Review: Serpentine

serpentineTitle: Serpentine
Author: Cindy Pon
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 300
Publisher: Month9Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Serpentine is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, Serpentine tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

Review: It is a pleasure to relax into a world that I trust an author to handle, and I’m happy to report that my trust was rewarded with Cindy Pon’s Serpentine. One of my favorite things about fantasy is well-crafted worlds, and Pon paints the Kingdom of Xia vividly, from clothing to hairstyles to cultural norms and expectations. And of course, the mythology, with its demons and undead creatures and immortals and secrets. I can’t go too deeply into the my appreciation for the world-building without having to resort to spoilers, so I’ll simply say I wish more authors took as much care with making a world that felt lived-in. The little details can be just as important in setting a scene as the broader ones, and Pon did a fantastic job.

Skybright is a wonderful protagonist who faces challenges both mundane and supernatural. Her struggles to figure out what was going on with herself and the supernatural world were equally compelling. I was particularly drawn to her friendship/sisterhood with Zhen Ni and how their bond was tested in a host of different ways throughout the story. Skybright and Zhen Ni’s relationship was easily my favorite in the book, especially in the second half, when things got rather complicated.

I have a few minor complaints about the romance between Skybright and Kai Sen (mostly at how quickly it moved at the beginning), but it was mostly satisfying. I appreciated that Pon did not let their romance overshadow the bond between Skybright and Zhen Ni. Kai Sen was an interesting character, though I think a significant portion of that interest for me was in the potential for deadly conflict between him and Skybright. Once that was largely settled, my interest in Kai Sen waned.

Stone was a character that I didn’t appreciate much at the outset, but he grew more intriguing as the story turned toward the greater supernatural conflict. I’m curious to see more of him even though I don’t particularly like him—his character has the potential to deepen the scope of the story in the next book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The fantasy world of Serpentine is well crafted. Cindy Pon has populated the world with interesting characters and a high-stakes plot that steadily ramps up to a solid climax. While there are a few points that didn’t work for me as much as I wanted them to, this was a satisfying read.

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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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Review: In Real Life

lifeTitle: In Real Life
Author: Jessica Love
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 240
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Received an e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: Hannah Cho and Nick Cooper have been best friends since 8th grade. They talk for hours on the phone, regularly shower each other with presents, and know everything there is to know about one another.

There’s just one problem: Hannah and Nick have never actually met.

Hannah has spent her entire life doing what she’s supposed to, but when her senior year spring break plans get ruined by a rule-breaker, she decides to break a rule or two herself. She impulsively decides to road trip to Vegas, her older sister and BFF in tow, to surprise Nick and finally declare her more-than-friend feelings for him.

Hannah’s romantic gesture backfires when she gets to Vegas and meets Nick’s girlfriend, whom he failed to mention. And it turns out his relationship status isn’t the only thing he’s been lying to her about. Hannah knows the real Nick can’t be that different from the online Nick she knows and loves, but now she only has one night in Sin City to figure out what her feelings for Nick really are, all while discovering how life can change when you break the rules every now and then.

Review: I requested this ARC because I thought it could be a fun story—some of my closest friends are people I met online, and some of those friendships have since transferred from online only to “real life.” I was certain that throwing romance into the mix with a heavy dose of Las Vegas would make things even more exciting. Instead, the first chapter opened on a sour note it never quite recovered from when Hannah, the Korean-American narrator, spent a great deal of time complaining about how Aditi Singh (presumably another girl of color) “stole” a student government trip that should have “belonged” to Hannah even though it is implied the trip is merit-based and Aditi’s application was the better one.

Unfortunately, Hannah continues to pit herself against basically every girl in the story, from her sister, Grace, to her best friend, Lo, to Nick’s girlfriend, Frankie. It gets particularly bad when Frankie is in the picture as Hannah can’t seem to comment on Frankie’s appearance without snarking about the size of Frankie’s breasts or being horribly jealous whenever Frankie comes in contact with her boyfriend. Hannah’s possessiveness over Nick—who isn’t her boyfriend and whose affections she shot down prior to the start of the story—becomes frustrating in short order when it is constantly accompanied by petty commentary about Frankie and isn’t alleviated by the rare moments when Hannah admits there are good points about Frankie.

There are also a few moments re: race that gave me pause, such as Hannah’s description of herself: “[breaking rules] goes against my Good Korean Girl DNA. Rules are made to be followed—at least that’s what my parents, who aren’t Tiger Parents or anything but are still pretty serious, drilled into me starting the second I learned to crawl.” I was also unimpressed with how close Lo came to several negative Latinx stereotypes. It felt like the author had tried to write racially diverse characters but didn’t understand how particular character traits/plot points could become harmful stereotypes when applied to characters of color.

The plot itself is a frustrating cycle of will-Hannah-confess-or-not, with her constantly convincing herself to say something and then either getting interrupted or running away from the opportunity. While there are some fun moments between her and Nick, they are undercut by the constant wheel-spinning, and Nick’s not-quite-ambiguity about pursuing something with Hannah despite having a girlfriend already made it difficult to root for the couple.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are a few good moments, In Real Life is overall an unsatisfying and frustrating read.

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Review: Burn Baby Burn

burnTitle: Burn Baby Burn
Author: Meg Medina
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 320
Genre: Historical, Romance
Review Copy: ARC via publisher
Availability: March 8, 2016

Summary: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.

Review: Meg Medina transports readers to one seriously sweltering, tension-filled summer. She created a satsifying sense of place. While reading Burn Baby Burn, I saw 70s New York and could practically feel the sweat dripping down my back. This was particularly amazing since my first read through happened during subfreezing winter temps here in the mid-west. Medina seamlessly wove in details that brought the summer of 1977 to life.

