ARC Review: The Waking Land

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Del Rey books was kind enough to provide me with a Netgalley copy of Callie Bates’s recent debut, The Waking Land. I really wanted to like it, but most of the time I was reading it, this book put me to sleep. Read on to see where this fantasy could have gone better.

32671619Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life.

Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition, powers that suddenly stir within her.

But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.

The premise of this book was amazing: nature magic, complicated family ties, rebellion! I am a 100% nature nerd. I never, ever would have dreamed that an imprint of a major publisher would publish a YA book like this, with such a strong natural science element. Bates’s love of the outdoors shines through. I cannot stress how excited I was to read a book about an aspiring botanist who studies forest composition, knows how to identify trees, and sketches mushrooms.

Even though I am basically the ideal audience for this book, I could not get into. At all. In fact, forcing myself to read more than ten pages at a time was awful. If I didn’t feel obligated to finish and review the book, I would have quit no later than halfway into the book. What went wrong here, with so much promise?

For starters, the main character. Elanna’s character concept was great. Her struggle between embracing her family and heritage and feeling loyal to the culture she was raised in (also, Stockholm syndrome) was one of the things about the synopsis that drew me to the book. Unfortunately, the Stockholm syndrome aspect was brushed over, and Elanna’s status as a reluctant heroine seriously hindered the plot.

Elanna is, understandably, unwilling to give up her life’s goals and put herself in serious danger for a cause she doesn’t even believe in. But that means that the plot moving forward is directly counter to her character’s goals for a good chunk of the book. And once she had failed at running away from her fate three or four times? She showed absolutely no agency! Events, even serious, life-altering plot events, just happened to her without her participating or even fully understanding for almost the whole book. On the rare occasions when Elanna did make some decisions of her own, I found myself groaning because her decisions made no sense. For example, despite complaining for most of the book about not understanding her powers or having enough control of them to actually help her people, Elanna repeatedly refuses a request-slash-order to go meet with the only people who can teach her more about her magic. Come on, El.

The world building was pretty cursory and shallow. Bates put in just enough information about the various countries and cultures for you to get a vague idea of them: a pseudo-France, a Greco-Roman style empire, a slightly pagan-Celtic territory. Anything beyond the most basic flavoring of this fantasy world was so forgettable that I struggle to recall it now.

And then there was the romance.

The Waking Land has, quite possibly, the most severe case of insta-love I’ve ever seen. About halfway into the first chapter, Elanna chances upon a dashing young man with a warm and deep voice. Obviously, he is handsome interesting, and El remarks, “This man[…] makes Martin Bonnaire, whom I’ve been swanning over for months, look like a sorry sack. And he is staring right back at me, as if I’m worth looking at.”

So far as I can tell, the relationship hinges exclusively on the fact that the love interest looks at Elanna like he really sees her. From that point on, she’s basically smitten with this guy who mystically understands the “real her” by sight alone. Despite the awful, cringe-worthy start to the romance, Bates does occasionally manage to make it surprisingly cute once the couple is established.

As this book approached the climax, it did pick up the pace and manage to better hold my interest, but that was not enough of a reward for the two weeks it took me to slog through to the end.

Apparently, this book is going to be the first in a series. I have no interest in continuing. That being said, though, I would absolutely consider reading future books by Bates. I didn’t care at all for Leigh Bardugo’s debut when it came out, but Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom were both phenomenal! I am optimistic for Bates’s potential, and look forward to reading some of her future work–as long as it doesn’t feature Lady Elanna.


All in All…

  • 2/5 sea stars
  • Published June 17th, 2017, by Del Rey Books
  • 400 pages
  • For fans of headstrong MCs, first person narration, botany, Celtic-inspired settings

I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Mini Review: Death and Night, by Roshani Chokshi

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Roshani Chokshi has become one of my favorite breakout YA authors as of late. Her sophomore novel, A Crown of Wishes, was a phenomenal follow up to her unusually strong debut in The Star-Touched Queen. To celebrate her second book and her release tour, Chokshi and St. Martin’s Griffin also recently put out a prequel novella to The Star-Touched Queen which builds on some deleted scenes and scrapped details from said book to show readers the origin of the reincarnation-spanning romance between Maya and Amar.

Death and Night is a quick and sumptuous 33965619read. As one can expect from Chokshi, this novella floated through a captivating series of magical settings and is populated by a cast of charming mythological characters, some familiar and some new. When I read The Star-Touched Queen, the absence of the history between Maya and Amar was something I felt distinctly, so I was glad to see that backstory here! I really enjoyed seeing how Amar and Maya grew and changed from being together, and it was nice to learn the significance of some details, like the true origin of Maya’s pearl and sapphire necklace.

