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.

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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!

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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.

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Review: The Shadow Hour

the shadow hourTitle: The Shadow Hour
Author: Melissa Grey
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 432
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Review copy: Library
Availability: July 12th, 2016

Summary: A battle has been won. But the war has only just begun. Everything in Echo’s life changed in a blinding flash when she learned the startling truth: she is the firebird, the creature of light that is said to bring peace.The firebird has come into the world, but it has not come alone. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and Echo can feel a great and terrible darkness rising in the distance. Cosmic forces threaten to tear the world apart.

Echo has already lost her home, her family, and her boyfriend. Now, as the firebird, her path is filled with even greater dangers than the ones she’s already overcome.She knows the Dragon Prince will not fall without a fight.Echo must decide: can she wield the power of her true nature—or will it prove too strong for her, and burn what’s left of her world to the ground?

Welcome to the shadow hour. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: As the sequel to The Girl At Midnight, Melissa Grey’s The Shadow Hour definitely doesn’t function as a standalone. And why would you want it to? The Girl at Midnight is a fun urban fantasy read. Once you’ve read (or, in my case, gobbled up in two hours) that, then you’re good to go.

The Shadow Hour continues in the aftermath of The Girl at Midnight after Echo (spoiler alert!) becomes the Firebird. Echo’s motley crew of enemies-turned-allies are hiding out, keeping especially Echo from the rest of the world. But Echo’s new status as the chosen one has consequences. Eventually, a new threat forces the group out of hiding and brings Echo back into the action to defend her feathered avicen people.

Like with the first book in the series, The Shadow Hour has daring exploits and heists a-plenty. The fast-paced globe-trotting adventures mingle with interludes of romance and slice-of-life moments. Cold-hearted as I am, I did feel that some of the heavy emotional moments went on for a little too long, but other people may enjoy that.

If you liked The Girl at Midnight, you definitely should read its sequel. And if you haven’t tried out the first book in the series, that should be on your to-do list. Anyone fond of libraries, magical beings, and solid urban fantasy would love this series. I’m looking forward to the final book in the trilogy!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: Playing for the Devil’s Fire

fireTitle: Playing for the Devil’s Fire
Author: Phillippe Diederich
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Pages: 245
Genre: Mystery
Review copy: Final copy via publisher
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.

Review: A severed head and another dead body with missing fingers are the two most obvious clues that things are changing in the small town of Izayoc. The name Izayoc is Nahuatl and means the place of tears which rapidly becomes a more and more accurate description. There are multiple grisly scenes and many heart-breaking moments throughout the book. Boli’s story is haunting and difficult to read, but is well worth the time and potential tears.

My heart ached for Boli as he watched his world crumble. The horrifying deaths are bad enough, but the shattering of trust is also devastating. Law enforcement is no help when his family goes missing and it’s hard to know where the loyalties of neighbors and strangers may lie on any given day. Boli is a pretty trusting kid initially. He is slow to believe the evidence staring at him. He hangs out with some kids who curse and fantasizes about an older girl, but he is a pretty innocent child as the story begins to unfold. He idolized luchadores and wants to be a hero like them – not a superhero, but a real person who is responsible for fighting crime and also happens to get the girl in the end. Unfortunately, Boli and his town become witness to plenty of crime to fight, but it’s not like in the movies or lucha libre. The crime and violence is all too real and can be downright gruesome.

Boli mainly places his trust in his family and his faith. He does have questions though. Father Gregorio teaches that one shouldn’t question God’s motives for what happens to people. Boli ponders the idea that life is a journey of living, suffering and dying. This type of thinking seems to keep people trapped in their situations though. His friend Mosca tells him that Catholicism is “all a fairy tale made up by the priests. All they wanted was to enslave the Indians and steal the gold of the Aztecs.”

