Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand LanternsTitle: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
Review Copy: Library
Availability: Available now!

Summary: An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: There’s something about retellings of the Evil Queen legend from Snow White that almost always captures the imagination. She’s a fascinating figure — evil, beautiful, and destined to be undone by some sweet girl with a taste for apples. The retelling that haunts me the most is Neil Gaiman’s chilling short story.

I think it’s safe to say that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has usurped that particular throne. This story, influenced by the culture and history of Imperial China, is beautifully written — fitting for a story about a surpassingly beautiful empress-to-be. It tells the dark path Xifeng must take to rise above her humble origins and become queen.

Of course, that path is not easy. Xifeng struggles to free herself of the evil within her, along with the voice of her abusive aunt who all along has pushed her to pursue her powerful destiny and her conflicted feelings for her love, Wei. She’s a sympathetic figure, torn between her loyalty to the flawed people in her life and her unyielding ambition. As you follow along with her struggles, it’s easy to forget the framework of the story and who she’s meant to become – the Evil Queen from Snow White.

And at other times, it’s not so easy to forget. Xifeng’s ambition means that she regards most women as beneath her in one way or another, and she often does or says things that are cruel and vicious. At the same time, the conniving, backstabbing nature of the imperial court means that no one — except for, like, two men early in the story — comes out looking good. And I don’t know how I feel about one key (super spoilerly) reveal and its implications. This is definitely a tale told from the perspective of a rising villain, and no punches are pulled. At least for me, it’s hard to be comfortable with that.

Finally, I have to mention the worldbuilding. The details and imagery is just gorgeous. Every mention of a meal left me hungry (sugar dusted persimmon cakes! want!). This, along with the hint of the future Snow White storyline, is why I’m looking forward to the sequel. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for that. If you love a good fairy tale reimagining, you’ll want to check this book out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Book Review: Disappeared

Title: Disappeared
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 326 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.

Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.

Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.

Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.

In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

Review: Francisco Stork’s newest novel is a timely one that when put in the right hands would help folks understand how immigration, the hows and whys people come to America, is a very complex subject. Told in alternating voice between siblings Sara and Emiliano we learn the reason why the two are forced to leave everything and everyone they love behind to come to the United States. The alternate voice works especially well in telling this story as the events in Sara and Emiliano’s two stories are linked in a way that as a reader you realize is on a collision course. Of course, these normally close siblings are facing tough adult decisions, but as often when one wants to mull things over quietly, the two never share their concerns with the other. It’s a classic trope to create tension, but it worked really well in Disappeared. Each of the reasons the siblings have for not confiding in the other as they usually would, are compelling and realistic. There are consequences for both if they confide in the other and neither wants to pull their sibling into their drama. Unfortunately, both realize how their two situations are related, but at that point in the story both siblings are struggling for their lives. It is this realization, however, that pulls them closer and helps them cross the border.

I loved that the majority of the novel was set in Juarez, giving a reader a glimpse of what life is like in Mexico as a result of the cartels. In the novel, Juarez is recovering, slowly, from the damage the cartels left on the city but the corruption and influence the cartels had is still felt in some way. Sara and Emiliano have carved out a comfortable life in Juarez, but we do see a perspective of life from the poorest inhabitants to the richest. We learn about the many different ways the people of Juarez either fought back against the cartels or managed to live with them. Sara and Emiliano are examples of this complexity and this novel highlights how despite a community’s struggle, it still has home and home has meaning. Learning to love Juarez the way Sara and Emiliano do really hits home and hurts when they are forced to leave. It truly is a heartbreaking moment when they realize that they have to leave everything they hold dear because their lives are in danger. With any book, you want the main character to win, but with Disappeared you know that the happy ending both siblings wanted for their lives is over and now they have to start a new, and they are not really happy about it. This subverts the “happy immigrant” trope and really highlights how coming into the United States, specifically crossing the border, is never an easy decision for a person to make.

My only quibble with this novel is that I feel it ended to soon. I felt like Sara and Emiliano’s story was unfinished. I wanted to know if the decision they made (can’t tell because of spoilers) really paid off. I was left wanting more by that ending, but then again, the writer in me enjoyed that their story was practically unfinished because the story of immigration is not a complete story. It is forever changing and where we are in our country’s politics, at a point where compassion and understand for our fellow human beings must be reinforced. Therefore, Disappeared is not a novel about what happens when immigrants arrive in the US, but their story of how and why they come to the US. More of these stories must be told and for that reason, for the chance to live in Sara and Emiliano’s shoes for a brief moment, made this novel worth it.


Interview with Francisco X. Stork on Latinx in Kids Lit site. There is a hint about what is next for Sara and Emiliano – yes!

