Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch by Julie Abe

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch

Information

Goodreads: Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch
Series: Eva Evergreen #1
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2020

Summary

Twelve-year-old Eva Evergreen possesses only a pinch of magic. And that will make passing her Novice Quest incredibly difficult. She has one month to find a town to live in, and then do enough good for the inhabitants that they will recommend her to the Council–otherwise she will lose her magic forever. Eva’s plan is to do small repair magic to help the locals. But the mayor of her new town insists that Eva protect the town from the Culling–a magical storm of unknown origin that even the most power witches and wizards fail each year to contain. Eva has no idea how to succeed, but she certainly means to try.

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Review

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch is proudly recommended on the cover for fans of Kiki’s Delivery Service–and that should come as no surprise. The main premise of Eva Evergreen is precisely the same as that of Kiki. Twelve-year-old Eva must leave her home and live on her own for awhile in a new town, in order to demonstrate that she is a true witch. While there, she has some difficulties making friends, but ultimately proves her worth when tragedy strikes. However, though the premise of the story is the same, Julie Abe adds in extra details to make the book feel worth reading: an antagonistic wizard, rumors of rogue magic, and a series of quests witches must complete in order to keep their powers. Ultimately, Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch is a charming read, sure to appeal to tween readers who love tales of magic that are more cute than scary.

Perhaps the main flaw of this fantasy is not the similarities with Kiki’s Delivery Service, but rather the lack of worldbuilding. This is evident from the first pages, where Abe attempts to start in the middle of the action, without being bogged down by “insignificant” details about Eva’s world. Eva is walking into a magical bookstore to undergo some sort of test in preparation for some other event that will lead to some sort of quest. Information is dropped “organically,” but not explained, making it hard for readers to figure out precisely what is happening. For example, one character compliments another’s cooking (a nod to the fact that Eva’s father is a baker and not a wizard). People are addressed by confusing titles (later explained to be stages of magic one can achieve). And a nemesis is introduced (in order to allude to some sort of magical apprenticeship system that is never clearly described in-depth at all). A lot of it does not immediately make sense, and readers just have to stick with it for awhile in order for the worldbuilding to start being explained. Even after reading the entire book, however, I still find that many important details about magic, politics, and geography are simply lacking. This may not bother readers who enjoy books more for the plot, but readers who prioritize worldbuilding will likely be disappointed.

Aside from the lack of worldbuilding, the story is pleasant enough. No unexpected plot twists occur, and readers will probably be able to predict most of the story’s major events, including the big “reveal” of the villain at the end. Still, it is a nice story about a nice girl trying to do nice things for a nice town. A reader wanting a feel-good book that never gets the pulse racing, but merely charms with descriptions of cute animals, families reunited, and friendships made will enjoy the journey. Because, in the end, a story about a girl with magic who proves her worth despite not being as powerful as the rest of the witches will land well in most cases. Readers do love to cheer for an underdog.

Nothing about Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch particularly stands out. It is a reliable middle-grade fantasy that relies on many familiar plot points, but I do not think the tween readers it is marketed towards will complain about its inherent lack of originality. It’s a fun story, and that is likely what will make it enjoyable to read for many. It is certainly book that I would have loved as a child.

3 Stars

Ghost Girl by Ally Malinenko (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Ghost Girl
Series: None
Source: Goodreads Giveaway
Publication Date: August 10, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Small Spaces and Nightbooks, Ally Malinenko’s middle-grade debut is an empowering and triumphant ghost story—with spooky twists sure to give readers a few good goosebumps!

Zee Puckett loves ghost stories. She just never expected to be living one.

It all starts with a dark and stormy night. When the skies clear, everything is different. People are missing. There’s a creepy new principal who seems to know everyone’s darkest dreams. And Zee is seeing frightening things: large, scary dogs that talk and maybe even . . . a ghost.

When she tells her classmates, only her best friend, Elijah, believes her. Worse, mean girl Nellie gives Zee a cruel nickname: Ghost Girl.