I could tell that Death and Night did not get quite the same editorial rigor that a full novel would have; it was a bit light on one or two plot point explanations and a bit heavy on internal monologues from our narrators. Those are very minor complaints, though!

Like most prequel/companion novellas, you can skip this if you haven’t read or didn’t like Chokshi’s other works. If you’re a Star-Touched fan, however, Death and Night is a definite must-read!


All in All…

  • 4/5 sea stars
  • Published May 2nd, 2017, by St. Martin’s Griffin
  • 132 pages
  • For fans of The Star-Touched Queen, mythology, ~romance~

I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

ARC Review: You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish

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Did you know they were still making Rainbow Fish books? I sure didn’t. Not until I saw You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish on NetGalley, that is. I couldn’t say no to this version of one of my childhood favorites. Thanks to North South Books Inc. for providing me with a copy!

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The Rainbow Fish, originally published in 1992, was considered a classic children’s book when I was in elementary school. I adored it. The lush, flowing, blue-tinged illustrations and shiny scales captured my attention, and I thought the message about sharing and kindness was great. Now, as an adult, I see that there is some controversy over it in the form of reviews containing the phrase “socialist propaganda.” Hmm. I’d have to re-read it myself to say whether the book addresses the theme of sharing and community in a positive way or not.

I cannot imagine the new release in the series, You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish being subject to any claims of impropriety or sending bad messages. The only claim I can lay against it is that, quite frankly, it’s boring.

Rainbow Fish and his friends like to play hide and seek. On one such day, they do, and Rainbow Fish gets irate when he loses, even to the youngest and smallest fish. He swims away in a huff, and is lectured by his friend on being a good sport.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; it’s a good message for kids to hear. However, the writing is no-frills and preachy. For a book about having fun and playing with friends, it’s disappointing that there’s no whimsy or fun in the story itself.

This would be a fine book to read to kids, especially kids who need to learn some sportsmanship, but it’s not one you’ll enjoy reading for them.


All in All…

  • 3/5 sea stars
  • Publication June 1, 2017, by North South Books Inc.
  • 32 pages
  • For fans of morality stories, the other Rainbow Fish installments

I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Call Me Sunflower

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I won’t lie: books that take place in my home state are a huge draw for me. Living in the politically-dubious but naturally beautiful state of North Carolina, I am graced with plenty of choices. Thanks, Sarah Dessen and Nicholas Sparks!

Why so many authors come from here, choose to live here, or deign to write about this place may always be a mystery to me, but it’s one reason I read the hot-off-the-press middle grade release from Skyhorse Publishing, Call Me Sunflower, by Miriam Spitzer Franklin.

NC setting, NC author, and a premise both hilarious and heartwarming? Sold.

28226507Sunny Beringer hates her first name—her real first name—Sunflower.

And she hates that her mom has suddenly left behind her dad, Scott, and uprooted their family miles away from New Jersey to North Carolina just so she can pursue some fancy degree. Sunny has to live with a grandmother she barely knows, and she’s had to leave her beloved cat and all her friends behind. And no one else seems to think anything is wrong.

So she creates “Sunny Beringer’s Totally Awesome Plan for Romance”—a list of sure-fire ways to make her mom and Scott fall madly in love again. But while working on a photo album guaranteed to make Mom change her mind and rush them right back home, Sunny discovers a photo—one that changes everything.

Sunny’s family, the people she thought she could trust most in the world, have been keeping an enormous secret from her. And she’ll have to reconcile her family’s past and present, or she’ll lose everything about their future.

The protagonist, Sunny, is a spunky, imaginative girl just starting sixth grade. As if middle school wasn’t hard enough, Sunny has to deal with the fact that her family, in her eyes, is falling apart. With all of the antics involved in her Totally Awesome Plan to reunite her parents, like setting her mom up for a surprise makeover and photo shoot so she can send nice pictures back to her dad, I imagined this story would be playful. It wasn’t quite the laugh-inducing light read I was hoping for, but it definitely had some highlights.

Call Me Sunflower delves into some seriously unique ground for a middle grade novel! Sunny is a bold and independent thinker, which not only leads to the infamous Awesome Plan, but also means she chooses to engage with things that matter to her, even if it means going against the grain. She joins the Odyssey of the Mind team and explores animal rights activism. One of her Odyssey of the Mind teammates is a conscientious young vegan. I had never fathomed reading a book with Odyssey of the Mind in it, let alone sixth grade social activists on top, and I love how Sunny and her friends set an example of creativity, critical thinking, and conscious life choices being valuable things for young people to pursue.

