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: 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: Zero Sum Game, by Stefani Deoul

Deoul, Stefani. Zero Sum Game. (Sid Rubin Silicon Alley adventure, book 2) Bywater Books, 2018. 165 pages. $12.95. ISBN 9781612941417. Ages 15-up. P6 Q7

Sid Rubin and friends are grounded following their adventures in stopping a steampunk serial killer.  She and her friends go between school and home with no stops for coffee, school lunches and no cell phones.  Their break comes when Vikram pushes the friends to join his team for the annual robotics competition.  The unexpected cybertheft of artifacts from Vik’s years of playing Contagion throws a wrench in the plan, and Sid not only agrees to work on the robotics competition but also starts playing Contagion—definitely not her favorite video game—to ferret out who hacked Vik’s account.

Verdict: This sequel suffers only in comparison with the first book in this series. On a LARP opened with a geeky stream-of-consciousness narration as Sid plummeted from a second floor balcony to escape a serial killer at a live action steampunk costume game.

That’s the problem in a series with a wild beginning.  The second book, while realistic in setting, character, and tone feels flat in comparison.  As a stand-alone, Zero Sum Game is an engaging young adult cyber mystery.  As a series with a lesbian protagonist who has a good relationship with both her parents, this series is a rarity.  Recommended for high school and public library collections.

March 2019 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Capetta, Amy Rose, and Cori McCarthy. Once & Future.  “Advance reading copy.” Jimmy Patterson Books/Little, Brown and Company, release date March 29, 2019. [368] pages. $18.99. ISBN 9780316449274. Ages 14-up. P7 Q8

If Merlin lives backwards in time—growing younger as the years advance—but  does not change when held in magical stasis, then how long will it be until he is unborn?  Once & Future is the story of Ari, a adopted refugee fugitive from a planet interdicted by the almighty Mercer Corporation.  Ari and her adopted brother Kai live in a space-going lifeboat, always evading capture and trying to find their two mothers imprisoned by Mercer.  During one escape that crash lands the lifeboat on Old Earth, Ari pulls a sword from the trunk of an ancient oak tree, releasing a now teenaged Merlin, the vengeful spirit of Morgause, and becoming the 42nd and first female reincarnation of King Arthur.

This action packed space fantasy cloaks the familiar legends of the Once and Future King with the trappings of space travel and life on multiple planets.  The familiar names—Arthur’s brother Kai, Guinevere, Merlin, Morgause, Percival—are familiar from the many retellings of Arthurian romances, but the characters who take on the action of the story vary.  This reincarnation has a pansexual Arthur/Ari, a woman/woman political marriage between Ari and Guineivere, a young very gay Merlin, and knights who are variously queer, trans, and asexual.  Many of the characters are people of color, including Ari whose homeworld, Ketch, was settled by Arab colonists.

The Mercer Corporation controls delivery of essential materials—water, for instance—to the various planets while working to take control of the known universe.  (I found myself thinking of Mercer as the fictional incarnation of Amazon.com.) Ari’s history and her newfound allies soon come into conflict with the corporation and the battles begin.

Verdict: I have always enjoyed the Arthurian tales, from Thomas Malory to T.H. White’s Once and Future King to the Steinbeck Winchester translation and I just re-read Gerald Morris’s The Squire’s Tale series.  The Arthurian themes running through Once & Future were easy to spot.  Setting the story in space and giving the major characters a queer cast was brilliant.  I enjoyed the tumbling action sequences, but found the instant romance between Ari and Guinevere to be unlikely.  It would have made more sense to me if their earlier relationship had been mentioned before the wedding.  I can hope that the authors and their editors will have a chance to revisit the story before it is actually published.  Still, I think that young adult readers who like space operas will really enjoy this book and I, like they, will look forward to the sequel.  Highly recommended for high school and public libraries.

March 2019 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: The Way the Light Bends, by Cordelia Jensen

Jensen, Cordelia. The Way the Light Bends. Philomel Books, 2018. $17.99. ISBN 9780399547447. 393 pages. Ages 12+ P7 Q7

Linc and Holly have grown up like twins, though Holly is adopted from Ghana and Linc is her parent’s biological daughter. When they were younger, Linc and Holly were very close, but now that they are teenagers, they have drifted apart. Linc desperately wants her parents to see her artistic talents, but they only have eyes for Holly, who does well academically. Linc pursues her dream of going to an art school, but she has to do it behind her parents’ backs. The story is written in verse-poem form and is from Linc’s perspective. This novel is a quick read, but will evoke deep emotions in the reader. It is often hard to find out where we fit in life and how to show others that our differences are assets. In the end, she has an honest talk with her mother and realizes that things are not as they seem. In the beginning of the book, Linc tried hard to get her parents approval, but she didn’t take the time to tell her parents how she felt. Once she talked to about her dreams and how she felt compared to Holly, then she was able to develop a closer relationship with her mother.

Verdict: Teens will relate to the struggle of figuring out where they fit in and hoping that others recognize their strengths. This book will help teens see situations from others perspective and realize that more may be going on then what it looks like on the surface. I recommend this book for middle school, high school and public libraries.

February 2019 review by Tami Harris.