Category Archives: YA

A Witch’s Kitchen by Dianna Sanchez.

Stars: 5 out  of 5

 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer at the beginning of my review – this is a children’s book. Well, a Middle Grade book, but the point is that this is not my usual reading fare. In fact, I stumbled upon this book by mistake: I loved the cover on Netgalley and requested it without looking for the intended audience. Glad I did, because I loved it!

Millie thinks she is a useless witch who can’t do proper magic. None of the spells her mother tries to teach her turn out right. In fact, the only thing she can do and loves to do is cook, much to her mother’s disappointment. But then she is enrolled into the Enchanted Forest School and discovers that there are other kinds of magic then the one her mother uses and that maybe she isn’t as useless as she thought. She also makes some friends and a few enemies and uncovers the truth about who her father really is.

The story sounds simple when summarized like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its simplicity, this is a wonderful story that touches on some important topics like the importance of friends, the struggle to meet expectations and the desire to fit in, the difficult choices one has to make when deciding to follow a different path in life. It also talks about things like bullying at school and split families.

Oh, and you can really tell that the author loves cooking just as much as Millie does. The descriptions of most of the dishes Millie made in this book had me salivating and running for the fridge, though sadly, I didn’t have anything as good there to treat myself with.

Millie is a wonderful protagonist. She is shy and very self-conscious because all her life she considered herself a failure, a disappointment and a source of shame for her mother. She has zero self-esteem because she’d been mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by the other witch apprentices because of her inability to cast any “normal” witch spells. But that rather brutal upbringing didn’t turn her into an embittered hag. She managed to remain a very sweet girl who loves making others feel better with her cooking skill.  I like how she more self-assured once she makes some friends in school. Growing up is a hard and often painful process during which you can learn some rather unpleasant truths about people you considered your heroes when you were a child. I like that Millie stands up to her mother and decides to undertake the dangerous journey into the Logical Realm (aka our world) to find the truth about her father.

The Magical Realm of the Enchanted Forest is delightfully fleshed out. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic because it’s a children’s book, but it’s still full of depth and colors and different magical inhabitants, friendly or otherwise. I loved the School and the different creatures that teach there , and I kinda wish the book spent more time there, a bit like the Harry Potter books in Hogwards. I mean the caretaker is a giant tree! The whole school is located on its branches. And the Headmistress is a dragon. I would have loved to see what other classes were taught there, because the few that we saw seemed really interesting. Not that I’m disappointed with Millie’s journey into the Logical Real either, but talking about that would be a huge spoiler, so why don’t you find out about it for yourselves?

I don’t have kids, but I think A Witch’s Kitchen would be an excellent book to read with your middle grader on those fall evenings when the air turns colder and the sun sets earlier and paying outside is out of the question. I think there is something to enjoy in this story for both children and adults. So go on, buy it! You won’t regret it!

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Proving by Ken Brosky.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

A few hundred years ago, a comet came too close to the Earth and when it collided with our atmosphere, it broke into a ring of ice that circles around most of our planet, hiding away the stars. That alone would be a disaster, but ice wasn’t the only thing that came with the comet. Every time a few of those chunks collide up there, they release Specters, strange beings that fall down to the Earth bellow. Problem is, those Specters are incompatible with Earth life. In fact, everything they touch dies, because they vibrate on a different frequency than all the other living creatures on Earth…

How can you fight an immaterial enemy who can phase through walls and can kill you by mere touch? What follows is a near annihilation of mankind. What’s left is holed up in a few cities protected by energy barriers that Specters can’t cross. Problem is, most of the infrastructures needed for those cities to function lay outside of the barriers and need to be repaired from time to time. That’s the job of the Cotteries – groups of people from all the clans who work together as one combat unit. Cotteries are formed  first at the age of 18 when they go through their first Proving, which also serves as a rite of passage into adulthood.

All in all, I really liked this book. The premise reminded me of the movie Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, which I really loved back when it came out in 2001. Same idea of an untouchable enemy that could kill you just by passing through your body. Same small human enclaves hiding behind energy shields.

But The Proving is in no way a retelling of that movie. This is a standalone story with a distinctly different world and interesting structure. The worldbuilding is what I enjoyed the most in this book. The world feels complex and well thought of and I would really like to know more about the clan system and technologies mentioned in this book.

I liked the pacing as well and the different POVs we had which put the same events in different, but complementary perspectives.

My problem with this book and the reason I only gave this book 3.5 stars is the characters. Most of them are supposed to be 18 year olds, but they behave like they are 14-15 at the most. My second problem is that they are supposed to be a Cotterie – a group that will be working together their whole life and performing tasks in a dangerous and deadly environment. Yet they don’t even try to get to know each other and try to cooperate. In fact, they so obviously distrust each other and even look down on each other that I’m amazed they even survived until the end of the book.

This also made me think, are all the Cotteries like this? From what is described in this book, the members have virtually no interaction with each other apart from when they go on missions. No training together, nothing. That’s… a serious lapse in logic in my opinion.

I wasn’t really thrilled by the ending either. I understand that this is the first book in the series and that the author needed to hook the reader into picking up the next one, but end it in a cliffhanger like that? Not cool man, not cool. I would have been okay with the ending if at least some of the questions raised throughout the book had been answered. But as it stands now, there is no resolution in this book. I felt like the characters accomplished nothing. And they didn’t really grow as people either, or learned to cooperate and trust each other. The whole story felt kinda… pointless. We got no answer as to what that secret research facility was working on and what the repercussions for the characters and the mankind would be from discovering that. We got no answer as to what was in those containers they found in the facility. We got no answer as to why the Specters chose that precise moment to change their behavior.

In fact, if the story is headed where I think it’s headed, all those answers will be irrelevant because the characters will have a bunch of new problems to face. That’s disappointing. I felt like the story was building to this big climax, a huge reveal that would shatter everybody’s view of the world… only to fizzle out like a wet firecracker.

Nevertheless, I will probably check out the next book because I liked the world and I want answers. But I will be upset if once again, I don’t get any.

The Casquette Girls by Alys Arden.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

I actually loved this book a lot more than I thought I would. It’s well written and even though it takes the tragedy that was hurricane Katrina and uses it as a plot device, it’s well done and not used only to wring tears from the readers.

 

In fact, when this book starts, the Storm, because the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in this book was so big that it didn’t even have a name, is already over. The protagonist and her family are left to pick up the broken pieces of their lives that were left in its wake.

 

What I loved the most about this book is the description of New Orleans. You can see that the author loves this city and knows a lot about its history and mythology. New Orleans is alive and vibrant on these pages, even when it’s broken and flooded and full of death and rot. It’s still a city unlike any others, full of magic and religion and voodoo, full of quirky people who speak a strange mélange of French, English, and Creole. A city that will party and sing even when the world is ending just to prove to it that it’s still alive. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

 

I loved all the quirky characters this books is populated with. The inhabitants of the Vieux Carre all feel like one big dysfunctional but loving family. Those are the die hards, the ones who came back as soon as the city was deemed safe enough to return because they simply couldn’t imagine their life anywhere else. And you can feel their love for their beautiful (if destroyed) city through all their words and actions. Kudos to the author for showing that.

 

I also liked Adele, the main protagonist. Yes, she is seventeen and dreams of boys and dresses and first love, but when push comes to shove, she demonstrates a surprising level of maturity and determination. More importantly, she acts instead of reacting. Love protagonists like that! I love that she is no damsel in distress either and prefers to resolve her own problems herself instead of waiting for someone else to do that for her. And that she takes matters personally when people she cares about are hurt.

 

So by now you are probably wondering why I gave The Casquette Girls only 4 stars out of 5 if I liked this book so much? Well, the thing that didn’t work for me was the love story. My first gripe is purely subjective and personal – I don’t like love triangles. But I hate it even more here because it didn’t really feel like a love triangle until the last fourth of the book. For most of it, Addie had feelings for Nico and a developing friendship with Isaac… but then all of a sudden it shifts, but not really. So it felt like Addie settled for the second best because the first choice was unavailable. This is not fair to Adele and not fair to Isaac, because both are great characters.

