4 Cybils YA Spec Fic Finalists

Here’s what I’ve read of the Cybils YA Speculative Fiction finalists so far.  All of them are very good – I’m always so glad for the chance to have some of the best books chosen for me.  I’m still waiting for the audiobook of The Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao.  And I confess, sadly but without shame, that I had checked out the remaining two finalists, Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis and The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros, when a family emergency struck and they both suddenly seemed too grim for me to deal with.  

The Gilded Ones  by Namina Forna. Delacorte, 2021. ISBN 978-1984848697. Listened to audiobook on Libby.

16-year-old Deka is horrified when she bleeds gold instead of proper red at the coming-of-age purity ceremony in her village.  Rejected by both a would-be suitor and her father, she is eventually recruited by an unnamed woman to join with other alaki girls in training to fight the monsters attacking the empire. The beautiful cover had led me to expect a more stately story, but this is a story of war where Deka must figure out what’s going on and who to trust on her own.  There’s some romance – lower key than is usual in teen fantasies – with stronger female friendships and a definite emphasis on men’s distrust of women’s power.  Sadly, I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to, but I could definitely see why it’s as popular as it is, and I’d happily give it to my son, who loves military strategy speculative fiction.  

Mirror Season  by Anna-Marie McLemore. Read by Jennifer Jill Araya. Recorded Books, 2021. ASIN B091HYSDWV

Ciela is trying as hard as she can to forget what happened to her at the party that was supposed to kick off the school year, forget the boy she could hear being assaulted at the same time.  But all around her, things keep turning to mirror glass, and she finds herself drawn to the boy, Lock, when he shows up in her classes.  Meanwhile, she’s trying to navigate her work at her family’s pastelería, having her best friend off at college, and teasing at school by people who don’t understand what being bisexual means.  Ciela is an unreliable narrator, as we slowly learn that she has not told herself the truth about what happened that night in order to protect herself from the pain. The tiny magics of mirrors and the secret forest that Lock is building help to shelter the reader from this pain, at least a little bit, helped also by the delicious baked goods from the pastelería.  This is beautiful, deeply real and personal.  

Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson. Margaret K. McElderry Books. 2021. ISBN 9781534477117 Read from library copy. 

Artemisia is a novice in the order of the Gray Sisters, who ever since the Sorrow struck the kingdom of Loraille, have worked to make sure the dead stay resting.  Artemisia is good at defending against the spirits, but with her scarred hands and nonexistent social skills, has never felt that she really fits in with the other novices. 

And then, unbelievably, an army of the dead breaches the blessed walls of the convent, and Artemisia is the last defense against terrifying higher spirits.  The only way to stop them is to try to use a saint’s relic that contains an even more powerful revenant, one that wants nothing more than its own freedom…

While a second book is due out in the fall, there is so far no sign of romance at all, a pleasant break from the usual teen drama.  This was the winner of the teen spec fic category, and deservedly so.  It had impressive world-building with an authentic medieval feel, though clearly an alternate world which worships the Lady and has a female-led church structure.  This world-building and Artemisia’s growth both as a person and in using her abilities is spread through a pulse-pounding story of rising evil and corruption.  My mother and I are both very excited for the next book!

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He. Roaring Brook Press, 2021. ISBN 9781250258564 Read from library copy. 

Sometime in the future, Cee has spent three-plus years on an abandoned island with only a small refurbished android for company.  She can’t remember how she got there, but she does remember that she has a sister, Kay, and that she needs to find her. 

Sixteen-year-old Kasey, who once had a sister named Celia, lives in a floating eco-city, built to house deserving climate refugees, since too-frequent storms have made land unsafe.  She’s trying to solve the mystery of Celia’s disappearance, as well as find a solution to save the vast numbers of earth’s population who won’t fit in the eco-cities.  Both stories have their own struggles, and though it’s clear from the beginning that they must connect somehow, the twist that connects them is still mind-bending.  This one, grounded in a failing Earth, looks at relationships in families and what we owe to our fellow humans.  

Have you, dear reader, read any of these or the other finalists I haven’t gotten to yet? Let me know in the comments!

