Aru Shah and the End of time

by Roshani Chokshi
First sentence: “The problem with growing up around highly dangerous things is that after a while you just get used to them.”
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Release date: March 27, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some complex names, a little violence, and hints of crushes, but I’d give it to anyone reading the Percy Jackson series. It will be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we saw Rick Riordan, and he was talking about his imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, one of my husband’s concerns is that the writers of these books on this imprint will just basically be telling Percy Jackson stories, superimposed on people of color and their mythologies.

And, after finishing Aru Shah and the End of Time — with its Hindu mythology — I can say that’s partly true. Aru Shah felt like a Percy Jackson book: a girl finds out she’s the daughter of a god (in this case, Indra, the god of Thunder), goes on a quest with a new-found friend and a sidekick to save the world (from the demon The Sleeper, which has awoken) , in a book full of humor, pop culture references, and non-stop action. So, yeah, in a sense that’s true. But Aru Shah is also wholly its own thing. Aru is more conflicted than Percy ever was: she, inadvertently sets off the crisis she has to save the world from, which fills her, not unexpectedly, with guilt. And while the quest part feels the same, there are notable differences: primarily being the mythology; there are a ton of stories in Hindu lore, and while I’m not familiar with all of them, I do know some, and I liked the spin that Chokshi put on them. I liked that Aru and her friend Mini’s relationship was complicated: they were reincarnated souls of former brothers, which makes them sisters, though they have different god fathers and different families in the human world. It gave a deeper, richer layer to their relationship, which I really enjoyed. Everyone in the book seemed more complex and mulit-faceted than I was expecting, which was nice.

In short, while this does feel familiar, and will to anyone who has read the Percy Jackson books, Choski has also put her stamp on the stories, which is a refreshing, welcome thing.

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Not If I Save You First

by Ally Carter
First sentence: “Dear Maddie, There’s a party at my house tomorrow night.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 27, 2018
Content: There’s some tense moments, and a couple people die, but it’s not graphic. It will be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Ally Carter has a distinct talent for writing girls who are smart, capable, and more than willing to save themselves from whatever situation they find themselves in. Sure, it may be implausible (I mean, a 16-year-old spy or art thief?) but it’s always fun.

This time she gives us Maddie: the daughter of former Secret Service agent who suddenly retired (after thwarting a kidnapping attempt of the First Lady by some Russians) to the middle of nowhere, Alaska. She’s been living there for six years, homeschooling, cutting word, learning how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. So, when her former best friend (emphasis on former, since he never wrote her back!), the president’s son, shows up on her and her father’s doorstep, she knows she’s going to kill him. That is, until he’s kidnapped by some Russians while her father’s away, and so it’s up to her to, well, save him.

And thus follows a very intense and gripping girl-against-nature book. She’s smart, she knows her terrain, and it’s fascinating (and okay, I admit, quite fun) to watch Maddie outwit the kidnappers, navigate the wilderness, use her know-how and skills to get her and Logan (who isn’t as helpless as he first appears) out of the scrapes they got into. Which makes for a delightfully fun (and that includes the bit of romance thrown in) book to read.

Oh, and for the record: I saw Logan as black, and you won’t convince me otherwise.

Highly recommended.

Daughter of the Siren Queen

by Tricia Levenseller
First sentence: “The sound of my knife slitting across a throat feels much too loud in the darkness.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: February 27, 2018
Others in the series: Daughter of the Pirate King
Content: There is violence, obviously, and a LOT of sexual tension and kissing, but nothing ever happens. It’ll be in the the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Daughter of the Pirate King, obviously.

Picking up where we left off, Alosa has a copy of the map to the secret Isla del Canta, where the legendary treasure of the sirens lay. Initially, she plans to help her father find it, and then help rule the seas with him. Except, when she and her crew show up at the keep, Alosa discovers a secret that turns everything upside down. Suddenly, Alosa and her crew are no longer working with her father, they’re racing against him. And it will take everything that Alosa has to beat him to the island, and ultimately, defeat him.

