Saint Death: A Review

“Each of us dies the death he is looking for.”

“Don’t worry where you’re going, you’ll die where you have to.”

Saint Death by Marcus SedgwickArturo is scraping by living in Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. He can see El Norte from his small shack but America feels distant compared to his reality spent hauling things at the auto shop and trying to avoid the notice of gang members and the cartel who have carved Juarez into their own sections of territory.

Arturo’s childhood friend Faustino reenters his life preparing to use stolen money to send his girlfriend and their son illegally across the border. With his gang boss on the verge of discovering the theft, Faustino is desperate for help to replace the thousand dollars he has taken. Arturo reluctantly agrees to try to win the money playing Calavera but as with most card games, things don’t go according to plan.

Looming over Arturo’s story, and Juarez itself, is Santa Muerte–Saint Death. The folk saint watches impassively as people in the border town struggle in the face of a vicious drug trade, dangerous trafficking, corruption, and income inequality. It’s possible that Santa Muerte might help Arturo if he prays hard enough and proves himself. But it’s also possible she’ll watch as Arturo heads toward his tragic ending. The outcome doesn’t really matter, everyone comes to her in the end in Saint Death (2017) by Marcus Sedgwick.

To call Saint Death ambitious would be a gross understatement. This slim novel complicates a deceptively simple story about one young man and uses it as a lens to examine the world on a much larger scale.

Arturo’s story, as related by an omniscient third person narrator, alternates with commentary from nameless third parties on conditions affecting Mexico and Juarez specifically including The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), climate change, the city’s founding, and even the worship of Saint Death herself.

The formatting and language Saint Death underscore that this is a book about Mexican characters who live their lives in Spanish. There are no italics for Spanish words and dialogue is formatted according to Spanish language conventions with double punctuation for question marks and exclamation points (one at either end of the sentence) and no quotation marks for dialogue which is instead indicated with dashes.

Saint Death is simultaneously an absorbing, heart-wrenching read and a scathing indictment of the conditions that have allowed the drug trade and human trafficking to flourish in Mexico. Eerily timely and prescient this ambitious story is both a masterful piece of literature and a cautionary tale. Add this to your must-read list now. Highly recommended.

If you want to know more about some of what’s mentioned in the book and a bit about Sedgwick’s writing process, be sure to check out his blog posts about the book as well.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough,The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle,The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Library Journal as a starred review*

Pretending to Be Erica: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle PainchaudErica Silverman was kidnapped when she was five years old and she hasn’t been seen since. Two other girls came to Las Vegas to pretend to be Erica and try to steal her life. They were both caught. But they didn’t have Violet’s father Sal backing them.

Sal knows that Erica is gone and he has something none of the previous con artists did: Erica’s DNA. He also has been training Violet to con the Silvermans since she was five years old. Violet shares Erica’s blood type and has undergone plastic surgery to make sure her face matches the age projections of Erica. She isn’t going to make the same mistake the other Ericas made. Violet isn’t there to stay; she doesn’t need to become Erica forever.

All Violet has to do is keep up the charade long enough to steal the coveted Silverman Painting. It should be easy. Except the longer she spends as Erica, the more Violet wants the stability and comforts of Erica’s life for herself. Violet knows why she is living with the Silvermans, she knows exactly how to sell the lie, she knows the endgame. The only thing Violet doesn’t know is what to do when she wants to believe the con herself in Pretending to Be Erica (2015) by Michelle Painchaud.

Pretending to Be Erica is Painchaud’s debut novel. Violet narrates her time impersonating Erica in the first person while flashbacks to her childhood as Violet are related in third person.

While the writing is sleek and sharp, this novel really shines with its protagonist. Violet has no idea what a real family or a true friend looks like before she arrives at the Silverman home. Affection and basic comforts are alien concepts to her and even the friends she begins to make when Erica returns to high school feel strange and dangerous. Against the backdrop of her con, Violet begins to understand that she’s allowed to want more than a precarious life built on lies and tricks.

Pretending to Be Erica has all the earmarks of a traditional thriller or heist mystery. Tension is high as the stakes increase and Violet’s carefully drawn lines between her real life as Violet and her fake life as Erica begin to blur. Suspense and the numerous moving parts of the con come together for a high action conclusion.

