Tuesday, January 5, 2021

MG Fantasy review of Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston 

Format:  E-ARC 
Publisher:  Balazer & Bray
Number of pages:  416
Publishing:  January 19th, 2021
Source: Netgalley via Sparkpress

Opening Lines:  "I'm sitting in the principal's office.  Again."  

Amari attends a private school where she is being bullied and teased by her classmates, but today was the last straw.  After one of the girls makes a comment about her missing brother, Amari gives her a tiny shove, a decision that she instantly regrets.  Amari worries that her actions might add to her mom's burden, as if being a single mom and working twelve hour shifts at the hospital isn't enough, now she has to contend with Amari loosing her scholarship because of the school's zero tolerance policy.  Plus they're both still reeling over Amari's brother Quinton's disappearance six months ago.  

Then a mysterious sequence of events occur, an email appears in Quinton's inbox, a man shows up at their door telling her Quinton left her a briefcase and she learns that she's been nominated for the same summer leadership camp that Quinton attended.  Upon arriving at the Vanderbilt Hotel for her summer orientation, Amari learns that her brother was actually working for the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, an elite magical organization that is the link between the known and hidden.  She learns everything she ever thought about magical creatures is real, dwarves and mermaids do exist, just that the bureau keeps them hidden from the rest of mankind.  At first, Amari only joins because she want's to gather as much information as she can about her brother's disappearance, but then she begins to see this as an opportunity to learn more about herself.  While at school, Amari makes friends with her roommate, Elise who is one of the last weredragon's in existence, and Dylan Van Helsing, who is the brother of Maria and Lara Van Helsing.  The Van Helsing's are one of the most famous legacy families at the school.  Maria was Quinton's partner and together they made up team VanQuish, that is until they both went missing.  As a new recruit to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, Amari undergoes two ceremonies, where she receives the highest possible badge, achieving a moonstone, and her enhancement reveals that she is a magician, something that has been deemed illegal within the bureau.  Initially, the bureau planned to lock her up but Amari proves to be more valuable for her skills and is allowed to continue with her training and studies, as well as to compete in the special agent tryouts.  Amari hopes that she will be able to get closer to the agents who knew her brother the best, and figure out a way to find her brother.  At the same time, Amari will have to contend with an evil magician bent on recovering an item of  immense destructive powers that was taken from him.  

Amari and the Night Brothers has been described as a contemporary real world fantasy, a description that seems to fit it perfectly.  Here we find technology weaved with magic, a sort of Men in Black school of agents with supernatural abilities, cool gadgets like sky sprints and stunsticks and trainees eager to pass their tryouts.  The magical system includes illusionists, technologists, weavers, even a weredragon who once her skills reveal themselves can breath fire.  There are many hints or nods toward other books.  The Peter Pan type feel when Amari was flying aboard the ship, the Harry Potter themes of a magical school,  a girl unaware of her hidden magical talents, a ceremony akin to the sorting hat but with a magical artifact, even a challenge that reminded me of one from The Goblet of Fire.   There's even the distinction being made between legacy families and those who are at the school based on merit. The sort of snide derogatory comments that Lucius Malfoy is known for.  It's really easy to see why Amari and the Night Brothers has already been optioned by Universal Pictures.  

Ah but there is so much more to the story, there's characters with questionable motives, a horrible betrayal, and a main character that is relatable and will capture your heart right away with how loyal she is to her friends.  A girl who despite being full of insecurities, desperately wants to make her brother proud.  Most of all, I really like how each chapter has an element that leaves you hanging for the next, the knock at the door, the visit from Quinton, each chapter leading into the next, which would be torture as a read aloud because it would make it so hard to find a stopping point.  Truly an exciting debut that deserves all the praise, I eagerly await the next book in the series.    ** Thank you to Netgalley and SparkPress for my review copy. **

Monday, January 4, 2021

MG Review of Clues to the Universe by Christina Li

Clues to the Universe by Christina Li 
Publisher:  Quill Tree Books
Number of pages:  304
Publishing:  January 12th, 2021
Source: Publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Opening Lines:  "The last time I watched a rocket launch, I learned that there was no sound in space."  

