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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Book Review: The Smaller Evil

evilTitle: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 256
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Stephanie herself. Thank You!
Availability: Available Aug. 2nd

Summary: Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.

17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: One of the reasons I love Stephanie Keuhn’s books is because they not only are they thrilling mysteries, but they also explore the very mystery of how our mind works in all it’s complicated beauty. The characters in her books are all struggling with living with mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, in their daily lives and struggling with all the usual angst that being a teenager brings. And, in Keuhn’s books, things are always never what they seem. And in her 4th novel, the reader is taken on an journey that has them just as confused as the main character Arman, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means the mystery was so well plotted that there is no way the reader can figure it out until the reveal. And I love that in a book.

As I mentioned, all of the protagonists in Keuhn’s books struggle with mental illness, Arman is her most touching yet. Arman suffers from severe anxiety, almost crippling at times, and feels that the Evolve retreat is what will heal him. He is on medication to help him with his anxiety, but it doesn’t really help him at all. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the depression that he feels is so strong that he truly believes he does not have any worth to society, and this completely broke my heart for him. Having the novel be so close inside Arman’s head truly give a glimpse of what someone with severe anxiety and depression goes through, how their own thoughts hamper them from truly functioning sometimes. Arman would often try to pump himself up, but then his self-doubt, which was much stronger than his self-love, would take over and he would not trust any progress he made while at the retreat center. Compounding his low self-worth is that when Beau disappears, no one initially believes him which doesn’t help Arman’s state of mind in the slightest. However, this is also where Arman shows great strength and grows as a character. It is for his admiration of Beau that Arman doesn’t allow himself to let his self-doubt and anxiety take control. Arman knows, desires, to figure out what happened to Beau so he constantly fights with his own brain, his low self-esteem, and really fights to have his voice heard. His purpose drives him, and while it cannot cure him from his mental illness, it does allow to find a way to work with his illness.

As for the mystery surrounding Beau’s disappearance, as well as what is exactly going on at the retreat center, I can’t exactly say without giving spoilers, but I can say that at no point did I even come close to figuring it out. There were moments where I felt Arman’s frustration with being so left in the dark without any clues as to what was really going on in the story. Well, I take that back. There was tension between Beau and other leaders of the retreat center and I saw what that place was in danger of becoming, which added an extra level of concern for Arman because his spirit is in such a vulnerable position, that certain member of the retreat center could exploit if they wanted. Luckily, Beau and Arman’s mutual appreciation of each other was well known, so Arman was never in real danger.

Overall, I’m kind of in the middle with my thoughts on “The Smaller Evil”. It is a slow paced, quiet book that feels different from Keuhn’s previous books that had a lot of movement to it. This novel takes place primarily at the retreat center, and Keuhn does a great job of giving the reader a sense of place with her descriptions, but I feel that because the setting is in one place, the story just moves a bit too slowly. Also, my heart totally broke for Arman so I struggled with reading because I just wanted Arman to get the true help he needed and the retreat center was so not the place. It changes him, as all experiences do, but I wonder how much damage it did as well. This novel grabs your heart for Arman and doesn’t let go. It is a hard read at times because Keuhn does a great job with Arman’s neurosis and you truly, truly feel his pain. Because after all, that is what Keuhn excels at.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

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Review: Every Falling Star

Every Falling StarTitle: Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea
Author: Sungju Lee & Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pages: 336
Publisher: Amulet Books
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher via NetGalley
Availability: Available September 13, 2016

Summary: Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.

Review: Every Falling Star is a compelling and intimate look at Sungju Lee’s life in North Korea when his family falls out of favor with the government. This is a personal story, and as such, it doesn’t have a wide-angled view on North Korean politics and history, which means that teens who aren’t familiar with the late 1990s/early 2000s history of the country may find themselves a little disoriented from time to time. Every Falling Star is, instead, the story of a child whose well-off parents tell him they are going on vacation only to slowly discover that his old life isn’t something he can ever return to. The book spans several years, from childhood to mid-teens. While the traveling-then-fighting-then-traveling-again sections can become repetitive, the tight focus on survival and the camaraderie between Sungju and his fellow homeless gang members generally keeps the story moving at a good pace.

Lee does an excellent job anchoring the reader with sensory details throughout the book, from describing what extreme hunger feels like to the conditions of a prison/detention center. He also takes the time to explore the good moments, and the frequent circling back to hope and friendship helps prevent the reader from becoming desensitized to what can be a brutal story. Lee and his fellow kotjebi (homeless kids) do whatever they can to survive, from stealing from marketplaces and government farms to fighting other child gangs to performing in the streets for money. Their tight-knit group helps keep everyone alive, as best they can, though they are not always successful.

I particularly enjoyed following Lee’s shifts in thinking about his country and his life through the progression of the book. The struggle for him to reconcile what he has been taught his country is like with what he begins to experience can be heartbreaking at times, such as his decision to drop out of school and begin helping his family full-time in foraging for food. Lee takes what useful things he can from his old life—particularly military stories and even his taekwondo lessons—and repurposes them to help his group.

While I have a few minor quibbles here and there, my biggest disappointment is the rather abrupt ending. Even with the epilogue, which sketches out some information about Lee’s life after he left North Korea, it feels rather thin and inadequate after such an in-depth look at this period of his life. Some of this is undoubtedly due to Lee’s caution in revealing too much information about his family—for example, he finally learned what it is his father did to fall out of favor with the government but cannot share those details without fear of possible reprisals against what relatives remain in the country—but it actually left me concerned for a few moments that my ARC hadn’t downloaded correctly. I would have appreciated seeing more of the aftermath of Lee’s escape, but the narrative essentially cuts off once he reunites with a family member.

Recommendation: Get it soon, particularly if you enjoy memoirs. The compelling narrative and evocative descriptions make this an relatively quick read, though you may find yourself putting the book down occasionally in order to recollect yourself.

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