Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A. F. Steadman

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

Information

GoodreadsSkandar and the Unicorn Thief
Series: Skandar #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Skandar Smith dreams of leaving the Mainland to join the Island as a unicorn rider. All he has to do is pass the Hatchery exam, and he will be one of the chosen few to travel to the island and hatch a real, life unicorn. But not the type of unicorns people on the Mainland thought were cute (and imaginary). Real life unicorns are vicious, violent creatures who can control the elements, and share that magic with their bonded riders.

But the Hatchery exam does not go as planned, and Skandar finds his world shrinking–until a stranger knocks on his door at midnight and smuggles him onto the Island. People are disappearing, and a mysterious figure known as the Weave is stealing unicorns. And Skandar might be the only one who can save the Island.

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Review

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief proved a bit of a rollercoaster read for me. While it starts out feeling a bit slow and rather derivative, over time the pace picks up and the action drew me in. I initially thought I would end up DNFing the book, but discovered that I eventually enjoyed it for what it is–a fun middle grade fantasy that does not try to do much of anything new, but does relish in bringing out all the old favorite tropes. A solid read I think tween readers especially will enjoy.

The main draw for Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is presumably the “twist” on unicorn lore–the book makes a big deal out of noting that unicorns in this world are not the cute, rainbow-pooping creatures trending in pop culture right now, but rather vicious monsters who can kill. There are actually numerous fantasy books were unicorns are presented as wild and dangerous, so it’s not that original. However, I will accept that today’s tweens are so immersed in the glittery kind of unicorns that this might seem incredibly weird and innovative to the target audience.

And that’s the main draw, initially. “Look how scary these things are!” the book shouts. “They shoot lightning! They can trample you to death!” The dangerousness of unicorns is so hyped up, I began to wonder exactly why the protagonist wanted a unicorn of his own. Unicorn riders are treated as international celebrities, and audiences gather worldwide to watch the riders and their unicorns fight it out to see who will be in charge of the unicorn Island. But…it all seems so bloodthirsty! Why should I sympathize with Skandar wanting a unicorn of his very own so he can try to kill or maim another rider just so he can be on TV?? But this is to wonder too much. I think it’s just supposed to be like Pokemon, where you watch “caring” humans battle and injure their beloved animals and cheer them on instead of reporting them to the authorities responsible for animal welfare. So, if you or your child likes Pokemon, maybe Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is for you!

Despite all the hype about these bizarrely non-sparkly unicorns, however, the beginning feels slow. I felt like I could have been reading just about any other middle grade fantasy and getting a similar experience. The worldbuilding tried for something unique, but making the boarding school be a series of treehouses did not feel all that innovative. Then, once the pacing picked up, it felt choppy, with Skandar and his friends too easily completing different tasks that should have been impossible for a bunch of new students with almost no training.

By the middle of the book, however, I did somehow find myself immersed. I began to get more interested in the question of who the Unicorn Thief was, and what their end goal is. The pacing was still a bit uneven, with Skandar and his friends again completing tasks with a bit too much ease. But I enjoyed the action and the drama for what it was, without worrying too much that the book and its elements do not particularly stand out from similar titles.

If you enjoyed middle grade fantasy, and are looking for your next read, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is worth a try!

4 stars

10 Quick Takes on Common Bookish Controversies

10 Quick Takes on Common Bookish Controversies

Bookish controversies roil the book blogosphere every so often–and many of them are actually recurring debates. Below are a few of my quick thoughts on some of the most commonly discussed subjects in the book blogosphere.

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Yes, you can review a book you DNF’ed (Did Not Finish).

The fact that you thought a book was so unengaging that you could not even finish it, is a review! I see no problem with people discussing why they did not want to finish reading a book, as long as they acknowledge in the review that they did not read the entire thing.

Read Briana’s Thoughts on “Why I Think It’s Fine to Rate a Book You Did Not Finish.”

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Yes, listening to audiobooks counts as reading.

I think people’s concern with what “counts” as reading stems from how reading is taught in schools–a topic I plan to address one day in a lengthier post. Teachers are indeed concerned with making sure that students can read and decode text since not everything in life is linked to audio yet, and being able to do things like read textbooks, the news, menus, bus schedules, medications and more tends to be useful when audio options are not available. But the people online who worry that listening to audiobooks is not “real reading” are not in school, have already learned how to recognize words on a page, and do not need to judge other people for “not really reading.” Listening to the audiobook is still experiencing the book! People can absorb and analyze the exact same content, through text or audio. In fact, for many, audio is a preferable option, and it’s not very kind to say that they are not doing the work of comprehension and analysis just because they’re not doing it with their eyes.

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Yes, picture books, graphic novels, audiobooks, etc. count towards your GoodReads Challenge.

I think this controversy also stems from how reading is taught in schools too, since many educators are concerned about making sure students are advancing through more complex texts so they can read on grade level and be able to access texts that could be important–prescriptions, leases, student loan documents, college textbooks, etc. So teachers do encourage students to read longer books and to try reading texts without pictures since those are scenarios they may encounter one day. But…this has nothing to do with the Goodreads Challenge, which is a personal reading goal. People can count whatever they like. Books are books. It’s not a competition! No one is “cheating” by marking that they read a picture book, a novella, a comic book, or any other type of book!

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I don’t really care about getting a New Adult (NA) label/section.

The age labels publishers use now generally indicate two things: that a book will likely be of interest to a certain age group and also that it is developmentally appropriate. The movement for a NA section seemed largely to be a desire for more books about single college students in their early 20s (not even the whole 20-something experience), and I feel like those types of books could just be highlighted through lists, displays, and so forth. I don’t think there needs to be a section of adult literature just for characters in their early 20s since adult fiction as a whole already includes those characters, and there’s no special developmental need for it since presumably most adults reading adult books are ready for adult books with characters of any age.

Read my longer thoughts in : “Do We Need a New Adult Section?”

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I don’t think required reading in schools is evil.

I did a lot of things in school that I did not particularly enjoy, because the school system or society at large saw some benefit in it. Required reading is one of those things. It helps to have required reading (or at least a list of various titles to select from) so the instructor can lead a class discussion about the book and know how well the students are comprehending and analyzing the work. And, people have this idea that required reading is all boring and all dead white men, but required reading could actually be a way to introduce more diverse books into the classroom or engage students in discussions about current events. It does not have to be a terrible experience, but could be a way to introduce students to books they would not otherwise know about or read, or open up discussion about the issues that are important to them.

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I think it’s fine to upcycle books.

Sometimes, book lovers have a tendency to view books as sacred, believing that books can never be recycled, thrown away, or removed from circulation. And so, crafts that upcycle books into decorations, ornaments, and more are seen by some as wantonly destructive. However, there are plenty of reasons that a book’s lifespan may naturally be over–damage or outdated information, for example. It makes sense to upcycle them! Additionally, there are many, many books that are still in print and hardly in danger of disappearing if someone uses a copy for art. These upcycled crafts are not using the last copy of a medieval manuscript! I don’t see books as inherently sacred, and so I do not see the trouble with using the paper to make something new.

Also see: “Why Your Local Library Weeds Books from the Collection”

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Negative reviews are important, not mean.

I believe that negative reviews are actually necessary to ensure the integrity and usefulness of the review process. If people only generated positive reviews to be nice to authors, those reviews would no longer be perceived as honest looks at the quality of a work, but instead as mere advertising. It is important, of course, that negative reviews be done respectfully, and that they focus on what in a book or story did not work for the reader. They absolutely should not be personal attacks on the author. But there is nothing inherently mean-spirited in a person saying that they did not enjoy a book for various reasons. That is just information other readers can use to decide if they should invest time and money in a particular book–or not. Because, in the end, reviews are for readers to make informed choices–they are not really for the authors.

Read Briana’s thoughts: “Negative Reviews Aren’t ‘Mean;’ They’re Integral to Selling Books”

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I don’t want to be paid to book blog, though publisher recognition would be nice.

I understand that blogging is a lot of hard work, and many bloggers would like to be recognized for that by receiving cash from publishers (or even more ARCs, at this point). However, I blog for fun, and I do not want the stress and commitment that would come from making my hobby into a job. I also think being paid would fundamentally change how I would have to blog. I would have to promo publishers’ stuff, of course, but I would probably also have to do other things like focus on generating content specifically for views, so publishers would feel justified paying me. I’d rather blog about whatever interests me and do it with no commitment to an employer. But if publishers would at least admit that book bloggers still exist, that would be nice.

Read my full thoughts on “I’m Okay With Not Being Paid to Book Blog.”

Read Briana’s musings on “Four Things That Might Happen if Book Bloggers Were Paid.”

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Bookstagram is probably consumerist.

I don’t really go on Bookstagram a lot. Sometimes I take photos for Briana to post on our account. But I do get the sense that there are trends on there that promote buying a lot of books or buying fancy books to get views. Remember that time everyone had to acquire enough books to create a rainbow bookshelf behind them, complete with fairy lights? Sometimes it seems like these books are acquired just to be photographed, and not to be read. And there was even debate for awhile over whether library books were suitable for Bookstagram, meaning some bloggers at least were feeling a lot of pressure to buy books to keep up. So is Bookstagram all about consumerism? At least in some corners!

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I don’t worry too much about acquiring ARCs.

There’s an idea in the book blogosphere that acquiring more ARCs will make a blog more popular, though I have never seen hard data given to support this. My own experience is that our ARC reviews get less traffic than backlist titles; people seem to prefer to read and comment on reviews of books they have already read. I also don’t see the point of chasing traffic in order to convince publishers to give me more ARCs. The reality is that book bloggers are not paid. There’s no prize for receiving the most ARCs or even getting the most traffic. So, I don’t worry about it.

What are your thoughts?

Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library by Amanda Oliver

Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library

Information

GoodreadsOverdue
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Official Summary

Who are libraries for, how have they evolved, and why do they fill so many roles in our society today?

Based on firsthand experiences from six years of professional work as a librarian in high-poverty neighborhoods of Washington, DC, as well as interviews and research, Overdue begins with Oliver’s first day at an “unusual” branch: Northwest One.

Using her experience at this branch allows Oliver to highlight the national problems that have existed in libraries since they were founded: racism, segregation, and class inequalities. These age-old problems have evolved into police violence, the opioid epidemic, rampant houselessness, and lack of mental health care nationwide—all of which come to a head in public library spaces.

Can public librarians continue to play the many roles they are tasked with? Can American society sustain one of its most noble institutions?

Pushing against hundreds of years of stereotypes, romanticization, and discomfort with a call to reckoning, Overdue will change the way you think about libraries forever.

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Review

Overdue: A Reckoning with the Public Library sounded, from the official marketing, like it would an incisive critique/expose of the ways in which public libraries are losing sight of their mission as employees are overburdened with taking on the roles of social workers. That is kind of true, but not really. In actuality, Overdue is part memoir, part library history, part random musings on topics such as social media and cancel culture, and part critique of public libraries based on the author’s nine months working at a public library in Washington, D.C. The book raises some interesting questions, but in a way that seems to be without any particular method. In the end, it is not really clear who Overdue was written for, or what it seeks to accomplish.

Overdue starts out with what clearly seems to be shock factor, chronicling the time author Amanda Oliver witnessed a violent act in the library, and was subsequently threatened and stalked by the perpetrator. The message is clear: public libraries are not the safe havens the public imagines, nor should they be romanticized as the upholders of democracy or envisioned as ivory towers where those seeking to be educated and enlightened gather. No, the public library welcomes everyone–and this often results in chaos and danger, especially as library staff are not equipped to work as social workers, and often feel unsupported by library administrators, government officials, and the public.

So far, so good. It may seem over the top to those who do not often frequent libraries, but I have heard and read enough stories that I understand public libraries have their problems. I welcomed Oliver’s opening statement since Oliver at least seems willing to admit to some of these problems–I think sometimes current employees feel pressure not to admit that they often feel unsafe and unsupported. However, while I thought this opening would lead to a critique of the state of public libraries, it actually launched instead into: a chapter on the history of libraries to expose their racist roots, a look at Oliver’s childhood upbringing, an account of Oliver’s six years as a school librarian, a look at the homelesseness crisis in the U.S. and its causes, some anecdotes about Oliver’s nine months as a public librarian, her subsequent guilt for leaving the profession, and then some final chapters focusing on other issues facing libraries today–before ending with a seemingly unrelated chapter on cancel culture and a final call to reimagine the future of libraries. It is very disjointed. Half the time, I did not even know what I was supposed to be reading. Is this book about public libraries, or is it Oliver’s memoir, or is it just a random assortment of tangentially-related essays?

When Oliver does discuss public libraries, it is very interesting. Although she admits halfway through that she only served nine months in a public library, the scenarios she describes are harrowing–as is her administration’s reluctance to address the issues front-line staff tried to raise. What Oliver experienced seems enough for a lifetime. She even states that she and another coworker were separately diagnosed with PTSD as a result of her time working in a place where staff were consistently subjected to harassment and the threat of violence. Though some may feel her time in public libraries was not enough for her to speak to the profession, I think Oliver’s ability to speak about what she saw actually stems from the fact that she left, is no longer so emotionally involved in trying to rationalize what was happening to her so she could keep helping people, and has the freedom to speak up without worrying that she will be fired.

