Review: Flowers in the Sky

flowers in the skyTitle: Flowers in the Sky
Author: Lynn Joseph
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 232
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review copy: friendly local library
Availability: March 5, 2013

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Nina Perez is faced with a future she never expected. She must leave her Garden of Eden, her lush home in the Dominican Republic, when she’s sent by her mother to seek out a better life with her brother in New York. As Nina searches for some glimpse of familiarity amid the jarring world of Washington Heights, she must uncover her own strength. She learns to uncover roots within foreign soil and finds a way to grow, just like the orchids that blossom on her fire escape. And when she is confronted by ugly secrets about her brother’s business, she comes to understand the realities of life in this new place. But then she meets him-that green-eyed boy- who she can’t erase from her thoughts, the one who just might help her learn to see beauty in spite of tragedy. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: I have to be honest — I borrowed this book because of its gorgeous cover. I mean, look at it! Those orchids, that blurred background, the italicized title — it’s like one of those artsy pictures on tumblr with the inspirational quote in the middle (“the road to love takes many paths”). Props to jacket designer Erin Fitzsimmons.

From the very beginning, you are awash with a sense of the bittersweet. The protagonist Nina Perez does not want to leave her “seaside home in Samana on the north coast where the humpback whales come every winter and fill Samana Bay with miracles and tourists” (1). She has every reason to love her home in the Dominican Republic, a place brimming with sunlight and blooming life. Nina is the flower girl and she belongs there. The chapters set in Samana are truly beautiful.

The first person narration allows you to view New York through Nina’s eyes as an immigrants unused to city life. While Nina’s perspective makes her plight easily understood, it does little to explain her sudden love interest. To me, it felt like the romance split the narrative into two parallel stories. There is the story of Nina, the flower girl who adapts to New York and grows strong enough to recognize the desperation of her brother. Her strength and independence manifests itself in the orchids blooming on her fire escape. And then there is the story of Nina, the helpless girl who needs her green-eyed love to rush in and carry her off on his trusty white steed. (Seriously, the guy has a white jeep.) The sibling dynamic between Nina and her brother is compelling enough to drive the story forward and I wish it had gotten the attention it deserved.

For the most part, Flowers in the Sky lives up to its title. The story and the floral theme work together to conjure up an image of orchids struggling to flourish in the sky — it’s a poem in the guise of a novel.

Recommendation: Borrow it sometime if you see it in the library. (If lover-to-the-rescue isn’t your thing, maybe skip it.) It’s a short, sweet read.

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Review: Tiger Lily

Title: Tiger Lilytigerlily
Author: Jodi Lynn Anderson
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 292
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: Paperback available July 2nd. (Hardcover on shelves now!)

Summary: Before Neverland faded into myth, it was a remote and dangerous island filled with deadly mermaids, psychotic pirates, and watchful faeries. And before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair . . . Tiger Lily.

When fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily meets the alluring teenage Peter deep in the forbidden woods, the two form a bond that’s impossible to break, but also impossible to hold on to. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland’s inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. With her betrothal to another man and deadly enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it’s the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who’s everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies lurk inside even the most loyal and loving heart. (image via Goodreads, summary via Amazon)

Review: It was a chilly afternoon when I discovered Tiger Lily, a re-telling of the classical Peter Pan. I was excited to read the book, especially knowing that the novel would focus on Tiger Lily’s, a character who is often treated with  disrespect. I found the concept to be unique, interesting and worthy of my time. I thought Anderson’s decision to re-tell Peter Pan from a different perspective, one from a character of color, was a bold move. I applauded her, in fact.

 
And then I read the novel. I wish I could say that Tiger Lily lived up to my expectations. I wish I could say that Anderson treated the voice of a character of color with sensitivity and distinction. I wish a lot of things, but unfortunately the novel I imagined, is not the novel that I actually read.

 
Anderson had a wonderful opportunity to give voice to one of classical literature’s most misunderstood characters and instead of narrating her novel from Tiger Lily’s point of view, she choose to use Tinkerbell. Now, I love Tinkerbell, do not get me wrong, but the emotional impact of Tiger Lily’s story would have stronger if the reader was in her head during the entire novel. Anderson explains that Tinkerbell is able to understand Tiger Lily’s thoughts because the little fairy empathetic and can read the changes of the heart and mind. Interesting concept, unfortunately, this makes Tinkerbell an unreliable narrator. Because the reader cannot trust Tinkerbell, our perception of Tiger Lily and the decisions she makes is warped.

