Book Review: That Thing We Call a Heart

Title: That Thing We Call a Heart
Author: Sheba Karim
Genres: Contemporary Romance
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After hooking up with the most racist boy in school and telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.

Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.

With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.

Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is a honest, moving story of a young woman’s explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.

Review: After hearing so many great things about Karim’s new novel I was really looking forward to it. It was #ownvoices and had numerous Muslim characters in a contemporary romance, which is sorely needed in the world of YA literature. Unfortunately, I came away with a “meh” kind of feeling with this book. It took me a long while to get into it and connect with the main character Shabnam Qureshi. There was something about her that I just didn’t like. Some of her comments really rubbed me the wrong way, specifically about her weight, which I felt could be triggering to folks. Additionally, she was a little too crazy over Jaime, which is what I just realized I didn’t like about her. When I was in high school, boy-crazy girls drove me batty and that is why I didn’t connect with Shabnam. She is a character of contradictions, however, because even though she is very selfish, she does work to understand her father and help him to become a more active participant in their relationship and the relationship with her mother. The father-daughter moments in the novel were truly sweet and moving.

I feel like the “romance” of the novel was less about Jaime and Shabnam and more about the relationship between Shabnam and Farah. At the beginning of the novel the two are estranged from each other with Shabnam missing her best friend terribly. And I can see why as Farah seems to be Shabnam’s total opposite. Where Shabnam is unsure of herself, Farah is confidence personified. Where Shabnam hesitates to speak her mind, Farah doesn’t hold back. Their home lives are opposites as well as Shabnam is an only child whose parents are in a somewhat happy marriage where as Farah is the oldest of four (If I remember correctly) and her parents are constantly at odds. Even though the novel begins with Shabnam and Farah apart from each other, we are given flashbacks of how their friendship developed. These were two girls who connected over not fitting in, even though they were so different, and ended up dependent upon each other. And that desire for her best friend is why Shabnam chose to re-connected with Farah; she wanted to share her happiness about Jamie. I felt Shabnam was quite selfish for only going to her friend then, but ultimately the girls have a heart to heart and get to the bottom of why their friendship fell apart. It was a moving moment and one that I loved because after Shabnam’s time at the pie shack is over, there are an number of pages left to the book and most focus on Shabnam and Farah rekindling their friendship. Shabnam’s character development is due to her coming to accept Farah for who she is now and that even though her best friend is wearing a hajib, she is still the same complex being before she decided to wear the hajib. Shabnam learns to love her friend for who she is and comes to truly appreciate her relationship with Farah.

The touching relationships Shabnam had with her father and Farah, however, were not enough to make me fall in love with this book. I felt that Jaime was extremely two dimensional, almost a stereotype of the carefree white boy who visits and works with his aunt during the summer. I truly did not see what Shabnam saw that made her fall head over heels in love with him. I didn’t feel any heat or passion that I should expect from a contemporary romance. Jaime and Shabnam’s romance was just kind of blah. There was no rooting for their HEA; in fact, I was waiting for them to break up because that meant that Jaime would be off the page. Clearly, the opposite reaction a romance novel is aiming for. Though, if the point of the romance was the friendship between Shabnam and Farah, then mission accomplished.

 

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Book Review: Flame in the Mist

Title: Flame in the Mist
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: I loved Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath and the Dawn duology, so I was really excited to read Flame in the Mist. From the summary it looked like it would hit all the beats that I love about fantasy – smart heroine, dashing fight scenes, a bit of magic, and a plot where nothing is as it seems. Flame in the Mist does hit all those beats, but for some odd reason it took me a while to get into the story. I initially wasn’t feeling Mariko; I can’t truly figure out why it took me so long to warm up to her. Markio is an extremely intelligent young woman who is quite observant (a quality that I love in a character) and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is inquisitive, always asking questions which was a wonderful device Ahdieh used to get background information across. She’s decisive and is full of agency in this novel. When she learns that her parents had arranged her marriage, she rebelled in the most unique way – not that her parents know it, but Mariko feels like she has taken some control over her life with that one act. When the kiss comes between her and the mysterious Wolf, she is the one who initiates it. Clearly, as I describe her Mariko is a great character, but for some odd reason it took me a while to make a connection with her. I think it is because while Mariko is main character and we are in her head a good portion of the book, we are also in the heads of other characters fairly early in the book as it sets up the mystery. To me, it brought a sense of distance from Mariko that I didn’t fully connect with her until the plot became fully focused on her time with the Black Clan. I also feel like the pace of the novel changed from that point on as well and I was really able to dive into who the Black Clan truly were and what they stood for, as Mariko became comfortable with her abilities and becoming a member of the group.