Pretending to Be Erica is the perfect choice for readers who like their heroines to be as intense and unexpected as their mysteries. A fast-paced yet introspective story about a con, a heist, and a girl doing the best she can to save herself when it start to feel like she could lose everything.

Possible Pairings: The Leaving by Tara Altebrando, Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Heist Society by Ally Carter, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Liars, Inc. by Paula Stokes, Thieving Weasels by Billy Taylor, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud was one of my favorite reads of 2016. Raised by a conman who is the only father she's ever known, Violet has been preparing to become Erica for almost as long as she can remember. Now the time has come. Plastic surgery has smoothed out the differences in their appearance, years of practice and preparation do the rest. Becoming a dead girl is surprising easy once Violet is returned to Erica's family. All Violet has to do now is keep the lie going long enough to steal the Silverman Painting that every Vegas criminal has dreamt of scoring themselves. Violet thought she was ready to become Erica. But it turns out pretending to be someone else is much harder when you want the lie to be the truth. Pretending to Be Erica is an engrossing thriller and a sleek heist story. But it's also a story that's all about a girl learning to be kind to herself and forgive herself. You can also see the beautiful card here that @thatsostelle made for me this year (including an appropriate pep talk to cut myself more flask!). I've framed the card and the book is on my shelves already, but I love seeing them together here. Definitely add this backlist title to your to read list if you're a mystery fan. #bookstagram #bookishfeatures #goodreads #instabook #instareads #igreads #booknerd #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #bookaddict

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Journey Across the Hidden Islands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Twins Li-Jin and Seika are the princesses of the Hundred Islands of Himitsu. Li-Jin has been training at the Temple of the Sun to become an imperial guard and be able to protect her sister Seika who remains at the imperial palace studying under their father, the Emperor.

Li-Jin is thrilled when she completes her training and is able to go home so that she and Seika can spend their twelfth birthday together. But when Li-Jin and Alejan, her winged lion companion, arrive there isn’t much time for a reunion.

Instead the girls soon find themselves embarking on the Emperor’s Journey to travel across the islands of Himitsu to pay respect to the kingdom’s dragon guardian and renew their dragon’s bargain to protect the Hundred Islands.

Nothing on the journey goes right as Li-Jin and Seika encounter earthquakes, foreigners, and monstrous creatures during their travels. Despite their inexperience and doubts, both girls know that Himitsu is relying on them. As they get closer to finding the dragon they will have to rely on each other and trust their instincts to keep their people safe in Journey Across the Hidden Islands (2017) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Durst’s latest middle grade novel is a standalone fantasy set in a richly imagined world filled with magical creatures and unexpected dangers.

Li-Jin and Seika are strong heroines who know their potential even if they sometimes fear too much responsibility has been set on their shoulders. The sisters have a rock solid bond and both bring numerous strengths to their adventure in Journey Across the Hidden Islands.

The Hundred Islands of Himitsu are vividly described both from the ground and above thanks to Li-Jin’s travels on the back of Alejan when he is flying. This story is imbued with Japanese-inspired culture along with inventive world building including magical creatures, ancient tales, and dramatic buildings.

Li-Jin and Seika’s relationship as sisters forms the center of this story as the girls work together to protect, and potentially forever change, their kingdom. Journey Across the Hidden Islands is a fast-paced adventure with not one but two engaging and clever heroines. Recommended for fans of girl power fantasies, inventive worlds, and journey stories.

Possible Pairings: The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, The Keeper Of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

*An advance copy of this title was provided for review consideration by the publisher*

You can also check out my interview with Sarah about this book.

Samurai Rising: A Non-Fiction Review

“Few warriors are as famous as the Japanese samurai. We remember those beautiful swords and those fearsome helmets. We recall, with both horror and fascination, how some chose to end their own lives. But no one can understand the samurai without knowing Minamoto Yoshitsune.”

Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth HindsSamurai warriors occupy an unusual space between actual history and the stuff of legend. Immortalized in countless books and films, these warriors are sensationalized and idealized but rarely studied as historical figures.