 
Tinkerbell makes many assumptions about Tiger Lily and is often unsure of her motives, especially when Tiger Lily makes a very out of character decision in regards to Peter. I feel that if the reader was privy to Tiger Lily’s thoughts in that moment, understood her motivation, I wouldn’t have been angry at the character. Instead, I felt like some of the choices Tiger Lily makes is for convenience of the story and not very true to the character – solely because of Tinkerbell’s narration.

 
Choosing to use Tinkerbell as the narrator, instead of Tiger Lily, also brings up the very fact that another character of color’s voice was muted. This simple fact makes me quite angry. In 2013 when the call for more diversity in YA literature by readers and authors is getting louder, to have the opportunity to write outside of one’s comfort zone and write a strong character of color, but don’t, is heartbreaking. Anderson had a wonderful opportunity to push her own personal writing boundaries, to give voice to a people not usually heard from and she chose to not take it. Instead, the novel often times feels like a National Geographic special where the colonists are observing the natives and making assumptions based on the people’s actions. Tiger Lily did not end up being a distinct character and ended up being more of a stereotype/stock character.

Despite using Tinkerbell as the narrator, Tiger Lily is still an entertaining read. Anderson does create a world that fits into our previous knowledge of Neverland, while being different and wholelly her own. Her Captain Hook and Mr. Smee are not entirely one note characters, and she does turn Wendy into a character that one loves to despise. To me, Anderson has an unfinished story here and while Tiger Lily is good, Anderson needed to go the extra mile to make it great.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Mini-review: Cat Girl’s Day Off

cat girlTitle: Cat Girl’s Day Off
Author: Kimberly Pauley
Pages: 331
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: library (the love of my life)
Availability: April 1, 2012

Summary: Natalie Ng’s little sister is a super-genius with a chameleon-like ability to disappear. Her older sister has three Class A Talents, including being a human lie detector. Her mom has laser vision and has one of the highest IQs ever. And Nat? She can talk to cats. Nat and her friends are catapulted right into the middle of a celebrity kidnapping mystery that takes them through Ferris Bueller’s Chicago and on and off movie sets. (image and summary via Goodreads)

Review: I recently reread Cat Girl’s Day Off and I’m glad I did. The fact that the main character Nat Ng’s Talent is talking to cats already makes the book pretty awesome. On top of that, the book features three good friends (Nat, Oscar, and Melly) solving the mystery together — I’m a total sucker for stories with heartwarming friendship. The fast paced story, loveable characters, and hilarious dialogue make for a light, fun read.

Recommendation: Definitely read it if you get the chance or need something to brighten your day.

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Review: Awakening (Tankborn #2)

awakening Title: Awakening
Author: Karen Sandler
Genres: Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic; Science Fiction, Hard
Pages: 400
Publisher: Lee and Low Books/Tu Books
Review Copy: Arc from NetGalley
Availability: April 9, 2013 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Once a Chadi sector GEN girl terrified of her first Assignment, Kayla is now a member of the Kinship, a secret organization of GENs, lowborns, and trueborns. Kayla travels on Kinship business, collecting information to further the cause of GEN freedom.

Despite Kayla’s relative freedom, she is still a slave to the trueborn ruling class. She rarely sees trueborn Devak, and any relationship between them is still strictly forbidden.

Kayla longs to be truly free, but other priorities have gotten in the way. A paradoxically deadly new virus has swept through GEN sectors—a disease only GENs catch. And GEN warrens and warehouses are being bombed, with only a scrawled clue: F.H.E. Freedom, Humanity, Equality.

With the virus and the bombings decimating the GEN community, freedom and love are put on the back burner as Kayla and her friends find a way to stop the killing . . . before it’s too late. Image from Amazon and summary from IndieBound.

Review: Last week in her review of Fragments, Audrey wrote, “Second books in a trilogy are always complicated.” I couldn’t agree more. Middle books often seem to wander a bit merely waiting for the final wrap up in the third. In this case, the first book, Tankborn, left quite a few strings untied and much open for speculation, but this second book raised even more questions and provided very few answers. A completely new storyline is introduced and only a smattering of clues come with it.

Karen Sandler certainly leaves the reader begging for more, since the book ends rather abruptly in the middle of some major action. The author has created characters that the reader can care about, so it can be a bit frustrating for the reader when faced with a cliff-hanger. You may want to wait until the third book is a bit closer to release so you can read them close together. Revolution is slated to be released in the spring of 2014 and that seems like a long time to wait to find out what will happen next.

The benefit of a trilogy though, is that the world is already created, the characters are in place and a lot more development can happen. In Tankborn, Kayla’s physical and emotional strength were demonstrated on many occasions and the reader could get to know her to a certain degree. In Awakening, Sandler takes that next step and  shines more of a light on her inner strength. Kayla has many choices to make and Sandler really takes the opportunity to flesh out who Kayla is and what she truly values.

