Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter (9781250195463)

Join a band of brave heroes who adventure through dungeons and then take on more sinister threats above ground. There is Rose, the pun-flinging pink cat mage. June is the quieter dog healer who keeps the entire group alive. Goro is the big green creature who serves as the muscle. Finally, Jeremy is the frog with a sharp sword and a vendetta against The Baron. After finding a strange plant, our heroes must figure out how it is being used by The Baron to potentially take over the world. As they work through the threats and puzzles, the group steadily reveal themselves to the reader. Goro misses his boyfriend Horse Boy and Jeremy seems to be far more royal than he first appeared. Meanwhile, there is some romantic heat between Rose and June that plays out throughout the book.

Perfect for anyone who has spent time with Dungeons and Dragons or crawled through video game dungeons like World of Warcraft, this book is captivating. There is plenty of action for those who love that aspect of gaming, but really where this book shines is in the character development, just like any great D&D campaign. The inclusion of LGBT elements and full-on romance is marvelous. It’s a book sure to make everyone feel included in gaming, dungeons and even fancy dances.

The art is bright and dashing while the writing adds the joy of puns as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud. The two together make for a book that is a fast read because the action gallops along and readers will want to know what happens to these characters that they love.

Full of action, romance and humor, this is a dungeon worth crawling for. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Brave by James Bird

Cover image for The Brave

The Brave by James Bird (9781250247759)

Collin’s compulsive need to count the letters in everything others say to him and say the number aloud makes it far too easy for bullies to target him at school. It also bothers his father. So when Collin is kicked out of another school, his father decides to send him to live with his mother, who he has never met. She is Ojibwe and lives on a reservation in Minnesota. Collin and his dog head across the county where he finds himself accepted and shown real displays of love for the first time in his life. Collin meets Orenda, the girl next door, who believes that she is transforming into a butterfly and works with Collin to find ways to battle his counting of letters. She lives in her treehouse, a space where Collins spends most of his time as he steadily falls in love with Orenda. But she is not sharing her own difficulties openly with Collin, who must figure out how to support her whether he understands or not.

Bird has drawn on his own Ojibwe heritage to write this debut novel. The book is a deep and rich mix of content that includes finding your real home, falling in love for the first time, and handling grief and loss. It is also about dealing with an OCD-like response, handling bullying, and discovering deeply who you really are inside and what you believe in. All of this is enriched by the Ojibwe culture that Collin experiences for the first time, allowing the reader to do the same by his side.

Bird’s writing is clear and strong. This novel creates a space for the character of Collin to really become himself, while experiencing some of the most important experiences in anyone’s life: love, grief and transformation. Collin himself is a marvelous character who is willing to dive right in and learn, open to new experiences and cultures.

This debut novel is full of courage and honesty. Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

All Together Now by Hope Larson

All Together Now by Hope Larson

All Together Now by Hope Larson (9780374311629)

This sequel to All Summer Long continues the story of Bina and her band. This new graphic novel shows the drama of middle school friendships and how that can be made even worse by adding in band dynamics. At first, Bina loves being in a band with her best friend, Darcy. But when Enzo joins them, she starts to feel like she’s being pushed out of her own band! It gets even worse when Darcy and Enzo become romantically involved. As they try to change Darcy’s music, Darcy decides to leave the band. Meanwhile, she is realizing that her next-door neighbor and friend, Austin, has a crush on her. Bina though doesn’t feel the same way. It’s a lot to navigate as a middle schooler and it leads to one epic punk reaction that results in Bina starting to speak out for herself.

So often sequels are not as good as the first. Here, the story gets even stronger as we get to see Bina grow into her own voice and her own musical stance. The addition of band drama into the huge changes already happening in middle school makes for true drama that is not overplayed here, but creates moments for growth and self-reflection with some rock and roll thrown in.

Larson’s art is as great and approachable as ever. Done in a limited color palette of black, white and a dusky purple. The art invites readers right into Darcy’s private world, her music and the band.

A rocking sequel that will have fans of the first happily dancing along. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

 

 

 

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (9781368053297)

Marva gets how important voting is and how voting has been impacted by racism for decades, so she is up early to make sure she votes before school starts. Duke is up early too, keeping focused on his band’s first paying gig that night and getting his voting done too. But when Duke gets to his polling place, he can’t vote since he isn’t registered there. Marva sees this happen and the two of them go to the voting precinct that Duke should be registered at. But nothing is simple in voting or dating as their lives collide with Marva angry at her white boyfriend for deciding not to vote in the election, Marva’s celebrity cat going missing, and Duke coping with the memories of his dead brother that being with Marva brings up. Still, the two of them are a great team, traveling the city, discovering voter suppression firsthand, and still managing a touch of romance along the way.

