Geekerella

geekerellaby Ashley Poston
First sentence: “The stepmonster is at it again.”
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Release date: April 4, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some emotional abuse, and some mild swearing (a couple of s-words). It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Elle Wittimer’s mother died when she was little, and her father remarried to a woman with two daughters. He died a few years after that, leaving Elle alone with her step-mother and -sisters. She lives for the show that she and her father loved, Starfield (a sci-fi TV show that got canceled). It’s being rebooted into a movie, starring a teen heartthrob (do people even say that anymore?) Darien Freeman, whom Elle doesn’t think is a worthy replacement for the ship commander, Carmindor.

Darien has his own issues: he’s a geek himself, adoring Starfield. But, his acting career (managed by his father), has gone the way of teen soaps, and he’s garnered a legion of screaming, swooning fans. Which, of course, means that that Real Fans of Starfield are suspicious.

It’s not coming through yet, but this is an incredibly clever retelling of Cinderella. There’s no magic, just pure and simple fun. But it’s also incredibly clever the way Poston wove the familiar elements of the tale in. From the vegan taco truck, The Magic Pumpkin, to the glass slippers, it’s all there. Some of the characters are stereotypes, but others are surprising, and I loved the world and the show that Poston created.

It’s such a fun, fun book.

 

Jack

jackby Liesl Shurtliff
First sentence: “When I was born, Papa named me after my great-great-great-great-great-great-GREAT-grandfather, who, legend had it, conquered nine giants and married the daughter of a duke.”
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s pretty basic and a slim book, though it’s definitely  above a beginning chapter level. Give it to those who aren’t ready for longer, more involved books. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jack has spent his whole life on his parents’ rinky dink farm, hearing tales of his great-grandpa’s exploits. He’s sick and tired of growing wheat; he wants to see the world! He wants to do something grand!

So, when crops, animals, and buildings (not to mention people, including Jack’s father) in his village go missing, stolen by the giants in the sky (which his mother scoffs at), Jack figures this is his chance to make a difference. Three magic beans later, he climbs the beanstalk to find (and rescue) his dad.

What he finds is a giant nation in peril.H There’s a tyrant for a king who covets gold and taxes his people until they can’t pay any more. And there’s a famine on, which is why the king’s henchmen are stealing the food from the “elves” (non-giant people) and making them their slaves. Jack knows he needs to put a stop to all this, but what can one boy do?

It gets more complicated when Jack’s younger sister joins him up in giant land. They almost get trampled, they get taken by pixies, and Jack must learn to listen to and trust his younger sister and his friends if he’s ever going to get back home.

It’s not a bad book, and I did enjoy the nice twist on the Jack and the Beanstalk Tale. But it was just okay in the end. There were Lessons Learned and Adventures Had and Reunions and it just kind of all fell flat. But, that doesn’t mean a fairy-tale loving kid wouldn’t just love this to death.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)

Baba Yaga’s Assistant

by Marika McCoola, illustrated Emily Carroll
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Content: There are some scary images, but really nothing else. It’s currently in our Teen Graphic Novels, but I’m going to move it to Middle Reader Graphic Novels.

I didn’t know I needed a graphic novel about Baba Yaga, but I really did. And this is the graphic novel I needed.

Masha’s mom died when she was little and her father was often gone with work, so she was raised on her grandmother’s love and stories of Baba Yaga. So, when her father decides to get remarried to a woman with an absolutely horrible child, Masha decides to take her chances in the woods with Baba Yaga. Who is everything that you would like Baba Yaga to be. Horrible, terrifying, magical… it’s wonderful.

Masha has to go through a series of tests before she can become Baba Yaga’s assistant. And it’s the power of the stories that her grandmother told that gets her through those tests.

On the basic level as a magical story, it’s a lot of fun. The young children are sufficiently horrible, and Masha is competent and cool-headed and smart. Her dad’s a jerk, but that’s almost to be expected. It’s a very female-centric story; there’s only a couple of male characters, and they are only playing minor parts. But what I liked best was that it was STORIES (not histories or biographies or facts) that got Masha through the trials. The stories helped her problem-solve. The stories gave her the courage to go on.

And that’s something we all need more of.

Uprooted

by Naomi Novik
First sentence: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”
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Review copy given to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s one graphic, but not explicit, sex scene. It’ll be in the science-fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up because our Random House rep said it was based on Beauty and the Beast, and we all know how much I love a fairy tale retelling. But, I didn’t count on how engrossing this book would be.

The rep was right: it is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast, but it’s so much more than that. In this valley in Polyna, their resident wizard, who goes by the Dragon, takes one girl every ten years to his tower. When he’s done with them, they don’t come back to the villages, so everyone (of course) assumes the worst. This year, a picking year, everyone guesses that he will take Kasia, our narrator’s, Neishka, best friend. But the Dragon comes, and he picks Neishka instead.

At first, this is terrifying: Neishka isn’t refined, she isn’t skilled for much of anything (except getting dirty), and she doesn’t want to be in the castle with this scary magician. But, as the book goes on, she discovers hidden talents inside herself: she’s a witch, one that is just as powerful as the Dragon, albeit wielding a different sort of magic from him. And its the combination of their magic that is able to confront the real evil in their country: the Wood.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because this one is best discovered page by page. Novik has a way of pulling one into the story; this started out as a treadmill book (read twice a week for a half hour), but soon became the one I was spending all my time with. I wanted to experience Neishka’s story as it unfolded, with all the twists and turns and slow reveals and intricate pay offs.

M texted, recently, looking for a “Laini Taylor-esque” book, and honestly, this is what I thought of when she asked for that. Novik’s world-building is solid and always in the service of the story, rather than something separate. And, while her words aren’t gorgeous or lyrical, they’re more than pedestrian. They serve the characters and the plot, and make the whole work together just marvelously.

Just about perfect.

Monstrous

by MarcyKate Connolly
First sentence: “I will never forget my first breath.”
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Content: It’s long and slow and while the romance is fairly age-appropriate, it’s not just alluded to. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d gear it to the older end of the age range/young YA.

Kymera is a newly formed creation of her Father’s.She’s part girl, yes, but also part bird and part.. something else with a scaled, stinging tail. Her purpose, her father tells her, is to rescue the girls that have been imprisoned by the wizard. She heads into Bryre every night, stinging the guards and bringing out one girl which her father then tells her is being taken to the safety of Belladoma, a nearby country.

If you’re not getting huge creeper undertone vibes from this, I’m really not doing it justice. See: everything is not what it seems. One of the best things about the first half of this book is the unease that Connolly writes into it. I just KNEW something wasn’t right, that Kymera was being too trusting (then again, being new-born she didn’t know any better), that something would go horribly wrong.

And, once she meets a boy, Ren, against her father’s wishes, it does.

I  won’t tell you how it all unravels; the twists and turns are best left to surprise. So, even though this is a slow book, with a lot of internal dialogue and musings, I was still interested enough to keep reading. I loved the dark Frankenstein-like aura it has, though it has a very Grimm-like overlay. Like Connolly couldn’t decide whether to tell a fairy tale or a monster story. But, the mashup works.

Until the end.

See, it turns fairy tale in the end, and I think we were supposed to be Moved by the ending, but I felt cheated. I suppose I wanted some sort of middle-grade happily ever after, and I should be happy Connolly refused to give it to us, but it felt… forced. And that made me dissatisfied.

But, overall, it was a well-done, dark middle grade fantasy.

The Castle Behind Thorns

by Merrie Haskell
First sentence: “Sand woke, curled in the ashes of a great fireplace.”
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Content: There’s death and betrayal and politics, and lots of funny French names, so maybe it’s not for the most reluctant of readers. It’s in the midde grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Sand, short for Alexandre, is the son of the local smithy in a small French duchy. (Well, it’s in one of those offshoots just when France was becoming, well, France.) The duchy castle has been in disrepair for longer than Sand’s 13 years, and surrounded by thorns. No one has gone to see what could be seen  inside.

Then Sand, who has been arguing with his father about attending university (he doesn’t want to), throws a token in Saint Melor’s wishing well, and ends up inside the castle. With no clue how he got there or how he will get out.

A brief aside here: we discover things right along with Sand, and while that generally annoys me, in this book it works to great effect. Sand is disoriented and alone, and Haskell captures that perfectly, transferring Sand’s anxiety and his slow realization that he’s stuck there and no one is coming to get him to the reader. All of which is followed up by his determination to survive and make things work.

During his explorations, Sand finds a body of a dead girl, and straightens her up. And because this place is magical (something which comes on very slowly, and quietly), she wakes up. Suddenly, Sand is not alone, and he and Perrotte — who happens to be the daughter of the long-dead Count — have to work together to find their way out of the castle.

I know it sounds boring, but it’s not. Haskell is a gifted writer, and she captures so many inner emotions and struggles and makes them not only real but captivating. I loved the friendship that developed between Sand and Perrotte (and that it wasn’t a romance!). I loved how they worked together to figure out how to get out of the castle. I loved that Sand’s strengths and Perrotte’s strengths were different and they found a way to compliment each other.

Yeah, all of this is really introspective for a middle grade fantasy novel, but in Haskell’s talented hands, it works well.

More than just well: it works wonderfully.

The Slanted Worlds

by Catherine Fisher
First sentence: “The Bomb fell in a split second of silence.”
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Others in the series: Obsidian Mirror
Content: There’s some violence and (much like the first one) this takes some effort to follow. Not for the reluctant of readers. It’s in the YA (Grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

A few spoilers for the first one, obviously. You’ve been warned.

Both Jake and Venn have become increasingly desperate to use the mirror, to make it work right. Jake, in order to find his father. Venn, because he wants to turn back the clock to get his wife back. Neither of them know of the outside forces controlling the mirror — that’s a knowledge known intimately to Maskelyne, an old, old time traveler, who may have been the one who invented the mirror — but both are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the mirror safe, and bring back the ones they love. Including involving Summer, the leader of the Shee, the fae-like creatures.

I have realized while typing the above that I could recount the plot of the entire book and it probably wouldn’t make any sense to those who haven’t read it.

There are other factors, as well: Sarah’s still around, trying to destroy the mirror and rid the world of Janus, and she’s willing to involve the Shee as well.  In fact, the Shee is the wild card here: Summer is the chaotic evil here, working toward her own end, but we have no idea what that end it.

There’s a lot of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff in this book, time looping in and back and forward on itself in incredibly fascinating ways. Jake is the real focus of the book; its his quest to find his father that we follow most closely. It was a good thing to focus on one arm of the conflict, though I did miss having Sarah around.

But at the end, I was left wondering: how is this all going to come together in the next book? How are we going to resolve the tension between needing to rescue those trapped in time and the need to destroy the mirror to save the world?

I suppose I’m just going to have to read the third one and find out.