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.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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.

★ ★ ★ ★

Mini-Reviews: Running + Punching the Air

I have quite the backlog of reviews in my drafts right now. I am actually still formatting reviews for the month of October. And while I actually like having at least one or two reviews in my drafts (I always like having them for rainy days if I don’t have any other posts planned) having more than four makes me feel very behind. One day I will learn to go with the flow, but for now, I will stress about this little thing.

Title: Running Author: Natalia Sylvester Series: N/A Pages: 328 Publisher: Clarion Books Release Date: July 14th 2020

TW: sexual harassment

"When fifteen-year-old Cuban American Mariana Ruiz’s father runs for president, Mari starts to see him with new eyes. A novel about waking up and standing up, and what happens when you stop seeing your dad as your hero—while the whole country is watching. In this thoughtful, authentic, humorous, and gorgeously written novel about privacy, waking up, and speaking up, Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was. But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?"

Natalia Sylvester delivers a pertinent novel for our time with her newest YA, Running. Cuban-American teen, Mariana Ruiz, has her world irrevocably altered when her father decides to run for president. Though her father has been involved in politics for as long as she can remember, now that she is older, Mariana is beginning to understand the toll his career has been taking on his family. More than this, Mariana’s own views of the world are beginning to take shape and many of them stand in direct opposition to her father’s. She must decide if she is willing to use her voice and newfound platform to speak up for what she believes. Mariana is a fairly young teen. At fifteen her view of the world is changing and with it, her view of her father. Mariana begins to realize the inconsistency in what her father says versus what he does. When she meets Jackie, an activist and classmate, she is further challenged to confront her ignorance. Speaking up is equal parts empowering as it is terrifying, especially for someone who has stage fright and has spent the majority of her father’s campaign wishing she could stay out of the spotlight. Running is perfect for teen readers who are just beginning to discover the power of their voices in shaping the political world.

★ ★ ★ ★

Title: Punching the Air Author: Ibi Zoboi Series: N/A Pages: 400 Publisher: Balzer + Bray Release Date: September 1st 2020

TW: racism including slurs, assault, incarceration

"From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo. The story that I thought was my life didn’t start on the day I was born Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. The story that I think will be my life starts today Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both."

Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s Punching the Air tells the story of how hope survives even in the most dire of circumstances. When Amal Shahid is wrongfully convicted of the brutal beating of a white boy, his world is shattered. Sent to a juvenile detention center, Amal’s spirit is crushed again and again. His only refuge is a poetry class, a place where the words that have been simmering inside him can finally break free. As a Black teen, Amal has spent his whole life boxed in. Though labeled disruptive in school, Amal is a sponge, desperately craving knowledge. He is an artist who wants nothing more than to express himself and be seen. His incarceration is a cruelty that he can barely endure, the dehumanization just another reminder that the world does not see him. Despite this, Amal finds a tiny sliver of hope, claws his way to it, and grabs hold. Punching the Air is an emotional journey, gut-wrenching but beautifully written, haunting and hopeful all at once.

★ ★ ★ ★