The secret behind Sunny’s family situation caught me completely by surprise, and it’s safe to say I would never, ever have guessed it. It’s a bit of a shocker, but after the dramatic reveal, Franklin handles the unusual family arrangement with grace and lets Sunny process it and come to understand that her family is wonderful, no matter what shape it takes.

The book did stumble into a few genre tropes: there was a dash of the pretty, popular mean girl set up against the foil of unpopular “weird” kids who were all much smarter, more interesting, and more redeemable than the “normal” kids. I also had a pet peeve with the adult characters: every adult who wasn’t a teacher had the profession of “store owner.” Book store owner, health foods store owner, clothing store owner, etc. Some of the stores were related to the plot, which is fine, but how many store owners do you know? The type of store was also used to stereotype or define the adult or family attached to it.

Call Me Sunflower is as creative as its protagonist, and carries a lot of good messages for kids in the target audience. It doesn’t have a ton to offer for older readers, but would be a great book to get for a young and independent reader in your life!


All in All…

  • 3/5 sea stars
  • Published May 9th, 2017, by Skyhorse Publishing
  • 256 pages
  • For fans of plucky child characters, Junie B. Jones, Odyssey of the Mind, activism

I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

ARC Review: Shark Lady, a Children’s Biography of an Awesome Lady in STEM

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Little me loved, above all things, the water. I caught tadpoles and minnows bare-handed, dug up cool worms at the beach, and dreamed of dolphins and sea turtles. I always said I wanted to grow up to be a marine biologist.

This is the book I wish someone had read to young me.

Shark Lady, the next science-themed children’s book from zoologist Jess Keating and 32204108Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, is everything you could want from a children’s nonfiction book.

It tells the story of Eugenie Clark, an inspiring researcher who revolutionized our understanding of sharks. Despite years of staring in awe at Shark Week programming, I had no idea about her prior to receiving this book. The erasure of the epic stories of women in science is all too common, but books like this one are going to be the cure.

Keating takes us on a journey all the way from the indomitable Eugenie’s childhood of being fascinated with sharks to the amazing discoveries she makes after years of hard work, proving she isn’t the lesser of her male colleagues, despite their prejudices. The science in the book is interesting and accessible to children, and–even better–it’s fun! I love that this book shows how the path of science led Clark to countless wonders and adventures.

Illustrator Marta Álvarez Miguens brings that wonder and exploration to life with colorful, satisfying depictions. The swirling sharks and fish of young Eugenie’s imagination are sure to delight any reader, and Miguens gets bonus points for including recognizable, accurate representation of some specific animal species, not just generic fish. The lookdowns are my personal favorite!

Even putting aside her super scientist status, this book showed me that Eugenie Clark is a role model for all of us. Determined, hard working, and curious, Clark never quit on life; she even went scuba diving on her 92nd birthday! Thanks to Jess Keating, I have a new hero.


All in All…

  • 5/5 sea stars
  • Publication June 1, 2017, by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
  • 36 pages
  • For fans of Animal Planet, Shark Week, science, women in STEM, the oceans

I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A Crown of Wishes

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“Stories are boundless and infinite, ever-changing and elusive[….] They are the truest treasure and therefore my dearest possessions.”

So confides a character in Roshani Chokshi’s sophomore novel before urging, “Give me a tale worth telling.”

In A Crown of Wishes, Chokshi has done exactly that. This story is sweet and multi-layered, a companion that surpasses its predecessor. Even if The Star-Touched Queen wasn’t for you, this book is worth your time!

29939047An ancient mystery. An unlikely union. For one young princess in a state of peril, a dangerous wish could be the only answer…

She is the princess of Bharata—captured by her kingdom’s enemies, a prisoner of war. Now that she faces a future of exile and scorn, Gauri has nothing left to lose. But should she trust Vikram, the notoriously cunning prince of a neighboring land? He promises her freedom in exchange for her battle prowess. Together they can team up and win the Tournament of Wishes, a competition held in a mythical city where the Lord of Wealth promises a wish to the victor. It seems like a foolproof plan—until Gauri and Vikram arrive at the tournament and find that danger takes on new shapes: poisonous courtesans, mischievous story birds, a feast of fears, and twisted fairy revels. New trials will test their devotion, strength, and wits. But what Gauri and Vikram will soon discover is that there’s nothing more dangerous than what they most desire.

