Kate’s Review: “Pumpkinheads”

40864790Book: “Pumpkinheads” by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second, August 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends.

Every autumn, all through high school, they’ve worked together at the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world. (Not many people know that the best pumpkin patch in the whole wide world is in Omaha, Nebraska, but it definitely is.) They say good-bye every Halloween, and they’re reunited every September 1.
But this Halloween is different—Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years . . .

What if their last shift was an adventure?

Beloved writer Rainbow Rowell and Eisner Award–winning artist Faith Erin Hicks have teamed up to create this tender and hilarious story about two irresistible teens discovering what it means to leave behind a place—and a person—with no regrets.

Review: Halloween has come and gone (pardon me while I sigh deeply over this fact), but it’s still technically Fall, even if in Minnesota our weather starts to trend towards Winter a bit earlier than other places. Given that Fall is such a short season here, I cherish it as long as we get to experience it. “Pumpkinheads” is the perfect Autumn story. It has a pumpkin patch, it takes place on Halloween, and it brings to life all of the best Autumn sights, games, and treats. Rainbow Rowell has always been great at creating charming and relatable characters and settings, and therefore she was probably the perfect person to create a story about two pumpkin patch workers on their last shift ever. Highjinx, nostalgia, and candy apples galore ensue!

Josiah (or Josie) and Deja are our seasonal BFF protagonists, coworkers who only interact when they are working at DeKnock’s World Famous Pumpkin Patch & Autumn Jamboree. Josiah is shy and pragmatic, while Deja is effervescent and free spirited. They work at the succotash stand together (this concept alone was so ridiculously endearing) and are besties until the season ends. This is their last night working at the patch, as it’s Halloween and they are both graduating in the spring and moving on. Their friendship was the beating heart of this book, and Rowell is superb at showing why they are such a good friend match through one night of misadventures. It reminded me of the classic film “American Graffiti”, as both in that film and in this book we really get a sense of these two people based on one seemingly random night. But we get to see through the happenings of that night so much about both of these characters that I felt like I knew everything about them by the time I was finished and their last shift had come to an end. I loved both of them for different reasons, and found them both to have lots of layers that were well explored. Josiah is sweet and shy, but also filled with hesitation that has prevented him from talking to his crush Marcy for three years. Deja is kind and adventurous, but she also can be capricious and impulsive. They balance each other out and their relationship is fun to see as she drags him around the patch in hopes of making his romantic dreams come true (and in hopes of finding all the delicious food to munch on. SO relatable). There is also the always looming bittersweet reality that once their night is done, they aren’t sure if they will ever see each other again. It’s light hearted and yet bittersweet.

Rowell also nails the joys of the Autumn season. This is certainly a kinder and gentler way to spend one’s Halloween, but the pumpkin patch is filled with all the fun things you want from this kind of thing: hayrides, candied apples, pumpkin picking, a corn maze, you name it, this place has it. I could practically smell the hay and the apple cider, and it felt like I was seeing a number of my favorite Autumn festivals come to life on the page. I WANTED TO VISIT DEKNOCK’S WORLD FAMOUS PUMPKIN PATCH & AUTUMN JAMBOREE!

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And I can’t guarantee I would leave unless I was dragged away. (source)

And the icing on this pumpkin cake is that the illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks perfectly complement Rowell’s story. They are expressive and detailed, but also have this coziness to them that just evokes feelings of Autumnal nostalgia.

Screen Shot 2019-09-23 at 6.10.23 PM
(source)

I really enjoyed reading “Pumpkinheads”. Rainbow Rowell is such a delightful author who always writes such pleasing stories. Keep that Fall spirit alive and grab this one to read over some hot apple cider and something pumpkin-y!

Rating 8: A very cute seasonal story with fun characters, a cheerful setting, and an adorable plot.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pumpkinheads” isn’t on very specific Goodreads lists as of yet, but it would fit in on “Best Books to Read in Autumn”, and “Black Girl Comics”.

Find “Pumpkinheads” at your library using WorldCat!

Blog Tour: “Song of the Crimson Flower”

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32605126._sy475_Book: “Song of the Crimson Flower” by Julie C. Dao

Publishing Info: Philomel, November 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!

Book Description: Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.

