Yang Warriors (2021)

by Kao Kalia Yang
Illustrated by Billy Thao
ASN/ISBN: 9781517907983
Publication: April 13, 2021


**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Led by Master Me, ten cousins train daily in the Ban Vinai refugee camp. They have to in order to protect their families, which includes a plan to search for fresh vegetables after a week without any. They embark on this dangerous mission, leaving behind the five-year-old author to await her sister Dawb and the rest of the warriors’ return.

While I was born in the U.S., my family arrived as refugees.  I grew up hearing stories about life in Laos and the refugee camps, a life so vastly different from my own. The perspective of the author at five years old offers a different view of the refugee experience and affords an opportunity for children today to try to understand and possibly to even relate to the children in the book. Yang crafts an engaging story from memories of her time in Ban Vinai, drawing from the heroism of her older sister Dawb and her cousins. It’s a story of brave children in an adverse environment doing their best to survive.

The illustrations were exceptional, helping connect me to my family and the past of my people. I may not have experienced life in Ban Vinai, but the illustrations helped to tie my childhood to the Yang Warriors–what child hasn’t “trained” to prepare for their battles ahead? It may have been under different circumstances with different training for different missions, but the intent being similar, protecting those we care about.

It’s a heroic story that needs to be shared. It’s the perfect story to create opportunities to help my nieces and nephews begin to understand their roots.

We Free the Stars (2021)

by Hafsah Faizal
ASIN/ISBN: 9780374311575
Publication: January 19, 2021
Series: Sands of Arawiya #2

**Contains spoilers for We Hunt the Flame.**

I ended my review of We Hunt the Flame “crossing my fingers and hoping” We Free the Stars would “be similar to the last half of We Hunt the Flame.” Did it come to pass? Was it similar? Or…was it better??

It took me two months to finally open and read the second book of the Sands of Arawiya because I couldn’t contain how excited I was to find out the fate of the zumra and all of Arawiya. I kept wanting to jump to the end and that would have ruined the whole experience of the book–all nearly 600 pages of it. Once I got started on it, I practiced safe book binging by reading the first half in one sitting and taking a 4am nap before reading the rest in a second sitting. Heh…

The weight of all that has been lost and left behind haunts the beginning of the novel, but now back in the “real world,” the bonds forged through the shared experiences in Sharr continue to anchor each member of the zumra. This is especially the case for Zafira who carries an additional burden no one else understands. While the bonds appear nearly unbreakable, it’s more complicated than it appears. No longer isolated from the rest of the world, multiple forces at home threaten their success and their connections with each other.

For the two who are on the cusp of sharing something more than camaraderie, endangering their lives for the future of their country was easier than risking their hearts. I was frustrated throughout the first half of the book because of them. It’s a slow burn, but not necessarily the good kind of burn–okay, it was good and then it went on little too long so I couldn’t contain my frustration anymore. I was also conflicted. As much as I enjoy romance, there was a lot of time spent on the will they or won’t they when I was ready to spring into a little more action and prepare for battle. I was ready to go to war for Altair.

I missed Altair…a lot. I missed him and his inappropriateness, his playfulness…just about everything. Altair seemed more like comic relief throughout We Hunt the Flame, but at the end of the first book and throughout the second, it’s clear how integral he is. He is the heart of the zumra, connecting everyone to each other. His capacity for love, whether it be for the people or for his prince, moved me. His absence was terribly present. He needs to give me a hug now.

While I had mixed feelings about different aspects of the book, I enjoyed it a lot. There isn’t much recapping so I had to quickly flip through the end of We Hunt the Flame to recall some of the specifics of the ending. Similar to it’s predecessor, it does drag a bit in the beginning but builds to an exciting climax–the book will have your emotions spiraling up and down. While the romance plays a larger role than expected, there is more than enough to satisfy the reader looking for action and adventure. I won’t lie though, I don’t think it compares to the ending we were given in We Hunt the Flame, which was magnificent. However, when it ended, I clutched it to my chest, sighing with relief and contentment. The anxiety of waiting to read it was over, and it was good, nearly as good as I hoped. I wanted to cradle it and roll around from all the happy feelings it brought me. (I’m smiling just thinking about it right now…squee)

Overall, We Free the Stars is an excellent follow-up to We Hunt the Flame. It is a tome of a book so be ready to stay up all night reading it–or possibly taking a nap in between–because it’ll be difficult to stop turning the pages. Sands of Arawiya is easily one of the best duologies I’ve read.