Colbert has written a marvelous romantic political novel here. She demonstrates clearly for teen readers that voter suppression in the black community is still active and can impact them as voters at any time. From long lines to closed polls to running out of ballots, each incident underlines how civil rights are being infringed. Wisely Colbert allows that to be significant in the story line but also fills in with an engaging new romance between two people who may approach politics differently but deeply believe in the same things.

The two main characters are completely delightful. Marva is driven and full of passion for fighting back, voting and activism. Duke has lost a brother to gun violence, a brother who was a community activist. Wonderfully, Duke is not dismissive of Marva’s passion, instead he marvels at it, showing his own dedication to voting and also to his music as the day continues. The pair together are magic with their snappy conversation, teasing and humor.

Political and romantic, this book is also a clarion call to vote and get involved. Appropriate for ages 15-19.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Disney-Hyperion.

Again Again by E. Lockhart

Again Again by E. Lockhart

Again Again by E. Lockhart (9780385744799)

This inventive book from the author of We Were Liars offers readers a way to look at the world as more than a single continuum but instead a landscape of possibilities. Adelaide is spending the summer on the empty campus of the private school that she attends and where her father teaches. The plan had been to spend the summer with her boyfriend, but just as summer was about to start, he abruptly broke up with her and headed off to an international study program. Now Adelaide spends her time walking dogs that she doesn’t own and avoiding dealing with her failing grade in a set design course. Then she meets a boy at the dog park and all sorts of options appear to fill her summer with new love, friendship, dogs, accidents, and art.

Lockhart is a constantly creative author who manages to continue to surprise and delight with her novels. Here she explores an entire world of parallel universes driven by small choices in daily lives. It’s a way without being preachy to show us all that we do not have one chosen monogamous relationship that is our destiny, but rather many options, parallel and fascinating, endlessly spiraling out from one another.

I particularly loved the characters that Lockhart creates here. They are maddening at times but also glorious individuals who are creative and interesting. Adelaide in particular is exceptionally drawn, particularly given the parallel choices she could make. This lets us explore her character more deeply, seeing the various options and the life she could have chosen.

A great read that will get you philosophically thinking of your own parallel universes. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Press. 

Layoverland by Gabby Noone

Layoverland by Gabby Noone

Layoverland by Gabby Noone (9781984836120)

Anyone who has ever taken an airplane can completely get behind purgatory being an airport. Still, it is surprising when Bea finds herself first in a car crash and then waking up in an airplane. When Bea discovers she is in purgatory, she wonders why she hasn’t gone straight to hell after the way she treated her sister just before Bea died. Unfortunately, Bea has been selected for a special program where she is removed from the lottery of names to make their way to Heaven and must help 5000 people find their way to Heaven before she can leave the airport. She gets to wear a hideous orange outfit and then is assigned to help the boy who killed her through to Heaven. Now she has to decide whether to help him or keep him in purgatory with her. The choice gets a lot more difficult when she finds out how much fun it is to kiss him and that she just might be falling for him. This may be Hell after all.

Noone’s writing is deft and exactly on the mark, making this novel’s tone just right. The entire purgatory experience is marvelous with showers that don’t have hot water, food encased in jello, and no Internet or real TV. Throw in a girl who can’t wash the mascara drips from her face or wash her dirty hair, and you have a great recipe for a book. When Caleb enters the novel, readers will respond like Bea, not sure whether to detest him or adore him. Their banter is right on, with Bea often offering her own large opinions on things like mansplaining and high school. 

With a concept and writing this good, it is great to have characters this well drawn too. Bea is angry in a way that will speak to all teenage girls. She cares deeply, yet also doesn’t give a crap a lot of the time too. She is manipulative, something which comes in handy with convincing people to open up to her so they can move on to Heaven. The added pressure of the 5,000 lives she must help is twisted and bizarre, giving her just enough room to both care and not care at the same time. 

Hilarious, romantic and never dull, this novel is heavenly. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer

A Heart So Fierce and Broken by Brigid Kemmerer (9781681195117)

This second book in the Cursebreakers series follows A Curse So Dark and Lonely. With the curse broken and Lilith killed, everything is still difficult in Emberfall. Now there are rumors of the legitimate heir, one who should replace Prince Rhen as monarch. Harper is still at Rhen’s side, but Grey has disappeared. Grey is working as a stablehand in a far-off town, trying to keep from being noticed. By the time he is discovered, he has made two life-long friends, one who is captured with him. When Grey refuses to speak the name of the heir, Rhen has him and his friend flogged, which brings Grey’s latent magic bursting forth. On the run for his life, he is joined by Lia Mara, the daughter of the queen of a neighboring land which promises him shelter if he will stand against Rhen. 

I am ever so delighted that this book features Grey prominently rather than Rhen. Even better, Lia Mara is a complex and dark heroine to put at Grey’s side, a woman who has physical strength, moral fortitude, and her own skills at weapons. She is more than a match for him. The characters are deep and interesting, including the secondary characters who will surprise readers by being far more than they may seem. 

This novel moves away from the first’s ties to Beauty and the Beast, making Emberfall and its neighboring lands into a rich tapestry for the fantasy novel. While some contact is made with Harper’s modern world, the vast majority of the book stays in Emberfell and Syhl Shallow, hinting at an even larger world to explore as well. 

Vibrant, rich and marvelously romantic with a slow burn, this novel is a grand sequel to the first. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern

Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (9780062463357)

When Jamie sees David in the hospital where she volunteers, she is surprised. She knows he won’t have a clue who she is, as she has become almost invisible at school. In a moment where David is curled up in pain, Jamie instinctively reaches out to him. The two of them begin to talk together, sharing texts, emails and IMs as David remains in the hospital. Jamie works out what is wrong with him based on his symptoms and learns that his cystic fibrosis will shorten his life. She shares her own knowledge of hospitals with him, but doesn’t explain her depression following her father’s death. The two of them become friends and soon David is asking Jamie to sneak him out of the hospital so that he can breathe fresh air. As their friendship becomes more intense, David asks her to befriend his sister too and help her find a new path away from destruction. But it may just be Jamie and David who are on the way to destroying their new relationship.

McGovern has written a book about mental health and physical health that doesn’t flinch from discussion suicide openly and also shows the harrowing aspects of having an intensifying physical illness. While their medical diagnoses serve as an important foundation in the novel, it is the interplay between the two main characters that makes this such a compelling read. The two of them are clever, funny and willing to debate their differences with humor and respect.

Readers will come to truly enjoy these two characters, who both struggle with friendship outside of the hospital. Their friendship becomes something precious to them both, building naturally to a romantic level. But it is complicated by health, girlfriends and much more. As the novel builds to its climax, readers will cringe at the inevitable choices that both characters make and wonder if they will ever recover from them.

A surprising and deep novel about health, friendship and breaking the rules. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.

Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz (9781640637320)

Isabel loves to ask everyone else their opinions. In fact, it’s what she does for her high school paper column. It helps her make sense of a world where her mother just walked out of their family a few months earlier, leaving Isabel with her father who works most of the time as a hospital administrator. Isabel also spends a lot of time at the hospital, both because it’s where she gets to see her father most, but also because it’s where she gets her treatments for her rheumatoid arthritis. While at the hospital one day, she meets Sasha, a boy who also has his own non-fatal illness. The two hit it off, not dating though because Isabel has rules about dating. Soon Sasha and Isabel are spending a lot of time together. They adventure in New York City but also take lots of naps, don’t walk too far in the cold, and handle a lot of nosebleeds. Now Isabel must figure out if she’s going to start dating for the first time, or stick to the rule.

I have to mention that I worried I was in for a tear-jerker of a book and that it would be a lot like John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. Those fears went away as I realized that Moskowitz was tackling invisible illnesses, the ones that people have but that don’t threaten their lives, just impact them in a variety of ways. This novel is so lovely, filled with first love, the pressures of whether to change for the other person, and the gorgeous connection that can happen again and again with another person. It’s a novel that balances beautifully the impact of being sick with the delight of being alive. 

Isabel and Sasha are both great protagonists. Isabel is wonderfully prickly and sarcastic, unwilling to change for a boy but also worried about the sort of person she is inside. Sasha too is sarcastic but very different from Isabel. Their two families are different too, Isabel left behind by her mother to live mostly alone and Sasha surrounded by a loving family who boisterously support him and what he needs. Yet the two of them make sense, clicking in a way that only the best romantic couples in books do.

A great romance that grapples with illness alongside love. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Entangled.