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Amah Faraway by Margaret Chiu Greanias. Illustrated by Tracy Subisak

Hello, friend! It’s been a while, but I am finally back with one of the lovely review books I promised you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Amah Faraway
by Margaret Chiu Greanias. Illustrated by Tracy Subisak

Bloomsbury, 2022

ISBN 978-1547607211

Review copy kindly sent by the publisher.

Amah Faraway by Margaret Chiu Greanias. Illustrated by Tracy Subisak Bloomsbury, 2022 ISBN 978-1547607211 Review copy kindly sent by the publisher.

Kylie is about to visit her grandmother, her Amah, for the first time.  She mostly knows Amah from video chats, where Amah is animated and Kylie doesn’t know what to say.  It takes a long time for Kylie to warm up to the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and foods of Taipei.  Once she does, though, she’s reluctant to leave.  Then, computer chats are much more fun – and she can’t wait for Amah to come and visit her.

The book has a lovely parallel structure, where Amah takes the lead in the first half and Kylie takes the lead in the second half.  Tracy Subisak’s (Jenny Mei is Sad)  brilliant watercolor illustrations show Kylie’s slow transformation as well as the sights of Taipei. Taiwanese is shown in characters and sometimes spelled out, translated only when Kylie understands it, which is very helpful in showing her point of view.  Endpapers show paintings of significant things in the text, from slippers to soup dumplings, with English text in the beginning spread and Taiwanese characters plus spelled out in Western letters in the back.  

The book is of course especially important for Taiwanese-American families, but any child with far-away family members will be able to relate.  And I for one would now really love to visit Taipei!  I’ll be putting my review copy in my daughter’s school media center, where I’m sure it will be well loved. 

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3 Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Finalists

Continuing on with my read-through of the Cybils finalists in my favorite categories. I had already read Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden, and I’m so happy that it made the finalist list! I still have three books to go – one I can check out today, and two that I’m waiting on hold for.

Here’s all seven of the fabulous 2021 Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Finalists.

Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh. HarperCollins, 2021. ISBN 9780062987983. Read from library copy. 
Junie is dreading going back to middle school, where she’s bullied every day for being Korean-American.  And when horrible racist graffiti keeps appearing in the gym, her longtime best friend, Patrice, feels that they need to take action to show people that their actions or silence are hurting them.  But Junie’s efforts to stop the bully have only made things worse.  Then, she starts asking her beloved grandfather for stories of his childhood – during the Korean war. The resulting stories from him and from her grandmother show such suffering and resilience that Junie is determined to share their story, and to stand up more to the bullies herself.  She may not be comfortable with standing up in front of the school, but she can find other ways to support her friends and maybe make things better for herself as well.  This is such a beautiful book, and I learned so much about the Korean war and what life was like during it.  Highly recommended.

Many Points of Me by Caroline Gertler. Greenwillow, 2021 ISBN 978-0063027008 Read from library copy. 
Georgia has been struggling since her father, a famous artist, died.  Not only is her mother completely absorbed in putting together a retrospective show of his work, but everyone seems to expect Georgia to follow in his footsteps as an artist.  Meanwhile, she can’t seem to find any of the artistic inspiration that used to come so easily to her, and the big show only reminds her that she was never a subject of any of her father’s famous asterism portraits.  Both of these aspects are making it hard for Georgia to relate to both her mother and her best friend.  This is a thoughtful story of a girl finding her way through a hard time and back to herself, with special appeal to young artists.  

Violets are Blue by Barbara Dee. Aladdin, 2021. ISBN 9781534469181. Read from library copy. 
Seventh-grader Rennie would really just like to escape from her life.  Her parents have divorced, and her father moved to New York City, a plane flight away, and announced that he’s getting remarried.  Her mother has grown increasingly grouchy and withdrawn, yelling at Rennie alternately for keeping secrets from her and then for trying to pry into her own secrets.  On top of that, her former best friend has turned out to be not such a good friend after all. 

Her escape is her new hobby: watching YouTube videos by the famous CatFX, who does amazing special effects makeup tutorials, including the beautiful mermaid face shown on the cover.  Between her mom and her new stepmom, she’s able to put together enough supplies to practice the looks herself.  And when her mother moves to a new town, Rennie relaunches herself as Wren, tiny but fierce, finally making some friends as she joins the musical as makeup specialist when her mother pressures her to spend less time on her computer.  But warning signs that her mother is really not doing well keep building up, even as Wren doesn’t want to see them.  Will her hard work on makeup help her when things in real life start falling apart even more?

