Book Review: Buried Heart

Title: Buried Heart (Court of Fives #3)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 465 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: In this third book in the epic Court of Fives series, Jessamy is the crux of a revolution forged by the Commoner class hoping to overthrow their longtime Patron overlords. But enemies from foreign lands have attacked the kingdom, and Jes must find a way to unite the Commoners and Patrons to defend their home and all the people she loves. Will her status as a prominent champion athlete be enough to bring together those who have despised one another since long before her birth? Will she be able to keep her family out of the clutches of the evil Lord Gargaron? And will her relationship with Prince Kalliarkos remain strong when they find themselves on opposite sides of a war?

Review: I enjoyed the first two installments of Kate Elliott’s Court of Five series so I was really looking forward to seeing how Elliott would end Jessamy’s story. Buried Heart picks up moments after the end of Poisoned Blade as Jessamy, Kal, and their families are running from Saryenia after Nikonos pulls a deadly coup and takes over the city. I expected most of the book would focus on Jessamy and Kal working together to unite the Commoners and Patrons and somehow overthrow Nikonos. I have to say I was surprised by what actually happened in the novel. Working with her father, Jessamy and Kal are able to takeover the throne fairly easily at that happens only a quarter of the way into the book. After that, the novel takes on an interesting turn where Jessamy is captured by Lord Gargaron and is separated from everyone she loves. While I hated that Lord Gargaron had the upper hand over Jessamy at one point, but this allowed Jessamy to find an inner strength and leadership ability that she didn’t know she had. It fully allowed her to choose a side and when it came time to fight for Efea, Jessamy was able to use her skills from the Five Court and her new found leadership skills to truly help turn the tide of the war.

One of the many aspects I liked about Poisoned Blade was that we traveled with Jessamy and saw more of the world of Efea, and in Buried Heart we experienced more of the same, but we learned more about the people of Efea (i.e. the Commoners). We also learned more about the customs and beliefs of the Efeans before the Saroese (Patrons) invaded and took over the land. Learning more the history of Efea and it’s colonization, bring a deeper meaning to the novel. At it’s core, through the story of Jessamy, Buried Heart is the story of an oppressed people rising up, and of the privileged people learning how to recognize their role in oppression and working with the oppressed to make change.

Even though Jessamy and Kal spend a lot of time apart in this novel (again) this time it was much more satisfying to me, as in their time apart they grew into the adults they were going to be, and their relationship grew as well. At the beginning of the novel, Jessamy and Kal are so sweet together, but their relationship is much more mature based on their first separation. Kai truly accepts Jessamy for who she is, the good and the ugly, though Jessamy tries to still “protect” Kal’s more innocent nature. It’s sweet at the beginning, but devastating for Jessamy when she must watch Kal make tough choices when he becomes king, a position he never wanted. However, with this second separation, both have to make tough, adult decisions and each lose their innocence in a way. They both change because of their experiences in the war and when they are able to finally come together (if only for a brief moment) they see each other as true equals. I loved that Elliott wrote a relationship that was equally balanced where each of the lovers grew not just together but on their own. Both Jessamy and Kal look out for each other and push each other to be better, which is a very healthy relationship not often seen in many books. The tension between them came from outside sources and these two had to find a way to create their happiness and find a way to be together. To me, that is what made their love story so touching.

There is so much more I could say about Buried Heart, but I would be giving away so much of the story. So I will say this, Buried Heart is a fitting end to a wonderful trilogy that had a beautiful love story, a villain you just loved to hate, complex family drama, and a world that was so complete it felt real, but at it’s heart was an amazing heroine that us readers could root for.

Recommendation: If you have been waiting for this third book to come out you need to run to your nearest book store and buy it. If you haven’t read the Court of Five series, you also need to run to your nearest book store so you can begin the adventure and read the whole series in one sitting!

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Book Review: Little & Lion

Title: Little & Lion
Author: Brandy Colbert
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 330 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores Now!

Summary: When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

Review: I’m just going to say this from the start – I loved this book! I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading it because I loved Suzette so much. I loved her messiness, her doubts, her loves, but most importantly I loved the relationship she had with her brother, and the importance it had in her life. Little & Lion is not a light-hearted story by any means but it does have wonderful touching moments between Suzette and a number of other characters that make Brandy Colbert’s second novel a deeply moving story.

