Review: The Bone Witch

Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 400 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Review Copy: eARC received via NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Review: I enjoyed Rin Chupeco’s first book, The Girl from the Well, and jumped at the chance to follow her into the fantasy genre. And while there were some good things about The Bone Witch (the heroine, her brother, lush descriptions, the whole idea of asha, and this specific type of magic), there were a lot of things that either weren’t or just didn’t work for me.

The heroine, Tea, is an engaging narrator, and the glimpses of her in the future, having changed radically from the girl we get to know during her asha training, is intriguing. I wanted a lot more progression on this front, but that’s where the structure of the book undercut itself. Between every chapter was a very short scene of the future, between Tea and an unnamed Bard, and these scenes either constantly killed the momentum of the past or set us up for excitement that took far too long to materialize. If the interruptions had been less frequent (and had been a more coherent narrative, not mostly Tea preparing to raise or raising creature after creature after creature), this might have worked; as it was, it became an irritating distraction, especially once it became obvious that the past Tea and the future Tea weren’t going to be any closer to each other in this book, attitude/philosophy-wise, than they were at the start of it. Having the Bard narrate the future segments felt like a deliberate choice to keep information from the reader (like who Tea’s dead love is and what her plans are for all the monsters) rather than the best choice for telling the story. I felt frustrated, not teased, throughout.

The thing that disappointed me most was the portrayal of the country Drycht. It’s obviously supposed to be the stereotypical conservative Muslim country analogue, what with a kingdom mostly of sand, a king with an “iron grip,” its women veiled, and its stance on gender roles. I cannot think of a single character in the book (aside from the Drycht envoy who is scandalized that Tea is wearing bold colors and must be calmed by being allowed to go on a rant about the shamelessness of women—and he is supposed to be “a progressive man in comparison [to his fellow countrymen]”!) who has anything good to say about the country or the people, aside from occasional praise of its trade goods.

This negative narrative isn’t subtle, either. The nameless Bard was “born in Drycht but was banished when [he] came of age for [his] freethinking ways.” While Farhi, one of the maids, has a name, she never actually speaks on the page (so far as I can remember) and always behaves negatively/distantly toward Tea. One of the heroine’s mentors says flat out “This is Kion, miladies, not Drycht. We are at an age where men and women stand together on equal footing, unlike our barbarian brothers to the south.” To top it off, there are two referenced honor killings: a dance performance “about a woman from Drycht to be executed for dishonoring her family when she fled with a disreputable lover” and a separate incident, where it is revealed that the girl the Bard loved unrequitedly was killed by her father for running away with a bricklayer. (This moment isn’t about this unnamed girl or the not-the-Bard!boy she loved at all, it is explicitly about Tea and the Bard. Because we make the tragic murder of a girl in love all about us, apparently.)

This negative portrayal is never pushed back against in the text, so it doesn’t appear to be a misguided attempt at having a prejudiced narrator. It is simply gross, disappointing, and makes me wonder what other red flags I may have missed in the mashup of other cultures in this fantasy world. I am interested in hearing from other readers and reviewers on this subject.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are some good ideas here, the constant interruptions from a future stranger are terribly distracting and hinder, more than help, the main narrative, and the Islamophobic content under the guise of a fantasy culture is not redeemable.

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Book Review: Running Away to Home

rath-coverTitle: Running Away to Home
Author: Lita Hooper
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 145
Publisher: Brave Books/Aquarius Press
Review Copy: ARC
Availability: Available Aug. 30

Summary:  How do you find your way home when your home no longer exists? For 17-year old twin sisters Sammie and Ronnie and their father, Willis, the answer to that question becomes a life raft when they are displaced after Hurricane Katrina.
Identity….Fear….Family
Running Away to Home, a YA verse novel, tells the story of two brave sisters, a repentant father, and the amazing triumphant spirit of familial love.
Loss.…Memory….Family
After leaving New Orleans for Atlanta, Ronnie and Sammie are separated and find themselves living in different parts of the city. Each sister is lured by false promises of love and security as they initially believe the people they encounter.
Love….Change….Family
As a YA verse novel, this story relies on poetry to express the intimacy of sisterhood and the triumphant spirit of its characters. Older YA readers will be moved by this family’s journey in the wake of one of the most memorable historical events our nation has experienced.
Spirit….Strength….Family

