Two YA books: One Good, One Terrible

Two YA books: One Good, One Terrible

One Good:

Crown Duel
Crown Duel

This novel, which is actually two shorter novels in one thick volume (Crown Duel and Court Duel), was one of my favorite books in high school. I remember being really influenced by these stories in my creative writing class in college, and in my romantic expectations.

“Young Countess Meliara swears to her dying father that she and her brother will defend their people from the growing greed of the king. That promise leads them into a war for which they are ill-prepared, which threatens the very people they are trying to protect. But war is simple compared to what follows, in peacetime. Meliara is summoned to live at the royal palace, where friends and enemies look alike, and intrigue fills the dance halls and the drawing rooms. If she is to survive, Meliara must learn a whole new way of fighting–with wits and words and secret alliances. In war, at least, she knew in whom she could trust. Now she can trust no one.”–Indiebound

First of all, Meliara is great. She is probably one of the first badass girls I ever encountered within a novel (Alanna was probably the first). I’m pretty sure she’s a precursor to all of these “strong female characters” that people love to talk about. For a story that comes pretty close to a fairy tale, its protagonist blows through all of the expectations of what a royal woman is supposed to do. She was fighting in wars and saving the kingdom before everyone was doing it: the hipster countess.

I digress. The writing is rougher than I remember it being, but I still enjoyed it greatly. I love the characters, both good and bad, although the villains could be fleshed out a little better, I think. The story is gripping and engaging, and I think I devoured this sizable volume in just a day or two. The only thing that ruined it for me was the short story that’s included at the end. I felt like Mel is a completely different character in it than she is in the novels themselves. Where she’s fierce and confident in the novels, she seems cowed, insecure, and way more into girly stuff than usual in the story. I wasn’t a fan. If you read the novels, skip the story if you can resist.

One Terrible:

Magonia
Magonia

Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. I hated this book. I’m really surprised that I even finished. I was excited to read it because it’s physically beautiful (never judge a book by its cover) and Neil Gaiman endorsed it (thanks for letting me down, Neil). This story was terrible from start to finish.

“Maria Dahvana Headley’s soaring YA debut is a fiercely intelligent, multilayered fantasy where Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in a story about a girl caught between two worlds . . . two races . . . and two destinies. Aza Ray Boyle is drowning in thin air. Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak, to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name. Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world and found, by another. Magonia. Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power, but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies fate of the whole of humanity including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?” Indiebound

Another comparison to big names like Gaiman and Green just to sell a title, but it’s lies, lies, lies. It comes nowhere close to either of the stories told by those masters. It’s murky and difficult to understand in the beginning. Aza’s illness is weird and unexplainable. It seems like it’s going to be another story about a disagreeable teenager with a terminal illness, like Side Effects May Vary. But then out of nowhere it becomes this really, REALLY strange fantasy novel. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t seem to know how to effectively blend a realistic story with fantasy, and the result is pathetic and brackish.

The element of fantasy in this world had the potential to be interesting, but this world of sky ships is populated by…wait for it…..anthropomorphic bird people. Shut up. Literally, the whole time I was reading it I was picturing this:

anthropomorphic bird people
anthropomorphic bird people

…and it was awful.

Please don’t read this book. The world is full of really great books. Skip this one and spend your time on one that’s worth it.

A New Treasure, A Teen Read, and An Old Favorite

A New Treasure, A Teen Read, and An Old Favorite

I am still playing catch-up with my book reviews, so today’s post will include three short blurbs about books that I read last year. I’m into November books now, so I’m happily moving along quickly!

A New Treasure:

The Red Garden
The Red Garden

The Red Garden introduces us to the luminous and haunting world of Blackwell, Massachusetts, capturing the unexpected turns in its history and in our own lives. In exquisite prose, Hoffman offers a transforming glimpse of small-town America, presenting us with some three hundred years of passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions. From the town’s founder, a brave young woman from England who has no fear of blizzards or bears, to the young man who runs away to New York City with only his dog for company, the characters in The Red Garden are extraordinary and vivid: a young wounded Civil War soldier who is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman who meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet who falls in love with a blind man, a mysterious traveler who comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone’s life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Beautifully crafted, shimmering with magic, The Red Garden is as unforgettable as it is moving.” –Indiebound

I was so impressed with this little volume that I read it in about 24 hours. I’m having trouble deciding if I enjoyed this book more than Hoffman’s book for children, Nightbird. These stories tell tales about different people living in the same town for hundreds of years, from its founding in the days of settlers and explorers all the way up to near-modern times. Though some people seem frustrated by the open-ended nature of the stories and the way Hoffman never goes back to wrap up the story of any one character, I found myself greatly pleased by this. It encourages reader participation. For those readers who are astute, she provides hints in later stories about the fates of characters in earlier stories, and it is an interesting reading experience to see characters about which one just read become historical fixtures in a later story.

Hoffman’s language and story-telling ability drew me in and made me want to live in this tiny town so rich in history and magic. The red garden itself is mysterious and intriguing though the size of its part in each story varies wildly. The red garden mostly embodies the curious undercurrent of magic and mysticism that bubbles just below the surface of every story. I truly loved this book and highly recommend it.

A Teen Read:

Side Effects May Vary
Side Effects May Vary

“For fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell comes this powerful novel about a girl with cancer who creates a take-no-prisoners bucket list that sets off a war at school only to discover she’s gone into remission. When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs. So she convinces her best friend, Harvey, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge as it is about hope. But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission, and now she must face the consequences of all she’s said and done. Contemporary realistic-fiction readers who love romantic stories featuring strong heroines will find much to savor in this standout debut.”Indiebound

I know a lot of people who liked this book, so I’m going to express an unpopular opinion here: I hated it. I could not stand Alice at all. I can’t possibly understand how difficult it is to have cancer, especially at a time when all of your hormones are exploding and you’re already a raging monster trying to figure out how to make it in the world. But this girl took it way too far and was one of the most disagreeable, unlikable characters I’ve ever read. “Fans of John Green” my butt. Hazel Grace was awesome. She was smart, witty, kind, and I wanted to be her friend. Alice is an unpleasant bitch (understatement) who starts and perpetuates completely unnecessary drama and makes the lives of those who love her a living hell. People are trying to cope with the fact that she’s dying, and she unequivocally makes it a bazillion times worse. Ugh. Hated this book. Pass on it; trust me.

An Old Favorite:

Spindle's End
Spindle’s End

“The evil fairy Pernicia has set a curse on Princess Briar-Rose: she is fated to prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into an endless, poisoned sleep. Katriona, a young fairy, kidnaps the princess in order to save her; she and her aunt raise the child in their small village, where no one knows her true identity. But Pernicia is looking for her, intent on revenge for a defeat four hundred years old. Robin McKinley’s masterful version of Sleeping Beauty is, like all of her work, a remarkable literary feat.” Indiebound

I read this book in high school (I discovered just how long ago I read it when I found a love note from a high school ex in the back of the book), and absolutely loved it the first time. I’ve wanted to re-read it for years, so I brought it with me to Peru to read. The only books I brought with me (I couldn’t afford the space or the weight for many) were favorites of mine that I wanted to re-read, and this was one of them. It stood the test of time, believe me. I still love it!

Obviously, this is a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty, which is not one of my favorite fairy tales. After all, it’s the one (at least the Disney version we’re all familiar with) in which the fairy tale “heroine,” or perhaps “maiden” is better, does absolutely nothing. There is barely any story to this story. McKinley takes a baseball bat to that notion. She storied the hell out of this story.

First, Briar-Rose, or Rosie as her friends know her, is not your typical princess. Raised as a country girl, she’s sweet and loves her foster family, but she would rather work than braid hair and sew (or whatever princesses do). Her best friend is a blacksmith. At a very young age, she decides she can’t put up with all that long, flowing, golden hair bullshit, and cuts it all off. Perhaps her most “princess-y” trait is that she can communicate with animals. I love Rosie for her spunk and her tomboyishness, and for everything she does that flies in the face of what princesses are “supposed” to do. Of course, she doesn’t know she’s a princess.

McKinley hasn’t written anything decent in the past few years, which breaks my heart because I truly love her older work. She masterfully weaves together magic and history and creates a world that is dreamlike and charming, even when it gets tough on its characters. In my mind when I read this book, there is a golden aura surrounding every mental image, and it’s a place where I very much wish to visit. I highly recommend this beautiful retelling of Sleeping Beauty because it is at least 100x better than any other version I’ve read.

Two Very Different Books (Because This Is a Book Blog and I Need to Catch Up)

Two Very Different Books (Because This Is a Book Blog and I Need to Catch Up)

Last year was not my best book for reading (that would be the year I read 112 books), but I did still reach my reading goal of 100 books. Unfortunately, all that time reading means I didn’t do a lot of writing. Thus, my attempts to play catch-up (all while reading more and digging myself into a deeper hole; isn’t that fun?).

The Selection cover
The Selection cover

The first book in this post is The Selection by Kiera Cass. Any fan of YA fiction has likely read this book. While I did think it was more shallow than my usual YA fare, I was on vacation in Cusco at the time and found myself enjoying it as a light vacation read.

“For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn’t want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she’s made for herself and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.” —Indiebound

I know, I know. This book is literally about a bunch of girls competing to marry a prince. It seems like it sets feminism back a century. Maybe I should feel ashamed for liking it. But like it I did, and I want to read the rest of them. America is a great character. Hers is an enjoyable voice. She recognizes how atrocious the Selection is, and only applies for it because of pressure from her family. She is a talented singer and a smart kid and uppity to boot. I liked her. The only thing I think I don’t like about this book is the tired love triangle. While I do love a good romance, I hate it when a novel centers around a girl’s pursuit of a boy (or possibly two). There could have been more to this plot, but I still enjoyed it and I will likely check the rest of the series out from the library if I need something quick and easy to give my brain a rest from books like this next one:

The Historian cover
The Historian cover

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This book is a doozy! It took me weeks to read it, and the only books that ever usually take me weeks are penned by George R. R. Martin. This isn’t because I wasn’t reading it constantly. I couldn’t put it down. It’s just very long, with small print, and a really dense, twisted plot. At times, this book tells a story within a story within a story (and possibly one more “within a story”). I honestly can’t remember how many layers of people telling stories there were at each point in the book.

“‘To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history….’ Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor,’ and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of–a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known, and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself–to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive. What does the legend of Vlad the Impaler have to do with the modern world? Is it possible that the Dracula of myth truly existed, and that he has lived on, century after century, pursuing his own unknowable ends? The answers to these questions cross time and borders, as first the father and then the daughter search for clues, from dusty Ivy League libraries to Istanbul, Budapest, and the depths of Eastern Europe. In city after city, in monasteries and archives, in letters and in secret conversations, the horrible truth emerges about Vlad the Impaler’s dark reign, and about a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive down through the ages. Parsing obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading the unknown adversaries who will go to any lengths to conceal and protect Vlad’s ancient powers, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil. Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions, a relentless tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present, with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful–and utterly unforgettable.” —Indiebound

A few things:

1). ;uerhgf;dkjfhg;onifh;boe9ruyth;wit’wmeisubhnpw;oritjhgslorgjks;hdgslfh[gwneoirvgj’spoj THIS BOOK WAS EPIC AND AMAZING

2) This is a debut?! And the woman has a second novel out (The Swan Thieves, which I have also read and enjoyed). I can’t imagine writing a novel like this and having time left in my life to compose a second one equal to the first in both quality of research and quality of writing.

3) This novel scared the daylights out of me.

A disclaimer about that last one: I am very easily frightened. I don’t read horror, I don’t watch horror, and I can’t even really watch trailers for horror movies or TV shows. Many of you probably have much more backbone than I do and this novel will not scare you as it did me. But Kostova has done absolutely brilliant work in depicting an evil so insidious and knowledgeable as to seem inescapable. The danger and suspense felt by readers while engaged in the novel are so potent and powerful that they seep off the page and seems to lurk in the shadows of reality.

I’m not sure that any characters could get more 3D than Kostova’s. Every little quirk and detail about each of her main characters are there in the text, lovingly included so the reader can know intimately her protagonists. The detail in this novel is exquisite. The nature of the light while a character reads or as the girl and her father arrive in a new locale. The sounds and smells of the presence of evil and the acrid tang of the human body’s reaction to such a presence. The way different fabrics fold and crinkle with wear and use, or the sound of ancient pages being turned. All of these and more make this a novel that engages all the reader’s senses.

