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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Review: Burn Baby Burn

burnTitle: Burn Baby Burn
Author: Meg Medina
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 320
Genre: Historical, Romance
Review Copy: ARC via publisher
Availability: March 8, 2016

Summary: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.

Review: Meg Medina transports readers to one seriously sweltering, tension-filled summer. She created a satsifying sense of place. While reading Burn Baby Burn, I saw 70s New York and could practically feel the sweat dripping down my back. This was particularly amazing since my first read through happened during subfreezing winter temps here in the mid-west. Medina seamlessly wove in details that brought the summer of 1977 to life.

This was a remarkable summer given the presence of a serial killer in the area. The killings certainly added to the intensity of the novel since that part of the book was based on actual events. The inhumanity was horrifying. It was mirrored on a smaller scale though with Nora’s brother as he becomes colder and increasingly cruel towards his family. Nora and her mother don’t tell people outside the family about his bullying and also avoid talking about it among themselves. The worry about embarrassment or losing respectability keeps them silent even with close friends and relatives. This is a common response in the real world and one that could resonate with many readers.

It’s Nora’s senior year and she’s eager to get out and be on her own. The fears and responsibilities are wearing her down. She has no idea how to solve the many problems her family is facing and she is pinning all her hopes on simply escaping. Fortunately, Nora has many people in her life that nudge her toward possibilities. There are two adults in her school encouraging her to go on to college. She has talent for woodworking and fixing things, but has a hard time seeing herself going on to college. The cost, the likely attitudes and prejudice of male classmates, and other hurdles have her doubting. I loved that there are people in her corner reminding her of her strengths and what her future could be if she steps out and believes in herself.

Stiller is another adult nudging Nora and encouraging her to use her strength. I especially appreciated her. She’s a black woman who lives in their apartment building. According to Nora, “Stiller takes absolutely no shit.” She’s an activist with many causes and she has distinct opinions about the feminist movement. In a discussion about an upcoming women’s conference, Stiller “wants to see the needs of black women included or she won’t go. ‘Being oppressed as a woman is just one way of being held down Mary,’ she said.”

Women’s issues come up many times throughout the novel. Nora contemplates her place in the midst of her woodworking classes, how her mother has completely different standards for her and her brother, how men treat her on the street and more. Mary, the Mother of Nora’s best friend Kathleen, is also very invested in the feminist movement. This results in the girls becoming involved even when they aren’t totally sure how they feel about it all. They’re still figuring out what they believe and what is and isn’t important to them.

As with other books Medina has written, the main character is Cuban American. She doesn’t always claim this heritage and is conflicted about the times when she passes or doesn’t speak up in the face of racist comments in her presence. Racial issues are not the only theme in the book, but they are certainly present throughout.

And then there is the romance. Nora and Pablo have a bit of a rocky road, but it’s a satisfying trip. I really enjoyed the mix in this book. The romance is there, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. There’s an excellent balance here between friendship, family, community, romance, racial issues and inner conflict. I almost forgot to mention the music! Nora and Kathleen share a love for dance and disco music. I found myself humming along and wanting to track down some of the tunes.

Recommendation: Get it as soon as you can! Meg Medina is an excellent storyteller. Burn Baby Burn is intense and suspenseful, but also manages to be hopeful. In spite of the many challenges, or maybe because of them, Nora is able to show her strength. I was cheering her on the whole way.

Extras:
Sample Chapter, Author Notes, Discussion Guide via Publisher
A Playlist for Burn Baby Burn
Book Trailer

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Book Review: The Love that Split the World

The Love that Split the WorldTitle: The Love that Split the World
Author: Emily Henry
Genres:  Magical Realism
Pages: 390
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: I should start owning stock in Barnes & Noble
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Natalie Cleary must risk her future and leap blindly into a vast unknown for the chance to build a new world with the boy she loves.

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start… until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

Review: Emily Henry’s debut novel is being marketed as a mix between Friday Night Lights and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and while I haven’t read Friday Night Lights, I did fall in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife so I figured I would most likely enjoy this novel. And I was right. I greatly enjoyed Henry’s novel and found myself lost in the story, trying to discover the mystery of who was Grandmother.