Again: So. Much. Fun. There really isn’t a whole lot more to these (except for a very woke love interest), but man, female pirates are fun. Alosa is a great character, and I loved her relationship with Riden and with her crew. I loved that Levenseller was ruthless; she killed characters I thought were safe, which upped the ante and made the tension that much greater. I have a slight quibble with the end, but I’m going to let it go because it really was just fun to read.

And… it’s only a duology! So the story wrapped up. YAY! That said, I wouldn’t mind spending more time with Alosa and her crew again.

The Burning Sky

by Sherry Thomas
First sentence: “Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys.
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Content: There is some violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Iolanthe was enjoying a quiet life with her guardian, Master Heywood, in a small town, when her life gets turned upside down. It was simple enough: she was trying to salvage a ruined light elixer, and brought down lightning from the sky. That simple (well, maybe not) thing brought not only the crown prince, Titus, to her doorstep, but the dreaded Inquisitor, and sent Iolanthe into hiding with Titus as she learned her True Purpose: to overthrow Atlantis and kill the Bane, Atlantis’s unkillable leader.

It’s pretty by-the-numbers — of course Titus and Iolanthe are taking on the Big Bad Guys, of course they fall in love. But, I still found myself enjoying this. Perhaps because it’s kind of a reverse Harry Potter — Iolanthe and Titus come from the magical world to go to school at Eaton where they not only have to pass as non-magical but Iolanthe also has to pass as a boy. It’s an interesting world Thomas has built, with the elemental vs. subtle (learned) magic, with dragons and wyverns and wands and potions. I liked it quite a bit. Maybe not enough to continue on with the series, but still. It’s an intriguing start to a series.

Cybils Reading Round-Up, Part 2

Frogkisser!
by Garth Nix
First sentence: “The scream was very loud and went on for a very long time.”
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Content: There’s really nothing “objectionable”, but it just feels… older. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’m sure a fifth grader who really likes quests and/or fairy tales would enjoy it too.

Anya is a princess in a minor kingdom, whose parents have died and left her and her older sister to be raised by her stepmother (who is off doing…something) and her husband (whom Anya calls her “stepstepfather”), who is trying to take over the kingdom. So, Anya is sent on a Quest, nominally to find the ingredients to make a lip balm to turn Prince Duncan back from a frog, but ultimately, for control of her kingdom.

It’s a charming little tale; I enjoyed the fairy tale references (Snow White is a male wizard, etc.) and it was mildly funny, but honestly, it was just too long. I lost interested about 23 of the way through, and skipped to the end to find out how it all finished, and I don’t feel like I missed much. I’m sure it’s enjoyable; I just don’t have the patience for it right now.

Beyond the Doors
by David Neilsen
First sentence: “Edward Rothbaum was in a grumpy mood.”
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Content: It’s a bit odd; it’s long, but there are interior illustrations, so it’s like the publisher (what’s up Random House?!) couldn’t figure out if it was for the younger or older end of the middle grade spectrum. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Rothbaum’s mom has been missing for years, and then a freak fire leaves their dad in a coma. So they’re bundled off to their (previously unknown) Aunt Gladys’s house, where there are no doors and nothing to eat but cereal. And Gladys is a bit… off… as well. Through some digging, the Rothbaums discover the real secret: their grandfather discovered an ability to jump into memories, and has gotten stuck there. And it’s up to the kids to figure out how to solve the problem.

This was fun. Nothing super brilliant, but I liked the kids and the idea of memory jumping is a clever one.

A Face Like Glass
by Frances Hardinge
First sentence: “One dark season, Grandible became certain that there was something living in his domain within the cheese tunnels.”
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Content: It’s long and slow moving. So, maybe not for a reluctant reader. It’s in the Young Adult section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Neverfell is an outsider in the world of Caverna, an abomination… because you can see her emotions on her face. So, when Neverfell gets caught up in court politics, the fate of Caverna lies within her hands.

I usually like Hardinge’s books, but this one just fell flat for me. I wanted to like it, and I liked parts of it, but it was just… too long. And it didn’t hold my interest. I would put it down for days and just not care enough to pick it back up. (I would have abandoned it, except for the Cybils.) It’s not that it was badly written, or a bad story… it just didn’t hold my interest. So maybe it was more me than anything else.

Dragon’s Green
by Scarlet Thomas
First sentence: “Mrs. Breathag Hide was exactly the kind of teacher who gives children nightmares.”
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Content: There are a few scary bits. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Effie Trulove’s grandfather spent time teaching her about the magical world, and even though she’s not quite sure she believes him, it was spending time. But, he’s passed on, and suddenly Effie’s thrown into situations where she comes to realize that, yes, her grandfather wasn’t making things up: there really is magic. So with the help of her trusty new friends, she can defeat the Bad Guys (who are out to steal all the magic books), and figure out her place in the magic world.

I said, once, that silly names and magic don’t a fantasy make. And I think that holds here. The names bugged me (so very much), as did the gendering of  the friends (the boys were the Warrior and Scholar, the girls were the Witch and the Healer, though Effie was the Hero). I thought it would have more of a D&D feel, and be predictable that way, but it veered a bit from that, which was nice. It just… bugged me, in the end. I’m not sure I can really put my finger on why. But this was was most definitely not for me.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded

by Sage Blackwood
First sentence: “A secret nearly cost Chantel her life, on a dark summer morning when the rains ran down the stairstepped streets of Lightning Pass.”
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Content: There are some frighting parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Chantel (pronounced shan-TAL not CHAN-tel) has grown up learning magic in Miss Ellicott’s orphanage/school. She’s quite talented at it, one of the best students, except she has a problem. All the magic users in their walled city-kingdom are supposed to be “shamefast and biddable”, and those are two things that Chantel, well, isn’t. It turns out to be a good thing though, for when Miss Ellicott and the rest of the kingdom’s seven sorceresses disappear, Chantel takes it upon herself to Figure Out and then Solve the problem, which grows to include an invasion, treachery, and a dragon.

On the one hand, this is a delightful magical tale, well and complexly told, by a very talented writer. I loved Blackwood’s Jinx series, and while this one is a stand-alone (hurrah!) it’s much more of the same elegant, interesting writing with a good dose of snark, something that I think the most reluctant readers will enjoy.

On the other hand, this is a fantastic allegory about the state of women throughout history. (Or at least, that’s what I saw.) I saw women taking their power and conforming it to the patriarchy (in this case, there was a king, but the men who ruled the kingdom were called The Patriarchs), working to maintain the Status Quo, because upending it is unthinkable. And then there was a girl who asked “WHY?” and started doing things differently, even though she was told — by the king, the patriarchs, the older women — that she Couldn’t. Still, she persisted, and Change — not just small change, but Large Sweeping Change. It was not only entertaining, but it was hopeful and empowering.

And I loved it.

Gunslinger Girl

by Lyndsay Ely
First sentence: ”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: January 2, 2018
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of violence, none overly graphic, some drinking, some off-screen sex, and a bit of mild swearing. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

In this near future scenario, the US has dissolved, through war and disease, into a loosely-formed Confederacy of North America. Not all states are part of it, but inside CONA there are communes, where those faithful to CONA (the war feels a bit like the war in Firefly; the Patriots were on the “losing” side, but they were probably right…) to live. Outside of CONA’s borders, though, anything is game. Especially in Cessation, the largest city out west.

Serendipty “Pity” Jones lives on one of those communes with her hateful father and two brothers. And when her father decides to marry her off, she runs away. Initially headed to Columba, CONA’s capital, Pity ends up, instead, in Cessation. In Casimir — the largest brothel/hotel/casino/theater in town — specifically, where she takes her mother’s guns and training, and turns them into an act.

But Casimir and Cessation aren’t everything they seem. While Pity makes a place for herself and some friends, there are pitfalls and traitors and life-threatening situations.

A combination thriller, Western, and speculative fiction,  Gunslinger Girl has it all:  action, adventure, dark undertones, romance, betrayal. I’ll admit when I began this, I wasn’t sold, but by the end, I was enthralled.

A spectacular debut.