Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

Oh man, I just got off a plane and I’m kind of tired, but I couldn’t let the whole day go by without gushing about one of my new favorite books of 2017. It comes out tomorrow {!!!!!}, so lucky you, because you can read this awesome review and then show all of your friends and then you all can make a group trip to the bookstore to buy Mask of Shadows.

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Title: Mask of Shadows {384 pgs.}

Genre: YA Fantasy

Publication Date: August 29, 2017

Summary:

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen’s personal assassins named for the rings she wears — Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal — their world changes. They know it’s a chance for a new life.

Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.

So. Where to start? Oh, we can start with Sal, if you insist.

Sal. Sallot. Twenty-three. Sal has bigger dreams than merely being a thief for some greasy jerk in the slums. Sal wants revenge against the Erlend nobles who used Nacea, Sal’s country and people, as a distraction against the shadows {terrifying creatures created by Erlend mages}. While Nacea was metaphorically burned to the ground, Sal plotted her revenge. Becoming Opal, the Queen’s own assassin, Sal would be able to take her revenge and maybe do some good in the process.

What else about Sal? Oh, did I mention that Sal is gender fluid? Sal prefers “him” and “he” when dressed like a man, and “she” and “her” when dressed like a woman, and then  the pronoun “they” for all other times. Most people were cool with this {AS THEY SHOULD BE, honestly}, but not Five, another auditioner for Opal {the auditions started with twenty-three, and their numbers are their names from the moment they start until the moment they die}. Five is a jerk, and he doesn’t seem to care about simple manners, which might sound funny when discussing assassins, but these are the Queen’s assassins, remember. Not only do they have to know a thousand different ways to kill a traitor, but they also have to know how to address certain people in the most fitting way possible.

Long story short, Five is a JERK.

Then there’s Elise. Oh, Elise, Elise, Elise. I don’t want to say too much about Elise, but let’s just say that she met Sal in a very fortunate moment, and she continues on in Sal’s journey to become Opal. Elise is beautiful and kind, and she tutors the auditioners in whatever they need to learn. In Sal’s case, Elise teaches them to read and write, and maybe a little flirting. But Sal seems pretty adequate in that subject.

The majority of this book follows Sal and their fellow auditioners to becoming Opal, but there are mysteries and intrigue awaiting around every corner. The autditioners are from all walks of life, and no matter how nice some of them seem to be, this is still a competition.Some are there for their own means, while others only have their country’s best interests at heart. Mostly, though, thee kids are trying to make a better life for themselves.

The fast paced writing keeps you on the edge of your seat, hardly giving you a moment to breathe before launching into the next death-defying audition. Emerald, Ruby, and Amethyst try their best to prepare these kids for what to expect if they should become Opal, but teaching Assassin 101 seems rather difficult to fit into a class. Still, the Left Hand do what they can, and none of them show any preferential treatment toward anyone. There were even some moments when they didn’t even seem to like Sal all that much, for which I was grateful. It kept Sal’s future up in the air, and it makes the reader realize that nothing in this world is certain.

While a lot of fantasy books deal with magic in some form, Mask of Shadows deals with the suppression of magic. Once the war ended, the Queen sucked the land of magic, making sure that no one would be able to call the dreaded shadows anymore. But those against the Queen want magic back, and they’ll do whatever they can to get it back. I like that the Left Hand doesn’t know magic, that they rely on their hands and weapons to achieve their ends. Magic always seems to be lurking over everyone’s shoulders, and the mere idea of how destructive that magic is, is enough to keep your heart rate up {especially after reading about a certain auditioner’s death…it’s a nightmare}.

I’d been so excited all summer to read this book, and I like to read them right before they’re released so I can write a clearer review. I waited as long as I could for this one, and I still finished it about two weeks ago. I reread it again, just because I liked it that much. Sal is strong and exciting, and watching them hunt for the revenge they so clearly deserve is rewarding. You cheer for them the entire way, and you want Sal to get everything they want. But this is really just the set-up for the war Sal is ready to unleash on the Erlends that are not prepared for her.

To say that I’m eagerly anticipating the next book is a bit of an understatement.

Now you have my review in hand, your friends crammed into a mode of transportation, and you better be on your way to a bookstore. Trust me, you don’t want to miss Mask of Shadows. This is going to be a fun ride.

#tbt: Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee

Good Thursday everyone! I’m going to try something new, and that’s throwback posts! Some of them will be new, but on old books, while others will be from my old blog that some people might not have seen. I figured that today would be a good day to remind everyone about Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee.

 

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Title: Every Falling Star {336 pgs.}

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publication Date: September 13, 2016

Summary:

Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.

When I requested this book from NetGalley, I basically requested the wrong book. I had several tabs open and forgot which ones I wanted, so I just requested the lot of them. When I received my approval, I thought I was going to read a YA fictional love story.


Constantly reminding myself that all the situations written in this book really happened was a mistake. I had to stop multiple times because I was either crying or irrationally angry. How could a government not care about their people like this? How could these boys – literally, boys, they were barely old enough to be called tweens – survive the harsh streets of a country that doesn’t look out for their own? They had to fight for everything they wanted, even if it was only a piece of bread. 