As soon as we met fierce, no-nonsense grown-up Gauri in the latter half of The Star-Touched Queen, I was dying to tear into her story. I am not at all disappointed. This is a longing, loving story of heroes, tender romance, and figuring out who you really are and what mark you want to leave on the world.

Chokshi’s writing is just the right amount gorgeous. Her sentences conjure lush, illuminated scenes of the Otherworld around you like she did in her debut, but her style and vision are greatly refined here. I didn’t find myself lost or disoriented when following the setting or action like I occasionally did in The Star-Touched Queen. Instead, I was pulled effortlessly through this book by the winning cast, intriguing plot, and heartwarming entwining of so many tales into one.

Gauri and Vikram are characters I want to hug. Each of them is phenomenally written, but together, they shine even more. Gauri is stubborn, loyal, and guarded, always burdened by worry that she won’t be able to protect the people she loves and guilt that she has failed far too many of them. Vikram’s wit and inventiveness mask his worry that he will never be given the chance to fulfill his potential. They both recognize and own their flaws, growing by accepting and learning to live with their shortcomings, not shoving them into the past and forgetting them. They also fill the pages of this book with some of the best banter I’ve read in a long time and an aching, adorable, wistful romance.

They aren’t the only ones here with a story worth telling. Their quest is epic, filled with page-turning twists, engrossing developments, and plenty of action. But they also weave through so many other tales of wishing, regret, and redemption. A Crown of Wishes is not only a compelling story about myths, magic, and monsters of all varieties. It feels whole in a special way, with its own pulse and life: a book about choosing to write your own story, and not just live it.


All in All…

  • 5/5 sea stars
  • Published March 28th, 2017, by St. Martin’s Griffin
  • 352 pages
  • For fans of Laini Taylor, mythology, Howl’s Moving Castle, Maggie Stiefvater’s Books of Faerie, Graceling

Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen

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Today is the release day of Roshani Chokshi’s second novel, A Crown of Wishes! In celebration of this much-anticipated read of mine, I’m sharing a review of her first novel, The Star-Touched Queen. This book, while not for everyone, is a striking, magical debut and has put Chokshi’s future books on my watch list!

25203675Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

The Star-Touched Queen is a vivid, whimsical story with a distinct fairy tale flavor. While not exactly a retelling, it draws liberally from such well-loved myths as Hades and Persephone, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and a host of Indian stories with which I was previously unfamiliar.

The most distinctive thing about the book is Chokshi’s writing. Her style here is flowery, descriptive, and indulgent–definitely the most lexically advanced YA books I’ve read in a long time. For me, it was like a flour-less chocolate cake: a few tiny bites are delectable, but eating too much will make your stomach flip. Fortunately, as the book went on, Chokshi found her rhythm and got the purple prose more in check. Unfortunately, the first two or three chapters were a struggle to get through, and some of the passages were, in Maya’s own words, “as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved [them] from night”.

Maya is a great character: scholarly and spunky, with a big heart. She’s also openly ambitious, which is a less common trait for YA characters, but I appreciated. Her wit and canny observations helped to carry the book. Amar, her romantic interest, was in many ways a typical brooding YA love interest, but his sweet-talking, serious self won me over nevertheless. While I, personally, really liked most of the interactions between Maya and Amar, the insta-love is a bit strong with this one.

The highlight of the book for me was seeing the wide array of beasts and beings that populated the Otherworld, and all the odd happenings that Chokshi could conjure up in a world not bound by the constraints of reality. This book is a stunning display of creativity. The scenes and the magic are wildly fantastic, stretching the boundaries of imagination. All this whimsy can be a bit overwhelming, though; since most of the action in the book is magical, rather than physical, it was sometimes hard for me to get a beat on what was actually happening. Then again, magic only has to make so much sense.

Overall, The Star-Touched Queen is a hit-or-miss novel. If intricate, gorgeous, poetic writing makes you swoon and you love a fairy tale romance, this is an absolute must-read. If insta-love or prose like a blooming lavender is on your list of top pet peeves, you should probably pass this one by. If your preferences lie somewhere in the middle, it’s worth giving this a chance. You may just find yourself dazzled!


All in All…

  • 4/5 sea stars
  • Published April 26th, 2016, by St. Martin’s Griffin
  • 342 pages
  • For fans of Laini Taylor, retellings, mythology, East of the Sun and West of the Moon