But whatever the storm washed up isn’t going away. Everyone’s most selfish wishes start coming true in creepy ways.

To fight for what’s right, Zee will have to embrace what makes her different and what makes her Ghost Girl. And all three of them—Zee, Elijah, and Nellie—will have to work together if they want to give their ghost story a happy ending.

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Review

Ghost Girl is a creepy middle-grade novel that will appeal to fans of Small Spaces. When a new principal comes to town and promises everyone their deepest desires, only Zoe seems immune to his charms. But she has seen the supernatural dogs roaming the graveyard, and she knows that the people and the things the principal is conjuring cannot be real. However, the lure of having what one wants most can be stronger even than the truth. Ghost Girl does not particularly stand out from similar spooky middle-grade titles, but may appeal to tween readers who enjoy thrills and chills.

The premise of having a trickster-like character who promises one thing but delivers another is, of course, a very old one. As such, it does potentially have instant appeal–the character has been around so long for a reason. However, the familiarity of the concept can also make it difficult to make it feel new. In the case of Ghost Girl, the plot is a pretty standard one: the trickster comes to town, is recognized for what he is by a child, and then defeated by the rules of his own game. The signature sparks that make the tale feel original? Unfortunately, they are mostly lacking.

Great characters could have made this book really come alive. However, Zee also feels a bit standard as a protagonist. She is the odd girl at school, the one who prefers spooky stories and the world of the imagination to the horrible feeling of reality–her dead mom, her missing dad, her classmate bullies. Her main trait of originality is that she can actually be rather mean and dishonest, despite her complaints about the way others act. This mean streak, however, sometimes work against Zee, making it difficult to root for her. Her friend Elijah and her nemesis Nellie add a bit more of interest to the story, but their sudden romantic interest in each other feels forced, arguably ruining what could have been a fine tale of budding friendships.

The writing style also worked against the story for me. While it can be difficult at times to pinpoint exactly what about a writing style is grating, merely the fact that I noticed the writing style, instead of seamlessly falling into the story, is not a good sign. If I had not felt compelled to finish the book in order to write a review, I likely would have stopped several pages in, from the writing alone.

Despite my reading experience, however, I recognize that the tween audience for which the book is intended might not be as concerned about originality as I am, and that many might even enjoy seeing another outsider character. Middle school, after all, can be rough, and many young people often feel that they do not belong, either. They may enjoy the book as something new, when I cannot, since I have read many similar titles. And they might relate to Zee in a way I do not, again having seen too many similar characters. Ultimately, the reading experience was solid enough, if not extraordinary.

3 Stars

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, Trans. by Emily Balistrieri

Information

Goodreads: Kiki’s Delivery Service
Series: Kiki #1
Source: Library
Published: 1985, translation 2020

Official Summary

Nostalgic fans of the Miyazaki film and newcomers alike–soar into the modern classic about a young witch and her clever cat that started it all!

Half-witch Kiki never runsfrom a challenge. So when her thirteenth birthday arrives, she’s eager to follow a witch’s tradition: choose a new town to call home for one year.

Brimming with confidence, Kiki flies to the seaside village of Koriko and expects that her powers will easily bring happiness to the townspeople. But gaining the trust of the locals is trickier than she expected. With her faithful, wise-cracking black cat, Jiji, by her side, Kiki forges new friendships and builds her inner strength, ultimately realizing that magic can be found in even the most ordinary places.

Blending fantasy with the charm of everyday life, this enchanting new translation will inspire both new readers and dedicated fans.

Star Divider

Review

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films, so when I learned that a new translation of the book it is based on would be released in the U.S. in 2020, I immediately put a copy on hold at the library. I was ready to live the magic all over again! To my dismay, however, I found that the book Kiki’s Delivery Service did not enchant me as I expected. The townspeople of Koriko are not nearly as kind or as helpful in the book, and the story is actually episodic, with Kiki not interacting with most of the characters for more than one chapter. I wanted desperately to be charmed by Kiki’s adventures, but instead I found most of them just rather odd.