Sungju’s parents abandoned him at twelve, but not because they wanted to. His father, who we find out is closely tied to the government, moves his family from the fairy tale Pyongyang to Gyeong-Seong, a place of forgotten people. From there, Sungju’s father leaves in order to find better work, but doesn’t return. His mother heads to her sister’s house to find food, but it’s quickly learned that she doesn’t seem to be coming home, either. Instead of death, Sungju chooses to form a gang with his friend Young-bum. From this point on, Sungju’s life becomes one of the streets, a life where he steals what he needs and only watches out for his brothers, the other members of his gang.


I can’t even imagine this kind of life, but Sungju seemed to blend seamlessly into it. He continued to make mistakes, but he learned from them and taught others so that they would not suffer the same consequences. At one point, Sungju and his gang are thrown into a type of jail where they witnessed death each morning and heard unspeakable horrors coming from the girls’ quarters. 


This was one of those parts I had to take a few minutes for myself.


The good news is that Sungju has a better life now. I don’t want to say too much in case people haven’t read about him {I actually Googled him halfway through the book because I wanted to make sure that he received everything his heart desires}, but he’s doing amazing things with his life now. His is a terrible, sad story, but, like those mistakes he made, he learned from his life and now lives in order to make other lives better. One of the most amazing facts I learned about him, though, is that he’s only a year younger than me. Imagine: when I was learning how to do my own laundry and make English muffin pizzas, he was fighting other gangs over food and shelter. It makes you stop and put your life into perspective.


This book choice may have started as a mistake, but it’s the best mistake I’ve made in awhile. I started it on the plane back from Boston, then didn’t pick it up again until this week, and I read the last half of it in one night. You want everything to be okay, and you trick yourself into hoping that maybe this is a YA fictional novel, that maybe everyone gets out okay. Warning: not everyone does, and it’s heartbreaking. 


Please, read this book. If for nothing else, then this: Sungju was twelve in 1996, only twenty years ago. He only finds a new life in 2001, my high school graduation year. These sad stories are still happening in North Korea, and I hope that this book will convince people to read more about what’s happening there. The people there need help, and Sungju is doing what he can do help them. I think that more than anything made a happy ending.

Seeking Sarah by ReShonda Tate Billingsley

Hi. It’s been a disheartening weekend, hasn’t it? I thought that maybe I could do something to bring a little smile to your face {even for just a minute, because that’s a victory, right?}, so I’m reviewing Seeking Sarah today. It’s a bittersweet tale of a young woman who just finds out that her mother is alive, after thinking the opposite for more than twenty years. It’s also written by a pretty kick-butt lady author, whose books were immediately put on my to-read list the moment I finished this book.

 

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Title: Seeking Sarah {304 pgs.}

Genre: General Fiction {like, this doesn’t fit in just one category}

Publication Date: August 15, 2017 {tomorrow!!}

Summary:

From the time Brooke Green was seven years old, she has lived with the pain of losing her mother. Her father has done the best job he could in raising her, but a piece of her always felt empty. On the day of her father’s funeral, her grandmother breaks the shocking news: her mother, Sarah, is very much alive. She abandoned her family because she claimed she wasn’t fit for motherhood. After doing some research, Brooke discovers her mother is living in Atlanta, enjoying a great career…and a brand new family. Stunned, Brooke doesn’t know if she wants answers or revenge against the mother who abandoned her. When she meets Sarah’s husband, Tony, Brooke sees the perfect way to make her mother pay. But her plan for revenge just may leave everyone in danger, and end up costing Brooke more than she ever bargained for.

I’m going to be completely honest right here: while reading this book, I hated pretty much every character but April. Everyone had flaws, and some of these flaws were pretty unforgivable. But then I reached the end, put the book down, and thought, Bree, don’t even think that you wouldn’t be as vengeful and angry as Brooke.

Brooke moves to Atlanta {temporarily} to find her mother. When she finally does, and sees that her mother has moved on with a brand new family {including a new daughter}, Brooke’s revenge goes into overdrive. She befriends her mother’s stepson, Alex, and while she repeatedly tells him that they’re just friends, it’s obvious that Alex wants more from Brooke {or Mona, as she goes by with him}. Then there’s Anthony, the deputy mayor, Brooke’s mother’s new husband. Anthony is a good man, except for the fact that he can’t keep his eyes off Brooke {or Meredith, as he knows her}.

It pretty much dissolves from there, but with a scary twist. You get the idea that one of the character’s isn’t…okay, but I never once imagined that this character could have done…what this character does. {I’m so sorry for the vague language; I really don’t want to ruin it!}

I think the character I most wanted to throw into the river was Trent, Brooke’s fiancé. He’s in the Navy and, even though Brooke said that she wanted to talk to him before he reenlisted, he went and did it anyway without talking with her. He expects Brooke to be the good little wife and follow him wherever he goes, instead of having a partnership. He’s also incredibly rude when it comes to Brooke wanting to find her mother. He’s unsupportive and basically tells her that she can get out of his life if she continues searching for her mother.

Like, what. Trent. NO. Get out of here.

I was also super happy when Brooke defied him and told him that she was going to do what she needed to do for herself. I adore reading strong female protagonists, and Brooke was strong. When she would break down and try to win Trent back, I understood, but she never let herself wallow too deep whenever he was a jerk. Brooke was strong and brilliant, even if she does go down a dark path. But, really, her father had just died and then she was told that her mother was really alive, and she has a new life. I’d go a little crazy, too.

This was one of those books that started off one way and then ended in a complete different direction. I really had no idea that it would end like it did, and there were more than a few times that I actually said OH MY GOD out loud. What I especially liked about the end was that it wasn’t exactly resolved and not everyone was super happy. It felt real, like something a friend would tell you happened to them. I love when things are tied up in a nice red bow, because that means I get to use my imagination and think about where the characters are in ten years {spoiler: Brooke is thriving and Trent is in a river somewhere}.

Seeking Sarah comes out tomorrow, so run out to the stores and get it! If you’re not a running person, then you can use the internet and order it. I won’t hold that against you. I’m not a runner, either.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Oh, man, it is grossly humid and I’m going to a concert tonight, so I can’t really jump in the pool and then do my make up later. Sometimes I don’t mind not having air conditioning, but sometimes it really chaps my hide, as some old man in middle America might say. Good thing I had a chilly mystery to help me through this time.

 

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Title: Girl in Snow {368 pgs}

Genre: Mystery

Publication Date: August 1, 2017

Summary:

Who Are You When No One Is Watching?

When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered, no one in her sleepy Colorado suburb is untouched—not the boy who loved her too much; not the girl who wanted her perfect life; not the officer assigned to investigate her murder. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters—Cameron, Jade, and Russ—must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both.

This was a strangely compelling read. I wanted the mystery to last – which it did, until the last few pages – but I also needed to solve the case right away to be certain that everyone left would get the help they needed.

I guess let’s start with Cameron. What to say about Cameron? He’s that weird kid that sits by himself in the cafeteria because no one wants to be his friends, and he’s not sure if he cares about that or not. One classmate says that Cameron is the type to bring a fun to school, and this fits. But instead of this – and the subsequent flurry of administration involvement – making him angry, this one furthers Cameron’s anxiety. Is it possible to accidentally bring a gun to school? Could he really hurt someone? There’s no doubt that Cameron is different. His favorite pastime is standing like a statue in front of his neighbors’ homes and watching their lives. This is how he spends the night of February 15, standing in front of his one true love Lucinda Hayes’s house, watching her leave and witnessing her murder. It’s just too bad that he can’t remember that night at all.

Jade and Lucina never used to be friends. Their sisters were friends, and so Jade and Lucinda rubbed along as nicely as they could. But the Jade catches Lucinda in a compromising position with someone special to Jade, and all niceness goes out the window. Jade is definitely the most relatable character in the book. To me, at least. She’s chubby and sarcastic and she doesn’t know what she’s feeling, but she’s feeling. Her mother hurts her because she’s not pretty like Jade’s little sister, but Jade persists. She might not like Lucinda, but that doesn’t mean she won’t try to help Cameron to remember that night. Because, you see, Jade may have seen something that night, too.

Then there’s Russ. Russ, the jaded police officer who’s only worry during this whole murder investigation is keeping Cameron, his old partner’s son, safe. He does whatever he can to help Cameron stay off the police’s radar while also trying to keep his memories of before out of his head. Spoiler: he doesn’t really succeed at either. Russ was actually my favorite character, and only because I thought I knew where he was going, and then I didn’t, and then I did, and I was right, and I was so happy that he came clean about himself. His wife’s only worry is keeping her brother, the night janitor who’s the first suspect, safe, and so that becomes Russ’s worry, but he can’t help thinking that maybe his brother-in-law, a former jailbird turned pastor, had something to do with it. Or maybe not.

While the three of them are concerned with who killed Lucinda, they also seem to be concerned with where this leaves them all in their own lives. This is understandable, because Lucinda is dead, but these three are very, very much alive.

Is it too much to say that I adored this book? Because I really, really did. Danya Kukafka has written a beautiful story that twists and turns at the most delicious places, but she never forgets that these characters are alive. Cameron is strange and never really stops being strange, and he’s going to make you uncomfortable, and that’s good. Jade is hurt and mean, and there are some moments when you want to shake her and tell her to be nice, and that’s good. Russ is confused and helpless, even though he’s the one with the most authority of the three, and you want to cry for him as well as shake your head at his cowardice, and that’s good. What I’m saying is, these three are real, and they feel real. You might know a Cameron or a Jade or a Russ, and I hope that after reading this book, you’ll see them with new eyes.

I also really liked that at the end, at the big reveal, Kukafka doesn’t spend a lot of time on motive and what the killer was thinking. Instead, she focuses on how this impacts our three main characters and the world around them. The author believes that her readers are smart, and she treats you as such. It’s kind of wonderful.

Anyway, let me wipe all the drool up and just tell you that you should definitely get your hands on this book. It’s beautiful and you won’t want to put it down.