The Traitor’s Game: A Review

cover art for The Traitor's Game by Jennifer A. NielsenNo one knows where Kestra Dallisor has spent the last three years. It’s better that way. The longer she can hide, the longer she can avoid becoming a pawn in her father’s political machinations to strengthen his ties to the cruel Lord Endrick. But the time for hiding has ended and Kestra has been called home.

When Kestra is kidnapped en route she faces an impossible bargain: find the Olden Blade to spare the lives of her captive servants and herself.

Simon, one of her kidnappers, doesn’t know what to make of Kestra. She is not at all like the girl he expects, certainly nothing not the girl he remembers from his childhood. But she’s also the only hope he and his people have of finding the Olden Blade and reclaiming their freedom.

There are no winners in the traitor’s game. But that won’t stop Kestra or Simon playing for all they’re worth in The Traitor’s Game (2018) by Jennifer A. Nielsen.

The Traitor’s Game is the first book in Nielsen’s new YA series. The book alternates between Kestra and Simon’s first person narrations.

Nielsen delivers high action, political machinations and the intrigue readers of her middle grade novels have come to expect. Despite some unique flourishes in the world building, this is a fairly familiar story as a lost heir tries to reclaim that which was taken by the conquerors.

Kestra and Simon are interesting foils but lack the chemistry needed for their tension and changing dynamic to sustain an entire book. Their voices in alternating chapters are often indistinguishable. The prose often feels sanitized as violence and danger is pushed off the page for readers to imagine instead of being vividly described–this choice means that the novel can work well for younger readers but also creates a stark contrast between the descriptions of the world and the actual reading experience.

The Traitor’s Game is a familiar addition to the fantasy genres. Sparse world building and under developed characters feel like missed opportunities in what could have been a far richer story. Recommended for fans of the author and readers seeking a strictly plot driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart, Everless by Sarah Holland, The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Not If I Save You First: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for Not If I Save You First by Ally CarterAfter six year living in an isolated cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with her Secret Service agent father, Maddie is used to being on her own. She has definitely given up on hearing from her former best friend Logan, the president’s son.

Maddie thought that she and Logan would always be best friends but it turns out a friendship is hard to sustain when only one of you ever writes letters without ever getting a response. Turns out getting used to having no best friend is a lot harder than adjusting to not having a phone, Internet, or any privacy.

When Logan does show up–six years too late–Maddie is ready to kill him. But a mysterious assailant forces Maddie to put that plan on hold when he pushes her off a cliff and drags Logan away at gunpoint.

Now Maddie has to save Logan. But once she finishes that she’s definitely going to kill him in Not If I Save You First (2018) by Ally Carter.

In her latest standalone novel Carter brings together her signature combination of girl power adventure with the unforgiving Alaskan landscape. Maddie already knows that everything in Alaska wants to kill you from the weather to the wildlife so she’s ready when actual Russian gunmen are thrown into the mix. Maddie is a tough-talking heroine who uses bravado to hide her vulnerability and sparkles to hide her abilities. After all, no one ever over-estimates a flighty teenage girl, right?

In contrast to Maddie’s muscle and might, Logan is the one who needs rescuing. He is a quick thinker with a photographic memory. But it turns out that can only take him so far against a loaded gun and everything else Alaska has to throw at him.

Not If I Save You First is filled with action, chases, flirting, and just a little kissing. An unusual setting, some of my favorite characters, and a fast-paced story make this a must read. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a new adventure and an obvious choice for fans of the author.

Possible Pairings: All-American Girl by Meg Cabot, Right Where You Left Me by Calla Devlin, You Don’t Know My Name by Kristen Orlando, Liberty: The Spy Who (Kind of) Liked Me by Andrea Portes,  I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White

All the Crooked Saints: A Review

Here is a thing that draws everyone to Bicho Raro: The promise of a miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears after their first miracle: What they’ll need to do to complete their second miracle.

The strange magic of miracles has been a part of the Soria family for generations–long before the family left Mexico for the desert of Bicho Raro, Colorado.

Now, in 1962, three cousins are at a turning point where magic and action intersect.

Joaquin wants many things. He wants his family to understand him, he wants to spend time with his cousins, most of all he wants someone to hear him DJing as Diablo Diablo on the pirate radio station he is running with Beatriz from inside a box truck.

Daniel is the current Saint of Bicho Raro. He performs the miracles and he sets the pilgrims on their paths to help themselves. Despite his saintliness he is incapable of performing the miracle he needs for himself.

Her family calls Beatriz the girl without feelings, objectively she can’t argue the point. But when unexpected misfortune befalls Bicho Raro, Beatriz will have to reconcile her feelings (or lack thereof) with the logical fact of what she has to do next.

Everyone wants a miracle but when miracles go horribly wrong the residents of Bicho Raro might have to settle for forgiveness instead in All the Crooked Saints (2017) by Maggie Stiefvater.

Set in 1962 when radio waves could be stolen and miracles weren’t quite so shocking, Stiefvater’s latest standalone novel is a story of miracles and magic but also family and forgiveness. An omniscient third person narrator tells the story as Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel are drawn into the center of the Soria family’s tumultuous relationship to the miracles and pilgrims who shape so much of the Soria identity.

Pilgrims come to Bicho Raro hoping a miracle can change their life, or maybe their fate. The Soria family changed years ago on a lonely night when a miracle went horribly wrong. The Soria cousins–Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel–might be the ones to help right the wrongs of that night. But only if they’re willing to risk changing Bicho Raro and themselves forever.

All the Crooked Saints is an evocative and marvelously told story. Wry humor, unique fantasy elements, friendship, and the fierce power of hope come together here to create an unforgettable story. Not to be missed. Will hold special appeal for readers who enjoy character driven fantasy.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff

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

Lucky in Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Maddie doesn’t believe in luck. She believes in working hard and being realistic. She’d love to dream big like her Stanford-bound best friend but dreams like that have no place in Maddie’s reality.

When her eighteenth birthday turns into a total bust, Maddie decides to indulge in a little self-pity and a lot of whimsy when she buys a lottery ticket. Much to her dismay, the ticket wins big.

Before her win Maddie’s family is struggling with debt and barely managing with her overworked mother and unemployed father constantly fighting about money while Maddie’s older brother has taken time off from college to pay some of the loans he has already accrued. Maddie’s lottery money and her natural caregiver tendencies should solve all of their problems but, as Maddie learns, money can’t fix everything–especially people who may not want to be fixed.

Maddie also learns the hard way that money has the potential to change everyone she’s ever met as acquaintances and even strangers start asking for loans, friends question her behavior, and rumors start flying about her in the tabloids. Maddie’s one refuge is the zoo where her coworker Seth Nguyen seems to have no idea that Maddie is now a multi-millionaire.

Seth is charming, funny, and perfect the way he is now–when he doesn’t know Maddie’s secret. As they grow closer Maddie knows she has to tell Seth the truth. Soon. The only problem is that being honest with him might also mean losing Seth before he and Maddie have a chance to get closer in Lucky in Love (2017) by Kasie West.

West’s latest standalone contemporary novel is narrated by Maddie as she navigates her sudden change of circumstance along with all of the other uncharted moments that come with being a senior in high school. Her love of animals and work at the local zoo add a fun dimension to Maddie’s character and the plot.

Thanks to the lottery, Maddie learns to put herself first and also accept things she can’t control or change. In the midst of the lottery chaos Maddie also develops a sweet relationship with Seth–her Vietnamese-American coworker at the zoo. He gives her some much-needed perspective with his focus on film making and going with the flow even in the face of disheartening micro-aggressions and more overt discrimination. He remains easygoing and fun even when it feels like Maddie’s life is in chaos. Seth is a sweet and mellow counterpoint to hyper-focused overachiever Maddie.

Lucky in Love strikes the perfect balance between reality and wish fulfillment with a charming story sure to leave readers smiling. Lucky in Love is a winning ticket for any readers looking for a frothy and ultimately cheerful story about growing up and chasing your dreams–with or without a lottery win to back you up. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma, Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman, Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

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

Frogkisser!: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

All Anya wants to do is sit in the castle library reading books and learning new spells (but only small ones because she doesn’t want to become an evil sorcerer like her step-step-father Duke Rikard). Unfortunately the Duke seems intent on becoming a completely evil sorcerer and his previously intermittent transformations and threats to Anya and her older sister Morven begin to escalate. Rikard even transforms Prince Denholm, one of Morven’s many suitors, into a frog.

Anya makes a sister-promise to return Prince Denholm to his human form before realizing it will lead to bigger challenges. Soon Anya has to flee the castle before Rikard can strike against her and forced into a Quest with Royal Dog Ardent at her side.

While she tries to gather ingredients for a magical anti-transmogrification lip balm to fix Denholm and Rikard’s sundry other victims Anya realizes there is far more at stake than one sister-promise as she grapples with her privilege and responsibility as a princess while trying to save her kingdom in Frogkisser! (2017) by Garth Nix.

Frogkisser! is a rollicking adventure filled with magical creatures including talking dogs, giant otters, and an enchanted bright orange newt. Along the way Anya also encounters wizards, good robbers, evil sorcerers and more.

Anya faces danger at every turn often leading to bittersweet successes which help to make Frogkisser! all the more gripping. Anya’s contemplation of the advantages she has–and the protection she owes her people–as a ruling princess is realistically handled and an excellent introduction to the concept of social responsibility.

Nix creates a unique world filled with minor kingdoms, magic, and a fair bit of mayhem in this novel. He also includes several wry nods to familiar fairy tale characters like Snow White and Merlin (who are the same person) as well as traditional tropes including the magic of true love’s kiss.

Frogkisser! is a masterful standalone fantasy novel that once again demonstrates Nix’s talent and range as an author. Anya’s young age and a deliberate lack of romance makes this story a great choice for readers who want a story focused on frienship, adventure, and magic. A must-read for fans of fractured fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Princeless Book One: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin, Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

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Frogs. Royalty. Magic. Humor. 🦄 All Anya wants to do is sit in the castle library and read and learn new spells (but only small ones because she doesn't want to become an evil sorcerer). Unfortunately Anya has to go on a Quest instead. While she tries to gather ingredients for a magical Transmogrification lip balm to transform sundry victims of her step-step-father the duke Anya will grapple with her privilege and responsibility as a princess. This rollicking adventure is filled with magical creatures including talking dogs, wizards, good robbers, evil sorcerers and more. This masterful fantasy is another winner from Nix sure to appeal to fans of fractured fairy tales, adventures like The Princess Bride, and books by Vivian Vande Velde. 🦄 #bookstagram #goodreads #instabook #instareads #bibliophile #books #reading #currentlyreading #amreading #bookworm #bookish #bookgram #booktography #bookblogging #bookblogger #bookphotography #books #frogkisser

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Ghosts: A Graphic Novel Review

Ghosts by Raina TelgemeierCat’s little sister Maya has Cystic Fibrosis and everyone hopes that the climate in Bahía de la Luna will help her breathing. Cat is sad to leave her friends behind and she isn’t sure what to expect when everyone in town starts talking about ghosts. With the Day of the Dead approaching, all of Bahía de la Luna is preparing to welcome the town’s otherworldly guests.

Cat is afraid of the ghosts while Maya is determined to meet one. Their search for new friends, ghostly and otherwise, will bring Cat and Maya closer together. It will also introduce them to the wonders to be found in their new town–especially when it comes to el dia de los muertos in Ghosts (2016) by Raina Telgemeier.

At this point in her career, Raina Telgemeier hardly needs an introduction. The detailed artwork is a vibrant and beautiful as ever. Stunning artwork brings Bahía de la Luna to life. A heartwarming atmosphere (with a diverse case of characters) combines well with Telgemeier’s signature artwork to create a satisfying read.

The problem is that Ghosts isn’t just a book about ghosts. Instead Telgemeier borrows and embellishes elements of the Day of the Dead for her plot. Notably, she also features calaveras (skeletons doing everyday things) that are often synonymous with the Day of the Dead. Calaveras as we know them were created by Jose Guadalupe Posada–an artist who is never mentioned in Ghosts. (If you want to know more about Calaveras, check out Duncan Tonantiuh’s excellent Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.)

Then there’s the issue of actual ghosts playing any role at all: While the ghosts in the story are fun and key to the plot, they are not true to the spirit or significance of Day of the Dead in Mexican culture.

I can (and on first reading did) give a pass to a lot of things. Some readers have questioned the fact that Cat and Maya know nothing about their Mexican heritage on their mother’s side. While that raises another red flag, it didn’t bother me in the context of  the story where Cat’s mother was estranged from her family and lost touch with her own mother.

Before digging into other reviews and posts, I also didn’t know enough about the Day of the Dead to pinpoint the specific problems in Ghosts although I knew there might be some (it’s unfortunately always a risk when authors write outside of their own culture/expertise).

Because Telgemeier is such a popular author, it’s not possible to simply say this book should be avoided. As I said, it is a thoughtful story in many ways and were it simply a fantasy comic, it would work quite nicely. Unfortunately the cultural elements are handled poorly and need a lot of context.

If you are going to pick up Ghosts or if you know a young reader who is, try to start a conversation about it so that everyone can learn something from it.

Here are some posts to get you started:

Reading While White has a thoughtful discussion on this problem including a very insightful comment from author/illustrator Yuyi Morales.

Teen Services Underground also has a review from librarian Faythe Arredondo who is half-Mexican and discusses some of the culturally problematic aspects she found while reading the graphic novel.

Karen Jensen at Teen Librarian Toolbox also explores some of the issues surrounding Ghosts in a post on her blog.

Debbie Reese has a thorough look at Ghosts complete with images from the book at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

.*An advance copy of this title was acquire from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

P. S. I Like You: A Review

P. S. I Like You by Kasie WestLily and chemistry do not mix. So much so that her chemistry teacher limits Lily to one sheet of paper for notes during class. No notebook to write down song lyrics or create sketches. But chemistry is still chemistry (boring) so Lily soon begins writing some of her favorite song lyrics on her desk to pass the time.

When Lily gets to class the next day, someone has continued the lyrics. Soon Lily and her new pen pal are sharing favorite bands, secrets, and their innermost thoughts. The only problem is that Lily has no idea who is writing her letters.

As she tries to balance school, friends, and her responsibilities at home (not to mention her song writing ambitions and her crippling stage fright), Lily feels like she and her pen pal are getting closer. But it turns out pen pals (and, okay, crushes) can sometimes be hiding in plain sight in P. S. I Like You (2016) by Kasie West.

West delivers realistic dialogue and dynamic characters in her latest contemporary novel. While Lily often reads young (complete with snap judgements and impulsive decisions) she remains authentic for most of the story. Lily’s hectic home life and her musical aspirations make her a particularly sympathetic and interesting narrator.

Attentive readers will figure out the identity of Lily’s pen pal early in the story leading to some fun moments of confusion and mistaken identity as Lily makers her way toward the same conclusion. P. S. I Like You is a short and sweet romance sure to appeal to readers who enjoy characters with obvious chemistry (pun intended) and partly epistolary tales.

Possible Pairings: Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, This is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith