Review: Deep Is the Fen by Lili Wilkinson

Deep is the Fen by Lili Wilkinson

Deep Is the Fen
Lili Wilkinson
Delacorte Press
Published April 16, 2024

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About Deep Is the Fen

Merry doesn’t need a happily-ever-after. Her life in the charming, idyllic town of Candlecott is fine just as it is. Simple, happy, and with absolutely no magic. Magic only ever leads to trouble.

But Merry’s best friend, Teddy, is joining the Toadmen—a secret society who specialize in backward thinking and suspiciously supernatural traditions—and Merry is determined to stop him. Even if it means teaming up with the person she hates most: her academic archnemesis, Caraway Boswell, an ice-cold snob who hides his true face under a glamour.

An ancient Toad ritual is being held in the sinister Deeping Fen, and if Merry doesn’t rescue Teddy before it’s finished, she’ll lose him forever. But the Toadmen have been keeping dangerous secrets, and so has Caraway. The farther Merry travels into Deeping Fen’s foul waters, the more she wonders if she’s truly come to save her friend . . . or if she’s walking straight into a trap.

There’s nothing the Toadmen love more than a damsel in distress.

My Review

Something about this book reminded me of some of my favorite things in Mary Watson’s books. I guess it’s that it feels both like it’s set in the real UK world and simultaneously in a separate, fantasy world at the same time. I love that worldly/otherworldly vibe in this book.

The story also contains some themes that beg to be explored. (Think THE TROUBLED GIRLS OF DRAGOMIR ACADEMY, but YA) Women who have power are witches and imprisoned. Men form secret societies in which they promote and celebrate forbidden power. It invites some thinking.

It also has a great rivals-to-lovers thread weaving through it, and since that’s one of my favorite tropes, I knew I would be hooked on it. And I was! I loved Merry and Caraway’s characters. (And their names.) I liked the pacing of their getting to know one another and learning things about each other. Also, I liked the evolution of Merry’s besties trio. I liked that the author didn’t write Teddy and Sol out of the story.

I devoured this whole book in a single afternoon. The setting is immersive and the characters engaging. By the time I finished the last page, I was already looking at what else Wilkinson had written so I could get more of this incredible storytelling.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
One of Merry’s best friends is Black and transgender. Several characters are queer.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. Merry stumbles onto two people in bed together and quickly leaves.

Spiritual Content
Some characters have the ability to perform magic, most often women. These people are labeled as witches and imprisoned in a forced rehabilitation program. Only 100 spells are legal. Anything outside the legal spells must be purchased from an approved vendor, one of the three companies that basically run everything.

Merry can see threads of magic in people. Some people have unnatural threads that she believes come from using illegal magic. The threads can be used for other nefarious things.

The Toadmen are an elite society with secret, sacred rituals that promise power and opportunity to members.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Some brief torture and scary images. A man severs a nerve in another man’s face, effectively making him unable to smile ever again. Someone tortures a man in an attempt to manipulate someone. Someone cuts a man’s throat. Another man dies by suicide in order to protect someone else.

Someone uses stones and rings to control others.

Drug Content
Drugged (or magicked, I guess) food and drink make people see things that aren’t there or make them easily manipulated.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of Deep Is the Fen in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Fake Chinese Sounds by Jing Jing Tsong

Fake Chinese Sounds
Jing Jing Tsong
Kokila
Published April 30, 2024

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About Fake Chinese Sounds

A middle-grade graphic novel about a Taiwanese American girl navigating identity, bullying, and the messy process of learning to be comfortable in her skin.

Between homework, studying, and Chinese school, Měi Yīng’s summer is shaping up to be a boring one. Her only bright spots are practice with her soccer team, the Divas, and the time spent with her năi nai, who is visiting from Taiwan. Although Měi Yīng’s Mandarin isn’t the best and Năi Nai doesn’t speak English, they find other ways to connect, like cooking guōtiē together and doing tai chi in the mornings.

