt around the nastier aspects of interactions between conquerors and their subjugated populations, and Blackcliff, the elite military academy, is sort of place that makes everyone watch while a ten-year-old gets whipped to death. Torture, mutilation, sexual assault, rape threats, battle, murder—An Ember in the Ashes isn’t a lighthearted read by any stretch of the imagination. But beyond the physical violence, there are other types of aggression—like forbidding a subjugated people to teach their children how to read—that paved the way for rebellion and treason in many forms.

What anchors this story and infuses it with hope are the two main characters: Laia and Elias. Laia’s desperation to save her brother drives her forward despite the escalating hardships and dangers she endures in her undercover position as a slave at Blackcliff. Her storyline was the most emotionally compelling one for me, particularly when it came to her slow-growing relationships with Izzi, Cook, and Keenan. Elias’s plotline was filled with more obvious peril (or at least, a much higher potential body count), but his desire to escape Blackcliff was just as engaging. His best friend, Helene, was one of the more intriguing characters in the book, and I enjoyed their increasingly tumultuous relationship.

There isn’t much that I can say about the plot without giving large chunks of it away; suffice it to say that Laia and Elias aren’t the only people in An Ember in the Ashes who have secret agendas. The continual upping of the stakes—emotional, physical, and imperial—made for a fast-paced read. While I had a few gripes about the villains—I felt they were terrifying without being especially interesting—this book avoided several potential pitfalls, particularly when it came to the tangled romances.

Recommendation: Buy it now, especially if you love fantasy with strong world-building and a fast-paced plot. An Ember in the Ashes is a solid debut, and I’m definitely looking forward to more of Tahir’s work. The compelling characters and complex plot easily make up for a few minor annoyances.

Extras: First two chapters of the book

Q&A with Sabaa Thir and Renee Ahdieh

Why ‘An Ember In The Ashes’ could launch Sabaa Tahir into JK Rowling territory

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