Mini-Review: Seven Ways We Lie

SevenWaysTitle: Seven Ways We Lie
Author: Riley Redgate
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Amulet Books
Review copy: Library
Availability: March 8th, 2016

Summary: Paloma High School is ordinary by anyone’s standards. It’s got the same cliques, the same prejudices, the same suspect cafeteria food. And like every high school, every student has something to hide—whether it’s Kat, the thespian who conceals her trust issues onstage; or Valentine, the neurotic genius who’s planted the seed of a school scandal.

When that scandal bubbles over, and rumors of a teacher-student affair surface, everyone starts hunting for someone to blame. For the unlikely allies at the heart of it all, the collision of their seven ordinary-seeming lives results in extraordinary change. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The title kind of gives it away, even if you don’t read the jacket — Seven Ways We Lie is told through the perspectives of seven students, all different in their voices, cliques, and even sexuality (a pleasant surprise). At first, it’s a lot to juggle, but once you settle into the story, that’s when the going gets good. It’s a fun and arresting read, if a little stressful thanks to the ever present mystery of the teacher-student affair and its consequences.

I was initially worried a bit about the LGBTQIA representation, but each character is written in a vivid and engaging way, so my worries were mostly put to rest. I’d be very curious to see what someone with more knowledge of Autism and neurodivergence has to say about Valentine’s portrayal.

Seven Ways We Lie manages to tackle a wide variety of issues, and for the most part, incorporates them smoothly. There were moments when certain lines rang familiar — either they were wonderfully relatable, or too much like a text post from Tumblr. But generally, the issues were handled much better than they usually are in YA. It was refreshing to read.

If you’re looking for a contemporary YA to read, this is it. Seven Ways We Lie will gobble up your time and leave you wishing for more of this band of seven students. Grab it when you get the chance!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison

25810644Title: A Fierce and Subtle Poison
Author: Samantha Mabry
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 288
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Review copy: Library
Availability: April 12th, 2016

Summary: Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl–Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers–and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: “The house at the end of the street is full of bad air.” Look, I don’t know about you, but any book starts out with a sentence like that is one I have to read. The beginning, with its gorgeous language and vivid storytelling, had me hooked.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is told from the point-of-view of Lucas, who wiles away his summers in Old San Juan with flings, hanging out at the beach, and vaguely resenting his father, who everyone in the area knows as a developer who’s either saving the island, or ruining it. When his girlfriend disappears, his life ends up colliding with that of the magical Isabel, and the mysteries surrounding the house at the end of Calle Sol only grow.

Lucas is believable as a teenage boy — to the point of frustration, at times. Throughout the book, Lucas remains buried in his romanticization of the girls around him and how grand his love is. I had to fight to not roll my eyes at several points. The women, both the central ones and those along the periphery, were far more fascinating.

Nevertheless, I loved reading A Fierce and Subtle Poison on the strength of the beautiful language and magical realism alone. The story flourished, in spite of Lucas, solely on the writing itself. I wish there had been more time devoted to exploring the magical aspects of the story, which was more murder mystery focused, but that was not to be. Also, I’m a sucker for plants, and a story centered around a house with an incredible garden… um, yes please.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is definitely worth a read. I’m looking forward to whatever Samantha Mabry writes next!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Book Review: The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose and the DaggerTitle: The Rose & The Dagger
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 420
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Review Copy: It was a Teacher Appreciation Gift!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the sequel to Ahdieh’s amazing debut, The Wrath & the Dawn. I feel in love with that novel, inhaling her words, getting lost in the world building and the characters, specifically Shahrzad and Khalid. I loved their individual character arcs in the story and their arc as a couple. When I finished the first book, I was so ready to continue with Shahrzad’s & Khalid’s story that I had high expectations for The Rose & The Dagger. However, I feel a bit let down by it and I’m not entirely too sure why.

To me, the novel started out really slow. It begins just days after the ending of Wrath & the Dawn, with Shahrzad in the Badawi camp with Tariq and Rahim after fleeing the castle in Rey. Along the way, the trio picked up Shahrzad’s father who is in a coma-like state after using such intense magic. She meets Omar al-Sadiq, the Sheikh of the Badawi people and reunites with her Uncle Reza, who is both relieved to see her and upset at her survival at the same time.  I felt like the urgency of the situation was misplaced, focusing instead on Tariq & Shahrzad’s relationship instead of the tension that should come as Tariq prepares for war. Thankfully, this lack of tension doesn’t last long and the story really starts to move when Shahrzad figures out how to make the carpet fly and begins to put her plan into motion. However, some of the plan seems to be too easy, but I knew that it would fall apart at some point as I was only halfway through the book, and fall apart her plan did, but not in the way that one would expect, which I enjoyed. I like being surprised in a novel and there were some surprises in the sequel that I I liked and some that broke my heart.

Ahdieh introduces new characters in the sequel, such as Shahrzad’s sister Irsa, and we get to know characters that we were only briefly introduced to in the first novel. She expands on the magic that seemed to be only hinted at in Wrath & the Dawn. And I think this is where my “meh” feelings toward the novel stem from. Shahrzad learns a bit more about her magical abilities, but I feel Ahdieh could have spent more time exploring Shahrzad’s lessons with new magical character Artan, but the development of her magical talents appears off screen. I would have loved how the development of Shahrzad’s magic would have helped shaped who she is and added more depth to her character growth. Instead, there is no real payoff to the magical element in the story and after one point Shahrzad never mentions her magic again; it doesn’t even register as part of her identity.

At I think that is what is at the crux with my ambivalence to the novel.  I feel like the novel wrapped up to quickly and that plot points that seemed interesting really went no where. I feel like there was so much more to explore with the world that Ahdieh created and that this series really could have been a trilogy, or maybe even more (though I did learn there are 3 novellas, so there is that). I really wanted more out of this novel, and I was left wanting. Hopefully Ahdieh will return to Shahrzad’s world sometime in the future.

Recommendation: If you are dying to know what happens with Shahrzad and Khalid, then buy it now. If you are willing to wait a bit, then get it soon.

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Review: Serpentine

serpentineTitle: Serpentine
Author: Cindy Pon
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 300
Publisher: Month9Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Serpentine is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.

Lush with details from Chinese folklore, Serpentine tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell.

When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.

Review: It is a pleasure to relax into a world that I trust an author to handle, and I’m happy to report that my trust was rewarded with Cindy Pon’s Serpentine. One of my favorite things about fantasy is well-crafted worlds, and Pon paints the Kingdom of Xia vividly, from clothing to hairstyles to cultural norms and expectations. And of course, the mythology, with its demons and undead creatures and immortals and secrets. I can’t go too deeply into the my appreciation for the world-building without having to resort to spoilers, so I’ll simply say I wish more authors took as much care with making a world that felt lived-in. The little details can be just as important in setting a scene as the broader ones, and Pon did a fantastic job.

Skybright is a wonderful protagonist who faces challenges both mundane and supernatural. Her struggles to figure out what was going on with herself and the supernatural world were equally compelling. I was particularly drawn to her friendship/sisterhood with Zhen Ni and how their bond was tested in a host of different ways throughout the story. Skybright and Zhen Ni’s relationship was easily my favorite in the book, especially in the second half, when things got rather complicated.

I have a few minor complaints about the romance between Skybright and Kai Sen (mostly at how quickly it moved at the beginning), but it was mostly satisfying. I appreciated that Pon did not let their romance overshadow the bond between Skybright and Zhen Ni. Kai Sen was an interesting character, though I think a significant portion of that interest for me was in the potential for deadly conflict between him and Skybright. Once that was largely settled, my interest in Kai Sen waned.

Stone was a character that I didn’t appreciate much at the outset, but he grew more intriguing as the story turned toward the greater supernatural conflict. I’m curious to see more of him even though I don’t particularly like him—his character has the potential to deepen the scope of the story in the next book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The fantasy world of Serpentine is well crafted. Cindy Pon has populated the world with interesting characters and a high-stakes plot that steadily ramps up to a solid climax. While there are a few points that didn’t work for me as much as I wanted them to, this was a satisfying read.

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Review: The Smoking Mirror

The Smoking MirrorTitle: The Smoking Mirror (Garza Twins, Book 1)
Author: David Bowles
Genres: Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Pages: 220
Publisher: IFWG Publishing, Inc.
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: Carol and Johnny Garza are 12-year-old twins whose lives in a small Texas town are forever changed by their mother’s unexplained disappearance. Shipped off to relatives in Mexico by their grieving father, the twins soon learn that their mother is a nagual, a shapeshifter, and that they have inherited her powers. In order to rescue her, they will have to descend into the Aztec underworld and face the dangers that await them.

Review: The Smoking Mirror is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d been able to stumble across when I was in the target audience’s age range. Protagonists of Mexican descent as heroes in a fantasy book? Facing trials in nine levels of a hellish underworld to save their mom? That would have meant the world to me when I was twelve, and as an adult, it still makes me really happy. It also made a lot of other people happy—The Smoking Mirror was named a 2016 Pura Belpré Honor book.

Author David Bowles straddles the line between middle grade and young adult with The Smoking Mirror. It is a great action/adventure story—the nine levels of the Mictlan prove to be a harrowing (and gruesome) checklist for the Garza twins to get through. Each section is distinct (and terrifying), populated by gods and monsters who get in their way, and thereby keep the pace from lagging by providing ever-new challenges for the twins. Each time they made it through a level of the underworld, I was eager to see what they would be up against next. Occasionally, it felt as if their victories weren’t as difficult as I wished they were, but there were many other, more satisfying encounters.

While I felt that some of the writing was weak in places (or distracting—my taste in humor didn’t always line up with the author’s) and wished that there had been more space to explore the world (including their relationship with their grandmother and their family’s grief), Bowles made up for it by creating a pair of protagonists I enjoyed rooting for. Carol and Johnny are engaging heroes, and I enjoyed the back and forth of their distinct POVs. Despite their not-infrequent clashing, watching the twins come back together and depend on each other during the story was a rewarding journey. The descriptions of the Mictlan and the frequent use of Spanish are also some of my favorite parts of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon! The Smoking Mirror is an entertaining adventure story that moves at a quick pace and features a memorable and underrepresented mythology. While the book isn’t without its flaws, it nevertheless kept my attention on the story it was trying to tell. I’m happy to learn that the next book was recently released—I think this series would be a great addition to one of my younger sibling’s bookcase.

Extras
“Author David Bowles on his Garza Twins Series and the Pura Belpré Honor”

“Twins battle Aztec gods in ‘Smoking Mirror’”

“Castle Horror Podcast: Interview: David Bowles, author of ‘A Kingdom Beneath the Waves’”

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Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

24790901Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us (The Abyss Surrounds Us #1)
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 288
Publisher: Flux
Review copy: Library
Availability: February 8th, 2016

Summary:  For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea. But Cas has fought pirates her entire life. And she’s not about to stop. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I will admit I had a few false starts with The Abyss Surrounds Us. It’s definitely not the kind of book you can pick up and read casually like you’re eating chips — one chomp, and you’re done. When I finally sat down to read it for real, though, I went through the book in one sitting.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is sci-fi, set in a future world where the countries we know have been rearranged to be something else, and ships on the open sea are defended by Reckoners, giant sea creatures that fight off anything that threatens its ship. Usually, that means Reckoners take down pirate ships.

When Cassandra Leung’s first stint as a Reckoner’s sole trainer goes horribly wrong, she ends up on a pirate ship, where she has to figure out a way to survive. Meanwhile, her captors are determined to change the power balance in the seas.

It’s the power balance between Cas and Swift, the pirate put in charge of her, that drove the story forward. Swift is ambitious, charismatic, and reckless — and as the novel progresses… (spoiler, kind of! skip this paragraph if you want to avoid it) there’s a spark between her and Cas. The handling of the power imbalance between them was done well. That being said, I really hope their relationship works out in the upcoming sequel. It would be extremely disappointing for this series to go for the “lesbian (or bi/pan!) love meets a tragic end” trope. I’m rooting for the sequel to NOT do that.

Speaking as someone who used to dream of being a zookeeper (I was five), I really loved the loving detail spent on describing Cas’s relationship with her Reckoner — the care regimen, training methods, and personality quirks. This, more than anything else, served to flesh out the new, future world shaped by these giant creatures.

The Abyss Surrounds Us is a fast-paced, incredibly vivid sci-fi book. If you’re looking for that kind of book, or just want to read about cool pirate stuff and giant sea monsters, definitely get this book. I’m definitely looking forward to the sequel!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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