On the other hand, Ahdieh did her due diligence in her research on feudal Japan. Granted, I am not an expert, but the world that Ahdieh created felt very real and believable, with the exception of the inclusion of magic, as if the events in the story could really have happen in history. The detail to which she describes the various locations bring to life Mariko’s world and all who inhabit it. Ahdieh weaves folklore into the story, such as the terrifying Jubokko tree that feeds off of human blood, as part of the every day world. Feudal life is accurately depicted as well as the tension between nobility and commoner when a call for change begins. Mariko is from the noble class and very quickly learns what life is like for those who are not. This is never more apparent than when Mariko and the Wolf have to run from a teahouse and visit an orphanage that the Black Clan gives money to. Ahdieh describes the teahouse with such glamor, from the motions the geikos use when performing dances, to the descriptions of the building itself, that when Mariko encounters the orphanage, the feeling of the book practically changes. The orphanage is the exact opposite of the teahouse and Ahdieh’s powerful prose juxtaposes the harshness of the orphanage to the teahouse beautifully. Ahdieh’s careful and accurate description of Mariko’s world is ultimately what makes Flame in the Mist so enjoyable. It’s so easy to get lost in the world Ahdieh created and imagine the time of the samurai.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a good fantasy, buy this book.

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Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

Title: A Crown of Wishes (The Star-Touched Queen #2)
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 369 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

Review:  I really enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen so I was really looking forward to A Crown of Wishes. Initially I was hoping it would be more of Amar and Maya’s story, so I was a bit sad that it was not. However, I do love “sequels” that are not really sequels to a story, but rather the story of a peripheral character from the first book. I do like when authors do that because it gives us more of the world but from a different perspective. We get a sense of the young woman Gauri has become from her and Maya’s brief interaction in the first book. We learn she has become a fierce warrior and is willing to take risks her brother won’t. Outside of that we don’t know much about her, so A Crown of Wishes allows us to learn more about Gauri and so much more. We also learn more about Vikram, the soul whose thread Maya has to make a decision about in the first book. In Crown of Wishes, we ultimately learn what her decision was and how it has affected his life. All that being said, I totally and completely loved the book!

One critique of The Star-Touched Queen”that I had was there was so much description that it sometimes slowed down the story a bit. With A Crown of Wishes, while Chokshi’s signature lyrical descriptions of the Otherworld are there, the strength of this novel comes from the character interactions between Gauri and Vikram. In this novel, Gauri and Vikram both narrate so we get to spend time in each of their heads as they go on the journey to the Tournament of Wishes, and their time in Alaka, where the tournament is held. They begin their relationship as enemies, barely trusting each other. In fact, their first interaction was a delight to read as their chemistry practically flew off the page. Both are equals to each other and treat each other as such, which is refreshing as Vikram doesn’t see Gauri as a “female warrior” but just as a warrior. Both also have emotional walls surrounding them due to the way they were raised, and through their experiences, they eventually learn to open up and trust one another. As they do, the sarcastic barbs between them become less and less, and they become more honest with each other. Again, refreshing as there was none of the “noble idiocy” trope in this novel at all. They truly become a team who works together to solve problems and survive the tournament. Of course they fall in love too, but the development of their relationship is a healthy one full of mutual respect for the other’s skills and their flaws. And as they came to love each other, they were able to grow as individuals as well. Gauri and Vikram’s personal growth and relationship growth is what made this book so wonderful.

Chokshi also added a new character to the narrative who reflects the main theme of the story – personal choice. While the premise of the tournament is to gain wishes, through their experiences Gauri and Vikram learn that wishes cannot solve all problems, and that it’s our choices and how we use them that do. The character, Aasha, is a vishakanya who was taken from her family at the age of 4 and raised to be an assassin. She longs for a different life, however, and her attendance at the tournament allows her that opportunity as everyone, both human and non-humans, are all contestants in the tournament. For her, all she wants is to have choices in life, and through her actions, befriending Gauri and Vikram when it is dangerous to do so, is an example of how our choices matter in who we become, who we believe ourselves to be. I loved her character and I’m hoping that if there is a third book, we’ll have more of Aasha’s experiences.

Recommendation: I was planning on reading this novel slowly, but got so caught up that I did a marathon session. You know what that means, you have to get A Crown of Wishes now!

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Comic Review: Niobe: She is Life

Title: Niobe: She is Life
Author: Amandla Stenberg, Sebastian A. Jones, Art by Ashley A. Woods
Genres:  Comic Book, Fantasy
Pages: 35 pages each
Publisher: Stranger Comics
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: “What becomes of the child who has lost her spirit?”