This was a remarkable summer given the presence of a serial killer in the area. The killings certainly added to the intensity of the novel since that part of the book was based on actual events. The inhumanity was horrifying. It was mirrored on a smaller scale though with Nora’s brother as he becomes colder and increasingly cruel towards his family. Nora and her mother don’t tell people outside the family about his bullying and also avoid talking about it among themselves. The worry about embarrassment or losing respectability keeps them silent even with close friends and relatives. This is a common response in the real world and one that could resonate with many readers.

It’s Nora’s senior year and she’s eager to get out and be on her own. The fears and responsibilities are wearing her down. She has no idea how to solve the many problems her family is facing and she is pinning all her hopes on simply escaping. Fortunately, Nora has many people in her life that nudge her toward possibilities. There are two adults in her school encouraging her to go on to college. She has talent for woodworking and fixing things, but has a hard time seeing herself going on to college. The cost, the likely attitudes and prejudice of male classmates, and other hurdles have her doubting. I loved that there are people in her corner reminding her of her strengths and what her future could be if she steps out and believes in herself.

Stiller is another adult nudging Nora and encouraging her to use her strength. I especially appreciated her. She’s a black woman who lives in their apartment building. According to Nora, “Stiller takes absolutely no shit.” She’s an activist with many causes and she has distinct opinions about the feminist movement. In a discussion about an upcoming women’s conference, Stiller “wants to see the needs of black women included or she won’t go. ‘Being oppressed as a woman is just one way of being held down Mary,’ she said.”

Women’s issues come up many times throughout the novel. Nora contemplates her place in the midst of her woodworking classes, how her mother has completely different standards for her and her brother, how men treat her on the street and more. Mary, the Mother of Nora’s best friend Kathleen, is also very invested in the feminist movement. This results in the girls becoming involved even when they aren’t totally sure how they feel about it all. They’re still figuring out what they believe and what is and isn’t important to them.

As with other books Medina has written, the main character is Cuban American. She doesn’t always claim this heritage and is conflicted about the times when she passes or doesn’t speak up in the face of racist comments in her presence. Racial issues are not the only theme in the book, but they are certainly present throughout.

And then there is the romance. Nora and Pablo have a bit of a rocky road, but it’s a satisfying trip. I really enjoyed the mix in this book. The romance is there, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. There’s an excellent balance here between friendship, family, community, romance, racial issues and inner conflict. I almost forgot to mention the music! Nora and Kathleen share a love for dance and disco music. I found myself humming along and wanting to track down some of the tunes.

Recommendation: Get it as soon as you can! Meg Medina is an excellent storyteller. Burn Baby Burn is intense and suspenseful, but also manages to be hopeful. In spite of the many challenges, or maybe because of them, Nora is able to show her strength. I was cheering her on the whole way.

Extras:
Sample Chapter, Author Notes, Discussion Guide via Publisher
A Playlist for Burn Baby Burn
Book Trailer

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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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Review: Juniors

JuniorsTitle:  Juniors
Author: Kaui Hart Hemmings
Genres: contemporary, romance
Pages: 320
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Availability: September 22nd, 2015

Summary: Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. Part Hawaiian, part Mainlander. Perpetual new girl at school. Hanging in the shadow of her actress mother’s spotlight. And now: new resident of the prominent West family’s guest cottage.

Bracing herself for the embarrassment of being her classmates’ latest charity case, Lea is surprised when she starts becoming friends with Will and Whitney West instead—or in the case of gorgeous, unattainable Will, possibly even more than friends. And despite their differences, Whitney and Lea have a lot in common: both are navigating a tangled web of relationships, past disappointments and future hopes. As things heat up with Will, and her friendship with Whitney deepens, Lea has to decide how much she’s willing to change in order to fit into their world. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Juniors is pretty much the perfect spring fling type of book. It’s the kind of book I’d expect to read when the weather’s warm, the sun’s out, and I’m chilling outside.It’s a book filled with luxury, surfing, romance, and, well, more surfing.

The heroine of Juniors, Lea Lane, moves to Hawaii for the last half of her junior year of high school with her actress-on-the-rise single mother. At the start, Lea’s having a hard time adjusting to her new school, setting down roots and making friends. When her mother gets invited by her rich friends to move into their cottage, Lea strikes up a friendship with the friend’s daughter Whitney and starts crushing on Whitney’s brother Will.

Throughout the book, you get a combination of Lea’s life in Hawaii — local culture, beach houses, trekking to the ocean — and her inner struggles. Like any teenager, she’s struggling to figure out who she is, how she fits in, and who her friends are. Her awkwardness, snarky remarks, and her hot-and-cold relationship with her mother were vividly depicted. Lea’s voice is strong throughout the book.

At times, her voice felt a little too real. Lea is certainly not perfect. She has insecurities a-plenty, including ones where she cringes at being thought of less than her rich friends, or viewed as like a maid or a foster child (hello, classism). She regards places that are frequented by locals as kind of sketch, and, like her peers, makes offensive jokes. It was hard to tell whether this was meant to show Lea as a realistic and flawed teen, or meant to be read surface-level (yikes).

Once you move past that — which can be kind of tough — it’s an enjoyable journey with Lea. The book left me wanting to head out to the beach, enjoy the sunset, and live life. The strength of Juniors mostly centers on Lea and her mother, which is one of the best mother-daughter relationships I’ve read in a while.

Ultimately, Juniors was a fun read. Check it out if you want a mostly-light read to pass the time!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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