 

But since it’s the first book in a series, I am willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on that account and hope that she either develops that relationship better in the future books or resolves it in a way that makes sense.

 

All in all, this is a wonderful book that I would definitely recommend. If you want to read a story of magic, vampires, old family secrets, and new friendships, all set in the magical city of New Orleans, this book is definitely for you.

 

PS. I received an advanced reader copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig.

Stars: 4 out of 5

I rarely read and review young adult books, but I had read Chuck’s Atlanta Burns which I also reviewed and loved it. Plus the premise of this book sounded interesting. Carnivorous corn? Dystopian society? Heck yeah! So I requested Under the Empyrean Sky from NetGalley when it became available.

I liked it. Less than Atlanta Burns, but it was still an enjoyable read. The world is interesting. Who would have thought that the world would be destroyed not by a plague or natural disaster or alien invasion but by genetically modified corn that turns carnivorous? Most of the land is covered in it. It’s so virulent that it kills all other plants, so that’s the only thing that grows anymore. And it’s not even edible to bout!

This world has a very clear separation between the have and the have nots – the Empyreans living on their floating ships sailing high above the corn and dictating their law to the few people who still live in the Heartland. The Empyreans have everything: the best technologies, the best food, the best healthcare, while the Heartlanders live on scraps that sometimes fall from the sky.

The Heartland is a bleak, hopeless world. There is no future for those born amongst the corn. The only jobs available is to grow, harvest or process the corn. Cancer and other diseases are rampant due to the highly toxic chemicals used to process corn and keep it away from the villages. There is no school, no sports, no entertainment. Even marriages are arranged by the Empyreans who send down a list of who will marry whom on Obligation day. The only way out is the Lottery that is held once a year and which gives one family a chance to relocate into one of the Empyrean flotillas. Only everyone knows that the Lottery is rigged, though it doesn’t prevent people from hoping…

Cael and his crew are salvagers. They have a glider they use to scout the sea of corn around their village for broken harvesters they can salvage for parts or anything else that could earn them a few ace notes. Cael’s dream is to become rich and famous, to build a better life for his family, to be a better man than his father whom he sees as weak and incapable of providing for his sick wife and his children.

Even though I found Cael’s narrative to be a bit too angry at times, I could understand it and even empathize a little: I still remember how it feels to be a teenager in full rebellion.  Everything is either good or bad, black or white. There are no shadows or demi-measures. Cael is at that age when he is at odd with the rest of the world. He thinks that adults don’t understand him. He doesn’t want to conform to their rules. He wants the freedom to find his own path. The fact that his crew is the ultimate underdog in this town doesn’t help either. No matter what they do, it ends up in disaster. All their small victories morph into failures and things go from bad to worse.

So yes, I understand why he is angry, but this is also something that didn’t sit quite right with me and why I gave this book only 4 out of 5 stars. Since we see the world through Cael’s eyes, all the bad people are horribly bad, with no redeeming qualities. The Empyreans are painted in such thick dark colors that they could be demons feasting on poor Heartlanders’ souls for all I know. I find that a bit heavy handed. I like my worlds to be more nuanced and my villains to be a little less of a caricature and a little more real. Real people have both good and bad in them, and they can do bad things for entirely honorable reasons.

But other than that, I did enjoy Under the Empyrean Sky quite a lot and I would definitely recommend it. And I will certainly read the next book in the series.

PS. I received a free copy of this book from NetGAlley.

Johnny Shipwreck by the Lindsay Brothers.

Stars: 3 out of 5.

 

I love pirate adventures. I’ve read all the classics back when I was a little girl, starting with Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne and the Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. So when I got asked to read Johnny Shipwreck in exchange for an honest review, I jumped at the occasion. After all, it has all the elements I love: pirates, a mystery, a hidden treasure and lots of adventures. And it even starts like all good adventures should – with a message in a bottle. Well, in an old lantern in this case…

 

All in all, I enjoyed this book. It had a good balance of action and sleuthing. The narrative alternates between 1950, when Johnny Socko finds a strange message and begins his search for the mysterious Castillo del Mar, and the 1700s, when Titus, first mate on the English ship Queen Anne, has his fateful encounter with a pirate and his daughter.

 

The authors managed to capture the feel of most pirate adventure novels – the slow unraveling of the mystery that drives the reader along with the protagonists in the hunt for the next clue. It was also fun to watch the conclusions Johnny and his crew come up with, and then read how it really happened in the chapters set back in the 1700s. Sometimes Johnny got it right, but sometimes he fell short of the truth.

 

So by now you are probably wondering why I gave this book only 3 stars if I liked it so much? Well, there were several problems that dampened my enjoyment considerably, that’s why.

 

First of all, the authors tried to write this book in Subjective Third Person Omniscient point of view. I get it. Most of the pirate adventure books back in the days were written in that POV, so they probably wanted to keep that feeling in their story as well. Problem is, omniscient is extremely hard to do well, especially subjective where the narrator (and the reader) knows everything, even the characters’ thoughts and feelings. For it to work, the narrator needs to have a strong voice, and he cannot be one of the participants.

 

Unfortunately, that’s where this book falls short. There is no distinct narrator to tell us this story, just a jumbled mess of POVs from all the other characters that switch back and forth several times in the same scene. That’s called “head hopping,” and I found it extremely confusing and irritating.

 

My second gripe with this book is that Johnny, the boy wonder and all-star sleuth, is a bit too perfect. He solves all the mysteries, he gets all the answers, he fights off the bad guys, and he does all that seemingly effortlessly. This kills a lot of the suspense, because I was never worried for Johnny’s life and well-being. Since he had all the answers, it was clear that nothing bad could happen to him, no matter how dire the situation. Had the authors made him a little bit more fallible, let him make some mistakes and reap the consequences, his adventures would have had a bigger impact and kept me on the edge of my seat.

 

And my final complaint: I think the whole mystical / magical element in this book was entirely unnecessary. It was all good and dandy while it was just hinted upon, because it could or could not have been the truth, but the final confrontation with the Crimson Pirazzo felt alien to this story, like it had been included as an afterthought. And it really didn’t add anything to the story itself. Just escaping from Castillo del Mar in one piece would have been a worthy enough conclusion.

 

But despite those shortcomings, I think Johnny Shipwreck is a good book. I would definitely recommend it even to reawaken that feeling of adventure and wonder we used to get when we opened a pirate book when we were kids.

Atlanta Burns by Chuck Wendig.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Lizzy Borden had an axe and Atlanta Burns has a shotgun. I couldn’t help myself, sorry! But I can assure you that Atlanta Burns isn’t at all like this notorious murderer from the 19th century. Oh, and as you can see by the 5 stars on top of this review, I absolutely loved the book.

Fair warning though, this is a difficult book to read. It’s not your typical young adult book about life in high school where the earth-shattering problem is that the guy the protagonist likes chose to go to the prom with someone else. It covers some pretty harsh and gruesome themes like racism, bullying, teenage suicide, drug use and outright cruelty towards both humans and animals. So don’t pick up this book thinking that it would be an easy read. In fact, it should come with several trigger warnings.

But if you are looking for a serious story that challenges you and makes you think about our society and your own behavior; a book that leaves you a slightly better person after you close it, then definitely pick up Atlanta Burns. Chuck Wendig delivered a rare gem: a young adult book that strives not only to entertain the young readers, but also to teach them something. Too few books do that nowadays, unfortunately.

Alright, vague eulogies aside, what gripped me in this book, you might ask? I won’t go into details because I’m not sure I can avoid big spoilers, and I really don’t want to ruin the story for you.

I will say one thing though, Atlanta is not a typical teenage girl, or rather, she used to be a typical teenage girl until something horrible happened that left her rather broken and disillusioned. Some girls would wallow in their own misery and self-pity, but not Atlanta. I loved the fact that she took the matters into her own hands. If her mother was not going to defend her against the monster she had invited into their house, Atlanta would take care of it herself… with a shotgun.

