Mask of Shadows

by Linsey Miller
First sentence: “The thick, briny scent of sweat-soaked leather seeped through my cloth mask.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: August 29, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, one f-bomb, and lots of violence. I’m pretty sure it’s okay in the YA section (grades 6-8), though with a caveat for younger, more sensitive readers.

Sal Leon is  many things: a refugee from a war, of which they were the only survivor of their people. A thief. Ambitious. Reckless. And set on revenge for the lords who were responsible for the razing of their land. So when they come into the possession of an audition poster for the Queen’s Left Hand — a group of highly trained assassins in the service of the queen — Sal decides to take the chance. But little do they know that the trial is to the death, and that there will be many obstacles in their way.

Okay, so writing Sal as a they is a bit awkward, but since Sal is gender fluid — sometimes a she, sometimes a he, and sometimes a they, as Sal puts it — it makes it kind of difficult to describe. And yet, while the gender fluidity was part of the story (Sal was often annoyed when people didn’t get their gender; they did what they could to help people “get” it, but some characters were willfully obtuse), it wasn’t the whole story. There was so much more to love about the book.  Miller has a fantastic grasp of world building, giving us enough information to help us understand the world, but not going into long tangents about the history (though there is one attached at the end, if the reader is interested). There was magic in the world, but that was banished, which leaves for some intriguing subplots (and maybe some more exploration in the sequel?), but mostly this is a straight up survival book: Sal needs to survive the trials and become the new assassin if they want to enact revenge. It’s written in first person, and Sal’s life/head is a good place to be: they are smart, intuitive and a creative survivor. The book is also populated with a lot of fantastic secondary characters, from the servant Sal gets when they join the trials to the other members of the Left Hand. It’s a brutal book: in a trial to the death, there is bound to be people killed that the reader cares about. All that gives it heft, though, and shows that Miller’s not afraid to tell the story that needs to be told.

An excellent debut novel, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

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Audiobook: Beyond the Bright Sea

by Lauren Wolk
Read by: Jorjeana Marie
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content:  There are some instances of violence that could be intense for younger readers. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Crow has lived her entire life on a small island in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. She lives with the man — Osh — who found her, washed ashore in a small boat,  as a new baby.  Her history hasn’t bothered her, but something about being 12 has got her wondering where she came from. Her questions lead to a chain of events that involves pirates, lepers on Penikese island, and finding her family.

I’ll be honest: I tried this one in print. It didn’t take. I just wasn’t compelled enough by the writing or the characters to keep going. So when I saw that it was audio, at first I was hesitant. But, I gave it a try, and maybe it was right place/right time, or maybe it was the fantastic narrator, but this time it stuck.

I loved hearing about Crow and Osh’s spartan life, getting the feel of life on the northern islands. I loved going with Crow as she discovered the history of her family, and felt for Osh as he struggled with his own feelings (maybe that was just the adult in me reacting).  I loved learning the history (of sorts) of the leper colony on Penikese, and to just get a sense of the place and time. Wolk is a good historical fiction writer, though I’m not sure her work is best suited for kids. (Well, maybe those precocious ones.) Even so, it’s a lovely book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.

 

The Star Thief

by Lindsey Becker
First sentence: “Honorine realized it was going to be a difficult night when she stepped into the east parlor to do a bit of light dusting and found it on fire.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 11, 2017
Content: There’s some action-related violence, but nothing graphic. And some of the names might be tricky to pronounce for the younger kids. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Honorine has been a main in Lord Vidalia’s for as long as she can remember. Lord Vidalia took her in when she was orphaned, and then promptly disappeared. Honorine didn’t think there was anything unusual about her life — sure, she had a knack for inventing and she got along with Lord Vidalia’s son, Francis really well — until one night when a couple of steampunk-y airships arrived, weird creatures called Mordants appeared, and Honorine found out she wasn’t who she thought she was.

On the one hand, this hits all the middle grade fantasy buttons: magical creatures based on constellations, pirates, an evil overlord (of sorts), mythical creatures, action and adventure. And yet… well, it kind of felt that it was going through the paces. Maybe it was me, and where I was when I was reading this, but nothing stood out as, well, unique. I don’t know what I was hoping for, but it fell flat. Oh, I’m sure kids will eat this up, and I’m glad I read it.

But, I guess I was hoping for something… more.

Newsprints

newsprintsby Ru Xu
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: January 31, 2017
Content: The story line is a bit complex, but nothing that a 10+ year old could handle. It’ll be in the Middle Grade Graphic Novels section of the bookstore.

Blue is an orphan girl who disguises herself as a boy to deliver newspapers. There’s a war going on, and she loves working as a newsie for the Bugle, but she worries that once people find out she’s  a girl she’ll be out of a job. Then, she discovers an absent minded inventor and a boy that’s a lot more than he seems, and all of a sudden people discovering she’s a girl is the least of her worries.

It took me a while to get into this (possibly because it was an advance copy and in black in white; I’ve discovered I like graphic novels better in color), but once I did, I was hooked. Blue’s a great character, and the world that Xu has created is this futuristic-retro thing. There’s a war between fictional countries, and there are robots and flying ships and super fast trains, and… newsies. It’s weird and wild and fun.

And I liked the friendship between Blue and Crow, the boy she meets, and how Blue’s willing to do just about anything to defend him. Also, the underlying feminism: Blue’s questioning of the way the system is, why she needs to disguise herself, and wanting the system itself to change.

It’s definitely only a start of a series, but it’s a strong start and a series I’ll definitely be paying attention to.