Mini Review – Saga Vol. 1 & 2 by Brian K. Vaughan

I have to admit to my heart not being into writing book reviews for the past few weeks. My life has been quite topsy-turvy this month. I’m currently dealing with all the emotions that followed meeting my biological family for the first time, only to come home to one very sick kitty.

Our older cat, Isabel, has been struggling with a lot of gastrointestinal issues over the last seven days, and has needed a lot of love and attention (as well as multiple trips to our beloved veterinarian, and one stint at the ER vet). We’re currently waiting for the Prednisone to kick in and hopefully help ease the symptoms, as our vet thinks we are dealing with inflammatory bowel disease. If she isn’t any better by Monday, they will probably want to do a biopsy to rule out cancer.

Also on Monday my father will be entering the hospital for a 3-day stay for a heart catheterization after cardiac symptoms recently re-appeared. Hopefully we will know by Monday afternoon if he needs a stent, or another bypass.

Needless to say, this will be a short review!

Saga, Volumes 1 & 2

Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrator: Fiona Staples
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre: Graphic Novels, Science Fiction

Marko and Alana’s love story reminds me of an intergalactic Romeo and Juliet. Alana is a soldier from Landfall, a planet this has been at war with the citizens of its moon – Wreath – for…well, for a very, very long time. The Moonies are magic wielding and the Wings are brutally nationalistic and militaristic. Within that context, you have this duo that are so funny and lovable that you can’t help but root for them as they hustle to try to get out of danger and protect their newborn child. They love each other. They argue and bicker, they get on each other’s nerves. But the love they share is pure and true, and is an inspiration, considering their people hate each other’s guts.

Most definitely not for a young audience, you never know quite what you’re going to see when you turn the page. Ghost children/babysitters missing the lower half of their body, Robotic royalty with TV heads, a lie detector cat, torsoless sex workers, there is definitely some odd stuff in this graphic novel series! If Saga were a movie, it would be directed by Quentin Tarantino.

The grandparents come on the scene in Volume 2, and the family dynamic is oh-so-wonderful! In Volume 2, we also get the back story on how Alana and Marko met…it was definitely not instalove.

The narrator in both volumes is their daughter Hazel, which is brilliant. And also a relief, her narration makes it quite clear that she lives at least into young adulthood. You see, one of the main reasons Marko and Alana are being chased is due to Hazel. Her very existence undermines the ongoing war, and defies the odds, as it had been believed that a “Moonie” and a “Wing” could not conceive healthy children together.

The cast of supporting characters are equally interesting: freelancers The Stalk and The Will, Robot Prince IV, Marko’s scorned ex-girlfriend Gwendolyn, and Marko’s parents. It makes for quite an adventurous….Saga.

ARC Book Review – The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

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Title: The Perfect Stranger
Author: Megan Miranda
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: April 11, 2017
Genre: Mystery, Psychological Thriller

*This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

About the Book

In the masterful follow-up to the runaway hit All the Missing Girls, a journalist sets out to find a missing friend, a friend who may never have existed at all.

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own?

Megan Miranda’s latest release, The Perfect Stranger, will make for an excellent beach read this summer. While it doesn’t have the punch of All The Missing Girls, I was still caught up in the story and characters, especially in the second half of the novel. This is a slower-paced thriller, which isn’t for everyone, but really hooked me by the halfway point. I love the quiet, sleepy Pennsylvanian town that Megan created, especially since I grew up in Pennsylvania!

There are quite a few mini-mysteries going on in this novel: what exactly happened in Leah’s past, and the strange mystery surrounding Emmy being the two biggest. While I figured out certain aspects fairly early on, other parts of the mystery definitely caught me off guard twoards the end!

Leah is an interesting character, albeit occasionally annoying, and you really get to know her as the plot progresses. She’s a strong woman that doesn’t give up, and the whole storyline brings up some interesting questions. Does the end justify the means? Can you ever really “start over” somewhere new, in a new life? Kyle, the police officer assigned to Emmy’s missing persons case, is one of the weak links in the story. He seemed to be written to be a likable, good guy….but I wasn’t a fan. I do wish his character had been flushed out a bit more. And then there is Emmy, always in the background, a big question mark that is slowly unraveled.

My absolutely favorite part of The Perfect Stranger was the last chapter! I won’t say anything to spoil the ending,  but it was definitely a perfect way to end the book.

If you like mysteries/thrillers that take place in quiet, sleepy communities that hide their secrets well, you’ll probably enjoy The Perfect Stranger.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: Contemporary YA

Kudos to Angie Thomas for writing a debut novel that is so profound and powerful. How to describe The Hate U Give – or THUG, an author-coined acronym for her book? Let’s start with this:

THUG LIFE – “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone”. ~Tupac

The title of the novel is taken from Tupac Shakur, and his meaning underlying those words. That what society tells our youth has a way of coming back and affecting all of us. We see that in the protests, and riots against police brutality and police killings of unarmed black men. We see that in the anger and frustration that so many feel.

THUG revolves around Starr Carter, a teen that moves between two worlds: the impoverished neighborhood where she grew up, and the expensive suburban private school that she attends:

I get out of the car. For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang–if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it–even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood”. Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl”. Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

When Starr is the only witness to the shooting of her childhood best friend, at the hands of a police officer during a traffic stop even though he was doing nothing wrong, she is forced to confront the dichotomy between her two personas.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

THUG is an unapologetic – and rightfully so – evocative look into a subject that needs to be torn wide open across the country: the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers. The school to prison pipeline in poor, urban communities. The New Jim Crow era of mass incarceration, the biases institutionalized within the criminal justice system and the policies that control said system. The story is emotionally charged, important, and really, REALLY good.

Putting the important political message aside for a moment, Angie Thomas is a brilliant writer. THUG is incredibly well-written, and the storytelling is so incredibly powerful, not only due to the message, but the sheer intelligence and creative ability of the author. It is very rare that I gush over contemporary YA novels, but here I am! Gushing. In a debut novel, no less!

To go along with the fantastic storytelling is all the wonderful characters that truly made the story shine. Starr is…well, Starr is someone you root for from the very beginning. And her family!! I love when a contemporary YA novel includes a well-flushed out family and Starr’s is one of the best. I love all of the relationships in this book, whether it is between Starr and her parents, or her brother Seven, or her friends. All of the relationships were well-developed and I love how a few of the minor characters really experienced their own growth throughout the story, it is very much an ensemble cast, and they all shine.

Take this conversation between Starr and her Dad:

“Now, think ’bout this,” he says. “How did the drugs even get in our neighborhood? This is a multibillion dollar industry we talking ’bout, baby. That shit is flown into our communities, but I don’t know anybody with a private jet. Do you?

“No.”

“Exactly. Drugs come from somewhere, and they’re destroying our community,” he says. “You got folks like Brenda, who think they need them to survive, and then you got the Khalils, who think they need to sell them to survive. The Brendas can’t get jobs unless they’re clean, and they can’t pay for rehab unless they got jobs. When the Khalils get arrested for selling drugs, they either spend most of their life in prison, another billion-dollar industry, or they have a hard time getting a real job and probably start selling drugs again. That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.”

Daddy Carter gave me all the feels in this book. And that is what The Hate U Give does: it breaks your heart, and gives you the warm fuzzies – all in the span of a few pages.

Read this book. No matter where you live – read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin


Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Author: Grace Lin
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a rarity in the American children’s fantasy genre: an adventure story set in China. Inspired by various Chinese folktales, this is a story of a young girl named Minli who lives in a poor village at the base of a desolate mountain. In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, the villagers work tirelessly just to put enough food on the table. Minli’s parents work from sunrise to sunset in the rice fields, but her father always makes time for a story or two in the evening, despite Ma’s grumbling.

One day, believing her father’s stories of an Old Man of the Moon and a jade dragon, Minli sets off an extraordinary adventure to travel to Never-Ending Mountain to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family’s fortune can be improved.

One of the things that I loved most about this book was how the folktales seamlessly scattered throughout the text really came to life during the course of Minli’s journey. The stories each connect one to the other as the book progresses, and then further tie in to what Minli experiences. I loved this approach! The accompanying illustrations were absolutely gorgeous. The story as a whole made me want to learn more about Chinese folktales and legends.

It is rare in children’s literature to find both parents alive and well. Kid lit is filled with absent parents and orphan children (Harry Potter, Boxcar Children, James and the Giant Peach, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc) or children who have lost one parent, either through death or divorce. When a parent is present, they are often clueless or mean. It was refreshing to see some fleshed out parents in this one, and the importance placed on family and the community. In fact, family is one of the major themes of the story. This is not just a story of a young girl finding her place in the world, but it features her mother’s transformation as well. In the beginning, Minli’s mother is discontent with her lot and life, wishing for more food, a more comfortable place to live,  nicer things. During Minli’s absence, her mother’s perspective on life changes completely. As a parent reading it, it makes one think about the impact my unconscious actions – or moods – have on my daughter.

The character’s are all unique and delightful. Her dragon friend is a kind-hearted soul who has a question of his own, why can’t he fly? There is a benevolent king who offers Minli the most sumptuous meal she has ever eaten, and a fierce Green Tiger that is a malevolent force pulled straight out of the folktales. Minli herself has a generous spirit with a healthy dose of independence, and an unshakeable belief in the power of stories.

For those who, like me, want to learn more about folktales from China, here are a few resources shared in the back of the book:

Tales from China (Oxford Myths and Legends) by Cyril Birch.

The Ch’i-lin Purse: A Collection of Ancient Chinese Stories by Linda Fang.

Folk Tales of the West Lake by Various.

Auntie Tigress and Other Favorite Chinese Folk Tales by Gia-Zhen Wang.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

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Title: A Conjuring of Light
Author: V.E. Schwab
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: YA Fantasy

What an amazing end to the this trilogy!! I finished A Conjuring of Light a few days ago and I have been gushing ever since. How to review the final book in a series that has become one of my favorite fantasy series?

A Conjuring of Light picks up right at the end of A Gathering of Shadows. Unlike the previous two books, ACOL includes a lot of back story on Holland, via flashbacks scattered throughout the story. Looking back at the first two books, my only criticisms were that a few of the characters were not fully flushed out: Rhy, Holland, the king and queen of Red London. I spoke too soon, and all of those complaints have disappeared upon finishing the trilogy!

One of the great things about the Darker Shades of Magic trilogy is the humor in the midst of chaos:

“You drugged her?”

“It was Tieren’s order,” said Hastra, chastised. “He said she was mad and stubborn and no use to us dead.” Hastra lowered his voice when he said this, mimicking Tieren’s tone with startling accuracy.

“And what do you plan to do when she wakes back up?”

Hastra shrank back. “Apologize?”

Kell made an exasperated sound as Lila nuzzled– actually nuzzled– his shoulder.

“I suggest,” he snapped at the young man, “you think of something better. Like an escape route.”

“I told you to keep him safe, not cuddle.”

Alucard spread his hands behind him on the sheets. “I’m more than capable of multitasking.”

“What are we drinking to?”

“The living,” said Rhy.

“The dead,” said Alucard and Lila at the same time.

“We’re being thorough,” added Rhy.”

There are many things that have drawn me into this trilogy: the writing, the world-building, but most especially, the characters. And there are many moments in ACOL that gives me all the feels:

  • The brotherly love between Kell and Rhy. They will do anything for each other.
  • Rhy’s character growth. This was one of the small complaints I had in the first book, and I swallow my words. More than any of the other characters, this trilogy is truly his “coming of age” story.
  • A greater depth to many of the supporting characters, including Queen Emira, King Maxim, and Holland. While I am still left with a few unanswered questions about the king and the queen, their roles as mother and father really shined at the end.
  • Holland. Do I dare say I feel sympathy for Holland. Yes, yes I do. In fact, I want to give him a big hug and tuck him into bed with a nice cup of tea.
  • The Antari’s together. I can’t say anything more without giving away some spoilers, but WOW!!!

The next quote is partially a BIG FAT SPOILER for the earlier books, so don’t continue reading if you don’t want to be spoiled. It is my favorite moment in the entire trilogy.

LAST WARNING: Spoiler ahead, if you have not read the first two books in the series!

Three silver rings caught the dying light–Lila’s and Kell’s the narrower echoes of Holland’s band–all of them singing with shared power as the door swung open, and the three Antari stepped through into the dark.

I get the shivers every time I read that paragraph, don’t you?

Warning: Comments section may also contain spoilers.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

If you have read ACOL, how did you feel after finishing it? Do you think it was a satisfactory end to the trilogy?

Book Review – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical fiction, Alternate history, #OwnVoices

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is, I dare to say it, a masterpiece. Despite the detached tone that turns off a few readers, the author gets to the heart of the horrible truths surrounding American chattel slavery in a way that most historical works have not. In addition to Alex Haley’s Roots, which comes with its fair share of controversy, Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful novels about slavery that I have ever read.

In Underground Railroad, we begin with a fairly straightforward story on a slave plantation. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia; she is also a stray and outcast amongst her fellow people. When Caesar, a slave relatively new to the Randall plantation, convinces her to run with him, she eventually agrees, and they both make their escape.

It is here, on page 66, that the story takes a turn into the realm of alternative history. For the Underground Railroad is not the version we find in our history books, but a real train line, built by slaves, buried deep underground.

The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Throughout the novel, Colson borrows from history to reveal the true heart of darkness: slavery and the ongoing systemic racism in America. As Cora moves through each state: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colson begins to tell a broader story. South Carolina is completely reinvented – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers – but it is definitely jarring, and brings together the pseudosciences of eugenics, forced sterilization, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. All is not as it appears, and what looks shiny and promising on the outside often hides a darker, menacing aspect within.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I definitely see why this novel won the National Book Award. Colson Whitehead not only shows the struggles African-Americans have experienced during chattel slavery and beyond; he also touches on the way that white folks, and not just antebellum Southerners, justified their mistaken belief in racial superiority.

Interspersed throughout the story are chapters featuring a few of the minor characters: Caesar, Ridgeway, Dr. Stevens, Ethel. Some peopel take issue with these chapters as unnecessary, but I really appreciated them, particularly the chapters about Ridgeway and Caesar.

Whitehead writes in a detached way, and I know that is a turn-off for some people. I really enjoyed his writing style, and definitely recommend you give it a chance! In my opinon, it deserves all the accolades it has received.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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Title: Of Fire and Stars
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: YA Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance

I have been procrastinating on writing this review, because I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. Sadly, I was not a fan of this book. I desperately wanted to be, but it all felt like a bucket of lost potential.

In Of Fire and Stars,  Princess Denna of Havemont has been betrothed to marry the Prince of Mynaria, Thandi, since she was a young child. Her marriage will seal an alliance between the two kingdoms, but she is harboring a secret – she possesses a Fire Affinity – a dangerous gift in the land of Mynaria, where magic is forbidden. Along the way, she meet’s the Prince’s sister, Mare, and they decide to join forces to search for the culprit of a mysterious assassination.

I was incredibly excited when the LGBTQIA+ novel, Of Fire and Stars, showed up in my OwlCrate box in December. There are so few f/f fantasy novels out there, and this one definitely has an interesting premise. An arranged marriage, with Denna falling for her betrothed sister instead? My curiosity was piqued.

And then, everything fell flat. And by flat, I mean FLAT. The world-building, the character development, even the dialogue, was all….meh. There was also way too much dialogue and pages dedicated to horses…and I love horses! By the end of the book, I was groaning and skimming every time another section came up focused on horses.

Where, oh where, art thou character development?

All of the main characters were incredibly one-dimensional. Mare, Prince Thandi’s sister, (yes, the character who has loved horses her whole life is seriously nicknamed Mare) is the token “bad girl”, complete with temper tantrums and extreme sulking. Denna, newly arrived in the land, is the “good one”, apparently full of sugar and spice and everything nice. Mare is rebellious and Denna is good. Denna breaks her mold towards the end, but even there it just fell flat. Don’t get me started on her magic and the stars falling scene – one of the most awkward things I have ever read. It made no sense the way it was written.

As for the rest of the cast, wow, I know nothing. Seriously, nothing. Poor Prince Thandi, with no personality, felt like a shell. The Directorate – the people who make the policy decisions in Mynaria – are clueless and incompetent. I mean, truly and incredibly dense.

Can someone explain the Northern Kingdoms?

Despite finishing the novel, I still don’t understand what this world is about. Why did Mynaria hate magic so much? A legitimate reason was never given for this intense hatred of magic users. Nor was there much of an explanation for the sudden existence of the Recusants vs the fundamentalists. Who were the fundamentalists, even? This lack of depth was incredibly frustrating for me. We’re plunged into a world with four kingdoms that together seem to make up the “Northern Kingdoms”, but we find out nothing about the history or political situations underlying these lands. Such as, why has Prince Thandi never left the castle’s home in Lyrra? Why can’t he explore his own lands?

The idea of having an Affinity (Magic) connected to one of the six gods was intriguing and new, if it would have been further developed. Yet once again, the reader is left with no real understanding of the magic and religion of these lands.

Refreshingly, heterosexuality is not assumed as the default sexual orientation – but then why on earth was there so much sexism in the novel? From the time Denna arrived in Mynaria, she is held back by what appears to be strict gender roles; as future queen, she is expected to be the castle’s numero uno party planner and tour guide. One of the only conversations that Denna has with the king is this:

“No need to be too formal among family,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll be relying on you to keep this son of mine in line. It has been too long since we’ve had a woman’s touch about the place.”

I can list at least ten ways in which this exchange makes absolutely no sense. But you get the idea. A few of the people on the Directorate are women, but they barely have a voice. That may be due more to poor character development, but it is still frustratingly annoying.

I was really excited about reading this novel, but ultimately, it was a tremendous let down.

This now makes two books in a row that I have rated two stars, something that does not happen very often. Thankfully, I’m now reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which is FANTASTIC. So, hopefully, this 2-star streak ends here.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.