I stumbled onto this meme through Mischenko @ReadRantRock&Roll. I love music and I love books, but I don’t always get a chance to make full playlists that pair music and books. Music Monday will let me do this whenever at all possible, one song at a time.
I am starting this meme on the blog with my absolute favorite Chris Stapleton song “Tennessee Whiskey.” It’s summer. Temperatures have already been in the three digits for the past few days and something as “smooth as Tennessee Whiskey”and “sweet as strawberry wine” is what I need during these warm summer evenings. I’d really like to see him live one day!
LOVE iS A DRUG
You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey / You’re as sweet as strawberry wine You’re as warm as a glass of brandy / And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time
I know, I know. This book just keeps popping up everywhere on the blog but hear me out. It’s the perfect pairing for the song’s message that love is like a drug. Grace tries to make it clear how much she loathes Ewan, but he is completely in love with her, willing to do what he must to stay by her side despite his past decisions. He confesses he would burn down all of London searching for her. Grace is Ewan’s drug. It’s a friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers second chance romance with extreme groveling. (Review)
First Lines Fridays is a weekly feature for book lovers hosted by Wandering Words. What if instead of judging a book by its cover, its author or its prestige, we judged it by its opening lines?
Pick a book off your shelf (it could be your current read or on your TBR) and open to the first page
Copy the first few lines, but don’t give anything else about the book away just yet – you need to hook the reader first
Finally… reveal the book!
In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.
by Stacey Lee ASIN/ISBN: 978039915411 Publication: May 24, 2016
San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty in Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.
On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. With martial law in effect, she is forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city? (from Goodreads)
I’m currently taking a break and rereading books–Outrun the Moon being one of them. I thought I might try to hook you with the first line. You already know my stance on Stacey Lee’s historical fiction novels so I won’t say too much. I’ll try to put up a review soon though. I hope you decide to give it a try!
**I have to do a shout to Mikaela at MikaelaReads first. This is my first Six Degrees post and I wouldn’t have a first post had I not seen this meme on Mikaela’s blog in April. I enjoyed the meme so much I decided to do it too. **
HOW IT WORKS: Six Degrees of Separation is a meme that began with Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman and has been hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best since 2016. Each month a new book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Links can be formed in multiple ways. For instance, books can be linked through author, themes, settings, or even publishing year. Links can also be more personal such as books you reread often or books that remind you of a time in your life. The possibilities are limitless!
Join in by posting your own six degrees chain on your blog and adding the link in the Linky section (or comments) of each month’s post. If you don’t have a blog, you can share your chain in the comments section. You can also check out links to posts on Twitter using the hashtag #6Degrees
STARTING BOOK: Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Clearly
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary is the first in a series of middle grade books about sisters. Unfortunately, I don’t recall ever reading this particular book or series by Cleary, but her name is a part of my childhood because she wrote Dear Mr. Henshaw.
Dear Mr. Henshaw, on the other hand, was a book I had to read for class. It’s about a boy who writes to his favorite author Boyd Henshaw every school year. They become friends through these letters, and Mr. Henshaw is a source of encouragement. Guess who also wrote to one of her favorite authors?
Me! I wrote a letter to Patricia C. Wrede, author of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, when I was in elementary school and she wrote me back! I don’t know where the letter is anymore, and I can’t remember the content of the letter, except that it was encouraging. I probably told her something about wanting to write when I grew up. I treasured it so much and even shared it with my teacher. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is a set of four books. The first three books are about Cimorene, a girl who decides to go live with a dragon, and in the last book her son is the main protagonist. Dealing With Dragons is the one I’ll use to make the connection because this is the earliest book I remember reading (and loving) with dragons; thus, igniting my love for fantasy novels, kickass protagonists, and dragons. Now, speaking of dragons…
There’s this Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While I never read the book by Stieg Larsson, I watched the movies and was blown away by the awesomeness of Lisbeth Salander. She’s a punk prodigy and is enlisted by journalist Mikael Blomkvist to help figure out what happened to a woman who disappeared over 40 years ago. Salander has the dragon tattoo and is a kickass protagonist. Who else is a kickass protagonist that is very good at what she does and is enlisted for help?
