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Excellent Nonfiction Books for Kids read in October and November 2022 (ARC and non-ARC review)

I read some *excellent* kids’ nonfiction titles in October and November. They made perfect bedtime reading with my third grader, who devoured them with at least as much interest as me. Reviews of all three books below.

Explorers: Amazing Tales of the World’s Greatest Adventures by Nellie Huang

Publication Date: September 3, 2019

Synopsis:

Live and see the world through the eyes of 50 of the world’s greatest explorers and their trusty companions!

This book for kids is brimming with first-person accounts of gripping adventures in explorers’ own words. Find exciting tales complemented by rare maps, specially commissioned photographs, and artworks that re-create history’s greatest expeditions. Get ready to take a leap into the unknown…

An adventure book that will surely rival even the most thrilling adventure movies! You’ll meet some of the most famous explorers and adventurers of all time in this exciting non-fiction storybook for children.

Great explorers have one thing in common – a desire to leap into the unknown, no matter the dangers it presents. This book will take you through Ferdinand Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the world 500 years ago to Barbara Hillary’s treks to the North and South poles while in her seventies, and beyond. This knowledge book documents the stories of men and women who rewrote our understanding of the world and inspired us by pushing the boundaries of human capability.

A kid’s educational book that looks at the towering achievements of more than 50 explorers from all walks of life in great detail. See sensational cross-sections revealing the amazing detail inside Spanish galleons, lost cities, and spaceships. Magnificent photographs highlight the artifacts and relics they found along the way, while hand-drawn maps reveal their intrepid journeys in such detail, you feel as though you could be walking in their very footsteps.

It is a glorious introduction to history’s most famous trailblazers – people whose courage opened frontiers turned voids into maps, forged nations, connected cultures, and added to humankind’s knowledge of the world by leaps and bounds. Packed with jaw-dropping fun facts about the world and written so beautifully it will get your heart racing. Explorers is the perfect kid’s book for any young mind with an avid sense of adventure!

Explore Unknown Waters – Take To The Skies – Investigate Our Planet!

For centuries, explorers have been unable to resist the secrets of the sea. We have looked toward the skies and stars since the beginning of time. Through dense jungles, dry desserts, and frozen mountains we have pushed the very limits of human endurance in the name of exploration and adventure!

These tales are not for the faint of heart – these adventurers faced challenges that threatened their very survival! Their courage has allowed us to collect a wealth of knowledge about our awe-inspiring universe.

Set sail to faraway frozen lands, defy gravity and take to the skies, and investigate our planet through the stories of those who came before us. Happy exploring!

Learn about the explorers who defied the so-called possibilities of their time in:

– Sea & Ice
– Air & Space
– And Land

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was an excellent book about explorers and their expeditions. Each explorer got a page or two-page spread filled with fascinating facts about them and what they discovered.

One thing I really, really liked about it is that it does not focus on the standard white / European explorers one learns about in school. Several of them are there, but there are also many non-European explorers, non-white explorers, and women explorers. There is also always a note at the end about the negative results of the expeditions. Like yes, it opened the new world up to Europe but it also exposed the indiginous peoples to new diseases and wiped out huge swaths of their populations, or exacerbated the slave trade, etc.

This book also doesn’t focus solely on conquering expeditions. There are scientific expeditions, deep-sea and outer-space expeditions, mountain-climbing and arctic exploration expeditions… There’s a huge variety of information in this book and my kiddo (8) ate it up.

It also avoids standard history-book pitfalls by having great writing that sucks you in and makes you want to know more about each expedition and explorer.


ARC Review: History’s BIGGEST Show-offs by Andy Seed

Publication Date: November 1, 2022

Synopsis:

Some people just can’t resist showing off… and this BIG book introduces readers to some of the biggest braggers and loudest show-offs throughout history. 

This book takes young readers on a tour of some of history’s greatest show-offs, from wealthy kings and queens who loved to splash the cash to masterful musicians who weren’t shy about their talents or brilliant artists who could not stop telling others how great they were.

Some of the showoffs in this book include:

Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who arrived for her wedding with 57 carriages pulled by 376 horses, 

Alexander the Great, who named more than 70 cities in his vast empire after himself,… and one after his horse!

The Montgolfier brothers, who showed off their flashy new invention, the hot air balloon, in front of huge crowds and even the King and Queen!
Andy Seed’s hilarious text brings these crazy but true stories to life, as he tells readers tales about massive palaces, fast cars, monster banquets, immense armies, frilly outfits, dazzling bling, musical masterpieces, epic artworks, outrageous inventions and much, much more!

Featuring long-dead leaders, artists, musicians and more, from all around the world, the snappy facts are paired with humorous character illustrations from the brilliant Sam Caldwell for maximum hilarity.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a super cute and fun book and has a surprising amount of easily digestible information about a variety of historical figures (and they’re not even all white guys!). There are a range of famous leaders, artists, scientists, writers, engineers, and entertainers that include a number of women and people of color.

The illustrations are whimsical and playful and the expressions on the people’s faces are hilarious. There are also many puns and funny comments that elementary- and middle-school-aged kids will love.

I actually love the way they have reframed the famous people included as “show-offs” because of how rich, talented, clever, powerful, and/or imaginative they were. It gives the whole book an irreverent air so you feel like you’re rebelling against staid and boring history professors everywhere.

It’s also an interesting point that some famous historical figures are pretty much just famous because of how rich they were. I mean, really rich people are still famous today. But if you think about it… they didn’t actually do anything to deserve that fame, unlike those famous for being talented and clever. I can see it spurring some interesting discussions.

I think it will really appeal to kids in the 7-14 range and plan on getting it for my 8-year-old for Christmas. I might read parts of it with him but I can also see him reading it on his own and enjoying it.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Quarto Publishing Group, and Francis Lincoln Childrens Books for providing an e-arc for review.


ARC Review: Lore of the Land: Folklore and Wisdom from the Wild Earth by Claire Cock-Starkey

Publication Date: October 18, 2022

Synopsis:

Unearth the secrets of our natural world with the Lore of the Land, a richly illustrated compendium of folklore and wisdom from the land, skies, and seas.

From thundering rivers to shady groves, flickering marshes to lightless caves, and from snow-capped mountains to the depths of the ocean, discover the folklore of Earth’s wildest places. Stories and spirits abound in these land- and seascapes, where traditional wisdom and mysterious magics have intertwined over centuries.

Each of the six chapters covers a different natural landscape, revealing the worldwide folklore surrounding Woodlands, Seas & Oceans, Wetlands, Mountains, Rivers & Streams,and Hills & Caves. Beginning with tales from cultures spanning the globe, each chapter then dives into the legends of how these places were formed, their place in the human imagination,and their natural and otherworldly denizens.

Learn how the forests hold up the sky in Māori tradition; how in Ireland, seaweed was once thought to predict the weather; and that the ancient Greeks believed Mount Etna housed the fiery forge of the gods. All this and more is accompanied by beautiful artwork based on real folklore, uncovering the secrets of our natural world as never before.

A treasury of fascinating tales and ancient wisdom, the Lore of the Land is sure to fire the imaginations of young nature-lovers, and delight anyone who has ever wondered whether there is more to our natural world than meets the eye.

Also in the series:
Lore of the Wild: Folklore and Wisdom from Nature

My Review:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a charming collection of myths, legends, and folklore about creatures and plants living in various environments (oceans, rivers, marshes, mountains, forests) and the natural features and environments themselves.

The folklore is arranged into sections based on environment rather than nationality, so that you get stories from around the world about rivers, or forests, etc all together. This is a wonderful way to arrange it because it makes it easy to compare different myths about the same features.

I really like how each bit of folklore is condensed into a short paragraph and is accompanied by illustrations. There are a few longer stories sprinkled throughout as well, which break up the reading nicely.

The illustrations are colorful and vivid and intriguing and make each bit of folklore come alive in the imagination. They add a lot to the book. The cover is also gorgeous.

My only complaint is the font chosen for this story. It would have been great if confined to headings or similar, but trying to read the entire book in that font was headache-inducing. It would be nearly impossible for a child learning to read or struggling with reading to make any sense of it.

**After some thought, I have decided to revise my rating. The godawful font chosen for ALL of the text is nearly impossible to read without going cross-eyed. It will prevent many people from being able to read it – including children who are learning or struggling to read. Since the book seems to be aimed at children, it’s basically sabotaging itself. I can’t in good conscience recommend it unless a different font is chosen.

I look forward to sharing this with my kiddo (8). I think he will really enjoy learning about the varied mythical creatures.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Wide-Eyed Editions for providing an e-arc for review.

ARC Review: The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Publication Date: November 24, 2022

Synopsis:

Xích Si: bot maker, data analyst, mother, scavenger. But those days are over now-her ship has just been captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet, famous for their double-dealing and cruelty. Xích Si expects to be tortured to death-only for the pirates’ enigmatic leader, Rice Fish, to arrive with a different and shocking proposition: an arranged marriage between Xích Si and herself.

Rice Fish: sentient ship, leader of the infamous Red Banner pirate fleet, wife of the Red Scholar. Or at least, she was the latter before her wife died under suspicious circumstances. Now isolated and alone, Rice Fish wants Xích Si’s help to find out who struck against them and why. Marrying Xích Si means Rice Fish can offer Xích Si protection, in exchange for Xích Si’s technical fluency: a business arrangement with nothing more to it.

But as the investigation goes on, Rice Fish and Xích Si find themselves falling for each other. As the interstellar war against piracy intensifies and the five fleets start fighting each other, they will have to make a stand-and to decide what kind of future they have together…

An exciting space opera and a beautiful romance, from an exceptional SF author.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I love Aliette de Bodard’s books, but they are probably the most intellectually challenging books I read on a regular basis. Especially the mindship books. I think on the one hand there’s the Vietnamese-inspired names and foods and customs which are so different than what I’m used to (a good thing! Reading is for expanding one’s horizons!) and on the other hand there’s the whole human-falls-in-love-with-a-sentient-spaceship oh and also there is the physical plane and then there are overlays and avatars and bots that have physical form but can also be used a lot like coding but you can (I think) think the commands at them and have the information appear directly in your brain rather than having to rely on a pesky computer, oh and you can simultaneously have conversations out loud and other conversations virtually in your head — and my brain refuses to make sense of it all. I don’t regularly read a lot of sci-fi, so there’s that. I generally spend the first third of these books trying to wrap my head around how it all works and the next two thirds slowly sinking into the story and becoming immersed in it while the details stop being so confusing and fade to the background. And falling in love with the story and characters and romance

Aliette de Bodard’s writing is poetic and evocative and also understated, with a tendency to leave things unsaid for the reader to infer. This, too, takes a bit to get used to, but I really love it. I don’t especially like having everything spoon-fed to me all the time, and while I read and love a lot of ‘easier’ fantasy and romance, I appreciate having to really engage my brain to pick up on most of what’s happening. (I’m sure I don’t pick up on all of it.)

Some of the descriptions, especially of Rice Fish’s avatar, with her hair flowing into the floor of the ship and patterned with stars and nebulae, were so satisfying and just gorgeous. I had trouble with a mental picture of the characters (other than Rice Fish), but I think that’s just me — I rarely get a clear mental picture of characters in the books I read. I did get a clear picture of the Pirate Citadel – enough that I felt like I was there, walking beside Xích Si and experiencing it with her.

This is first and foremost a romance, one between a human who has been beaten down for years living on the edge of getting by as a scavenger, and a sentient spaceship who is also an influential leader of a pirate faction in a society she helped to build and carries deep emotional wounds left by her murdered wife, however unintentionally.

Xích Si, the scavenger, has been captured by pirates at the opening of the book and is forced to leave everything she knows – including her young daughter – behind. She understandably is scared and angry and fears the worst. Rice Fish, the mindship she is travelling on and head of the pirate faction who captured her, shocks her by proposing marriage — a ‘business arrangement only.’ Together they face a rebellious son, an endangered daughter, authorities determined to erase the scourge of pirates, treachery from within, and questions of the future of the entire pirate alliance. Not to mention their own bruised and bleeding hearts.

They make mistakes, they hurt one another, and — they learn. They learn to love, they learn to trust, they learn to hope and dream again and how to heal themselves. And the journey of how they get to that point is beautiful.

I would like to add that I have seen some criticism of ace rep in this book and I strongly disagree. I would not categorize Rice Fish’s murdered wife as ace, no matter that she did not want the physical aspect of the relationship that Rice Fish did. It’s not that simple. It was mentioned several times that she took her lovers outside of the marriage partnership (“Huan, for her part, had collected flings the way scholars collected books and vids”, “I watched Ma collect her friends and lovers and never get the intimacy she craved”) — she just did not want such a relationship with Rice Fish. I don’t know whether it was that she simply was not attracted to Rice Fish that way or whether she truly believed that any physical / romantic relationship between them would sully the partnership and what they were trying to build. But I think criticizing it for “bad ace rep” misses the point and is not fair. (Disclaimer: I am ace and I wanted to address this criticism because I have seen it more than once.)

The scenes with Xích Si’s daughter, and some with Rice Fish’s son, tug at the heartstrings. Alliette de Bodard knows how to use a few brushstrokes to create poignant, touching family scenes. I appreciate them more, I think, since having a child myself. It’s clear that she gets what it’s like, having to guide a child and be strong for them but also show yourself to be vulnerable, and eventually to let them go.

Even though this is a romance, it’s very politics-heavy. The different factions within the pirate fleet, the warring empires, the scavengers and wealthier scholars and beaurocrats… There is a lot of information to unpack and a lot of things that aren’t quite said out loud that are perhaps easy to miss. At first, it is very hard to grasp what is going on, which actually makes a lot of sense, as Xích Si is also unfamiliar with how the pirate fleet functions and also struggles to grasp it all. She learns and becomes more comfortable with it as the reader does, which makes it easy to identify with her.

Despite the heaviness of the themes (indentured servants are discussed quite a bit from several perspectives, as well as raiding and capturing merchants to hold for ransom, as well as emotional trauma and pain) and the dense, somewhat obscure way the text is written, and the sci-fi aspects, this also has quite a bit of adventure and mystery. I spent the last 40% or so on the edge of my seat wondering how it would all go down. I came away knowing that I absolutely loved and will recommend it, while at the same time I will need to read an easier book next just to give my brain a break.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Gollancz, and JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc. for providing an advance copy for review.

Favorite Quotes:

She was still kneeling, but she did it like an empress.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Rice Fish nodded, and said nothing more — and for a time that felt like ten thousand years, they remained side by side, looking at the stars.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

A pirate consort – no, a pirate queen in her own domain, and she was beautiful and she was terrible and so, so vulnerable in that moment. The air trembled with a distant music, a distant heartbeat.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Tam looked sheepish, which was a whole look on a pirate with a gun in her belt.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Xích Si sipped the tea – it tasted like fungi, like the greenhouses after the watering cycle, muddy and damp and unexpectedly sour.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

…and every time she looked at him, Xích Si fought her own instincts to jump for the nearest suit – he looked like a walking habitat breach.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Xích Si realised that had been her, once upon a time. That she’d kept her head down and not dared to dream large, because she knew she would always get kicked in the teeth.

It wasn’t the habitat that was smaller. It was that she had outgrown it.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

“Yes. But that’s not what matters. It’s being afraid and doing it anyway. And…” She hesitated, but what else could she do other than fling herself bodily into the void. “Love means we’re always going to know how to hurt each other. We choose not to. Or to repair our hurts”

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

But it was his choice to make, and he was her son, not an extension of her.

So often, being a parent was about letting go.

The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard

ARC Review: Paris Daillencourt is About to Crumble by Alexis Hall

Publication Date: November 1, 2022

Synopsis:

From the bestselling author of Boyfriend Material comes a sweet and scrumptious romantic comedy about facing your insecurities, finding love, and baking it off, no matter what people say. 

Paris Daillencourt is a recipe for disaster. Despite his passion for baking, his cat, and his classics degree, constant self-doubt and second-guessing have left him a curdled, directionless mess. So when his roommate enters him in Bake Expectations, the nation’s favourite baking show, Paris is sure he’ll be the first one sent home.
 
But not only does he win week one’s challenge—he meets fellow contestant Tariq Hassan. Sure, he’s the competition, but he’s also cute and kind, with more confidence than Paris could ever hope to have. Still, neither his growing romance with Tariq nor his own impressive bakes can keep Paris’s fear of failure from spoiling his happiness. And when the show’s vicious fanbase confirms his worst anxieties, Paris’s confidence is torn apart quicker than tear-and-share bread.
 
But if Paris can find the strength to face his past, his future, and the chorus of hecklers that live in his brain, he’ll realize it’s the sweet things in life that he really deserves.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book took me longer to finish than any book (that I was actively reading) in recent memory. I started and finished several others before managing to finish this one and that is because it was incredibly emotionally difficult for me to read. I related to Paris too hard, you see, and so I spent most of the book cringing hard out of second-hand embarrassment.

This book is an incredibly accurate portrayal of mental illness – specifically anxiety that gets so bad it runs your life before you realize it. I’ve been there. Anxiety isn’t my only mental illness, but it has loomed very large in my life and so I felt everything Paris was feeling on a very visceral level.

Case-in-point: even though it was a struggle for me to read, I was wracked with anxiety and guilt the entire time because I love this author and I really did enjoy this book and had intended to finish and review it before publication and… well, it’s a month past publication date now so you can see how that’s going.

My thoughts at 50%: “I am making such painfully slow progress through this book and I feel so guilty about it because I’d meant to finish and review it, gods, weeks ago now. And the thing is, it’s not that I’m not enjoying it or something. It’s so so good. It’s funny and relatable and secondhand-embarassment-inducing because gods Paris is basically me. And it’s painful to see the worst of yourself in print. I love it.”

I am SO glad that Paris learned strategies to cope with his anxiety, as well as started medication for it. It’s so clear that he is so much better by the end. Still dealing with it, but actually dealing with it rather than flailing about and crying about everything and being terrified of everything and feeling guilty about everything. I also loved the group therapy sessions and the way Paris implements all the strategies for coping with his anxiety.

Tariq is adorable and while he certainly wasn’t perfect in their relationship I am glad for the way the book ended. They have the potential to be really, really good together, now that they both know where they stand and can really see each other.

I really enjoyed the reality baking show framework, and the other contestants were great. And the Daves. And Morag. Really, all the characters were such… individuals. They were 100% themselves and that is my favorite kind of character.

In some ways, I think it was good for me to read this. Because I can look back on my former (un-medicated and un-therapied) self and really see what went wrong in my relationships as I was growing up and all the ways my brain lied to me. Which is why it was SO important to see Paris getting better at realizing when his brain is lying and how to deal with it. We see his thoughts and the anxiety trying to take over and the way he can combat that (with effort).

I had no idea how much this book would affect me emotionally. I mean, intellectually I knew it involved anxiety, but I underestimated how difficult it would be. I have struggled with anxiety my whole life but have spent the last 15 years coming to terms with it and learning to manage it. My husband has only recently really begun that journey, as has my kid. Anxiety is practically another member of my family, in other words. And sometimes it’s hard to see something that is such a big part of your existence.

It’s had to see it, as in it’s almost invisible it’s so prevalent. But also hard to see it, as in it physically hurts to watch it play out and recognize how prevalent it is. Watching Paris apologize incessantly about things he really didn’t need to apologize for was a lot. I saw myself, and my husband, and my kid in that. Again the second-hand embarrassment was intense.

Even though this book was very much about Paris’ anxiety, it was also a funny story about a baking competition, and a relationship that had problems and obstacles but was also so incredibly sweet. I love Alexis Hall’s way with words, and his ability to create touching but also hilarious moments. His characters always feel so well-developed and real that they try to jump off the page, and this was no exception. I loved them all. (Except Catherine Parr and maybe Gretchen.)

I haven’t read the previous Bake Expectations book yet, but it didn’t impede my enjoyment of this story. I hope to get to it soon (and hope it’s not quite so emotionally difficult to read).

*Thanks to NetGalley and Forever for providing an early copy for review.

ARC Review: Never Ever Getting Back Together by Sophie Gonzales

Publication Date: November 29, 2022

Synopsis:

When their now famous ex-boyfriend asks them to participate in a teen reality show, two eighteen year old girls—one bent on revenge, the other open to rekindling romance—get tangled up in an unexpected twist when they fall for each other instead in Never Ever Getting Back Together by nationally and internationally-bestselling and Indie Next Pick author Sophie Gonzales.

It’s been two years since Maya’s ex-boyfriend cheated on her, and she still can’t escape him: his sister married the crown prince of a minor European country and he captured hearts as her charming younger brother. If the world only knew the real Jordy, the manipulative liar who broke Maya’s heart.

Skye Kaplan was always cautious with her heart until Jordy said all the right things and earned her trust. Now his face is all over the media and Skye is still wondering why he stopped calling.

When Maya and Skye are invited to star on the reality dating show Second-Chance Romance, they’re whisked away to a beautiful mansion—along with four more of Jordy’s exes— to compete for his affections while the whole world watches. Skye wonders if she and Jordy can recapture the spark she knows they had, but Maya has other plans: exposing Jordy and getting revenge. As they navigate the competition, Skye and Maya discover that their real happily ever after is nothing they could have scripted.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was super cute. It’s funny – I don’t watch reality TV, but I’ve really enjoyed a number of books that center around reality TV shows in the past few years. This one hit all the right notes for me.

I love love loved that it was two girls supposedly competing for a past boyfriend’s heart who really try to take him down and fall in love along the way. They were great together. Their frank ‘yes i dated this guy and this girl and this guy’ coming out to one another was enjoyable because it was very much a “yes, I’m bi, what are you going to do about it?” and very matter-of-fact.

Jordy was the sleaziest sleazeball ever and his part was painful to watch but bearable because you just know that he’ll get his comeuppance in the end. The ‘enemies to lovers’ thing was done well and believable. Maya and Skye were enjoyable and while it was frustrating to watch them at odds with each other over a misunderstanding created by sleazeball Jordy, it was very satisfying when they finally worked things out.

The other girls were very much not in focus for most of the book, so I don’t feel like I have a very good sense of them beyond the barest sketch of personality, but they worked as background characters to better show Maya, Skye, and Jordy.

The way the show played out, and the way we could see Jordy manipulating everyone and pulling them all along was fascinating and kept my interest riveted. I listened to the audio and ended up finishing it in two sittings because I just couldn’t stop listening.

The audiobook narrators did a great job bringing the characters to life. They made Maya and Skye sympathetic, though not without flaws, and made Jordy truly insufferable. They also did a good job making the other characters waver between sympathetic and self-interested.

I loved the way things played out. The misunderstandings and conflict and moment of realization and grand gesture. Not Jordy’s “grand gesture” – his sucked. Maya’s, though, was great. Also the ending was sooooo satisfying.

Thanks to NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and Macmillan Audio for providing an early copy for review.

ARC Review: Enola Holmes: The Graphic Novels: #4-6 by Serena Blasco

Publication Date: December 6, 2022

Synopsis:

In Book 2 of the series, Enola is back on the case, deciphering clues and developing leads in each of three new mysteries. What she doesn’t know is that she, too, is being pursued—by her own brother! Once again, Sherlock Holmes’ brilliant, strong-willed younger sister takes center stage in this delightfully drawn graphic novel based on Nancy Springer’s bestselling mystery series.

London, 1889. A woman is being held prisoner while she awaits a forced marriage. Another has been kidnapped, and yet another disappears…

As Enola seeks to rescue the three women, her brother embarks on a quest of his own. When Sherlock receives a mysterious package, he knows he’ll need Enola’s help to decipher its meaning. In the end, the three Holmes siblings will have to work together to answer the question that started it all: What happened to their mother?
 
Book Two contains three engrossing mysteries: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, and The Case of Baker Street Station.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was delightful! I love the Enola Holmes adventures and this graphic novel compilation is an engaging and enjoyable way to experience them. I have not previously read the books this graphic novel is based on, but I had no difficulty following the story.

The artwork is gorgeous! the watercolor illustrations are free-flowing enough to give the pieces a sense of movement. The colors are vibrant and convey the emotion of each scene excellently, as well as the personality of the characters. Speaking of personality, each character is drawn in a way that makes them ooze personality. They are unique, distinct, and memorable, making the experience of reading even more fun. In many ways the characters remind me of those one might encounter in a Charles Dickens novel.

I love the way Enola runs circles around her brothers despite being only 14. She is inquisitive, has a brilliant mind, and is very resourceful. The story is a whirlwind where she leaves everyone in the dust as she rockets about solving mysteries. She gives Sherlock a run for his money.

I hope there will be more volumes of these Enola Holmes graphic novels because they are loads of fun and I would love to read more.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing an e-arc for review.

ARC Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Publication Date: October 25, 2022

***You can find my reviews of the previous books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

Synopsis:

The Hugo, Locus, Igynte Award Finalist and Crawford Award-Winning Series

Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themselves far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be.

Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story—beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel—bears more than one face.

The Singing Hills Cycle

The Empress of Salt and Fortune
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Into the Riverlands

The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih, but may be read in any order, with each story serving as an entrypoint.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this from the first sentences and it’s my favorite by far of the Singing Hills Cycle. It has more adventure and action than the first two volumes, and it also has a bit more contemplation of what makes a story. Or perhaps it’s just a different lens to view story through.

The first focused on the story of a pair of women, slowly revealed in pieces through objects and fragments of memories. The second contemplated how the same story told by two different cultures could end up very different. This took a broader look at how the stories and legends told by many people could weave together just enough truth to give a glimpse at the true story underneath.

The writing was as gorgeous as Nghi Vo’s writing always is, sharp and incisive and true. The story unfolded beautifully, and it was terribly fun to piece it together along with Chih. I highlighted so many passages of beautiful writing, as I always do when I love a book as much as I loved this one.

Over the course of the story I came to love the Riverlands, and to fear them, and to be glad that I do not actually live there. They might be a nice (if terrifying) place to visit, but I do not think my heart could take that kind of excitement every day. I was sad to leave them behind, and sad to have to leave these very intriguing characters that I have only partly glimpsed. Mostly though, I am left anticipating Chih and Almost Brilliant’s next adventure and the stories they will discover along the way.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan/Tor-Forge & Tordotcom for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

Chih swallowed hard and nodded. They weren’t brave, and despite the shaved head and the indigo robes, they weren’t particularly virtuous, but more than anything else, they were curious, and sometimes that could stand in for the rest.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

She was known to be kind, which you should never confuse with being gracious or beautiful or courteous.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Chih walked the permimeter of the campground until the sun was up, and as they did so, Almost Brilliant, her breakfast forgotten or simply foregone in favor of her favorite stories, told them about the fighters and fools and freaks of the Riverlands, who may have lived in truth but certainly lived in fiction.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

I’ll remember that I was terrified, Chih thought. I’ll remember what it was like to see a battle between people who don’t fight like people, who are what legends come from.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Book Review: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Publication Date: December 8, 2020

***You can find my reviews of the other books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: The Empress of Salt and Fortune and Into the Riverlands.

Synopsis:

The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.

Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in this mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was a rather interesting journey. I first tried to read it via audiobook while still pretty out of it from the flu shot and covid booster. That… didn’t go so well lol. I fell asleep quickly, slept through almost the entirety of the story, and wound up with a hazy mix of memory of the story and dream-memory of the “story.” When I was feeling more myself, I listened to it again. I stayed awake through it, but I came away unsure of how I felt about it. So I listened to it a third time and read along with the audio, and I feel like I absorbed it better that way. Or maybe it just required a second (fully conscious) listen.

Regardless, this is a lovely story that is both larger and smaller than Empress of Salt and Fortune. We again follow Chih as they journey, recording stories and histories. En route to their destination (via mammoth, because as Chih says, why wouldn’t you travel via mammoth when given the opportunity?) they encounter a trio of were-tigers and things begin to go downhill.

At its core, this is a Scheherazade story (only with tigers and mammoths). Chih stalls for time before being eaten by telling a story of the marriage of a human and a were-tiger. Only the tigers disagree with how it is told and correct it by telling their own version. This back-and-forth goes on for a while and we are given what is at its heart the same story but told through two lenses. One shaped by the culture and values of humans, and one shaped by the culture and values of tigers. It is a fascinating study of how two cultures can take the same story bones and tell two radically different stories if you focus on the details.

I am glad I both read and listened because Nghi Vo’s writing is gorgeous as always, and Cindy Kay’s narration is very well done, with believable human and tiger voices and appropriate emotion and emphasis.

Favorite Quotes:


She was a handsome woman, but the animal impassivity of her eyes and the way her teeth looked a little too large for her mouth gave her a menacing look, the tiger in her sitting in wait beneath her human skin.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When you love a thing too much, it is a special kind of pain to show it to others and to see that it is lacking.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

They lived well-fed until they were only bones, and even their bones were happy, turning white and sharp as teeth in the moonlight.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Up close, the bull was overwhelming, a wall of solid muscle and fur that could trample an empire flat.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Singing Hills Cycle #1)

Publication Date: March 24, 2020

***You can find my reviews of the other books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain and Into the Riverlands.

Synopsis:

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a gorgeous puzzle of a story, with the words spoken only the surface layer, hinting at what’s underneath. I loved it. It’s short enough to read comfortably in a sitting and sharp enough to make you sit and think. I look forward to the sequel.

Update 2022:

I love the structure of the story, with a cleric come to study and record for history an estate that has been locked for decades, and the deceptively simple old woman she meets there. As she moves through the house, discovering objects and recording their details, the old woman slowly reveals the history and significance of each, and along the way tells the empress’ story and her own, entrusting the cleric with the means to ruin not only herself and the previous empress, but the new empress as well – and many reasons not to do so.

Each time she finishes relating a tale or a portion of the history she asks, “Do you understand?” And slowly the cleric comes closer and closer to doing so. Brilliantly written all around.

This time I listened to the audio version and it was narrated beautifully. Even though it is a complicated story, I never felt lost as I listened. The narrator’s low, rather deep speaking voice gave the impression of someone relating secrets and gave the subject material more weight.

Favorite Quote:

“Save that anger,” Mai said with a sigh. “Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Audio ARC Review: Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove by Rati Mehrotra

Publication Date: October 18, 2022

Synopsis:

To learn what she can become, she must first discover who she is.

Katyani’s role in the kingdom of Chandela has always been clear: becoming an advisor and protector of the crown prince, Ayan, when he ascends to the throne. Bound to the Queen of Chandela through a forbidden soul bond that saved her when she was a child, Katyani has grown up in the royal family and become the best guardswoman the Garuda has ever seen. But when a series of assassination attempts threatens the royals, Katyani is shipped off to the gurukul of the famous Acharya Mahavir as an escort to Ayan and his cousin, Bhairav, to protect them as they hone the skills needed to be the next leaders of the kingdom. Nothing could annoy Katyani more than being stuck in a monastic school in the middle of a forest, except her run-ins with Daksh, the Acharya’s son, who can’t stop going on about the rules and whose gaze makes her feel like he can see into her soul.

But when Katyani and the princes are hurriedly summoned back to Chandela before their training is complete, tragedy strikes and Katyani is torn from the only life she has ever known. Alone and betrayed in a land infested by monsters, Katyani must find answers from her past to save all she loves and forge her own destiny. Bonds can be broken, but debts must be repaid.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this book so much! It’s so nice to get a good standalone adventure that wraps up in a satisfactory way but doesn’t suffer from feeling too abrupt. I thought it was the perfect length and the pacing was excellent throughout. I connected very quickly with the characters and was consistently surprised by the plot twists.

One of my favorite things is reading fantasy books set in places other than “Medieval Europe” and learning about the customs, mythical creatures, food, clothing, etc and there is plenty of all of that in this book where the setting is an alternate medieval India.

The writing was beautiful and kept me fully engaged while I read and listened. There were many passages I took note of for their beauty.

I loved learning about all of the different monsters. I had limited knowledge of most of them and so I appreciated the descriptions of their physical forms and actions. It never felt info-dump-y though and was always relevant to the plot.

I especially loved how there were many descriptions of monsters and their monstrous ways and it managed to be bloody and occasionally horrific without being horror. I was never really scared by the monsters – only intrigued. Especially since there is an emphasis on the monsters’ humanity even though they are not human. They’re very different, but in many ways they aren’t. In fact I would say that the most monstrous characters were humans.

I loved the slow-burn romance – there was just enough of it to make me root for them while not overpowering the rest of the story – the magic, the monsters, the politics, and Katyani’s journey to knowing and finding herself were the main focus.

Katyani goes through many trials throughout the story as she learns who she is, who she was, and who she can become. Her journey of self-discovery is compelling and pulls the reader breathlessly along for the ride.

The audiobook narrator did an excellent job bringing the story and characters to life. She obviously knew how to pronounce all of the unfamiliar terms that I would have stumbled over, and that made it a richer experience.

Even though this is a standalone and does wrap up satisfactorily, it leaves room for future books exploring Katyani and Daksh’s adventures. I hope the author does write such sequels, and will read them as soon as I can get my hands on them.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and Macmillan Audio for providing an e-arc and audio arc for review.

ARC Review: A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Publication Date: October 4, 2022

Synopsis:

Award-winning author Malinda Lo returns to the Bay Area with another masterful coming-of-queer-age story, this time set against the backdrop of the first major Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage. And almost sixty years after the end of Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lo’s new novel also offers a glimpse into Lily and Kath’s lives since 1955.

Aria Tang West was looking forward to a summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her best friends–one last round of sand and sun before college. But after a graduation party goes wrong, Aria’s parents exile her to California to stay with her grandmother, artist Joan West.Aria expects boredom, but what she finds is Steph Nichols, her grandmother’s gardener. Soon, Aria is second-guessing who she is and what she wants to be, and a summer that once seemed lost becomes unforgettable–for Aria, her family, and the working-class queer community Steph introduces her to. It’s the kind of summer that changes a life forever.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was emotionally devastating. That’s the best word I can think of to describe it. I turned the last page and read the author’s note through my tears, and then I ugly cried for a while. It’s poignant and nostalgic and gorgeously written so that you feel everything Aria feels and live breathlessly in the moment with her. Every time I opened the book I was sucked in and forgot about everything else.

Malinda Lo is exceptionally good at capturing a moment in time, especially a moment where the character is right on the cusp of something. I don’t remember Last Night at the Telegraph Club being quite so devastating, but I think part of that is my own emotional resonance with this story.

For most of the book, it’s like she captured one perfect golden late-summer Northern California afternoon. The kind the stretches on and on, where the light showers everything in gold and you could believe that the moment could last forever. It meshes so well with that last endless summer between high school and college, when you’re just beginning to discover yourself.

Aria is on the cusp of adulthood, the cusp of realization that she’s maybe not as straight as she once thought. Her crush on Steph simmers just beneath the surface, warring with the impossibility of it all and the electric novelty of her newfound queerness opens up a previously unseen world to her.

At the same time she’s having her ideas of her grandmother, her parents, her friends, and her past reshaped as she grows out of her childhood assumptions about them.

The ending circles back to the beginning in a wholly satisfying way that makes everything seem more profound and gives every moment, every gesture weight and meaning.

I love the exploration of time and memories and grief and art, and how they interconnect and weave together. The characters leap off the page, so full of life and well-rounded are they, and I felt them tugging at my heart more insistently than many.

This is a book that everyone should read and that I will probably never read again, because I don’t think it would have the same breathless impact the second time through and I’m not sure my heart could take it.

The cover is stunning and complements the story SO well. The cover artist captured the essence of the story perfectly.

*Thanks to Bookishfirst and Penguin Teen for providing an ARC for review.