Review: First off, I would like to send out a big thanks for being included in the blog tour for this book! It’s always great to be included in a collaboration between between authors, publishers, and bloggers. I hadn’t read any other books by this author, but “Forest of a Thousand Lanterns” has been on my TBR pile for a long time (this is more a reflection of how out of control my TBR pile is than anything about the book itself). But this recent release seemed like a great time to jump on the bandwagon, and here I am! Fully on board!

Lan’s future is simple: marry the man she loves who just so happens to love her back and to be a perfectly appropriate match, thank you very much. Problem is, that man is not who she thinks and when Bao, a lowly apprentice, makes this known to her, the exchange doesn’t go well for either. When a witch’s curse binds the two together once more, Bao and Lan find themselves on an adventure that involves not only Bao’s mysterious origins but catches them up in the maneuverings of rulers and countries, bringing with it a few familiar faces from previous books.

There were many things to love about this book. For me, one of the best part was the fairytale-like nature of the story. It’s well-documented that this type of fantasy is one of my favorites, and it’s all the more exciting when I stumble across one that is unique, rather than just a re-telling of the ever popular “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella.” While I do wish the rules of the curse itself had been fleshed out a bit more, I did like the fact that, while new, much of it was based on familiar staples of fairytales: a curse involving a witch, some type of magical object, family ties, and, of course, love as a cure. But while these elements on their own were wholly original, I think the way the author incorporated them into her original world lent them a feeling of freshness.

I think this was especially clear in the way the cure played out and the romance at the heart of the story. While the two characters have known each other since childhood, the beginning of the book makes it clear that they each saw this friendship very differently. And when the truth of the original romance is revealed, each behave poorly (most especially Lan). From there, the romance really begins to build as each has to get to know the real version of the other, metaphorical “warts” and all. I really enjoyed the slow burn of this love story. Aside from the lovely romance at the heart of it, the way their story developed allowed for each character to go through a lot of self discovery, exploring themes of forgiveness, patience, and understanding.

As I haven’t read the other stories by this author, I wasn’t familiar with some of the characters who showed up here but had clearly been the main characters in previous books. Readers familiar with those books will likely get a lot more out of these appearances than I did. But I can say that this book is also fully capable of standing alone and introducing these characters and this world on its own. While I may not have had any previous attachment, I was never confused or felt like more reading was necessary to understand the players at the table.

The world-building was also very interesting. And for being such a short book, I was impressed by how fully fleshed out this world was. To top that off, the secondary plot of the story (I would argue that the romance is mostly the main plot) was interesting and had many twists and turns. A mysterious illness, an illegal plant/drug, and, of course, how Bao is connected to it all. Even if I was there mostly for the relationship drama, there were enough other things going on to keep me on my toes.

I really enjoyed this story. It’s a fresh, fairytale fantasy with a sweet romance at its heart. Fans of the author’s other books will likely be happy with this one and pleased to see familiar faces. However, readers new to the story will have an easy introduction to the world and characters. Those looking for a lovely, standalone fairytale are sure to be happy with this one!

Rating 8: Sweet and unique, this story was lovely from start to finish.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Song of the Crimson Flower” is on these Goodreads lists: “Apprentices” and “Fairy tales & Retellings.”

Find “Song of the Crimson Flower” at your library using Worldcat!

Check out these other stops on the blog tour!

Week One

November 4 – Velarisreads – Review + Creative Instagram Picture

November 5 – A Gingerly Review – Dream Cast

November 6 – Love.books.and.coffee – Creative Instagram Picture

November 7 – Lovely Loveday – Review

Week Two

November 11 – Old.enough.for.fairytales – Creative Instagram Picture

November 12 – Confessions of a YA Reader – Author Q&A

November 13 – Library Ladies – Review

November 14 – The Paige-Turner – Creative Instagram Picture + Tumblr post

Bookclub Review: “Gone”

2536134We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, June 2008

Where Did We Get This Book: From the library!

Book Description: In the blink of an eye, everyone disappears. Gone. Except for the young.

There are teens, but not one single adult. Just as suddenly, there are no phones, no internet, no television. No way to get help. And no way to figure out what’s happened.

Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents—unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers—that grow stronger by the day. It’s a terrifying new world. Sides are being chosen, a fight is shaping up. Townies against rich kids. Bullies against the weak. Powerful against powerless. And time is running out: On your 15th birthday, you disappear just like everyone else…

Kate’s Thoughts

When I was in middle school I had already dived right into adult fiction. I would imagine that part of that was because when I was that age (totally dating myself a bit here) we were still a number of years off from the YA boom and I had already read horror and thrillers for teens by the time I had entered fifth grade. Because of this, I had a few preconceived notions about what to expect from “Gone” by Michael Grant. True, it was published in 2008, a time when the YA book dynamics had already started to change, but I thought that it was going to be straight forward and ‘kid gloved’. I was wrong. I was so wrong.

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Probably my face as disturbing detail after disturbing detail came to fruition. (source)

“Gone” is an imperfect YA end of world tale, with a lot of ideas, a lot of characters, and a lot of details that are building to something that has yet to be seen. It also has a lot of darkness within its pages, at least compared to other YA end of world thrillers that I’ve read. Nothing I can’t handle, of course, but damn, Michael Grant, you went all in. That said, I LIKED that he went all in, because it makes it seem like he trusts that his readers can handle whatever he tosses their way. And boy, does he toss some rough things their way. From grotesque wounds to spates of violence perpetrated against children to the very concept of very small children being left alone with no one to protect them, “Gone” was bleaker than I anticipated, but that made it all the more enjoyable.

That said, there is a LOT going on in this book. It makes some sense, given that 1) Michael Grant used to work on the “Animorphs” books with Katherine Applegate and those had a lot of details and world building, and 2) it has six books in the entire run. But I think that the reason it didn’t really work for me was because so much was crammed in and only touched upon, and there were so many characters to address that a lot of them didn’t get a lot of attention or development. True, there are more books to flesh all of these things out, but, at the same time, there are MORE BOOKS TO FLESH THIS ALL OUT. In other words, I wish that Grant had saved some of the details and developments for later books, just because this story did feel bloated and there were multiple characters that I didn’t feel like we really got to know. Luckily, it was the villains who were the most interesting, which is what I like to see in books like this.

This is also a very 2008 book in terms of how it approaches a number of themes, and it didn’t age well in that regard. From an autistic character to the very clear gender roles of some of the girl characters, I totally see how these things wouldn’t have been seen as problematic back then, but are definitely a bit hard to read now. I’m not going to write this book off completely because of this, as it is very of the time and that’s just the reality of it. But I wanted to note it.

I don’t think that I will keep going in this series, but I was pleasantly surprised that “Gone” trusts its YA readers to be able to take on some bleak, bleak themes.

Serena’s Thoughts

The timing of reading this book couldn’t really be better. I had just finished up my re-read of “Animorphs,” a middle grade science fiction series that Grant collaborated on with his partner, K.A. Applegate, and our bookclub theme (books on our TBR pile) gave me the perfect excuse to inflict it upon the entire group! “Inflict” being purely a dramatic term, as, while it was darker than some of our group preferred, it was still a quick, action-packed read. But oof, talk about dark.

From a non-“Animorphs” perspective, I agree with almost everything Kate said, especially about just how much is packed into this book. It didn’t really hit me until I was starting to write up questions for our bookclub discussion, but this book really through everything in at once. You have the post-apocalyptic setting with the adults suddenly gone, kids with powers, family drama, a mysterious nuclear power plant, mutated animals, some dark force potentially behind it all. There are a lot of cards on the table, and for a book that is quite obviously the beginning of the series, I do wonder if it would have been better served to introduce some of these mysteries in the next books. As it is, there is a lot to get done and I think some of the issues Kate highlighted with the characters could have been better served had they been given more time, no longer needing to fight for page time against the numerous mysteries being set up.’

The character stuff is what really struck me in this book, however, both in a good and bad way. Having read “Animorphs,” it is very easy to see bits and pieces of those characters here, and I think in some ways, these are almost better in that they are not, in fact, better people. Our main character, for example, is essentially the Jake of this story. Except that Jake accepted the call to action as a leader almost from the get go and fairly seamlessly fit into that role. There were some bumps along the way and he struggled with this role throughout, but he took up the mantle quite quickly and with little real conflict. Here, Sam is much more reluctant, and with his reluctance come real consequences. I mean, REAL. As in kids die because he backs off originally. And he knows it. This makes Sam in some ways a much more believable character than Jake. He messes up big time right off the bat because of a the very real reaction of any kid in that situation, not wanting to be the one responsible.

