Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult/New Adult

New fantasy YA brings a together a group of Royal Bastards

Royal Bastards (Royal Bastards #1), by Andrew Shvarts, (Jun 2017, Hyperion), $18.99, ISBN: 9781484767658

Recommended for ages 14+

This new fantasy series follows a group of Royal Bastards – illegitimate children of royals – as they try to save a royal princess’ life and prevent a war. Sixteen year-old Tilla is the bastard daughter of Lord Kent of the Western Province; she lives in comfortable accommodations, but her father has held her at arm’s distance ever since his legitimate wife bore him two daughters. Tilla’s half brother, Jax, from a different father, lives on Kent’s lands as a stablehand. While Jax is happy with life as it is, Tilla longs for legitimacy and a better relationship with her father; two things he’s withheld from her thus far. She’s invited to her father’s banquet honoring the visiting royal princess Lyriana, and sits at the bastard table with Miles, a bastard from neighboring House Hampsted, and Zell, a trueborn son-turned-bastard from the warrior Zitochi clan of the North. Lyriana insists on sitting with them and getting to know them, and ends up tagging along on what was supposed to be an evening out between just Jax and Tilla. While out at the shore, the group stumbles upon a horrific and treasonous episode that puts every one of their lives in danger: in Miles’ and Tilla’s cases, even from their own parents.

The group of teens is on the run, hoping to make it back to Lyriana’s kingdom before the combined forces of Lord Kent, Lady Hampsted, and the Zitochi clan can catch them. The bastards have to stay alive, prevent a mage slaughter, and a civil war that will claim thousands of lives – can they get along long enough to survive the journey?

There’s a lot of story to unpack in this first book. The biggest stumbling block for me was the contemporary language used in the high fantasy setting. It’s off-putting and took me out of the flow of the novel. Vernacular aside, Royal Bastards is a fast-paced adventure, loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and teen romance. I like the world-building: a fantasy world where bastards are recognized and can gain legitimacy if their parents choose to bestow it upon them; a major coup in the works, and plenty of intrigue and betrayal to keep things interesting. There’s rich character development, particularly in the relationship between Jax and Tilla and Tilla’s growth throughout the novel. There’s some diversity in the characters, although some fantasy tropes pop up here; most notably, the clueless royal who wants to meet “the little people” and the brooding, fur-wearing savage.

YA fantasy fans will dig in and enjoy this one. I’d booktalk Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules as an interesting counterpart that looks at the relationship between royals and their children and war. Talk up the Game of Thrones books to readers that may be familiar with the HBO series. Give a copy of Joshua Khan’s Shadow Magic and Dream Magic books to younger siblings who aren’t ready for this one yet.

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Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade

The Gray Twins reunite in The Whispers in the Walls

Scarlet and Ivy: The Whispers in the Walls, by Sophie Cleverly, (May 2017, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $7.99, ISBN: 9781492634065

Recommended for readers 8-12

When we left Ivy Gray at the dismal Rookwood School, she had just found her lost twin, Scarlet; hidden away in an asylum by the tyrannical headmistress, who told her family that Scarlet was dead. Masquerading as Scarlet, Ivy attended Rookwood and discovered the truth about a great many secrets. The Whispers in the Walls picks up just as Ivy reunites with Scarlet and they go home, only to have their spineless father and cruel stepmother send the two girls back. Back to the school that hid one daughter in an asylum and lie about her death. Their father drops them off with a “But it’s different now, it’s still a very good school with a new headmaster”, and has the nerve to tell them he loves them after that, securing a Father of the Year award sometime in the future, I’m sure.

Things aren’t wonderful back at Rookwood. Penny, Scarlet and Ivy’s tormenting nemesis, is still there, and she’s worse than ever. Violet, Penny’s best friend, and bullying accomplice, the girl who was also hidden away at the same asylum, is sent back to Rookwood, but is quiet, withdrawn, and now rooming with Ariadne. Scarlet is insufferable to such a degree, Ivy finds herself distancing from her twin. The headmaster, the sinister Mr. Bartholomew, is a fanatical disciplinarian whose punishments go beyond reason.

The girls are thrown back into this maelstrom, with most of the student body none the wiser. But there are new secrets discovered at Rookwood; secrets about Mr. Bartholomew himself; a secret group of students from the past that may include Scarlet and Ivy’s mother, and another girl rescued from the asylum, hiding in the school.

The Whispers in the Walls is a good follow-up to The Lost Twin, but Scarlet is nearly insufferable. She’s difficult for the mere sake of being difficult, and may put off readers as much as she does her twin sister. Ivy remains a strong character who continues developing through the story; I hope she rubs off on Scarlet for future adventures. The new headmaster, Mr. Bartholomew, continues the tradition of awful school management – Rookwood seems set to go through headmasters and headmistresses like Hogwarts goes through Defense of the Dark Arts professors. There are several story threads presented in The Whispers in the Walls, only a couple of which are resolved; I’m looking forward to seeing where the third book takes us.