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune (2016) by Pamela S. Turner, illustrated by Gareth Hinds works to correct that with this biography of one of history’s most famous samurai.

Yoshitsune’s story begins in 1160 when his father tries to kidnap the Japanese Emperor and take more prestige and wealth for the Minamoto samurai by force. He fails thus forfeiting his life and placing his rival, the leader of the Taira samurai, in an influential position as the emperor’s right hand. Yoshitsune avoids execution thanks to his mother’s pleas and is instead exiled as a child at a monastery to become a monk.

As he grows older and learns more about his family’s heritage Yoshitsune rejects that path, runs away from the monastery, learns the ways of the samurai, and sets out help his family reclaim their supposed birthright.

This story begins in 1160 when the Minamoto abduction of the emperor fails. Turner bridges the more than 850 years between Yoshitsune and readers with thorough research and a healthy dose of supposition.

Samurai Rising opens with a listing of key figures in the story along with name pronunciations and a short description of their relationship to Yoshitsune. Detailed maps show readers Japan as a whole as well as key battle site and strongholds that will turn up in the story. The text is further enhanced with illustrations from Gareth Hinds that appear at the beginning of each chapter showcasing samurai in action or detailed images of their various equipment. Turner finishes this book with copious footnotes about her research and the details she has chosen to include and interpret in this story.

This book can appeal to a wide range of ages. It’s been discussed as a contender for both children’s and young adult awards and was named a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA’s) Non-Fiction Awards.

Samurai Rising reads very young. The narrative voice feels decidedly middle grade as does the snappy tone and the witty asides peppered throughout the text. Turner’s writing is filled with pat language and anachronistic analogies to better situated samurai life and culture in modern terms. (Example: Saying the “cool kids” of the Japanese ruling class saw the samurai as “dumb jocks” or comparing Yoshitsune showing up at the Hiraizumi estate asking for samurai training to a boy who has never been to Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees.) This information will work for some readers. I was not one of them.

Aside from pulling me out of the story–because really, even as a historical biography this book is essentially a story–these comparisons often highlighted very specific assumptions Turner makes about who will be reading this book (sports enthusiasts, people with the cultural knowledge to know the Yankees, readers familiar with the stereotypical social hierarchy of high school . . .). Seeing these assumptions at play is intensely irritating as it creates the effect of talking down to readers and, for me, placing me as firmly not within the target audience (which is okay, that happens when adults read YA but it could easily happen for kids and teens outside of the target area as well).

Writing issues aside, Samurai Rising is also a book that glorifies violence and war and doesn’t look to closely at the implications of writing a history about the “winning” side of this samurai battle. Why are the Minamoto the heroes? Why is violence and death acceptable within the ceremony of samurai culture? Turner never really says. I don’t have the background in Japanese history to say much of anything but I will point you to Leonard Kim’s review which raises a lot of these questions and points out some of the inherent flaws in this viewpoint.

The scope of Samurai Rising and the subject matter is especially impressive given the relative dearth of textual evidence from the time. Turner takes on a lot here and she successfully breathes life into Yoshitsune’s story making it engaging and approachable for readers. Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter open to interpretation and discussion.

If you want to hear more thoughts about Samurai Rising be sure to check out Sarah Couri’s review on Someday My Printz Will Come and the discussion in the comments on Heavy Medal as well. Leonard Kim’s review should also be required reading about this book.

Possible Pairings: The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb, The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard, The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin, Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki

But Then I Came Back: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Time served on planet earth is yours to use as you see fit. It keeps spinning, and just because someone’s life ends or pauses doesn’t mean we have to do the same.”

“We do have to rescue ourselves in the end, no matter how much we learn to lean on other people.”

Eden Jones fell in the river and hit her head. She was in a coma for a month. But then she woke up.

That’s when the real recovery begins as Eden has to teach her body how to walk, talk, and even eat again. All easy compared to trying to fit herself back into a life that moved on without her. Eden struggles to reconnect with her twin brother who used to know her better than anyone, her best friend who saved her, and her parents. But maybe she isn’t the person they remember anymore. Maybe she isn’t the person she remembers either.