One of Rosalind "Ro's" fondest memories was watching the Space Shuttle Columbia launch with her dad, it was in that shared special moment that Ro decided she was going to build her own model rocket.  Then Ro's dad unexpectedly dies and her life was forever changed.  Ro now needs to start at a new school, because the private school she attended is now too expense.  She's understandably nervous about being the new girl,  preferring things ordered and calm, which her new school is defiantly not.   Benji loves reading comic books, eagerly devouring each new release of Spacebound.  While searching through a box of his father's things, he finds a sketch and can't help noticing that it has an uncanny resemblance to that of his favorite comic book author.  Could his father be the creator of Spacebound?  Then one day while in science class, Ro and Benji's purple folders get mixed up, Ro ends up with Benji's comic book collection and a scribbled on map, while Benji gets the schematics and figures to the rocket that Ro is building.  Drawn together by the mishap, they decide to help one another out with their projects.  Benji will help Ro build her rocket for the science fair and Ro will help Benji find out where his father lives.  When Ro learns that Benji's father is scheduled to be at the movie premier for Spacebound, she tries to get him to go with her, but after the two have a huge fight, Benji sneaks off to try and see his dad alone.  Ro in turn convinces her neighbor and mother to take her to the movie premier to bring him home. 

Growing up my best friend was the boy who lived next door, we used to play for hours drawing pictures and playing in his backyard, so I'm always drawn to stories that feature a strong boy and girl friendship.  Ro and Benji are such endearing characters who at first don't have much in common.  Ro likes science and working on her model rocket to commemorate her father, Benji is an artist who hopes that the extra credit from the science fair will improve his grade enough so his mom won't force him to give up his art class.  What connects the two is how they feel about their dad's.  Ro is grieving the loss of hers and Benji wants to connect with his, never really having known him since he left when he was still very young.   All that Benji knows about his life boils down to a box of his things.  This is a really sweet story and love how it alternates between Ro and Benji's points of view.  While the story portrays Ro's grief over her father's death, it also has these very enjoyable playful moments that Benji and Ro share, like when Ro catches Benji being distracted in class, and nudges him to "pay attention doofus."  Despite having a strong friendship, they do have a moment where they have a falling apart, which makes them resolving things that much sweeter.   The adults in the story also were something that really stood out to me, like Mr. Voltz, Ro's elderly next door neighbor and both Ro and Benji's mothers.  Such a delightful read and brought to mind my own youthful friendships.    

**Thank you to Quill Tree Books for the E-ARC** 

Friday, January 1, 2021

2020 Cybils Award Finalists: Elementary/Middle-Grade Speculative Fiction

The seven finalist's moving on to the second round judges, which includes me Yeah!! have been announced.   Here are the summaries for the books that were selected and you can see the complete list hereHappy New Year to you all.  Brenda

A Wish in the Dark (AmazonIndieBound)
by Christina Soontornvat
Candlewick Press
Nominated by: Deb Nance at Readerbuzz

In this mix of magic and Thai culture, with inspiration from Les Miserables, orphaned Pong escapes the prison where he was born with the help of his friend Somkit, who doesn’t make it out. Pong is now a fugitive from the government, marked as a criminal forever by his prison tattoo. The Governor who promised order and goodness has become a dictator, providing magical orbs of colored light only to those who faithfully follow his ever-increasing number of rules. Pong is a boy version of Jean Valjean as he finds himself condemned to be always on the run. Eventually he learns the lesson: “You can’t run away from darkness. It’s everywhere. The only way to see through it is to shine a light.” And that is just what he does. This exciting story with an unusual setting and a positive message about light that conquers darkness and change that is difficult and costly but always possible will win readers’ hearts!

Sherry Early, Semicolon

Curse of the Night Witch (Emblem Island) (AmazonIndieBound
by Alex Aster
Sourcebooks Young Readers
Nominated by: Katy Kramp

On Tor’s island, most kids bear the physical marks of their destiny. When Tor wishes his leadership emblem gone, he wakes to find a curse in its place, and his lifeline shortened to almost nothing. Two other kids quickly become contaminated by the curse. To save their lives, they must find the legendary Night Witch. Their only guide is the stories told about her, and the journey takes them through fearsome dangers from magical creatures and treacherous terrain. The stories of the Night Witch are rooted in tales told to the author by her Columbian grandmother, which makes the book even more appealing. Readers will love the wildly extravagant world-building, the solid friendships between the kids and their bravery. On top of that, there’s thought-provoking considerations of destiny, and a powerful and nuanced final confrontation.

Charlotte Taylor, Charlotte’s Library

Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch (AmazonIndieBound
by Julie Abe 
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Kristen

Eva Evergreen has set off on her own to take on her first station as a witch in the town of Auteri to prove herself on her Novice quest. While she does her best, she only seems to have a small pinch of magic and often overdoes it without achieving the result she hoped for. When a magical storm heads towards the town, Eva must use ingenuity and find a way to protect her town and the friends she has made in it. A charming and serendipitous tale, Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch will capture your heart, make you laugh and have you cheering for her to accomplish her goal of becoming a Novice Witch. She proves that just a pinch of magic mixed with hard work and a little creativity can go a long way.

Kristen Harvey , The Book Monsters

In the Red (AmazonIndieBound)
by Christopher Swiedler
Nominated by: Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Michael dreams of joining the Rescue Service, which protects the public from the many dangers of living on Mars. But those dreams are dashed when he suffers a panic attack during his first test on the surface and keeps having them whenever he dons a spacesuit. He and his best friend sneak out to the surface in an attempt to prove he can overcome his anxiety, but it goes very wrong when a solar flare strands them out in the middle of nowhere with limited resources. The dangers of Mars are very real, and Michael worries another panic attack might doom them. Both the physical and the emotional stakes of this story are incredibly high as Michael uses his scientific smarts to conquer the dangers of Mars’ surface while struggling to understand and deal with his anxiety. It’s a high-octane survival story packed with peril that keeps the reader frantically turning the pages!

Nicole Hewitt, Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Mulan: Before the Sword (AmazonIndieBound
by Grace Lin
Disney Press
Nominated by: Heidi G.

When Mulan’s sister is bitten by a deadly nine-legged spider, Mulan joins forces with a healer who turns out to be the immortal Jade Rabbit to gather the ingredients for a healing potion. Then the evil White Fox intervenes to stop Mulan and Rabbit, and a prophecy about a member of the Hua family saving the emperor turns out to be at the heart of it all. Enormous challenges face Mulan and Rabbit; will they be able to make the antidote in time or will the White Fox prevail? Though she doubts herself, Mulan faces many challenges without immortal help, allowing her strengths and courage to shine through. As she did in her Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, Lin integrates Chinese folktales beautifully into the story, each placed carefully to move the story forward to its fitting conclusion, and the end result is a joyous fantasy full of heart.

Heidi Grange, Geo Librarian

Rival Magic (AmazonIndieBound)
by Deva Fagan
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Anne Nesbet

Antonia dreams of being a great wizard, even if her wizarding skills aren’t so great, and she gets her chance when Master Betrys takes her on as an apprentice. Then Moppe, the young new scullery maid, arrives with secrets and powerful budding wizard abilities of her own, earning her a place as another apprentice. When Master Betrys is arrested, these two wildly different, yet equally fierce and determined girls must put their jealousy and arrogance aside to find a magical relic that may help them save their teacher and home. Rival Magic takes readers on a fun adventure, rife with magic and mayhem, and full of unexpected twists, fantastical elements, and a lot of heart. The two smart, capable female leads will delight, the unique take on wizardry will captivate, and readers will walk away from Rival Magic inspired to follow their hearts and forge their own paths.

Aeicha Matteson, Word Spelunking

Thirteens (AmazonIndieBound)
by Kate Alice Marshall
Viking Books for Young Readers
Nominated by: Jennifer Naughton

Eleanor has come to live with her aunt in an old, illogical mansion on the edge of the perfectly picturesque town of Eden Eld, a place her mother told her never, ever to go. She knows not to talk about the things she sees and hears that no one else can – but when she meets two kids at school who see them too, including a flame-eyed dog, a bone crow, and a cat of ashes, she finds out that they share more than just a birthday. All three are turning 13 on Halloween, and in this perfect town, this means they only have a few days to save themselves from the horrible bargain that’s at the heart of the town’s perfection, a bargain in which they are slated to die. The suspense mounts as, in true fairytale fashion, the kids have to figure out how to bend the rules in order to make it through to an ending that is both hard won and deliciously uncertain. It’s perfect for those who like brave friends confronting old and twisted magic in the real world!

Katy Kramp, A Library Mama