I had a rather bad feeling about the book as soon as it began, since Kiki and her mother were arguing. One of the things I love most about Miyazaki’s work is that everyone seems so kind–I want to live in his world! But here, from the first pages, Kiki’s mom seemed a bit overbearing and Kiki a bit petulant. I could tell they loved each other, by the dynamic between them was off. And I didn’t get any better relationships from the book–even Osono, the baker who takes Kiki in, seems more standoffish and a bit judgmental. I just wasn’t feeling the love that pervades the film.

I hoped that the story would end up enchanting me more than the characters, but, alas, the book is very episodic, meaning there is no strong arc for either the plot or Kiki, really. Readers will recognize episodes from the film, such as Kiki meeting an artist in the woods, but usually Kiki meets a person, interacts with them briefly, and never sees them again. It is hard to see her growing from her interactions with them, because the interactions do not feel as meaningful.

Tombo is one of the characters who appears more than once. However, his characterization and relationship with Kiki are again very different. Tombo still loves flight, and he is in an aviation club. However, readers first meet him when he is stealing Kiki’s broom to try it out. His next appearance involves a sort of silly invention to get a painting in the air. One could argue that his flying bike in the film is silly, too, but somehow the book invention does not have that same whimsy, just a sense of, “Well, that would obviously never work.” Ultimately, Tombo does not get any significant page time, however, nor any deep character development. The book hints at Kiki having a crush on him, but it is difficult to see why, when she barely knows him. Perhaps their relationship is expanded upon in later installments of the series.

In fairness, I think the translation hindered my enjoyment of the book in a significant way. The book maybe should feel whimsical and charming, but the language feels stilted. So when chapters such as the one about the old lady who makes belly bands for everyone and everything, to keep them from catching cold (yes, she thinks inanimate objects get sick without yarn around them!) happen, they just seem weird. I kept on reading, hoping that at least one episode would catch my imagination, but none did.

I tried to adjust my expectations for Kiki’s Delivery Service because, of course, the book is going to be different from the film–in this case, very different. However, even if I had never seen the film, I do not think I would have enjoyed this book. The prose did not feel very enjoyable, nor did the episodic structure of the book. I am sure many readers have found it magical, but I, unfortunately, could not feel the magic myself.

3 Stars

Bridge of Souls by Victoria Schwab

Bridge of Souls

Information

Goodreads: Bridge of Souls
Series: Cassidy Blake #3
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Where there are ghosts, Cassidy Blake follows … unless it’s the other way around?

Cass thinks she might have this ghost-hunting thing down. After all, she and her ghost best friend, Jacob, have survived two haunted cities while travelling for her parents’ TV show.

But nothing can prepare Cass for New Orleans, which wears all of its hauntings on its sleeve. In a city of ghost tours and tombs, raucous music and all kinds of magic, Cass could get lost in all the colourful, grisly local legends. And the city’s biggest surprise is a foe Cass never expected to face: a servant of Death itself.

Cass takes on her most dangerous challenge yet…

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Review

I started the Cassidy Blake series with high hopes. A travel series with a supernatural twist? Sign me up! Unfortunately, however, I have found all three books to be perfectly capable, but also perfectly mediocre. Victoria Schwab does not really deliver anything new here, nor are the stories particularly creepy or even particularly evocative as travel narratives. They possess all the right ingredients, but somehow those ingredients never combine to make something memorable. Bridge of Souls suffers from the same issues apparent in the first two books–a standard plot combined with lackluster characterization–and ultimately fails to justify all the buildup given it by the previous installments in the series.

As the (presumably) final book in the trilogy, Bridge of Souls probably should also be the scariest. Despite the threat of Death itself, however, the book fails to deliver a plot that feels significantly sinister. Rather, the Emissary of Death appears to pop up at very convenient times. He is then evaded each time fairly easily by a young girl who does not know anything about what she is doing. One expects more from a being allegedly never before defeated by humans. The climax of the book does not really solve this problem. Rather, readers get a pretty confusing scene where the Emissary is evidently defeated by, well, (spoiler alert) falling into a river. Why this works is unclear, but the protagonists seem convince this is enough, so I guess readers are meant to be convinced, as well.

The other main plot point should have involved Jacob’s growing solidity, which as been hinted at several times throughout the series so far. However, even though readers might have expected a heart-wrenching scene in which Cass has to decide between keeping her best friend or unleashing unspecified but terrible effects upon the natural world, this does not happen. My best guess is that Schwab is leaving the series open for an expansion, so she did not want to deal with this problem in this book. However, as it is, the book simply ends with what can only be called a reset of the status quo, with nothing addressed and nothing resolved. This feels extremely unsatisfying, especially as Cass and Jacob’s relationship as so far been the strongest point of the series. Evading the necessary hard choices feels like a cop out.

The travel aspect of the series has had the potential to make the books stand out a little more than other similar titles. However, thus far Schwab has failed to engage meaningfully with this aspect. The scene setting often feels like a list of street names and tourist attractions, with a signature cultural dish thrown in for good measure. The books never really make me feel like I have been to the places described, or that I have a good sense of the people or culture. Perhaps it does not help that Cass spends most of her travel time chasing ghosts rather than interacting with the towns and their people, but I think a book that wants to be a travel narrative should evoke the feeling of a particular destination more than these books do.

Altogether, this series has been pretty lackluster. I have kept on reading with the hope that the books might improve, but the supernatural worldbuilding remains only semi-developed, while the characters failed to grow in this book, largely due to the authorial decision to avoid addressing the issue of Jacob’s growing solidity. Nothing about the series really stands out. Should a book four ever be released, I doubt I will be reading it. There are more gripping supernatural middle grade books out there.

2 star review

Quintessence by Jes Redman

Quintessence by Jes Redoman

Information

Goodreads: Quintessence
Series:
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

Three months ago, twelve-year-old Alma moved to the town of Four Points. Her panic attacks started a week later, and they haven’t stopped — even though she told her parents that they did. Every day she feels less and less like herself.

Then Alma meets the ShopKeeper in the town’s junk shop, The Fifth Point. The ShopKeeper gives her a telescope and this message:

Find the Elements.
Grow the Light.
Save the Starling.

That night, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a child—falls from the sky and into her backyard. Alma knows what it’s like to be lost and afraid, to long for home, and with the help of some unlikely new friends from the Astronomy Club, she sets out on a quest that will take a little bit of astronomy, a little bit of alchemy, and her whole self.

QUINTESSENCE is a stunning story of friendship, self-discovery, interconnectedness, and the inexplicable elements that make you you.

Star Divider

Review

Quintessence by Jes Redman seemed like exactly the type of book I would love: a whimsical middle-grade fantasy with a whole lot of heart. Unfortunately, however, poor characterization combined with awkward plot elements and an over-the-top effort to be mystical meant the book did not meet my expectations. I persevered through the end, but Quintessence simply does not possess the magic I had hoped for.

The problems I had with the book were evident from the start, with the narrator desperately trying to sound deep by using a series of short, simple sentences; talking about stars and the main character’s inner “Alma-ness,” and going on and on about our interconnectedness. Normally, I would appreciate a story about a young girl finding herself and finding friends to rely on, but there is a point where a book can lay on the messages a little too thick. I wanted to say, “Yes, I got it. We all have an inner essence that needs to shine! I got it!” But the book simply does not trust readers to get it. Not without being reminded on nearly every page.

Perhaps the characters or the story could have redeemed the poor writing, but, unfortunately, they did not. The characters are only very sketchily drawn, making it difficult to understand them or sympathize with them. And there are some strange choices made in regards to the characterization, too, that do not make a lot of sense. Alma, for instance, has panic attacks, but the book refuses to name what her mysterious “episodes” are until nearly halfway through, making them seem scarier and more abnormal than they have to be. Her one friend is described as socially inept and sounding like a “robot,” but nothing more is explained here. Her other friend seems to be having trouble fitting into her “perfect” friend group of pretty, popular girls–but this thread is left unexplored. The fourth main character is a bully and his actions are ultimately excused/glossed over because he has a troubled home life, as if that is enough to mean that the others should forgive him and accept his behavior. (It’s not.) In the end, I really had no idea who any of these characters really are, or why I should care about them.