Zafira bint Iskander of We Hunt the Flame is known as the Hunter and is gifted with her bow and arrow. She disguises herself as a man so that she can bring back food for her village. She enters a forest and is always able to return whom while others are unable to make it back alive, or if they do, they’re not the same when they return, which is why she is sought out to go on a journey to bring magic back Arawiya. It was published in 2019, but I didn’t get a chance to read it until recently. This was one of my favorite reads at the beginning of 2021.
Also published in 2019 is Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. Holmes’s debut book is about a woman whose husband died in a car accident. A year after his death, she rarely leaves her home so people think she’s still devastated over his loss. Her best friend’s childhood best friend Dean needs a place to stay while he tries to figure out why he can’t throw a baseball straight anymore. He moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house and they become friends. This was one of the few books that set me on the path toward not only overcoming a long reading drought but consuming romance novels one after the other.
One of my latest reads with just the right amount of romance in it is Tricia Levenseller’s YA fantasy Blade of Secrets.Two sisters are on the run with a mercenary and a scholar to hide a weapon commissioned by a warlord who wants to reunite 6 countries under a single rule, the warlord’s rule. I hadn’t expected the romance and was fueled by the intriguing plot because the weapon was created by one of the sisters, Ziva, a blacksmith who imbues her weapons with magic. I’ll be posting a review for it soon (spoiler alert: I liked it…a lot.)
ENDING BOOK: Blade of Secrets by Tricia Levenseller
That was an unexpected ride through books I loved when I was young and books I now enjoy as an adult (more like a big kid). Also, I didn’t expect to end back up at a book about sisters.
Books/authors ask so many different questions–some are interesting, some are fun. Sometimes I pause in the middle of reading so I can reflect on a question along with the character. I like to highlight it or write down the questions so I can think some more about it later. I thought on Fridays I might share them from time to time.
If you could go back to any time, what age would you return to?
— In Case You Missed It (2020)
Ros is the main character in Lindsey Kelk’s In Case You Missed It (2020), and she is constantly thinking about how good things used to be before she moved away. When this question is posed, Ros answers it quickly saying she would go back to her mid-20s.
I like to make things more complicated than they should be. The question is hard because it leaves open-ended the purpose of going back in time. Am I going back to relive it, or am I going to do things differently? (Also, can I still know what I know now? Also…But what about….hahaha) These nuances of going back in time are important because they can possibly lead to different answers. If I can only relive the past, I might say I have moments I want to relive rather than one particular age because not every day was great. However, the question asks for an age so I’ll force myself to answer with an actual age. I would relive my last year in high school when I was 17-18 years old . My senior year was a blast! This was the year I ditched class for the first time. I didn’t do anything particularly special except hang out with the person who would become my best friend. She had an open period, and I had choir so we just hung out in the computer lab. My parents, who are very strict, surprisingly let me go to prom. It was the first time I went all out and dressed up–I am very much a tshirt and jeans person. I went to the prom with the tall, good looking foreign exchange student. And then there was that stolen day with the boy I crushed on all throughout high school–the one that got away…sigh… I could relive that day over a few times.
Now, if I was able to go back but have the ability to change things, I would return to my undergraduate years. I had a lot of fun but I tended to stick with what I knew best. It wasn’t until I was finishing up my degree that I became more confident in who I was and more involved with activities and programs on campus. I would take chances and be more willing to move outside my comfort zone sooner rather than later.
If you could go back to any time, what age would you return to?
I read romance novels like how I breathe, inhaling them for my survival. As noted in a prior post, I like the guaranteed HEA and the zings that come when our romantic leads fall in love. Romance novels also serve as a bit of a palate cleanser when I find myself in a book coma after reading my other favorites, SFF novels.
I often read several romantic titles in a week and haven’t been able to properly provide much feedback other than ratings or noting them as “read,” so decided wrap ups (when possible) might be helpful. These will be mini-reviews of books that might have made me swoon or made me shake my fists in the air and everything else in between. Be forewarned, these will probably be more gushing or griping–reactionary and maybe less review-y. I do promise to try to remain as sensical as possible.