As I said before the heart of the story is Suzette’s (Little) relationship with her step-brother Lionel (Lion). The two are only a year apart and have an extremely close relationship. At the beginning of the book, their relationship is a bit in the awkward stage as Suzette is returning from the boarding school she was sent to by her parents while Lionel began the initial stages of treatment. Suzette feels like she abandoned Lionel and hopes that their relationship remains the same. I like that the story begins with Suzette and Lion together and we get a chance to see their bond pick up where it left off when Suzette left for school 9 months earlier. The easiness that the two had, the love for each other, just emanated off the page. The two share intimate secrets and truly trust each other so much that Suzette was the first to spot something was wrong with her brother when his mania begins to start after he stops taking his medicine. This decision brings much personal conflict for Suzette as she believes her brother is making a mistake, but because of the guilt she feels for being away while he was going through treatment she keeps his secret. It is Little’s love for Lion that is the heart of many of the decisions she makes and what really draws me to her.

While Suzette is dealing with her brother’s issues, she is also in the process of discovering her own sexuality, specifically realizing that she is bisexual. At her boarding school, she developed a relationship with her roommate, Iris, that unfortunately had a heartbreaking end. Suzette blames herself for the break-up, but also wonders if she was just attracted to Iris because of who her roommate was or if she is actually attracted to girls. Coming home further confuses her when she begins to have feelings for her close male friend Emil. The confusion, the questioning that Suzette felt was very real and written in a such a manner that tenderly shows the internal turmoil discovering one’s sexuality can be for a teenager. Luckily, Suzette is surrounded by a supportive best friend and a loving family, and because of this is able to safely navigate her feelings and explore this realization of herself. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say I like the choice that Suzette makes and feel that it is very true to her character and her growth throughout the novel.

I greatly enjoyed Colbert’s debut novel, Pointe, but I think I love Little & Lion more. I think what made me smile was that Colbert adds spots of “wokeness” where Suzette responds to racism, sexism, ignorance to bipolar disease, and the misconceptions about bisexuality. Those moments didn’t feel preachy at all, but an example of how folks should respond when faced with prejudice. What also made me smile was the all the wonderful touches to life in Los Angeles throughout the novel. As an Angelino (yes, that is what we are called) seeing all the local places and hidden gems mentioned just added to the beauty of the novel. All of these aspects combined made for a novel that I truly loved and stayed with me long after I finished reading it. I want to know what happens next with Suzette and travel with her in the next phase of her life.

Recommendation: Buy It Now!

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Book Review: Orangeboy

Title: Orangeboy
Author: Patrice Lawrence
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 432 pages
Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Through Amazon UK

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Marlon has promised his widowed mum that he’ll be good, and nothing like his gang-leader brother Andre. It’s easy when you keep yourself to yourself, listening to your dead dad’s Earth, Wind and Fire albums and watching sci-fi. But everything changes when Marlon’s first date with the beautiful Sonya ends in tragedy; he becomes a hunted man and he has no idea why. With his dad dead and his brother helpless, Marlon has little choice but to enter Andre’s old world of guns, knives and drug runs in order to uncover the truth and protect those close to him. It’s time to fight to be the last man standing.

Review: I first heard of Patrice Lawrence’s award winning book through an article I received in an email. I saw that it was published only in the UK and since I was spending the summer in London, I made the decision to purchase the book. As the US exports more authors than we import, I was excited to read a YA book from a British author of color and to see the subtle differences between American and British culture. I was not disappointed. I had fun being able to have a visual reference to some of the locations mentioned in the book, and reveled in learning the differences in American and British colloquial language. For example, there was a character description that I was initially confused by. Marlon describes a character with “cane row” and at first I thought it was clothing. Then I realized he was describing hair style and when I googled “cane row” pictures of people with what us Americans call “corn row” came up. It’s these subtle differences that make reading a book from outside the US enjoyable and open us readers to new experiences.

The story itself was a bit slow to get started but once the mystery began to slowly reveal itself and Marlon worked to solve it, then the story really got going. Especially because Marlon made so many stupid mistakes – and I say that in the best way. Marlon is a great character because he is so out of his element in trying to solve the mystery of why he and his family is being harassed/threatened/stalked. He is a sweet hearted geeky kid who learned from his brother’s mistakes and made sure to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately trouble found him, but through it all he was adamant about standing up for himself and his family which made me really love him. However, it was also what made me so frustrated by him because he was way over his head and kept making dumb decisions as instead of getting help he chose to figure everything out on his own. I so wanted to scream at him “tell the police!”, but in reality he couldn’t trust the police either because they just saw him as the brother of a former gangster. Marlon truly was in a tough position and did the best he could with the knowledge he had which was very true to life and really made me connect with Marlon. He was the hero of his story but it wasn’t easy and Marlon had more losses than wins, but ultimately learns what he is capable of.

