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!
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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InWhat I Like About Me, sixteen-year-old Maisie Martin’s teacher requires students to keep a journal jotting down three things they discover about themselves each day of winter break and provide evidence. Maisie’s first entry is easy: her teacher is evil, the evidence is the dreaded journal. After Mum catches Maisie writing “blah blah blah” to fill the daily allotment, Maisie settles down, nicknames her journal “DJ,” and more heartfelt confessions begin.
Maisie frets her parents are divorcing because, for the first time, Maisie’s dad hasn’t accompanied them on their annual vacation retreat. To make up for his absence, Mum lets Maisie bring her along BFF. Anna is everything you want in a girlfriend plus she’s gorgeous—a fact Maisie’s years-long crush, Sebastian, soon notices. He’s brought his annoying pal, Beamer, again. The four teens hang together at the beach, except Maisie’s too body-conscious to wear a bathing suit or get in the ocean. It comes as a surprise to everyone (even Maisie) when Maisie decides to face her fears and enter the local beauty pageant following in the footsteps of a beautifully slim mother and older sister. Figuring she won’t be selected because of her weight, she’s amazed when they not only accept her entry but also want to feature her in an interview. But all is not as it seems.
I like how this book goes beyond typical beach fun delving into complications such as when your BFF and love of your life seem destined to get together, how to deal with being stuck with an annoying sidekick, and the reality of people being unable to see past your size. Maisie vents in her journal: “Imagine having a body you’re always uncomfortable in. Always. That moves when you want it to be still, and makes you want to be still even when you long to move.”
Such heartbreaking moments are offset with heaps of humor. Jenna Guillaume kept me laughing from the book’s first lines. When a bunch of boys go skinny-dipping, Maisie muses, “soon the pool was a veritable sausage soup.” The chapters open with Maisie’s “discoveries” running a gamut of emotions, many of them hilarious. Eventually, journaling leads to self-reflection and Maisie catalogues things she likes about herself.
Books are about characters and Maisie is awesome. I’d gladly follow her on to another book or two. Guillaume has a gift for capturing our fears and seeing a way past them. Family, romance, and friendship all play out in their levels of complexity. Learning how to accept and love yourself are the book’s most powerful messages. Get this YA debut for the teen in your life or for yourself. It’ll make you laugh, but I hope it also makes you pause a moment to consider at least one thing you like about yourself.
Find Jenna Guillaume on Facebook here.
Get a discussion guide here.
Click herefor an excerpt.
Read a Q+A with Jenna Guillaume here.
(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.
What an honor to once again be participating in the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour. This year it’s been a delight to interview authorHannah Moskowitz after reading her compelling YA novel (that I could not put down) Sick Kids in Love, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at theAssociation of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
He’s got a chronic illness Isabel’s never heard of, something she can’t even pronounce. He understands what it means to be sick. He understands her more than her healthy friends. He understands her more than her own father who’s a doctor.
He’s gorgeous, fun, and foul-mouthed. And totally into her.
Isabel has one rule: no dating.
It’s never felt better—
—to consider breaking that rule for him.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HANNAH MOSKOWITZ
Good Reads With Ronna:How does SICK KIDS IN LOVE differ from your previous novels and did anything in particular happen to plant the seed to write this one?
Hannah Moskowitz: SICK KIDS IN LOVE is my first book to feature characters with chronic illnesses, or even really to include characters with chronic illnesses at all, which is ridiculous since it’s such a defining feature of my own life. I really wanted to write something that I felt like was true to the chronic illness experience and that was keeping up with the conversations happening right now in the disability community that I hadn’t really seen reflected in fiction yet. So I wanted to create a positive, realistic, disability-positive love story. It’s a pretty straightforward romance, which was also a first for me. The way I explained it when I started was that I wasn’t reinventing the wheel; I was just giving the wheel to people who hadn’t had it before.
GRWR:February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Can you please speak to the relevance of this initiative in terms of your YA novel’s main characters, Isabel (Ibby) Garfinkel who has rheumatoid arthritis and her boyfriend, Sasha (Aleksandr) Sverdlov-Deckler, who has a non-fatal type of Gaucher Disease, and where abled society falls short here and with understanding invisible illness?
