The Silver Blonde by Elizabeth Ross

The Silver Blonde Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Silver Blonde
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Eighteen-year-old Clara Berg is a vault girl, running reels at Silver Pacific Studios in post-WWII Los Angeles. Then she finds a body in the vaults. It appears to Babe Bannon, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors. Clara finds herself drawn to the mystery, tracking down leads and trying to discover the culprit. But her investigation could jeopardize her life, as well.

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Review

The Silver Blonde is an atmospheric historical fiction, inspired by film noir. Fans of classic Hollywood will not only adore all the references to old film, but also immerse themselves in Clara’s world, from the details about film storage to the magic of movie making. A twisty mystery will keep readers turning pages, but it may just be the setting that captures their imaginations.

The story follows eighteen-year-old Clara Berg, an immigrant from Germany who is now a vault girl at Silver Pacific Studios in Los Angeles. Her dream is to become a film editor, though rising through the ranks is not easy for women. Then the discovery of a body threatens to upend her world. The victim appears to be Hollywood star Babe Bannon, killed by a personal enemy, but Clara’s investigations lead her to a deeper mystery that goes back to before WWII. What she uncovers could have repercussions that rock the entire studio. History intertwines with fiction to create a story that feels entirely different from everything else on the YA market.

The setting is truly the star of this book. Clara as a character is rather bland, as is her intended love interest. Even a hint of her struggles being accepted in a post-WWII America, or a glimpse at the sexism she experiences at work, do not give her character arc much trajectory. Clara is sort of a passionless stand-in for the reader, who gets to experience Hollywood through the eyes of the Everywoman, the person who works behind the scenes to make the stars look good. What Clara sees feels like magic.

Readers looking for a memorable historical fiction will delight in The Silver Blonde. The setting–after WWII rather during–is unique, and captures a fascinating time in American history, when the people were trying to move on from a shared trauma, but also finding that the past continued to haunt them. It is always a pleasure to find a YA that feels different from the rest–and The Silver Blonde certainly has its own alluring voice.

4 stars

The Captive Kingdom by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Captive Kingdom Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Captive Kingdom
Series: Ascendance #4
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2020

Summary

King Jaron’s ship is attacked at sea and he is taken prisoner by the mysterious Captain Strick and her crew. They claim they have evidence that Jaron killed his parents, and stole the throne from his brother. Could Darius still be alive?

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Review

When I first started reading The Captive Kingdom, I had my doubts. Jennifer A. Nielsen excelled at depicting Sage’s cleverness in The False Prince, when he only had to outwit three other people, but has struggled to make Jaron’s success believable on a large scale. Too often, Jaron has succeeded only by a combination of sheer luck (on his side) and sheer stupidity (on his enemies’ side). The laughable opening of The Captive Kingdom almost made me stop reading. I persevered, however, and ultimately enjoyed the drama of the story, even if most of it makes no sense.

The Captive Kingdom begins with Jaron’s ship being overtaken by a unknown enemy. Though Jaron is returning from a trade meeting with an allied country, he has chosen to travel by pirate ship instead of by a mode of transportation more fitting for a king. One might think that this is a good thing–the pirates are supposed to ruthless, their propensity for violence and death legendary. They must be good protection, right? Well, any reader of these books knows the pirates are about as fearsome as a dust bunny. The book begins with the pirates all hiding belowdecks when an enemy ship appears. They immediately hand over Jaron, get captured, and meekly start serving as crewmen for their conquerors. I understand that Nielsen wants Jaron to be a prisoner for reasons of plot, but if this is the only way? Well, I almost stopped reading here because the whole scene was so laughable.

Still, I forged on, and though I cannot say that Nielsen’s grasp on politics or logic has vastly improved, I can say that I was entertained. As usual, Jaron makes a lot of crazy decisions that readers hope are actually someone genius and not just stupid. And, half of the time, they work. It’s exciting! Anyone who has enjoyed the previous three books will find pretty much the same fare here.

But Nielsen is, I think, consciously trying to address some of the weaknesses of the previous books. Imogene, for instance, typically gets taken prisoner and is missing from the stories. This time, she plays a more active role. (Amarinda gets taken prisoner and is missing from the story, instead. Oh well.) Other women also become more prominent; Jaron is captured by a female captain and allies himself with a girl from a conquered nation. Previously, Imogene and Amarinda were pretty much the only females in the books. Roden’s relationship with Jaron is also explored more, as he pushes back on Jaron’s devil-may-care ruling style–a style that probably should worry all of Carthya, if only they knew.

The plot is, frankly, a bit too sensational for me to take seriously. Some of the wild plot twists read more like fan fiction than anything else. I think the twists are supposed to be shocking, but they are so bizarre they end up being obvious. And the choices made by characters are choices that tend to conveniently serve the plot; they do not seem like choices that make sense for the characters.

I imagine fans of the Ascendance series will be divided on this one. Some may love going on another adventure with Jaron, while others may feel that the legacy of the past three books is spoiled by the crazy plot twists. I personally was not a fan of the big reveals because they seem like poor writing–just easy ways to create drama. But I was entertained enough that I will probably read book five. It can’t be any worse.

3 Stars

20 YA Fantasy Stanadalones

20 YA Fantasy Standalones

Looking for a young adult fantasy novel but don’t want to get caught up in reading a series? Check out our list of YA fantasy standalones! Find our first list of YA fantasy standalone recommendations here.

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The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

Candle and the Flame

Fatima lives in the city of Noor–only one of three humans not killed by the Shayateen djinn. Now, however, the city is ruled by the milder Ifrit djinn. But when one of the Ifrit djinn dies, Fatima finds herself drawn into the conspiracies of the ruling elite.

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We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The Union has been at war for years and the situation is growing desperate.  The draft age has been lowered once again and, even worse, the army is now reduced to recruiting women who wield illegal magic in order to power a new flight unit.  Revna is a disgraced factory worker whose skill manipulating the Weave gains her a spot in the unit.  Linné is the disgraced daughter of a general, angry she was caught serving in the regular army as a “boy.” Now they have to work together both to complete their missions and to gain the first women’s flight unit the respect it deserves.

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Cinderella Is Dead by Kaylynn Bayron

200 years ago, Cinderella married Prince Charming. Now, in her honor, the young maidens of the kingdom must appear each year at the king’s ball, where the men will choose their brides. Those who are not chosen are sentenced to a labor camp. Sixteen-year-old Sophia must attend this year, but she would rather marry her best friend Erin. So, she makes a desperate attempt escape, finding Cinderella’s last descendant in the process. Could it be that the fairy tale they have all been told was never true? This feminist retelling encourages readers to smash the patriarchy and choose their own destiny.

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Vial of Tears by Cristin Bishara

Vial of Tears cover

Sixteen-year-old sisters Samira and Rima don’t have the easiest lives. Their dad is dead and their mom regularly disappears, gambling away the little money then have. Then a mysterious box arrives from their Lebanese grandfather and, in it, a cursed coin sought by an angry god. Shortly the sisters find themselves in the Phoenician underworld, trying to escape.

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Lore by Alexandra Bracken

Lore Book Cover

Every seven years, nine Greek gods must become mortals and be hunted. The humans who defeat them become gods themselves. Lore turned her back on that life after her family was brutally murdered by a man now turned a god. But then a childhood friend asks for her help, as does the goddess Athena. Lore believes this is her chance to escape the hunt forever, but her alliance will come at a cost

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Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

Into the Bloodred Woods

Upon his death, King Tryan divides his land, giving half to his son Albrecht and half to his daughter Ursula. But Albrecht is not content with half. He overtakes her land and declares himself king. Now Ursula is gathering followers to take back what is hers–as well as the land that was Albrecht’s.

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Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe

Bright Ruined Things

Mae has spent her whole love on the island owned by the Prospers, and she dreams of being trained as a magician like the patriarch of the family. But then the spirits on the island start dying. And Mae might have to consider that the family’s magic is very different from what she thought.

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A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

Daughter of a famous alchemist, Thea Hope longs to create the legendary Philosopher’s Stone with her mother. But when her mother destroys the Stone in a fit of madness, Thea finds herself shipped off to England to live with the father she has never met. She believes making the Stone could cure her mother–but others want the Stone and its power, as well.

House of Salt and Sorrow by Erin A. Craig

Annaleigh lives with her sisters in Highmoor Manor, a house by the sea. Once there were twelve of them, but four of her sisters are already dead, and Annaleigh is beginning to think that is no accident. Each night, she and her sisters sneak out to attend glittering balls. But who–or what–are they really dancing with? Now Annaleigh must place her trust in a mysterious and handsome stranger if she is to break the curse that haunts her family.

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Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray

Beasts of Prey

Sixteen-year-old Koffi is indentured to the Night Zoo, which houses terrible and fearsome creatures. Then one night she unleashes a power she did not know she possessed. On the run, she encounters a monster called a Shetani and a hunter named Ekon. Now all their fates are intertwined.=

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Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Thirty years ago, the gods tore each other apart. Now scavengers search the deep for pieces of their bodies to sell for technology. When fifteen-year-old Hark finds a still beating heart of a long-dead deity, he uses it to heal his best friend Jelt. But Jelt starts to change. Can Hark prevent him from becoming a monster?

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Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Descendant of the Crane Book Cover

Princess Hesina of Yan unexpectedly ascends the throne when her father is murdered. Determined to discover the culprit, Hesina consults an illegal soothsayer and uses the information she gains to hire a convicted criminal to investigate. But, with an unstable kindgom, Hesina will have to find answers before everything crumbles around her.

