Set in the 1920s, Jenny Elder Moke’sCurse of the Specter Queenis high-stakes historical fiction fantasy with a female-driven plot. Samantha (“Sam”) Knox isn’t the same after her father is killed in the Great War. She turns away from her lifelong friends (brother and sister Bennett and Joana Steeling) and resigns herself to living a small life in their nowhere US town. She escapes the fate of being a laundress like her mother and, instead, uses her tenacious puzzle-solving skills to work at book restoration in the Steeling’s store.
When an unexpected package shows up bearing a damaged diary, Sam becomes embroiled in the mysteries surrounding this book. Before she knows it, she’s in Ireland trying to stop an occult ritual from resurrecting the Specter Queen, the Celtic goddess of vengeance and death. To do this, she must find an ancient bowl carved from the tree of life. Along the way, there are plenty of red herrings and a blossoming romance.
Because Sam evolves enormously over the course of the book, this is also a coming-of-age story. Complexities of Sam’s relationships with her friends unfold as Sam realizes she’s shut others out and now hopes it’s not too late to mend tattered ties with her previous BFF, Jo—truly a well-written character for how she snubs (with humor and levity) the constraints placed on women during that time.
I like how fantasy and historical fiction are blended into an apocalyptic story that pulls you back in time. In the end notes, the author states there were truly excavations carried out at Montpelier Hill in South County Dublin and that she utilized the research and findings of the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project and Abarta Heritage.
While perfectly suitable for a YA audience, the book would also appeal to readers of New Adult because of the independence of the characters and the lack of parental involvement. Book two in the Samantha Knox series continues on with another 1920’s adventure, this time on the island of Crete. Rise of the Snake Goddess comes out in June 2022. Sign me up for more nonstop thrills with this likable trio!
Two love triangles unfold inErica George’sYA romance, Words Composed of Sea and Sky. Michaela (Mack) Dunn’s stepfather won’t pay for her to attend a poetry workshop. However, a local contest is giving away that retreat as a prize for whoever writes the best dedication plaque for the new statue honoring the Highland Whaler, Captain Benjamin Churchill. The problem is, not much is known about Churchill even though his name is plastered all over Mack’s Cape Cod town. Looking for inspiration, she explores the historical Whaler’s Watch Inn. There, she finds an amazing link to the past and the artistically aloof Caleb Abernathy. A college kid, Caleb seems like so much more than the high-school boys like the nice Finn Pearce, star pitcher at their school. For a girl who loves words, a baseball player can’t compare to the poetry-writing Caleb who attends Mack’s dream school.
As Mack’s present-day story unfolds, alternating viewpoint chapters bring us into the summer of 1862 where Leta Townsend publishes poems as Captain Benjamin Churchill; borrowing his name seems simple enough until the handsome lost-at-sea captain returns and harpoons her heart. Yet Leta’s imagination has created a persona that may not have much to do with the real captain. Disruption ripples through Leta’s writing plans and the blossoming romance with her best friend, Elijah, the poor boy from the lighthouse.
Erica George’s atmospheric setting works just as well for modern-day romance dilemmas as it does for those in the 1800s. I appreciate how the parallel stories about getting your voice heard are deftly woven to form a complete tale across years and relationships. With its elements of mystery and historical fiction, this well-crafted book shows romance novels can be much more.
Before I even started reading, this four-book fairy-tale series intrigued me because the books will be written by four different authors, the story following one family (and the curse that plagues it) over several generations. Awesome, right? The first book in the Mirror series, Broken Wish by Julie C. Dao, delivers. Let me tell you a bit about sixteen-year-old Elva and her powers.
Set in 1865 Hanau, Germany, Elva has been taught to hide her magical abilities so her family is not cast out. That works—for a while. However, once Elva and her adorable brother, Cay, stumble upon their mother’s secrets, Elva seeks the Witch of the North Woods. She hopes to find answers, yet is scared the witch is the villain she’s proclaimed to be on the warning signs Elva’s village has nailed to trees.
I like how the book opens in a series of notes between Elva’s mother and the witch, introducing the complexities of characters; no one is all good or all bad. Elva’s mom’s prior connection with the Witch of the North Woods puts Elva and her family on a cursed path. Elva believes her community should be given a chance to understand the truth, but differences are feared and removed rather than accepted. This clever, multilayered storyline satisfied, yet left me wanting to follow the family to see what more will unfold from a simple, lonely wish shattered in the name of love.
The next three books will be written by Dhonielle Clayton, Jennifer Cervantes, and L. L. McKinney—all amazing female authors whose stories I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’m in for books two, three, and four
Kate Pentecost’s YA novel has the wonderfully ironic title, Elysium Girls. There’s nothing paradisal about Elysium, Oklahoma, during the 1930s Dust Bowl. One moment it’s a regular town, the next, the goddesses Life and Death use it to play a decade-long game: from next to nothing, the citizens must build a city and a society which is good and responsible, setting aside one-third of all crops as a Sacrifice. If the Elysiums do this, at the end of ten years, their society will continue; if not, everyone perishes. Dust Sickness soon begins to claim lives.
Seventeen-year-old Sal Wilkerson loses her mother and doesn’t fit in, overcome by unfulfilled predictions. As the game’s conclusion draws near, the town’s self-declared witchy leader, Mother Morevna, chooses Sal as the Successor. Finally, it seems Sal’s time has come, but an outsider named Asa arrives and unintentionally upsets things. For me, Asa stole the show as much for his charming personality as for the fact that, even though a nonhuman character, he’s so very relatable. Over the course of the book, his life changes dramatically as he deals with one unknown after another.
Outside the Elysium walls, a band of kick-butt girls survives fire coyotes and other wicked things by using their ingenuity. The different realities are fascinating: inside the walls, outside, above, and blips from the real Depression-era world. In addition, there are many appealing character elements including friendship, girl power, and family. Romance isn’t limited to boy and girl, or human and human. Put it all together and you’ll see why Elysium Girls is as hard to shake as a dusty Oklahoma day.
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(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $17.99 HC,
available in Ebook, Audio, Ages 12+)
★Starred Reviews – Horn Book, School Library Journal
Sherri L. Smith’sYA book,The Blossom and the Firefly, depicts an interesting slice of Japanese World War II history. Hana, assigned fieldwork is, one day, buried alive during an air attack. After she is dug out, Hana feels a part of her died in that bombing. Adding to her despair, she is reassigned as a Nadeshiko Tai girl—a handmaiden to the dead—serving tokkō, the special attack pilots also known as kamikaze. When each group readies to leaves, she must smile and wave as they take their last flight hoping to honorably body-crash into enemy battleships.
I appreciate the unique story structure, based on the Eastern style of storytelling called kishōtenketsu. Instead of a plot with conflict, kishōtenketsu revolves around contrast or juxtaposition. In The Blossom and the Firefly, Hana’s first-person chapters are in the “now,” while Taro’s (her love interest) third-person chapters begin in 1928 during his childhood. About halfway in, the narratives synchronize. Utilizing these time lines, we are shown Taro’s backstory without relying on flashbacks.
The story questions whether it’s possible to live and love during wartime. Hana keeps coolly distant until stumbling upon a special connection with Taro. After the war ends, rebuilding entails mending emotionally and moving forward to embrace what’s left. Readers will feel what it was like to be a teen caught in a war-torn land, where it’s not whether you have lost a loved one, but, rather, how many. This young adult novel about a little known aspect of the war is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
Written by Julie Berry
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book,Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.
Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.
Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.
Lovely War has received seven starred reviews and is an indie bestseller.
Learn more about award-winning author Julie Berry here.
Read another YA romance novel review by here.
THREE SIDES OF A HEART:
STORIES ABOUT LOVE TRIANGLES
Edited by Natalie C. Parker
(Harper Teen; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
★Starred Review – School Library Journal
Christine Van Zandt recommends Three Sides of a Heart, a short story anthology featuring sixteen authors and an introduction by Natalie C. Parker who is also the editor.
This YA short story anthology, Three Sides of a Heart, gives us glimpses into love triangles from historical zombie featuring the Southern belle, her handsome betrothed, and her fierce female Negro Attendant (“Dread South” by Ireland) to futuristic (“Omega Ship” by Carson—with a let’s-talk-about-it ending) to a modern-day girl-on-girl kissing romance (“Lessons for Beginners” by Murphy). The common thread in this collection is its unique perspective of this theme referred to in the introduction as “reimaginings.” Settings as near as your backyard to far-off inhabitable planets will delight readers.
If the proverb “variety is the spice of life” is true, then Three Sides of a Heart is zesty indeed—and quite steamy in places. Of course, there are girls torn between good boys and bad boys (“Hurdles” by Colbert and “Waiting” by Tahir), and, more unexpected, the undead falling in love with the dying (“Unus, Duo, Tres” by Hagen). In “Vega” (Yovanoff), the city is a character. “Triangle Solo” (Nix), set on Mars, uses the boy/boy/girl triangle and a triangle, the instrument.
The sixteen authors in this well-crafted collection include Renée Ahdieh, Rae Carson, Brandy Colbert, Katie Cotugno, Lamar Giles, Tessa Gratton, Bethany Hagen, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, E. K. Johnston, Julie Murphy, Garth Nix, Natalie C. Parker (who also writes the introduction and is the editor), Veronica Roth, Sabaa Tahir, and Brenna Yovanoff. Each author delivers a memorable bite-sized tale.
A REVIEW + GIVEAWAY
FOR MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY
LOVING VS. VIRGINIA
A DOCUMENTARY NOVEL
OF THE LANDMARK CIVIL RIGHTS CASE
Written by Patricia Hruby Powell
Artwork by Shadra Strickland
(Chronicle Books; $21.99 – available after 1/31/17, Ages 12+)
REVIEW:When I read Patricia Hruby Powell’s Loving vs. VirginiaI felt like a fly on the wall or a Jeter family cousin, as the action of this powerful story unfolded around me. Despite knowing how things turn out in the end, I found every aspect of this teen docu-novel incredibly riveting and eye-opening. Through meticulous research and interviews,Powellhas successfully managed to transport readers back in time to the Jim Crow south of Caroline County, Virginia. Plunked down into the small neighborly community of Central Point, we’re quickly swept up into the lives of sixth grader Mildred Jeter, and her close knit family. The year, 1955.
As the romance between family friend Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter developed and grew, so did their problems. Strict segregation laws banning interracial marriage were in effect in over 20 states making any romantic relationship between a black woman and a white man a crime, and vice versa. Virginia, the state that Mildred and Richard called home, made no secret of its distaste for interracial marriage and did whatever it could to thwart these relationships. Mildred often noted that had their genders been reversed making Mildred a white woman and Richard a black man, he’d have surely been hung.
So while things were already difficult for these two, matters were made worse by the local law enforcement. A nasty man named Sheriff Brooks was determined to keep the lovers apart or make them pay. When Mildred and Richard eventually got married in D.C. where it was legal to do so, they returned home to Central Point intending to stay under the radar. But secrets were hard to keep in small towns and it wasn’t long before Sheriff Brooks invaded their home as the legally married couple slept together. The marriage was not considered legal in Virginia and the Lovings were guilty of committing a crime. Mildred and Richard were arrested! Having not seen the film or read anything about the Lovings, I was shocked by this dead of night intrusion.
This would only be the first of several arrests that eventually led Mildred and Richard to young lawyers with the National Civil Liberties Union. The Loving’s rights as Americans, according to their plucky attorneys, were being denied. It took several years and a lot of personal sacrifice for the couple, but they worked through every issue, and their compelling case was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Of course as we all know, they won in a unanimous decision under Chief Justice Earl Warren, but the fear of losing was palpable. It was no longer illegal to marry someone of another race. And at last, the Mildred and Richard could raise their children in their home state of Virginia without fear of breaking the law. Perseverance, fearlessness, and commitment helped this couple make history. The year, 1967. And now in 2017 we can proudly mark the 50th anniversary of this important case and the Lovings that made it happen.