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

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Book Review: The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One

Legend of KorraTitle: The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One
Author: Michael Dante DiMartino, Irene Koh (Illustrations)
Genres: Graphic Novel
Pages: 80 pages
Publisher: Dark Horse
Availability: Available now!

Summary: Relishing their newfound feelings for each other, Korra and Asami leave the Spirit World . . . but find nothing in Republic City but political hijinks and human vs. spirit conflict!

A pompous developer plans to turn the new spirit portal into an amusement park, potentially severing an already tumultuous connection with the spirits. What’s more, the triads have realigned and are in a brutal all-out brawl at the city’s borders – where hundreds of evacuees have relocated!

In order to get through it all, Korra and Asami vow to look out for each other – but first, they’ve got to get better at being a team and a couple! [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I’ll admit that the only reason I knew Legend of Korra was getting a graphic novel continuation was because I started following the illustrator (@kohquette) on Twitter for her cat pictures. When I found out after the fact that a queer Asian martial artist would be illustrating Korra, I immediately went and stuck it on my pre-order list because what! So cool.

The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars picks up where the cartoon ended. Major spoilers for the TV show ahead, so this is your chance to skip to the next, spoiler-free paragraph! Anyway, it begins with Korra and Asami holding hands and starting their romantic vacation in the Spirit World. All does not go according to plan — that goes for how people react to Korra and Asami’s relationship, and how Republic City is dealing with its very own spirit portal. Harmony is still far out of reach, and Korra has a lot on her plate as the avatar.

I’ll be the first to say that while I love Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, it’s not without its flaws. I didn’t manage to watch A:TLA until I was an adult because, as a middle schooler, I ragequit when I first heard that the moon princess’s name was… Princess Moon (Yue is moon in Chinese and painfully mispronounced in the show). The fact that the shows used Chinese as sloppy flavor text — Firefly, much? — and predominantly white voice actors for a heavily Asian-inspired world has always bothered me. But still, the shows were funny, the art looked cool, and it was Asian representation — ish.

That being said, I love where Legend of Korra is heading now. Queer Asian couple front and center? Yes, please. The art style is gorgeous, and I could spend hours just gazing at each of the panels. And, I love getting to see what happens next to the gang post-series. There will always be a spot in my heart for the Korra crew.

If you watched the Legend of Korra series and liked it, you definitely should pick up Turf Wars. I can’t recommend the art (and plentiful Korrasami) enough. I’ll for sure be keeping Part Two on my radar.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: The Victoria in My Head

Title: The Victoria in My Head
Author: Janelle Milanes
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.

But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.

From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.

Review: It’s very easy to relate to the heroine of Janelle Milanes’s debut novel. Victoria has always lived her life according to her parents’ expectations, and she is at the point where her parents’ ideas of what should bring her happiness are clashing with what she actually wants from life. (Not that she’s always right about what would make her happy, but she knows the status quo is definitely not it.) The repetition of her life is wearing her down, and she constantly makes decisions in reference to what would make her parents happy. That’s an inevitable recipe for rebellion in YA, and after some hesitation (overcome with the help of Victoria’s BFF, Annie), Victoria dives right in to quitting school sports and secretly joining a rock band despite her stage fright.

The members of the band are all distinct, interesting characters, and I appreciate that they didn’t supplant Annie in Victoria’s life. Levi, the perfectionist bass player, whose head is filled with plans and goals and too many details; Krina, the punk drummer, who has fierce opinions and an empathetic heart; and Strand, the hot guitarist, whose laidback attitude challenges a lot of Victoria’s worldview. The ups and downs of their relationships with each other made for an engaging group of characters. Victoria’s family members were also strong presences, and it was easy to see that her parents loved her and wanted what was best for her—the problem being that they and Victoria disagreed on where she could find happiness.

One of the things that I think Milanes excelled at was creating a relationship that should have been great on paper and then slowly proved just how wrong the two people were for each other. Personality clashes, differing priorities, confusion about needs and wants—all of those culminated into an increasingly awkward relationship disaster that fueled Victoria’s personal growth. It was a great contrast to the second romance in the book, which had been built up slowly and blossomed out of both attraction and friendship.

There are some missteps in the novel. There were a couple of scenes with ableist language, and I was a little sad that a lot of Victoria’s negative thoughts about her body never seemed to be strongly challenged. I wish that the reveal of a secondary romantic couple had been independent from Victoria’s own romantic plotline, especially since Victoria’s cluelessness about Krina’s romantic orientation had already been blatantly pointed out in text.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While there are a few blemishes, THE VICTORIA IN MY HEAD stars a relatable heroine and has a comfortably predictable romance. Music lovers, dreamers, second-generation immigrants, and anyone who has settled for something safe instead of taking risks for their heart’s desire will find something to relate to in Janelle Milanes’s debut novel.

Extras

Interview with Janelle Milanes + Giveaway

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Review: Allegedly

Title: Allegedly
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 387
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Mary B. Addison killed a baby.

Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.

Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.

There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?

In this gritty and haunting debut, Tiffany D. Jackson explores the grey areas in our understanding of justice, family, and truth, and acknowledges the light and darkness alive in all of us.

Review: Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut novel is a hard-hitting examination of what it’s like for a teen girl to spend a significant portion of her life in jail and then move to a group home. Jackson tackles issues like racism, child (sexual) abuse, mental illness, poverty, and a justice system that just doesn’t care about the people trapped inside it. Mary’s struggle to forge a path for herself after getting out of jail is a gripping story, filled with people who want to help her and others who just want to tear her down or are entirely unequipped to be useful.

Mary is a compelling narrator whose reader-friendly goals (survive the group home, go to college, and save her baby) make it easy to root for her. However, she is also an unreliable narrator, and I found it fascinating to compare her thoughts to the (also biased and unreliable) excerpts from court documents, books, etc. about her and her case. Mary’s particularly difficult relationship with her mother was fascinating, since she had many reasons to hate her—but she still wanted affection and love from her mother all the same.

The group home Mary is sent to is a nightmarish place where it’s every girl for herself and the adults do the barest minimum to collect their checks. Contrasting all those awful people and events against the better people and things in Mary’s life made the briefer moments of kindness a welcome relief. Ms. Claire and Ms. Cora are particular standouts; I have mixed feelings about Ted due to the age gap between him and Mary.

I am not enamored with the ending, which is difficult to talk about without massive spoilers. Suffice it to say that I felt that the final twist undermined some of the good work the narrative had done earlier, particularly since it seemed redundant in light of the conclusion to Sarah’s story arc. It was not the ending I wanted, but I’m not sure that what I wanted would have produced a better story.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Allegedly is a compelling story told from the POV of an unreliable narrator who explores the injustices in the justice system and how hard it is to try to get back on your feet. Opinions will be divided on the ending, but overall, Jackson’s debut novel is worth a look if you’re up for a story that tackles difficult–and timely–topics.

Extras

Author Interview: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Darker Side of the Story: Tiffany D. Jackson talks ALLEGEDLY

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Review: The Library of Fates

Title: The Library of Fates
Author: Aditi Khorana
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 354
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: No one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.

The palace is soon under siege, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.

Stripped of all that she loves, caught between her rosy past and an unknown future, will Amrita be able to restore what was lost, or does another life—and another love—await?

Review:The Library of Fates is a timely book that calls for action on the part of individuals. Amrita is not sure who she is, but in the midst of turmoil she must find out what she is willing to do and what she believes. Mala, the woman who helped raise Amrita, explains that you find out who you are by the choices you make and the actions you take. When we reflect on what we do and how we decide things, we see what is actually important to us. I really love that in this discussion Mala also tells Amrita “Develop some swagger” and “You’re far more powerful than you know.” I think many young people can stand to hear such encouragement.

As Khorana mentioned in her author’s note, some issues in our nation right now seem to be much like the things happening in this book. The Emperor Sikander comes from a place where things are wonderful for the wealthy, “but if your poor, or disabled, if you’re a foreigner, or even a woman, Macedon isn’t so kind. This country is built on the backs of the disenfranchised.” The author explains the moral of the story at the beginning of the book. “When we act with only our selfish interests in mind, disregarding the rights and experiences of others, everybody loses. But when we act in the service of the greater good, even if it costs us something–even if it costs us a lot–we are deeply and profoundly transformed by love, empathy, and wisdom.” If things matter to us, we can’t stand by and just watch – we must act and create change. Amrita decides to do something, but definitely struggles as she tries to figure out how best to help her kingdom. There are so many unknowns and that is more than a little terrifying to her. Amrita’s physical and emotional journeys are both intriguing.

Amrita has grown up hearing stories of magic, but she has also been taught that as royalty, logic and strategy can save the day. Amrita hasn’t put a lot of faith in magic, but as her world is crumbling and she sees possible evidence of magic, she begins to question her unbelief. The book is filled with magic and reminds me that there is more to our world than what we can see. I tend to believe that if we are still and listen, the world will share its mysteries with us. They may not be quite as fantastic as what Amrita and Thala experience, but there are still plenty of mysteries to discover if we only pay attention.

And yes, there are also some romantic relationships within this tale. The relationships do have a physical aspect, but companionship tends to have a high priority.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy fantasy with a little romance.

Extras:
Interview

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