This inaugural post is filled with bad boys, some more likeable than others.
One Liner: Music school graduate and bad boy frontman fall for each other.
One of my favorite tropes is when opposites attract. Liam Collier is immediately attracted to the band’s cellist Abby Chan who is “different from the other girls.” (I know, I know…this one can be an *eye roll* sometimes.) He immediately tries wooing her but keeps screwing up even when he gets the girl–which pissed me off but made for good groveling. While I liked Abby, Liam only had moments–sometimes he was sweet and other times I didn’t understand what Abby saw in him. I connected with Abby’s character and didn’t mind Liam’s groveling too much. The more I think about it, the more I waver between a 3 and 4 so 3.5 it is–I really dislike Liam’s behavior. (Content warning: Cheating but it’s not over the top. I hate cheating and would likely have stayed away if I knew ahead of time.)
One Liner: Rockstar hires new nanny and fights their mutual attraction.
I’m a sucker for kids and single fathers. I immediately liked Harper (the new nanny). She made such a great first impression on me and on Rex–late for the interview and soaking wet from the rain while still unafraid to go up against a scowling potential employer who tries questioning her abilities. Rex loves his daughter a lot, which always makes my knees go weak. Rex was immediately physically attracted to her and tried fighting his attraction (well, they both do) but I would have liked some more development before he jumped into it especially because of his reasons for needing a new nanny. I liked Harper’s backstory and found it unique among the romance novels I’ve read this year. (I haven’t read very much so it might not be that unique but just my first brush with it.) Rex’s life is complicated but he sure knows how to make grand gestures.
One Liner: Campus bad boy makes claim on new girl but ends up falling for her.
I can see why it’s rated highly by readers, and I can also understand why many reviews gush about how good the book is…(here it comes) BUT I couldn’t stand male protagonist Wren Jacobi. He was supposed to be this mysterious, brooding (maybe even misunderstood?) individual. In the beginning, I didn’t mind but then it just kept going on and on. I got so irritated with his attitude that I couldn’t take it anymore. For some reason, Elodie Stillwater couldn’t help but be attracted to him. I have no idea why because he is such a d*ck. (Yup, I had to go there.) The best part of the book was the end (certainly not because it finally ended–I’m not being sarcastic either). I wish this subplot had been a larger focus of the book. I would have probably enjoyed it more. Despite my dislike of the male lead, it is well-written and I will probably pick up something from Hart again.
Brief Summary: We meet Sirscha Ashwyn as she arrives at the home of her mentor Kendara. Sirscha is currently apprentice to the Queen’s shadow but she is just one of a few, maybe even many. To become the Queen’s spy, she must be able to prove that she is the best, that she is more than enough. She works hard but continues to feel deficient, especially as individuals like the officit leading the students to visit the prison for shamanborn and Jonyah Thao, her best friend Saengo’s cousin, continue to debase her because of her upbringing; Sirscha is an orphan, and orphans are of no value. Ultimately, it is the discovery of a rival for the coveted position that will lead to Saengo’s death, her subsequent resurrection, and the revelation that Sirscha is a lightwender, specifically a soulguide with the ability to guide souls to the afterlife or to bring them back to life. This will likely have reverberations for the kingdoms and ultimately results in Ronin, the Spider King, summoning both Sirscha and Saengo to Spinner’s End.
It makes sense that Lori M. Lee’s Forest of Souls should be the first book I blog about. It’s really fate I think. When I preordered it, all I thought about was how I wanted to read this and June was going to take forever to get here. I had no thoughts about blogging about it. Now, here I am, avoiding my real job so I can instead write about this book. I also promise that reviews won’t normally be this long. I started writing and I just couldn’t stop.
Do you know how long I’ve waited for a Hmong science fiction/fantasy author? I didn’t even know this was what I was looking for until it appeared on one of my feeds and “clack, clack” went my laptop as I preordered and “swipe, swipe” went my fingers as I read Lee’s first two novels to overcome the long wait.