This book also delves deeper into the caste system and the effects it has on the entire society. The ranking of GENs, lowborns, and trueborns is extremely rigid and even the privileged people who are “helping” still don’t always see how little respect they show those who are lower in the order. As the truth is exposed, characters come face to face with the ugliness in their society and must make the choice to let it remain or take steps to make a change. Fortunately, there is hope for a better future.

One of the cool things about this book is the wildlife on the planet Loka. I found the “pet” seycat to be pretty awesome. Kayla noted that, “Seycats like Nishi might be barely knee-high to the tall GEN boys, but they could slash even a full grown man to ribbons with those claws and teeth” (16). They generally eat rat-snakes (venomous spider creature with a rat-like head and long snake-like body) and sewer toads. Nice.

Once in a while it felt a bit like the vocabulary was forced in and a bit deliberate so the world would seem radically different than Earth, but for the most part it worked. Karen Sandler has a vivid imagination and she uses it to spin a tale complete with deadly meter-high spiders called bhimkays and Genetically Engineered Non-humans who often times appeared more humane than their human “superiors”.

Recommendation: If you cannot take suspense, I would say wait until the final book, Revolution, is closer to release. Otherwise, get it soon along with Tankborn if you haven’t already read it. You would miss a lot — particularly the backstory of Kayla’s relationship with Devak without reading that first. Both books are thought-provoking and entertaining with plenty of action, mystery, and a bit of romance.

Extras:
Booktalk with Karen Sandler Discussing Genetic Engineering and Caste Systems

Sketches from planet Loka (including the above mentioned seycat, bhimkay, and rat-snake)

Karen Sandler Discussing Tankborn

More videos about Tankborn

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Review: Fragments

Fragments
Title: Fragments
Author: Dan Wells
Genres: Dystopia/Post-Apocalyptic; Science Fiction, Hard
Pages: 564
Publisher: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
Review Copy: Received as a birthday gift
Availability: February 26, 2013 (on shelves now!)

Summary: Kira Walker has found the cure for RM, but the battle for the survival of humans and Partials is just beginning. Kira has left East Meadow in a desperate search for clues to who she is. That the Partials themselves hold the cure for RM in their blood cannot be a coincidence—it must be part of a larger plan, a plan that involves Kira, a plan that could save both races. Her companions are Afa Demoux, an unhinged drifter and former employee of ParaGen, and Samm and Heron, the Partials who betrayed her and saved her life, the only ones who know her secret. But can she trust them?

Meanwhile, back on Long Island, what’s left of humanity is gearing up for war with the Partials, and Marcus knows his only hope is to delay them until Kira returns. But Kira’s journey will take her deep into the overgrown wasteland of postapocalyptic America, and Kira and Marcus both will discover that their greatest enemy may be one they didn’t even know existed.

The second installment in the pulse-pounding Partials saga is the story of the eleventh hour of humanity’s time on Earth, a journey deep into places unknown to discover the means—and even more important, a reason—for our survival. —(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Second books in a trilogy are always complicated. They’re rarely satisfactory on their own since their primary purpose seems to be setting everything up for the final book. Even if you do get answers to questions, you’re immediately peppered with more questions.

My feelings about Fragments are equally complicated. On the one hand, yes, Kira finds out who and what she is in this book and what the Trust is—that is awesome. (And this is the point where I highly recommend that you re-read Partials before you launch into Fragments. The science-y plotlines will be much easier to follow if you do.) On the other hand, very little else in this book gets resolved. All the other movements, particularly with the other POVs, seem specifically designed to position all the pieces for book three. As a reader, that’s frustrating, but it also has become standard for the trilogy format. (I had a higher standard for Wells as Mr. Monster was an amazing and satisfying second book, and I’d hoped that magic would extend to Fragments.)

One of the greatest weaknesses of this book is the other points of view. From a story standpoint, these POVs are crucial as they develop plotlines that Kira can’t (since she spends the entirety of the book away from Long Island). However, these other POVs weren’t as “in character” as Kira’s were—most weren’t distinctive enough for me to tell them apart easily. This was particularly disappointing with Marcus as the summary made it sound as if he would have a heftier amount of the book devoted to him. While he had more POVs than anyone other than Kira (and I enjoyed his sense of humor most of the time), I wish we had seen more from him as I felt that the events on Long Island could have merited additional screen-time.

What Wells excels at in this book is the ongoing discussion between Kira and other characters (especially Samm) about morality. What extremes do you go to for survival when the human population has been reduced to 35,000 people and there are 500,000 enemy super-soldiers still around? Fragments spends a lot of time exploring this theme, and it is done superbly. I’d talk about it more, but my favorite conversation involves major spoilers for the book.

I especially enjoyed the wider look at the ruined world. Wells clearly spent a lot of time figuring out what would happen to various cities after twelve years of neglect, and the results were stunning (and a bit terrifying and depressing, honestly). The more we got to know about ParaGen and its creations, the more fascinating (and repulsive) the world got. As a character, Afa also helped widen the scope of the world (and raise the possibility of other humans surviving outside Long Island), though he was emotionally taxing most of the time.

The romance that developed in this book was delightfully un-dramatic, and the action scenes were superb. I have a deep fondness for action scenes that rely on the character’s intelligence (and not necessarily skill) in order to win, and Kira’s smarts are often the key to her survival, especially as she learns to use the link. Give me brainy characters over brawny characters any day. (That said, there were some moments where I thought the characters needed to put the dots together sooner, like what the use of “control” meant. Come on, Marcus, you worked in the hospital. Even I figured it out, and I haven’t had a science class since 2005.)

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re already invested in the trilogy and are willing to put up with all the frustrations inherent in second books. Wells does an amazing job of expanding the world in many ways, but in the end, the book isn’t as satisfying as Partials was. If you’re not already invested, I’d say wait until book three is out and read the series in one go. I have confidence that Wells will give us a fantastic and satisfying ending, especially now that all of the pieces are in the right place. You’ll just have to wait until next year for that to happen.

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Review: Hammer of Witches

hammer

Title: Hammer of Witches
Author: Shana Mlawski
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 400
Publisher: Lee and Low Books/Tu Books
Review Copy: NetGalley Digital Arc
Availability: April 9, 2013 (but may already be on shelves since the hardcover arrived early)

Summary: Baltasar Infante, a bookmaker’s apprentice living in 1492 Spain, can weasel out of any problem with a good story. But when he awakes one night to find a monster straight out of the stories peering at him through his window, he’s in trouble that even he can’t talk his way out of. Soon Baltasar is captured by a mysterious arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the Malleus Malificarum, that demands he reveal the whereabouts of Amir al-Katib, a legendary Moorish sorcerer who can bring myths and the creatures within them to life. Baltasar, of course, doesn’t know where the man is—or that Bal himself has the power to summon genies and golems.

Now Baltasar must escape the Malleus Malificarum so he can find al-Katib and help him defeat a dreadful power that may destroy the world as they know it. As Bal’s journey leads him into uncharted lands on Columbus’s voyage westward, Baltasar learns that stories are much more powerful than he once believed them to be—and much more dangerous. (Image and Summary via IndieBound)

Review:  “My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story. Of course, I never really believed him when he said it.” So begins this tale filled to the brim with stories. They are most often magical and overflowing with mystical creatures, adventure, and hidden, but simple truths.

Baltasar has grown up with amazing stories swirling around him. Fortunately, the stories continue throughout his adventures. They are the jewels that bring sparkle and life to this book. The plot line runs in a relatively straight line, but is peppered with all kinds of tales. The stories feature murder, revenge, demons, golems, a unicorn, and quite a few ferocious creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. Stories are powerful here regardless of their truthfulness. As Baltasar learns to his surprise– perception is often more important than fact.

Characters were also a bright spot in this tale. Baltasar, our storyteller extraordinaire, meets many friends along his journey. A few of them are female  characters who definitely add depth to the story. One in particular refuses to be locked into the roles other people choose for her and she schools Baltasar quite thoroughly.

From the title and cover, I was expecting a fantasy and possibly some history, but had no idea how MUCH history. I appreciated learning about this time period and came to the realization that I have not read much about the Spanish Inquisition in the past.

The title had me puzzled initially, but that is because I had never heard of the document before. The Malleus Malificarum, or Hammer of Witches, was written in the 1400s and led to the persecution of witches or people thought to be witches. Without that base of historical knowledge, I had to read and re-read some things, but most readers will likely be able to follow the events regardless. In addition, Shana provides a great author’s note at the conclusion which points out the relative historical accuracy of the book and where she took artistic license. She also offers many links to primary and secondary sources on her website. I find that I am always craving a bit of non-fiction with historical fiction, so this fit the bill perfectly.

Recommendation: Get it soon particularly if historical fiction is one of your favorites. This is a unique book blending fantasy and history with a diverse cast of characters.

Extras:

Sneak Peek of Hammer of Witches

National Geographic Channel video about the original Malleus Malificarum

 

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