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.

Share

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.”

Share

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.

Share

Review: Lucy and Linh

linhTitle: Lucy and Linh
Author: Alice Pung
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 340
Genre: Contemporary
Review copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Lucy is a bit of a pushover, but she’s ambitious and smart, and she has just received the opportunity of a lifetime: a scholarship to a prestigious school, and a ticket out of her broken-down suburb. Though she’s worried she will stick out like badly cut bangs among the razor-straight students, she is soon welcomed into the Cabinet, the supremely popular trio who wield influence over classmates and teachers alike.

Linh is blunt, strong-willed, and fearless—everything Lucy once loved about herself. She is also Lucy’s last solid link to her life before private school, but she is growing tired of being eclipsed by the glamour of the Cabinet.

As Lucy floats further away from the world she once knew, her connection to Linh—and to her old life—threatens to snap. Sharp and honest, Alice Pung’s novel examines what it means to grow into the person you want to be without leaving yourself behind.

Review: Power is fascinating. Who has power? Who lacks it? Does power actually corrupt? These are certainly some questions to ponder when reading Lucy and Linh. Lucy’s been dropped into a society with all kinds of stated and unstated rules around power and she has difficulty trying to adjust without losing herself.

At this new school, popularity and power is determined by more than beauty, talent and economic status. Perception is everything and Lucy worries so much about making a misstep, that she’s unwilling to reveal her true self. She observes those around her and tries, at least initially, to meet student and staff expectations. As the scholarship student, she is meant to be appropriately appreciative of the honor and is supposed to help make the school look good. Trying to fit into the mold created for her is a challenge though. “It was exhausting to be the sort of person they expected me to be.”

Somehow I was expecting a humorous look at a young girl trying to face down the mean girls at her private school. That’s not precisely what is going on here though. Yes, there are some corrupt girls controlling things at the school and they are operating at a seriously high level of meanness. There are also humorous moments, but overall, this is a fairly intense coming-of-age story that gives time and attention to race and class issues along the way.

Lucy’s grandparents had migrated from China to Vietnam. Her parents then migrated to Australia. This, along with being the scholarship student, earns her special attention. There are some people who only seem to spend time with Lucy because they perceive her as exotic and unusual. By simply talking to Lucy or any other person of color, students also appear to think they’ve proven that they aren’t racist. No matter that they are saying racist things and overlook the many ways teens are alike in their rush to see differences.

Lucy explains this journey in letters to her friend Linh as a way to process what has been happening over the year. The relationship between Lucy and Linh is an interesting one that I won’t go into in detail, but it’s an important one. Another important set of relationships is between Lucy and her family. I appreciated the opportunity to see how they interacted with each other. Lucy values her family and is especially proud of her mother. As she begins to see her family through the lenses her fellow students use, she begins to feel unsettled and uncomfortable in her own home. Things that never bothered her before, like eating on the floor using newspapers for a table, start to seem somehow less than. Lucy starts to feel like she doesn’t fit in either space and she doesn’t like this new way of seeing. Through their conversations and actions though, readers get to see the strengths of Lucy’s family and not just the deficits that her peers are imagining.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Lucy is a character everyone should get to know. She’s working her way through a challenging year showing us all how to hold onto what’s important and reminding us to stay true to ourselves.

Share

Mini-Review: Blacktop #1 – Justin

Justin BlacktopTitle: Justin (Blacktop #1)
Author: L.J. Alonge
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 145
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Review Copy: ARC
Availability: Available now

Summary: Justin has a list of goals stashed under his mattress. Number 1 is “figure out life plans.” Number 5 is “earn Zen Master rating in WoW.” Nowhere on that list is “play the crew from Ghosttown,” but that’s the type of trouble that always seems to finds him.

The debut title from LJ Alonge’s new basketball series pulses with action on and off the court. With wit, humor, and honesty, Justin unfolds over one hot summer in Oakland, California.

Review: L.J. Alonge’s debut novel is a short and fun read following Justin and his friend Frank as they try to build a basketball team to play against one of the best teams in the neighborhood when neither young men has any real skill. Justin sees the task of playing the dominating team as a consequence of a dare gone completely wrong and is complacent in the face of imminent failure. Along the way, however, he learns about the power to friendship and teamwork, skills his estranged father had been teaching him during their one-on-one pick up games.

I had read this novel was great for middle school students and low level readers and I have to agree with this assessment. Blacktop #1 is an enjoyable read that I know would catch many of my reluctant readers, whom are usually boys, with the sports angle and get them interested in reading.