REFLECTING ON SIRSCHA ASHWYN
Sirscha Ashwyn is driven. We know that in how she desperately she wants to become the Queen’s shadow. Sirscha Ashwyn is impulsive. It is her rash actions that lead to Saengo’s death. And, Sirscha Ashwyn is arrogant. More than once she refers to how formidable her skills are, how it has been a long time since anyone has been able to beat her. But even with all her bravado, all these things stem from a single motivation, fear. She is afraid of not being remembered, of the world—maybe even history—casting her aside such as her parents did when they left her at a temple. She seeks notoriety but what she is really looking for is acceptance, a place in the world where she can belong. The relationship she has with Saengo propels her forward because Saengo is the sole individual who truly accepts her as she is. To Saengo, she is more than enough. Saengo is more than just her best friend; Saengo is her family. Who are we if the people we love cease to exist? Maybe this is what triggers Sirscha’s shaman craft to materialize. A love—or maybe a fear—so strong it enables to her to bring Saengo back to life. With Saengo, there is no uncertainty as to Sirscha’s role, whereas the only other person Sirscha has any kind of relationship with, Kendara, is just a mentor and not necessarily the maternal figure she desperately wants.
If Sirscha Ashwyn feels incomplete, it’s because she still doesn’t really know who she is—she lacks a sense of self beyond others’ views of her. Who is she? What does she want? There is a hollowness to her actions and her words. It’s probably why when she decides that she will help the shamanborn, I desperately wanted her to do it due to a sense of duty to protect her people but ultimately felt empty because it was more about her pursuit to be “more than.” It’s also probably why it was unconvincing to hear her tell Prince Meilek that he needed to care about his people, both human and shamanborn, when she did not seem to really care either. She’s still finding herself and Forest of Souls is our foray into her journey. Lee has since announced that this will be a trilogy rather than a duology so I’m excited to join Sirscha on her path to self-discovery. I expect that in the later books, she will find her footing and, I hope, will recognize that notoriety is a byproduct of doing the right thing for the right reasons. And sometimes, being the world to one person is more important than being the chosen one to the rest of the world. And, more importantly, that she is enough…but if she ends up saving the world along the way, that’s pretty epic too. (Yeah, I know. I have a bit of a do-good for the sake of good hero complex when I read about badass females in SFF. I can’t help it.)
REFLECTING ON THE BOOK
A lot of the book is walking to and running from with events scattered in-between. I’m probably exaggerating but it really felt like there was just so much of it, going into the Dead Wood and then out of the Dead Wood. So, the Dead Wood is probably pretty important. What is the Dead Wood? The Dead Wood is the titular forest of souls, where the trees are alive and devour those who dwell in it, capturing their souls. But it also serves as home to the mysterious Spider King who controls it as well as a border of sorts that keeps the tentative peace between the kingdoms.
Despite this, Forest of Souls remains a captivating read because Lee excels in world-building. Lee provides us glimpses into the world through Sirscha’s eyes, so throughout the book, readers are treated to lush descriptions of the world we are immersing ourselves into. If you’ve read her other two novels, Gates of Thread and Stone and its sequel The Infinite, you’ll know that, in a similar fashion, the world-building and the introduction of characters largely occurred in the first book whereas the second book was more riveting and plot-driven.
Following the path of Gates of Thread and Stone, Forest of Souls only introduces characters, the exceptions being Sirscha and Saengo. It is Sirscha and Saengo’s friendship driving the book so it makes sense that we first build our relationship to this world through them. Then there are other characters that contribute to the world we now find ourselves engaged in. We meet Kendara but only learn she is the Queen’s Shadow. We hear about Queen Mielyr but never meet her. We meet Prince Meilek in what feel like fleeting moments and are treated to impressions of him but we never get to know him. Then there is Theyen Yee, and it is difficult to discern whether he will be friend or foe because their interactions seem superficial. Of course, the infamous Spider King, Ronin is introduced to us but again, moments with him are rare as well. The other person Sirscha spends time with is Phaut. Aside from Sirscha and Saengo, she is probably the only other character we spend more time with. She is in service to Ronin and guards Sirscha, but we never really get to know her either. Being this is a trilogy, I expect many of these individuals will be fleshed out later so it does not necessarily take away from the book but can at times make one feel disconnected. Should I care about these other people? Then again, it is told from a first-person perspective so it makes some sense that we don’t know them because Sirscha doesn’t really know them either.
Did it live up to my internalized hype? More or less. I was enthralled with the idea that the story was inspired by Hmong culture and the traditional practice of animism. Do you remember that feeling as a kid when you would see or hear your name somewhere and you would get excited? A character in a book had your same name, or there was a song with your name in it? I had that feeling when the Hmong last name “Thao” showed up as a character’s last name or when words like “tshauv taws” and “zaj” appeared. See how the kid in us never really fully ceases to exist? Also, see how representation matters? SFF has such a diverse audience and needs to start reflecting this diversity.
As a word of caution, I am Hmong but not necessarily an expert on Hmong culture. I agree with Lee that there is much in the Hmong culture that can serve as inspiration for writing, especially for SFF. Inspiration is scattered throughout but here are the things that called to me.
Variations of animism exist beyond the one many Hmong adhere to but generally it is believed that all creatures have a soul and spirits can do harm to people. The Dead Wood is one instance of this. The trees are dead but they’re alive, consuming the living and entrapping their souls, preventing them from going to the world beyond. Other books have woods or forests similar to the Dead Wood. It is not exactly novel, but no author has directly attributed inspiration for her novel coming from Hmong culture, so yes, the Dead Wood is now special to me. I proclaim that all other woods such as this are now dead to me. There is only the Dead Wood.
There’s a part in the story when Sirscha is worried about whether there will be someone to guide the spirit of a man who has died, and it got me choked up. There was just so much sorrow behind those words. If you understand the role of death in the Hmong culture, you understand the significance of Hmong funerals, the intricacies of the songs and the rituals performed; you understand the importance of finding the right people to guide the soul to his final home. To have Sirscha be concerned about this individual shows that in the short timespan she has learned she is shamanborn, she has already slightly shifted in her thinking about other people, even if she is still mostly concerned about being remembered. Then again, I could just be reading more into it than went into writing it. I don’t know…but I’ll stick with my interpretation though.
Then there’s the most important nod to Hmong culture, shamans. The book is all about the shamanborn. It’s main character is one. The trilogy is called Shamanborn. This was pretty exciting. Shamans are generally respected individuals in Hmong culture who are spiritual healers. While some may learn it like a skill, it is more a calling that lays dormant until there is an awakening of the shaman spirits. People who still adhere to the traditional religion seek out shamans to protect against malevolent spirits and often to call back the lost spirit of someone who is ill. From a personal perspective, adherence to animism or shamanism does not set spiritual healing against “western medicine.” They are complementary, two halves of a whole that lead to holistic wellbeing. In Forest of Souls, shamans have control over different elements: fire, water, earth, wind, and light. From each of these elements, there are different crafts that may be a shaman’s calling. Lightwenders are likely the closest to Hmong shamans with their dealings with spirits and souls.
The book is 3 stars for me, and if I’m being honest borders a bit on the lower end; I liked it but there could be more. And I’m betting that there is. I can’t help but be a little bit biased that the book is inspired by a rich culture that is then transformed by the fantastical mind of a self-proclaimed unicorn aficionado into something entirely her own. She does such a great job of it too! Forest of Souls is most definitely not a stand-alone novel–it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. It is, though, a beginning. And in the beginning…yes there was light…but in the beginning there is birth. Things are happening; things are being set in motion. Forest of Souls is building up to something big and my experience with Lee is that the buildup often leads to an explosive ending.
I couldn’t end this review without sharing what is one of the most vivid descriptions in the book, a reminder of why I like reading books by Lori M. Lee.
**07/09/2020 After taking more time to think about the book–really letting it ruminate–I realize that what I like about the book is based on what I know it can be as opposed to what it is. I think this further solidifies why it was 3-star but fell close to being 2.5 stars. This gives me more reason to read the rest of the trilogy because I know that it can be better.