Not only does this have a great balance of Wren’s problems and fun obsessions, but her parents are shown as real people trying their best, even when it would have been easy to make any of them neglectful villains. This is one I think my daughter would love if I could convince her to read about anything but demigods or dragons.

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2021 In Review – by the Numbers

Every year since 2014, I’ve tried to do an audit of my reading, as well as a list of my favorite books of the year. It’s my way of keeping myself accountable, and is especially interesting this year as I’m working with a small committee on developing diversity benchmarks for my library.

2021 Overview

Bar chart summary of my 2021 reading.
I logged 213 books in 2021, finished 200, reviewed 78, and rated 39 as 8 or above. I must be gentle with myself about reviewing only 40% of the books I read.
I still wish I could write more and faster.
Pie chart of where I got the books I read in 2021 - 55% from the library, 14% from Libby, 8% from Hoopla, 14% own, 5% from the author, 4% from the publisher, and .5% as a gift.
For the first time, I split out the print library books from the library ebooks. Total library usage was 76.6%, up 5% from 2020.
Pie chart of my 2021 reading formats - about 60% print, 21% audio, 11% ebooks, and 9% graphic novels.
Audiobooks and graphic novels are both down from 2020. Notably, buying myself a new ereader has kept my ebook reading up much higher than it was when I was only reading ebooks on my phone – go figure!

What I Read

Fantasy still far in the lead, as usual, though at least Sci-Fi got a little closer to Nonfiction than it was last year.
A pie chart of the books I read split by the age of the audience they were written for - 64% Middle Grade, 17% Adult, 15% Teen, 2% Picture Book, and 1% Not Quite Middle Grade.
The high percentage of middle grade is no surprise, but Adult overtook Teen this year, while books for younger readers have nearly fallen off the chart.

The Authors

Pie chart of my 2021 reading by author ethnicity - 56% white. 15% African, 9% Asian, 5% South Asian, 8% Latinx, 2% Native, and 1% mixed.
I’m a little sad that I’m back to more than 50% of my reading being by white authors. I will have to try harder this year. Still, 44% by authors of color is way better than the 15% I read in 2015 when I first started tracking.
World map showing the countries of origin of the authors I read in 2021 - the US, Canada, Barbados, Argentina, the UK, Ireland, France, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Australia.
I don’t think there’s much change here, as I don’t make too much of an effort to read authors outside of the US. It’s fun to see the map, though!
Pie chart of the author genders of my 2021 reading - 76% female, 18% male, 3% male and female on the same book, and 1.4% nonbinary.
76% books by women is up 5% from last year. I did read trans authors this year, but recorded them as their preferred gender, so they don’t show up here. Nonbinary is a tiny count, but the first year it’s shown up at all. I can still do better.

The Characters

Pie chart of the ethnicities of the characters in my 2021 reading - 42% white, 13% Black, 8% mixed, 8% Asian, 6% Latinx, 5% South Asian, 2% animal, 2% Indigenous, 2% brown.
In 2019, my percentage of white characters was 39%, and in 2020 34%. This tells me that I need to be really conscientious about my reading – it’s not enough to just vaguely aim to read more diverse books. At least I am seeing slightly fewer of the generically brown characters.
Pie chart of the character traits of my 2021 reading - 26% straight, 14% LGBTQ, 10% orphan, 5% low income, 2%immigrantt, 2% non-neurotypical, 2.% survivor.
This is the column in my reading spreadsheet where I track things other than character ethnicity, such as other religions than Christianity, LGBTQ things, etc. It is most common in middle grade books for characters to seem middle class, cis-gendered, not religious, and to have no romantic feelings. I feel like I should maybe adopt the checkbox system my library has started using, rather than having one box to track all of this. I am sure I missed data this way! But I am very excited that my percentage of LGBTQ books nearly doubled from last year. Low income is also up a lot, from 1% last year, and oddly, an increase in books about orphans as well.

