Pahua and the Soul Stealer (2021)

by Lori M. Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368068246
Publication: September 7, 2021

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

I’ve been waiting for the book since I first read the announcement. Although I was unsure about what to expect, I enjoyed what I found. Miv the spirit cat is very much a show stealer with his wit and sarcasm. Pahua is the girl who could be more than she seems if she only believed in herself. Zhong, the shaman warrior, is always ready for a fight and desperately wants to prove herself. They embark on an adventure to the spirit world to rescue Pahua’s brother Matt. It’s one that is exciting, made fun especially with Miv’s sarcasm, and filled with some very close calls.

The book is rich in imagination. It’s an entertaining infusion of Hmong mythology and folk tales with Lee’s skillful world-building; she not only incorporates the mythology but she expands the world to make it her own. There are shamans, shaman warriors, spirits, and gods. The spirit realm is especially complex with its many entities–tree spirits, wind spirits, gate guardians, and more–to the various modes of transportation. One of my favorites is when the spirit horse appears. When Zhong seeks out her horse spirit, she has to go to a rental to call for it…heh. There’s a lot to learn about this world, and at times, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially with new pieces of information popping up every few pages. 

The emphasis on who or what a hero looks like was an especially compelling part of the book. A hero doesn’t always look or sound like what a hero is imagined to be. Pahua, as the central protagonist, lacks confidence and know-how but is willing to do what is necessary to return her brother’s soul to his body–her love for her family exceeds her fears. Pahua demonstrates that anyone can be a hero. You just need to look within yourself. Additionally, winning doesn’t always mean swords and fists. Sometimes there are better ways to get what you want.

I loved the inclusion of Hmong words and names. Many were spelled in Hmong while others were Anglicized, possibly to make it easier to read or pronounce. For instance, Nhia Ngao Zhua Pa is used as opposed to the Hmong spelling Niam Nkauj Zuag Paj. Phonetically, the former is easier to pronounce. Then there is the former God of Thunder’s name where xob is the correct spelling of thunder as opposed to xov meaning thread–different tones as denoted by the last letter will change the meanings. I was tripped up a bit by the usage xob and xov because some characters had names that identified who or what they were while others did not.  

Aside from the Hmong words, there are references to sayings here and there that made me smile. In particular, there’s a reference to eating only eggs and ramen. When you’re a kid and you cook eggs and ramen (referring to the instant kind here), it’s commendable. When you’re an adult and someone says all you eat or can cook are eggs and ramen, it’s an insult meaning you’re lazy. Hehehe. 

I needed this book as a kid when I was searching for demons to fight and dragons to ride. Like Pahua, I grew up not knowing much, and, to be honest, I still don’t know very much. It creates the possibility of building and enhancing cultural connections for Hmong children who might find themselves wondering about their heritage and their identity. Representation would have gone a long way for me, including not being ashamed about what I brought to lunch or having white and red strings around my wrists–all things Lee mention in the book. The book eill also introduce non-Hmong individuals to new and exciting adventures that incorporate folktales and myths they may not have previously been exposed to. It’s a fun middle-grade read that is very much plot-driven. Those looking for action and adventure will certainly enjoy Pahua and the Soul Stealer.

Just a note: As a middle grade read, this is definitely 4 stars with its emphasis on action and adventure. For me, this is only 3.5 stars mostly because I like a more time to ruminate in specific moments and the book doesn’t do this much as Pahua, Miv, and Zhong are constantly moving on to the next thing to do or place to go.

The Last Fallen Star (2021)

by Graci Kim
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368059633
Publication: May 4, 2021
Series: Gifted Clans #1

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

Witches and other magical beings coexist with humans (saram), although the latter are none the wiser about it. Riley/Rye, however, is an exception. She is a human girl adopted by a witch family.  While her family loves her, it’s difficult being the odd one out, so Rye and her sister Hattie devise a plan to allow Rye temporary access to Hattie’s powers. Unfortunately, their plan backfires and puts the family in harm’s way. Now, Rye must race against time to save them.

With the abundance of books containing the magical school trope and overlapping realms, I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about reading The Last Fallen Star. It was the promise of POC representation and the infusion of Korean myths that drew me in. I enjoyed it so much! It’s magical, full of surprises, and filled with heart warming messages. It’s a middle grade adventure that highlights the strength of familial bonds and the sacrifices we make to save those we love.  Rye and Hattie demonstrate this through their efforts to support each other in the face of adversity including the witch clans’ unwillingness to allow Rye to prove herself as well as when Hattie endangers her life to protect the family. In trying to save Hattie, Rye learns that it’s not about the blood coursing through your veins but the values you hold that determine who you are.

Rye’s journey illustrates how isolation and belonging can be powerful motivators. Despite her family’s insistence that they love her, it’s difficult for Rye to overcome these feelings when she is the odd one out. She is often taunted for being different, so the extreme actions she and Hattie take are understandable. At one point or other, many of us have done something to try to fit in. It was easy to sympathize with both Hattie and Rye even as I wanted to yell at them not to do it. Kim successfully weaves multiple life lessons into Rye’s growth without feeling preachy. For younger readers, and adults alike, these lessons will resonate well, serving as reminders to value our families and friendships as well as to have faith in ourselves.

The Firebird Song (2021)

by Arnée Flores
ASIN/ISBN: 9781547605125
Publication: June 1, 2021


Goodreads
Amazon | B&N | Book Depository | Indigo | Indiebound


DESCRIPTiON

Debut author Arnée Flores spins an exciting and original tale about hope in even the darkest of places, perfect for fans of Shannon Hale.

The Kingdom of Lyrica was once warm and thriving, kept safe by the Firebird, whose feather and song was a blessing of peace and prosperity. But the Firebird disappeared, and Lyrica is now terrorized by the evil Spectress who wields her powers from within a volcano. All that remains is a mysterious message scrawled on the castle wall in the Queen’s own hand: Wind. Woman. Thief.

Young Prewitt has only known time without the Firebird, a life of constant cold, as his village is afraid to tempt the volcano monsters with even the feeblest fire. But he has heard whispers that the kingdom’s princess survived the attack . . . and he is certain that if he can find her, together they can save Lyrica.

Princess Calliope has no memories beyond living on her barge on the underground lake. But as she nears her twelfth birthday, she is certain there is more to life than the walls of a cave. When Prewitt finds her, he realizes that she is the missing princess: the only hope for Lyrica. Determined to decipher the meaning of her mother’s strange message and find the Firebird, Calliope and Prewitt set off on a quest that puts them in more danger than either of them ever anticipated.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Arnée Flores author picArnée Flores spent her childhood shifting across rural Washington towns, lugging along boxes of books, and switching schools nine times before her family finally settled down on a wheat farm in the tiny town of Reardan, Washington.​

Arnée identifies as Vietnamese American, but as a transracial adoptee raised by a Caucasian family in small-town America, she grew up feeling displaced.

It took a long while and a winding path for her to find herself. She spent a few nomadic years exploring, working odd jobs, and studying subjects from Piano Performance at Washington State University to Pre-Law and Political Science at Gonzaga before she finally understood that all she really wanted was to stay in one place and write the kinds of stories that had helped her feel safe during her chaotic childhood. 

Today, she can be found collecting rocks, shells, and other curiosities on the beach near her Seattle apartment, all the while dreaming up wild and magical tales, her little white dog splashing along behind her through the tide pools.

Website | Instagram | Twitter | Goodreads


REViEW

**I was provided a copy of the book through TBR and Beyond as a Tour Participant . I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

I was immediately hooked as soon as I started reading because the book begins with the legend of the Firebird and hope so true that sprang forth from a small girl to save the world. The story revolves around the legend as Calliope, the Lost Princess is no longer lost but trying to bring back the Firebird to defeat the Demon that has taken all the light from the world. Prewitt, the Bargeboy, accompanies her so they can restore the world to what it once was. The Firebird Song is a wondrous adventure, filled with courage but most of all hope. There is so much packed into the story and so many elements to enjoy about the book but I liked the sense of hope it inspires all because a boy and a girl believed anything was possible.

