Review: Exo by Fonda Lee

Title: Exo
Author: Fonda Lee
Genres: Science-fiction
Pages: 384
Publisher: Scholastic
Review Copy: eARC received via Edelweiss
Availability: Available now

Summary: It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.

When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip. But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one . . .

Review: It has been a while since I’ve read any science fiction, and Exo reminded me of several of my favorite aspects of the genre: aliens, moral quandaries, and cool technology.

Unlike a lot of my favorite science fiction, the aliens that Fonda Lee has created for Exo are very un-human-like, what with their mushroom-like bodies with six legs, six eyes, fins, and armor. The scattered information we got about the War Era and the conquering of earth—a billion people dead, the reshaping of political boundaries, a new social system—was intriguing. Occasionally, I felt like the world of Exo was too wide for just Donovan’s point of view and wished to see it from inside someone else’s head. Particularly someone from a less privileged life.

Donovan was an engaging character, and it was easy to root for him even when I didn’t think he was making the right choices. Watching him start to question the way of life he was raised in—while simultaneously criticizing opposing views—was a satisfying character arc, though it doesn’t feel complete. (But I suppose that’s what sequels are for.) While I wanted to see more of his life not centered around his job, I have to admit that there were several riveting action scenes because of it. Lee did a great job with her action scenes and in creating the tension- and dread-filled scenes leading up to them.

Perhaps my most significant complaint about Exo is the limited development of several significant side characters, most notably Anya and Donovan’s father. While we were told some formative parts of Anya’s backstory, even Donovan had a throwaway line about how little he really knew her and speculation that his attraction to her was more the result of trauma and loneliness than anything else. Considering the great personal risks he takes for her in the climax, I wish that Anya—and her relationship to Donovan—had been more fleshed out. Similarly, I don’t feel as if we ever got to know Donovan’s father very well on an intimate level, which was a shame, considering how important he was within the story.

I also noticed something that concerned me: the use of Native American imagery. Saul Strong Winter is the name of the Sapience cell leader in the Black Hills, so I presume he is of Native descent, but we are never given a specific tribe or nation for him. A “Native American eagle” design is a symbol of Sapience, referred to as a symbol of freedom, but it gets put on bumper stickers, and features in a tattoo (by a character I believe is non-Native) that turns out to be an important clue for Donovan later on. I don’t know enough about Native American representation to talk about this further, but I would appreciate hearing from any Native American readers about their thoughts on this book.

EDIT (2/20/17): I have been informed by the author that she and her editor made changes to the book prior to printing regarding this imagery. While an eagle tattoo still features in the plot, it is no longer a Native American design. They realized that Sapience’s use of a Native American design would be problematic and corrected that for the print version of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon, if alien conquests in science fiction are your thing. While Exo isn’t without problems, it is a fun, fast read with some interesting world building. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Extras
Interview with Fonda Lee at Rich in Color

Excerpt of Exo

Shades of Grey – Developing Unique Characters That are a Blend of Evil and Good by Fonda Lee

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Review: History is All You Left Me

Title: History is All You Left Me
Author: Adam Silvera
Publisher: Soho Teen
Pages: 292
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Availability: On shelves now
Review Copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley & purchased final copy

Summary: When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

Review: Adam Silvera made me cry again. He is good at making tears roll down my face (see my review of More Happy Than Not for evidence). This is definitely an emotionally packed novel and had my heart breaking right along with Griffin’s.

Readers meet Griffin in the midst of grief. Fortunately, we don’t stay there mired in grief though. That would likely be overwhelming. Silvera made the choice to alternate chapters between the present and the history of Griffin and Theo’s relationship. Their friendship and romance are not always without pain, but at least in the beginning, those history chapters offer humor, love and hope. This balances out the heartache of the other chapters to a certain degree. It highlights how much of a loss Griffin is dealing with too.

Griffin isn’t only facing grief, but throughout all of the chapters, both past and present, he is dealing with an increasing anxiety about his compulsions. One example is his counting. He counts things and is incredibly uncomfortable with odd numbers. Uncomfortable is not even a strong enough word. With all of this going on, he starts to make some damaging decisions that are painful to watch. The characters in this novel were all too real for me and I wanted to jump into the story to offer comfort.

This story obviously focuses on navigating grief, but it also looks at some other aspects of simply being human. How much of ourselves do we show other people? How honest can we be with others and with ourselves?

Recommendation: Get this one soon.

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Review: Mirror: The Mountain

mirror-the-mountainTitle: Mirror: The Mountain
Author: Emma Ríos, Hwei Lim (Illustrator)
Genres: Graphic Novel, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 184
Publisher: Image Comics
Availability: September 20th, 2016

Summary:  A mysterious asteroid hosts a collection of strange creatures – man-animal hybrids, mythological creatures made flesh, guardian spirits, cursed shadows – and the humans who brought them to life. But this strange society exists in an uneasy truce, in the aftermath of uprisings seeking freedom and acceptance, that have only ended in tragedy. As the ambitious, the desperate and the hopeful inhabitants of the asteroid struggle to decide their shared fate, a force greater than either animal or human seems to be silently watching the conflict, waiting for either side to finally answer the question: what is worthy of being human? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I came upon Mirror: The Mountain by happy (very, very happy) accident at the library. The moment I flipped it open, I recognized the art style as that of an artist I follow on Tumblr (lalage) and knew I had to get it. The whole time I was checking out the book, I gushed excitedly about it — I had no idea this artist had a comic book out. Look at how gorgeous it is! And so on.

But seriously, the art is truly beautiful. Each panel is worthy of framing on your wall by itself. The story itself perfectly matches the fluid, painted look of the illustrations. The whole thing is told in flashbacks and moments that all weave together into one narrative. At times, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on, but you get the hang of it eventually.