NIOBE: She is Life is a coming of age tale of love, betrayal, and ultimate sacrifice. Niobe Ayutami is an orphaned wild elf teenager and also the would-be savior of the vast and volatile fantasy world of Asunda. She is running from a past where the Devil himself would see her damned… toward an epic future that patiently waits for her to bind nations against the hordes of hell. The weight of prophecy is heavy upon her shoulders and the wolf is close on her heels.

Review: Before I get into my review, I have to say that the Niobe: She is Life series is the first ever comic book I have ever purchased. I’ve read graphic novel adaptations of books, but never a comic book series and I was unsure of what to expect. That being said, I wonder if some of my feeling of “incompleteness” has to do with the storytelling structure of comics, or with the series itself. Therefore, I’m glad that I chose to buy the entire 4 book series instead of just the first issue, as I got a deeper understanding of the story with each subsequent issue.

Niobe: She is Life drops the reader in the middle of the story as Niobe is literally running for her life. We gather that she’s running away from her father, and that she wants to kill him, but we don’t know why. Intriguing way to start a story, definitely, with the hope that the rest of the series will fill in the blanks. It somewhat does, but also introduces some ideas that make the story a bit confusing. The comic takes place in a fantasy world called Asunda that is filled with all sorts of different humanoid species such as elves, dwarfs, orcs, mythological beings, and gods and goddesses. I was unsure how all the beings related to each other in the world as there was clearly tension between the young men of the monastery that Niobe finds herself in, however the series did hint at some war between the Orcs and the Elves that I wasn’t too sure was over or was still being fought, and this monastery was some sort of oasis for young people without a home. I feel like I would have love to receive a bit more world-building to the series to fully understand the mythology of the world, the different civilizations/peoples that exist in the world and how they all coexist amongst each other. Niobe is often called “She tribe” and aside from her being a young woman, I wasn’t exactly too sure why the young men called her that. Is that how all Elvish young women are called? Small details such as that, which I can understand might be hard to do in a comic series, would have helped with my enjoyment of the series. All of that said, I still did enjoy the series. The writing and storytelling got stronger with each subsequent issue and by the end I was truly rooting for Niobe.

Niobe is a quiet, but headstrong character who is discovering who she really is and what role she plays in the world. Because of her lineage, she is half-Elvish half something to be determined, she hated but at the same time feared. She is willing to stand up for what is right and is a fierce warrior. When Niobe finally accepts her destiny and gives in to her power, it is truly a great moment with a wonderful unexpected twist that I as totally here for. I loved seeing the main character, a woman of color, fully become and own being the hero to save the day. She is a character that fantasy comics so desperately needed so I’m glad that Stranger Comics decided to publish this series.

Lastly, I must mention the artwork..it is absolutely stunning. The colors are bright and rich which visually brings the world of Asunda to life. Not only is Niobe an intriguing story, the series is also a work of art. Ashley A Woods whose depictions of all the different types of people, their costumes, the animals, the deities, etc, are so detailed and beautiful that it makes the world very real. Woods artwork gives Asunda a mystical quality, almost, as there are many scenes where her brush strokes makes the reader feel as if we are looking at an old world before time.

Recommendation: Overall I enjoyed the series and am looking forward to the sequel that is to come. I will definitely by the next series. And if you want to support WofC authors and artists creating powerful heroines, then go out and buy this comic (buy all 4 issues!)

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Book Review: American Street

Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic, Magical Realism
Pages: 336
Publisher: Balzer+Bray
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available Now

Summary: On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life.

But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own.

Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?

Review: Last week I posted about awesome Black heroines and if I had read Zoboi’s debut novel before then I would have added Fabiola Toussaint to the list. Fabiola is extremely close with her mother and unfortunately, because her mother is detained at customs, she has to navigate her new life in Detroit without her mother’s support. And while Fabiola greatly misses her mother, she has to dig deep within herself to find familiarity with family she has only spoken on the phone with. Fabiola is a bit shy at the beginning of the novel, but through her experiences (and her open-mindedness) she grows and discovers how brave she actually is.

Weaved within Fabiola’s story we get vignettes about the lives of the people in Fabiola’s life, including the story of the house on American Street. These lovely insight to the characters, including antagonist Dray, add to the depth and richness to the characters that live and interact with the ladies of 8800 American Street, and gives the reader a deeper insight into what motives the characters, information that Fabiola must learn. It’s a wonderful literary device that Zoboi uses and is done in a such a way that it adds to the narrative rather than take away from the story.