HM: Invisible illnesses are so common and so poorly respected in our society, and there are several that are more common in the Ashkenazi Jewish community than in the general population, like Sasha’s Gaucher Disease. So having a month specifically for Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion is definitely a big deal. Invisible illnesses are misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed all the time, and it’s unfortunately really hard to be taken seriously without having a diagnosis with a name that people recognize as serious. If you have something people don’t know about, like Sasha, people think you’re making it up. If you have something that sounds kind of common and benign, like Isabel, people think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s really rough out there.
GRWR:Could you have written this novel without a Jewish protagonist, and if not, why?
HM: I think I could have. Writing Jewish protagonists is just easier for me, so letting myself stay in that space is one less thing I have to deal with when I’m planning out my characters. So writing a non-Jewish protagonist would have been possible, but a lot more work. And for what!
GRWR:Why did you decide to have Ibby’s family and friends deal with her illness so differently than how Sasha’s family deals with his?
HM: Ibby’s family’s discomfort with chronic illness is what’s familiar to me in my own life, and Sasha’s is kind of the fantasy of what I wish people were like. So I wanted to show both the uncomfortable reality and that we should still have this aspirational ideal even if we’ve been left down. It’s okay to expect that much.
GRWR:Why does Isabel have such a difficult time self-advocating? Is this something you wanted to raise readers’ awareness about?
HM: Because I do! And because honestly, it’s hard to stand up for yourself and tell people you’re valid when they’re constantly telling you you’re not. Being told you don’t deserve things that you thought you need sticks with you, and having to fight through that internalized ableism is a huge part of living with chronic illness.
GRWR:As an #OwnVoices author, how much of yourself have you put into the story in regard to both your Jewish faith and your chronic illness?
HM: I put a ton of myself into this particular book, which I think was what made it such a joy to write. The whole process was easy; I wrote this book over the course of a month for NaNoWriMo 2017, and the version you can read now is very, very close to that first draft. Isabel is a Reform Ashkenazi Jew with autoimmune arthritis. Guess what I am! She even lives on the block in Sunnyside that I used to live on. Nothing that happens to Isabel in the course of the story is autobiographical, but her character certainly is. Though personality-wise I would say I’m more like Sasha.
GRWR: I enjoyed Isabel’s personal arc as she fights the pull to get involved with Sasha because of her dysfunctional family history among other things. When she ultimately succumbs to love—being loved and loving back—it’s powerful, positive and oh so beautiful. Do you think her struggle is one many teens can relate to?
HM: Thank you! I think Isabel’s big struggle is her fear of committing herself fully to something uncertain, and I think that’s a worry that a lot of people, teenagers or adults, can relate to.
GRWR:What gave you the idea to make Ibby the“SICK GIRL” weekly advice columnist at her high school newspaper and then share her questions throughout the novel?
HM: I’ve been asked this before and honestly I wish I could remember, but I … don’t. It was part of the book from the first draft, I know that. A long time ago I was trying to write a book where one of the main characters went around asking people what they would do if it was their last night in New York, so I think it might have stemmed from that. But my memory is too terrible.
GRWR:As your sub-heading says, no one dies in your novel yet I cried in several places because I cared about Ibby and Sasha, their relationship, and felt so much was at stake for this young couple. Did any part make you cry as you wrote it?
HM: I’m not much of a crier, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried while writing something! But I do make playlists for the characters, and sometimes I cry a little bit listening to those and thinking about all their feelings.
GRWR:The voice in your novel was great, as was the dialogue and humor. What part of the novel did you enjoy writing the most? What were some of the most difficult parts?
HM: I always prefer writing dialogue to anything else. My favorite things to write are arguments, and Sasha and Isabel have at least one great one. I hate writing descriptions and world building, but at least this time I got to just talk about a place I knew well.
GRWR:SICK KIDS IN LOVE should be required reading in high school curricula. You’ve succeeded in opening readers’ eyes to the disabled community, how they’re perceived and treated and how they’d like to be treated. Do you think you’ve written all you’d like to say on this topic?
HM: Thanks! I think I did put all I have to say at this time about disability and chronic illness into this book. But who knows if I’ll think of more in the future!
GRWR:What can we expect in your next novel?
HM: Right now I don’t know which of several books my next novel will be, but it’s likely either a very untraditional lesbian romance, a story about a teen mom figuring out her sexuality, or a f/f retelling of “Dirty Dancing.” So … expect lesbians.
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is showcasing its 2020 gold and silver medalists with a Blog Tour, February 9-13, 2020! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. Interviews will appear on the dates below, and will remain available to read at your own convenience.
Below is the schedule for the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!
The Curseshas an undoubtedly awesome first line: “Wolf had been back from the dead for almost three weeks when we had our first midnight picnic of the year.” Best-selling author Laure Eve’s second book picks up smoothly from where The Graces left off, changing the narrator from River (the new girl in town with enigmatic magical powers) to Summer (her on-again-off-again BFF from the Grace family of witches).
This sequel expands the world of the Graces while keeping favorite characters close. The Graces are beautiful, rich, and alluring—and they have cool names. Complicated relationships advance between the people who love the Graces, hate them, or want to be them. High school drama is heightened as the teens try to master their supernatural powers.
Truth-seeker and air witch Summer questions the dreaded curse on the Grace family (they cannot marry for love). After some sleuthing, dangerous mysteries unfold and Summer struggles with how she’s inexplicably drawn to River, wondering whether to stay away or bring her into their coven.
The main story line revolves around Wolf and the problems accompanying his resurrection. Throughout, the characters grow and learn to navigate the complicated aspects of friendship, family, and love. Appearances can be deceptive and easy answers may not be the right ones but there’s surely magic in the world, if you’re open to it.
LOVE & OTHER TRAIN WRECKS
Written by Leah Konen
(Katherine Tegen Books; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
★Starred Review – Kirkus,School Library Journal
This twenty-four-hour whirlwind journey in Love & Other Train Wrecks begins with Amarantha “Ammy” West and Noah Adler seated in the same Amtrak car. Their first impressions of one another are stiff and uncomfortable. Noah, eighteen, travels, pink roses in hand, to surprise his ex-girlfriend with fancy dinner reservations and a heartfelt poem. An optimistic, good-looking guy, he attempts to engage Ammy in conversation, but she bristles against his easy-going personality.
Seventeen-year-old Ammy is escaping from the mess her life has become since her father left and her mother plunged into anger and anxiety attacks. Though Ammy’s trying to be supportive of her mother, she seems to hit it off with her new stepsister Kat. Attending her father’s commitment ceremony (before the divorce is even final) tests Ammy’s allegiance to Team Mom. Ammy surely doesn’t want to share any of her personal drama with an annoyingly friendly stranger like Noah.
When the Amtrak train stops due to mechanical error, Noah and Ammy, determined to reach their respective destinations on time, disembark into a snowstorm. GPS makes a bus station seem an easy walk, but, instead, the frozen trek filled with mishaps turns into an adventure of a lifetime.
All the while, Ammy and Noah contemplate their places in the world including what it means to make your own decisions and then face those consequences. Konen’s choice to write alternating viewpoint chapters works well to show what each character shares or conceals. The chapters are also fast-paced and consistently satisfying. As the attraction between the main characters builds, Ammy struggles to come to terms with how romantic relationships can hurt friends and family and how to handle those conflicts of interest. Falling (and staying) in love, while wonderful, isn’t necessarily easy.
Red Queen; Volume number 2 by Victoria Aveyard
(HarperTeen; $19.99, Ages 14 and up)
Glass Swordby Victoria Aveyardis the next installment of her riveting series Red Queen. The story picks up right where we left off in the previous book. Mare and Cal are now fugitives, having fought their way out of their own executions. Maven, now king after using his mother’s power to force Cal to kill his own father, is in pursuit of Mare and Cal aided by his entire army and a society of Silvers, who have been manipulated to believe in his lies. Mare realizes that the only way to win this fight is to find others like her, those they call “new bloods.”
Aveyard brings in a little bit of an X-Men feel as the “new bloods” are slowly found. They are Reds with Silver abilities but are stronger than the Silvers themselves. They learn how to control and use their powers while preparing for war against Maven. However, Mare is constantly torn between her need to save others, her own self-doubt, and the betrayal that surrounds her. Two things are always constant in this book, lives are always at stake and you never know whom to trust. As Julian, Mare’s former teacher and Cal’s uncle, said repeatedly in Mare’s lessons, “Anyone can betray anyone,” and this mantra remains true as the story progresses.
Mare is searching for the new bloods, but Maven is too, so every venture out to find them is a risk of her life and that of her team. Maven sets trap after trap in order to catch the new bloods and, more importantly, to try and catch Mare. Throughout the novel, the relationship between Mare and Cal is ever intriguing, but it’s not clear what their future holds. This book is hardly predictable, but the one entirely foreseeable element is betrayal, right up until the end. It will be tough to wait an entire year to see what happens next, but I will be on the edge of my seat, eagerly awaiting the next book and what is sure to be an exciting conclusion.
In yet another riveting tale that falls somewhere in-between the Dystopian and Fantasy genres, we see The Hunger Games, The Selection, and Divergent collectively mirrored in Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen, particularly in the unbalanced caste system, a displaced protagonist, an alluring romance, widespread uprising, and unbridled betrayal.
Mare Barrow is a young girl working to survive in a society with two castes, the silver-blooded elite and the red bloods who serve them. The Silvers are the upper echelons of society with superhuman powers, but perhaps the most important ability they have is to keep the Reds in their place. Mare gets mistakenly drawn into the walls of palace life where she discovers that she, too, has powers of her own. What she really wants, however, is the power to take down the Royals who keep her family and the rest of the Reds nearly starving and struggling to survive. While one of the most difficult things to endure is leaving her family and worrying about their safety, Mare finds that what’s even harder is discovering who she is and whom she can trust.
While some parts were a bit predictable, others had surprising little twists that kept me quickly turning pages to see what would happen next. I found myself rooting for Mare Barrow and the Reds, and I’m looking forward to Aveyard’s next installment of this colorful saga.
Kiera Cass has captured the hearts of readers worldwide with her #1 New York Times bestselling Selectionseries, and she continues to keep us captivated with her fourth book in the series, The Heir. The collection itself has become widely known as The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games with a bit of Cinderella mixed in.
Books 1-3 center around Prince Maxon and his endeavor to find a wife, who will be his queen once he becomes King of Illéa (essentially the United States post war). One of the 35 contestants is America Singer, a young lady of a lower caste than most of the other girls. While the others are vying for a place in the palace as well as in Maxon’s heart, America resists because, while a life with Maxon would mean raising her family’s status, it would also mean denying her true love whom she must leave behind. America soon discovers, however, that a life with Maxon is exactly what she wants and more than she could have dreamed of, and she must fight to the end to attain it.
Book 4, The Heir, is set twenty years later and tells a similar tale through Princess Eadlyn, daughter of King Maxon and his bride, Queen America. Though Eadlyn is also resistant to the Selection from the start, like her mother had been, she begins to learn that perhaps love is possible in the most unlikely of circumstances, and maybe happily ever after is meant for her after all. Much like her parents did in the past, Eadlyn faces much political and personal turmoil during the selection process.
Cass leaves us on the edge of our seats at the cliffhanger ending of this book as we await the fifth and final volume of the series, which is due to be released in the spring of 2016. These books will draw in readers of all ages. In fact, they were recommended to me by my 14-year-old niece, an avid reader who said these were her favorites of any books she’s ever read. Though there are more than 20 years between us, I too was enchanted by this ongoing saga, so much so that I read all four novels in just three days! Though I am disappointed that I have to wait months to read its conclusion, I will be much more disappointed when it’s over.