By the end of the summer, Měi Yīng is sad to see Năi Nai go—she’s the com­plete opposite of Měi Yīng’s serious professor mother—but excited to start fifth grade. Until new kid Sid starts making her the butt of racist jokes. Her best friend, Kirra, says to ignore him, but does everyone else’s silence about the harassment mean they’re also ignoring Sid . . . or her? As Sid’s bullying fuels Měi Yīng’s feelings of invisibility, she must learn to reclaim her identity and her voice.

My Review

One of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is that my older daughter is studying Chinese in school. I thought this book would be something we would enjoy talking about—and we did!

Since Měi Yīng attends Chinese classes on Sundays, some of the panels show her working on what appear to be homework assignments or journal entries. They contain Chinese characters positioned with context clues so that even readers unfamiliar with the language will be able to piece together what’s being said. The panels also show conversations between Měi Yīng’s mom and grandmother. Standard speech bubbles show when characters speak English to one another. When characters speak Chinese, the speech bubbles have a different background color, and the text appears in all uppercase letters. I love that this simply and visually cues readers that the characters are not speaking those lines in English.

The pages in which Năi Nai teaches Měi Yīng Chinese words are also cleverly done. The panels set up the idea that Měi Yīng’s grandmother is teaching her the Chinese words for things. Then, a page shows Měi Yīng in its center, with the things around her labeled with Chinese characters and pinyin (phonetic spelling of the characters) for the objects around her.

I loved that. It’s so immersive, and it perfectly captures that experience. Měi Yīng’s relationship with Năi Nai is also super cool. They practice tai chi and cook together and develop a connection wholly different than Měi Yīng’s relationship with her mother, who is more buttoned up and stoic.

The other theme the story focuses on is bullying. Měi Yīng overhears people making fun of the way her mom and grandmother speak. Then, a classmate begins regularly harassing her. People tell Měi Yīng to ignore the cruel comments, which leaves her feeling as though her friends are ignoring how those statements affect her.

The author presented this aspect of the story really well, too. It was easy to see how deeply the racist comments affected Měi Yīng, and how betrayed she felt when her friends didn’t speak up. Eventually, Měi Yīng does find a way to resolve the conflict, but it doesn’t happen easily.

Měi Yīng also plays soccer. While the story isn’t about her prowess on the field, her role on the team and performance in the games does impact the story. I liked that the author included sports as a part of Měi Yīng’s interests.

All in all, this is such a smart book! I love how accessible it makes speaking Chinese, and the character relationships and conflicts play out in believable and engaging ways. I highly recommend this for readers who enjoy graphic novels about fitting in, playing sports, learning another language, or family relationships.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 8 to 12.

Representation
Měi Yīng is Taiwanese American.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
None.

Romance/Sexual Content
None.

Spiritual Content
None.

Violent Content
Some racist comments directed at or about Měi Yīng and her family.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays

I’m sharing this post as a part of a weekly round-up of middle-grade posts called Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays. Check out other blogs posting about middle-grade books today on Marvelous Middle-Grade Mondays at Always in the Middle with Greg Pattridge.

Review: Calling of Light by Lori M. Lee

Calling of Light (Shamanborn #3)
Lori M. Lee
Page Street Press
Published April 6, 2024

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About Calling of Light

Danger lurks within the roots of FOREST OF SOULS, an epic, unrelenting tale of destiny and sisterhood, perfect for fans of Naomi Novik, Susan Dennard, and Netflix’s THE WITCHER!

Sirscha Ashwyn comes from nothing, but she’s intent on becoming something. After years of training to become the queen’s next royal spy, her plans are derailed when shamans attack and kill her best friend Saengo.

And then Sirscha, somehow, restores Saengo to life.

Unveiled as the first soulguide in living memory, Sirscha is summoned to the domain of the Spider King. For centuries, he has used his influence over the Dead Wood―an ancient forest possessed by souls―to enforce peace between the kingdoms. Now, with the trees growing wild and untamed, only a soulguide can restrain them. As war looms, Sirscha must master her newly awakened abilities before the trees shatter the brittle peace, or worse, claim Saengo, the friend she would die for.

My Review

I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning, so I eagerly anticipated this book, since it’s the conclusion of the trilogy. What a wild ride it was!