The strength of Alonge’s debut lies in the voice of Justin who is that adolescent on the brink of adulthood, with a young man’s body (he’s 6’4” after a growth spurt), but has a kid’s playful mind and sense of humor. In addition, Justin is not just an aspiring basketball player, he is also a bookish nerd who loves comic books and science fiction/fantasy novels. He is a good student, top of his class in fact, and is proud of his smarts. He doesn’t try to hide them, but wishes that because of his height, he could be the basketball star as well. I love that Alonge chose to create a character who has other thoughts than basketball and is actually a bit nerdy. Black nerds, specifically boys, are not portrayed very often in literature and if they are they are always an Erkel stereotype. Justin is a real kid, in fact he reminds me of many of my students who were tall gangly goofy kids who would get in arguments about who was better, Superman or Batman.

It is because of Justin that I think, no believe, that Alonge’s novel could turn a young kid who struggles with reading into a person finds pleasure in the written word.

Recommendation: If you know a geeky sport loving kid, get them this book!

Share

Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect

raniTitle: Rani Patel in Full Effect
Author: Sonia Patel
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Genre: Historical
Pages: 313
Availability: October 1, 2016
Review copy:
ARC via publisher

Summary: When Rani’s father leaves her mother for another woman, Rani shaves her head in mourning. The visibility of her act of rebellion propels her onto the stage as a hip-hop performer and into a romantic relationship with a man who is much older. The whirlwind romance, coming on the heels of her father’s abandonment, make her begin to understand how her father’s sexual abuse wounded her in deeper ways than she, or her mother, have ever been able to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, she seeks solace in making lyrics and performing as well as in her boyfriend’s arms. Rani’s friends warn her about him but she fails to listen, feeling as though she finally has something and somebody that makes her feel good about herself—not recognizing that her own talent in hip-hop makes her feel secure, smart, and confident in ways her boyfriend does not. Indeed, as the relationship continues, Rani discovers her boyfriend’s drug use and falls victim to his abuse. Losing herself just as she finds herself, Rani discovers her need to speak out against those who would silence her—no matter the personal danger it leads her into.

Review: Rani is a Gujarati teen living in Hawaii and she’s struggling. She’s an outsider at school for the most part, but home is even worse. She feels abandoned by her father and shut out by her mother. One way Rani deals with the pain is through writing raps. When she’s rapping as MC Sutra, she has confidence and even though she’s pretending, Rani convinces herself along with everyone else. She explains it this way:

It’s the me
I want to be
the large and in charge person
I want the world to see
So I MC, and throw down
my self-confidence decree
and strive to be
my own queen bee

In her day-to-day life, Rani cannot see her own value. She’s unable to understand her worth without her father’s attention. For years she had measured her self-worth by his actions and words. When he not only leaves, but lavishes his attention on someone else, Rani is devastated. This is not a book filled with sweetness and light. Rani is violated, thrown aside and left wounded. There are some very raw scenes to get through, but readers also get to see Rani step out in powerful ways as she learns about herself and her strengths.

Her emotional journey is compelling. Rani survived abuse at the hands of her father and is working to change her patterns of behavior. She doesn’t want to seek his approval anymore. With him in another relationship, that becomes easier to a certain degree, but she falls into the same habits with her new, much older boyfriend.

During this trying time, Rani is not only moving away from her father, she’s attempting to close the gap with her mother. She wants love, comfort and support from her mother, but these things aren’t often given. The years of isolation have put a wedge between the two and change is slow to come. Rani has complex emotions. She feels a sense of guilt because of her relationship with her father and feels sorry for her mother. She also can’t help but be angry that her mother didn’t keep her safe over the years whether that was through ignorance, fear, or something more deliberate. I found their changing relationship intriguing. I was a little surprised at how quickly some things resolved, but thought things developed in a logical way.

Rani has very few friends, but the ones she has are extremely supportive. They’re close, but they are hiding several things from her. She has a much older boyfriend, but one of her friends is also someone she fantasizes about so those relationships get complicated.

Aside from the abusive relationship, mother/daughter issues, friends, boyfriends, and hip hop music there was another added layer – activism. This is extremely timely with the issues surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline. Rani, her father and many other people are working to protect the water supply on their island home which involves a fight against a proposed pipeline. Native Hawaiian sovereignty is also part of the discussion. I appreciated the inclusion of the activism because it added depth to the characters and the story line. This may be one layer too many for some readers, but I’m glad it’s part of the story.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy references to 90s hip hop. I think I missed the effect of some of those references, but Rani Patel’s story still spoke to me with power and intensity. I felt Rani’s pain, but also her energy, determination and her hope for healing.

Extra:

Share