Book Review: Delicate Monsters

delicateTitle: Delicate Monsters
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 234
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available now

Summary: When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

Review: In Stephanie Kuehn’s bio at the back of the book, it states that she is earning her doctorate in clinical psychology and having now read her third novel dealing with characters who have deep, deep psychological problems, it’s clear that her hard work is paying off. In a good way. Kuehn doesn’t create characters were mental illness is their “tragic flaw” but as a part of their physiological make-up and as a way that they see the world. Instead of seeing the characters as people to be fascinated by, we instead empathize with them, care for them, want the best for them and when the novel is over, we wonder what type of adults these teens will grow into. Even the characters we might not find so likable, and boy does Kuehn write unlikable characters well.

In Delicate Monsters, Sadie Su is one complicated young lady whose outlook on life is quite horrible (and she does some horrible things).  If she were a real person, I would clearly stay away from her, but as I read, I found myself connecting with her. I actually began to root for her, because I grew to understand her. And I really loved that such an unlikeable character ultimately became the hero in the end. Sadie is character who likes to think she isn’t a caring person, but ultimately her true nature shines through and when she performs an act of true courage, I was both happy and sad for her. Kuehn wrote a character with much depth, but who is also very complicated. I was actually very happy that Kuehn wrote such an unlikeable female character, as they are far and few between in YA literature. Not all girls can be the super special snowflake that have to choose between two guys. Sometimes, girls can be just as devious and cold-hearted as young men. And those girls deserve to be the hero too. Sadie is that type of girl and I loved her for it.

Delicate Monster is told using 3 narratives, that in the hands of a lesser author, would have been confusing. At first, I was wondering how Sadie’s, Emerson’s, & Miles’s stories would intersect as Kuehn slowly builds the story lines together and when then do…oh my. However, there is a lovely bit where Sadie doesn’t realize she’s befriended Emerson’s younger brother, so her relationship with Miles is truly genuine, and is ultimately what leads her to perform her courageous act once she realizes the connection. In that moment, her dislike of someone else leads her to show compassion, and act on that compassion, for another. I truly loved that aspect of this novel. Emerson wasn’t a horrible young man, he just was a victim, so to speak, of when mental illness is brush under the rug and hidden. He truly did not know how to cope with a part of himself that was prone to violence. When he did realize it, however, my heart broke for him. It is these lovely elements of the novel that drew me in and kept me reading. These three young people each called themselves “monsters” because of their behavior and thoughts, but I believe the opposite to be true. Sadie, Emerson, & Miles were struggling teens who did not know how, nor were given the tools to deal with the darkness that resided in them. They were not the monsters; it was the adults who failed to help them. And that is the true tragedy of this heartbreaking novel that stays with you days after you’ve finished it.

Recommendation: Get It Now!!!

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Book Review: Shadowshaper

shadowTitle: Shadowshaper
Author: Daniel Jose Older
Genres:  Urban Fantasy
Pages: 297
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available June 30

Summary: Sierra Santiago was looking forward to a fun summer of making art, hanging out with her friends, and skating around Brooklyn. But then a weird zombie guy crashes the first party of the season. Sierra’s near-comatose abuelo begins to say “No importa” over and over. And when the graffiti murals in Bed-Stuy start to weep…. Well, something stranger than the usual New York mayhem is going on.

Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads

Review: It’s been a while since I’ve last read an urban fantasy novel, so I was looking forward to reading Daniel Jose Older’s debut YA novel. Older also attended the same MFA program as I did, so I expected the writing to be top notch. I had high expectations for Shadowshaper and I have to say that they were met. You all know that I have a bad habit of sacrificing sleep in order to finish a novel and well, I sacrificed sleep because Shadowshaper was just that intense.

Most urban fantasy novels that I’ve read dealt with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, so the mythology that Older creates in Shadowshaper is fresh and unique. The magic that Sierra learns, and eventually uses, is rooted in spiritual magic which is an aspect of Afro-American & Afro-Caribbean culture. The Shadowshapers are essentially conduits for the spirits to enter and bring to life the artwork that Sierra creates. This creates a more cooperative relationship with the sprits instead of an adversarial one. However, depending on what the Shadowshaper wishes the spirit to do, the spirit could be malicious, such as the creepy zombie creatures that the antagonist Dr. Wick creates. Really, those things are scary.

