Book Reviews


Author: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
Publication Information: Atheneum, 2017 (first published 2015)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 336
Source: Library – read for class
Genre: Young Adult – Contemporary
Warnings: Violence (specifically: police brutality), racism, underage drinking, language, hospitals
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Everyone.

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.

(Summary from Goodreads)

This. Book.

I was surprised by how much this book stuck with me – which really shouldn’t have, because it’s Jason Reynolds (who is the entire reason I selected this book from a handful of options for my YA resources class).

I found myself resonating most strongly with Quinn’s chapters, as his point of view was one that I could identify with. Quinn, who is white, has never once had to think about walking into a convenience store for a bag of chips, for example, but once he witnesses Rashad being brutally beaten by his best friend’s older brother – who stepped into the role of father figure after Quinn’s father was killed in action in Afghanistan – all of that changes. Which usually makes me cringe, because the white people learning other people are human thing is old (THERE ARE SO MANY OF THOSE) and also, DUH other people are human. But instead of veering down that road, ALL AMERICAN BOYS actively wrestles with what whiteness means in our society through Quinn’s point of view as he realizes over the course of the story that someone can simultaneously be a “good”or “nice”  person but also racist.

Meanwhile, Rashad does some hard thinking of his own while in the hospital, as he spends his waking hours wondering what he could’ve done differently to avoid his altercation with Paul. He’s also caught in the middle between two sides: his ex-Army, ex-cop father, who advocates going along to get along; and his older brother, who’s politically active and wants to shake up the system (much to their father’s chagrin).

This book should be required reading for everyone.

Book Reviews

Book Review: EMBER

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author and read multiple drafts of the book prior to its publication. This hasn’t impacted my review at all.

EmberTitle: EMBER
Author: Anna Holmes
Series: Ember of Elyssia, #1
Publication Information: Self-Published, 2017
Format: Paperback
Pages: 341
Source: Purchased
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Warnings: Light violence (swordplay, magic), maiming
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Fans of the enemies to lovers romance trope (told in dual POV!) and witty banter; fans of The Princess Bride.

The war is over. The island of Elyssia has been freed from the clutches of the Rosalian Empire, power restored to the island’s monarchy. However, after leading the Resurgence from the front, Princess Caelin now finds herself sitting and waiting more often than not. When magical prodigy Alain Flynn breaks into her palace to kidnap her, she hears of a secret slave camp—and forms a plan. Under the guise of a kidnapping, she will investigate the camp, expose the secrets, and take control of the fate of her kingdom.

(Summary from Goodreads)

So, I’ve read this book like three or four times and I’m still not sick of it, so it’s already got that going for it.

So many fantasy books are about defeating the bad guy, and then everyone goes to war to take down the aforementioned bad guy, and everyone is happy when the bad guy goes down, but we don’t get to see very often what happens after the war. What sort of rebuilding goes on? How do the new people in charge gain the trust of the people who fought against them? EMBER, refreshingly, is set during this time of rebuilding. The war has ended, and that’s where the story begins. Caelin has to figure out how to rebuild Elyssia, and how to gain the trust of the people who were on the other side in the war – since a lot of people actually supported the Rosalians. Then, there’s also the fact that, as a teenage girl, a lot of people don’t think she’s up to the task of ruling, so she has enemies inside the palace as well as outside. And, inwardly, Caelin is unsure she has what it takes to be a good ruler. SO MUCH CONFLICT.

Our other POV is Alain, a former Rosalian commander (or Prince, as they’re called) who is put into slavery – a thing Caelin’s advisers are doing behind her back – and, upon escaping his slave camp, decides to kidnap Caelin. He is one of the previously mentioned supporters of Rosalia who hates Caelin and doesn’t want to see her rule. But, all he knows is the propaganda fed to him by the Empire, and when he actually meets Caelin, he starts having conflicted feelings about her as he realizes she’s not the evil person he was always told. MORE CONFLICT.

And then, of course, there is a cast of delightful secondary characters. There’s Riley, my precious brooding child, a palace guard and Caelin’s best friend since childhood; Tressa, a centaur bounty hunter who’s got the best attitude in the world; August, who I just want to hug every time he shows up; and Gavroth, who is The Best. Even the villains are a delight to read, even though they’re terrible people.

Book Reviews

Blast from the Past: OLD MAGIC

Welcome to Blast from the Past, where I reread books from my past to see how they hold up.