I absolutely love novels with magical realism, so discovering that American Street was full of magical realism, specifically Vodou and the lwas (spirits), added to my enjoyment of the story. I’m so glad that Zoboi infused her novel with Haitian magical realism because I’ve yet to see a book do Vodou right. Vodou is so misunderstood and is often characterized as evil, when in fact it is the opposite, so I love that the lwas were presented as the religious icons they are. Fabiola’s belief in the lwas is what helps her find strength to live without her mother, adjust to Detroit, and guides many of her decisions. I specifically loved how Zoboi used Papa Legba here and the reveal of who he was was a perfect moment. At that point, just like Fabiola, I was trying to figure out his message and how exactly he was going to help out Fabiola.

Lastly, what makes American Street so truly American is that it is a tale that is told many times over. It is the tale of an immigrant who comes to our country with dreams of golden streets and then must adjust to the reality and contradiction that is America. We get to see ourselves, both the good and the bad, from Fabiola’s eyes. We get to see how wonderful America is and also where we also fail our citizens. But most of all, we are reminded of the hope, the perseverance that all immigrants have (and had) when they arrive here looking for a better life. It is a story that many in our country seemed to have forgotten and need to be reminded of.

Recommendation: This book is available now so run to your nearest book store and pick up a copy.

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Book Review: Poison’s Kiss

Title: Poison’s Kiss
Author: Breeana Shields
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 300
Publisher: Random House
Review Copy: Purchased from B&N
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Marinda has kissed dozens of boys. They all die afterward. It’s a miserable life, but being a visha kanya, a poison maiden, is what she was created to do. Marinda serves the Raja by dispatching his enemies with only her lips as a weapon.

Until now, the men she was ordered to kiss have been strangers, enemies of the kingdom. Then she receives orders to kiss Deven, a boy she knows too well to be convinced he needs to die. She begins to question who she s really working for. And that is a thread that, once pulled, will unravel more than she can afford to lose.

This rich, surprising, and accessible debut is based in Indian folklore and delivers a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Review: I was a little hesitant to read and review Breeana Shield’s debut novel because I’ve been in a #ownvoices kind of reading mood since that cold day in Nov. but since the book I really wanted was not at the store, I chose this Poison’s Kiss. The premise was intriguing and fantastical, which appealed to me because I love nothing more to get lost in a fictional world that is so unlike my own. And while I did read the book quickly and got caught up in the story, I was left with wanting more. I couldn’t figure out what it was and then it hit me…the world building of the story could have been better.

While I don’t know much about Indian folklore so I’ll leave that critique to someone smarter than me as to how well Shield’s incorporated mythology and folklore into her novel, I do know about world building and where I find the story lacking. One of the aspects of the story that continually drove me crazy was establishing a time and place for the novel. The world that Marinda lives in, Sundari, is very different than our own, but I was somewhat confused as to the time period the novel took place. It seemed to be a mix of modern society and an pre-industrial society. For example, uses some modern sayings that don’t quite fit into the world Shield’s established. I feel like Shields couldn’t decide between being inspired by ancient and modern India so she combined the two, but it ended up being confusing because modern India is such a dynamic country and quite different than a colonized idea of India of old. I’m also a bit of a geography nerd when it comes to my entertainment, so when an author establishes that a city is two days travel for two characters, but then the characters make it back in a matter of hours, I get twitchy. I feel Shields does spend an significant amount of time establishing the mythology of Sundari and the beliefs of the people, which was really well done. I could see where her inspiration from Indian folklore blended into a mythology and folklore of her own making.

In her author notes, Shields states that she wanted to explore the idea of making a child an assassin, essentially taking away their choice for what they’d like their life to be, and that theme is perfectly explored here. Marinda is kept ignorant of who she works for and why, as well as other aspects of being a visa kanya and Poison’s Kiss is all about her awakening. While the impetus for her to start searching is her becoming “friends” with Deven, I feel like her search for self was beginning before she ever met him. Marinda is unhappy and filled with guilt over killing boys and young men, but does it out of love for her brother. She knows she is being manipulated but doesn’t see a way out. Her interaction with Deven is what actually makes her take action because he is the first person, aside from her brother, to show her kindness. I feel like this theme of ignorance trapping a person is wonderful metaphor for American’s current state of affairs. When one is kept in ignorance, the powers that be, and in Marinda’s case it is her handler Gopal, can convince people of anything. It is when one decides to search for their own answers that one becomes free. And Poison’s Kiss is ultimately about a girl who actively works toward getting her freedom.

Recommendation:
Despite it’s flaws, Poison’s Kiss was an entertaining read, and I intend to read the sequel.

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