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.

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Review: The Dragon Thief

“We’re almost the same shade of brown, but Aunty’s wrinkly skin is a bit darker than mine. I reach up and tug at one of the tightly coiled curls that frame her face.” page 23

The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Geneva B.
Penguin Random House, New York, 2019.
Elementary/MG fantasy, 170 pages.
Lexile:  700L  .
AR Level:  not yet leveled  .
NOTE: The review of this direct sequel contains spoilers for the ending of Dragons in a Bag.

Kavita has a dragon now, and Jaxon is desperate to get it back. But with Ma out of commission, Kavita gone missing, and a magical trickster interested in that dragon, it won’t be easy for the children or any of their new friends.

Dragons in a Bag 2 cover resized
The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliot, illustrated by Geneva B.

I was happy to see Kavita featured in this, but less thrilled about a novel in two voices. Regular readers will recall that multiple voice novels are not my favorite – too difficult to balance and often unwieldy. Luckily Elliott is strong enough to carry two voices.

Kavita considers her actions in the last book and feels remorse over stealing the baby dragon. Aunty sort of supplies the grandmotherly role in this book, although not a biological relative – she was Vik’s father’s ayah, or nanny, when he was growing up in India. As such, she’s able to give us a little bit of history – specifically about the Siddi people who were enslaved and brought to India. I had never heard of this and appreciated Elliott including it.

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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.

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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…

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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: All the Women…

“All the Women in My Family Sing is a tribute to the many voices of women in a chorus of cultural refrains.  Each essay is a personal story about the victories and challenges women face every day as innovators, artists, CEOs, teachers and adventurers.  All of the essays reveal how glorious it is to live authentically in our identities.”
p. ix-x, Foreword by Deborah Santana

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World – Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom, edited by Deborah Santana.
Nothing But The Truth, San Francisco, CA, 2018.
Adult anthology, 365 pages.
Not leveled.
NOTES: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  Because this book contains 69 pieces, I decided to review it in three parts.

All the Women In My Family Sing
All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World – Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom.

The essays and poems in AtWiMFS are roughly grouped into 8 categories, each containing between 7 and 10 pieces.  Most are quite short, but I do like to comment briefly on each one, so I’ve decided to break this up so it’s not excessively long.

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Review: Aru Shah and the End of Time

“Words did have power. When she said the word Pandava, all the feelings that came from discovering who she really was uncoiled like a spring jumping to life.” p. 33

Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava Series #1) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 356 pages including glossary.
Lexile:  630L  .
AR Level:  4.7  (worth 12.0 points)  .

Aru didn’t mean to bring about the end of the universe.  She was just trying to impress the so-called friends who caught her in a lie.  But then it also turns out that she’s been learning all those old folktales from her mom for a reason.

Aru Shah and the End of Time cover

I’m constantly shocked when I go to look up my review for this book and then realize that I’ve never yet reviewed it, although I’ve been referencing it since this May 2018 review.  We’ve actually read it several times already too.  Clearly it’s past time that I review this novel!

Aru Shah was the story that kicked off the much-anticipated Riordan Presents imprint, so it got a lot of buzz.  The first volume was well-received and by this time the third has been announced.  Beyond the obvious critical reviews, our family has also highly enjoyed reading Aru’s adventures.

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Review: The Savage Fortress

“The air turned foggy, and Ash’s sweat turned to ice. He sank to the ground, his body wracked with pain.” page 164

The Savage Fortress (Ash Mistry #1) by Sarwat Chadda.
Arthur A. Levine, Scholastic, New York, 2012.
MG fantasy, 292 pages.
Lexile:  660L  .
AR Level:  4.6 (worth 10.0 points)  .

Ash Mistry is the pudgy video-game-loving Indian mythology nerd we never realized we needed to save the world.  Spending the summer with his sister visiting his aunt and uncle, he gets caught up in a strange archaeological dig, which leads to even stranger events.

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This past year, two debut MG fantasy series drawing from Indian culture have gotten a lot of buzz – Aru Shah in the Rick Riordan imprint, and Scholastic’s Kiranmala Chronicles.  But those series are only releasing about one per year, so what’s a fantasy lover to do in the meantime?  Binge this already-completed trilogy, of course!

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Review: Un Lun Dun

“A tarpaulin bulged from the bus’s roof like an enormous fungus. It inflated into a huge balloon, tethered by ropes from the upper windows.” page 55

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.
Del Rey, Random House, Inc., New York, 2007.
MG fantasy, 578 pages.
Not leveled.

Twelve-year-old Zanna and her best friend Deeba find a secret portal that takes them from their hometown of London to mysterious UnLunDun, where the giraffes are carnivorous and Zanna is the Chosen One with a special destiny… right?

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I don’t know why this book doesn’t get mentioned more often.  Perhaps because it is so long for a middle grade read, or because Mieville isn’t known for his children’s literature.  In fact, I suspect many people don’t even realize it’s a children’s book, especially other editions that have a different cover.  The cover needs to be somewhat vague, because this is a book of many twists and turns.

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Review: Amal Unbound

“This is what I now remember most about my last afternoon at school – the smell of the dusty chalkboard, the sound of the students lingering outside the door, and, mostly, how easily I took my ordinary life for granted.” page 4

Amal Unbound: A Novel by Aisha Saeed.
Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 234 pages.
Lexile:  HL600L  ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  4.2 (worth 6.0 points)  .

Twelve year old Pakistani Amal dreams of being a teacher someday.  When family circumstances force her, the oldest daughter, to stay home for a while, she is disappointed but finds a way to go on learning.  But when an incident at the market leads to indentured servitude, are her dreams lost forever?

Amal Unbound resized

As soon as I saw the ARC review over at Huntress of Diverse Books, I knew I’d be buying this book.  The gorgeous cover was a lure, of course, but also I was extremely curious how Saeed managed to write a book about indentured servitude appropriate for middle-grade readers.

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Review: Being Mortal

“Nursing homes have come a long way from the firetrap warehouses of neglect they used to be. But it seems we’ve succumbed to a belief that, once you lose your physical independence, a life of worth and freedom is simply not possible.” p. 75

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co, New York, 2014.
Nonfiction, 282 pages.
Not leveled.

Because his parents both immigrated to America from India, Gawande didn’t have much first-hand experience with aging or mortality – the elderly members of his family were a continent away, being cared for by others.  He certainly didn’t learn much about it from his medical school classes.  Then he came face-to-face with the reality of American aging through his grandmother-in-law and patients, and decided to raise some questions about end of life-care and the meaning of life, and death.

Being Mortal resized

Gawande has an interesting perspective on mortality and his second-generation-immigrant perspective gave him an insight into other methods of dealing with age that helped him turn a critical eye on how we deal with it here in America.  This book reminded me of Another Day in the Death of America in that way – it takes a subject that most Americans wouldn’t even think twice about, and presents it to everyday readers.

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