The fact that Oliver still feels guilt about leaving, and still tries to walk a fine line in her book between noting a problem and trying to pretend maybe everyone could have lived with the problem for the sake of the less fortunate is extremely telling. For example, Oliver notes that library rules like not allowing people to use the bathroom sinks for baths or only allowing one bag instead of ten were rules the public also wanted enforced–I assume because slippery floors are dangerous and also because no one wants to walk in on a person in the nude, or because having ten bags in the aisle is a safety hazard–but then Oliver seems reluctant to commit to some of these reasonable rules because she feels bad for people who need to bathe or store their ten bags.

Librarianship seems to be a job that attracts empathetic people, so it makes sense that Oliver would struggle with enforcing rules that most buildings have as a matter of course. The problem is that is this precise guilt that allows libraries and their staff to keep being pressured to do more, more, more. The really reasonable thing to do would be to build more shelters, so people could wash with dignity in an actual shower where no one will walk in on them, or a place that has lockers so people know their belongings are safe and do not have to lug them all around town all day. Librarians’ empathy that makes them want to allow bathing in the restroom is just one factor of many that allows public officials to not spend money on actual solutions, because they figure the library will do it free.

Interestingly, one of Oliver’s proposed solutions for libraries being forced to act as homeless shelters because of the closure of such shelters is…to turn libraries into homeless shelters. She envisions new libraries, not having fancy fountains and impressive architecture to impress the tourists, but instead having showers, lockers, and needle containers. Left unsaid is whether the library will still provide any books or databases, or if all the “information professionals” will turn into social workers instead. While I have long supported the idea of libraries partnering with social workers precisely because libraries serve so many individuals in need of such services, I am perplexed at the idea that we should wholesale turn libraries into homeless shelters. Why not both? Why can’t the library still exist to provide equal access to information, while more shelters are built to fulfill other needs? On the other hand, I am not perplexed at all. Libraries have spent so long trying to fill in the gaps in social services, that many librarians see themselves as social workers anyway.

Overdue raises plenty of interesting questions, some of which I will likely explore in upcoming posts. As a book, however, Overdue is admittedly disjointed, jumping around from topic to topic without any clear thread connecting them. And, it is unclear to me who the intended audience is. Is it the public, who may be shocked to learn that library staff see their job as unsafe? Is it library administrators and government officials, who have the ability to make change? Is it library staff, who want to be heard? Is it just people interested in Oliver’s memoirs? I have no idea! I do know that many of the topics raised likely already exist somewhere on the internet as an article, so I would recommend people do some research to find those quicker, more focused reads, or maybe check out what current librarians are talking about on Twitter to get an idea of the state of libraries, rather than reading this book.

3 Stars

Bookish Confession: I Don’t Really Care about Book Covers

The rise of Bookstagram and other social media platforms has led to speculation that publishers might now be invested more in cover aesthetics than they were in the past. You can even find articles pondering that books have become a sort of accessory to show off online, and that publishers might be designing book covers specifically with the idea that these covers need to be something people will want to photograph and share. I admit I love a good book cover. I will admire elegant collectors’ editions. I can appreciate beautiful art and typography. And yet–the book cover is not usually a make or break issue for me.

Like most readers, I am often attracted initially to a book because of its cover. I even use book covers as a sort of shorthand to decide if a book might be of interest to me because book covers often reveal information such as the age range, genre, and tone of the work. That is, a quirky middle grade cover usually looks different from a humorous middle grade cover. A steamy romance or a thriller have different cover conventions than a sweet romance or a cozy mystery. Very often, you really can judge a book by its cover–and publishers rely on that to sell books. Even so, however, I do not typically pass on books just because I do not like the cover. If a book has an interesting summary or good reviews, the cover is not going to stop me from reading it. It would not even stop me from buying it in most cases.

There are, admittedly, some truly terrible book covers that I would actively avoid. Most book bloggers have probably seen some cringe-worthy classic covers–like the one where Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables appears to be a sexy blonde instead of a spunky eleven-year-old redhead. I would decidedly not want to purchase a book with a cover that seems so ill-suited to the content. Nor would I buy something as disturbing as the cover for Leigh Bardugo’s Hell Bent, which currently has what looks like a possessed and/or dead rabbit on the cover. (I’m not going to link to it, but you can easily find it if you want to take the risk.) And, if there is a book with multiple covers available, I would naturally choose the cover I like best over the other versions when I purchase a copy. On the whole, however, most book covers range from unremarkable to good to really beautiful. All of those options work for me and, if the book is a new release with only one mediocre cover available for purchase, that is okay. I read books for the content, and can ignore the cover if it is bland or even disappointing.

Because book covers are not that important to me, I do not find cover reveals to be all that exciting–not even for books I am excited to read. If I am perusing the internet and see that a book in a series I love has cover art released, I will click on it to see the enlarged image. But, again, the cover is not a make or break issue for me. If I do not love the cover, I am not going to stop reading the series. And, honestly, I never click on cover reveals, no matter where they are advertised–blogs, author websites, publisher sites, or social media. I just don’t care. If the book has an intriguing summary, I will pick it up. I am not going to spend time clicking on cover reveals if I was interested in the book before I saw the cover anyway.

Book lovers, of course, love books–and celebrating book covers is often a natural part of that. I know that there are some really gorgeous covers out there that I love to look at, and really gorgeous editions that I love to share (like the MinaLima interactive books). But these are like a happy bonus for me. It’s a treat to see a cover or a book that beautiful! If the book cover is just unremarkable, well, that’s okay. I’ll still give the book a try. The cover quality does not determine the quality of the text.

What do you think? Do you love book covers? Have you ever avoided a book because of the cover? What are some of the most beautiful covers you’ve seen?

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by by Tọlá Okogwu (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun
Series: Onyeka #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: June 14, 2022

Official Summary

Onyeka has a lot of hair­—the kind that makes strangers stop in the street and her peers whisper behind her back. At least she has Cheyenne, her best friend, who couldn’t care less what other people think. Still, Onyeka has always felt insecure about her vibrant curls…until the day Cheyenne almost drowns and Onyeka’s hair takes on a life of its own, inexplicably pulling Cheyenne from the water.

At home, Onyeka’s mother tells her the shocking truth: Onyeka’s psycho-kinetic powers make her a Solari, one of a secret group of people with super powers unique to Nigeria. Her mother quickly whisks her off to the Academy of the Sun, a school in Nigeria where Solari are trained. But Onyeka and her new friends at the academy soon have to put their powers to the test as they find themselves embroiled in a momentous battle between truth and lies…

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Review

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is a unique and fun-filled adventure about magic and finding a place for oneself sure to appeal to fans of magic school stories. Onyeka, upon suddenly finding the hair she’s always hated and struggled to manage is magic and that her abilities are related to her missing father, is whisked off to her home country of Nigeria, where she must navigate controlling her new powers while also making friends and adjusting to living in a new place.

The descriptions of the magic academy and of Nigeria will draw readers in and make the story feel real, as do the little hints of darkness scattered about: the fact that the children at the academy must live away from their parents, the idea they don’t know everything about their powers, the suggestion that something terrible has happened to Onyeka’s own parents.

Yet the darkness is balanced by Onyeka’s resilience, making her a character to root for, while her new friends are brave and loyal and just about everything one could hope for in a support group.

I do think:

1) the mentions of Onyeka’s hatred of her own hair could have been toned down. I appreciate it as a central theme of the story; I simply mean that the character seems to bring it up every 2 pages, and I believe the author could have created the same effect and explored the same things while cutting a few of these references.

2) the pacing feels a bit off. It took me a while to get into the story at the beginning, and then things begin to happen extremely quickly, and then the whole book ends on a cliffhanger. This is by no means a standalone book; expect it to end seemingly in the middle of the story, just as events start to really start going somewhere.

Overall, this is an immersive tale that feels fresh, and it will likely keep a lot of readers on the edges of their seats. Just wait for the sequel to be released if you’re the type of person who likes to read a full story all at once.

Briana
3 Stars

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Swim Team

Information

GoodreadsSwim Team
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Bree cannot wait to start at her new school, Enith Brigitha, and join the Math Club. But then she learns that the only elective still open is Swimming 101–and Bree can’t swim. With the help of her elderly neighbor Etta, however, Bree takes the plunge and even joins the school swim team. The Mighty Manatees are counting on her and her teammates to bring home the State Championship, and save the pool from being sold for a smoothie shop. But the team is having growing pains, and if they cannot work together outside the pool, they may not be able to work together in the pool.

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Review

Swim Team is the perfect middle grade graphic novel! With an endearing protagonist, relatable middle school experiences, and fun look at the trials and triumphs of competing on the school swim team, this book takes the classic tale of friendship growing pains and makes it feel fresh. I adored meeting Bree and all her friends, and especially loved the relationships both between Bree and her father, and between Bree and her elderly neighbor Etta. This is a story about community and courage–and I definitely want more!

Swim Team hooked me from the start when it opened with Bree and her father moving to a new home in Florida–and showed Bree excited for her first day of school instead of dreading it. Her upbeat, can-do attitude, even with a bit of first day jitters, intrigued me, showing that Johnnie Christmas might be doing something a bit different here. Bree’s winning personality really grounds the story, as readers get to see her struggling with relatable scenarios like the fear of embarrassing herself in front of her classmates, or disappointment when her dad has to work all the time and barely gets to spend time with her anymore. Bree’s story shows that everyone experiences difficulty and disappointment, but, with the help of her friends, her community, and her courage, she can make it through.

So this is a feel-good story from the start, but all the characters just make it better and better. The book shows Bree’s friendship drama with the girls on the swim team–an aspect of most contemporary books set in middle school–but I truly adored Bree’s relationship with her elderly neighbor Etta. Intergenerational friendships are not often shown in books, and it was truly moving to watch Etta agree to mentor and train Bree, so that Bree could have opportunities she was denied. Etta is shown as a full person, with her own interests, friendships struggles, and memories. She’s not just some stereotypical old person that happens to live in Bree’s building, nor is she a convenient plot device to get Bree on the swim team. I love Etta. Maybe Etta should get her own book. Just a thought.

I highly recommend Swim Team! It’s a heartwarming story with a winning protagonist and a relatable storyline. It is sure to charm readers of all ages!

5 stars

The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis

The Raven Heir

Information

GoodreadsThe Raven Heir
Series: The Raven Crown #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Gift
Publication Date: August 2021

Summary

Cordelia lives in an enchanted forest with her triplets Giles and Rosalind, her mother, older brother, and a servant. The triplets have been hidden away from the outside world for years, not knowing that one of them is heir to the Raven Throne. But then a group of men breach the castle, determined to take one of the triplets for the throne. But the triplets are just a pawn in an unending war. Taking the crown would mean certain death. So, when their mother and brother are taken prisoner, the three flee into the forest. Only by restoring their connection to the land can they save their mother–and maybe the kingdom.

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Review

The Raven Heir has a fascinating premise. Three triplets live in the forest, unknowing that one of them–the eldest, whichever that is–is actually the heir to the Raven Throne. But, for now, they live a sheltered life where their mother protects their home with magic and Cordelia learns to shapeshift into various animals, while Giles writes songs and Rosalind practices swordplay. Their life is shattered when a group of knights comes to take one to act as a puppet ruler. But however wonderful the premise, the execution falls short. I thought the politics were nonsensical, the characters annoying, and the plot too episodic and fast-paced. I wanted to love such a magical-sounding book, but I found myself desperately hoping the book would just end already.

Logic is one of the aspects of a book I highly value, and any politics that do not make sense are likely to make me immediately skeptical of a book. The Raven Heir does not have logical politics. Or, at least, I do not think it does; they are too thinly sketched for readers to have any deep understanding of what is actually happening in the kingdom. One gets the sense that the author wanted to provide just enough information to explain why the triplets have to flee, but that fleshing out an actual political landscape was deemed unnecessary. The idea is basically that a group of knights have to kidnap a triplet to act as ruler, while they actually rule behind the scenes. Other factions favor other puppet rulers. I…really did not understand why a group of men had to kidnap a random child at all. If they are all fighting for the throne, and everyone knows the child ruler is a farce, one of them can just fight for the throne and sit on it themselves. That is normally how new dynasties start, isn’t it? The strongest army wins. No need to chase a bunch of children through the forest.

Aside from that, the characters were really, really annoying. Even though there is an armed force at the gates, none of the children takes it seriously and Cordelia decides to just leave the castle and wander around their camp. This naturally leads to disaster, creating a series of events where Giles and Rosalind also do not take their imminent deaths seriously, instead choosing to dilly dally in the forest while being chased by armed soldiers, shout at the tops of their voices while they are being hunted, and generally squabble about everything instead of working together to make a plan and survive. It ends with an out-of-the blue betrayal just for dramatic effect. I did not care about any of the triplets and certainly did not care if they managed to save the kingdom or not.

The plot pacing was really fast-paced, with the children going through a series of episodes to constitute a grand adventure of some sort, before they reached the dramatic climax. Because the pacing is so fast, the children seem to get out of each situation with unbelievable ease. Rosalind, for instance, is apparently, as a child, equal to nine fully trained knights in battle. How convenient. I simply could not suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy this tale.

The idea of a shapeshifting protagonist is cool, but it is not enough to outweigh the other aspects of the work. I can see this book being received more favorably by the children it is intended for, however, since they may not care as much about logical politics or even having child protagonists exhibit more believable training. There is only book one in a series, but I do not see myself continuing any farther.

2 star review

What I Look for in a Book Review

What I Look for in a Book Review

Writing an effective book review can feel like a struggle. But, there are a few key aspects that book reviews I really enjoy and find useful all share. Find the traits I look for in book reviews below!