I’ve been doing these graphs for several years now – here they are from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 20162015, and 2014. As always, if you know of any middle grade or teen books, especially fantasy books, that would help me round things out as far as reading more LGBTQ or Indigenous authors, and authors outside the US or UK, please do let me know!  

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Four 2021 Cybils Middle Grade Graphic Novel Finalists

Dear readers, I had grand plans at the beginning of January. I was going to read and review all the Cybils finalists in my favorite other categories, share my thoughts on some lovely books that authors or publisher kindly sent me, do a short summary of the roughly two dozen books that I read and took notes on last year but never wrote full reviews up, plus do my regular end-of-year posts of analyzing my reading and doing a favorites list.

Then I got a cold that turned into bronchitis, helped unpack my daughter’s school library after a move, and noticed that our roof is leaking. Now it’s just going to take a while to dig myself out of all the backlog, especially since my brain is still not wanting to concentrate.

The 2021 Cybils Award winners were announced yesterday. I am very happy that the winner of this category, Measuring Up by Lily Lamotte and Ann Xu, is one that I had already read and loved. Here are the other finalists I’ve read so far:

Borders by Thomas King and Natasha Donovan. Little, Brown, 2021. ISBN 978-0316593069 Read from library copy. 
This is a fascinating and meditative piece, set as a memory of when the (fictional) narrator was 12.  He has grown up on the Blackfoot reservation in Canada, and as the story begins, his mother has decided that the two of them will go visit his older sister in Salt Lake City.  But crossing a border requires declaring citizenship, and our narrator’s mother is determined only to claim her citizenship as Blackfoot – even if this winds up with them being stuck in between border checkpoints.  Though we see the child’s impatience, there’s also a lot of respect for the mother, determined not to let modern borders and ignorance define who she is.  The art looks both digital and brush-like, in the amber and turquoise of a long-ago summer.

Chunky by Yehudi Mercado. Katherine Tegen Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0062972781 Read from library copy. 
Hispanic-Jewish Hudi’s parents are tired of taking off work to have doctors tell them that he’s overweight.  Instead, they decided to enroll him in one sport after another, hoping to find one that sticks.  And even if he never does, he still finds a way to put his signature touch of humor on everything, especially with the help of Chunky, a drawing come to life that’s acting as his personal cheerleader.  The story is fast-moving and hilarious, with rounded lines and bright retro colors and a solid message of body positivity and being true to yourself. 

Jukebox by Nidhi Chainani. First Second, 2021. ISBN 978-1250156372 Read from library copy. 
Shaheen has gotten tired of her father’s obsession with old vinyl records, but when he disappears, his favorite record store is the first place she and her cousin Tannaz check.  The store is oddly empty and dark when it should be open – but when they break in, they discover a stack of records and a large, glowing jukebox – one Shaheen knows her dad dreamed of owning.  And when it plays, it pulls them into a major performance of the song they’re hearing, taking them on a tour through a century of musical history.  But even as they’re enjoying the explorations, the travel gets harder and harder.  Will they be able to find Shaheen’s dad in time?  This has appealing, rounded art, but while I enjoyed it, it was sadly the only one my daughter didn’t finish reading.  

Salt Magic by Hope Larson. Illustrations by Rebecca Mock. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021. ISBN 9780823450503 Read from library copy. 
It’s just after World War I, and 12-year-old Vonciel has been waiting for her brother to come back from war. She’s very disappointed when he immediately marries his childhood sweetheart and has no time for swimming with her anymore.  She’d hoped he’d fall in love with an exotic nurse in France.  But when a beautiful and exotic woman turns up in town looking for him, the woman, Greda, turns out to be a witch with revenge in mind.  And since Vonciel’s the only one who really believes in the curse, she’ll have to be the one to break it.  The illustrations are watercolor and ink, with the style giving a sense of classic cartoons like Tintin.  I first noticed Vonciel’s many expressions, mostly along the outrage to horror spectrum – delightful!  But the fashions and the landscapes are also beautifully rendered. This is a captivating adventure.

Still to go from this list – Cranky Chicken by Katherine Battersby and The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. I have heard good things about both of these books and am really looking forward to reading them!

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Nightingale by Deva Fagan and Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch by Julie Abe

I’m trying to finish up my reviews of my fall Cybils reading.  Here are two new books from 2020 Cybils finalists Deva Fagan and Julie Abe.   Both of these authors were new to me in 2020, and I’m so glad that I discovered them and can keep reading more from them.

Cover of Nightingale by Deva Fagan.

by Deva Fagan.

Atheneum, 2021.

ISBN 978-1534465787.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

Outspoken, strong-minded Lark is really just trying to steal enough to buy her freedom from the horrible boarding house where she lives when she breaks into the royal museum.  Unfortunately, she’s timed her break-in for the same time that Prince Jasper, the not-crown prince, has decided to try to awaken the sword of the legendary Nightingale, hero of the kingdom.  It’s extra unfortunate that she happens to pick the sword up at just the right moment.  Now Sword thinks she’s the newest person to take up the cape of the legendary superhero the Nightingale, whose last incarnation vanished after a battle with the rogue ether-powered Crimson Knight, a conflict that ended the Golden Age when everyone had as much ether as they needed to power their lives. 

Lark’s mother was killed for her work in trying to unionize the ether workers, whose deadly work quickly turns humans into blue-glowing ghosts.  Lark’s roommate and best friend, Sophie, is also determined to expose the evils of the ether factory.  Prince Jasper wants to step out of the shadow of his perfect older brother, the Crown Prince.  Lark just wants to survive, and she’s convinced that heroes don’t survive. Sword, however, is very determined to show Lark that she can be the hero the city needs. 

This magical-industrial story is full of action that echoes early radio dramas and movies, while at the same time looking at the perils of unchecked industrialism and nationalism.  With side characters including Prince Jasper’s adorable dog Gadget, who has wheels replacing his missing back legs, and a retired lady spy who turns into an ally, as well as several dastardly villains, there’s plenty to keep this book moving both emotionally and plot-wise. 

Fans of this book might also enjoy The League of Secret Heroes series by Kate Hannigan.

Cover of Eva Evergreen and the Cursed Witch by Julie Abe

Eva Evergreen
and the Cursed Witch
by Julie Abe

Little, Brown, 2021

ISBN 978-0316493949

Read from library copy. 

Following the events of Eva Evergreen: Semi-Magical Witch, Eva is now a real Novice Witch!  But of course, things can’t just go smoothly.  Eva’s mother, one of the two advisors to Queen Alliana, is cursed by her supposed partner Hayato Grottel when it looks like she and Eva are about to expose that he is the one behind the gigantic recurring storms known as the Culling.  But even if he is behind it, why would he do it and how could he?  Eva wouldn’t normally be the first in line to take down a villain of this magnitude, but as the Culling increases in frequency from once a year to weekly, and multiple teams of investigating wizards go missing, that’s just what she does.  She and her two best friends from the previous book have found a way to pin down the location of Grottel’s stronghold that no one else has been able to find.  And somehow, she ends working with her arch-rival Conrad – Grottel’s nephew, who doesn’t want to believe anything bad of his own uncle (or good of Eva), but who is determined to do whatever he can to stop the Culling, no matter what.  

With Eva’s mother frozen and possibly dead, and lots and lots of vanished wizards, this book felt darker than the first one.  However, the villains were not as black as they seemed at first, and it was just as delightful.  

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Blog Tour: Riley’s Ghosts by John David Anderson

Once again, I’m very pleased to share the latest book by John David Anderson with you, this one a horror-filled ghost story. Keep reading for more, including a giveaway!


From the author of Posted comes a ghost story pulled from the darkest shadows of middle school—and a tale of one girl’s attempt to survive them.

Riley Flynn is alone.

It feels like she’s been on her own since sixth grade, when her best friend, Emily, ditched her for the cool girls. Girls who don’t like Riley. Girls who, on this particular day, decide to lock her in the science closet after hours, after everyone else has gone home.

When Riley is finally able to escape, however, she finds that her horror story is only just beginning. All the school doors are locked, the windows won’t budge, the phones are dead, and the lights aren’t working. Through halls lit only by the narrow beam of her flashlight, Riley roams the building, seeking a way out, an answer, an explanation. And as she does, she starts to suspect she isn’t alone after all.

While she’s always liked a good scary story, Riley knows there is no such thing as ghosts. But what else could explain the things happening in the school, the haunting force that seems to lurk in every shadow, around every corner? As she tries to find answers, she starts reliving moments that brought her to this night.

John David Anderson author photo


John David Anderson is the author of many highly acclaimed books for kids, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last DayPostedGrantedOne Last Shot, and Stowaway. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife, two frawesome kids, and clumsy cat, Smudge, in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org.


Oh, middle school! Well do I remember the loneliness and horror of my own middle school days. Our girl Riley has intense feelings and reactions with no brakes that have made her an easy target for bullying – which only makes her react more. And as a vegetarian, being locked in a closet full of partially-dissected frogs is beyond horrible. As in Stowaway, chapters with Riley locked in the haunted middle school alternate with stories of her past life. And as in many of John David Anderson’s books (The Dungeoneers, Minion, Sidekicked )we know something is wrong, but first impressions are misleading. Though this is filled with so much genuine sorrow – both from her home life and from the pain at school. But there are many moments of genuine humor and love amid the horror. And maybe learning about the pain of a former middle school student will help Riley, too.

If you enjoy bullying seen through a fantasy lens, you may also enjoy my post 3 Fantasies about Bullying: The Insiders, Friend Me, and the Nightmare Thief. If you’re in it for the ghosts, try 3 Scary Stories: Temple Alley Summer, Ghost Girl, and Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales or The Girl and the Ghost. Or, just check out more stops on this blog tour!

Tour Stops

January 10 Nerdy Book Club @Nerdy Book Club

January 12 A Nerdy Bibliophile in Wanderlust @bethshaum

January 13 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read

January 14 A Library Mama @alibrarymama

January 15 Maria’s Mélange @selkeslair

January 18 Lit Coach Lou @litcoachlou


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2021 Cybils Finalists and Ones that Got Away

Happy New Year, dear readers! Here is the fantastic list of Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalists the other panelists and I put together. (Click through the link to read our beautifully crafted blurbs! It’s always hard to trim the list down to the required length, but I’m really proud of this list.

Here’s the list with links to my own reviews:

And here are some of my favorites that didn’t make the list. There are a variety of different reasons – but all of these have stuck with me, and are ones I’ll recommend to people regardless.

Once I’ve read a couple of romance novels as a palate cleanser, I’ll go on to read the finalists in other categories. If you’re here, you might also enjoy some of my favorite other categories – Middle Grade Fiction, Graphic Novels, and Young Adult Speculative Fiction.

Have you or do you want to read any of these books? What’s next on your TBR?

Posted in Audiobook, Fantasy, Lists, Middle Grade, Print | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Dystopias: the Last Cuentista and the Monster Missions

There are only a few more days until January 1, when the Cybils finalists will be announced. I’m trying very hard to share reviews of as many of the wonderful books I’ve read for them as I can before them. Here are two very different stories of life after disaster on earth – one literary and set in space, one action-oriented, and set on an Earth entirely covered by oceans.

Cover of the Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista
by Donna Barba Higuera

Levine Querido, 2021

ISBN 978-1646140893

Read from library copy. 

In the not-so-distant future, Earth is about to be hit and destroyed by Halley’s Comet.  Petra Peña, her younger brother Javier, and scientist parents, are one of the few families selected to be transported on giant spaceships first built as luxury cruisers to a potentially habitable planet.  Her botanist mother and geologist father have useful skills to bring to the new world.  Petra is heartbroken to be separated from her Abuelita, who told her so many beautiful cuentos (stories), and terrified that her partial blindness will be discovered.  There’s also a good bit of anxiety from everyone about the whole plan of being put into suspension for a few centuries, being cared for by a team of dedicated volunteers who will never actually see the planet they’re helping people get to.

Somehow, though, Petra doesn’t fall asleep, but is aware of stories from all cultures being read to her, some recorded and some by her caretaker.  When she’s officially awakened, she can tell that the ship has been taken over by a group calling themselves the Collective, a group she remembers from before which wanted humanity to start over with no memory of their own past for a completely fresh start.  They have tried and failed to wipe her brain clear. 

But Petra believes deeply in the power of stories, and that humanity can’t improve without knowing where they came from.  She also believes that the other children now being woken in her pod deserve to know where they came from as well.  Her new mission is to teach them their past, foil the Collective’s plan, and find a safe home for them.  Sadly, since the Collective was waking people in batches and discarding them if their brain wipes didn’t work, she knows that she will never see her parents again.  

This was beautiful and difficult, with lots of thinky thoughts about stories, history and humanity, and the loss of many, many people.  There is certainly action as well, as Petra and her companions try to escape and then also survive on a strange planet.  Many short cuentos are woven through the narrative, along with Petra’s memories of her old life on Earth.  It won’t be for every reader, but those who appreciate a reflective dystopian story will love it.  

Cover of the Monster Missions by Laura Martin

The Monster Missions
by Laura Martin.

HarperCollins, 2021.

ISBN 978-0062894380.

Read from library copy. 

In the not-so-distant future, Earth’s water levels have risen so high that there is no longer land at all.  Berkley and her best friend Garth have grown up on board a ship, and have worked as scavengers diving for abandoned but still usable things since they were both 11.  On one of these trips, Berkley accidentally awakens a giant sea monster.  With some quick reactions, she and Garth are able to stay alive and head it away from the ship – but as these sea monsters are supposed to be kept secret on the rare occasions that they’re found, and as the ship is still damaged, they are exiled from their home. 

Fortunately for them, instead of being sent to a prison work ship, they are taken on as students aboard the submarine Britannica.  There, they will help that ship’s dual missions of studying the sea monsters and defending residential ships from them.  

This book is mostly lots of adventure, including many sea monsters and also some pirates.  The deep thinking is mostly over with the premise, though Berkley needs to learn to recognize when her best friend is depressed.  There are some issues with the details of the story, such as divers being able to see long distances deep under the ocean, and Berkley and Garth on board the Britannica being taught immediately about obscure sea monsters, but not about the emergency protocols.  Still, the premise is unique, and for readers who want a futuristic adventure with lots of monster fun – both chasing and being chased – The Monster Missions delivers by the bucketful.  

Posted in Middle Grade, Print, Sci-Fi | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

It may be almost Christmas, but I’m still focused on my Cybils reading. Here’s one from Irish author Pádraig Kenny that strikes a balance between scary, adventuresome, and thoughtful.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny. Illustrated by Edward Bettison.

Henry Holt, 2021

ISBN 978125062342

Read from library copy. 
Ebook and audiobook available on Libby.

Mirabelle, who at least appears to be around 12, lives in the hidden manor of Rookhaven. She is out feeding bones to the manor’s guard flowers as the story opens, and terribly excited to learn that a new member of the family may soon be joining them.  Jem and her very ill older brother Tom have lost both their parents in the war (we get a first clue of time here) and are scrounging enough ration tickets to eat and make their way across the country, away from their abusive uncle.  When their car runs out of petrol, they somehow see a hole in the world leading to a beautiful manor where they hope they can find refuge, at least for a little while.  

There is immediate tension when they arrive.  Outsiders should not be in Rookhaven. But Mirabelle is convinced that helping people who have nowhere else to go is the right thing to do, even if it puts all of them in danger. Jem and Tom are warned not to leave their rooms at night, and especially not to go near Piglet’s room.  But the walls around Rookhaven are not just there to protect the people of the surrounding village from its unusual residents, but also to protect the residents from outsiders who might wish them harm.  

They are just trying to navigate this tricky situation when a new man arrives in the village.  The butcher who supplies Rookhaven with its meat is happy to give him a room – but his son has seen an improbably large mouth and too-sharp teeth behind the friendly smile…

We might want to call the residents of Rookhaven monsters, but anyone at all might turn into a monster if convinced.  Or perhaps, knowing about others’ hidden pain might help us to see humanity even in those we thought were monsters.  

Edward Bettison’s engraving-style illustrations highlight the creepy, vintage nature of the story, with the same images used multiple times like musical themes to highlight specific places and characters.  The beautiful art, real physical danger, family relationships of multiple kinds, mysteries and monsters combine with deep themes of understanding to make a truly impressive book. It looks like the sequel, The Shadows of Rookhaven, is out now in the UK and I’m hoping will be out in the US in the next year as well.

Posted in Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments