Revenge of Magic by James Riley


revengeRiley starts a new series here with a big whump – horrible, clawed creatures exploding out of the ground in Washington DC and a young hero-in-the-making witnessing it all and then doing something about it.

Similar in broad description to the Harry Potter & Percy Jackson vein of adventure stories for kids, this one comes with a harder edge and a wildly inventive storyline. In most stories of this kind, the adults are often clueless or deceptive jerks while the kids are brave, clever heroes. The interesting thing here is that both kids and adults are equally clever, brave, and manipulative which creates an interesting dynamic. Each side score points, but each side is culpable for what happens.

There is equal time given to male and female heroes which means an appeal to both boys and girls.

The four (or seven?) branches of magic described here, as well as how they were discovered, provides a new approach to the genre. Sure, there are nods to Camp HalfBlood and Hogwarts, but also veins reminiscent of Stephen King’s Firestarter and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series, as well as Merlin and Arthur and even a little bit of James Rollins. What pulls the story together, though, are the kid characters – tough, salty, vulnerable, and oh-so-powerful, they save the day and, most likely, the future. This could be the hit of the summer, folks…

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing – Aladdin
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

The Griffins of Castle Cary


GriffinsThe Griffins of Castle Cary by Heather Shumaker

Middle grade readers will delight in the spooky adventures of the Griffin family as they navigate their way around Castle Cary in Somerset England. Siblings Meg, Wil, and Ariel are delighted to discover there are ghosts (!) around when they stay with their Aunt in her authentically thatched and ancient cottage while their parents are off doing their geology thing.

What starts off as a pleasant, low-key paranormal mystery quickly gains an edge when the resident ghosts take a very strong interest in Ariel. While Meg worries she’s too old to see ghosts and Wil discovers that he hiccups whenever a ghost is near, Ariel finds herself in real danger of possession. Find out how the siblings work together to save Ariel and put the ghosts to rest.

While there is a certain breeziness to the writing, fans of hardcore ghost stories will not be disappointed and will definitely feel the shivers as they read through this story. Recommended!

Publication Date: March 5, 2019
Published By: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

January Micro-Reviews

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devouringThe Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman – This creepy, eerie, and imaginative story grabbed me by the back of the neck and held on from first to last page. The plot is a refreshing take on the “monster in the woods” trope and features some sassy, kick-ass characters. The premise of four founding families (shades of Hogwarts, anyone?) isn’t new, but the relationship of the families to the monster and to the town they protect is pretty darn original. The author does a good job of making teens sound like teens, although the adults are portrayed as bullies or dopes. The plot flowed easily and kept my attention. It looks like this will be the beginning of a series, which makes me happy. It would also make a helluva TV series in the vein of Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Recommended.

Publication Date: April 2, 2019
Published By: Disney-Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

prosperThe Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding by Alexandra Bracken – How did I miss this book when it first came out? It has everything I love about middle grade fantasy – hip and likable characters, clever humor, a multi-faceted villain, a surprise twist at the end, and a superb story. Here, the likable characters are Prosper and Nell and the villain (one of them!) is Alastor, a fiend who has waited hundreds of years for revenge on the family that bound him. The competing themes of revenge & betrayal and friendship & love can lead to some interesting discussions about relationships. The nods to some of my favorite classic stories (The Crucible and Doctor Faustus) only made this more enjoyable. Bracken successfully delivers what appears to be a prologue to some serious world-building, as she prepares to publish the sequel to this in February. The twist at the end was one of the best I can remember and set up the sequel beautifully.

lastThe Last by Hanna Jameson – This title has been sitting in my To Be Read queue for months and I finally opened it last night out of guilt. Holy smokes! I read it in one sitting, resulting in a foggy day spent at work today! I am not, as a rule, a fan of dystopian fiction which is probably why it took me so long to open this one. However, when dystopian fiction is blended with a tautly plotted, inventive mystery it becomes a book I cannot put down. The author has done everything right here – good dialog, evocative description, memorable characters, and an unusual plot. I’ll be recommending this a lot in the coming months.
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Published By: Atria Books
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

arloArlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon by John August – I am late to the Arlo Finch party, having missed the first in the series. However, this second-in-the-series stands pretty sturdily on its own. August explains enough about the Long Woods and the Rangers so a reader new to the series can follow along, although the characters are cool enough that I will definitely go back and read the first in the series. Here, Arlo and his fellow Rangers Wu and Indra, along with other Rangers, find themselves facing some really weird experiences as they head into their two weeks of camp. There are the usual suspects – the trio of friends who overcome great evil, the obligatory bully, the hip adults, and the scary monsters – all stirred up into a stew of steady action and hair-raising adventures. Kids who enjoy imaginative adventures will thoroughly enjoy Arlo Finch, in all his books. Recommended for middle grade readers.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019
Published By: Macmillan/Roaring Brook Press
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

July Micro-Reviews


9DC3B5DD-077C-4400-8F8A-6105B5419731
Hocus Pocus: the Sequel by A.W. Jantha
Hocus Pocus (the movie) is a cult classic, and continues to be a family favorite in my house. This sequel does a smashing job of bringing the Sanderson Sisters, along with Max, Alison, and Dani, into the 21st century. The storyline is appealing, with Max and Alison now “Mr. and Mrs. Dennison” and their daughter Poppy taking center stage. The Sisters are as ghastly and hilarious as ever, and Salem just as colorful.

As a fan of the movie, I found the re-telling of the original story (the first half of the book) unnecessary and repetitive. I confess, I skipped much of the original story and went right to the present day. The new story is fun, quirky, and has just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek scariness. Total fun for Hocus Pocus fans.

Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Published by: Disney
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

E5E6DF37-8155-4137-8A03-458DA31ADCB1Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes
Another in the “Rick Riordan Presents” series, this explores Mayan mythology. I really love that Riordan is helping authors explore world mythology, but I wish there was a little more originality in this story. There are so many similarities to both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books that I stopped keeping track. There’s nothing really wrong with the story – it’s fun and fast and very engaging – but it’s been told before. That’s my “adult” review.

That said, this is aimed at kids, and many of them may not have read the older books. They will find this a wild ride, with a cool new character who is pretty relatable even as he discovers his powers. Other characters will definitely appeal to kids – Hondo, the pro-wrestler fanatical uncle; the pretty, mysterious girl who can turn ito a hawk; and the laid-back, surfer-dude troll are just a few of the fun characters here. The plot is well-developed, everything gets tied up at the end, and the good guys win. Recommended.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018
Published by: Penguin/Random House
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

2EBF5C32-434F-440D-899C-95FD15C72652Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan
The Raggedy Witches are my absolute new favorites! I love how they glitter, and I adore Mup and her love of color. Stories about witches and goblins and other fantastical creatures abound in juvenile (and adult) literature these days. Celine Kiernan, who has been described as “Ireland’s J.K. Rowling”) has succeeded in creating a new type of witch and a new world that is reminiscent of some magical lands (I was actually most reminded of The Hazelwood), but full of lovely, imaginative details all her own. I adored the dance and vocal magic concepts, and even the “curse” of speaking in rhyme. The absolute best thing about this book, though, is Mup. She is a character to remember, and one who I hope to see in future stories. Mam is also a character to watch. She seems to waver between the “good” of The Duchess and the “bad” of The Queen, so her development in future stories could be quite entertaining. Recommended for middle grade fantasy readers.

Publication Date: September 11, 2018
Published by: Penguin/Random House
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Willa of the Wood by Robert Beatty


WillaBeatty’s debut, Serafina & the Black Cloak, was at the top of my “Best Of” list for 2015 and I have devoured the two sequels, so picking up Willa of the Wood was a no-brainer for me. I have come to expect lush description, clever plotting, and memorable characters from Beatty, but I was unprepared for the flat-out gorgeousness of Willa of the Wood.

Willa is a wholly original character, a member of a Faeran clan living in the Great Smoky Mountains. She is a girl who thinks for herself despite living in a brutal patriarchy, clinging to and preserving the old ways of wood magic taught to her by her Mamaw. She is curious about the “day-folk” and begins to question the hardline social structure of her clan, led by the god-like padaran. This, of course, leads to a break with the clan and a new beginning for Willa but not without some death and destruction.

To be sure, there is far more violence in this book than in the Serafina series, although there is a lovely nod to Serafina in the form of a gorgeous panther. There is also supreme gentleness and caring for nature and fellow beings – Faeran, human, and animal. One of the most interesting things here is the way in which Willa relates to and communicates with trees. To her, trees are living beings and the day-folk who slaughter them with their axes live in “lairs” made from their carcasses. Willa is saved more than once by calling on the power of trees and plants.