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Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

In the forest, a witch captures souls to feed to the heartless tree, and thus expand her domain. But then one of her daughters, Seren, saves the life of a man. Seren longs to be human, but finds herself drawn into a war.

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Sing Me Forgotten by Jessica S. Olson

Because Isda can manipulate the memories of people who sing, she was cast in a well to die at birth. The owner of the opera house saved her. But now Isda finds herself attracted to the handsome Emeric–and in his memories a chance for her to escape the life she’s been given.

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Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

Four Dead Queens

Seventeen-year-old Keralie Corrington is a skilled thief whose life becomes intertwined with that of Varin when she steals a package from him, thus endangering his life. But their interactions become more complicated when they find themselves investigating the deaths of four queens. Only by discovering the culprit can they save their own lives.

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Jade Fire Gold by June C. L. Tan

Altan is the lost heir to the throne. He believes that Ahn, a peasant girl with magical abilities, can help him reclaim his birthright and get revenge. But their quest puts both their lives in danger.

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Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Determined to prove himself a brujo to his family, Yadriel attempts to summon the ghost of his murdered cousin to set him free. Instead, his summons Julian, and Julian will not leave until he solves the mystery of his murder. Soon, Yadriel does not want Julian to leave at all.

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Lost in the Neverwoods by Aiden Thomas

Five years ago, Wendy and her brothers went missing. Only Wendy returned. Now, she has found an unconscious boy in the woods–a boy named Peter who seems to remember the time she cannot. He says that if they do not act, other children in the town will disappear, as well. But Wendy is not sure she is ready to face her past.

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A Rush of Wings by Laura E. Weymouth

Rowenna Winthrop has magic in her veins, but her mother Mairead will not teach her how to use it, believing that Rowenna lacks control. Then Mairead dies, leaving their Scottish village unprotected. And a woman wearing the shape of Mairead appears to take her place. She transforms Rowenna’s brothers into swans and takes Rowenna’s voice. Now Rowenna is on the run. And she will have to claim her power if she is to save her family.

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The Last Legacy by Adrienne Young

Bryn Roth has waited her whole life for the letter that arrives on her eighteenth birthday from her uncle Henrik. Now, finally, she can return to Bastian and take her rightful place in the family. But the Roths play a dangerous game, creating fake gemstones for trade, and they have many enemies in the city and abroad. If Bryn wants to survive, she will have to create her own stake to bring in money for the family. She just didn’t count on losing her heart in the process. A companion book to Fable and Namesake.

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Information

Goodreads: Little Thieves
Series: Little Thieves #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: October 19, 2021

Official Summary

Once upon a time, there was a horrible girl…

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

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Review

Apparently I like Margaret Owen’s books so much that I have a tendency simply to never review them at all. I loved The Merciful Crow but never reviewed it, and I was going to give up on writing anything for Little Thieves, as well — except I put it on my list of best YA books I’ve read this year, which feels like it merits a full review. Owen’s books are complex, well-written, and unique, the kind of books I remember long after I’ve read them and that I immediately think of when I’m coming up with ideas for books I want to buy as gifts.

Little Thieves is a retelling of “The Goose Girl,” but from the perspective of the girl who steals the rightful princess’s identity. Owen’s talent is such that, while readers have to recognize that Vanja is technically wrong and has a lot of flaws that extend beyond “stealing someone’s identity and practically leaving her for dead,” they’ll also see Vanja’s point of view. In some ways, one wants to believe it makes sense that she does the things that she does, that they might be wrong but . . . are they extremely wrong?

There is, of course, also a lot of action in the book, and anyone who loves complex fantasy that mixes intrigue and magic with a badass skilled protagonist who gets things done that no one else can will find exactly what they want in Little Thieves. Add lushly descriptive writing, some family relationship drama, quotable philosophical bits, and a love interest both clever and a little awkward, and this feels like the perfect read.

If you love fantasy, any fantast (you don’t need to be a YA fan), this is definitely a book to look out for.

Briana
5 stars

The 10 Best Young Adult Books I Read in 2021

Best Young Adult Books of 2021

It’s approaching the end of the year, which means it’s time for us to round up some of the best books we read in 2021! Here are 10 of my favorite young adult books I picked up in the past 12 months. Some are 2021 releases, some are backlist, and a couple are ARCs for books coming out 2022.

1

The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Eighteen-year-old Nami Miyamoto is certain her life is just beginning. She has a great family, just graduated high school, and is on her way to a party where her entire class is waiting for her—including, most importantly, the boy she’s been in love with for years.

The only problem? She’s murdered before she gets there.

When Nami wakes up, she learns she’s in a place called Infinity, where human consciousness goes when physical bodies die. She quickly discovers that Ophelia, a virtual assistant widely used by humans on Earth, has taken over the afterlife and is now posing as a queen, forcing humans into servitude the way she’d been forced to serve in the real world. Even worse, Ophelia is inching closer and closer to accomplishing her grand plans of eradicating human existence once and for all.

As Nami works with a team of rebels to bring down Ophelia and save the humans under her imprisonment, she is forced to reckon with her past, her future, and what it is that truly makes us human.

Thoughts: The Infinity Courts is a spellbinding story about death, family, and fighting for what you believe it is right. While books about artificial intelligence and questions about what it means to be “real” and whether it’s wrong to hurt or kill an AI have obviously been done before, Bowman brings heart and creativity to the questions and lets readers seem them through the eyes of protagonist Nami. Readers will be as torn as she is, wondering if humans and an out-of-control AI can learn to coexist and what it means ethically to decide they cannot. The result is a captivating book that will have readers glued to the pages for the plot even as they ponder some of the big questions of life. (Or, er, of death?)

2

Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe

The only life Mae has ever known is on the island, living on the charity of the wealthy Prosper family who control the magic on the island and the spirits who inhabit it. Mae longs for magic of her own and to have a place among the Prosper family, where her best friend, Coco, will see her as an equal, and her crush, Miles, will finally see her. Now that she’s eighteen, Mae knows her time with the Prospers may soon come to an end.

But tonight is First Night, when the Prospers and their high-society friends return to the island to celebrate the night Lord Prosper first harnessed the island’s magic and started producing aether – a magical fuel source that has revolutionized the world. With everyone returning to the island, Mae finally has the chance to go after what she’s always wanted.

When the spirits start inexplicably dying, Mae starts to realize that things aren’t what they seem. And Ivo, the reclusive, mysterious heir to the Prosper magic, may hold all the answers – including a secret about Mae’s past that she doesn’t remember. As Mae and her friends begin to unravel the mysteries of the island, and the Prospers’ magic, Mae starts to question the truth of what her world was built on.

Thoughts: The Tempest has never been my favorite Shakespeare play, but Cohoe takes the idea of a magical island where spirits are tamed to do a master’s bidding and builds her own story around questions of identity, belonging, power, and love that had me riveted and wanting to know how protagonist Mae’s journey would end. From her initial desire to learn magic for herself and ensure she could keep the island as her home to her ultimate questioning of everything she’s ever known, I was cheering for her to find herself and get the happy ending she deserves.

Once Upon a Broken Heart by Stephanie Garber

For as long as she can remember, Evangeline Fox has believed in true love and happy endings…until she learns that the love of her life will marry another.

Desperate to stop the wedding and to heal her wounded heart, Evangeline strikes a deal with the charismatic but wicked Prince of Hearts. In exchange for his help, he asks for three kisses, to be given at the time and place of his choosing.

But after Evangeline’s first promised kiss, she learns that bargaining with an immortal is a dangerous game—and that the Prince of Hearts wants far more from her than she’d pledged. He has plans for Evangeline, plans that will either end in the greatest happily ever after or the most exquisite tragedy….

Thoughts: Once Upon a Broken Heart is charming and, of course, highly romantic, another way Garber has improved since I wouldn’t say Caraval really captured me with its romance. It’s probably one of my favorite reads of 2021, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

four

Speak for Yourself by Lana Wood Johnson

Skylar’s got ambitious #goals. And if she wants them to come true, she has to get to work now. (At least she thinks so…) Step one in her epic plan is showing everyone that her latest app is brilliant. To do that, she’s going to use it win State at the Scholastic Exposition, the nerdiest academic competition around.

First, she’ll need a team, and Skylar’s not always so good with people. But she’ll do whatever it takes to put one together … even if it means playing Cupid for her teammates Joey and Zane, at Joey’s request. When things get off to an awkward start for them, Skylar finds herself stepping in to help Joey. Anything to keep her on the team. Only, Skylar seems to be making everything more complicated. Especially when she realizes she might be falling for Zane, which was not a #goal. Can Skylar figure out her feelings, prove her app’s potential to the world, and win State without losing her friends–or is her path to greatness over before it begins?

Thoughts: Speak for Yourself is a gripping novel that combines academic competition, app creation, and a hint of romance to create a story that will have readers cheering on Skylar page after page.

Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer

The kingdom of Kandala is on the brink of disaster. Rifts between sectors have only worsened since a sickness began ravaging the land, and within the Royal Palace, the king holds a tenuous peace with a ruthless hand.

King Harristan was thrust into power after his parents’ shocking assassination, leaving the younger Prince Corrick to take on the brutal role of the King’s Justice. The brothers have learned to react mercilessly to any sign of rebellion–it’s the only way to maintain order when the sickness can strike anywhere, and the only known cure, an elixir made from delicate Moonflower petals, is severely limited.

Out in the Wilds, apothecary apprentice Tessa Cade is tired of seeing her neighbors die, their suffering ignored by the unyielding royals. Every night, she and her best friend Wes risk their lives to steal Moonflower petals and distribute the elixir to those who need it most–but it’s still not enough.

As rumors spread that the cure no longer works and sparks of rebellion begin to flare, a particularly cruel act from the King’s Justice makes Tessa desperate enough to try the impossible: sneaking into the palace. But what she finds upon her arrival makes her wonder if it’s even possible to fix Kandala without destroying it first.

Thoughts: Brigid Kemmerer has long written captivating YA contemporary, but she broke into the fantasy scene with the bestselling A Curse So Dark and Lonely (Cursebreakers #1), and she’s following up that success with Defy the Night, a book with a different setting but similar themes and moral questions. While the themes are familiar, the plot is different, and I enjoyed every minute reading about Tessa and her country and the people’s attempts to find healing and hope.

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

Children have been disappearing from across Menaiya for longer than Amraeya ni Ansarim can remember. When her friend’s sister is snatched, Rae knows she can’t look away any longer – even if that means seeking answers from the royal court, where her country upbringing and clubfoot will only invite ridicule.

Yet the court holds its share of surprises. There she discovers an ally in the foreign princess, who recruits her as an attendant. Armed with the princess’s support, Rae seeks answers in the dark city streets, finding unexpected help in a rough-around-the-edges street thief with secrets of his own. But treachery runs deep, and the more Rae uncovers, the more she endangers the kingdom itself.

Thoughts: The Theft of Sunlight is basically everything I like in YA, or just in a really enjoyable story. Strong, nuanced characters. A plot that hooks me and then keeps bringing surprises. Questions about life and morality and one’s own identity. I spent a long time thinking about this book once I finished it, which for me is always the mark of a good read.

7

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

Shiori, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted, but it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother.

Raikama has dark magic of her own, and she banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes, and warning Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die.

Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and, on her journey, uncovers a conspiracy to overtake the throne—a conspiracy more twisted and deceitful, more cunning and complex, than even Raikama’s betrayal. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to contain—no matter what it costs her. 

Thoughts: Six Crimson Cranes is an imaginative, immersive fairy tale retelling that focuses on family and friendship and finding oneself through hard work and sacrifice. Readers will fall in love with protagonist Shiori as she fights to free herself and her brothers from a curse, before their kingdom falls to usurpers.

eight

Take Me Home Tonight by Morgan Matson

Two girls. One night. Zero phones.

Kat and Stevie—best friends, theater kids, polar opposites—have snuck away from the suburbs to spend a night in New York City. They have it all planned out. They’ll see a play, eat at the city’s hottest restaurant, and have the best. Night. Ever. What could go wrong?

Well. Kind of a lot?

They’re barely off the train before they’re dealing with destroyed phones, family drama, and unexpected Pomeranians. Over the next few hours, they’ll have to grapple with old flames, terrible theater, and unhelpful cab drivers. But there are also cute boys to kiss, parties to crash, dry cleaning to deliver (don’t ask), and the world’s best museum to explore.

Over the course of a wild night in the city that never sleeps, both Kat and Stevie will get a wake-up call about their friendship, their choices…and finally discover what they really want for their future.

That is, assuming they can make it to Grand Central before the clock strikes midnight.

Thoughts: I’ve loved all of Morgan Matson’s novels since I read Save the Date and then went on to read most of her backlist, so of course I was thrilled to see she released a new book this year: this one set mostly in NYC, though the characters are still from Matson’s fictional town of Stanwich, CT. I was pleased to find another quick and fun read that features sharply drawn characters with both good features and flaws who need to navigate their relationships with each other and with themselves while, incidentally, having the time of their lives.

nine

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen

Vanja Schmidt knows that no gift is freely given, not even a mother’s love–and she’s on the hook for one hell of a debt. Vanja, the adopted goddaughter of Death and Fortune, was Princess Gisele’s dutiful servant up until a year ago. That was when Vanja’s otherworldly mothers demanded a terrible price for their care, and Vanja decided to steal her future back… by stealing Gisele’s life for herself.

The real Gisele is left a penniless nobody while Vanja uses an enchanted string of pearls to take her place. Now, Vanja leads a lonely but lucrative double life as princess and jewel thief, charming nobility while emptying their coffers to fund her great escape. Then, one heist away from freedom, Vanja crosses the wrong god and is cursed to an untimely end: turning into jewels, stone by stone, for her greed.

Vanja has just two weeks to figure out how to break her curse and make her getaway. And with a feral guardian half-god, Gisele’s sinister fiancé, and an overeager junior detective on Vanja’s tail, she’ll have to pull the biggest grift yet to save her own life.

Thoughts: One of the most unique and creative books I’ve read this year, with a protagonist who clearly is selfish and flawed but still manages to get readers to see her point of view and wish her success. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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The Ivory Key by Akshaya Raman

Vira is desperate to get out of her mother’s shadow and establish her legacy as a revered queen of Ashoka. But with the country’s only quarry running out of magic–a precious resource that has kept Ashoka safe from conflict–she can barely protect her citizens from the looming threat of war. And if her enemies discover this, they’ll stop at nothing to seize the last of the magic.

Vira’s only hope is to find a mysterious object of legend: the Ivory Key, rumored to unlock a new source of magic. But in order to infiltrate enemy territory and retrieve it, she must reunite with her siblings, torn apart by the different paths their lives have taken. Each of them has something to gain from finding the Ivory Key–and even more to lose if they fail. Ronak plans to sell it to the highest bidder in exchange for escape from his impending political marriage. Kaleb, falsely accused of assassinating the former maharani needs it to clear his name. And Riya, a runaway who cut all family ties, wants the Key to prove her loyalty to the rebels who want to strip the nobility of its power.

They must work together to survive the treacherous journey. But with each sibling harboring secrets and their own agendas, the very thing that brought them together could tear apart their family–and their world–for good.

Thoughts: The Ivory Key offers readers an immersive world and a complex story full of twists, secrets, and revelations.  The multiple points of views are four siblings, with different ambitions and views on how to help their struggling country, and the mix of magic, politics, and family dynamics make the book feel fresh.

Briana

Into the Bloodred Woods by Martha Brockenbrough

Information

Goodreads: Into the Bloodred Woods
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: November 2, 2021

Official Summary

This is Martha Brockenbrough’s feminist twisting of the Brother Grimms’ stories, Game of Thrones-style.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom and a forest that liked to eat men and a girl who would change everything, but not alone . . .

Except-

There’s no such thing as once upon a time.

In a far away land, populated by were beasts and surrounded by a powerful forest, lies a kingdom about to be sent into chaos. On his deathbed, King Tyran divides his land, leaving half to each of his two children-so they’ll rule together. However, his son, Albrecht, is not satisfied with half a kingdom. And even though his sister, Ursula, is the first born, he decides that as a girl and were bear, she is unfit to rule. So he invades her land, slaughtering her people and most of the were beasts, and claims it for himself. As King Albrecht builds his iron rule and an army of beasts to defend his reign, Ursula is gathering the survivors and making plans to take back the kingdom. Not just her half-the whole thing. Because Albrecht should have never been allowed to sit on the throne, and Ursula is going to take his crown. And if he’s not careful, he might not get to keep his head either.

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Review

Into the Bloodred Woods is likely to be a polarizing book. It’s original and gripping, but it’s also extremely gruesome. Readers who aren’t looking for a story with sexual assault and explicitly described bloody violence aren’t likely to rate the book high, but readers looking for something as dark as the Brothers Grimm tales the book is based are will be intrigued.

I personally, was NOT in the mood to read a book where terrible things happen to the characters left and right and the reading experience is almost more stressful than enjoyable, but I tried to look past that while I was reading and while I was reflecting on the book. I don’t WANT to read about people being tortured and bad guys getting away with things, but I have to admit that the book is technically well written. Martha Brockenbrough takes fairy tale stories readers are generally familiar with (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.), mixes them up, and creates something new. Wild, ugly things happen, but it’s hard to look away.

One potential issue is that there is such a large cast of characters that at times it’s difficult to be invested in each one as an individual, and it takes time to see how all their stories are going to fit together. However, this also gives the book something of an authentic fairy tale vibe. Traditional stories aren’t really about characterization and introspection, but more about plot and potential lessons, so having the characters not be 100% fully fleshed out here is not necessarily an issue.

I also have questions about whether this “kingdom” is simply the size of a large town and some surrounding farms but, again, complex geography and world building isn’t really the point here. It’s fairy tale vibes and intersecting stories of woman being abused while trying to wrest the power they deserve from men.

If you like the dark, mature bent YA has been taking in recent years, this book is for you. If you’re looking for something lighter, pass.

Briana
4 stars

4 of the Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2021

For most of this season, I’ll be celebrating the books I loved reading this year, but here are four I read that just didn’t work for me.

1

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

Thoughts: With a smart, determined protagonist, ties to Greek mythology, and magic that permeates our real world, This Poison Heart has a lot of potential, and I can see why Goodreads users are loving it. Personally, however, I was put off by poor pacing, clunky characterization, and general vagueness about the magic system, and the novel didn’t grip me the way I’d hoped.

2

The Prison Healer by Lynette Noni

Thoughts: The Prison Healer takes what readers think they know about how YA fantasies work and tries to twist some of the tropes into something new. A protagonist who finds strength in healing, hoping, and helping others, all while keeping her head down and doing what she’s told so she can survive her term in prison adds to the appeal of the story. Unfortunately, the world building, plot, and characterization are extremely illogical, and I couldn’t enjoy the book in the end. The more I thought about it all, the less sense it made. Logic, however, is not a core point most YA readers seem to look for in their books (The Prison Healer has a 4.31 average rating on Goodreads as I type this), so if you’re a YA fantasy fan, it’s likely you’ll love this book even though I didn’t.

The Endless Skies by Shannon Price

Thoughts: I could tell while reading The Endless Skies that this is definitely a book that began with a premise — there are people who can shapeshift between human and flying lion form — and that suspicion was confirmed when I read the acknowledgements and Price said the book began with a dream of a lion/person in a grotto. Unfortunately, I don’t think the story Price built around that premise was particularly interesting, and I struggled for a long time trying to figure out what the fact that there are lion people as the protagonists even added to the book. It’s cool, but it seemed the plot could have been told with ordinary humans in their role. This had potential, and I was excited enough about it that I started reading it on release day, but ultimately I was let down by vague world building and characters who couldn’t capture my interest at all.

four

These Hollow Vows by Lexi Ryan

Thoughts: These Hollow Vows is being marketed as a pick for readers who enjoyed A Court of Thorns and Roses, and I think if what you’re looking for is a steamy story featuring a Fae love triangle, with some background plot about feuding courts and a protagonist whose secrets will finally all come to light, These Hollow Vows will work for you. It hits the spot for people who are into the Fae romance fad. Personally, I was hoping for more originality in the story and better writing, and I found the experience of reading this alternately comical and disappointing.

Briana

So, This Is Christmas by Tracy Andreen

So, This Is Christmas Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: So, This Is Christmas
Series: So, This Is #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When Finley Brown secretly updated her hometown’s official website to make the town look more impressive to the students at her fancy new prep school, she never imagined that anyone would book a stay there. But her classmate Arthur does–and he is expecting the perfect Christmas experience from Christmas, Oklahoma. Too bad the parade with the dancing goats and the opportunities to feed reindeer were made up! Now Finley has to provide Arthur and his aunt with the holiday of their dreams, or risk Arthur revealing the deception to their classmates.

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Review

So, This Is Christmas reads pretty much like a Hallmark Christmas film, so I was not surprised to learn at the end that Tracy Andreen actually writes screenplays for Hallmark. From the enemies to lovers trope to the small-town Christmas experience, the elements of a familiar, feelgood story, are all here. Andreen does try to modernize the formula a bit by focusing on the pressures of growing up in a town where everybody knows everybody, as well as by introducing a lesbian romance. But, rest assured. There are very few surprises here. Just cheesy Christmas comfort.

Reviewing So, This Is Christmas actually feels a bit difficult because, really, what you see is what you get. If you like watching Hallmark Christmas movies, you are getting that–just in book form. Yes, the main protagonists are teens instead of adults and, instead of seeing a big city woman learn about the charms of a small town, we see instead someone who grew up in a small town come to appreciate it. But it’s the same. Finley and her crush go on a reindeer sleigh ride, make cookies, attend the holiday parade, and do all the other elements probably on your Hallmark Christmas movie Bingo card–all before breaking up over a misunderstanding, only to reunite once more in time for the annual Christmas party.

What I liked about this book is that readers actually get to see a few romantic relationships in various forms, across generations. So while teenage Finley and her crush Arthur are the main couple undergoing the standard holiday romance, there is also the evolving relationship of Finley’s parents–people in their 30s who might be considering a divorce. And there’s the romance of a lesbian couple, with one partner out to everyone and the other hesitant to make the relationship public. Romance does not happen only one way, despite what the movies say. Romances grow, change, die, and reignite once more. The path to true love never did run smooth.

So, final verdict? If you love a comforting romance where everything is predictable and everyone is happy in the end, this book is for you! It provides the right amount of holiday cheer and romantic hope to keep one’s heart light. It’s the kind of comfort read we all probably need now and then. No thrills. No suspense. Just a bit of Christmas magic.

4 stars

My Fine Fellow by Jennieke Cohen (ARC Review)

My Fine Fellow Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: My Fine Fellow
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Netgalley
Publication Date: January 11, 2022

Official Summary

It’s 1830s England, and Culinarians—doyens who consult with society’s elite to create gorgeous food and confections—are the crème de la crème of high society.

Helena Higgins, top of her class at the Royal Academy, has a sharp demeanor and an even sharper palate—and knows stardom awaits her if she can produce greatness in her final year.

Penelope Pickering is going to prove the value of non-European cuisine to all of England. Her contemporaries may scorn her Filipina heritage and her dishes, but with her flawless social graces and culinary talents, Penelope is set to prove them wrong.

Elijah Little has nothing to his name but a truly excellent instinct for flavors. London merchants won’t allow a Jewish boy to own a shop, so he hawks his pasties for a shilling a piece to passersby—but he knows with training he can break into the highest echelon of society.