Cars, Signs, and Porcupines! (2021)

by Ethan Long
ASN/ISBN: 9781250765987
Publication: March 2, 2021
Series: Happy County #3

**I was provided a complimentary copy from the publisher. I voluntarily read it and played activities with it. All opinions are my own…and that of my nieces of course.**

In Cars, Signs, and Porcupines, kids get the opportunity to learn about Happy County while porcupines go on the loose, subsequently learning about things they might see around the communities they live in. findsomethingblueAt first glance, it can seem a bit overwhelming because many of the pages have a lot going on, but once the reading begins and the fun starts, the feeling quickly subsides. The pages are colorful and bustling with so many potential activities beyond what’s written in the book.  It encourages children to interact with each other and with adults. My nieces and I spent more than an hour perusing the pages, going over the content, and playing “I Spy.”  One of my nieces was ruthless spying “something blue” while the other went easy on me with “something black and white.” We had a great time with it! My nieces loved it and were not ready to close the book.

The Knockout Rule (2021)

by Kelly Siskind
ASN/ISBN: 9781988937168
Publication: February 24, 2021
Series: Showmen Series (they’re all standalones though)


**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.** (I liked it so much I couldn’t help but buy a print copy of the book…just saying.)

For the first time in a long time, Eric finally feels seen by someone outside of his family. His temporary physiotherapist Isla loves poetry and sees him as the linguist he is, not just his boxer persona Brick Smash. She likes his intellect a lot more than what he does in the boxing ring. Because Eric doesn’t know if she likes him, he’s been hesitant to do anything about his feelings. Unfortunately, his manager and friend Preston is interested in her too. Eric winds up caught in the middle when Preston suddenly asks him for help “wooing her.” Because the book alternates between the leads, it’s pretty clear who Isla likes, but choosing him goes against what she believes in. Isla struggles with trying to figure out what she should do: give in to her feelings or give in to her feelings. Sometimes, it’s not your head at war with your heart, but your feelings at war with each other.

I was excited to read The Knockout Rule and didn’t realize it was the fourth in the Showmen series until about halfway through. I hadn’t connected well with the female lead in the prior book The Beat Match, so I’m glad I didn’t have that hanging over me, potentially biasing how I might have perceived this book early on. You do not need to have read any of the other books because they are all standalones. The Knockout Rule was completely unexpected and comes close to being a 5-star read for me.

Within the first few pages, I knew I would like Isla. She’s smart, witty, and funny. Like Isla, I was unsure about what to expect of Eric so was surprised to find out he was more than his boxing persona. He is a linguist–my cousin who is also linguist said I have to let you all know that Eric is a master of tongues (heh…linguists are great wingmen/wingwomen for each other)–and enjoys poetry. While he may have enjoyed boxing once, he now does it solely to help his family with their financial struggles. Eric and Isla are moderately complex characters with compelling backstories making it all the easier to root for them to find the ending I was hoping for.

While I’ve never seen Cyrano de Bergerac, I’ve read enough about it to feel like I have. (Quick summary: Two men in love with the same women but one has a large nose so he is self-conscious about. He writes love letters for the other guy to woo her.) I can’t help but jump at any opportunity when this is the leading trope in a novel. Eric’s role as Cyrano doesn’t get as much page time as I hoped, with Preston only popping up when seemingly convenient to move the story forward and disappearing just as quickly. Although I was disappointed by this eventual revelation, the play at least stays relevant in that Cyrano’s nose, here Eric’s boxing, is actually the bigger barrier. The potential for romance between our leads is complicated by this fact. In the beginning, I wondered how Siskind might work this out when Eric’s life revolved around boxing, and Isla was determined to root it out of her life. Ultimately the solution is one that Siskind set up rather well, maybe even a little too easily.