Prewitt is stubborn, but it works in his favor because his stubbornness leads him to the Princess. It also helps him find the courage to do something about the present situation he is in and to not accept defeat. Had he been less determined, things might have turned out differently. Calliope, despite not having much experience on the outside, takes on her duty in strides and is intent on fulfilling her destiny. At times she seems naive, Prewitt as well, but it’s this belief and this sense of wanting to do what is right that allows her to do what adults may have deemed impossible. Where the adults had so many fears and doubts, Prewitt and Calliope are still able to see beyond their present, they are at the age of hope where anything is still possible.

The story moved at a fast pace, and there were times I wished it would slow down just a bit so I could enjoy the magic of the adventure. A lot is going on but I enjoyed it immensely. With one of its themes that being “just a girl” actually means being able to do anything, I know my nieces will enjoy it as much as I did.

The Comeback (2021)

by E.L. Shen
ASN/ISBN: 9780374313791
Publication: January 19, 2021

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

Maxine is a 12-year-old figure skater with dreams to one day be an Olympian, so she’s working hard on the ice to perfect her routine while trying to finish homework and attend ballet classes. When a bully at school starts to pick on her because of her Chinese heritage, it negatively affects Maxine. Rather than be able to find solace on the ice, Maxine has to face a talented new competitor who may affect her chances of making it through to the next competition.

Racism is difficult to deal with no matter how what age someone is. Shen’s depiction of racism feels true to life, showcasing how Maxine internalizes it and ultimately tries to deal with it on her own. While the latter may seem like a solution, sometimes love and support from the people who care about us are the best remedies.

I wasn’t great at sports, and I didn’t watch it very much either, but I always made an exception to pay attention to figure skating. It was one of the few sports where Asian faces were televised. Like Maxine, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan were two Asian American figure skaters I admired. Both are just two of the many Asian figure skaters Shen name drops throughout the novel, helping to capture how these specific individuals served as Maxine’s role models. It highlights the importance of representation and the positive effects of seeing faces like your own reflected in things you enjoy. Is descriptive representation important? Yes!

It also doesn’t matter how old you are when you see representation in books you enjoy, especially when you never saw it growing up. I was excited to see a reference to Tiger Balm! Can you believe it?! It does solve everything! I see that now as an adult, although I would have been self-conscious about using it as a kid. What a throwback to a classic also! Although I’m not Chinese, Teresa Teng’s “The Moon Represents My Heart” was a song I grew up with. (Enjoy it with the English translation below. It’s so beautiful and relaxing). I was so excited to see both of these referenced here.

Overall, The Comeback is a thoughtful novel about a young Chinese American figure skater’s experience with racism at school and how internalizing those racist acts affects her mentally and spills over into her life at home and on the skating rink. I found the story well-written and appreciated the Asian American representation. Maxine has the potential to serve as a character that other Asian American girls can identify with, serving as a role model just as Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan served as her role models.

**A big thank you to the publisher for also providing a finished copy of the book. I purchased a copy for my niece, so I hope she’ll like it as much as I did, although she probably won’t be as familiar with tiger balm or Teresa Teng–I must remedy this. HA…

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood (2021)

by Gary Paulsen
ISBN: 9780374314156
Publication: January 12, 2021


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

Hatchet was a book I read for class probably when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I remember enjoying it at the time, although I remember less of it now than those books I chose to read as opposed to those I had to. The draw of this particular book was that it is a middle grade nonfiction book, Paulsen’s memoirs. It’s supposed to be a glimpse into those moments that shaped him into who he is today. How does one write a memoir that will still maintain the interest of middle grade readers? You write it exactly like Paulsen does.

The memories are carefully selected, with the first half of the book focused on only a few months of life when he was five. It’s clear this is when his love for the wilderness began and likely when he was at his happiest. It moves forward through his childhood until we meet the librarian who made an impact on his life and, finally, we are thrust forward again until he enlists in the army. 

Paulsen allows readers to serve as observers in his life like they’re reading a novel rather than someone’s memoirs. Written in the third person, it reads more like fiction than not, which I liked, but just as I settled into it like I would any other novel, I would be reminded differently: these are moments he lived through; no, this is not fiction. It’s these moments in particular that struck a chord with me. It’s also these moments when the imagery in the book is at its best. 

Young or old, if you’re a fan of Gary Paulsen or his books made an impact on your life, this is a worthwhile read. Some of the content might be mature for those who are younger, but it doesn’t exactly fit into YA either. If you’re a librarian or an educator, or someone who just genuinely cares about kids, the section on the library and the role the librarian played in his life was especially meaningful. I hope the librarian knew how much she positively affected his life. It made me cry. However, I’m a pretty sentimental person and cry at a lot of things. The section reinforced why I chose to be an educator.

**1/12/2021 Update: I attended a Webinar on release day and Paulsen didn’t mention whether the librarian knew but he did reiterate her role. He said she was the difference between life and death in his life. Made me teary again.**

Clues to the Universe (2021)

by Christina Li
ISBN: 9780063008885
Publication: January 12, 2021
Series: N/A


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

(I apologize in advance for being longwinded in this review–it turned into something more like a book report…hehe)

Clues to the Universe is a slice of life novel about two seventh graders. While it deals with multiple aspects of growing up, including bullying and making new friends, it is grounded in dealing with loss. Ro and Benji are individually trying to come to terms with not having their dads around, neither realizing that maybe what they need is a peer for support along the way. A mix-up in class forces Ro and Benji to talk and become science partners, making a deal that Ro will help Benji find his dad while Benji agrees to help Ro with her rocket. Slowly, the relationship becomes more than something obligatory; it blossoms into a friendship.

Their specific situations are different–Benji’s father appears to have left of his own accord while Ro’s father died–but are also similar in many ways. Both Ro and Benji take after their fathers. Like her father, Ro has her head in the stars, and she’s trying to build a model rocket–a project they never had the chance to complete. Similar to his father, Benji loves art, and his hands can’t keep still because he’s always doodling away. They’re each trying to maintain a connection to their father in some way.

While they are somewhat opposites of each other, Ro and Benji fit together well. Benji is more likely to just go along with whatever is happening but is in many ways content in his environment. Ro is very precise, trying to maintain control over what she can while looking for that next step. It’s this latter element of being content with stability as opposed to moving forward that causes friction in their relationship. While differences may exist, sometimes it’s the differences that will foster positive growth, pushing us to be better versions of ourselves. It’s this aspect of the book that I enjoyed the most, seeing the changes in both Ro and Benji as they started spending more time together.

Another aspect of the book is Li’s ability to tease out Ro and Benji’s developing friendship through small things like who Ben thinks of when someone refers to his friend. I especially enjoyed how she anchored their individual perceptions of their friendship in the things they loved. Benji’s realization comes with his observations about characters drawn in comics but for Ro, it’s slightly different because of her personality. Being inclined toward science, observations offer her evidence to support her theories so it makes sense that the more they hang out, the more likely they can be considered friends. Other times, it has to really hit her in the face because she’s so goal-oriented, her mind on a single purpose, that she doesn’t pay attention to anything else. If the above doesn’t really do a good job of it, let me just sum it up: Li does a superb job with the characterization of her 7th grade leads. They’re both well-developed characters with Benji and Ro each experiencing growth through their new found friendship.

This is a story about two lonely individuals who didn’t realize how much they needed support and understanding from someone with similar experiences and unexpectedly found solace and strength in each other. Individuals who have experienced any kind of loss, not just that of a parent, will be able to relate to the heartbreak and yearning as well as to asking questions that don’t necessarily have answers.