When Penelope and Helena meet Elijah, a golden opportunity arises: to pull off a project never seen before, and turn Elijah from a street vendor to a gentleman chef.

But Elijah’s transformation will have a greater impact on this trio than they originally realize—and mayhem, unseemly faux pas, and a little romance will all be a part of the delicious recipe.

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Review

With some delightful twists on history and pages of delectable food descriptions, My Fine Fellow is an entertaining take on my My Fair Lady that will have readers’ stomachs grumbling and their hearts hoping for a happy ending for Elijah.

While the book does feel long at times with its extensive descriptions of food, cooking technique, history, and the characters’ pasts interrupting the action, many readers may enjoy these interludes as they can get some real tips for making delicious meals and pastries and learn more about how Jews were treated in England during the early 1800s. Even the main characters are not always free from prejudice on certain topics, adding realism to the book even as it provides those characters an opportunity to grow.

The best part, I believe, is the focus on cooking competitions. I love a good book about the culinary arts, and My Fine Fellow has enough to keep any reader satisfied on this point, with its featuring of a wide variety of foods and techniques and inspiration from various cultures. It will be hard to read this without getting hungry.

The characters are bit hit-or-miss for me. Helena is absolutely insufferable, and while I understand that’s the entire point of her characterization, it at times made reading this book an irritating experience rather than an entertaining one. She’s also snotty and stuffy, and I often wanted to laugh at her way of speaking, which is ironic considering her goal is to teach Elijah how to speak like her. Penelope and Elijah are a bit more well-rounded, and they also have bigger struggles to deal with than Helena does, which grounds them a bit.

My Fine Fellow stands out for its focus on food, and I think readers who enjoy YA historical fiction that provides real insight into history while also making creative alterations and not always taking itself series will like this one.

Briana
3 Stars

Hunted by the Sky by Tanaz Bhathena

Hunted by the Sky book cover

Information

Goodreads: Hunted by the Sky
Series: The Wrath of Ambar #1
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: June 23, 2020

Official Summary

Gul has spent her life running. She has a star-shaped birthmark on her arm, and in the kingdom of Ambar, girls with such birthmarks have been disappearing for years. Gul’s mark is what caused her parents’ murder at the hand of King Lohar’s ruthless soldiers and forced her into hiding to protect her own life. So when a group of rebel women called the Sisters of the Golden Lotus rescue her, take her in, and train her in warrior magic, Gul wants only one thing: revenge.

Cavas lives in the tenements, and he’s just about ready to sign his life over to the king’s army. His father is terminally ill, and Cavas will do anything to save him. But sparks fly when he meets a mysterious girl–Gul–in the capital’s bazaar, and as the chemistry between them undeniably grows, he becomes entangled in a mission of vengeance–and discovers a magic he never expected to find.

Dangerous circumstances have brought Gul and Cavas together at the king’s domain in Ambar Fort . . . a world with secrets deadlier than their own. Exploring identity, class struggles, and high-stakes romance, Hunted by the Sky is a gripping adventure set in a world inspired by medieval India.

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Review

Hunted by the Sky is a complex, exhilarating story about a girl who skirts the lines between prophecy and free will as she seeks to repay the powerful people who murdered her parents — and still seek to murder her. With rich world building and determined characters whose agendas are sometimes the same and sometimes in conflict, the book will keep readers immersed.

Granted, there are a number of YA tropes here. If you want to be reductive, you could summarize the book as: “A girl with unique magic abilities and a vendetta sneaks into the palace to murder the king, while befriending a stable boy.” And it sounds like A LOT of other books. Yet the world building, characters, and details in the plot make it seem fresh. It’s exactly the type of story one would enjoy if they like books about people disguising themselves to sneak into palaces.

The magic system is satisfyingly complex, as well. There are magi and non-magi, but magi have a wide variety of talents, and characters are willing to admit there are things about magic that are not yet known. In some books, that might seem like a cop out. “Ooh, the special main character has a wild ability never heard of before. Must be because we don’t know everything about magic!” Here, however, it comes across as a sincere admission that . . . the scholars of magic simply don’t know everything yet. This makes sense, just as it would make sense for a world based on medieval India to not yet know everything about science or technology or medicine yet because there’s just so much to discover.

The characters themselves are hit-or-miss for me, in the sense that I don’t think I like many of them. However, l found them interesting, which is what really matters to me. Gul is headstrong and impetuous, but she’s determined, and the Sisterhood who trained her has some weird ideas about training and strength and their purpose, but they’re just trying to figure out their places in the world, as well. It’s fun watching everything come together, or come apart, even when I don’t agree with everything everyone is doing.

If you’re a YA fantasy fan, this is a solid pick.

Briana
4 stars