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Structure

Bloggers often protest that blogging is a hobby, not school, so what they learned in school no longer applies. However, the basics of writing that are taught in schools are useful in the real world! And, what is more, they actually can make writing more effective!

When I read a book review, I want to see a structure that will guide me through the review and give me an easy way to understand the information being presented. At a minimum, this means I prefer to see some sort of thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph (basically, is the reviewer recommending the book or not–bonus points if they say why). And I want the paragraphs to be organized in a coherent manner, with each paragraph addressing one main idea or related ideas at least, and transitions between paragraphs. There should be a conclusion again stating if the reviewer is recommending the book or not, which readers they think the book will appeal to, whether they will continue with the series or more books by the author, etc.–any sort of thoughts that wrap up the review in a logical way.

Because I recognize that blogging is just for fun, my standards are obviously not going to be as rigorous as if I were reading a research paper–and, indeed, my own blog writing is far more informal and less rigid than anything I would do for school or for work. However, a logical structure really is an effective way to get one’s point across in an easy, accessible manner. And so it is something I value because it makes my reading experience more enjoyable–I do not have to work to guess what the main point of the review is, or what the review is trying to say. Blogging might not be for school, but the principles of effective writing still apply.

Also check out Briana’s post: “Four Things I Learned About Writing in School I Also Use While Writing My Blog”

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An Actual Review (Not a Summary)

Summaries just tell a person what a book is about–and the official summaries for a book are easily found online on sites such as Goodreads or booksellers. When I read a review, I want to read an actual review, not a lengthy recap of the storyline. A review can touch on various aspects of a work–characterization, plot, pacing, prose, illustrations, and more. But it should give the reviewer’s original, personal views on how/if these aspects of the work contributed to a good story. I should leave a review having a clearer understanding of whether the book is something I want to invest my time in.

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Length

Because blogging is a hobby, I hesitate to say that there is a standard size all book reviews must be. However, I do think it is a fact that a longer review is going to be able to provide readers with more information. A one paragraph review only has time to gloss over a few, main aspects of a work. A review that is four to five paragraphs has room to expand on different aspects of the book. I prefer to read longer reviews because those give me more information to make an informed decision about what I want to read.

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Charity

It’s fine to write negative reviews! Indeed, I would argue that the existence of negative reviews is necessary to keep reviews useful. If we only have glowing reviews, those are not reviews–that’s just advertising. However, there is a difference between respectfully pointing out aspects of a book or story that did not work for a reader, and personally attacking authors. I appreciate negative reviews, but I don’t like to interact with reviewers who seem spiteful or out to get authors. Authors are people, too, and, like everyone, they deserve common courtesy.

Also read: “Negative Reviews Aren’t ‘Mean;’ They’re Integral to Selling Books”

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Conclusion

Writing an effective, informative review can be difficult! It is a skill that many reviewers spend time practicing and mastering. I know that I have to keep working on my own reviews, trying to write the kind of content others hopefully find valuable. But it’s definitely worth the effort!

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What Do Readers “Owe” Authors?

What Do Readers Owe Authors

Reading–and writing–can be intensely personal experiences. An author can pour their heart out into a book, spending months or even years trying to perfect the tale, only to find that the story did not resonate with some readers at all. Readers who fell in love with the tale themselves might be as confused or as outraged as the author that their fellow readers did not have the same reaction. Did they even read the same book? And, even if the story maybe was not the best, even if it did have some marked flaws, some readers fervently believe that all readers (and particularly bloggers and reviewers) should praise and celebrate the book anyway. After all, writing a book is hard work. Maybe the effort should count for more than the finished product.

The idea that readers should recognize effort instead of the result of that effort can create some heated discussions about the “appropriate” way to read and review books. Some readers, for instance, fiercely maintain that readers should not stop reading any book. They “owe” it to the author to read the whole thing, and then and only then are they entitled to have an opinion about it. Some readers believe that reviewers should only offer positive reviews and, even if a reader did not like a book, they should only mention the good parts of the book, or maybe write about the book as if they are a different person who would have enjoyed the book instead. Some readers believe that they have a duty to go beyond just reading the book or speaking highly about it, and they they need to actively promote the book for the author–posting positive reviews on multiple channels (ex. blog, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.), tweeting at others to buy it, doing cover reveals, reminding readers of the upcoming release dates, and so on. Essentially, some readers believe that they are ethically bound to act as free marketing agents for authors, as a mark of their respect and support.

Such attitudes probably stem partly from the feeling of a personal relationship that readers can develop with stories, and thus by extension, their authors; people like to do favors for people they like. But it probably also comes partly because books are considered art, and engaging with art and reading is considered “good” (and oftentimes morally superior to other forms of spending free time). And thus supporting authors and books and reading (through unpaid work) is also morally good. After all, the types of arguments people make for supporting authors through unpaid labor or for only saying positive things about their products does not typically extend to other areas of life. No one begs others to pretend that the contractor they hired was good, even if said contractor did a poor job, just because contractors work hard and are nice people. No one typically suggests that everyone who buys a new set of towels is ethically bound to promote those towels across several platforms, and to convince all their friends to buy the towels, too. Even if the towels were handcrafted by a small business owner and not created by a faceless corporation presumed to be rolling in wealth.

In my mind, however, the relationship between an author and a reader is largely a transactional one, just as with any other purchase I make or good I consume. What I “owe” to authors is simple. I owe them the obtainment of their books legally, so they can make sales and hopefully one day earn out their advance. Because, yes, they did work hard on their product and they deserve to be paid for that product, like anyone else. I also owe them the decency I owe anyone else–no personal attacks, no negative reviews tweeted directly at them. That’s pretty much it. How much of the book I read after I buy it is up to me. If I do not like the book because the story is not for me, or the timing is not right for me, I am not ethically obligated to finish it. I am certainly not ethically obligated to the author to review it, to sing its praises, to pretend I liked it when I did not, or to start trying to sell copies to my friends and followers.

This attitude may sound cold, but it is fair, and it also gives some protection to readers. Readers should recognize that the baseline for interactions with books is to read them legally and to be kind and courteous to authors. Anything else is going above and beyond. Reading an entire book one does not even like is a courtesy, not a necessity! Reviewing books is a favor! Acting as unpaid marketing is a HUGE favor! It’s not something publishers and authors should just expect as their due. Nor should readers’ passion for books be weaponized against them to convince them that they “owe” anyone unpaid labor–not even if they like that person or their work very much. Choosing not to go above and beyond does not mean one is choosing something wrong.

Many readers are, of course, very passionate about books and about stories. They want to share those stories with others and they want to support the authors who have, perhaps, changed their lives. But readers do not “owe” authors their passion, their time, or their unpaid labor. And it is not fair of publishers or authors, or even other readers, to suggest that they do.

A Taste of Magic by J. Elle (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: A Taste of Magic
Series: Park Row Academy #1
Age Category: Middle grade
Source: Netgalley from Bloomsbury for review
Publication Date: August 30, 2022

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Kyana has just discovered she’s a witch! This means classes every Saturday at Park Row Magic Academy, a learning center hidden in the back of the local beauty shop, and Kyana can’t wait to learn spells to help out at home. The only downside is having to keep her magic a secret from her BFF, Nae. But when the magic school loses funding, the students must pay huge fees at the fancy school across town or lose their magic! Determined to help, Kyana enters a baking contest with a big cash prize. Will she be able to keep up her grades while preparing for the competition and without revealing her magic? What about when a taste of magic works its way into her cupcakes?

Exciting up-and-coming author J. Elle combines the perfect balance of real-world issues and magical mishaps to create real magic. 

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Review

A Taste of Magic is a fun middle grade fantasy that will bring a touch of the familiar to readers who love a good story about a child discovering they have magic and then learning how to use it.

The book starts out with elements similar to middle grade stories, but a few chapters in, it branches out in something a bit more unique. And Kyana helps the book stand out with her strong personality and determination to excel at magic and help her family. There’s also a new take on the idea of a magic school here in that, one, there’s a small school for each neighborhood in the city instead of one large school and, two, Kyana’s school has the misfortunate of being painfully underfunded compared to some of the other school’s. The story becomes one that is as much about Kyana’s community and her mission to get her school its fair share of funding as it is about the magic of, well, discovering you have magic.

Add in a subplot about baking, which ties in a bit to Kyana’s skills with potions, and some cool magical cats, and you have a book that is sure to please a ton of readers. (And there are recipes in the back of the book! Not that I ever personally remember to get around to trying any recipes listed in the back of books . . .)

There are a couple of what I personally consider to be major plot holes in the book (which I won’t elaborate on here because I want to avoid spoilers, but you can DM me on Twitter or something if you really want to know!). I assume the hope is that the target audience won’t notice or care. Considering none of the current reviews on Goodreads mention these plot holes either, I also have to assume I am, once again, the only person scratching my head at the clear lack of logic in a book.

Overall, the book is solid, and I think it will really resonate with its target audience. I love the main character and her heart, and I love that there’s a slightly different take on how to learn magic here.

Briana
3 Stars