I loved how Atlanta is portrayed. She doesn’t regret what she had to do. He mother’s boyfriend was molesting her and she blew his balls off. But the whole experience left her broken, disillusioned and isolated, because the people she used to be friends with in school don’t seem to notice her anymore, as if she was a blank space or something too dangerous and unpredictable to interact with. And I can understand her anger and resentment towards her mother – she was supposed to protect her from this, but failed miserably, and that loss of innocence and trust hurts more than the horrible act itself.

In some respect, I think Atlanta and Whitey are very similar – both will get back up and fight no matter how many times they are kicked down, and both are fiercely loyal and protective of those who they consider their friends.

From what I described above, it might seem that Atlanta Burns is  a very grim book, but it’s not. Yes, it touches on pretty grim subjects, but the main message of the book is one that I endorse 110% – STAND UP TO BULLIES, don’t just take it, don’t walk past when you see someone being bullied and think that it’s not your problem, because it is everybody’s problem. One person might not make a whole lot of a difference, but a group of people might. And this message is true in every aspect of our lives, be it high school, work environment, or cyber-bullying on the internet.

So in case you are still wondering whether this book is worth buying, my answer is yes, absolutely. Go get it now!

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley.

It Started with a Whisper by A. W. Hartoin.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Ernest “Puppy” McClarity has only one wish: that Miss Pritchett, his dreaded math teacher, leaves him alone on the last day of school, so he makes a wish to his great-granddad Ernest to take care of her for him. Only wishes are a powerful thing when you are a McClarity, and old Ernest always watches over his own, even if he is long dead.

I absolutely loved It Started with a Whisper. It has magic and paranormal elements in it, but they are presented in such a manner that a lot can be seen as coincidences or weird accidents. This book is not about the all-powerful witches that smite their enemies with deadly spells. It’s about a family that loves each other and their land, and would do anything to protect each other as well.

I loved all the characters in this book. The McClarity clan is big, colorful and full of crazy people. They biker, they fight with each other, but they also have fun and love each other unconditionally. And they are all fully fleshed and tridimensional characters. I felt like I was right there at Camp with them, just another member of the Pack.

And Great-grandpa’s Ernest old homestead, or the Camp as everyone calls it, is described with such love and attention to detail, that I could picture it perfectly in my head as well. That’s actually one of the reasons I loved this book so much – it reminded me of the summers I spent at my grandparents summerhouse when I was a child. It was in a remote village in Russia where everybody knew each other and nobody ever locked their doors. All the kids would play together from dawn till dusk, and nobody worried where we were. That long-forgotten feeling of freedom, of summer heat and lazy afternoons swimming in the pond or exploring the woods behind the village, I managed to recapture it again while I read this book. And for that, Mrs. Hartoin, I thank you.

This story is less about magic, and more about Puppy slowly leaving his childhood behind and realizing that actions have consequences, and that sometimes things are not what they seem, and neither are people. Nothing is black or white, and even the hated teacher who had been so awful to him all year long might do so because she is profoundly unhappy and just lashing out.

It’s a coming of age story and it’s executed perfectly. Puppy is a typical 14 year old boy who has just barely left childhood and suddenly discovered that girls might as well be aliens from Tau Centori, because they are just as puzzling. Like any other boys his age, he is awkward around them, unsure of himself and slightly embarrassed about his mother always dropping him at school at least 30 mins late. All he wants at the beginning of the book is spend a fun summer at Camp with his family and friends, and hope that Beatrice, the llama that seems to hate him for some reason, doesn’t spit on him too often.

But when real disaster strikes and some of his actions have grave consequences, he steps up and does what is right. By then end of the story, Puppy has turned into a good man, a man Grandpa Ernest would be proud of.

I thoroughly enjoyed It Started With a Whisper and my time spent at Camp with the McClarities. On this cold and dreary season it was a much needed breath of summer heat. I would definitely pick up the next book when it comes out in 2015, because I wouldn’t mind coming back for a visit… as long as I’m invited. Because bad things happen to people who step on Ernest’s land uninvited.

PS. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a honest review through LibraryThing.