The Girl and the Ghost (2020)

Hanna Alkaf
(ISBN: 9780062940957)

**I received a copy of the book from the author and publisher through Edelweiss+ for an honest review. 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 ARC.

Sound of Stars (2020)

by Alechia Dow
(ISBN: 97813335911551)

The Sound of Stars is set in the U.S., mainly New York, where aliens—Ilori—have taken over to…wait for it…use it as a vacation spot.  (I know.  Doesn’t that make you mad too?) They will use humans as sleeves, inserting their consciousness into human bodies to experience earth as “natives.”  Before this can happen, a vaccine must be created and administered to make human bodies vacant, devoid of freedom and thought but still functioning.  M0Rr1S—since humans cannot produce the sound of his name pronounce it as Morris instead—is a labmade, created in a lab in the image of humans and from the genetic material of a true Ilori mother (true meaning fully Ilori and not mixed with any other type of genetic material).  As a labmade, he holds the title of commander largely due to his father’s status but is no more than a servant doing the bidding of true Ilori.  One of his tasks is to create the vaccine, which he successfully makes. But, being labmade makes M0Rr1S unique: he feels; he enjoys music; and he enjoys reading—all things outlawed by Ilori.

The other half of our pairing is seventeen-year-old Janelle, or Ellie as her friends call her, who silently defies Ilori restrictions by loaning out books—yup, she’s a rebel librarian (best title ever). She is not the most sociable person, proclaiming books to be her friends, except for one individual, Alice.  Ellie may live with her parents but she may as well be living on her own. Her father is no longer her father but a walking, breathing “half-shell” of the man he used to be after being given monthly injections of a vaccine. Her mother has fallen to a different kind of drug, alcohol, and even asks Ellie to help hide alcohol. 

Ellie’s current life is often interspersed with memories of life before the invasion when things were (relatively) better.  Her father was a librarian, her mother was a professor, and she played the cello. Her parents were in love not sleeping in different bedrooms and barely speaking to one another. Before the invasion, racism often reared its ugly head (not that it isn’t still present after the invasion; it’s just there are now other things to possibly be more concerned about). They weren’t welcome in their new home and people looked at her, wondering how she got into a prestigious school (hence not better, just only relatively).

Their lives intersect when M0Rr1S stumbles upon her hidden library.  Rather than turn her in, he requests her assistance in acquiring more music, and in return, he promises that she and her family will be spared from the vaccine.  Despite the danger, Ellie agrees to the bargain to save the people she loves.  All seems to go according to plan until someone notifies the guards of what she is doing, and she is to be immediately executed. Rather than allow this to happen, M0Rr1S rescues her and sets into motion a road trip to California, bonding over music and books, and trying to board a fallen Ilori ship to save the world.

REFLECTING ON
JANELLE “ELLIE” BAKER

Ellie is a character I related to immediately. She loved books and music, finding solace in them. She treasures her books like I treasure mine, but she’s a lot nicer than I am because she lends them out. Lucky for me (or maybe not so lucky), my friends don’t really like to read. She has a quiet strength others may overlook because she is not very social and doesn’t vocalize her concerns. She appears to be the last person who would willingly break the rules. I could relate to that, I was that person for my friends–of course, I’ve never broken the law. (Innocent until proven guilty. You have no evidence on me. And even if you did, it’s all circumstantial. It might also depend on which law you’re referring to…)

Ellie, as one half of our heroic duo, is not a flawless individual and I liked that about her character–it made her seem like a real person. She has hyperthyroidism. She has anxiety. And, she didn’t just wake up one day and randomly decide she would be a rebel librarian; she didn’t wake up with superpowers. Events in her life compelled her to resist Ilori rule in her way. She lives in fear of the consequences of actions but also refuses to go down without fighting. She didn’t originally choose to be a hero. She starts off only wanting to save her family but eventually it becomes more than just her family but saving humanity. Janelle is the hero I hope I have inside of me.

MORE REFLECTING ON THE BOOK

While I could immediately connect with Janelle and could also sympathize with M0Rr1S, for some reason it took me a bit to warm up to them as the OTP. I rather liked them individually and as friends–despite M0Rr1S essentially blackmailing her to become his friend. Their love of art–music and books–is what connects them, allowing them to bond over the span of about a week and a half. They just meet all of two seconds (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit) and he already likes her, bordering on being in love with her. She is still cautious of him and being demisexual means that she doesn’t feel the same immediate attraction that he does. So, I understood their connection to one another, but the romance felt forced to me because it seemed more like friendship. It didn’t feel like what M0Rr1S was making it out to be, until maybe the last quarter of the book when the potential was finally there.

I like how Janelle calls out the trope as well—falling in love in just a few days and how impossible it seems—because I kept thinking it too.  But even as she calls it out loud and M0Rr1s tries to make her believe otherwise, and even if I’m a nonbeliever now, being a lot more cynical than I used to be, I recalled a time when I was in love and in those seven days I felt like I made a connection that most people only ever dream about. It was even less time than Ellie and M0Rr1s had together…so maybe it isn’t so impossible.  It was a long time ago but this book made me wistfully remember when love felt like it conquered everything, and it was worth the risk.  And for Janelle, who is cautious, and M0Rr1S, who never fails to express himself, love empowers them to risk their lives for a better future. Just to be clear, it’s not a romantic love that initially pushes them forward. For Janelle, it is first her family and humanity. For M0Rr1S, it is his mother and his people. Although at the beginning of the book, Janelle insists that “it’s about time everyone understands that there is no hope,” by the end she is doing what only the hopeful would do, shoot for the stars.

The Sound of Stars is a unique read and feels very much like Alechia Dow’s love letter about books and music. It is about the power that resides in the arts, its ability to connect us; the power it has to evoke feelings so strong that it can, and maybe even should, lead us to rebel against oppression of those we may only think are different from us.

There is a lot to like, including pop culture references and the regular person/alien becoming a hero. One of my favorite parts in the book is the incorporation of lyrics into the writing, in particular “Dreams” from The Cranberries. Neither of them was singing, it was just M0Rr1S feeling like his life was changing, you know, “in every possible way.” I found myself smiling and reading those words to the tune (and I’m also a fan of The Cranberries so obviously there is bias on my part). When an author is writing about music and books, I think it should be expected that lyrics are incorporated in the writing and not just as lyrics being sung/spoken. It’s like sharing this knowing glance with the reader, a look that says, “Yes, I just did that. And, I know you know what song this is from.” Also, I very much need music of the Starry Eyed in my life. I need to hear Allister Daniels put those lyrics to a tune.

While the middle of the book was just so-so (I mean, things happen and it’s not bad or anything), I enjoyed the beginning and the ending most of all. Overall, I found that I could connect to both characters because of their connection to music and books and how it brought them together. Music spoke to M0Rr1S and Ellie like it speaks to me, songs triggering memories and emotions but also moments triggering the perfect song. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and Dow captures that well through the characters and the epigraphs.

Most of all, I liked that the book left me feeling empowered.  

**This is a very surface-level review and doesn’t really do the book justice. There are so many themes that are rampant in this book that I could dissect but maybe I can do that another time. For now, it’s just about my connection to Ellie and the theme of music and books.

Forest of Souls (2020)

by Lori M. Lee
(ISBN: 9781624149245)
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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.  

FURTHER REFLECTING

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.