Willa is a complex character who moves between the world of the Faeran and that of humans. She is a bridge between two distinct cultures who inherently mistrust each other. I look forward to more stories about Willa and her clan.

Highly recommended for upper grade readers.

Publication Date: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Disney/Hyperion
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

May Micro-Reviews


28A02E25-07BA-4CBD-B1E0-6AEE24541D0DThe Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser – The Vanderbeeker kids are back in another charming story about generosity, being a good neighbor, and growing up. This is one of those gentle, feel-good stories where nothing much happens, except real life. The kids witness a beloved neighbor having a stroke, they struggle with their own emotions, and they learn that even kids who appear to have it all often don’t. The Vanderbeekers are definitely “free range” kids, and their adventures in their Harlem neighborhood are the stuff of dreams. The kids are all written beautifully and the family dynamics are definitely something to emulate. This is not a particularly special story in that it’s something “new” but it will be enjoyed by early to middle grade readers who just like to read about other kids.

Publication Date: September 25, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

657A0259-7343-412B-A674-DF6D9DD31EA2In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey – Bailey checks all the boxes in this supernatural, psychological thriller of a book: a couple whose marriage is in trouble, a dead child, a mysterious English manor house, a spooky forest, intimidating & creepy manor staff, a past tragedy…and more. Charles, Erin & Lissa are the seemingly perfect family whose life is turned upside down by a truly horrible accident. The psychological strain of that experience coupled with the gothic-horror experience of Hollow House makes for a top-notch, nail-biting, check-under-the-bed thrilling novel. For fans of English folklore, horror, and suspense. Recommended.

Publication Date: October 9, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

994C1041-BFDE-4E07-9D99-917BC0590A95Bluecrowne by Kate Milford – As a diehard Greenglass House fan, I eagerly anticipated this prequel to the series, and I am not disappointed. Kate Milford introduces us to a whole new cast of colorful characters who are every bit as entertaining, clever, and quirky as Milo and company. Lucy Bluecrowne is a character for the ages, and I look forward to following her adventures as she grows up. Liao and Xianming are also so intriguing that they deserve another book as well. Milford is well on her way to creating a world in Nagspeake that is every bit as magical and real as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. Her writing is full of lovely descriptions, clever and thoughtful dialogue, and plenty of mystery, suspense, action, adventure, and magic. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 2, 2018
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Childrens Books Group; Clarion Books
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

97EB1610-2008-4809-8637-BEB706E2DBEF Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster by Brian Regan – It seems that creating monsters to distract people from real issues is not something unique to 21st century politics. As a longtime but amateur student of cryptozoology, I am always open to reading new accounts of legends and monsters, so I was eager to learn more about the infamous Jersey Devil. The origin story of Mother Leeds giving birth to an evil, horrifying “monster” that flew up the chimney certainly has its roots in European folklore and fairytales. Those tales were often created to make people do things – e.g. Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth were invented to keep children away from rivers and streams, thereby keeping them safe from drowning. In this book, Regal and Esposito take the Jersey Devil out of the New Jersey Pine Barrens and link it to political intrigue and opinion-shaping. What better way to get people to do what you want than to scare the crap out of them? I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to know that such political maneuvering has been going on for hundreds of years without the world ending, which suggests that the current version of the Jersey Devil (immigrants/Muslims) will eventually be replaced with something else. This is not light reading, however, so I will recommend for those who enjoy non-fiction related to politics and history.

Publication Date: March 1, 2018
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

06FD49B1-679B-46B2-80F7-D50D936D72F1Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson – Leonardo da Vinci has always fascinated me, so this new biography of possibly one of the greatest humans ever to live was something I had to read.  Isaacson delivers a well-crafted look not only into da Vinci’s life but into the culture of the time which certainly shaped his world view and supported his curiosity. It was da Vinci’s insatiable curiosity about everything that first attracted me to him so many years ago, and Isaacson provides a laser view into the mind that envisioned flight, surgery, and so much more. Highly readable, well written, and meticulously researched, this is very much recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy

 

 

 

 

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair


guinevereThe Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie had me sobbing then cheering at my kitchen table last night as I sped through this truly outstanding debut novel for middle grade readers.

Guinevere (Gwyn) St. Clair has moved from NYC to Crow, Iowa with her father Jed, sister Bitty, and mother Vienna. They’ve returned to Jed & Vienna’s hometown in an attempt to help Vienna recover from a traumatic brain injury which has left her with no memories beyond her 13th year. Moving in with Vienna’s mother, Gwyn and Bitty experience culture shock, as the busy, concrete world of NYC is replaced by dirt roads and rows and rows of corn. The girls make friends with Jimmy & Micah, who live with Gaysie Cutter, who knew Jed and Vienna way back when. Gwyn takes an immediate dislike to Gaysie, who ultimately becomes a suspect in Gwyn’s investigation into the disappearance of a local farmer. Gwyn learns a great deal about friendship, responsibility, heartbreak, and love during her first year in Crow.

It’s been awhile since I read a set of characters as memorable and engaging as Gwyn, Bitty, Jimmy, Micah, and Gaysie, with Gwyn shaking out as the mastermind and leader despite her flaws. Part Opal Buloni, part Harriet the Spy, Gwyn approaches her challenges with a single-minded determination to get to the truth. She’s by turns sassy, infuriating, sad, and loving, all the while nursing this unimaginable pain in knowing that her mother no longer knows who she is. Gwyn’s aversion to Gaysie is nicely juxtaposed with Vienna’s friendship with her – while Gaysie repels Gwyn, she is welcomed by Vienna as a treasured friend. Gaysie is as complex a character as I’ve come across in a novel for this age. She’s physically intimidating and scary, with a tendency to “SNAP,” but she is also loving, nurturing, and protective. She is, in many senses, the mother Gwyn misses so fiercely. The story moves along at a good pace, with lots of action, humor, and pathos well spaced throughout. I really thought the ending was going to rival Shiloh for heartbreak, but I was mistaken. I predict Newbery consideration for this one. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: June 12, 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

Aru Shah and the End of Time


EAFF298A-3849-4A3E-B4E3-BF84134D7CEEThis is the first in the “Rick Riordan Presents” series, where Riordan turns the wheel over to Roshani Chokshi for an entertaining romp through Hindu mythology. The basic premise is similar to the Percy Jackson series, only this time it’s the Five Pandavas (demigods) who are reincarnated and must save the world. The interesting twist here, and a somewhat controversial choice for a book based on Hindu mythology, is that this generation of the Five Pandavas consists of girls. And these girls are Heroes for sure! We follow the adventures of Aru and Mini as they are claimed by their parent gods, go on a quest, enter the Underworld, and attempt to save the world from The Sleeper, who is destined to bring about the end of the world.

It’s all good storytelling, with a compelling plot, entertaining characters, and a fascinating villain. The relationship between Aru and Mini drives the story forward as it develops. The writing is more juvenile than Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicle series, but no problem there – it’s just aimed at a younger audience. What I did find annoying and disappointing, though, were the many references to current pop culture (BuzzFeed, Donald Trump) which will ultimately date the book. The Hindu mythology is fascinating, and I have been prompted to learn more about it. Overall, this is a good start to a new series. Recommended.

Publication Date: March 27, 2017
Published by: Disney Book Group
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

January Micro-Reviews


956CB410-2B16-4E46-A846-46296A0499F1The Black Painting by Neil Olson – Can paintings be possessed? The family at the center of this story thinks so. They’ve been haunted by a Goya painting for years, and blame it for the horrible things that have happened in their lives. Goya’s work *is* startling in its rawness (Saturn Devouring His Son is pictured here) but it’s the evil perpetrated by the living that startles me the most. Good book….

Published by Harlequin/Hanover Square, January 2018. Mysteries & Thrillers. Literary Fiction.

93103035-7177-40E3-B1F7-E4CFC9654173Magical Match by Juliet Blackwell – Juliet Blackwell’s Lily Ivory is back in another delightfully witchy adventure, along with all the colorful characters we have come to expect from this series. Blackwell’s breezy, engaging writing and twisted, intriguing plotting create the atmosphere fans have fallen in love with in previous entries. Here, we learn more about Lily’s past, get to meet her amazing grandmother, and wring our hands over her “will they/won’t they” relationship with Sailor. If you haven’t read the Lily Ivory books, get them all out of the library and binge-read them on a cold, snowy day. It will be the best day of the year, I bet! Highly recommended.

Published by Berkley, May 2018. Mysteries & Thrillers.

