Book Review: Spell Book & Scandal by Jen McConnel

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Book Reviews: Booke of the Hidden by Jeri Westerson, Gone Gull by Donna Andrews and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Booke of the Hidden
Booke of the Hidden #1
Jeri Westerson
Diversion Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-63576-050-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

To get a fresh start away from a bad relationship, Kylie Strange moves across the country to open a shop in a seemingly quiet town in rural Maine. During renovations on Strange Herbs & Teas, she discovers a peculiar and ancient codex, The Booke of the Hidden, bricked into the wall. Every small town has its legends and unusual histories, and this artifact sends Kylie right into the center of Moody Bog’s biggest secret.

While puzzling over the tome’s oddly blank pages, Kylie gets an unexpected visitor―Erasmus Dark, an inscrutable stranger who claims to be a demon, knows she has the book, and warns her that she has opened a portal to the netherworld. Kylie brushes off this nonsense, until a series of bizarre murders put her, the newcomer, at the center. With the help of the demon and a coven of witches she befriends while dodging the handsome but sharp-eyed sheriff, Kylie hunts for a killer―that might not be human.

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate towards witchy books but this one had a couple of things going for it before I even started—the description sounds awesome and I already knew I’d enjoy this because it’s written by Jeri Westerson. If you ask me, Ms. Westerson is one of those authors who is way under-recognized and I’ve been happy with everything by her I’ve ever read.

When Kylie finds that book, she does what anybody would do, she opens it. What follows—a coven of witches, a possible demon, murder and a bit of romance—turn this find into something quite out of the ordinary but Kylie keeps her cool, for the most part, and her interactions with Erasmus are often laugh out loud funny. Even the name of the town, Moody Bog, draws out a smile and, while the pacing is a little on the slow side, I chalk that up mostly to setting things up for the books to come. I came to feel really attached to the kind of creepy but appealing Moody Bog and its inhabitants and to the story that leads Kylie and her new “friends” down a most unlikely path on the way to solving the murder.

So, did Booke of the Hidden live up to its description? Yes, it certainly did and its essential differences from Ms. Westerson‘s other work make this a really fun departure from her  straightforward historical mysteries. Despite my slight aversion to witch-related stories, I’ll definitely be back for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Gone Gull
A Meg Langslow Mystery #21
Donna Andrews
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07856-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Meg is spending the summer at the Biscuit Mountain Craft Center, helping her grandmother Cordelia run the studios. But someone is committing acts of vandalism, threatening to ruin the newly-opened center’s reputation. Is it the work of a rival center? Have the developers who want to build a resort atop Biscuit Mountain found a new tactic to pressure Cordelia into selling? Or is the real target Meg’s grandfather, who points out that any number of environmentally irresponsible people and organizations could have it in for him?

While Meg is trying to track down the vandal, her grandfather is more interested in locating a rare gull. Their missions collide when a body is found in one of the classrooms. Can Meg identify the vandal and the murderer in time to save the center’s name―while helping her grandfather track down and rescue his beloved gulls?

You would think that this series would have begun to show signs of becoming stale and tired by now but that hasn’t happened. Donna Andrews has the magic touch and always seems to come up with fresh ideas and new things to laugh about but the early books still stick with me, especially particular characters beyond Meg.

This time, we have to get along without some of the old regulars (although two of my favorites, Spike the Small Evil One and Meg’s dad, are here) because Meg has gone out of town but her grandparents do a lot to make up for the missing. Meg’s blacksmithing has taken something of a back seat over the course of the series but it’s central to the story in Gone Gull as she’s agreed to teach classes for a few weeks at her grandmother’s new craft studio. Unfortunately, someone seems to have it in for the center, perpetrating small acts of sabotage, and no one is sure who’s doing it. Then Meg discovers a body and the real sleuthing begins.

I have to say the mystery to be solved isn’t as much in the forefront as the wild and quirky activities of the characters but it’s still a good one with some twists and turns to keep the reader occupied while chuckling at what’s going on. Oh, and the gull referred to in the title? That bird and Meg’s grandfather are the source of more than a few laugh out loud moments and, for me, was the icing on the cake. Having said that, I’ll be glad if we have Meg back in her usual surroundings next time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Grove Atlantic, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-8021-2689-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds.

It doesn’t happen often but, every once in a while, I encounter a book that just leaves me cold and this is one of them. On the surface, I should have loved it because it’s apocalyptic (one of my preferred subgenres) and follows the physical as well as mental/emotional journey of a young family trying to cope with a world gone sour. To my dismay, I couldn’t connect with this in any way.

Characters, worldbuilding and plot are the three main components of any work of fiction and there is an interesting plot here in that the protagonist and her husband and baby are forced to find a way to escape the floodwaters and the devastation that has crushed London and the English countryside. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no worldbuilding; we know the water has risen to submerge much of England but that’s all we know. What caused this? A meteor strike, global warming, some dastardly act of a mad scientist, an alien attack of some sort? It’s hard to really feel what the survivors have to deal with when we know so little.

Worst of all, the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts when no one even has a name, just an initial. To me, this is a writing style that is almost pretentious and, coupled with the first person present tense that I so dislike, well, I just didn’t care very much. I find this happens fairly frequently when I read what’s called “literary fiction”.

The one thing that helps to lift this above the abyss is the author’s attention to the bonds between mother and child and she does that extremely well. I think perhaps that was intended to be the core theme and the apocalyptic elements just got in the way. Certainly, a lot of readers and inhabitants of the publishing world have a much more favorable reaction and, although I didn’t care much for this story, I think Megan Hunter is an author to watch..

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

Book Reviews: Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older, The Call by Peadar O. Guilin and Better to Wish by Ann M. Martin

Shadowhouse Fall
The Shadowshaper Cypher Book 2
Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-95282-8
Hardcover

Sierra and her wildly creative companions were captivating in Shadowshaper.   Clever consolidation of mad musical, verbal and graffiti-art skills created a dazzling cultural kaleidoscope that pulsated from the pages, and showed more than the shadowshaping-side of life in Brooklyn.  The sequel, Shadowhouse Fall, is every bit as delightful and dazzling, even as it tackles topics that parallel today’s headlines in an eerily accurate and chilling way.

Sierra has just learned of her role as the archetypal spirit, Lucera, “…the beating heart of the shadowshaping world.”  Never one to shirk responsibility, always a fierce protector; she’s doggedly immersed herself in learning, teaching and practicing shadowshaping.  Before she even begins to realize her potential, Sierra is forced to shift her focus.

The Sisterhood of the Sorrows had vowed revenge when Sierra “jacked up their shrine last summer,” precisely what Sierra and ‘her’ shadowshapers are preparing for; but no one could have predicted an attack so soon. It should have ben impossible.  Unless…the Sorrows are not alone.

To even stand a chance against an unknown in the urban spirituality system, each shadowshaper will need to be strong and smart independently; swift to support and assist when needed.  Basically, battling as they live, to save the community they dearly love.  Accustomed to every day prejudices and profiling, Sierra and her friends knew to expect hassle, rather than help, from the largely racist civil servants.

Mr. Older’s scintillating style swiftly hooks even the reluctant reader.  The scramble to fight the good fight is gripping and the escalation towards the end, engrossing.  When Sierra is left with only two choices, neither of which would result in a happy ending for her; Mr. Older presents a decision that, while not actually surprising, is absolutely unexpected.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2017.

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The Call
The Call, Book 1

Peadar O’Guilin
David Fickling Books, August 2016
ISBN 978-1338045611
Hardcover

Nessa was celebrating her 10th birthday when her childhood abruptly ended.  Instead of giving gifts and baking a cake, her parents explain The Call.

The little girl that built an emotional armor against people’s perceptions; both the pitying looks as well as the ones filled with contempt and disbelief, is intelligent enough to understand the uselessness of her efforts.  Her legs, twisted by polio into more of a hindrance than a help, have gone from a focal point to a genuine liability.

Held hostage and wholly isolated these Irish folks have but one focus: teaching the children to survive The Call.  From the age of ten through the teenage years, training is vigorous and relentless.  Just shy of cruel, the grueling paces are unquestionably a necessary evil.  Almost one in ten survive today, an exponential improvement over the one in one hundred from decades ago.  An amazing accomplishment, as fairies have an undeniable advantage when they pull a human child into their world.

Irish fairies may be my very favorite folklore creatures, and Mr. O’Guilin portrays them perfectly in The Call.  The one universal fact seems to be that fairies cannot lie and they possess a perverse pride in always keeping their word.  Bad to the core, but bound by these rules, Sidhe are as clever and cunning as they are cruel.

The hideous game of fairy versus human, produces a plot that is exciting, fast-paced and adventurous, accented with awesome action scenes.  Of course, nothing is so simple and definite in reality and Mr. O’Guilin does not settle for solely myth against man.   Most humans are considerate, committed to the greater good; but a few are slimy and self-serving.  Mystique makes the tale even more compelling and builds suspense creating compulsory page-turning.  Coupled with colorful, captivating characters and sharp and witty dialogue, The Call is a brilliant book that I enjoyed immensely.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2017.

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Better to Wish
Family Tree Series, Book 1
Ann M. Martin
Scholastic Press, May 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-35942-9
Hardcover

Initial intrigue blossomed into complete captivation as Abby’s narration revealed an inexplicably sweet, strong and resilient girl—a compassionate, sympathetic soul–in spite of circumstances.  The centenarian’s story begins on a summer evening in 1930.  As one memory leads to another, her life unfolds like a map.

Abby’s father feels that Maine should be “white”.  Specifically, Protestant and Republican.  His daughters aren’t allowed to befriend a girl because her parents emigrated from Quebec—she’s “French”, not “white”.  Also below his determined Nichols’ Family Standards; “lazy bums…Irish-Catholics.”  Certainly vocal with his opinion, he nevertheless does not seem to stand out to the family, or the community, as a particularly obnoxious, racist fool.

Although Abby’s mother has many bad days with “her mind stuck thinking” of two tremendous losses that left permanent holes in her heart; Dad wants a son.  Baby Fred arrives.  At home, Dad can pretend that Fred is developing, learning and growing at an average rate. Abby, Rose and their mother know differently, but it has no impact on their love and devotion to the charming child.

At the age of 5, Fred behaves like any toddler—including the time he is forced to sit through a high school awards ceremony.  Due to the perceived public embarrassment, the head of the household deems his son less than perfect.  Imperfection is unacceptable, leaving Mr. Nichols with no choice.  He informs the family after exercising his “only” option.

Throughout the tumultuous times,  Abby intuitively empathizes and instinctively protects those she loves and holds dear first, all other human beings second, thinking of her own wants and needs last, if at all.   Abby is the epitome of “good people” and her story instills hope.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

Book Reviews: Give the Devil His Due by Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco and Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall

Give the Devil his Due
A Tarot Mystery #3
Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco
Midnight Ink, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-4224-3
Trade Paperback

Alanis MacLachlan grew up as the daughter of a notorious con artist, who often used the girl as part of her scams. Alanis never went to school, or knew her father, and her mother changed their names every few weeks.  After her mother was murdered, she left her daughter the White Magic Five and Dime, an occult themed tourist trap and fortune telling parlor in Berdoche, Arizona, a low rent version of Sedona. A teenage half sister, Clarice, was also left in Alanis’ care.

Alanis reads the cards of a middle aged man who turns up dead at a hotel the next day. Who could have killed him? She has her suspicions when a man from her mother’s past appears. Biddle, a man who her mother lived with and was as much as a father figure as Alanis ever had in her life, was last seen in an Ohio cornfield being pursued by armed gangsters. It’s no coincidence—as Alanis discover when an eccentric German billionaire shows up in town looking for a Van Gogh painting that was stolen years ago. Did Alanis’ mother have something to do with it?

Readers who have enjoyed Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will enjoy this series featuring a con artist gone straight. This is third in the series of Tarot mysteries.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2017.

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Shadow of the Wolf
Sherwood’s Doom #1
Tim Hall
David Fickling Books/Scholastic, Inc., June 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-81664-9
Hardcover

The story of Robin Hood has captivated crowds from Disney fans to lovers of Mel Brooks’ “Men In Tights”.  Mr. Hall breathes fresh, furious berserker air into the fable.  Although this telling is like no other, there are scenes and scenarios that are spot-on similar to my fondest recollections.  Shadow of the Wolf is Robin Hood, maiden Marian, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham; but with back-story that explains so much, yet reveals so little.

Sympathy for Robin comes quickly.  In his own village, and on every encounter, it appears that no one is completely honest with him.  Reactions rage from wary to fearful to furious; nowhere is welcoming to the young boy banished to Summerwoods.   The story of his beloved bow is just one of many secrets shared.  We become painfully privy to how Robin Hood was raised, then, abandoned. Acutely aware of the actions that shaped him as he struggled to survive; alone except for the bewitching young Marian and the half-mad goddess and god of the foreboding forest.

The first blow of finding out he isn’t who he thought—his family origins, even his birth date, are false—paled when compared to the remarkable revelation that he is being actively pursued by both the Sheriff of Nottingham, determined to destroy all Winter-Born, and Sir Bors who claims to be the only haven for those creatures born in the cold months among the terrifying trees.

Mr. Hall teases, doling out morsels of mystery in tiny, tantalizing tastes to thoroughly whet the appetite.  Content to keep us guessing, one part of the puzzle begins to take shape, while a brand new picture appears to emerge.  Enveloped in action, Robin Hood actually fights for his life and tickled by fancy, moved with magic, he learns to acknowledge, accept and adapt.  I believe that fans of fantasy, adventure, mystery and magic (from high school students to senior citizens) will relish this retelling.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2016.

Book Review: Eve of the Exceptionals by Parker Sinclair

Eve of the Exceptionals
Parker Sinclair
Rawlings Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-9984053-0-8
Trade Paperback

It begins in a darkened room one night when Gem is fourteen. She and her Anima, Finn, are in the process of locating and stealing a magical object when the room bursts into light and they are accosted by Prince Ryzen, also fourteen. Gem resists her initial instinct which is to shoot the prince with an arrow. He, in turn, tells her how to escape while warning her that she cannot do so successfully with the Heart of Cyan, the magical gem she is trying to steal.

Fast forward four years. Gem is now a soldier in the Northern Guard and well on her way to becoming the best in her group. She hasn’t seen Ryzen since that fateful night, but still feels the warm, strong emotions that flowed through her when their eyes met. She’s often wondered whether he felt the same way, but has no way to determine whether that’s true.

Ryzen has harbored similar emotions about Gem, but no matter how hard he’s searched, often using magical methods, no trace of her has surfaced. Meanwhile, a dire threat is looming on the horizon. Dark and evil creatures from the Shadowlands are sweeping toward the kingdom and Ryzen must determine who the other is who must align with him to fully release the power of the Heart.

When Gem is assigned to guard Ryzen as the threat escalates, it sets in motion several things. She will learn who she really is and why she so strongly doubts the probability she’s the other one able to fully power the Heart. Both she and Ryzen will encounter a host of interesting and unusual creatures, many magical. They must fight their way to a place where another royal is being held captive by the most evil of forces and work with the witches who have long considered mortals as treacherous beings to win the day.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, the overall adventure is a good tale and the magic and magical creatures are well crafted. However, there are places where modern slang like ‘freak out’ and ‘How do we test the new powers this baby has,’ are used and mess with what I call the rule of internal consistency regarding fantasy. The entire story takes place in a medieval type world. If it happened in a back and forth between such a world and our present day (urban fantasy) these wouldn’t stick out.

There are also places where things aren’t explained completely, like how and why she was in the room to steal the gem at the beginning of the story and these pulled my attention away from the story as I wondered about them. Still, it’s an enjoyable tale in an interesting world.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, July 2017.

Book Reviews: Hearts & Other Body Parts by Ira Bloom and P. S. I Like You by Kasie West

Hearts & Other Body Parts
Ira Bloom
Scholastic Press, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-03073-0
Hardcover

Fast-paced and fabulously fun, Hearts & Other Body Parts is a freaky fusion of folklore that completely rocks my socks.  Fantasy, science-fiction and a bit of magic combine to capture, then carry you along the remarkable ride.  With the emphasis on “science”, some of this fiction feels frighteningly plausible.