The central romance is a lot of fun with leads who somewhat become friends before they become lovers. However, it’s hard to say whether they were ever really friends in the first place because the chemistry is nearly always present and both recognize the possibility of feelings beyond friendship almost right away. As noted by a review on Chonky Books (it’s a really great review so should also check it out), some of it is fueled by lust and I agree. They do, however, still have enough of a connection that it’s easy to see the jump into what both claim is love. And Eric in love…some of the words out of his mouth made me melt. Eric and Isla are at ease with one another, and their shared love of poetry make them compatible partners who not only appreciate one another’s physical attributes but also their intellectual ones as well.

This leads into what was probably my favorite attribute of this entire book. Siskind successfully wooed me with the written word. I’ve gone back to read my abundance of highlights a few times over, always pausing momentarily to soak in the words, to ruminate in the feelings they evoke. Then there are the poems Siskind includes that are so simple yet feel so profound. At times I was elated, and other times I was left bereft. In this way, this book was also unexpected. I need more poets in my romance novels if it will always be like this.

Original Photo by Enache Georgiana on Unsplash

It Takes Two (2018)

by Jenny Holiday
ASIN/ISBN: B0763KN497
Publication: June 26, 2018
Series: Bridesmaids Behaving Badly #2

**This is going to be a bit of a long one. Sorry!**

I’ve read It Takes Two a few times since first picking it up towards the end of 2020. I just finished reading the entire novel again and am currently picking my favorite parts to reread. I never thought about doing a review on it, but I realized I wanted to, maybe even needed to, because it kept creeping onto my reread list. When I first read it, I liked it but didn’t think I’d be reading it again. Sometimes there are books like that. On the first reading, it was good but not great, and then on the subsequent readings I didn’t know I would do (heh), it just got a little better each time. My subconscious knew before I did that it would be a favorite read. It’s nearly a comfort read now because I keep picking it up when I need a break or am stressing over things. Part of it is knowing what will happen but a lot of it has to do with the plot and Holiday’s writing. Also, maybe I feel a bit of camaraderie with Wendy, who always has her armor ready.

It Takes Two is a mix of friends/rivals-to-lovers, unrequited love, and forbidden love–all tropes I enjoy reading. Holiday weaves a romance about how the past can mold us into who we are today and how something seemingly insignificant can have greater consequences than we realize. That’s the case for Wendy Liu, who hides her vulnerability under a tough exterior because two events inextricably changed her life: her dad’s death and the boy she liked standing her up. When she sees Noah again, after avoiding him as much as possible for seventeen years, it forces Wendy to confront how his actions changed her, how much more it affected her than she remembered or even gave credence to, realizing that maybe it still holds some power over her.

Noah’s feelings for Wendy are slightly more complicated because she embodies so many different roles in his life. Forced to grow up too fast when his dad died, Noah’s played the protective older brother to Jane, and by extension to Wendy, for so long. Despite being his sister’s best friend, they have their own connection too. Not only has he taken on the role of being a surrogate older brother, but he’s also always felt like Wendy understood him, seeing him when most people didn’t. Despite his insistence on Wendy being like family, he’s also thought about her in non-sibling ways. Noah, bless his heart, is not as attuned to Wendy as much as he thinks he is. It’s not clear what his feelings are toward her, at least it’s not clear to him.

Their longstanding and very petty rivalry is entertaining as they try to outdo each other. It’s as simple as who doesn’t get shotgun in Jane’s tiny car–that’s right they fight over being polite and giving up shotgun for the other person–to who gets to pay for Jane’s wedding dress. They’re also constantly baiting one another into competing as well. Some of my favorite scenes are Noah picking on Wendy but then inwardly cringing and chastising himself for doing it. It slowly begins to feel like their bickering and competitiveness has just been a long courtship, possibly even foreplay, with their attraction to one another just simmering below the surface. Neither, of course, fully recognizes what is going on, which is funny because they’re both lawyers. The evidence is all there. They just need to piece it together.

It’s a well-crafted story with complex characters. While it largely takes place in the present, the flashbacks we get are handled well–intermixed with the present to provide insight into the current status of their relationship. It’s usually Wendy or Noah jolted back to reality from remembering rather than separate chapters that interrupt the present-day timeline. When I first read it, I wasn’t a fan of the constant flashbacks because I wanted more of the present, but I like them more now. Holiday presents the same events but through the eyes of both Wendy and Noah, allowing readers to see the event through different perspectives. They’re reminders that two people can be together, sharing the same moment, and feel things so differently, or maybe even feel the same thing and not know it. They’re also reminders that there are some things in our past that we cannot easily escape, especially if it’s the person we’ve always loved.

I’ve been reading so many romance novels, but one of the reasons I liked this book so much more was because it made me feel more grounded. Similar to how I liked Helena Hunting’s Meet Cute for its predictability, I liked It Takes Two for being grounded in something closer to my reality (if my best friend had a hot brother who I had a crush on and might feel the same too…hahaha…that alternate reality). Wendy wasn’t swept off her feet by some millionaire or a famous person; she wasn’t swept off her feet at all. It certainly wasn’t about this all-consuming passion that could no longer be controlled. And for the record, I don’t mind any of those types of books at all. It Takes Two felt like it could be someone’s real story where the constant ache of having been hurt long ago by someone you like never completely goes away; those feelings have just been buried away until seeing that person again pushes it to the surface. And, when it does, maybe there can be a happily ever after.

Revolutionary (2020)

by Colleen Cowley
ASN: B08KNPY365
Publication: November 29, 2020
Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #3


Get it here: Amazon
For more details (like content warnings), click here.

**I was provided a copy of the book from the author. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

**Additionally, be forewarned the following may contain spoilers for Subversive and Radical.**

While Peter’s life hangs in the balance, Beatrix is faced with the responsibilities of keeping him safe as well as ensuring Lydia can continue going to school…not to mention ensuring all the bills are still being paid despite her job being on (possibly indefinite) hiatus. Despite this, enemies are still lurking everywhere, prepared to explore any weakness they can find. However, allies can be found in unexpected places.

The distribution of power has clear consequences especially when we understand that those in power have no reason to want to share it.  If you have power, why would you give it up?  Through Subversive and Radical, we learn that wizards sit at the top of the social strata while men without magical ability occupy everything else except the bottom rung, which is set aside for women.  Women have no magical abilities (or were at least told they didn’t) and are expected to marry to fulfill societal expectations. Not only are women up against males who want them to remain in their subservient roles but wizards who would like to maintain the status quo.  The growing number of women trying to dismantle the patriarchy pose a threat to those in power, and those in power will do anything to keep it. In Revolutionary, we find out what anything means.

Cowley once again shows how she can manipulate me into believing that I know what she’s getting me into, that I know what is going on. Then, of course, she throws something into the mix that surprises me. I was her puppet, and she continually pulled my (heart) strings. (I am just too gullible.) I thought I learned my lesson from the first two books but my guesses as to what would happen next only multiplied.  Cowley had me suspicious of everyone and made me doubt my hunches multiple times. I was proud to say there was at least one thing I suspected that I was right about, and it made me feel like I finally won the magic lotto.

Of course, I cannot close this review without mentioning Beatrix and Peter. This was a relationship I rooted for since the beginning. I’m a sucker for enemies-to-lovers but Cowley brought so much complexity to this trope. Beatrix and Peter went through so much with and for each other. The ending was one they deserved. Throughout the trilogy, there has always been a question of whether what they felt for one another was genuine. Is there an answer? Yes. Is it the one you’re looking for? I can’t say. (commence evil laughter: MUAH HAHAHA.)

It is bittersweet to have The Clandestine Trilogy come to an end. I always feel this way when I finish reading books I love, and I definitely loved this trilogy. It feels more like I’m closing a chapter on my life, as though I’m saying goodbye to friends, and less like I’m simply closing a book. The trilogy is a highlight of my very bookish year.

The trilogy brought me joy in multiple ways. I greatly enjoyed the political intrigue and how it reflected real past and present political struggles. The fight for equal rights, the strategic behavior in framing the fight, and the distribution of power were all very entertaining from an analytical perspective. Pairing these with romance between two characters I grew to care about made it all the more interesting and a worthwhile read. While nothing will beat the first time reading it, I already know I will be rereading this trilogy soon.

Radical (2020)

by Colleen Cowley
ASN: B08J83X9CD
Publication date: October 25, 2020
Series: Clandestine Magic Trilogy #2


Get it here: Amazon
For more details (like content warnings), click here.

**The following contains spoilers for book 1, Subversive.**

Beatrix’s desire to protect her sister against those trying to dismantle the women’s movement compels Beatrix and her best friend Ella to move forward with their plans to secretly provide magic lessons to other women. Their actions, however, may have consequences neither completely thought through.

The political intrigue continues in Radical as it becomes clear that those running the government see Lydia Harper and the women’s movement as a threat to their power. Beatrix now understands that the danger to her sister is very real. Being in this position reinforces the importance of family to Beatrix but also highlights her tunnel vision when things relate to her sister. She may often act hastily without thoroughly understanding the consequences for those around her. When magic is concerned, the resident wizard is bound to become entangled, leading to the question of how much of her relationship with Peter is Beatrix willing to jeopardize? It’s a difficult decision when they’re both people she loves (or one of them is at least).

The plot device used to connect our leads was ingenious. It was complex and constantly evolving. It put me on an emotional rollercoaster. And yet, I still loved it. I’ve been committed to Beatrice and Peter’s relationship since the beginning, and Radical wore me down emotionally. I was struggling nearly as much as Peter and Beatrix struggled with their feelings for one another, questioning if their feelings were genuine or a manifestation of their connection. One thing is for certain though, whether it is love or not, the pain from betrayal still cuts deeply.

There were moments when it felt like the magic rules kept changing. It could be construed that the rules were being made up as the story went…as if there weren’t rules to begin with. However, I think it fits well into the overall story because not much research has been done on the magical abilities of women. Anything can nearly go because no one knows much about what women can do. (Now for my PSA…) This is what can happen when knowledge is purposely withheld. If knowledge is truly power, those who get to control the narrative and determine what information is released may go a long way to protect what they do not want to be disclosed. This is why the dissemination of information is so important.

While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as Subversive, it is still a good read–great when compared to other books I’ve read this year. It’s just that Subversive was extra good (unfair, I know). I felt like Radical taunted me, lulling me into believing I knew what was going to happen when I actually didn’t know much at all. Like its predecessor, it kept me on my toes. It also reinforced what I learned from reading Subversive: Cowley has an uncanny ability for writing endings, the rip your heart out kind (cue: Lifehouse’s “Whatever It Takes”)

The Girl and the Ghost (2020)

Hanna Alkaf
ISBN: 9780062940957
Publication: August 4, 2020

**I received a copy of the book from the author and publisher through Edelweiss+. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**I wanted to thank Hanna Alkaf for helping ensure ARCs of the book were able to get into the hands of individuals who identified as Southeast Asian. I greatly appreciated the extra effort.**

Central to the story is the friendship between a girl and her ghost. Suraya inherits a ghost from her grandmother who has passed on. He quietly prCentral to the story is the friendship between a girl and her ghost. Suraya inherits a ghost from her grandmother who has passed on. He quietly protects her from all sorts of harm—she is a rather rambunctious girl—until he finally deems it is appropriate to reveal himself to her.  Despite his protests, she names him Pink. Their friendship blooms but becomes threatened when Pink displays a darker side to protect her from bullies and when he grows jealous of Suraya’s growing friendship with new student Jing.

Have you ever read a book that you liked so much it was difficult to put into words? The Girl and The Ghost was that for me. It was both heartwarming and heart wrenching. I experienced so many emotions reading this book. As I reached the end, my heart became heavy because the story itself spoke to me on so many different levels and it was really going to be over. An ending was truly in sight.

I don’t know if what I write can truly capture everything I feel about this book. I was completely charmed as soon as I began reading it. Alkaf transported me to a place that was both real and imagined, and at times terrifying. The first half of the book left me in this haze, full of childlike wonder, and turned me into a pile of goo. Suraya was so endearing as a little girl and it hurt my heart to see her bullied by other children. It was made more difficult knowing that home was not a sanctuary either because she felt unloved and neglected by her mother. To an extent, Pink was able to fulfill some of these holes in her life. Pink reminded me of a curmudgeon who refused to admit he is anything but what he appears to be. Despite Pink’s insistence that he was a dark spirit and lacked a heart, it was clear he was completely besotted by Suraya, acting more like a guardian and a friend than the terrifying creature he was supposed to be. I completely loved the first half of the book. 

The second half of the book takes a darker turn and is considerably creepier. I am also one to be easily scared so you can take the “considerably creepier” with a grain of salt. Pink takes matters into his own hands, playing tricks on bullies despite Suraya telling him not to. It gets substantially worse when he also dislikes that Suraya has a new friend, Jing. When jealousy rears its ugly head, it becomes difficult to justify why Suraya and Pink can or even should remain friends.  I liked Jing and her references to Star Wars. Suraya and Jing made for a formidable pair.

REFLECTING ON THE WRITING

Alkaf has a way with words—lyrical, emotional, beautiful, and comical. And the imagery is just…well, let me share some of my favorites so you can get a glimpse into how wonderful the writing in this book is.

Suraya compares befriending her to “the case of durian.” If you’ve smelled durian and tasted it, it is clear that it is an acquired taste. Like Suraya, I am not a fan of durian but those who like it, love it. Essentially, those who are able to see beyond the materialistic and become friends with Suraya will find someone who is worth their friendship.

Another one of my favorites is the binding between Pink and Suraya being compared to “digging out ear boogers,” something “you had to get out of the way every so often so that things worked the way they were supposed to.” Hahaha…It was an unexpected comparison but I think one we can all understand. This one made me laugh. Alkaf is able to evoke so many wondrous images and emotions in this book. I loved it!  

FURTHER REFLECTIONS

I read the line about the jars and bottles and it whisked me away to a different time. Scents from my childhood have now become a part of me as an adult. Nothing replaces the smell of my mom’s kapoon, which I really should learn how to make but moms always make it best, and the aroma of steamed rice drifting from the stove rather than an electric rice cooker. What used to be a pungent stench and even embarrassing as a child, I now thrive on: Vicks Vaporub, Icy Hot, and, when in dire need, monkey balm and tiger balm. My medicine cabinet is always stocked with Salonpas, now my cure for every ache and pain, from headaches to even sore throats. In what feels like my old age, whiffs of these transport me to my childhood, of my mom slathering any one of these ointments on my arms and my chest when I was sick. Rather than a lingering odor, they’ve become medicinal perfume, allowing me to recall my past and live my present. Will these same things be present in Suraya’s room when she grows up like they were in her mother’s? Like my own is a reflection of my mom’s, the answer is it most likely will.  

This leads me to ask, are there any scents that send you spiraling down memory lane? Something that you disliked as a child but now often permeates your own home? It’s funny how these things can happen without us realizing it.

This was a resounding 4.5 stars. I was completely charmed by the book. It was endearing and made me miss my childhood. A lot of different themes arise but friendship and what it means to be a friend is an important one. Also, loss and learning to move forward is something the book touches on. 

Being Southeast Asian American (Hmong), I could connect with the culture where ghosts and spirits are abundant. Hmong homes are believed to have hearth ghosts protecting members of the family from harm. And then there are other ghosts that may try to harm you, who try to steal your spirit and make you sick. As I began reading, I almost felt like I was predisposed to like this book because I saw a culture similar to my own reflected back at me. I imagine that if I had read this as a kid, I would have been even more excited because it was rare to see this kind of representation.  

In an interview, Alkaf says she hopes that the book shows how “ our stories don’t have to be about our traumas. They can be about us having adventures, encountering ghosts, dealing with making new friends and figuring out how to get along with our parents” and that “we are far more than the most painful parts of our existence.” I think she clearly accomplishes that with this book.

Despite being a middle grade read, many adults will enjoy the book. I obviously did! I do not read many middle grade novels, but I am starting to think that I should. If this book is any indication of their quality, I know I will enjoy them immensely. I liked the book so much that I am preordering a hard copy for myself.

Again, a huge thanks to the author and publisher for providing an copy of the book.