Diederich does several things very well. He is able to dig a little into theology and religion without becoming preachy and dry. He also paints the scenes thoroughly. This book has a movie-like quality. This is where Diederich’s experience as a photographer may have been a big benefit. The dead bodies, trash heaps, marble games and lucha libre matches along with so many other situations are vividly described. One could say that sometimes maybe they’re even almost too vivid for comfort. Diederich also created memorable characters who wormed their way into my heart. Boli is facing enormous challenges but meets them with resilience for the most part. His sister Gaby also persists in spite of fear and heartache. Their abuela is experiencing dementia, but is also a strong force in their lives. I love the relationship Boli has with her. He appreciates her ability to laugh and hold onto whatever joke is bringing her joy. And then there is the washed up wrestler who stumbles into their lives and provides hope for Boli.

The story is set in Mexico and there are Spanish words and phrases present, but the author does provide a glossary. Like many of the events in the book, the words can be harsh, but they fit the situations and the characters and enrich the story.

Recommendation: Buy it now. This is a book that takes a hard look at the devastation that can come along with the drug business and the heavy toll it can take on individuals. This is a book that will stay in my memory for a long time to come.

Blog Tour: To learn more about the book and author, visit The Pirate Tree tomorrow.

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Review: Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)

lostTitle: Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1)
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 336
Genre: Fantasy
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley
Availability: September 6, 2016

Summary: Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Review: Portals, cantos, ghosts, love, blood, monsters, death and more are swirling around in Alejandra’s life. In spite of this, Alejandra, or Alex as she’s also called, is reluctant to take on the role of bruja. She’s holding onto secrets that have convinced her to avoid awaking her powers.

Alex comes from a long line of magic. Everyone else in her family seems to see magic as a blessing rather than the curse Alex feels. Most of them are busy trying to change Alex’s mind, but even so, there is a feeling of love and support as they prepare for her Deathday celebration. When it all goes horribly wrong, Alex is determined to fix everything. Family bonds of love are what keep her going through nightmarish conditions as she attempts to find and rescue her family.

Speaking of nightmares, there are some seriously creepy creatures and beings along Alex’s journey. One animal Alex and her guide Nova encounter is described this way, “it’s what you get if a saber-toothed tiger and a snake demon had a baby.” Of course those horrific monsters are stalking and attacking Nova and Alex which is more than a little unpleasant for them. It’s not a terror-filled book, but has a nice dose of chills throughout that keeps things interesting.

I enjoyed the land of Los Lagos with it’s many different landscapes and inhabitants. The journey itself seemed a bit like an obstacle course with one trial after another through many types of terrains. This is a fairly traditional type of fantasy journey, but still managed to seem somewhat unique.

As for the characters, Alex is coming to grips with who she is and deciding who she wants to be. I appreciated her attempts to be true to herself. She only has one close friend in the beginning, Rishi. Readers get to know Rishi, but not as well as I would have liked. Alex describes her as a calming presence and they are close, or at least as close as they can be with all of Alex’s secrets. Nova is a newer addition to Alex’s life. He’s obviously attractive, but Alex has trouble determining whether he’s trustworthy. In addition to these three, Alex’s family members play roles intermittently in the book. With three central characters you may be wondering about a love triangle. Yes, that happens here to a certain extent, but the shape of their relationships made sense in my mind and didn’t detract from the story.

The author provides an author’s note about brujas and some of the other terms she used in the book. Bruja is a Spanish word meaning witch. She was not basing the story on the brujeria faith, but she did chose to use the word bruja rather than witch because “Alex’s ancestors come from Ecuador, Spain, Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Her magic is like Latin America–a combination of the old world and new.” Córdova explains how she created some of the elements of this book like the Deathday ceremony with inspiration from the Day of the Dead and Santeria. I appreciated learning about the many influences and some of the factors in her creative decisions.

Recommendation: If you want a quick and action packed fantasy, get it as soon as you can. Labyrinth Lost satisfies a hunger for magic and wonder.

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