The three sisters that center the story are quintessential siblings in the best ways possible.  Unique enough for interesting exchanges, their common ground allows them to create a formidable front when needed.  Norman, the new kid (whose full name is spectacularly perfect) is a gentle giant—in the most literal sense—but, his size is the least shocking attribute of his appearance.

Generally, students in small town schools divide into two groups when a new kid arrives: instant fans seeking something different or rowdy ruffians refusing change.  Not so when Norman enters the picture.  All eyes focus on him, the same expression on every face.  Mouths hang open in wonder, revulsion and fear.  When Esme joins Norman at the lunch table on his first day, he knew things would be different here; but even his peculiar past could not have prepared him for what was coming.

Zack erases Norman’s new-kid status and creates a fandom in the student body.  Girls surround Zack like fog, floating on his every word. Intelligent as well as wise, Norman is not captivated by Zack’s charms; instead he is suspicious.  Reports of missing girls convince Norman that Esme and her sisters, who have absolutely abandoned him to hover around Zack, are in imminent danger.  Norman can’t face Zack alone, but the bullies that once taunted him may not be much back-up…..even with the reluctant aid of a demon cat.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2017.

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P.S. I Like You
Kasie West
Point, August 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-85097-1
Hardcover

This is such a sweet story—not so your teeth hurt–it’s perfectly sweet.  First and foremost:  I love the Abbott family.  I want to dive into their home and be submersed in the fresh, awesome, oddness.  Each quirky, yet quintessential, sibling provides poignant texture, interacting individually and collectively with Lily.  Her competition-loving, compassionate parents are perfectly embarrassing and absolutely adorable.  Also, there is a rescued “pet” rabbit.

I adore Lily.  She’s who I wanted to be as a teenager.  Her most awkward teen-aged moment is exponentially cooler than any of mine.  It is effortless to relate to, empathize with and understand her.  She is “learning lessons” that I learned, but sometimes forget.  The reminders are welcome and appreciated.

There is also the something-different-that-I-totally-dig-aspect:  putting a pencil to your desktop, jotting a note or song lyric to maintain sanity and/or a state of semi-awareness during class, only to be stunned when another student responds in kind.  I remember trading notes via the top of my desk with an anonymous person in my 8th grade Literature class (sorry, Mr. Leach).  So, no surprise, I’m stupidly delighted and charmed to find a book basing a pretty groovy relationship on such a simple start.  Particularly impressive, Ms. West presents a spot-on, classic-yet-credible, way of communicating without feeling the need to mute or explain away today’s textmania.

This was a one-sitting-read that I really enjoyed.  The mini-mystery to determine who Lily’s pen pal is warranted a close look and careful consideration of the characters.  Although cute and quick, this isn’t the cotton candy of reading—there is a Mean Girl and her role is not gratuitous and the importance of being a good friend cannot be overstated.  My copy is going to my 13-year-old niece and I’m sure I’ll donate another copy to my Middle Grader’s classroom library.  I really like this book for the Middle-Grade reader looking for a love story.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2016.

Book Review: Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater

pip-bartletts-guide-to-magical-creaturesPip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures
Pip Bartlett #1
Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-70926-2
Hardcover

Little-Girl-Me would have loved every single thing about this book.  The Not-Young-Adult-Me was completely captivated and charmed.  In the interest of full disclosure, I expected nothing short of stunning brilliance with two of my very favorite authors joining forces.  My expectations were exceeded.

Pip Bartlett not only loves Magical Creatures more than life itself, she can actually talk to them.  They understand her and when they “speak” she understands them.  Although absolutely no one believes her, this spunky soul is unstoppable.  Her curiosity, tenacity and determination are admirable and this reader could not stop rooting for her.

When Pip spends the summer with her aunt, a Magical Creature veterinarian, the tiny town is invaded by cute, yet combustible, Fuzzles.  The townsfolk may see the situation as hopeless, but I had no doubts about Pip’s ability to save the day…..and the Fuzzles.

I sat down and read this cover to cover, coming up with at least a dozen children that I’ll need to give this book to.  I can easily recommend it for the reluctant reader because I believe the drawings and journal-esque style make it easy to read and I like it for the voracious reader because it is stand-out-something-different.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2016.