Review: Little Fires Everywhere

“Moody never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap.” p. 13

Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng.
Penguin, Penguin Random House,  my edition 2019 (originally published in 2017).
Fiction, 338 pages plus Reader’s Guide.
Lexile:  1000L  .
AR Level:  6.8 (worth 18.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not posting it on Fiction Friday.

A tense novel about the unexpected connections between two families, which change all of their lives.

Little Fires Everywhere cover

Well.  Sometimes I hesitate to review a book because it feels like everything there is to be said about that work is already out there.  While I don’t mind reviewing popular works, especially if my opinion differs vastly from the usual, sometimes it simply doesn’t seem like there is much for me to add to the discourse.  That is the case with this novel, which seems to have been generally well-reviewed, and which I generally agree with other reviews I’d seen prior to reading the book. Continue reading “Review: Little Fires Everywhere”

Review: Dragon Egg Princess

“In the middle sat an elegant woman with a medium brown complexion who appeared ageless and formidable. She held a large ivory staff decorated with leaves and flowers in one hand. There was no doubt in Jiho’s mind that this woman was in charge.” page 109

The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh.
HaperCollins, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 248 pages.
Not yet leveled.

Jiho Park is an anomaly in his highly magical kingdom – part of a family not affected by magic, which makes him destined to become a ranger protecting the Kidahara.  But he wants nothing to with the forest and the magical creatures it protects and instead is intrigued by the foreigners from technologically advanced lands trying to tear down the forest in the middle of Joson.  Meanwhile, two girls whose lives have been heavily affected by magic both have their own agendas – and when all three cross paths, the whole kingdom might be affected, for better or worse.

The Dragon Egg Princess
The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh.

I wanted to love this so much – bought the hardcover, so yes I fully invested in this story.  Sadly, it underwhelmed me on many points despite the appealing blubs from several authors I trust and the fabulous cover.  Let me just take a minute to mention that I completely support Oh’s mission, her work on WNDB, and even her excellent anthologies, and continue to do so despite really not liking this book.

The setting had a unique feel.  The land of Josen, the Kidahara forest, the permeation of magic in the kingdom, everything had a twist to it somewhere.  But on the other hand it had some steampunk or even science fantasy elements, as some of the other kingdoms have no magic but focus instead on technology.  The one other region with magic was also different, so a lot was packed into this book.

Worldbuilding was clearly a major focus of Oh’s, and she has a fairly detailed mythology likely to appeal to young fans of speculative fiction.  While this book focuses on Joson, based in Korean mythology, Shane and Calvin are from another country called Bellprix and mention vampires, werewolves, and zombies.  I only wish that more of the essential information about this world had been organically included in the action or dialogue, instead of being infodumped .

Continue reading “Review: Dragon Egg Princess”

Review: The Tombs of Atuan

“She was not accustomed to thinking about things changing, old ways dying and new ones arising. She did not find it comfortable to look at things in that light.” p 29

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle #2) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 2001; originally published 1970.
Middle grade fantasy, 180 pages.
Lexile:  840L  .
AR Level:  5.9 (worth 7.0 points)  .
NOTE: Second book in the original Earthsea trilogy.

Young Tenar has become Arha, the Eaten One, servant to the highest powers of her land.  Solely in charge of rites to infrequently-worshiped deities, she is set apart, both the most powerful and powerless priestess.  Shortly after accepting her full powers,  she faces an unexpected challenge – a Havenorian wizard entered the sacred labyrinth and walks where none but her must tread.

Aladdin Fantasy Favorites promotion Tombs of Atuan cover resized
The Fantasy Favorites promotion is not a sticker, it’s printed directly on the cover of this book! But it did mean this copy of The Tombs of Atuan cost a mere dollar second hand.

All of the books in the original Earthsea trilogy are said to be variations on coming-of-age, and I’d have to agree.  Although set in the same world as A Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs of Atuan is told entirely from Tenar’s viewpoint, and it isn’t immediately clear how the two connect.  Back when I first started reading LeGuin, I read this before either of the other Earthsea books, which don’t seem to have been obviously numbered in most versions.

Continue reading “Review: The Tombs of Atuan”

Review: The Serpent’s Secret

“There are only so many years you can fool your friends – or yourself – into thinking you are a real Indian princess, banished from your fairy tale and hiding out in a suburban split-level in northern New Jersey. No matter what your crazy parents insist.” page 3

The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 358 pages.
Lexile: 730L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 10.0 points) .

Kiranmala is so over her parents’ stories and dressing up like “a real Indian princess” for every birthday – they’re already overprotective and weird, do they have to keep lying about a magical land too? Then they go missing, and a rakkhosh shows up at her house closely followed by two princes. Kiranmala will have to draw on every bit of help, magic, and story to figure out how to save her parents, herself, and maybe a few others too.

Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1: The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To.

Dasgupta focuses on Bengali stories as her main inspiration, and it definitely gives the fantasy a fresh slant. But the writing truly brings two places to life – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers and Kiranmala’s home in Parsippany, New Jersey – and while most of the magic happens in the Kingdom, Dasgupta manages to make New Jersey surprisingly compelling.

In particular, I was very impressed with the mix of science into the story. Science fiction and fantasy are distinct genres (along with horror and the less popular science fantasy) under the speculative fiction umbrella. Although a lot of people enjoy both, many readers don’t like to mix these two, especially in the MG range. Dasgupta takes an interesting approach – magic is fully magical and has its own internal logic, but science is also real and has parallels and applications within the story. Kiranmala discusses how astronomy and physics relate to her quest without ever losing the magic, thanks to a deft narrative hand.

Continue reading “Review: The Serpent’s Secret”

Review: Uncensored

“My studies had taught me that there were many ways to create change. Protests and activism were important and meaningful ways of applying social pressure. But I also felt that when we began to fear our ability to bring people to some truth, there was a problem.” page 234

Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary R. Wood.
Dutton imprint, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Adult memoir, 238 pages.
Lexile: 1040L .
AR Level: not yet leveled.

The story of a young man who moved between abusive and loving but impoverished home life and mostly-white educational institutions that gave him access to another world but rejected or exceptionalized his race.

Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary R. Wood.

I picked up this book with only the vaguest idea of who Zachary Wood was, perhaps having read one of his articles but not yet having cemented the name and the ideas together in my mind. After all, in 2020 most of us are focusing on hate speech rather than free speech, when we aren’t simply trying to stay alive.

Honestly, the main reason I grabbed this was because I assumed the subtitle indicated a biracial author. Wood is African American or Black, not biracial – he has spent much of his short life moving between black and white environments though.

Continue reading “Review: Uncensored”

Review: Aru Shah and the Song of Death

“Aru knew that not all parents stick around – not all can, for whatever reason. It isn’t the kid’s fault, and sometimes it isn’t even the parent’s, either.” page 306

Aru Shah and the Song of Death (Pandava Series #2) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 381 pages including glossary.
Lexile:  700L  .
AR Level:  5.1 (worth 13.0 points)  .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.

Aru Shah and her friend Mini are back – and need to clear Aru’s name quick after a thief wearing her form stole the god of love’s bow and arrows.  In order to stop the thief’s horde of heartless zombies, they’ll have to team up with extra-strength Brynne and that unusual guy from across the street.

Aru Shah and the Song of Death cover resized
Aru Shah and the Song of Death by Roshani Chokshi.

This installment of the Pandava series introduces two new characters, sidelines some who were main players in the first book (mostly Boo) and involves a lot of courtly intrigue.

The underworld apparently operates under the idea of guilty until proven innocent, so even though there’s a picture proving that a malicious doppelganger stole the bow and arrows, not Aru, she still has to quest to clear her name by finding the real thief and retrieving the stolen goods.  Plus some of the people they’re battling have the favors of the gods, and Aru and friends don’t get extra help while they’re considered criminals.

Continue reading “Review: Aru Shah and the Song of Death”

Review: Dragons in a Bag

“I stare at the box so my grandmother won’t see that I’m annoyed. People never expect a kid like me to know anything about anything. I’m used to it, but it still bothers me sometimes.” p. 9

Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B
Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 154 pages.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level:  4.7 (worth 4.0 points)  .

It’s bad enough that Jaxon’s mother dropped him off with a stranger who she calls Ma, but then it turns out Ma is a real witch…

Dragons In A Bag 1 cover resized
Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.

Zetta Elliott is finally getting some long-deserved recognition, and it’s nice to see her promoted through a major publisher.  I’ve marked this book with both middle grade and elementary because it fits that tricky in-between stage.  This is definitely interesting enough for MG readers, especially in the 4th to 6th range, but it’s also a book that you could read aloud to a much younger group, even as low as kindergarten.  Continue reading “Review: Dragons in a Bag”

Review: Just Mercy

“Walter didn’t say anything as I explained the situation, but he had a strange, despairing look on his face.” page 120

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
My edition Spiel & Grau, Random House, New York, 2019; originally published 2014.
Adult nonfiction, 354 pages.
Lexile:  1130L  .
AR Level:  not leveled
NOTE: The 2019 edition has a movie tie-in cover and extra postscript, otherwise I assume it’s the same as the previous version.

The story of Bryan Stevenson’s work with prisoners condemned to death, in particular the story of Walter McMillian – a man on death row for a murder he could not possibly have committed.

Just Mercy cover resized

Several years ago, I read a report from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative team that was insightful and searing.  His personal book, Just Mercy, was already on my wishlist, but I wanted to prioritize reading it.  Well, time went by, I even checked it out from the library and read a few chapters but had to return it due to another hold, and I had read so much about Just Mercy that I kept assuming that I’d read the actual book, until the new cover made me pick it up and realize somehow I’d missed it.

That happens in life sometimes, and luckily books are usually still around to find later.  This time I purchased the book, and with a weekend mostly free, breathlessly read through the entire book.  If I thought EJI report was well done, it was only because I had yet to experience Stevenson’s impressive narrative style.

Continue reading “Review: Just Mercy”

Review: Us In Progress

“Her choice to flee the United States and spare her sons further repercussions, rather than tell her story, left me unsettled. I firmly believed this story needed to be told.” page viii

Us In Progress: Short Stories about Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre.
Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
Realistic fiction, 242 pages.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 5.0 points)  .

A collection of stories about young Latinos from various backgrounds.

Us In Progress cover
Us In Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre.

This is a unique collection in many ways.  One is that the author is also the illustrator.  Delacre’s Introduction is an important part of the book as it explains some of the nuances behind the artwork and writing, including the three layers used on each piece.

Continue reading “Review: Us In Progress”

Review: A Crack in the Sea

“Kinchen pursed her lips, thinking. She never told anyone about Pip’s strangeness with people; not wanting anyone to make fun of her brother, she covered up for him.” page 61

A Crack in the Sea by H. M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages + excerpt.
Lexile:  740L  .
AR Level:  5.1 (worth 11.0 points)  .

A layered fantasy draws together a 1781 slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, a Vietnamese refugee boat in the South China Sea in 1978, and two very different groups in a magical place the inhabitants think of as the Second World.

A Crack in the Sea cover resized
A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu.

I had seen this book even before writing my diverse fantasy booklist, but hesitated to read it as I was nervous.  A fantasy story that blends African and Vietnamese and English and different worlds and time periods and difficult topics all into a readable middle grade novel?  Many books struggle to do one of those and this was written by a white woman, so I was dubious.

But when I got to the sentence “Old Ren coughed, his unusually pale face even whiter than usual” I breathed a sigh of relief.  So many authors make the error of describing the race of characters of color only, that to see a white person’s skin described is a benchmark for baseline acceptability.

Continue reading “Review: A Crack in the Sea”