Book review: Witchborn, by Nicholas Bowling

Bowling, Nicholas. Witchborn. Chicken House/Scholastic, 2018. $18.99. 209 pages. Ages 10 up.  ISBN 9781338277531. P8/Q8

Set in England in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, this story takes a different angle on the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.  Witches were being blamed for all kinds of things at the time, and who’s to say, posits the author, if there weren’t real witches that were being overlooked while innocents were being burned at the stake?   Taking the part of the witches, this story follows a girl being raised by an “aunt” in an isolated place, removed from all knowledge of the outside world, until they are attacked by two strange men.  The story has lots of detail of the age, along with some of the politics, yet remains a youthful story of identity-seeking, friendship, and rising to a challenge.  There is a minimum of gruesome detail, but still the story maintains an ominous  sense of how things will go.  The ending leaves room for a continuing saga.

March 2019 review by Ann Goddard.

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Book review: Field Notes on Love, by Jennifer E. Smith

Smith, Jennifer E. Field Notes on Love.  Delacorte Press/Random House,  2019. $21.99. 274 pages.   ISBN 9780399559419. Ages 12 up.  P8/Q8

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve reviewed a YA book, so perhaps I’m less jaded, but I enjoyed reading this lighthearted romance.  Two recent high school graduates are taking their first steps on to college.  One, a New Yorker, aspires to be a filmmaker and is headed to L.A. to USC.  The other just wants to get away from a loving but all-encompassing family and doesn’t know yet what he wants to do.  They live in literally different hemispheres.  The plot artifice is that they both break up with their high school sweethearts, and the boy’s now-ex-girlfriend insists he uses the train tickets she’d purchased for them, but she wouldn’t go. Since they were non-transferable, he has to find another woman with her same name to go with him.  Two strangers on a cross-America train, and it’s no surprise when they fall in love.  The unique aspect of each others’ stories are their families: She has two gay dads and a grandmother, and he is one of sextuplets.  Exploring the hopes and fears of post-high school is a fair enough goal of a YA novel, but this is also a sweet romance that I could barely put down.  They don’t get sexually involved (just kiss), so the novel works for younger middle school.  The story is told alternatively from the girl’s point of view and the boy’s, so it also should appeal to both. And it rather normalizes nontraditional families, whether same sex or multiple births, without judgement or belaboring the point.  This would make a good addition to a library’s young romance section.  It’s light, upbeat reading.

March 2019 review by Ann Goddard.

Book review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, by Jaclyn Moriarty

Moriarty, Jaclyn.  The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone. (Kingdoms and Empires, book 1).  Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2018.  $17.99. 377 pages.  ISBN 978-1-338-25584-3. Ages 8-14.  P8/Q8

This is a fantasy adventure featuring a 10-year-old girl who has just found out her parents have died.  She has to follow the directions of their will, which involve bringing some small gifts to each of her many aunts.  Bronte evolves during the story from a child to someone who is aware of her lineage, her duty to people, and her family.  The language is straightforward, doesn’t mince on ‘big words’, and has a cadence which has a hint of something foreign and timeless to it, suited to a story that takes place in a fantasy land.  The style is a bit like author Daniel Pinkwater’s.  Fans of Harry Potter will find some parallels in how Bronte discovers she has some hithereto unknown powers and has to discover who her parents were and what powers they had.  The ‘bad guys’ are suitably vanquished by the end of the story, and it has a happier than expected conclusion.

March 2019 review by Ann Goddard.

Book review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram

Khorram, Adib. Darius the Great is Not Okay. Dial Books, 2018. $17.99. ISBN 9780525552963. 314 pgs. Ages 12+. P8Q9

Darius Kellner, a “Fractional Persian,” is a clinically depressed sophomore in Portland, Oregon. Like many mixed culture kids, Darius doesn’t feel like fits into either culture. In fact, he feels more at home with Klingon and Hobbit culture and language than Iranian. When his grandfather (who lives in Iran) becomes very ill, the family makes a trip to see him. The trip to Iran is a life-changing experience for Darius. He makes a real friend, a neighbor boy named Sohrab, and for the first time, feels like someone understands him. This book deals with many issues- cultural identity, cultural adjustment, bullying, mental illness, body issues, friendship, father-son relationships, etc. Khorram does a wonderful job of making the readers feel like we know and identify with Darius, especially with his struggle with depression and his feelings that he just isn’t good enough. I also loved the portrayal of Darius’ relationship with his father (always difficult, though he begins to have some understanding for him by the end), his sweet relationship with his little sister, and new-found love for his grandparents, and his positive experience in Iran.

VERDICT: I think most people will find something to like in this book. I highly recommend it for high school and public libraries.

Winner of the William C. Morris YA Debut Award (2019) and the  Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Literature for Young Adult Literature (2019)

March 2019 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Imposters, by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld, Scott. Imposters. (Imposters, book 1). Scholastic Press, 2018. $18.99. ISBN 9781338151510. 405 pgs. Ages 12-18. P8Q7

This is a shoot-off of the Uglies series, but can be enjoyed without having read the others first. Frey has been raised as a killer, knowing that her only value is in protecting her identical twin sister Rafi (the heir to the political leadership of the city), and she must sacrifice her own life if necessary to save her sister’s life. Nobody outside the immediate family knows that Frey exists, so she can impersonate Rafi when needed. The girls’ cruel and ruthless father has many political enemies, but he doesn’t know just how much his own daughters hate him. When he sends Frey, impersonating Rafi, to a rival city as a hostage, the girls’ world changes. Frey’s father bombs the rival city, and she ends up on the run with a group of teen rebels.

VERDICT: The book is fast paced, action-packed and full of high tech gadgetry that will appeal to many teen readers. Frey’s character develops over the course of the story- she had never been away from her sister before, and now must rely on her intelligence and character to survive. It ends with a cliffhanger…

March 2019 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: Sugar and Snails, by Sarah Tsiang, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer

Tsiang, Sarah. Sugar and Snails. Illustrated by Sonja Wimmer. Annick Press, 2018. $18.95. ISBN 9781773210056. Ages 4-7. P8Q9

This funny, pretty book turns gender stereotypes upside down. It’s based on the nursery rhyme that includes, “sugar and spice and everything nice/ that’s what little girls are made of”. With their grandfather, a brother and sister imagine what they might be made of (not at all the stereotypical things girls and boys are supposed to be like). For example, girls are made of snails and rocks… and butterfly socks, and boys are made of lightning and newts… and rubber rain boots. The rhymes get more silly the further we go, and the illustrations more fantastic. We see the rich imaginings of the children, and young readers or listeners will enjoy looking at the funny details.

VERDICT: This is a wonderful book to use when talking with kids about gender stereotypes and individuality. I recommend it for all elementary school and public libraries.

March 2019 review by Carol Schramm.

Book review: The Snowy Nap, by Jan Brett

Brett, Jan. The Snowy Nap. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. $18.99. ISBN 9780399170737. Ages 4-6. P8Q8

Hedgie the hedgehog’s friends come to wish him a good sleep, and talk about sleigh bells, snowflakes, ice skating, and other winter fun. Now he is determined to stay awake so he can see all the beauty of winter. He doesn’t manage to stay awake very long, though, and falls asleep in the path. When the little girl from the cottage brings him inside to warm him up, he has the chance to see winter through the windows. He eventually dozes off again, and the girl puts him in his burrow to hibernate for the winter. As usual, Brett’s illustrations are detailed and lovely. I liked that on the left side of the spread there is a little drawing that shows what already happened, and on the right side, we have a preview of the next spread.

VERDICT: This is a good addition to a collection of picture books about winter and hibernation.

March 2019 review by Carol Schramm.