Review: The Edge of the Abyss

the edge of the abyss Title:  The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2)
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Publisher: Flux
Availability: Out now!

Summary: Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect? Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The Edge of the Abyss is the sequel to The Abyss Surrounds Us, which centers on Cassandra Leung, a young Reckoner trainer who fights for survival on a pirate ship, all while training up a giant sea beast to terrorize the oceans. Yes, the book really is as epic as it sounds. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend reading the first book in the series. It’s incredible, thrilling, and sets the scene for its sequel perfectly.

I’ve been keeping track of The Edge of the Abyss ever since I read the first book in the series, which ends on something of a cliffhanger, especially when it comes to the romance. Cassandra, now a pirate on Santa Elena’s pirate ship, must find a way to right the wrongs she has helped set in motion, while also grappling with her conflicting feelings for the ruthless pirate girl Swift. Their relationship certainly had a rocky (and ethically murky) beginning, but in this book, they’re finally on level ground, and it was exciting to see where the two would go.

If you can’t tell, I read the book just as much for the romance as for the epic sea battles and fearsome beasts. Of course, the epic sea battles and beasts did not disappoint. (I will never get over how cute it is that Cassandra’s pirate Reckoner beast is named Bao – reminds me of how my friends named their rabbit Mantou.) In the background is the constant thread of ambition and manipulation – the way Santa Elena controls and manipulates everyone on the ship, shaping their futures, and the way Cassandra deals with those around her. The book manages to weave all these elements together perfectly.

I loved The Abyss Surrounds Us and its sequel lived up to, and exceeded the first. If you want to read about queer pirates and epic sea monsters (and really, who doesn’t?), these two books are must-reads. Put them on your to-read list!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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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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Review: North of Happy

Title: North of Happy
Author: Adi Alsaid
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Review Copy: ARC received
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carlos Portillo has always led a privileged and sheltered life. A dual citizen of Mexico and the United States, he lives in Mexico City with his wealthy family, where he attends an elite international school. Always a rule follower and a parent pleaser, Carlos is more than happy to tread the well-worn path in front of him. He has always loved food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby.

When his older brother, Felix—who has dropped out of college to live a life of travel—is tragically killed, Carlos begins hearing his brother’s voice, giving him advice and pushing him to rebel against his father’s plan for him. Worrying about his mental health but knowing the voice is right, Carlos runs away to the United States and manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef. As he works to improve his skills in the kitchen and pursue his dream, he begins to fall for his boss’s daughter—a fact that could end his career before it begins. Finally living for himself, Carlos must decide what’s most important to him and where his true path really lies.

Review: Adi Alsaid excels at building a world. Whether Carlos is exploring his new home with Emma or at a party or in the kitchen at Provecho, it is easy to imagine the world he moves through. The kitchen itself is a highlight, filled with strong personalities and amazing food descriptions. Starting each chapter with an ingredient list for a recipe (for a dish that usually, if not always, showed up in the chapter) was a fun touch and an easy way to remind the reader just how much food and cooking mean to Carlos.

The interactions between Carlos and his hallucinations of Felix were one of the best parts of North of Happy, especially since it gave Carlos the opportunity to question what he actually wanted out of life. Deciding that his father’s plan wasn’t for him was the beginning, but that’s far from deciding on a direction that he actually wanted for his life. The pushes that Felix gave to Carlos were just as important as the times that Carlos pushed back, and it was great to see Carlos deciding for himself what would and wouldn’t make him happy.

There were two main weaknesses in my opinion: the lack of screen time for the relationship between Carlos and his father and the underdevelopment of Emma. I never really got enough of a close look at Carlos’s father to be able to fully understand why he was at such odds with both their sons. This undermined the conclusion of his arc for me since it made the ending feel at least partially unearned. Emma’s character was never allowed to flourish for me; or at least, I craved something deeper from the book on her behalf and didn’t feel like I ever quite got it. She swung very close to the Manic Pixie archetype at times and spent many of her interactions with Carlos as his unwitting therapist. That said, there were several excellent scenes between Carlos and Emma that gave Emma depth, and the culmination of her arc was a (mostly) pleasant surprise for me.

Finally, I do wish there had been some kind of overt mention of Carlos getting help for his mental health at the end. (If it was there, I missed it.) He was hallucinating his dead brother for months, struggling with depression, etc., and while Carlos does admit to not being entirely okay, it would have been nice to see him working toward getting him the assistance he still needs.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you have an interest in the culinary arts. While there are a few missteps in the book, Carlos is an engaging narrator whose story is likely to resonate with a lot of people. If you’re in the mood for a book about grieving and growing up, this will probably hit the spot.

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Review: Queens of Geek

Title:  Queens of Geek
Author: Jen Wilde
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 288
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Availability: Out now!

Summary: When BFFs Charlie, Taylor and Jamie go to SupaCon, they know it’s going to be a blast. What they don’t expect is for it to change their lives forever. Charlie likes to stand out. SupaCon is her chance to show fans she’s over her public breakup with co-star, Reese Ryan. When Alyssa Huntington arrives as a surprise guest, it seems Charlie’s long-time crush on her isn’t as one-sided as she thought.

While Charlie dodges questions about her personal life, Taylor starts asking questions about her own. Taylor likes to blend in. Her brain is wired differently, making her fear change. And there’s one thing in her life she knows will never change: her friendship with Jamie—no matter how much she may secretly want it to. But when she hears about the Queen Firestone SupaFan Contest, she starts to rethink her rules on playing it safe. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I was immediately sold on Queens of Geek, just by the blurb. While I’ve never thrown myself into a fandom, I find discussions of fandom culture – whether in fiction or in meta posts online – fascinating. In that sense, Queens of Geek was right up my alley.

The book follows two best friends, Charlie and Taylor as they attend the convention SupaCon for the very first time, with third BFF Jamie in tow. Vlogging star Charlie Liang is still dealing with the fallout from her celebrity breakup with her indie-movie-turned-sensation co-star Reese — all while falling for fellow superstar Alyssa Huntington. Meanwhile, her best friend Taylor is busy chronicling her SupaCon experiences on Tumblr and coming to terms with her crush on her friend Jamie.

The identities and topics included in Queens of Geek – bisexuality, mental health, body image, sexism, fandom culture, and more – are smoothly incorporated into the book. As I’m not super familiar with fandom culture and other aspects of the book, I’m looking forward to what other, more knowledgeable, readers think of how things are handled in the book.

In general, I had tons of fun reading Queens of Geek, and there were quite a few swoonworthy (yep, sorry, I’m using that word now) moments. If you’re into fandom culture, or just reading about it, then definitely check Queens of Geek out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: Ms. Marvel, Volumes 2–4

Title: Ms. Marvel, volumes 2–4
Author: G. Willow Wilson with Jacob Wyatt, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc as illustrators
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 112 to 136 pages each
Publisher: Marvel
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary (for volume 2): Who is the Inventor, and what does he want with the all-new Ms. Marvel and all her friends? Maybe Wolverine can help! Kamala may be fan-girling out when her favorite (okay maybe Top Five) super hero shows up, but that won’t stop her from protecting her hometown. Then, Kamala crosses paths with Inhumanity for the first time – by meeting the royal dog, Lockjaw! Every girl wants a puppy, but this one may be too much of a handful, even for a super hero with embiggening powers. But why is Lockjaw really with Kamala? As Ms. Marvel discovers more about her past, the Inventor continues to threaten her future. The fan-favorite, critically acclaimed, amazing new series continues as Kamala Khan proves why she’s the best (and most adorable) new super hero there is!

Review: I reviewed the first volume of Ms. Marvel about a year and a half ago, then got distracted and didn’t read the next three volumes even though I’d already bought them. I’m pleased to say that coming back to Kamala Khan’s world was just as fun as my first plunge into it.

Kamala’s story expanded nicely through these volumes. Her progression through obstacles (and villains) was peppered with a lot of cute, geeky moments. While there were a couple scenes were I think things got too preachy, I didn’t mind too much since I agreed with the messages. Kamala is a great example of a heroine who struggles to handle two different lives she is living but refuses to give up on either.

