Mini-Reviews: White Smoke + Small Town Monsters

I meant to take care of any outstanding reviews I had from October/November before the year ended, but ended up only posting one review in December and just kind of forgot I had these in my drafts. As a result, these are both horror books. It may be early in the new year, but who says horror is only good during Halloween season? Certainly not I.

Title: White Smoke Author: Tiffany D. Jackson Series: N/A Pages: 384 Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books Release Date: September 14th 2021

TW: anxiety, drug addiction, drug overdose, death of a child, ableism

"The Haunting of Hill House meets Get Out in this chilling YA psychological thriller and modern take on the classic haunted house story from New York Times bestselling author Tiffany D. Jackson! Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper. The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone. But 'running from ghosts' is just a metaphor, right? As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks."

Mari and her new mixed family are given the opportunity to move to Cedarville when her mother is given a residency in an up-and-coming neighbor. But when they arrive, their neighborhood is nothing like they imagined. Dilapidated homes are the norm and their neighbors look at them with suspicion. If that wasn’t bad enough, their new house has come with a few surprises of its own. As Mari tries to reestablish herself in this new world, to erase her own questionable history, she begins to learn more about her new town’s nefarious origins. One thing I love about Tiffany D. Jackson’s novels is how layered her stories are. You can approach any of her books from several different angles and White Smoke is no different. On its surface, White Smoke is a haunted house story. It has all the classic elements like unexplained paranormal activity. Doors open and close on their own, objects go missing, furniture is moved, shadows move about at night. All this sets the lead character, Mari, on edge as well as the reader. But Jackson always has readers delving deeper as Mari begins to investigate why the town of Cedarville is so run down, why the Sterling Foundation seems to have its hands in every corner of the Town’s renovation, and why their neighbors aren’t the most welcoming to her and her family. It soon becomes clear that a haunted house is not the only thing Mari needs to worry about. From gentrification to the prison-industrial complex, White Smoke weaves a myriad of nefarious real world issues into an unforgettable horror story.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: Small Town Monsters Author: Diana Rodriguez Wallach Series: N/A Pages: 336 Publisher: Underlined Release Date: September 7th 2021

TW: death of a parent, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide

"Vera Martinez wants nothing more than to escape Roaring Creek and her parents' reputation as demonologists. Not to mention she's the family outcast, lacking her parents' innate abilities, and is terrified of the occult things lurking in their basement. Maxwell Oliver is supposed to be enjoying the summer before his senior year, spending his days thinking about parties and friends. Instead he's taking care of his little sister while his mom slowly becomes someone he doesn't recognize. Soon he suspects that what he thought was grief over his father's death might be something more...sinister. When Maxwell and Vera join forces, they come face to face with deeply disturbing true stories of cults, death worship, and the very nature that drives people to evil."

Diana Rodriguez Wallach’s Small Town Monsters delivers plenty of scares with a death-worshipping cult at its center, bent on taking over a town. Vera Martinez has always been the odd girl out. Her parents’ unconventional vocation as demonologists have made her and her family the target of gossip. But when popular jock, Maxwell, begins noticing his mother’s strange behavior, he seeks out the one person who won’t turn him away if he suggests his mother might be possessed. With dual POVs, Rodriguez Wallach ramps up tension as Max’s mother slowly becomes unrecognizable while Vera begins to realize getting too close may put her in the same kind of danger. Max is at the end of his rope. He is trying to make sense of his mother’s behavior including her late night strolls through the house and her incoherent ramblings involving death. But at the top of his priority list is keeping his little sister safe. Vera is dealing with complex feelings of isolation. On one hand, her parents are the reason why her classmates whisper about her, but on the other, she secretly wishes she could share their gifts. It’s a desire built out of loneliness and the need to be closer to her often absent parents. Because of this, I wish Vera’s parents had been a bigger presence in the book. Their absence is needed in order to drive the storyline forward, but as a result Vera’s character development suffers. There are a few hackneyed tropes in this one and if you can forgive the cliché romance, Small Town Monsters is an enjoyable horror novel that at its core is a story about grief. Many of the characters who fall prey to the cult’s influence have lost loved ones and are just looking for a way to ease the pain. In the end, this pain is a necessary step in the grieving and ultimately healing process.