While the mythology Older created was a highlight of the novel, Sierra Santiago was the absolute best part. I loved her! Sierra is a terrific artist who has been tasked with creating a mural on a mysterious tower. The way Older describes her artwork, I could picture in my head and what I imagined is amazing. While her artwork is how her Shadowshaper magic works, Sierra is curious and unafraid to take risks as she attempts to discover why elder members of her community are disappearing. She is the one who takes charge of solving the mystery, instead of “falling” into the mystery as many protagonists of urban fantasy stories do. Sierra is the one who is deciding of her fate, even as she learns of her importance to the Shadowshapers. Sierra is truly a leader among her friends, and even when she meets Robbie, who helps her learn her Shadowshaping abilities, he doesn’t overpower her and follows her lead.  She is a character that a reader can instantly connect to and root for, even when she makes some not so smart decisions (as a teenager is apt to do).  Sierra Santiago is a character that has been badly needed on the YA/Urban Fantasy scene.

The writing in Shadowshaper is full of Brooklyn flavor that gave this California girl a real sense of what life in New York is like. The story moves at a good pace, revealing its secrets slowly (almost too slowly for this impatient reader) that when a lovely plot twist is revealed, it turns Sierra and the book in a wonderful new direction. I greatly enjoyed the mystery of tracking down Dr. Wick and his unnatural creations as well as learning about the Shadowshapers and the impact they have had on Sierra’s life. My only wish is that I was able to spend more time with Sierra and the world of the Shadowshapers, but hopefully there will be a sequel as Older created a fun, unique world that readers will want to revisit again and again.

Recommendation: If you want to be in the know, you better get this book.

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Mini Review: The Game of Love & Death

Love & DeathTitle: The Game of Love & Death
Author: Martha Brockenbrough
Genres:  Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: My local library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now… Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured—a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. – image & summary from Goodreads

Review: This lovely book fell into my hands at just the right time. I was wanting something with a sweet, romantic storyline, and also a bit of fantasy. I do enjoy historical fiction, but to find this beautiful novel with everything I was craving for was heaven. And I feel in love with Flora, Henry, Death and Love. In fact, it’s been a few days since I finished the book and all four characters are still with me. I hadn’t intended to write a review about this novel, but halfway through I thought, “I must tell everyone about this novel!”

Set in Seattle in 1937, just as the United States is beginning to recover from the Great Depression, the novel follows Flora and Henry as they begin, unwittingly, to play Love & Death’s game. The game that Love & Death have created, so to speak, is more of a bet of trying to put two people from different worlds together. If the lovers chose to be together, Love wins; if not, Death takes them. Unfortunately, Death is on a serious winning streak and Love is hoping that Henry will be the player to finally give him the win. And here’s the thing that Brockenbrough does so well. Readers of romance expect the “happy ever after”, but the way Brockenbrough crafts the obstacles Henry and Flora face, I wasn’t really sure the “HEA” was going to happen. I wanted to be comfortable in my assurance of the HEA, and that all would work out well for Henry and Flora, but Death is a mean, err a very strategic, player and I was kept guessing the entire way. I like an unpredictable novel and “Game of Love and Death” is definitely not predictable. Brockenbrough really puts Henry and Flora through the wringer, that tests their resolve to even attempt to form a relationship. While their attraction to each other is definitely swoon worthy, their budding friendship brings a much richer, much warmer feeling to the story.

It is the development of the 4 characters that is really the strength of the novel. Love is a charming old soul, while Death is a woman who finds no more pleasure in her job, but does it anyways. Henry is the boy who is willing to sacrifice his own personal freedom in order to please his adoptive parents, and Flora is a young woman who intends to defy the odds. Combined, the relationships the characters create among each other (yes Love & Death interact with Henry & Flora in unique ways) allows each of the characters to learn and grow from each other. While Love & Death are the ones who set the game in motion, both are changed by their players as their players are changed by the game. All four are truly relatable, and you root for all four to win, which in a game where two could potentially die, is a testament to the strength of Brockenbrough’s writing.

Speaking of Brockenbrough’s writing, it is just gorgeous. It is clear that she did her homework with researching the novel and what 1937 Seattle would feel like. Having been to Seattle a number of times, I could picture many of the places in my head, but imagine them as they were 80 years ago. She used slang of the time and even included real world events (such as the growing tension in Europe) to fully ground the novel. She also didn’t hesitate to include the racial tension that existed in Seattle back then, even though Seattle was a multi-cultural city during the Depression. Brockenbrough’s world felt real, felt right, and I loved it.

Recommendation: I got the book from the library, but I loved it so much that I intend on buying it and you should too.

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Book Review: Tiny Pretty Things

tinyTitle: Tiny Pretty Things
Author: Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 448
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: On shelves May 26th

Summary: Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.

Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

Review:  I haven’t seen or read Pretty Little Liars, but have seen Black Swan so I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Tiny Pretty Things. I remembered the intensity of the ballet company in Black Swan, so I imagined that the competition between the three lead characters in Tiny Pretty Things would be intense. What I didn’t expect, because I was Pretty Little Liars ignorant, would be the level of “mean girlness” that existed by a few members of the ballet academy. Either way, I was so involved with the story that I sacrificed sleep to finish it. And then…that ending! Thank goodness there is a sequel because that ending was just cruel to readers with such a cliffhanger.  But I digress…

Tiny Pretty Things just killed me – in a good way. Seriously. It’s been a bit since I read it and  Gigi, Bette and June are still with me. I was so into the world that Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton created that during some true OMG moments, I had to remind myself that it was a novel. That some of the characters really wouldn’t behave that way in real life. That ballet academies are not as cut-throat as what is depicted in movies such as Black Swan and in the novel (at least I hope). But, at no time did I ever want to put the book down and take a break from all of the backstabbing and manipulation that was going on. No, I was intrigued to find out what would happen next and try to figure out which character really did what. I do love that I could never figure it out, and as one who loves to solve a mystery but is disappointed once I figure out before the characters do, I was glad that I was continually kept guessing. In fact, in reference to the cliffhanger, I still have no idea what happened. When I read the last page, I was irritated because I wanted the second book already. I needed to know what happened next. I wasn’t actually ready to leave Gigi, Bette and June behind. And that is the hallmark of a great, fun novel.

Within the YA sphere there has been discussion about creating unlikable characters, especially female unlikeable characters, and whether or not the readers will connect with said character. In Tiny Pretty Things, there are a number of female characters that the reader just loves to hate! These characters are not one dimensional, mustache twirly villains, they are complex characters whose reasons for doing the bad things they do make sense to them. Even though the characters are unlikeable, and people I really would not want to be around in person, I was still able to feel for them, connect with them because Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton, made me understand them and even empathize them. I am of the camp that YA writers should write unlikeable female characters because unlikeable girls/women do exist, but also for readers to allow themselves to stretch their compassion muscles and understand people for both the good and the bad decision they make. I salute Ms. Charaipotra and Ms. Clayton for not holding back in their creations of Gigi, Bette and June because if all three girls were sweet, model perfect ballerinas the story would have been very boring. Instead Gigi, Bette and June are interesting characters that made me feel for them all sorts of feelings – compassion, joy, anger, hate. But most of all I saw them as distinct young women each trying their hardest to achieve their dream of becoming a prima ballerina. Those three characters make Tiny Pretty Things the amazing, intense novel that it is and why I’m anxiously waiting for the sequel.

Recommendation: You best buy it on May 26th. Make Tiny Pretty Things a best seller please!

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Book Review: Stella by Starlight

stellaTitle: Stella by Starlight
Author: Sharon Draper
Genres: Historical
Pages: 320
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: When the Ku Klux Klan’s unwelcome reappearance rattles Stella’s segregated southern town, bravery battles prejudice in this Depression-era tour de force from Sharon Draper, the New York Times bestselling author of Out of My Mind.

Stella lives in the segregated South; in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community – her world – is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end. (Image & summary via Goodreads)

Review: As a huge fan of Sharon Draper’s young adult novels, I was excited to read her newest Stella by Starlight. I didn’t realize at the time it was a middle grade novel, until I started reading it, but because the story draws you in and Stella is such a wonderful character, I enjoyed the novel immensely. In fact, my 12 year old self emerged and was giddy at a book that spoke to her – especially a story about a young girl finding her voice through writing.