I have an issue with absent parents in YA, so I loved that Marlon’s mom was involved in his life, or rather at least tried to be. Their relationship was very typical mother/son as it was clear that they were close but with that tiny bit of strained because teenagers have the desire to keep things to themselves and are beginning to push boundaries. I also loved that his mom was a clear advocate for her son which showed the love she had for him and why Marlon wanted so badly to protect his mom in return. Even though his father had been dead a number of years, from an illness, us readers were given a sense of the relationship Marlon had with him as well and the loving relationship his parents had. I loved that Marlon was able to remember his parents relationship and how it shaped the person he became. Marlon also had a very strained relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, Jonathan, but it was clear that Jonathan was trying to help be a parent with Marlon’s mom, but also knew his boundaries. The parent/child dynamics that Lawrence wrote was very real and true to the novel.

Overall I really enjoyed Orangeboy and I want to read other books by Lawrence now (she actually has a new one out!). Additionally, I want to read books by other authors of color from across the pond, so if you know of any please share in the comments below.

Recommendation: Get It Now. FYI… Americans can order books from Amazon UK, yay!

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Book Review: Saints and Misfits

Title: Saints and Misfits
Author: S. K. Ali
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352 pages
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In bookstores now

Summary: Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?

Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tight knit Muslim community think of her then?

Review: There is so much I can say about Saints and Misfits that I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess at the beginning, which is when we meet the monster in Janna’s life. The moment we met the monster was so unexpected and a hit to the gut. I don’t think I can recall any books where the author puts a traumatic event for the character in the second chapter, but I loved it because it made me realize that Saints and Misfits was a much deeper novel than I anticipated and that it was going to take me on one hell of a journey. The novel moves at a wonderful pace from there as Janna tries to make sense of what happened, while dealing with a member of her community that everyone loves and respects, but Janna is traumatized by. At the same time, she is trying to figure out her feelings towards Jeremy, who actually might like her back. This internal conflict is at the heart of the novel and felt real. Janna is surrounded by family and friends, but holds these two secrets (well one friend knows about Jeremy), thinking she can handle them both, when in reality she can’t, because Jeremy and the monster are friends. Janna often goes from having the good butterflies in her stomach when seeing Jeremy to becoming nauseous when seeing the monster a minute later, but is unable to speak on her feelings to friends and family. Janna is surrounded by love, but at the same time, feels like she cannot express her true self, her true feelings, and feels trapped like so many young women do. I truly felt for her in those moments.

I’ve mentioned that Janna is surrounded by numerous people who love her and that is also an element I loved in the book. I often find in many YA novels that the protagonist is somewhat excluded from their community and/or doesn’t have a good support network. This was not the case in Saints & Misfits. While Janna’s parents are divorced, it’s clear her parents love her in their own way, her brother is working hard to reconnect with her after being away at school, she has a beautiful relationship with her elderly neighbor Mr. Ram, her uncle who is the imam of her mosque, and her two best friends Tats and Fizz. She eventually develops friendships with two female characters, Sarah and Sausun, who are polar opposites, but combined provide Janna the support she needs and ultimately help her find her voice. The fact that Janna is surrounded by such a loving community, while holding her secrets, creates a deeply moving conflict in the novel. It highlights how our community can be a source of strife for people, but at the same time be a place that helps us only if we let it – if we trust others and let them in. It is a beautiful lesson that Janna learns because she believes she is a misfit who doesn’t fit into her community, not realizing that her community does accept her for the way she is. This belief is a common one that many teens have has they search for their identity and Janna’s story is one that will connect with a lot of readers. It’s a beautifully written story that will make readers laugh, cry, and feel like they are part of Janna’s community. In fact, when the novel was over I wasn’t actually ready to leave Janna’s world. I wanted to see where Janna’s growth will take her.

Lastly, I gotta speak about all the kick-ass female characters in this novel. All of them represent the broad spectrum of beliefs/views that women have. They don’t all agree but are respective of each other to accept each other as who they are. With the exception of Janna and Fizz’s argument that ultimately seems to end their friendship, many of the important women in Janna’s life work to lift each other up. Tats is a true friend to Janna, and even though Janna is slow to warm up to Sarah and Sausun, she eventually comes to rely on the older girls for support and advice. Like many teenagers, Janna’s relationship with her mother is a bit strained, but again Janna comes to realize that a lot of her mother’s actions come from a place of love and she learns to be a full recipient of that love. All of these relationships are complex but very real and I loved reading a book that had so many wonderful female relationships.

Saints and Misfits is a wonderful debut novel by S.K. Ali and I can’t wait to read whatever she has coming next.

Recommendation: Buy it Now!

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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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