And then there is the bizarre plot. Of course, books with fantasy elements or quests often have the protagonists going into danger to save someone else. Quintessence…does this in a bit of a concerning way. Essentially, the whole quest to save a Starling (young star) and send her back into the sky is set up by the mysterious Shopkeeper, an old man dedicated to sending stars home. He encourage the kids to go into dangerous situations and the whole quest is framed as necessary for Alma to find herself and, ultimately, to overcome her panic attacks. This awkwardly means the book seems to be saying that Alma needs to put herself in danger and lie to her parents in order to heal herself.

And some of these dangerous situations are a little too realistic to read as just a fantasy quest. For instance, Alma sneaks out of her room almost every night (lying about it) to do things like explore a cave in the dark with no equipment and no map, get on an unscheduled bus with a sketchy-looking bus driving to travel to a mountain in the dead of night, and hold a glass aloft with a little lightning rod in order to I guess catch lighting in her hands. The Shopkeeper condones all this and even sets it up. It is suggested that he is actually the weird-looking bus driver in disguise. He’s also the “therapist” who writes a cryptic note to Alma’s parents about her need to see someone. He then lures her into a school broom closet alone with her to “give her advice.” This would be less concerning, again, if the story did not set this all up as good and proper and necessary because Alma’s parents just do not understand her, and she simply has to do these things in order to be whole again. But there is a difference between taking risks and living life to the fullest, and endangering one’s life by being foolish. I’m sorry, but walking into broom closets with strange men and trying to get struck by lightning on purpose are not ways to find one’s self.

Quintessence means well. After all, a sympathetic portrayal of a girl with panic attacks who moves to a new town and finds a friend group who appreciate her is the type of thing most readers would applaud. The execution of the vision, however, leaves something lacking. In the end, the book did not win me over.

2 star review

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd, Michelle Mee Nutter (Illustrations)

Allergic

Information

Goodreads: Allergic
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 2021

Official Summary

A coming-of-age middle-grade graphic novel featuring a girl with severe allergies who just wants to find the perfect pet!

At home, Maggie is the odd one out. Her parents are preoccupied with getting ready for a new baby, and her younger brothers are twins and always in their own world. Maggie loves animals and thinks a new puppy to call her own is the answer, but when she goes to select one on her birthday, she breaks out in hives and rashes. She’s severely allergic to anything with fur!

Can Maggie outsmart her allergies and find the perfect pet? With illustrations by Michelle Mee Nutter, Megan Wagner Lloyd uses inspiration from her own experiences with allergies to tell a heartfelt story of family, friendship, and finding a place to belong.

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Review

Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd is a fairly standard coming-of-age story with a small twist: when protagonist Maggie seeks to find comfort and understanding in a new pet, she finds instead that she is allergic to anything with fur or feathers! Readers of middle-grade graphic novels will recognize the basic plot structure and the themes of finding one’s place in one’s family, but they will likely appreciate the humor and the cuteness nonetheless. Allergic may not be a standout book, but it will appeal to the crowd who loves books such as Smile, the Babysitters Club, and Roller Girl.

Writing a review for a book that is generally good but also unremarkable always proves difficult. Allergic possesses all the elements that should please readers of this type of story: a winning and sympathetic lead, a dash of humor, some friendship drama to liven things up, and some cute animals to melt some hearts. Even so, the book does not really distinguish itself from the many similar offerings on the market. I think the target audience will enjoy it for what it is, but rave reviews from adults or awards being bestowed seems more unlikely.

The art style, too, is appealing, but unremarkable. It feels appropriate for the tone of the story, it has that cartoony vibe that will please fans of Raina Telegemeier, and it gets the job done. Perhaps individuals who know more about art could comment more but, as a general reader, I mainly found I did not notice the illustrations at all, either in a good way or a bad way.

Allergic is the type of book likely to be enjoyed by tween readers who enjoy similar fare or who are willing to pick up just about anything, as a long as it is a comic. Adult readers who are more familiar with all the similar books on the market may be harder to impress, though they will likely find it pleasant, as well. In the end, Allergic does not stand out from its competitors, but it is a nice enough way to spend a few hours.

3 Stars

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

A Wish in the Dark

Information

Goodreads: A Wish in the Dark
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Official Summary

All light in Chattana is created by one man — the Governor, who appeared after the Great Fire to bring peace and order to the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights represent freedom, and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them. But when Pong escapes from prison, he realizes that the world outside is no fairer than the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb light, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, and inspired by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

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Review

A Wish in the Dark has a compelling premise: a middle-grade retelling of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables set in a fantasy world, where light shines only on the “worthy.” The attempt to reimagine a classic work of literature for a younger audience, and thereby highlight inequality between the rich and the poor, is admirable. However, in the end, A Wish in the Dark lacks much of the power I would expect from a book based on one of the heart-rending stories I know. In attempting to make the material more child-friendly, the story loses something. A Wish in the Dark is a solid book with a worthy goal–but not quite the standout novel I had been led to expect.

Writing a story based on Les Misérables was always going to present challenges, as Victor Hugo’s work has a depth and a scope unmatched by many works of literature. A Wish in the Dark attempts to circumvent some of these challenges by focusing on a smaller cast of characters during a shorter period of time. It thus makes the story something that is more correctly described as “inspired by” Hugo’s work, rather than a retelling of Hugo’s work. This is all well and good, but, if the story is not going to attempt a critique of society and its morals set against a stunning historical backdrop, I at least want it to move me with its depictions of its characters. I want it to make me feel the injustice of it all through their eyes. A Wish in the Dark failed to do that.

Presumably because A Wish in the Dark is meant for children, the story often shies away from describing poverty, injustice, and their effects in too much detail. Readers are given pertinent information about the gap between the rich and the poor: the poor have no schools, the poor are herded into prisons where they lack enough to eat, the poor cannot even afford better lights for their homes. However, much of these is described very broadly; I never really felt their hunger, their anger, or their despair. The characters do not burn for justice like Enjorlas and his idealistic followers. The tone is not really clinical but, rather, kind of just describing what is.

Since much of what is in the book also is in the real world, I would hope that the story would inspire some passion around the injustices shown. But, frankly, once our hero Pong escapes to prison and to safety, it is relatively easy to forget that others suffer. Even when he is in hiding, he is cared for better than many, and a few scenes of people begging in the streets do not quite illustrate the full extent of the injustice that is presumably being carried out in the city. Also disappointingly, the book suggests that injustice is solved fairly easily by peaceful protest, love, and democracy. While I recognize that children’s books tend to be upbeat and hopeful in an attempt to inspire people to change instead of making them despair, the too-easy ending feels a bit dishonest.

Critiquing a book with a laudable goal–to expose the gap between the poor and the rich–is difficult. It is natural to want to praise any story that discusses injustice and that seeks to make readers more aware of important social issues. However, though I liked the characters in a general way and though I wished them well, I do not know that pointing out that the poor suffer in many ways more than the rich is enough to make a story amazing. A Wish in the Dark is a fine fantasy. A solid middle-grade novel. It is not, however, a book I will likely want to read again. It lacks the depth and insight I would want from a book attempting to tackle difficult issues.

3 Stars

How to Save a Queendom by Jessica Lawson (ARC Review)

How to Save a Queendom

Information

Goodreads: How to Save a Queendom
Series: None
Source: ARC from publisher
Published: April 20, 2020

Official Summary

From critically acclaimed author Jessica Lawson comes a whimsical fantasy about an orphaned twelve-year-old girl who is called upon to save her queendom when she finds a tiny wizard in her pocket.

Life’s never been kind to twelve-year-old Stub. Orphaned and left in the care of the cruel Matron Tratte, Stub’s learned that the best way to keep the peace is to do as she’s told. No matter that she’s bullied and that her only friend is her pet chicken, Peck, Stub’s accepted the fact that her life just isn’t made for adventure. Then she finds a tiny wizard in her pocket.

