The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli

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In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

These are the legends that Asha, daughter of the king of Firgaard, has grown up learning in hushed whispers, drawn to the forbidden figures of the past. But it isn’t until she becomes the fiercest, most feared dragon slayer in the land that she takes on the role of the next Iskari—a lonely destiny that leaves her feeling more like a weapon than a girl.

Asha conquers each dragon and brings its head to the king, but no kill can free her from the shackles that await at home: her betrothal to the cruel commandant, a man who holds the truth about her nature in his palm. When she’s offered the chance to gain her freedom in exchange for the life of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard, she finds that there may be more truth to the ancient stories than she ever could have expected. With the help of a secret friend—a slave boy from her betrothed’s household—Asha must shed the layers of her Iskari bondage and open her heart to love, light, and a truth that has been kept from her.

I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. It’s spoiler-free!!

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Resurrection Girls by Ava Morgyn

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Olivia Foster hasn’t felt alive since her little brother drowned in the backyard pool three years ago. Then Kara Hallas moves in across the street with her mother and grandmother, and Olivia is immediately drawn to these three generations of women. Kara is particularly intoxicating, so much so that Olivia not only comes to accept Kara’s morbid habit of writing to men on death row, she helps her do it. They sign their letters as the Resurrection Girls.

But as Kara’s friendship pulls Olivia out of the dark fog she’s been living in, Olivia realizes that a different kind of darkness taints the otherwise lively Hallas women—an impulse that is strange, magical, and possibly deadly.

I received this ARC in exchange for an honest review. It’s spoiler free!!

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Nectar by Upile Chisala

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In nectar, Chisala guides readers through a beautiful process of growth and renewal. These poems celebrate our always complex, sometimes troubled roots while encouraging us to grow through and beyond them toward a passionate self-love. Chisala’s hope is that her words will encourage readers to sow seeds of change in their own lives and the lives of others.

I received this from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Indivisible and the Void by D.M. Wozniak

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Each year, Democryos sends his brightest student into the war-torn countryside to work magic. But when his wife leaves him for a mysterious stranger, he finds his own life ravaged.

Forsaking the comfort of the citadel, he searches for her, traveling through the same forgotten lands where he sent his students. Along the way, he befriends an elusive member of the king’s harem, a holy man harboring guilt, and a maimed soldier. Together, they stumble upon a key—not only to the war, but to understanding the magic of voidance itself.

I received this from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review (it’s spoiler-free!!).

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Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, Illustrated by Wendy Xu

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  • Goodreads
  • Amazon
  • Genre: graphic novel, supernatural (witches, werewolves, etc.)

A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.

One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.

Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.

Disclaimer: I received this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The content/art of the book as I read it is not the final version.

My spoiler-free review:

So this was a super sweet little graphic novel that I genuinely enjoyed reading! The whole thing was very wholesome and vanilla, with a cozy, witchy aesthetic that makes me wish it were spooky season. The plot was satisfying, although there seemed to be a few holes (that could have been a result of me not reading closely enough, though). For a graphic novel, I think the little world was very well-developed, and I liked the witch-culture that it established. I wish there had been a bit more structure to the magic, but that’s a personal preference. 

The love-story aspect wasn’t too overwhelming, just really sweet and heartwarming. I love the diversity of the characters, too—from hearing-impaired and Chinese to non-binary and queer, there was no lack of individualism in the protagonists. I liked it because although these characters have these diverse elements as a part of their identity, it doesn’t completely define them. They are just people who happen to have a hearing impairment or be gay. It doesn’t overwhelm the rest of their personality and become their single identifying trait. 

And of course, the art!  It was drawn in such a lovely and unique style. The colors were beautiful and engaging, and the panels were well-planned and easy to read and follow. My only complaint is that I received an advance copy, so the coloring wasn’t quite finished towards the end of the book. I guess that just means I’ll be buying a hard copy when it’s released 🙂

Bonus: there are cute cats and lots of puns!

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The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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TW: rape, gore, war, drug addiction/abuse, genocide, racism

The searing follow-up to 2018’s most celebrated fantasy debut – THE POPPY WAR.

In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.

With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.

But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.

The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect. 

Read below for my spoiler-free review. (Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, quotations may not be present in the published book)

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Giveaway: Down in the Belly of the Whale

Hello everyone! Today I’m going to be discussing Down in the Belly of the Whale by Kelley Kay Bowles, who writes cozy mystery, young adult, and nonfiction.

This book is a YA contemporary that follows the perspective of Harper, a teenager facing the ubiquitous feeling of not fitting in. She has an inexplicable sense for other people’s ailments, but without any way to decipher her intuitions, there isn’t much she can do with it. Her feelings of helplessness are amplified when her best friend starts acting strange and her mom becomes increasingly worried about her health. Harper must learn how she fits into her own life and what her role is in terms of her family and friends. Keep reading for my review, an interview with Kelley Kay Bowles, and the giveaway itself!

Find it on Goodreads and Amazon.

Synopsis

Harper Southwood is a teenage girl who can sense when people will get sick—but so what? She can’t predict her best friend’s depression or her mother’s impending health crisis. Being helpful is all Harper ever wanted, but she feels helpless in the face of real adversity. Now, she’s got a chance to summon her courage and use her wits to fight for justice. Laugh and cry along with this cute, high-spirited teen in her astonishing journey of self-discovery, as she learns that compassion and internal strength are her real gifts, her true superpower.

Review

I would classify the writing style of this novel as middle-grade, but the content itself was quite mature. This caused a bit of dissonance for me because Harper is somewhat of a naive narrator, and she has some interactions with serious issues including child molestation/rape, chronic illness, homophobia, depression, and suicide. I’m still on the fence about having such a young character facing these sort of topics, especially because Harper seems to know very little about any of them, and she somehow maintains a semblance of innocence throughout it all. I realize that this is a good way to inform a younger audience about issues that they may face in their youth, and I applaud Bowles on her approach to writing about such topics. It was a good story to introduce these kinds of themes while still resolving with something of a “happy” ending, and it definitely presented the possibility of hope and joy even through some really tough situations. I think Harper, despite her simplistic viewpoint, is a wonderful role model for young adults who are just learning about some of the horrible things the world has to offer–through it all, she persists in making her own way when others can’t. She is an incredibly kind and giving soul, and it’s really inspiring to know that people like her are out there, ready to help her family and friends. I think that this may open the eyes of readers who have been afraid or unsure to reach out for help.

Also! This book had a hint of the supernatural (?) when it came to Harper’s “powers”. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book, and I’m excited to see Bowles expand on this type of genre in the future!

Interview

1. You seem to have written yourself into the book in the form of Isabelle. Were there other aspects of the novel that mirrored your own life and experiences?

Haha do you think that was too much of a Mary Sue? Isabelle was so much fun to write because she was diagnosed with MS—like me—and she writes murder mysteries—like me, but she’s EVER So much cooler than I am. That’s the nice thig abut fiction, picking and choosing from ‘non-fictional’ elements and then manipulating them however I want. Most all my characters have elements of me in then somewhere—even the evil ones. And characteristics of everyone I know and see show up in my characters (uh-oh, Lauren—better watch out! 😉)—I just pick little idiosyncracies here and there and use them to flesh out the characters.

2. Are there any books in particular that helped to guide/inspire the direction of Down in the Belly of the Whale?

Ugh. I don’t even know where to begin in answering this question. I read books all the time, am obsessed with books, and because I taught English for 20 years, and because my father owned a bookstore and I’m in a book club, this means I read and have read in many genres and eras too. It all inspires me! But it also means each book I write could take cues from . . . who knows? My favorite YA authors are Lois Duncan, C.S. Lewis and Madeline L’Engle, and they are all heavy on characterization, so I think I take cues from that and am always trying to concentrate on character. As far as the direction the story went . . . nope. Nothing specific, any story or life event or song or movie or myth can interest me and inspire me!

3. What audience is the novel targeted towards? Was there a particular group in your mind while writing it?

I think TO THIS DAY the target audience has been my publisher’s biggest annoyance. Is this a paranormal? Social issues? Suspense? Family? Is it even a YA or should it be more parents reading it to talk to their kids about it? Then I think about all the YA I still read, and I’m almost 50! And not just because I’m a YA writer or high school teacher—I have a gazillion friends who read all the Twilight and Harry Potter and Hunger Games, plus anything by John Green, and they aren’t either of those occupations! So, no. I write stories that I’d like to read, and I hope some other people would enjoy them too. That’s as far as I can go (again, to the chagrin of BOTH of my publishers, because they’d like me to just focus on one genre. Can’t. 😊 )

4. What was your thought process when approaching difficult and serious topics in the novel?

Hm. I guess I just tried to be real with the characters’ reactions to the events they were living or trying to understand how others were living. I researched the topics (I’m living one of them, but…) by talking to people who had actually experienced them, and then using that for characterization. One challenge I felt early on with this book was a review from a reader who had been a ‘cutter’ or maybe was still a cutter, I don’t know. Anyway, this reviewer thought I totally got it wrong, like, ‘I’m a cutter and that’s not how cutters feel.’ And I was angry for a minute, because Cora’s explanation of why she cuts is verbatim from a person I know who used to cut. Word for word. And then I felt sad for the reviewer, because I thought it must be very lonely to feel so isolated in your own problems, you don’t realize that lots of other people have the same problem, they just experience them in a different way. I do hope parents would talk to their kids about the issues raised in this book—my 13 year old is reading it right now, and we had a whole conversation about cutting, and when he’s finished we’ll talk about any questions or reactions he might have..

5. Harper’s best friend Cora must face some incredibly scarring trauma. What made you decide to write the novel from Harper’s perspective rather than Cora’s?

Jeez, Lauren! You do ask the hard-hitting questions,,, 😊 I’ve actually heard this as a negative from a few reviewers as well. They think it should be from Cora’s POV. But I guess I did it from Harper’s for a few reasons, one of which probably comes from my own life experience. Other than the MS diagnosis, I’ve lived this incredibly lucky life, and I’ve always been surrounded by people who love me and tell me they love me, on the reg. But I lost three friends to suicide when I was in the 7th grade, and then I’ve been in an occupation (teaching) or lifestyle (volunteering—4 years at a domestic/sexual abuse hotline, and on an MS Friends hotline since 2012) where my role is to be the helper, not the one suffering the trauma. I guess that bled over to this story. I want the focus to be the way people can get help or be helped or GIVE help, rather than the focus on the traumatic situation. I get that some readers may feel like they can relate to the situation better if their main character is the one experiencing it. But that’s not how I wanted to tell it.

6. Do you have any intention of turning this book into a series?

Nope, this is a standalone for sure. BUT… Pinewood and Pinewood High School is the setting for a trilogy I just started—way more paranormal hijinks are set for this trilogy (like…is Belly really even paranormal? Maybe she’s just an empath, and is THAT even paranormal or just really, really sensitive? That’s up to the reader.) But for this new trilogy, there is no question about the paranormal elements.

7. Do you have any summer reading recommendations?

I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and that was really good. Also Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and anything by Lee Child, Harlan Coben or Stephen King. Any time, any day! As far as YA I’ve read recently, I loved Heartless by Marissa Meyer and Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I also just uploaded Turtles All the Way Down by Jon Green—I’ll let you know!

Giveaway!

There will be three total winners–two people will win e-book copies, and one person will win an audiobook copy!

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Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

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Project Runway meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Read below for my spoiler-free review

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Waiting On Wednesday: Fall Book Release Season

Hey everyone! We’re midway through summer, which means it’s time to start looking forward to the Fall book release season! There are just a ridiculous number of books that I’m really excited for–there are some huge releases and I wanted to share a couple with you.

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Release: July 9. (I actually just finished this one, review to come soon)

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Release: August 6 (currently reading)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Release: September 24

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Release: October 8 !!!!!!!!! This looks so good

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Release: October 8

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Release: October 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Release: October 3 (read my review here)

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Release: October 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which new releases are you most excited for? These are just some big ones by authors that I’m familiar with, so these are just the highlights for me.

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The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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  • TW: rape, gore, war, drug addiction/abuse, genocide, racism
  • Goodreads
  • Amazon
  • Genre: fantasy

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

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