In Mirror: The Mountain, people live at odds with animal-human hybrids, guardian animals, and more. The story comes together in bits and pieces, illustrating the history of the people on the asteroid, and the rebellions and battles of years gone by — all centering specifically on Ivan, a powerful human mage, and Sena, a dog-human hero who wants to free the animals of the asteroid.

The volume is worth picking up for the art alone, but the sci-fi/fantasy story takes the graphic novel to the next level. It’s an amazing combination of the mythological and the environmental, and I am absolutely looking forward to the next installment. If this sounds like your kind of thing, definitely get it! And if you’re unsure, check out the incredible art of Hwei Lim here.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Book Review: Poison’s Kiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Title: Flying Lessons & Other Stories
Editor & Authors: Ellen Oh (Editor), Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Walter Dean Myers, Meg Medina, Tim Tingle, Kelly J. Baptist, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, and Grace Lin
Genres: Anthology
Pages: 216
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.

From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.

Review: Technically, Flying Lessons is a middle grade book, not young adult, but my love for these stories overruled small technicalities like that. I was so excited when I first heard that this anthology was coming out, and I’m happy to say that Flying Lessons more than lived up to my expectations.

Flying Lessons featured stories about a wide variety of racially diverse characters and included LGBTQ characters and disabled characters as well. The characters also filled a variety of socioeconomic levels, from a family wealthy enough that the grandmother could take a child away on a several-week traipse through Europe to a family that ended up homeless. There’s a little something for everyone to enjoy, and maybe even see themselves in, in this collection. (However, I will note that I was surprised and disappointed that the titular story “Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani included the slurs g*psy–“g*ypsy bangles”–and lame–“so he doesn’t think I’m lame.”)

My favorite stories were “How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña (a thoughtful account of a summer at a new basketball court and the lessons learned there), “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin (a fun story starring a servant girl who has an encounter with famous pirates—I’d love a full book on this one), and “Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle (one of the cutest first crush stories I’ve read in ages). The other seven stories are also very good, and they span a wide range of topics, styles, and tones. Some stories are more serious (dealing with the death of a parent or trying to navigate some nasty microagressions), while others are more lighthearted (a story-within-a-story about a family’s encounter with the Naloosha Chitto, the Choctaw equivalent of Bigfoot).

While I love “The Difficult Path,” it does feel strikingly out of place as the only story in this anthology that wasn’t set in the present day. Since it was the second story in the book, it made me think we were going to get more non-present-day stories (e.g., historical, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.), but I was disappointed when that never happened. I would love to see another anthology like this with more non-contemporary titles and with even more kinds of representation.

Recommendation: Get it soon, particularly if you enjoy middle grade fiction! Flying Lessons is a thoughtfully compiled anthology that strove to be as inclusive as possible, and it mostly achieved its goal to celebrate diverse voices.

Extras
“‘We need diverse books,’ they said. And now a group’s dream is coming to fruition.”

“‘Flying Lessons’ Is The Short Story Collection Every Child Needs To Read In 2017.”

“A Collection of Tales That Bind.”

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Review: The Secret of a Heart Note

secretTitle: The Secret of a Heart Note
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Pages: 384
Genre: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Digital ARC via Edelweiss
Availability: December 27, 2016

Summary: “Love chose me, and I tried, but I couldn’t stop the arrow in its flight.”

As one of only two aromateurs left on the planet, fifteen-year-old Mimosa knows what her future holds: a lifetime of using her extraordinary sense of smell to mix elixirs that help others fall in love.

All while remaining incurably alone.

For Mim, the rules are clear—falling in love would render her nose useless, taking away her one great talent. Still, Mimosa dreams of ditching the hermetic life of an aromateur in favor of high school, free time, and a boy to kiss.

When she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong woman and has to rely on the school soccer star to help fix the situation, she quickly begins to realize that falling in love isn’t always a choice. It’s a calling.

At once, hopeful, funny, and romantic, Stacey Lee’s Secret of a Heart Note is a richly evocative coming-of-age story that speaks to all of the senses.

Review: “Most people don’t know that heartache smells like blueberries.” I can’t argue with the opening line of Stacey Lee’s newest novel. Blueberries and heartache were quite unrelated in my mind prior to reading this quirky and rather lovely romance. The fragrances of many items from nature are highlighted and brought to memory many of my favorite scents such as jasmine, cinnamon, and vanilla. It isn’t often that the sense of smell is such a pervasive topic in a novel. I appreciated this deep dive into aromas and I imagine many people who enjoy aromatherapy, essential oils or flowers will find this to be an interesting framework for a story.

Beyond the aromateur aspect of the book though, the characters and their interactions are engaging too. Mim is pushing gently against the requirements and responsibilities imposed by her mother while still showing respect and love. Their relationship is going through growing pains as Mim tries to balance her unusual lifestyle with typical teen activities and relationships. She attends high school even though her mother couldn’t care less about her studies and believes it’s a waste of time. Mim wanted to learn things in school, but she also wants to be out there interacting with her peers.

No matter what she’s doing, Mim gives her best effort even if she manages to totally mess things up in cringe-worthy style on numerous occasions. There were multiple times when I could see how badly things were going to go, but Mim isn’t one to give up or give in easily. At first it seemed a bit contrived, but before long I was won over by her determination and spirit.

The story is a romantic comedy with a touch of magic. The romance was more believable than I expected. Though there was instant attraction, the relationship started as a nice slow simmer and built from there.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This is a perfect book to snuggle up with this winter. It will bring smiles and the images of blooming flowers while the pages turn.

Extra:
There is a Goodreads Giveaway going on through Dec. 7.

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