Eden still feels a pull to wherever she was while she was in a coma–to the In Between place filled with flowers and a girl trying to tell her something that she can’t hear. The flowers follow Eden back into the real world where they start appearing everywhere. It turns out the girl followed Eden back too.

Jaz is in the hospital room next to Eden, comatose and unresponsive except that Eden still feels a pull toward her. As she tries to understand their connection, Eden also forms a surprising friendship with Joe–the boy who is desperate for Jaz to wake up. Eden might be the only person who can get Jaz to come back. Helping Jaz could mean losing a piece of herself. Or it could help Eden find something she’s been missing all along in But Then I Came Back (2017) by Estelle Laure.

But Then I Came Back is a companion to Laure’s debut novel This Raging Light. It begins a few weeks after the end of This Raging Light and tells Eden’s story.

Although she is facing a lot of external change most of Eden’s journey and development is internal as she tries to make sense of her interpersonal relationships–both new and old–and figure out who she is now and who she wants to become. For most of her life, Eden has defined herself as a ballet dancer with big plans. That future is thrown into doubt at the start of But Then I Came Back and Eden’s return to dance is a compelling addition to this story and as satisfying as her blooming relationship with Joe.

Laure channels Eden’s frenetic, energetic personality in a first person narration filled with staccato observations as she wakes up in the hospital and begins the arduous process of returning to her old life.The glaring contrast between Eden’s current reality and the pieces of her time In Between that begin to bleed into the waking world lend an eerie quality and a sense of urgency to this otherwise quiet story.

Eden’s voice and her experiences are completely different from Lucille’s in This Raging Light but themes of connection and perseverance tie these two characters and their stories together. But Then I Came Back is about loss, recovery, self-discovery, and choice. A powerful story about a girl who has to lose a lot before she can find herself again. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Last True Love Story by Brendan Kiely, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Fracture by Megan Miranda, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, American Street by Ibi Zoboi

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Be sure to check out my interview with the author about this book!

But Then I Came Back was one of my most anticipated 2017 releases. I couldn't wait to read this companion novel to Laure's electric debut This Raging Light. Stop by my blog today to check out my interview with Estelle Laure about the book and check tomorrow for my review. For now I'll leave you with a teaser of my summary for the book: 🌸🌼🌸🌼🌸 Eden Jones fell in the river and hit her head. She was in a coma for a month. But then she woke up. 🌸🌼🌸🌼🌸 That's when the real recovery begins as Eden has to teach her body how to walk, talk, and even eat again. All easy compared to trying to fit herself back into a life that moved on without her. Eden struggles to reconnect with her twin brother who used to know her better than anyone, her best friend who saved her, and her parents. But maybe she isn't the person they remember anymore. Maybe she isn't the person she remembers either. 🌸🌼🌸🌼🌸 Eden still feels a pull to wherever she was while she was in a coma–to the In Between place filled with flowers and a girl trying to tell her something that she can't hear. The flowers follow Eden back into the real world where they start appearing everywhere. It turns out the girl followed Eden back too. 🌸🌼🌸🌼🌸 Jaz is in the hospital room next to Eden, comatose and unresponsive except that Eden still feels a pull toward her. As she tries to understand their connection, Eden also forms a surprising friendship with Joe–the boy who is desperate for Jaz to wake up. Eden might be the only person who can get Jaz to come back. Helping Jaz could mean losing a piece of herself. Or it could help Eden find something she's been missing all along in But Then I Came Back (2017) by Estelle Laure. 🌸🌼🌸🌼🌸 #bookstagram #goodreads #instabook #instareads #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #booktography #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookphotography #books #butthenicameback #estellelaure #clarendonfilter

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Frogkisser!: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

All Anya wants to do is sit in the castle library reading books and learning new spells (but only small ones because she doesn’t want to become an evil sorcerer like her step-step-father Duke Rikard). Unfortunately the Duke seems intent on becoming a completely evil sorcerer and his previously intermittent transformations and threats to Anya and her older sister Morven begin to escalate. Rikard even transforms Prince Denholm, one of Morven’s many suitors, into a frog.

Anya makes a sister-promise to return Prince Denholm to his human form before realizing it will lead to bigger challenges. Soon Anya has to flee the castle before Rikard can strike against her and forced into a Quest with Royal Dog Ardent at her side.