So that’s a good example of characters. Kate mentioned some of the negatives. To be honest, I have a hard time separating this book from Grant’s collaboration with Applegate on the “Animorphs” in this regard. Having read that series, which came first, it’s hard not to read this book through the lens of faith that some of the problematic character issues, most especially the women, will be resolved some how. If this book is of its time for handling some things poorly, “Animorphs” was way ahead of it by offering up a very diverse team and making its most badass character a girl. This makes it hard for me to reconcile the two together. I think I can objectively say that while a few things stuck out to me (there’s an unfortunate line about the autistic character, for sure), I still felt that there was enough groundwork laid in other areas to excuse some of the more gendered roles some female characters were given. For one thing, I think Diana, an enigmatic character on the bad side, was set up as one of the more complicated characters in the entire book. Does this make up for the fact that a girl is running the daycare and another the hospital while the boys duke it out for leadership? I’m not sure. But I feel like enough was done to make me want to read more and find out how everything plays out.

Where the book was definitely ahead of its time, however, was the way it treated its readers as capable of handling darker elements of the story. It almost made me wonder if YA has regressed a bit in this regard, as the stakes felt much higher and more real in this book than they have in other YA stories I’ve read recently where YA protagonists are leading armies and the fate of the world!!! yada yada. As hard as some of it was to read, this commitment to the harsh realities of what this situation would look like is probably one of the biggest reasons I want to keep reading. The next books is called “Hunger,” for heaven’s sake!

Kate’s Rating 7: A darker than I expected YA novel with lots of components, “Gone” is entertaining, a little much, and a good fit for YA readers who want more thrills than juvie fiction but aren’t necessarily ready for adult end of world sagas.

Serena’s Rating 8: This book takes it premise and goes full throttle, but its wackiness is quickly squashed beneath a serious, “Lord of the Flies”-like exploration of human nature. Also talking coyotes.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book explore similar themes to “Lord of the Flies.” If you’ve read that, how does it compare? In what ways does this book tackle themes of power and civilization?
  2. There are a lot of characters who perspectives are covered in this book. Which ones stood out to you and why?
  3. If there was an element of the story that could have been explored more in this book, which one was it? Which element would you leave out (perhaps for the second book) to make room for this?
  4. Some of the roles in this burgeoning civilization seem to be falling along traditionally gendered lines. Are there examples of the book challenging this? Particular failures that you struggled with and wish were changed?
  5. We have several explanations offered up as to what caused this situation. Which one are you leaning towards?
  6. What predictions do you have for book two?

Reader’s Advisory

“Gone” is included on the Goodreads lists: “Best Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction” and “Original Stories . . . a Breath of Fresh Air.”

Find “Gone” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Serena’s Review: “In the Woods”

46650269._sy475_Book: “In the Woods” by Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, July 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: It should have been just another quiet night on the farm when Logan witnessed the attack, but it wasn’t.

Something is in the woods.
Something unexplainable.
Something deadly.

Hundreds of miles away, Chrystal’s plans for summer in Manhattan are abruptly upended when her dad reads tabloid coverage of some kind of grisly incident in Oklahoma. When they arrive to investigate, they find a witness: a surprisingly good-looking farm boy.

As townsfolk start disappearing and the attacks get ever closer, Logan and Chrystal will have to find out the truth about whatever’s hiding in the woods…before they become targets themselves. 

Review: This was kind of a whim request on my part. The description itself sounds more like the kind of book Kate would typically read than me. But I knew I’d need to have a few scary-ish stories lined up for October to at least pretend to be in the season of things, so here we are! However, it turned out that this book was more closely aligned to my reading habits than I had thought. Alas, that didn’t necessarily translate into increasing my enjoyment of it.

Something or someone is attacking things in Logan’s rural hometown. First it was cattle, but now people are beginning to be attacked as well. And the killer is only growing more bold, coming literally out of the shadows to attack in broad daylight. When Chrystal and her father, a man who chases adventure, arrive on the scene, they team up with Logan and his family to try and catch whomever or whatever is behind these mutilations. And as Logan and Chrystal grow steadily closer to each other romantically, and closer to the truth of the mystery, they soon find themselves no longer the hunters, but now the hunted.

So this was a tricky book for me. It’s so different than what I thought it would be that it’s hard to know how much of my experience was due to my expectations and how much was due to the book just not hitting the mark for me. It’s a strange twist, however, when the fact that I had thought I was intentionally reading out of my preferred genre somehow backfired when I found out I was actually reading more within it. I’m not quite sure what the marketing decisions were behind why this book was presented as it was, but I definitely went in thinking it was going to be some type of creepy, YA, serial killer story. Nope! Much more aligned with monster horror and cryptozoology stories. And yeah, on the face of it, those are my thing, but something about the way it was presented here just didn’t click for me.

Really, I don’t think it had anything to do with the monster angle. Yeah, I was looking for serial killer, but let’s face it, I’m not super dedicated to that or anything. My bigger problems had to do with the story itself and its two main character. There are hints of good characters here, but the writing itself let them down. The dialogue was almost laughable at times, and their relationship falls into the worst traps of instalove. They literally first meet and “feel a connection.” Not only is this not interesting, but it’s the laziest kind of romance building. No need to establish why two characters come together when they both “just know” instantly! Done, hard work finished. Now onto the mushy stuff! Ugh. My feelings about instalove have been well-established, so I’ll stop there.

The plot itself was rather lackluster. Sure, there were some fun, tense scenes sprinkled here and there, but there were too many moments where things happened that didn’t make sense or stretched my sense of plausibility beyond enjoyment. Much of the mystery is telegraphed to the reader pretty early in the story, so the reader is often ahead of the characters in terms of reveals. This is all made harder due to the writing which was just kind of banal. As I mentioned before, the dialogue was the real problem; didn’t read as natural which made it a constant distraction.

In the end I think it was six of one as to why this book didn’t click for me. On one hand, it wasn’t what I expected and contemporary stories featuring instalove have to be up there on my “most disliked” list. On the other hand, the strained writing and lackluster plot didn’t recommend it to me either. Readers who are more interested in contemporary YA and monster stories (notably NOT serial killers) might enjoy this. But I also think there are better options out there doing similar things.

Rating 5: Right down the middle of my rating system and largely forgettable.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“In the Woods” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Cryptofiction.”

Find “In the Woods” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Angel Mage”

41951611Book: “Angel Mage” by Garth Nix

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.

A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.

Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.

But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.

The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else. . .

Review: I’m not caught up with all of the books in the “Sabriel” series (know that’s not really the name, but it might as well be), so it’s been quite a while since I’ve read a new book by Garth Nix. So when I saw this title pop up on Edelweiss+ it seemed like a perfect opportunity to revisit a past favorite.

Long ago, Ystara, the homeland of the patron archangel Pallenial, fell amidst horror and terror. It was suspected that a powerful angelic mage, Liliath had something to do with this fall, but no one knows the truth of it. After many years pass, however, Liliath miraculously returns, still young, still powerful, still driven to accomplish a plan only known to her. Caught up in her ambitions are not only the remnants of the Ystaraian people, now shunned by the countries they live in as refugees, but four specific young people. Not knowing why they are connected or what Liliath wants from them, a medical student, a scholar, a musketeer, and a scribe must work together to not only discover their own role, but help aid or thwart Liliath in her grand plans.

This is another great example of a lesser used source story (similar to “The Republic” and “The Lady and the Tiger” that we seen earlier). Here, Nix is clearly drawing from “The Three Musketeers,” and it’s pretty excellent. He perfectly finds the balancing point between making enough references to the original as to make it recognizable to most readers and layering so much new world-building and plot that the story remains feeling completely unique. In many ways, it seems that Nix had an original idea, world, and magic system teed up to go and then looked through some of his own fan favorites and discovered “The Three Musketeers.” This is in no way a criticism of the story. More so, it’s a testament to his skill that he can superimpose favored elements from another story in a way that makes it clear he is largely wanting to just play in that world while still ending up with a book that so completely stands on its own as unalike anything I’ve read before.

The “Mustketeer” elements are most evident in the style of writing, especially in the dialogue between the characters. It’s hard to put my finger on it for this review; it’s more a “know it when you read it” kind of thing. The culture is also heavily influenced by the France that we see in that book, with much of the style of dress, honor system, and conflicting political and religious powers ringing as familiar. These political/religious conflicts were particularly intriguing. Nix spends a good amount of time setting up the different power players in the story and their differing connections to the angelic magic that plays such a large role in society. And each of our four main characters has a unique connection to these divisions and their differing priorities.

All four of the characters were very well-drawn. There is excellent diversity between them all in most every way you can ask for. I enjoyed reading all of their sections equally pretty much, but I will say that I particularly enjoyed the portions that dealt with Agnez, our musketeer in the making. For those who read my Animorphs reviews, Agnez is a very “Rachel-like” character: she’s brave, a bit reckless, and has a clear view of right/wrong/and what should be done, regardless of others’ perceptions of it. She’s also the most clearly connected to the original Musketeers, with the same charming bravado.

The story is also blessedly free of a romance between any of these four members. I love a good romance at the heart of my story, but I must confess that I’m pretty burned out on these YA fantasy ensemble stories (usually heists), particularly with the romances at the heart of them. They’ve gotten incredibly predictable and almost farcical in their similarities to each other. And at the heart of each are yawn-inducing, lazy romances that are built completely on the fact that they are what readers expect to find in these stories. No work is done to make any couple/pairing particularly relatable or believable; it just is because they know that’s what readers expect. So it was a breath of fresh air to open this book and have the more sibling-like relationships between these group members laid out fairly early in the story, immediately putting to rest any mental predictions on romantic pairs that the reader may already be forming.

I also enjoyed how much time we got to spend with Liliath. In many ways, she’s just as much a main character as the four others. We learn her motivations, her strengths, as well as the ambitions and single-mindedness that drive her. We see her plans play out while the four main characters must piece things together, all while we, the reader, are still not clear on Liliath’s endgame. This makes for a nice mixture of mystery and tension as the story plays out.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. It’s definitely different than anything I’ve read before, and anyone going into with expectations derived from what’s popular in YA fantasy right now may be disappointed. This a slower moving story with world-building at its heart. The connections to “The Three Musketeers” will also be appreciated depending on the reader’s familiarity with that story. Readers looking for a unique, fresh-feeling YA ensemble fantasy, this is a great place to start!

Rating 8: Enough hints of “The Three Musketeers” to add some extra fun, but stands on its own with an incredibly unique and fresh world.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Angel Mage” is a new book, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. But it should be on “Angels & Demons.”

Find “Angel Mage” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Fireborne”

36578543Book: “Fireborne” by Rosaria Munda

Publication Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Annie and Lee were just children when a brutal revolution changed their world, giving everyone—even the lowborn—a chance to test into the governing class of dragonriders.

Now they are both rising stars in the new regime, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. Annie’s lowborn family was executed by dragonfire, while Lee’s aristocratic family was murdered by revolutionaries. Growing up in the same orphanage forged their friendship, and seven years of training have made them rivals for the top position in the dragonriding fleet.

But everything changes when survivors from the old regime surface, bent on reclaiming the city.

With war on the horizon and his relationship with Annie changing fast, Lee must choose to kill the only family he has left or to betray everything he’s come to believe in. And Annie must decide whether to protect the boy she loves . . . or step up to be the champion her city needs.

Review: I’m always interested in a good dragon book. And for as popular as the subject matter is, it’s rare that I find one that really hits the spot for me. Maybe it’s just that the more I like something, the higher standards I set for it. But combined with an intriguing book description and comparison to “Red Rising,” I was excited to see what new take “Fireborne” had to offer!

Revolutions are bloody and brutal, but what comes after can be just as hard. The decks have been shuffled leaving those who survived living very different lives than the ones they had before. For Annie and Lee, these changes hit very close to home, but in very different ways. Now, together, they are slowly climbing their way through the ranks as dragon riders, each hoping to build their own future in this new world. But the old regime has only gone underground, and when it becomes clear that the revolution is not over, Annie and Lee must now, once again, choose sides.

I can definitely see how the comparisons to “Red Rising” came about. For all that a dragon is on the cover, this story is mostly a deep dive into the moral grey zone of what a revolution really looks like. Similarly to that book, it explores complex issues spending extra time highlighting that no choice is perfect and consequences are to be had no matter how good one’s intentions are going in. In our current political and cultural environment, I really appreciated the attention that went into this portrayal and the challenging questions it poses to not only its characters but to readers as well. It’s always refreshing to find a story that goes past the simple (and often unbelievable) “good” and “bad” of it all.

Both Annie and Lee provide insights into the past events of the revolution, the current regime, and, of course, the challenges posed by the resurgence of the conflict. At various times it was easy to side with one or another only to skip to the next chapter, read the other character’s perspective, and feel conflicted once again. I will say that Annie, by the nature of her story, had the easier sell, leaving Lee more often in the role of the character who needed to experience more growth and perspective.

However, at times, the writing itself seemed to let down these greater themes. For one thing, as I’ve gone into before, it’s always challenging to write two perspectives. Yes, Annie and Lee tell different stories and have differing challenges and views on events. But the writing itself is doing very little to differentiate their voices. Take away the actual story beats, and these two characters sound the same and it would be challenging to identify which of the two is speaking. This flaw makes it hard to truly connect to either character as they feel less like people and more like vessels through which to communicate the overall conflicts of the story.

The writing was also a bit slow. It did pick up towards the end and became quite engaging at that point. But it still took a bit to reach that point. This may, again, have to do with the challenge of feeling truly emotionally invested in either character. There were a lot of characters and connections between them that never felt fully explained leaving me more often than not still trying to pin down who was who about half way into into the book. A whiff of a love triangle was also a bit of a detractor even if it never became fully fledged.

I still really enjoyed the dragons, of course. And the overall story has a lot of potential growth. It’s tackling some big concepts and putting in the work to approach the realities of such decisions, actions, or inactions. Perhaps the second in the series will help cement to the two protagonists more fully into their own. I’m still game to check it out! And, if you’re interested in getting your hands on a free copy, don’t forget to enter our giveaway for “Fireborne!”

Rating 7: The story and themes outshine its own main characters at times, but there’s still a lot of potential in this first in a new trilogy!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Fireborne” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but, funnily, it is on this “We Fire the Darkness And Flame At Night.”

Find “Fireborne” at your library using WorldCat!

Giveaway: “Fireborne”

36578543Book: “Fireborne” by Rosaria Munda

Publication Info:G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, October 15

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from BookishFirst

Book Description: Annie and Lee were just children when a brutal revolution changed their world, giving everyone—even the lowborn—a chance to test into the governing class of dragonriders.

Now they are both rising stars in the new regime, despite backgrounds that couldn’t be more different. Annie’s lowborn family was executed by dragonfire, while Lee’s aristocratic family was murdered by revolutionaries. Growing up in the same orphanage forged their friendship, and seven years of training have made them rivals for the top position in the dragonriding fleet.

But everything changes when survivors from the old regime surface, bent on reclaiming the city.

With war on the horizon and his relationship with Annie changing fast, Lee must choose to kill the only family he has left or to betray everything he’s come to believe in. And Annie must decide whether to protect the boy she loves . . . or step up to be the champion her city needs.

Giveaway Details: “Fireborne” is an October release that has been getting a decent amount of buzz in the months leading up to it. I had it on several TBR lists (yes, I categorize those; I’m a librarian, no one should be surprised) and saw it repeatedly highlighted by other readers as a title they were looking forward to.

Dragons are pretty popular right now. But really, when were they not?? I think the bigger standouts for me were the “similar to’s” that have made their way into the marketing. Some of the earlier buzz highlighted that the book was drawing inspiration from Plato’s “The Republic” which was part of my initial interest. What a cool concept! And unique! My last experience with a book drawing on a lesser known inspirational story (“The Lady and the Tiger”) was a bit of a no-go, so we’ll see if this book does a better job of it.

I also recently saw that the new promotional materials are now making comparisons between this and “Red Rising” which really just confirms things for me. I loved the heck out of the entire first trilogy in that series (the next installment of books have so far been a bit more dark than I prefer, but I’m still liking them). Even with this book’s description, I can see the connections to that story. Both seem to deal with the realities of revolution and how the differing sides can each be right and wrong at the same time.

My full review for this book is coming up this Friday, but don’t wait until then to enter to receive your copy! The giveaway is open to U.S. residents and ends October 15.

Click here to enter!