Review: The Smoking Mirror

The Smoking MirrorTitle: The Smoking Mirror (Garza Twins, Book 1)
Author: David Bowles
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 220
Publisher: IFWG Publishing, Inc.
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.

Review: The Smoking Mirror is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been able to stumble across when I was in the target audience’s age range. Protagonists of Mexican descent as heroes in a fantasy book? Facing trials in nine levels of a hellish underworld to save their mom? That would have meant the world to me when I was twelve, and as an adult, it still makes me really happy. It also made a lot of other people happy—The Smoking Mirror was named a 2016 Pura Belpré Honor book.

Author David Bowles straddles the line between middle grade and young adult with The Smoking Mirror. It is a great action/adventure story—the nine levels of the Mictlan prove to be a harrowing (and gruesome) checklist for the Garza twins to get through. Each section is distinct (and terrifying), populated by gods and monsters who get in their way, and thereby keep the pace from lagging by providing ever-new challenges for the twins. Each time they made it through a level of the underworld, I was eager to see what they would be up against next. Occasionally, it felt as if their victories weren’t as difficult as I wished they were, but there were many other, more satisfying encounters.

While I felt that some of the writing was weak in places (or distracting—my taste in humor didn’t always line up with the author’s) and wished that there had been more space to explore the world (including their relationship with their grandmother and their family’s grief), Bowles made up for it by creating a pair of protagonists I enjoyed rooting for. Carol and Johnny are engaging heroes, and I enjoyed the back and forth of their distinct POVs. Despite their not-infrequent clashing, watching the twins come back together and depend on each other during the story was a rewarding journey. The descriptions of the Mictlan and the frequent use of Spanish are also some of my favorite parts of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The Smoking Mirror is an entertaining adventure story that moves at a quick pace and features a memorable and underrepresented mythology. While the book isn’t without its flaws, it nevertheless kept my attention on the story it was trying to tell. I’m happy to learn that the next book was recently released—I think this series would be a great addition to one of my younger sibling’s bookcase.

Extras
“Author David Bowles on his Garza Twins Series and the Pura Belpré Honor”

“Twins battle Aztec gods in ‘Smoking Mirror’”

“Castle Horror Podcast: Interview: David Bowles, author of ‘A Kingdom Beneath the Waves’”

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Fantasy YA Lit List

These days, I’ve been in the kind of book mood where you just want to bask in old favorites, rereading familiar words over and over again. Naturally, I’ve turned to my favorite genre, fantasy, and have been working through my top fantasy YA books. If you’ve been looking for a quality YA fantasy by/about POC, then check out these books:

6289599Half World (Half World #1) by Hiromi Goto

Melanie Tamaki is human—but her parents aren’t. They are from Half World, a Limbo between our world and the afterlife, and her father is still there. When her mother disappears, Melanie must follow her to Half World—and neither of them may return alive. Imagine Coraline as filmed by the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Howl’s Moving Castle), or Neil Gaiman collaborating with Charles de Lint. Half World is vivid, visceral, unforgettable, a combination of prose and images that will haunt you. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

 

akatalskjsljdsAkata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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]

17869212Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland

Zephyr Mourning has never been very good at being a Harpy. She’d rather watch reality TV than learn forty-seven ways to kill a man, and she pretty much sucks at wielding magic. Zephyr was ready for a future pretending to be a normal human instead of a half-god assassin. But all that changes when her sister is murdered—and she uses a forbidden dark power to save herself from the same fate.

Zephyr is on the run from a punishment worse than death when an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend (a surprisingly HOT friend) changes everything. Because it seems like Zephyr might just be the Nyx, a dark goddess made flesh that is prophesied to change the power balance. For hundreds of years the half-gods have lived in fear, and Zephyr is supposed to change that. But how is she supposed to save everyone when she can’t even save herself? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

11831627The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

Sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to fit in—at home she’s the perfect daughter, at school she’s provocatively sassy, and thanks to her mixed heritage, she doesn’t feel she belongs with the Caribbeans, whites, or blacks. And even more troubling, lately her skin is becoming covered in a sticky black substance that can’t be removed. While trying to cope with this creepiness, she goes out with her brother—and he disappears. A mysterious bubble of light just swallows him up, and Scotch has no idea how to find him. Soon, the Chaos that has claimed her brother affects the city at large, until it seems like everyone is turning into crazy creatures. Scotch needs to get to the bottom of this supernatural situation ASAP before the Chaos consumes everything she’s ever known—and she knows that the black shadowy entity that’s begun trailing her every move is probably not going to help. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

20345202The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

Beneath the streets of New York City live the Avicen, an ancient race of people with feathers for hair and magic running through their veins. Age-old enchantments keep them hidden from humans. All but one. Echo is a runaway pickpocket who survives by selling stolen treasures on the black market, and the Avicen are the only family she’s ever known. Echo is clever and daring, and at times she can be brash, but above all else she’s fiercely loyal. So when a centuries-old war crests on the borders of her home, she decides it’s time to act… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

 

sorcerer_front mech.inddSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…  [Image and summary via Goodreads]

 

Have you read any of these? What are some of your favorite YA fantasy books?

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Review: The Girl from Everywhere

girl fromTitle: The Girl from Everywhere (The Girl from Everywhere #1)
Author: Heidi Heilig
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 464
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Review copy: Library
Availability: February 16th, 2016

Summary: Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination. As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.

But the end to it all looms closer every day. Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence. For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters. She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love. Or she could disappear. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: When I first read the premise of The Girl From Everywhere, I was at once intrigued and baffled. Sailing across the centuries? Mythical lands? Time travel? That’s an awful lot going on. Given my love of fantasy and myth, I was more than ready to give it a try, even so.

The whole ‘sailing through the centuries to possibly mythical lands’ business works, once you decide to go with the flow and accept it — which is admittedly a little difficult, given that the book jumps into Nix’s seafaring, time-traveling life with very little explanation. But when you do get with the program, it’s a fun ride. Nix and her father’s ship crew sail to lands both real and mystical in a variety of times. The colorful descriptions of each place — little details such as the spread of New York food — bring each destination to life.

The casual interweaving of the mythical with the realistic is definitely one of the story’s strengths. The storytelling does take on a flowing, lyrical tone — which might or might not be your thing. At certain points, though, this takes an unfortunate turn as the vivid, descriptive style of the book manages to skip over actual, crucial plot details and set-up. There were several times when I was left flipping back through the book, baffled at a plot development that came out of nowhere. To be fair, I may not have been paying attention enough.

Though the novel’s perspective is that of the heroine, Nix, sometimes it didn’t feel like it. This may have been why several plot points seemed to come out of nowhere. As things happen and Nix makes crucial decisions, her thought process was occasionally left out of the equation. Even though Nix is surrounded by a cast of fascinating characters — diverse in their backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexuality — it was hard to get a sense of who they were. The varying settings of the story outshone the characters — all except Kashmir, ship crew member and one corner of Nix’s love triangle. He was a lot of fun, and his moments with Nix were pretty cute.

The one thing about the many locales of The Girl From Everywhere that I enjoyed the most was its honesty. While it definitely did not go into Colonialism 101 (if only), certain truths weren’t avoided — such as the destruction of Hawaii’s sovereignty in the past and other historical injustices. This, more than anything else, won me over. I’d love to see more unflinching looks at history in YA lit.

The premise alone makes The Girl From Everywhere worth reading. If you’re a big fan of adventures on the high seas and time travel, then check this book out!

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re into the premise of time travel via sailing. Otherwise, maybe just borrow it someday.

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Book Review: The Love that Split the World

The Love that Split the WorldTitle: The Love that Split the World
Author: Emily Henry
Genres:  Magical Realism
Pages: 390
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: I should start owning stock in Barnes & Noble
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Natalie Cleary must risk her future and leap blindly into a vast unknown for the chance to build a new world with the boy she loves.

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start… until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

Review: Emily Henry’s debut novel is being marketed as a mix between Friday Night Lights and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and while I haven’t read Friday Night Lights, I did fall in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife so I figured I would most likely enjoy this novel. And I was right. I greatly enjoyed Henry’s novel and found myself lost in the story, trying to discover the mystery of who was Grandmother.

While this novel is being marketed as a romance, I feel like it was more a novel of discovering the self. The story opens with Natalie graduating high school and preparing to leave for Brown University in the fall. She is preparing for her goodbyes from family and friends, yet is also looking forward to beginning a new life. This time of change, for many who decide to go away for school, is a time where you reflect on your life, specifically your high school years, and try to anticipate what your college life will be like. Natalie is going through these emotions, but with an added pressure by her “Grandmother” to save him. Natalie doesn’t know who “he” is, but also learns that “Grandmother” the supernatural being who has been with her, sharing beautiful parables with her throughout her life will also be leaving her. And with that knowledge, Natalie sets out to discover who “Grandmother” really is and what role the old lady plays in her life. Natalie has to look inward, at her past, her childhood, and even look at her heritage, in order to find her answers. To me, this search for self was much more powerful and interesting than the romance. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the romance, but Natalie’s search for understanding herself, understanding her own mind and beginning to take ownership of her ability to manipulate time really connected with me.

Natalie was already on a path of claiming herself and her heritage, she is American Indian and adopted by a White couple, by deciding to forge her own path. Henry did an excellent job portraying the personal tensions that come from when a child is a different heritage from their parents, and she even mentions the complexities of American Indian adoption. I loved that Henry did not pretend that Natalie’s heritage didn’t effect her outlook on life, but that it colored how she viewed her world.  About a year prior to the start of the novel, Natalie has experienced an identity shift where she decides to be true to herself and to stop trying to fit in to a concept of who she should be. She has quit dance and has become more outspoken about many social issues. I think by having Natalie already think about her role in the world and already be on the journey of discovering the self, what she experiences, the growth she undergoes through the novel, helps the reader understand the choice she makes at the end.

One part about this novel I do want to mention is the parables that Grandmother shares with Natalie. Henry did a great job of presenting different types of parables from different American Indian nations and even includes a Biblical parable. Like any elder, the stories Grandmother shares with Natalie not only teach her about different cultures, but also provide lessons and insights into Natalie’s situation, helping her solve the mystery of who Grandmother is and how Natalie needs to save him. Well, not all the parables add to the mystery, sometimes a story is just a story that elders tell to their children, and that is what really endeared me to many of the tories. In her acknowledgements, Henry gave credit to the nation’s stories that she used and it was clear she did proper research.

Recommendation: Overall, I found Henry’s debut very enjoyable and got lost in the story. If you are a fan of time bending romance, this is the book for you.

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Mini-review: SuperMutant Magic Academy

22752445Title: SuperMutant Magic Academy
Author: Jillian Tamaki
Genres: fantasy, graphic novel
Pages: 225
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Review copy: Library
Availability: April 28th 2015

Summary: The SuperMutant Magic Academy is a prep school for mutants and witches, but their paranormal abilities take a backseat to everyday teen concerns. Science experiments go awry, bake sales are upstaged, and the new kid at school is a cat who will determine the course of human destiny. In one strip, lizard-headed Trixie frets about her nonexistent modeling career; in another, the immortal Everlasting Boy tries to escape this mortal coil to no avail. Throughout it all, closeted Marsha obsesses about her unrequited crush, the cat-eared Wendy. Whether the magic is mundane or miraculous, Tamaki’s jokes are precise and devastating. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Having read This One Summer and Skim, and absolutely loved both, I knew I had to read SuperMutant Magic Academy — even though I basically knew nothing about it. Summaries and explanations just don’t do it justice. Even by the time I had it in my hands, I still had no idea exactly what SuperMutant Magic Academy was about, or what to expect (other than awesomeness).

My best attempt at an explanation is this — it’s a slice of life, sometimes four panel comic (and sometimes not) graphic novel set in, well, a supermutant magic academy…? There are witches and aliens and students with lizard heads and cat ears. This is all offered without explanation. What you get is a glimpse into their daily lives, with thin threads of plot and continuing relationships running throughout.

The humor is at turns endearing and baffling — but in the best way. When I tried to get a friend to read it, all I could say was “Read it! It’s really weird! But good? Also, did I mention it’s super weird?” I ended up swallowing all 200+ pages of it in one go, and when I stood up afterwards, I just walked about in this haze of serenity and pleasant confusion.

In other words… this is worth a read. Sit down with a cup of tea and just enjoy it from start to finish. Then we can talk about it, mostly through question marks and gushing praise.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Review: Seconds

secondsTitle: Seconds
Author: Bryan Lee O’Malley, Nathan Fairbairn (Colorist)
Genres: contemporary, fantasy, graphic novel
Pages: 323
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Availability: July 15th, 2015

Summary: Katie’s got it pretty good. She’s a talented young chef, she runs a successful restaurant, and she has big plans to open an even better one. Then, all at once, progress on the new location bogs down, her charming ex-boyfriend pops up, her fling with another chef goes sour, and her best waitress gets badly hurt. And just like that, Katie’s life goes from pretty good to not so much. What she needs is a second chance. Everybody deserves one, after all—but they don’t come easy. Luckily for Katie, a mysterious girl appears in the middle of the night with simple instructions for a do-it-yourself do-over:
1. Write your mistake
2. Ingest one mushroom
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake anew
And just like that, all the bad stuff never happened, and Katie is given another chance to get things right. But Katie doesn’t care about the rules—and she’s about to discover the unintended consequences of the best intentions. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I went into a pretty strong Scott Pilgrim (the comics! still haven’t watched the movie) phase in undergrad, so I put Seconds on my to-read list the second Bryan Lee O’Malley mentioned it on tumblr. Basically, I’ve been waiting to read Seconds for years, and it was just as awesome as I expected, though the story took a turn I didn’t expect.

Seconds centers on Katie, a chef who opened up the restaurant Seconds. After several years, her life and the people in her life have changed. She’s looking to move on as well by opening up a new restaurant… until something goes horribly wrong,and she discovers a magical way to redo it all again — and again, and again. Naturally, there are consequences and strange things afoot.

The comic has a heavy thread of narration throughout, which lends Katie’s journey a kind of melancholy and enchanting tone. In keeping with Scott Pilgrim, the humor is quirky, relateable, and serves to tell you a lot about even peripheral side characters. One reference to Scott Pilgrim had me grinning in delight (the bread joke, if you know the one). Though the art is fashionable and adorable, the story definitely can get a little chilling. I regret reading it at night (whoops).

The art, of course, is great — the colors, the style, the way little asides and speech bubbles were arranged were all top-notch to me. More than once, I found myself wishing I was nearly as stylish as the characters in Seconds. This is definitely a book that you can admire visually, along with enjoying the story.

Seconds is going to the top of my favorite comic books of all time. Now I have to go and search for Seconds fanart so I can keep living in that world a little longer…

Recommendation: Buy it now! This is a seriously amazing read.

Further reading: Bryan Lee O’Malley on POC representation in his comics

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