The prose and the amount of research I imagine Kostova needed to do to complete this work are both admirable qualities that only add to the sheer wonder of the book. I have to wrap this up because this post is getting too long, but I hope my readers understand exactly how incredible this book is. For quality and for entertainment, this book is 100% a 5/5 stars.

Queen of Shadows — THRONE OF GLASS SPOILERS

Queen of Shadows — THRONE OF GLASS SPOILERS

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Queen of Shadows was yet another brilliant installment in the Throne of Glass series. I can tell that Sarah J. Maas is building to a truly explosive finale in the final volume. I only hope it means that we don’t have to say goodbye to any major players we love. Knowing books, I fear this may be a vain hope, but I’ll keep hoping until I close the last page on the last book.

At this point, there really isn’t any way to write about this book and not spoil the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t read up until this book, STOP READING NOW.

“Everyone Celaena Sardothien loves has been taken from her. But she’s at last returned to the empire-for vengeance, to rescue her once-glorious kingdom, and to confront the shadows of her past…She has embraced her identity as Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen. But before she can reclaim her throne, she must fight. She will fight for her cousin, a warrior prepared to die just to see her again. She will fight for her friend, a young man trapped in an unspeakable prison. And she will fight for her people, enslaved to a brutal king and awaiting their lost queen’s triumphant return.

Celaena’s epic journey has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions across the globe. This fourth volume will hold readers rapt as Celaena’s story builds to a passionate, agonizing crescendo that might just shatter her world.”Indiebound

In Queen of Shadows, Celaena returns to Adarlan as her true self, and she is out for blood. It seems there is only so much abuse one young woman trained as a ruthless, deadly assassin can take before she snaps. This novel is just as emotionally charged as the rest of them, with perhaps a little more satisfying revenge than we have seen before. The story moves at a brutal pace, and I think my favorite part of this novel was the interesting alliances she forms to achieve her ends (and to replenish her depleted ranks of friends–it’s dangerous to get close to this girl.) The novel also takes some really interesting, surprising twists and turns, as we have come to expect from Maas. I was absolutely thrilled by the ending, and I cannot wait for the fifth book.

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However, there are some things I have my doubts about, too. Celaena’s thirst for violence seems unnecessarily high in this book. In this world so filled with brutality, violence, and killing already, it’s nice to read about an assassin who doesn’t necessarily enjoy her work. She shows compassion and spares those who do not deserve to die. The reader sees very little of that compassion here. In much the same way action movie “heroes” leave a trail of bodies in their wake, Celaena kills ruthlessly and indiscriminately. I realize that her victims are working for a tyrant and standing between her and what she wants, but this gives the impression that there are important humans, and unimportant “stock” humans who can be killed without remorse or second thoughts. Sadly, this is not true in reality, and it disturbed me how our noble heroine becomes so hell-bent on destruction and revenge that she forgets she values life and once despised killing.

Along the same lines, while I truly enjoyed reading Queen of Shadows, and I couldn’t put it down, I feel like I read an entirely different series. Celaena has become a completely different character from herself in Throne of Glass. The people she surrounds herself with are different. Even the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, and people we thought were firmly in the evil camp turn out to surprise Celaena and her biases. While I enjoyed the truly epic nature of the narrative, I almost miss the comparatively quaint simplicity of the first novel.

I know it seems as if I have more negative things to say than positive, but it’s not true! I don’t really want to give away the good stuff, though. For those who haven’t read it, but have read the rest of the series, I say: what’s wrong with you?! Get moving! This novel was mostly stuffed to the brim with really good things, and I really recommend finishing the series.

The World of Leigh Bardugo

The World of Leigh Bardugo

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I read Shadow & Bone several weeks ago because I had a special $1.99 e-book deal on it come to my email. I had heard good things about it and wanted to read it anyway, but hadn’t given it a very high priority.

Holy. Shit.

Shadow & Bone is one of those books that reminded me why I continue to read YA books well into my adulthood. Leigh Bardugo is brilliant. In a genre heavily inundated with fantasy stories based on Celtic mythology and vampires, this author has constructed a world that is entirely new. With its strong themes of eastern-European nomenclature and mythology, yet possessing its own unique twists, I’ve never read a story like Shadow & Bone.

“Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life–a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.” –Indiebound

This book has everything you love about a YA novel. Danger, romance, a powerful female trying to find her own way separate from the men who would influence her. Darkness. Creepy creatures. Tragedy. Heartbreak. Betrayal. Nothing about this novel is predictable or boring. It kept me engaged from start to finish. When I finished this one, I had to read the rest of the series, too.

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The rest of the series was very strong, too. At the risk of giving away what happened in novel one, I won’t give synopses for two and three. Be satisfied knowing that I simply devoured this series and was completely obsessed. In fact, I wasn’t happy when it ended, and bought all of the short stories and novellas associated with the world in these novels.

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I love this series. I love everything about it. The plot. The characters. The setting. The darkness. The suspense. The intensity. The fearlessness of Bardugo’s writing. I highly recommend all of these novels. It never slows down. From start to finish, it is beautiful and intense, and I believe you will love it as much as I did.

A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses

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Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses is a pleasantly steamy novel loosely based on the Beauty & the Beast fairy tale we all known and love. I picked up this book without even reading the synopsis in the jacket because I love other books by this author so much I will read anything by her, sight unseen. What I love about Sarah J. is that her books are so reliable. Reliably difficult-to-put-down page-turners. I happened to have just started this book on a sick day, and, accompanied by tea and blankets, I read it for most of the day.

Soothing x10
Soothing x10

“When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin–one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin–and his world–forever.” –via Indiebound

Feyre and Tamlin are…fun. Let’s just get it out there right now: there is sex in this book. Not tweenie scenes with mostly implied contact followed by a nice change of subject. It’s detailed, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination, sexy sex. I enjoyed this. Most authors who write for teens know two things by now: teenagers have sex, and adults (who also have sex) read YA. This book was perfect for women (and men!) who don’t shy away from their enjoyment of sexuality in whatever way and however often they wish. If you are someone who prefers a somewhat tamer, less sexual way of life/library, I’d avoid this book. Or maybe try it, and see if it can change your mind! It’s up to you.

However, I’ve read some reviews that say this is little more than erotica. They are wrong. This is a novel with Story. Engaging, terrifying Story. It has some truly grotesque villains, and many moments that drive the reader to the edge of their seat. The reason the reader cares so much about the story has something to do with the heroine. Feyre is a girl the reader likes. Feyre is a girl who is relatable. I’m sure there is something of the reader’s self to find in her. Perhaps it’s her fierce dedication to her family. Perhaps it’s her feelings of isolation and of being taken for granted. Perhaps it’s her hopeless attraction to a faerie being that oozes sensuality. Whatever it is, there’s a little something of you, me, and everyone else in Feyre. Once her story really picks up and gets going (which is almost immediately; my girl Sarah J. doesn’t make you wait), the reader cares because, in some capacity, she is the reader.

The men in this book. THE MEN. The faerie men. The sleek, smooth-as-butter, perfect-features, fantasy men of this woman’s heretofore unknown fantasies. I loved them. It’s a buffet of supernatural men. I couldn’t decide if I liked Tamlin (the broody love-interest), Lucien (the comic yet tragic sidekick), or Rhysand (the absolutely delicious baddie) most. The best part is that you don’t have to, because each of them gets plenty of attention within the pages of the novel.

Perhaps the only thing that gave me pause is that there is a certain plot device that is just a little too specific, and therefore, a little too convenient to truly allow this reader to suspend her disbelief. It jolted me out of the world of this-is-actually-happening, and into the world of this-is-a-novel-with-an-author. It only lasts for a moment, and then the story re-engages, but for that moment it was a little sad.

Finally, Sarah J. builds a faerie world that at once respects folklore and gives it a new spin. There are few authors who successfully pull this off, and it makes me like and respect this author more for doing it. She includes lesser-known fae species. She includes an under-the-hill part of the faerie realm (very important!). She includes a vast variety of temperaments and personalities, from forces of good and compassion, to annoying and mischievous, to straight-up lethal and terrifying. Most importantly, she does it while remaining true to her own voice as an author, and without sounding or feeling contrived.

This is a very strong start to a new series, and a bit of a genre-bender. I think it’s safe to say that fans of her other novels will enjoy this one. For those who love fantasy, romance, or YA, this is a great pick for you, too!

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

Middle-Grade New Releases That Rock

I’ve been on a middle-grade chapter book kick, and I’ve really struck gold with the three that I’ve read so far. It’s a fantastic time to be a kid, or a lover of children’s literature. There are so many good books coming out every day, it’s almost impossible to keep up. I was fortunate enough to read three absolutely wonderful books in a row.

#1: Monstrous by MaryKate Connolly

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This is a novel about Kymera, a little monster girl created in a lab for a very special purpose. She has a stinging tale, patchwork skin, and eyes that can switch back and forth between human and cat (for seeing in the dark). She lives with her father deep in the forests outside of the town of Bryre, and only enters the city at night after everyone is asleep. Though she is not allowed to have any friends, she meets a boy named Ren and is unable to resist his companionship. But both Ren and Kymera have deep secrets, and it tests their friendship and their trust for one another. When the town of Bryre faces danger, it’s up to them to reconcile their mistrust and work together to save their home.

This is an absolutely darling story. It’s fairly dark because it combines taboo science with wicked magic, but ultimately it tells a story about love, acceptance, family, and heroism in unexpected places. I recommend this book highly, as I think it’s a fairly unique story that combines the misunderstood monster of Frankenstein with the magical elements of beloved fairy tales. It’s a page-turner, sure to keep readers young and old engaged.

#2: Julia and the Art of Practical Travel by Lesley M. M. Blume

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Julia barely remembers her mother, who disappeared when Julia was seven years old. Now twelve, she faces a rapidly shifting world, as her grandmother, who is also her guardian, passes away, and her family’s debts are called in. Her aunt sells their ancestral home and most of their possessions, and Julia and her Aunt Constance set off on a road trip across the United States, following the rumors of Julia’s mother. With all of their remaining worldly possessions packed into their car (silver candlesticks, Oriental carpets, and some steamer trunks, to name a few practical travel essentials), they visit Greenwich Village in New York City, consult a voodoo priestess in New Orleans, go hunting in the dusty Texas desert, and continue all the way to California. Julia documents some of her adventures with her Brownie camera, which she carries everywhere.

I can’t stress enough how adorable this story is. Julia faces her changing circumstances with a positive attitude and a sense of adventure that one can’t help but love her for. She drags her camera everywhere and takes pictures of everything she sees (some of which are on display in the chapters of the book!). Most importantly, she learns lessons about finding family wherever she can, and about accepting herself and her slightly quirky personality. This is a truly lovely book that reminds me a bit of Matilda, but with its own sassy personality. Plus it encourages kids to travel, and that is incredibly important.

#3: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

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I picked up this book on a whim and I am so happy I did. That is sometimes the best way to find a book. As a bookseller, a lot of books get buzz, and I just don’t have time to read all of them. Nightbird is a book that deserves the time. I read it in a matter of hours because I couldn’t put it down.

Twig lives in Sidwell, Massachusetts, which is a town with many secrets. Her mother doesn’t socialize, and though she is the most beautiful woman in town, she is also the saddest. Her mother bakes pies, which draw tourists from miles around, and Twig and her mother live in the orchard from which they harvest the fruit for the pies. Rumors and local legends say that a monster inhabits Sidwell, and Twig knows more about that than she lets on to outsiders. Like Kymera in Monstrous, Twig is not allowed to have friends. Her mother worries that their family secrets will emerge if she does. But when two girls close to her age move into the cottage beside their orchard (a cottage rumored to have once belonged to a witch), Twig is unable to refrain from becoming best friends with the younger sister.

Anything I try to say about this book will likely sound hyperbolic. I really thought that it was delightfully beautiful. It is rich with the joys and the headaches that local traditions and folklore can bring to a small town, and there are elements of hidden magic existing beside the everyday things people see with their eyes. The secrets that come out eventually have the potential to be disastrous, but Twig learns that people can be surprisingly generous, accepting, and loving.

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I highly recommend all three of these beautiful novels. These characters are strong and wonderfully themselves, and they make fantastic protagonists and role models for young girls (or boys!). Read these to your children, buy them for your classroom, or read them for yourselves!