It’s been almost three years since the second book in the series was released, so I had a tiny bit of trouble getting my bearings in the Shamanborn world again. Once I got a few chapters under my belt, though, I pretty much remembered what was going on. I think Lee does a great job pulling readers back into the story without bogging the opening down with too much information.

The pace gradually picked up as I read deeper into the book, making it easy to keep going. The plot has one central focus with other, connected things stretching out from it like spokes on a wheel. Taking down the Soulless (or failing to) has huge political ramifications. A terrible cost in terms of people’s lives. And a high price to Sirscha personally.

I liked the scenes in which Sirscha and Saengo or Sirscha and Theyen interact. They have some tender moments, some teasing, and some intense moments as well.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Based on Hmong belief that spirits are responsible for what happens to you. Asian-coded characters.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Profanity used very infrequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Sirscha and Saengo share a tender moment.

Spiritual Content
There are three races of humans. Two have magical abilities related to souls. Some can destroy souls or guide them. All require a soul in a familiar to access their magic. Sirscha prays to a goddess for a moment.

Humans aren’t the only entities with souls. One person uses a spider as her familiar. Another’s familiar is the spirit of a mountain.

Violent Content
Situations of peril. Brief descriptions of battle violence with injuries.

Drug Content
None.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Reread Project: Greenwild by Pari Thomson

Reread Project: Greenwild: The World Behind the Door

One of my favorite books last year was Greenwild by Pari Thomson. I got completely swept away in the lush fantasy setting packed with magic, powerful plants, charming characters, and an unforgettable cat.

This summer, the series continues with Greenwild: The World Beyond the Sea, which I’m eagerly anticipating. It’s one of the books I’m most looking forward to this year. While I’m waiting, I’m going to enjoy the fabulous world of book one all over again– just in time for Earth Day, too!

If you haven’t read this gorgeous story, grab a copy and dive in so you’re ready when book two hits shelves.

Greenwild: The World Behind the Door
Pari Thomson
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published June 6, 2023

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads | My Review

About Greenwild: The World Behind the Door

Open the door to a spellbinding world where the wilderness is alive and a deep magic rises from the earth itself . . .

Eleven-year-old Daisy Thistledown is on the run. Her mother has been keeping big, glittering secrets, and now she has vanished. Daisy knows it’s up to her to find Ma―but someone is hunting her across London. Someone determined to stop her from discovering the truth.

So when Daisy flees to safety through a mysterious hidden doorway, she can barely believe her eyes―she has stepped out of the city and into another world.

This is the Greenwild. Bursting with magic and full of amazing natural wonders, it seems too astonishing to be true. But not only is this land of green magic real, it holds the key to finding Daisy’s mother.

And someone wants to destroy it.

Daisy must band together with a botanical genius, a boy who can talk with animals, and a cat with an attitude to uncover the truth about who she really is. Only then can she channel the power that will change her whole world . . . and save the Greenwild itself.

Coming June 4, 2024

Greenwild: The City Beyond the Sea (Greenwild #2)
Pari Thomson
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

Daisy Thistledown’s epic adventure continues in the spellbinding sequel to New York Times bestseller The World Behind the Door by Pari Thomson.

In a land ruled by water, treachery runs deep . . . 

Daisy Thistledown and the Five O’Clock Club might have defeated a terrifying foe, but their journey to find the missing Botanists is only just beginning.

Desperate to join the long-awaited expedition to the heart of the Amazon, Daisy and her friends abandon the safety of magical Mallowmarsh –only to fall face-first into danger on the high seas when they find themselves pursued across the waves by Grim Reapers. Their only to find the legendary Iffenwild, a mysterious pocket of the Greenwild hidden and lost to time.

But beneath the waves, a strange botanical magic stirs. And it will take all of Daisy’s courage and determination – and the trust of an unexpected new friend – if she is to discover the truth that haunts Iffenwild, and save the Greenwild from a terrible fate.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use, but which help support this blog. I received a free copy of GREENWILD: THE WORLD BEHIND THE DOOR in exchange for my honest review.

Review: This Is Me Trying by Racquel Marie

This Is Me Trying
Racquel Marie
Feiwel & Friends
Published

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About This Is Me Trying

Perfect for fans of Nina LaCour, This is Me Trying is a profound and tender YA contemporary novel exploring grief, love, and guilt from author Racquel Marie.

Growing up, Bryce, Beatriz, and Santiago were inseparable. But when Santiago moved away before high school, their friendship crumbled. Three years later, Bryce is gone, Beatriz is known as the dead boy’s girlfriend, and Santiago is back.

The last thing Beatriz wants is to reunite with Santiago, who left all her messages unanswered while she drowned alone in grief over Bryce’s death by suicide. Even if she wasn’t angry, Santiago’s attempts to make amends are jeopardizing her plan to keep the world at arm’s length―equal parts protection and punishment―and she swore to never let anyone try that again.

Santiago is surprised to find the once happy-go-lucky Bea is now the gothic town loner, though he’s unsurprised she wants nothing to do with him. But he can’t fix what he broke between them while still hiding what led him to cut her off in the first place, and it’s harder to run from his past when he isn’t states away anymore.

Inevitably drawn back together by circumstance and history, Beatriz and Santiago navigate grief, love, mental illness, forgiveness, and what it means to try to build a future after unfathomable loss.

My Review

I can’t resist a new book by Racquel Marie, so I knew I would have to read this one. It’s different than her previous two books, both of which had only female narrators. Different doesn’t mean bad, though. I liked both Santiago and Beatriz as narrators. On the surface, this book seems like a simple story, but the author weaves in so many layers that it takes us the whole book to unwind them all.

Both Santi and Bea have complicated relationships with their parents and are raised by one parent. In Santi’s case, his supportive guardian is his grandfather, and his dad flits in and out of his life, pursuing his dream to be a professional musician. Bea’s mom is kind of the opposite. Having a child very young made her curve her life around her daughter and devote herself to making sure Bea had everything she needed.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the death of Santiago’s best friend and Bea’s boyfriend, Bryce. It’s been nearly three years, but those wounds remain fresh for both of them, and they avoid or deal with their grief in different ways.

One of the things I really liked about the book is the descriptions of Bea’s hair, makeup, and clothes. She has a very goth style going on that reminded me of someone I went to school with. I liked that even though the people who know her can see through her prickly exterior and realize that she’s lonely and hurting, they don’t blow through her boundaries. They make their case. They offer. But ultimately, if she asks them to leave her alone, they do.

As the story progresses and the layers unwind, I couldn’t help getting more and more caught up in the story. Grief is hard, even when it’s not as complicated as this. The author does a phenomenal job bringing that complexity to the page and making room to celebrate relationships and beauty as well.

Also: bonus for having an adorable black cat named Lottie to flit in and out of scenes the way cats do! The scenes in which Bea walks her cat with a leash are awesome.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Important characters have depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and intrusive thoughts and behaviors fueled by obsessive-compulsive disorder OCD. Beatriz is biracial, with a Colombian American mom and white dad. Santiago is Latino American. Beatriz identifies as pansexual. Santiago identifies as queer. A couple minor characters are lesbians. One is nonbinary.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
Extreme profanity used somewhat frequently.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl. References to kissing between two boys and sex between two girls. References to sex between a boy and girl. (All sex happens off-scene.)

Bea’s mom got pregnant as a teenager. Bea imagines what that life was like and how it impacted her mom’s plans.

Spiritual Content
People gather for a memorial service for a boy who died. Later, someone comments that he is looking down on his friends.

Violent Content
References to a boy who died by suicide (the method is never disclosed). Characters discuss suicidal ideation and morbid ideation. The story focuses on grief from this loss as well as the loss of parents due to a car accident or cancer.

In one scene, a boy behaves in a predatory way toward another person, pursuing them when the person makes it clear they do not want the attention. The person’s friends stop the boy from harassing them.

A boy and girl (minor characters) have an emotionally abusive relationship operating around the fringes of the story.

A girl hurts her hand punching a boy.

Drug Content
Teens drink alcohol at a party. A drunk boy calls a girl to give him a ride home. Some characters smoke.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Review: Dragonfruit by Makiia Lucier

Dragonfruit
Makiia Lucier
Clarion Books
Published April 9, 2024

Amazon | Bookshop | Goodreads

About Dragonfruit

From acclaimed author Makiia Lucier, a dazzling, romantic fantasy inspired by Pacific Island mythology.

In the old tales, it is written that the egg of a seadragon, dragonfruit, holds within it the power to undo a person’s greatest sorrow. An unwanted marriage, a painful illness, and unpaid debt … gone. But as with all things that promise the moon and the stars and offer hope when hope has gone, the tale comes with a warning.

Every wish demands a price.

Hanalei of Tamarind is the cherished daughter of an old island family. But when her father steals a seadragon egg meant for an ailing princess, she is forced into a life of exile. In the years that follow, Hanalei finds solace in studying the majestic seadragons that roam the Nominomi Sea. Until, one day, an encounter with a female dragon offers her what she desires most. A chance to return home, and to right a terrible wrong.

Samahtitamahenele, Sam, is the last remaining prince of Tamarind. But he can never inherit the throne, for Tamarind is a matriarchal society. With his mother ill and his grandmother nearing the end of her reign. Sam is left with two choices: to marry, or to find a cure for the sickness that has plagued his mother for ten long years. When a childhood companion returns from exile, she brings with her something he has not felt in a very long time – hope.

But Hanalei and Sam are not the only ones searching for the dragonfruit. And as they battle enemies both near and far, there is another danger they cannot escape…that of the dragonfruit itself.

My Review

I got lost in the world-building of this book– in only the best ways. The author perfectly balances the politics, traditions, and historical information of the setting, offering enough information to anchor the story in a specific, memorable place without distracting from the characters or plot of the story.

The chapters (and sometimes scenes within a chapter) alternate between Hanalei’s and Sam’s points of view. Both characters have distinct voices, so I never lost track of whose point of view I was in. I loved both characters pretty quickly. She has a complicated past and a lot of shame and grief, but she also has a pure love for seadragons. Sam feels the pressure of his position as a prince in a matriarchal society (a refreshing plight for a young male character), knowing a marital alliance would strengthen and protect his people, but holding out hope that he could marry for love instead of politics.

I like that the minor characters also have key roles, and in those, the author also demonstrates some pretty great balancing skills. I had no trouble keeping track of who each character was (not always easy with as many named characters as there are in DRAGONFRUIT), and these secondary characters contributed without stealing the scene or pulling the reader away from the central part of the story.

So much happens in this book. Adventures at sea with a dangerous dragon-hunting captain and his crew. Rescue attempts for a princess trapped in a poisoned sleep. Magic, mythology, and a splash of romance. DRAGONFRUIT has a lot to offer fantasy readers.

Readers who enjoyed SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo, or FOREST OF SOULS by Lori M. Lee will want to put this one on their reading lists immediately.

Content Notes

Recommended for Ages 14 up.

Representation
Inspired by Pacific Island mythology and set among islands.

Profanity/Crude Language Content
One instance of mild profanity used.

Romance/Sexual Content
Kissing between boy and girl.

Spiritual Content
Several gods and goddesses mentioned. When someone uses a dragon egg to revive a dying person, terrible tragedies occur, and people believe this may represent vengeance by the god of the dragons for taking something sacred. More than one character questions whether the gods listen or can hear prayers or walk among them.

Some characters have a special mark. It’s a tattoo that appears on their bodies and moves over their skin. The mark can take physical form and serve as a helper to its host.

Violent Content
This isn’t actually violence, though this character does function as a weapon in one scene, but the queen has a tattoo of a spider on her body that moves and comes alive. If you’ve got spider fears, be aware.

Battle violence and situations of peril. One character uses children as labor, hostages, and sacrifices. Dragons are harmed on-scene in the book. Another animal is harmed off-scene.

Drug Content
Several characters are poisoned.

Note: This post contains affiliate links, which do not cost you anything to use but help support this blog. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.