★ ★ ★

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

Title: How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe
Author: Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Series: N/A
Pages: 432
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 10th 2021

TW: suicide, racism, xenophobia, colorism, ableism, slut-shaming, death of a parent, emotional abuse, religious abuse, depression, fatphobia, brief mention of marital rape

      “When her twin sister reaches social media stardom, Moon Fuentez accepts her fate as the ugly, unwanted sister hidden in the background, destined to be nothing more than her sister’s camerawoman. But this summer, Moon also takes a job as the “merch girl” on a tour bus full of beautiful influencers and her fate begins to shift in the best way possible.
      Most notable is her bunkmate and new nemesis, Santiago Phillips, who is grumpy, combative, and also the hottest guy Moon has ever seen.
      Moon is certain she hates Santiago and that he hates her back. But as chance and destiny (and maybe, probably, close proximity) bring the two of them in each other’s perpetual paths, Moon starts to wonder if that’s really true. She even starts to question her destiny as the unnoticed, unloved wallflower she always thought she was.
      Could this summer change Moon’s life as she knows it?”

      “There’s an invisible thread pulling me in. I am a piece of wool, brown, about to be stitched into a great cosmic blanket. Or maybe I’m a petal stuck to a spiderweb, one tiny fabric-like spot making a whole universe undulate like wisps in the wind.”

Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe is a compelling exploration of self-love, featuring some of the most beguiling prose I’ve ever come across. Moon and her twin sister Star could not be any different. Star is a social media darling while Moon often hides behind her camera. Their mother only has eyes for Star while never losing an opportunity to remind Moon how much she falls short. When Moon is roped into accompanying her sister on an Influencer tour of the country, she begins to realize that maybe she isn’t meant to live in her sister’s shadow. With a new potential romance and an opportunity to step into her own spotlight with her art, Moon is finally able to take control of her life, but in so doing, must confront those who’ve held her back for so long.

Moon Fuentez has never felt like she could compete with her twin sister. Her mother has saved all of her affection for Star and has only had criticism for Moon. As a result, Moon has a hard time believing her own worth and struggles to accept when others show their preference for her. This has led to a lot of distorted ideas about herself and in particular her body. Part of Moon’s journey is coming to the realization that she has endured years of abuse from her mother. All the insults from her mother about being too fat or too loose have shaped her self-esteem. Her mother is very Catholic and has raised her daughters to believe sex is sinful, teaching them about La Raíz, a family cursed past down through the women in their family, triggered when they have sex for the first time. Her mother also has a lot of internalized prejudices that she’s projected onto her daughters in a very unhealthy and abusive way.  Moon is at home in nature. The flowers, the trees, the stars all speak to her and she can’t help but be pulled into their orbit. She’s introspective and full of wonderment, always looking to fall in love with another part of the world she never noticed before. She is full of curiosity, largely encouraged by her father who, as an anthropologist and archeologist, made a career out of exploring the great mysteries of the world.

Star is not an easy character to like, but like Moon, she is also a byproduct of her mother. Deeply religious, Star has built her image around this idea of purity. For Star, other people are either part of her supporting cast or accessories she needs to collect in order to uphold her image. It’s easier for Moon to let go of her mother as opposed to her sister. Star feels like more of a part of who she is because they are twins, because they grew up together and are one of each other’s constants. They also have shared childhood trauma that helps them understand each other in a way no one else will.

Santiago and Moon do not get along in the beginning. Both have a tendency to be pugnacious, but it isn’t long before their sparring gives way to banter. Like Moon, Santiago is used to being in his brother’s shadow. He’s used to people using him. He also has a disability, having lost his hand, and has to deal with ableism from other people who either think he is inept or worse, an inspiration. Moon and Santiago bond over their love of food. Santiago is a chef, who finds his own kind of wonderment in the ingredients he uses. While Moon shows a reverence for nature, Santiago shows the same kind of appreciation for the food he prepares. Their relationship develops slowly, each learning to be vulnerable with the other, but they also have a lot to unlearn. Santiago and Moon stumble a lot when it comes to their relationship. It’s so easy for them to hurt each other because of their own insecurities. 

How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe is a mesmerizing story about unlearning harmful beliefs about yourself and embracing every part of who you are. Beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s latest is an utterly enchanting read.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Mini-Reviews: We Are Not From Here + The Taking of Jake Livingston

I am still sharing reviews from my reads from Latinx Heritage Month if you can believe it. I read a lot and reviewed almost everything I picked up. I believe I have one full length review left to post for that month. It always feels weird pairing very different books when I do mini-reviews, but this really is a good representation of what my October was like. I read for Latinx Heritage Month during the first half of the month and then transitioned to horror the last two weeks of October. I got through a good amount of horror last month even though I split my attention between that and LHM. Next year I might have to start horror reads earlier because even though I read a good amount, Halloween came and I was still in need of the genre. You should see at least one set of mini-reviews dedicated to horror, hopefully by the end of the month.

Title: We Are Not From Here Author: Jenny Torres Sanchez Series: N/A Pages: 326 Publisher: Philomel Books Release Date: May 19th 2020

TW: death of a parent, abuse, suicide attempt, sexual assault (forced kissing and rape)

"A ripped-from-the-headlines novel of desperation, escape, and survival across the U.S.-Mexico border. Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña have no false illusions about the town they've grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Though their families--both biological and found--create a warm community for them, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the three teens know they have no choice but to run: for the border, for the hope of freedom, and for their very lives. Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico with their eyes on the U.S. border, they follow the route of La Bestia, a system of trains that promise the hope of freedom--if they are lucky enough to survive the harrowing journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and the desperation that courses through their very veins, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know that there's no turning back, dangerous though the road ahead might be. In this story inspired by real--and current--events, the plight at our southern border is brought to life."

Jenny Torres Sanchez’s We Are Not From Here tracks three migrants’ desperate and heart-shattering journey from Guatemala to the US. Pulga has spent his life trying to be tough because he knows that the world would eat him up and spit him out in a second. His dream of following in his father’s footsteps as a musician is the only thing that has kept him going. Chico lost his mother at a young age and Pulga became his family. His tender-heartedness often gets him into trouble and unlike Pulga, he has never taught himself to shut off the part of his heart that cares too much. Pequeña has been drowning in her own despair for months. Her mother is constantly reminding her that her pregnancy is a blessing, but to Pequena it’s a reminder of all the things she’s kept secret. When the violence from the only place they’ve ever called home threatens to swallow them whole, the three teens have no choice but to run. There is nothing easy about their journey, ever step forward demands more and more from them. After the money, the tears, and the sweat have run out, it slowly begins to take their hope too. The trek is traumatizing to all who must take is on and even for those who survive, it’s impossible to be the same person you were at the beginning. You pay with parts of yourself. Told in dual POVs, We Are Not From Here is beautifully written and brutally honest. One of the single most impactful reads I’ve read in my entire life.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Title: The Taking of Jake Livingston Author: Ryan Douglass Series: N/A Pages: 244 Publisher: Putnam Release Date: July 13th 2021

TW: school shooting, suicide, child abuse, attempted rape, depression, bullying, domestic violence

"Get Out meets Danielle Vega in this YA horror where survival is not a guarantee. Jake Livingston is one of the only Black kids at St. Clair Prep, one of the others being his infinitely more popular older brother. It’s hard enough fitting in but to make matters worse and definitely more complicated, Jake can see the dead. In fact he sees the dead around him all the time. Most are harmless. Stuck in their death loops as they relive their deaths over and over again, they don’t interact often with people. But then Jake meets Sawyer. A troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school last year before taking his own life. Now a powerful, vengeful ghost, he has plans for his afterlife–plans that include Jake. Suddenly, everything Jake knows about ghosts and the rules to life itself go out the window as Sawyer begins haunting him and bodies turn up in his neighborhood. High school soon becomes a survival game–one Jake is not sure he’s going to win"

Ryan Douglass’s The Taking of Jake Livingston has its fair share of unsettling scenes, but falts in its development of certain relationships. Jake has been able to see ghosts for as long as he can remember. Being an outsider comes with the territory of being a medium, but Jake is also gay and not exactly out to his friends or family. He is also one of very few Black students at his private school. When Jake crosses paths with a vengeful ghost, all the things he thought he knew about the dead realm go out the window. Sawyer is able to manipulate objects in the real world and he has his sights set on Jake. Most people see Jake as absent-minded, prone to zone out when the truth is Jake’s mind is always engaged, just not necessarily focused on the world in front of him. Dealing with homophobic and racist teachers and peers, school is more of a nightmare than a refuge. At home, there is a lot of tension between him and his brother as well as unresolved issues with his mother, stemming from the abuse he endured from his father. Jake doesn’t have too many places that make him feel safe and wanted which makes him vulnerable to nefarious influences. One of the most interesting elements of The Taking of Jake Livingston is its dual POV. Not only do we get inside Jake’s head, but inside Sawyer’s. We see Jake trying to balance two sides of his life and then we jump back in time to witness the unraveling of Sawyer, as his journey catapults to a violent end. Both of these characters are vividly drawn; however, I wanted more from the side characters. Jake makes new friends and gains a potential love interest in a new student, but neither Fiona nor Allister really felt developed enough. It was so important to Jake’s arc to find his own people, but we spend very little time with them and when we did, their relationships felt accelerated. Still, if you’re looking for a quick horror read that delves into what pushes individuals to violence, The Taking of Jake Livingston might be the book for you.

★ ★ ★

Snapshot Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Title: Jade War
Author: Fonda Lee
Series: The Green Bone Saga, #2
Pages: 590
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: July 23rd 2019

TW: suicide, graphic violence, racism, mentions of rape and homophobia.

      “In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.
      On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.
      Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.
      Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.
      Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.”

  • The details – It’s hard not to appreciate how much detail Fonda Lee puts into her world. Everything is so well-thought out from the politics of this world to its economics. Kekon feels like a real place. As Lee opens up her world a little more to include international relations, this county feels a little smaller as it is not only its citizens but the countries that surround it that affect Kekon.
  • Sibling relationships – One of my favorite things about the previous book was the often messy and complicated relationships between siblings. We see this continue with Hilo and Shae and how their relationship has evolved. Of the three Kaul siblings, they are the pairing who naturally are at odds with one another. Both have to navigate positions they never thought they would have to take on and together they have to make decisions that not only affect them as individuals but the whole clan.
  • Family – Really liked seeing the emphasis put on family in this series. We are invested in the No Peak clan because of the Kaul siblings. We’ve spent the first two books learning who these characters are as a unit and how they navigate family and clan business. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the Mountain clan where Ayt Mada isn’t surrounded by family because she literally killed them in order to gain her position. 
  • Wen and Anden – I really love the Kaul siblings, but really enjoyed seeing Wen and Anden stand out in this installment. Anden is dealing with the consequences of his actions, in particular his refusal to wear jade. He’s been shunned to Espenia and experiences culture shock. Wen is every bit the badass her husband is. She’s always felt like an outsider because she is stone-eyed, but is determined to contribute to the clan and not just as the wife of the Pillar. Her devotion to the clan and her need to prove herself worthy have her taking risks that can benefit No Peak greatly if she succeeds.
  • The surprisesJade War is full of even more surprises than Jade City. I think I held my breath during the final 40 pages. Fonda Lee did not pull any punches and it will be a while until I recover from this one.
  • Pacing Jade War felt slower than the previous book, but with its attention to detail, it’s hard to hold this against it.

Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga is a smart and enthralling fantasy. Jade War will keep readers on their toes with its heart-stopping action and unexpected twists.

★ ★ ★ ★