While this novel is being marketed as a romance, I feel like it was more a novel of discovering the self. The story opens with Natalie graduating high school and preparing to leave for Brown University in the fall. She is preparing for her goodbyes from family and friends, yet is also looking forward to beginning a new life. This time of change, for many who decide to go away for school, is a time where you reflect on your life, specifically your high school years, and try to anticipate what your college life will be like. Natalie is going through these emotions, but with an added pressure by her “Grandmother” to save him. Natalie doesn’t know who “he” is, but also learns that “Grandmother” the supernatural being who has been with her, sharing beautiful parables with her throughout her life will also be leaving her. And with that knowledge, Natalie sets out to discover who “Grandmother” really is and what role the old lady plays in her life. Natalie has to look inward, at her past, her childhood, and even look at her heritage, in order to find her answers. To me, this search for self was much more powerful and interesting than the romance. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the romance, but Natalie’s search for understanding herself, understanding her own mind and beginning to take ownership of her ability to manipulate time really connected with me.

Natalie was already on a path of claiming herself and her heritage, she is American Indian and adopted by a White couple, by deciding to forge her own path. Henry did an excellent job portraying the personal tensions that come from when a child is a different heritage from their parents, and she even mentions the complexities of American Indian adoption. I loved that Henry did not pretend that Natalie’s heritage didn’t effect her outlook on life, but that it colored how she viewed her world.  About a year prior to the start of the novel, Natalie has experienced an identity shift where she decides to be true to herself and to stop trying to fit in to a concept of who she should be. She has quit dance and has become more outspoken about many social issues. I think by having Natalie already think about her role in the world and already be on the journey of discovering the self, what she experiences, the growth she undergoes through the novel, helps the reader understand the choice she makes at the end.

One part about this novel I do want to mention is the parables that Grandmother shares with Natalie. Henry did a great job of presenting different types of parables from different American Indian nations and even includes a Biblical parable. Like any elder, the stories Grandmother shares with Natalie not only teach her about different cultures, but also provide lessons and insights into Natalie’s situation, helping her solve the mystery of who Grandmother is and how Natalie needs to save him. Well, not all the parables add to the mystery, sometimes a story is just a story that elders tell to their children, and that is what really endeared me to many of the tories. In her acknowledgements, Henry gave credit to the nation’s stories that she used and it was clear she did proper research.

Recommendation: Overall, I found Henry’s debut very enjoyable and got lost in the story. If you are a fan of time bending romance, this is the book for you.

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Review: A Memory of Light

lightTitle: The Memory of Light
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 325
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But for once, a mistake works out well for her, as she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide, Vicky must try to find the strength to carry on. She may not have it. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

Review: The Memory of Light is compassionate look at Latina teenager Vicky Cruz in the aftermath of her suicide attempt, and it is also a hopeful look at a young woman’s attempt to recover from it. One of the many things I liked about this book was the diversity of its cast—racially and/or ethnically, neurologically, and economically—and how those things inform the world and its characters.

There is no traumatic tipping point for Vicky’s depression, no horrific event she must overcome. And while those stories are important to tell, it is equally important to tell stories where depression seeps into being, where there is no pivotal moment to kickstart a depressive episode, where the protagonist realizes that somewhere along the way her brain has changed the way it works. Some of the most memorable scenes in Memory are Vicky finally being able to describe what her thoughts and feelings are like. Vicky’s slow-building insights into herself, her family, and her school life are equally complicated and honest. Her conversations with her sister and her father are difficult, as is her return to her home and school. Recovery isn’t linear for Vicky, and Memory doesn’t shy away from depicting how taxing it can be to do something as simple as going to class.

The friendships Vicky and the other teens at Lakeview form help all of them share and forge tools to manage their illnesses. Mona, E.M., and Gabriel are all distinct characters with different motivations, family circumstances, and mental health. (I would very much value other reviewers’ opinions on how those mental illnesses were handled as I am less familiar with them and their associated tropes.) While I rather liked Dr. Desai’s character, her professional ethics made me raise an eyebrow several times, particularly since the majority of the breaches were obviously made so Vicky could get the information she needed and move the plot forward.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the climax of the book—much of it seemed rushed and dependent on external peril, in contrast to the quieter, internal focus of the rest of the novel. Several of the characters that I thought could have been important to Vicky’s journey weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, particularly Juanita and Barbara.

Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t wrap everything up with tidy bows; by the end of Memory, all of the Lakeview quartet are in different places, but not all of those places are objectively better. Vicky’s own recovery is a possible, but not certain, thing, though I would term the ending a hopeful one. Stork ensured that Vicky acquired the tools and the start of a support network she needed to be able to continue living.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While The Memory of Light has a few blemishes, it is still a solid effort to depict the aftermath of a suicide attempt and figuring out how to live even when it seems like the effort isn’t worth the cost.

Extras
What I Learned About Depression by Francisco X. Stork

Ten Observations on Depression by Francisco X. Stork

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