Heart of Thorns

by Bree Barton
First sentence: “On the eve of her wedding to the prince, Mia Rose ought to have been sitting at her cherrywood dresser, primping her auburn curs and lacing her whalebone corset.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is an on-screen almost rape, some talk about other rapes, and a lot of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d probably be a little hesitant giving it to the younger end of the age range.

MIa has spent her whole life believing two things: 1) any woman could be a Gwyrach – a witch, who can (and will) kill anyone they touch  and 2) Gwyraches are evil and must be eradicated. So, when on the day of her (forced) marriage to Prince Quin, Mia discovers that she’s a Gwyrach, her whole world’s foundation is shattered. If she’s a Gwyrach, that must mean her beloved (dead) mother must have been a Gwyrach. And since a Gwyrach killed her mother, what did that mean? And does that mean that Mia is evil?

On the run from assassins with the prince, Mia sets out to figure out answers to all the questions she now has, and to rethnink everything she has believed her whole life.

Okay, yes, this is probably more than a little tropey. It was pretty obviously “HEY LOOK AT ME, I”M FEMINIST”. But, even though the parallels were kind of obvious, I still really liked this book. I thought Barton created some interesting characters, and Mia’s journey was a fascinating one (especially since I like character growth arcs). I thought the magic system Barton dreamt up was a good one, and I liked the world she built. I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the different countries (which is good, since the  book leaves things hanging) and I want to see how Mia and Quin develop. It was a solid debut book, and not a bad fantasy, even if it was a bit heavy handed with the metaphors.

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Sea Witch

by Sarah Henning
First sentence: “Two small pairs of boots echoed on the afternoon cobblestones — one pair in a sprint, the other in a stumble and slide.”
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Content: There’s some intense action, and a few violent moments. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

In this small Danish sea town, Evie is a bit of an outcast. The daughter of a fisherman, she grew up best friends with Prince Nik and their mutual friend, Anna. It was tolerated when they were little, but after Anna’s death by drowning, Evie and Nik’s friendship was really frowned upon, and Evie felt the disapproval even more. Especially since she felt she was to blame for Anna’s death. So when a girl — Annemette — shows up out of the blue on the eve of the towns festival, Evie grasps it as her chance at redemption. Especially since Annemette looks and sounds exactly like Anna.

But Evie finds out that things aren’t exactly as they seem, and by that time, it’s too late to stop what has already been put in motion.

I’ve been telling people that what Wicked is to Wizard of Oz, this is to The Little Mermaid. It’s essentially the origin story of the Sea Witch character in the Andersen fairy tale. But, it’s also a re-telling of that fable (with a bit of Disney thrown in as well), and Henning does it extremely well. I haven’t read the original tale in years, but I adored the way Henning wove in the familiar parts of the tale while giving us something completely new. I liked Evie’s internal conflict with her magic and her commitment to her friend, and I loved the nice twist at the end (which I kind of saw coming but was much, much more than I ever expected). The romance is nice, though it’s not really the focus of the story. The friendship between Evie and Anna (shown mostly through a series of flashbacks throughout the book) is, which I also appreciated. It was just a compelling story, all around.

If you like fairy tale retellings, definitely pick this one up.

Thunderhead

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “How fortunate I am among the sentient o know my purpose.”
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Others in the series: Scythe
Content: There is violence (less than in Sythe) and swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Scythe, obviously.

K picked this one up first, and because we swore her to silence (no spoilers!), she suffered in silence. Then A read it, and she and K had to go off in a separate room to discuss it (because there is much to discuss). By the time I got to it, they kept asking “Where are you?”  “Have you gotten to The Part yet?” (and there are a couple of The Parts). And when I finished, K looked at me and said, “I couldn’t talk to ANYBODY!”

Because this book demands to be discussed.

It picks up nearly a year after the events in Scythe: Citra has become Scythe Anastasia and is serving her junior scythe years under the guidance of Scythe Curie. She has a very unique method of gleaning her subjects, one that gives her peace of mind at night which is good. Rowan, on the other hand, has become Scythe Lucifer, going around gleaning scythes that have become corrupt. Both are doing what they feel called to do. But then, things go wrong.

There’s also a side plot with a new character, Greyson, whom A loved and was wholly invested in and whose life becomes intertwined with Anastasia’s. And Rowan? Well, let’s just say his plot line made me super anxious. And Faraday’s plotline is interesting, but as K pointed out, kind of gets dropped near the end.

Oh: and I want to see the ending of this book on the big screen.

I know I’m being evasive, but really, the less you know, the better it’ll be. There’s really a lot to talk about: violence and corruption and religion and tradition and freedom. But mostly, just what an excellent storyteller Shusterman is.

I can’t wait for the next part of this story!

Arrows of the Queen

by Mercedes Lackey
First sentence: “A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree, but the young girl seated beneath it did not seem to notice.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though, to be honest, you’ll probably have to buy it used.)
Content: There is some violence, and some (tasteful) attempted sex. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, if we had it.

Talia is a young, sheltered girl in a Holding that is super patriarchal, giving all the power to men and making women either wives or nuns in service to the Goddess. But Talia dreams of something more: she wants to be a Queen’s Herald. She’s secretly read tales of the Heralds, with the horse-Companions and the adventures, and longs to be one of them. She has no idea how one becomes a Herald, but when she turns 13 and her elders start talking about marrying her off, she runs off. And is chosen by one of the Companions, Roland. From there, Talia is thrust into a whole new world, one of classes and work and acceptance and challenges and friends. At first, she is hesitant, but as the months and (eventually) years go on, she becomes more confident with her role not only as a Herald, but as the Queen’s Own.

I’ve read Lackey before, but not in a while, and not very much. I like her style, though there seems to be a lot more exposition than either action or dialogue. Perhaps that was part of the style when this was written in 1987, but it did drag the story down. That, and Talia was super perfect. I liked her — I mean you have to be heartless if you don’t — but she wasn’t the most interesting character. She was always stalwart, always likable, and always had the answers to her problems. It got old pretty quickly.

Even so, I liked her adventures and the world that Lackey built, and I’m not sorry I dipped into this one.

Moonrise

by Sarah Crossan
First sentence: “The green phone on the wall in the hall hardly ever rang.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some off-screen sex. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Ten years ago, Joe’s older brother, Ed, was imprisoned and sentenced for killing a cop. He says he didn’t do it, but that hasn’t made any difference, since they can’t really afford a good lawyer. Or one at all, really. And now Ed’s time is up, and an execution date has been set. And he wants Joe, who’s 17, to come to Texas and be with him as he faces his execution. Since Joe (and their older sister) is really all Ed’s got.

This is heartbreaking. Seriously. It’s easy to forget with Black Lives Matter (which is important!) that the problem with the U.S. justice system isn’t just race, it’s also money. Crossan picks a poor white family as her characters, one that scrapes by barely making ends meet. A mom who is plagued by drugs and alcohol, kids who aren’t the brightest in school. And it didn’t take much for the cops to intimidate and bully Ed into a “confession” which held up in a jury. It’s heartbreaking.  And the take away? If you’re poor, you’re going to end up in prison.

That said, this isn’t a book about the justice system, though that’s a part of it. It’s about forgiveness and family and decisions and choices. And it’s packs a punch. Written in verse, it’s spare but that spareness works to Crossan’s advantage in the book. There’s nothing extra in here that needs to be cut out; it’s straightforward, but told with a lot of heart.

Excellent.

(As an aside: I met her at Children’s Institute, and she’s hilarious. She also has the Irish storytelling genes, keeping us all spellbound with her stories.)

The Bird and the Blade

by Megan Bannen
First sentence: “I arrived in Sarai on the fifteenth day of the seventh month — Ghost Day — but for the first time I dream of my brother, Weiji, is two months later, on the night I meet Khalaf.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are several f-bombs (I think I didn’t count more than four) and other mild swearing. There is also frank talk about genitals. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think an interested 7th grader could handle it.

They say, “Don’t judge a book by a cover”, but we all do.  And my judgement for this one, when I first saw the cover was “okay, it’s going to be a light fantasy; I hope it’s good.” Well. It’s not a light fantasy (okay, so there’s a small ghost element at the end, but I’m not really counting that). Set in the late 13th century and  loosely based on the opera Turandot, it’s a sweeping story about a captured girl from the Song empire, Jinghua, the slave of the Kipchack Khanate. The il-khan, Timur, and his youngest son, Khalaf, are on the run after an invasion from a neighboring khanate, and through a twist of fate, Jinghua ends up with them as they travel across the Mongol empire. Once Khalaf finds out that the daughter of the Great Khan, Turandokht, is refusing to marry anyone unless they solve three riddles, Kahalf decides that that’s the only way to save his father and his kingdom, so they head there. Khalaf to solve the riddles, Jinghua to stop him.

It’s a difficult one to sum up, this book, because there is so much going on. It’s a forbidden romance — as Jinghua and Khalaf spend time together, they find they have  a mutual respect and admiration that develops into something more, but a son of an il-khan and a servant can never be together in any real way. It’s a road trip — as her characters travel, Bannen takes us through multiple parts of the Mongol Empire, showing just how vast and varied it was. And it’s a work of historical fiction, though it felt like it had a modern sensibility. Khalf stood up for Jinghua in ways that I’m not sure a 13th century man would, but I found I didn’t mind. It’s a unique book, set in a unique place, with some fantastic characters.

Definitely recommended.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik

by David Arnold
First sentence: “I’ll hold my breath and tell you what I mean: I first discovered the Fading Girl two months and two days ago, soon after summer began dripping its smugly sunny smile all over the place.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some teenage drinking, and lots of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is going to sound weird. And, to be fair, it’s not really the point of the book,  I think.

Noah Oakman is feeling a bit at sea heading into his senior year. He’s a great swimmer, but he doesn’t love it, and so he fakes a back injury to get out of spending his life in the pool. He’s thinking about college, sort of. Mostly he just wants to Think. And then, at a party he didn’t want to go to, he meets this kid Circuit, and heads to his house. It seems uneventful, but after that, everything’s slid sideways just a little bit. His best friend, Alan, used to be a huge DC fan, and now he’s a huge Marvel fan. His mother has a scar. Nothing life-shattering, but enough to throw Noah off. The only things that haven’t changed are his “strange fascinations” — little things, like the Fading Girl of the opening sentence, that have captured Noah’s interest. And perhaps by pursuing those and trying to make sense of them, he can make sense of his life.

I’m not going to give you much more than that, mostly because it’s the journey in this one that makes it such a good book. It’s populated with people that are fascinating and interesting and quirky and fun, and Noah’s journey is a strange and weird and wonderful one. I even thought that the ending explanation made sense, and made the book that much better.

I’ve liked Arnold’s books in the past, but I honestly think this is his best one so far.