While she tries to gather ingredients for a magical anti-transmogrification lip balm to fix Denholm and Rikard’s sundry other victims Anya realizes there is far more at stake than one sister-promise as she grapples with her privilege and responsibility as a princess while trying to save her kingdom in Frogkisser! (2017) by Garth Nix.

Frogkisser! is a rollicking adventure filled with magical creatures including talking dogs, giant otters, and an enchanted bright orange newt. Along the way Anya also encounters wizards, good robbers, evil sorcerers and more.

Anya faces danger at every turn often leading to bittersweet successes which help to make Frogkisser! all the more gripping. Anya’s contemplation of the advantages she has–and the protection she owes her people–as a ruling princess is realistically handled and an excellent introduction to the concept of social responsibility.

Nix creates a unique world filled with minor kingdoms, magic, and a fair bit of mayhem in this novel. He also includes several wry nods to familiar fairy tale characters like Snow White and Merlin (who are the same person) as well as traditional tropes including the magic of true love’s kiss.

Frogkisser! is a masterful standalone fantasy novel that once again demonstrates Nix’s talent and range as an author. Anya’s young age and a deliberate lack of romance makes this story a great choice for readers who want a story focused on frienship, adventure, and magic. A must-read for fans of fractured fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin, Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Frogs. Royalty. Magic. Humor. 🦄 All Anya wants to do is sit in the castle library and read and learn new spells (but only small ones because she doesn't want to become an evil sorcerer). Unfortunately Anya has to go on a Quest instead. While she tries to gather ingredients for a magical Transmogrification lip balm to transform sundry victims of her step-step-father the duke Anya will grapple with her privilege and responsibility as a princess. This rollicking adventure is filled with magical creatures including talking dogs, wizards, good robbers, evil sorcerers and more. This masterful fantasy is another winner from Nix sure to appeal to fans of fractured fairy tales, adventures like The Princess Bride, and books by Vivian Vande Velde. 🦄 #bookstagram #goodreads #instabook #instareads #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #booktography #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookphotography #books #frogkisser

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Where Futures End: A Review

“All accidents are magic.”

One year from now in “When We Asked the Impossible” Dylan is desperate to believe that there is more out there and that he can be more himself if only he can get back to the tantalizing world that haunts his childhood memories.

Ten years from now in “When We Were TV” Brixney is positive she can get her brother, and by extension herself, out of a debtor’s colony. All she needs is more views on her social media feed. An unexpected visitor to Flavor Foam could be exactly what she needs.

Thirty years from now in “When We Went High-Concept” Epony is running out of ways to save her family when their town is flooded. Soon she’s forced into an impossible position, her entire online presence erased and her life inextricably altered in a bid to go high-concept.

Sixty years from now in “When We Could Hardly Contain Ourselves” Reef struggles to survive while finding distraction if not comfort in the virtual game playing out across the city’s streets. Until it all goes wrong.

One hundred years from now in “When We Ended it All” Quinn embarks on her coming-of-age quest to find a token to bring back for a husband she isn’t sure she wants. During her travels she meets a stranger. On the first day Quinn will tell her story. On the second day he will tell his story and things will begin to come together. On the third day, one of them will die. Quinn will choose who.

Five people. Five stories. Two worlds. One moment they have all been moving toward in Where Futures End (2016) by Parker Peevyhouse.

Where Futures End is Peevyhouse’s debut novel.

This ambitious novel is broken into five interconnected sections that work on their own as short stories and seamlessly come together to create a larger narrative of a world and its mutable future.

Where Futures End strikes a fine balance between science fiction and fantasy as readers and characters try to reconcile a changing world with basis in scientific fact with the wondrous consequences of those changes.

This eerily prescient book is filled with distinct and haunting characters as well as rich and intricate world building. Where Futures End is a smart and thoughtful book that is perfect for readers looking to completely immerse themselves in a story. Ideal for readers who enjoy tales of portal fantasies, parallel worlds or alternate universes, and short science fiction. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Magicians by Lev Grossman; The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Maggie Stiefvater, Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick