Journey Across the Hidden Islands: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Twins Li-Jin and Seika are the princesses of the Hundred Islands of Himitsu. Li-Jin has been training at the Temple of the Sun to become an imperial guard and be able to protect her sister Seika who remains at the imperial palace studying under their father, the Emperor.

Li-Jin is thrilled when she completes her training and is able to go home so that she and Seika can spend their twelfth birthday together. But when Li-Jin and Alejan, her winged lion companion, arrive there isn’t much time for a reunion.

Instead the girls soon find themselves embarking on the Emperor’s Journey to travel across the islands of Himitsu to pay respect to the kingdom’s dragon guardian and renew their dragon’s bargain to protect the Hundred Islands.

Nothing on the journey goes right as Li-Jin and Seika encounter earthquakes, foreigners, and monstrous creatures during their travels. Despite their inexperience and doubts, both girls know that Himitsu is relying on them. As they get closer to finding the dragon they will have to rely on each other and trust their instincts to keep their people safe in Journey Across the Hidden Islands (2017) by Sarah Beth Durst.

Durst’s latest middle grade novel is a standalone fantasy set in a richly imagined world filled with magical creatures and unexpected dangers.

Li-Jin and Seika are strong heroines who know their potential even if they sometimes fear too much responsibility has been set on their shoulders. The sisters have a rock solid bond and both bring numerous strengths to their adventure in Journey Across the Hidden Islands.

The Hundred Islands of Himitsu are vividly described both from the ground and above thanks to Li-Jin’s travels on the back of Alejan when he is flying. This story is imbued with Japanese-inspired culture along with inventive world building including magical creatures, ancient tales, and dramatic buildings.

Li-Jin and Seika’s relationship as sisters forms the center of this story as the girls work together to protect, and potentially forever change, their kingdom. Journey Across the Hidden Islands is a fast-paced adventure with not one but two engaging and clever heroines. Recommended for fans of girl power fantasies, inventive worlds, and journey stories.

Possible Pairings: The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, The Keeper Of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

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

You can also check out my interview with Sarah about this book.

The Caged Graves: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Caged Graves by Dianne K. SalerniWith the Civil War just recently ended and life returning to normal, Verity Boone leaves behind the only family she has ever known in Worcester, Pennsylvania to return to her birthplace of Catawissa in 1867. While she is leaving behind urban convenience and dear relatives, Verity is eager to see her father and her old family home.

She is also keen to meet Nate, the man who courted her and proposed through letters, for the first time face-to-face.

When Verity arrives in Catawissa nothing is quite what she expected. The Boone house is rundown and neglected. Her father is unsure how to reconcile the two-year-old daughter he sent away upon his wife’s death with the seventeen-year-old woman who returned from Worcester. Even her father’s housekeeper is distant.

Worse, Nate is not what Verity expected from his letters. Faced with the reality of agreeing to marry a practical stranger, Verity wonders if coming back to Catawissa was a terrible mistake.

Verity’s misgivings multiply when she first visits the Catawissa cemetery. There she finds two graves encased in iron cages just outside the cemetery walls–buried in unconsecrated ground. Locals have any number of explanations: witchcraft, grave robbers, even rumors of hidden treasure. Verity knows these outlandish stories must be hiding a darker truth and she is determined to discover Catawissa’s secrets. As Verity tries to unearth the truth about the caged graves and Catawissa’s troubled past, she also begins to understand her own place in the town and among her own family in The Caged Graves (2013) by Dianne K. Salerni.

The Caged Graves was inspired by two real caged graves the author saw in Catawissa. Nothing is known about the purpose of the cages but their presence inspired this novel.

The Caged Graves is a spooky, gripping read. It does not, however, include any supernatural or paranormal elements despite what the jacket summary might suggest. This book is a straightforward historical mystery. And it’s delightful.

Verity is a determined, likable heroine in a thoroughly engrossing story. Salerni’s writing is evocative of the period and well-paced as tension builds throughout the story. All of the characters in the story are well-developed and add to the story in their own way. Verity and Nate’s uneasy courtship was a particularly nice story element. I was also thrilled to see Verity’s reconnecting with her father become such a large part of the story.

With so many (lovely) historical fantasies hitting the market it was nice to find The Caged Graves was a purer historical read. The mystery element sneaks into the story as the focus shifts from Verity adjusting to Catawissa life to Verity investigating the graves. Although the resolution was a bit rushed, the ending the of the story came together logically with a very gratifying twist. The Caged Graves is a pleasant read sure to leave readers happy and eager to research the era (and the real caged graves) as soon as the story is finished.

Possible Pairings: Frost by Marianna Baer, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Boneshaker: A Review

The Boneshaker by Kate MilfordStrange things can happen at a crossroads. If a town is near that crossroads, well, strange things can happen there too.

Arcane, Missouri is filled with odd stories about the town and the crossroads. Just ask Natalie Minks. She might only be thirteen, but she already knows all about the eerie goings on at the crossroads thanks to her excellent storyteller (and terrible cook) mother.

As much as Natalie loves a good story, she loves machines and gears more. Her father is an expert bicycle mechanic and Natalie is learning too–it’s 1913 after all and machines are popping up everywhere.

Even, it turns out, in traveling bands of snake oil salesmen.

Doctor Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show promises entertainment, information, and a cure for any and all ailments. Natalie is enchanted by all of the bicycles and automata the show brings along with its tents and patent medicines. But she can’t shake the nagging feeling that something is wrong, horribly wrong, with the medicine show and its four Paragons of Science.

To figure out how wrong the medicine show is Natalie will have to get to the bottom of an age-old bargain, tame the fastest bicycle in the world, cash in a dangerous favor, and ask a lot of costly questions–all before the medicine show can take Arcane for everything it’s worth in The Boneshaker (2010) by Kate Milford with illustrations by Andrea Offermann.*

The Boneshaker is Milford’s first novel.

The Boneshaker tackles a lot of narrative ground with unexplained visions, mysterious automatons, strange bargains, and a whole town’s secrets. The ending of the story leaves a lot up in the air with Natalie’s future and even her place in the town. The narrative also takes a lot of time to tie things together and explain details of the lore surrounding Arcane as well as to explain certain things Natalie begins to learn in the story. The premise is interesting and Natalie is a great protagonist but the whole package was not quite as well-realized (or resolved) as it could have been.

That said, Milford writes like a natural storyteller. The opening pages of this story draw readers in with prose that sounds like a traditional folk tale and a setting that immediately evokes the era and feel of a midwestern town at the turn of the last century. Everything about The Boneshaker is charming from Natalie and her cantankerous bicycle to the vivid illustrations by Offermann that bring Natalie’s world to life.

This story is well-written and will find many fans in readers of fantasies and historical novels alike.

*The Boneshaker is not to be confused by a similarly titled but completely different book by Cherie Priest called Boneshaker.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Exclusive Bonus Content: This is probably just me, but The Boneshaker reminded me a lot of Plain Kate–the book that I had the most issues with from 2010. Like Plain Kate this book starts with the whimsical feel of a light(ish)-hearted middle grade novel. Then by the end it veers into dark (very dark in the case of Plain Kate) territory that grounds the story more firmly in the young adult audience area. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but it felt like a big leap here that did not work effectively for me (though as I said, I might be particularly touchy about this since I’ve noticed it in several books already).

A Taste for Red: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Taste for Red by Lewis HarrisSvetlana Grimm, the protagonist of Lewis Harris‘ debut novel A Taste for Red (2009) is not your average eleven-year-old. Even after starting at Sunny Hill Middle School in California, after years of being home schooled in Texas, Svetlana is just not like the other sixth graders in her class. Svetlana has a penchant for black clothes that is almost as strong as her preference for red foods. She sleeps under her bed. She can sometimes read, and influence, people’s thoughts. And she thinks she might be a vampire.

When Svetlana realizes that her enigmatic science teacher Ms. Larch can also read thoughts, Svetlana thinks she might have found another of her kind. But the more Svetlana learns about Ms. Larch the more obvious it is that the two are nothing alike. Suddenly instead of an ally, Svetlana might have a very dangerous enemy on her hands.

A Taste for Red is a humorous, sometimes suspenseful, always fun book that takes the conventions of vampire stories and throws them out the window. At the beginning of the novel Svetlana spends a lot of time cluing readers in about the reality behind those silly vampire myths–sleeping in coffins? Pah.

Other reviewers have drawn parallels between this book and the Buffy TV series and even Nancy Drew. Both comparisons are well-founded. This book (series hopefully!) is not, however, strictly for girls.

Svetlana quickly recruits two boys in her class to act as her sidekicks. The tone of this novel is also gender neutral. Svetlana walks the line between “girly girl” and “tom boy” to become a character that will appeal to everyone. That is not to say she doesn’t have a sharp tongue. Indeed, Svetlana’s narration borders on the surly at the beginning of the novel with a tone reminiscent of Stewie from “Family Guy”–she mellows with time.

Harris has created a really fun, original plot here with a new take on vampires without any annoying romantic entanglements. At first it was unclear if Svetlana would be equally likable, but she totally is. Provided you like fantasy, this book really will appeal to everyone.

At 176 pages, A Taste for Red is also excellent for reluctant readers looking for a fast, exciting read and younger readers who want to read about the vampires they keep hearing about everywhere.