Powell’s writing is at once simple yet sophisticated. The ample white space of each unillustrated page invites readers in slowly and calmly as the tension of the story builds. Told in blank verse, Powell’s narratives alternate between the distinct voices of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, bringing enlightening perspectives to teen readers. The text is complemented by illustratorShadra Strickland’s evocative artwork done in visual journalism style “characterized by a loose, impromptu drawing style” containing overlapping lines and “an informal feeling of sketches in the final composition.” Strickland’s illustrations made it easy to picture the setting, the characters, the time period and the events. I cannot imagine this story with any other type of art. Its minimal and muted color palette and its interspersing of historical photos in black and white worked wonderfully to convey the mood of this era. Helpful information can be garnered from the extensive resources included in the back matter of this book such as a time line, a bibliography, quote sources and moving messages from the artist and author. With its still timely message of civil rights, equality and racial tolerance, Loving vs. Virginia should be required reading for every high school student. I will be recommending it to everyone I know with a teen at home.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Multicultural Children’s Book Day2017 (1/27/17) is its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr fromJump Into A Bookand Mia Wenjen fromPragmaticMom.Our mission is to raise awareness on the ongoing need to include kid’s books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators. Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team are on a mission to change all of that.
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also work tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHostshere.
From acclaimed author Patricia Hruby Powell comes the story of a landmark civil rights case, told in spare and gorgeous verse. In 1955, in Caroline County, Virginia, amidst segregation and prejudice, injustice and cruelty, two teenagers fell in love. Their life together broke the law, but their determination would change it. Richard and Mildred Loving were at the heart of a Supreme Court case that legalized marriage between races, and a story of the devoted couple who faced discrimination, fought it, and won.
Patricia Hruby Powell’s previous book, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, won a Sibert Honor for Nonfiction, a Coretta Scott King Honor, and five starred reviews. She lives in Illinois.
Shadra Strickland is an illustrator whose work has won an Ezra Jack Keats Award, a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, and an NAACP Image Award. She lives in Maryland.
GIVEAWAY: Details of our giveaway courtesy of Chronicle Books are below. Plus, if you follow us on Facebook and let us know that you did by telling us in the comments of this blog post, we’ll give you an extra entry. An additional comment on our Facebook page post for this book review gets you yet another entry. Also, if you enjoyed this review, please subscribe to our blog. Thanks and good luck!
OUTRUN THE MOON
Written by Stacey Lee
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
Ever since I finished reading Stacey Lee’s debut Under a Painted Sky, a YA novel following two girls escaping along the Oregon Trail, I’ve been hankering for more of Lee’s historical fiction, especially her lively and likable characters. In Outrun The Moon, out on May 24, Lee delivers, giving us Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s 1906, and the Chinese are restricted to a crowded corner of the city, but Mercy is determined to break out for the sake of her family, especially her overworked father and weak-lunged little brother. Mercy wants to change their destiny, but her mother warns that destiny is “like the moon. We can see it differently by climbing a mountain, but we cannot outrun it.” Or can they?
The story takes off — literally — as Mercy helps her lifelong friend and marriage prospect, Tom, with his hot-air balloon. Mercy’s mother is a revered fortune-teller who uses facial characteristics in her character assessments and predictions. You can imagine what happens when the daughter she calls “bossy cheeks” is left alone in the balloon for a moment, with the simple instructions, “Don’t touch anything.” The balloon seems to be collapsing, and Mercy will never sit still doing nothing if she thinks she can fix a problem.
And lots of problems are coming. If she can survive the hot air balloon, Mercy has a plan to win herself a scholarship to the best girls’ school in the city, but she may not understand the depth and breadth of prejudice against the Chinese. Dependable Tom is acting aloof. Ma has a chilling premonition — of her own death. Worst of all, it’s springtime in San Francisco. In 1906, that means the earth is about to crack open.
I love how Lee places many intermediate points of suspense along the story’s path, and I don’t want to spoil that suspense by telling any more about the book’s plot. But I can tell you that you will meet interesting young people of different backgrounds and prospects — and some crotchety older people, too. There will be leeches, and a mystical cow. There will be wisdom from Mercy’s fortune-telling mother, and from Mrs. Lowry, a Texan with a big ranch and a big personality. Food plays an important role, too, especially once disaster strikes; you may want to have some pasta available for the cravings you’ll get as you read. Chocolate, too.
I recommend this novel wholeheartedly. YA readers looking for strong, independent female characters will enjoy it. The book is also an excellent diverse read, giving an intimate perspective on the attitudes, injustices, and practical difficulties associated with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Finally, I recommend Outrun The Moon to my fellow historical fiction fans, and to anyone who’s ever left their heart in San Francisco.
Click here to see Lee’s book tour dates.
Visit Lee’s website to learn more about her here.