90FCB44E-B2B9-47F5-ADF1-5706EF2330E3Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross by Lisa Tuttle – Tuttle offers a new adventure featuring Jesperson & Lane, the crackerjack investigation team that includes a well-heeled young man and an outspoken young woman. They are dropped headfirst into their new case when a man pounds on their door in the middle of the night, proclaims he is pursued by witches, and drops dead in their front hall. Their investigation takes them from London to the country, where they encounter an unusual collection of “cunning” men and women, pious preachers, curious scholars, and even “little people.”

While the plot is interesting, with a variety of twists & turns, it’s bloated. A bit more than halfway through, I found myself losing interest. Jesperson’s annoying habit of assuming Lane knows what he’s thinking, causing her to drag every bit of information out of him got old really fast. They never seemed to click for me as a pair of investigators, or as a couple, or whatever they are supposed to be to each other. I did enjoy Miss Lane’s character, however. She reminded me of a young Amelia Peabody. While this is far from the worst thing I’ve read lately, it’s also not nearly the best. The text needs editing, and I found the whole subplot around the stolen baby to be completely unnecessary. I will probably pick up another in this series when looking for a quick, easy read, just to see if Jesperson & Lane find success in their investigative business.

Published by Random House-Hydra, October 2017. Mysteries & Thrillers; Sci-Fi & Fantasy

6A72661D-37B9-4BB6-B5E5-643A21EBBD59Lady Jayne Disappears by Joanna Davidson Politano – This is a pleasant enough story. The lead character, Aurelie, is likable and plucky, the “leading man” is mysterious but kind-hearted, and the relatives are appropriately boorish. The basic story is familiar – disadvantaged girl gets shipped off to unknown wealthy relatives after father’s death, meets handsome but mysterious man, uncovers devastating family secret – all in a grand manor house in the English countryside. What makes this stand out is the action around Aurelie becoming a writer, which is wonderful. What made this less enjoyable for me was the heavy-handed religious overtones, making this highly reminiscent of 19th century gothic romance pedantic style. All in all, a pleasant enough story but not one that I will remember.

Published by Revell, October 2017. Historical fiction.

F097E807-9118-49E4-9788-ECF16AF22F57Ludlow Lost by Kate Robinson Dunne – What a refreshing change! A book about fairies that isn’t dripping with with wide-eyed sweetness! Ludlow and Harry make a dynamic duo for the ages. Their unexpected (and unwanted) friendship becomes the anchor in this witty tale of kidnapping, betrayal, and revenge. I was reminded a bit of the Artemis Fowl books, but just a bit. This is new, fresh, and just plain fun.

Published by Two Pigeons Press, March 2018. Middle grade fantasy.

3B06A232-5038-4D11-8FF4-E44BB31AE3FABook of Pearl by Timothee de Fombelle – I’m sorry to say, I did not get past the second chapter of this confusing, muddled story. The description intrigued me, but the two opening chapters were so unconnected and rambling that I could not connect. This is a translation of a French book that has received high praise, and Goodreads reviews are mixed.

Published by Candlewick Press, February 2018. YA fantasy.

Thanks to NetGalley for review copies of all these titles.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor


667421B5-924F-4182-94A9-07CB4F318AE1Sunny, an American girl, finds herself transported to Nigeria when her family decides to move back to their home there. Being American is the least of Sunny’s challenges. Sunny is albino, which means she can’t go out in the sun without an umbrella to protect her skin. Sunny also experiences odd visions which thoroughly frighten her. She becomes friends with a boy in her class who then introduces her to another girl, who puzzles Sunny with her secretive behavior. Eventually, Sunny is revealed as a powerful witch, and she goes on to explore her heritage and powers.

This book was described by multiple sources as a “new Harry Potter” which is what made me request an advanced copy from Netgalley. The premise is similar – a young outcast discovers she has magical powers and must use those powers to defeat a powerful enemy. That’s about the only similarity to HP, and I think it is a mistake to compare these two richly imagined stories because they really are nothing alike.

Akata Witch introduces a whole new world of magic, raw and powerful, and a new cast of characters who (Hallellujah!) are young Africans, two of whom are girls! The language and culture of the story and the characters provided a palate cleansing freshness, and an intriguing, clever plot. There is nothing here not to love and I predict kids will devour this book. Highly recommended.