Orlen, the royal wizard to Maradon’s queen, is magically bound to Stub. And it’s up to her to ferry Orlen back to Maradon Cross, the country’s capital, or else the delicate peace of the queendom will crumble under the power of an evil wizard queen. Suddenly Stub’s unexciting life is chock-full of adventure. But how can one orphan girl possibly save the entire queendom?

Star Divider

Review

How to Save a Queendom by Jessica Lawson is a rollicking middle-grade adventure that takes all the best parts of a fantasy quest, mixes them up, and presents a story sure to enthrall its readers. From the moment twelve-year-old orphan Stub appears, bullied by the tavern owner she’s apprenticed to, and finding solace only in her pet chicken, readers will know that this is a quirky tale that means to entertain. The appearance of a tiny, grumpy wizard, magically bound to Stub by accident, along with a chef’s apprentice who can’t seem to stop talking about food, only add to the delightful chaos. Will all three be forced to go on a journey together across the nation to stop an evil queen from taking over? Of course!

There’s something kind of irreverent about the way Lawson takes fantasy staples–orphans, wizards, dragons, and evil regents–and puts her own spin on them. The orphan holds no special secret powers, but she is plucky. The wizard is small and impotent. The dragon is somewhat beside the point. And the evil regent almost gets our pity. But, somehow, it all works. The presence of the tropes gives readers something familiar to hold on to. But the way Lawson subverts them makes the book feel not only unpredictable, but also fun.

The characters, along with the plot, are sure to delight. Readers will be sure to fall in love with the protagonist, Stub, who is forced to live in a chicken coop and put up with her mistress’s abuse. Over time, however, Stub finds her strength by learning to trust others and allow them to help her. She is joined by Orlen, a somewhat cranky wizard who is not always as good at spellcraft as he would like everyone to think, but who proves lovable nonetheless. And by Beamas, who provides much of the comic relief by babbling on about recipes and spices when he ought to be thinking about how is life is in danger. Together, they make an unlikely team to save a queendom, but, somehow, it works.

Readers who enjoy middle grade fantasy, fantasy quests, and quirky humor will be sure to love How to Save a Queendom. Its irreverent take on genre tropes, along with its unlikely heroes, prove an irresistibly charming combination.

4 stars

Across the Pond by Joy McCullough

Across the Pond

Information

Goodreads: Across the Pond
Series: None
Source: ARC received from publisher
Published: March 16, 2020

Official Summary

From the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost comes a heartwarming story about new beginnings, burgeoning friendships, and finding your flock.

Callie can’t wait for her new life to start. After a major friendship breakup in San Diego, moving overseas to Scotland gives her the perfect chance to reinvent herself. On top of that, she’s going to live in a real-life castle!

But as romantic as life in a castle sounds, the reality is a little less comfortable: it’s run-down, freezing, and crawling with critters. Plus, starting off on the wrong foot with the gardener’s granddaughter doesn’t help her nerves about making new friends. So she comes up with the perfect solution: she’ll be homeschooled. Her parents agree, on one condition: she has to participate in a social activity.

Inspired by a journal that she finds hidden in her bedroom, Callie decides to join a birding club. Sure, it sounds unusual, but at least it’s not sports or performing. But when she clashes with the club leader, she risks losing a set of friends all over again. Will she ever be able to find her flock and make this strange new place feel like home?

Star Divider

Review

Across the Pond is a delightful travel novel sure to please readers who enjoy vicariously exploring other countries. Callie and her family move to Scotland when her parents decide to renovate an old castle left to them by a deceased friend. Callie is initially excited to be leaving her old life behind–her friends were mean and she now has some anxiety about attending school and fitting in. But Scotland does not turn out to be quite the new start Callie hoped, and she soon realizes that she will have new problems to confront. Across the Pond is a fairly conventional middle-grade novel about growing up, making friends, and finding one’s place in the community. But the Scottish setting and Callie’s somewhat unusual new hobby–birding–will initially hook readers and then keep them engaged.

The setting will likely be one of the first things to attract readers to Across the Pond, and Joy McCullough makes sure to give Scotland a starring role. Callie wonderfully gets to live in a castle, complete with locked trunks to spark the imagination and old diaries to give her (and readers) a glimpse of growing up in the 1940s. McCullough also spends time describing the small town life (slowing giving way to modernity as the family-owned stores of the past go out of business and chain stores move in) and playing up the comedic differences between American English and the words Callie learns from her new friends. All this gives readers a sense of being able to explore a new place and a new culture with Callie.

Also notable is Callie’s new hobby, twitching (or birding, as most readers would probably call it). The book goes to great lengths to connect birding to Callie’s difficulties with making friends, but, ultimately, comparing people to specific types of birds does not add much to the story. More relevant is that birding gives the homeschooled Callie (homeschooled because she’s afraid to meet the kids at the local school) an opportunity to connect with her peers while learning a new skill she really enjoys. Sexism in birding also receives a lot of attention, with Callie having to deal with a prejudiced birding leader–something she does in part by learning more about the activity and the women and girls who have worked hard to make it more welcoming and equitable. Readers will enjoy getting to learn more about birding, and may even be inspired to try it out for themselves.

Across the Pond is not exactly a standout novel, but it is a solid book, one that will appeal to readers who enjoy books set in different countries or books about unusual hobbies. The sympathetic characters also add a certain charm to the story. Joy McCullough is definitely an author I want to read more of.

3 Stars

City of Secrets by Victoria Ying

City of Secrets

Information

Goodreads: City of Secrets
Series: City of Secrets #1
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

Ever Barnes is an orphan living in the Switchboard Operating Facility. Like his father before him, he guards a secret that could save his city, although he does not know what it is. But the men who killed his father now mean to kill Ever, as well. Fortunately, he has Hannah, a new friend determined to help, no matter the cost.

Star Divider

Review

City of Secrets is a fun steampunk adventure sure to delight its target audience of middle-grade readers. The story jumps immediately into the action, introducing the fascinating Switchboard Operating Facility, a call center that has moving staircases, hidden trapdoors, and more. And it is all overseen by Ever Barnes, a shy orphan boy who hides from the Switchboard’s menacing supervisor. Exactly what is going on in this building remains unclear, but the narrative sets up enough mystery to intrigue readers and get them hooked.

Initially, I admit, all the mystery left me more than a little confused. City of Secrets prefers to do its worldbuilding as it goes, meaning readers simply need to accept that they have entered a city full of spies, secret societies, and puzzle-like buildings without knowing precisely why all these things are necessary or what is going on. The main thing to hold on to is that Ever and Hannah are the protagonists, so one simply decides to cheer them on, whether or not they understand why. Truth be told, however, Hannah and Ever do not understand what is going on, either, so, really, the story is mostly a wild ride through secret passageways, hidden slides, and life-threatening booby traps. Presumably, all this action is meant to keep readers reading, in the hope that, eventually, something will be explained.

Most of the explanations, strangely, are left for the sequel, however. The quick overview given to Hannah and Ever of the city’s secrets feels more than a little unfulfilling, as does the book’s conclusion, which raises more questions than it answers. Again, I think readers are meant to be satisfied with the action–giant steampunk robots! giant cogs that can squish people! giant scary horror dogs!–and so distracted from asking for any real narrative meat. In fact, I strongly suspect that many of the questions raised by the plot do not have actual answers. Action-adventure excitement trumps narrative logic here.

Middle grade graphic novels are, however, in high demand right now, and avid readers tend to tear through them very quickly. I imagine this one will do well and be eagerly read by fans of steampunk and fantasy adventures, even if the worldbuilding and the plot are sorely lacking. The story has enough danger and mystery to be engrossing, even if reflective readers eventually realize that too much information is missing from the book for City of Secrets to be one of the year’s standout graphic novels.

3 Stars