Fab Book Friday: MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller

  Welcome, welcome, to the first installment since the rebirth of Fab Book Friday!!!

Basically, more than a year ago I started this thing where I picked a book and raved about it every Friday. And by "started this thing" I mean I did it, like, twice, and then stopped. But I'm trying to get back into it! So basically, every Friday you can expect a new post with me raving (never ranting) about a book I've read recently. Because I believe in uplifting the things I love.

So I recently received an ARC (advance reader copy) of MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller, which I didn't remember requesting but was excited to receive because I'd been hearing buzz about it. The premise is that Sal Leon is a gender fluid thief who wants revenge upon people for reasons that will be explained in the book. They find their opportunity when Auditions open for a spot on The Left Hand, this super elite group of assassins that are the Queen's closest confidantes and whom I kinda wanna be besties with. Shenanigans ensue.

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I was intrigued by the premise and by the fact that Sal is gender fluid, an identity many people I know claim but that I haven't really seen in books. In MASK OF SHADOWS, this fluidity is presented by the fact that Sal chooses to dress either as a girl (and go by female pronouns), a boy (and male pronouns) or androgynously (in which they go by gender-neutral pronouns).

I honestly thought it was going to be confusing, but as it turned out, Sal's gender identity was the least interesting thing about them. It was just a state of being, an accepted fact.

Which I kind of loved?

I mean, we live in a time period where the way we choose to identify ourselves is one of our defining characteristics. And I'm not blaming this on anyone, but it is true that from all sides of the spectrum, our identity, be it gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or whatnot, is huge.

But there are things about us that are more or equally important, just as there are things about Sal that are just as important as their gender fluidity. Some of these things include:

  • They are a very good thief-turned-assessin. This is v. important and we should honestly focus on it. Sal is quick and quiet and ruthless. They are bent on revenge and willing to do whatever it takes to get it. This leads to the next thing, which is:
  • They are angry. I won't tell you why, but Sal is very angry. They have a beef with a lot of people, and are willing to do whatever it takes to even the slate. I feel that. I don't live in a fantasy world and the same things that happened to Sal didn't happen to me, but I have a lot of anger. It was interesting to see a character who represented that part of myself, especially because of the next point, which is also true of me:
  • They are hurting. Sal was wounded as a child and they carry their hurt, masking it as anger. Again — wow. Could be me. I relate so hard. And yet, despite their assassin-ness and anger and hurt, it's also true that:
  • They are somehow naive. I know, this seems odd, right? That an assassin could be naive. But it makes sense. MASK OF SHADOWS is, after all, a young-adult novel, and Sal is meant to be about 16 or 17, I believe. They fiercely love and believe in a certain thing, to the point of naivete, and it's...so truthful.

And that's what I loved about MASK OF SHADOWS. It is true that there were parts of the book that were hard to follow (the world-building is complicated and kind of rushed in places), but I related hard to Sal and actually believed them as a teenage character. Which can be hard to find in YA fantasy, because a lot of times the characters are 16-going-on-45. And of course Sal had to grow up fast because of their situation, but they still act like a teenager. That was refreshingly real.

IMG_4062All in all, this book is in "Fab Book" Friday for a reason. Because I loved it. I honestly felt my heart race at the end of every chapter, and wanted to keep going. But I was buddy-reading it with a friend and we'd promised to read 50 pages a day so, alas, I often had to stop. Of course, now I'm anxious for book two, and whatever other books Linsey has up her sleeve.

Cheers! :)

REVIEW: Emily Ziff Griffin's LIGHT YEARS Blog Tour!

tour banner Well hello there, friends, and welcome to my stop on the LIGHT YEARS Blog Tour! For those of you tuning in who aren't sure what that means: basically, Emily Ziff Griffin's YA debut LIGHT YEARS releases Tuesday, Sep. 5, and in the days leading up to it several excited bloggers (myself included) will be posting interviews, reviews, and more! Exciting, right? So read on for my REVIEW of the book, then follow along with the rest of the tour, and make sure to pre-order the book and enter the giveaway!

Onwards with my review!

Luisa is a young girl who feels as though she's stifled and can't wait for her life to begin. She applies and interviews for a prestigious fellowship that, she hopes, will be the first step on the road to actually going somewhere in her life. Unfortunately, right around the time of her interview, a mysterious virus begins to infect the world, including people close to her. Add to that the fact that she's beginning to get cryptic messages insinuating she might have the key to stopping it, and you've got the makings of Luisa going off on an adventure to, well, save the world.

It's a book with a huge scope; namely, exploring how the world will react to a deadly virus, one like, say, AIDS...which affects some and not others, which seems impossible to cure, which is tearing the world to pieces. And Emily has taken on a huge task for herself in grappling with things like empathy, disease, family bonds, romance and even spirituality, all in a book aimed at teenagers. It's a book that deals with the soul of the person as well as the body, that deals with how to choose between two difficult options, and that shows teenagers stepping up to the plate.

While there are places where I felt LIGHT YEARS fell a little flat — for instance, Luisa is set up as a brilliant visionary, but other than being told this is what she is, we aren't given much reason for believing it — overall I found it entrancing and powerful.

And that twist! I won't ruin it for you, obviously, but I will say that the ending comes with flair and makes everything leading up to it just...click into place. The ending, which is somewhat of a cliffhanger, leaves me both satisfied with how LIGHT YEARS concludes but also willing to read more, should Emily feel so led as to give me another book.

I think, in the end, my favorite thing about LIGHT YEARS is that it's a young adult novel. That the protagonists, the ones with the keys and the heart and the vision to save the world, are teens. I'm into YA because it shows just how amazing teenagers really are, and this book does not fall short in that way.

It's a book I will definitely recommend (as I'm doing right now!), one that isn't perfect but is still very good, one that makes you think in a way that, at least personally, I'm not used to.

And you can order it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and please don't forget to follow the rest of the tour and enter the giveaway (US only)!

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Writing just won't let you go: a profile of Katherine Nichols

KRN portrait For the past 20 years, Katherine Nichols has worked, in some way or another, as a writer.  Whether that means working as a print journalist or hosting a TV feature or, finally, penning the nonfiction book for teens DEEP WATER, Katherine has felt the pull of writing on her life.

"Though I have gone in other directions, I keep returning to writing because I love the challenge, the perpetual opportunity for learning and improvement," she said. "But it never gets easier. So perhaps a more honest answer is that it won’t let me go."

When she was a young girl, Katherine made mini-books out of construction paper. She describes these early literary pursuits as "average stories and terrible illustrations," but with typical childlike aplomb, she demanded an audience of her family members.

In addition, like so many other writers, Katherine was a reader. As a child, her parents not only read aloud to her, but modeled the life of a reader by being avid consumers of the written word themselves.

In school, Katherine felt herself drawn to English classes. "I found them so enjoyable that I would save the homework for last," she said, "as a reward after finishing math and chemistry and biology."

Partly out of the necessity of having a steady paycheck, Katherine turned to journalism, saying, "If you’re not a bestselling author, it’s tough to make a living from fiction. Journalism jobs and assignments came more easily to me."

But her choice of this career isn't entirely pragmatic, though that is of course a big part. She said she's a naturally curious person who enjoyed that journalism allowed her to learn about others, in essence to have a brand-new education in a new field almost every day.

Plus, there was the added benefit of being able to help someone with her stories. Early in her career, she published a story about a young man who, after a car accident, became a quadriplegic. He taught himself to paint by holding the brush in his teeth, and Katherine's feature on him was published by the San Diego Union.

"It ... brought attention to his work," she said. "The idea that I could do something positive by telling someone else’s story inspired me."

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Katherine's debut book, DEEP WATER, released May 2 from Simon True, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, tells the story of a group of young men from Coronado, California, who during the summer of 1971 begin a drug-smuggling business that turns into a booming, $100 million endeavour. The catch? They are all athletes who swim the drug packages across the border.

It's an intriguing story, and one that Katherine was familiar with as someone who grew up in Coronado.

"Growing up [in] the small beach town and graduating from the same high school gave the narrative an insider’s perspective," she said.

Although she originally planned to fictionalize the tale of the Coronado Company, Katherine ended up writing it as a nonfiction book after Simon True approached her with the idea.

In speaking about the experience of writing the book, Katherine acknowledged that there was something freeing in writing about criminals (with the caveat that they were non-violent ones).

"It was rewarding to transcend that judgment, to find other ways to connect with their experiences," she said. "Because we are all human beings with needs, desires, strengths, and flaws that influence our choices. Who among us has not made a mistake with potentially serious consequences?"

DEEP WATER can be purchased on Amazon and more information about the book can be found on Facebook. Feel free to check out Katherine's website or follower her on Twitter to stay up to date with her writing.

Doing important work and being adorable: a profile of Sandhya Menon

When Sandhya Menon moved to America at age 15, she imagined the transition would be easy. She had, after all, spent her childhood bouncing between her home country of India and various other Middle Eastern countries. "Boy, was I wrong!" she said. "It was a huge culture shock...I had a hard time understanding American turns of phrase, especially while I was in high school. But once I acclimated, I really began to love being part of the diaspora here in the US."

I've been a fan of Sandhya's since her upcoming debut, WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, first crossed my Twitter feed last fall. The book, which I've had the pleasure of reading, is an adorable story about first love, pursuing your passions, and what happens when generations get their signals crossed. It's cute; it's funny; and it showcases character growth through pretty much every single person in the pages. It's a great work of young adult literature, and I highly encourage everyone to go, NOW, and pre-order it.

(I'll wait.)

(In the meantime, look at the beautiful cover!)

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Did you buy it? Good. Now let's talk some more about Sandhya.

In true adorable-human fashion, she cited as her greatest accomplishment her family before her work (although both made the cut).

"My very happy fifteen-year marriage, the fact that I have two healthy, happy kids, and my books all come to mind!" she said.

As for the hardest thing about writing, "I never wish I could quit," she answered. "That probably sounds so saccharine and idiotic, but it's true! I love this gig and the freedom/honor/privilege of making stories for others to read."

She did acquiesce that there is one technical aspect that's difficult: the first revision she has to work on after a draft is completed, the one she has to do on her own before the book is ready to be seen by anyone else.

"It always feels slightly overwhelming," she said. But she loves "losing myself in the universe of the characters." She quoted Stephen King and added, "I love that feeling of having to remind myself that I belong in this world rather than the one I was just romping around in!"

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During the childhood years she spent in India, Sandhya said she remembers "throwing rocks up at mangoes so we could eat them once they fell!" She lived in Mumbai, also known as Bombay, where her neighborhood was full of trees and parks.

And once she learned the art of writing as a kindergarten student, well, she was hooked.

"I began to write stories and poems," she said. "It's all I ever knew!"

Although she doesn't remember a particular "first story" that spurred her writing, she does remember one incident of taking a real-life event and fictionalizing it.

"The possibility that life itself was full of stories totally fired me up," she said, "and led to a lot more stories."

One such story is that of Dimple and Rishi. It's a young adult contemporary novel about two Indian-American teenagers whose parents want to arrange their marriage. Rishi, traditional and family-oriented, is all about it. He wants to please his parents. Dimple, passionate about coding and fiercely independent, is less enthused. When they meet at a summer coding camp, well...let's just say things don't go over as well as Rishi would have dreamed.

But WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI is a romance. That's all I'll say about what happens next, other than...guys, this book is so good. It's one you want on your shelves, believe me. Not only is it physically beautiful, it's full of heart, laughter, fun...and some uncomfortable scenes.

"Something that I struggled with was acknowledging casual racism in the story," Sandhya said. There's one scene where the two protagonists are at a restaurant and are faced with some really terrible, tone-deaf, racist comments. "Once I wrote [that] scene...I sent my editor an email asking if she thought some people would have a hard time buying it. All of those comments are things I have personally experienced, but to someone who isn't a child of immigrant parents or living in the diaspora, they might seem completely overblown."

Fortunately, Sandhya's editor, also the child of immigrants, encouraged her to leave the scene as-is. "Since then," she said, "I've gotten quite a few messages about that scene resonating with readers...so I'm glad she did!"

I asked Sandhya if she thinks her work is groundbreaking. If you tap, for just a few minutes, into the discussions online about the YA book community, you'll find a ton of talk about diversity and representation in literature, and how hard it can be for people of color (or any other marginalization) to get their work published.

And here is Sandhya, Indian, immigrant, writing a book about two brown children of immigrants that's getting a ton of buzz and is being published by Simon & Schuster, one of the "Big 5." She's doing huge things. So I wanted to know if she recognizes the huge things she's doing.

First off, she clarified that this book isn't just "hers." It's her story, yes, the one she wrote, but she credits the Simon & Schuster team as well as her agent and beta readers, as well.

"I think of "my work"...as groundbreaking in that it's a book about two brown teens just living their best lives, falling in love, chasing their dreams, and having a happy ending," she said. "The media is full of the "bad" or "brave" brown/black/gay/disabled/trans person narrative, and I feel like there are so many other stories we have to tell.

"We are not just villains or tragic characters," she added. "We have just as much depth and breadth as anyone else."

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To me, that's a powerful, important sentiment. Sandhya is such a sweet, fun person, and it was a pleasure to get to know her a little bit through this piece. If you're not satisfied and want to hear more from her, follow her on Twitter or Instagram (which is full of cute pictures of her puppy!) and sign up for her newsletter.

And if you want more of her talking, check out her episode of the podcast 88 Cups of Tea, an incredible writing podcast she was featured on recently.