Posted in Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Rollin’ with the Royces: YA’s answer to the K… well, you know…

Royce Rolls, by Margaret Stohl, (Apr. 2016, Freeform), $18.99, ISBN: 9781484732335

Recommended for readers 12+

Sixteen year-old Bentley Royce is the “bad girl” member of the Royces, reality TV’s family du jour. Her family: Mercedes, her narcissistic, media-obsessed mother; Porsche, her self-absorbed sister, and her brother, Maybach, who may or may not be nurturing a gambling addiction, live the high life in the spotlight – or is that the camera glare? The thing is, it’s all an act. Bentley is the classic middle child, overlooked and unheard; the one who takes one for the team when the family needs her, whether it’s pretending to be drunk and staggering out of a nightclub or sticking her tongue out for the cameras in true “Bad Bentley” character mode. But things aren’t looking so good for the Royces as of late: the show’s sixth season is up in the air, and Mercedes is desperate to keep her family’s business on the air, no matter how outrageous the shenanigans have to be to stay there. Looks like it’s up to Bentley to pull the family out of the fire one more time.

Royce Rolls is a biting send-up of all things reality TV, taking gleeful aim at shows like that show where everyone’s name starts with a K because the matriarK Klearly needs all the attention the world Kan give. Loaded with “footnotes” from various show insiders and taking a seemingly vapid character and giving readers an inside view of the “reality” machine, we get satire, a whodunit, and a brilliant reference to Stohl’s Black Widow novels (my favorite part of the book).

The novel is narrated through press releases, news clips, and a third-party narrator. There are plenty of pop culture and reality TV references for readers to spot and laugh at; the emphasis here is on the fact that reality TV is NOT real – they have writers and character treatments, just like any fictional show. It’s about the breakdown and redemption of a family, with a mother who would sell her daughter’s first period on television to get viewers and a Hollywood machine that treats people as disposable. And it’s about how one person can decide to finally say, “Enough”.

I didn’t love Royce Rolls, in part because I found most of the characters exasperating and in part because I’m sick of 99% of reality TV. (I have my vices, I am human.) But I did enjoy it; teens will get a kick out of the references, the unexpected romance, and the satisfying ending.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

Historical middle-grade fiction: Snakes and Stones

Snakes and Stones, by Lisa Fowler, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 978-1-5107-1031-3

Recommended for readers 9-12

The year is 1921, and Chestnut Hill, a 12 year old girl, travels with her father and 7 year-old triplet siblings (also named after nuts) across the American south, putting on medicine shows so her daddy can sell his elixir. Daddy’s a snake oil merchant, and Chestnut is sick and tired of living in a cramped wagon, wearing clothes to rags, and going to bed with a rumbling stomach. She’s mad at Daddy from stealing her and her siblings away from their Mama, who must be out of her mind with grief right now. Even when the Hill family meets up with Abraham, a friend of her father’s, who tells her that there’s a lot Chestnut doesn’t know about her Daddy, she refuses to believe it and decides to take matters into her own hands, setting off a chain of events that will change her and her family.

I was happy to see a middle grade historical fiction piece take place in the early ’20s – it’s an interesting time that hasn’t seen a lot of middle grade storytelling just yet. Lisa Fowler has several strong characters here, most notably, Chestnut, who narrates the story. Her father is a seeming ne’er do well, a con man with a heart of gold, who just doesn’t know how to take care of his family; Abraham, an African-American character, allows for a look at the everyday racism and segregation in the South. Readers may get tired of Chestnut’s firm belief that her father’s the bad guy, especially when there’s clearly more to the story that Abraham knows but won’t discuss. While Abraham is a potentially strong character to highlight the racial issues in the Southern U.S., readers may be put off by the way his speech is written, which can be construed as negative stereotyping rather than striving for historical accuracy.

Overall, it’s a story that means well but gets caught up in melodrama and possibly troubling characterization.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Dance like your life depends on it: Spin the Sky

Spin the Sky, by Jill MacKenzie, (Nov. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1510706866

Recommended for readers 14+

Eighteen year-old Magnolia Woodson and her older sister, Rose, have to live with the sins of their drug addict mother, who abandoned them after a tragedy a year before. Living in a small clamming town in Oregon, everyone knows who they are and what happened; the only folks who seem to think differently are Magnolia’s childhood best friend, George, and his mother, who’s taken care of the girls whenever their mother fell short. To change the way the town sees Magnolia and her sister, she decides she need to win the reality dance show, Live to Dance. She and George head to Portland to audition, but they make it! Now the real work begins: will the competition be too much for Mags? Will her friendship with George survive the stress of the show, and will she be able to live in the fishbowl that is reality television, especially with a secret she doesn’t want made public?

Spin the Sky has a strong premise that isn’t afraid to tackle some hot-button topics like drug addiction, sexuality, abortion, and miscarriage. Some of your more conservative readers may shy away from this one; steer them toward books like Sophie Flack’s Bunheads, Lorri Hewett’s Dancer, or Sarah Rubin’s Someday Dancer. Magnolia is a tough character to crack: she’s consumed with what other people think of her, and obsesses over winning the competition, seemingly just so that the town will accept her and her sister. She has a complicated love-hate relationship with her mother (understandably), and she has an unrequited crush on George, who she thinks is gay – and is really upset when it seems that isn’t the case. The other contestants all have their own issues that the author briefly touches on throughout the novel.

If you have readers who love reading about dance and are interested in reality television, Spin the Sky is a good backup for your shelves.

Posted in Adventure, Fiction, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Blog Tour Stop: The Blood Guard concludes at The Blazing Bridge

blazing-bridgeThe Blazing Bridge (The Blood Guard, Book 3), by Carter Roy, (Feb. 2017, Two Lions), $17.99, ISBN: 9781477827178

Recommended for ages 9-13

In the third book in Carter Roy’s Blood Guard series, Ronan Truelove is doing his best to protect his best friend, Greta, from his evil father and the awful Bend Sinister thugs. Greta is a Pure – one of 36 pure souls on the planet – and the Bend Sinister have their own horrible plans in store for her, and for the rest of the Pure, if they get their hands on her. With the unkillable Blood Guard agent Jack Dawkins, their hacker friend, Sammy, and a taxi driver named Diz, the group races around New York to foil the Bend Sinister and keep the world safe, but Ronan’s father is closing in.

This is the first Blood Guard book I’ve read, and I’ll be picking up the first two books – The Blood Guard and The Glass Gauntlet – to catch up on this series. Told as a first person narrative, Ronan is a likable kid who’s trying to reconcile the fact that his father is an evil creep who tried to kill him and his mother by burning the family house down, comprehend the fact that his mom (and, because of circumstances, he) is Blood Guard, and his best friend is one of a handful of Pure souls in the world. He’s funny and wry, determined, and brave. Jack Dawkins is James Bond meets Captain Jack Harkness (where are my Doctor Who and Torchwood bretheren?); a secret agent that can fight with any weapon and who can’t die. The story is fast-paced and action packed, with a fight on the New York City subway system that readers will love.

While you don’t need to have read the first two Blood Guard books to enjoy The Blazing Bridge, readers will really get the full background and enjoy the series more if they do. Booktalk and display this series with other adventure novels, including the Nick and Tesla series by Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hocksmith, The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari, and Michael Grant’s Magnificent 12 series.

carter-roy-photo-bw_credit-jdz-photographyCarter Roy has painted houses and worked on construction sites, waited tables and driven delivery trucks, been a stagehand for rock bands and a videographer on a cruise ship, and worked as a line cook in a kitchen, a projectionist in a movie theater, and a rhetoric teacher at a university. He has been a reference librarian and a bookseller, edited hundreds of books for major publishers, and written award-winning short stories that have appeared in a half-dozen journals and anthologies. His first two books were The Blood Guard and The Glass Gauntlet. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and can be found at www.carterroybooks.com or on Twitter @CarterRoyBooks.

 

 

blood-guard-series_credit-jdz-photographyGiveaway!

One lucky winner will receive a complete set of all three Blood Guard books (THE BLOOD GUARD, THE GLASS GAUNTLET, and THE BLAZING BRIDGE). (U.S. addresses only.) Just enter this One lucky winner will receive a complete set of all three Blood Guard books (THE BLOOD GUARD, THE GLASS GAUNTLET, and THE BLAZING BRIDGE). (U.S. addresses only.) Just enter this Rafflecopter giveaway for your chance!
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Posted in Fiction, Middle Grade, Middle School, Realistic Fiction, Tween Reads

A girl tries to bring her family back together in The Haunted House Project

haunted-houseThe Haunted House Project, by Tricia Clasen, (Oct. 2016, Sky Pony Press), $15.99, ISBN: 9781510707122

Recommended for ages 8-12

When Andie’s mom died in a tragic accident, she left a huge hole in her family. Andie’s dad drifts from job to job, spending more time drinking and gambling away their insurance money. Andie’s older sister, Paige, holds down a diner job in addition to being a high school student, just to make sure there’s food on the table. Andie’s having a harder time holding it together at school, and teachers are starting to notice. Seemingly left on her own most of the time, Andie  comforts herself with ghost stories; she wants desperately to believe that there’s a way she can reach out to her mother, somehow. When Isaiah, her science partner, suggests they study paranormal activity for their project, Andie gets a spark of inspiration: what if she were to haunt her family’s home, making them believe her mother was reaching out to them? Would it bring them back together? She sprays perfume, leaves objects and writes messages around the house, hoping to get a reaction from her father and sister. Whether or not it will be the reaction she wants remains to be seen.

The Haunted House Project is a touching story of grief and loss, and one girl’s attempt to bring her mother back the only way she knows how.  She grieves not only for her mother, but the normalcy of everyday life. It’s an honest look at a girl coming of age under difficult circumstances; it’s a look at how friendships can change, and it’s a story about one child trying to repair her broken family. Readers will feel sympathy for Andie; some will, empathize with her, and most readers will understand the desperation of wanting. This is a strong yet gentle work of fiction that will go well with Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May.