Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Stone Girl’s Story: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Stone Girl's Story by Sarah Beth DurstMayka and her stone family were brought to life by the markings etched into their bodies–symbols that represent who they are and the stories of their live. Mayka’s father was a talented stonemason. He created fish that could swim, rabbits, birds, and even a turtle before he used everything he had learned to create Mayka a girl who lives and thinks even if she does not need to breath or eat the way humans do.

But stone erodes over time and Mayka’s father is no longer alive to tend to his stone creations. Without a stonemason to maintain them, the stone creature’s markings are fading. Unless a stonemason can recarve their markings Mayka and her stone family will cease to live–becoming nothing more than still statues.

Finding a stonemason won’t be easy. It will force Mayka to leave the only home she has ever known high up on her family’s mountain. Off the mountain Mayka discovers that there is more to the magic that brings her to life than Father ever let on. When her search for a stonemason reveals a threat to all stone creatures, Mayka may not have any time left to wait for a stonemason to save her in The Stone Girl’s Story (2018) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Durst’s latest standalone middle grade fantasy is an evocative adventure where, with the right markings, stone can be brought to life. Durst once again brings her imaginative vision to life in a novel whose heroine is as surprising as her world.

Mayka’s stone family consists of herself and a variety of talking animals eager to help in the search for a new stonemason. The high stakes of this mission are offset with the wonder and enthusiasm with which Mayka explores new lands and makes some surprising friends.

The Stone Girl’s Story is an engrossing adventure and a thoughtful commentary on agency as Mayka realizes that the best way to save herself and her friends might be to do it herself. A delightful addition to the author’s extensive body of work.

Possible Pairings: A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Be sure to check out my interview with Sarah about this book!

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The Bone Witch: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We have come a long way only to fall apart.”

cover art for The Bone Witch by Rin ChupecoTea never meant to raise her brother Fox from the dead or expected to become a dark asha—a bone witch to those who fear and revile them—but that is exactly what happens setting Tea’s life on a dramatically different course when she is thirteen and comes into her powers.

Asha training is rigorous and takes Tea and her brother far home. Life in the asha-ka is both less exciting and more dangerous than Tea ever could have imagined making it hard for her to ever feel completely comfortable in her new role as an asha-in-training.

But that doesn’t explain what happened four years later to leave Tea banished to the Sea of Skulls where she tells her story to an exiled bard while raising fearsome daeva (demons) to use for dark purposes.

The nobility in the Eight Kingdoms and even the asha elders have always viewed dark asha as expendable–meant to serve their purpose slaying daeva and not much else. Raising the daeva is one step in Tea’s plan to save dark asha lives. The next steps will change the shape of the world forever or break apart the Eight Kingdoms in the process in The Bone Witch (2017) by Rin Chupeco.

The Bone Witch is the first book in Chupeco’s trilogy by the same name. The story continues in The Heart Forger.

Most of this novel is narrated by Tea in the first person as she looks back on her initiation into the world of the asha and her subsequent training. Tea relates these memories to an exiled bard with the jaded detachment brought on by the distance of four years and her own banishment.

The Bone Witch is a tightly wound story filled with intrigue and tension. The story lines of Tea’s past at the asha-ka and her present on the Isle of Skulls build simultaneously to a shocking crescendo as secrets are revealed and loyalties tested. Careful plotting and deliberate reveals will leave readers questioning everything and breathless for the sequel.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge, Sabriel by Garth Nix

Warcross: A Review

“Everything’s science fiction until someone makes it science fact.”

by Marie Lucover art for Warcross by Marie LuEmika Chen’s life is a constant struggle. Since her father’s death she’s been drowning in deby as she tries to pay off the medical expenses and gambling debts he left behind. Emika is a stellar hacker but thanks to the arrest on her record she can’t get any jobs near a computer. Instead she works as a bounty hunter tracking down petty criminals who do stupid things like gamble on Warcross and hustling to stay ahead of the competition.

Warcross is the one place where Emika can relax. The virtual reality game is a diversion, a competition, and place where Emika can remember what she loves: coding. With an eviction notice hanging over her head it’s also a place where she can take a big risk and hack into the opening game of the Warcross Championship to try and steal an item and erase her debt.

When the hack goes spectacularly wrong Emika thinks she’s heading for a swift arrest and jail. But instead she is whisked to Tokyo where she meets Warcross’s creator–eccentric young millionaire Hideo Tanaka–and is hired to work as a spy and bounty hunter tracking down a hacker who is threatening the Warcross world.

To cover for her real mission Emika is placed in the Wardraft and becomes part of the Championship. Winning the Championship and finding the hacker could change Emika’s life forever. Getting too close to the truth could change the world of Warcross and beyond forever in Warcross (2017) by Marie Lu.

Warcross is the first book in Lu’s Warcross duology.

Lu has once again created a well-realized and fascinating world where virtual reality and augmented reality are plausibly integrated into everyday life. This plot-driven story is fast-paced and full of action as Emika’s investigation brings her into Tokyo as well as the virtual worlds of Warcross and the Dark World typically inhabited by criminals and hackers.

The coding and gameplay aspects of Warcross can feel convenient while more than one twist will leave readers wondering if a few frank conversations between characters could have avoided many of the novel’s main conflicts. The tension of the championship and the urgency of Emika’s investigation to track down the Warcross hacker, known only as Zero, raise the stakes enough to detract from these holes in the plot.

Warcross is filled with distinct characters from a variety of backgrounds ranging from poor Hammie, a champion Thief in Warcross who uses her winnings to support her family to DJ Ren–a champion Warcross player/French DJ sensation–and Phoenix Rider team captain Asher who is American and flies through Warcross games in virtual reality while navigating the real world in a high tech wheelchair. While Emika is immediately drawn into the camaraderie and competition surrounding Warcross (not to mention drawn to enticing and mysterious Hideo) she knows she can’t let her guard down if she wants to identify Zero and beat the other bounty hunters to the prize.

The high stakes of the Warcross championship blend well with the larger mystery of finding Zero.The excitement and twists, particularly in the second half of the novel, work well to draw readers in and help them ignore the fact that a few frank conversations could solve most if not all of Emika and Hideo’s problems.

This duology starter is filled with inventive world building, top notch characters, and provocative questions about who (if anyone) deserves a redemption arc. Warcross draws readers in with action and gaming, but where it really shines is with the thoughtful meditation on what separates heroes from villains in a world that is anything but black and white. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, For the Win by Cory Doctorow, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

Foolish Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Foolish Hearts by Emma MillsThe entire construct of a pink party works on the expectation that the guests wear pink. Iris Huang wearing lavender to Amber Brunati’s pink party suggests exactly what she thinks of Amber and the party. But that’s just the way Iris operates–a surliness that is usually balanced out by her sweeter girlfriend, Paige Bruckner. The two have been together for most of high school and always present a united front. Always.

At least they did before Claudia overhears Paige breaking up with Iris. And gets caught eavesdropping.

Being on Iris’s bad side is punishment enough but it gets worst when Claudia and Iris have to write a paper together. Which they fail. Claudia is certain that working with Iris on the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for extra credit promises even more torture.

But somewhere between bombing her audition and shopping for materials to help with costume production, something funny happens. Suddenly instead of sticking to what she knows and keeping her head down, Claudia’s world is starting to get bigger.

Soon Claudia realizes that appearances can be deceiving as she discovers a boy band obsession, the ineffable Gideon Pruitt, and perhaps most surprisingly of all an unexpected friendship with the last person she expects in Foolish Hearts (2017) by Emma Mills.

In her latest standalone contemporary Mills explores friendship, romance, and fandom. Claudia’s world is pretty small. She has her family and her best friend Zoe, her scholarship to a fancy prep school, and all of the culture shock that implies. Claudia also has Battle Quest the massively multiplayer online role playing game she plays with her older brother and sister, her brother-in-law, and Zoe. Together they explore the game and pursue quests to find and vanquish the elusive Lord of Wizard. Claudia knows it’s not the most interesting of lives, but she’s always liked it.

At the start of senior year everything is changing as Claudia considers a near future where she and Zoe will be separated. That paired with Iris’s threat to ruin Claudia if she blabs about overhearing the breakup is more than enough excitement and uncertainty. Usually it would also force Claudia into a tactical retreat to maintain her low profile. Working on the school play changes that as Claudia is thrust into the world of costume creation and becomes a de facto drama coach helping the cast make sense of their dense dialogue.

I almost never say this but everything about Foolish Hearts makes me so happy. This book is all of the things that I loved in This Adventure Ends (including a male lead every bit as compelling and quirky as Frank Sanger) with none of the frustrating parts. Mills’ cast is thoughtfully and effortlessly inclusive (just like real life) and features a cast of memorable, quirky characters readers will love.

Even months after finishing Foolish Hearts I am still completely overwhelmed by how much I love it and how happy this story and these characters made me. A must read for fans of contemporary (romance) novels and anyone who’s ever fallen headfirst into a fandom without looking back. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Weave a Circle Round: A Review

cover art for Weave a Circle Round by Kari MaarenFourteen-year-old Freddy just wants to be normal. She wants to blend in at her high school and disappear. But that’s hard when her step-brother Roland is always telling outlandish stories and leaves a trail of chaos in his wake despite his best efforts. Meanwhile her little sister Mel is like an amateur detective.

Freddy’s mother and step-father are so wrapped up in each other they hardly notice. And it’s not like they can force Freddy to like her siblings anymore than they can force her to learn sign language so she can talk more with Roland.

It becomes even harder to pretend everything is normal when new tenants move into the house on Grosvenor Street–hardly a surprise since the house always seems to be in a state of flux.

Cuerva Lachance and Josiah aren’t like any of the people who have previously rented the house on Grosvenor street. In fact, based on the way the house begins to defy the laws of physics, they may not even be people in Weave a Circle Round (2017) Kari Maaren.

Maaren’s debut standalone is an intentionally chaotic and frenetic novel about time travel, family, and the power of story and talismans. Maaren pulls intricate plot threads together to create a story with eclectic characters and detailed world building.

Because of Freddy’s age and the overall tone of the novel, Weave a Circle Round feels much younger than marketing would suggest–something not helped by flat and often one-dimensional characters. I’d put this book much more firmly in the middle grade category than YA were it left to my own devices.

While I’d love to give Weave a Circle Round points for inclusion, I can’t. Every synopsis I found for this novel describes Freddy’s sister Mel as smart and Roland as . . . deaf. That’s it. He gets no other defining attribute despite being one of the more layered characters in the novel not to mention being key to the plot.

Roland’s deafness feels more like a plot device than a key trait and is only ever seen in relation to Freddy. Freddy finds Roland tedious. She doesn’t want to interact with him or learn sign language to talk to him. She has to get over that to move the plot forward. Bizarrely Roland talks throughout the book with only minimal mention of sign language at all. He also falls into the common trap of being a super lip reader carrying entire conversations with multiple people without signing at all.

Weave a Circle Round is likely to appeal to fans of A Wrinkle in Time and books in that vein. Unfortunately this story never quite realizes its potential or does right by its characters–especially Roland.

Possible Pairings: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Alchemy by Margaret Mahy, In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

Midnight at the Electric: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You become as strong as you have to be.”

cover art for Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn AndersonKansas, 2065: Adri has been handpicked to live on Mars as a Colonist. With just weeks before her launch date, Adri is sent to acquaint herself with the only family she has left–an aging cousin named Lily that she’s never met before. While Adri trains for life on Mars and prepares to leave Earth behind forever she finds an old notebook about a different girl who lived in the house more than a hundred years ago. As she says her goodbyes to everything she’s ever known, can Adri find answers about the girl in the notebook and what happened to her with what little time she has left?

Oklahoma, 1934: Catherine dreams of a life away from the danger and severity of the Dust Bowl. She pines for her family’s farmhand, James, even as she knows must have eyes for someone else. Most of all she yearns for a way to help her younger sister before the dust finally kills her. A midnight exhibition at a strange traveling show called the Electric promises hopes and maybe a cure. When everything goes wrong will Catherine have the courage to leave everything she knows behind to save the person she loves most?

England, 1919: The Great War is over and things should be going back to normal. But Lenore isn’t sure what normal means when her brother died in battle. Desperate for a chance to start again, Lenore plans to sail to America and her childhood friend. In the days leading up to her departure Lenore keeps writing. As more days pass without a reply, Lenore wonders will the friend she remembers be the same one she meets? Will their reunion will be enough to help Lenore remember herself?

Three young women separated by miles and generations, three stories, one shocking moment of connection in Midnight at the Electric (2017) by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

Anderson’s latest standalone novel blends romance, science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction in three interconnected stories. Adri, Catherine, and Lenore’s stories unfold in alternating parts as their separate paths begin to connect and even intersect.

Adri’s story unfolds in close third person while Catherine story is presented through her diary and Lenore’s through letters she writes to her friend in America. These changing formats offer windows into each girl’s personality. Adri is clinical and detached while she prepares to become a Colonist. Catherine is more conversational and clings to optimism to try and make sense of her bleak possibilities in the Dust Bowl. Lenore is all bravado as she tries to chase away the shadows and grief left in the wake of WWI.

At its core this is a story about leaving. All three heroines are hoping for something more–an adventure, salvation, change–if only they can reach that next destination. But before they can pursue what comes next each girl, in their own way, has to make peace with what came before and let it go.

 

Midnight at the Electric is a brief book that packs a punch. This character driven story offers poignant vignettes about human connection, loneliness, and perseverance. This book just about broke my heart in half while I was reading it. But then it mended it too. If I had to rank the stories I would say my favorite–and the one at the core of the novel’s overarching plot–is Catherine’s, followed closely by Adri’s, then Lenore’s. While Catherine’s story was the most buoyant and hopeful, Adri’s story and her relationship with Lily just about wrecked me. I cried for the entire final part of the book and I doubt I’m the only one.

Anderson has outdone herself in this beautifully written novel with a clever premise that is truly high concept. Midnight at the Electric is a book about leaving and endings but also about origins and coming home—even if home isn’t the same place as where you started. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Possible Pairings: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, Selling Hope by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, Dust Girl by Sarah Zettel

Nothing But Sky: A Review

Grace Lafferty began performing stunts as a wing walker with her uncle Warren and his barnstorming team, The Soaring Eagles, when she was thirteen years old. Her uncle didn’t know what to do with her after becoming her guardian when the rest of her family died an outbreak of Spanish Influenza. But even Uncle Warren knows better than to try and keep Grace out of the skies.

Five years later in 1922 Grace fears that the Soaring Eagles will soon be forced out of the sky by bigger teams or stricter air regulations. Determined to keep her chosen family together Grace will do whatever it takes to get to the World Aviation Expo where they can compete to win a lucrative contract with a Hollywood studio.

Throughout her preparations for the Expo Grace fights sabotage attempts from a rival barnstorming team and her growing attraction to new mechanic Henry. Haunted by nightmarish memories from the war and a limp from a battle injury Henry is stoic, professional, and infuriating to Grace who initially distrusts him. When a routine stunt goes wrong Grace wonders if she needs more than raw ambition to plan for her future in Nothing But Sky (2018) by Amy Trueblood.

Trueblood’s historical fiction debut looks at the years immediately following WWI when veterans returning home with flying experience and decommissioned fighter planes gave birth to barnstorming performances.

Grace is an ambitious narrator and daredevil with a singular focus–often to the detriment of the team she is supposedly desperate to keep intact. Henry’s struggle with shell shock makes him one of the most developed characters but it is handled poorly being used repeatedly as a reason for the team to distrust him. The sweetness of his fledgling romance with Grace is overshadowed by these constant doubts and a general lack of nuance in Grace’s worldview.

When Henry becomes the prime suspect for the team’s sabotage it is problematic as it builds to a predictable twist when it comes to the actual culprit. Breakneck stunts and romance lend Nothing Buy Sky high action while also detracting from the rich but often under-developed historical setting.

Possible Pairings: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in the February 1, 2018 issue of School Library Journal*