Review: With the 11 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up and Louisiana under water again, Lita Hooper’s novel is especially timely. The story of Sammie & Ronnie is a very real one as families were separated as they fled New Orleans and were sent to different cities close by. Many of the stories I heard from Katrina were truly heart-breaking, so I applaud Ms. Hooper for tackling such a painful subject matter.

While Sammie and Ronnie are the main protagonists, Hooper also includes the voices of their father, and the people who “help” both of the girls when they separate. I put “help” in quotations because the people who decide to take in both Sammie and Ronnie only do so to serve their own interests. They lie to both of the girls about FEMA and their families, hence keeping both girls right where they want them. While neither girl is physically hurt, the emotional damage done to both hurt my heart.

While I felt for the girls, I didn’t care as much as I could have because I couldn’t really connect with either characters. Both Ronnie and Sammie felt very two dimensional and I didn’t get a feel of what made both girls who they are. They felt more like composite characters, there just to propel the action of the story, rather than be the heart of the story. It was stated that Ronnie was an studious honor student, and I get that in times of distress people don’t make rational decisions, but easy acceptance of her “savior’s” lies just struck me as odd. Additionally, Sammie was supposed to be the naive sister, however she came across as child-like instead of just a careless teenager. The writing for both characters was so simplistic that I didn’t get a grasp of Ronnie’s and Sammie’s feelings, how they truly felt about being separated from their twin. I feel like Hooper had a chance to go deeper, and for whatever reason, didn’t.

I understand that novels written in verse are tricky things, but I’ve read some verse novels that just floored me. I feel like Hooper could have slowed down some of the events in the novel, such as when the girls get separated, and explore the girls’ emotional response to their situation. This novel was very plot driven, which can be good, when it doesn’t come at the expense of characterization. Ultimately, that is what made the novel feel flat for me.

Recommendation: I was excited about this book based on the premise, but was disappointed in the execution.

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Review: Secrets, Lies & Scandals

Secrets Lies and ScandalsTitle: Secrets, Lies, & Scandals
Author: Amanda K. Morgan
Genres: Contemporary, Thriller
Pages: 352
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher
Availability: Available July 5

Summary: In the tradition of I Know What You Did Last Summer and How to Get Away with Murder, five teens must overcome their paranoia in order to keep their teacher’s death a secret in this fast-paced suspense thriller.

Nothing ruins summer vacation like a secret…especially when it involves a dead teacher.

Ivy used to be on top of the social ladder, until her ex made that all go away. She has a chance to be Queen Bee again, but only if the rest of the group can keep quiet.

Tyler has always been a bad boy, but lately he’s been running low on second chances. There’s no way he’s going to lose everything because someone couldn’t keep their mouth shut.

Kinley wouldn’t describe herself as perfect, though everyone else would. But perfection comes at a price, and there is nothing she wouldn’t do to keep her perfect record—one that doesn’t include murder charges.

Mattie is only in town for the summer. He wasn’t looking to make friends, and he definitely wasn’t looking to be involved in a murder. He’s also not looking to be riddled with guilt for the rest of his life…but to prevent that he’ll have to turn them all in.

Cade couldn’t care less about the body, or about the pact to keep the secret. The only way to be innocent is for someone else to be found guilty. Now he just has to decide who that someone will be.

With the police hot on the case, they don’t have much time to figure out how to trust each other. But in order to take the lead, you have to be first in line…and that’s the quickest way to get stabbed in the back.

Review: I wanted to like Secrets, Lies, & Scandals more than I did, especially since I’m sure there will be many people who love it. A lot of my disappointment stems from specific-to-me pet peeves; other disappointments are less subjective.

Amanda K. Morgan did an admirable job of giving the five students distinct voices and points of view in the alternating, sometimes fragmented story. Only Kinley and Cade are people of color, but they are allowed a proportionate amount of chapters. The strict adherence to the established chapter order (Ivy, Mattie, Kinley, Tyler, Cade) felt like a misstep on occasion, but the short chapters enhanced the overall pace of the book, as did the short timeline. Roughly three weeks pass between the death of their teacher and the end of the book, so there is little time to linger on anything—or really feel like characters or relationships are allowed to develop properly.

Perhaps it is just my aro/ace self talking, but I just did not understand how two (two!) couples could (pseudo-)form under the stress of killing a teacher, disposing of the body, trying not to get caught, and contemplating throwing everyone else under the bus, but it happens in Secrets. (One of the characters does lampshade the fact that they’re making out approximately twenty feet from their teacher’s not-yet-cold corpse, but that just made me want to throw the book. Can we maybe put romance and hormones on hold for a couple hours? Please? There are actually more important things to be done and to worry about right now, I promise.) I wish both developing romances had been excised entirely in order to give more space for each character’s secrets/lies/scandals, because those were far more interesting, and some were woefully underdeveloped. The ending (and epilogue with a new narrator) is an exercise in frustration, where things are resolved too easily and then tanked at the last second (as a sequel hook?).

I also had several representation issues I had with the book. Stratford, the evil teacher, is repeatedly referred to as having an uneven gait and smile, and while those are both plot relevant (barely), it pinged pretty high for me on the “doesn’t-conform-to-societal-beauty-standards = evil” trope. I wasn’t that thrilled when a character lied about having a disability, either, in order to try to cover up some other wrongdoing. Another thing that frustrated me was the discovery that a character was bisexual—which was almost immediately followed up by the revelation that the character had cheated on their prior partner. To top all that off, another character’s secret is about severe mental illness in their family, and how rage, insanity, and murder are now part of their “family’s legacy.”

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are some good things about the premise and the writing, they were overshadowed by a number of pet peeves and representation issues.

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Review: Future Shock

futureTitle: Future Shock
Author: Elizabeth Briggs
Genres: Science fiction, thriller
Pages: 272
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Review Copy: Received an e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: Elena Martinez has hidden her eidetic memory all her life–or so she thinks. When powerful tech giant Aether Corporation selects her for a top-secret project, she can’t say no. All she has to do is participate in a trip to the future to bring back data, and she’ll be set for life.

Elena joins a team of four other teens with special skills, including Adam, a science prodigy with his own reason for being there. But when the time travelers arrive in the future, something goes wrong and they break the only rule they were given: do not look into their own fates.

Now they have twenty-four hours to get back to the present and find a way to stop a seemingly inevitable future from unfolding. With time running out and deadly secrets uncovered, Elena must use her eidetic memory, street smarts, and a growing trust in Adam to save her new friends and herself.

Review: I wish I liked this book more than I did. There are some points in Future Shock’s favor, but several significant stumbling points (or, perhaps, personal pet peeves) kept the book from fulfilling its potential.

I’ve seen several people praise Future Shock for its diverse cast, but there were a few not-insignificant moments where I felt that representation was misguided or problematic. Chris’s introduction, for instance, involves him menacing Adam, the love interest, in his first line, and the text mentions Chris’s size three times (“the biggest guy in the room gets right up in [Adam’s] face,” “the first guy has to be double [Adam’s] size,” and “‘I know your type,’ the big guy says”) before describing his race. And if you happened to guess those things meant Chris was black, you probably would have sighed as much as I did when that was confirmed (right before a fourth mention of his size—“large, muscular arms”—and all before revealing Chris’s name). While Chris does gain more depth beyond the Scary Black Man stereotype, this introduction casts a long, sour shadow over his character, particularly every time he gets into a fight with another character. And anyone who has been following LGBTQIA representation in television in the last month or so won’t be surprised at all by Zoe’s fate.

While I think short timelines are wonderful for thrillers as they can help keep a story focused, the romance between Elena and Adam suffered greatly for it. I simply could not believe that these two fell for each other within, roughly, two days. The romance was distracting—I was far more interested in the deadly mysteries the present and the future had for them than whether or not the two of them were going to get together. I honestly wish that the time spent on the romance had been spent on developing Chris, Zoe, and Trent’s relationships with Elena instead, especially since those four were the ones at risk.

Elena was an engaging narrator whose initial “real-world” hurdles easily paved the way for her science-fiction adventure. As her fears about the future transitioned from ageing out of foster care to staying alive when her death was around the corner, I empathized with her fear, frustration, and desperation. While I didn’t find the ultimate mystery that difficult to solve as a reader, I did understand why Elena and the rest of her group would have struggled with it.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While the premise and the heroine are engaging, Future Shock falls short of what it could have been and features some questionable representation choices.

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Review: In Real Life

lifeTitle: In Real Life
Author: Jessica Love
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 240
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Received an e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: Hannah Cho and Nick Cooper have been best friends since 8th grade. They talk for hours on the phone, regularly shower each other with presents, and know everything there is to know about one another.

There’s just one problem: Hannah and Nick have never actually met.

Hannah has spent her entire life doing what she’s supposed to, but when her senior year spring break plans get ruined by a rule-breaker, she decides to break a rule or two herself. She impulsively decides to road trip to Vegas, her older sister and BFF in tow, to surprise Nick and finally declare her more-than-friend feelings for him.

Hannah’s romantic gesture backfires when she gets to Vegas and meets Nick’s girlfriend, whom he failed to mention. And it turns out his relationship status isn’t the only thing he’s been lying to her about. Hannah knows the real Nick can’t be that different from the online Nick she knows and loves, but now she only has one night in Sin City to figure out what her feelings for Nick really are, all while discovering how life can change when you break the rules every now and then.

Review: I requested this ARC because I thought it could be a fun story—some of my closest friends are people I met online, and some of those friendships have since transferred from online only to “real life.” I was certain that throwing romance into the mix with a heavy dose of Las Vegas would make things even more exciting. Instead, the first chapter opened on a sour note it never quite recovered from when Hannah, the Korean-American narrator, spent a great deal of time complaining about how Aditi Singh (presumably another girl of color) “stole” a student government trip that should have “belonged” to Hannah even though it is implied the trip is merit-based and Aditi’s application was the better one.

Unfortunately, Hannah continues to pit herself against basically every girl in the story, from her sister, Grace, to her best friend, Lo, to Nick’s girlfriend, Frankie. It gets particularly bad when Frankie is in the picture as Hannah can’t seem to comment on Frankie’s appearance without snarking about the size of Frankie’s breasts or being horribly jealous whenever Frankie comes in contact with her boyfriend. Hannah’s possessiveness over Nick—who isn’t her boyfriend and whose affections she shot down prior to the start of the story—becomes frustrating in short order when it is constantly accompanied by petty commentary about Frankie and isn’t alleviated by the rare moments when Hannah admits there are good points about Frankie.

There are also a few moments re: race that gave me pause, such as Hannah’s description of herself: “[breaking rules] goes against my Good Korean Girl DNA. Rules are made to be followed—at least that’s what my parents, who aren’t Tiger Parents or anything but are still pretty serious, drilled into me starting the second I learned to crawl.” I was also unimpressed with how close Lo came to several negative Latinx stereotypes. It felt like the author had tried to write racially diverse characters but didn’t understand how particular character traits/plot points could become harmful stereotypes when applied to characters of color.

The plot itself is a frustrating cycle of will-Hannah-confess-or-not, with her constantly convincing herself to say something and then either getting interrupted or running away from the opportunity. While there are some fun moments between her and Nick, they are undercut by the constant wheel-spinning, and Nick’s not-quite-ambiguity about pursuing something with Hannah despite having a girlfriend already made it difficult to root for the couple.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are a few good moments, In Real Life is overall an unsatisfying and frustrating read.

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Book Review: Can You See Me Now?

Can You See Me NowTitle: Can You See Me Now?
Author: Estela Bernal
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 161
Publisher: Arte Publico Press
Review Copy: ARC from publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: On Amanda’s thirteenth birthday, her father is killed by a drunk driver while on the way to pick up her birthday present. She’s stunned when she overhears her mother blaming her: “If she hadn’t insisted on that stupid watch for her birthday, he would still be alive.” Her mom retreats into extra shifts at work, leaving Mandy with her grandmother and making her feel as if she has lost both parents.

To make matters worse, she’s the butt of cruel pranks at school. One day, some girls even glue her skirt to the chair! But things take a turn for the better when she befriends Paloma, an unusual new student at Central Middle School, who introduces her to yoga and meditation. And she reluctantly becomes friends with Rogelio, a fat boy who is bullied even more than she is by their classmates.
Mandy’s new friends, a dog named Lobo and an interesting school project help to ease the pain of her father’s death and her mother’s absence. She maintains a connection to her father by writing letters to him each night. But will she always be invisible to her mother?

Estela Bernal’s debut novel, a fast-paced and entertaining read for middle school teens, explores tough issues—including death and bullying—with sensitivity and humor.

Review: A few days ago a writer friend sent me an article about the difference between Middle Grade books and Young Adult books. The article was focused on writers sending their manuscripts for publishing, but it also made me realize why I had such trouble getting into Estela’ Bernal’s debut novel. In the article, the author reminded writers that readers often “read up” and since I teach 8th grade, I’m commonly recommending (and reading) novels on the “older YA” spectrum. While “Can You See Me Now?” is marketed at a YA novel, when reading it, it becomes clear that the novel is actually a Middle Grade novel. It is shorter than the average YA novel and the writing is much more simplistic. The article notes that MG novels tend to focus on “a characters immediate world” with little self-reflection and “Can You See Me Now?” fits the definition of a MG novel.

The lack of self-reflection in the novel is actually what bothered me the most. The story is very “on the surface”, not fully getting to the deeper emotional issues that Amanda is dealing with. Essentially Bernal’s novel lacks heart. Amanda’s father died tragically and her mother practically abandons her, and none of that emotional pain is reflected in the novel. Amanda writes letters to her father, which is very sweet and a realistic portrayal of how one grieves, but pages go by without her talking about her mother. I kept leaving the story because of that. I couldn’t understand why she’d go days, weeks, without a passing thought to her mother. The novel focused on her budding friendship with Paloma, Rogelio and the school project. I understand that the budding friendships is what helps Amanda heal, but the lighthearted approach Bernal took towards those relationships bothered me. Spending my days around middle schoolers, I know how deep, emotional beings they can be and I felt that Bernal didn’t quite grasp the complexity of the pre-teen/teenage mind.

Lastly, I had a lot of trouble connecting with Amanda, in that I didn’t really get to know her. I know her in a superficial way, not enough to care to want to read a novel about her. A book can have a strong premise, such as “Can You See Me Now?” does, but if a reader cannot connect to the main character, if we don’t have a good enough reason to root for her, then the novel falls flat. I was left wanting more from Amanda, more from this novel.

Recommendation:  Tying back to my opening paragraph, I think the main reason why I didn’t like it is because I’m not used to reading Middle Grade books (which are aimed at an audience of 8-12 years old). While “Can You See Me Now?” would make a good MG novel, as a reader of YA, it doesn’t work for me. If you enjoy MG books, then I’d suggest you borrow the novel when you can, but if you are a fan of YA, then skip it.

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