OldMagicTitle: OLD MAGIC
Author: Marianne Curley
Publication Information: Simon Pulse, 2002 (first published 2000)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 317
Source: Purchased
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy/Time Travel
Warnings: mentions of rape; light innuendo and violence (swordplay, magic); bullying; ableism
Rating: 3 stars
Recommended For: People who are really good at suspending disbelief in the name of being entertained by medieval time travel and the defeat of nefarious sorcerers.

Jarrod Thornton is mesmerizing, but Kate Warren doesn’t know why.

The moment the new guy walks into the room, Kate senses something strange and intense about him. Something supernatural. Her instincts are proven correct a few minutes later when, bullied by his classmates, Jarrod unknowingly conjures up a freak thunderstorm “inside” their classroom.

Jarrod doesn’t believe in the paranormal. When Kate tries to convince him that he has extraordinary powers that need to be harnessed, he only puts up with her “hocus pocus” notions because he finds her captivating. However, the dangerous, uncontrolled strengthening of his gift finally convinces Jarrod that he must take Kate’s theories seriously. Together, they embark on a remarkable journey — one which will unravel the mystery that has haunted Jarrod’s family for generations and pit the teens against immense forces in a battle to undo the past and reshape the future.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Okay, so you know how a lot of people are obsessed with Australian YA because it’s really, really good, for some reason, and it makes us wonder what’s in the water down there?

This book isn’t one of those.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining. But if you’re looking for something to fill the aching void left by having no more Melina Marchetta books to read? (I know. I’m sad, too.) Look elsewhere.

I first read OLD MAGIC in ninth grade after encountering it on the bookmobile that hung out on base near my bus stop every week. I was hooked. I ended up using my precious allowance to buy my own copy so I could read it whenever I wanted. It combined three of the things I loved most in my books: romance, history, and magic.

When I picked it up again a couple weeks, it had been at least ten years since I last read it. It didn’t really hold up. I noticed right away that the editing…left a little to be desired. There are a lot of run-on sentences. Marianne Curley LOVES commas. I had a hard time letting that go.

Also, a lot of the things I enjoyed when I was younger just seem illogical to me now. There’s a pretty serious case of insta-love in this book, not to mention Kate telling Jarrod within minutes of meeting him that he has magical powers. And then Kate was confused when Jarrod subsequently didn’t believe her and actively avoided her. In this case, I really need to side with Jarrod. Some stranger telling you you have magical powers, a thing you don’t even believe in? I’d run, too.

One thing that bothered me this go around was the fact that Jarrod kept calling Kate “crazy” and telling her she was “crazy” and “sick in the head.” There are more sensitive ways to bring up concerns about a person’s mental health, my dude. And then later, when Jarrod starts actually believing Kate about the magical powers thing? He doesn’t walk back or unpack his previous comments about Kate being “crazy” at all. They don’t get revisited or examined at all.

If you can suspend your disbelief, OLD MAGIC is entertaining. I liked the section of the book that takes place in the Middle Ages; Curley incorporates a lot of small details that makes the reader feel like they’re there. I actually wish there was more of the book that was set there, because that was more fun for me to read than the parts set in the present day. All of the magical aspects were interesting, too, and again, I wish that had been developed a little more since I’m always a nerd for magical systems.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with this reading since I loved this book so much in high school. It was still entertaining, but there were some things I noticed this time that bothered me that I just wasn’t aware of during previous readings.

Book Reviews


Author: Candace Fleming
Publication Information: Schwartz & Wade, 2014
Pages: 304
Source: Library – author backlist
Genre: Young Adult – Biography
Warnings: Non-graphic discussion of the family’s execution
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People looking for an introduction to the Romanov family and/or the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

Here is the tumultuous, heartrending, true story of the Romanovs—at once an intimate portrait of Russia’s last royal family and a gripping account of its undoing. Using captivating photos and compelling first person accounts, award-winning author Candace Fleming (Amelia Lost; The Lincolns) deftly maneuvers between the imperial family’s extravagant lives and the plight of Russia’s poor masses, making this an utterly mesmerizing read as well as a perfect resource for meeting Common Core standards.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Fleming’s take on the fall of the Romanov dynasty is extremely readable, which would make this an excellent pick for readers who normally shy away from biographies. It would also be an interesting perspective to include, since she is more critical of the Romanovs than some Romanov historians are wont to be. Additionally, the inclusion of numerous “interludes” focusing on events going on outside the palace walls – told from the point of view of ordinary Russians – both provided contrast to the lifestyle of the imperial family and provided important context for the events that unfolded toward the end of the Romanovs’ lives.

THE FAMILY ROMANOV is very much an introductory-level book, though. If you’re at all familiar with the Russian Revolutions – or even if you’ve just seen the animated ANASTASIA movie – you probably won’t learn anything new from reading this book. As an introduction, though, I thought it was fairly comprehensive, and Fleming includes photographs and quotes from multiple family members’ letters and journals. Those more familiar with this particular period in history would be better served reading a different book on the topic.

Book Reviews


Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Series: Of Fire and Stars, #1
Publication Information: Balzer + Bray, 2016
Pages: 389
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Warnings: Light violence, some sexual content
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Tamora Pierce fans, people who like books with arranged marriages and/or forbidden magic, political intrigue lovers.

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I was really excited about this book when I first real the deal announcement, so I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed. It has some of my favorite tropes: an arranged marriage, an arranged marriage being derailed by one of the parties falling in love with someone else, forbidden magic, enemies (sort of) to lovers. And it was all done with characters I loved as well as immersive world building. So, wins all around.

There was INTRIGUE and SECRETS which are two more of my favorite things to read about. Denna has to keep her Affinity a secret, which becomes harder when her powers start leaking out of her control, not to mention people suspect something is up and she has to try even harder to hide them. There were also some shady things going on in regards to diplomatic relations with another country, and someone gets assassinated, and all of it may or may not be related to both each other and to the magic thing. And because of all of this, people spend a lot of time in libraries, which is another thing I am okay with.

I loved the romance (see: sort-of enemies to lovers). Denna and Mare had a lot of chemistry, and I thought their romance developed really naturally. I also loved that the obstacle to the two of them being together wasn’t that both of them were women, since any and all relationships in this world are acceptable and valid; instead, the obstacle was that Denna was already engaged to Mare’s brother. Which, to be honest, was way more interesting, anyway, especially since Denna didn’t actually dislike her betrothed.

I can’t wait for the next book.

Book Reviews


unbecomingTitle: UNBECOMING
Author: Jenny Downham
Publication Information: Scholastic, 2016 (first published 2015)
Pages: 389
Source: Overdrive (ebook) – Stonewall Honor list
Genre: Young Adult – Mystery, Family Drama
Warnings: Non-graphic sexual content, legal alcohol consumption, homophobia
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People who like family dramas and multiple storylines set in different time periods. Also has crossover appeal with adult readers.

Katie’s life is falling apart: her best friend thinks she’s a freak, her mother, Caroline, controls every aspect of her life, and her estranged grandmother, Mary, appears as if out of nowhere. Mary has dementia and needs lots of care, and when Katie starts putting together Mary’s life story, secrets and lies are uncovered: Mary’s illegitimate baby, her zest for life and freedom and men; the way she lived her life to the full yet suffered huge sacrifices along the way. As the relationship between Mary and Caroline is explored, Katie begins to understand her own mother’s behavior, and from that insight, the terrors about her sexuality, her future, and her younger brother are all put into perspective.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I really enjoyed UNBECOMING, despite how slowly it felt like it moved. It took me a little while to get into it, but I was sucked in by the mystery about halfway through as I kept reading to find out what had happened between Caroline and Mary all those years ago to led to their estrangement. I also really enjoyed watching Katie develop a relationship with her grandmother even as I rooted for her to stand up for herself to her mother and her schoolmates.

There are a lot of things packed into this book, and I think Downham wove them together masterfully. There’s the main storyline, with Mary winding up on Katie and Caroline’s doorstep with dementia and trying to care for her while Caroline wrangles with the healthcare system to get Mary placed into a home, but then there are actually multiple storylines, as Mary’s story and Katie’s story are woven together to paint a picture about Mary and Caroline’s estrangement. We get to see Mary as a young woman who refused to be unashamed of her sexuality and her decision to give up Caroline for adoption. We also get to see Katie’s struggles to define herself despite Caroline being controlling, not to mention the bullying she faces at school because she kissed a female frenemy – which complicates things for Katie, who is questioning her sexual orientation. That particular storyline I thought was handled sensitively, and I thought Downham did a respectable job capturing how confusing it is not to understand that particular facet of one’s identity.

My main complaint is that while there’s a lot of focus of Mary and Katie, we barely glimpse Caroline’s perspective. While intellectually I could understand why she might be controlling and cold as a person, I never really felt sympathy for her. A lot of that might have to do with the fact that she was cast largely as a villain in both Mary and Katie’s storylines: she was the daughter who rejected her mother, and the mother trying to enforce her will on her eighteen-year-old daughter. This could’ve been softened if we’d gotten more of her voice.