One of the ways that Ms. Marvel shines is that Kamala has so many important people in her life who she loves. Sure, her superhero moments are grand, but the character beats with her family, friends, and even idols are some of the best scenes. I was particularly fond of a scene with her mother in the fourth volume—you’ll know it when you see it—because I adore un-fridged mothers who love their daughters wholeheartedly. Other side characters got more development and screen time throughout these volumes, which helped give Kamala’s determination to protect her city more weight.

An unexpected downfalls of reading all three volumes back-to-back was that the change in art style between (and even within) volumes was glaring. The lack of a consistent illustrator was very distracting, and it tossed me out of the story every time the switch was made. Some of the artists were better at showing movement and action than others, and on occasion I had difficulty identifying minor characters because they looked so different from artist to artist.

Recommendation: Get them (and the first volume) soon if you’re into comic books. These three volumes are great sequels to the first Ms. Marvel volume. Readers who loved the first volume will be sure to like these, and this series is a good starting point for comic book newbies. I’ve added the next two published volumes to my TBR pile, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Kamala Khan’s adventures.

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Review: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Title: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Author: Octavia E. Butler, Adapter Damian Duffy, Artist John Jennings
Genres: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical
Pages: 240
Publisher: Abrams Comicarts
Availability: On shelves now

Summary:  More than 35 years after its release, Kindred continues to draw in new readers with its deep exploration of the violence and loss of humanity caused by slavery in the United States, and its complex and lasting impact on the present day. Adapted by celebrated academics and comics artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings, this graphic novel powerfully renders Butler’s mysterious and moving story, which spans racial and gender divides in the antebellum South through the 20th century.

Butler’s most celebrated, critically acclaimed work tells the story of Dana, a young black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in 1970s California to the pre–Civil War South. As she time-travels between worlds, one in which she is a free woman and one where she is part of her own complicated familial history on a southern plantation, she becomes frighteningly entangled in the lives of Rufus, a conflicted white slaveholder and one of Dana’s own ancestors, and the many people who are enslaved by him.

Held up as an essential work in feminist, science-fiction, and fantasy genres, and a cornerstone of the Afrofuturism movement, there are over 500,000 copies of Kindred in print. The intersectionality of race, history, and the treatment of women addressed within the original work remain critical topics in contemporary dialogue, both in the classroom and in the public sphere.

Frightening, compelling, and richly imagined, Kindred offers an unflinching look at our complicated social history, transformed by the graphic novel format into a visually stunning work for a new generation of readers.

Review: Kindred is not generally tagged as young adult, but it will likely be a cross-over title and it was one I wanted to read for our focus on women in graphic novels this month. Dana, the main character, has just turned twenty-six when the main action begins so it’s not about teens, but Dana’s a young woman and is interacting with a variety of young people. It’s a book that deals with slavery through the eyes of a relatively contemporary person and it shows aspects of slavery and racism through multiple perspectives. Dana’s beliefs about slavery are challenged as she lives among enslaved people. Things are not as clear-cut as she had thought. Dana learns about what she’s willing to do to survive and finds herself doing things that go against her ideals.

This book also deals with interracial relationships. The relationship Dana has with her white husband is simply incomprehensible to the people on the southern plantation 30+ years before the Civil War. A white man using the body of a black woman is accepted, or at least ignored by whites, but a white man loving a black woman is somehow shameful. Even in the 1970s, Dana and Kevin’s marriage isn’t fully accepted by some of their own family members. This issue, among many many others, highlights the fact that slavery affected everyone involved and those effects lasted throughout generations.

In some ways, the graphic aspect of this adaptation added to the original story. The visuals keep the pacing quick and definitely bring the action to life. Some of the scenes are extremely painful to see and increase the emotional impact of the events and interactions. In other ways though, this format wasn’t quite as powerful as the novel. For this to work, the text had to be streamlined and while the overall story line remained intact and the main ideas are all there, some of the more subtle aspects were missing or just not as clear. I was glad I’d read both so my brain could fill in some of the blanks. For those who have never read Butler’s works before, this would be a great introduction that would likely lead readers to want more. Those familiar with Kindred will probably enjoy the adaptation, but may find it lacking a little of the depth.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This graphic novel adaptation is one more way to experience an amazingly powerful story from Octavia Butler.

Extra:
Interview with John Jennings & Damian Duffy

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