The novel takes place in the South in 1932, so you know it’s not going to be an easy read. Stella is a 12 year old girl who is loved by both of her parents, has a good relationship with her little brother, wonderful friends, and lives in a tight knit African American community. What could go wrong? Well, the Klan shows up one night and sets the entire community on edge. The issue is that there is a presidential election coming and, of course, the Klan does not want the African American members of their community to vote, so they use the usual scare tactics, which thankfully, do not work. I loved the way Draper showed how small African-American communities came together during crisis, helping each other out when they often didn’t have very much to give. She also balanced this out by showing that not all of the members of the White community agreed with the Klan’s tactics, and were willing to make a stand. While the heart of the novel is very much on Stella and her perspective on life, the scenes that focused on social justice, way back in 1932, clearly showing the seeds for the Civil Rights movement and our current #Black Lives Matter movement, were moving.

Stella is the star of the novel and her voice is truly one of a young girl on the edge of womanhood who is actively thinking about the world around here. One aspect of Stella’s character that I really related to was her emerging status as a writer. At the beginning of the book, she struggled with writing (even though she liked to) because she often couldn’t find the words to say. She would sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and write underneath the stars. I so related to her as I would write underneath the covers with a flashlight. Her writing eventually becomes stronger as she practices and then when she receives a typewriter as a gift, she starts her own newspaper, readership of one (that was also me at age 10!). The little girl K. Imani instantly fell in love with Stella as I remembered some of the struggles I had finding my voice, but with the encouragement of teachers, like Stella, I grew into the writer I am today. I also appreciated that Draper doesn’t make Stella a super duper writer right away and actually has her experience rejection in the form of not being picked for a writing contest. The disappointment Stella felt allowed for a true growth moment where she recognized her writing was not as strong as it could be and that the only way for her to get better was to practice. A message writers of all ages need to be reminded of.

One of my favorite childhood books of all time is Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and I feel that Draper’s novel is written in the spirit of that novel. All these years later I still love that novel, and Stella by Starlight brought those same emotions forth. Stella’s story is a fitting compliment to Taylor’s classic novel, but yet is perfect for our current children who need to understand how the Americans fought for equality in the past, just as they fight for it now.

Recommendation: Get It Now!

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Mini Review: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas

PoliTitle: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas
Author: Jay Neugeboren
Genres:  Historical
Pages: 123
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In 1839, José Policarpo Rodriguez came north with his father from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas. Poli was ten years old when he arrived in Texas, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas. He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—he struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days. . .and is still rare today.

Review: In celebration of it’s 25 anniversary, Texas Tech University Press has decided to re-release Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, and I happen to agree that this was a good move for the publisher. This historical novel is a quick and entertaining read that touches on a brief period of history that shows the tensions between the Comanche Nation, Mexicans, and the early Texans. The story follows young Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, and is based on the real Poli’s memoirs. The novel begins when Poli is 10 years old and just arriving in Texas from Zaragosa. Poli and his father have left Mexico for a better life after the death of his mother and other family members. Poli’s father then sends him to spend a week with the Comanche nation and there Poli forms a friendship with the Chief’s son, Eagle Blood. It is through his relationship with Eagle Blood that Poli is able to see and understand all three sides of the land use issue that is the cause of the tension between the Native Americans, Mexicans, and the Texans. Because of his relationship, Poli is also able to work as a surveyor and as a translator during negotiations that ultimately fail. The fact that Poli is so trusted by adults shows how during this period of time, adolescents were treated as adults and give adult responsibilities. Poli had to mature fast because of the harshness of life on the plain.

Not knowing much about Texas history, except what is briefly given in school textbooks, I found the focus on the lives of those effected in San Antonio fascinating as it took a larger conflict and allowed the reader to see how it effect the daily lives of the people who lived during that time period. I found it very easy to relate to Poli as through his travels he missed his father, and his friendship with Eagle Blood felt true and real. I feel that Neugeboren did his research in getting the historical details correct, especially when sharing the lifestyles and beliefs of the Comanche people. Neugeboren was able to handle the tension between the Comanche, the Mexicans, and the Texans in such a manner that the reader fully understood and empathized with the different factions (okay, maybe not so much with the early Texans as a whole, but the individuals whose lives were thrown in to chaos because of the fighting, yes).  While the novel is written for middle grade, Neugeboren writes in such a way that Poli would be enjoyable for readers of all ages. I feel this would be an excellent supplemental novel in a social studies class, as well as a good read of the youngster who enjoys historical fiction.

Recommendation: Get It Soon

To celebrate the release of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, we have two copies to give away! Raffle ends March 17th. Enter Now!

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